Camp, villainy and The Witchfinders (2018)

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Like most Doctor Who fans, I’m not quite done talking about Timelash. I must be the first person ever to write about it and fail to mention Paul Darrow’s spectacular turn as the villainous Tekker.

Darrow must have looked around the drab interiors of Karfel and realised that someone needed to liven things up a bit and he was just the man for the job. He doesn’t so much steal each scene he’s in, as mug his fellow actors, grab their collective dignity and run down a corridor, tearing it up and scattering it around, laughing maniacally as he goes. I could choose a dozen of his lines to highlight this scenery chewing, but this one will do: “Well, that can hardly be said of our beloved leader, the Borad of Karfel,” he hams, one hand casually on a hip, the other casually gesticulating with a space pistol. “The most luminous force in this part of the GALAXY!”

Tekker the Tremendous is part of Doctor Who’s tradition of high camp villainy. From Karfel it’s only a hop, skip and a stylish leap to Lancashire where we find the flamboyant personage of King James I, played, as only he can, by Alan Cumming. Others have found Cumming’s fruity performance too much to cope with, but I think it spruces The Witchfinders up no end. “You may prostrate yourselves before me!” he opens with and dials it up steadily from there. It’s not just that he wrings every last inference out of a line (such as when he addresses an alarmed Ryan (Tosin Cole) with “And what is your field of expertise, my Nubian prince?”). It’s also that each is accompanied with pursed lips, a haughty stare, a saucy smile or all of the above. “I rather like the drama,” he says of his habit of wearing a disguise when he travels, but we all know it doesn’t stop there.

One of the great things about watching Doctor Who randomly is the way these sort of hidden similarities between stories emerge, and thus Timelash and The Witchfinders have got me thinking that big, camp performances by villains have been an infrequent but not uncommon part of the show for many years. Let’s call these cheesy bad-uns the Campions.

It starts in The War Games (of all places) which features two such performances from Edward Brayshaw and James Bree, who bitch incessantly at each other for episodes on end. Then there’s Harrison Chase, the millionaire botanist madman of The Seeds of Doom, who loved to play all day in his “green cathedral”. There’s Soldeed of The Horns of Nimon fame (a story we must be getting around to eventually), with a robe sweeping, eye rolling performance of operatic proportions. He’s a direct ancestor of Paradise Towers’ Chief Caretaker. For a modern Who example, perhaps there’s Mr Finch of School Reunion or the paper pushing Seb in Dark Water. And from next random, there’s BOSS, a computer programmed for maximum camp. He purrs at his adjutants with lines like, “the adrenaline flowing nicely? Living dangerously? That’s how you get your kicks, like the good little Nietzschean you are.”

A quick point of clarification: the type of villain I’m talking about here not just an over the top performance. Here we’re looking for OTT + camp. Yrcanos, for instance, or Zaroff are over the top, but neither are Campions. A Campion needs to be a bit fun, a bit flouncy and a bit fey. And they need to be able to engage the Doctor in articulate and witty debate about the pros and cons of their plan. Count Grendel, for instance: pure Campion. (And also, for the purposes of this post, male. There are fabulously camp female villains but once you start listing them – the Rani, Captain Wrack, Helen A, Miss Winters, Miss Foster… it suddenly seems like all female Who villains are camp. The male villains seem to offer a clearer division. Why is that? Opinions in the comments please).

So why use a Campion? Well, some stories are highly stylised to begin with and seem to suit a larger than life, theatrical performance: Paradise Towers, for instance, couldn’t include a Lytton. Others are playfully postmodern – a pastiche of a character like the Pirate Captain was never going to call for a performance of quiet understated menace. Sometimes it’s needed to brighten up proceedings. The Witchfinders, with its tale of the pointless murdering of women, would be grim indeed without James prancing in and out of it regularly throughout.

Interestingly, the one thing they’re not is sissies. They often end up in single combat with the Doctor at story’s end. And the threats they represent are not insubstantial. Doctor Who is a show where camp is fun, but just as dangerous as everything else the Doctor faces. Harrison Chase, for instance, has a machine which crushes people to death and will physically feed you to it if he has to. There’s a dramatic levelling effect here, when villains can be playful and whimsical, but will still send a robot to strangle you without hesitation. That feels very Doctor Who.

James is a good example of the skewing effect a Campion has within a Doctor Who story. It draws focus from the Doctor, offering the viewer a figure of fun to rival him or her. They’re magnetic, charismatic types. You can’t wait to see them onscreen again, because often, they’re the most interesting thing it in. In James’ case, he’s also played by a big star and big stars neither fill small roles nor give small performances. You don’t hire Cumming to be understated and people tuning in don’t want him to be. In The Witchfinders, it certainly gives Jodie Whittaker someone of great skill to play off, and the mercurial nature of the character means she’s sometimes pally with him, sometimes vehemently opposed to him.

In fact, Whittaker’s Doctor really benefits from having someone tricksier than the usual alpha male to play against. Her three friends are pleasant enough company, but they are determinedly everyday folk. They won’t be playfully frocking up like Romana or delivering the punchlines like Nardole. So having a Campion every so often to bring a little zing to the dialogue is no bad thing. And when male Doctors faced off against a Campion, it resulted in a positioning as the Doctor as our standard, masculine hero and the villain as the slightly shifty, less masculine “other”. Played against Whittaker’s goofy, unassuming Doctor, there’s less of a right vs wrong version of maleness, which allows for more of a contest of ideas. Such as here where the Doctor, tied to a post and about to be dunked for a witch, places the seeds of doubt in James’ mind about his vicious doctrine. A less combative, but still interesting, dynamic.

Actually, I’d go as far as saying Chris Chibnall’s Who could afford a bit more fun and flamboyance of the type exhibited in Cummings in The Witchfinders. As an antidote to its current air of earnestness and its roll call of blustering macho types – your Tim Shaws, your Kraskoes, your Trump-lites. Pitting a female Doctor against traditional male bullshit is an obviously pleasing match up, but subverting that is even more fun. Let’s Campion things up a bit more.

LINK TO Timelash: as discussed. But also, appalling treatment of women.

NEXT TIME… This fellow’s bright green apparently, and dead. It’s a trip down t’pit in The Green Death.

2 thoughts on “Camp, villainy and The Witchfinders (2018)”

  1. Cumming’s performance is great fun, but I have to say I was a bit annoyed by the character at the time: he’s really theatrical and unpleasantly sleazy. Which would be more than fine if he wasn’t the only gay male character to appear on the show since the Thin One in A Good Man Goes to War.

    (Bonus points to Ryan for being so cool about James hitting on him.)

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