Jekyll and Hyde and the elusive Doctor Who effect

Weekend dramas keep trying and failing to repeat the success of the BBC's sci-fi classic - here's why, according to Huw Fullerton

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Charlie Higson’s Jekyll and Hyde comes to ITV tonight, and it’s a fun romp through a 1930s-set episodic version of the story with a good cast and some pleasingly dark themes. What it also is, however, is an attempt to recreate the lightning-in-a-bottle success of Doctor Who – and in that sense, it’s probably doomed to fail like many imitators before it. But we’ll get to that later. 

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After a while in the wilderness, it’s safe to say the UK sci-fi and fantasy genre was revitalised by Doctor Who in 2005 – and no one was happier about it than Fast Show co-creator and novelist Charlie Higson, who’d previously attempted to bring fun fantasy back to the mainstream with a remake of Randall & Hopkirk (deceased). Sadly, the genre didn’t quite take with audiences at the time, but change was coming.

“What I really loved was, when Russell [T Davies] came in with Doctor Who, and brought that back, and it was a hit, I thought ‘well he managed to pull off what I was trying to do,’” Higson tells me on the set of Jekyll and Hyde. “And he did it probably better than me.

“So, I was very pleased when he did that. And I think it did slightly open the doors for different types of stuff. Although, from this country we haven’t really had another big fantasy-type hit since he brought back Doctor Who. Yet!”

Higson’s right – though a few people have tried. The BBC attempted to fill their Doctor Who slot with fantasy fare like Merlin (which lasted five series) and Atlantis (which lasted two), or adventure fun like Robin Hood (which ran for three years). Meanwhile, commercial rivals ITV scored a reasonable attempt at the formula with time travel/dinosaur romp Primeval, and a miss with fantasy teen drama Demons (of which, more later). Now they also have Higson’s Jekyll and Hyde, and in some respects, it may be their best bet yet. Full of the sort of monsters and character work that partly define Doctor Who, it could be a hit with audiences.

“I was contacted by ITV, and they said they wanted to develop something of this nature to go out at the weekends,” Higson says. “They wanted something that had strong fantasy, horror, drama, bit of comedy, action adventure – all the stuff that I love doing. And you know, they wanted to do a big-budget bold series, ten hours, that they would be able to sell all round the world.”

“It should be hopefully something the whole family can watch,” says star Tom Bateman, who plays lead character Robert Jekyll. “That sense of adventure and different monsters each time, the Doctor Who thing, that’s what we like. Who’s the new guest monster, the person to fight, what’s their world? He has to unpick the whole web surrounding this monster, and that sort of mystery we’ve got very much as well.”

“A lot of people have asked me what the show’s like – and I’ve tried to say Indiana Jones meets Sherlock meets Doctor Who meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I think it’s all of them.”

Holliday Grainger, Christian Cooke, Philip Glenister and Zoe Tapper in ITV’s Demons

At first glance, however, the series that Jekyll and Hyde most closely resembles isn’t Doctor Who but another one of its pretenders, the ill-fated Demons. The 2009 drama, which lasted only one series and struggled critically, shares some parallels with Higson’s fellow ITV series: both feature lead characters descended from Victorian Gothic antiheroes (in Demons’ case, Christian Cooke’s Luke Van Helsing, in Jekyll and Hyde’s Tom Bateman’s Robert Jekyll) who inherit superpowers from their ancestors to fight against different monsters every week. Was Higson worried about repeating the show’s mistakes?

“It’s very hard to analyse why something will work and why something won’t,” he says evenly. “Nobody ever sets out to make a crap television programme, or film. And sometimes, you know, it’s intangible. You think, it’s slipped through my fingers but I don’t know what quite went wrong. “

“I think possibly the problem was with Demons that it was slightly hard to tell what the show was about, what its identity was.

“So at least we’re starting with a thing that’s like ‘Oh, it’s Jekyll and Hyde, I know what that is. Let’s see what they do with it.’”

The real test will come when audiences get to watch the episode, but if you were to ask me how Jekyll and Hyde stacks up in the grand scheme of Doctor Who wannabes, I’d say not too badly. The monsters are fun, the story is surprisingly rich, it has a lot of interesting places to go with its premise and Tom Bateman is an appealing lead. And of course it’s unfair to directly compare Jekyll and Hyde to Doctor Who in terms of depth, backstory and mythology, because Who has had over 50 years to weave its magic.

But for my money, the real reason Doctor Who works is rooted in its endless possibility, its total freedom to create worlds wherever the Tardis lands – and that’s something that Jekyll and Hyde (and every other drama attempting to emulate Doctor Who) lacks.

For Who, every episode can be a completely different story, a new genre even, with the Doctor not constrained by a particular supporting cast or location and the series able to reinvent itself each week on the whims of the writers. Someone who doesn’t like one particular story may well find themselves in raptures over an episode seven days later.

No matter what their adventures or innovations, Merlin, Robin Hood, Jekyll and Hyde, Atlantis and the rest feel comparatively formulaic, trapped in one particular setting, cast and style of storytelling that varies between a set number of themes. Even Primeval, which saw its characters travel through time, felt relatively boxed in by the limited premise of the series and the organisation its characters worked for.

They might adopt Doctor Who-like fantasy or sci-fi elements, the family-friendly tone, the monsters and the showrunner model (as Higson is doing with Jekyll and Hyde), but that’s not the heart of why Who is such a uniquely imaginative series. Unless they can find a way of throwing characters into fresh worlds and settings each week without creating an outright clone of the BBC classic, they’ll always be second best.

“Obviously, Doctor Who has cast a huge shadow over everything,” Higson says at the Radio Times Festival a few weeks after we spoke, “We don’t have many shows of that nature so it has to carry the weight of that sci-fi, action, fantasy thing.

Charlie Higson

“We’ve made other things like Merlin that have come through, I suppose, and done a bit of that territory but… you can’t get away from that.”

Indeed you can’t – because while Jekyll and Hyde might end up being a success, it can never be the show whose worldwide appeal ITV is trying to emulate. Doctor Who is just too unusual to synthesise, as so many shows of the last few years have learned the hard way.

Lightning can’t be caught in a bottle twice – and to paraphrase Tom Baker’s Doctor, you can’t reverse-engineer the popularity of the sci-fi show.

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Jekyll and Hyde begins on ITV today (Sunday 25th October) at 6:30pm