The Witch Hunters
|ISBN#||0 563 40579 1|
The Reign of Terror and
Planet of Giants
Synopsis: The TARDIS materializes in 1692 near Salem
Village. While the
Doctor makes much needed repairs to the ship, Susan, Ian and Barbara
become caught up in the infamous Salem Witch trials...
A Review by Michael Hickerson 26/5/98
With the exception of Vampire Science, I have yet to be really impressed by the BBC's eighth Doctor series of book. And while this troubles me slightly since the Virgin NAs were the stuff greatness is made of, I am able to be a bit more forgiving as long as the previous Doctor line continues to offer such quality stories as Face of the Enemy and The Witch Hunters.
The Witch Hunters in an intriguing little book. Set firmly between the first and second seasons of the show, the novel examines some of the themes seen in the classic Hartnell adventure, The Aztecs. Only this time, instead of Barbara wanting to change history, it's Susan who gets caught up in the events surrounding the Salem witch trials. But what sets this novel apart from that early Hartnell adventure is the depth of involvement our heroes have in the events surrounding them and how quickly events get out of control.
Steve Lyons gives the story a feeling of taking place during the Hartnell era. Ian and Barbara often dream of going home to 1963, the Doctor is his stubborn and crotechty best, the TARDIS is often referred to as the Ship, the fast return switch plays a vital role, and Susan's budding psychic powers play a major role in this story. In addition, Lyons shows us the dark side of the first Doctor, showing just how far he would go to preserve Earth's history. It's one of the more chilling looks into the character of the first Doctor that I've seen and it works remarkably well.
Part of the problem with a historical adventure is that the reader knows how it's going to come out from the start of events. Especially if you've read or seen the Arther Miller play, The Crucible. However, the joy of this novel isn't the events spiralling out of control (though it is fun to read!), but the fact that we get to see how the different members of the TARDIS crew react. We see Barbara's resignation of having learned the futility of trying to change history in The Aztecs, as well as Susan's grim determination in defying the Doctor and attempting to reverse the events of the Salem witch trials. It's at times a gut-wrenching exploration of these characters. It also gives us yet another rift between the Doctor and his companions as he is forced to insure history stays on course.
Which leaves only Ian, who unfortunately gets the short end of the stick in the novel. His role is meager at best, though he does get some good moments toward the end of the novel while in prison. However, until that point he is pretty much there and not explored very well, It's a shame really since he had been so well utilized in the Face of the Enemy that I was looking forward to seeing him again here.
Overall, it's a fun novel, even if it does drag in some places. There are some wonderful continuity bits to please long time fans and an entertaining story that will keep you turning those pages.
Flawed, but Superb by Robert Smith? 18/9/98
Three of the regulars are characterised excellently. Unfortunately, the one who isn't is the one around whom most of the plot and action revolves: Susan. There are a number of odd things that Susan does in this book that strike me as being extremely out of character. I can see why they had to happen, but I think there should have been a better way of getting to plot to work. Susan wasn't always sensible, but she wasn't the hysterical mess that she has to be in order for this book to work.
Not only does she make one pivotal decision that seems so fundamentally stupid that you wonder how anyone, even someone like Susan in the state she's in, can even contemplate it; but she later does lots of little things that seem out of character. There are a number of suggestions that her telepathic abilities caused much of the problem, but this is rather understated. I thought that this should either have been explicitly used to explain why she was out of character, or left as it was (since I think it works better in hints) and put her back in character.
That said, the other regulars are excellent. Ian is very, very consistent with the Ian we saw onscreen and, as he goes through a number of gruelling situations, his character shines through. Barbara has less to do, but she's still quite well done.
However, it's the Doctor who's really on form. He's wonderful in this and so very first-Doctorish. He's on the sidelines for much of the action, but takes action when he needs to. He's mostly untouched by the surrounding events, when anyone else who looked and acted like him would have been branded instantly. He talks down a lynching mob with nothing but his air of authority and a few wise words. However, he's also the vulnerable and very human character that Hartnell so carefully portrayed. He makes mistakes, his judgment is awry on more than one occasion, and he lies outright. His solution to the problem he almost caused borders on the chilling, but makes perfect sense.
