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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Doctor Who: The Name of the Doctor (Review)

Contains spoilers.

Who is Clara?  What will happen at Trenzalore?  Why have the Silence been trying to kill the Doctor?  What is his greatest secret?  Will his name be revealed?  These are just some of the questions which I was hoping the season finale of series 7 would provide answers to.  Now, it’s no secret that series 7 – particularly the latter half – has not been entirely to my taste.  I enjoyed Asylum of the Daleks, The Angels take Manhattan, The Snowmen, The Rings of Akhaten, Hide and The Crimson Horror, but the rest have been quite below par in my view, and the series as a whole has suffered due to experimentation with the structure – every episode being a different ‘blockbuster’ story.  But can The Name of the Doctor, written by Steven Moffat – who I’ve criticised a lot, but can be fantastic on a good day – and directed by Saul Metzstein – who has already proven his ability – bring about a decent end to the series?  Essentially, yes.

Firstly, that opening!  From the line: “what sort of idiot would try to steal a faulty TARDIS?” it became clear that this episode was something different.  Gallifrey!  The classic Doctors!  I keep rewatching it on BBC Iplayer, just to check it actually happened.  They’ve ingeniously taken clips from the classic series, between 1964 and 1987, and slotted them into the episode.  This involved green-screening Clara onto shots which, yes, was a little bit obvious but really, who cares?  We’re seeing the classic Doctors!  And then there’s that conversation between Clara and the First Doctor, who has been colourised from an episode of The Aztecs (1963).  I’ve seen the colourisation criticised by people with a greater technical knowledge than I have but, again, does it matter?  This was an utterly delightful sequence.

The episode builds on this opening and continues to strengthen.  As ever, I enjoyed the Doctor’s ‘gang’ of Madam Vastra, Jenny, Strax and, returning in this episode, River Song.  After getting information from a man due to be executed (which is never properly explained, like a few things in this episode), the team host a ‘conference call’, where each becomes unconscious in their respective time and location and end up in some dreamworld.  The logic is patchy, but it’s a great idea.  And I love that Strax was in Glasgow at the time!   And then it all takes a sinister turn when the Whispermen attack… “I think I’ve been murdered…”  It’s terrifying!  These scenes really work.

It’s when the action moves to Trenzalore that the episode begins to develop a few holes.  I really like the concept of this being the graveyard of some bloody battle, a battle the future Doctor didn’t survive, although I’m reluctant that they’ll just never mention this again.  This is the second time in Moffat’s writing that we’ve seen how the Doctor dies, though he’d probably just get out of it by saying that “Oh, this wasn’t actually the Doctor” (which would ruin the whole purpose of the episode… Again.  Yes, I’m beginning to understand Moffat’s ways).  It’s the villains which prove to be the greatest weakness of the episode.  The Great Intelligence is back, still inhabiting the body of Dr. Simeon from The Snowmen, but I’m at a complete loss over what it actually wants.  What’s its motivation?  We’ve seen it try to destroy human life and gain power twice now, and its third plan is to undo all the good the Doctor has done, for its ‘peace’?  It’s an audacious plan but it’s been done before, and it never ends well for anyone.   And who are the Whispermen?  Really, who are they?  They’ve just been thrown in because the Great Intelligence needs henchmen, but have had absolutely no development.  Wouldn’t it have been better for the Silence to return instead (and thereby tying up a loose end which still has been left ignored since 2010*).

Almost every problem this episode has is a result of having squeezed it into a 45 minute slot.  It is extremely rushed, to the episode’s great detriment.  There’s a scene where Clara suddenly gains memories of the events in Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS (though not, conveniently, of having read his name in The History of the Time War), and she’s understandably freaking out, and then cut to about 5 seconds later and she and the Doctor are confronting the Great Intelligence.  No movement, no transition.  Oh, and the plot holes.  So many things have been left unresolved: how did the Doctor see River, when she’s a data ghost connected to Clara? (he says some rubbish like “I always see you,” but that’s poetry, not a plot explanation).  And just other petty things, like Dorium’s wording in The Wedding of River Song:

“On the Fields of Trenzalore, at the Fall of the Eleventh, when no living creature can speak falsely or fail to answer, a question will be asked”

‘The Fall of the Eleventh’?  That’s either the death of the Doctor – meaning that his future death must be resolved again and soon – or his literal fall in the TARDIS to the planet which, frankly, is a pathetic explanation for the prophecy.  And the ‘no living creature’ line is completely wrong, as the only person who doesn’t fail to answer is dead.  And who is ‘the woman from the shop’ who gave Clara the Doctor’s number in The Bells of Saint John?  Why was the TARDIS irritable towards Clara in earlier episodes?  I’m not forgetting these things.

