“You won’t burn (red, red roses)
You won’t bleed (pinks and posies)
Confess to me, girl (red, red roses, go down)” – “Waking the Witch,” Kate Bush
A quick jaunt to see Queen Elizabeth’s coronation turns sour—and deadly—when the TARDIS lands in 17th century England and smack in the middle of a witch trial. It also means the Doctor must face sexism head-on.
When they land in Lancashire, there is merriment and apple bobbing—which greatly pleases the Doctor—until a bell rings and the village gathers at the river. There a woman is placed in chains by Lady Savage, the head of the town. The age-old rules apply here: if the woman drowns, she’s innocent. If she survives, she’s a witch. Prior to this event, the Doctor warns her companions that they are not there to interfere, but that’s exactly what she does, diving into the water to try to save the woman. Sadly, it’s to no avail, and it leads to the Doctor and her friends being the focus.
Lady Savage is certain that Satan currently reigns over her people and the land and the only way to stomp out his hold is to test those who may secretly support him. This is a commitment she herself firmly held to, having drowned 35 townspeople in the process. Today’s victim was Old Lady Twiston, the village’s healer. Her granddaughter, Willa, also remains on Lady Savage’s shortlist of those possibly in league with the Devil. Yaz follows after her while the Doctor, Ryan, and Graham try to work out why Lady Savage is hellbent on killing so many town members.
The Doctor uses her trusty psychic paper to explain she is Witchfinder General. All goes well until his Royal Highness, King James I rears his flamboyant head, mistaking Graham as the actual Witchfinder General on the case, because he is a man, and calling the Doctor ‘lassie’ at every turn.
“These are hard times for women,” the Doctor reflects. “If we aren’t being drowned, we’re being patronized to death.”
Meanwhile, Yaz watches Willa at her grandmother’s grave and witnesses a muddy root rise from the earth and try to grab Willa. Yaz fetches the Doctor and they end up at Willa’s home, filled with potions and helpful herbs. It’s there that the truth outs—Lady Savage is actual family, but she married up and they have been at odds ever since. They head to the forest to inspect Old Lady Twiston’s grave. The Doctor takes a sample of mud and realizes its sentient alien matter and it’s reanimating the village’s corpses, including Old Lady Twiston.
After the Doctor, her companions, and King James I’s crew all escape an encounter with the mud-filled zombies where King James I’s guard is killed, Ryan, Graham and Yaz dart back into the forest to try to learn more while the Doctor tries to work on what’s been going on. When she pins the still-unknown case on Lady Savage, it’s turned back on her and the Doctor is accused of being a witch in front of King James I. While Willa initially stands by the Doctor, she backs down out of fear and the Doctor is taken. King James wants to know more about the Doctor’s sonic and her powers but she simply says such knowledge must be earned. When she gives him an insightful once over about his life, she encourages him to not seek evil, but to look inward:
“I know because we’re all the same. We want certainty, security. To believe that people are evil or heroic but that’s not how people are. You want to know the secrets of existence? Start with the mysteries of the heart.”
The Doctor tries to make King James free her, but it is to no avail and she ends up in the dunking seat. She calls out Lady Savage once more and asks her to reveal whatever she is hiding. While Lady Savage refuses, she accidentally sets off sparks when she touches the ducking seat, made from the largest tree in town.
Team TARDIS hears the trail commence and head to the river. The Doctor is dunked into the river. Graham and Ryan both plead with King James to end it. When the seat is raised, it’s empty with the Doctor popping up farther down shore, sighting a weekend with Houdini as a reason for being able to escape chains so easily.
So then it’s down to spelling out the connection between Lady Savage and the sentient alien mud. It turns out Lady Savage was infected by a tendril when she cut down the tree that was spoiling her view of town. She went to Old Lady Twiston for help and that is part of why she tried her as a witch.
Lady Savage is finally overtaken by the mud, which is Morax, an alien army that has been imprisoned underground for centuries. The prison lock was broken when Lady Savage cut down the tree and now they want King James so they can take over the Earth. The Morax force knocks Team TARDIS out, but once they awake, the Doctor already has a plan—break up the dunking seat and turn it into toxic torches to fight off the Morax, retrieve King James and put the lock back in place. Willa joins them and leads them up the hill. All goes to plan, except for King James using one of the torches on Lady Savage. The Doctor tells him no more witch hunts and makes her way back to her TARDIS, refusing to speak to him. King James promises to never speak a word and the town will be erased from the history books. The companions head off, with Ryan turning down an offer to be in King James’ guard and Graham quoting Ezekiel 25:17 (from Pulp Fiction). The Doctor signs off (and sails off) with a quote from Arthur C. Clarke:
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
While the ongoing theme of the season remains intact—that the real monsters we must fight are ourselves—the Morax and the historical setting of Joy Wilkinson’s story allow for a good old-fashioned gothic fright full of witches and mud-laden zombies. It was also refreshing to see the Doctor finally wrestle with her gender change with both humor and horror. Early in the episode, she pipes down and fits the typical female role until she can escape back to her team and the task at hand. Later on, it’s touching when Graham places the Witchfinder General’s hat to the Doctor’s head, acknowledging where the true leadership lies.
While we’ve seen the Doctor show disappointment when others choose violence, this is the closest we’ve seen her get to the namesake of “Oncoming Storm” this entire season. She doesn’t mince words or suffer fools, even if those around her refuse to see her or understand her for what she truly is. And Alan Cumming wins best guest star of the season with his scenery chewing, flamboyant King James I.
Rachel Stewart has written fandom commentary for sites such as FangirlConfessions.com, Nerdy Minds Magazine, and ESO Network, among others. She has published work in the anthology “Children of Time: The Companions of Doctor Who.”