“We’re all doing what we need to do in order to survive.”
So after cleverly and successfully deconstructing many of the superhero tropes of comic books last week, this week Misfits writer Howard Overman turns his attentions to another classic trope of sci fi and comics – the alternate reality where the Nazis won World War 2 – with, arguably, rather less success.
This plotline’s as old as the hills. Philip K Dick went there with his excellent 1962 novel The Man in the High Castle, Stephen Fry more recently with Making History, not to mention any number of Twilight Zone stories, Doctor Who novels and comic book stories. Its very familiarity as a fantasy scenario has the advantage that it’s instantly clear to the viewer what’s going on, so not too much explanation is needed; but it also has the disadvantage that it’s been pretty much done to death. It’s the common post-1945 cultural nightmare, and it’s so ubiquitous that it’s hard to come up with anything new to say on the topic. While I love Misfits, it has to be said that this didn’t really come up with anything new either.
But then maybe Overman wasn’t trying to make his scenario especially original. The point – and the fun – of doing an alternate reality episode of an established TV show is to show familiar characters behaving in very unfamiliar ways. Hence, for example, the Doctor Who story Inferno, in which the Brigadier appears as a fascist stormtrooper, or the Mirror Universe stories of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, which re-imagine Major Kira as a leather clad bisexual dominatrix and Captain Sisko as an unscrupulous space pirate.
And yet, oddly, this episode of Misfits doesn’t really do that either. True, Simon’s a Nazi soldier in this reality, and Curtis an undercover resistance leader; but neither is particularly different in their character from what we’re used to. Simon was unwillingly conscripted, and Curtis may be a latterday Victor Laszlo but he’s still working as a barman in that ratty old bar. Kelly and Alisha are still doing whatever the Nazi equivalent of community service is, and seem no different to usual. And Rudy is still Rudy, falling in with the resistance because the Nazis want his power, but being about as much help as a chocolate tea strainer.
The only character who is – perhaps – different from usual is Shaun; a low ranking Nazi functionary who still functions as a kind of probation worker, he’s as slapdash at fascism as he is with his usual role. And yet being an authority figure in a Nazi world allows all those really nasty aspects of his character, usually only hinted at, to stand out proudly. He’s blackmailed Alisha into sleeping with him by getting her off a drink drive charge, and he’s quite willing to actually shoot people. Craig Parkinson makes this version of Shaun a natural extension of his familiar loathsomeness rather than something completely different; you get the believable impression that, given the right circumstances, ‘our’ Shaun could be like this too.
As with last week’s episode, this is necessarily a very timey-wimey plot, steeped in potential paradoxes. Taking a similar tack to Fry’s Making History, the McGuffin to set the alternate universe into being is an elderly victim of the Holocaust travelling back in time ostensibly to kill Hitler; as in that novel (and most other versions of this plot) he actually succeeds in making things worse. Not only does the Fuhrer overpower him, but he drops his mobile phone during the struggle, handing the Nazis advanced technology decades before it should exist. Result (as usual) – the Nazis win the war and Britain in 2011 is still an occupied country. Swastikas hang from the familiar community centre, black clad troops are everywhere, and we see Seth being hauled from the boot of his car and taken away in handcuffs. After a nice precredits sequence establishing this chain of events, Kelly sums up the situation with typical bluntness: “Fuckin’ Nazis.”
The Nazi-run Thamesmead housing estate is only marginally more grim than it usually looks, but the equally grim nature of the scenario means that there’s far less humour this week than usual, something that felt somewhat lacking. Kelly is thankfully her usual self, pithy insults and all, and Shaun’s usual creepiness is enhanced but still funny. Rudy, as usual, is reliable comic relief, but his scatological observations are kept to a minimum as the story tries to get perhaps too serious. Elsewhere, Curtis is unusually earnest and Simon still looks soulful and troubled, but jokes aren’t the order of the day here: Overman seems to want to keep his scenario unrelentingly grim.
Thankfully, the script doesn’t go into too much detail about the bigger picture of a Nazi-dominated world, relying instead on the familiarity of the scenario for viewers, and painting in minutiae like swastika headed paper and armoured Jeeps. The lack of exposition is probably wise, as it would be easy to pick holes in the scenario. For example, given Nazi racial policies, it’s highly unlikely that Curtis or Alisha would be around at all; this isn’t even acknowledged in the script, though Shaun does acidly explain that homosexuality is illegal when Rudy tries to pass himself off (hilariously) as Curtis’ gay lover (“I’m the butch and he’s the bitch. I’m the sausage and he’s the muffin…”). Then there’s the fact that the Nazi military vehicles are very obviously (American–made) Jeep Cherokees (you can even see the company logo on the steering wheel). And the most glaring flaw in every alternate reality episode of any TV show – with history having changed so substantially, it’s highly unlikely that the same group of characters would still be together in the same place that they are in established reality.