The villagers are also well portrayed. The reader is desperately drawn into their plight and Lyons makes no pretense at maintaining any sort of mystery, instead utilising the sheer tragedy of it all to further capture the reader's interest. There's also something deliciously clever going on in the first few chapters that works absolutely brilliantly if you're aware of the time period (and doesn't detract if you aren't), but I won't spoil it.
I have a few qualms about how easily the TARDIS was used. Lyons seems to have pulled out all the stops in getting the Doctor around through history in this, but I think a few of them went too far. The one at the end, with the Hurndall Doctor (which, I might add, is extremely cool!) works fine IMO, but some of the 'fast return switch' stuff is a bit overdone. I can see why he has the crew wanting to leave Salem and, if they hadn't, it would have been very uncharacteristic, but he has to jump through so many unlikely hoops to get them to return (including having Susan become a moron and have the TARDIS steerable) that I suspect it would have been easier to simply have the crew trapped in the village while the TARDIS was undergoing repairs. I appreciate the effort to make the actions plausible, but the price that has to be paid for this is a little high.
In summary, The Witch Hunters has a few logistical flaws that are just a bit too big to get around. Aside from that, however, it's a captivating and entertaining read that is showing how surprisingly well the BBC Past Doctor Books are doing. Recommended.
A Review by Finn Clark 3/5/99
I should begin by warning you all that no Doctor Who book has ever taken me this long to read. I've just finished the bloody thing, about a fortnight after starting it... I'm sure this isn't Steve Lyons's fault (for the most part, anyway) so it's possible that my review will be unfairly biased against the book by missing certain overviews or themes that would have been clearer had I read it in a single sitting. Okay, that's the introductory ramble out of the way.
Firstly, I don't like the large typeface. It feels slightly patronising, as if the book secretly wants to become "Ant and Bee and the ABC". If an author turns in an under-length book, then it should get fewer pages. Is Stephen Cole embarrassed about this or something?
As to the book itself... Great story, shame about its execution. If I had to do a Siskel-and-Ebert, I'd have to give it a thumbs-up. The last hundred pages are superb, with a fine John Proctor substitute in Rebecca Nurse. The theme of time travel is eventually well handled and thought-provoking. The regulars are mostly well-painted. However, the book has notable flaws.
One -- the description is skimpy. Like Genocide, the sets aren't painted and the backdrop hasn't been hung. The poor readers (well, this one anyway) don't get a chance to see the scenes in their minds' eyes. This is a particularly annoying flaw because it's so easy to rectify. It's not as if we're talking about fundamental flaws of plot, theme or characterisation.
Two -- It doesn't feel like a Hartnell story.
The TARDIS is (repeatedly!) steerable, which feels wrong to me, fast return switch or no fast return switch. Hartnell couldn't steer the TARDIS. If you don't like it, don't write a Hartnell story. Even if you personally accept this story's rationalisation of a steerable TARDIS, you've got to accept that it's startlingly atypical for the period. Even more regrettably, the novels are slowly accumulating more and more reasons why Hartnell's TARDIS might have been steerable after all. We've got the fast return switch in The Witch Hunters, plus his "deal" for helping in The Five Doctors, the "early universe" explanation in Venusian Lullaby, offering an invitation with RSVP in The Empire of Glass... They might (just) be plausible when taken individually, but considered together...
And the portrayal of the first Doctor himself is patchy. Some of the time he's excellent, but at other times he seems more like the NA Doctor: all-powerful, easily capable of dominating the lesser mortals around him and grossly unsuited to this modest little historical. This is not the case for all of the book -- far from it, no praise could be too high for the ending -- but it came in flashes and it damaged the book for me. It's not a bad portrayal of Hartnell, but we've seen much better ones.
Ian and Barbara are wonderful -- as always, whether on screen or in print. Their taking over the storyline for the later part of the book is one reason why that bit's so much better. Which brings me to...
Three -- Susan is a complete idiot. We can see why she does what she does, and perhaps even feel for her a little, but one's sympathy does tend to drop when a little voice at the back of your head keeps saying, "But it's all her own stupid fault..."