You’d be forgiven for thinking I disliked this episode, but it generally works really well – I’m just losing patience with the inconsistencies.  The sequences of the Great Intelligence entering the Doctor’s timeline and Jenny dying, then Strax reverting to Sontaran ‘default’ and getting killed by Vastra, is chilling.  Then Clara entering!  These segments were very well indeed, and there is a proper sense of closure to the series.  Actually, I’m rather impressed at the degree to which Moffat has explained the Clara mystery – I don’t think I have any questions left (I’m slightly grumpy, as Moffat stole an idea I wrote in a fanfiction script three years ago – but that’s neither here nor there).  So does this mean that Clara now knows more about the Doctor than any other companion?  Or, I guess this Clara won’t have the combined knowledge of her other splintered beings through time.   Oh, and I’m glad the significance of the leaf in The Rings of Akhaten finally has an explanation.

The ending works really, really well.  In that cavern where everything around them is the Doctor, they see a silhouette of a figure standing at the edge, who the Doctor warns Clara away from.  This scene is both brilliantly directed and written, and the reveal of John Hurt is skillfully built up to.  It’s disappointing that they ruined it with the irritating, unnecessary and nonsensical caption: “Introducing John Hurt as the Doctor” (the Eleventh Doctor has just explained that he abandoned the title of Doctor), which completely took me out of the action and unforgivably broke the fourth wall.  That’s how desperate the team are to get views for an episode to be broadcast in half a year’s time.  Oh well, most of it worked well.  John Hurt was amazing in the 20 seconds or so of screen time he had, so in that respect I cannot wait for November.

Villains aside, I enjoyed all of the characters in this episode.  Matt Smith gave another fantastic performance as the Doctor.  The scene where he begins to cry upon hearing about Trenzalore shows what a versatile actor he is, as well as his tone of trepidation throughout the rest of the episode.  Jenna-Louise Coleman continues to act Clara well, despite inconsistent writing.  Neve McIntosh, Catrin Stewart and Dan Starkey are again all great as Vastra, Jenny and Strax.  Jenny’s recovery from having her heart stopped is one of the better resurrections Moffat is fond of writing, and it gave them the great exchange: “The heart is a relatively simple thing” – “I have not found it to be so.”  Alex Kingston returns as River Song in what is kind of written as if to be her last appearance, being the only episode featuring her to be set after Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead, where her body died and her consciousness living in the Library’s data core.  It’s a fitting tribute to the character, but the door is still open for her to return.  I think Moffat’s treading a little close to the line with their ‘relationship’, having the Doctor kiss River without any pretext though, at the same time, it kind of feels natural if we’re not seeing River again.

Metzstein’s direction is great, again.  The Whispermen do seem fairly scary, and the scenes on Trenzalore are very atmospheric.  There’s not a lot to say other than that – I hope he keeps up the good work!

Overall, I think I’ve been too harsh towards The Name of the Doctor in this review as I really did enjoy watching it.  It must be one of the better episodes in this series.  And I’m now, for the first time, properly excited for the 50th anniversary special – this episode is almost seeming like the tame lead-in, or the prologue.  And, amazingly, Steven Moffat has written himself out of the hole he was in regarding the Doctor’s name.  Despite the title and advertising of the episode, the Doctor’s name was (thankfully) not revealed, yet the finale doesn’t feel cheapened in any way.  Not perfect by any means, but a very sound conclusion to the series.

Final Rating: 8.5/10

*I’ve read fan theories suggesting that the Silence were trying to prevent the Great Intelligence’s plan from been carried out, by killing the only person who knows the Doctor’s name – himself – and therefore prevent him opening the tomb.  However, let’s look at their plan.  First they try to kill him by destroying the TARDIS when he isn’t in it, with the side-effect of blowing up the Universe.  That went well.  Plan B: they steal his companions’ daughter and train her to be an assassin, only to throw her into an astronaut suit underwater with no control over her actions, just because who doesn’t think about underwater astronauts when planning a murder?  Having River inside was needless, and had the side-effect of ending time when she refused to kill him.  That also went well.  It had the second side-effect of allowing River to discover the Doctor’s name [though how did that happen?  It was revealed he didn’t actually tell her that when they got married], which later allowed the Great Intelligence to enter the Doctor’s tomb and wipe out his achievements.  Wait.  If the Doctor must always die at Trenzalore, which presumably is a given considering they’re making plans around it, then won’t killing him elsewhere create a paradox?  Or is that the purpose?  …  Either Moffat intended the Silence to be terrible, terrible planners, or he has no idea where he’s going with any of his plot threads.  I wonder which it is… ?