“I don’t know what I’m for any more.”
Changing the lead cast of an established, popular TV series is always a risky business. Look at what happened with The X Files after the departure of David Duchovny, or The Dukes of Hazzard’s one, disastrous season without John Schneider and Tom Wopat. On the other hand, done well, it can be no handicap; MASH survived the loss of Wayne Rogers, McLean Stevenson and Larry Linville, and Doctor Who and James Bond change their lead actors on a regular basis.
The cast changes for BBC3’s Being Human have been well-publicised – a mistake in my opinion, but a logical approach in these days of internet rumour, gossip and spoilers. From being a cultish, word of mouth modest success for a lesser BBC channel, Being Human has become a massive, popular hit with an international following, so any developments are going to be big news. It was well-known that Aidan Turner, tortured vampire hero Mitchell, wouldn’t be returning, as he’s busy with The Hobbit. As the final episode of the last series saw him turning to dust after a mercy staking by best friend George, the show’s fans were already uneasy at dealing with the loss of, arguably, the most popular character in the show.
But the show was never just about Mitchell, and even then I thought that its talented creator Toby Whithouse could work around the loss of one of the original three lead characters. However, we then learned that Russell Tovey, as werewolf George, was off too, albeit with a brief reappearance. And it was announced that Sinead Keenan, whose role as George’s girlfriend Nina had been rather divisive for the show’s fans, wasn’t coming back at all.
With that leaving ghostly Annie as the only original character standing, I must admit even I was starting to think that the show might have had its day. But I’m a great admirer of Toby Whithouse’s writing, so I was prepared to give the new-look Being Human a try. I wanted to be convinced. And after one episode, I have to say that I’m not, yet. But I’m not unconvinced either.
Because far from being a slam bang introduction to the new setup, this first episode of series 4 was actually something of a slow burner. There was plenty of action, true; but by the end of the story, newly introduced vampire Hal hadn’t even got to Barry, let alone met his soon-to-be housemates. It was fairly obvious that we’d be seeing more of last year’s newly introduced werewolf Tom, and he was very much in evidence, but firstly we had to deal with what had happened since we last saw our heroes, declaring to vampire Old One Wyndham that he’d got a fight on his hands.
In a typically tricksy move, Whithouse opened the episode unexpectedly in a flash forward to a nightmare 2037, with vampires overrunning the planet. This was visualised economically by director Philip John, with a few exterior shots of burning London leading to a sequence in an underground Resistance HQ, where crucifix laden freedom fighters were listening to the fall of New York via shortwave radio. As their unseen operative was overpowered, his voice was replaced by a sneering, English-accented vampire declaring, “the Earth belongs to the vampires.” – a near quote from the very end of the first disc of Jeff Wayne’s musical War of the Worlds. The one called, like this episode, “Eve of the War”.
Of course, that clever title was more than a reference to a cult 1978 rock album; as the episode progressed, it became clear that the young woman leading the Resistance was actually George and Nina’s grown up daughter, named Eve by George with his dying breath.
Ah, George. That’s where I thought it was perhaps unwise to let it be commonly known before the series started that Russell Tovey was leaving. As a result, it was fairly obvious that it would be early on in the series, an impression reinforced by his placement right at the back of the much circulated publicity shot of the cast this year. This meant that his eventual, heroic demise in this episode came as no particular surprise, whereas if we hadn’t known Tovey was leaving it might have been a genuine shock.
George, it transpired, had been busy between series. He’d killed Wyndham (I’m guessing because of more casting problems; a shame, because Lee Ingleby’s sneering, arrogant Old One had looked like a promising new villain). In retaliation, the vampires had killed his beloved Nina, beating her to death with baseball bats. While this set George up nicely to be the traumatised, grief-wracked hermit we saw here, it was again a little too obvious a result of casting problems. Again, had we not known Sinead Keenan was leaving the show, this could have come as an unexpected shock.
Still, not everyone is as familiar as me with the difficulties of cast retention in a long running TV show, or necessarily pays attention to the behind-the-scenes gossip on the likes of Digital Spy. It’s fair to say that, without that insider knowledge, these revelations would work pretty well, and anyone who’d managed to avoid the backstage gossip must have had a very different experience to me.
This episode was less concerned with getting the new ensemble together post-haste than establishing the plot threads for this year. Recurring flash forwards to 2037 established that George and Nina’s daughter has a Big Destiny in the coming fight; meanwhile, a nest of vampires in Barry were preparing for the arrival of the Old Ones, who promised to bring an old-fashioned conquest of fire and the sword to our shores.
We were introduced to Wyndham’s ‘replacement’, Griffin, another Old One who was placed high in the local police force. Alex Jennings did well as the character, a vampire very much in the traditional mould with typical arrogance and contempt for humanity (and werewolves). But I must say, the character came across as little more than a thin shadow of previous vampire baddies, Herrick in particular; and I wasn’t altogether heartbroken at his fairly quick demise. If the show’s going to continue, it shouldn’t be repeating itself.
Much more interesting was the hip, modern vampire Cutler, who I suspect is going to be the real main baddie this series. Cutler was disdainful of the Old Ones archaic plans for conquest – “The humans would soon have an army raised. On Twitter.” Instead, he proposed an alternative that seemed scarily realistic in these days of manufactured media scapegoats like, say, disabled people on benefits. Give the vampire a new context, was his proposition, by showing humanity something even scarier.
