On tonight’s Doctor Who the show was entirely dominated by the first guest star to play a major part in the show, and does he make his mark.
If there was one thing that really surprised me about this episode it was just how utterly and proudly camp it plays Alan Cumming as King James VI/I to the point it goes far beyond what even RTD was usually willing to play his characters to. His character openly flirts with Ryan throughout the episode and gives off an impression of being completely oblivious to the reality in which he lives, with his character exuberantly displaying these qualities while obsessed with living a biblical lifestyle and “defeating Satan”. It’s a hypocrisy that is at the very heart of the moral message throughout the episode of people lying to themselves and others to hide their true nature. When the show has had a history of awkwardly just stating some of its messages at times this one felt much more natural to the character and was a nice change of pace.
While the performance is scene stealing it does somewhat have the issue of then pulling you out of the episode in other regards, especially when it tries to go for a more serious tone, especially with the villain and moral messages, and undercutting the tone of the piece. It’s hard to think of the implications of murdering those who don’t fit in as “witches” or silencing critics as the act of cruelty and barbarity it is when Alan shows up and flamboyantly shows off his “pricker” in a way more reminiscent of a Carry On film than an episode of Who, with the intended moral line about patriarchy and bullying falling a bit flat when the guy you’re meant to hate for those systems being put there is a fun character and at the same time the best LGBT+ representation this series has had.
Outside of Cumming’s portrayal it feels likes much of the episode was cobbled together and not given the treatment needed to really shine. There are some quite dreadful pacing issues in how it reveals its “nemesis” about 6 minutes before the end only to then immediately kill them off, with the secret having been a Hot Fuzz-esque issue of a landowner cutting down a tree. Up to that final “confrontation” it does heavily rely on Cumming’s James VI/I to carry it forward.
While the episode had a number of arguably fatal flaws in the writing in terms of costuming and effects it knocked it out the park yet again, with some quite cool liquid skin effects for the main villain, that are sorely underused, while also really selling the Jacobian era vibe very well. The increased production values have really kept even the weaker offerings of this series from dragging it down.
Overall though I came away thinking this was my least-liked episode of the series so far, with a great guest performance shining through an otherwise confused and at times dull mess that while finding numerous witches couldn’t find a plot to last the running time.