There are a few lines delivered near the end of the A Discovery of Witches premiere that provide a nice, neat summary of the show’s premise: “Ashmole 782 has been missing for centuries, and yet you were able to call it up. Aren’t you curious why? That book has never appeared to me or anyone else, no matter what we’ve done. Only to you. It could be the key to our survival. So isn’t it strange that the only creature that can summon it is a witch who can’t control her magic?”
That’s basically all you need to know, but if you’d like a little more to go on, here goes: Diana Bishop (Teresa Palmer) is the unstable witch in question. By day, she’s a brilliant historian studying at Oxford. By night, she could be an extremely powerful witch, but she doesn’t practice magic because of the role it played in her parents’ death many years ago — she is, therefore, a bit hapless at the dark arts, which manifest in her at random because she can’t control them.
While conducting some of her research, Diana manages to make an ancient tome appear that many supernatural creatures are quite interested in. Vampires call it the Book of Life and hope it can help them figure out why they’re dying out and unable to sire new vampires. Witches think this tome can explain how they came to create vampires so many centuries ago, and therefore figure out how to un-create them.
One vampire who is specifically researching his race’s struggles is Professor Matthew Clairmont (Matthew Goode), a handsome, brooding, dark-haired stranger who finds himself mysteriously drawn to Diana despite the fact that witches and vampires are not allies, let alone romantically involved. But Matthew just can’t help himself when it comes to Diana. If this sounds a bit like Twilight for grown-ups, you’re not wrong — Palmer even looks like a blonde Kristen Stewart at times.
If that characterization leaves you cold, then A Discovery of Witches is probably not for you. But if Twilight is your jam, this is going to be right up your alley. If you’re curious but indifferent to the Twilight comparison, then still give A Discovery of Witches a chance, because there are some intriguing threads started in the first couple of episodes.
First, the “grown-up” part of “Twilight for grown-ups” does give this adaptation of Deborah Harkness‘ All Souls trilogy a leg up on the popular YA series by Stephenie Meyer. The stakes are higher and the action is more intense. One of the witches desperate to get his hands on the Ashmole tome is played by Owen Teale, who is none other than Ser Alliser Thorne from Game of Thrones. He makes a formidable figure here, as it quickly becomes obvious he is not a friend to Diana, despite them both being witches. There is also a rogue vampire killing tourists in Italy who seems to be a bit obsessed with Professor Clairmont, which could prove sticky for Matthew and Diana’s budding relationship.
The show is also significantly sexier, scarier and more stylish than the Twilight films. The British and Italian backdrops are put on gorgeous display, as are the very attractive array of cast members. As the various threats start to close in on Diana, her powers begin to grow and sharpen along with her nightmares, which also gives the show an exciting and intense feeling of both dread and anticipation.
It should also be mentioned that Diana’s Aunt Sarah plays a a small part in the first two episodes (Sarah is portrayed by Doctor Who and ER alum Alex Kingston). She will surely come into a bigger role once Diana goes on the run from the various factions who think she has stolen the Ashmole tome, which is great because Kingston is always a strong addition to any project.
Not having read the books, it’s hard to comment on whether this is a good adaptation, but one consistent criticism of the trilogy seems to be that it gets off to a slow start. The show definitely takes care of that issue, with the action coming fast and furious. Plus, there is also no risk of becoming attached only to have it unceremoniously canceled; it has already been renewed for a second and third season, so it would appear the entire book trilogy will be gracing Sky One in the U.K. and Sundance Now/Shudder in the U.S.
The bottom line is, give A Discovery of Witches a chance. It gets off to a solid start, and the promise of time-travel in the subsequent books is intriguing for the upcoming Seasons 2 and 3. Given its many charms, it just may be the next show to cast its spell over viewers.
A Discovery of Witches premieres Thursday, January 17th on Sundance Now and Shudder.