A DISCOVERY OF WITCHES S1
Starring: Teresa Palmer, Matthew Goode, Louise Brealey, Aiysha Hart, Edward Bluemel, Owen Teale, Malin Buska, Alex Kingston, Gregg Chilli, Elarica Johnson, Valarie Pettiford, Trevor Eve, Lindsay Duncan,
Director: Juan Carlos Medina (Ep. 1, 2), Alice Troughton (Ep. 3, 4, 5), Sarah Walker (Ep. 6, 7, 8)
Writer: Kate Brook (Ep. 1, 2, 3, 4, 8), Tom Farelly (Ep. 4), Charlene James (Ep. 5, 6), Sarah Dollard (Ep. 7)
Based on the book: A Discovery of Witches (All Souls trilogy, Book 1) by Deborah Harkness
Reviewed by Sidney Morgan
This review CONTAINS MINOR SPOILERS.
Oh, how I miss True Blood. It was the… Well, not really. I never did get into that show. Nor was I a big fan of the Twilight saga. Don’t get me wrong. They’re good products in their own right. After all, there’s a reason they were popular and made significant amounts of money. So when I first came across this new show, A Discovery of Witches, I wasn’t sure what to expect. However, with Sky Productions behind the production of the show, I was intrigued. I watched Britannia last fall, another show which they produced and it was good. With that in mind, I delved into it.
Diana Bishop (Teresa Palmer) is a witch. But she’s turned her back on that life and has chosen to live a normal one, focusing on an academic career, teaching at Yale University and now Oxford. But the world she lives in still includes other witches, demons and of course, vampires. While researching for an article she’s writing, she comes across a rare book. Not only is it rare, but it’s bewitched to reveal itself only to her. And that makes many people in this enchanted world envious. And envious people can become dangerous. Along with the help of the handsome vampire Matthew Clairmont (Matthew Goode), they make every attempt to keep the knowledge of the book out of these covetous hands.
Matthew’s motives aren’t clear. He’s got a lab in which he’s studying vampire DNA and the origin of various families. A serious problem exists as the ability for vampires to turn people is diminishing, and he believes the book has answers. So this association with Diana beings with self-serving intentions. Curious about her powers, he analyses her DNA as well, leading to an interesting discovery. But this angers the witches, who turn to the Congregation to swiftly deal with this transgression. From there, the intrigue grows and is absolutely brilliant!
Romantic plots involving vampires have been done. It was one of the main reasons I initially hesitated watching. Not because of the romance, but because it wouldn’t offer anything new. However, the relationship that develops between Diana and Matthew is intriguing. It has repercussions on him, his family, his friends, and most importantly, the Congregation, which was established to maintain peace between all the creatures. But this romance serves only as a backdrop. The main storyline which is suspenseful and compelling involves Diana and the book. There are hints that the knowledge therein will upset the status quo of the creatures’ political hierarchy. And that Diana is the one who summoned it puts her in grave danger. All the while, she’s also becoming a rare and powerful witch. It really is exciting, and it finds a way to wrap you in.
Teresa Palmer performs brilliantly as the witch who is reluctant to re-enter the world that killed her parents. She’s strong and defiant, yet counters it with gentleness and even naivité. Enter Matthew Clairmont, the much, much older and wiser vampire, who decides to help Diana. The internal struggle between the raw animalistic needs of a vampire and the educated, classy Oxford professor is well done and convincing. Their relationship is similar to the typical romanticized ones oft seen in these kinds of stories, as in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Playing the primary antagonist Peter Knox, a high ranking witch is Owen Teale. He’s after Diana and the knowledge of the book, but for far more nefarious purposes. Aiding him is Satu, played by Malin Muska. Though a little limited in her role, her presence still conveys power, awe, and danger. The rest of the supporting cast, including Lindsay Duncan (Matthew’s mother Ysabeau), Louise Brealy (Gillian, Diana’s friend, and colleague at Oxford), Edward Bluemel (Marcus, Matthew’s “son” and lab partner) and Aiysha Hart (Miriam, Matthew’s lab partner) perform well. These actors certainly add to the professionalism of the production.
The sets are beautiful. Shot between Oxford, Bristol, and Venice, there’s a classy feel to the show. The old world, filled with classic architecture, adds richness and history to the story, emphasizing the creatures’ longtime presence, as well as longevity. The show is a pleasure to watch, whether the action takes place indoors or outdoors. And the special effects are great too. Whether it’s the effects of a spell or a vampire using some of its powers, there’s quality and attention to detail rivaling and even exceeding some blockbuster movie effects. I was impressed with the care taken in producing all aspects of the show.
The political landscape of the show is intriguing. Very little is divulged about the past and how the creatures’ world and place in it evolved. Viewers know about as much as Diana, who, having removed herself for so long from this world, is unaware of much of its history and politics. But as the show progresses, little nuggets of information are revealed, teasing us, yet denying us the whole truth. What is clear is that for now, a tentative albeit fragile peace exists between the three factions.
However, the witches seem to exert more control over the congregation. This upsets the vampires, who want to reclaim their position and power. Most mysterious and interesting, are the demons. They’re not your typical ones as seen in Supernatural or Ash vs. Evil Dead. Very little is known other than they have been banned from assembling, fearing that doing so will foment chaos. Ultimately, this sets up the show for so many possibilities, and it’s absolutely refreshing and exciting.
One final comment. I am impressed by the depiction of witches so far. Even though The Witch and Hereditary were commercial successes and good movies, I wasn’t impressed with the witchcraft part of it. It was boring, unlike The Craft or even Witches of East End. The witches in A Discovery of Witches delivers. Diana has powers that are beyond anything any of the existing ones have now. When she unleashes them, there’s a Gandalf vibe to it and it rocks.
Verdict: Having watched half the episodes, A Discovery of Witches is a must-watch. It has suspense, intrigue, romance, and horror. Its strength lies in its story. The slow exposition with occasional spikes is perfectly orchestrated and makes for excellent viewing. The actors perform well, and the beauty of the scenes is like icing on an already deliciously rich cake. Having already aired in Europe, the show was a success and has been renewed for seasons 2 and 3.
A Discovery of Witches Season 1 will be streaming on Sundance Now and Shudder starting January 17th.