I think this may be the one episode that I was really looking forward to. Was it as good as I wanted? Thereby hangs a tale…
On with the motley!
So what do we have? Another episode with nuts accusing the show of being politically correct within seconds of it airing. This time, “How dare the elitist BBC tell us that killing witches is wrong! It is political correctness gone mad!” Yes, quite.
Planning on treating her friends, the Doctor decides to take them to see the coronation of her ex-wife Elizabeth I. Afterwards to her honeymoon night with River Song in Darkest Peru. Not my idea of fun. I would rather attend the Milk Wars of Keston Five.
However the TARDIS lands in Lancashire in 1612, near Pendle Hill which Graham recognises from when him and Grace climbed up it to summon a demon.
It is practically a celebration with apple-bobbing, parsnip-bobbing, robin bobbing, all good family fun. Amongst the attractions are a helter-skelter, a hall of mirrors, and a midget picking up weights with his cheap wooden pudding-chompers. At first you have no idea what is going on. Then they ask a weeping villager and they are told.
A witch is about to be dunked in the local pond/toilet. How this works is that the witch is sat down on a seat over the pond, and the villagers must pay a groat to throw wooden balls at this round switch will drop her into the drink.
Actually nothing like that. The witch is tied to a bit of tree with huge metal chains thrice-blessed by blind Welsh monks, then she is dunked into the stagnant water. If she survives, she is a witch. If she drowns, she is innocent. A witch floats because she has renounced baptism and the water can’t abide her witchy skin. This is why you never see a clean witch.
King James the First of England, the Sixth of Scotland and the Seventy-Seventh of Gormenghast, he wrote in his Daemonologie (Christmas best-seller three decades in a row) that because water is so pure an element it repels the guilty. This at a time when most people drank beer because water could kill or make you seriously ill if drunk.
A much better way of testing women to see if they are a witch is to offer them a Marmite sandwich. If they enjoy it, they are not a witch. If they hate it, they are a witch.
Mistress Becka Savage, sister of Lily and local landowner, is the one in charge. And the witch is her own relation.
“That’ll learn you to snub me at our Sharon’s wedding! Now, my stout fellows, dunk Old Mother Twiston!”
“Old? Old? How dare you! I am only 48! We all know how old you are! Becka, you… glug, glug, glug!”
Thus the witch dies. Or does she? The Doctor passes her coat to Graham and jumps into the filthy muddy pond. Becka is outraged.
The Doctor does manage to get the old woman out of the water but it is too late. Ding-dong, the witch is dead. Much to the sorrow of her granddaughter, Willa. Becka is livid…
“How dare you! Chuff me, now we will never know whether she was a witch or not!”
“Why would you think she was a witch?”
“She weighed the same as a duck, that is the only proof that we needed.”
The Doctor whips out her psychic paper and thrusts it under Becka’s powdered nose. Apparently the Doctor is the Witchfinder General and has authority over her.
The only problem with this is that ‘Witchfinder General’ was a term invented by Matthew Hopkins. A title that held no legal power whatsoever. Also, Hopkins wasn’t even alive in 1612, not born yet, so why would Becka Savage automatically give way to the Doctor? Impressed by credentials? To move the plot along? Yeah, let us go with those two…
The plot moves the Doctor and her friends, not Yaz who has gone after Willa to ask some questions, to Bilehurst Cragg. During this they are followed by somebody in a mask. Shades of Demons of the Punjab?
This stranger is no alien interloper, no. It is Lord Flashhart! Um, no, it old King Jimmy himself.
“I am the fab-a-doodle King Jimmy. Och, hoots and all that, dear chaps! I am here to save you all from the nasty buxom witches, woof!”
“My king! I am so pleased to meet you! I am Mistress Savage and I wel…”
“Am I pleased to see you, or did I just put a sword in my pocket?”
“Ah, thank thee kindly, sire. These others are the Witchfinder General and her helpers…”
“A Nubian! Methinks the sword is now a halberd! Woof! Fancy a snog, blackamoor?”
James is shown the psychic paper which has now relegated the Doctor to Witchfinder General’s assistant. “I think not, my little saucepot!” He looks at her friends and automatically assumes that Graham is the one in charge. Which is why Graham gets a nifty hat and speaks in a Vincent Price accent for the rest of the show.
Incidentally, when looking around the manor, the Doctor finds a whopping big axe under Becka’s bed. She doesn’t ask why Mistress Savage would need a chopper in her bedroom and Graham is too much of a gentleman to mention the pink fluffy handcuffs he finds under the pillows.
