Doctor Who: The Witch Hunters [Novel] (Review)

Contains spoilers.

 

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

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Les Miserables (2012 Film) Review

Contains Spoilers.

I have to admit it: I’m not a great fan of musicals.  The bombastic musical numbers, stereotypical jazz hands and lack of realism usually grate heavily on me.  I’ve never seen classics such as Grease or Mamma Mia, and I never plan to, since I have no interest in watching clichés in action.   But Les Miserables was always clearly going to be different.  I didn’t know much about it, other than being set during revolutionary France – which, honestly, is alone enough to sell a film for me – and that it features much misery.  And I’d heard glowing reviews for it.  So, I thought I’d go see it;  this was not a mistake.

At 157 minutes in length, my intolerance of sitting through whole films was sure to be tested to its limit, much as it was during my viewing of The Hobbit.  I had no reason to fear, for the film was a thoroughly engaging experience from beginning to end, and I only looked at my watch four times – low for my standards!  This is in part due to the very interesting way in which the film tackles the plot.  It’s set primarily across three time periods: 1815, 1823 and 1832.  In 1815, Jean Valjean has just been released from servitude for the crime of stealing bread, and the story covers his refusal to report for parole and attempts to escape from capture by the policeman Javert.  The events of 1823 include Valjean, now a successful businessman, continuing to avoid Javert; his worker Fantine’s descent into poverty, prostitution and eventually death; and Valjean’s adoption of Fantine’s daughter, Cosette.  In 1832 the events of the failed June Rebellion play out and brings together every character.  More a tribute to the original Victor Hugo 1862 novel than this adaptation, the plot skillfully develops the characters and themes, perfectly intertwining them together.  Not until the final twenty minutes does Les Miserables begin to feel repetitive and dragged out, and even here the film is such an enjoyable watch that I hardly noticed.

The acting is terrific.  Hugh Jackman is the undeniable star as Valjean, hardly identifiable as the same actor between 1815 and 1832.  I actually was quite confused about who was whom to begin with, partly down to my inability to instantly recognise faces but also due to his incredible acting.  Russell Crowe is good as Javert, and I’m just going to admit that I liked his singing, too.  This might not mean much coming from someone who enjoys atonal music (I suspect I’m slightly tone deaf) but I don’t understand all the negativity towards his performance.  The entire cast seemed so perfect in their roles that unless you’re an experienced music critique (I’m not) then it isn’t worth mentioning everyone individually.  The only characters I didn’t enjoy were Thénardier and his wife, played by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter.  This wasn’t down to their acting, I just found their comedy roles grating and went against the tone of the film.

In terms of writing, I was heavily impressed by the development of the characters.  To praise him again, Valjean must be one of the most realistic, developed and three-dimensional characters in the history of literature.  The fact that this comes across in a musical is truly remarkable.  Fantine, Marius and Éponine are, likewise, also developed to an astonishing degree.  Less so is Cosette, who while excellently portrayed as a child feels underdeveloped as a teenager.  This is largely down to the ‘love at first sight’ method of introducing her romance with Marius, where they look at each other and are suddenly a couple.  For such an important feature of the story, there’s not much excuse for this – particularly considering the high standard of everything else.

I’m torn over the film’s depiction of historical events.  While someone without a knowledge of French history between 1789 and 1848 will undoubtedly allow most historical references to go over their head, I’m debating whether this is a bad thing.  The film is not worse for omitting explanations of who the monarchs were, of leaving no reference to the 1830 revolution only two years previous to the events in 1832, or for lacking much mention of the Napoleonic Wars.  I have located one area which could have had a bit more development however.  It’s never clear precisely why the students want to get rid of the monarchy; while there are mentions of “King after King” being no better than each other, and the social environment definitely shows how a revolution would be desirable, perhaps another line or two wouldn’t go amiss – it almost seems like a student project for some Practical Politics degree.

Most of my comments may be more suited to a critique of the novel – which I plan to read someday – so I need to mention the music.  From the very beginning, it’s apparent that the music is utterly fitting and beautiful.  Whether singing in desperation, (such as Fantine’s famous ‘I Dreamed a Dream’), resolve (‘Valjean’s Soliloquy’), love (‘A Heart Full of Love’), sadness (‘Empty Chairs at Empty Tables’) or hope (‘Do You Hear the People Sing?’), each song is a heart-swelling wonder.  Even Javert’s ‘Stars’ and ‘Javert’s Suicide’ I enjoyed.  The only song which grated was ‘Master of the House’, for the same reason I didn’t like the Thénardiers which I mentioned above.  Outwith the context of the film the soundtrack stands up as nothing short of brilliance.  Particular standouts are ‘I Dreamed a Dream’, ‘On My Own’, ‘One More Day’ and ‘Do You Hear the People Sing?’.

The direction was also completely captivating.  Tom Hooper really brings the historical setting alive with wide, sweeping shots interspersed with close ups which bring the intensity of emotion directly to the viewer.  Mark Kermode commented on the wisdom of avoiding medium shots, to truly create an experience which would be impossible to witness in a theatre.  The shot which pans down on 1832 Paris, past the elephant, has to be my favourite moment in the film.

Les Miserables is a film which has refused to leave my thoughts since I saw it.  I’m possessed by a fervent desire to re-watch it, which is always a good thing.  The characters, the music, the setting… Virtually everything is perfect.  By far it’s the best film I’ve seen for a while, and I would highly recommend it.

Coming Soon: Les Miserables (musical) review & Les Miserables (novel) review.

Final Rating: 9.5/10