REVIEW: “Doctor Who: The Crimson Horror” by Mark Gatiss / “Doctor Who: The Witchfinders” by Joy Wilkinson (Doctor Who Target Collection)

The Target range of Doctor Who novelizations has long held the ability to transform an otherwise average-to-bad episode of the show into a memorable and enjoyable book. Sometimes, what doesn’t work on screen is destined to work on the page, and granting the original screenwriter the opportunity to expand upon their script often yields exciting results. This is the mindset I approached the latest wave of the range with. Neither “The Crimson Horror” nor “The Witchfinders” are bad episodes of Doctor Who, but they are decidedly average ones, which means there’s quite a lot of room for them to be bettered in a novelization. While “The Crimson Horror” doesn’t really achieve this feat, “The Witchfinders” does. And, to be fair, both novels are immensely enjoyable and should prove pleasing to any Doctor Who fan who decides to read either story.

“Doctor Who: The Crimson Horror” by Mark Gatiss
Something ghastly is afoot in Victorian Yorkshire. Something that kills. Bodies are washing up in the canal, their skin a waxy, glowing red… But just what is this crimson horror? Madam Vastra, Jenny and Strax are despatched to investigate the mystery. Strangely reluctant to assist their enquiries is Mrs Winifred Gillyflower, matriarch of ‘Sweetville’, a seemingly utopian workers’ community. Why do all roads lead to the team’s old friends Clara and the Doctor? Who is Mrs Gillyflower’s mysterious silent partner Mr Sweet? And will the motley gang be in time to defeat the mysterious power that threatens all the world with its poison?

“Doctor Who: The Witchfinders” by Joy Wilkinson
The TARDIS lands in the Lancashire village of Bilehurst Cragg in the 17th century, and the Doctor, Ryan, Graham and Yaz soon become embroiled in a witch trial run by the local landowner. Fear stalks the land, and the arrival of King James I only serves to intensify the witch hunt. But the Doctor soon realises there is something more sinister than paranoia and superstition at work. Tendrils of living mud stir in the ground and the dead lurch back to horrifying life as an evil alien presence begins to revive. The Doctor and her friends must save not only the people of Bilehurst Cragg from the wakening forces, but the entire world.

“Doctor Who: The Crimson Horror” by Mark Gatiss

Before reading Gatiss’ novelization, I’d only seen The Crimson Horror once or twice, right around the time of its initial airing. And very little of it stuck with me over the years. So, I went into this with no expectations, simply hoping for something enjoyable. And, at first, it seemed promising. The idea of telling a Doctor Who story in an epistolary format is a neat one. It’s just a shame that Gatiss doesn’t really stick with it. Jenny narrates most of the book, with a few sections from Ada Gillyflower, the Doctor, Strax, and Jonas Thursday. The problem is that all of these segments are mixed together with more traditional prose. The book tries to handwave this away by suggesting Jenny is filling in the gaps all “authory,” but it proves very distracting. Those segments never sound like they’re written in her voice, so it breaks the illusion of this being a collection of documents and audio recordings explaining the tale of “The Crimson Horror.” And that’s really a shame as the epistolary stuff works remarkably well, adding a new twist on a familiar story. Strax’s stuff is a bit uneven (but often funny), it’s nice getting to hear directly from the Doctor, and Gatiss has such a strong grasp on Jenny’s voice that you can easily imagine it in your head as you’re reading it. Overall, I just wish the book had fully committed to the epistolary style. I think it would’ve been far more engaging that way.

The Crimson Horror is one of those Doctor Who stories that are kind of light on plot and heavy on atmosphere. And that creates a sizable problem for a novelization of the episode. How do you stretch a plot that already felt pretty thin into a 200-page novel? Gatiss’s answer is to not stretch it much and add a (mostly unconnected) prequel instead. In fact, The Crimson Horror doesn’t start until 40% of the way into the novel. Now, to be fair, the prequel adventure is rather fun, and it ends up being more interesting than the portion of the book that actually adapts its namesake’s episode. But it is weird that you have to read nearly half the book to reach the beginning of the story you’ve set out to read. I don’t want to go into any real detail about the prequel story, since it is totally new to the novelization, but I do think it’s worth a read. As for The Crimson Horror, itself, I’m not sure there’s enough there to please anyone who’s not a hardcore fan. While the various points of view do beef up the characters some, the book speeds through its plot so quickly that the actual mystery itself feels like an afterthought. A lot of the emotional beats land much better, particularly those involving Ada, but I can’t help feeling like the actual mystery is just as middling here as it is in the episode. Sure, this book was never gonna rock the boat, or anything, but I would’ve liked to spend more time beefing up the central mystery of The Crimson Horror some. Maybe it could’ve leaned harder into the Sherlock Holmes aspect of the mystery or something, I don’t know. As it is, it’s just kind of perfunctory—which is rather disappointing given how fun the prequel story is.

