❉ The first novelisation of a Thirteenth Doctor story is a fine example of a Target novel, writes Bryn Mitchell.
“When it comes to adapting the episode, this book does more than just transfer script to page, making effective use of the change in format, as themes already present on television become clearer… While it seems these books are marketed squarely at the nostalgic fan audience, the style of prose and general content is appropriate for a younger audience who I really hope pick up this book.”
The Target range expands further into the new series with the latest batch of releases, including the first novelisation of a Thirteenth Doctor story. While The Witchfinders may not be the most obvious choice, it proves itself to be a story well suited for the Target treatment. There’s always something extra special about a writer novelising their own story, particularly in cases like this when it is their only contribution (so far) to the televised show. And Joy Wilkinson proves herself more than capable of telling a good story while making effective use of the change in format.
When it comes to adapting the episode’s existing material, the dialogue is mostly verbatim from the script, but the little differences show a degree of self-editing which evidences the care and attention that has been taken throughout this adaptation. One notable change is in the Doctor’s retort to Becka’s quoting of the King James Bible’s “thou shall not suffer a witch to live”. Instead of her television response, “In the Old Testament. There’s a twist in the sequel. Love thy neighbour” the Doctor simply says, “Ah, yes, but it also says love thy neighbour.” As well as being a more concise line, it avoids the potentially antisemitic implications of the original’s focus on the Biblical quote coming from the Old Testament; placing the focus instead back on Becka’s phrasing “As King James has written in his new Bible” alluding effectively to it being a biased mistranslation, rather than a distinction between old and new testament morality.
The prose also adds to what we saw on screen, not merely describing the action as depicted, but contributing texture and depth to the proceedings, and enhancing moments of horror. The mud-faced Morax queen may be creepy on screen, but the written description of her transformation is downright unsettling, and just one of many paragraphs that stood out to me.
In concession to the novel medium, there’s less crosscutting between scenes than on screen, and sections of narrative are allowed to run their course longer before moving over to what is happening to the characters in the other thread. The ordering may change but no scenes from the show are cut or drastically altered. As a result the elements that made the story what it was on screen aren’t lost in the mix of new stuff. It’d be tempting to think that without Alan Cummings’ ‘fruity’ performance, King James wouldn’t achieve quite the same sense of presence, but you’d be wrong. The excesses of the dialogue and the dramatic nature of his initial entrance still make for an instantly engaging character, who definitely earns his place on the cover of this novelisation. As on screen, his more humorous moments don’t make him appear any less of a threat when he turns on our protagonists. This novel also spends more time establishing additional details and giving more backstory for James and Becka (James’ being based in historical fact) but this too doesn’t detract from their sense of threat and evil, or try to make you sympathise with them too much.
The additional details surrounding Becka gives us more understanding of the nature of her relationship to Willa and Mother Twiston, and this and the fate of Willa’s parents all ties back in an interesting way to the first ‘witch’ to be tried in the village: named here as Annie Clay. The story makes some rather adult implications in the sections detailing Clay’s life, but in a way sensitive enough to most likely go over the heads of any younger readers.
Other details that add to the depth and clever construction of the story include the explanation of how Mother Twiston’s medicines have come in part from the tree that formed the lock to the Morax prison. This explains why the medicines are so effective in treating Becka’s infection by the Morax, but also why the source of her healing runs out as a result of the same action that infected her in the first place: chopping down the tree. This adds further to the tragedy of Becka’s character, who is responsible for her own doom in betraying her family and fellow women.
The themes already present on television become clearer, The Witchfinders is about how women must look out for each other and what happens if they fail to and betray their sisters. But it’s also an in depth exploration of why these betrayals happen, and how society encourages or even forces women to turn on each other. Even the most sympathetic of characters, Willa, is forced to temporarily betray the Doctor in a moment of weakness which is given greater emphasis on the page than on screen as we see the lasting impact of her guilt.
In terms of entirely original material, many scenes are extended either at the beginning or the end, in order to depict conversations that may have happened off-screen in the televised version. A notable example of this, that has already gained some attention online just days after the book’s release, is in the Doctor’s recounting to Yaz her previous experiences with the justice system, including casually mentioning having once been on trial for genocide. The classic series references (in this section to The War Games and Trial of a Time Lord), alongside references to Demons of the Punjab and Kerblam! placing the story in the context of series 11, may be slightly indulgent, but fit in with the tone established by the previous wave of new series Target Novels, where Rose and The Day of the Doctor in particular refused to hold back in their allusions to other stories. It is clear that this is a range intended for fans and that will mostly be read by fans, and so the references make for an enjoyable treat in this context. It’s also nice to see Joy Wilkinson’s clear passion for the classic series, as people may have already noted from her appearances on Behind the Sofa on various Doctor Who Collection Blu-ray boxsets.
In keeping with the theme of justice, Wilkinson also chooses to spend a chapter depicting how the Morax came to be in their present position, bodiless and imprisoned on a “random, barren planet”, this (along with an extension of the opening as seen on screen and an added epistolary element) means there are 13 pages worth of content before we join the on screen action. And, in what is almost certainly a coincidence, there are also exactly 13 pages at the end depicting what happened after the credits rolled. This ending section serves to show the harsh reality of life as a woman in the time period as, despite her transformative experiences with the Doctor, Willa’s life does not improve and, following the continuation of witch trials under the reign of James’ successor, she ends up arrested.
This passage then ties into an epistolary device that is established with the first chapter and returned to as an interlude part way through the novel, showing a letter written by Willa to the Doctor while imprisoned. It’s a nice detail that again shows how this book is doing more than just transferring screen to page, as it makes effective use of the structure and features of the novel format. Willa’s story is resolved in an interesting and surprising way, which I shan’t spoil. It’s a slightly confusing final paragraph that I had to re-read a couple of times, but there’s a pleasing ambiguity and I am glad that the novel didn’t feel the need to over explain its final twist.
This book proves to be a fine example of a Target novel, and fits well alongside the existing new-series adaptations. While it does seem that these books are marketing themselves squarely at the nostalgic fan audience, the style of prose and general content is appropriate for a younger audience who I really hope pick up this book. With the younger audience considered, the choice of The Witchfinders as the Thirteenth Doctor story to adapt perhaps makes more sense. It’s got all the bits of Doctor Who best for kids: real history; monsters based in the familiar (in this case mud); and the interplay between ‘magic’ and science. Perhaps enough of the nostalgic Doctor Who fan audience are old enough now that this could make perfect bedtime reading for them to share with their kids or other young relatives.
As ever, I’m hopeful for more new series Target novels over the coming years, and in particular it would be lovely to see more for the Thirteenth Doctor, especially given the relative lack of books for her due to the end of the BBC New Series Adventures line in 2018. On the strength of this entry, I’d also be interested to see how Joy Wilkinson would take to adapting someone else’s material if she were to return as a writer for the range. Until such a time I can only recommend this book as a lovely, easily-digested slice of Doctor Who and my favourite depiction of the Thirteenth Doctor in prose to date.
❉ ‘Doctor Who: The Witchfinders’ by Joy Wilkinson was published by BBC Books on 11th March 2021, RRP £7.99 (Paperback). ISBN: 9781785945021.