Doctor Who: The Witchfinders Review – “A Slice of Historical Horror”

Broadcast Date: 25 November 2018
Written By: Joy Wilkinson

A return to form for the show in this solid atmospheric episode, which blends the historical with the horror in a way only Doctor Who could.

*Warning: This review contains spoilers. Please creep away if you haven’t seen the episode yet!

Firstly, I’d like to apologise for the lack of reviews on my blog in the last couple of weeks. Sometimes I feel that it is necessary to take a step back from writing for a bit in order to get back to enjoying it again. In the next couple of weeks I’ll be publishing my take on episodes 5-7 of Doctor Who, so stay tuned for latest updates on those on my Twitter page, @thebloggingdj, and by subscribing to my site. But without any further dallying, it’s on to my thoughts on the spookiest episode thus far of Jodie Whittaker’s era. 

The biggest strength of this series continues to be the aesthetics and camera work. The TARDIS crew land in 17th century England, in the middle of mass hysteria of witchcraft, or so it seems. The closely framed shots, which mostly included the characters being surrounded by a forest that looks like it is decaying, with a filter that is totally sapped of bright colours, really adds to the troubling nature of the narrative. It seems like the production team have been taking notes from rural horror films like The VVITCH and The Village. The costumes, for the most part, were executed well, with even the wealthier individuals having a rough and rural ambiance about them. The appearance of King James I, after hiding behind a not-inconspicuous looking mask for the first ten minutes, blows a hole slightly in this vision, especially when his soldiers appear for a few minutes and then vanish again when the plot requires them to. 

The Witchfinders Promo Shot1
Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor faces off against her creepiest enemies yet. (BBC, 2018)

As a whole package, this was certainly the most unsettling episode of the year so far. The sentient ‘mud’ that is trying to resurrect and free its trapped leader possesses several cadavers, ironically the innocent victims of the Witch Trials. The make-up and special effects team did a brilliant job of turning these women into frightening beings that slowly slither towards the characters with menace in their eyes. There is typically one episode per series that stands out as the one most likely to make children put their hands over their eyes, Blink being the best example of this. The writers had massive potential to create some really scary moments, but chose to go down the unsettling and atmospheric route. That is all well and good, but I have to be honest when I say that I wished that there was a jump scare included in there, even if it was just to show how dangerous these beings were. Overall though, the episode was mostly pitched just right, casting the Doctor and her companions as participants in the horror, rather than just observers, as has been a major weakness of the series.

The Witchfinders Promo Shot2
Siobhan Finneran steals the show as the menacing Becka Savage (BBC, 2018)

I think that the main narrative would have progressed just as smoothly without the inclusion of the previously mentioned King James I, who miraculously turned up in a tiny village at the same time as The Doctor because…? (I’m not sure that part is ever really mentioned, he just rocks up to be honest.) If anything, the King gets in the way somewhat, with a final act that feels slightly rushed because the writers decided that The Doctor psycho-analysing the King would be a better filler of time. It feels like the character was on the verge of a good episode arc, facing the reason why his mother left him at such a young age, hence his obsession with (mainly female) witchcraft. But then the producers’ agenda came through and he killed the central mud entity, taking the human host’s life with it. As of yet, there has not been a white male non-primary character who didn’t die or become an a**hole this series (off the top of my head) and this thought doesn’t really stick well with me. Though I must admit that I kind of wanted Ryan to leave the TARDIS and become the King’s ‘Protector/Nubian Prince’; it’s not as though his character is doing much as it is!

The concept of this episode was brilliant and the production team did a great job at translating the rural horror genre into Doctor Who. Despite a lack of genuine scares and the bizarre character arc of King James I, the historical episodes continue to rise high above the others. 

Star Rating: 4/5

What did you make of The Witchfinders
Let me know your thoughts in the comments section below. 

Next week sees the TARDIS crew trapped in a run-down cabin in rural Norway… could this finally be the ingenious and scary episode I have been hoping for? You can read my review on episode 9 in a week’s time!

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