Pop Between Realities, Home in Time for Tea 72 (Being Human)

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Well, look, the pilot was in 2008. So we’re only a little ahead of ourselves. And it’s worth exploring now simply because Being Human is a show that reveals a lot about what television became in the wake of Doctor Who. Because in many ways Being Human is the first significant post-Doctor Who show. It’s had its imitators, as we saw back when we looked at Primeval and Robin Hood, but those were just that: attempts to discern the underlying formula of Doctor Who and replicate it. With Being Human we have something else - a show that on the one hand clearly exists only because of Doctor Who and on the other is clearly not a Doctor Who clone by any measure.

The premise of the show is simple and cheeky: a vampire (Mitchell), a werewolf (George), and a ghost (Annie) attempt to live together and maintain a semblance of a normal life. They routinely fail spectacularly, getting embroiled in supernatural goings-on - vampires trying to take over the world in the first and third seasons, and human supernatural hunters in the second. It’s good - it started, as mentioned, with a 2008 pilot, and then kicked off properly in 2009 and ran for five seasons. But we’ll cover it here, because it’s not really a show that had an influence on Doctor Who going forward: it’s one that, by its existence, demonstrates the influence Doctor Who was having.

And yet if you are to look for obvious influences on Being Human you’d end up in the 90s looking at the wave of goth-inspired vampire stories in the wake of the Interview with a Vampire movie. The ur-text here is probably White Wolf Entertainment’s World of Darkness line of role-playing games, the flagship of which was Vampire: The Masquerade. This game was an important moment of cultural history in terms of the steady merger of the goth scene and geek culture (see also the Sylvester McCoy era), synthesizing as much classic vampire fiction as possible into a game set in a gothed up and sexy version of the then-present day. Indeed, there are many points where Being Human feels like someone dusting off their old World of Darkness campaign notes and turning them into a television series.

Its self-descriptor - gothic-punk - is an interesting phrase, both because of the strange ahistorical nature of it (goth is, after all, an aesthetic that derived from punk) and because it situated Vampire: The Masquerade in its more relevant tradition, namely the “____punk” tradition kicked off by cyberpunk. That is to say, grim stories with tortured and fairly violent antiheroes wearing mirror shades at night. Matching traditional horror fiction tropes up with it is one of those ideas that’s both reasonably clever and so dead obvious it hurts. And so despite being trapped in one of the grimiest corners of nerd culture, White Wolf ended up accurately calling how vampires were going to work from now on.

(Yes, huge swaths do go back to Anne Rice, but Rice is ultimately writing romantic vampires. White Wolf formulated the aesthetic, though. They may have called it gothic punk, but in hindsight the correct name is self-evidently fangpunk.)

So Being Human comes out of that tradition, as a sort of standard issue British downsizing of the concept. In a fangpunk world we have… a pair of washout monsters and a neurotic ghost in a flat share comedy. In Bristol. It’s an entertaining take on what was, by this time, an overcooked and past its prime aesthetic anyway. (The degree to which Vampire: The Masquerade belongs to its era is striking. The “masquerade” of the title refers to efforts to keep people from knowing vampires exist. The entire thing is unimaginable in an age of cell phone videos and YouTube.) It’s all quite solid.

But why would we say that this is post-Doctor Who and not make the more obvious and wholly defensible claim that it’s post-Buffy? Yes, Toby Whithouse wrote an episode of Doctor Who and is going to come back to do more, but that’s something of a thin line to take when we’re dealing with contemporary horror tropes in a show that flits easily between comedy and drama. There’s a strong case to be made that Being Human is Buffy only about being in your twenties.

On a purely causal level, of course, we do have to admit that Doctor Who’s massive success made commissioning a supernatural drama for BBC Three an easier lift. Equally, it’s fallacious to suggest that all British sci-fi and fantasy is automatically in Doctor Who’s wake. Nor can you credit Doctor Who with the embrace of tone changes that defines Being Human. You might make a case that Whithouse does finales similarly to Davies, using the same basic “start spinning lots of plates and then switch among them quickly enough that the audience forgets about one” structure. But this is hardly Davies’s invention either.

