Here’s the pitch: Stephen Moffat takes 19th Century literature and creates a TV show starring Mark Gatiss, set in the 21st Century. In 2010, this produced Sherlock, which became one of the biggest TV shows in the world. Fans clamour for a new series as soon as each one finishes.
Three years earlier, it produced Jekyll, a six part series, re-imagining R.L. Stevenson’s classic ‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde’ in the modern era. It sank, almost without trace, to the extent that most people, when asked, have no knowledge of it at all.
What went wrong with Jekyll?
James Nesbitt stars as Tom Jackman, a scientist working on… well, science. What kind of science never comes up. At the start of the series, he has cut himself off from his wife (Gina Bellman) and two young sons due to his condition – a lecherous and often violent alter ego with no impulse control, who has no knowledge of Tom’s family. The two identities communicate via voice mails and dictaphone messages and have arranged some kind of schedule, keeping track of each other via GPS signals.
Michelle Ryan plays a psychiatric nurse who is employed by both of them to act as an intermediary and maintain peace between them.
Tom’s wife has hired private detectives to find out where he has disappeared to, but there is also a shadowy organisation following Jackman. As the series progresses all of them are pulled into the struggle between Jackman, Hyde, and the company that wants to exploit them.
This column isn’t the place for me to give a lengthy recap of the plot – if you’re interested, you can probably pick up a DVD copy in a bargain bin somewhere (my copy was £3 a few years ago). But let me give you a fair warning before you part with your cash:
This is a show with problems. There are a few good points, but there are LOTS of problems.
Most of the performances are okay. The actors in the minor roles are passable. Michelle Ryan and Meera Syal do their best with their parts, but are given no characterisation to work with. Denis Lawson is very good as Jackman’s boss, who turns out to have a hidden agenda, and Mark Gatiss (as Robert Louis Stevenson) is fine in the one episode in which he appears.
The two main roles are played by Nesbitt and Bellman.
James Nesbitt As Jackman/Hyde
James Nesbitt gives an absolutely brilliant performance – two performances in fact. Jackman and Hyde are completely distinct. In the very first episode, there is an establishing shot in a scene showing Nesbitt from behind. You can instantly tell which personality is in control. The make-up effects for the two are only subtly different, but Nesbitt convinces you of the separation between Jackman and Hyde.
He’s easily the best reason for watching the series.
The problem is that Hyde is supposed to have incredible sexual charisma and I just don’t see it. Maybe that’s because I’m a straight man, but it just didn’t ring true when he’s being described as a world class hottie.
Gina Bellman As Claire Jackman
Gina Bellman though… I don’t know if it’s fair to say that she can’t act at all, but this show provides a lot of evidence.
In the behind the scenes extras, Moffat says that he was reluctant to cast her because he knew her so well as Jane in Coupling. He couldn’t see her in this role, but she auditioned and was so amazing that he was convinced on the spot.
I have no idea what persuaded him, but Bellman’s portrayal utterly fails on screen. Her character is vain and shallow. She appear to think that Jackman is being a very naughty boy for turning into someone else, and if he doesn’t stop it soon, she’ll send him to bed without a spanking.
In other words, she’s Jane from Coupling.
Her only competition in the bad acting stakes is Fenella Woolgar, whose character made me shriek every time she appeared., though that may be fault of the script.
A special mention must be made for Patterson Joseph’s American accent. It’s truly atrocious.
The direction is… below average. Some nice touches, and some annoying bits with too many filters. The special effects are kept to a minimum, but do the job when required. It’s competent, but no better than that.
The biggest problems come straight from the script.
Structurally, it’s a mess. The story is not told in chronological order – this can be a good method for telling a story but there is rarely a good reason for it here. The first episode begins with Jackman already in an established routine with Hyde, but cuts back and forth in time from that point, to the extent that we don’t get the resolution to the opening scene until the next episode. Episode 4 is mostly backstory predating the series as a whole, and episode 5 has flashbacks to Victorian Edinburgh and Stevenson writing his novel (yes, it exists within the series’ universe).
I can see a rationale for some of this – the story of Jekyll & Hyde is so well known, that starting off with Jekyll as an ordinary scientist, becoming Hyde for the first time in the first episode would be frustrating for a modern audience, who know exactly where it’s going. But the amount of to-ing and fro-ing is exasperating, even for me (and I liked the River Song arc in Doctor Who).
Lack Of Good Characterisation…
The secondary characters are practically superfluous. Fenella Woolgar’s character could have been cut entirely without affecting anything, other than relieving my headache every time I saw her. She seems more like a seven year old child who needs to be told not to push batteries up their nose, than a partner in a detective agency. Her one defining characteristic is her pregnancy, which was only written in because the actress was actually pregnant during filming.
Michelle Ryan’s nurse and Meera Syal’s detective have so little to do they could have been amalgamated without much difficulty, resulting in a single role that we might have been interested in, rather than two cyphers.
Why these three actresses were paid to appear (sometimes for a single scene) in all six episodes is baffling, until you realise they are the token female characters in a show built entirely on dominant male roles.
This is in no way the last time Moffatt will attempt to write sexual equality into a script and end up with a parade of nonsensical female characters who exist purely to include women.
The rest of the characters are much the same; plot devices that give no impression of who they are as characters, beyond what they do to move the story forwards.
Focus And Themes…
The series lacks focus, or indeed a point. The main themes of the book, of the dangers of scientific hubris and the struggle of the ego and the id, have been wiped away, replaced by a vague idea that big companies are bad, and we should be nice to each other.
The final episode tries to provide high action and drama, but by that point I’d started to find the whole thing almost laughable. The start of that episode is one of the highlights for me, because it’s deliberately funny, but overall, it fails to deliver in terms of tension or interest.
The Concept As A Whole…
By the end, it becomes clear that Jackman and Hyde are not two sides of one personality, but two separate people in the same space, which blunts the message. This isn’t something that Jackman has done to himself; it’s something that just happened.
The series raises some potentially interesting questions, but doesn’t have any idea what to do with them. It certainly doesn’t offer any answers. Each episode has been constructed around one or two scenes that Moffat thought would be cool, then fails to weave them together coherently.
Only the fact the threads are so convoluted hides the gaping holes in the plot.
Jekyll is a 19th century morality tale, retold as an action conspiracy mystery, in which the characters and issues have been surgically removed, but not replaced by anything interesting, all stretched out over six hours without a beginning, middle or end.
What else could have gone wrong with it? We may find out later this year: America is remaking Jekyll, with Chris ‘The Human Torch’ Evans in the lead role. But actually, given that this series was trying to be an American drama (on a BBC budget), this could be one of those rare occasions where it works better in the US.
Should you watch Jekyll?
If you want to see a good retelling of a classic story, probably not.
If you want an interesting and thought-provoking analysis of scientific progress, and moral changes since the Victorian era, definitely not.
If you just want something that you and a few friends can pick apart over some beers, it might be worth a look…
Steve works full-time for the NHS and tries not to spend too much of his day plotting out his series of vampire novels. Away from the office, he divides his time between playing games where he is a vampire, playing games where he hunts vampires, and playing with Lego (he has numerous Lego vampires).