The WitchfindersBookmark and Share

Thursday, 29 November 2018 - Reviewed by Matthew Kilburn
 The Witchfinders: Yaz (Mandip Gill), The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker), Willa Twiston (Tilly Steele) (Credit: BBC Studios (Sophie Mutevelian ))
Written by Joy Wilkinson
Directed by Sallie Aprahamian

Executive Producers: Matt Strevens and Chris Chibnall
Producer: Alex Mercer

Starring Jodie Whittaker
Bradley Walsh, Mandip Gill, Tosin Cole
Alan Cumming, Siobhan Finneran, Tilly Steele, Tricia Kelly
Stavros Demetraki, Arthur Kay

A BBC Studios Production for BBC One
First broadcast on BBC One, Sunday 25 November 2018
Running time: 46 minutes 31 seconds (source: BBC iPlayer)
 

The Witchfinders is Doctor Who's third foray into history this series, and on first acquaintance it's the closest to the model introduced with The Unquiet Dead and seen almost annually thereafter until (arguably) Robot of Sherwood. The Doctor and friends find themselves in a period setting familiar from school or heritage sites, but where the details aren't congruent with the record. There is a famous historical figure involved, presented in a knowingly self-conscious manner. An alien or aliens turn out to be behind events. There is an effects-laden climax which is cathartic for the historical personality concerned. Human history as known to the Doctor and his companions is guaranteed. While following this precedent, The Witchfinders follows hard on the heels of Demons of the Punjab and Rosa; and where the historical adventures of Doctors Nine to Twelve often revelled in subverting history, The Witchfinders carries forward the educative function of its predecessors this series, though in less direct a fashion. 

Like Vinay Patel before her, Joy Wilkinson has posted a picture of some of the books she used to research her story on Twitter. There are differences in that where Patel's choices were squarely set in historical scholarship and the literary novel, Wilkinson's have ranging roots, from books she read when growing up - such as Arthur Douglas's accessible, well-researched and unsensationally readable The Fate of the Lancashire Witches (1978) and Robert Neill's novel Mist Over Pendle (1951) - to modern scholarly discussions of what the Lancashire witch trials meant at the time and how they have resonated since, and James VI and I's own Demonologie. Writing at greater distance from her subject than the authors of Rosa and Demons of the Punjab were from theirs, Wilkinson inevitably takes account of the centuries of transmission which have seen the Lancashire witch craze find many meanings for successive ages. While not necessarily less immediate than Doctor Who's depiction of Montgomery, Alabama, 1955, or the partitioned Punjab in 1947, time leads to fragmentation and the ways in which the TARDIS 'team, gang, fam' relate to events and characters are consequently more diffracted. As Wilkinson's sources indicate, the episode is as much a response to fictionalization, mythology and a mood struck by witch trials in the collective imagination as it is to the judicial pursuit of supposed witches in Lancashire in the reign of King James.

No specific date is given for the events in The Witchfinders, and there is no mention by the seventeenth-century characters of the historical Pendle witch trials. Only Graham (Bradley Walsh) relates the setting of Bilehurst Cragg to the Pendle Witch Trail which he's walked. Presumably the story is set not long after the trials of 1612; or is it set earlier, and are we being asked to imagine that the persecution initiated by Becka Savage is the erased context for the historical accusations levelled against Alizon Device and her family in Pendle in 1612?  

The presence of King James in the story might suggest an earlier date. Following his visit to Norway and Denmark to marry their king's sister Anna in 1590, James VI had become obsessed with witchcraft, finding guilty several accused from North Berwick in East Lothian (presumably inspiring the 'Berwick' referred to in this episode) guilty of using sorcery to try to sink his ship on the way home. The James of The Witchfinders expresses his belief that he is protected by God against extraordinary adversity, and his survival of a satanic plot against his own life, his wife's and the possibility of their having descendants encouraged this well before the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. However, during the 1610s the king became increasingly sceptical about witchcraft and wary of condemning accused witches. It's possible that one might look at a post-1612 setting for The Witchfinders, with the king here being confronted by his own fears and (with his agreement to suppress the memory of Bilehurst Cragg) learning to move past them even if this means a continued degree of personal and political repression.

