Doctor Who Review: The Witchfinders

doctor who review the witchfinders joy wilkinson chris chibnall alan cumming jodie whittaker

We’ve got to do something, Doctor.

I actually didn’t especially like the opening scene of this episode.

It put me in mind of Thin Ice a little – an episode I love – or indeed the start of The Beast Below. The insistence against interference becomes set up for a joke (“this requires tact and diplomacy”, before immediately punching Lord Sutcliffe) or a character moment (no interference, until you see a child cry) – or indeed both, actually, in each case. There’s never really any serious consideration of non-interference; the suggestion is raised and shot down more or less immediately, the point being to make it obvious just what sort of character the Doctor is.

That’s not quite what The Witchfinders does, though. For all that it’s worth celebrating the fact that the Doctor is finally being positioned as a more active character, it’s worth noting how much emphasis is placed on the indecision of the moment – the tension comes from the fact we’re supposed to believe that the Doctor genuinely would leave the woman to die in a witch trial because of it’s more important not to interfere. It’s a far, far cry from the way non-interference was treated across the Moffat era (or indeed the Davies era).

And I don’t like that especially. I don’t like a vision of the Doctor as a character where they look on at someone being attacked, and you can see the conflict play out on their face as to whether or not to do something. I’ve said already, I think, that one of the benchmarks for each new Doctor is how they – and it’s difficult to imagine this Doctor’s immediate predecessors prevaricating in the same way about saving someone.

What I can’t tell, of course, if is this has been part of a deliberate character arc. I’m a little unconvinced, to be honest; I’m still fairly sure I read that this episode was originally placed earlier in the series, which would mean that any apparent shift towards a more actively interventionist stance on the Doctor’s part since previous historical episodes is just a quirk of scheduling. Frankly, the relative lack of character arcs for the other main cast members doesn’t exactly make me think we’re seeing an international development here: instead, it’s simply the case that the Thirteenth Doctor is the sort of character who probably would leave a woman to die in a witch trial. It’s a far cry from “if there’s one thing I’m certain of, it’s when people need help, I never refuse”.

To coin a phrase, that’s just not my Doctor.

doctor who review the witchfinders joy wilkinson jodie whittaker drown centrist not my doctor

That’s not to say I didn’t like The Witchfinders. I would say I mostly did? Going into it, certainly, I was feeling fairly disinterested about the whole thing – I think this is probably the most “whatever” I’ve felt about an episode of Doctor Who going into it, after the mess that was Kerblam!, coupled with the creeping suspicion that Doctor Who was about to go “well, actually, maybe the witch trials weren’t so bad after all”.

Thankfully, though, that was mostly avoided! And the episode was lots of fun! I enjoyed myself quite a bit, and I think this episode stood up quite well to a subsequent viewing. Probably, in fact, it stood up to this subsequent viewing better than previous ones have – certainly it did in comparison to something like The Ghost Monument, which just sort of fell apart the second time I watched it. There’s enough going on here that it’s perfectly and pleasantly diverting for a second time.

Again, though, there’s the sense that maybe none of these episodes are aiming for more than – or are going to hit more than – a generally competent level of “yes, that’s basically fine”. We’re looking at an entire run of episodes that are about as good as the average midseason episode – not a series of filler, exactly, because I’m not massively keen on the word and its implications, but certainly a set of ten essentially middle of the road stories. They’re defined by that, I think – much as Alan Cumming was wonderful, and is surely a strong contender for second best guest star of the season (I really did love Shane Zaza’s performance in Demons of the Punjab that much), the episode struggles to get its actual monsters up to task. I’ve watched it twice now, and I don’t think I could tell you very much about them – they’re deeply generic to the point of being anonymous, and it hurts the last third of the episode too. (Really, of course, there shouldn’t have been any monsters at all – the episode was doing so well with those ideas of repression and deflection, the way we externalise internal fears – introducing mud monsters to it all sees those interesting ideas just tumble down.)

But you know. Alan Cumming really is very good. And I suspect complaints about the quality of the series are almost missing the point, and remind me again why I am not massively fond of reviews as a format. It’s fine, you know. That’ll do. It basically pretty much works. It’s an entertaining enough way to spend my time on a Sunday evening. Whatever.

doctor who review the witchfinders joy wilkinson mud monster witch morax granny alan cumming

It is odd to think that we’re eight episodes into a ten episode series – after tonight’s episode, there’s just a week left. It doesn’t… feel that way. Which is perhaps a silly observation to make, but that doesn’t quite mean it’s any less true; there’s none of the sense of build up that accompanied previous years, none of the anticipation.

