5 December 2018: It Takes You Away review added.
26 November 2018: The Witchfinders review added.
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As the credits rolled, one of us said irritably. "Why on earth did they make that so long? We've been here all day."
Nope. It didn't top fifty minutes. It just seemed like several aeons had passed.
It's hard to put your finger on what's the worst aspect of this episode, because there are so many to choose from. So why don't we start with the witch stuff? This doesn't get off to a bad start - yes, it's massively clichéd, with the regulation quantity of villagers waving metaphoric pitchforks, mucho bawling about Satan, et al, but the tragic and pointless death of Granny Weatherwax does make a genuine impact nevertheless. This was an appalling time in history, after all, with an estimated 50,000 or so people executed for witchcraft, and Granny's death brings that home with great immediacy. As Ryan correctly observes, it's bloody dark. Given that Chris Chibnall wants to make his Who more historyish, it seems like a great opportunity to illuminate this pretty dramatic bit of the past
Good stuff! Going great so far! So how do they decide to develop the story? By wheeling in Alan Cumming to camp it up all over the place and tilt the whole thing into farce. Lovely. It's not like he isn’t great, but it's as if he's been pasted in from another show altogether. Would they have done this in Rosa or Demons In The Punjab? Somehow, we doubt it. But just because the (fifty thousand!) witchcraft executions are a few hundred years back in history, apparently they don't need to be treated with that level of respect. We just can't see what about this material would be hilarity-adjacent.
Nor are we particularly amused by the way they deal with sexism in this episode. After mostly skirting (ha!) the issue in previous episodes, here we see the Doctor looking pretty helpless and hopeless because of her gender. Sure, they highlight that deliberately and all, but all the same, it has a very unfortunate effect that we desperately hope they weren't intending. We were never fans of the all-powerful Doctor God, so we're fine with a Doctor who isn't quite so infallible and who can't necessarily get the whole universe into line with a name-drop and a flick of the sonic. Nevertheless, because this Doctor is a woman, and because that's specifically hindering her in this episode, it's starting to give the deeply unpleasant impression that she's less effective than her more powerful previous incarnations because she's a woman.
What's more, there's all-powerful, and then there's just plain unDoctorly. Does she really have to stand there twiddling her sonic as they're dusting off Granny's ducking stool? Not changing history notwithstanding, most of the previous Doctors would have sauntered in there spinning a line of chat, during the delivery of which they and the rest of the TARDIS crew would have managed to spirit Granny out of her chains and away. And the Doctor relies on Yaz taking Granny's pulse to decide it's all over for her. She's gone to all the trouble of diving into the pond to save her, and then…crickets. You don't even have to have two hearts and a singing dancing screwdriver to at least give a bit of CPR a go, do you? And what was the point of her impassioned speech to King James when he merely shrugs and tells her to get out her swimsuit? Also, Doctor, "the mysteries of the heart"? What the actual is she talking about?
And the Doctor's not exactly cogitating for Gallifrey elsewhere, either. She refuses to give the sample back to the Morax as it gives her some leverage over it - then she hands it back. How does she manage to miss the villain creeping up behind her? it only needed a chorus of "It's behind you!". And did we really see the rest of the TARDIS crew organise themselves and charge off to fix stuff while she just stood there? That's taking a flat team structure way too far. If the humans don't need the Doctor, why is she there at all? It should take more than a lend of your time hut to get your name in the title.
What else can they trash? How about the sheer witlessness of the thing? We know they're not making a documentary here, but can we not be really, really dumb? For dramatic necessity we can just about forgive the monarch popping up unexpectedly in a godforsaken country village sans retinue, visible means of transport and his own gold chamber pot. He did like to watch events incognito, after all, so it's not a ridiculous stretch. But charming as the vision is of him hunched over a parchment, scribbling away by sputtering candlelight, he did not write the King James Bible. Even if his name is on the cover. And why, why, why does the Doctor have to narrate the entire ending? They just don't trust the audience at all, do they?
And oh, God, we suppose we have to talk about the aliens. We'd be pretty miffed if we'd been locked up in a tree, too, but if we were we'd hope we could come up with better lines than "Kneel before Morax, feeble human!". And that's the highlight. On and on and on it goes. Poor Siobhan Finnegan. She's at least magnetically convincing as Becka Savage (Savage! Geddit?) even if the character is one-note, but after her transformation is forced to yell out a bunch of bog-standard threats while helpfully filling in her backstory at the same volume. As for the rest of the walking dead, we could only feel sorry for them, forced to endlessly lurch across a freezing and wet lansdcape while posing no danger whatsoever. Their bark, you might say, is worse than their bite.
An ineffective Doctor. Loads of standing around and yapping. Horrific lurches in tone. Aliens only slightly more interesting than the mud they're made from. Watch it again? Thanks, we'll pick the ducking stool.
THE ENGLISH ARE CUMMING
Why did they cast Alan Cumming, a Scot, as the Scottish King James, then have him deliver his lines with an English accent?
Why is everyone so gobsmacked when they bring up the Doctor's empty ducking stool? They saw her free Granny, after all.
I AM THE MORAX, I SPEAK FOR THE TREES
The Morax …king (????) yells that they're going to fill everyone on the planet. And then… they just bugger off!
YOU CAN'T GET THE STAFF
Why is Willa the only one who knows the path up the hill? And how likely is it that Becka, the lady of the manor, would have pounded up the hill and taken an axe to the "tree" with her own pampered hands?