I’ve done a little bit of grumbling this season about Doctor Who’s dearth of monsters. Since Jodie Whittaker took control of the TARDIS earlier this year, we’ve met a few new aliens and creatures, but more often than not, the true villain has not been some alien threat but plain old regular humans. Showrunner Chris Chibnall sparked headlines earlier this year by saying Whittaker’s first season wouldn’t feature classic Who baddies like Daleks and Cybermen, and so far, I think that’s been a great choice: Some of the season’s best episodes — like “Rosa” and “Demons of the Punjab” — have deviated from the usual Doctor Who formula to tell poignant stories of family, loss, and prejudice, to great effect. But still, this is Doctor Who! I want to see the Doctor race against time to save the Earth from interstellar monsters, preferably with a historical figure or two in tow!
And so “The Witchfinders” finally gives us some real, proper monsters, with some 17th-century shenanigans to boot. What seems like another humans-were-the-real-monsters-all-along plot is quickly revealed to have some nasty, muddy creatures known as the Morax interfering. The Morax aren’t exactly hide-behind-your-sofa classics, and the Doctor easily dispatches them, but their ability to reanimate dead bodies into creepy mud-zombies — coupled with the paranoia of Britain’s early witch trials — makes for a wickedly delightful 17th-century romp.
Originally, the Doctor, Yaz, Graham, and Ryan set out for a quick trip to see Queen Elizabeth I’s coronation (which actually might not have been the best idea, considering the Doctor’s past entanglements with Liz in the 50th anniversary special “The Day of the Doctor”). But the team is soon detoured to Lancashire in the 1600s, where Becka Savage (Siobhan Finneran) has been terrorizing the people of Bilehurst Cragg with witch trials. More than 35 people have died in these so-called trials, where an accused witch is tied to a tree and dunked underwater. If she dies, she’s innocent, and if she lives, she’s a witch. (It’s about as sophisticated as weighing someone to see if they weigh as much as a duck, as Monty Python famously pointed out.) The devil is afoot in Lancashire, Lady Savage says, and her fear and paranoia is stoked by the arrival of King James I himself (Alan Cumming, chewing scenery and having the time of his life).
Would Britain’s main monarch be wandering the countryside looking for random witch trials to participate in? Probably not, but the real James was obsessed with stamping out witchcraft, and his arrival in Bilehurst Cragg kicks the witch trials into overdrive. He is, after all, “God’s chosen ruler and Satan’s greatest foe come to vanquish the scourge of witchcraft across the land.” Cumming plays him as an over-the-top, conceited dandy, who alternates between flirting with Ryan and calling for sadistic hunts to squash the witchcraft he is sure is blooming right under his nose.
In an effort to help stop the murders, the Doctor introduces herself as a Witchfinder General — which James immediately dismisses as impossible. The Doctor is a woman, after all, and surely Graham must be the one in charge. It’s the most blatant sexism the Doctor has faced since her regeneration, and although she acquiesces, you can see how it stings. “These are hard times for women,” she grumbles later. “If we’re not being drowned, we’re being patronized to death.” Plenty of companions have faced sexism when traveling to the past in the TARDIS, but this is the first time the Doctor has really experienced it herself, which makes for an interesting dynamic.
The witch trials’ most recent victim is an elderly healer named Twiston, who was falsely accused and drowned. But when her granddaughter Willa (Tilly Steele) goes to bury her, something downright, well, witchy happens: The ground comes to life in snaking tendrils of mud, and old lady Twiston rises from the dead. Before long, Twiston isn’t the only corpse to be filled and reanimated by the sentient mud (ew), and there’s a small army of muddy zombies roaming the Lancashire countryside.
As was perhaps to be expected, the Doctor’s loud opinions and distrust of authority don’t sit well with Lady Savage and King James, and when she whips out her sonic screwdriver to examine the zombies, it’s only a matter of time before she and her “magic wand” are accused of witchcraft. Eventually, however, the loudest accuser is revealed to have the most to hide, when Lady Savage starts weeping mud. She tearfully reveals the truth: She’s the one who’s opened herself up to Satan, having cut down a local tree and inadvertently invited demons to take up residence in her soul. The demons, however, are the Morax, an alien race who’ve been imprisoned in Pendle Hill for centuries, and that tree was the only thing keeping them contained. And so it’s up to the Doctor to stop them before they infect everyone on the planet.
It’s a slightly messy ending to an otherwise tight episode, and ultimately the Morax are just another power-hungry alien race that the Doctor has to defeat. But the creepiness of the Morax’s mud-zombies and Cumming’s delightfully campy performance make for a pretty solid episode. Is it Doctor Who’s most thoughtful, sophisticated entry? Not quite. But sometimes it’s fun to just roll around in the mud.
Odds and ends
- King James: “Forgive the mask. I have enemies everywhere and have to travel incognito. Also, I rather like the drama.”
- The Morax reminded me quite a bit of the Pyroviles from the 2008 episode “The Fires of Pompeii”: Instead of being sentient, power-hungry mud that possessed people and made them talk in creepy voices, the Pyroviles were sentient, power-hungry ash that possessed people and made them talk in creepy voices. Big difference.
- Whittaker’s delivery of the line “You can’t have King James or this planet!” is absolutely ridiculous, and I love it.
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