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The fascinating mess that is Steven Moffat’s Jekyll

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Feb 17, 2020, 11:48 AM EST (Updated)

In 2007, television writer Steven Moffat had garnered a reputation as a striking figure in British TV thanks to the sinfully underrated kids' series Press Gang and the acclaimed sitcom Coupling. He had also joined the team of the reboot of Doctor Who, penning some of its most iconic episodes, including "The Girl in the Fireplace" and "Blink." Here was a writer who knew how to sell a great high-concept story and execute it in one or two episodes at a time. Think of how unnervingly effective "Blink" is thanks to its simple central scare and the contained nature of its narrative, or how heartbreaking the time-jump romance between the Doctor and Madame de Pompadour is in "The Girl in the Fireplace." These are familiar genre concepts given a new flair and injection of freshness that kept audiences gripped.

So, when it was revealed that Moffat had reinvented one of the most influential stories in horror for a six-part miniseries, audiences were stoked. The end result stands as the perfect marker for everything that makes Steven Moffat so appealing but also the tropes and habits that have made him so utterly infuriating.

A reimagining and sequel of sorts to Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Jekyll stars Irish actor James Nesbit as Tom Jackman, a modern-day descendant of the eponymous doctor, and his violent alter-ego. Hyde is scheming and malevolent but he's also far stronger, faster, and amoral than Tom. Despite sharing a body, neither Tom nor Hyde ever remembers what the other one did while in charge. To keep his family safe, Tom has himself locked up and monitored by a psychiatric nurse, played by Michelle Ryan. He wants to find a cure and to discover the dark secrets of his lineage.

That central hook is an alluring one, and Moffat has always been adept at attracting the audience’s attention. James Nesbit shines in both roles, bringing an old-school horror villain malevolence to his Hyde that manages to be scary as well as entertaining. The first couple of episodes work well not only as a redo of the Jekyll and Hyde story but as a sequel to Stevenson’s tale. The original novella remains potent to modern readers for a reason. It taps into a primal desire and fear that many of us possess and Stevenson keenly understood the ways we are afraid of our own untapped potential and hidden darkness. We’re all capable of things that we hope we would never commit, even if we secretly find such an idea rather enticing. The novella digs into human duality and the pull between the safety of civilization and the thrill of barbaric freedom. Victorian society, with all its smothering rules and back-breaking adherence to tradition, cannot help but seem like the truly bad option in comparison to Mr. Hyde’s giddy havoc.

Moffat is great at one-off episodes. The problems come when he tries to craft grander and richer arcs across seasons. The first episode kicks off with Tom already living with the difficulties of Hyde, leaving recorded messages for his alter-ego not to cause too much trouble once he takes over. It’s an interesting twist to let the audience jump right into the life/lives of Tom and Hyde rather than bogging us down with exposition we’re already familiar with thanks to the source material. The issue comes with how Moffat uses a non-linear narrative to starve viewers of said information, needlessly delaying it in a way that infuriates rather than intrigues. This delaying tactic does nothing to prevent the inevitable experience: Moffat Gonna Moffat.

Anyone who is familiar with his work will be aware of that particular sinking feeling that accompanies a Moffat series. You know the one: that sensation where you're completely sucked in by a great premise an a pilot episode that's firing on all cylinders, then you're invested in the grand mysteries he's spinning as they grow ever-stranger and promise such surprises, only to become irritated and exhausted once it becomes clear that Moffat isn't going to resolve anything in a satisfying manner. Simple hooks suddenly become overtly-complicated. The crisp, clean concepts become laden with conspiratorial twists and turns that never get good endings, and half the time, they don’t get endings full stop. This was on display big time during his run as the head honcho of Doctor Who but it was at its most infuriating with his reimaginings of both Sherlock and Dracula. The former went so off the rails that the entire series ended up reeking of disdain for its own audience and their audacity to care about the characters they’d been encouraged to invest so much in, while the latter seemed to give up on its ideas an hour into its three-episode run.

Jekyll feels like the beginning of this problem as a major Moffat trademark. It's not enough for the show to be a modern sequel to a classic story with simple themes that have resonated with audiences for centuries — there has to be high-octane drama and action set-pieces and black comedy and weird vaguely sketched-out ideas about corporate overreach and romantic subplots and labyrinthine conspiracies and metafictional examinations of a literary classic and way more than even I can remember. There’s too much going on, all spread across a narrative that’s jumping back and forth across time, and very little of it comes to anything. The original themes of the story hold up so well but have little room to breathe in Jekyll because Moffat is too interested in other things that he doesn’t fully develop or pay off.

One of Moffat’s other great writing weaknesses is in abundant supply in Jekyll: his issues with female characters. Moffat does love himself a Strong Female Character, one who’s sassy and sexy but ultimately kind of useless and forever in thrall to the hero, whether it’s the sheer desecration of Irene Adler in Sherlock or how Molly became an endless punching bag for Holmes or the reinvention of Van Helsing in Dracula as a one-liner loving nun who, of course, is clearly sexually attracted to the Count. In Jekyll, Tom’s wife Claire (Gina Bellman), who exists literally to be Tom/Hyde’s trigger, comforts her estranged husband in the first episode, then immediately follows it up with the line, "Fancy a f**k?" It's laughably bad writing that feels like it's fallen straight out of a 1970s issue of Penthouse. Not that the other female characters fare any better, from Katherine the nurse to Miranda, the private detective hired by Claire to find out what's going on with Tom. As always, Moffat has never been wonderful at hiding his apathy with his own female characters.

Jekyll is nowhere near Moffat’s worst work (hello, Dracula) but it feels like a turning point in his career, the moment where he became a very big deal and a writer so recognizable that audiences quickly became divided into the factions of devotees and critics (although plenty of the former soon became the latter.) Everything that makes Moffat a fascinating mess is in Jekyll, acting almost as a warning sign for what would come. Steven Moffat continues to be a showrunner who promises so much, but history has taught many of us not to get too invested in what he will or won’t deliver.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.

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