Arriving in Bilehurst Cragg, Lancashire during the early 17th Century, The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) and co discover that a series of witch trials are happening that see the local population is being devastated by the local landowner. With James I (Alan Cumming) arriving on the scene, things only get more complicated as The Doctor must try to save the women of the area whilst also trying to discover the real cause of the horrors befalling the people of Lancashire.
The last historical episode of the series is, like its predecessors, one of the best episodes of this series and the show’s recent past. Relying on a combination of an engaging adventure with an attention to historical detail, The Witchfinders is both dramatic and incredibly funny. Writer Joy Wilkinson injects genuine pathos for the plight of the women accused of witchcraft with a great comedic portrayal of James I and his belief in witchfinders.
Wilkinson cleverly lets the one intertwines with the other – the horror of the situation that The Doctor and her friends find themselves in is allowed to alleviate at times by the overly dramatic portrayal of James. Yet, Wilkinson’s skill is that she provides a real insight into both the conditions that caused neighbours to accuse one another and the psychological motives behind James’ desire to hunt witches.
Some of the best scenes are not those revealing the reason behind the alien’s decision to take hold of the dead witches but rather the human reasons for the belief in witches. Becca (Siobhan Finneran) and James’ (Alan Cumming) interrogation of Willa (Tilly Steele) to prove The Doctor is a witch perfectly demonstrates the reason that innocent people accused other innocents and the fear they felt for expulsion from society. Similarly, the scene between James and The Doctor when she questions why he plays the part of The Witch Finder and whether he does it to run away from what truly haunts him. The deeper implications about James’ past and his desire to rid the world of any uncertainty because of his own fear of the unknown. Wilkinson’s script is one of the finest of the series so far in both its depth and its humour and she should be thoroughly applauded for her work. Hopefully, we will see her return to write for the show sometime soon.
The guest cast for this episode has been one of the best of the series with both Alan Cumming and Siobhan Finneran both standing out as exceptional for praise. Cummings’ James combines the frailty and fear with overly dramatic and comedic. Wilkinson writes James as he was – “the wisest fool in Chrisendom” and Cummings brings him to life with flair and joie de vivre that truly made the character his own. His characterisation and mannerisms are superb and his strutting, arrogant demeanour is both highly entertaining and fascinating to watch as James realises that he truly does not understand what is going on. Cumming is one of the best guest stars to play a historical character on the show, not just in this series but in the history of the show as a whole. For 46 minutes, Alan Cummings truly was James I and it is a shame he couldn’t have played the part longer.
Siobhan Finneran’s performance as Becca Savage was equally praiseworthy. Finneran was able to play both Savage’s seeming vulnerability and her zealous religious bigotry to the uttermost level. Finneran’s transformation into the Mordox Queen was excellently done and she played the part of the avenging alien as convincingly as she did the seventh-century puritan landowner. Finneran deserves the highest praise for a totally convincing and engaging performance.
Sallie Aprahamian directing is superb throughout the episode. From the panoramic shots of the Lancashire countryside to the more intimate and dramatic moments. Aprahamian is skilled at ensuring that the most is got out of each scene visually with her staging of James’ arrival perfectly playing both the drama of the moment and its innate absurdity. Like Wilkinson, we can only hope that Aprahamian returns to the programme soon as her directing work is some of the best of this series.
The Witchfinders is an energetic, endearing and engaging episode that knows exactly when to play every single moment in it perfectly; from the high comedy to the high drama it knows its audience, plays to it and ensures that it is thoroughly engaged throughout and routing for its cast of characters. A masterclass in how to do Doctor Who properly, The Witchfinders is an episode that is sure to be remembered for a long time yet.
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