Saturday, January 08, 2011

Steven Moffat's "Jekyll"--A Review

Before he took over running "Doctor Who," Steven Moffat brought us "Jekyll."

The English are apparently more comfortable experimenting with format than Americans are; it is almost impossible to imagine American television executives green-lighting a "series" of only six episodes.  What would we call it?  It's not a "made for TV movie;" since it's more than two hours long .  It's not a "mini-series," a format exclusively for filming trashy novels by Judith Krantz.  Even sporting events are shorter than that!  There's simply no American broadcasting model that would accept a six-hour, self-contained television show.

Thank god for the BBC, then, because Jekyll was fascinating.  And while it kind of ran off the rails in the last two hours, it was definitely worth watching.

The Plot In Brief

Contemporary scientist Dr. Tom Jackman has a split personality that behaves badly.  He's given up the rest of his life (wife, kids, job) in order to control the monster and hires a psychiatric nurse to manage him. As the violent personality become stronger, Jackman learns that he is a direct descendant of Dr. Jekyll and he's experiencing the Mr. Hyde--the novel wasn't entirely fiction after all!  And now, mysterious people are after him.  So this is a sort of a contemporary riff on "Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" rather than an adaptation or remake.  What is the connection between Jekyll and Jackman?  Who are the people in the black van? 

Stop reading right now if you haven't seen this series and want to remain unspoiled, because brother am I going to spoil the hell out of it from here on. Just go stream this from Netflix and come back later.  It's definitely a fun ride.  If you do read on--don't say you haven't been warned.

The Plot In Not So Brief

In the brilliant first two to three hours, we are thrust headlong into the chaos that Jackman is trying to manage.   The series opens with the mild mannered Jackman interviewing a psychiatric nurse while simultaneously strapping himself into what looks like an electric chair.  Right away, we are shown the techniques Jackman is using to cope with the fact that half the time his body is running around with all the self control of a toddler but the authority of an adult.  Just take a look at the face of James Nesbitt and you have to agree--he totally nails that "Dangerous Toddler" thing.

Awww! He's even got dimples!

The two halves have come to some sort of arrangement, but they don't get along.  Jackman hides his family, his home, even his name from his other half.  Hyde orders vicious drink combinations in order to leave Jackman with a hangover the next morning, and takes delight in forcing Jackman to "come to" in difficult situations. Middle of a date?  In a room with a prostitute?  In one instance, Jackman hisses "Just once could you tell me where you parked the car?" as he wanders forlornly clicking the key remote until a car responds.  This was so much fun to watch as Jackman had to find new ways to outwit himself.

Jackman is married to Claire, played by Gina Bellman, who might actually be Sofia Coppola.

Gina Bellman

Sofia Coppola
They are estranged, and he won't tell her why he's left her and their boys.  So she (quite sensibly) hired a private detective and is infuriated that there's not even an affair.  For some reason, the detective didn't tell Claire about the Hyde thing, so he goes to find out why.  On his way, he spots an omnipresent black van that has been following him, rather obviously, which he snots at the detective is a bit of a give-away.  She asks him to sit still for a minute, and then drives away for good: because the detective agency doesn't have a black van.  BAM!  Brilliant set up!  We have suspense, we have conflict, we have mystery!  We have Moffat at the helm and we have James Nesbitt having obvious Big Fun! playing Hyde.

Sadly, what we don't have is a coherent plot, and the series runs off the rails as too many ideas are shoe-horned into the script, which will be discussed later.  Let's finish the recap first.

Claire's detectives have been paid to follow him, and then paid even more to stop following him.  Being detectives, they are do a bunch of internet research and inform Jackman that he is the last decendant of Dr. Jekyll, who died in Edinburgh in 1876, and he has his own Mr. Hyde.  The company Jackman works for exists solely for the purpose of re-creating Mr. Hyde and then exploiting the genetic result.  Curing cancer for start.  They're the ones with the black van, and have been following him around trying to catch him as Mr. Hyde.  When that hasn't worked, they take the wife and kids hostage and then there is a bunch of running around and putting people into life support machines and revealing secret basement laboratories with dripping water and plastic sheeting and things that jump out and scare you.

Skipping over the problematic parts of the plot, what seems to happen is that Jackman turns out to be (coincidentally) an exact genetic copy of the original Jekyll.  The corporation tried to clone Jekyll, but wasn't successful--and the mistakes are kept in the secret basement lab and used to create extremely lucrative drugs that cure all kinds of things.  It turns out Jekyll/Robert Louis Stevenson lied about the potion that brought out Hyde:  there was no potion.  Rather, it was the result of his falling in love, so the Evil Corporation cloned Jekyll's love-- Claire. Claire learns to accept Hyde as a part of Jackman, although there are limits.  There is a lot of running from Bad Guys with Guns, a Big Bad female executive with an atrocious "American" accent.  During all this, Jackman and Hyde have somehow integrated their personalities a bit, while separating their bodies, so in the end, Hyde gets shot and killed, but Jackman is uninjured.

