Follow TV Tropes

Following

Recap / Doctor Who S37E8 "The Witchfinders"

Go To

https://static.tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pub/images/screenshot_20181125_155049_video_player.jpg
Advertisement:

The one with witches, Satan, and a Nightcrawler.

This episode first aired on November 25, 2018. Written by Joy Wilkinson.


The Doctor and her friends are trying to go to Queen Elizabeth I's coronation, but the TARDIS keeps landing them in the English countryside instead, so they have a look around. They find themselves in the village of Bilehurst Cragg, Lancashire, just as widowed landowner Becka Savage is holding a witch trial. The Doctor tries to save the old woman in the ducking chair, but it's too late, as she drowns. With a flash of the psychic paper, the Doctor and company take over as the Witchfinder General and assistants in an attempt to stop the killing. Unfortunately, the witchcraft-paranoid King James I happens to have been scouting out the area, and he agrees with Becka's mission to root out Satan from the village.

Advertisement:

Yaz, meanwhile, rescues the old woman's granddaughter, Willa, from a mud tendril that attacked her. While Graham and Ryan try to stall James and Becka for as long as they can, the Doctor and Yaz talk to Willa and learn that Becka is her cousin, but she hasn't treated her family well since she married up. The trio eventually go back to the grave Willa dug for her grandmother so the Doctor can get a sample of the mud, only to discover that the old woman's body, along with the bodies of several other people, have been possessed by the mud. At this point, the King's witch-hunting party arrives, and as the companions are sent to follow the possessed, the Doctor gets accused of being a witch herself and captured. She tries to talk some sense into the King, but he decides to go through with it. Meanwhile, the companions trail the possessed bodies into Becka's manor, where they steal the axe under her bed and depart.

Advertisement:

The Doctor is forced into the dunking chair, but notices that there's something odd going on with Becka. The companions arrive, having heard the bell and deduced what was likely going on, just in time to see her go under. Eventually, King James is persuaded to order the chair lifted, but the Doctor is gone. She shortly emerges from the river, crediting her escaping skills to Harry Houdini, just as the muddy undead arrive. Becka is forced to admit that she chopped down her grandmother's favourite tree because it blocked her view, and in the process was infected by something, she believes of Satan. She killed all those people to try and save herself, and she prayed, but nothing worked. The infection takes over, and the new inhabitant of Becka's body identifies herself as the queen of the Morax, who was imprisoned in Pendle Hill for war crimes along with her people. Everyone else is knocked out as the Morax take King James hostage because the queen thinks he'd make a fine vessel for the Morax king.

The Doctor takes another look at the ducking chair and deduces that it's not of Earthly origin. It's incredibly old, possibly billions of years, and served as the lock of the Morax's prison inside Pendle Hill. That age is how Becka was able to chop it down, and when she did, she broke the lock and allowed the Morax to break out. Making torches from the tree's wood, the Doctor and her companions, with Willa leading the way, go to rescue the king. They arrive just in time and use the smoke to ward off the Morax before the Doctor reseals the prison, causing the mud-zombies to return to being properly dead. The Morax queen is still alive, though, so King James sets her on fire with one of the torches, causing her to explode. The Doctor isn't too impressed. Afterwards, the king decrees that, to conceal the events, Bilehurst Cragg will be no more, with even its name erased from records, and its people sent elsewhere. Willa decides she'll go off and find a new home where she can be a healer. When James asks what the TARDIS is, the Doctor quotes Clarke's Third Law at him before the box dematerializes.

King James: Where did they go?


