Arriving in Lancashire in 1612, the Doctor and her companions are shocked to discover a witch trial happening at a local village. Against her own warning of not interfering in history, the Doctor attempts to save the life of the woman accused of witchcraft – bringing her into conflict with the owner of the land, Becka Savage. Becka is convinced of Satan’s presence in the village and is keen to rid the land of evil, a sentiment shared by King James who arrives there at the same time. Claiming to be Witchfinders, the Doctor and her companions vow to investigate the source of the village’s problems.
While the witchhunt initially seems to be little more than the ignorance of the time, evidence soon proves otherwise when Yaz faces alien tendrils made of mud that attack from the ground. When the corpses of the witch trial victims are possessed and rise from their graves, the Doctor herself is accused of being a witch despite trying to save everyone. With everyone against her and the village in danger, can the Doctor solve the mystery and save everyone – including herself?
Let’s pretend for a second that we saw a very similar plot to this just a few weeks ago in Legends of Tomorrow. That’s just bad timing. It also doesn’t help that, remarkably, Legends did a better job of it too… or at least a more fun job of it, and fun can cover a lot of flaws in storytelling. But like I said, let’s just pretend anyway and try to judge this Doctor Who episode on its own merits.
As stories go, this one had quite a bit of potential. Of course, it makes sense to put this latest incarnation of the Doctor slap-bang in the middle of a witch trial, because she would be an instant candidate to be put on trial herself. The mystery itself about the happenings of the village makes for an intriguing tale like Sleepy Hollow, and it’s a classic slice of Doctor Who in that regard. It’s even presented in such a straight-faced, slowly paced fashion that it’s a slow-burn spooky story.
It’s unfortunate that the final act is where it all falls apart. Obviously, it was never going to be actual witchcraft at play – Doctor Who rarely gives any credence to the supernatural, the closest being The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit over a decade ago. But did the story really have to boil down to that old cliché of it being, you guessed it, aliens wanting to take over the world by boring people to death with exposition?
It’s the ending that pretty much ruins the entire episode retroactively, exposing a variety of plot holes in the process and making the entire mystery pointless. That isn’t to say that it’s a bad episode, strictly speaking, but it doesn’t help that the alien menace is so unthreatening that the worst they do to the Doctor and her companions is to knock them all out before running away like pantomime villains. Whatever the moral of the story was meant to be, it’s instantly lost. Instead, the only lingering memory of the episode is Alan Cumming’s mixed bag of a performance.
Once again it’s another Doctor Who episode of unfulfilled promise. Visually, it has a few nice moments and the acting, for the most part, is solid, but the uneven nature of the story drags it down. As an episode, neither science nor magic could have saved it – just better storytelling. What could have been a classic Doctor Who episode is instead instantly forgettable.
Doctor Who: The Witchfinders
Unfortunately, The Witchfinders is another promising episode that doesn’t deliver.