Doctor Who continues this season’s streak of stories about man’s intolerance being the greatest evil in the universe with a reminder about what a literal witch hunt is in “The Witchfinders.”
While trying to reach the coronation of Queen Elizabeth I, The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) and fam are re-routed by the TARDIS to a village in Lancashire in the 1600s where a witch hunt is underway. The land owner, Becka Savage (Siobhan Finneran), has already killed 35 suspected witches and is in the process of trying another when Team TARDIS arrives.
The Doctor isn’t able to save the accused woman before she’s drowned, but she does successfully intervene on behalf of her granddaughter by brandishing psychic paper at Becka and claiming the role of Witchfinder General.
The Doctor and fam accompany Becka to her hilltop home, where initially it looks like Becka is going to turn the investigation into what’s going on over to The Doctor. Unfortunately, King James I (Alan Cumming!) arrives to paranoiacally take over. He looks at the psychic paper, and it now identifies The Doctor as Witchfinder’s Assistant, which suggests to the sexist king that Graham (Bradley Walsh) must be the Witchfinder General. Ryan (Tosin Cole) rounds out their team, responsible for paperwork. Despite the King’s presence, our heroes manage to do some snooping in the house and find a suspicious number of hankies, an axe and an empty medicine bottle in Becka’s bedroom.
Yas (Mandip Gill), meanwhile, has tracked the dead woman’s granddaughter, Willa (Tilly Steele), to where she is burying her grandmother. Willa’s burial is interrupted by a tendril of sentient earth rising up to attack her. Yas saves her, then rushes to share what she’s seen with The Doctor. The Doctor and Yas split off to talk to Willa and find out what’s happening, leaving Ryan and Graham to stay with Becka and the King and try to slow them before they can kill more villagers in their effort to uncover Satan.
In Willa’s home, The Doctor uses her sonic to determine that there’s no evidence of magic anywhere in Willa or the house. Willa reveals that Becka is her cousin who “married up,” and that she’d naively thought that their family connection would protect her and her grandmother from the witch hunt. The Doctor invites Willa to go back to the site of her grandmother’s grave with them and see what’s up with the mud, and the three of them go.
When they get there, the mud shows no signs under sonic scrutiny of being anything other than what it looks like. The Doctor takes a sample in a specimen bottle, and once it’s confined, the mud begins jumping about erratically. While The Doctor tries to puzzle that out, Willa and Yas notice that something more sinister is happening: Willa’s grandmother and all of the other fresh corpses of suspected witches have been reanimated and are walking towards them.
The Doctor confronts Willa’s grandmother, sure that her body has been possessed by an alien force in the mud. She rattles off so many thoughts and questions that the zombie has no real opportunity to respond.
As The Doctor scans and studies her, Graham and Ryan are making their way through the woods with Becka and the King. They arrive at the graves in time to see the dead women walking, and the King orders his personal guard to shoot them. This, unsurprisingly, angers the zombies, and Willa’s gran shoots an energy blast from her hands at the guard, which kills him instantly. The zombies depart, and The Doctor dispatches her team to follow them.
The Doctor is sure that Becka knows something about what’s happening. She can’t figure out why the witch trials and the sentient earth should coincide on this day, and she demands answers. Becka responds by accusing The Doctor of witchcraft and saying that her presence is the common denominator. Under duress, Willa has to agree that The Doctor’s name is awfully strange, which condemns her.
Graham, Ryan and Yas follow the zombies to Becka’s house, where the creatures retrieve the axe from Becka’s bedroom. They’re pursuing them back into the woods when they hear a bell ringing from the river. They realize immediately that The Doctor must be being tried for witchcraft, because she certainly wouldn’t let anyone else go down.
When she’s taken to the dunking stool, she attempts again to get Becka to confess what she knows. Becka has a physical reaction when she touches the wood of the dunking stool, and as she asks the King for the order to proceed, black ooze comes from her eye like a tear. The Doctor sees it and knows that the mud has infected Becka as well.
Becka dunks The Doctor just as Graham and the others arrive in the crowd of spectators on the other bank. They plead with King James, who does look a little doubtful, to let The Doctor up. He finally agrees, and when the stool is raised The Doctor is no longer on it. She clambers ashore a moment later, explaining that it isn’t witchcraft that saved her, but being good at holding her breath and escaping chains. (The latter thanks to some time spent with Houdini.)
The zombies arrive, with the axe, and The Doctor confronts Becka again. As the zombies advance on them, Becka commands them to stop– and they do. She finally admits that she cut down a tree on the hill that was interfering with the view from her home. While she was chopping, the mud rose up and attacked her leg. Afterwards, she developed what she believed was a witch’s mark and attempted to treat it with prayer and with medicine from Willa’s grandmother. The witch trials have been motivated by her fear about what’s happening to her.
With the truth finally out, The Doctor is sure that something alien is afoot. The King and Team TARDIS join them, and Becka is consumed by the creature within her. The creature reveals that it is the queen of the Morax. She and her people were imprisoned within the hill for war crimes, and now she intends to take the King so his body can be used to give her king form. The Morax will take over the entire planet. She shoots energy at Team TARDIS that knocks them all unconscious and departs with King James.
When they come to, The Doctor realizes that the dunking stool is made from the tree Becka cut down. She scans it and discovers that it is ancient alien tech that was actually the security system on the Morax prison. When Becka chopped it down, she inadvertently freed the alien criminals. The Doctor figures out how to repair the prison security system, and she leads her team and Willa to save King James.
They arrive on the hill just in time to stop the Morax king from possessing King James. The Doctor plugs a shard of “wood” she’s soniced into the tree stump, restoring the prison security. The mud tendril king recedes into it, and the mud disappears from the zombies immediately. Only Becka is left in her Morax form outside the prison, and The Doctor and Willa want to save her. Impatient King James rushes her with a burning branch from the tree, though, vaporizing her with the toxic-to-Morax flames.
The Doctor is angry with King James as they depart, but she’s saved the villagers. The King offers Ryan a job in London, but he declines. With a parting quote from Arthur C. Clarke, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” The Doctor and her crew disappear in the TARDIS before the stunned King and a delighted Willa.
Looks like tomorrow’s AnyWho will get to unpack The Doctor’s response to the King’s sexism– that she never had to deal with that sort of treatment when she was a man– and examine yet another episode set on Earth where it’s humans whose intolerance is pointedly evil. Also, this episode had a female screenwriter, Joy Wilkinson, and a female director, Sallie Aprahamian, so yay!
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