With screens both big and small currently overrun with tales of superhero strife, it takes something truly spectacular to make us viewers sit up and take notice.
Jekyll and Hyde, ITV’s latest bid to find a family-friendly fantasy drama to rival Doctor Who, does just that, transforming Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 classic into an inventive origin story that’s dark, assured and gloriously stylish. Its only fault is that it often shows too much restraint.
Creator and writer Charlie Higson takes the story of a Victorian physician with a split personality and updates it to a 1930s London crawling with supernatural creatures. Here we find Dr Jekyll’s grandson, Robert (Tom Bateman), who has no idea he has inherited the family’s you-won’t-like-me-when-I’m-angry gene until, Superman-like, he saves a young girl from being crushed by a runaway truck.
This event kick-starts an extraordinary adventure for the junior doctor as he fights to keep his feral alter-ego concealed whilst delving into his family’s murky past. But Mr Hyde may well be the least of his worries, especially as his actions have attracted the attentions of dangerous looking men in trilbies and the agents of a secret society, led by Richard E Grant’s slippery spymaster, hell-bent on ridding London of its monstrous infestation.
For a show supposedly aimed at families, Jekyll and Hyde sure isn’t afraid to go to some pretty dark places. The general tone is fantastically stylish, director Colin Teague’s flawless recreation of a period London shrouded in fog and mood lighting lending the story a 30s noir feel that suits its Byzantine mysteries perfectly.
Yet Teague also frequently delves into horror territory. Jekyll’s transformation feels like something out of a bone crunching body horror show, while the humanoid Rottweiler that apparently serves as the Secret Service’s in-house oracle is so disturbing it will surely frighten the life out of any youngsters watching. Which isn’t exactly ideal now those autumn nights have drawn in.
The show’s big flaw, though, is that, for all its style and intrigue, the story just isn’t particularly exciting. Whereas Doctor Who and Sherlock both have a thirst for adventure, Jekyll is a more reluctant hero who’s more interested in charming the sweet Girl Next Door than fighting monsters. Without this danger and jeopardy, the action is simply too stiff and formal, too genteel, and, dare I say it, too ITV to really spark into life.
Which is a shame because when the shackles are unleashed the action is dizzyingly exhilarating. Taking a cue from Guy Ritchie’s treatment of Sherlock Holmes, Teague uses speed ramping to give the fight sequences a fresh verve and flair. In one bravura sequence, Mr Hyde takes on a nightclub full of drunken sailors with the guile and showmanship of a circus ring leader – a sign of how much fun the show could be if it only loosened up a little.
Ultimately, though, the series will stand or fall on the strength of its leading man, and in Tom Bateman Jekyll and Hyde has found its perfect hero. The Da Vinci’s Demons star pulls off the tricky superhero feat of embodying both the hero and his alter-ego seamlessly. Jekyll is played as a bumbling Hugh Grant type, all repressed English politeness and no action, while Hyde is given a punk rock attitude (complete with runny guyliner) as he snarls and sneers with a vile intensity that feels miles apart from his true self.
It should be fascinating to see how these opposing personalities learn to co-exist, especially as Hyde has shown a desire to harm anyone whom Jekyll has affection for – the old trope of a superhero endangering the ones he loves playing out in new and exciting ways.
Some might think The Curious Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde has been done to death – it’s the third most adapted fictional character of all time, after Sherlock Holmes and Dracula – but in Charlie Higson’s hands the story has transformed into a slick, inventive and enticing superhero tale that’s unlike any other (not counting The Hulk, of course).
If those involved can learn to release the chains on its hero more often and have fun playing in the sprawling supernatural world they’ve created, ITV might just have found the show to finally fill its troublesome Sunday teatime slot.
Click here to watch Jekyll and Hyde on ITV Player