And finally we proceed to Steve Lyons himself, a writer capable of excellent books (Conundrum) and utterly unreadable grim drivel (Head Games, Time of Your Life) without apparent pattern. He doesn't help himself in this one by using a theme (time travel) that he previously discussed more amusingly and in much greater depth in DWM 243-244. Only the emotional texture to its treatment here saves it at all.
In my opinion Steve is at his best when being humorous (The Completely Useless Encyclopedia springs to mind) and a po-faced Lyons is a toothless Lyons. And even in an ultra-serious book like this, he can't resist a groan-out-loud in-joke (p268) fully on a par with his Spain reference in The Murder Game. The lad's barking up the wrong tree. Someone take him out for a drink and explain to him very carefully where his talents lie.
Oh, and one more thing. Steve Lyons is the biggest idiot in the
universe to try to write a sequel to The Crucible. I've seen it
done properly, and only about a year ago. No way could he have lived up
to that. Ever, ever, ever.
Ever since it came out in 1998, The Witch Hunters has been the top-rated PDA on Shannon's Online Rankings (it's currently at 85.3%). It's obviously much-loved. And it's underwritten, oppressive and no fun at all.
To state the screamingly obvious, this book is a tragedy. It retreads the ground of Arthur Miller's The Crucible (as is acknowledged by characters in the book watching the play, twice) with a Whoish twist of "can we change history?". I'm not normally wild about such stories, but with the Season One regulars I can see the justification. It's a live issue for them. They're caught in that no-man's land between The Aztecs and The Time Meddler, still trying to make sense of nonsense before the Pertwee era would toss out a random name (Blinovitch) and make that the answer to everything.
Of course "we can't change history" stories usually require the Doctor to be an utter bastard... but the 1st Doctor could be an utter bastard when he wanted, so that's fine. Admittedly it makes for a rather depressing story as our heroes spend 279 pages basically struggling to get back where they started, but fortunately the book throws us a few crumbs at the end. Steve Lyons wrote an awesome two-part article for DWM called Temporal Orbits (see issues 243-244 in late 1996) which is still pretty much the last word on the ever-shifting rules on time travel in Doctor Who. The Witch Hunters may be a "we can't change history" story, but it's a thoughtful and detailed one. Here the rules aren't being churned out like Star Trek's Prime Directive, but instead scrutinised and tested. Reluctantly I admit that this once, it worked.
The regulars aren't the best they've ever been, but even moderate portrayals of the 1st Doctor, Susan, Ian and Barbara would guarantee a high level of quality. In my opinion the Season One line-up was the strongest dramatic ensemble of regulars the series ever produced, including the books. Even within the constraints of a "you can't change history" story, they're strong, as always. Susan's headstrong and stupid, but I suppose that's not uncharacteristic.
Mind you, I'm not wild about a steerable TARDIS being shoehorned into the black-and-white era. Steve Lyons has an excuse (the fast return switch), then another excuse (it's Richard Hurndall!) and... oh dear. All these books which give steerable TARDISes to the first two Doctors are eroding something fundamental, no matter how ingenious their reasons why they and they alone can break the rules. I cite Venusian Lullaby, Invasion of the Cat-People...
I called this book underwritten. This feeling was less strong on the reread, but I still wasn't transported to Salem in 1692. The people and their attitudes are captured faithfully, yes, but not their world. It was almost like reading a very detailed play script. However that's a perfectionist's quibble, with Steve Lyons mostly doing a good job of conjuring up the scary and oppressive atmosphere of this seventeenth-century Puritan community, more alien than anything we might find on the planet Zed. The book's most frightening chapters are before the storm breaks, with Ian and Barbara trying not to betray themselves with 20th century mindsets in a village that's about to murder almost randomly a score of innocent people. Meanwhile Susan's getting in over her head...
This book is mostly a cut-price The Crucible, with neither the force of Arthur Miller's writing nor the central tragedy of doomed protagonists. We know the TARDIS crew will survive. Admittedly even a fraction of The Crucible's power is still strong stuff and this is never a weak book, but it's the ending that really makes it special. Those last dozen pages justify the story's existence. This is the reason why it was worth retelling this story as science fiction. Steve Lyons may (perhaps) have written the most moving ending in Doctor Who; that's a big claim, but I'm not sure what else might beat it. Human Nature, Sanctuary, Lunar Lagoon, The Chimes of Midnight... powerful stories, all of them, and worth seeking out - but I don't know if any of those endings outdo The Witch Hunters.