James and his manservant, Alfonso, unload a box of treats.
“I love this one. The Pricker! Made for me by Gruntfuttocks of London. All you do is jab a witch’s devil spot and if she doesn’t bleed, she is a witch! Simples!”
“Isn’t that needle blunt?”
“My sweet lassie, Doctor, fret not. Remember Gruntfuttocks’ motto: p-p-p-pricker up a witch today!”
“I also have some witchy body parts in my box of delight. If I lose my pricker, I can just thrash ’em with the wet end of a warlock’s noodly appendage. Woof!”
King Jim is anxious to go and find himself some witches, or as he puts it, “magical strumpets”. The Doctor and her friends try to slow him down but he is too eager. Even with Graham going, “Could you excuse me, please, sir?” and peeing behind every tree they can find, the king is still witch-crazy. He is is even singing. Songs such as this:
“A-pricking we will go,
A-pricking we will go,
Hey, ho, the witch-o goes,
A-pricking we will go!”
This portrayal of the king is at odds with how he was in real life. Yes, he may have been gay and yes, he may have been keen to hunt out witches but by 1612 he was decidedly more skeptical of witchy claims. In a letter written in England to his son Henry, James even wrote, “the discovery of yon little counterfeit wench. I pray God ye may be my heir in such discoveries … most miracles now-a-days prove but illusions, and ye may see by this how wary judges should be in trusting accusations”.
Also, Henry, Prince of Wales, died of typhoid fever in 1812. Would a grieving father really go gallivanting around the country trying to count the nipples of potential witches?
What about Yaz? Yaz is with Willa Twiston who has dug a massive grave all by herself. Hmmm, really? She is saying some type of prayer over the grave when a tendril of mud pops out of the soil and tries to drag her down into the clammy embrace of Mother Earth.
Elsewhere in the forest, Ryan and Jimmy are sharing their life histories by playing Misery Top Trumps. Jimmy wins only when he tells him about how his father was killed by his mother, his mother was beheaded and imprisoned (not in that order), he was raised by regents who all hated his guts except for one who gave him special lap rides, and his murderous mother left him as a baby and was made into a scapegoat. “Your mother was turned into a goat? No wonder you hate witches, bruv.”
The tendrils have now blossomed and taken over the bodies of all the ‘witches’ that Savage had murdered. Covered with mud, grey and brown. I have to say that I quite liked them. Just imagine that video-dwelling girl from The Ring but muddier and less sexy.
“Waarrgggh! Willa! You never visit! You never leave flowers! You have forgotten me!”
“Nanna, I only just buried you!”
“Here I am spinning in my grave and you are having fun with this girl! How dare you! Even your mother is spinning in her grave…”
“Mama was eaten by wolves…”
“Your mama is spinning in the bellies of wolves…”
Our heroes plus the members of the cast with talking parts all meet up, surrounded by mud-witches. King Jimmy immediately puts his plan into action but no matter of pelvic thrusting and shouting “Woof!” is affecting them. So they all scarper as quickly as possible.
Graham, Yaz and Ryan go after the mud-witches and are led back to Bilehurst Cragg – so craggy that they added a second ‘g’ – and are astonished to find that the creatures has stolen Becka’s axe.
The Doctor is accused of being a witch when she tries to question Becka Savage about the witches. Becka is clearly trying to shift the blame. “Look, she has a magic wand!” she shouts, pointing at the sonic screwdriver. King James is only too willing to believe her especially when even Willa backs up Becka when threatened with being called a witch herself.
Quicker than you can say “No, not the mind probe”, the Doctor is stuck in a bonfire, waiting to be burnt alive.
Jimmy comes by for a bit of a gloat and a quick prick in case she isn’t a witch.
“How many nipples have you got, my petite sexpot?”
“Hmmm, I believe you are not a witch. Fancy a kiss? Woof!”
Not quite, she appeals to his better nature which is not that hard to do. Under all his pomp and bluster and willingness to rut with every man, woman and inanimate block of wood in the kingdom, Jimmy is quite a nice chap. Like everyone else, he is just human.
It doesn’t work though, no matter the amount of nipples she has, the Doctor is still tied to the dunking log which is more of a tree than a log.
Guess what? She survives! Thank you, Houdini and Michael Phelps for all those lessons!
