‘Doctor Who’: 10 Things You May Not Know About ‘The Witchfinders’
“The Witchfinders” is an elegant exploration of intolerance, set in a particularly fearful and brutal moment of British history.
It’s also a gothic romp that features the wonderful Alan Cumming as a very camp King James I of England (and VI of Scotland).
Here are a few things to keep an eye out for, the next time you watch:
1. Let’s start at the end. When the Doctor says, “A brilliant man once said, any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” she’s referring to Arthur C. Clarke’s third law. Clarke formulated three laws for writing about the future, based on his extensive experience as a sci-fi writer. The first and second are as follows:
• When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
• The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
It’s fair to say all three laws have featured heavily in the script-writing of Doctor Who over the years.
2. The third law has been directly referenced at least four other times on screen. The Third Doctor illustrated it perfectly with his radio controlled car in “The Daemons,” the Seventh Doctor quoted it verbatim (as if he had thought of it himself) during “Battlefield,” and in “The Girl Who Died,” the Twelfth Doctor tells Clara: “To the primitive mind, advanced technology can seem like magic.”
Naturally, when it’s his turn to have a go on the quote — in the Torchwood story “Immortal Sin,” Captain Jack boils it down to bare essentials and ends with jazz hands: “It's not magic. Technology. Sometimes they're indistinguishable. Hey, hey, hey!”
3. This story is only the second in Who history to be written and directed by women (the first being three episodes of "Enlightenment" in 1993). It was directed by Sallie Aprahamian, and written by Joy Wilkinson, whose Lancastrian upbringing and background in historical dramatization plays into the story’s sense of location. Speaking of which…
4. While Bilehurst was never a real place, Pendle Hill was the location of one of the most famous witch trials in English history. Ten women and two men were accused of sorcery in 1612, and charged with the murders of ten people. All but one of them was found guilty and were condemned to death by hanging.
5. As always, Graham can be relied upon to provide some British phraseology to the situation, claiming that Bilehurst is “in special measures.” In popular British English, special measures can be used to mean any regulation of public services that do not pass muster. It comes from genuine legal regulation of schools, health and social care organizations and some legal departments. Failure can be met with more regular monitoring, the replacement of managers and staff, and in extreme cases, even the closure of the school or care home to which the measures have been applied.
Graham’s use echoes the mocking tone of the British popular press, who can never resist a chance to cock a snook at authority.
6. One interesting historical quirk that Wilkinson has taken a definite view on is the historical speculation that King James’s mother, Mary Queen of Scots, had his father Henry Stuart murdered. The facts are less clear.
Henry was murdered in February 1567, and James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, who was accused of the crime, did marry Mary the month after he was acquitted. His acquittal came at the end of a trial in which the prosecutors were not granted time to gather evidence, and he had made his intentions towards the Queen plain within a week of walking free. Nevertheless, a satisfactorily definite version of events was never agreed upon.
7. In the heat of her righteous fury, the Doctor makes a bit of a hash of her Biblical studies. She claims that “love thy neighbor” isn’t in the Old Testament, telling King James, “There's a twist in the sequel.” But the verse “thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” appears in the book of Leviticus, very firmly in the Old Testament. That it shows up again in the New Testament isn’t a moral evolution, it’s a quotation.
8. We see the book Daemonologie, or, to give it its full title: Daemonologie, in Forme of a Dialogue, Divided into three Bookes, a treatise on supernatural influence, necromancy and black magic which really existed. In fact, it was published in 1599 "with royal privilege," as it was written by none other than King James I.
9. King James associates the name Doctor with Doctor John Dee, who he calls a “necromancer”. In fact, Dee was the perfect intellectual of his age, being as obsessed with superstition as he was science. He was an astronomer, antiquarian and a spy, but also a magician, occultist and a would-be alchemist. He was a close confidante of Queen Elizabeth I for a while, and an early advocate for what became the British Empire, so much so that he’s credited with coining the phrase.
He is also the only person in history to be the subject of a song by Iron Maiden (“The Alchemist”) and an opera by Damon Albarn of Blur/Gorillaz fame (“Dr Dee: An English Opera”).
10. Fancy a quick trip down a quotations rabbit hole to finish? Smashing! When Graham offers a Biblical verse to King James — “we will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger” — it’s partly a joke about the King James Bible and partly a reference to Quentin Tarantino’s script for Pulp Fiction.
In the movie, one of Tarantino’s gangster (played by Samuel L. Jackson) makes great use of a quotation he claims is from the book of Ezekiel; 25:17, to be precise. “The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of the darkness. For he is truly his brother’s keeper and the finder of lost children.
“And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know I am the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon you.”
Now, the interesting thing is that this is only half true. Ezekiel 25:17 (in the King James) reads as follows: “And I will execute great vengeance upon them with furious rebukes; and they shall know that I am the Lord, when I shall lay my vengeance upon them.”
The bit before that is a mish-mash of Biblical language and sentiments, and an almost direct quotation from the introduction to the 1976 martial arts movie Karate Kiba/Kiba the Bodyguard, starring Sonny Chiba.
Mind you, that version of the Bible quote — also attributed to Ezekiel — replaces the Lord, like so: “And I will execute great vengeance upon them with furious anger, who poison and destroy my brothers; and they shall know that I am Chiba the Bodyguard when I shall lay my vengeance upon them.”
So, when Graham attributes the quote to Tarantino, he’s right, but also wrong.
Do you have a favorite moment from "The Witchfinders"?