Doctor Who is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year. So The Cosmic Circus is doing a year-long celebration of this incredible show. For my part, there’s a whole series of books based on the show. I’ll be doing a few reviews on these books throughout the year. In the first book I’m reviewing, Joy Wilkinson’s Doctor Who: The Witchfinders, the 13th Doctor and her companions are in need of some R&R so they decide to visit Queen Elizabeth I’s coronation to relax and unwind.
Unfortunately for them, the TARDIS has other plans. They land in the Lancashire village of Bilehurst Cragg during the reign of King James I in the middle of a witch hunt that has already claimed the lives of 36 women. The odd thing is that this particular witch hunt isn’t included in the witch hunt history of the area. Something has gone very wrong. Can the Doctor figure out what’s going on and set things right before any more innocent lives are lost?
[Warning: My review of Joy Wilkinson’s Doctor Who: The Witchfinders contains some spoilers!]
An out-of-control witch hunt
Based on an episode of Doctor Who that originally aired on the 25 of November 2018, The Witchfinders sends our hero and her companions to a small Lancashire village in the 17th century. At first, the Doctor, played by Jodie Whittaker in the episode, is unsure as to why the TARDIS has brought them here. But it quickly becomes apparent why when they come across an old woman about to be ducked. The Doctor tries to save her but she fails.
When the overzealous woman in charge, Becka Savage, confronts the Doctor for her interference, the Doctor presents herself as a witchfinder general. She’s horrified to find out that the trials have already claimed the lives of 36 innocent women. The Doctor calls a halt to the witch trials until further notice. But in a twist, King James shows up. He is predictably a superstitious, misogynistic jerk. He completely dismisses the Doctor, much to her annoyance. She really chafes against the restrictions that her female body imposes on her in this time period.
Unsurprisingly, King James wants to dive right back into the witch hunts. The Doctor’s companions (Yaz, Ryan, and Graham) work hard to distract him while the Doctor looks into what is really behind this witch hunt. Because the Doctor doesn’t believe in magic, dark or otherwise, but she knows something is going on if the TARDIS brought her here. She just has to figure out what that is before anyone else gets hurt.
Complications in Doctor Who: The Witchfinders
The Doctor is one hundred percent certain that there isn’t anything magical going on in Bilehurst Cragg. But something is going on with the mud. It’s moving and attacking people. But when the Doctor tries to analyze the muck it seems perfectly normal. She is fascinated by the mud. But what is it? And who’s controlling it? If she doesn’t figure out what’s happening soon it might be too late for the little village of Bilehurst Cragg.
Although Bilehurst Cragg is its own mystery. It’s not on any modern maps. Neither the Doctor nor any of her companions have ever heard of it, and one of them is from Lancashire and has walked the witch hunt walking trails. Something very bad is happening and it’s up to the Doctor and her friends to stop it.
And they have to be careful thanks to King James’ presence. He is a major historical figure. Whatever they do to fix the problem in Bilehurst Cragg they can’t endanger King James or let him have too much information about what is going on. He’s an obnoxious person which only makes everything that much harder.
It’s always aliens in Doctor Who
Spoiler alert! This will come as no surprise to Doctor Who fans, but it’s always aliens. I was really confused by the opening of The Witchfinders because it was about as unrelated to 17th-century England and witches as possible. Of course by the end of the book it all made sense.
I have to admit that I didn’t see it going there, Wilkinson camouflaged the surprise from me pretty well. To be fair, I had no prior experience with Doctor Who. If I had, the opening would have made a lot more sense and I would have known where the story was going sooner. I imagine that Doctor Who watchers wouldn’t have been surprised at all.
Despite all this, I really did enjoy the story. I just loved Willa, the girl the Doctor was trying to save. King James was horrible but in a hilarious way. Wilkinson did a good job writing him so he was awful but childish. He would have been terrible to live with but reading him was fun.
Exciting ending for The Witchfinders
The very best part of The Witchfinders was the ending. Willa’s ultimate fate is wonderful. It’s exactly what I wanted to happen to her but I didn’t see how it could happen. I was beyond happy that the Doctor found a way to do what Willa deserved without messing up time.
I imagine that most Doctor Who fans will have already seen the episode that The Witchfinders is based on. Still, it can be interesting to see a beloved episode turned into an expanded novel. It offers more insight into the thoughts and emotions driving the action. Those parts are what I always find most fascinating anyway. And they can be very hard to convey in screen media. That’s why the written word will always be the superior form of entertainment to me.
So any fans looking to have a deeper understanding of the Doctor may want to check out Wilkinson’s Doctor Who: The Witchfinders. If you’re not a DW fan but you love sci-fi and aliens, this will be right up your alley as well. I don’t think any real knowledge of Doctor Who is necessary to enjoy this book. But anyone who picks this up expecting actual magic or witches to be involved in any way, keep walking, this isn’t your thing.
My Rating: 8/10
Doctor Who: The Witchfinders is available now! Are you interested in reading it? Let us know on Twitter or in the Cosmic Circus Discord! And if you haven’t already, check out our review of Big Finish’s Doctor Who: Emancipation of the Daleks!