Part Two: “Mysterious Planet”

By Jack Kibble-White

First published August 2000

11 years on from the transmission of the last story of Doctor Who‘s 26th series, his fans still greet the news of a new British telefantasy production with a vain hope that perhaps this might be the one to encapsulate that “special magic” that made the Time Lord’s adventures so uniquely entertaining. It doesn’t matter that they have changed in ways that will preclude them from ever engaging a mere television series in such a magical way again; we all want to recapture moments of past personal euphoria, and in that respect “drug of the nation” is an accurate epithet. Whispers of programmes that should fit the bill have hardened the heart of the telefantasist. Starwatch might have been the one, but it never materialized, neither did the oft-quoted Blake’s 7 resurrection. However, come 1996, and the emergence of the first really serious post-Doctor Who hope. Certainly, many people had high expectations for Neverwhere (“guaranteed a warm welcome” according to Roger Fulton’s Encyclopaedia of TV Science Fiction).

Created by well-respected comic book writer Neil Gaiman, here was a man who appeared to have the perfect CV for the job. Indeed, in those pre-T Davies/Gatiss/Moffat days, Gaiman was the only credible presence in British telefantasy. Seemingly, a result of an approach made to him by comedian Lenny Henry in 1991, Neverwhere began life as a comment on the plight of London’s homeless. Pre-publicity for the series focused strongly around Gaiman, who proved himself to be a media savvy orator, able to appeal to telefantasy fans more literate sensibilities, whilst still being able to casually inject a bit of hype into proceedings: “Neverwhere is not a comedy, it’s not horror, it’s not gothic – it’s a contemporary fantasy for adults which has some funny stuff, some scary stuff, some weird stuff and some exciting stuff. There’s blood, there’s excitement, there’s weirdness; I think there may even be a nipple or two.” There was much here to appeal to those who had felt that Doctor Who had similarly escaped such easy definition and had been all the better for it. Visually too, the anachronistic use of video ensured Gaiman’s ambitious production was forever rooted in a heritage of “home spun” speculative drama. Thus, as the September transmission date grew ever closer, it was becoming increasingly difficult to see past Gaiman: surely, here was to be found the template for ’90s Who, conclusively disproving the telemovie’s implied claim that Doctor Who could only continue by abandoning much of its British sensibilities? For a time, it appeared that there could no other way than the Neverwhere way.

In the event, Neverwhere‘s shortcomings were surprisingly similar to those that had plagued the latter years of Doctor Who. Budgetary constraints are often irrecoverably detrimental if allowed to impact on the final product, yet whilst Neverwhere suffered from a painful dénouement (with an utterly underwhelming battle with Albert the Bull that provided potential detractors with all the ammunition they would ever need), it was the weakness in story structure and characterization that precluded any sustained dramatic momentum. Many an inexperienced Doctor Who writer has fallen blindly in love with his or her own characters and concepts, forgetting that – as a viewer – we have not been privy to the courtship that has been the creative process. It appeared that Gaiman (inexperienced in television terms) had become similarly enraptured by the prospect of being able to expand upon childhood fantasies of London, and he too failed to provide the viewer with a sufficient introduction to his concept. Hero Richard Mayhew’s excursions around the capital in episode two were as similarly devoid of geography as Sylvester McCoy’s traversals during the opening episode of “Curse of Fenric” (the church, the beach, the cottage, the crypt, all in rapid succession, and seemingly without the passing of time). In retrospect, perhaps Gaiman should have been less keen to show off all of his wonderful ideas in one series. Doctor Who‘s ability to satiate fans of comedy, history, horror, science fiction and murder mystery was primarily achieved through concentration on only one or two of these elements per story. Here, an ill disciplined script attempted to encompass comedy side kicks, talking rats and fantastical underworlds all in the space of a 30 minute episode. One wonders whether or not the piece to camera prologues were deemed a necessary addition as the production team realized that the main narrative was lacking sufficient clarity.

Yet there is a lot of late Doctor Who to be found in Neverwhere. A confirmed comics fan, Who‘s last script editor Andrew Cartmel requested that all prospective writers be made to read the complete run of the 2000AD strip Halo Jones. Penned by Alan Moore, his influence could be as felt equally on Gaiman as it could Cartmel. Thus, the somewhat clumsy social commentary underlying Neverwhere depicted a cynicism not much different from that found in “Remembrance of the Daleks”, and seemed to be informed by the same sensibilities that had fuelled the seventh Doctor’s allegorical “Survival”. In fact the lead actor’s predisposition towards anti-conservative commentary would have been well served by a Gaiman script. Gaiman’s cynical, understated humour too, seemed to be remarkably consistent to that which had passed as intelligent comedy in Doctor Who since the days of mid-’80s script editor Eric Saward. Such “cruel humour” had largely cultivated within British fantasists as a result of writers such as Terry Pratchett, and Douglas Adams. It is an appropriate coincidence that Gaiman had previously worked with both men, and Adams himself had been Who‘s script editor at the end of the ’70s. Thus, a Neverwhere Doctor Who would have been a carnival of allegories, sarcasm, convolution and confused stories. Not altogether a bad thing, but insufficient to sustain a large audience (as demonstrated by Neverwhere‘s disappointing performance), yet perhaps only as ill disciplined as the programme itself might have become had it continued under the tutelage of Cartmel.