I couldn't call this book fun, but if only for the sake of those last dozen pages it's strongly recommended. Even by the standards of 1st Doctor books, this is a winner.
One of the Best Historical First Doctor Adventures by Sean Homrig 26/7/99
While I find Hartnell's version of the good Doctor a charming variation from the other seven, he is not particularly one of my favorites. Nor, for that matter, is Susan one of my favorite companions. She was featured on the show when the producers were plugging it primarily as a children's show, and they probably expected many of the show's younger viewers to empathize with Susan's role. As a result, I never thought she provided very much depth to the series (although I concede she wasn't as bad as the screeching Mel or the whining Peri - my apologies to their supporters).
Steve Lyons, however, has picked Susan up and molded an interesting and utterly believable aspect of her personality. I've never felt particularly sorry for her on the television series when she ended up scraping her knee or getting her wits scared out of her, but there are a few scenes in The Witch Hunters in which my heart broke for her. This is Susan's book before anyone else's.
Ian and Barbara seem to take a backseat throughout much of the action, and I've never seen a better novelization of the First Doctor. Lyons seems to have even gotten Hartnell's stammer down to a tee (although that stammer may have been attributed more to Hartnell's forgetfulness than his acting ability). The Doctor reacts just as you would expect him to, and just when you think you have him all figured out, he pulls a fast one on everyone.
The highlight of this novel, however, is Lyons' excellent recreation of the growing hysteria among Salem's villagers as they realize the time travelers could be powerful witches. We know that our heros cannot explain their true origin without being lynched by the superstitious villagers, and we cringe along with them as every innocent word they utter is twisted and contorted into a blasphemy by the village pastor. The scary truth to this story is that the Doctor and his companions are not fighting their usual fare of bloodthirsty aliens on a faraway planet, but actual living human beings. And guess what, folks: this stuff really happened! Lyons' storytelling could fall into cheap sentimentality, but he skillfully makes us feel for the doomed villagers who are mistakenly accused as witches.
I did mention that Susan and the First Doctor are used well in this novel, but I'm not sure they would be the best choice of all the Doctors and his companions for this adventure. I kept thinking how Ace and McCoy's Doctor would fare in Salem, particularly since Ace has voiced her opinions on racial and sexual discrimination in other stories (although Susan initially raises some eyebrows after she speaks out about John Proctor's rough treatment of his maid). Ace would have been a prime witch suspect for the villagers, and it would have been a true delight to see the Seventh Doctor talk his way out of that one. As it happens, however, this is a historical adventure more suited for the line of First Doctor stories than those of the Seventh.
All in all, an above average read, and I highly recommend it to most fans. If the historical stories such as The Romans or The Aztecs usually don't do anything for you, it is well worth trudging through the first half of the novel to get to the exciting (and, I'm rather surprised to admit, almost tearjerking) conclusion.
A Review by Reuben Herfindahl 5/8/99
I didn't manage to get my hands on a copy of The Witch Hunters until well after it had come out. While I had tried very much to avoid spoilers, I did start hearing that it was an excellent read. On the other hand, Steve Lyons was new to me, I had never read any of his previous Who outings.
The Witch Hunters is set between Reign of Terror and Planet of the Giants. No stretch there, a nice gap in which to set MA's. Season 1 has always been one of my favorites, and one which is not often visited in the MA's.
One of the main points of The Witch Hunters is the Doctor's belief that you must, "not change history. Not one line." as seen in The Aztecs. Only this time it is Susan who questions the idea, and after a brief visit to Salem in the 1690's, uses the Fast Return Switch (seen in The Edge of Destruction) to return to Salem to try to change the tragedy from occurring. Of course this just ends up getting the whole crew involved in the troubles and has Ian accused of being a Warlock.
A classic early Who setup, but the novel form allows everything to have a darker twist. It is set after the bloodiest Who setting to date (The Reign of Terror), the crew thinks they have seen the worst, only to get hit with something nastier. Susan and Ian are torn from the Doctor, and the Doctor and Barbara are forced to leave in the TARDIS. Ian is imprisoned and Susan is taken in by a Priest.
Susan is setup for one of the first times since An Unearthly Child as being truly alien. Her mental powers are emerging and they amplify the troubles for her.
Ian comes across once again as the heroic protector of the group and his portrayal is right on par with the rest of the first season. (As an intersting side note, this is one of 2 adventures Ian refers to in the newly released Crusade linking material). His caring for Barbara also comes across very well.
Barbara also is right on. It is interesting as she is in a different position than she was in The Aztecs arguing for change. She still thinks they should change history a bit, but is careful to consult the history books after the adventure picks up pace.
The Doctor truly shines through. The charecterization is good, but more than that, his hidden thoughts are partially revealed, piercing the hard exterior. The book leaves us in some doubt if perhaps the Doctor did change history, but just one line. The afterward with Rebecca Nurse is absolutely priceless.
Bottom Line: Amazing stuff. I may have read better in the BBC line, but not much. Certainly the best of the PDA's.
A Review by Stuart Gutteridge 20/9/00
Surprise, surprise, this is a historical adventure featuring well who else but William Hartnell`s Doctor. Give the man a break... Anyway on to the review;
PLOT: Not too disimilair to The Aztecs in some respects, only Susan takes on the role of Barbara for the novel. It is 1692 and the Salem Witch Trials are nigh, something which seems to concern Susan deeply. Hm, heavy going, even for a Hartnell novel; but captivating nonetheless.
THE DOCTOR: Perfectly in keeping with William Hartnell`s portrayal. He takes action where necessary, but remains a bystander as well. One gripe, he can steer the TARDIS.
COMPANIONS: Ian is faithful but doesn`t get a lot to do. Barbara is cleverly used advising Susan against changing history, having learnt from her experiences in The Aztecs. This is really Susan`s novel and for once she takes centre stage, defying both her grandfather and making use of her telepathic powers (albeit seemingly unwittingly.)
OTHERS: Well these would have to be the villagers, who you actually care for, their plight makes for fascinating reading. Rebecca Nurse and Abigail are particularly strong characters; although the latter could have been used more.
OVERALL: Despite the similarities to The Aztecs, the characterisation and writing alone make this a highly enjoyable, captivating read. 9/10.
Salem of the Century by Andrew Wixon 2/11/03
Ambition is always welcome in a novel - but while too little ambition can be a dangerous thing, too much can prove fatal. And while The Witch Hunters isn't a disaster by any means, neither is it an unquestionable success. This is an historical tale very much in thrall to the style and themes of The Aztecs, several elements of which are reprised one way or the other. The setting on this occasion is the Salem witch trials of 1692. As usual, the travellers get caught up in events, with hilarious results. (Well, maybe not the last bit.)
Author Steve Lyons seems to be attempting rather a lot here - in addition to basically telling a story set in and around the town during the witch trials, he seems occasionally tempted to try and 'fix' the inconsistencies between the early historicals' attitude to history (it's fixed and can't be altered) and the post-Time Meddler approach (oh yes it can). There's also a lot of material about what it's like to suffer from this kind of mass hysteria (this is made possible by a subplot about Susan's telepathic abilities, which make her unusually vulnerable to this sort of thing). And, to make the story work, the TARDIS ends up visiting Salem in 1692 no fewer than four times (how can the TARDIS be so reliable in the Hartnell era? I hear you ask. Reader, 'tis mostly the Fast Return switch's fault).
And the result is a novel that seems a bit unsure of what it really wants to be, constantly hopscotching from one theme to another, with several jumps in the narrative. Miller's The Crucible is overtly referenced, and - as someone whose knowledge of the Salem trials mostly comes from the play - I'm not sure how good a job Lyons does of explaining the chronology and basis of events for those less familiar with the subject matter. The promised insights into the nature of history, and why Earth's past pre-1963 should be so uniquely invulnerable to the Doctor's influence, fail to materialise, which raises the question of why Lyons bothered to include this aspect of the story at all - those who worry about this kind of big continuity issue will be annoyed at the lack of solid answers, and everyone else will just find it distracting.
Lyons isn't the most subtle of writers - not on this outing, anyway - but you're rarely in any doubt as to what's going on and who's who in the story. He does achieve some nice moments - the TARDIS being burned as a gateway to Hell, the travellers' final confrontation with the village minister - but this really seems like a novel trying too hard to do too much.
