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Recap / Doctor Who S37E8 "The Witchfinders"

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Nobody tell him about Twitter, or he'll be the second-most obsessed user with witch hunts.

The One With… witches. Kinda.

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.

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.

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 to be 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?


  • Accent Slip-Up: King James uses an exaggerated upper-class English accent for most of the episode, but his natural Scottish accent slips through a bit during his first speaking scene.invoked Which is entirely fitting for the character, given that James was born and raised in Scotland.
  • Actually, I Am Him: The psychic paper works on a person to person basis. When the Doctor shows it to Becka Savage, the latter reads it as "Witchfinder General". When the Doctor shows it to King James, however...
    King James: "Witchfinder General's Assistant?"
  • All There in the Manual: The novelization delves more deeply into Becka's backstory, including the fact that she widowed herself by poisoning Mr. Savage with mushrooms shortly after marrying him. It also elaborates on what happens to Willa after the events of the episode.
  • 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:
    Becka: Once I have dealt with you, I shall go after all your friends.
  • Armour-Piercing Question: When Becka says that the good have nothing to fear from her witch hunt, Graham pointedly asks if she's a good person. The question clearly throws her, but she insists her conscience is clear. As we later find out, it's not.
  • 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.
    • 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.
  • Artistic License – Religion: A couple of Bible-related ones. In the final scene, King James recognizes a Bible quote as stated in Pulp Fiction, which is actually notoriously quite different from the real thing. Earlier in the episode, the Doctor cites, in response to "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live", that the New Testament preaches "love thy neighbor", which actually originates in the Old Testament, with the appearance in the New Testament being a quote of it.
  • 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)note , 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 to help in response to the massive witch hunt.
    • Between Old Mother Twiston's unusual last words to Willa 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.
  • Bound and Gagged: The Doctor, when arrested on accusation of being a witch, is tied to a post. Later, she is chained to the ducking stool. She isn't gagged, however, despite her being a Motor Mouth.
  • But Now I Must Go: After saving his life, Ryan is asked by King James to come with him to London to be his protector. Although none of the others say anything to discourage him, he politely refuses, saying he still has things to do.
  • 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.
  • Camp Gay: King James is all up in it with his flamboyant, aggressively sexual, highly theatrical seventeenth century... witch hunting fundamentalist?
  • The Cavalier Years: Takes place at the beginning of the 17th century.
  • Changed My Jumper: No one reacts to the Doctor and Yaz wearing trousers in the 17th century, and no one seems to notice that Yaz is wearing a denim jacket 200 years before the fabric even exists. While the locals might assume they're the national equivalent of Funny Foreigners, it's odd that the King—who's more widely travelled—never comments on it.
  • 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.
  • Damsel in Distress: The Doctor, of all people, becomes this when she is accused of witchcraft by Becka and nearly drowned with the ducking stool. Fortunately, it doesn't last long.
  • 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. When the Morax-possessed corpses come for her, she runs and hides behind the Doctor, who she just tried to kill minutes before.
  • 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.
  • Dramatic Unmask: Lampshaded by the King Incognito when he reveals himself.
  • Evil Is Hammy: The Morax Queen possessing Becka Savage eats the scenery with every line. There's even a Kneel Before Zod!
  • 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 Un-person 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, 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.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: Becka cuts down the tree on Pendle Hill to have a better view and to spite her grandmother, Old Mother Twiston, and this results in her becoming infected by the Morax. The novelization carries the trope even further: the medicine Mother Twiston gave her was working to stop the infection, but it ran out and she couldn't get more because it was made from the leaves of the tree that she cut down.
  • Homoerotic Subtext: King James constantly tries to flirt with Ryan, to the point that calling it "subtext" may be stretching things.
  • I Resemble That Remark!: The King approves of the "Witchfinder's Assistant" using a woman's natural inclination for snooping and gossip to ferret out witches—the Doctor is rather annoyed at this, but later, when they break into Becka's room, Graham points out she is, in fact, snooping. She's also subjected to dunking which, as Becka mentions, is a traditional punishment for women who talked too much.
  • "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.
  • Insistent Terminology: The Doctor is "investigating," not "snooping."
  • Jerkass Has a Point: King James does this thrice:
    • He may be The Paranoiac, but given that he's been the subject of conspiracy and attempted assassination since the day he was born, he's also being Properly Paranoid.
    • 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.
  • Mythology Gag: The Doctor finds herself demoted to Assistant, which is what the Doctor's companions were called in The '70s.
  • 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.
  • 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.
    The Doctor: [frustrated] "Honestly, if I was still a bloke, I could just get on with the job and not have to waste time defending myself!"
  • 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 Hyperbole: Ryan laughs when King James tells him it's a miracle he survived, until he realises the King isn't joking—he's been the victim of treachery and attempted assassination his entire life.
  • "Not So Different" Remark:
    • 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.
  • Oh, Crap!: The companions hear noise from the water and wonder if another witch is being dunked, but have trouble believing that because "the Doctor would never allow that." After a moment they realize that they left the sonic-wielding non-conformist woman alone with a bunch of witch-hunting people. Cue panicked running.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Rule of Cool: In-universe with King James' mask.
    King James: I have enemies everywhere and have to travel incognito. Also, I rather like the drama.
  • 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.
    • The moment the Doctor works out that Becka is hiding something, she denounces her as a witch.
  • 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.
  • Space Whale Aesop: Don't cut down sacred trees, or you may unleash alien mud witches.
  • 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".
  • Sunday Is Boring: Subverted when the Doctor is delighted to land in a 17th century British village where a street party is occurring on a Sunday, and soon after, a witch dunking.
  • Take Over the World: The Morax Queen intends to use humanity as vessels for her people.
  • Tempting Fate: As soon as the Doctor warns Yaz, Ryan, and Graham that they mustn't ever interfere with anything in history, you know that she'll end up doing just that in a few minutes.
  • 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.
  • Un-person: 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, 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.
  • 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.
  • The Witch Hunter: As mentioned in the title, there are several.
    • Becka Savage has denounced and drowned so many in her hunt for witches, it's become a weekly event. As per the villainous version of this trope, she's just denouncing people to protect herself.
    • The Doctor flashes her psychic paper which identifies her as the Witchfinder General. Amusingly, she finds herself demoted to "Witchfinder General's Assistant" when she tries the same trick on the King. Kindly old Graham is then appointed Witchfinder General until he hands the role (and the hat) back to the Doctor for the final battle.
    • The Mysterious Watcher clad in black mask and cape appears to be a classic example, but turns out to be a Camp Gay King James I.