Friday, September 20, 2013
Pop Between Realities, Home in Time for Tea 69 (Jekyll)
In many ways what is most striking about Jekyll is what it isn’t. If it were made today, it would almost certainly be produced out of Cardiff with numerous names familiar to Doctor Who. Instead we have a production done in relative isolation from Doctor Who, in England, whose major interaction with Doctor Who was that it forced Moffat to drop out of writing the opening two-parter in favor of taking the Doctor-lite slot later in the season, where he apparently handed in his script dreadfully late and they basically shot the second draft. Sure, Douglas Mackinnon, who directed the first three, went on to direct for Doctor Who, and assorted actors (Meera Syal, Michelle Ryan, and Fenella Woolgar) worked their way over, but other than Moffat and a brief acting cameo from Mark Gatiss, this is very much something going on in its own corner of the world.
Which is not to say that its existence doesn’t owe much to Doctor Who. It clearly does, at least inasmuch as Steven Moffat only got handed this project on the strength of having done a successful episode of Doctor Who - something he’s admitted opened doors for him. But what we have here is in most regards Moffat trying to establish himself as a credible producer of genre material on his own, separate from Doctor Who. This process is obscured by the fact that Moffat was announced as the next showrunner of Doctor Who within a year of this, and by the fact that BBC Cymru Wales came to devour all the oxygen in terms of drama production in the UK. Nevertheless, that’s clearly what Jekyll is meant to be - the show with which Moffat establishes himself as a viable showrunner for genre material.
In that regard it succeeded. Jekyll, in point of fact, is quite good. But in many ways what’s most interesting about it in hindsight are its hesitancies and shortcomings. It’s a very good piece of television. But that shouldn’t surprise us - Moffat’s only real flop as a writer up to this point has been Chalk, and, dirty little secret, that’s actually a much better show than its reputation. “Steven Moffat writes good television” is fantastically “dog bites man.” What’s interesting here is the phenomenon of Moffat writing a multi-episode drama for the first time. It’s not his first time showrunning - he was a terribly successful sitcom writer, after all. But it is his first time working through a big drama with at times elaborate special effects sequences. It’s his first time showrunning sci-fi. It’s his first time, in other words, working in the big leagues on his own. And he doesn’t quite know how to do it.
I mean, he’s good. But he’s uncertain, and at times feels out of his depth. This is perhaps the piece of Moffat’s writing that feels the least like we expect Moffat’s work to feel. It’s not slathered in quips and witticisms. Sure, there are some choice lines, but this comes nowhere close to foregrounding the bantering dialogue that permeates Moffat’s other work. On the one hand this serves as an effective refutation to the all too common meme that Moffat only writes one sort of thing. He doesn’t, clearly. On the other, however, it highlights the sense of discomfort with Jekyll - the sense that Moffat isn’t quite able to get his bag of tricks working here.
Perhaps more interestingly, the baroque puzzle box plot structures that he is famed for are only partially in view here. Individual episodes are structured cleverly, with a mix of flashbacks and new plot (the start of episode six, with its fake-out introduction of a new character, is particularly brilliant), but the overall story loses its momentum halfway through when Jackman gets captured, leaving the back three to be mostly very little happening in the main plot as all the backstory gets explained. Moffat keeps each episode moving, but the series as a whole goes out with a bit of a whimper when it started with a bang.
This is most obvious in the handling of Michell Ryan’s character and the two PIs, who, despite stealing most scenes they’re in early on, end up petering out and having nothing to do in the last few episodes. Ryan appears to be there mostly so there can be a female to imperil while Jackman and his wife are largely separated. She elevates a mediocre part effortlessly, and it’s really not hard to see why she got the lead role in Bionic Woman shortly after this, much as that turned out to be a tragic boondoggle that wasted the time of far too many actually good actors. But that neither excuses nor erases the underlying difficulties here.
Beyond that, the puzzle box doesn’t come close to hanging together. In his later work Moffat has an impeccable sense of when the penny is going to drop for his readers, but here that deserts him. He tries to milk the “there’s no potion, it’s Claire” revelation for at least an episode too long, which makes the inadequacy of the ending all the more clear. (If it’s Claire that triggers the change, why does Jackman’s mother have a Hyde? Similarly, it’s repeatedly suggested that the kids have Hyde-influenced powers, and yet there’s no sense of how this works. You’d think one would be the naughty one or something, but no, they’re just apparently two kids with random powers.)
