Monday, 26 March 2012

A holistic supernatural review

I don't often write reviews because I generally don't read reviews. I like to watch/read/hear something and make up my own mind. It's always seemed to me that professional reviewers - and I know a few as friends - are just people with informed opinions and, therefore, their view is no more valid than my own. Admittedly, some of them have made films and TV and written books themselves and, certainly, they've built up a large mental storehouse for comparison purposes. But, when it comes down to it, films, TV, books, art etc. are 'good' or 'bad' depending on the individual viewer's perception. Almost every review I've seen of the John Carter movie has been negative and yet everyone I know who's seen it thoroughly enjoyed it. So who to believe? In just the same way that I can't say that a Gaugin is better than a Manet, I can't say that Coronation Street is better than Eastenders. Both have merits and demerits; all that I am entitled to say is which ones I like and which I don't.

Which brings me to two shows that have just finished their runs: Being Human series 4 and Dirk Gently series 1. This is not a review per se - more a flurry of observations about why both shows didn't quite work for me this year. In essence, the problem I had with both is that they seemed to have lost their essential qualities. Let me explain ...

When Being Human began, I thought it was one of the most interesting and original ideas for a comedy drama that I'd seen in years. A group of supernaturals - a vampire, a werewolf and a ghost - find each other and end up sharing a house while attempting to fit into human society. It's an inspired set up for a TV series. I met the show's creator, the very affable and talented Toby Whithouse (see my interview here), during the filming of series 2 and we talked about where the show could go. Obviously, he couldn't reveal too much but he said that he was looking forward to exploring as many facets of human behaviour as possible; to use his characters to challenge the concept of what it is to be human. There would be temptation, envy, lust, joy. He would write about the angst that parents suffer about bringing a child into a world where that child will always be under threat; whether to fall in love with someone who is immortal and who will watch you grow old and die; how to live alongside people who fear and hate what you are; how to be human. That is, after all, the name of the series and what distinguishes it from all of the other supernatural series on TV. Which is why, with series 4, I was disappointed by the sudden change to 'end-of-the-world vampire armageddon' story arc.

I will state categorically here that the change of cast was not an issue - the new people have slotted in beautifully and are every bit as entertaining and likeable as Annie, Mitchell and George were. It's the plot that I had trouble with. The War Child. The over-exposed Mark Gatiss 'Old One' character Mr Snow. Time travelling ghosts. In just eight short episodes it's stopped being about 'being human' and has turned into every other supernatural TV show/film from True Blood to Daybreak to Blade to Ultraviolet (the excellent TV series and the unrelated Mila Jovovich film). There were hints of this plot-line in the show's pilot back in 2008 where the original Mitchell (played by Guy Flanagan) was told by the original Herrick (Adrian Lester) that the vampire takeover is coming and to choose sides. That whole plot device was dropped for the revamped (sorry) pilot and series 1 and the show was all the better for it. Now, it seems, the vampire takeover plot has returned, for me, it's a big step backwards. I really don't want to see it drown in the sea of predictable supernatural cliches, especially when there is so much that can yet be done with the characters. Incidentally, the US Being Human is very good. It's taken a different path to the UK show but I love the ideas they are exploring there, such as their 'Annie' - Sally Malik - becoming addicted to possessing human bodies so that she can have a physical relationship. That's closer to what I think Being Human should be about than the UK show currently is. It was Being Human's originality that made it so wonderful and made me love it. I hope it gets back to that with series 5.

And then there's Dirk Gently ... which seems to have done exactly the opposite to Being Human. While Being Human has got too fantastic, Dirk Gently isn't fantastic enough. This is a show that demands big world-changing themes ... but it falls flat. Stephen Mangan is perfect in the role; he is Dirk. He's exactly how I always imagined the character to be and the always excellent Darren Boyd is great as sidekick Richard MacDuff. Yes, I know MacDuff's character is fundamentally different from the book but changes always have to be made when converting a book to a film or TV. They are different media and what works in one doesn't necessarily work in another. However, that isn't my beef.

