This A Discovery of Witches review contains spoilers.
A Discovery of Witches Episode 1
This review comes from Den of Geek UK.
There’s a certain book that I’ve been drawn back to over and over again since it was published in 2016. It’s called Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts, by Christopher De Hamel, and it’s about some of the oldest and most beautiful books in the world. These are the kind of books that have a fascinating history, and De Hamel tells us a lot about the past by travelling to see, maybe even touch, them. But what I like most is that he also tells us what it’s like to be close to these books, now, after they have survived for so long. They have their own special presence.
A Discovery of Witches (based on the trilogy by Deborah Harkness) is about a very specific book with a history and a presence all of its own. Episode 1 wastes no time in establishing that. The familiar dreaming spires of Oxford kicked us off; within ten minutes we were in the Bodleian Library, and if you’re the kind of person that’s interested in the book I described above, then you’re the right person for this series purely for the time spent amongst old and impressive tomes. They’re filmed beautifully, with care and attention spent to the rows of grand bookcases. Both Oxford and the library look stunning. But I surprised myself by discovering I needed more than a library to find this opener really interesting; lucky for us bibliophiles, then, that there is more, and in very traditional veins.
Of course, as the title tells us, there are witches. And there’s our protagonist, Diana Bishop (played by Teresa Palmer) who is the witch who happens to find the very remarkable manuscript called Ashmole 782 that might help to explain where vampires came from. Because there are also vampires, and that means we have a dark and brooding vampire called Matthew Clairmont (played by Matthew Goode) who wants the book for his own purposes.
Vampires and witches are also creations that many of us have been drawn back to over the decades; numerous films and books and television shows have turned a lot of us into self-confessed experts about them. So A Discovery of Witches didn’t just have to establish that it was about those character types; it also had to establish where it fell in the canon of those stories. Would we be getting style icons or killing-machine vampires, for instance? Only Lovers Left Alive or ‘Salem’s Lot?
I’m not exactly sure where to place Matthew Clairmont and his friends just yet. The vampires seem to be quite moral creatures, from what we’ve seen of them so far. One wanted to resurrect a human colleague after a car accident, but found he couldn’t sire another vampire; apparently this is a problem to which Ashmole 782 might hold an answer. Scientifically minded, they tend to be doctors or academics – at least, in Clairmont’s group. But the question of whether they drink fresh human blood remains unanswered in this first episode. This isn’t a bad thing; I’m all for not getting every single thing cleared up straight away, as long as the answers appear at some point.
What about the witches? They’re a complex lot, I suspect; we meet some full-on scary ones, some practical ones, and some timid ones. Diana herself doesn’t seem too sure of where she belongs in this lot. If I was reminded of anything early on in this regard, it’s the wonderful Eva Ibbotson book Which Witch? Some members of the coven can barely perform a spell while others can conjure up acts of dire cruelty; many of them don’t have each other’s best interests at heart. Twitchy and disloyal Gillian (played by Louise Brealey) betrays her friend Diana to some fairly scary witches who also want the book, but for that to really have emotional impact I would have needed to believe in that friendship, and it never quite persuaded me – Gillian was portrayed as a slippery, mannered customer from the start, and in her scenes with Diana I felt little connection between them.
That’s a problem because this is setting itself up to be a series about emotional connections, and the key one is between Matthew and Diana. At the end of the first episode there’s a moment where Matthew gets the scent of Diana (these vampires are all about sniffing things) and his eyes widen; he tells her to leave, quickly and quietly. His vampiric instincts have been awakened. But I’m not sure I bought that either, and the problem, I think, lies in the writing rather than the performances.
The dialogue is perfunctory at times and I found myself wishing it conveyed more of a sense of character; for instance, old classics made an appearance such as “Is that a threat?” “No, it’s a warning.” Sometimes the actors managed to overcome these limitations through the sheer strength of personality. Alex Kingston playing Sarah Bishop, Diana’s aunt, did a great job with a few minutes of screen time and a fairly standard conversation, managing to inject a sense of urgency that was otherwise missing.
But I’m not really expecting amazing dialogue, if I’m honest. A Discovery of Witches is obviously not looking to give us the groundbreaking. It’s aiming for highly watchable, and I do feel the pull to watch the next episode, mainly because it’s reminding me of a lot of stuff I’ve already enjoyed. There’s more than a hint of Buffy, particularly in the way Ashmole 782’s words started to leave the book and travel over Diana’s skin. I was reminded of Willow Rosenberg plunging her hands into the books of darkest magic and sucking up the words: a scene I love. And Matthew responding so strongly to Diana’s scent – that’s got more than a hint of Twilight about it, as Edward catches the smell of Bella’s hair and then has to fight his natural instincts throughout a long science class.
Is A Discovery of Witches going to strive to do more than remind us of other well-established supernatural moments? I think maybe it’s enough if it decides to aim only for entertaining us in an established fashion, although I hope the dialogue starts to take on more personality. After all, something doesn’t have to be remarkable to draw us back over and over again. It only has to know what we like, and well-worn classic books, vampires and witches will very probably be enough.
Listen to a review of A Discovery of Witches on our Sci Fi Fidelity podcast: