If I’ve given the impression of not having enjoyed this series of Doctor Who very much, that’s not too far wrong. Here we are now, after eight of the ten episodes, and time is fast running out for it to pull a rabbit out of the hat. There may yet be a rabbit. But if there is, The Witchfinders is not it.
And the most frustrating thing is that it fails in exactly the same ways as all the other episodes this year. It doesn’t even present any new and interesting failure modes. Once again:
- The plot is over-stuffed with things that don’t need to be there.
- Two of the companions are superfluous.
- The Doctor herself has no clear character.
- The whole is less than the sum of the parts.
I don’t know how bored you’re getting reading essentially the same review every week, but I can tell you I’m getting bored of writing it. In the past I’ve written about the endless inventiveness of Doctor Who, its unlimited capacity to surprise and delight. This feels like a pale, pale shadow of that show, and it’s no fun to review.
So instead I’m going to briefly discuss two things that would help.
First, do not multiply entities unnecessarily. Setting a Doctor Who story during witch trials is a fine idea: there’s an opportunity there for the Doctor to bring insight, empathy, subtlety, rationality — to help people to be better, to overcome fears and prejudices. There’s an opportunity to use such a story to gently suggest things about how we view minorities — the kind of thing Doctor Who has always been good at.
But because it’s Doctor Who in 2018, it’s not allowed to be just about that, any more than Vincent and the Doctor was allowed to be just about Vincent and the Doctor. Just as that episode had to have its giant invisible turkey, so this one had to have its alien menace, the Morax who speaks for the trees. I lament this, but I understand it to some degree.
But then on top of that to parachute in the ludicrous and unmotivated King James? He adds nothing but ersatz “tension” which is anything but. He makes no sense historically. Even if he were not acted by someone channelling Frasier‘s camp restaurant critic Gil Chesterton, he would be at best a distraction from the actual story that’s there to be told: he’s like a recurrent wandering monster who won’t go away.
So the lesson: do less, and do it better. Actually explore your premise, rather then merely using it as scenery for sequence of chases, captures and escapes and shouty bits.
Second: if you’re going to have multiple companions, use them. That means not just sending them off like drones to help the Doctor collect plot coupons, like poor Yaz sent off to babysit Willa until the Dcotor turns up. It means that there has to be a reason why we’re interested in them being there. Amy and Rory, bless them, were a superb example of how to do this right. They had a pre-existing relationship, and travelling with the Doctor was, among other things, interesting because of how it affected that relationship, and the relationship each of them individually had with the Doctor. They grew. They changed. More, than that, they changed the Doctor.
By contrast, Graham, Ryan and Yaz are just sort of there. They’re posable action figures. We don’t really believe they have lives outside of the adventures we see: they probably just stand there, semi-hibernated, until they’re activated to play their allocated roles in the next episode. There are no relationships between them, nothing changing, nothing about them to inspire or delight the Doctor.
And all of this feels like the consequences of Chibnall looking at the work of his betters, seeing that it works but not understanding why, and trying to cargo-cult his way to success by copying the external trappings of successful epsiodes. Having the form of Moffat but denying its power. (Yes, I know Chibnall didn’t write this episode. But it’s very much his show, and he has to take responsibility for the shape of it.)
So Chibnall sees that Moffat went from the single companions of the RTD era (Rose, Martha, Donna) to the very successful duo of Amy and Rory, and thinks “I’ll go one better: I’ll have three companions”. But he has no idea why Amy and Rory worked, and even less idea how to make Graham, Ryan and Yaz work.
And Chibnall sees that Moffat took the already complex sequence of events leading up to The Pandorica Opens and wound it up even tighter by having Amy unexpectedly in the Pandorica at the start of the next episode. And he thinks “Oh, all right then, I’ll toss King James into this potentially neat little story about witchfinders”, but without having any idea what to actually do with him.
It’s sort of heartbreaking to watch this series stumbling blindly around, bumping into the furniture and knocking things over, eventually emerging looking pleased with itself and holding something that superficially resembles an episode of Doctor Who.
Pretty much everyone else seems to have given up by this point. Elizabeth Sandifer soldiers on, though, with The Witchfinders Review. Sample quote: “we’re in such bad shape that “the Doctor takes a moral stance against witch trials” feels like an accomplishment.”