Doctor Who – Season 11 Episode 8
Doctor Who delivers another historical adventure exploring the fear and ignorance behind 17th century Witch hunts.
It’s safe to say that the ongoing theme this season has been that human beings are their own worst enemy. In one form or another it has come up during every episode of this season though I’m still waiting for there to be a conclusion drawn. Perhaps in the upcoming finale the Doctor will deliver some sort of speech on whether humanity is actually worth saving or not. The episodes certainly seem to be challenging the viewer to make up their own mind on that though there isn’t really any throughline to the argument other than constantly bringing it up.
This episode explores the tendency for people to overreact out of a combination of fear and ignorance. There is no better way to exemplify that than Witch trials. Drowning people to prove their innocence through dying is stupidity that should be self evident but history has records of this happening so there was a point in time where the idiocy of these actions wasn’t as obvious as it is now. The tone is set very early on with a suspected Witch being dunked in the lake following their accusation and not surviving it. I’ll admit I was surprised that there was a brutally portrayed death so early in the episode; it certainly raises the stakes and serves as a suggestion of what could happen to Team TARDIS.
Naturally the Doctor is indignant and takes it upon herself to show those responsible how painfully mistake they are. Amusingly this comes right after the Doctor telling her companions that they should practice non interference. This isn’t the first time the show has done this joke but it’s amusing all the same and further cements Jodie Whittaker as embodying the traits common to all Doctor’s as she can’t resist helping out even if history might be changed by her actions. It just so happens that her actions in this episode end up making history happen but that isn’t always the case yet she helps anyway.
From the point the Doctor decides to help the characters are put in the middle of a really paranoid group of people. Thanks to the help of psychic paper Team TARDIS have the right credentials to move around freely enough for a while at least and investigate the situation. The main obstacle is the appropriately named Becka Savage (Siobhan Finneran) who is definitely the loudest anti-Witch voice which suggests that she’s hiding something given how much effort she’s putting into diverting attention away from herself. The Doctor sees through this right away but finds herself limited by the fact that she’s a woman. I was wondering if the change in gender would ever be addressed as something that hinders her in certain eras and this episode answers my question by having her completely disregarded because she’s a woman. It’s played for laughs to some degree such as the Doctor being frustrated that she has to waste time explaining herself rather than getting on with solving the problem. Luckily she can mitigate her limitations somewhat thanks to her choice in companions. Graham fits in in pretty much every timeline so she can always act vicariously through him as she does here.
Becka is a compelling enough villain though is a little too over the top for my tastes. I would expect her to be more subdued and calculating as opposed to how over the top she actually behaves. It obviously signposts that she’s hiding something though I do concede that there’s absolutely nothing anyone else can do about considering all the power she seems to have. Siobhan Finneran’s performance is really engaging, she makes for a capable foil for Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor thanks to her larger than life presence matching Whittaker’s otherworldly goofiness.
Her overall motivation is somewhat confusing. I get that she’s trying to cover up the infection that she has been fighting ever since cutting down a tree that happens to the lock on an alien prison but it’s unclear why she thinks sacrificing other innocent women will help her cause. Based on her limited understanding of what has happened to her she concludes that she is infected by the mark of the Devil so it isn’t properly explained how she gets from that to killing people in order to cover this up. The episode does successfully convey that her fear and ignorance are the real problem here though and that proves to be the most pressing issue as there’s no way to have her mind opened to the fact that she’s in the wrong rather than those she has killed. Her affliction allowed her to justify mass murder on a horrific scale which makes her irredeemable as far as the Doctor is concerned even when she is begging for her life. The fact that she basically becomes the leader of the Morax invaders is an obvious yet effective metaphor for being consumed by her own ignorance.
There are further complications to the situation when King James I (Alan Cumming) shows up to personally address the large number of accusations in this small area. Alan Cumming’s performance is great; his campiness makes for an effective contrast to the darkness that fills the rest of the episode which prevents the episode from being too dreary. Arguably the subject matter warrants something a little more morbid but I was glad of the distraction and found him constantly engaging when he was on screen. His interactions with Ryan were the strongest with an undercurrent of attraction in Cumming’s performance countered by the severe awkwardness on Ryan’s part as a counter. It starts from the moment King James I notices Ryan and defines their relationship throughout the episode until Ryan basically embraces it and uses it to his advantage in the final scene. Having King James I not explicitly declare that attraction is another example of how difficult it was for people to be true to themselves in that time period even if he happens to be the King.
One of the most defining traits of King James I is paranoia of a different ilk. He constantly fears betrayal and refuses to trust anyone around him because he’s waiting for them to turn on him. The justification for this is the betrayal he has experienced at the hands of those around him combined with everyone else in his family coming to a bad end of some sort. The list of these horrific deaths as delivered by Alan Cumming is darkly funny and contributes to the overpowering paranoia that defines the time period the episode takes place in.
