Cat's Cradle: Witch Mark
By Andrew Hunt
As you can tell from Peter Elson's beautiful front cover (and it's obvious from the title), Witch Mark fuses sci-fi and fantasy. That's not a bad idea in theory, and what with Doctor Who being such a malleable format (or rather one that should be malleable), it was bound to stray into a straight-up fantasy story at some point. The Mind Robber already dipped a toe in the genre.
I'm not massively keen on fantasy as-in-dragons-and-unicorns, however. It tends to be treated with a certain dry seriousness, as it always has to feel like a believable historical period but-with-monsters. (Why does "fantasy" have to mean "bargain bin Tolkein", anyway?) Sure enough, the portions of Witch Mark spent in Tír na n-Óg, Andrew Hunt's fantasy world du jour, are deathly dull. The creatures might have different names over there but it's the same old tropes, plus some sci-fi ephemera because hey, it's Doctor Who, and even its "fantasy" stories had better tick that box at some point. Full of laborious questing hither and thither, bloody battles populated by nothingy characters, and dialogue that wobbles between hokey medieval-isms ("By Dagda's Wheel! ") and feeble banter, the latter stages of Witch Mark are a chore to read.
It's much better early on, where it's set in the Welsh town of Llanfer Ceiriog. Hunt conjures a satisfying little village here, and there's an enjoyable familiarity for the Doctor as well: it's nice to see places where he feels at home, but we have yet to go. I could picture the village in all its foggy, early-morning glory. Even better, it's here that the novel's fantasy ideas mix with reality. That makes for much more arresting prose: tourists discovering what might be a centaur, and a vet coming across a unicorn's horn are both more interesting than strolling through a world where centaurs and unicorns are commonplace. (Not to mention how ruddy boring the things turn out to be.)
There's a decent mystery to start us off: a coach loaded with unidentified people crashes, its occupants all carrying suitcases full of cash. This isn't a mystery novel, however, so Hunt doesn't expend a lot of energy on who they were or where exactly they were going. We more or less figure it out during the soupy quest narrative, and the explanation isn't altogether uninteresting. They're fleeing their world and coming to Earth. Issues of migration are touched on, but naturally push never comes to shove since the Doctor is involved and they can just go somewhere else. (Having said that, I'm pretty sure there are still some Tír na n-Óg-ians pottering around our world at the end. There’s also a sub-plot about some feral doubles of the Doctor and Ace which is then entirely forgotten about. This may have something to do with Andrew Hunt's apparent admission that he didn't have time to finish the book. Citation needed, I know – but damn, if that doesn't explain a lot.)
Witch Mark never wrings a great deal of drama out of its ideas. It can be competent and almost enjoyably written – as above, I found the village fairly atmospheric, and some of the early cutaways to Tír na n-Óg are evocative. But the characters are what really matters, and they're bland and uninteresting. The two tourists (who discover a centaur and thus become embroiled in the story) have nothing going for them besides being American and seeing a centaur. (One assumes An American Werewolf In London came to mind.) The policeman investigating their case, Stevens, is part of a one-man Paranormal Investigative Team, which basically means he's an ineffectual laughing stock. Any genuine, passionate interest in the supernatural is lost in dry, overwritten exposition:
“'My dear chap,' he said flippantly, 'it's my job to believe in things that other people wouldn't credit. Flying saucers? Of course, they exist. Yeti! Saw them in the London Underground twenty years ago. Ghosts! A headless woman in white with a black dog used to walk through my bedroom at midnight. Mermaids? Grandpa was rescued from the Marie Celeste by one. Vampires? I always wondered where my dad went at night. Telepathy? Right now you're thinking that I'm talking crap. So what can you tell me that I won't believe in?"
