Doctor Who, episode 8, review: 'The Witchfinders' is Jodie Whittaker's scariest outing yet

The villains look like something from an x-rated Japanese horror movie such as 'The Grudge' or 'Ring'

Ed Power
Sunday 25 November 2018 20:47
comments
Doctor Who, episode 8: The Witchfinders trailer

Doctor Who has defeated Daleks, Cybermen and a campaign by BBC management in the late Eighties to send the Tardis into early retirement. But not even a Time Lord in a natty coat stands a chance against the malignant spirits haunting the internet, as made clear this week when BBC One’s eighth episode of the latest season was leaked by Amazon.

The paranoid might wonder if the accidental appearance of “The Witchfinders” on Amazon Prime in the US represented cosmic payback. The previous Sunday, showrunner Chris Chibnall had appeared to tweak the nose of the tech goliath with an instalment that pointedly critiqued online retailing.

In “Kerblam!”, the Doctor investigated a conspiracy at the hulking warehouse complex of a (completely fictional) internet retailer with a cosmic footprint. Along the way serious points were made about worker treatment by the dotcom gods. Had the broadcaster brought the virtual equivalent of bad karma down on its head?

Either way, those who enjoyed a sneak peek at “The Witchfinders” before Amazon hastily took it down may have wished they hadn’t. Before us stands the first properly scary Doctor Who under Chibnall. The gallant Gallifreyan (Jodie Whittaker) and her team travel to a Satan-obsessed village in 17th century Lancashire. This is the era when the hats were tall, the populace godfearing and the punishment for witch-like behaviour – being female and having entry-level knowledge of herbs – severe.

It’s witch-hunting season, as it happens, and the action commences with our heroes observing an innocent woman drowned in a ritual to test whether she is in league with Satan (had she survived, her guilt would have been proved beyond all doubt and she would have been conveyed to the nearest pyre).

This is disturbing enough – but far scarier is to follow. The witchy goings-on at Bilehurst Cragg – didn’t he play bass with Iron Maiden in the Eighties? – are the work of demonic mud particles, which have possessed the corpses of the innocents slaughtered in the moral panic.

Ashen, with muck oozing down their faces, the zombies look like something from an x-rated Japanese horror movie such as The Grudge or Ring. Which is obviously a welcome change after a rather preachy season of Doctor Who. It’s just a fortnight, after all, since we were asked to consider that the internecine violence that erupted during Indian partition was on balance a negative development.

Nonetheless, for all the families watching, Japanese-horror style zombies are probably too much of a terrifying thing. Why, it needs to be asked, was writer Joy Wilkinson given a green light to serve up full-fat nightmare fuel on a Sunday evening pre-watershed?

Still, the shivers are in service of a cracking story. Alan Cumming turns up as a dandy-ish King James I (at one point it seems his moustache is about to literally start twirling and lift him off the ground). He’s in town to assist godfearing Becka Savage (Happy Valley’s Siobhan Finneran) with her black magic crackdown and quickly rumbles that the Doctor isn’t, as she claims, a Witchfinder General.

Actually, James assumes Graham (Bradley Walsh) is the boss witchfinder, the Doctor his assistant (what with her being female and everything). But the newcomers’ story crumbles quite rapidly anyway and it’s the Doctor who finds herself taking a dip in order to ascertain her witchiness.

However, death by drowning is the least of her worries (she slips her chains and swims to safety). The mud-monsters, it turns out, are elite alien soldiers, imprisoned on Earth for millennia previously.

The charm holding them in place is broken when Becka cuts down a magical tree – for which her reward is extraterrestrial infection. The orgy of witch killing is her way of covering up for the fact she is being consumed by forces beyond her understanding – and also a flailing attempt to drive out what she assumes to be the devil inside.

Yet the jig is revealed to be up when the mud-demon possesses her completely and (very considerately) explains that, with the guardian tree gone, his big bad boss is about to return. Enter the Doctor, who uses charmed wood from the tree to seal the gate and scatter the monsters – with amused assistance from King James.

The blend of chills and whimsy – Cumming licks, chews and devours the scenery whole – is surprisingly effective and the mud-zombies looming in the murk are genuinely unsettling. Which is good news for horror diehards, less so for all those tuning in with their children. “The Witchfinders” undoubtedly casts a spell, but family fare it is not.

Support free-thinking journalism and attend Independent events

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments