I was a bit dubious about this one, ’cause I thought it looked like a bit of a grim, depressing historical, but it was actually really enjoyable.
The Doctor and friends arrive in early 17th century Lancashire to find witch trials happening on the orders of a suspicious landowner called Becka, the widow of the previous landlord. Things get worse when King James shows up on his own crusade against witchcraft and has no time for the female Doctor, meaning she ends up getting tried as a witch. The strange happenings turn out to be the work of some aliens (the Morax) imprisoned under Pendle Hill, who were released when Becka tried to chop down a tree that was blocking her view (it was actually a lock). The Doctor eventually traps them again and releases the bodies they were possessing.
There’s a lot of interesting stuff going on here. The Doctor starts off by stating her very firm rule not to interfere with history (a nice callback to The Aztecs!) then immediately breaks it by trying to rescue an accused witch. It’s also fascinating how the writing manages to elicit some sympathy for Becka, rather than just making her a straightforwardly evil villain. King James is AWFUL, but wonderful to watch! He’s played brilliantly by Alan Cumming – conniving and camp with a crush on Ryan.
This is the first time we’ve seen the Doctor actually suffering from not being taken seriously in female form, despite the fact that this series has already visited Earth’s past a couple of times. It’s welcome that it’s finally been addressed, but it’s a bit overdue.
I love that they set the episode on Pendle Hill, the home of English witchcraft! I’ll remember the aliens buried under the ground next time I’m running up the hill during Pendle parkrun.
Graham has all the best lines, as usual (‘Ezekiel.’ ‘Tarantino.’), but it’s yet another episode that’s very light on the companion characterisation for Yasmin and Ryan. Somehow, I don’t think that’s suddenly going to change at this point in the series.
Back to the present day next time!