Retrospective: BBC Books’ The Witch Hunters

Now, where was I?

Dear, dear, dear… Ah, yes. That is it.

This is a review of a novel concerning the First Doctor.

The First Doctor. The first of them all, you understand, hmm? The original! Yes, most certainly! Quite so! A superior brain! A titanic intellect! Yes, yes, indeed! Tee hee!

Ah. Now.

What shall I say, hmm?

And so on. Actually, this is a novel set in the first season, when Susan still travelled with her grandfather, and William Hartnell’s Doctor was brusque, spiky, and sharp; he hasn’t yet deteriorated – sorry, I mean, of course, developed (what are you saying, young man, hmm?) – into the giggling, kindly old twerp of his later stories.

The strength of Steve Lyons’ novel is that it is very like the early Hartnell historicals. He captures their tone perfectly.

The weakness of Steve Lyons’ novel is that it is very like the early Hartnell historicals. He captures their tone perfectly.

In other words, if you like the historicals, you’ll like this; and if you don’t… (Oh, do spit it out, young man; what are you trying to say, hmm?)

What I’m trying to say is that, in style, it’s pretty similar to such televised adventures as The Crusade and The Reign of Terror. With the greatest respect to their writers, the problem is they’re actually a bit… well… dull. It would be rather unkind of me to say ‘and so’s this book’ because Lyons has obviously put an enormous amount of work into capturing the style and feel of the non-science fiction Hartnells. I just can’t help feeling it would have been better if he’d allowed it to be a development from them, rather than a homage or pastiche.

(There’s precedent for this, of course, from way back in 1965: Doctor Who and the Crusaders remains one of the best of all the Target novels, not just because David Whitaker’s prose is superb, but because he allows himself to do a fairly free rewrite of the TV version, which goes way beyond what the budget would allow on screen. And it’s restructured to make it much tighter and less flabby. A ripping yarn. What the historicals could have been, but generally weren’t.)

Well, on the positive side: the TARDIS crew of The Witch Hunters are instantly recognisable; it takes no effort to imagine the portrayals of William Russell, Carole Ann Ford, and Jacqueline Hill in them. (Aren’t you forgetting someone, young man?) Oh, and Hartnell, of course. The plot is about the Salem witch trials; one of the nastiest instances of religious persecution, and a fine setting for a Doctor Who story.

Those who know about what happened probably get their information from Arthur Miller’s masterpiece, The Crucible. And it’s one of the finest plays in the English language: do read it if you don’t know it; you’re in for a treat. Michael Gove famously banned it from British classrooms because the writer had committed the indecency of being an American. The first production I saw was the BBC’s one from 1981; Susannah Walcott was played by one Sarah Sutton and the producer was Louis Marx. The Crucible is still regularly performed; there’s also the film version from 1996 (heavily rewritten, not as good as the original, and with some wooden performances from some of the cast). I once triumphed as Danforth in a student production, but that’s another story. (In fact, I wasn’t very good – I shouted too much and the girl playing Mary Warren accidentally kneed me in the b***s during one performance.)

Steve Lyons goes back to the original sources for the book, and it’s very well researched. Miller cheerfully admitted his play was only based on history, especially the transcripts of the trials, which still exist – and are now online, if you’re interested. So John Proctor and Abigail Williams in The Witch Hunters are far more like their historical counterparts than Miller’s versions were. And, in an appendix, Lyons points the way to some excellent books on the subject; on his recommendation, I read A Delusion of Satan by Francis Hill (2002). Fascinating stuff.

If you don’t know about what happened in Salem in 1692 –

Ha ha! And I knew you wouldn’t! Never mind!

As I was saying, if you don’t know what happened, an insular, Puritan community, fairly recently arrived from England, and on the lunatic fringes of Christianity, took it into their heads to commit a series of vicious atrocities.

Innocent people were denounced as witches; epidemics and bad harvests were blamed on them, as was infant mortality, stomach aches, nightmares, and the wicked blasphemy of giggling during prayer meetings. Those who were denounced were subjected to sham trials that make the North Korean judicial system look like a model of probity.

Then they were hanged.

It’s hard to know exactly what the motives of the denouncers were: spite and self-righteousness undoubtedly played their part, as did hysteria, wilful stupidity, peer pressure, moral blindness, and a large dose of sublimated sexuality. A lot of the hysteria came from a group of teenage girls, who set themselves up as (and probably convinced themselves that they were) the victims of the witches. (In the novel, Susan gets involved with this bunch.)

And yet… I wonder how much people who don’t know The Crucible would enjoy the book. Do you need to know the play, or something of the history, to appreciate the story? I don’t know. There, that was helpful, wasn’t it? The other problem is that tackling the subject matter that’s inspired a masterpiece is inevitably going to invite comparisons with it, and any other version just cannot win. (If Doctor Who met King Lear, it couldn’t really work.)

Still. The Witch Hunters is a good story – well written and a page-turner. Perhaps not one I’d immediately recommend (such as Casualties of War), and not as good as some of Steve Lyons’ other work – but if you like the Hartnells, and especially if you like the historicals, this is strongly recommended.

Yes, yes, indeed!

(Adapted from an article originally published on Kasterborous in September 2015.)