The Witchfinders

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.

Kerblam!

Kerblam! was a nice, cosy, traditional Doctor Who adventure.  That’s not intended as a criticism.  While parts of this season have pushed against the boundaries of twenty-first century Doctor Who, they need to be balanced with more traditional stories and this is the best of those so far.

It proceeds from a classic Doctor Who set-up: a humorous social commentary with mystery (fairly clearly signposted, but with some subversive twists) and traditional Doctor Who issues: an SOS, mysterious disappearances, abusive management and sinister robots.  It’s similar to stories like The Sun Makers, Paradise Towers and The Beast Below, but feels more polished and a bit more intelligent than those stories.

This is Doctor Who investigating for what seems like the first time in a very long time and it’s good to see that the Doctor doesn’t always have all the answers at the start.  The problem is that, as with similar investigation stories since 2005, modelled on old-fashioned four part stories, compressing one hundred minutes of story into fifty leads to rocketing from plot point to plot point without much time for anything else, or to really let the audience relish the mystery.

The world-building also didn’t entirely work.  Unemployment from automation is a long-standing fear reaching to the beginnings of the industrial revolution, but no society has yet put itself almost totally out of work, as seems to be the case here.  If only a small fraction of people are working, who has the disposable income to buy the things on sale here?  Who are the robots working for?

The last fifteen minutes or so were also rather sickly sentimental, a fact to some extent mitigated by the death of Kira, which rammed home how low the body count has been this year, focusing on trying to make a few deaths count rather than going in for Saward-era-style massacres.

Nevertheless, Kerblam! was a success overall and continued the stylistic diversity of this season.

Demons of the Punjab

I have mixed feelings about Demons of the Punjab.  That is probably due in part to my own circumstances; I’m not in a great place at the moment and wasn’t really in the mood for bleak historical character drama.  This might seem better after a more timely rewatch.  It was a lushly made and well-acted drama, and top marks for (along with Rosa) finally showing some non-European history in the revived show.  But the core of it annoyed me.

Romeo and Juliet is an old story that has been told many times across many cultural divides.  From that point of view, this was familiar territory.  That’s not necessarily a problem.  Unfortunately, also familiar was the lack of subtlety, the Whiggish certitude that sees history as tending inexorably towards our liberal democracy.  People in the past, in this perspective, divide into two categories: those who thought exactly like us, and the villains: the idiots and reactionaries who worship at the altars of nation and religion, who can’t see the way things must inevitably work out.

Yet if history – and time-travel – is to have any point, it is surely to help us to understand those who are not like us.  Here, too much was left unexplained.  British rule in India was barely alluded to; Partition was inadequately explained or contextualised.  Partition and population transfer occurred in several parts of the world in the forties and fifties, seen as the lesser evil compared to leaving large ethnic minorities that could lead to a pretext for war on a par with German expansion in the thirties.  I don’t expect all this to be included (it’s a science fiction drama, not a history documentary), but some kind of context from the Doctor would have been good.  Moreover, we don’t get any idea of what separated Hindu from Muslim in real terms.  Ritual and religion are a very postmodern British thing here, something you pick and chose and only bring out at life cycle events.  We don’t see how religion affects people’s day to day lives in traditional societies.  People in the past, we are told, did stupid, brutal things, but we don’t really understand why because the writers of drama of this kind can’t – or aren’t interested in – entering the mindset of people who professed beliefs the writers don’t share.  The historical weight of intermarriage across religious divides is not adequately portrayed.   The decision seems to marry across denominational lines is obvious, even frivolous here, which would not have been the case in reality.  While the racism of the Deep South in Rosa was familiar enough to us to seem unbearably threatening, the violence here, while every bit as bigoted, felt cursory.  It’s just the type of thing that happens in stories like this so we can congratulate ourselves on how far we’ve come in eighty years.  Compare with how The Aztecs (in 1964) managed to make human sacrifice seem normal and opposition to it unworkable.

While watching this I kept thinking of George Orwell.  It was  only afterwards that I remembered the exact quote I was looking for.  Writing in Wells, Hitler and the World State in 1941, he wrote, “Creatures out of the Dark Ages have come marching into the present, and if they are ghosts they are at any rate ghosts which need a strong magic to lay them.  The people who have shown the best understanding of Fascism are either those who have suffered under it or those who have a Fascist streak in themselves.”

Well, creatures out of the Dark Ages have again come marching into our present again.  To understand them is to understand the darkness in ourselves, but it’s easier to say, “We’re different; it could never happen here.”  For a programme that so far this year has tried to be about empathy and understanding , that is disappointing to say the least.

The Tsuranga Conundrum

The Tsuranga Conundrum was arguably the weakest episode so far this season.  It was still reasonably enjoyable and engaging, but seemed weak in comparison to most of the other episodes so far.

