Doctor Who season 11 episode 8, "The Witchfinders," sees Team TARDIS caught up in one of the show's more traditional historical adventures. Doctor Who season 11's previous historicals had used the concept of time-travel as an opportunity for social commentary (most notably in season 11 episode 3, "Rosa"). While Doctor Who season 11 episode 8 does make some attempts to do so, in truth, it's just a standard Doctor Who adventure in which the Doctor and her friends (not companions) get caught up in an alien invasion.
Doctor Who season 11 episode 8 opens with the Doctor intervening in a witch trial, and things just go from bad to worse for the Time Lord from there. Her best efforts to prevent a massacre in a remote Lancashire village are dashed by the unexpected arrival of King James I, who's eager to see more witches burn. In an entertaining twist, though, this is one of the few episodes in Doctor Who season 11 to really feature a traditional "Monster of the Week." It turns out dark forces are indeed stirring around Pendle Hill, but naturally they're of extraterrestrial origin, not supernatural in nature. Unfortunately, as is often the case with horror-style science-fiction, the threat of the Morax becomes a lot less engaging when the creature finally explains itself.
While this is hardly the strongest episode of season 11 to date, "The Witchfinders" is still effective enough, and blends historical accuracy with sci-fi horror in an entertaining manner. Here, we're going to look at all the key questions posed by the latest episode.
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11) Is The TARDIS Becoming Harder to Control?
The 13th Doctor seems to be having serious trouble with her TARDIS. In the last episode, Doctor Who season 11 episode 7, "Kerblam!," she complained that she "can't get the hang of these new systems." This time round, the problems are even more severe. The Doctor didn't even know what century she and her friends were in; "The TARDIS is being a bit stubborn at exact readings," she explained. It does seem as though this TARDIS is getting harder to pilot with every episode.
10) Does Anyone Believe The Doctor When She Says Not To Get Involved?
"Do not interfere with the fundamental fabric of history," the Doctor instructs her friends as they walk into the village of Bilehurst Cragg. Within a matter of minutes, she's diving into the water in an attempt to interrupt a witch trial. By the end of the episode, she's giving instructions to King James I in an attempt to stop further witch trials from taking place across the country. This pattern is becoming a hallmark of pretty much every historical adventure - and it's perfectly in-character for any incarnation of the Doctor.
9) What Really Happened At Pendle Hill?
There were a spate of witch trials across Europe in the 1600s, but the Pendle Hill trial is easily the most infamous. Twelve people were accused of practicing witchcraft; one died in prison, and ten of the others were executed. The witch trials were among the best documented in history, and they're also unusual for the sheer number who were put to death at once.
Many of the allegations resulted from accusations that members of the Demdike and Chattox families made against each other, perhaps because they were in competition, both trying to make a living from healing, begging, and extortion. Shockingly, the witnesses included a 9 year-old girl who testified against her mother. The girl would normally have been unable to give evidence, but normal rules were suspended during witch trials.
8) Did Witch-Hunters Really Kill Horses As Agents Of Satan?
One of the strangest scenes in Doctor Who season 11 episode 8, "The Witchfinders," is one in which Lady Becka Savage tells the Doctor she had all the horses shot. It's clearly intended to signify just how deranged she was, but there's also a surprising degree of historical accuracy in the idea. It was generally believed that any animal could be a host to a demon; that idea was inspired by the Biblical tale in which Jesus cast a group of demons into a herd of pigs.
7) How Accurate Was The Portrayal Of King James I?
Curiously enough, King James I of England and Ireland (James VI of Scotland) has rarely been explored as a central character, whether on the big or small screens. He's usually a secondary character in dramas focused upon his mother, Mary Queen of Scots, or Guy Fawkes. That means Doctor Who is treading unfamiliar territory in Doctor Who season 11 episode 8, "The Witchfinders," with Alan Cumming presenting a fairly faithful version of the monarch.
He's a figure of tragedy, and tells Ryan, in one scene, of his family history. "My father was murdered by my mother," he observes, "who was then imprisoned and beheaded." The key event of King James' reign was undoubtedly the publication of an English translation of the Bible, still known as the King James Bible in his honor. James was deeply superstitious, and even self-published a book in which he explained how to identify and kill witches. Upon closer inspection, audiences can see a copy of the King's book in Lady Savage's room.
6) Did The King James Cameo In Doctor Who Work?
Unfortunately, King James' appearance in Doctor Who season 11 episode 8, "The Witchfinders," is the moment the episode jumps the shark. It's simply impossible to imagine a scenario in which the King would be wandering across the country, with only a single guard at his side. What's more, his disguise - a metal mask - is more likely to draw attention than to avoid it. This particular plot twist takes suspension of disbelief beyond the breaking point for the historical episode. While Cumming's portrayal of King James is excellent, the King of England still sits uncomfortably in a plot centered in a small Lancashire village.