Douglas Adams's Dirk Gently books are a showcase for the author's extraordinary gift for invention. The first book, Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, featured a time-travelling Cambridge Don (who, as many of you know I'm sure, was a recycled character from Douglas's aborted Doctor Who story Shada), an electric monk that believes things for you, a ghost desperately trying to get a message to his sister, an alien spaceship at the dawn of time that is responsible for kick-starting life on Earth, an impossible sofa and a very funny horse. We also get to see the effects on the history of poetry when Dirk becomes Samuel Taylor Coleridge's 'Man from Porlock'. It's a work of genius. The second book, The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul, had Norse gods destroying airports, jet fighters turning into eagles and giant green-eyed, scythe weilding monsters rampaging about killing music executives. Even Adams's unfinished The Salmon of Doubt - which may or may not have been a new Dirk Gently novel - has the main character(s) travelling (in Douglas's words) '... through the nasal membranes of a rhinoceros, to a distant future dominated by estate agents and heavily armed kangaroos.'

So why, then, is the TV series so damned mundane?

The essence of Dirk is there with his unorthodox methods of working and his obsession with the interconnectedness of things. But where is the vision, the inventiveness, the fantasy, the sheer lunacy of Douglas Adams? Dirk should be saving the world by accident while looking for a lost cat, not solving everyday murders. Now, I do realise that budget comes into the picture. I also realise that the show will draw inevitable comparisons with Doctor Who and Sherlock. But, if that's the case, why bother making it? I know that seems a little harsh but if something won't work properly on TV then why do it? I would personally draw a parallel here to two recent radio series that have transferred to TV - Bleak Expectations and Dave Gorman's Genius. Both worked brilliantly on radio as 'radio has all the best pictures'; a lot was left to the imagination of the listener. In Bleak Expectations, writer Mark Evans could do whatever he liked. Anthony Head's character -Mr Gently Benevolent - was killed, came back as a ghost and possessed a pigeon, was then killed again and resurrected as a Frankenstein's monster-type creature and then later orchestrated an abortive Martian invasion. However, when the show moved to TV, Evans created a new, albeit very similar, show called The Bleak Little Shop of Stuff and it lacked all of the sparkling originality and madness of the radio show. It was just a Dickens spoof. And Dave Gorman's excellent radio series Genius, in which the British public come up with fantastic ideas and inventions, it was easy to simulate the Isle of Wight being made more symmetrical or a giant spike on a steering wheel instead of seatbelts to ensure people drove more carefully. The move to TV wasn't unsuccessful but a lack of budget - radio shows cost a fraction of the cost of TV shows - and a rubbish time slot meant that the BBC killed it after just two series.

That's how I feel about Dirk Gently. If you can't afford to do it properly then why bother doing it? Writing in the Metro newspaper, Keith Watson said, 'There was no disguising the fact that Dirk Gently was a five-star script being filmed on a one-star budget, making it look like a designer label knockoff when set against the production values lavished on Sherlock.' As I said at the start, I don't always agree with critics and rarely read them, but Watson has hit the nail on the head as far as I'm concerned. Howard Overman - the chap who gave us the excellent Misfits - is the chap behind the TV version of Dirk. He's a very, very good writer and what he's given us is very, very good TV writing ... but it just isn't Dirk Gently. It's Dirk Gently Lite. I want full fat, outrageously fattening, over-the-top Dirk Gently because that's what Dirk Gently is all about. Instead we have something that looks like a slightly bizarre crop of episodes of Morse or Midsomer Murders.

Despite everything I've written here, I watched all of the series I've mentioned and enjoyed them. There were some great performances, brilliant writing and many classic TV moments. I will be tuning in to the new series when they happen. But I hope, in the meantime, that Being Human and Dirk Gently return to the roots that made them such phenomena in the first place. I fear that if they don't, they'll lose that originality and spark that made us all go 'Wow!' I also hope that Bleak Expectations and Genius return to the radio where they both belong and are both quite brilliant.

But then again, this is just my opinion and, therefore, it carries no more weight than yours. You may disagree with everything I've said.

Which is how it should be.

No comments:

Post a Comment