Beyond specifics about dates, The Witchfinders follows the pattern of other post-2005 pseudohistoricals by finding authenticity in impressionistic use of detail. Having witchcraft allegations arising within a family echoed the Lancashire witch trials of 1612, but its relation to female social mobility mirrored the case of Joan Flowers, one of the Belvoir witches of 1619. Where Becka Savage's status had risen by marriage, Joan Flowers's fell on her widowhood; before we learn that Becka has been infected by the Morax, her accusations of witchcraft, frequent duckings and horse-shootings invite the rationalist assumption that she has instigated a reign of terror in order to defend a precarious social position. Meanwhile her grandmother and cousin represented a power which could complement or oppose that of the local lord, that of the 'cunning woman' (sometimes cunning man) who in benign cases practised healing by seeking to bring the sick back into alignment with the four classical elements of earth, fire, water and air. The chanting of these elements as an invocation by Old Mother Twiston (Tricia Kelly giving a rounded performance in a few lines so we can believe in her as someone to mourn when in the earth and possessed by it) before her ducking encourages the viewer to see the Twistons as potential wielders of magic forces, with vague echoes of Shakespearean ambivalent or malign magic, but it's also a transmission of social identity within the village collective, with Willa (a forceful and grounded Tilly Steele) taking over her grandmother's role. In Doctor Who terms one might think of the assumption of Panna's identity by Karuna in part four of Kinda. In The Witchfinders it serves as a reminder that women were accepted as the gatherers, keepers and conveyors of useful knowledge in this period. The discussion the Doctor and Yaz have with Willa at the Twiston family home about her grandmother and magic incline the viewer to see Willa as the nearest the setting has to a rationalist, showing sympathy to the Doctor's unbelief in Satan; she crumbles before James and Becka soon after the Doctor explodes that if she was a man she'd have no problem furthering her investigation.

Becka (a believable woman of faith and fear in the hands of Siobhan Finneran) imagines that the Doctor's authority is that of a witchfinder-general and does not scoff at what the psychic paper tells her. The arrival of King James, with his prejudices about male superiority and his belief that God works directly through him, disturbs the equilibrium of this corner of 'Merry England' as much as the witch-duckings displace the time-honoured Sunday ritual of apple-bobbing. Even assuming the early cultivation of different strains of apple which ripen at different times of year, and the maintenance of cold cellars for storage, I'm not sure that there would have been enough apples to bob every Sunday in a year, but the line (even if revisiting the scene 'this' is probably only the Sunday 'party') was a good way of suggesting that this was a time when long-established patterns of life were being disturbed. 

There were no witchfinders-general in the time of James VI and I, nor did the king maintain a witchfinding hierarchy. The use of the title appeals to what the viewers might think they know - the spurious office is associated with Matthew Hopkins, who was active in the 1640s, a probable three decades after events here - but it also places The Witchfinders in a tradition of fictional accounts of seventeenth-century witch hunts which would take too long to explore here. However, the identification of the Doctor and her friends as the episode's eponymous witchfinders is a neat confirmation of the Doctor's complicity in events. Where the Doctor interfered in Rosa to correct the distortion of history, to the extent of not intervening in Rosa Parks's defence when ordered to surrender her seat on the bus, here her sense of what is right compels her to attempt to rescue Willa's grandmother, but fails. The Doctor's dilemma is played, shot and edited well, encouraging the sense that the Doctor's preaching of non-interference has been leading to this point. Interference means feigning friendship with a mass murderer. Although brought into the heart of local and then national society by their proximity to both Becka and the king, the Doctor is still acted upon as much as she acts upon other people. More than in any episode so far, the Doctor's freedom of action is constrained by her gender. It's been widely remarked upon that this is the first episode of the series where the Doctor explicitly identifies with womankind, and the first where she notes that she wouldn't have had this trouble when she was a man. James only regards her as a potential equal once she is accused of witchcraft: God's representative facing the Devil's. 

