Doctor Who: The Thirteenth Doctor - Issue #3 (Titan Comics)Bookmark and Share

Wednesday, 16 January 2019 - Reviewed by Ken Scheck
The Thirteenth Doctor - Issue #3 (Credit: Titan)

Writer: Jody Houser
Artist: Rachel Stott
Colourist: Enrica Eren Angiolini

33 Pages

Published by Titan Comics 19 December 2018

****These reviews may contain MINOR SPOILERS, Reader Beware****

The third installment of the Thirteenth Doctor ongoing comic from Titan Publishing fills in a bit more background for our guest character Perkins.  We begin with Perkins holding the gang hostage in the TARDIS, but he is easily thwarted by the state of grace nullifying his weapon.  He then fills them in on what he and Schultz had been up to, collecting all sorts of items for the alien being they called the Hoarder. It turns out part of what he wanted them to steal was alien children, to be held as hostages, and he at least claims to hold their own descendants hostage in order to keep them stealing for him.  

So the Doctor decides they have a new enemy to face off with, one that is not only stealing artifacts from all of history but has cages full of children as well.  They head out to try and find Dr. Schwartz and take on the hoarder, but are almost immediately caught in a trap with walls closing in on them.  Their only option of escape is to jump down a hole not knowing how far it actually goes down.  And that's our latest cliffhanger. 

I think despite a lack of action until the final pages (and even then the action was walls closing in on them), this was a solid installment.  I think the reason being that it helped develop the actual stakes our heroes are facing off with.  Bad guy has cages full of kids. Got it.  Before hand, it was vague energy beams and a shady guy who we didn't know much about making threats for reasons we didn't really know.  They weren't bad reads, but before now I can't say I was really invested in where the story was going.  Now I am.  That is probably the best praise I can give a single issue of a comic.  





ResolutionBookmark and Share

Wednesday, 2 January 2019 - Reviewed by Matt Hills
Resolution: The Doctor (JODIE WHITTAKER) (Credit: BBC/James Pardon)
Writer: Chris Chibnall 
Director: Wayne Yip
Executive Producers: Chris Chibnall and Matt Strevens

Starring: Jodie Whittaker, Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole, Mandip Gill, Charlotte Ritchie, Nikesh Patel, Daniel Adegboyega and Nick Briggs

BBC One (UK)
First broadcast Tuesday January 1st 2019

It may have displaced Doctor Who's Christmas Day tradition, but the "spatial shift" in TV listings for 'Resolution' made this story no less of a gift. With sections of fandom wanting a return of old monsters, and with some arguing for stronger narrative threats for Jodie Whittaker's Doctor to face off against, 'Resolution' delivered in spades. And though it might be a truism to suggest that no new Doctor is truly forged in steeliness until they have faced the Daleks, it's a piece of lore that's extremely well borne out here.

And what a Dalek! Given the presence of a lone reconnaissance scout, this immediately had the feel of 2005's Rob Shearman-penned story, albeit reworked through the distinctive filter of Chris Chibnall's vision for Who. A steelpunk Dalek neatly recapped the sonic screwdriver's new origin story from S11.e1, with Chibnall again deciding to cast his showrunner's remit to 'make it new' into the narrative universe, having both Doctor and Dalek recreate their own remembered versions of the show's icons. At first, I was concerned by the DIY Dalek's design -- it reminded me of unofficial replicas and assorted fan builds seen over the years -- but on reflection, there was just the right blend of RTD-era industrial vibe, innovation (including the red-lit section set within the outer casing) and clanking homespun realism, given the story's clear justification for all this. The resulting 'Sheffield steel dalek' will likely prove to be a one-off boon to merchandising ranges, but Chibnall astutely mined Dalek mythology for some striking images and pay-offs; the mutant-on-the-back recalled iconic imagery from 'Planet of the Spiders' more than previous Dalek tales (and was occasionally a touch unconvincing, for my money), whilst the use of Dalek 'bumps' as housings for rocket-launchers was nothing less than inspired.

This may have felt more like 'trad' Doctor Who at times, but it was also full of surprises and brilliant bits of imagination. Having the Doctor confront this Dalek inside GCHQ was probably my favourite moment of series 11, combining a realist/spy-thriller version of how a lone Dalek might actually try to seize power in today's Britain with the inventiveness of Doctor Who at its very best. There was an air of inevitability about the scenario, once you realised where the script was going, but it fused the ordinary and the fantastical in a perfect way for a post-Snowden culture. Likewise, removing all wifi -- no Internet and no Netflix! -- made the Doctor's arch-enemy a resolutely contemporary menace, even if the 'family cutaway' struck a slight misstep in terms of its broad comic intent and clunkiness.

