Surviving the UK geek TV drought

With Being Human gone, Misfits bowing out, and a year to wait for Doctor Who series 8, Rob helps us navigate the UK geek TV drought...

Shift your brain gears into fifth for a moment – ‘no that’s reverse, no, just, okay, yes, up and to the right…right, RIGHT! Oh here let me…’ – and imagine that all the British-made sci-fi/fantasy shows from the past eight years are water. Lovely refreshing water. You’ve drunk it, haven’t you? All that liquid geeky goodness that’s been splooshing through your telly pipes and quenching your thirst for enjoyable quality cult TV. ‘Slurp slurp slurp’. Delicious. 

Sometime’s the water’s cool, like a bow tie or a super power, and sometime’s the water’s hot, like the torso of a vampire in Barry Island or a distinctly Abercrombie & Fitch knight of King Arthur’s catalogue. All that fantastic hot and cold water, on tap. British water mind you, not the foreign bottled kinds that we love to import from overseas. A lot of that stuff is tasty too, but it’s passed through so many of the natives already that we often have the taste spoilered for us. That is unless we’ve already enjoyed it first hand from a secret torrent of water we found gushing through the backwoods and decided to stream into our parched mouths, eh? ‘Wink‘… 

Well get used to that taste of foreign water with all it’s vitamins A-to-NBC, my thirsty friend! Because here in Blighty we’re in drought period. The village well is further down than a good answer on Pointless, and our bucket has a hole in it that’s bigger than, well, most of your average contestants on Pointless. Our once plentiful supply of British water has fallen to a dribble. Why, soon this tortured metaphor won’t even make any sense to your parched brain. We’re all going to have to do a rain dance and sacrifice a goat to mighty Quetzalcoatl or whichever fear-feeding deity is Director-General of the BBC these days. 

Rain Gods and Time Lords…

 

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Being Human, Merlin, Misfits, Primeval, Torchwood… the pools of British genre telly that glistened on our screens in the latter part of the Double-0 decade have all either evaporated or are about to be gulped up for good. And all the while the great Rain God, the Oncoming Storm, Doctor Who, is on a zig-zag plotted schedule that only occasionally drenches us with its presence. With its split seasons and yawning production gaps, Doctor Who is now the equivalent of extreme British weather – it’s very presence has become an event; something you talk and moan about when it’s happening and then continue referencing in future conversation until the next ‘event’ comes along: ‘Cor, wasn’t that rainy summer/certain Doctor Who episode terrible? I really enjoyed that mild December/Christmas Special though’ [delete where applicable].  

But it’s hard to be mad at Doctor Who when its return (re)opened the floodgates of British sci-fi. Thank goodness it did. UK-manufactured whimsy was in a pretty shoddy state in the 15 years before 2005. When the most successful time travel show of the 90s is Goodnight Sweetheart*, you know that something’s wrong with our collective national taste, and indeed the entire continuum of universal existence. Blame the Time War. And Nicholas Lyndhurst. You never see him anymore, do you? Does David Jason have him imprisoned somewhere? Let’s get a campaign going to free him. You know, once we’re done here.

 

Anyway, with Doctor Who‘s success TV bosses suddenly realised that sci-fi and fantasy was cool (read: profitable) again, and that people were thirsty for more than just variations on medical professionals/detectives shouting at one another in corridors, or a pre-captivity Nicholas Lyndhurst being unfunny in a trilby. So we had shows like Life on Mars, Misfits, Being Human, Primeval, etc etc yadda yadda, and for a while we were spoiled for choice. Our cups overflowed with quality escapism and we drank deep. 

No more. Those shows have had their time and used it valiantly. But surprisingly there’s very little to take their places. TV seems to be falling out of love with sci-fi and fantasy, and back in love with big-budget crime series such as Broadchurch, The Fall, and Line of Duty. Or maybe it’s just run dry of original sci-fi ideas. So, what’s left to slake our thirst and water our poor shrivelled mind-grapes? 

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The BBC’s Brain/Wave…

 

Aside from Doctor Who, the BBC lead the way with sci-fi and fantasy for the foreseeable year. Howard Overman’s Atlantis is set to cut through the quiet desperation of autumn to become the BBC’s big new Monday morning playground game in schools. It already has a Twitter account that’s more interesting than 57% of the photons guffed into our eyes on a daily basis, features an attractive/talented cast (including talented Mark Addy), and is reportedly one of BBC Wales’ most expensive endeavours, budgeted at well in excess of eighteen pounds and seventy-six pence. You can bet the Radio Times staff are already salivating words to hyperbolise it. 

With it’s myths n’ torsos mix it’s tailor-made to fill that Merlin-shaped 45 minute gap that exists on a Saturday night, between a re-run of a Richard Hammond desperately mugging his way through a 10th Doctor impression on Total Wipeout! and a freshly defrosted Bruce Forsyth jittering around a dance floor like patio furniture in a strong breeze on Strictly Come Dancing

Such a position in the schedules means it’ll be classic ‘beans on toast’ telly. When Atlantis premieres, sit your offspring in front of it with a plate of ‘thousands on a raft’ (don’t be horrible; give them white bread) and an optional processed cheddar-esque cheese slice. When they’re in their thirties and the only thing to watch is Homes Under the Hammer – because the government-fitted cerebral anti-porn filter occupying the space where their hippocampus used to be blanks out anything more erotic than a vague smile – that memory of hot beans and pseudo-Greek adventure will keep their souls warm. It will. Don’t deny it. It will.

