While it is not clear that Jonathan Creek was intended to usurp Doctor Who’s place in Britain’s cultural landscape, one has to admit that shooting Colin Baker seven minutes into the first episode is a pretty good opening bid for this goal. Saying this, of course, requires us to offer some general case theory of what Doctor Who’s place in the cultural landscape is or was. This is, of course, terribly controversial, and everyone who provides an answer to a question like this has at least some agenda in mind. I’ve surely driven off readers with views radically irreconcilable to my own on this point, however, so let’s just take for granted that we’re all more or less on the same page about this.
Equally, though, this is a fraught debate within Doctor Who in the mid-nineties. On the one hand you have the viewpoint of Doctor Who fandom, which has increasingly taken Doctor Who to be a fairly straightforward cult television show in that it exists for fans and is continually obsessed with recitation of its own history. On the other hand it clearly has a solid place within British cultural memory as a beloved institution. This is distinct from something obsessed with its own past. Its past is respected and part of its importance, but to love it is not to be a fan of it so much as to enjoy a part of your culture. Someone who likes sitting down and watching Doctor Who is no more a part of Doctor Who fandom than someone who likes eating Marmite is a member of Marmite fandom. And so Doctor Who is in this case more of an aesthetic – a type of thing one likes and a set of iconography.
These two views are a bit at loggerheads, in that one view is based on a doctrinal view of what Doctor Who is and the other is based on memories of having enjoyed a television program in one’s childhood and wanting to see something that reminds one of it. Which, of course, has next to nothing to do with the specific plots of those things and more with the imagery and feel of them. This is what leads to the existence of people with an adamant belief that Doctor Who should be scary, which usually just means they were of the right age for The Web of Fear or The Pyramids of Mars.
Which brings us to a bit of a problem, which is that with a quarter-century of televised history at this point it’s difficult to identify any common feature of what Doctor Who is. If it’s scary then the bulk of the Williams and Lambert eras are to be jettisoned. If it’s funny then it’s tough to explain the bulk of the Pertwee or Davison eras. If it’s about monsters then the Hartnell era is nearly impossible to account for. If it’s about alien worlds than the Pertwee era’s out again. There’s little that links all of Doctor Who together into a coherent aesthetic.
About the best thing one can draw on, however, is a sense of the strange. Doctor Who, at any point in its history, has been a show about giving the audience odd and surprising ways of looking at things. Whether it be television avec Méliès, a monstrous Underground, glam action thrillers, a western in a swamp, tall ships in space, the spectacle of television turned back at the viewer, or children’s panto tower blocks, Doctor Who has, at every point in its history, shown us our world reflected at an odd angle, making things strange.
This is, of course, not what the TV Movie did. Instead the TV Movie assumed two possible audiences: fans, and people who might someday become fans. Judging the former too small a pool for financial success it attempted to maximize the existence of the latter, but it did so by behaving as much like other shows with big fandoms as half-humanly possible. It is the final form of Doctor Who for Doctor Who fans – the point where that approach finally bottoms out and reveals itself as creatively bankrupt and essentially pointless.
Meanwhile, elsewhere in television of the late 90s, the BBC had an absolutely massive hit with Jonathan Creek. On the surface there’s not a lot in common between Jonathan Creek and Doctor Who. One is an earthbound mystery show with no science fiction in its premise, and the other is, you know, Doctor Who. The closest thing you could work up is that both feature eccentric geniuses as their protagonists, but at that point House is a Doctor Who clone too, and nobody wants to go down that road.
But beneath the surface there are considerable similarities. One of the things Tat Wood observes about the TV Movie in About Time is that McGann, broadly speaking, was much more suited to playing a “small, weird” Doctor instead of the tall, heroic one that the Eighth Doctor got established as. The point is a solid one – McGann is actually shorter than McCoy, and on a basic physical level ill-suited to an uncritical performance of the dashing hero type. On top of that, he’s frankly too good an actor to just Jon Pertwee his way through the role, despite that being mostly what’s asked of him.
Alan Davies, on the other hand, is almost impossible to cast as anything but a small, weird fellow. Jonathan Creek delights in treating him as just that, contrasting him with his boss, Adam Klaus, who is a womanizing goth of a magician who is, in practice, a complete cad and idiot, but who reliably gets fame and the attention of women. (Adam is played by Anthony Head in the first season before he buggered off to do some stupid vampire show in the US, leaving Richard Nixon to play him in later seasons.) Jonathan, on the other hand, is a schlubby man in a duffle coat who lives in a windmill. He’s reliably not treated as a romantic lead, and any efforts to make him one are swiftly and decisively subverted. Instead he’s a weirdo. A quite likable weirdo, but still, an awkward man who skulks about in a duffle coat.
