Well, it’s not exactly The Crucible, is it? True, perhaps Doctor Who can’t imitate Arthur Miller (although Rosa might make one question this), but where Rosa and Demons of the Punjab were carefully-researched attempts at portraying real people living in the past, The Witchfinders was a badly-researched, ahistorical mess.
I admit it’s a number of years since I studied the witch-hunting craze at university, but huge blunders leapt out at me. Witch trials, in England at any rate, were usually actual trials. In a courtroom, with a judge, prosecution and defence, witnesses and so on. Contrary to popular belief, there were sometimes acquittals; they weren’t just show-trials. Ducking witches did happen, but it was usually associated with mob violence and was something the gentry were keen to stamp out (the ruling class didn’t much like the idea of encouraging mob rule). A male magistrate overseeing such a ducking might be a forgivable bit of dramatic license, I suppose, like the Vikings with horned helmets in The Girl Who Died, but a woman doing it is just silly. There is no way this could ever happen, and the story’s own dialogue demonstrates that.
Then there’s all the talk of “Witchfinders General.” There never was such an official position in the British Isles. Matthew Hopkins called himself the Witchfinder General (several decades after the events here), but that was a bit of self-important puffery on his part, not a real office. And King James VI and I didn’t actually write (“As King James has written in his new Bible”?!) or even translate the King James Bible. And perhaps this is personal griping, but after feeling that Jews are the only minority group not on show this series, it was unpleasant, to put it mildly, to have the Doctor repeating the old Christian antisemitic canard that “Love your neighbour” comes from the New Testament (it’s actually Leviticus 19.18).
If you want to nitpick, King James’ lack of entourage, while budget-saving, seems improbable to put it mildly. Becka Savage might have had all the horses in the village shot, but where are the King’s horses? Surely he’s not walking around the kingdom? And speaking of shot horses, there’s a lot of talk of having people shot here, at a time when the favoured methods of execution would have been hanging, or beheading for the upper classes (like King James’ unfortunate son).
[Pause while I take some deep breaths and try to calm down…]
There’s a lot of argument in fandom about whether Doctor Who needs to be factually accurate, whether those facts are historical or scientific. I’m somewhat agnostic on the subject, feeling that, up to a point, different eras and even different stories can choose their own level of reality. What is more problematic is setting up the start of the series (Rosa and Demons again) to look like this is a series about encountering the Real History behind the sanitised facts and then serving up a wildly improbable bit of pulp fiction (pun on the Tarrantino reference not intended). Even then it might have got away with it in a clearly comedic episode. I’m fond of the three comedy Hartnell historical stories, The Romans, The Myth Makers and The Gunfighters, three stories that play fast and loose with historical truth at a time when the programme was still producing more serious fare like The Crusade and The Massacre, but those stories were clearly comedic in intent (even then, I do have my doubts occasionally). This presents itself as a serious account of the witch-hunting craze like previous accounts of Segregation and Indian Partition.
While those stories were clearly educational, you can’t really learn much from this except that King James had an eye for the boys. In an era where witch-hunting seems to be everywhere again, metaphorically speaking, one might have hoped for some kind of historical or psychological insight into the mechanisms of fear and paranoia that spark such investigations, in the way that Miller was really writing about McCarthy in The Crucible. But this is just nonsense. King James talks like people only talk in time-travel stories, going out of his way to sound as bigoted as possible as quickly as possible, without any kind of motivation beyond shocking Our Heroes, and allowing the audience to pat themselves on the back and congratulate themselves on how tolerant they are. The sense of the past as a place where people behave differently because of different, but coherent belief systems is lacking here, as I found it lacking (to a much lesser extent) in Demons. This is hugely problematic for a series that seems to be trying to use its portrayal of the past as a way of establishing a reputation for serious drama. The Massacre isn’t quite the lost classic its defenders would have it be, but it does present the violence of the French religious wars as something that mattered to people at the time; they weren’t just cardboard cutout bigots, even if the details of Reformation politics were left vague. Here (and this is only set a few decades later) witch-hunting is something that people in the past did because they were religious and superstitious and bad and aren’t we so much better today? This is a horrible attitude for a series that seems to be trying to recapture the original series’ early sixties mandate to educate while it entertains.
King James is presented a little better than the other characters, in that we get some cod-psychology which is perhaps convincing, but there no one seems to care that Christians in the seventeenth century took the Bible very seriously and did indeed believe that Satan travelled in the world spreading evil and corruption in a very literal and real sense. Present this seriously and you have room for conflict and drama between our postmodern values and their seventeenth century ones. But here religion is just noises off, a pretext for misogynistic violence. Perhaps it needs saying: if you’re presenting the pre-modern era seriously, you can’t afford to either ignore or parody religion, pretending that either no one really cared very much about it and adopted twenty-first century attitudes of irony and tolerance (Demons) or, alternatively, present it as something meaningless and absurd that even the people at the time must have struggled to take seriously (this story).
Was there anything good here? Not really. The plot was typical fare, with stranded aliens in the past being responsible for the supernatural as per most Doctor Who like this. There was some attempt at investigative plotting, but it was pretty obvious where it was going to end up, in broad terms if not the details. That’s not necessarily a problem in itself, but if Joy Wilkinson wanted to play it safe, it might have been better to tone down the witch-hunting and focus on the mud-zombie plot instead (which wasn’t entirely congruent with the witchcraft theme anyway). And King James would have been better off left out of it.
But the worst of it all is that this comes after a run of strong stories that had seen the programme find new directions. To relapse into the worst of the past is thus doubly disappointing.