The Doctor has faced a lot in her long life. But being a woman is presenting her with some previously unexperienced challenges. Like being tried and nearly drowned as a witch.
Ah, the joys of being female.
The Doctor and her
team gang fam friends find themselves near Lancashire in the 17th century (the TARDIS is still struggling to nail exact time and place, really hitting the hard R in "relative") and after some short-lived joy over bobbing for apples...
...our heroes realize they are onsite for a witch trial — one that ends, as most do, in death.
Heading up witchhunt operations is Becka Savage (Siobhan Finneran), who believes Satan has descended upon Bilehurst Cragg, a village that seems to no longer exist in our present day. Savage has killed 36 women so far — and doesn't seem interested in stopping until the threat of Satan is out of the town, even if it means killing every single person. She is quickly and unexpectedly joined on her mission by King James (Alan Cumming in an utterly delightful performance), whose own personal history is fraught with tragedy, loss, and terror, and whose only goal is to snuff out that which he does not understand and therefore assumes must be the work of the devil.
And given her knowledge, insight, and lack of filter, the Doctor is obviously accused of witchcraft and named an apprentice of Satan. It was only a matter of time, really.
Of course, there are no witches afoot and despite a pretty major encounter on an impossible planet, the Doctor isn't so sure Satan is real anyway. As ever, the problem is alien in nature — the Morax, an alien race imprisoned in Pendle Hill. The Doctor saves the day, and fulfilling his role as Useless Male of the Week, King James mucks it up and kills when he doesn't need to. All in all, it's a fun episode with witches, mud monsters, zombies, Alan Cumming flirting with Ryan, Graham wearing a hat — it has everything. But it still manages to give us a reminder that the Doctor is facing challenges she's never had to before, in a universe that treats her a bit differently than it used to.
Every single week, the 13th Doctor era of Doctor Who has managed to elicit eyerolls and applause in the same breath, depending upon the viewer. We have remained firmly on the ovation side of things, and this episode was no exception. When the Doctor rightly states, "Honestly, if I was still a bloke I could get on with the job and not have to waste time defending myself," it's thrilling, because we know it's true — in the episode and in terms of the season as a whole. When we're told of the origins of the ducking stool — "To silence foolish women who talk too much" — the Doctor's quick shut down ("Yeah I did know that. Which is daft 'cause talking's brilliant.") inspires a powerful warmth and excitement, because this is a Doctor who not only knows that but is experiencing life as a "foolish woman who talks too much" and all that comes with it. For 55 years, we knew the Doctor believed in us. But this year, the Doctor is us for a lot of people who've never gotten to know what that feels like. And it's wonderful.