June 2007 was a good month for Steven Moffat. First came Blink, a Doctor Who episode now considered one of the show’s cleverest and scariest, and a week later came his swaggering modern update of The Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde.
Sleazy, funny, and lurching between melodrama and pulp romp, Moffat’s Jekyll proved that he had ideas to spare. Watching it now, the miniseries feels like a calling card for the future Who showrunner, a primordial soup out of which River Song, Vastra, Jenny, Moriarty, Missy and Sherlock all evolved. Look at me, it says, for six attention-seeking episodes. And don’t blink.
More sequel than adaptation, Moffat’s miniseries picks up Robert Louis Stevenson’s horror sci-fi novella a century or so on. In episode one we meet Dr Tom Jackman, a mild-mannered modern-day descendant of the original Dr Jekyll, struggling with the genetic inheritance that forces him to share his body with a lecherous, violent alter-ego.
Playing both main characters is James Nesbitt, a few years out of Cold Feet and presumably hoping to distract the viewing public from the memory of those Yellow Pages ads. Nesbitt gives an impressively committed performance as Hyde; all shark teeth and eyebrows, a super-powered villain who doesn’t just love the camera, but wants to fuck it, kill it, and tap-dance over its corpse while singing songs from The Lion King. From his neck cracks to his wise cracks, Nesbitt’s Hyde is a classic Moffat villain: dangerous, bananas, and a little bit sexy.
At least, that’s the consensus of the rest of the characters, from Gina Bellman’s Claire Jackman to Michelle Ryan’s psychiatric nurse, Katherine. (Far be it from me to suggest a case of the Marty Sues, but it’s notable that every single woman in this show, even the gay ones, appear to find this curly-headed Celt irresistible). They dub him “Mr Sexy-pants”. That’s how Moffat-y this is.
Nesbitt’s Hyde is a prototype for Andrew Scott’s Moriarty in Sherlock and Michelle Gomez’ Missy in Doctor Who. As villains, all three are essentially highly dangerous children, alternating violence with impishness, psychopathy with petulance. They taunt, gloat, flirt, mug, dance, throw temper tantrums and deliver threats in baby talk. (Hyde repeatedly calls Jackman “Daddy”, and reminds one man of his promise that coming any closer would result in his snapping his neck with a pout, a wagging finger and the chiding reminder, “Neckity neck neck”.)
Two of that villainous trio even share the same line. Moffat unwittingly recycled his own material from episode two of Jekyll into the Sherlock series three finale: Hyde sings to the tune of the nursery rhyme “It’s raining, it’s pouring, Jackman is boring” into a Dictaphone, while Moriarty delivers the same message substituting Sherlock for Jackman in His Last Vow. (Incidentally, a version of another Jekyll line finds its way into series six Doctor Who episode, The Doctor’s Wife, written by Neil Gaiman. Hyde remarks that killing people is “like sex, only there’s a winner”, while Idris-as-TARDIS says similar about biting, describing it as “like kissing, only there’s a winner.”)
Later in Jekyll, Hyde’s superpowers make him cross over not with Moriarty, but Sherlock himself. Emerging from a sci-fi doohickey chamber as an even stronger Hyde, Nesbitt’s character only has to sniff a bystander to deduce their entire life in a quick-fire monologue, from their marriage to pets, diet and cancer prognosis.
Alternatively, as Jackman, Nesbitt reins it in and plays it straight. Or as straight as is possible with a script this fond of puns. For all his torment about his evil twin, Jackman displays a keen sense of irony about the situation and rarely misses an opportunity to allude to it with a bit of wordplay. He has to go home and change. He’s always keeping the wolf from the door. He used to have an ego but it got so big it left him. Those around him are just as guilty, with their repeated suggestions that he’ll soon feel like a new man, or change his mind before he knows it.
With hints dropping like bricks all around her, it’s a wonder it takes Jackman’s wife so long to unravel his mystery. Then again, Claire is preoccupied. Gina Bellman’s character spends so much of her time aroused and proposing sexy hook-ups, it’s as if she’s walked straight off the set of a Carry On film. Which she was fired from. For liking innuendo too much.
