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DOCTOR WHO Just Became a Doctor Witch, in a Dangerous Era for That

DOCTOR WHO Just Became a Doctor Witch, in a Dangerous Era for That

The following recap contains spoilers for the Doctor Who episode “The Witchfinders”

There was a question. It was asked from the moment Jodie Whittaker lowered her hoodie to reveal that she’d been cast as the next Doctor in the summer of 2017, and even long before that when the idea of a woman playing the Doctor was mere speculation. While much of the negative feedback to the concept was steeped in misogyny or simple fear of change, this question, this immediate pushback to doing so wasn’t quite as severe. It was simply a matter of why? What narrative purpose would such a change have to the story of Doctor Who to make changing the gender of its core protagonist something worth doing, and not something that would be, as some naysayers described it, pandering?

“The Witchfinders,” the eighth episode of Whittaker’s first season, does a superb job of answering exactly that question. So far, any instances of references to the Doctor’s new gender have been throwaway gags, the Doctor accidentally referring to herself as “daddy” when talking to the TARDIS, or asking Yaz (Mandip Gil) if being a woman suits her after hearing herself called “madam” for the first time. “The Witchfinders” doubles down on it instead. The Doctor being a woman is a direct conflict for her this week, generating story by serving as not only a barrier towards her ability to more quickly solve the mystery, but also actively wrapping her up in the story as it unfolds.

The rest of the stories we’ve seen thus far this season feel like tales that any other previous Doctor could have been dropped into, with minor tweaks to emotions to suit the various actors here and there. But while one could easily imagine David Tennant running across a barren planet in “The Ghost Monument” or Peter Capaldi poking Chris Noth’s character in “Arachnids in the U.K.” with irreverent dismissal, it’s hard to imagine any previous Doctor facing the exact walls that Jodie’s faces here. What’s amazing is that there’s room for both things in the future of Doctor Who: stories of a time-traveling adventurer who likes a spot of trouble, and stories where the things that set that adventurer apart bristle against the historical attitudes of the times she visits and those she comes into contact with.

It’s not the fact that she’s blocked from her task by those in authority; that’s almost as old hat Doctor Who as the TARDIS, but it’s the steps that cause it. She begins the episode like most Doctors, talking herself into a position of power when her psychic paper identifies her to Becka Savage (guest star Siobhan Finneran) as the Witchfinder General, which allows her to take control of the situation immediately after attempting to thwart a witch trial. But any initial deference this gave her is stripped away by the arrival of King James I (Alan Cumming), whose own bias undermines the psychic paper that then only shows the Doctor to be an assistant. Combine that with the Doctor’s natural inclination to question authority, and the fact that her sonic screwdriver very much resembles a magic wand to the residents of 17th century England, and it’s no wonder why she ends up in the ducking stool herself. She’s an easy target for the unchecked fears that lead to witch trials to begin with.

When there’s talk about diversity and storytelling and reasons why it should happen, episodes like this serve as great examples as to why. First and foremost, “The Witchfinders” is a solid Doctor Who historical. It blends the show’s sci-fi nature with an actual aspect of history, it seeds in details of the mystery throughout the story, and leads to a reveal of an actual evil monster as the villain. It also makes excellent use of its guest stars, with Finneran serving up the same devilish paranoid manipulation that worked so well for her as Downton Abbey’s resident schemer, while Cumming doesn’t come near a piece of scenery he doesn’t delightfully chew. The way that Jodie’s gender is worked into the story strengthens, rather than stealing from or distracting from, the overall plot of the episode.

It’s the kind of work you get when you have other voices involved in your storytelling, such as Whittaker, or the writer and director pairing of Joy Wilkinson and Sallie Aprahamian. It allows the show to do what it already does best from an angle that it never has before, which is exactly what it should be doing. In fact, the only real sour note in the whole endeavor is the moment where the Doctor calls out exactly what’s happening, that if she were still “a bloke” she could have gotten right to work without all this other nonsense. It’s a shame that this detail needed to be explicitly stated as such, because the episode had done a perfectly fine job of showing without telling.

“The Witchfinders” continues the momentum of “Kerblam!” as the cast and writing further gel together. Our trio of friends — Yaz, Ryan (Tosin Cole), and Graham (Bradley Walsh) — took something of a backseat to the Doctor this time, but each still got minor moments. There was Yaz relating to the persecution of local peasant girl Willa (Tilly Steele), Ryan catching the eye of King James, and Graham masquerading as the “actual” Witchfinder General as well as serving as a reliable quip machine. As in “Kerblam!”, the story, and the Doctor herself, seems to trust in them enough to let them run off and do their own things, which allows the plot to keep moving forward even when the Doctor herself is prevented from moving freely. Team TARDIS is confident, and they’re running full steam ahead, and it’s getting really exciting to see where they’re going.

Images: BBC

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