Overall, Mark Gatiss’s novelization of The Crimson Horror ends up being about as average as the episode, itself, is. The added prequel is reason enough to give the book a read, but it does come at the cost of properly expanding the main story’s narrative. The epistolary angle is neat, but it’s not executed as consistently as I’d like. And, ultimately, it’s still the same story as the TV version, with all the pros and cons that come with that. While it does provide a noticeably different experience when compared to the episode, I’m not sure the novelization is really any better. It’s just a different version of the same thing. And, sure, it’s not the job of a novelization to radically change the story, but the best ones can often enrich the experience. I don’t think The Crimson Horror really does that outside of the added character moments. It’s just a fun, extended prequel followed by a pretty average, though creative, retelling of the TV episode. The novelization won’t suddenly make you a fan of the episode, but the added character moments and genuinely enjoyable prequel make it worth a read. (3 out of 5 wands.)

“Doctor Who: The Witchfinders” by Joy Wilkinson

From what I remember of The Witchfinders, the episode was a fairly average historical romp that suffered from its villains being underdeveloped but was saved by an absolutely delightful performance by Alan Cumming. While the novelization is definitely missing Cumming’s commitment to hamming it up at all times, it does largely improve upon my problems with the episode. On the surface, it’s recognizably the same story. Wilkinson doesn’t try to remix anything here or retell the plot in some new, gimmicky way. Instead, she simply takes her original plot and expands upon it. The TARDIS still turns up in early-1600s Lancashire, where the Doctor and her friends stumble across a village in the throes of a witch trial. If you’ve seen the episode, you’ll know exactly how it plays out, and the novelization follows the episode fairly closely. The only real differences to the plot come in the form of a framing device, revolving around Willa, but to go into any real detail about that would venture into spoiler territory (and the book’s ending may be slightly divisive with fans). Needless to say, this isn’t a novelization that changes the plot much, it just provides a lot of extra context. 

Most of that extra context comes in the form of much deeper, expanded backstories and motivations for the characters. Every single character in The Witchfinders benefits from the kind of internal characterization that a novel can provide. This greater exploration allows readers the chance to better understand these characters that weren’t as well explored on screen. The Doctor, Yaz, Ryan, and Graham all get a bit more development, with Yaz being given the most depth in her conversations with Willa. Willa is fleshed out a lot more here than she was in the episode, with her backstory and connection to Becka better spelled out. Becka Savage’s motivations are much clearer, with a good amount of backstory being given to her, making her utter devotion to the whole witch-hunting thing make a lot more sense. The Morax felt underdeveloped in the episode, so the book literally opens with a bit of backstory for the Morax, making their reveal, later on, feel more natural. Given the greater depth provided to the Morax, the novel doesn’t feel quite as concerned with witches as the episode did, but the story’s conclusion ends up being more satisfying as a result of the Morax’s better development. Overall, Wilkinson really took the opportunity to give the characters of The Witchfinders more depth, and it’s a better story for it.

All in all, The Witchfinders is worth reading if you left the episode feeling like the characters needed more development. I wish the episode, itself, could’ve incorporated some of the expanded backstories found in the novelization. Just ten more minutes could’ve made such a difference. As it is, The Witchfinders was a solid historical story on TV and it’s an even better historical story in prose. Wilkinson’s prose is easy to read, spending more time delving into characters than overexplaining the visual elements. I don’t think it’ll really make anyone who hated the TV story fall in love with it, but for those of us who just wanted a bit more context and expansion for the characters, this book hits the nail on the head. It’s a great read that takes a solid episode and makes it better. What more can you ask of a Doctor Who novelization? (4.5 out of 5 wands.)

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