Doctor Who: The Witchfinders

Is the world ready for gay bad guys? Not that there’s anything new about bad people being coded as gay in popular culture (e.g. Hitchcock’s Rope or Diamonds are Forever) but how about in a more progressive age in a show that’s been accused of being ‘too PC’? Well it’s Alan Cumming and the bad guy in question is King James the Sixth/First — a man with far too many contradictions to fit into this review. Cumming ramps up the hyper-posh version of the Scottish accent to create a twinkly eyed paranoid sadist with an over-exaggerated sense of drama. That’s pretty much most of the episode, Alan Cumming has extraordinary fun as the Scottish King in an over the top performance that is very entertaining. I’d watch a Blackadder like sitcom that was just Alan Cumming as King James badly hunting witches and chatting up men.

Sandwiched either side of Alan Cumming is a story about the Doctor dealing with witch trials. The setting is Lancashire near the real-life Pendle Hill famous for a different set of witch trials. The Yorkshire-based companions of the Doctor find their worst fears confirmed, as Lancashire turns out to be occupied by frightened peasants, religious bigots and alien mud monsters. [I can’t recall any other episodes set in Lancashire, although Clara Oswald was from Lancashire]

The emphasis on historical episodes this season also means the show has adopted a sort of Prime Directive ethical imperative not to interfere with history. Luckily its a rule that the Doctor follows more in the breech than the observance.

With the Doctor having to tackle mass murder, a Satan-obsessed Alan Cumming and alien mud monsters, there isn’t much space for the three companions. Even so, they all get stuff to do and Graham gets a hat.

The final shift into a conventional alien menace plot feels a bit of a let down given the rest of the wild stuff going on prior. The alien character design this season has largely been top-notch but this was more ‘classic’ Who 🙂

Alan Cumming plays King James fighting alien mud monsters. What more can we ask for?

10 thoughts on “Doctor Who: The Witchfinders

  1. It was a vast improvement over last week’s very confused episode. Also is this the first time the Doctor being female has been so heavily referenced and used as a plot point?

    And poor Bradley Walsh; the hat had more personality than him.

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  2. I’m okay with a gay bad guy, especially if he’s not a cardboard character. My objection was that for a long time we were only allowed in stories if we were either a) bad guys or b) pathetic wimps. Those movies often seemed to want the audiences to feel that all gay men ought to be killed.

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  3. I could not have been more thrilled with Alan Cumming’s performance unless he’d physically done it in my living room. Marvelous. No scenery left unchewed. He was having a great time. I too would watch him in a King James sitcom. I want to see a behind the scenes featurette on the making-of.

    When did Graham become a wilderness tracker? Was it the hat?

    It was very properly Who. Monsters what didn’t cost much, mucking about in fields, lots of running around, the Doctor speechifying at the monsters before defeating them. Just with the twist of the Doctor having a tougher time since not being a bloke, and the guest-star-hitting-on-companion being gay. Ryan’s expressions were priceless.

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  4. The ending was a bit rushed, I thought, but speaking as someone who dabbles in historical costuming there was some top notch lace in this episode.

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  5. I got to this one late. I suppose that having been spoiled by plenty of Yorkshire I must grudgingly accept a brief foray across the Pennines, just so long as they don’t make a habit of it.
    The finale – with shouty aliens threatening furious vengeance – seemed a bit out of character for this season, but much of the story was very clever and of course Cumming was priceless.

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