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.

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.

Rosa

When the names of the writers for this season of Doctor Who were released, it was Malorie Blackman who I was most interested in.  I haven’t read any of her books, but, having just spent a year and a half working as a college librarian, I know how popular they are with young adults.  I imagined she would be telling a futuristic parable similar to her Noughts and Crosses books, so it was with interest that I discovered that she had co-written a historical story.

A while back I suggested on Twitter that the programme could avoid the problems of colour blind casting stories set in eras before mass immigration to Europe by visiting non-European history, as the Hartnell historicals had done, so I was pleased to see a step towards that here.  Rosa is set in Western history, but not in Europe and at a point of racial conflict.  (I think we are to get a completely non-European historical story later in the season.)  There’s a tension in this production, a sense that this is too important a story to fail with the double weight of the new regime’s first trip to the past, reinventing the ‘time meddler’ strand of story, and the importance of the subject matter.

The ‘innocent abroad’ sequences at the start have an additional weight and horror not seen since The Massacre as the TARDIS crew realise the full extent the danger posed by the society of the Deep South.  This is the most fully-realised ‘alien’ society seen in the programme in a very long time.  Given that under Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat the past was often presented as having the same attitudes as the present, but with different clothes, this is disconcerting in more ways than one.  Rosa’s warning to the Doctor early on that she would get into trouble that she would not be able to get out of easily serves as an warning to the audience about the type of story this is, one largely unseen in the new series, where societal forces create a problem too great for the Doctor to defeat directly and only a small or partial victory can be achieved.  This story is somewhat more optimistic than The Aztecs or The Massacre, positing that small actions can have great effects over time.  This verges on a slightly Whiggish version of history, heading inevitably towards peaceful pluralism, but Yaz and Ryan’s conversation about their own experiences of racism in the twenty-first century helps to add a note of caution and a reminder of the distance the audience still has to travel.

As with The Massacre, it’s the standard Doctor Who stuff that jars, such as the lines about the Doctor giving her mobile to Elvis who then lent it to Frank Sinatra to push the plot along a little.  Krasko in particular feels a light-weight, under-motivated villain.  James Blake is a product of a society built on centuries of racism and slavery, but we never really find out what Krasko’s society is like, what made him the way he was, what has made him go to all this effort.  Perhaps, as with real-life questions about what made, say, Hitler, the way he was, it’s ultimately unanswerable and doesn’t need an answer purely in terms of plot mechanics, but it does leave Krasko feeling more like a plot device than a character, someone there to put the wheels of the story in motion.  The very real danger of scenes where the regulars come up against the entrenched racism of unnamed supporting characters, particularly the scene in the motel with the policeman, produce far more tension and fear than any of Krasko’s scenes.  The difference between these characters and the cardboard Nazis of Let’s Kill Hitler is palpable.

By this stage the slower pace to the stories is beginning to look deliberate, an attempt at changing the house style and allowing for stories that would not have been told in more frenetic recent years.  The Doctor’s confrontations with Krasko allow her to show real ‘steel’ in the face of danger perhaps for the first time in this incarnation, but this is still a quieter Doctor than we have seen so far in the twenty-first century, one who listens to her companions as much as she speaks and is willing to stand in the background rather than hogging the limelight, particularly when gently nudging history back on track.

Overall, this was a strong episode that revitalised the pseudo-historical sub-genre.