Another inspired moment, however, was the way that UNIT's non-involvement was tackled. Undoubtedly well aware of old-school fan complaints along the lines of "why weren't UNIT called in?", the showrunner dispatched these mercilessly. But the presence of a call centre operative reading off her computer screen put UNIT's demise squarely into the context of government efficiency savings, as well as implicitly evoking Brexit-style wrangling over international funding. Any long-term fans pondering how UNIT could have been so savagely undone via these real-world resonances might want to additionally consider the extent to which UNIT perhaps belongs properly and organisationally to the age of 1970s' public services and internationalism -- a world now undermined by decades of neoliberalism (traversing both major UK political parties). The scene may be strongly satirical, but its commentary remains perfectly evident: we can't have nice things like UNIT via any current politics of austerity or isolationism. Instead, extraterrestrial-incursion security has seemingly been privatised, resulting in MDZ's feeble defence of the former 'Black Archive' (you can't imagine Kate Stewart or Osgood allowing a Dalek scout to wander off with weaponry and propulsion systems).              

Resolution: Daniel Adeboyega (Credit: BBC/James Pardon)This was very much a two-pronged 'Special'; a sort of double-A-side seeking to combine Dalek shenanigans with the emotional weight of Ryan's father reappearing. Perhaps these strands didn't always rest side-by-side as comfortably as the features of Aaron's combination oven, but on the whole 'Resolution' was a successful hybrid. It followed a textbook pattern by uniting its main plot threads at the denouement, both thanks to Aaron's engineering specs, and via the sting-in-the-tentacle of the Dalek's desperate final attempt at human possession. The thirteenth Doctor remained characteristically fallible, mind you, with her Dalek showdowns never quite going according to plan, and her "squid-sized vacuum corridor" expanding to human-sized proportions with almost fatal consequences. All of this allowed 'Resolution' to re-articulate Chris Chibnall's mission statement for Who -- that the Doctor's "fam" should be just as important as the Doctor herself. And so it is Aaron and Ryan who, acting together through forgiveness and love, finally overcome the Dalek's tenacity. In one strange moment, it even feels as though the script is reaching towards a parallel between family and monstrosity -- just as family is more than DNA and a name, as Graham tells Aaron, then so too is the Dalek more than a DNA identification and a matter of naming. Both Dalekhood and fatherhood hinge on behaviour, meaning that just as Aaron has to prove his status to Ryan then the Dalek is equally required to prove its nature to new viewers and new fans. This it duly does, the episode being jam-packed with gloriously retro extermination effects and Dalek ruthlessness. And though monstrosity and family are eventually opposed, with the "extended fam" predictably defeating the monster of the year, it is striking, in an episode where the Dalek's identity is initially a matter of DNA testing and naming, that the familial and the monstrous should ghost across one another.  

This is a story firing on all machine-tooled cylinders. The direction from Wayne Yip is brilliantly kinetic and well-judged throughout, and the acting performances are uniformly first-rate. I'd especially single out Charlotte Ritchie, who does a lot of great work as Lin to really sell the Dalek 'pilot' concept, switching through various gradations of embodied Dalekness. In addition, Nick Briggs is on superb form, relishing the chance to do things such as providing maniacally extended and chilling Dalek laughter.

I still miss the pre-credits sequence, though. The response to Graham's much-trailed question, "does it have a name?", would have been intensified by immediately then crashing into the titles. OK, cutting the title sequence buys a little more story time, but a few judicious trims here and there could easily have made room for the titles, and for a more dramatic punctuation of the Doctor's reveal of the Daleks. I hope that pre-credits scenes are restored across series 12. And on this showing, the return of the Daleks -- plural and non-DIY this time -- would also be most welcome in 2020.