Frightening... by Joe Ford 10/9/04
An astonishing work and the book that thanks to its early placement in the PDA range every single book since has tried hard to live up to. Some have come close, Festival of Death, Eye of Heaven, Shadow in the Glass and Face of the Enemy are all pretty darn perfect in their own way but never before or since has a Past Doctor Adventure provoked me such.
One of the greatest of joys of Doctor Who is how it can take history, one of the dullest subjects when you are just reading facts from a textbook, polish up certain periods to captivate and entertain. Surely some of the best Doctor Who in any media has the pleasure of capturing history at its best (just take a peek at The Massacre, The Fires of Vulcan or The Eleventh Tiger). Sometimes the writer enjoys the mere luxury of the period rather than concentrating on an actual historical event but Steve Lyons' dips into history have been far more precise. Here he takes the controversial town of Salem and the infamous witch trials as his subject matter. And without the merest hint of supernatural evil he manages to write the most frightening Doctor Who story I have ever read.
I found myself angry as I progressed through this book, angry and bitter because it touches on a subject that is very close to my heart, religious intolerance. In Salem 1692 nineteen people were killed, brutally hung by a religiously tight community that sought supernatural foes to explain the error of their own ways. As the Doctor explains it so eloquently the girls of Salem are breaking out in bouts of hysteria, the simple thrill of doing something wrong because the community is so repressed, so devoutly puritan. Rather than accept that their teachings and behaviour is at fault they invent witches to seek out and blame and kill, a physical threat to be stamped out to save the village.
It is made all the more frightening to know that it is human beings that are causing such suffering and that these events truly took place. The true villain of the piece is the Reverend Samuel Parris, the man responsible for preserving and nurturing the fear of witches in the community and his attempts to stamp it out. It is hard to sympathise with a man like Parris who refuses to listen to reason, despite protestations of innocence throughout the book he continually abuses the bouts of hysteria to his own advantage sending anyone who questions his idea of religion to the noose. Anyone who speaks against him or the bible or works to free people he has already condemned is immediately suspected of witchcraft. Disturbingly he has an automatic hold over anybody who chooses to think for themselves and thrives on the power this grip of fear offers him. Lyons wisely portrays Parris as a man who believes in his convictions totally, as a man who never doubts there is an evil to stamp out. Given Abigail and the other children's convincing spasms and the ritual he stumbles across in the forest it is hard to doubt his motivations... it is only when he starts accusing all and sundry without proof aside from questioning his opinions that he becomes someone far more frightening.
This is character drama of the highest order and each and every character springs from the page. Given the horrific backdrop and the unenviable task of writing for genuine historical characters Lyons does a brilliant job of rounding each of them off. I was particularly drawn to Mary Warren, Susan's closest friend during her ordeal. Through Mary we see how ill-treated the children of Salem were, forced to work beyond their capability, to pray for hours on end, to keep their tongues in their mouths and obey without question. She suffers beatings and accusations and is FORCED to speak out against her friend Susan in fear that she will be arrested and hung if she does not.
I wanted to reach in and strangle Abigail Williams several times throughout the story. What a bitch! A mere eleven years of age and she prides herself on the control she holds over the community, controlling the children and prompting their fits of hysteria. It is easy to why somebody like Abigail would act out with such horrific fierceness given her strict upbringing but it is how quickly she adjusts to accusing innocents and enjoying it that terrifies. At the end of the book when the witch trials have been mercifully drawn to a close it is hard to pity Abigail as she weeps alone realising she has damned her soul.
This might make you laugh but two third through the book I starting wondering where the soundtrack to the story was on my shelf! How weird is that? Such was Lyons grasp on the regulars I thought I was reading the novel of a genuine William Hartnell story!
I have never seen Susan better written. Some reviewers have been critical of her portrayal in the book but for me this was Carol Ann Ford in print. Susan's story is bloody terrifying to witness, this is her coming of age story where she is forced to deal with her telepathic abilities and understand the cold opinions of her Grandfather. I understand entirely why she returns to Salem against his wishes to try and change history and save the lives of people she has befriended, given the circumstances I would do exactly the same thing. Confronted with the prejudice and intolerance of the time Susan is awash with hysterical emotions, desperate to save lives she cannot. You know it is all going to end in tears, Susan only making things worse with every person she tries to convince of their evils.
