Going On A Witch Hunt
♦ Tripwire’s contributing writer and Brit in Los Angeles, Robert Cave, takes a look at the eighth episode of the new Doctor Who season…
Director: Sallie Aprahamian
Writer: Joy Wilkinson
Stars: Jodie Whittaker, Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole. Mandip Gill
You know, one of the easiest things to overlook about Doctor Who is how unusual it is in its oeuvre of TV sci-fi. Not just in terms of its format, although the whole ability to recast the main character through the mechanism of regeneration is pretty rad. No, it’s the way that the show can, and often does, juggle its tone wildly within the space of a single episode.
Take this week’s instalment, for example. Here you have Alan Cumming camping it up a storm as King James (he of the Bible fame), but you also have Doctor Who doing its own take on The Crucible, Arthur Miller’s dramatic condemnation of the witch hunts of McCarthy-era America. It probably shouldn’t work, but I really rather enjoyed it.
Historically, King James and witch hunts fit really well together – he even wrote a book on the subject, and despite, or perhaps because of, all his scene-chewing excess, Cumming is brilliant in the role. I loved watching him flirt with a clearly slightly disconcerted Ryan (Tosin Cole). I also loved the fun little biblical reference to Ezekiel 25:17, attributed to Quentin Tarantino.
The techno mud zombies (a name I will gleefully use for my next band) are a bit ridiculous, as is the Witchfinder General’s hat, but without the silliness the story as a whole would be a much darker tale focusing more heavily on humanity’s tendency to attack what are perceived as weaker elements in society for personal benefit. As it is, writer Joy Wilkinson makes the episode’s timely theme accessible for a family audience without allowing it to become too self-indulgently earnest.
Other things I liked about the episode include the Doctor diving into the action early – and quite literally – swimming out in an attempt to rescue an accused witch. She also gets drenched again later on when subjected to the ducking stool in her own witchcraft trial.
It was interesting to see the Doctor treated with such open dismissal as a woman for the first time in the series. Of course, our favourite Time Lord has been roundly ignored and otherwise dismissed repeatedly in the past, most chillingly in the David Tennant story Midnight, but never before has this been on account of gender. Moving the Doctor away from the episode’s central mystery puts a greater emphasis on the rest of Team TARDIS to go and explore what is going on with the witchy mud zombies.
The result is the kind of story that can only unfold later in a series, once the companions have been fully established: the gang have learned and internalised significant lessons from travelling in the TARDIS and are now actively working towards being the Doctor they want to see in the universe. It is also great to see companions developing skills that they had already cultivated in their time before entering the TARDIS. I particularly love seeing Mandeep Gill’s Yaz drawing on her investigative police training a stark contrast to poor old Arthur Darvil’s Rory, whose skills as a nurse were barely mentioned and even more scarcely used during his voyages through space and time.
A further bonus of having the Doctor side-lined by the plot is that it also serves to underline the complete affront of sexism, not just when applied to the Doctor, but in the world at large, and that, surely, cannot be a bad thing.
It was also lovely to see characters gazing in awe at the dematerialising TARDIS at the episode’s end, as fallen leaves are left blowing in its wake. It’s just a little moment, but it is beautifully realised, and serves as a small reminder of the wonder that the show is capable of.
Next week we are off to Norway for the spooky-sounding It Takes You Away. Looking forward to that.
Here’s the trailer for next week’s episode too