June 16, 2012 by Aidan Brack
The Plot: A shrieking, killing nightmare erupts from an overgrown well, hidden in the grounds of an old house, Tranchard’s Folly – and Mary Shelley, the Doctor’s latest travelling companion, rescues teenage twins Finicia and Lucern from the clutches of the monster.
But a TARDIS trip in search of the origin of the horror goes terribly wrong when the Doctor, Mary and their two new friends find themselves stuck in the middle of a seventeenth century witch scare.
While the Doctor investigates the strange lights at Vetter’s Tor, and the twins go in search of an artefact from the Hecatrix Dimension, Mary confronts the secrets of her past… and her future. The truth will out: Master Kincaid, the terrible Witch-Pricker himself, commands it!
You all know me: I am John Kincaid, Parliament’s
appointed jurisconsult in matters of witchcraft. And you know
why I’m here: your village is under Satan’s heel.
The Production: The second of the initial trilogy of releases featuring the Eighth Doctor and new companion Mary may seem at first to be a much more traditional outing than its predecessor, yet that is not to say that The Witch from the Well is an old-fashioned story. Indeed, the device of telling this story across two time periods actually struck me as more reminiscent of the revived television series than the original run of stories (albeit much less intricately plotted).
You’ll have to excuse Mary. She tends to side with the monster…
Separated from the Doctor who has been stranded in the past, this story gives us an opportunity to see Mary operating on her own. As a means to get to know the character it works quite well as she is given a few nice moments that show how she can cope in a world much more advanced than her own without constant supervision from the Doctor, but though I can appreciate the need to prove she can cope, I did not find her story thread particularly satisfying.
My disappointment with Mary’s part in the story however had little to do with Julie Cox’s performance or that of Andrew Havill, who shares some nice character moments with her as the bookish Byron-expert Aleister Portillon (a descendant of the Squire Portillon who the Doctor interacts with in the seventeenth century). As nice as those moments are though, I did find her story thread a little dreary compared with the much more colorful action in the seventeenth century and I found myself missing the lively banter with the Eighth Doctor that made The Silver Turk such a pleasure to listen to.
Though the Eighth Doctor’s share of the story was arguably treading on some well-trodden ground with its portrayal of witch hysteria causing a community to tear itself apart, I did think it fared better because it had a wider array of characters for the Doctor to interact with.
Of those characters several really stand out but I would a moment to mention Lisa Kay who plays a young peasant woman, Beatrix. Though her character fills a comedic role for much of the story, there is a moment where her situation changes dramatically for the worse because of something she does and yet, though she has acted badly I still found myself feeling sympathetic for the character.
Oh that’s perfect. A frightened zealot with a God complex. What could possibly go wrong?
It is Simon Rouse though who makes the biggest impression as the ‘Witch Pricker’ John Kincaid. Though he only appears in a handful of scenes he is talked about frequently, giving his character a sense of importance and presence that whenever he does appear it really adds a jolt of energy to the scene, making them stand out that little bit more.
I liked that both Briggs’ script and Rouse’s interpretation of the role avoid characterizing Kincaid as an out-and-out villain. Though he certainly fulfills elements of that role, the character would not have rung true if he didn’t believe he was making the right choices in response to the threat he perceives. He is however clearly shown to be a dangerous man, as well as a hypocritical one – showing cowardice towards the end of the story when he own life is threatened – and Rouse manages to give the impression in his performance of a man who has come to believe his own press and become all the more dangerous for it.
The scenes in which Rouse directly interacts with McGann are some of the best in the production, particularly those set during a dinner in which Kincaid attempts to convince the Doctor that they actually hold the same views in spite of his protestations. Both actors bring a pleasing intensity to those moments, playing nicely off each other and really driving home the difference in the way they conceive their universe.
As much as I enjoyed those moments and the tension between the two characters however, I found my interest in the story lessened the more the science fiction elements were introduced and explained. There has obviously been a tradition in Doctor Who of the supernatural having a rational explanation behind it which this story observes, but in this case it prompts an awful lot of technobabble that struck me as convoluted, needlessly complicating the story.
It’s a shame because I think Rick Briggs had the germ of a good story already in place in the discussion of intolerance and the way people respond to ideas they simply cannot understand. For me, the technobabble ended up getting in the way of that idea and diluting it. What is left is still quite entertaining in parts but it lacks the strong thematic focus that could have made it quite memorable.
In Review: Sadly this story suffers a little from coming directly after The Silver Turk, seeming quite drab in comparison to that very colorful story. Though Mary’s storyline struck me as quite dull in spite of some worthy performances, the scenes set in the seventeenth century can be really quite compelling – particularly when McGann and Rouse are playing off each other.
This story can be purchased directly from the Big Finish website as either a CD release or as a digital download.