Doctor Who: Looking Back At THE WITCH HUNTERS - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Doctor Who: Looking Back At THE WITCH HUNTERS

Matthew Kresal visits Salem. Treads carefully.
There's something about that first TARDIS crew that keeps causing those creating Doctor Who's spin-off media to come back to them. Whether it's in the Wilderness Era novels from Virgin, the BBC or the Companion Chronicles, or the recent First Doctor Adventures audios from Big Finish (the latter featuring the cast of An Adventure in Space and Time), there's still a yearning for more adventures featuring them. Rarely, perhaps, have they been as well-realized as characters or surrounded by a story as engaging as Steve Lyons's 1998 Past Doctor Adventure The Witch Hunters.

On the surface, The Witch Hunters is precisely the sort of thing that the first season of Doctor Who could have done on-screen in 1964. It's one of those historicals that were so much a part of the series' formative years, so much so that I found myself doing a re-watch of The Aztecs one night partway through reading the novel. And like that TV serial, the question is once more raised about whether or not the course of historical events is alterable. And Lyons does so not against the backdrop of a civilization's fate but against a historical event whose basic details will likely be familiar to any reader: the Salem witch trials of 1692.
The witch trials, a tragedy borne out of hysteria and repression, have been the subject of other works, most notably Arthur Miller's justifiably famous play The Crucible (which this reviewer read in high school). Lyons is quick to note, both in the bibliography of the original edition and in the forward to the 2015 reprint, that there's a debt owed to Miller's play, to the point of the characters seeing a production of it. It's the same way that anyone writing about the Titanic will owe a debt to Walter Lord's 1955 book A Night to Remember. As is often the case, it's what one does with the debt that makes it stand out from what came before, something which Lyons does with his novel. After all, if Doctor Who can make Frankenstein into The Brain of Morbius and Dickens A Christmas Carol into, well, A Christmas Carol, why not do a take on The Crucible?

What the novel does is far more than put a twist on a famous play. Lyons takes this first TARDIS crew and drops them into Salem just as all hell breaks loose. The novel channels the atmosphere of The Aztecs and The Reign of Terror, TV stories where the past was as alien as any alien planet they might visit. Worlds where one wrong step, one wrong word, could land anyone in a world of fear and suspicion. If ever there was a setting that would bring out those overlooked aspects of the early historicals, it would be Salem and a community whose strict rules and superstitions allow few outlets. It's not the time and place to be strangers in a strange land, something that Ian and Barbara especially pick up on, but which merely adds to the tragedy of the piece and the temptation to try changing things for the better.

To his credit, Lyons sticks to his guns about keeping this a pure historical. There are moments, especially in the early and middle portions of the novel, where it would have been easy to let it wander off into pseudo-historical territory. It's something that Modern Who has certainly been guilty of to its detriment, but here, amid the Wilderness Era, the series could channel a tale where the only monsters on hand are human ones. Ones whose motives remain all too apparent and timely with the passage of twenty-odd years, let alone more than three centuries. It's something that The Witch Hunters' epilogue makes abundantly clear, in perhaps the single most powerful moment of the entire book.

It also helps how well realized the TV characters are. Everyone is recognizable and characterized well, including the First Doctor, who runs the same mercurial scale as he did on-screen between crotchety and moments of warmth. The characterization of Susan is intriguing, making the most of inconsistent on-screen writing by dropping the character into impossible situations and seeing how she reacts, especially in the last third of the novel when things genuinely appear hopeless. Ian and Barbara come across well, capturing both their early hopes about getting home to the 1960s again but also their growing sense of first unease and then horror about the events they find themselves caught up within. It even gives one of the neat explanations for why the Fast Return Switch doesn't seem to pop up again after The Edge of Destruction, something in keeping with these characters but which Lyons plot and characterizations make fit alongside the established events seen on-screen.

In the end, The Witch Hunters threads a very fine needle, indeed. It wonderfully recreates the historicals of the series early years in prose form, right down to its lead characters. It also creates a captivating drama in its own right, taking a well-known historical event and creating a particular Doctor Who spin on it that doesn't undermine the tragedy of it by inserting aliens or monsters. It's a tale of fear and loathing, what it takes to come out the other side of it in one piece and is all the better for it.

Matthew lives in North Alabama where he's a nerd, doesn't have a southern accent and isn't a Republican. He's a host of both the Big Finish centric Stories From The Vortex podcast and the 20mb Doctor Who Podcast. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, amongst other places.

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