In many ways it’s easier to answer this by looking at the ways in which Being Human differs from Buffy. The obvious one is that its vampire is not defined primarily by his tortured soul. Being Human defines Mitchell primarily as a recovering addict, not as someone endlessly tortured by his conscience and seeking redemption. Mitchell may occasionally fall down the redemption path, but for the most part is more defined by simply wanting to live a normal life. The contrast with Angel is profound - there’s none of the anguished self-torturing and constant need to atone. There’s just a guy trying to do better.

More broadly, there’s a change to the underlying metaphoric structure from Buffy. The trick with Buffy was always to use the supernatural as a way to mythologize ordinary and mundane travails. So “I slept with this guy and he turned mean” becomes “I slept with this guy and he lost his soul and tried to destroy the world.” But that’s not quite Being Human’s game. Being Human mostly treats the supernatural on its own terms. George being a werewolf isn’t really a metaphor for anything. It’s just a particularly annoying problem he has that causes him unique and idiosyncratic consequences. Annie’s life comes the closest to being overtly metaphoric, but even there it’s more a tool for observing domestic violence than it is a way of blowing up the concept into mythic terms.

Instead, Being Human treats the mythic as an eccentric space in the mould of Torchwood, and is largely about the experience of living on the border of such a space. It’s telling that all three characters are nobodies. One is genuinely invisible to the world. The other two work low-rent, forgettable jobs in a dingy hospital. They exist in the space between two worlds - they are nobodies both in the mundane and supernatural contexts. There’s an argument to be made that this is also quintessentially British - a flat share sitcom on the margins of vast world-changing powers is, in one sense, a perfect metaphor for a country with more than a little obsession with its own faltering global power. But more important than this cynical reading is the basic way in which it embraces the longstanding British tradition of eccentric spaces. Here we have a story about living on the disused margins of the narrative.

This also helps explain why Being Human is more like Doctor Who than it is like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It’s a show about the gaps between worlds and genres. Mitchell, George, and Annie have fallen out of the world, and now sit in its gutters. It’s a show about transgressing the lines between worlds. It’s arguably, in fact, what Torchwood always should have been. (Indeed, there’s a bit of cheekiness here. Whithouse names his first episode “Flotsam and Jetsam,” the original title for the Torchwood Season One premiere.)

It’s easy to misread Doctor Who as being primarily about genre mashups. But at it’s best it’s slightly different - it’s about exploring the consequences of breaching narrative spaces. It’s about asking what happens if you break an underlying rule of a genre. This is the big way it differs from Buffy and indeed from Joss Whedon’s work in general. Whedon is all about fusing genres together into a coherent whole. But Doctor Who is specifically about the dissonance of the genres. What Torchwood in its original conception promised was to explore what happens when a genre moves in next door, but ultimately it got seduced by its genre and lost that. So Being Human simplifies it, focusing on the literal act of living adjacent to a genre.

It also shows Whithouse’s breadth and skill. He’s talked in interviews about how much Alan Moore influenced him, and that comes out fairly clearly in Being Human. For one thing, there’s a key plot beat at the end of Season Three that is taken almost straight from Miracleman. But there are other bits too. George’s monologue in the pilot about his bloodlust, with the gobsmackingly good line about how “they said the windpipe came away with a sigh of air from the lungs that was still warm” is straight-up pinched from the Moore toolbox and his usual trick of trying to find ways to capture utterly alien experiences. What’s interesting is the way in which George’s bloodlust is defined in terms that keep it alien and disturbing. There’s no attempt to draw a metaphor to everyday existence.

This sense of keeping strange things strange is, again, a close cousin to Doctor Who. Indeed, Being Human goes further down this road than Doctor Who usually does. Doctor Who has explored the alien, but usually in a Buffy style of using it as a metaphor for the mundane. Its willingness to engage with unfathomable otherness has been limited at best; the one time it’s come close, the unfathomable other has literally been the devil. But the underlying ethic of Doctor Who has remained very pro-strangeness even as its sense of what is actually strange has withered. Strangeness, after all, is what comes from falling out of worlds.

The difference, of course, is that Doctor Who is fundamentally optimistic about strangeness, while at the end of the day Being Human is a horror show. And yet it avoids being a xenophobic horror show. Ultimately there is nothing scarier in the first season than Owen’s finally letting the mask slip and trying to kill Annie all over again. It’s very pointedly not a show about how the alien and the strange is evil - all of our main characters, after all, are, by their own admission, monsters.

But this is, in the end, what makes it a post-Doctor Who show as opposed to a Doctor Who clone. Being Human isn’t about trying to mimic the work of Doctor Who. It’s taking the concerns of Doctor Who and looking at them from an alternate angle. It’s something we’ve not really seen anywhere in the history of Doctor Who before save arguably in the spinning off of the Faction Paradox line: a series that looks at what Doctor Who does and replies, “yes, but you can also do this.”

In many ways the ability to do this comes from the changes Davies has made. Davies made Doctor Who a show that steals from everything on television. But he also began changing the nature of how Doctor Who relates to boxes. As Richard Jones said back in his guest post on Big Brother, in Doctor Who a box is a way to exit one space and enter another - entering the box of television means being in a completely different world. Whereas in most drama the box of television is about showing the world of the people who live inside it. Being Human recognizes that these two concepts share a common trope that can be exploited: the apartment. Our own little boxes (made of ticky tacky) in which we stash our worlds. And so Being Human offers a slightly different take - “what is it like to live in a magic box parked adjacent to the ordinary world?”

What jumps out here is that there’s no reason that the premise has to end here. Being Human isn’t pulling some special trick. There are, after all, all sorts of things one can put in a magic box, and different sorts of relationships it can have with the real world. Being Human is about monsters, which are a very good thing to put in a magic box, but hardly your only option. What matters is television that’s working in the same conceptual space.

Comments

Carey 3 years, 9 months ago

"George being a werewolf isn’t really a metaphor for anything. It’s just a particularly annoying problem he has that causes him unique and idiosyncratic consequences. "

Oh, I'd have to disagree about this, as George's interactions with other humans puts his metaphor firmly in the box of closeted homosexual, reinforced by the other werewolf he interacts with (and flirts with the idea of joining) is also male.

I'm a rarity in that I prefer the replacement trinity to the one from the first three series: when it started, Being Human was a dark comedy exploring an addict, a man in the closet, and a victim of abuse. While some of these themes are still existent in the new trinity of Hal, Tom and Alex, the new paradigm is actually about class conflict, with Hal essentially portraying some one from an upper class background slumming it, Tom being irresolutely working class, and Alex being a lower middle class student. And their relationship explores the traditional antagonism between the classes.

Class extends to the three central conflicts within the final series: the hotel (no better place for class conflict as it's one of the closest examples of old fashioned servitude); Captain Hatch (the name alone denotes class status, as officer class were always superior to the rank and file. And then, of course, is his proper title. But even he is in conflict, as his Fall was down to his own rebellion due to being unsatisfied about his position in the hierarchy). And finally there's Rook-- the ultimate civil servant, facing up to dismissal: upper class in background, a middle class work place, yet at the end of the day revealed to be little more than a servant to those of a higher class than him, making him no different than Hal and Tom at the Hotel.

Or maybe I'm not really that interested in explorations of addictions: although Being Human did do a nice job even there of showing addiction really isn't glamorous (but then doing what all tv/film explorations of addiction do and cast someone with film star looks…)

I'd also add that Being Human is a rarity in British telefantasy in that it was chosen to go to full series because the audience actually demanded it. BBC Three commissioned a series of pilot episodes of potential series to appeal to a teenage/young adult audience. these consisted of of Being Human, West 10 LDN, Mrs In-Betweeny, The Things I Haven't Told You, Dis/Connected and Phoo Action (based on the Jamie Hewlett comic strip and co-written by Who alumni Jessica Stevenson). Whithouse was actually told that only Phoo Action would be commissioned for a series before the pilots were even broadcast. Once they were something unexpected happened, and a journalist for the Reading Chronicle started an online petition to lobby BBC Three give Being Human a full series, which was signed by over 3,000 people. Phoo Action was cancelled after it was decided that the scripts for the series were not good enough (although the critical drubbing it received couldn't have helped) and Being Human (which was far and wide the best received pilot from the critics) was commissioned as a replacement.

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Nick 3 years, 9 months ago

See Whithouse's comments here about the genesis of the show: http://www.ugo.com/tv/exclusive-writer-toby-whithouse-on-being-human It emerged from a This Life-esque 'young friends share a house' type drama and each of them had issues: George's anger management, Mitchell's sex addiction and Annie's agoraphobia, but didn't work until he decided to make George a werewolf. So, there's a definite metaphorical intent in the origin, but I'm not sure how much Whithouse kept it as a driving force in the series itself. In a way he almost flips it around and uses real-life events as metaphors for the monstrous elements - when they can't talk about all the bad things that are going on, Mitchell and George bond over the scheduling of The Real Hustle.