Regardless of how series 11 is packaged on DVD/blu-ray, it's difficult not to view this as anything other than the true finale to Jodie Whittaker's first season. The DNA of Chris Chibnall's vision for the show is coded right through it: fantasy plus grounded social/political resonance plus emotional realism, all added to an ethic of teamwork and elective family rather than Time Lord (super-)heroics standing front-and-centre. Yes, at times this Doctor seems more reactive or passive than in the past, as well as less torn by internal demons, and less shadowed by back-story mysteries. It makes the Doctor far less of a focal point, freeing up narrative space and time for at least some of the "fam", and reconfiguring Who in a more inclusive and mentoring mode than arguably ever before. Chibnall's work hasn't just been about bringing in new writers' voices, featuring new locales, and emphasising a renewed sense of Doctor Who's capacities to speak back to power. He has also resolved to give the Doctor a radical new stripe of narrative agency too, one less omnipotent, less certain, and more energisingly hopeful. And that, for me, is a resolution worth championing.                                         






Doctor Who: The Thirteenth Doctor - Issue #2 (Titan Comics)Bookmark and Share

Tuesday, 11 December 2018 - Reviewed by Ken Scheck
Thirteenth Doctor #3 - Cover A (Credit: Titan )

Writer: Jody Houser
Artist: Rachel Stott
Colorist: Enrica Eren Angiolini

38 Pages

Published by Titan Comics 21 November 2018

Titan Comic's second issue of the Thirteenth Doctor picks up where the first had ended, and sees the Doctor trying to stabilize the time trapped man, while a group of alien soldiers are closing in on them for arrest.  The Doctor quickly stabilizes the time trapped man while Yaz and Ryan distract the soldiers, but they are all soon arrested.  

 

****READER BEWARE - THERE MAY BE SPOILERS AHEAD****

 

While in a cell, the Doctor gets more info out of the guy from the time vortex, and he claims that it was an experiment that went wrong their first time using it.  But we get some flashbacks into how this guy ended up as some kind of a thief for an alien overlord at the same time. Soon the Doctor helps everyone escape the cell...and they find a room that gives hints of the army's world...there is a being called the judge and they are fighting some kind of a war, but they have little time for that now.  

As the soldiers close in on them, the Doctor uses the Sonic to call the TARDIS towards them and they escape...but our man lost in time (whose name is Perkins by the way), pulls a gun on them and plans to steal the TARDIS.  Cliffhanger!

It is very much the middle entry of a story.  It isn't introducing elements, and it isn't resolving them...but it doesn't plod along with padding or anything, and is a fairly enjoyable read with very good artwork.  I'm sure the quick notes about the alien race's culture, possible beliefs, and their war will come into play down the road, and we will see where Perkins time travel antics and thievery will unfold as the issues go on...but right now we clearly aren't that far into this story, and have no real ending. 

If you've been enjoying the latest series, as I honestly have, then it's a solid issue.  This line feels like a perfect companion piece to the latest series.  It is well paced and the artwork is terrific. Those fans that hold disdain for the latest series and the current incarnation of the Doctor, for whatever the reason, need not apply.  For others...this new comic series is shaping up nicely.  

 
 




The Battle of Ranskoor Av KolosBookmark and Share

Tuesday, 11 December 2018 - Reviewed by Matt Hills
The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos (Credit: BBC Studios)
Writer: Chris Chibnall
Director: Jamie Childs
Executive Producers: Chris Chibnall and Matt Strevens

Starring: Jodie Whittaker, Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole, Mandip Gill, Phyllis Logan, Mark Addy, Percelle Ascott, Samuel Oatley, Jan Le

BBC One (UK)
First broadcast Sunday 9th December 2018

The title for series 11's finale might be something of a tongue twister, but it's of a piece with Chris Chibnall's world-building, where despite TARDIS translation, human and alien cultures find one another's worlds and identities difficult to say. Yaz's exchange with Paltraki about his home world is similar to related dialogue in 'The Ghost Monument', for instance, while 'Tim Shaw' is itself a mangling of the Stenza's actual name: Chibnall consistently stresses the alien-ness of humanity to other races, and vice versa. Ranskoor Av Kolos isn't just sci-fi gobbledygook, then,  it's a reminder of the constant possibility of misunderstanding and failed empathy ("Ranskoor Av - what?") whilst time-travelling. Perhaps the real battle in this episode is between genuine understanding and communication breakdown, whether psychotropically driven or not.

And for a phase of Doctor Who that's so patently invested in the ensemble of 'Doctor plus three' -- arguably a way of managing any anxieties about the reception of Jodie Whittaker by casting audience identification across a range of options, an older male figure included -- it's striking that this finale also offers up an ensemble of aliens to combat, in the form of a Stenza-Ux team-up. At first, it seems as though Paltraki's unit might be a distorted mirror for team TARDIS (commander-plus-three), but this possibility isn't really developed. Instead, it's the lone Stenza 'god' and Ux duo species that represents a malformed version of our time-travelling "fam". The Ux are being dangerously misled, whilst we're shown from the outset that their culture and faith depend on "experience" rather than "understanding" -- it's not that their religiosity is undermined, or that they're somehow idiotically stupid, but rather that their priorities are in need of realignment. Sure enough, by the episode's end they set off in pursuit of newfound "understanding" over and above pure experience, something that Graham, Yaz and Ryan have already grasped thanks to their time with the Doctor.

