I’ve always considered the Doctor Who novels to be a weaker offshoot of the main television series. Bound by continuity, unable to make major alterations to the development of characters or stories, I had an image of them as being superficial adventures – as entertaining as these can be. I was given The Witch Hunters by Steve Lyons about 5 or 6 years ago as a birthday present and decided to read it now. It was published in 1998 – during what fans consider the ‘wilderness years’ of the show after it had been cancelled in 1989 and before its return in 2005. Set in Massachusetts, 1692, the story focuses around the tragic events of the Salem Witch Trials. It features the First Doctor, Susan, Ian and Barbara and fits between “The Reign of Terror” and “Planet of the Giants” (around 1964).
The historical setting is the most striking aspect of the novel. Doctor Who, up until 1966 or so, featured frequent ‘historicals’ in which the travelers would land in a period of Earth’s history and be the only alien influence seen during the story. I rather miss that format – it would be nice now to see the Doctor travel back in time and not have aliens cause Mt. Vesuvius to erupt, for Shakespeare not to be influenced by witches, etc. But I digress. There was a point half way into the novel where I feared the antagonist would be revealed as supernatural witches, but it soon became clear this uncertainty was Lyons’ intention to make the mass hysteria appear all the more powerful. This tactic most definitely worked. I also enjoy the TARDIS landing on what seems like Earth but the travelers having no idea where they are. I wish that too would happen more frequently in the new series, but then nowadays there isn’t time for exploration.
Mass hysteria is a concept I in my snug, stable society have always struggled to understand, but Lyons’ approach to the subject is both tactful and enlightening. Even before the Doctor explains it, the tight-knit, claustrophobic community crippled by mourning and paranoia is developed through virtually every page and the reader believes that such hysteria could occur in this village. (Actually, these conditions finally provide a decent excuse for Othello…). I’m still not entirely convinced by the explanation for the children’s well-timed fits during the courts, but a combination of the puritanical society denying them an outlet for energy, the regular abuse they face, living on the edge of the Known World with all the trauma that entails and the fundamental religious belief all comes together to create a psychological state I could scarcely imagine. It is obvious Lyons has done his research. My main criticism is that the religious aspect sometimes felt a little shoehorned – Ian, coming from the 1960s UK, really wouldn’t say something like ‘your Bible’. Even if he himself is not religious – possible after all of his experences – he’ll certainly have friends or family at home who are. I get that the intention is to further portray this village as alien to the travelers but on this occasion it’s a bit forced.
This is why I love historicals; through a glance into different cultures, different beliefs and different events they shine varying lights into human nature. Humans become the enemy, with all the ambigueties this entails. The Witch Hunters is no different in portraying the dark side of humanity than we saw with the Aztecs and French Revolution on TV, but what does make it different is the increased amount of cruelty we see. This must have been when the novels entered their ‘adult phase’ – both Ian and Susan experience forms of torture during the story and the entire plot is mired with death. This is much darker than anything which would have been allowed on TV, and I love it! Also, historicals really do provide different perspectives of the world. No better is this seen than in Samuel Parris’ ironic desire to: “go down in history for all the right reasons” by ridding Salem of witches – an action which, of course, has instead made him infamous and a figure of hatred. It also allows for time jumps, described well by beginning each section with a date; one page we’re in 1692 and the next it’s the 1950s. So much fun! (Besides, er, the witch executions…)
The laws of time are given an interesting role here, too. It’s a concept which has been explored numerous times in Doctor Who – often in direct contradiction with what has previously been established. Rather than messing with the more modern idea of ‘fixed points in time’, Lyons builds on the ideas first developed in “The Aztecs” that history cannot be changed. This is proved wrong when the characters make minor alterations, and so I am left to assume that this is an artificial rule imposed upon the Doctor. Is he so scared of changing time because to do so might catch the attention of the Time Lords he’s currently on the run from? It’s never said for sure but the novel does hint that’s the case.
I was also highly impressed with the way Lyons wrote the characters. As I already mentiond he is restrained with what he can do, although he skillfully takes as much from the characters as he can. He managed to tie the novel in to the vague developments shown in the TV series, contributing to Susan’s growth to independence and the Doctor’s lonely nature, as well as creating an insight into the Doctor’s strained relationship with Ian and Barbara which will actually help me to understand their interactions better whenever I next watch an old episode. That’s powerful writing to do that.
Ian and Barbara’s dialogue could effortlessly have come from William Russell and Jacqueline Hill, while the Doctor’s mannerisms were usually believable. Susan was the weakest written character, I found. The Susan of this story was written convincingly enough but it didn’t quite fit in with the Susan from TV. While I enjoyed her almost childlike hope that Ian and Barbara would continue travelling forever, she was at times written to be too young. I think Susan’s age is supposed to be around 15 or 16 but she’s written to be more like a 12 year old. This was a flaw of the TV series too but it’s particularly prevalent here. Considering the adventures she ought to have had at this point, on Skaro, with cavemen, Revolutionary France, the Aztecs, the Sense-Sphere… etc. – she really ought not be this naive. The Doctor, on the other hand, was developed well beyond the writing for TV. We see his inner turmoils as he is forbidden from altering time, the discrepencies between what he says and what he thinks which can only be hinted at from television performances. When he takes future victim Rebecca Nurse forward in time to see a production of The Crucible, then shows her Salem in the modern day, it’s such a beautiful reflection of the character which I’m accustomed to seeing only in the new series. Yet, Lyons has fit these attributes to the personality of the first Doctor – a successful blend of new and old. That bit where he manages to convince the prison guards to let Ian free is so Hartnell, yet also has the depth which only developed later.
In conclusion, Doctor Who: The Witch Hunters is a surprisingly entertaining and thought-provoking book. It’s expanded my knowledge of the Salem Witch Trials – appearing to be exceedingly accurate from my own limited research – and has expanded the already established characters. It’s encouraged me to seek out more Doctor Who books in the future.
Final rating: 9/10