The BBC have dominated family-friendly telefantasy since Doctor Who returned in 2005, and their traditional rival ITV have mostly failed to deliver a worthy riposte—with the possible exception of Primeval. Their last serious attempt was 2009's awful Buffy ripoff Demons. ITV are hoping to put that right this autumn with an adaptation-cum-sequel to Robert Louis Stevenson's novella The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde, from writer Charlie Higson (The Fast Show). In this version, we're following the great-grandson of the original Victorian scientist who drank a potion that split his personality—so the action mostly takes place in mid-thirties London.
Dr Robert Jekyll (Tom Bateman) is first introduced vaccinating children in the remote British colony of Ceylon, where he's been adopted by a local family who've kept his lineage a secret and are managing his inherited condition with drugs. Presumably, Robert just thinks he gets uncharacteristically angry whenever he's stressed and isn't aware there's a nasty alter-ego desperate to take control of his body. You'd think being able to lift a ten tonne truck off the body of a little girl, seconds after it ran her over, would be more of a clue that he's inhuman.
There was a lot of setting up to do in Jekyll & Hyde. The story could've saved itself a lot of bother, because everyone knows the concept of Jekyll and Hyde—but rather than use that to cut some corners, we're unfortunately being forced to watch Dr Jekyll uncover his own curse and delve into his mysterious family history. Consequently, the story doesn't really get a head-start on anything because Jekyll's firmly behind the viewers at home. Added to that, this premiere also had to introduce a lot of characters unique to Higson's vision: plucky nightclub singer Bella (Natalie Gumede) who appears to have caught the eye of Mr Hyde; bartender Grason (Donald Sumpter), who I'm guessing knew Jekyll's great-grandad; sweet socialite Lily Clarke (Stephanie Hyam), who was rescued by Jekyll from thugs, moments after he arrived back in England; lawyer Max Utterson (Christian McKay), who is helping Jekyll with his inheritance; and Utterson's assistant Hills (Ruby Bentall).
And all that's without mentioning the Military Intelligence Other (MIO), led by Mr Bulstrode (Richard E. Grant); a pre-war Men in Black-style secret organisation dedicated to protecting the British Empire from supernatural menaces, who've just signed up a new recruit called Sackler (Tom Rhys Harries). As genre dictates, the MIO also have their own "Spectre"-style nemeses to contend with around the world: a collective known as Tenebrae (Latin for "shadow"), led by suave Captain Dance (Enzo Cilenti).
Jekyll & Hyde certainly shows early promise, but it also felt very "ITV" to me. It's hard to describe what that really means (especially for non-Brits), but there's just a general feeling of amateurishness in places. A bit of clumsiness with Higson's dialogue, and some weak directorial decisions from Colin Teague (Being Human). The production values are appreciably good (similar in quality to Doctor Who), and I liked how the show's tone and the story's content felt very much like an old-fashioned Boy's Own adventure novel, but there were a lot of laughable slow-motion shots used in every action sequence, and none of the performances really leapt off the screen. The actor everyone had their eye on was Tom Bateman (Da Vinci's Demons) as Jekyll/Hyde, but there wasn't much interesting going on with him really. He's doing the traditional thing with the role: Jekyll's a polite fop you can't help but like, and Hyde's the leering bully who loves breaking sugar-glass bottles over men's heads. Airing in the early evenings on a Sunday, it's perhaps foolish to expect anything else.
A weird thing about the show is that Jekyll can tap into Hyde's superhuman strength whenever he's angry, so there's evidently some overlap with his opposing personalities. I understand why Higson's chosen to do this, because otherwise Jekyll is just a gentleman living in fear of Hyde 'coming out' and causing havoc, and the show's built to be more like a 1930s-style superhero drama. Jekyll needs to be doing good things in extraordinary ways, so the physical benefits of being Hyde will therefore bleed into his primary life. I just hope the reverse is true, and Hyde sometimes taps into the benefits of being a gentleman doctor—but we'll see. I doubt it, though, mainly because it's hard to imagine what those benefits would be for a ferocious anarchist.
This tweak the original concept does seem a bit odd, however. It's a step away from Robert Louis Stevenson's tale of an ordinary man grappling with 'the enemy within', and more a tale of an unassuming man suddenly being able to perform amazing feats when he's angry. It's sort of like The Incredible Hulk—but even Marvel don't bastardise their fundamental concept by having Bruce Banner go 'slightly green' and punch men into the air like an Asterix cartoon. The conceptual awkwardness I'm talking about probably comes from Higson's need to make Jekyll an exciting character in his own right and perhaps a useful tool of the MIO if they recruit him to catch monsters. A person like Mr Hyde won't be interested in helping the MIO catch creatures, and it would be a very different show if evil Hyde was the 'main character' we're following, so there's a weird blurring of Jekyll and Hyde.
The most memorable thing about Jekyll & Hyde has been the uproar over its violence and scary scenes, with over 500 complaints it was too graphic for a 6:30pm timeslot. I'm inclined to agree, although I don't for one second think children aren't able to cope with darker subject matter. It's an important part of growing up, and better to be scared in the comfort of your own home with (ideally) an adult sat beside you with a cushion to hide behind, than in other ways.
But here's a vidcap from the show's opening episode, literally a few minutes in:
Remind you of anything?
Below is an image from 1985 vampire horror Fright Night, still certified '18' by the BBFC.
The similarities are obvious. I'm not saying Jekyll & Hyde is equally as scary as Fright Night, but it's not far off replicating a strong, monstrous visual from an adult horror film. Have things really changed in 30 years, so that something broadcast nearly three hours before the 9pm watershed, aimed at families with young children, can be that strong?
Or how about this weird beastie from the premiere, known as The Harbinger? It's an African man's head stuck on a freaky, 'hairless dog' creature with a muscular elongated neck.
I mean, that's pretty strong for half-six on a Sunday, no? The effect loses something without the Harbinger's movement and the beast's weird speech pattern. I know Doctor Who, Merlin and Atlantis have had their fair share of scary moments and creatures, but have their aired something like that before 7pm before? I have a hard time believing they ever have.
Anyway, ITV are still going to show episode 2 at 7pm, which means they're either very confident the complainers are just wimps, or they simply can't nudge into X Factor time. Or, perhaps, this was ITV's masterplan from the start. You can't buy publicity like hundreds of complaints for a new horror action-adventure drama being too scary, can you? How many kids are going to be tuning in this Sunday, now the show has a touch of something 'forbidden' and 'unsuitable' about it? Just keep one hand firmly on that cushion, boys and girls!