Based on the first book within the All Souls trilogy, written by Deborah Harkness, the task of adapting this book series into one of television, I have no doubts, came with its challenges. But upon watching the premiere pilot episode, so far so good. A Discovery of Witches came out to incredible success – and upon the release of the first season – it immediately got renewed for the second and third, completing the trilogy in three seasons. The story follows Diana Bishop, the last in a long line of Bishop Witches, but Diana – a historian and scholar has avidly avoided anything to do with witchcraft – both within her and in practice. But this becomes an impossible task when she calls up a manuscript humming with unnatural energy – and begins becoming subject to interactions with other creatures. The opening narration comes from the voice of Matthew Goode – who’s playing one of the protagonists ‘Matthew Clairemont’ commenting that “Once, the world was full of wonders, but it belongs to humans now, we creatures have all but disappeared. Demons, vampires and witches hiding in plain sight, fearful of discovery, ill at ease even with each other. But, as my father used to say; in every ending, there is a new beginning.”
Her career as a professor and researcher becoming her disguising cloak – separating herself from her familial tradition back home in Madison, Connecticut. We see her giving a lecture – giving us the main branch of her research and fellowship; Alchemy. Before her lecture begins, she is introduced by a fellow scholar [as is academic procedure] which gives us an insight into exactly how esteemed a member of the College she is; “Having taken PhD in the History of Science here, and after publishing two prize-winning books she was awarded tenure at Yale. One of the youngest ever to have been awarded that distinction.” It’s difficult not to be highly appreciative of the cinematography even in the first few minutes of the pilot episode, not only are the choice locations stunning but the way in which they’re captured is simply enchanting. Diana making her way around her lodgings in Oxford on campus and strolling through courtyards really make you want to book a trip solely to witness these grounds and buildings in person.
From the opening of the episode we only have to wait 8 minutes until we see the all-mysterious and ever-elusive Book of Life, or “Ashmole 782” as its formerly known. Upon inspection of the book – Diana discovers that the books a palimpsest – and then witnessing something inexplicable. As well as seeing an electric and physiological response to the book – personified in the Bodleian libraries overhead lights temporarily faltering & the physical reaction that the creatures experience – we also witness a transference of pages worth of words from the book to Diana’s hands. Upon trying to rid her hands of the book’s contents – it ends up burning a symbol into the palm of her hand. This was the first examination of the quality of the CGI in this series – and it’s safe to say we’re not disappointed.
We’re introduced to Marcus Whitmore as he leaves the hospital in the early hours with a friend/ colleague after a 12-hour shift – after parting ways, he witnesses said friend injured in a hit and run. This is our first confirmation that Marcus is in fact a vampire – watching his friend dying in front of his eyes he attempts to bring him back to life by turning him into a vampire – seeming at first to work, momentarily revived he drinks Marcus’ blood – but towards the end of the process it starts to fail, and his friend dies for the second time in mere minutes. Marcus’ reaction tells us that all is not as it should be.
One of the most interesting scenes so far as analysis and mis-en-scene is concerned is Diana’s dreamscape. We’re shown the fragmented nature of her dreams. The curiosity of the book and its mysterious powers, bumping into her father or an apparition of him whilst exiting the Bodleian. Strangely, the theme of spiders is shown again and again, in quick succession within her dreams. To the point that Diana has a false ‘wake-up’ where for s split second she’s trapped in gigantic thick spiderwebs underneath her duvet. Dreams being the unconscious representation of things our brain thinks of, or is anxious of/ curious about. Spiders is an interesting focus – be it the spiders themselves or the webs they weave. Now if you’ve read the first book or entire trilogy this will not be a mystery to you at all – but for the new viewer – it raises some interesting musings.
The Following conversation covers many topics within and without of the actual plot of the series. An excellent example of the medium of television that becomes the mouthpiece for social and cultural commentary. It may not immediately leap out at you as this is hardly a new subject matter – but it’s one that deserves recognition and analysis nonetheless; Marcus, Matthew and his lab-assistant Miriam converse about the failed ‘siring’ as they call it. [The turning of a human being into one of them, a vampire. The original vampire who creates another becomes the sire.] Marcus questioning why he failed to sire his friend leads Mathew to tell him that there had been other failed siring’s.
“We’re all in the dark. We know there’s a problem – we don’t know the cause and that’s the reason we need the book – We think that Ashmole 782 covers early creature history – it could help us understand our evolution, our origins. The witches cannot be allowed to have that information – some would want to use that magic to destroy us.”
This binary idea that enforces segregation and distance between groups of people [divided by pointless differences and upholding archaic antiquated ideologies -is what has been one of the biggest social and political challenges that the 21st Century has faced. The idea that groups of beings separated by one or several definitive descriptors; race, ethnicity, religion, gender or sexual identity – resulting in prejudice, discrimination, xenophobia, bigotry, racism, sexism, ageism – antiquated views is probably a decent descriptor. By introducing the conversation in a fantasy setting – causing most viewers to see the distinctions between creatures as pointless – and hopefully recognize the equally ridiculous comparisons in their own lives / on their own planet. At this point in the episode we’ve seen the revulsion that Gillian Chambers (the red-haired witch that Diana had coffee with) feels for vampires and it appears to be mutual. The mutual dislike/disdain between creatures for no reason other than, effectively, tradition is rightly challenged within the series. Any series, film, book, podcast that attempts either overtly or subtlety to dismantle these archaic mindsets and prejudices; is one deserving acclaim and appreciation in my books.
The episode leaves us after introducing us to a powerful witch from the Bayou and treating us to some stunning shots of Norway and the Aurora Borealis. We meet Satu – who is evidently an extremely impressive witch – summoning a circle of fire and eradicating the man who entered her home with a shot gun without even breaking a sweat. Knox arrives to bring her into the fold, and get her ‘sworn in’ to the Congregation* – The Congregation being the all-powerful group of creatures who control others and dictate how their lives should be led. Essentially a group of nine seemingly-narcissistic megalomaniacs who enforce rules and protocols to the creatures of the world. A Discovery of Witches version of the Catholic Church / The Magisterium represented in His Dark Materials. Any oppressive and tyrannical institutions that upholds antiquated and conservative ideals. As pilot episodes go, it’s quite a strong start. It maintained a well-paced introduction to the main protagonists whilst giving you a feel for the series and the kind of direction, cinematography and cultural commentary that we can surely expect from the rest of the series.
As a fan of the trilogy book series that Deborah Harkness created, I’m intrigued to see what from the books will remain in the on-screen production and what will be different, removed or how it will diverge from the material. But I’m impressed with how well it’s been accurately represented on screen so far – with many lines taken verbatim out of the pages of the first book. Stay tuned for the next episode!