A Discovery of Witches is as subtle as a sledgehammer

Catherine Pearson
Photo credit: Sky

From Digital Spy

Adapted for television from Deborah Harkness' bestselling novel of the same name, A Discovery of Witches opens with promise. The show's title card may look like it was designed by someone who's just discovered the Word Art tool in PowerPoint, but the opening shots of Oxford are breath-taking.

"In every ending, there is a new beginning," muses Professor Matthew Clairmont (Matthew Goode) as he looks out over the misty Thames. The rising sun peeks through Oxford's beautiful buildings as the camera sweeps the old city from above.

As the Professor looks down from a bridge at Dr Diana Bishop (Teresa Palmer) rowing on the river, the show appears to be heading in the right direction. The eerie morning silence, the mysterious man narrating… It has potential.

Photo credit: Sky One

It seems something dark may lurk in the buildings of this ancient university. The institution hides a history of magic, and the atmosphere of the show's opening scene suggests we're in for an intriguing exploration into the folklore and history of witchcraft.

Then moments later Dr Bishop drops her academic papers while chaining her bike to a fence. Her hands glow and the pages whoosh back together in a flurry of CGI magic. "My powers are so unpredictable!" she complains over a coffee with her witch friend Gillian (Louise Brealey) who then invites her to 'coven'.

Oh. There's no brooding evil here. The show has all the subtlety of a sledgehammer.

Episode one sees Dr Bishop find an old manuscript named Ashmole 782, a book she requires for her research. She is wholly unaware of the importance of the text until, on opening its dusty cover, the words flood out of the pages and cover her hands. The lights in the library flicker; the candles in Professor Clairmont's spooky room go out. Something is amiss.

Photo credit: Sky One

Luckily, though, we have some heavily explanatory dialogue to help us make sense of what may be happening. "That Ashmole manuscript, there was something weird about it!" offers Dr Bishop's friend, while Professor Clairmont's lab assistant helps us along with the history of the book: "It's missing, it's always been missing. How could this witch have found it?"

It transpires that the Ashmole manuscript contains some crucial insight into vampires' origins and could go some way to explaining why recent attempts at 'siring' (transforming humans into vampires) have been ineffective. There is disquiet in the world of magical creatures. They all need the book.

There is no ambiguity around Diana Bishop's nature. If it weren't enough to be treated to Diana having a coffee and a chat about all-things witchy with Gillian, we also have her aunt Sarah (Alex Kingston) stressing what she is in no uncertain terms. "It's time you face what you are – a witch!" she tells her niece over the phone.

And if there were any doubt as to the leering Professor Clairmont's nature, these are swiftly allayed by Diana. "You're a vampire!" she says, as he approaches her in the library. (The Bodleian library, this is. A good drinking game could be made from the number of times characters say "the Bodleian library", or the much less palatable "the Bod".)

Photo credit: Sky One

The series has a strong cast and Matthew Goode in particular puts in an assured performance as the eerily still vampire in hot pursuit of the young witch. Goode does his best with the dialogue he is given, but ultimately the cast is let down by a clunky, plot exposition-heavy script that appears to want to cram in as much of the novel's rich detail as possible, but removes all intrigue and ambivalence in the process.

Supporting characters, too, appear to only exist to help drive the plot. In a brief scene where Diana gets a drink with a library assistant after studying, what could have been an opportunity to better understand her character is instead used to explain how her parents were murdered.

Her friend is a convenient audience to her backstory – her parents died because they were suspected of being witches and now she doesn't feel comfortable with her powers. Sadly, it's nothing we haven't heard before in other best-selling novels about wizards and witches.

If anything can hold the series together, it will be the growing relationship between our central warring witch and vampire. With any luck, their dynamic will swiftly move out of stalker territory, and give us something to really sink our teeth into.

A Discovery of Witches airs on Fridays at 9pm on Sky One and is also available to watch on NOW TV.

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