The Witchfinders is the first Doctor Who episode this series that’s felt like it doesn’t know what it wants to say. As you might guess from the title, it’s another historical episode; set this time in 17th-century Lancaster, in a little village being terrorised by its landowner, Becka Savage, a woman obsessed with rooting out witchcraft. So far she’s killed thirty-five women, and as the episode opens she’s killing a thirty-sixth.
One of the things the episode is most interested in is the problem of Being a Woman in the 17th century. So, at the beginning of the episode, writer Joy Wilkinson sets up two pairs of women: the Doctor’s paired with Becka, as she tries to establish what’s going on in the village; these are both women in traditionally male positions of power and/or authority. And Yas is paired with Willa, the granddaughter of the woman killed by Becka at the beginning of the episode; these are both younger women with strong family links.
It all looks like it’s going to unfold in fairly typical Who style: Becka and Willa will provide clues, the Doctor will figure out what’s going on, and everyone will work together to defeat the inevitable aliens when they turn up, in a lovely female cooperative. (Oh, Ryan and Graham are around somewhere, but really only to provide comic relief. Or something.)
That web of relationships, though, is broken by the intrusion of, er, King James I, who turns up for reasons that are never made clear. Symbolically, though, he’s there because he’s the literal embodiment of male patriarchal authority, and as such he comes between these women. He refuses to believe the Doctor’s claim to be Witchfinder General, instead assuming that she’s an assistant to Graham’s Witchfinder General. His one-note insistence on wiping out witchcraft effectively breaks Becka’s budding sympathy with the Doctor, and turns her into a witch-hunt fanatic. And, later on, he uses his power and influence to bully Willa into turning against the Doctor and her companions.
This is all tied into the episode’s understanding of the word “witch” as simply a label for a woman who knows too much, speaks too loudly, gets too clever. The witch-hunts were a form of insidious misogyny manifesting as a way of keeping women in their place, individually and collectively. Destroy their networks, turn them against each other, and you stop them gaining power. (James is not aware of this, certainly not consciously, although in a bit of cod-psychology the episode roots his general paranoia in what he sees as an early betrayal by his mother.)
Which…well, it’s not an original historical reading, but it could have been interesting to see it played out all the way.
Instead, like Kerblam!, The Witchfinders, um…muddles its terms of reference a little. Specifically: we know, because we’re watching Doctor Who, that in fact there is something “not of this earth” going on in this village. We know that there is something for King James and Becka to hunt for. They’re not wrong. They’re just looking in the wrong place.
The Witchfinders could still work, at that, though. But the episode doesn’t just want to talk about misogyny; it’s also interested in interrogating the borders between science and magic. Or, at least, it gestures at doing that. The Doctor’s sonic screwdriver is a magic wand. Willa’s skill in healing is witchcraft, or it’s just knowing stuff. The tree on Pendle Hill is important because it’s Willa’s grandmother’s favourite, or because it’s made out of Science. The aliens (c’mon, you knew there were going to be aliens) are Morax warriors, or they’re demons. At the end of the episode, the Doctor quotes that old Arthur C. Clarke chestnut about sufficiently advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic. We’re almost supposed to read this episode doubly: through the Doctor’s rational eyes, as a mystery to be solved; and through the historical gaze of the villagers, as a fairytale that ends with the destruction of evil.
I love this approach! But it complicates the misogyny reading of witchcraft in ways I don’t think Wilkinson intended it to. By blurring magic and science, it turns these women back into witches. It justifies the witch-hunt by confirming that there was something to look for after all. If there is evil at work in the village (and the Morax seem pretty evil to me; certainly the Doctor makes no effort to negotiate with them or treat them as sentient beings) then can we really blame James for burning the queen of the Morax as he’d burn a witch?
To be clear, I don’t think this reading is meant to be there. We’re meant to think James is misguided, annoying and a bit sad because of his stunted relationships. But this is a recurring weakness in this series: like Kerblam! and Arachnids in the UK, The Witchfinders hasn’t thought through its moral code. It’s interested in stuff, but not interested enough to follow right through and actually work out a coherent thing that it has to say.
(Arachnids in the UK certainly has things to say, and Kerblam! thinks it does. It’s just that the three episodes share a certain…fuzziness when it comes to working them out in the plot.)
That’s two weak episodes in a row. This’d better not become a pattern, BBC. Pretty please.