Jekyll and Hyde: Series 1, Episode 1 – “Harbinger”

The sideplots and shadowy organizations sell this updated Jekyll and Hyde far more than its eponymous hero.

Adapted and presented as a sequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novella: The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, ITV’s Jekyll and Hyde has been updated to a 1935 setting and features actor Tom Bateman — of Da Vinci’s Demons — as the “modern” Dr Robert Jekyll: grandson of the classic Dr Henry Jekyll, and inheritor of familial traits perhaps best kept hidden. No, not webbed feet.

In the opening episode, foster child and freshly minted Dr. Jekyll appears to be hidden away in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) where, whilst tending to the sick, a supernatural, or super-heroic “incident” (depending on your reading of events) occurs and starts to draw attention from around the world, specifically London.

After rescuing a trapped girl, with a feat of strength reminiscent of Superman’s Action Comics #1, Jekyll becomes beloved by a young woman, ominously called a cursed “Yaksha” by an elderly woman (Yakshas being nature spirits with the dual capacity for both benevolence or malevolence from Hindu and Buddhist traditions). Jekyll’s growing reputation raises questions about his unknown heritage, which when tied in with wider machinations, sets him off on a journey to England to discuss the settlement of his biological family’s estate.

The story dwells for an extended period of time in Ceylon for, as yet, indeterminable reasons. It could be that the ochre-saturated landscape offers a stark contrast to the Victorian aesthetic of “good ol’ foggy London town” — even in the ’30s — or more likely, it could be that the Yaksha storyline will eventually become more prominent. There are strong suggestions that is precisely the case, what with all the mystical ninja assassins led by the “quite possibly insane” Captain Dance (Enzo Cilenti), and the endless potential for metaphors about colonial exploration, the exotic, and so on, which seems more counter-scientific than the source material but adds a grander, pre-existing world narrative to events.

Written by Charlie Higson, author of six Young (James) Bond novels and more than a dozen other young adult titles, Jekyll and Hyde has a difficult balancing act to perform in the Saturday early evening slot. Unlike other recent and current “family entertainment” titles in the UK, such as Doctor Who, Atlantis, Robin Hood, Merlin, Primeval, and Sinbad, Jekyll and Hyde doesn’t come across as having source material that is especially suitable for younger audiences without some degree of cultural erasure and re-inscription. It should be noted here that immediately after it aired, according to channel rival the BBC: “New drama Jekyll and Hyde sparked 280 complaints to ITV and 212 to watchdog Ofcom, after viewers called it “too scary” for its pre-watershed timeslot. Personally, I would find this to be a good inducement to watch the show, but to be honest, whilst you do see some messed-up CGI nonsense (Man-Beast, I’m looking at you), it’s all well within the parameters of what Doctor Who would throw at you, and arguably more interesting.

If anything, rather than being graphically violent in a way that a show such as Penny Dreadful or Ripper Street frequently are, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer was, the new Dr Jekyll is presented in a softer way: he’s basically a dual-identity super-hero who is also a bit of a dick.

Exiled from the beaten path and gets a bit violent when you make him angry? That’s the Hulk. Running in to an alleyway to rescue a damsel in distress? That’s Batman. Inherited family traits that make him superhuman? That’s Superman. Forcibly kisses a girl because he knows she really wants it? That’s “Blurred Lines” minus the lawsuit. Trashes a hotel room then fights in a bar due to a superiority complex? That’s standard celebrity news fodder for The Hollywood Reporter. How much the show will lean on the “evil is needed to fight evil” trope remains to be seen, and what they categorize as “bad” so far does feel distinctly pre-watershed. I suspect that as the show develops there will be less standing on prostrate girls for fun, and more Star Wars-style fighting of the force within, otherwise as with the classic story, it gets increasingly harder to root for someone who is knowingly malicious and decadent just because they are what they are: a bit of a dick.

Jekyll is both the best and worst of us, but in this version he doesn’t physically change that much. There’s no ape-like shrunken figure as with the original telling; just as there’s no horrendously overblown monstrosity such as one can find in the film adaptation of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. This Jekyll follows the classic 1920 and 1931 adaptations, where with the aid of some inventive camera and lighting work, the actor’s change in physicality and posture ultimately reflects their inner turmoil; but imagine that all channeled majestically through Star Trek: The Original Series, whereby black-eyeliner and mad-hair delineates the “evil” counterpart.

I’m not entirely sold on the transformation yet, but that might be because it sits awkwardly as a concept that has to be shown and sustained over and over again throughout a series, instead of as a one-shot gimmick in a horror film. The CGI volcanic forehead and super-veiny hands are also quite ludicrous, but one would imagine that the grotesque change has to be both impactful and limited to brief windows of time so viewers can get back to ogling what has already been described by the press as the “strangely sexy Mr Hyde”. I hope that we don’t see any influence of Fifty Shades of Grey in the coming weeks.

