When the casting news dropped for Sky’s adaptation of Deborah Harkness’s All Souls trilogy, the reactions were, uh, mixed at best. Lots of readers told us how much they hated the books, and even as someone who enjoyed them, I get it. They are slow (so slow!) to get going and the central relationship between Diana Bishop and Matthew Clairmont is another one of those ‘controlling gazillionaire dude with particular fussy tastes takes an obsessive interest in a clumsy EveryWoman because even though she’s apparently unremarkable, there’s something a bit weirdly special about her that no-one else sees or appreciates’ tropes. You know, the one where everyone in the WORLD has to be super-invested in them, and probably faces mortal peril because they have the hots for each other. (See Twilight, 50 Shades, True Blood…) Plus, as has been jokingly noted several times, VAMPIRE YOGA happens.
The show’s first episode aired last night on AMC in the States (after debuting in the UK last year, and the Sundance channel earlier), and guess what? All of that is still there. (We haven’t seen the yoga yet, but let’s not get too comfortable.) And really, A Discovery of Witches is exactly what you would expect it to be, whether that is some fun escapist entertainment or something to roll your eyes at. Here’s the trailer in case you missed it:
The world of the All Souls trilogy is one where, unbeknownst to humans, creatures live among them. Creatures hide what they are from humans and do not mix with each other, as decreed by the terms of the Covenant; each group tends to keep with their own kind. Witches hang out together in covens, and their powers are linked to the elements. Vampires are ancient, strong, ruthless and predatory. Daemons, by far the group given the least attention in the books and barely featuring in the opening episode of the show, have a kind of trippy, unhinged genius, like stoner savants.
But the creatures’ numbers are dwindling. Vampire sirings fail, for example. Each group is trying to find out why, in their own way. The answers may lie in an old manuscript, believed lost for centuries until an academic, Dr Diana Bishop (Teresa Palmer: Warm Bodies, Hacksaw Ridge) retrieves the book from the Bodleian library at Oxford, opens it and falls headfirst into a dangerous mystery. Witches and vampires alike want control of the text, Ashmole 782, with the witches believing it to be the ultimate Book of Spells that they can use to rid the world of vampires, and the vampires believing it is the Book of Life, and can prevent them from dying out. Before anyone can find out what it is, the ominous magic in the book gives Dr Bishop the wiggins, and she sends it back to the depths of the library.
But she’s caught the eye of brooding Oxford professor Matthew Clairmont, an ancient vampire played by Matthew Goode (Watchmen, The Crown). And because TROPES, he indulges in some stalking, some light breaking and entering, general smouldering, and dialogue that tries to walk a fine line between flirtatious and threatening, but all too often lands on creepy. I kid you not, at one point he sniffs her jumper, comes over all shark eyes and has to order her to walk away slowly because he’s all overcome with bloodlust, and probably some regular lust as well, and this is the worst part of the trope by a country mile. If a guy can’t decide whether to rip your throat out or jump your bones, best avoid him, eh?
Diana is a witch, but not a very good one. She avoids other witches where possible, other than the occasional cuppa with her friend (Louise Brealey: Sherlock). But this is a temporary narrative ruse; underneath that ‘whoops, clumsy me’ façade is an incredibly powerful witch in waiting, and the trilogy follows her embracing that side of herself. Her other side? Academic, athlete, expert in mediaeval alchemy. Diana has more than a little bit of the Mary Sue about her, but honestly, this is almost refreshing after Bella ‘turn me into a vampire at 18 or I’ll be an old has-been’ Swan. She’s demonstrably competent at her job, unlike Anastacia ‘I’ve been in publishing for 5 minutes and somehow I’m now running the place’ Steele. Yes, she’s good at everything (except magic — until she’s brilliant at that, too) but at least she’s not rubbish at everything, and you actually see her working at the things she is good at, whether that’s rowing, running or researching.
She’s only in her early 30s, but Diana’s got tenure at Yale (because she’s good at everything, just go with it) and she’s over in Oxford doing some research or something — to be honest, this part is all exposition and you’ll be praying for her to get away from Oxford because that’s when things pick up. Oxford looks absolutely beautiful whenever it’s in shot, but its part of the story is definitely the dullest. There is only so much tension you can wring out of brooding on a bridge, or looking at a page in a book. Unless, of course, you are a librarian, in which case you’d be yelling ‘PUT SOME GLOVES ON YOU NUMPTY, THOSE PAGES ARE ANCIENT!’
There are two places Diana needs to go, pronto, because the best characters are elsewhere. Yet to be seen in the show is Matthew’s vampire mum, Ysabeau, played by the formidable Lindsay Duncan no less, who should be holding court at the Clairmont family castle (YES, ROLL YOUR EYES) in France. And in the first episode we get a glimpse of the show’s secret weapon — it’s only Alex bloody Kingston playing Diana’s aunt. Finally, we can understand how her hair is so effing fabulous. It’s magic, sweetie.
Sarah and her partner, Emily (Valerie Pettiford) live in the Bishop family house — as Ursula put it on Slack, the ‘sassy house’. No sign of the sassiness yet, but the season is young.
Diana has enemies everywhere, who either think she has the book or want her to somehow get hold of it again, and so far these enemies are witches. Chief among them are Peter Knox (Owen Teale, aka Ser Alliser from Game of Thrones) and his terrifying Finnish sidekick, Satu. There are mysteries to be uncovered relating to Diana’s parents, who you get a couple of glimpses of in the opening episode. (I thought that the actress in the picture of Diana’s mother was Yvonne Strahovski for a moment, but it’s Sophia Myles. Seriously, it’s spooky how much Strahovski and Myles look alike.)
It’s unclear how much of the trilogy this first run of 8 episodes will cover — i.e. whether we’ll get to the time travel stuff from book 2 before the end of the first season, or whether there is an intention for at least 3 seasons, but it’s off to a solid start. This is either your cup of tea or it really isn’t. It’s definitely middle-aged Twilight, and if that sounds like your worst nightmare, you’re not going to enjoy it much. Personally, I’m here for it. I’m here for the smouldery vampire dude, as long as he calms down the creepy stuff a bit. I’m here for Alex Kingston and the sassy haunted house and hell, even the big French castle and the scary mother in law. But please can we get to the time travel part quickly? Maybe without pausing for some vampire yoga?
A Discovery of Witches is on Sky in the UK, and will stream in the US and Canada on Sundance Now and Shudder.
Header Image Source: Sky