After the Moffat/Willis/Wenger team broke up, Moffat was paired with Caroline Skinner as his new co-executive producer. As we’ve already discussed, this was seemingly not a creative partnership that ended happily. Nevertheless, Caroline Skinner occupied a position on Doctor Who that was nominally as Moffat’s equal opposite number, and though her tenure is brief, it must surely be considered as important as, say, the departure of a script editor or a producer during the classic series. To wit, Caroline Skinner was, upon taking the Doctor Who job, most recently coming off of a BBC Three series called The Fades. This, then, provides us with one of our occasional opportunities to see what the BBC thinks Doctor Who’s nearest equivalent shows are. This is, apparently, how you get the top job at Doctor Who: make The Fades first.
In their defense, it was a well regarded show. It got lovely reviews, and a BAFTA. It has a fine pedigree, and there are no reasonable grounds to complain about Caroline Skinner’s appointment based on it. There’s a few very reviewish paragraphs following this one, and they’re going to point out strengths and weaknesses, and it’s worth noting that all of the strengths are things that would have been in Caroline Skinner’s remit as producer, and all of the weaknesses can be laid at the feet of the writer, Jack Thorne. In other words, appointing her was a smart move – they got the producer of what was, in hindsight, apparently the country’s single best drama in 2011.
No, neither the BBC nor Caroline Skinner can really come in for any criticism here. What can come in for some real criticism is, apparently, British drama in the year 2011, because The Fades is a bit shit. It’s a frightfully generic show. It’s clearly BBC Three trying to get another Being Human together. It’s a generic British horror show for teens and twenty-somethings made in 2011. It’s very post-Skins, and the writer worked on that show, but it’s just as much post-Buffy and post-Being Human and post-Supernatural (nope, not doing a Pop Between Realities on it) and, for that matter, post-Marvelman, about which you can at least say it has the decency to namecheck Alan Moore in the second episode. But the point stands – this is the same basic stunt with genre fiction that’s been going around since the 1980s. Whatever its merits, at the end of the day, The Fades is a TV show that can accurately be described as children’s telly tarted up with some Natalie Dormer nude scenes, and really, that’s a tough criticism to recover from.
On top of that, there are some infuriating things about the writing. It takes three female leads to have one who comes off as a remotely nuanced or interesting character, and one suspects that’s mostly down to Natalie Dormer, who’s one of those actresses that instantly elevates anything she’s in. But it’s perhaps more damning and accurate to note that neither Lily Loveless nor Sophie Wu, who are also both quite capable actresses, can rescue their characters. The climax involves gratuitously fridging the main character’s girlfriend, who is literally gunned down purely to provide motivation for the main character. (And I mean literally – the person who shoots her is explicitly doing so to get the main character to do as he’s told.) I use the word “climax” deliberately, because there’s nothing resembling a resolution here. The final episode hits “this is the apocalyptic finale” notes throughout, but it forgets to actually resolve them in the final act. The final episode ends with a cliffhanger that’s not so much “here’s the next season big bad that emerges out of the ashes of the previous season’s victory” but rather “after this season’s big bad is killed off the story never actually decelerates at all, and we just stay in the crashingly epic tone until the final credits.” It feels like you must have missed the seventh episode.
This is made all the more frustrating by the fact that the show has rather too much premise, such that it takes several episodes to actually map it out to any satisfying extent. This is fine if you’re actually going anywhere with your complex premise, but the resolution really does just turn out to be a bombastic “find balance between dark and light” resolution that doesn’t need half as much premise as it has. The key “aha, here’s how we defeat him” moment is entirely a product of fiddling with the series premise as opposed to the characters, which is disappointingly bland. All of the show’s best moments come out of the character drama, and yet it never has the confidence to actually spend time there.
It’s not all bad, however. It’s very well cast, a fact that’s especially visible a few years later when you realize three prominent characters went on to Game of Thrones and the lead got picked up for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. This last one is particularly good – Iain de Caestecker is extremely, extremely good, with an ability to make it feel like he’s underplaying it no matter how intense he goes that lets him, in turn, get incredibly intense without ever feeling like he’s about to start munching on scenery. He’s a very clever choice for a lead, especially here, where he has to make compelling drama out of repeatedly and seriously proclaiming, “I’m not a killer.” But other bits of casting are less solid. Joe Dempsie’s a fine actor, but he’s completely out to sea with a charismatic and villainous leader figure. He sells the banal ordinariness of evil, making John into an adequate counterpart for the equally obsessive “light” figure, but given that the role is clearly intended to be the Devil, it ends up feeling like you were going for Tom Hiddleston and cast Chris Hemsworth. And it all looks gorgeous. In terms of shooting effective horror, this is top notch. Beautifully lit, great locations.
It is, to be clear, easy to see why people like this, given how many things exactly like it there are in the world that people also like. But it’s also, if not slightly frustrating, at least slightly wearying. This feels in many ways like the statistical average of television in 2011, and the fact that such a bland show provided the nearest Doctor Who equivalent is a bit disheartening. Though in the BBC’s defense, despite its BAFTA, they cancelled it after one season. Less in their defense, that seems to have been more about money than about recognizing that this was not a show that looked like it would improve after going through the initial set of best ideas and into the ideas that weren’t quite good enough for the first season. All the same, it feels like the tier below Doctor Who should be livelier than this.
Which is all a way of saying that as of 2011, it had been a while since anything really disruptive and innovative happened within genre storytelling. It really has just been a matter of watching various media catch up to where Alan Moore was in the mid-80s. Use the basic structure of children’s adventure fiction, only throw in adult elements (whether as a synonym for “complicated” or “has shagging”) and be sure to state your theme loudly and explicitly in the dialogue in case anyone misses it. That really does describe not just The Fades, but half of sci-fi/fantasy television. I mean, The Fades may obviously be trying to scratch the same itch as Being Human, but it’s not like Being Human didn’t nick a scene from Miracleman in its third season. And, I mean, the reason the approach is repeated as often as it is is, at the end of the day, that it works.
But it still, to be honest, feels tired. It’s easy to do perfectly adequately, but the degree to which it’s easy increasingly feels like a reason not to do it. There’s a real need for something that feels different. And for all its experiments in non-linear storytelling in the last two years, Doctor Who, if we’re continuing with this whole honesty thing, hasn’t much transcended it either. And clearly, if The Fades is what they think people who make good Doctor Who would also make, the BBC doesn’t expect it to, and is perfectly happy to see it trot out the same old basic formula that it’s perfected and been successful with for six seasons now. Which, fair enough – not many shows are as successful as Doctor Who for as long as Doctor Who. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Instead, go for capable imitators.
Which tells us about what to expect heading into Season Seven: meet the new boss, same as the old boss.