Tropes:

  • Accent Slip Up: King James uses an exaggerated upper-class English accent for most of the episode, but his (and his actor's) natural Scottish accent slips through a bit during his first speaking scene. Which is entirely fitting for the character, given that James was born and raised in Scotland.
  • Amputation Stops Spread: Becka tried to stop the Morax infection by having her grandmother amputate her leg, but her grandmother couldn't go through with it.
  • And Your Little Dog, Too!: Becka before dunking the Doctor:
    "Once I have dealt with you I shall go after all your friends."
  • Artistic License – History:
    • A justified case given the sexism of the period, as King James states as fact that his mother murdered his father. Lord Darnley's murder is actually a hotly debated subject among historians, though his wife Mary, Queen of Scots arranging it in revenge for the killing of her secretary David Rizzio has been a quite enticing theory (and had recently been explored in the CW series Reign).
    • Becka chopping down the tree. A lady of her social standing would surely have a servant cut it down for her rather than do it herself. However, it is pointed out she had married up, so the social etiquette might not have occurred to her.
    • The episode repeats the common mistake of confusing dunking with trial by drowning. The former was a common punishment of the time entirely separate of the Witch Hunts, while the later involved seeing if a person would float or sink when thrown into the water. It likewise wasn't the automatic death sentence the episode portrays it as, though see Foreshadowing.
  • As the Good Book Says...:
    • Becka believes that King James wrote Exodus 22:18note  to justify the killing of people who are suspected as witches. The Doctor turns this around on her by bringing up that the Bible also says "Love thy neighbour" (Leviticus 19:18), which Becka seems to have neglected.
    • Played with at the end in a final exchange between King James and Graham:
  • Bad People Abuse Animals: Becka had all the horses on her estate shot out of paranoia that they were in league with Satan.
  • Bait-and-Switch:
    • The episode starts with a mysterious masked man watching the events from afar, it being implied he's somehow related to what's happening in Bilehurst Cragg. Turns out he's King James, who's arrived in to help in response to the massive witch hunt.
    • Between Willa's grandmother's unusual last words to her about always being there for her in the four classic elements, and the mud first manifesting when Willa repeats it at her grave, it's implied her death is in some way linked to the bizarre events. Turns out the words are just a prayer, and the attack was random.
  • Body Horror: All the people who become vessels for Morax don't come back looking so pretty. And then when we meet the Queen, it gets downright horrifying.
  • Call-Back: This isn't the first time a Historical-Domain Character has attempted to flirt with a black companion by using terms that are questionable today.
  • Camera Abuse: The first appearance of a Morax tentacle sprays mud all over the camera. Then the Morax king splatters it with some more.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Becka's ducking chair, which is said to have been made from the greatest tree on Pendle Hill. The tree turns out to be the lock of an alien prison, and Becka cutting it down was the cause of all the problems in the village. The Doctor and company use torches made of the tree's wood to fight off the Morax.
  • Clarke's Third Law: Referenced by the Doctor, word-for-word, before she flies the TARDIS away at the end of the episode.
  • Continuity Nod:
    • The Doctor and friends were trying to go to Queen Elizabeth I's coronation. The Doctor, of course, has a history with her.
    • There have been many previous references in TV and other media to the Doctor learning escapology from Houdini, the earliest being in "Planet of the Spiders".
    • There is another reference to the name of "The Doctor", and how it hides something, calling back to the Myth Arc of the Eleventh Doctor.
  • Death Glare: The Doctor gives one to the King when he throws her accusation of him hiding behind his title back at her.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: King James at one point refers to Ryan as a "Nubian Prince", intending it as a term of endearment.
  • Demonic Possession: When she chopped down the sacred tree, Becka got injected with the bio-material of the Morax queen, and eventually the queen takes over Becka's body.
  • Dirty Coward: Becka has been leading witch hunts to save her own skin, even killing her own grandmother.
  • Dishing Out Dirt: The Morax are able to control soil, and suffuse the bodies of the living and dead with it in order to possess them.
  • Evil Is Hammy: The Morax Queen possessing Becka Savage eats the scenery with every line.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • Graham mentions early on that he once took a "witch tour" of the area in the modern day, but that he's never heard of Bilehurst Cragg. At the end of the episode, King James decides to Unperson the town so nobody will ever know about the Morax.