Ever the comedy writer, Moffat can’t resist a good gag in Jekyll—or a bad one for that matter. (Hyde asks Claire, “All day, every day without killing someone? What kind of life is that?” Her ba-dum-tish response: “It’s called marriage, honey”.) The script is full of “Honey” and “Sweetie”, as befits a writer whose dialogue is ninety per cent chat-up line.
Speaking of which, Missy and Moriarty aren’t the only Moffat characters predicted in Jekyll. Doctor Who’s Madame Vastra and Jenny also have a prototype in the characters of private detective Miranda and her assistant, Min. Played by Meera Syal and Fenella Woolgar (both guest stars on Who), Miranda and Min are a couple not averse to saucy double entendre. “Oh, I had boyfriends once, dear,” Min reminisces, “Didn’t know I was a lesbian until Miranda explained it to me. You could have knocked me over with a feather. Which, oddly enough…” “Moving on” cuts in Miranda.
Quite as you’d expect, the Jekyll script is stamped all over with Moffat’s trademarks. There’s the flirting. The punning. The quipping. The meta references. The men getting slapped in the face by attractive women… Who couldn’t hear Peter Capaldi’s Doctor or Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock deliver Hyde’s killer line, “I’m a psychopath with superpowers and you’re my girl”.
But there’s also the poetry. “How often does the sun rise in this world on something new?” one character asks, “and how often do we mistake a miracle for a monster?” In the light of all the glorious Who grandstanding that’s followed it, one Jekyll speech in particular feels particularly characteristic: a big, bravura, paradigm-shifting statement on the psychopathy of love in the vein of Listen’s magnificent “fear is a superpower” monologue.
On the subject of Listen, its director Douglas Mackinnon directed the first block of Jekyll episodes (followed thereafter by Matt Lipsey). Considering that Mackinnon and Moffat managed to scare us all witless with a knitted blanket in Doctor Who, you can imagine what they achieve with Jackman’s eerie dream sequences and video glitch hallucinations. Suffice to say you haven’t known fear until you’ve seen Gina Bellman speak with the voice of an unhinged James Nesbitt.
To follow some complicated, time-travelling, I’m-my-own-grandfather sort of logic, you could even suggest that Sherlock’s forthcoming nineteenth-century-set special has its roots in Jekyll. Moffat wrote Jekyll‘s chronology as if he had a TARDIS himself, zipping back and forth in time every episode to keep his audience guessing. Episode five opens with a period flashback to 1886 in which Sherlock co-creator Mark Gatiss plays Robert Louis Stevenson, less a novelist and more a documentarian of the life of his friend, Dr Jekyll (pronounced as it was originally, “Gee-kall”, Victorian lit nerd Moffat glories in teaching us.) So years before Moffat and Gatiss updated the Victorian era’s most famous literary figure for the BBC with smartphones and flappy coats, they had a trial run here.
All of which gives Jekyll its unique character. Parodies aside, Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde isn’t a funny story, but Moffat makes it so. It’s not situated in a larger sci-fi context, but Moffat places it there. He channels comic books and B-movies and action flick helicopter escapes, feeding them all into Stevenson’s premise to create his own Frankenstein’s monster. One liners and outlandish scenarios are put side by side (a blood-soaked Hyde gleefully singing The Lion Sleeps Tonight after biting out a big cat’s throat and flinging the corpse over a zoo fence comes to mind), all anchored by Nesbitt’s untrammelled performance. The result is something like an over-decorated Christmas tree, full of diverting baubles and interesting knick-knacks, but just this side of toppling over from its own weight.
In his memoir The Writer’s Tale, Russell T Davies expressed a fear about Jekyll that “the BBC might neglect it a bit, because it’s a tricky one to sell”. He’s not wrong on that last point, and neither is he on his next point, “but of course it’s so clever.”
Clever is exactly what Jekyll is. Too clever for its own good, perhaps. It certainly has more ideas than room for them. Moffat was given a BBC One sci-fi drama series and threw every trick in the book at it. If he intended it as a CV for his next gig, then he couldn’t have done a more memorable job.
In 2007, if anyone was going to take up the mantle of Doctor Who, a show bigger on the inside that thrives on wild ideas, mad characters, memorable dialogue and witty execution, then the man behind Jekyll was clearly the one to do it.
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