‘Doctor Who – The Witchfinders’ by Joy Wilkinson Review

The Witchfinders arrives in the latest wave of ‘Target Books’ style releases – alongside Dalek, The Crimson Horror and re-releases of The Pirate Planet, Resurrection of the Daleks, Revelation of the Daleks and the TV Movie – and for some reason it’s the only one that features the latest series logo. I’m not sure why this is, because the other logo is no more inaccurate to The Witchfinders than it is to all of the other releases bar the TV Movie. I’ve no problem with the latest logo, but it’s such a slender font that when displayed in gold on an ivory cover, it tends to blend into the background a bit too much. Never mind, ours is not to reason why… and it has nothing at all to do with the text of the book, which is the subject of this review.

The Witchfinders by Joy Wilkinson was the eighth story in Jodie Whittaker’s introductory season as the Doctor and it is the first of her TV stories to be adapted as a novelisation. It is a pseudo-historical story set among the British witch trials of the 17th century and was one of the better received stories of the season, despite featuring many historical inaccuracies. The ducking stool, for example, was a punishment for scolds (disobedient women)* and not a tool for identifying witches; the method used in witch trials was called ‘swimming’, where the victim was bound hand and foot with long ropes and essentially dragged across a river (if you want to learn more about the history of British witch trials, I’d recommend the book Witchfinder – a Seventeenth Century English Tragedy by Malcolm Gaskill or the documentary film The Pendle Witch Child, which is available on Amazon Prime).

Doctor Who has always taken a lot of artistic license in its historical episodes though; like the Vikings wearing horned helmets in The Girl Who Died, it often consciously eschews established historical fact in favour of a visually arresting image. The same thing goes for a book; the literary shorthand of the ducking stool may not be 100% kosher, but it drives the story along faster than a lot of faffing about with long ropes, so I’m not going to hold that kind of thing against it. The story is set near Pendle, Lancashire in 1612 – which was the year of the actual Pendle Witch Trials, though it does not purport to be a true representation of historical events; it just uses a familiar name for dramatic purposes.

We can particularly forgive the story this historical indiscretion because this particular ducking stool, which local land-owner and witch-obsessed nutcase Becka Savage had carved from the wood of a particular tree, is vital to the story. You see, that tree was no ordinary tree – it was the high-tech prison for a bunch of intergalactic ne’er-do-wells called the Morax, who once they are freed are stirring up a witch hunt (in the most literal sense of the phrase) in order to lure King James I to Pendle Hill so that they can possess him and take over Great Britain… and tomorrow, the world! In reality, by 1612 King James had lost some of the fervour for witch hunting that he’d had a decade earlier, but again – artistic license.

Before too long, the Morax are animating mud into the forms of executed ‘witches’ and causing all manner of havoc. Doctor Who had been going so long that it’s difficult to come up with something new on the monster front, but I don’t think mud monsters have been done before. Creating something new has definitely become a problem for such a long-running show, with the Capaldi era definitely suffering from the curse of samey monsters, but I think that Joy Wilkinson has definitely achieved a level of originality with the Morax, whose nature also fits perfectly with the historical setting of the story. Something more technological might have seemed out of place, but mud monsters seems to fit just fine.

As in the television version, King James is portrayed as discreetly homosexual, with an eye on Ryan at all times, but some of the overt campness of the television version is toned down in the novel. Whether this was a directive from BBC Books (seems unlikely given the content of some of the previous releases) or just that the actor Alan Cummings is never one to knowingly under-camp, is not clear. Whatever the reason, King James remains the most entertaining character in what is a consciously small dramatis personae. Unnecessarily oversized casts has been a problem for Doctor Who since the mid-80s, with characters often existing for no other reason than to get killed off, but one of the few triumphs of the Chris Chibnall era has been the move towards smaller, tighter casts of characters.

The modern Target Books tend to fall into two categories: A) books where the author seems intent on expanding the story way beyond the bounds of its television counterpart, and B) more traditional works that tell the story cleanly, effectively and in a way that can be enjoyed by children. Although it doesn’t stick slavishly to the TV script, The Witchfinders falls into the latter category, which is by no means a criticism. The publishers go out of their way to make these editions look similar to the original paperbacks released by W.H. Allen in the 70s and 80s, even down to the font and internal layout, so it’s heart-warming for an old fan to read a novel in the traditional style. Of course, the original Target Books came in lots of shapes and sizes, from the densely overwritten to the worryingly sparse, but there’s a median that seems to chime with the name Target and this book achieves it.

The central characters of the Doctor, Yaz, Ryan and Graham are written with the easy confidence of a writer who has cut her time-travelling teeth on this era of the show. There are few references to the show’s history (because basically they are not needed) and she doesn’t make a big hoo-ha about the Doctor being a woman; sometimes I think male writers feel the need to over-egg the pudding in this respect, but a female writer does not have to push home the point about a woman being an effective hero. All the main characters are written with due respect and there’s no sense in which Graham’s age or Yaz and Ryan’s youth prevents them from being an active part of the story. The days of the passive companion are gone, but thankfully so are the days of the companion’s role overpowering that of the Doctor. She is, after all, the lead character.

I really enjoyed The Witchfinders; it has no pretence or axe to grind, it’s just a good old-fashioned (in the complimentary, not pejorative, sense) Doctor Who story and it reminds a nostalgic fool like myself of the days when Target Books were king. There will be negative reviews of this, that much is certain, because there are a minority of fans out there who are all-too-anxious to leap upon and tear apart anything that is associated with the Thirteenth Doctor; but it’s unfair to judge this book based on any preconceptions, or on any wider view of the era or the actress. This book, like all the others in the range, is not all 58 years of the series – it is an entity in its own right and as such, it’s a solid, entertaining read; a nifty piece of all-ages science fiction and a tribute to all of the things that make Doctor Who great. Miss it and miss out.

*In fairness, this is mentioned in the text.

‘Doctor Who – The Witchfinders is published in paperback by Target Books / Penguin Random House (2021)

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