We Took The Wrong Step Years Ago

British television has become an obsession of mine lately. This probably dates back to my childhood, when I would spend hours strangling the rabbit ears on my father’s TV set, desperately trying to tune in Doctor Who on PBS. Nowadays almost every obscure overseas program can be either rented, streamed or downloaded. You can say the floodgates have been opened.

I finally got around to watching some of the latest Doctor Who episodes. I wasn’t that impressed with the Smith/Gillan/Moffat lineup of the last series, but figured I should give them a fighting chance. Well, I hate to be “that guy,” but the show is really cheesy and is starting to embarrass me as a Doctor Who fan. Every scene is played for maximum melodrama or innuendo, often at the same time. Matt Smith portrays the Doctor as an arrogant douchebag who no longer has to think about solutions to a problem – he just automatically knows things. Magic! Karen Gillan is cute, but the character is annoying at best. Steven Moffat has done some great work, but his quality control is all over the map. The Christopher Eccleston Doctor was a nice reboot, and many of the David Tennant episodes were good, but this new series does not even hold up to lightweight sci-fi standards.

In true grumpy old man fashion, I’ve continued my retreat into the history of British science fiction/horror television. Sure, many of these “television plays” were slow moving and old fashioned, and many did not speak to younger generations with much savvy; but damn was the writing good. At their best, they were genuinely disturbing without the aid of sophisticated special effects. At their worst, they have a cool retro look and vibe that is often enough to make me overlook the occasionally hokey dialogue or inappropriate casting choice.

I was a late-comer to the Quatermass world. Recently I watched and enjoyed the Hammer version of Quatermass and the Pit on the recommendation of my friend Caleb. While searching for more TV shows in the vein of classic Doctor Who, I stumbled upon the fourth and final entry in the Quatermass saga. This was a four-part series filmed for television in the late 70s. Although dated in some ways, it was surprisingly dark and seemed like a logical progression from the tone of Quatermass and the Pit. I’m now determined to seek out writer Nigel Kneale‘s other works in the genre, including the earlier Quatermass stories and two horror entries, Beasts and The Stone Tape. It also turns out that Kneale wrote the script for the 1989 TV version of The Woman in Black, one of the scariest things I’ve ever seen.

Quatermass was a huge influence on many of the filmmakers I grew up watching, including John Carpenter and John Landis. It seems to have been less of an influence on newer science fiction and horror writers. I could be wrong about that, but from what I can tell, this brand of slowly-creeping-up-on-you terror from beyond just doesn’t exist anymore. It’s all flash and zazz nowadays. The classic style of British horror seems to be reserved for older, nerdy gentlemen such as myself, which isn’t such a bad thing I guess.

On a positive note, I really enjoyed the recent show Psychoville written and starring two members of the League of Gentlemen, Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton. These guys have managed to blend an understanding of classic genre elements with a contemporary sense of humor. Interestingly, League member Mark Gatiss has gone in the other direction, working with Steven Moffat on trendy reboots of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Who. Not to write off Gatiss completely: in addition to bearing an uncanny physical resemblance to yours truly, he also knows a hell of a lot more about British television than I do. Respect. I did enjoy the Moffat/Gatiss version of Sherlock, although it was obviously geared toward a much more attention span-challenged set of viewers. The fairly recent show Inspector George Gently, which takes place in the mid 1960s, moves slow enough for my feeble brain to absorb all the details and is my current preference in U.K. detective serials.

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2 Responses to “We Took The Wrong Step Years Ago”

  1. Totally agree with you. I sent my screenplay for Third Contact to the Beeb and they liked it but ultimately weren’t going to take a risk on it. But I realised I owed it to my script to just pick up a camera and make it – in the same tradition as ye olde Doctor Who and Quatermass etc its not about amazing sfx and slick production. In fact, the ‘home made’ feel is what made old British scifi different – creepy even. If you, like me, lament the passing of – or, on a more positive tack – feel it is ripe for the re-discovering – please take a look at the trailer for Third Contact http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=STwRi3rWa1k

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