On first viewing I found Alan Cumming's portrayal of James VI and I problematic. I was apprehensive following a report of his claim that he'd based his accent on Conservative politicians Malcolm Rifkind and Michael Forsyth - "from Scotland, but trying to pretend they’re from England with this strange hybrid accent" - which imports current debates about the politics of Scottish identity into a Doctor Who story which already promised to have much to carry. Whatever one thinks of James (or for that matter Rifkind and Forsyth) he never pretended to be from England; but what we had was a more generic 'Morningside' accent which worked as a parallel for a Scottish king seeking acceptance by the English elite. Choices in Cumming's establishing scenes made me sympathetic to observers who thought it an overly mannered, even homophobic performance and for a while I was one of those who thought this James would turn out to be an impostor. On the other hand Cumming emphasised the king's love of drama, acknowledged in the script; the characterization was strong, with 'modern' characters in Ryan and the Doctor inspiring some very twenty-first century therapeutic conversations to provide background to what one could already infer from text and performance. James's confrontation with the Doctor shows him to be a worthy adversary, able to turn the Doctor's interrogation against her in defence, but his attack on the Morax queen makes him a less than worthy ally, the divisions in his identity still unreconciled. Slaying a dragon as the sovereign of the Garter and bearer of St George's cross might be fitting, but in doing so James mistakes the nature of his foe, lets prejudice betray his claims to empiricism, and removes both the possibility of the queen's redemption and the recovery of Becka from possession (not entirely closed off by the insistence of the queen that nothing remains of Becka). The Arthurian echoes in the imprisonment of the Morax, a king with a mighty army sleeping under a hill, mocked the historical James's barely fulfilled wish to make Arthurian legend real as king of a unified Britain, just as the Morax queen and her court of corpses mock this James's fragile masculinity by intending to 'fill' him with their king. The latter too draws from M.R. James's treatment of seventeenth-century witch-hunting in The Ash Tree, as a wronged woman blights a landed dynasty of men over generations.

The Witchfinders succeeded at creating mood, with its mists, winter berries, cold grey water and wet earth. I might have wished for more oppressive dark to accompany the shuffling of the mud-filled corpses, though perhaps this might have been thought too directly drawing upon latterday zombie television for an early evening audience. I'd thought of this series as made of spaces and silences, but here Segun Akinola's score suggested that there was something in the silence, knocking on wood to seek form, whispering in the wind. There were touches of the uncanny in ordinary design, too - the stylized ducking stool seemed oddly fashioned but hinted at the revelation that this was alien technology. Transformed into the Morax queen, Siobhan Finneran's make-up suggested a woodland creature as much as a mud entity, with a little of Rupert Bear's forest sprite Raggety about her. 

The 'flat team structure' of the current Team TARDIS is evolving well, with this episode showing the roles of the different characters to advantage. Ryan's empathic side was brought out by the quietly assured Tosin Cole, Graham was authoritatively avuncular, and Yaz (a determined and energetic Mandip Gill) was professionally investigative but also humane in her treatment of the bereaved Willa. The Doctor has increasing room to display her edge, too, with Jodie Whittaker unquestionably in command of a chastened and reflective King James in the final scene. The regulars are enduring a slow build and makes me wish the series had more time, both with some more minutes to show off the abilities of the regulars and more episodes in which to get to know them. 

There's so much more that could be unpicked in this story, so many layers did it invoke. The Witchfinders was an accomplished and very enjoyable episode on the whole - but why, Doctor, that dig about pockets? Seventeenth-century women apparently enjoyed more of them about their clothing than their twenty-first century successors do...





RosaBookmark and Share

Monday, 22 October 2018 - Reviewed by Matthew Kilburn
Rosa: Rosa Parks (Vinette Robinson) (Credit: BBC Studios (Coco Van Oppens))
Writers: Malorie Blackman and Chris Chibnall
Director: Mark Tonderai
Executive Producers: Matt Strevens and Chris Chibnall
Starring Jodie Whittaker
Bradley Walsh, Mandip Gill, Tosin Cole
Vinette Robinson, Joshua Bowman, Trevor White

A BBC Studios production for BBC One
First UK broadcast Sunday 21 October, 6.55pm, BBC One
Running time: 50 minutes

"A pure historical," said my friend.

"Almost," I replied, "Certainly the closest we've had in the twenty-first century," I added, and might have further suggested "Since The Highlanders", but that would have opened a debate about Black Orchid for which it was not the time then, nor is it now.

Rosa didn't need jargon about fixed points or the sanctity of the web of time to tell its story; Malorie Blackman hasn't before and doesn't now. Causality was real, and fragile, and human; and the consequences for people were closer to the focus of the story than the conscience of a Time Lord, though that was by no means forgotten. There was for the first time in years a sense that circumstances had trapped the Doctor and their friends in a historical moment which couldn't be ignored, and that a series of personal obligations confined them there until wrongs were righted, or in this case ensured to happen so that a good outcome could be predicted. Everyone's psychology is in play, not only the Doctor's - Graham and Ryan and Yaz all have to cope with how their exposure to Montgomery, Alabama at the turn of December 1955 changes them. A screencap of Jodie Whittaker, neck muscles tensing as the Doctor not only fights her wish to interfere on the side of someone she admires for doing right, but also her shame at being in a privileged position in this society, has understandably been widely shared online since broadcast. Segun Akinola's score evoked the celebration of American commonality in the work of Aaron Copland while contrasting with the realities of inequality endured by the citizens of the United States.

