Earth. 17th century. A time of superstition and ignorance, of accusations, drownings and hangings in a village overcome with terror. This is the land the Doctor finds herself in during The Witchfinders. Ryan becomes friendly with the king, Graham cracks some great lines and Yaz looks great running around on her own doing some investigating. Welcome back Scooby Who. But, from a writing perspective, Earth stories are more dangerous because the potential for fallout is higher. When we go to the planet Ribos, and we will never know what impact the Doctor made on society because it’s never going to be mentioned again, but Earth?! We can’t afford the special effects to have that many alien worlds which means we’re going to come back here time and again. So an Earth-based story has to have some cohesion with the larger whole of Doctor Who, otherwise it’s a lie! Let me explain…
In talking to a friend about Star Trek: Discovery, I realized “it’s a lie”. Like any story we tell our friends or kids or coworkers, the story has to connect to other facts to be “true”. When we tell a story, then contradict ourselves later, people realize we are basing our story on lies and no one cares to hear about it. Eventually, people lose interest because they never know if what we’re saying is true. Discovery struck me this way because it is constantly contradicting things that happened in Star Trek (the original series). You simply can’t put a drastically more technologically advanced story years ahead of the original series and expect that all that tech was just forgotten… At a certain point, you watch just for entertainment, but you put no stock in the universe anymore. Doctor Who runs a dangerous game doing the very same thing. Sure, with time travel, you have the luxury of being able to undo an event, but that would need to be explicitly stated. A sort of Bradbury-esque “sound of thunder” rewrite can be done but if it just conveniently fits without explanation, even a single line, then the overall story becomes a lie. And if there’s one thing we’ve seen this season, Whittaker can deliver lines, many of which are brief, but impact the story in huge ways. She’s great at it and the writers are utilizing her well, but forgetting to prevent the “lie” in the story itself.
The Witchfinders takes place in a small village where many of the natives see the mud creatures. Everyone is a spectator for the Doctor’s “drowning” and things happen pretty quickly from then on. The Doctor clearly explains that there is no witchcraft and ultimately defeats the monsters and the villagers see the battle. It’s a small town and the tree that was cut down – you know, the prison tree – was right in front of Becka’s home, so it’s a pretty obvious location in the village. Yet it seems this entire event goes unnoticed and, worse, unremembered. So the villagers go back to their lives, afraid of Satan’s influence and witches, and no one learned a thing.
Yes, this tale dispatches the main evildoer, Becka Savage, but those left should perhaps be inclined to lead a change, teaching people that there are no demons or witches. Let’s face it, people adapt, grow, learn! And those who don’t might be too traumatized to do anything about it so they just move out of town to get away from mud, if they can find such a place, but the ramifications from this story are not only negligible, they are almost counter intuitive. There should be some positive impact. Sure, nothing negative came out of it. A few people died, but it was the difference of a few or many hundreds, but nothing especially good came out of it either. It’s a question of “one or two fewer dead on the battlefield” and that’s it.
What I would hope is that those that survived would be more aware of the world in which they live. Alas, they are not related to any writers on Doctor Who because the story does what so many Doctor Who tales do: drops us into the past and creates a threat that is both potentially world-enveloping while at the same time, inconsequential enough that it has no long term effect. The wider world is forgotten. The events of this small town remain in this small town and no one is ever any wiser as a result. So in a way, it would be better if there were more fallout from this story. At least the Doctor does not leave a huge mess behind her. This story might not be a favorite, but it does at least show the Doctor made a difference to a town and left very little to be cleared up by the locals. ML
It’s curious that you mentioned how we never revisited Ribos. Specifically in its potential space-age future because, given the poignant drama between Unstoffe and Binro, it would of course be nice to see how the Ribosians would look back now after many years on Binro in a better light. Maybe that would still be a plausible story somewhere down the line.
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Speaking again of revisiting classic Dr. Who alien worlds, Argolis easily springs to mind. We saw how it ended on an optimistic note with the Doctor’s help in getting the tachyon generator finally working properly. Mena mentioned that the surface of Argolis wouldn’t become habitable until after a few centuries. After David Fisher’s brilliance in writing an openly style-changing story to launch Dr. Who into the 80s, coupled of course with how several classic Dr. Who stories are now extensively recognized via Big Finish, like “The Green Life” and “Night Of The Fendahl” (both for Torchwood), Whoniversal imagination can always find a way.
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