    • Becka states that Satan is afflicting the town, entirely on his own, which makes it illogical to target witches for allegedly being in league with him with the goal of defeating him.
    • Searching Becka's room, the Doctor finds an empty medicine bottle and an unusually large stack of handkerchiefs.
    • Becka saying that if the accused witch floated she was guilty, but if she drowned she was innocent, sounds like another example of the modern mistake of treating the ordeal by water as an automatic death sentence; in reality, the accused was not required to drown, merely to sink, and they were typically tied to the ends of long ropes so they could be pulled up again if they did (granted, there was still a significant risk of death by drowning or hypothermia, but it was perfectly possible to survive the trial and be declared innocent). However, Becka insisting on drowning or executing the accused makes perfect sense when we find out she's simply trying to silence people who know too much.
  • Freudian Excuse: The episode suggests that King James' witch-hunting mania was in part influenced by his resentment of his mother (Mary, Queen of Scots), who seemingly abandoned him at the tender age of 1.
  • Hero with Bad Publicity: The Doctor's efforts to expose the evil in Bilehurst Cragg get her accused of witchcraft herself and sentenced to the ducking stool.
  • Historical-Domain Character: King James I, played by Alan Cumming.
  • Homoerotic Subtext: King James constantly tries to flirt with Ryan, to the point that calling it "subtext" may be stretching things.
  • "I Know You're in There Somewhere" Fight: The Doctor tries to invoke this, calling to Becka. The Queen of the Morax answers that there's nothing left of Becka, and since we don't hear from her at all, it's possible she was telling the truth.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: King James does this twice:
    • He throws the Doctor's accusation of hiding behind his title back at her, which is a reasonable observation.
    • He kills Becka rather than trap the alien with her minions. Becka deserved what she got, and she wasn't likely to be unpossessed like her minions. Right or wrong, Becka was still a threat to be dealt with.
  • King Incognito: King James first appears watching the proceedings from a distance while wearing a plague doctor mask. He says he does this from time to time, mostly for the drama of it.
  • Knight Templar: Becka Savage and King James are intent on driving every last trace of Satan from Bilehurst Cragg, even if it means killing every last inhabitant of the village.
  • Leaking Can of Evil: Becka opens up part of the Morax's prison by chopping down the sacred tree because it was blocking her view, allowing for the bodies of several victims of her witch hunts to be possessed by the Morax.
  • Leaning on the Fourth Wall: The child saying "We do this every Sunday" and the Doctor's response "Oh, happy Sunday!" can be read as a new-timeslot version of previous Doctors' fondness for Saturdays.
  • Let Us Never Speak of This Again: King James agrees with the Doctor's request of ensuring no word of the events of the episode getting out, going so far as to unperson the village from existence.
  • Meaningful Name: Willa reveals, at the Doctor's request, that "Bilehurst Cragg" means "sacred tree on the hill". The tree in question is the eons-old door to an alien prison and not of Earthly origin.
  • Morton's Fork: The witch trials: drowning is a sign of innocence, survive and be hanged for witchcraft.
  • Names to Run Away from Really Fast: Becka's surname is Savage, and not only is she responsible for unleashing the evil that's plaguing the village, but she's carrying out a Witch Hunt to punish the villagers for her own sins.
  • Nice Hat: King James gives Graham the hat of his former Witchfinder General. Graham later gives the Doctor the hat when they set off to defeat the Morax.
  • No Equal-Opportunity Time Travel: This is the first episode where the Thirteenth Doctor's new gender works against her, and like "Rosa" earlier in the season, this trope is treated seriously. Since the 1600s was a time where women were considered second-class citizens, her opinions are automatically ignored and patronized. Also, the Doctor doing her usual routine of waving the sonic screwdriver around in front of the zombies combined with her gender makes it easy for the paranoid witch-hunters to accuse her of being a witch. The only reason why she survives the ducking stool is because of skills she learned from Houdini.
  • Noodle Incident:
    • The Doctor attributes her ability to hold her breath and escape from chains to having spent a "wet weekend" with Harry Houdini.
    • Shortly after, she says she's never felt so hungover since a mysterious Milk War.
  • Not So Different:
    • When the Doctor accuses King James of hiding behind his title, he points out that she's doing the same with her title of "Doctor". Judging from the Doctor's Death Glare afterward, this clearly hit a nerve.
    • During her trial, the Doctor appeals to James by pointing out the things they have in common. It almost works.