Exposition time but it is entertaining exposition so it can be forgiven. It turns out that Becka chopped down a tree because it spoilt her view of the sky. Doesn’t make sense because surely a woman of her status would get a servant to do it? Anyway, this tree was actually a biological locking device that was keeping alien prisoners in their earthy cells beneath Pendle Hill. Of course! It is all so simple now she explains it.
Up to this point, the episode has been brilliant. Loved it, couldn’t really fault it. Now we have a huge tonal shift.
Becka turns into an alien queen. Yes. When she started transforming, I was so certain that she was going to turn into a tree. So you can imagine how disappointed I was when she became Queen of the Morax.
Apparently a splinter or a tendril escaped when she chopped the tree down. The Queen infected her. This is why she was killing witches all over the shop, to stop the Queen possessing her. Lucky that, wasn’t it? What are the odds that it would be an evil royal alien instead of, say, an evil alien kitten wrangler?
The Morax Queen has King Jimmy whipped up Pendle Hill so she can make him her husband. Kinda.
“I will insert the essence of my hubby into you!”
“Not if I insert my essence into you first, queenie! Woof!”
The Doctor has a cunning plan. By using parts of the tree/dunking stool, she will set them alight. This will create fumes which are toxic to the Morax and this will place them back into their prison for the rest of eternity. Um. Not sure that will work but it is worth a try.
It works. The Doctor and her friends flash their branches about the hill, doing the dance of the seven veils, and King Morax who appears to be a slimy snake thing is zapped back into his cell.
Queenie however won’t take it lying down. Luckily, King Jimmy gives her forty whacks with one of the torches and this sorts her out. She is deaded. The other mud-witches all fall to the ground, perfectly preserved and dead as a doorknob.
King Jimmy, because this will reflect badly on him, will banish all knowledge of the events from ever being spoken. With Willa Twiston, they watch the TARDIS depart.
And that is that. All done and dusted. Apart from the closing theme music which has been composed using the screams of burning witches.
You know them Morax critters? They were named, I assume, after Morax who in demonology is a President of Hell (“We will make Hell great again! MHGA!”) and a Great Earl to boot. So what connection does Morrie have to witchcraft? When he isn’t poking people with pitchforks or commissioning new reality TV shows, Morax teaches astronomy and gives to his legions of fans familiars who know all about herbs and precious stones. Sounds witchy to me with the herbs and astronomy,
Jodie Whittaker was her most Doctory here. She so reminds me of Peter Davison’s Doctor. Running around and not being taken seriously. Love her in the part. She more so on the ball than previous Doctors such as Matt Smith. Is that a fair assessment? There are some nice moments of charm when she talks to Jimbo whilst tied to a stake. Sadly only two more episodes to this series…
Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole and Mandeep Gill are all of the same here. Great and as companiony as you might want. They are now old hands, getting on with what needs to be done and drinking herbal tea from time to time. They really do make a great team.
Siobhan Finneran was great. Not entirely subtle but compared to Alan Cumming she is the dictionary definition of the word. I enjoyed her acting and, although unsympathetic, I did feel a bit sorry for her when Queenie took over but this was mainly because I could imagine the faff of wearing that poop-coloured latex mask.
Tilly Steele – such a witchy name – was Willa. She was the Kira Arlo of this episode. I liked her whenever I saw her but oddly I found her unmemorable. She was very good though, I do recall that.
Alan Cumming. What can I say about him? Mad as a box of frogs? No, just mad as a box full of frog. As much as I have sent him up with how I have shown him, his King Jim was equally over-the-top. However he did rein it in to give a more subtle performance (“Rein it in”? Rein/reign? No? Suit yourself…) for, oooh, at least two scenes. I really wanted him to join Team TARDIS, that would be utterly brilliant.
Joy Wilkinson, her wot wrote it, has done a brilliant job of this episode. Well, up to the reveal of the Morax that is. Afterwards, it was merely good. I think Chibbers should have interfered and made the alien threat less stereotypical. Still, it didn’t affect my enjoyment of The Witchfinders.
Plus Clarke’s Third Law is mentioned! Any episode which mentions that has to be applauded. Clarke’s Law was previously shown in The Dæmons (See? Worthy of applause!) and Battlefield (Um, maybe not…).
Because I am in the mood to tell you and I want to get my wordcount over 2,700, below are Arthur C. Clarke’s three laws of which the third is the most famous:
1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
This will all sound familiar to you if you have any knowledge of Doctor Who. They are practically the secret laws of the show itself.
Anyway, this is yet another episode which I would heartily recommend.