This sounds ominously like reviewing, but the point really isn’t the show’s inadequacies. Jekyll is actually quite good in spite of its at times glaring weaknesses. The fact that each episode hangs together well makes the larger structural deficiencies invisible unless you really marathon it. (I didn’t notice any of them watching weekly in 2007, but taking it out in the course of a week they stuck out like sore thumbs.) The flaws are interesting not because they’re big problems, but because you can see Moffat working the bugs out of his approach. This is the first time he’s done a puzzle box that unfolds over this long. And you can tell he’s learning from the experience.
One thing he almost certainly learned here was the value of a good lead. This wouldn’t be worth doing if it weren’t for James Nesbitt, whose phenomenally good performance as Jackman and Hyde justifies and anchors the entire thing. If it weren’t for a performance that would sell the concept without any of the subtle makeup changes this wouldn’t work at all. But Nesbitt is, in fact, absolutely brilliant, and it covers for most of the script’s frailties. The rest are more than covered by Gina Bellman, who takes any typecasting she might have accrued from Coupling and smashes it on the ground, showing herself more than capable of playing steel and desperation.
Again, this is a genuinely important thing to realize. Jackman and Hyde are a terribly ornate concept. In fact, they’re too ornate for Moffat, who doesn’t quite know how to land the underlying thematics he’s going for. (More about which in a moment.) It’s not a concept that can really be sold entirely through the writing, but one that requires an absolutely magnetic and dominating performance to make work. The result is that Moffat gets away with more than he should have, and perhaps more to the point, he gets away with more than he had any reason to think was possible. Nesbitt transforms a clever but hazily defined script into a focused tour de force, resolving all the thematic sloppiness through a staggeringly informed performance. It’s not the last time this will happen for Moffat; Matt Smith’s performance elevates and defines his Doctor superbly, and, of course, Sherlock is made as much by Benedict Cumberbatch’s career-defining performance as by the scripts. (It’s arguable, in fact, that part of why Sherlock is so good is that Moffat got to rewrite the first script after having seen Cumberbatch’s performance.) Here Moffat doesn’t get that later opportunity to respond to the acting.
Which is a pity, because there’s no other script he’s written where he needs it this much. I’ve suggested previously that Moffat has one basic story he goes back to - the clever boy who learns to get out of his own head and listen to the people around him. Moffat writes roguish assholes who make good. It’s a good setup - I dare say I prefer it to lonely gods. But with Jekyll he’s stuck with a story that wants to work backwards from that. As written it should be a story about Jackman learning to embrace his dark side. Instead we get one that’s about Hyde growing up and learning to be a family man. All the best scenes are about that, and about Claire accepting Hyde as her husband. Jackman gets pushed to the outside of his own story. Nesbitt does various things to counterbalance it, selling a newly confident Jackman repeatedly in the last episode, but what the story really needed was for Moffat to have seen Nesbitt in the role and to be able to write for it. The miniseries is an unforgiving structure in that regard.
But all of this mostly shows the complexity of the task here. There is a difference between writing a really good script to a brief and managing an entire story arc, and though Moffat has experience with the latter on sitcoms, that’s genuinely different from drama. That Moffat wrote stand-out episodes in the first two seasons didn’t make him heir apparent. That Moffat wrote Blink didn’t even do it. What did it is that he showed that he could manage a competent showrunning job on a sci-fi drama. Not a perfect one, but a competent one. Davies, after all, didn’t actually know how to write Doctor Who when he took over. He figured it out fast, but you can see him learning what the show has to be over the course of the first season. Likewise, Moffat doesn’t actually know how to write a six episode sci-fi drama. He’s got a great start, and the last twenty minutes are genius, but he doesn’t actually quite know how to connect the bits in the middle. But equally, he knows how to avoid screwing it up. He doesn’t get it perfectly right, but he gets it acceptable for transmission and for reasonable acclaim. Jekyll was not a hit, but it was a reasonably respected little program that everybody could feel fairly good about.
This is not a particularly emphatic result, but it is a terribly important one. Jekyll shows Moffat tackling a bunch of difficult problems in creating television, and solving more of them than he doesn’t. It shows him juggling a sizable ensemble and keeping more balls in the air than he drops. It doesn’t show him at his imperious best, but it shows that he can showrun as well as write, and given that, it’s just a matter of time before he showruns and writes brilliantly at the same time. And at this point, in 2007, he’s the only person other than Russell T Davies to have actually demonstrated that ability. That’s why he became the obvious next showrunner.