The Doctor and the TARDIS Trio get involved in one of the English Witch Hunts in the early 1600s… WITH ALAN F*CKING CUMMING!!!!
The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) lands the TARDIS in a small English village in the past that is having a festival. It turns out that they have a festival every Sunday… when they do the witch trial under the supervision of Lady Becka Savage (Siobhan Finneran). An old grandmother (Tricia Kelly) is ducked into the lake as a witch and, despite the Doctor’s efforts to save her, drowns in front of her granddaughter, Willa (Tilly Steele). The Doctor pretends to be the Witchfinder General to stop the trials, but this ruse falls apart when King James VI and I (Alan “Burns when he’s” Cumming) appears and claims that he never would make a woman Witchfinder General, instead saying it must be Graham (Bradley Walsh). If you’re confused as to why there are two numbers, he was the Sixth James of Scotland but the First of England. If you’re not confused, good for you, have a gold star.
Yaz (Mandip Gill) goes to check on Willa, revealed to be Lady Savage’s cousin, when Willa is suddenly attacked by an alien tendril. The Doctor saves them and discovers that all of the recent victims of the witch trials have been infected by alien mud and are now shambling zombie-esque figures. Seeing Savage’s fervor for hunting down witches, the Doctor believes that she is trying to cover up her own involvement in the alien events. Savage responds by accusing the Doctor of being a witch to King James who has the Doctor arrested. Savage has the Doctor ducked into a pond, but the Doctor reveals she’s mastered the art of holding her breath and escaping loose chains, so she survives.
Savage reveals that she was infected by alien life after cutting down a tree and that all of the witch trials were just to cover this up, believing that she was afflicted by a demonic possession. The victims of the trials all arrive and abduct Savage, who reveals that she is possessed by the queen of the Morax, an alien parasite race. The Doctor realizes that the tree that Savage cut down had actually been an alien prison for the parasites, who have kidnapped King James so that their king can possess him and they can conquer Earth. The Doctor and the TARDIS Trio use the prison tree to recapture the parasites while James kills the Morax queen, claiming he’s vanquishing Satan. King James declares that the events of the episode will be stricken from history while also hitting on Ryan (Tosin Cole). He and Willa then watch as the TARDIS disappears.
First of all, Alan f*cking Cumming. I love him. I will always love him. He’s got the voice of an angel, the acting talent of a Shakespearean thespian, and the name of a successful adult film star. In this episode, he plays King James in the campiest, and most bisexual, way possible. No, those things are not the same, although there is a bit of overlap. His performance is a refreshing element of levity in what would otherwise be a tremendously dark episode, which literally features a character being drowned as part of a historically accurate form of torturous murder. His constant claims of demonic intervention and satanic possession are played for humor, despite the fact that they were used to justify tens of thousands of murders under his rule. However, when confronted over WHY he believes that the devil is everywhere, he starts to recount all of the trauma and loss contained within King James’s life, which quickly turns him from humorous madman to tragic figure. It’s a testament to Cumming’s performance that his delivery of the lines is almost identical in both circumstances.
Second, seriously, this is a dark episode. The premise is that Lady Savage has been murdering women so frequently that there is a weekly festival for it. It’s the middle of a time of mass killing of women that focused mostly on women who dared to study science or speak up in public. Like, say, a woman who often takes the lead, speaks out against injustice no matter who she has to yell at, and has an education beyond that of any other mortal… you get it, I’m talking about the Doctor. Yeah, this is the first episode that really stresses how much different the Doctor’s position is now that she’s a woman. Most of the time, so far, she’s just bluffed her way through any situation, but when the King simply states that a woman can’t be Witchfinder General, that’s the end of it. No amount of cunning, even by the Doctor, can overcome that barrier. The comparison of our main character to the first victim we see is a well-placed analogue to remind us of how bad the world has been to women.
This continues a theme of this season: Discrimination is bad. We’ve had an episode based on America’s racial discrimination, an episode on the religious violence in the partition of India, and now an episode based around that time England killed tens of thousands of people, mostly women, based on false pretenses. It’s probably not a coincidence that this is the first season to come after a wave of nationalism has been sweeping across the world, since nationalism typically involves at least one kind of discrimination against a group. This might date the season later, but… well, actually, let’s just hope this issue isn’t timeless.
The weak point of the episode is the villains, which kind of are secondary. That’s also been a bit of a theme in this season: The alien/time-travel villains haven’t been particularly necessary. The design on the ones in this episode was definitely better than some of the others, but, for the most part, the historical episodes have only included sci-fi villains because it’s still Doctor Who, not because they drive the episode well. Hell, I respected “Demons of the Punjab” for not actually making the aliens the villains.
Overall, this is a pretty solid episode. It’s got a little bit of the camp that’s been missing from the season, some decent commentary, and the villains are fairly creative.
I give it an A-.
If you enjoy these, please, like, share, tell your friends, like the Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/JokerOnTheSofa/), follow on Twitter @JokerOnTheSofa, and just generally give me a little bump. I’m not getting paid, but I like to get feedback.