Episode 8 (‘The Witchfinders’) of the new Doctor Who series is overloaded with themes – feminist themes about the treatment of women, King James coming to terms with how his mother abandoned him, a young girl suffering and eventually overcoming her anxiety, Yaz working through how she was bullied at school, witchcraft, demons rising, mud tentacles, aliens taking over the Earth, the homosexual leanings of the King, a murderous woman in denial about her lowly past, scapegoating, and a few others I’m sure – so many themes indeed that they can never all operate coherently at the same time. And despite all the apparent content, we never really cared about any of it – because there was no real moral dilemma involved. The writers of the current series really need to understand that less is more. More is not more. And even more is… just a mess.
The episode opened extremely strangely, with the Doctor warning her companions not to interfere with anything, because it could change history and the future. It was very much like Star Trek’s Prime Directive. But the whole point of the Doctor is precisely that he/she interferes. Indeed, in all the other episodes of the series so far, the Doctor has consistently interfered. So, our gang stands by and watches an innocent woman drowned as a witch (despite the Doctor’s last minute attempt to save her). The murder left me a bit befuddled. What was the episode trying to say? Bizarre.
Don’t get me wrong: there were some great things about the episode. Alan Cumming was magnificent in the role of King James – and was an excellent foil to the always excellent Jodie Whittaker. There were some great lines and jokes, and some great moments (like the Doctor being accused of being a witch).
But the ‘messages’ of the episode were always a bit off, flippant, paradoxical or throwaway. The young girl suffering anxiety eventually shrugs and says ‘Well, I’ll just have to be brave’. This is utterly anticlimactic, and a misrepresentation of the debilitating nature of the anxiety many young people suffer today. King James is charming and endearing – and by the end is simply told not to conduct any more witch-hunts – yet it is historical fact that James conducted many more decades of terrible witch-hunts. And so it went.
It was all a bit of a shame really. It had all the essential elements and potential of a brilliant episode. It just didn’t quite work. It scored 6 out of 10 from me. (And I’m now beginning to think that I’ll have to help out the BBC by writing an episode myself.)