Another history lesson this week, but this time aliens are being mistaken for agents of Satan as the Doctor lands in the early 17th Century and meets King James in the middle of a witch hunt.
It’s also a lesson of how fear of the unknown can lead to serious consequences. It takes place in a small town called Bilehurst Cragg in Lancashire. The landowner, Becka Savage (Siobhan Finneran), has accused an old woman called Granny Twiston (Tricia Kelly) of being a witch, and is about to dunk her. The old woman loses either way: if she drowns, she’s innocent and dead; if she doesn’t, she’ll be executed.
The Doctor tries to save the woman but fails. It’s later revealed Savage has killed 35 people, thinking they were all witches. Savage seems to be very paranoid, determined to defeat Satan anywhere he exists. Is there something else involved?
For now, the Doctor uses her claim to be an official witchfinder to get a chance to see what’s really happening.
There’s also a mysterious man in a mask, who turns out to be King James I, played with style and flourish by Alan Cummings. He sees himself as a defender against Satan, complete with a witch-killing kit. It becomes apparent, though, his difficult life has taken a toll. At one point, he even accused the Doctor of being a witch, mainly because she’s a woman who shouldn’t know so much.
They share a good scene where she tries to convince him they’re the same, looking for security and certainty, but his fears are too strong. He does condemn her to the dunking pool but she’s OK because there’s a heavy dash of Houdini in her.
Meanwhile, Yaz and Willa Twiston (the granddaughter of Granny Twiston and a cousin to Becka) see some strange things, like a tendril popping from the ground, and some alien mud that has filled the body of the old woman and a few others, turning them into mud zombies. King James sees this, and declares them part of Satan, even after they eliminate the King’s bodyguard after saying “In the air and in the earth”
After a while, the mud zombies confront her. She confesses she chopped down a tree favored by Granny Twiston, but Becka thought it was an eyesore. The tendril injected her with the alien mud, but she thought it was Satan. When Granny refused to amputate Becka’s leg, she declared a witch to keep the secret. From there, she had to maintain the claim of the town being attacked by Satan.
It’s not a secret anymore when Becka turns into a Morax, part of an alien race who were trapped in a hill because of war crimes. The tree was their jail, and now they’re loose to possess literally everyone. King James still thinks it’s the work of Satan, only because alien worlds may be something he can’t grasp. What 17th century king would?
The Doctor is able to stop the Morax from turning everyone into mud zombies and return them to their jail. The King is still puzzled by everything, but he appreciates her help. Ryan almost considers an offer to be the King’s bodyguard, but he declines.
This episode was a mix of historical fact and aliens being the real villains, which seems to appeal to more fans. It was also a great example of the Doctor beating some pretty dangerous aliens through brains rather than brawn. It was another great example of how fear of the unknown can be very destructive, especially when it becomes personal. Remember, Becka killed her own grandmother to hide the real disease inside her. Willa (Tilly Steele) was hurt by this, but she vows to carry on her granny’s role as a healer.
Next week: the Doctor meets a very scared girl in Norway, and whatever’s scaring her will soon be after them.