S4 and 5 do shift to using class, though that does pick up on a theme that's run through the series that the vampires see themselves as superior to the other supernaturals.

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David Anderson 3 years, 9 months ago

The usual metaphorical interpretation of the werewolves in Being Human is people living with an STD. But I would rather go along with Phil in taking the monsters as their own narrative devices: ways of exploring the human condition by contrasting it with dark reflections of itself. Metaphor is not the only figure.

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Anton B 3 years, 9 months ago

Another thing Being Human has in common with Doctor Who is its ability to 'regenerate' its core cast and setting when necessary. Beginning with the recasting of Annie and ending, in its final season bearing as much resemblance to its first as Pertwee's era does to Hartnell's. Also, its version of the afterlife as a place of 'men with sticks and ropes' found behind magical doors is far more affecting than official spin-off Torchwood's 'nothing'.

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Froborr 3 years, 9 months ago

the “____punk” tradition kicked off by cyberpunk. That is to say, grim stories with tortured and fairly violent antiheroes wearing mirror shades at night.

Thank you for summing up why I by and large can't stand the ___punk genres. Interesting that this description makes them one and the same with the Dark Age of comics, which actually works fairly well timing-wise.

Unrelated to the post, I reviewed A Golden Thread on my site.

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Daibhid C 3 years, 9 months ago

"In a way he almost flips it around and uses real-life events as metaphors for the monstrous elements"

Reminds me of Terry Pratchett explaining that the Johnny Maxwell trilogy isn't one of those YA novels where a kid is projecting fantasy onto reality so that slaying the dragon or whatever is a metaphor for dealing with his real world problems. "For Johnny it's all real, and half the time he's projecting reality onto fantasy".

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Daibhid C 3 years, 9 months ago

I find it interesting you call it a "flat-share sitcom". Because before I watched it I thought it really was a sitcom: less This Unlife and more Monsters Behaving Badly. So actually watching it took me by surprise.

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Theonlyspiral 3 years, 9 months ago

I really don't want this to come off as bitchy or disrespectful but I feel the need to ask: When are we back to Doctor Who? Season Two of Torchwood has been a slog to read through due to how unexceptional it all is. I can't imagine how brutal writing these has been considering that you had to throw up your hands in frustration at your post length standard.

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Philip Sandifer 3 years, 9 months ago

Well, this wasn't brutal at all, really. I mean, the question is really "how much could I have possibly thought up to put between Exit Wounds and Partners in Crime."

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sleepyscholar 3 years, 9 months ago

Recasting of Annie and Mitchell, surely?

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BerserkRL 3 years, 9 months ago

So what is Hellblazer? Wizpunk?

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ferret 3 years, 9 months ago

I can't think of any *****punk term that John Constantine would voice anything but the greatest scathing for :-)

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BerserkRL 3 years, 9 months ago

So, scathepunk?

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Whittso 3 years, 9 months ago

Hello - first realtime comment from someone piling through the blog and loving it. I'm still back in late McGann, but catching up fast.

Anyway - some random relevant trivia. Back in the 80s, I remember reading a Terrance Dicks book - Cry Vampire. I remember nothing about the plot, but the cover - a scruffy gothlike vampire with curly hair and a leather jacket just popped into my head. It's a dead ringer for Mitchell...

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Theonlyspiral 3 years, 9 months ago

I was very unclear. I didn't mean that Being Human was brutal, more the second season of Torchwood.

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Anton B 3 years, 9 months ago

Indeed.

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Garth Simmons 3 years, 9 months ago

Amazing. I wish I could be scathepunk but wanting to be makes me everything scathepunk is against in the first place.

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David Anderson 3 years, 9 months ago

Being Human while generally brilliant does have problems negotiating between the epic and the domestic. I think it just about overcomes the problems in most of its seasons, but one does feel that the houseshare monsters sitcom is getting invaded by the need to save the world. It manages largely to keep the world-saving bit on the same scale as the domestic bit which manages the transition.

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