Jodie Whittaker again turns in a strong performance, with her Doctor being less of a melodramatic 'Legend' than some previous incarnations, and more of a softly-spoken mentor. She's firm with Graham, warning him of the consequences if he gives in to a desire for revenge. But there's not so much sense of an 'Oncoming Storm' here, a magically powerful if not near-omnipotent walking myth; instead, the thirteenth Doctor wants to synthesise "the best elements of everyone", as she puts it. We are given a facilitator in place of a pseudo-Godlike Time Lord, as the 'bad' ensemble of Stenza and Ux is fractured and converted into a new Ux-TARDIS "supergroup" or force for good. It's surprising that Whittaker's portrayal has sometimes been criticised for a lack of distinctive characterisation, when in terms of scripting and performance there's a strong through-line of mentoring which this episode again brings to the fore.

The 'Battle' of the title might capture an aspect of Chris Chibnall's vision for series 11, but it's also more than a little misleading, promising epic scale and SF spectacle yet remaining off-screen and (perhaps) outside budgetary constraints. As a finale, this also represents a second level of fan denial. Mystery and build-up are expertly wrangled as the mists of Ranskoor Av Kolos atmospherically swirl, raising one's hopes of a big reveal (will it be Davros? The Daleks?). In addition, this episode wasn't made available in advance to TV critics, also building anticipation of a major twist. But narrative mechanics and spoilerphobic brand management rebound a bit here, given that the reveal is, eventually, of a single character encountered once before at the start of the series. This story is structured, actually very effectively, as if it's leading up to something Properly Massive, an epic and unexpected showdown, only to deliver exactly what Chris Chibnall has promised all along -- the 'jump onboard' accessibility of no truly old monsters, and the emotional development of character arcs rather than 'mythology' story arcs. Consequently, 'Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos' feels like it's teasing and tantalising a moment of unpredicted fan service, the option of which is then rejected and batted away. Like the unseen spectacular battle, fans are again denied -- but this time, it's the emotional resonance that can be represented by a returning villain/monster that's rejected. 'Classic' monsters can embody a kind of emotional time-travel for dedicated audiences, taking them back through memories, past enjoyments or scares, and knowledgeable appreciation; perhaps the term 'classic' really stands in, partly, for all this Proustian fan sentiment. For a series so focused on the emotions of character arcs, at least for Graham and Ryan, long-term fans' emotional remembrances of past Who are not significantly summoned up. Yes, 'The Pirate Planet' lingers behind some plotting, in a way, and I wondered whether the mineral design of the segments was also meant to remind long-term viewers (or DVD collectors) of the segments of 'The Key To Time', but this was seemingly just a design echo. 

After the gloriously bonkers 'It Takes You Away', 11.10 was 'It Brings You Right Back... To The Widely Predicted', making it somewhat less satisfying than I'd hoped for. Having said that, there were a number of notable strengths on display here, chief among them the blend of production and effects design, Jamie Childs' direction, and the always impressive use of locations. Those faceted, mineral-like stasis chambers in sickly yellow looked amazing, as did the Doctor's initial confrontation with Phyllis Logan's Andinio, whilst the approach to the 'Edifice' was another visually compelling sequence, demonstrating what a high standard Childs' direction has consistently achieved this year.

In the episode's dying moments, a shock cliffhanger into 'Resolution' would have been welcome. But as things stand, the New Year's Day story looks very promising indeed. Perhaps it will act as the real culmination of this run of episodes, as its title implies on one reading, complete with a major reveal and a 'classic' monster at last ("does it have a name?"). If so, 'Battle' may come to be seen as a deliberately faux finale, in the final analysis.

And if -- *if* -- we bridge from here into a powerful 'Dalek-meets-Quatermass-and-the-Pit' vibe, then I suspect Chris Chibnall's brave decision to hold off on the show's icons for 2018 will ultimately be thoroughly vindicated. Under those circumstances, it will have the effect of making a 'Special' feel genuinely special, lending significance to the pepperpots of old on January 1st 2019. Fingers crossed for another 'R... of the Daleks' in the weeks to come, and hence for a re-evaluation of the role and place of 'The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos'.





