Timestamp #290: The Witchfinders

Timestamps Featured Image

Doctor Who: The Witchfinders
(1 episode, s11e08, 2018)

Timestamp 290 The Witchfinders

If a Time Lord weighs the same as a duck…

The Doctor wants to take her companions to see the coronation of Elizabeth I, but the TARDIS has stubbornly dragged them to the early 17th century and a village where a party rapidly changes into a somber trial of an accused witch. The Doctor cautions her companions to not interfere in historical events, but she breaks those rules almost immediately as Becka Savage condemns Mother Twiston to a test by the dunking chair. The test itself is flawed: If Twiston survives the test, she’s obviously a witch and will be executed accordingly, but if she drowns, then she’s innocent.

Either way, the accused will not find justice. Twiston doesn’t survive, but because the Doctor interfered, Savage must now treat the corpse as if the woman was a witch. Savage is furious, but the Doctor uses her psychic paper to pose as a Witchfinder General with her special team. Savage’s demeanor changes as she asks the Doctor to join her, and the Doctor places a condition on the meeting: Savage will leave Twiston’s granddaughter Willa alone.

Savage is the owner of the village lands, which she inherited after her husband died, and in her quest to eliminate satanic influences, she shot all of the horses. Yaz meets with Willa as the team listens to Savage’s story. It turns out that she’s trying to uphold the newly published King James Bible – “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” – which the Doctor counters with a twist from the sequel – “Love thy neighbor.” – which actually originated in the Book of Leviticus.

As if on cue, a man in a plague doctor mask opens the door. He is King James I, traveling incognito to hear of Savage’s crusade and offer his assistance. He reads the psychic paper as the Doctor being an assistant to Graham – a woman cannot outrank a man – then sets his sights on Willa.

No one in the village is safe from the crusaders.

Yaz finds Willa saying farewell at her grandmother’s grave. The young woman is nearly attacked by tentacle-like roots and then runs off after Yaz stops them. Yaz finds the rest of the team in Savage’s room. The Doctor scans the mud splatters but finds nothing of interest. The Doctor and Yaz set off to find Willa while Graham and Ryan keep King James occupied.

King James and his entourage inspect a box of witch-hunting artifacts before the king sets them on his quest to burn out the witches. Graham tries to understand Savage’s motivations while Ryan and the king compare traumas. The king believes that his god will protect him as he performs holy works.

Yaz and the Doctor find Willa and enter the Twiston home, finding a room of bottles and herbs to make medicines. Willa doesn’t feel well because of the hatred and mistrust of the village against her, something with which Yaz can empathize. She also reveals that Savage is her cousin, but she’s willing to help figure out what’s going on with the tendrils and the mud. The Doctor finds a sample near the grave that is very active in a sample jar. The women are interrupted by Mother Twiston’s reanimated corpse which is eager to absorb the sample. They are soon surrounded by a large group of reanimated corpses.

A scream summons the king’s group, and after the reanimated kill the king’s assistant Alfonso, the Doctor orders everyone to run. The Doctor wants to return and examine the reanimated, but she soon narrows her focus to Savage. The landlord flips the accusations back on the Doctor, accusing her of witchcraft and inspiring King James to action. Under pressure, Willa turns on the Doctor and the Time Lord is taken into custody.

As the companions follow the mud creatures to Savage’s home, the king interrogates the Doctor. King James holds the sonic screwdriver – the Doctor’s magic wand – so the Doctor resorts to psychological warfare, including the secrets of the king’s mother and how she was scapegoated in his father’s murder. If the king wants to understand the secrets of existence, he must understand the mysteries of the human heart.

Unconvinced, the king summons his guards and orders the Doctor to the dunking chair. As she’s strapped in, the Doctor notes a spark as Savage touches the chair. Savage starts her speech as mud trickles from her eyes, then dunks the Doctor as the companions arrive and plead with the king to end the trial. When the chair is raised, the Doctor has vanished – having studied under Harry Houdini – and swam upstream.

Savage calls for the Doctor’s execution but the mud creatures arrive in pursuit of the landlord. Some time prior, Savage had cut down a tree because it spoiled her view of a hill, but the tree infected her with the mud. She had Mother Twiston executed because the woman was too weak to heal Savage, using the cut parts of the tree as the dunking chair. After this confession, Savage transforms into a creature and reveals that the hill is a prison for war criminals named the Morax, reduced to their basic DNA and stored in the ground. Savage knocks everyone out and leaves to free her people.

The Doctor cuts the dunking chair apart and creates weapons from the wood. The team is joined by Willa as they march on the hill as Savage tries to infect the king with Morax DNA. The Doctor and Willa face off against Savage, eventually restoring the prison and returning the Morax to the mud. King James strikes the final blow and Savage is destroyed.

Disgusted with the king, the Doctor returns to the TARDIS. Willa decides to take up her grandmother’s title as healer – Doctor – and Ryan turns down the king’s offer to stand as his protector. The team boards the TARDIS and departs, leaving the king and Willa astonished by the magic.

After eight on-screen adventures, the Thirteenth Doctor finally faces challenges due to her gender in this third pseudo-historical story. This is a good use of gender swapping in drama and really wasn’t exercised enough during this era of the show. This happens in a story written and directed by women – Joy Wilkinson and Sallie Aprahamian, respectively – which marks the first such combination in the revival era and the second in Doctor Who overall after Enlightenment.

In that drama, the tension of twisting conspiracies is well used, as is the battle between compassion and fear. The latter battle is an exercise of the show’s very ethos and adds a lot of power to this adventure. The atmosphere and the tension make this story work. Also doing phenomenal work here are Alan Cumming (chewing on every piece of scenery he can find) and Siobhan Finneran (whom I know best as Miss O’Brien from Downton Abbey).

All of those elements combined make the magic of one of the best episodes in the series so far.

Rating: 4/5 – “Would you care for a jelly baby?”

UP NEXT – Doctor Who: It Takes You Away


The Timestamps Project is an adventure through the televised universe of Doctor Who, story by story, from the beginning of the franchise. For more reviews like this one, please visit the project’s page at Creative Criticality.

ESO Network Sponsors


Support Us

A Dollar a month keeps us in orbit. Trust us it’s better that way.

Ways to Listen

Find Us Wherever Fine Podcasts are Found

Sign Up for the ESO Newsletter


ESO Network Archives


No matter where you go here you are

Follow the ESO Network

You didn't come this far to only come this far

Contact Us

    Remember any comment made today will be the tomorrow you worried about yesterday

    <-- see them in a pretty grid

    42 Cast
    The Best Saturdays of Our Lives
    Blurred Nerds
    But First, Let's Talk Nerdy
    Cigar Nerds
    The Con Guy
    Cosmic Pizza
    Dragon Con Report
    Drinking with Authors

    Most Recent Episodes

    Earth Station DCU
    Earth Station One
    Earth Station Trek
    Earth Station Who
    Epsilon Three
    Metal Geeks
    Modern Musicology
    Monkeeing Around
    Monster Attack
    The Monster Scifi Show
    Soul Forge
    Thunder Talk
    The Watch-a-thon of Rassilon