It soon became clear that the “even scarier” something was going to be werewolves, as Cutler used his mobile phone to film the transformations of the trapped George and Tom. Andrew Gower as Cutler is a very different vampire from the likes of Herrick, Wyndham or Griffin, and this storyline looks like it could be interesting.
With all this going on, our new vampire ‘good guy’ had to be established too. So we also intercut with new boy Hal, introduced in a barber shop getting a haircut from his aging werewolf flatmate Leo. It was great to see venerable old Louis Mahoney as Leo; many of us geeks remember him well from classic Doctor Who, not to mention a heart wrenching guest spot in 2007’s Blink. Leo made the point that it must be impossible to cut Superman’s hair, presumably an allusion to similar problems with vampires; principally, that they can’t be seen in mirrors, as we were amusingly shown. But this did make me think – how, then, do they shave? We know they grow stubble, Mitchell was scarcely without it. Perhaps Hal, at least, can get Leo to shave him…
Damien Molony, as Hal, is physically a little too similar to Mitchell for my liking – as I said, change should be more than repetition. But the character is already nicely distinct from Mitchell’s hedonistic indulgence / tortured self-loathing persona. Hal is assured, quiet, and apparently far, far older than Mitchell was. There are hints that he could be much, much more violent too, and only his friendship with Leo had been holding him back.
It seemed a little contrived that Southend played host to another vampire/werewolf/ghost household, as we were introduced to Hal and Leo’s other flatmate, the ghostly Pearl. But that aside, their relationship was well-realised and (presumably intentionally) reminded me nostalgically of what Being Human was like when it started. The trouble with that, though, is that it made me reflect on how much more enjoyable it was before the encroachment of Big Storylines about Conflicting Supernatural Forces that Control the Destiny of the World. Not that this isn’t well enough done; but there are already plenty of shows doing that. The original appeal of Being Human was in placing supernatural beings in the most ordinary of settings. Get them caught up in a battle for mankind’s destiny, and you’re in more familiar – and less interesting – territory.
Still, Whithouse threw us some fun, interesting guest characters as if to make up for this familiarity. Darren Evans was a standout as motormouth vampire thrall and eternal loser Dewi; effortlessly funny and sympathetic, I was glad to see him spared staking by the episode’s end. Maybe we’ll see him again, but it seems unlikely that he’ll have much of a part to play in this year’s Big Story.
Unlike the ubiquitous Mark Williams, who played an integral part as ‘vampire recorder’ Regus. It was a nicely comical turn with moments of gravitas and drama; pretty much what you’d expect from the actor who played Arthur Weasley in the Harry Potter movies. Regus was instrumental in avoiding Griffin’s intended sacrifice of baby Eve, playing for time with some amusing business about rituals, robes and incantations (which were a random jumble of commonly known Latin phrases). All because he’d discovered, via a parchment of human skin complete with nipples, that Eve had a part to play in a Big Prophecy. Nicely enough done, but wasn’t that the plot behind about half of Buffy the Vampire Slayer?
Regus managed to stave off Eve’s execution long enough for George to force a halfway house of his usual transformation, which was obviously not going to end well. He killed most of the vampires (though noticeably not Cutler), but he was obviously not coming back from this mangled form. So we got a not entirely unexpected touching death scene. As George died, his ghost appeared – together with his door to the afterlife – and he bade farewell, off to join his beloved Nina. Sadly, this was less moving than Mitchell’s death last year; partly, as I say, because it was half expected, but also because it seemed a little contrived. If George was so motivated to protect his daughter and continue the war against the vampires, it seems unlikely that he’d so willingly go to his death, even if it was to be with Nina. He had far too much unfinished business on Earth for that to be entirely believable.
With all this going on, Annie hadn’t a great deal to do this week – a shame, as her understated niceness and hinted-at power were always at least as interesting as Mitchell and George’s self-flagellation. Nonetheless, Lenora Critchlow was as good as ever, and those hints about her power and destiny were still coming. As usual, she was a mixture of understated scattiness and real humanity. She was distraught at her failure to keep Eve out of the hands of the vampires, but had also come up with an amusing term for her teleportation power – doing a Rentaghost.
“That’s just stupid,” commented genuinely nasty vampire cop Fergus when he suddenly, startlingly revealed that he could see her. Yes, it is, and that’s sort of the point; of all the characters, Annie is the one who’s managed to retain the most of her human ordinariness, in spite of everything. She’s also, now, the show’s only constant, its only link to what it was. I don’t envy Lenora Critchlow the task of being longtime fans’ only anchor to the show they’d come to love.
Overall then, a pretty packed episode that nonetheless did little to establish the show’s new status quo. That’s maybe as it should be; a new status quo perhaps shouldn’t be set up too quickly for a show as established as this. It felt transitional rather than satisfying in itself, and set up a wealth of new storylines. We already knew we liked Tom (and it’s nice to see Michael Socha get a regular cult TV role to compete with his lookalike sister Lauren from Misfits). Hal looks to be interesting, and I’m glad we’ve got a new take on the vampires’ plans for world domination.
But as the episode ended with future Eve arranging her own death, then stepping through her door with the announcement that she was heading off to the past to “kill that baby” and prevent the nightmare from happening, we added time paradoxes to an already complicated mythology. With our glimpse at Hal, Leo and Pearl’s household, I found myself longing somewhat for the days when Being Human was a simpler series, without the Buffy-style mythos. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed this and will continue to watch, but I’ve yet to be convinced that the show hasn’t drifted too far from the concept I originally came to love.