[This review contains some minor SPOILERS!]
It was perhaps inevitable that the first female Doctor would have to confront accusations of being a witch. After all, outspoken women and healers have been charged with being in league with dark forces across history. Given that, few will be surprised that “The Witchfinders” eventually sees The Doctor being chained to a ducking stool.
What is surprising is that this doesn’t occur immediately after The Doctor arrives in 17th Century Lancashire wearing pants and with two non-WASP companions in tow and that nobody save King James raises objections to the idea of a woman serving as a Witchfinder General. It’s an odd bit of inconsistency in an episode that is otherwise heavily invested in establishing its historical bonafides. Hence the inclusion of King James – one of English history’s more fascinating kings, even ignoring his status as the first monarch to rule England, Ireland and Scotland. As the episode notes, he was very interested in religion (having commissioned the first English Bible) and witch-hunting. He was also, as his flirtation with Ryan throughout the episode shows, quite closeted and likely turned to religious fervor to make up for his homosexuality.
Alan Cumming plays King James with just the right amount of camp flair, providing an ironic counterpoint to the story, which is ultimately about religion being used as a tool of oppression. In this case the true villain is Mistress Becka Savage – the landowner of the rather loathsome-sounding village of Bilehurst Cragg. It is here that Mistress Savage has begun holding weekly witch duckings in an effort to rid the village of Satan’s minions. Not coincidentally, Satan’s minions consist entirely of women in the village whom Mistress Savage felt threatened by.
Of course there is a true evil influence responsible for the “witchcraft” in the area, including the dead rising from the grave and plants attacking people. This threat is incidental to the point of the story, however, and the finale of the episode spent dealing with it feels horribly rushed and almost seems an afterthought. Sallie Aprahamian’s story is, like most good Doctor Who stories, about how humans can be far greater monsters than any alien beastie.
Unfortunately, the script says nothing about the apathy of the villagers, who stand by and do nothing as their neighbors are murdered to satisfy a blood-thirsty land-owner. “The Witchhunters” could have benefited from an observation on how evil occurs when good people do nothing. Indeed, the behavior of Mistress Savage and King James is far more horrifying than the “monster of the week”. Odds are that every Doctor Who viewer has encountered someone like Becka Savage who abuses her authority to strike out at those who are different or might make others think poorly of them. Or a boss like King James, who acts out of ignorance and prides himself on being just and fair when he is anything but.
Sadly, the whole thing falls apart in the final act, despite Jodie Whitaker giving a strong performance throughout and the episode being largely focused on The Doctor having to deal with sexism – a task it manages miraculously without becoming preachy. In the end, “The Witchhunters” is a decent Doctor Who episode, but little more than that.