      The Doctor: We're all the same. We want certainty, security, to believe that people are evil or heroic, but that's not how people are. You wanna know the secrets of existence? Start with the mysteries of the heart.
  • Organic Technology: The Pendle Hill tree, which was a piece of incredibly old alien biotechnology designed to serve as the lock for the Morax's prison.
  • Our Zombies Are Different: These ones are dead bodies inhabited by aliens taking the form of mud since their bodies were dismantled.
  • The Paranoiac:
    • King James, in his own words, doesn't trust anyone. He attributes it to the number of assassination plots and betrayals he's been through since he was an infant.
    • Unintentional, but the Doctor's Not So Different speech about everyone wanting certainty, security and to believe people are either heroic or evil is not really true; people are far more varied than that, but all of the things she listed are traits of paranoia, as is believing that deep down everyone wants these things, suggesting the Doctor note  has a paranoid streak herself.
  • Possessing a Dead Body: After being freed from their prison, the Morax first manifest as energised mud that forms itself into tentacles, and eventually binds itself to the corpses of the witch trial victims.
  • Ragnarök Proofing: Averted. The Doctor cites the extreme age of the Morax prison as to why hacking away at it with an axe was enough to breach the seal.
  • Reality Ensues:
    • For the first time, the Doctor's new gender works against her as in the time of King James; being a woman automatically means being treated as a second-class citizen and having her opinions ignored. She even complains to this effect.
    • Also, the Doctor doing her usual routine of waving the sonic screwdriver around and confusing the people nearby is a really bad idea when those people are paranoid witch hunters.
  • Sealed Evil in a Can: The Morax were reduced to primal elements and buried beneath Pendle Hill as punishment for war crimes.
  • She Knows Too Much: Becka had her own grandmother condemned for witchcraft because she had gone to her, the local healer, for treatment of her Morax infection, and had eventually revealed her possession to her, but her grandmother couldn't bring herself to cut off Becka's leg to get rid of it.
  • Shout-Out: In the last scene, just before departing in the TARDIS, Graham quotes Pulp Fiction (which King James only knows from The Bible, understandably), and the Doctor quotes Arthur C. Clarke's famous line about Sufficiently Advanced Technology.
  • Shovel Strike: Yaz attacks a mud tendril with a shovel.
  • Shown Their Work: King James is pretty openly interested in both Alfonso and Ryan. He historically had a number of male lovers.
  • Stay in the Kitchen: Becka and the Doctor both discuss the trials and tribulations of being a woman in 17th century England. King James ignores the Doctor's opinions on account of her new gender and makes a few condescending and sexist comments to her. Becka Savage also mentions finding her new role as local leader deeply challenging, but then of course, she's not being entirely honest about the local situation anyhow.
  • Stealth Pun: Since the Doctor is accused of spell-casting, she can be called "Doctor Witch".
  • Take Over the World: The Morax Queen intends to use humanity as vessels for her people.
  • Torches and Pitchforks: The Doctor leads a torch-wielding mob against the Morax near the end of the episode. The torches are justified, as the smoke given off by the burning wood of the alien tree is the Morax's Kryptonite Factor.
  • Unperson: At the end, King James agrees to the Doctor's request and decrees that Bilehurst Cragg will be wiped off the map, with the villagers made to leave and the name removed from all records, so no one will ever know what happened there.
  • Voice of the Legion: As Becka is taken over by the Morax Queen, her voice turns dark and echoes with several reverberating and piercing sound effects. It makes for a very scary effect that causes the Queen of the Morax to have a spine-chilling emergence.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: King James, while responsible for stoking paranoia and causing a lot of people's deaths (not to mention being a misogynist) does genuinely believe he's doing good, describing himself as a patron of art and learning, he's simply stuck trying to understand events beyond his comprehension with the limited information available of the time. He even tries to part with the Doctor on friendly terms, although she's not interested.
  • What the Hell Is That Accent?: Some of the Lancashire accents in this story seem more like Yorkshire accents.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: After being in the background for most of the episode, Becka's soldiers completely disappear for the last third of the episode, right when they might be useful.
  • Witch Hunt: Becka is leading a self-described "crusade against Satan" against the people of Bilehurst Cragg at the start of the episode. 36 people drowned by the first scene.


Top

Example of:

/
/

Feedback