Clichéd and not particularly engaging, A Discovery of Witches is solidly-made and has some potential, but it hasn’t realised it yet.
Adapted for television from a trilogy by Deborah Harkness, A Discovery of Witches feels as though it was sprung from an impulse to cram as many played-out urban fantasy concepts as possible into a single story. Thus, we have magical creatures – in this case witches and vampires – living among us in secrecy, although they’re not doing a very good job of it as they all seem to know each other. There’s at least one reference to Salem, some dead parents, a protagonist who doesn’t properly understand her powers, a great deal of fuss about a musty old tome, one scene in which someone incredulously derides anyone who believes in mumbo-jumbo like witches (“we’re living in 2018!”) and an enigmatic, well-dressed man narrating to an unseen audience as he gawps at the Thames. If you’ve ever read a Dresden Files book and thought it needed more stuffy English propriety, this show will likely be for you – and you also have my sympathies.
That narrating bloke, he’s Professor Matthew Clairmont (Matthew Goode), and dresses all in black so therefore must also be a vampire. Things aren’t going too well for vampires in A Discovery of Witches, which might be why they’re left out of the title. They’re having difficulty “siring”, which is to say making more of them. (This is accomplished by the usual blood-sucking business, and the first episode’s best scene is when a young Oxford doctor tries to save his recently run-over bestie with a neck-chomp, only to find it doesn’t work.) The answers might very well be contained in the Bodleian Library, in a mysterious old alchemical text which has been missing for ages but was recently checked-out by Dr Diana Bishop (Teresa Palmer), who is a witch, even though she doesn’t look like one.
A Discovery of Witches loves the Bodleian Library, and Oxford, and the very idea of fabled horrors skulking around Britain’s most sacred institutions. It also loves Diana, a well-respected academic who has a bumbling, mistrustful relationship with her magical powers because her parents were killed on suspicion of witchcraft. We know this because she explains it to anyone who’ll listen, including her friend Gillian (Louise Brealey), also a witch, who invites her round to the coven for a catch-up.
It’s not exactly subtle, then. But the urban fantasy subgenre is also more of a literary preserve than a telly one, so maybe this amount of explanatory dialogue is useful to people. It robs A Discovery of Witches of some intrigue, but then again there’s plenty of that in the book everyone wants to read so much. When Diana opens it, the lights cut out and the words start moving, and when she slams her hand down on the pages it leaves her with a nasty brand. Whatever could it all mean?
Difficult to say at present, but it’ll likely have something to do with Diana and her witchy aunt Sarah (Alex Kingston), Professor Clairmont and his breeding difficulties, and another witch who encircles a man in a ring of fire and sucks him into the Earth. Probably some other people and stuff, too, because why not? There’s bits to like about A Discovery of Witches – including the cinematography, which captures the sun peeking through Oxford’s spires and such – but a lot more to be suspicious of, and a great deal worthy of an eye-roll, at least. Perhaps it’ll pick up, but right now the cauldron is only set to simmer.
Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.