Thursday, June 13, 2019

A Discovery of Witches – season 1 – review

Director: Various

Release date: 2018

Contains spoilers

Based on the All Souls Trilogy, a book series by Deborah Harkness of which I have read and reviewed the first novel, I walked into this expecting good things. From the excellent production values to the superb supporting cast – including Alex Kingston, Trevor Eve (Dracula (1979)) and Sophia Myles (Dracula (2006), Moonlight & Underworld) – this was, on the surface, going to be a winner.

Alas, for me, not so. I received the Blu-ray set as a Christmas present and it has taken me six months (and a lot of self-pressure) to finish watching the series. It just didn’t capture my attention and other series were much more attractive when deciding what to watch (even if some of those should have been poor relations), and I think I know why…

Teresa Palmer as Diana
But before that, a quick look at the story. Set in a shadowy world, hidden from our eyes by secrecy, in which there are vampires, daemons and witches ruled by a council called the Congregation (each species having three representatives on the council). The underscoring viewpoint of the three races is one of distrust, to the point of racism, of the other two. It has been noted that the powers of the races are fading, witches do not have the same power and magic as their ancestors, vampires are failing to sire new vampires etc.

Ashmole 782
Diana Bishop (Teresa Palmer) is born of a witch line but does not involve herself in the witches’ world particularly – mostly as she has no magical ability or aptitude. Instead she is an accomplished historian researching the alchemists of yore. At Oxford she is researching a paper when she calls up, amongst other books, Ashmole 782 – an alchemical text long thought lost. This brings her to the attention of the creatures as it is a sought-after text that none have been able to find (it is suggested that the book ‘hides’ until she calls it). This includes a congregation witch, Knox (Owen Teale), and a vampire, Matthew Clairmont (Matthew Goode). It becomes apparent that Diana is actually a very powerful witch but her powers are somehow repressed and she and Matthew fall in love – despite the taboo of inter-racial relationships (indeed they are forbidden).

charmed/calmed stag
As for the vampires, well they are long-lived, fast and hunters. We see almost a charm effect (on a stag that Clairmont hunts). They are deemed a separate species, though they come from human. Daemons and witches are born but vampires are created. It is confusing therefore to discover that geneticist Matthew is researching creature DNA to discover why they are on the wane – the book tells us that human DNA is rewritten in the turning process, however.

Matthew Goode as Matthew
So why did I struggle – I think the answer originates with the book. In my review of that (which I generally enjoyed), I said of the lead characters: “My problem lay with the two main characters. It became clear quickly that Diana… …was some sort of über-witch... Matthew, also, is an alpha vampire and clearly very powerful... Put the characters together and we suspect that we will have an unstoppable force by the end... The mistrust Diana feels for Matthew and his secrets is always too quickly overcome and that is because… …the romance falls back on those tropes of “we are special”, “we fall immediately for each other”, “Our love is forbidden” and “our love will conquer all. …I didn’t buy into their relationship...

Alex Kingston in support
The series did nothing to overcome this, indeed it may have exacerbated it and, like the novel, it expected the viewer to accept this romance and without acceptance it fell short. I also felt, to me, that the two actors had no real chemistry together (as good as they are as actors) and the focus upon them detracted from the wider world – in fact all the supporting characters seemed sketched rather than explored. I had no empathy for the leads and therefore couldn’t overly care about their plight or the wider world that had been drawn.

head (decapitated but living)
This is perhaps me but I also recognise that there were good performances, despite the material, the production values were excellent and I should have been wowed – 6 months to drag myself episode to episode in an 8-episode series speaks volumes. I’m forced to score low as I can do nothing else. I wanted to like this, I wanted to be wowed, I was simply underwhelmed and… frankly rather bored. 3.5 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.

On DVD @ Amazon US

On DVD @ Amazon UK

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