Undeniably, Neverwhere stands apart from the Carnival productions considered in the previous episode. Here was a programme derived from the personal fantasies and convictions of its sole author. Whilst containing much to appeal to the average telefantasy fan, its concoction was not as the result of an explicit attempt to appeal to a specific audience, nor to re-heat the formula of a past success. Similarly Jonathan Creek was the product of writer David Renwick’s interest in conjuring tricks and murder mysteries: “[Producer] Susan Belbin and I had for years mused over the possibility of coming up with what we called ‘a British Columbo‘. What we both loved about Columbo was the fact that, in contrast to all the other American cop shows, it was about ideas, and characters, and this wonderful, elaborate puzzle. As opposed to chases and kicking doors in and climactic shoot-outs every week. Although you always knew who did it from the outset, what kept you hooked was how he would manage to nail the killer, with some ingenious – often quite chilling – coup de grâce.” Whilst, Creek reputedly has more in common with Banacek than Columbo, creating a series that concentrated on “ideas” as opposed to action, ensured that the non-violent, frighteningly intelligent hero would negotiate each week’s perils in a manner not dissimilar to the redoubtable Time Lord.

Aside from the fact that Creek is neither science fiction, nor indeed telefantasy; there are a stunning number of similarities to Doctor Who. Lining up the mug shots of those actors who might have become Creek (Nicholas Lyndhurst, Rik Mayall, Hugh Laurie, Douglas Hodge, Alex Jennings, Angus Deayton and Nigel Planer) one can see how someone like Peter Davison could be perceived as distinctly un-Doctorish in this company. Furthermore, take the duffle coat of Sylvester McCoy and couple it to the straggly hair and conjuring tricks of Tom Baker (see “Talons of Weng Chiang” for some more of the Doctor’s sleight of hand) and you really do have something of a generic Doctor Who. Yet it is not just in the make-up of the titular hero (who – like the Doctor resides in an iconic home) which recalls Doctor Who: Renwick’s propensity for rich, unnatural dialogue (which reached its zenith with Peter Davison’s Stephen Claithorne in “Danse Macabre”) evokes the cod-Victoriana of some of Doctor Who‘s most fondly remembered stories, drawing the viewer into a very Who-like celebration of the craft of good story telling.

Storytelling as a craft is central to the appeal of Jonathan Creek, and it is probably fair to observe that few episodes of Doctor Who have been as intricately plotted as the better episodes of Jonathan Creek. Renwick understands his audience’s expectations of the genre and regularly uses our desire to apply our knowledge of fictional rules against us. The first series’ “The Reconstituted Corpse” – for example – includes a love interest subplot seemingly to provide a subtle distraction from the main story (concerning the murder of a cosmetic surgeon). The characters in the episode never for a moment assume that Maddy’s lanky would-be suitor (Nigel Planer) could possibly be the tall observer intent on spying upon the ageing model at the centre of the main plotline. Renwick appreciates that dramatically there would be no reason for any of his characters to suspect that Planer could be the culprit, yet teases an audience used to discovering that a seemingly unconnected, extraneous character is central to the resolution of the week’s riddle. Of course, the ultimate resolution reveals to us that if we had been paying attention in the first place we would have realized that our belief that the stalker was a tall man was as unfounded and as lazily assumptive as our conclusion regarding Planer’s motivations. Such gentle chastisement from a writer implicitly declaring “he can do better than that” is indicative of a confident self-assured mind at work, and much of Creek works at this level, rewarding the attentive viewer.

Jonathan Creek should be appreciated by Doctor Who fans, yet it is not a wholly satisfactory substitute for those desperate to become reunited with the good Doctor – no matter the guise. Creek is a series based purely on the dramatization of puzzles, so the tensions that enliven each story are primarily cerebral and revolved purely around solving the mystery of the week. If Creek were the Doctor, he would spend all of his time determining exactly how Davros had been able to assume the role of the Great Healer of Necros (see “Revelation of the Daleks”) and then leave the local law enforcement agency to clean up the whole sorry escapade. Jonathan Creek knows no horror, it knows no jeopardy; both elements essential to Doctor Who. Thus, a Renwick inspired Doctor Who would be populated by recognizable archetypes and consist of tightly structured adventures, yet something of the Time Lord’s moralistic fervour and desire to “do right” would be missing. Who could really see anyone disliking a “Jonathan Creek” Doctor, let alone describing him as their “oldest and deadliest enemy”? Yet, whilst markedly different in content and execution, Neverwhere and Jonathan Creek each remained true to their particular muse. Collectively, they stand distinct from the other worthy, but altogether more faceless telefantasy excursions that – during the ’90s – seemed to routinely crash from shop windows and career towards our televisions with an undisguised “end of episode”-like glee.

Next episode: It’s high tech machismo and “clever-clever” dialogue with Invasion: Earth and Ultraviolet – telefantasy for grown ups!

<Part One