While the opening scenes, in which the TARDIS crew are separated from the TARDIS seemed redolent of the stories of the sixties, the bulk of the episode looked elsewhere for inspiration.  While other versions of the programme might have focused on the horror of the Pting stalking the spaceship or the comedy of the male pregnancy and the Pting’s conspicuous cuteness (cf. Partners in Crime), The Tsuranga Conundrum stayed focused on characterisation.  In this regard, the programme resembled Star Trek more than Doctor Who, not for the first time this season.  In particular, it was reminiscent of Disaster, the Next Generation episode where the Enterprise D hits a cosmic plot device and loses power, resulting, among other things, in Counsellor Troi taking command and Worf having to deliver the O’Brien’s baby.

Unfortunately, The Tsuranga Conundrum focused as much on the guest characters as the regulars and ended up too short to develop the guest characters as much as would be needed to make us really care about them.  A better tactic might have been to focus on the regulars more.  While Ryan’s father issues received some attention, more could have been made of Grace’s medical background and the fall out of her death (while it could be morbid to dwell on that too much, I feel there is still room to explore it more than has happened so far).  I also feel that Yaz has been somewhat neglected, the appearance of her perhaps as a result of her family last week notwithstanding.  The familial relationship between Ryan and Graham has proved a more obvious conduit for emotional resonance.  It would be interesting to develop Ryan’s relationship with Yaz without going down the easy route of a romantic or will-they/won’t-they relationship.  At any rate, next week’s episode will hopefully let Yaz, and Mandip Gill, take the centre stage.

I’ve been feeling something of an ‘early eighties’ vibe to this season so far, not just in the obvious four-strong TARDIS crew (like the fifth Doctor, Tegan, Adric and Nyssa or, perhaps stretching a point, the fourth Doctor, Romana, Adric and K9), but in the sense of a stripped back version of the programme, getting rid of some of the laughs and scares to focus on the character drama and occasional chunks of science (I’ll leave it up to someone else to decide on the accuracy of this episode’s CERN-talk.  I did A Level physics, but, like Yaz, it was a long time ago (rather longer in my case)), as well as looking even further back to the early Hartnell era as a ‘pure’ model for the programme, full of Reithian promise.

It’s worth noting in this regard that while Davies and Moffat were children of the sixties and early seventies, Chibnall (born in 1970) would have been more or less the right age to see Christopher Bidmead and John Nathan-Turner’s vision of the programme in the early eighties as an exciting new approach, taking the programme more seriously when he was of an age to start wanting it to be more serious.  Like the early part of season nineteen, there’s been a sense so far this year of the programme reinventing its key tropes for a new audience, making the regulars and especially the Doctor vulnerable again.  Like season nineteen, parts of the first half of this season have felt lightweight (with Rosa as this season’s Kinda, perhaps).  Will the second half have an Earthshock to add to the drama?  Time will tell…

Arachnids in the UK

Arachnids in the UK was the silliest episode of Doctor Who so far this year.  That’s not really meant as a criticism.  Three-quarters of Doctor Who, if not more, is silly if you stop to think about it, and Arachnids in the UK boldly ploughed on straight-faced, producing the most tense and nerve-wracking episode so far this year.  And I’m not even arachnophobic!  If Chris Chibnall seems to determined to attempt a new style with each episode, this episode gets the ‘Yeti in the loo’ contemporary horror style down to a tee.

Well, almost.  The story did rely a bit too much on a web (sorry) of coincidences to bring all the characters together, perhaps the product of adapting a story style dating from the late sixties to the shorter story lengths and attention spans of the twenty-first century.  It was pacey, but could have done with more time to develop the incidental characters.  I’m sure we’ll be seeing Yaz’s family again, but Jack Robertson felt two-dimensional.  Donald Trump is an easy and inevitable, but legitimate target and, in a nice twist, he is just an unpleasant businessman, not an Evil Genius Master Criminal as the opening scene implied.  But he did seem to have wandered in from a different type of drama, or even a different type of Doctor Who.  And I felt that one or two of his lines should have been cut, given the mass shooting in Pittsburgh the previous day.

In a typically Doctor Who touch, we are encouraged to feel sympathy for the spiders, even as we are also encouraged to fear them and, of course, the Doctor is opposed to guns.  More surprising was seeing her trap a spider with her practical knowledge of spiders, not Time Lord gadgetry, something pleasantly in the vein of the Doctors of the sixties and seventies than later incarnations.

Also, a pedantic point, but a zoologist should really know the difference between ‘poisonous’ and ‘venomous.’

Ultimately, Arachnids in the UK was very enjoyable, but it also felt a bit like a palate cleanser after the intense personal drama of Rosa.  Just celebrate the fact that this programme can move from hard-hitting historical/political drama to out and out contemporary horror in a single-episode.  Four episodes in and I have no idea where the rest of this season is going to go, and there isn’t anything more exciting than that!