Back when Chibnall was first announced, there was a lot of talk about an intensely serialised version of the programme, each episode leading immediately into the next – not a million miles away from a Netflix show, or, the more obvious comparison under the circumstances, Broadchurch. It felt like, and probably would’ve been, a bad idea for a couple of reasons, but at the same time… there’s a part of me that sort of wishes that actually is what we got. The current “no arc” approach didn’t sound so bad on its own terms at first, but chiefly because it sounded like “there won’t be anything like Bad Wolf or Torchwood or the disappearing planets”, which, you know, is fine, it’s been a while since we’ve had that anyway, and it’s not like references to ‘the Hybrid’ weren’t deeply clunky most of the time anyway.

But, man, it seems to me that “no arc” in fact means “you could watch these episodes in literally any order, and it wouldn’t make a difference”. It feels like they’re being written with one eye on syndication, frankly, along the same lines as the average episode of Star Trek: Voyager. It’s not the plot arc I miss, it’s the character arcs, and it’s making all of these episodes feel like less than the sum of their parts – it’s difficult to appreciate a perfectly competent episode like The Witchfinders because it struggles under the weight of series-wide flaws.

So, you know. Okay, sure, fine, whatever.

6/10

Related:

Doctor Who Series 11 reviews

Facebook | Twitter | Blog Index | Doctor Who Reviews Index

Doctor Who Review: Arachnids in the UK

doctor who arachnids in the uk review spiders jodie whittaker bradley walsh tosin cole mandip gill chris noth chris chibnall sallie aprahamian

Now if you’re so great, explain this.

Again, I’m confronted with the need to change my approach to these reviews.

Broadly speaking, there’s a familiar structure I tend to follow. The reviews are divided into three sections, meaning I tend to talk about three ideas: acting, writing, and directing; two strengths and a weakness; two weaknesses and a strength; themes, concepts, and symbols. I try, too, to write them in the first person, to be a little more casual and conversational about it in contrast to the articles I write for Yahoo (in my mind, there’s something very different between an article and a review) – it’s meant to be, I guess, a piece that’s not a million miles away from having an actual discussion with someone, either in person or on a forum or something.

More or less, I think this usually works. Not entirely; more often than not, I tend to feel like I’ve missed something, as though there was some observation I’d have liked to make but didn’t quite manage to fit in. That’s not really the end of the world, though – better to have too much to say than too little. Which is, of course, the time when these reviews really don’t work, and I end up posting them more out of a faint sense of obligation than anything else.

If you hadn’t worked it out by now – an opening along these lines, which I refer back to more often than I should, tends to be a bit of a giveaway – I don’t really have a lot to say about Arachnids in the UK.

I enjoyed it! It was mostly a fairly good and entertaining piece of television; I’ve watched it twice now and didn’t feel like I was wasting my time on either occasion. Jodie Whittaker remains wonderful, as do Tosin Cole (wasn’t that shadow puppet bit brilliant?), Mandip Gill and Bradley Walsh. It improved on certain things I’ve found frustrating so far – I really enjoyed Sallie Apraheim’s direction, I think it was the best of the series so far – and managed to generally maintain the level of quality the show has so far. There are critiques I’d make, certainly – one big one in particular – but for the most part, this was a good episode of Doctor Who.

(I really, really do want to stress that, particularly as I’m realising that, as I write the rest of this review, it’s probably going to be a fairly negative one – I did enjoy Arachnids in the UK, I would watch it again gladly, and it’s actually been one of my favourites of the series so far.)

doctor who arachnids in the uk review spiders jodie whittaker bradley walsh tosin cole mandip gill team tardis chris chibnall sallie aprahamian

So, I want to talk a little about Jack Robertson, the Trump analogue who’s arguably one of the more memorable aspects of the episode.

Immediately, there’s something interesting about the way he’s positioned as a Trump analogue – not just a diegetic equivalent, a way to talk about Trump while still talking around him, but established as a counterpart and a rival, another blustering American businessman and arch-capitalist with presidential ambitions. Presidential ambitions specifically prompted by Trump’s own, more to the point.

