What I Like About Who: No. 12

This is the twelfth column in a weekly series from Rob Hull, Figures and More. Check back Mondays for a weekly journey through time and space, or read all of our adventures here

I have two prevailing thoughts after watching this week’s episode: One, I wish Alan Cumming could guest star in EVERY episode of Doctor Who from now on; and two: Jodie Whittaker continues to blow me away as the Doctor. This episode is one of her strongest yet, and I am really giving my thesaurus a workout trying to describe her performance week after week.

It’s another historical this week, as we land in England in the 17th Century. It’s a pretty average place to be—unless you happen to be a woman, then it’s downright dangerous, because this is the time of the witch trials. Monty Python has a segment of Monty Python and the Holy Grail that features a witch trial, in which the absurdity of the situation is played for laughs, but the truth isn’t that far off.

Old school witch trials were horrific and misguided, such as the classic: If you throw a suspected witch in the water, and she doesn’t drown, she’s a witch. And it’s this type of “trial” that Team TARDIS happens upon in the village of Bilehurst Cragg, which by the way doesn’t seem to exist in the future. Wonder why?

Jodie Whittaker turns in one of her strongest performances yet, as she finally gets her solo spotlight moment. The rest of Team TARDIS are also all given their parts to play, though Graham and Ryan get the slightly larger focus, with Ryan in particular being put in an amusing position. This episode also features some great new monsters, and a stellar supporting cast, including Becka Savage, played by Siobhan Finneran.

Becka reminds me of Mercy Hartigan from The Next Doctor. She is a strong-willed woman who is being used by an alien race to further their agenda. And while Miss Hartigan willingly assisted, Becka is forced to comply. Becka is deeply religious and really believes that everything happening to her and her village is the work of Satan. She is using her witch trials in an attempt to drive Satan out. She has inadvertently caused the alien infection in her village, and she herself is infected. She is obsessed with keeping the secret, so she accuses the old woman in the village, to whom she is RELATED, of being a witch. To keep the secret safe, she drowns her.

Then, there’s Willa Twiston, played by Tilly Steele. Willa is the granddaughter of the old woman that Becka drowns at the beginning of the episode. She is smart, but scared. She doesn’t believe that her grandmother was a witch, and although she is afraid of helping the Doctor at first, she is convinced in the end, and joins Team TARDIS in the rescue of King James.

Speaking of whom, King James, the namesake of the episode, is played by the inimitable Alan Cumming–and he chews the scenery up like nobody else. Cumming’s portrayal of King James is foppish and self righteous, never believing for a moment that his crusade could be a farce. He also takes a shine to Ryan, which leads to some great dialogue for Tosin Cole. But, this episode belongs to Jodie Whittaker and Alan Cumming. Due to the attitudes of the time, James finds it very hard to believe the Doctor has any thoughts or ideas worth listening to, with the psychic paper only able to show the Doctor as Witchfinder General’s ASSISTANT! James is very close-minded, due to the tragic events of his life, and is very quick to dismiss any notion that those events are influencing his actions.

But, it is a scene between King James and the Doctor that finally gives Jodie the platform for her “Doctor Speech.” James and the Doctor are very similar in that they are both certain that they are right. As it turns out though, only the Doctor is. James’ need to destroy a witch ultimately leads him to dispatch the possessed Becka Savage, which irritates the Doctor. In the end, James agrees to wipe all mention of the village and the vents from public record.

The Doctor rages with frustration over the attitudes toward women in this era. The antiquated values make her investigation of the problems more difficult than usual, and her inquisitive nature and superior intelligence make her a prime candidate for being accused of witchcraft when she gets too close to the truth. But, the Doctor does not back down, butting heads with not just Becka Savage, but with King James as well.

Also, this week, for the first time since the Stenza were introduced, we have a honest to goodness, no ambiguity, BAD GUY! The Morax, an alien race of living mud are undeniably evil. They have been imprisoned inside Pendle Hill for war crimes, with a large tree serving as the lock to their prison. Guess which tree Becka cuts down because it was blocking her view?

Becka is infected, becoming possessed by the Morax Queen, who takes over her body. Under the Queen’s direction, she begins drowning “witches,” who then become hosts for the Morax. Her ultimate plan is to have the Morax King inhabit the body of King James, followed by the wholescale conquest of Earth. Their plan is foiled when the Doctor realizes that the Dunking Stool is made out of the tree. She fashions torches out of the stool, and uses the wood to reactivate the lock, sucking all the Morax back inside. The Queen refuses to leave Becka’s body and is destroyed by James using one of the torches.

This, like last week, felt more like an “old school” Doctor Who adventure. The setting was suitably creepy, the Doctor and her friends were investigating, and there was an evil monster, and the Doctor beat it. I really loved it and I hope Alan Cumming finds his way back to the show very soon.

Next week, we go to a cabin in the woods and find a girl who needs help in another creepy-looking episode called It Takes You Away.


DID WHO KNOW?

  • The last time witches were seen in Doctor Who was during the time of David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor, when he and Martha Jones encountered the alien Carronites and William Shakespeare in The Shakespeare Code.
  • The Morax are similar to the Flood from the Tenth Doctor adventure Waters of Mars, though they infect through water.
  • Unfortunately, Pendle Hill is a real place, and there were real witch trials held there. In all, 10 people were executed for being witches.