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The Witchfinders (wear masks)
by James Wylder
There’s a certain type of Doctor Who story we’re all familiar with called the Celebrity Historical. You know, Team TARDIS meets this famous person or another: Rosa Parks, Vincent VanGogh, Shakespeare…it’s a staple of the show in it’s modern form. Usually, the episode is something of a beatification. The historical figure is shown as a hero in some way, their accomplishments lauded. In the last few years though, there’s been a few episodes that subverted this. Matt Smith had episodes where the historical figure was a rather nasty person like Richard Nixon or Hitler, and Peter Capaldi had no episodes with famous historical figures, only mythical ones like Robin Hood or Santa Claus. But what we hadn’t had was a sort of middle ground: a historical figure who is painted in shades of gray, with the episode coming down neither in favor of them, nor against them (the closest we got to this was Nixon meeting the Doctor, but the last moments we have with Nixon come down fairly on “he’s a bigot”).
That was until King James I showed up.
Making King James I purely a villain or purely admirable would be the obvious choices here, he’s leading Witchhunts throughout England after all. But then again, he assembled the King James Bible, a lot of people still like that too. He’s also pretty definitely gay or bisexual, unless you want to duck tape your eyes closed to the massive pile of historical evidence that yes, he was. So what to make of him? Maybe, instead of a saint of a villain, he’s just a really flawed person. And as it turns out, that’s a way more interesting take.
James I does a lot of bad things during “The Witchfinders”, and those things are never excused. We as the audience aren’t told, “Well, this is alright because...” he does wrong things, and they are wrong. But, at the same time we’re asked to empathize with James. He’s a man wearing a mask in order to travel about and not be accosted, followed by sycophants who butter him up that he knows he can’t trust. People try to kill him. He was abandoned by his mother, and still reeling with the loneliness of his life. And he has let bad things happen because of that. But the Doctor doesn’t think he’s irredeemable. She gives him a chance. And he still let’s her down in the end, but he’s not ungrateful. Unlike Jack Robinson, he doesn’t walk away from the Doctor cocky and vile. He says he owes her his life.
This mirrors, in many ways, the real man. James I did over see the torture of Witches, but over time grew to doubt that they were really finding witches at all.
It’s a complex look at a complex person, and even if there are some kinks to work out, this is a fascinating path for Doctor Who to take for how it looks at historical figures. More, please.
Also, more Alan Cumming please. If anyone comes back from Series 11’s guest stars, can we please have a sequel to this absolutely delightful performance? Watching James I hit on Ryan Sinclair was great, and watching Cumming seamlessly move between comedy and honest drama was fantastic. He was perfect casting, and I really would love to see more of his take on this character. He’s a pure delight.
Another thing this episode does well is allowing us the small pleasures we’d like: the Doctor and Graham wearing the big Witchfinder hat, for instance. Of course we want to see the Doctor wearing a big silly hat, and it gives us that.
It shouldn’t be understated also, that this episode handling the Witchhunts themselves so deftly is a coup for scriptwriter Joy Wilkinson. We’ve had some very difficult historical subject matter being dealt with this series, and Wilkinson did it well. Hopefully we see more from her too.
The running theme of bodily autonomy this series is key in Wilkinson’s script as well, our villains not only go inside human bodies to use them as macabre puppets, but our conflict stems around a healer being uncomfortable performing a medical proceedure on a patient. Every antagonist in this episode, from James I, to the town’s landholder, to the alien threat, wish to take people’s bodily autonomy. To bind them and torture them. To bind them and dunk them under water. To fill their bodies up. None of them respect other people’s rights to exist as bodies freely. To control other’s physical bodies is power, and it’s how they deal with their problems. How the landholder deal with being unable to cure her illness, how King James I deals with his sad life, and how the aliens deal with their imprisonment: they destroy other’s bodily autonomy to feel some sense of control.
The reveal that the aliens were imprisoned for War Crimes fits with this running theme perfectly: their lack of respect for autonomy is cosmic. They parallel the Stenza in this way. The names are different, but it rhymes.
How fitting then, that amidst these Witchhunts, the Doctor becomes the hero of bodily autonomy? She once called herself a Doctor of Hope, but maybe she is a Doctor in a physical sense, yet not only as a physician. A Doctor that knows that it’s not just our souls that need saving, but our flesh too. A Doctor who defends our right to live inside our own skin unmolested.
A Doctor I’d be happy to call for an appointment.
* * *
But oh yes, let’s check in on our running themes, shall we? We have all the usual ones, and the repetition of them is becoming pretty in our faces. So there’s something going on with these. With the reveal of the finale’s title and synopsis, I’m fairly certain that how the elements of this season come together isn’t going to be in a direct way, but in a thematic way. We’ve had these recurring elements of bodily autonomy (this week, that theme was your face...literally!), living beings with something else inside them, bad guys getting away, etc. Plus one new one I should have listed before in these essays: the Doctor doesn’t kill something, but someone else in the episode tries to or does it for her (Jack Robinson shooting the spider, Kevin shoving the Stenza off, James I shoving his torch into the bog zombie, etc). We’re leading to something in the finale, and I’m getting more and more certain that something is going to do with the Doctor facing a scenario where these repeated narrative elements come together in a way that she cannot walk away from, or not interfere with. Perhaps the Stenza will still return, but I don’t think it will be the Monster Mash some predicted or would like.
But time will tell. Let’s see then.
Poet, Playwright, Game Designer, Writer, Freelancer for hire.