But as good as Susan is the Doctor is captured even better, for once an agonised soul who is too scared to deny Time its victims. The story beautifully addresses the moral dilemma from The Aztecs (Can the time travellers change the past? What affect on the timelines will it have?) and the Doctor's brutal opinion on the matter. Despite his compassion that desperately wants to free Rebecca Nurse and the others only he knows the chaos that such actions would cause. The story takes a sensitive look at his plight, trying to convince his friends that their endeavours are fruitless (notice how he never actually answers their question as to whether history can be altered as to not raise their hopes) and examining his relationship with Rebecca, his promises to save her life and his betrayal of that promise as he secures her fate. The story asks hard questions about doing the right thing and the Doctor may appear callous but a tear-jerking coda where he shows Rebecca the future and the good that sprung from her death ("Mankind will learn tolerance and understanding from our sad example").
The relationship between the regulars is put under the microscope. The Doctor realises how much his Granddaughter is growing and thinking for herself. Barbara is the realistic one as usual, scrutinising the Doctor a lot more viciously than the others. Her reaction when she discovers he sent Rebecca to his death is captivating. And isn't it so like Ian to think of the safety of his friends when he is being brutally tortured in prison? Despite their very different (and voiced) opinions the feeling that this is a family has never felt stronger, the horrors of Salem forcing them closer than ever before.
There are some disturbing passages in this book, much more so than your average Doctor Who book. Approaching the middle of the story during a church service which Ian, Barbara and Susan are attending there is level of tenseness that sent shivers down my spine. You know it will only take one mistake for the entire town to turn on them and waiting for it is almost unbearable. The resulting chaos, Susan being hunted through the village and cornered, punched, scratched and almost drowned as they hold her underwater to prove she is a witch remains one of the scariest sequences ever. Lyons is almost too good at punishing the regulars and it is non-stop torture from there on. Ian's imprisonment is similarly uncomfortable to witness especially when he is stripped nude by his jailers and touched all over in search of his "witches tit". Never before has the desperate return to the TARDIS seemed so impossible. The image of the TARDIS burning and the village chanting as the "doorway to hell" is reduced to ashes is a powerful one, a statement of how far things have spiralled out of control.
In the background at all times is the lingering possibility of Rebecca Nurse's death. We meet the woman and instantly realise she is a loving, charitable woman and unworthy of the charges she is accused with. The crux of the boo - will she be executed in accordance with history or not? - is a harrowing wait to find out the answer. I always find it is brave to end a book on a note of failure and this one of the best, it is fairly obvious Lyons is not going to re-write history but such is Rebecca's plight you somehow hope he can find a way to. Despite her death the last few pages fill the reader with renewed hope and ensure that the despicable nightmare they have witnessed had some agreeable consequences.
All this talk of psychological drama and religious madness might lead you to believe this book is difficult to read. As ever Lyons' prose is effortlessly enjoyable and simple to get through, he captures the dangers with a briskness of touch that never feels underwritten. His dialogue has a touch of poetry to it that suits the early historicals that were not above showing off with sparkling scripts.
I cannot recommend this book enough. It is torturing ride for the regulars but manages to bring them out in their full colours. It is a startling, emotional read, unflinching in its content and startlingly adult. It fully deserves its place as the top ranking PDA.
A Review by Craig Lambert 6/2/08
I have been wanting to read The Witch Hunters for years. I have seen it on Amazon with 4.5 stars from 10 reviews. Perhaps my hopes were too high, but I was a little disappointed. This is the third novel by Steve Lyons that I have read, and I may start avoiding his books. They tend to be average in my opinion. I wish I could recommend this book, because I really wanted to be blown away, but unfortunately, I was not.
As First Doctor stories goes, this is a good one. As historical Who stories go, this is a good one. I tried to enjoy this story. It's a great idea for a Who story. Lyons handles the story well, and provides satisfactory characterization of the cast members. So I will say that, technically, this is a fine novel. Unfortunately, it does not go any farther.