Watching Jekyll and Hyde also reminded me in other ways of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, or Hellboy and the B.P.R.D, where teams of gifted figures drawn largely from fiction or mythology are united to fight equally spectacular villains. The pieces are nowhere near being in place yet, but the opening episode already presents us with the shadowy British organisation: M.I.O. (Military Intelligence Other), which “deals with supernatural threats” by making agents “invisible men”.

In one extraordinary scene, which can only be described as “gas masks, bowler hats, shot guns, slow-motion” the M.I.O. get all Reservoir Dogs on a prophetic aberration of nature known as a “Harbinger” (Man-Beast, I’m still looking at you). Don’t worry parents, you don’t see anything violent; just freaky weird. The rest of their narrative follows the induction of an incredulous agent into the ranks of the M.I.O., who Richard E. Grant as Sir Roger Bulstrode dominates with audaciously scripted lines such as “This will be something to tell your grandchildren, Mr Sackler. Except I would have to kill you if you did”. He also introduces their counterparts: the “Tenebrae” (Latin for “darkness”), and implies that we shall be seeing rather more of them in the future, especially with their threats of “the Old Gods rising”, and connection to Jekyll.

Jekyll, the 2007 BBC series created by Steven Moffat took the reflexive route of having a modern Jekyll who was aware of the short story, but not as a work of non-fiction. In this iteration, I was quite ready to see a fully rebooted Dr Jekyll that completely ignored the original text, but I was pleasantly wrong. We have the M.I.O. and Ceylon threads, but throughout flashbacks, we also see the death of Carew (Robin Hooper), a version of the girl being trampled, Jekyll arguing with Utterson (Christian McKay) over the changes to his will, and Hyde scurrying back to his pitch-black doorway. These moments are presented as reinforcements and forewarnings of the “new” Jekyll’s character, whilst adding a further fragmented element to the story that poses more questions that it really answers. I don’t imagine that the past will be revisited at every opportunity; it’ll probably focus more on Grandpappy Jekyll’s (David Bark-Jones) struggles with science and himself, but it’s a nice touch, and references to other Victorian classic “monsters” are equally welcome.

Regarding the multi-stranded narrative, which will hopefully begin to coalesce into a “big picture” quickly, I have devised a drinking game that you can play. Give me a moment and I’ll even provide a scorecard.

The subject is Literature. Nearly every possible form of recorded written media is presented within a 45-minute orgy of story-telling artefacts. We see, or hear of (in no particular order): postcards, posters, letters, telegrams, “Once upon a time…”, poetry, wills, confidentiality documents, address labels in purses, monogrammed jackets, lawyer’s casebooks, newspapers, a “cheap adventure story”, and a “Please, do not disturb” sign.

This repeated attempt to reinforce the written origins of the source material was initially exasperating — I half expected a banner to announce along the bottom of the screen that Dr Jekyll was live tweeting as the show went on — but in many ways the written texts serve two more interesting functions beyond making a show appear “literary”. They drive the unraveling narrative in the same way that the novella does when it incorporates narrative points of view from other characters, with each fragment being a teasing clue from a puzzle of unknown dimensions and intersections. Which moves onto the second point: that these mini-narratives cannot possibly contain and fully explain the “true” story as it unfolds.

Whilst written reports of Jekyll’s exploits circumnavigate the globe, nobody records the guttural and bestial growls that emanate from his unseen persona. If the actions of his rock ‘n’ roll hotel trashing and bar-fighting are recorded in next week’s episode, I doubt that they will give a true account of what the viewer has witnessed. As with any opening episode of a show, or more specifically, in any compelling detective/horror story, the gaps in the text — what is unsaid or unrecorded — are what draw in readers and viewers.

I don’t understand the full Ceylon connection, but I’m eager to know why so seemingly arbitrary a starting point was drawn (even though the Najaran family offered absolutely no flavour to the events). I don’t know what happened to the missing Jekyll generation member: Louis Hyde, but I want to know how he ended up fighting in Turkey. Will the old bar-man and the feisty dancer become Jekyll’s new Scooby Gang? Probably. Which other monsters will come into play as M.I.O. and Tenebrae fight each other?

Most importantly, and it’s already driving me mad, who/what is the Mother that Jekyll’s new paramour refers to? The show has gone to lengths to introduce her, but she remains unseen. Is she even real? I guess it would be good to see Jekyll do something with his Hyde counterpart, but in many ways, until he stops acting like a solipsistic, hyper-violent, Muppet toddler, his personal story is the least appealing — super-hero or not.

RATING 7 / 10