It Takes You AwayBookmark and Share

Thursday, 6 December 2018 - Reviewed by Marcus
 It Takes You Away: The Tardis, The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker), Ryan (Tosin Cole), Yaz (Mandip Gill), Graham (Bradley Walsh) (Credit: BBC Studios (Simon Ridgway))
Writer: Ed Hime
Director: Jamie Childs
Executive Producer: Chris Chibnall
 
Starring: Jodie Whittaker

BBC One (United Kingdom

First Broadcast: Sunday 2nd December 2018

It Takes You Away is not what we expected. The trailers, synopsis and preview clips had built up our expectations for a proper spooky episode of Doctor Who. All the prerequisite ingredients were present - creepy house in the middle of nowhere, intriguing mystery involving mirrors, monsters in the woods…basically all the calling cards for a potentially intense and terrifying ghost story. But upon watching the episode, it soon becomes clear that the episode has other ideas about where to go.

Things certainly start off in the way of most horror films, with our heroes finding a deserted cabin in the Norwegian woods, a blind teenager fearing for her life, and strange monster roars coming from the forest. But as events move along, the episode soon changes tact altogether. What the episode ultimately becomes is a story about loss and love, a story about rejection and doomed romance.

Ed Hime’s story has all the makings of a proper scary story but doesn’t utilise these elements in a way that is scary at all. Granted, there’s plenty of doom-laden atmosphere to proceedings, but by-and-large, there’s little in the way of creepy moments or jump scares. The closet we get is the appearance of the slimy alien Ribbons (played here by Kevin Eldon) and some flesh-eating moths, but both are largely inconsequential to the main plot (the threat of the moths is quickly forgotten about during the climax, with the main characters almost oblivious to them). Even the title is misleading – no one actually gets ‘taken’ anywhere!

Of course, there’s little point in reviewing an episode for what it isn’t. What it ultimately is is definitely decent. Easily one of the more emotional episodes we’ve had this season, It Takes You Away deals with grief and loneliness in a unique and moving way. Doctor Who is always adept at subverting genres and going in unexpected directions instead, and what we have here is no different. There’s no greater example of this in play then with THAT particularly surreal scene near the climax. You know the one. The one with the talking frog!

As moments go, it’s undoubtedly one of the most bizarre visual moments in the show’s fifty-five year history, with an unmistakeable Douglas Adams-esque vibe to it. It’s an idea some viewers will undoubtedly dislike, what with it being so ridiculously silly, but it certainly matches the tone of the episode and plays the idea straight enough. The CGI is a little bit dodgy, but it’s Jodie Whittaker and Sharon D. Clarke who sell it, with Whittaker in particular going for broke in terms of her performance.

The idea of a conscious universe kept separate from our own is also an interesting development, and the manner in which the writer conceptualises it is clever and emotionally resonant. The return of Sharon D. Clarke as Grace is a nice touch, and once again Bradley Walsh gets the chance to really show-off what a cracking actor he is. The scenes between Graham and Grace are some of the most heart-breaking scenes we’ve had all year, and both actors deliver the goods in a beautifully understated but saddening manner.

Of course, as much as there is to enjoy, the episode never quite hits above average, no matter how compelling the human drama is. Like most of the stories this year, there’s a complete lack of a decent villain, which would be fine, had the majority of the episodes this season not done the same thing. The idea of a mirror universe is such a great sci-fi concept with lots of great visual possibilities, but the director and writer never utilise said-concept in ways that visually stand out or befit the story (aside from a few T-Shirt logos being flipped). 

Worst of all though, the guest characters pretty underdeveloped, which unfortunately renders a lot of scenes empty and defunct. Ellie Wallwork is decent in her respective role, but the character of Hanne barely gets much to do aside from pout and cry. Worst of the bunch though is her father, Erik (Christian Rubeck), whose actions here are so deplorable it’s amazing the character doesn’t get more of a telling-off from the Doctor. It’s this aspect that feels tonally-off, and really feels like the writers just forgot to add some kind of consequence for Erik’s actions. Instead, his daughter is happy to have him back, even though he lied, manipulated, and abandoned her. Frankly, he gets off pretty lightly.

As expectations go, It Takes You Away dashes them, but it at least has the decency to dash them quick and serve up something else that just about satisfies. Some big science fiction ideas gel nicely with some relatable human drama, resulting in some fantastic turns from the lead cast-members. Even though the concept isn’t as engaging as what we were originally promised, the episode still has plenty in terms of great ideas, visuals and performances – as we always expected it would!





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...