It strikes me as potentially quite a compelling way for the series to actually engage with real world politics – if nothing else, it’s interesting to see that this sort of engagement is something Chibnall is willing to do. It’d have been easy to ignore Trump (as the series appears to be ignoring Brexit, probably for quite obvious reasons) so the fact that there’s a willingness to foreground him as a villain speaks volumes; it is, I would maybe even argue, actually somewhat more telling of the aims and concerns of this era than Rosa is, which felt, at least a little, somewhat neutered through its conspicuous lack of reference to the present. The character doesn’t always work, not exactly – his big villainous moment, shooting the spider, falls flat, and I’m not entirely convinced the episode does the best job it could have of conceptualising his wealth and his evil (see here) – but Chris Noth gives a great performance, and Robertson will be quite interesting as a new type of recurring character we’ve not quite seen befo-

Recurring character?

Ah, yes. So that brings me to the main issue I had with this episode: it just sort of stops, rather than ending. Robertson shoots the spider (in what’s probably the most poorly directed sequence of the episode – does the Doctor, like, try and stand in front of it? Does she do anything other than tell Robertson not to shoot the spider? There’s a lack of clarity that hurts the scene), and then walks off, his petard thoroughly unhoisted. There’s no resolution to Robertson’s story, or indeed the story as a whole – the next scene is some time later, the companions about to leave again, basically suggesting that after Robertson shot the spider everyone just walked away, leaving the big spider corpse in the ballroom and the smaller (but still big) spiders in the downstairs panic room.

Perhaps that’s to set Robertson up as a returning character; I admit, I am kinda intrigued by the idea of “Doctor Who does the West Wing” in series 12, with Robertson as a villainous president. It wasn’t, though, my immediate thought – because actually, when you think back on it, The Woman Who Fell to Earth and The Ghost Monument both had sort of the same issue.

So maybe it’s not a problem with Arachnids in the UK, it’s a problem with series 11 – and a problem with Chris Chibnall.

doctor who arachnids in the uk review spiders chris noth jack robertson donald trump mr big peter florrick jodie whittaker bradley walsh team tardis chris chibnall sallie aprahamian

Back when Chibnall was announced as the new Doctor Who showrunner, I was a lot more positive about it than other people were – I liked Broadchurch, generally speaking, and his Doctor Who episodes previously. And that positivity felt validated in the run up to the new episodes – the female Doctor, the marketing campaign, it all spoke to an era that I felt like I was really going to enjoy.

And I am enjoying it. It’s Doctor Who, of course I enjoy it, and I’m kinda always going to enjoy it irrespective of things like “quality”, or “basic dramatic structure”.

The redemptive reading, as some people have put forward, is that the Doctor’s inability to stop Robertson is much like her inability to stop racism last week – a suggestion that there are certain structural problems that a fantasy hero like the Doctor can’t combat, that her role is different. That’s something that seems genuinely fascinating to explore, depending on what “her role” eventually turns out to be; if nothing else, it’d be a new way of articulating that character that’d form quite a stark contrast to both Moffat and Davies’ takes on the Doctor.

I am not wholly convinced that’s the case. Even if it was the case, there’s still a certain sloppiness to Arachnids in the UK and its almost conscious lack of any meaningful resolution. The fact that the Doctor hasn’t technically stopped or defeated any of the villains yet doesn’t seem intentional, it seems like the same sort of oversight that saw the first three episodes in a row involve implanted technology, or that whole mess with Pythagoras’ sunglasses in The Ghost Monument, or Ryan using a gun (a space gun, but still a gun) in Rosa.

I don’t know. I am enjoying the new series of Doctor Who! I really am; I wouldn’t be writing about it if I wasn’t, even if some of these reviews have, so far, trended a little negative.

But I’m also not wholly enjoying it, or enjoying it with caveats, to the point that I’ve devoted a fair amount of space in a review of an episode I mostly liked to criticising the series as a whole. It’s not that I don’t like it – I’d just like to see it be a little more ambitious, to finally have an episode that’s an outright classic, a genuine 10/10.

7/10

Related:

Doctor Who Series 11 reviews

Facebook | Twitter | Blog Index | Doctor Who Reviews Index