In a silly epilogue, Jackman finds his biological mother, who is herself a Jekyll/Hyde and turns into the Big Bad female executive with the atrocious accent.  Dunnn dunn DUNNNNNH!

The Problems With The Plot

God forbid we complain about too many ideas, but there are really just too many things left dangling.  Not just "unresolved" so much as "WTF was that all about?"

A.  What the heck is Hyde?
Traditionally, Hyde is interpreted to be the uncontrolled "dark side" of civilized humans--what Freud would have labelled "the id."  Mama Jackman says that isn't the case here--Hyde is the fury and violence of love.  Her proof is that the first time Claire realized she could kill someone was when she became a mother.

But wait--Hyde isn't just a manifestation of Jackman's violence--he is actually physically different from Jackman.  Several characters point out that he's taller, narrower through the shoulders, has different eye color and a different hair line.   (Did Hyde go get Nesbitt's hair transplantsnerk)  This distinction is even demonstrated a few times as Jackman's wedding ring falls off Hyde's finger. This is later reinforced when they discover that they don't have to share injuries--Jackman notices that Hyde has a cut on his hand that Jackman doesn't have.So the two sort of share a body, but sort of don't, and that paradox continues throughout.

Then, Hyde "gets loose" and starts leaving messages all over the lab to the effect that "I am coming."  It shows up on cell phone messages, computer screens, and bulletin boards.  "He's in our heads!" exposits the head scientist.  So, if he's just a genetic mutation, how does he do that? 

B.  What the Heck is the Deal With Mom?

Throughout the first three hours of the series, we are told that Tom Jackman was a foundling, abandoned at a train station: no parents or family at all.  There is a raggedy old lady who shows up and claims to be "the closest thing you have to a mother."  Then it turns out that she IS his mother.    And she's been dead for fifteen years after an auto accident, but looks exactly the same as she looked 15 years ago.  And she can disapparate from locked security rooms.  AND she's got a Mr. Hyde side too, that has somehow picked up an "American" accent that carries quite a few English vowels, in addition to travelling from the Old South to New Texas and back within a few sentences.

So, why is there so much insistence on Jackman having no family at all if we are going to have Mom showing up?  Why does everybody simultaneously insist that Jackman is actually a descendant of Dr. Jekyll--if all we know about where he came from was that he was left at a train station?  And when Mom turns out to also be the Evil Head of the Evil Corporation--didn't anybody notice that she had a baby?  

This is never explicated--any of it.  But it does start to smack of the "Hyde syndrome" as being some sort of science fiction-y invented thing that simply cannot be explained by "genetic coding."  In which case, why does Jackman have to be an exact duplicate of Jekyll anyway, because there is no way MOM is the a genetic duplicate of Jekyll--so where does Hyde come from?  See also, supra.

C.  How Incompetent Are Mercenaries Anyway?  (Tale of a Red Shirt)

I have to admit I was not excited about the flashback/Apocalypse Now nonsense about the security head in the last episode.  Sorry, but the guy was obviously a red shirt, and nothing about the set up scenes made him anything more than cannon fodder.  Was the point to make this guy somehow seem more dangerous than the previous Heads of Security?  It didn't, just reinforced the cliche of a "bad ass mercenary" who for all his "highly trained strike force" set up actually did the obviously stupid thing and walked up to stand next to Hyde with no weapon, no security plan, no evidence of considering the guy in any way dangerous.  So what happens?  What you expected to have happen.  Let's briefly reconstruct the scene:

Ext. shot, rooftop.  The Jackman wife and kids have just been whisked away by helicopter by the bad guys.  Hyde is left standing in a sliced and bloody shirt on the edge of the roof, head down in an attitude of dejection.
Symes: The word is "now."
Mercenary: (Steps out from behind balaclava clad ninja gunmen.  Mercenary is wearing ordinary fatigues--no body armor, no helmet, holding no weapon.  Approaches Hyde, and claps a hand on Hyde's shoulder.)  I have waited a long time to do this.
Hyde: (Raises his head, bares his predator teeth, roars, grabs Mercenary by the throat and throws him over the roof.)  Is that the best you have?

I call shenanigans!  There is no way some guy--hired solely for the job of taking Hyde alive--acts this stupid.  It's not just that the guy was hired for this job, but that he was hired and given a year to train and plan for the apprehension.  He's given all the money and weaponry he wants, he's got a dojo of muscular guys and over a year to plan for how he's going to do this.  Surely he didn't think that "Kindly Irish Cop Taking Keys From Maudlin Drunk" was the right strategy to capture a psychopath?  Hell, it doesn't even work on maudlin drunks very often either.  It certainly doesn't work on the edge of a roof, when your only back up is a bunch of guys holding automatic weapons they've been ordered not to fire.

