Prisons feature heavily in the opening pages of this novelisation of The Witchfinders. An unnamed character writes a despairing letter from their cell whilst awaiting a grim fate. An alien queen leads her army through a dungeon which shifts and reforms to confound their efforts to escape. Only the TARDIS crew are free to roam and explore.
The theme of being imprisoned, whether physically or in the confines imposed by the time one is born into, is one that comes up a lot in Joy Wilkinson’s adaptation of her 2018 episode. In the Lancashire village of Bilehurst, residents can easily fall victim to the witch trials run with great fervour by the local landlady, Becka Savage. The king may enjoy a life of privilege but is haunted by his mother’s fate and has to live with regular threats to his life. Even the Doctor may not be safe in a superstitious, paranoid era.
In the best traditions of the Target series, the book provides an effective retelling of the story as it played out on screen, whilst also taking the time to explore the events and characters in more depth. So, we learn more about how Becka went from humble beginnings to become the lady of the manor. Events which in the episode were summarised in brief flashbacks are fleshed out to explain just how she grew up to be so full of hatred and resentment. These sequences may not make us sympathise with ‘the rightful queen of Bilehurst Cragg’ but they do help us understand her a little better.
Before reading the book, I had wondered how King James would come across on the page. Alan Cumming had delivered such a ripe turn as the monarch that I felt it may appear a little cartoonish in print. However, the writer does a fine job of depicting a complex man who is full of contradictions, one who has total confidence in his divine right to rule whilst being desperately insecure, keen to learn from the Doctor but unable to break free from his belief in witchcraft and ‘daemonologie’.
It’s a story where the consequences of the Doctor’s change of gender are explored. The 17th Century could be a dangerous time for women, with a lack of rights leaving them vulnerable and at the mercy of decisions they had no say in. There are times when the Doctor must bite her tongue for fear it could be cut out, leaving her companions to try to steer the king away from his relentless quest to root out evil. They don’t always succeed, but the story does a good job of giving each of them something to do.
We find out more about what became of Willa after the episode’s conclusion. You may have felt a little concerned about her stated aim to work as a healer, to ‘be a doctor’ (surely a dangerous line of work in this era for a young woman with her family history), and indeed we find that, without the Doctor and friends to help, life continued to treat her unkindly. This storyline reaches its climax in a fun sequence which would surely have been shown on screen if they’d had an extra five minutes of run time.
As with all the new Targets, the book is fronted by an Anthony Dry illustration which references the Chris Achilleos covers of the earliest days of the range, though it features the new Chibnall era series logo. The publicity for this new batch of releases tells us that this ‘new-look Target branding’ will appear on all future Target releases.
The Witchfinders is an enjoyable, thought-provoking start to the Thirteenth Doctor’s adventures in book form, and on this evidence future novelisations will be worth looking out for.
The Witchfinders is available to order now.