Someone should have red-penned about half of that, right? But they didn't, so towards the end, his half-hearted decision to perform an exorcism makes about as much sense as anything else. The various fantasy denizens are too trite to dwell on, although it is especially annoying that there is a girl called Bats (short for Bathsheba) and a unicorn called Bat. As for all the Welsh words acting as fantasy words, they probably mean a great deal to a Welsh-speaker, but they just seemed like random replacement words to me. They're applied to the same old fantasy tropes.
Hunt's writing of the Doctor and Ace isn't much better. They're taking time out for the TARDIS to fix itself, owing to the fascinating and not-at-all pointless Cat's Cradle arc. (We briefly reference Time's Crucible, skip Warhead altogether and then shruggingly conclude this on the final page as essentially, "the TARDIS was feeling a bit funny, it's better now". If you were expecting an idea they felt important enough to attach to the three book titles to actually go somewhere, well, silly old you!) The Doctor's familiarity with his surroundings lends a pleasing comfort to some passages – sorry to repeat myself there, it's the only way I can buoy this review – but later on he's got nothing to do but head for the mysterious Goibhnie and hope he can sort out this world's problems. Cue random assorted perils between A and B, including the decision to ditch Ace as this will be "too dangerous" for her. You what, Doc? After what she accomplished in Warhead? He's blandly Sylvester McCoy-like in the writing, but there's nothing remotely interesting about him.
As for Ace, she's one of Witch Mark's weakest links. Not for the first time, characterisation lets her down, coming as it does in clumsy blobs of back-story. We could take her Survival experiences as read and build on them, but no, we'd better recap them first: "It was a look which stirred strange feelings in her because of her experience as one of the hunters on the planet of the Cheetah people." We could use what she learned in The Curse Of Fenric and incorporate that seamlessly into who she is now, but hey, why not remind us exactly what happened anyway: "As with the faith that has driven back the Haemovores during World War Two..." It's a bit embarrassing when you can see the joins like that. There is something new here, at least – a magical connection with a unicorn – but it's treated like another echo of Survival, and it makes no substantial difference to her or the story. Shrug.
One hopes they'll tone it down as the series progresses, but so far Ace often finds herself drifting between the scant plots of Season 25 and 26, or vaguely railing against her mother and racial intolerance. Sometimes it feels like there's nothing more to her than the plot points established on TV, which feels like a slap in the face for a format boasting "stories too broad and too deep for the small screen." Hunt at least tries to delve into Ace's fixation with Nitro-9, only to come up with this hilariously leaden nugget: "It's great when you manage your first truly destructive chemical reaction, but the satisfying moment comes when you create an explosive that does serious damage whilst looking and sounding aesthetically pleasing." So, the best bit about blowing things up is the blowing things up? Oh, Ace, tell me more!
(Incidentally, the Doctor isn't free from this Genesys-esque info-dumpery. There's some dull reminiscence about Block Transfer Computation – don't even ask – and this little doozie that made me laugh out loud: "'Get him to contact UNIT. They'll help you.' UNIT was an acronym for the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce, an international military organisation which the Doctor had once worked for as scientific advisor." MORE POWER TO THE INFO-DUMPER.)
Hunt's writing oscillates between vague competence and a weird, forced extravagance. Take this moment when a person's face appears to change: "Suddenly the feelings changed as loving warmth shifted to the sticky coldness of death." He was warm and now he's icky! Or this one, when a character sees his planet's sun return to its former strength and feels "the incredibly sensuous, almost sexual thrill that coursed through his old body”. Um? Quite often, things are going well enough – albeit never making your pulse race like Warhead, or igniting your imagination like Revelation – and then pow!, it gets weird. Overall it's an ungainly, undistinguished piece of work, and one that runs out of steam long before it ends. Perhaps in an attempt to keep things interesting, the action frequently chops between characters. I was rarely thrilled to see any of them.
A small village with fantasy accoutrements is an idea after my own heart, but Witch Mark considerably fails to make the most of it. What we get is a drab sci-fi/fantasy mash-up that you'll forget as soon as it's over. Pretty cover, though.