Alan Cumming may be the best guest star Doctor Who has ever had

The Scottish actor’s insane, over-the-top King James I steals the show in The Witchfinders

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This year’s series of Doctor Who has had a pretty strong selection of guest stars, from the gleeful hamming of Sex and the City’s Chris Noth in Arachnids in the UK to the warm, grounded performance of Corrie legend Julie Hesmondhalgh in seventh episode Kerblam!

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However, today I’m here to inform you that none of them come close to matching the gleefully insane performance of The Good Wife, Spy Kids and X-Men 2’s Alan Cumming, making his Who debut (after some near-misses in the past) for series 11’s eighth episode The Witchfinders.

Simply put, Cumming’s take on Stuart King James I is one of the most over-the-top, campest and entertaining performances this series, and possibly Doctor Who as a whole, has seen. Watching it for the first time, I couldn’t stop gasping with laughter, Cumming’s sheer commitment to his wild take on the role pushing past parody, past quality and into a new realm of enjoyment.

From the moment Cumming dramatically unfurls himself in his first scene, the energy of the episode raises by about 200%.

“You may prostrate yourselves before me,” Cumming purrs as he unveils himself to the Tardis team, currently in the midst of holding back a local witch hunt.

“God’s chosen ruler, and Satan’s greatest foe – come to vanquish the SCOURGE of witchcraft across the land.”

“Forgive the mask – I have enemies everywhere and have to travel incognito. And also, I rather like the drama,” he adds, tittering.

And as the episode continues Cumming doesn’t so much steal the show as carry it off in an elaborate heist, whether he’s battling Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor in a game of wits, accusing every passing pedestrian of witchcraft or flirting with Tosin Cole’s Ryan, who he describes as his “Nubian Prince” with hungry eyes (the episode leans quite heavily into the popular historical theory that King James was gay).

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Cumming was one of the first Doctor Who guest stars to be (inadvertently) revealed this year, and probably the actor I was most looking forward to seeing in action, but his turn in The Witchfinders is above and beyond my wildest dreams.

No, it’s not a nuanced, soulful portrayal of human existence, and probably not even an accurate portrayal of the man himself (though King James’ paranoia and eccentricity is fairly well-documented) but it’s incredible fun to watch and I loved every second he was onscreen.

For a while watching the episode I honestly wasn’t sure whether Cumming’s King James was absolutely brilliant or just so-bad-its-good, such is its complete separation from every other performance in the episode, but after some quiet personal reflection I’ve settled on the former.

Maybe it won’t be to everyone’s taste – I did check with one or two people to make sure I hadn’t completely misjudged it, and they agreed with me – but for me, Cumming singlehandedly makes the episode, and will leave a long shadow for any future guest star casting in Doctor Who episodes.

Long live the King!

Doctor Who continues on BBC1 on Sundays

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This article was originally published on 25 November 2018