Fiction Reviews

Doctor Who: The Witchfinders

(2021) Joy Wilkinson, Target – BBC Books, £7.99 / Can$16.99 / US$10.99, pbk, 178pp, ISBN 978-1-78594-502-1


The TARDIS lands in the Lancashire village of Bilehurst Cragg in the 17th century, and the Doctor, Ryan, Graham and Yaz soon become embroiled in a witch trial run by the local landowner. Fear stalks the land, and the arrival of King James I only serves to intensify the witch hunt. But the Doctor soon realises there is something more sinister than paranoia and superstition at work. Tendrils of living mud stir in the ground and the dead lurch back to horrifying life as an evil alien presence begins to revive. The Doctor and her friends must save not only the people of Bilehurst Cragg from the wakening forces, but the entire world.

Well, it has been a year of firsts, or endings for the Doctor Who Target books in 2021, and The Witchfinders is a first, given that it is the debut appearance of the Thirteenth Doctor in Target form. All of the new Target books released in 2021 were adapted by the original scriptwriter, to varying degrees of success. Dare I suggest that writing a novel is harder than writing a screenplay, given that the latter consists of some scene-setting and dialogue, while the former needs more in the way of description and getting into the heads of the characters. Some of the 2021 adaptations have shown that the original scriptwriters have taken to the novel like ducks to water, and yes, Wilkinson is one of those with webbed feet.

It was in November 2018 that this story was aired when the Doctor and her companions – Jaz, Ryan and Graham – were heading into the past to witness the coronation of Elizabeth 1st. Is it any surprise that instead they end up in a 17th century Lancashire village in the shadow of Pendle Hill, right in the middle of witch-hunts, witch trails and witch executions. Wilkinson takes the opportunity to give us some additional details at the start, including how the Morax were imprisoned beneath Pendle Hill, and beefing up the character of Willa Twiston whose story bookends the novel. Wilkinson also delves into the minds of some of Bilehurst Cragg’s prominent residents, particularly landlady and magistrate, Becka Savage who has caused all this trouble by chopping down a tree which corrupted the systems of the ship that was imprisoning the Morax.

We also delve into the minds of Yaz, Ryan and Graham where we learn more about Yaz’s troubled teenage years and why Ryan is so obsessed with keeping his trainers clean. The Witchfinders also featured a great turn by Alan Cumming as King James, who liked to think of himself as an expert in witches and demons, and Wilkinson even manages to get inside his head to examine the struggles in his life. The 17th century was a perilous time for any women who were different and while the Doctor is able to convince the locals that she is the Witchfinder General in order to take charge and save more lives, James cannot believe a mere woman could hold such a role and that Graham must be the Witchfinder General and she is his assistant.

While supposedly coming in at 178 pages, there are some blank pages between the 23 chapters of this novel, making for a very fast read indeed, which suits me, but while a quick read, Wilkinson has included some back story, great descriptions of the locale and insights into many of supporting characters, and even the Doctor herself. Since The Witchfinders was first aired, Wilkinson has been busy writing Doctor Who comic strips, penning an episode of The Watch and writing and directing her own short films, which may be her intended path, but it would be good to see her pen more episodes in the future, are you listening Russell T. Davies?

Ian Hunter


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