I mean, there are so many other ways to actually apprehend somebody!  Incapacitate this dangerous guy before you get to close!  Why do you think cowboys and Wonder Woman use lassos?
It's oddly difficult to find a picture of her actually lassoing somebody!

 If you've got guns, use them to weaken the guy before you get within arms reach--like gangsters who shoot knee caps.  In the Harry Potter books,  Hermione Granger used a Full Body Bind spell.  Even Winnie the Pooh dug a Heffalump trap, and he's a Bear of Very Little Brain!
Pooh, Piglet and the Heffalump Trap
So when the hard ass mercenary guy gets a four minute introduction and background, and then screws up the ONE thing he's supposed to do -- that's when I say "Now you're just jerking us around."

D.  Important Plot Elements Introduced RIGHT Before They Are Necessary

There are a couple of these: Jackman mentions he's claustrophobic mere minutes before he's locked inside the containment box, meaning that Jackman goes mad and dies, leaving Hyde alone in the body.  We couldn't have had that information in an earlier episode, even as character development from back when Jackman first meets Claire?

Similarly, we find out that injuries on Hyde suddenly don't show up on Jackman: a new fact that gets revealed in the last episode, right before we need Hyde to get gunned down and die but Jackman to live.  This is a problem, because if Hyde and Jackman aren't linked, then they might as well be two different people as far as dramatic tension goes.  All that "Hyde drinks to give Jackman a hangover" stuff is erased if "Hyde gets injured but Jackman doesn't"--the rules of the game are changed midway.  Then, if something bad happens to Hyde, it doesn't happen to Jackman, so the physical peril that occupies so much of the last three hours of the series doesn't have a pay-off.  And that's what happens.  Hyde gets shot (multiple times), but Jackman's got a Get Out Of Jail Free card, because they don't share the injuries.

Moffat Trademarks?
There are some narrative tricks that show up in other Moffat works.  Some of them struck me as treading the line between being "trademark" and being "cliche," but I do have to acknowledge that Moffat hasn't yet crossed the line permanently.

A.  The Impossible Conversation
There is a frightening sequence when Jackman first tries to catch a glimpse of himself as Hyde, and sets up a video camera to watch himself sleep.  The next morning, as he watches the tape, he finds himself carrying on a dialogue with himself that is chronologically impossible, since Hyde was taped several hours before:

Hyde: Pick a number!  I bet I can guess it!  Go ahead, pick a number!
Jackman: (whispers) 108.
Hyde: One hundred and eight!  I got it right, didn't I?

Where have we seen that one before?  Oh yes, in the fabulous Blink from Doctor Who, where David Tennant's time traveler is trapped in 1968, and has taped half a conversation that gets played off DVD easter eggs in 2007--and creates a coherent conversation with Carey Mulligan.

B.  Dangerous Man in a Box

Late in Jekyll, Jackman gets put into a life support box of some vague technological purpose, which is tipped to vertical and dramatically opened--much like the later Pandorica.

C Eidetic (photographic) Memory

Hyde emerges from the box independent of the more restrained Jackman, and suddenly gains the ability to DVR his own memories and rewind, pause and zoom them.  This allows him to go back to past events and re-view them to pick up on missed clues: both the Eleventh Doctor (in The Eleventh Hour) and Sherlock Holmes (in Moffat's brilliant Sherlock series) do this as well.


So, I've done a lot of complaining, and it would be reasonable to conclude that I didn't like it--but I did!  James Nesbitt was such fun to watch as he transitioned between the mild mannered Tom Jackman and the dangerous Billy Hyde.  The plot twists were fun as they happened, even if they don't hold up to examination. 

There was some discussion about whether there might be a Jekyll 2, which hasn't happened yet, and frankly I'd just as soon Moffat focusing on Doctor Who.


cringe-all said...

That's an excellent summary of the loose ends and plot weaknesses in this series. I'll try to add a few more to this list.
I thought the "it isn't a potion, it's the girl" part wasn't explained that well either. Also if Claire was cloned specifically to partner Jackman to bring out his full potential, the evil corporation or someone out there would have to arrange for their meeting and falling in love. I don't think the latter is so convenient to arrange. And while Hyde's protective instincts for his family are so strong, his mother's Hyde persona (the evil corporation boss) doesn't seem to share that.

JT said...

My reaction to the end of this series is that Ms. Utterson, Tom's mother kills him in the end. Did anyone else get that?

JT said...

My reaction to the end of this series is that Ms. Utterson, Tom's mother kills him in the end. Did anyone else get that?

Cate Ross said...

It's been three years since I watched this, and I have to admit that I don't really remember the ending at all, JT. But she was such a Big Bad Business Person, that I suspect that is a perfectly likely end to the series.

And cringe-all--you are right! Major problem--and there are plenty of Moffatt haters who would say "typical--Moffatt's women all exist as props for the male protagonist, so it's no surprise that the plot requires Claire to have Zero agency about her own love life." And I have to admit, there is some truth to that.