Doctor Who, “The Witchfinders”

They really backloaded this season with the good stuff, didn’t they? I spoke way too soon about favorite episodes last week. This is riveting Doctor Who, put way over the top in more ways than one by Alan Cumming’s delicious “I know everything about Satan!” King James. I don’t know if the show has ever looked better — or more frightening — than the scene where the first “witch” is set to be drowned.

The actual “witches,” when they appear, look even more fantastic, and I wish the episode had milked a little more fear out of the situation. Like “Arachnids,” with which it shares a director, “The Witchfinders” goes easy on us, perhaps hoping to spare any kids watching from what surely would be some serious nightmares. It comes as enough of a shock just to see the returned women; we’re assuming all along that the suspected witchcraft is simple paranoia, so the presence of “ancient alien technology,” now a new series cliché on par with “reverse the polarity of the neutron flow,” is a twist.

Another new series cliché is the Doctor Speech, and its identical cousin the Monster Monologue. We get both in “The Witchfinders”: the tied-up Doctor cutting King James to the quick trying to soften him up, and the Morax Queen ranting about how they’re going to escape and spread “hate” all over the Earth because that’s their jam. The trouble with both is that they’re too much: big juicy Actor Treats that become less convincing the more words they use, trying to accomplish their ends through sheer volume and momentum, word count rather than word choice. But they’re clichés because everybody does them, and I can hardly fault this episode for giving deserving actors clips for the old highlight reel.

The question of why the Doctor feels perfectly free to interfere in what from our vantage point is “the future” but not in Earth’s past comes up again in this story. I doubt my answer is original — I may even have read it elsewhere and forgotten it, so credit wherever credit is due: the Doctor is perfectly free to change events in Earth’s past so long as it can’t affect anyone she cares about. Since even the smallest change to history could theoretically ripple through time and affect her companions, even to the point where they were never born, whenever she visits events in their past, she has to be careful. She’s had a few companions from our future before, but most of them have come from the television show Doctor Who’s past or present, so there is an increasing number of friends the Doctor’s made who might suddenly wink out of existence if they alter the wrong witch trial. It’s a goofy idea, but it’s the only one I’ve heard to date that makes sense.

Has the Doctor really never met King James before? Apparently not, or else the subject would definitely have come up. Cumming really is magnificent, relishing every line, eyes sparkling, daring us not to adore him even as he spouts the most unconscionable nonsense about witches and Satan and women and their preposterous properties. I’ve been trying to remember the last time we’d seen a true expression of male-male desire in Doctor Who; I think this is the first since “The End of Time.” Moffat gave us plenty of lesbian love, but apart from the (not unwelcome) playful homoeroticism of “The Lodger” and “Closing Time,” the most we got was the stoic and frankly implausible Canton Everett Delaware III (how does that name look so much sillier written out than it sounded in dialogue?). As far as I can recall there were no scenes in the Moffat era where one man looked at another man with clear, unambiguous attraction, and I didn’t realize how much I’d missed that until now. Not to mention it’s a proper acknowledgment of just how good-looking Ryan is, after that one line in “Arachnids.”

This does lead to the strange bit where King James explicitly orders Ryan to come back to London with him as his “protector,” and Ryan declines politely as though he’d been offered a glass of water. As written, the “order” is clearly tongue-in-cheek and flirtatious on the King’s part, but somehow it doesn’t read that way on screen, and I half expected a bigger reaction to being disobeyed by one of his subjects. It’s not a big deal; just awkward when it didn’t have to be.

I don’t have many more complaints about the director, though, who by and large does a lovely job on this story. As far as I can recall this is, like “Rosa,” another historic first for Doctor Who: a female director and a female writer on the same episode. It’s a victory to see it happen at all, but for the pairing to result in a story this satisfying is a real joy.