***MILD SPOILERS AHEAD***
“The Witchfinders” is a fun episode, but for a story dealing with such heavy themes — paranoia, scapegoating, the senseless murder of villagers accused of being witches, the way women were generally belittled, disregarded, and mistreated in 17th century England — it felt curiously lightweight. If this were a season with more of an arc, “The Witchfinders” would be a filler episode, a placeholder between episodes more important to the overall story. But that sounds harsher than I intended. It’s not a bad episode by any stretch, it just doesn’t go deep, and as a result it’s kind of forgettable.
One thing that is not forgettable about the episode is Alan Cumming as King James I. He’s hilarious through most of it, but also brings his acting chops to the quieter moments when he needs to. There have been a lot of well known actors doing character work on Doctor Who, in the classic series as well as the revival, but Cumming stands out as one of the best. He looks like he’s having a great time, and that feeling is contagious.
It was nice to see Siobhan Finneran again, too. She was great as Miss O’Brien on Downton Abbey, and when she left that show her absence was definitely felt. The episode’s zombie women were appropriately scary, but unfortunately, this being Doctor Who, they turned out to be possessed by disembodied aliens instead of being actual undead revenants out for revenge, which would have been so much cooler. But there’s always a scientific explanation in this show, so aliens it is. Interestingly, this is the third “aliens in history” episode of the season, which is an unusual number for Doctor Who. Normally, we only get one historical per season, maybe two. If this is going to be a theme of Chris Chibnall’s era, I hope he will find a way not to make it too repetitious.
I thought there was a missed comedic opportunity to have the Doctor forget she’s female now and wonder why King James refuses to believe she’s the Witchfinder General, before she remembers. We do get a funny line later about how people used to listen to her more when she was male, though.
So, all in all, “The Witchfinders” is a good if not entirely memorable episode. There isn’t any further character development for the companions or the Doctor in this one, and once again Ryan’s dyspraxia seems to have disappeared. Graham gets to wear a funny hat, though, so at least there’s that!
And now for some Doctor Who neepery! The Doctor has met actual witches before. In the 1971 Third Doctor serial “The Daemons,” the Master leads a coven of witches in Devil’s End in his effort to summon Azal, an alien who looks like the Devil. In the same serial, Olive Hawthorne, a resident of Devil’s End trying to stop the Master, claims to be a “white witch” (as did the actress who played her, Damaris Hayman). Although the Doctor himself wasn’t involved, the one-and-done 1981 spinoff K9 and Company saw Sarah Jane Smith and K9 Mark III face a coven of witches determined to perform a human sacrifice in the name of the goddess Hecate. And of course in the 2007 Tenth Doctor episode “The Shakespeare Code,” the Carrionites, led by Lilith, took the form of very Macbeth-like witches.
For all the talk about Satan in “The Witchfinders,” the Doctor has met several aliens who are supposed to either have created the myth of the Devil or who were mistaken for the Devil. Among them are the aforementioned Azal from “The Daemons”; Sutekh in the 1975 Fourth Doctor serial “Pyramids of Mars,” whose name the Doctor says is “abominated in every civilized world, whether that name be Set, Satan, Sodos…”; the Malus in the 1984 Fifth Doctor serial “The Awakening,” an alien war machine lying dormant beneath a church whose walls feature its image as a representation of the Devil; and the 2006 Tenth Doctor episode “The Satan Pit,” in which the giant horned entity known as the Beast claims he is Satan, as well as other, less terrestrial religious figures. (I’m tempted to include Abaddon from the 2007 Torchwood episode “End of Days” too, but although he looks very Devil-like, he is never referenced that way.)
Lastly, the Doctor met another disembodied alien lifeform that possesses the bodies of the dead in the 2005 Ninth Doctor episode “The Unquiet Dead.” In that story, the Geith take control of corpses for their new bodies, which inspires Charles Dickens to finish writing The Mystery of Edwin Drood, although sadly he doesn’t live to complete the novel.
Next episode, the Doctor finds a cabin in the woods, and that’s never a good thing!