Wednesday, January 2, 2013
Pop Between Realities, Home in Time For Tea 50 (Neverwhere)
It’s tempting to say that the answer is “not very good,” but saying that requires a slightly strange misreading of history. It’s true that there are many things that are deeply wrong with Neverwhere and that the series disappeared more or less without a trace initially. But one has to take a step back and look at this within the larger arc of Neil Gaiman’s career in order to quite understand what’s going on here. The first thing to realize is that in 1996, Neil Gaiman wasn’t Neil Gaiman yet. His career consisted of some time as a journalist/freelancer followed by considerable success in US comics. His lone novel was Good Omens, co-authored with Terry Pratchett. He was not even a star writer in the UK, little yet in the US. So his doing a fantasy series for BBC2 was a substantive increase in his profile. He wasn’t a novelist doing television - he was a jobbing writer who bounced around media. And in 1996, at least, Lenny Henry’s co-creator credit on the series undoubtedly carried more weight than Gaiman’s name.
On the other hand, Neverwhere was clearly the beginning of Gaiman’s breakout. The US release of his novelization of it and, a few years later, the text from his illustrated novel for DC Comics, Stardust, paved the way for his big debut with American Gods, the novel that firmly lodged him as a major writer. So whatever the inadequacies of the television version, Neverwhere is clearly seminal - the first real step in Neil Gaiman going from a writer who’s influential to a writer who is absolutely huge.
All of which said, there are some inadequacies to the television version. Put simply, and this is hardly an unusual criticism, Neverwhere looks kind of rubbish. It was set to be shot on video and then “filmized,” but the filmization was abandoned after it had already been shot. This means that it looks like it was shot on video, which is generally taken to be synonymous with looking cheap. This is, of course, terribly strange. We covered the film/video divide way back in The Sontaran Experiment, but it’s worth doing again. The short form is this: despite having a largely crisper image and higher frame rate, video is typically considered to look “cheaper” than film because it’s associated with cheaper productions like soap operas and because film has softer colors and lighting - to the point where The Hobbit has caught a lot of flack in its high frame rate version because it looks more like video, and is thus accused of looking cheap and nasty despite being, by any sane technical standard, “better.” So by leaving it in video the BBC ensured that Neverwhere looked cheap - especially because it was lit with the expectation that it would be filmized, making the lighting look especially bad. On top of that, there are some bad effects, including an attempt to give Peter Capaldi a luminescent gown as the Angel Islington that mostly ended up making him look like a he was wearing reflective tape.
In this regard, of course, it is a more faithful homage to Doctor Who than was intended, right down to an infamously bad effect involving a terrifying beast and some underground tunnels. This time the famed Great Beast of London is rather obviously a cow, but the resemblance to The Talons of Weng-Chiang is palpable. Similarly, the annoyingly “cheap” look of video makes Neverwhere look like nothing so much as what you’d expect to get if Graham Harper had directed an episode in the (all video) Sylvester McCoy era. The visual reference point for anyone watching Neverwhere was that it looks like Doctor Who. And this was not meant as a compliment.
But equally, it wasn’t really a dealbreaker. The television version is generally considered something of a curiosity in the face of the (quite solid) novel version of Neverwhere, with its effects being judged as having let the writing down. And yet its failings just aren’t that damning. Nobody is thrilled with Neverwhere, but it’s not treated as a grotesque embarrassment to be swept under the rug and never spoken of again. If one is so inclined they can argue this as a US/UK divide. Neverwhere made it out on DVD in the US years before it saw a UK release, coming out in 2003 here while it took until 2007 to sneak out in the UK. This may sound uninspiring, but it’s important to realize that this is almost completely backwards from how DVD releases worked in the early 2000s. For the most part the DVD Season Set was established much faster in the UK than in the US, even for American shows. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for instance, saw every single season released first in the UK, sometimes more than a year early. So to see Neverwhere, a British show, released years earlier in the US suggests a peculiar imbalance. And, to be fair, Gaiman’s career as a whole reflects that imbalance: he didn’t just make the switch from the UK to the US, he has consistently been more popular in the US than the UK.
But another way of looking at this is that there is somehow a bit less anxiety over rubbish effects in the US than the UK. This is perhaps understandable: nobody has ever suggested that any piece of American television should get a British remake, and yet virtually everything in the UK is subject to pillaging US versions. Virtually anything we make is considered good enough for UK consumption, whereas we insist on redoing virtually everything from the UK. The TV Movie is emblematic of this: to bring Doctor Who back it had to be Americanized. This is, of course, nonsense - it’s astonishingly rare that the US improves on (or even renders watchable) a UK series, and most of the time British television should be the envy of the world. But the cultural bias exists, and it can hardly be called a surprise that there’s a bit of an inferiority complex.