Watching Jonathan Creek, in other words, its very difficult not to see Alan Davies as an alternate Eighth Doctor – one who, instead of becoming the dashing romantic hero, is an awkward, strange sort of man. It would have positioned the Doctor at an interestingly orthogonal relationship to expectations, creating a modern day Troughton who lurks at the edges of the plot and nudges things. Something, in other words, that would be solidly different from everything else on television in the mid-nineties, when even awkward and paranoid FBI agents are played by David Duchovny. (And let’s not even start on Jerry O’Connell) Unsurprisingly, in fact, Davies was widely rumored to be set to be the Ninth Doctor on the back of his previous work with Russell T Davies in Bob and Rose. What Davies is good at in Jonathan Creek is suffusing his awkward role with a tremendous amount of warmth and charm. He’s helped by scripts with minimal interest in treating him as an exploitative object of comedy. Instead he’s allowed to be a likeable but awkward figure who is very, very clever.
But beyond just having an odd genius as a lead character, Jonathan Creek tonally matches Doctor Who in its sense of strangeness. Like any decent procedural it has its standard type of crime that its detective solves. And in this case the conceit is that Creek is a brilliant designer of magic tricks who solves crimes by figuring out the elaborate measures taken to commit a crime that seems impossible. Typical Jonathan Creek cases entail people murdered in locked rooms, criminals who disappear into thin air, and other such standards.
This means that the solutions to the mysteries tend to involve the unraveling of sensible spaces into strange ones. In ways similar to how practical magic tricks work, places turn out to have false walls, people turn out to be foam dummies, and crime scenes turn out to be utterly unlike what they appear. The basic world of Jonathan Creek is one defined by its own constant subversion, turning mundane objects into eccentric wonders: an axe that is secretly a gun, for instance.
But what is perhaps more charmingly is the way in which the narrative structure is complicit in these strange reveals and subversions. The premiere makes use of a red herring, having Jonathan solve one case (how could a woman sneak out of her single-door office and past her secretary to commit a murder) only to point out that the solution is preposterously outlandish and going off to re-solve the murder with a different suspect entirely. What’s clever here isn’t just the red herring to drag out the episode, but the fact that the lead-up to the murder is shot so as to carefully set up a mystery about how the woman could sneak out of her office. We get a sequence of shots that linger on details in order to set up the rules of the trick, carefully informing the audience of exactly what is and isn’t known about the woman, and making sure they have a strong sense of exactly what the secretary saw and didn’t see. All of this seems to set this up as the mystery. The game of a mystery, after all, is seeing if the audience can put the pieces together before the detective does. And the audience is given active clues in order to solve this mystery.
But then, after Jonathan solves it, they’re told that this wasn’t the mystery at all, and that the real mystery was at a completely different part of the plot. It’s not just that objects in the story become eccentric and strange, in other words. The visual conventions of television storytelling can have their own equivalents of fake walls and hidden doors. The show itself gets to become a source of strangeness instead of just the things within it. This is surprise not in the usual and somewhat banal sense of the twist ending, but in a larger and more bemusingly wonderful sense. In most twist endings the twist is in a maddeningly predictable place. You may not know what the twist is, but you’re very much aware that there is one and of where it is likely to show up in the story. But here there are twists and surprises within the narrative structure – the bits that tell us that there’s going to be a twist turn out to be telling us something completely different. The twist is that there isn’t a twist. In many ways, in fact, this resembles what remains one of my favorite twists within Doctor Who – the moment in The Rescue in which the man in the rubber suit is revealed to not, in fact, be a monster but to be a man in a rubber suit.
The resemblance to the deep history of Doctor Who is oddly fitting, actually, given that as of its second season Jonathan Creek secures the services of a new producer, one Verity Lambert. She did, of course, come in after the series was established, so she cannot be given any credit for the basic formulation of the series’ tone. Nevertheless, it’s fitting that one of her last jobs in television so tonally mimicked her first. Because if you wanted a BBC1 series from the late 1990s that captured the basic tone and charm of Doctor Who, the fact of the matter is that the thing that aired under the title of Doctor Who in May of 1996 is in no way your best option. What you want is the thing that aired just under a year later: a whimsical and clever little mystery show called Jonathan Creek.