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Speaking of brains, we growed-ups have a second series of BBC Three’s In the Flesh to look forward to in 2014. It’s less beans on toast and more brains on toast. No, actually, more like a fry-up, with the brains providing that vital breakwater between the egg and the beans (zombie Alan Partridge nods proudly). In case you missed it earlier this year, In the Flesh is essentially The Returned with Northern accents and a different Instagram filter. It’s a gritty bastard, and its small-batch first run earlier this year was a thing of beauty, in the same way one of Gunther Von Hagens’ plastinated horse corpses is considered ‘beautiful’. Having used up the gay allegory in series 1 it’ll be interesting to see where creator Dominic Mitchell takes the show next.

For kiddywinks, in the autumn CBBC will be showing series 2 of it’s supernatural drama WolfBlood, which sees two kick-ass young teens dealing with the trials of being teenager and the tribulations of turning into a wolf. Like CITV’s Woof!? No, not like Woof!. Well, a bit like Woof!, but with the angst dialled up. That series 1 is currently being repeated on BBCThree (along with  Snog, Marry, Rock, Paper, Scissors and that same episode of American Dad that always seems to be on when I switch over), shows it’s too good just for kids, so get your mini-me’s to Sky+ it for you. Or, if you don’t have kids, train a parakeet to do it. Whichever you think easier. Though bear in mind, gluing millet to the buttons on your remote is a real faff.

W4ter…

Away from dear old Auntie Beeb, Channel 4 has an even smaller reservoir of home-grown shows. The final series of Misfits will air later this year, and promises superpowers such as being able to knit the future or transform into a turtle. Series four was a bit of a disappointment over all, but now that Geordie Alex isn’t shouting about his lost cock like a man looking for a missing terrier, there’ll hopefully be more time for important things like plot and acting and Joe Gilgun being obscene. 

A third series of Charlie Brooker’s iTales of the Unexpected, Black Mirror, hasn’t been confirmed but in March this year Brooker said he had scripts prepared should it be re-commissioned. Probably stories about breaking news being printed on kittens so it gets more online coverage, or a tablet computer you have to sync with your own genitals in order to get the ruddy thing to work but – oh no! – one day it gets a virus and your privates suddenly are tattooed with ads for ‘One weird trick to get rid of foot fat!’ and ‘Make £££’s just by sitting on the toilet!’. I would watch that. You would too. Then it would watch us back and force us to re-enact every second of it via the Microsoft Kinect, and that would be the third episode. A montage of the population weeping as they shuffled numbly in front of their new TV overlords to the booming command ‘SUBMIT’.

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Genuinely though, TV needs more shows like Black Mirror – the kind of challenging one-off sci-fi pioneered and perfected by The Twilight Zone and its ilk in the 60s, which you just don’t see anymore. Perhaps the reason we don’t get more dystopian sci-fi is because it already feels like we’re living in a Rod Serling ‘told you so’ nightmare. Or perhaps it’s that TV execs refuse to smell the cheese and take a punt on sci-fi pilots, thinking ‘Who’ll watch them? Nerds? No, let’s make more Gok Wan shows and things with Michael McIntyre in. Now’. 

On the theme of dystopia, Utopia will be returning for a second series. The weird conspiracy mystery had such a small viewership the first time around it might as have been shown on the palm-side of an Illuminati secret handshake. With any luck the second series will bring in more viewers thirsty for some British creativity. 

‘Drinking fresh mango juice…’

 

Past the Lagrangian points of terrestrial TV’s gravity it gets pretty dry. Sky One’s Sinbad is now just an unmarked grave out in the desert, leaving only the orbiting body of Dave – a strange satellite made mostly of a coalescence of pub gags, repeats, and Dara O’Briain’s face – and the possibility of more Red Dwarf. There’s always room for Red Dwarf isn’t there? It’s like the last After Eight; the taste is familiar but mmm, you sure do like it. It’s still undecided if another series will be made, but Danny John Jules let slip last year that creator Doug Naylor has already drafted the outline for Red Dwarf XI. And why would Danny John Jules lie? He was in Maid Marian and her Merry Men for crying out loud. The man’s a saint. How dare you doubt him. How. Dare. You. 

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So very thirsty…

So if it’s not a drought, it’s definitely a hosepipe ban of genre TV. It is pretty arid out there for the British geek. After a time of imaginative fertility similar to the sci-fi explosion of the Seventies, we’re back to a 1980s style hibernation period, with only a few names keeping the tradition alive. Give it a decade and maybe we can persuade the BBC to resurrect BUGS (tagline: ‘Foiling evil? There’s an app for that’) or get Anthony Horowitz to bring back Crime Traveller, and the cycle can start again. With luck we’ll be back to a full Doctor Who reboot by 2027, at which time we can pick up the rumours of Paterson Joseph playing the Eighteenth Doctor.

In the meantime, do sign my petition to free Nicholas Lyndhurst. Those Goodnight Sweetheart DVDs won’t flog themselves at the covered market. Then go drink some of that imported stuff: a 4OD pack of The Returned perhaps, or a swig of Dracula or Supernatural series 8. Whatever it is, be sure to make it last. We might be here for a while yet, my thirsty friends.

*(Goodnight Sweetheart isn’t that bad of course. In fact, it’s a comedy that’s so inoffensive that it can be used in place of a piece of litmus paper to test the PH balance of water. Just stick a VHS/DVD of it in liquid and see. Go on. Just dunk it right in for a good long time).

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