Ultimately this experience is supposed to open his mind to there being more out there than he understands and that’s not something to be afraid of. The Doctor mentions that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic before proving it by having the TARDIS dematerialise right before his eyes. The moment leading up to this is really tense as the Doctor is not happy with King James I taking it upon himself to kill the Morax leader because she felt that it was unnecessary to do so considering she was seconds away from being locked up once again. It’s a classic Doctor reaction to a Human behaving in a bloodthirsty way and Jodie Whittaker plays the anger coupled with disappointment flawlessly.
In general the interactions between the Doctor and King James I were really well done. Jodie Whittaker completely nails the speech around opening his mind and embracing being a better person. It’s a staple of the Doctor to not only fix problems but make people she meets better by opening their minds to their full potential. She attempts to do this with King James I and it almost works though his behaviour shows that he doesn’t quite manage to improve. It can’t work every time but the fact that she tries to appeal to his better nature and almost succeeds is great in itself.
The tapestry of fear, paranoia and the way those things make people behave is explored in more subtle ways. Yaz has a brief discussion with Willa (Tilly Steele) about being bullied as a child and her own battle with depression that is far more interesting than the episode provides time for. Yaz has been the least defined of the companions so far and moments like this make it even more regrettable that the show doesn’t spend more time on her. Her life experience is clearly varied and interesting but doesn’t ever really find its footing as being an opportunity for Yaz to gain more depth as a character. Her views on bullying and how those who victimise others are overcompensating for their own shortcomings ends up being foreshadowing for the answer to this entire issue but it’s relegated to a quick discussion that is illuminating from a character point of view but over too quickly.
This discussion is designed to inform Willa’s arc which culminates in her decision to help Team TARDIS and not be a victim any more. Unfortunately the lack of focus as well as failing to connect her grief over the death of her Grandmother to her fear resulting in her inaction makes her decision to come along feel unearned. Fixing this would have meant focusing the episode on her but considering this would have given Yaz more to do I don’t see this as being a bad thing.
Another thing that is over too quickly is the climax of the episode. The Morax are basically alien mud zombies which makes for some great visual flair but they fail to stand out as a legitimate threat because they appear too late in the story to cement -pun possibly intended- themselves as a credible antagonist. They are cartoonishly evil and defeated far too quickly with a fairly simple fix. It is refreshing to see the Doctor square off against an alien threat as that hasn’t happened much this season though this is far from the strongest example of that.
An uneven episode that explores the dangers of fear and paranoia really well but fails to capitalise on the entirety of the potential or deliver a satisfying climax. The main villain being motivated by her own selfish desire to deflect suspicion away from herself is a strong idea though the character of Becka Savage is a little too over the top to make it entirely believable. Siobhan Finneran’s performance is really strong; she makes for an effective foil for Jodie Whittaker and is memorable in her own right. Alan Cumming is great as King James I. His campy line delivery and the subtext to his conversations with Ryan hinting at an attraction works really well especially when Ryan uses that to his advantage later in the episode. Jodie Whittaker and Alan Cumming also bounce off each other really well especially when she tries to appeal to his better nature by opening his mind to bigger possibilities. I like that it doesn’t work as well which allows Jodie Whittaker to portray the disappointment the Doctor experiences when let down by Humans. This also happens to the first episode where the Doctor’s gender creates barriers to her being effective in certain time periods. It’s mostly played for laughs but works really well.
There are a number of things that don’t work quite so well. Yaz continues to be the least developed of the companions and episodes like this prove this to be a mistake. He discussion with Willa about the motivation for bullies and her own battles with depression are revelatory stuff and could have been enough to hang this episode on especially considering how important this detail becomes later. As such, Willa’s arc doesn’t work as well as it should which makes her decision to take action feel unearned. This contributes to an underwhelming climax with cartoonishly evil yet impressive looking aliens. The entire climax happens far too quickly and feels at odds with the rest of the episode.
- the exploration of fear and paranoia as negative motivating factors
- the Doctor’s gender as a legitimate barrier to her effectiveness
- strong acting from Jodie Whittaker, Siobhan Finneran and Alan Cumming
- traits common to all Doctors being used well
- Yaz talking about bullying and her own battle with depression
- visually impressive aliens
- an unearned character arc for one of the side characters
- the underwhelming and rushed climax
- Yaz being sidelined once again
User Review( votes)
We’d love to know your thoughts on this and anything else you might want to talk about. You can find us on Facebook and Twitter or just leave a comment in the comment section below. You’ll need an account for Disqus but it’s easy to set up. Don’t forget to share your rating in the “User Ratings” box
If you want to chat to me directly then I’m on Twitter as well.