The episode tackled historical racism more directly and more believably than any Doctor Who story since Human Nature/The Family of Blood. While Thin Ice offered a cathartic statement of disgust in the Doctor's violently punching Lord Sutcliffe after he insulted Bill, here the systematic persecution of 'coloureds' was made plain from the opening. The staging of the first encounter of Rosa Parks (Vinette Robinson) with James Blake (Trevor White) in 1943 (not, as I first thought, dramatic license, but a historical event) skirted a little too closely to presenting Parks's later action as some kind of feud, although this was mitigated initially through Blake's uniformed institutionalised identity, and later through Blake's conversation with Graham over pool. Blake is conservative man complacently attached to how 'the way things are' protect him at the expense of the rights of others, of a piece with the way he feels threatened by Ryan's blackness, asserted or not.

Events in this story reject any conception of the Doctor's travels into the past as jolly historical tourism. As soon as Yaz declares that "time travel's awesome!" her euphoria is undermined by the assault on Ryan. Good manners - as Rosa Parks enforces upon Ryan - are a matter not only of courtesy but of self-defence in Montgomery. Casual behaviour towards others, including strangers, becomes a mark of progressive tolerance on one hand but also of the privilege of living relatively secure from fear of another. The Doctor and Graham come close - but not as close as they could - to experiencing the police as if they were black when under the intruding eye of Officer Mason (Gareth Marks). Mason can rudely barge into a private room because he has the monopoly of force, and compel the Doctor and Graham into outward conformity to social norms so their friends can escape arrest. One of the many notes of humour in an unflinching tale (though family-friendly - no on-screen lynchings) was Whittaker's portrayal of the Doctor's reaction to Graham putting a husbandly hand on her shoulder; this is a world which inhibits her Doctor-ness through gender expectations. Meanwhile Ryan and Yaz in turn conform by briefly living in an alley behind bins. It's a powerful sequence, as the script acknowledges how little agency Yaz and Ryan have in Montgomery. Their dialogue offers straightforward contrasts in their experience: Yaz still excited that history is taking place around them, enabled somewhat by the difficulty Montgomery's racial classifications have in dealing with her appearance, while Ryan is miserable and angry. Yaz's remark that America will have a black president in fifty-three years time is presented as part of a progressive narrative, but Ryan's doubt about her optimism is surely shared by many in her audience given the pandering to white racism by many elements across government in the present-day United States.

This is a Doctor Who for an age where politicians have done well out of banter and wit and celebrity charisma, overcoming the hindrance of policies absent, incoherent, contradictory or widely unpalatable with personality. Jodie Whittaker's often curiously understated performance here underlines this, especially when contrasted with Joshua Bowman's Krasko, whose flippant attitude to his murders suggests someone who believes he can joke his way out of trouble but dreams of using force. Chris Chibnall's Doctor Who which doesn't oversell its symbolism, so Krasko isn't orange or blond as some productions might have made him. Bowman plays Krasko as a wolf guarding his territory; the Doctor's puncturing of his alpha male pretension by describing him as 'neutered' isn't enough to stop him prowling off with a swagger, outwardly certain of victory. He's despatched in a way which seems in the short term to vindicate Ryan's predilection for shooting at things, but Ryan's action this time is not condemned. Kraskos's return later in the series at first seemed to me a reasonable expectation, but after reading other views and considering how self-aggrandizing a thug he is, perhaps allowing him to gain status in the programme as a primeval proto-racist thousands of years in prehistory would be too generous to him.

The climax is carefully orchestrated, building up to a dull and sorrowful realisation that it is impossible for the Doctor and friends to escape complicity, whether they are the privileged Doctor and Yaz, Ryan seeking to be unobtrusive, or the awkward white man standing, Graham, in whose cause therefore Blake seeks to force Rosa to the back of the bus. The beats familiar to anyone who has read up on historical events then play out, as Blake calls his supervisor, the police arrive and escort the arrested Rosa off the bus, accompanied by Andra Day's 'Rise Up', a song of liberation in perseverance. Rosa Parks's collective activism was quietly played, but it was shown in the evening meeting at her house and given context not only in colour prejudice but in a struggle to be educated which many working-class women would recognise. While the Doctor's awestruck behaviour on meeting her was placed directly in the comedic tradition established by the Ninth Doctor in The Unquiet Dead, it's Ryan who gets to meet Martin Luther King (Ray Sesay) and respond in a way which though performed with a little exaggeration feels from Tosin Cole an entirely natural reaction to meeting historical figures who have been exemplars in Ryan's upbringing.