The truth, however, is that the UK audience is entirely too harsh on their domestic production here. It’s perfectly possible to enjoy Neverwhere wart and all. And while I’d have to dramatically overplay my hand if I wanted to claim that Neverwhere wouldn’t be improved at all by the sort of visual flare that the BBC these days brings to, say, Doctor Who. It absolutely would be better if could visually evoke the glorious weirdness of London Below or if the Great Beast of London were properly a slathering terror. All the same, the frailties of the production are not dealbreakers. Ropey effects are, broadly speaking, an acceptable price to pay for an inventive script and good dialogue. There are plenty of people who will happily trade in effects for a different sort of quality.
What sort of quality, though? It’s an easy argument that Neverwhere is Doctor Who-like. The arguments made about Jonathan Creek and the unraveling of familiar spaces apply perfectly well here. Even as the occasional tourist of London I was in 1997 the delight of monsters in “the gap” that is to be minded and of actual friars living in Blackfriars was obvious. It’s a masterpiece of making familiar cultural tropes strange and otherworldly.
What’s more interesting is the particularly Gaiman aspect of the approach. For all that Sandman was a massive influence on the Virgin (and for that matter on the better parts of the BBC) lines, it was still a comic book series doing a sort of ultra-high fantasy. It’s influential among writers, but Gaiman could have slipped into semi-obscurity as someone who made a living off their writing, but a far cry from the phenomenal wealth and success he enjoys today. What Sandman demonstrated, however, was that Gaiman has a superb grasp of how to make things into a mythology. This is different from making things mythic, a term that implies the headlong slide into the master narratives of the epic. Gaiman makes objects and concepts feel as though they have a mythology - a lived in set of stories that lurk below things. And in Neverwhere he goes from making obscure bits of comics history and the grand arc of the universe strange into making London strange, before finally hopping over and giving a slight outsider’s perspective on the US via American Gods and finding absurd success.
This is also an approach that applies well to Doctor Who. Gaiman and Lawrence miles have separately talked about learning Doctor Who as their first mythology, and this captures something sensible about its history, which is that it is a mythology to draw from. There are a wealth of compelling cases to be made for why this approach rose up in the late 90s (and why it still dominates), but for my part, at least, I would posit it as the natural response to the same flood of information that engenders paranoid readings. Gaiman presented an enormously populist alternative. Gaiman’s work still relies on a flood of information and references, but that flood becomes an ever-variable playground for creating compelling images and character exchanges.
Gaiman, of course, is the popular end of this, and the more theoretical end is best left for another day. All the same, Neverwhere feels like a moment of catharsis - a reminder of the McCoy-era ethos that “good cheap-looking television” is a meaningful category worth exploring. And while it remains the case that Doctor Who, to come back as major television, would have to embrace decent production values, Neverwhere feels like a sort of permission slip. It’s the moment where we can at least say that it becomes clear that the heart of this sort of television is its conceptual approach, with its technical qualities providing a useful bonus. It is, if nothing else, a demonstration of where the thought in how to bring Doctor Who back needs to go.
All of which is to say that there is a real disjunct between how Doctor Who felt like it was doing in the aftermath of the TV Movie and how it was, in practice, doing. At the time it felt like the opportunity had been wasted and like the series was never coming back now. What series, after all, gets a second try at a comeback? And after the disaster of the BBC Books launch - the further details of which are still to unfold here - it seemed bleaker for Doctor Who than it had in the early 90s. In hindsight, however, we can see that the pieces were coming together. The failure of the TV Movie was not the final nail in the coffin but the necessary attempt at one approach that had to happen to finally shut a particular contingent of fans up for good. The question of what Doctor Who was for had finally been answered as other shows slipped into the gap and were simultaneously good and reminiscent of Doctor Who. And with Neverwhere, particularly when placed directly opposite the TV Movie, it’s clear what the actual important part of Doctor Who was. Once you’ve seen Neil Gaiman create an international career on the back of a Doctor Who knockoff (and one that’s utterly Campbellian in structure to boot) it becomes impossible to imagine that someone wouldn’t try it with Doctor Who itself. There are still a few pieces of the puzzle of how to make Doctor Who to snap into place. And so we have an odd situation. In 1997, nobody would believe you if you said that at the end of 2005 Doctor Who would be the breakout hit of BBC1. And yet in hindsight, looking at 1997, you can see why we’re only eight years from exactly that.