The intentional lack of exposition makes such holes harder to poke, but the scenario still felt a bit low-rent. The Nazis only appear to have two military vehicles, the housing estate is only altered with a few swastika banners and a (very obviously CG) statue of Hitler, and the local resistance movement comprises only Curtis, Kelly, and latterly Rudy. Even if they’re only one cell, that seems a remarkably small one – even if Rudy can conveniently up their numbers with his duplicate.
It was nonetheless a good episode for Kelly and Seth, using the all-bets-off nature of alternate reality to further explore their feelings for each other. The plot hinged on the Nazis wanting to use Seth to acquire the superpowers which they were somehow aware of; having already sold Curtis’ old time-travelling power to the elderly man who started the whole thing, Seth was obviously also the key to putting history right. In the mean time, though, a few old faces cropped up, having not died in this history. Thus, Kelly was accompanied by Josef Altin as Gary, the less than pleasant member of the group who was killed way back in the first episode, and we also saw Peter from last week’s episode brutally shot by the Nazis (killed twice in as many weeks, he’s an unlucky guy). And Catrin Stewart popped up as Lily from the second episode of last year’s series, forced into trading her freezing power to proper Nazi bad guy Captain Smith (Glenn Speers managing to make him a scary enough bad guy despite him basically being paper thin as a character).
Seeing the old faces was a nice nod to the show’s past, and demonstrates the attention it pays to its own continuity; but of course, it did make one wonder where Nathan had got to. Obviously Robert Sheehan is still ‘unavailable’ but it’s a shame he couldn’t have popped in for a cameo at least – this of all episodes would have fitted that beautifully.
Interestingly, none of the regular characters – with the exception of Rudy – had any powers in this alternate reality, allowing a potential changeover of abilities yet again. This might have been very confusing though, and Overman wisely resisted the temptation to do it. Quite apart from anything else, it would be yet another temporal paradox in a show that’s becoming riddled with them for any of the gang to have acquired a new power in a timeline that never actually happened. But equally obviously, someone would have to be given the old man’s time-travelling power to sort everything out. I’d expected this to be Simon, thus giving him the ability to time travel that he’ll need for his future self to come back and die saving Alisha; but obviously that’s being saved for another day. Instead, it was the increasingly marvellous Kelly who got the power, transmitted in a light-blazing kiss with Seth – another admission that there’s definitely something going to happen with these two in the regular reality.
Kelly’s fast becoming the best character in the show, with her pithy humour and down to earth decency – a character who by sheer likeability manages to overturn all the potential ‘chav’ stereotypes. She didn’t disappoint in this episode; first she stormed the community centre/prison with two silenced pistols, being punch-the-air badass, then she travelled back to the past and gave Hitler a good kicking to sort things out, mouthily declaiming “Why do you have to be such a dick?” If there’s any doubt as to who should be the next breakout star from the show, I’d say it’s definitely Lauren Socha. She even gets the episode’s fantastic last line; as the only one aware of the alternate timeline, when asked what she’s been up to, she responds with “fighting Nazis and kicking the shit out of Hitler. What about you?” Oh yeah!
Mind you, it seemed a little redundant that, having given her the time-travel power, Overman had her give it up again when she returned to regular reality. Going back to the ‘rocket scientist’ power felt a bit odd given how limited its usefulness has been so far (even if in keeping with Kelly’s basically decent, down to earth nature). Still, perhaps this power will yet prove to be instrumental in a later plot; in the meantime, Seth has placed the time travel power in his pet iguana “for safekeeping”. Hopefully this won’t mean that we’ll shortly have to see our gang stranded in ‘planet of the lizards’ alternate reality…
Overall then, this was a bit of an uneven episode, whose success depended on how tolerant you were of the much overused ‘Nazis win WW2 alternate reality’ plot. It might have felt less overfamiliar to me if Howard Overman had used the episode to deconstruct the cliche, as he so successfully did with superheroes last week. As it was, this felt like an uneven romp, which was enjoyable enough but missed a lot of chances to be more original. Being Misfits, though, it was still miles better than a lot of versions of this story; it’s just that, given the show’s usual stellar standards, this felt like it didn’t live up to the usual quality. There was plenty to like, but let’s hope Overman can return the loveably pithy mix of reality and fantasy to a better balance next week.
Oh, and one final thing – it only occurred to me last week (after the superhero musings) that the name ‘Overman’ is a literal English translation of the German ‘ubermensch’, which was itself later Anglicised (from Nietzsche’s work) as ‘Superman’. Is Howard Overman secretly Superman?