Grace's memory is an even stronger presence than it was in The Ghost Monument. Grace herself is an absence triangulated with the presence of two dead icons alive in visitable history, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. Ryan can't admit his grief to Graham or perhaps to himself, but comes closest when in King's presence at the Parks household. Other threads of continuity go further back, Chris Chibnall's series being keen to show that this is still Doctor Who even when told in a new voice. In doing so new layers are brought to old stories. Stormcage was a laughably permeable prison for River Song with little thought to the nature of her fellow inmates, but there is no redemptive narrative for Krasko. The mechanics of Rosa are speeded by the Doctor contacting her 1950s American acquaintances, giving a practical purpose to namedrops of the past and subsuming the Doctor's celebrity networks into purposeful determination. Artron energy is reintroduced, explained and dramatized. Casting, as often, offers layers: Morgan Deare appears as a frightened and angry old man, where thirty-one years ago in Delta and the Bannermen he was a stupid CIA agent whose behaviour embodied British caricatures of Americans while young Britons made American pop culture their own. Where the 1987 story celebrated 1950s America for its lack of barriers, its 2018 successor acknowledges the divisions on which the economy which exported that culture in part relied. The origins of Malcolm Kohll, Delta's writer, in apartheid-era South Africa, juxtaposed with the post-apartheid South African locations for this story only accentuate the parallels and contrasts which have accumulated.

Indeed, the treatment of history in this story offers a plainer authenticity than the series has seen for a very long while. The Girl Who Died presented a rounded view of Viking life - raiders yes, but farmers and dreamers too. It was set in a much more heightened reality than this, though - just as The Woman Who Lived which followed it made an alien out of royal iconography for a story set during the mid-seventeenth century English republic. Rosa is set in a less romantically mythologised past than either. Its decision not to challenge legend by exploring the detail of the discussions which led to the decision to begin civil disobedience against racial segregation on buses recalls the treatment of horned helmets seen in The Girl Who Died, but nuance points in a more didactic direction here - that the detailed reasons why Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery on 1 December 1955 are less important than that she did, and that circumstances and consequences made the act heroic. 

This Doctor Who past is one which recognises today's centrality of identity politics. The era just passed, where the fictionalised past of Europe was populated by non-white minorities, while rightly acknowledging historical diversity and saying that everyone had the right to claim the court of Versailles, the legend of Robin Hood or Victorian London as their own history, perhaps obscured the recently won battles and the ongoing conflicts over the rights and roles of minorities in modern Britain and other countries with a historically privileged imperial majority constructed as white. The basics here are re-addressed. The hybrid of re-enactment and invention in a highly symbolised past gives way to sober restatement of essentials with little room for ambiguity. The moral situation is clear, and reflection on what it might feel like to be out of one's time and an unwilling actor in the past is not easy. The myth is present but shapes what is selected and how that is prioritised. It's a pity that the Doctor was given the line that Rosa Parks changed the universe and then pointed to the asteroid 284996 as evidence, because the naming of the asteroid surely more specifically represented how Rosa Parks changed how people viewed the universe around them.

Rosa was accomplished television, claustrophobic and epic at once. I'd have liked more exposition about the civil rights movement in Montgomery and was disappointed in some minor points of presentational detail - specifically the changing signs on the bus seats and the modern typography - which undermined the otherwise beautifully crafted setting. Nevertheless there was much less preaching at the audience than I feared and what there was mostly came at moments when it was justified by drama and character. Vinette Robinson delivered a Rosa Parks of quiet strength exasperated at becoming the straight woman for the British visitors at a time of crisis and pointing out the limits to the Doctor's freedom of action where her business was concerned. A Doctor Who which advertises its introversion a lot less than in recent years might still be erring too far in assuring the audience that they are not being excluded from a private joke. Threat was always present in a thinly charming but soon all too apparently hostile environment. Rosa was confident but still a little anxious contemporary Doctor Who , tapping firmly on the nose, indignant at injustice and individual failures but ending in the hope for positive change the thirteenth Doctor's arrival presaged.