I respect Lyons for his writing and characterization and plot in this book, Salvation and Stealers of Dreams. Lyons has got everything squared up in a mechanical sense. But I have been disheartened not to find much more to make my heart sing.
My big complaint about The Witch Hunters is that it's too long. At least 80 pages could be cut without any loss to the plot or moving the story along. It seems as if the editor asked Lyons to fill in some parts with padding to get it up to the required 280 pages. The filler just wastes your time and the characters' time.
My one rave about this book was the ending. I loved the last few pages with the Doctor and Rebecca Nurse. That did make my heart sing, and it is a very satisfactory way to end this story. I am grateful to Lyons for making that ending happen. It gives the Doctor greater soul, depth, and integrity. Highlights of the Doctor's character development are rare in any DW, but this was a nice gem. Rating: 7/10
A Review by Steve White 9/1/14
The Witch Hunters by Steve Lyons is the first 1st Doctor novel in the PDA range and is a classic Hartnell era historical story.
I've always had a slight interest in the Salem witch trials, and have read a couple of books about them and witchcraft in general so was looking forward to seeing how good Steve Lyons' research was and what kind of a spin he would put on the story. From the word go, he has everything pretty much spot on. It is clear that the poor woman being tried as a witch is innocent, and the author manages to sum up the hysteria of the trials in those few pages by mentioning neighbouring land disputes, and the acting/smirks of the children.
The premise of The Witch Hunters is that Susan makes friends with the people of Salem and is then horrified to discover that they all die due to the witch trials so goes back to try and stop it. When the TARDIS crew get back, they find Salem in hysteria, which is affecting Susan's psychic abilities and they are soon accused of being witches themselves.
The story seems to drag in places, but retains its appeal nonetheless. Steve Lyons leaves you guessing right until the end if the TARDIS crew are infact able to change history, and indeed to the Doctor's motives. The ending is done superbly, very emotional and very well written. Applause indeed to the author.
The first Doctor is perhaps the easiest of the Doctors to get right on paper. His era was before we knew anything about the Time Lords and Gallifrey so he is essentially a quintessential grumpy old man who can travel through time and space. Steve Lyons has his grumpiness down from the word go, and even writes his mumbles and forgotten lines, which in reality was more to do with Hartnell actually forgetting his lines, and film being too expensive to rectify on all occasions. Lyons also explores his kinder side, trying to right wrongs without actually changing history, but, as previously mentioned, his true motives are hidden until right until the end.
The companions of the era were Ian, Barbara and Susan. Ian and Barbara are both done well, still just two teachers trying to get back to the 60's whilst trying to do a bit of good when they can. Susan on the other hand isn't handled brilliantly. In Legacy of the Daleks it is made explitly clear that Susan is far older than her appearance; in 30 years she visibly only ages about one, due to her being a Time Lady. Here, however, Steve Lyons has her acting very childish, whilst still thinking mature thoughts and hinting strongly about her genetics. He also has her act with no regard at all for time or the safety of her companions, which just isn't Susan. Whilst not as disagreeable as seeing Jo Grant kill a Tractite in Genocide, it still sits a little uncomfortably.
The other cast are all "real" people who were involved in the Salem witch trials. It's interesting to see how Steve Lyons imagines them, and he does a good job of bringing that era to life on the page, and indeed the hysteria of the time.
Steve Lyons is a talented Doctor Who writer and in The Witch Hunters he has written a solid, and accurate portrayal of both the Salem witch trials and the Hartnell era of the 60's. In fact, the novel does sometimes read like a missing script. A few niggles with Susan's portrayal wasn't enough to ruin it for me and it remains a very good novel.
Fear And Loathing In Salem Town by Matthew Kresal 26/11/21
There's something about that first TARDIS crew that keeps causing those creating Doctor Who's spin-off media back to them. Whether it's in the Wilderness Era novels of Virgin and the BBC or the Companion Chronicles and now 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 can 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. Indeed, Finn Clark's 2004 supplement to his 1999 review described the novel as "a cut-price The Crucible", in a moment of unfair analysis. 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 at one point. 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 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 one 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 novel's epilogue, in perhaps the single most powerful moment of the entire book, makes abundantly clear.
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 writing on-screen 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.