[Review] Neverwhere

As the first of my reviews on this blog, I should probably first give a small explanation as to why I think it is relevant, nice or in any other way useful that I’m doing this. I think best when I write in any way. Writing helps me clear my mind and bringing some sort of structure into my much too random and easily distracted (à la “OH LOOK, A SQUIRREL! A BUTTERFLY!”) thoughts. Especially today (or whenever I do not get enough sleep) I am confused (at best), or rather an incoherent heap of randomness (at worst). Being a student of Theatre and Media Studies and Literary Studies, and also because it’s nice to take a break from studying by being passively receptive, I watch – a lot. Anything. Films, long series of several seasons à la Doctor Who, series that have just started and only aired one season so far à la Game of Thrones, mini-series of any kind, and what I like to call my “breakfast series” such as 2 Broke Girls, Big Bang Theory or How I Met Your Mother. I watch a lot of films for school, a lot of films for my own pleasure, and I feel that it might be nice to have a place where I can put down my impressions of them, whatever that may be and however qualified (or not) or interesting they may be.

So there is a lot to write about, and enough material to certainly keep me busy for a long time. However, I do have to get used to writing such reviews first, which is why I’m not starting with a hardcore analysis of Game of Thrones as I originally planned (which shall, howeve, come sometime in the near future, ideally before the next season is aired). Instead, I’ll start with something I’ve seen just this weekend – yesterday, in fact, together with my friend Anna during one of our countless film/series nights. (More series than films, and we call it Merlin Night even though we are done watching Merlin – which will also be put into some kind of review at some point.)

(Careful, though obvious: Spoiler alert! Though I’ll try to keep it to a minimum. Also, do let me know if I entirely misunderstood some crucial information there.)

So yesterday, we watched the BBC mini-series Neverwhere that first aired in 1996, story by Neil Gaiman (whom I’ve come to really appreciate thanks to Anna), which he later also adapted into a novel. The series centres around the protagonist Richard Mayhew who runs into (or almost over, to be exact) an injured girl called Door on the street. Without actually knowing what he’s doing, he suddenly finds himself trapped into some schemes in London Below, which is essentially some magical realm beneath London. Together with Door and a few other people who join in their efforts, each for their own reasons, he tries to find out who (successfully) contracted a pair of assassins to murder Door’s family.

The series was interesting, to say the least. The setting was certainly intriguing – I like the ideas of those kinds of coexisting magical realms that can only be accessed by some, under some circumstances, and that add something of a glimmer of hope, of something different to the world. It being also set in London only delighted me more, of course. The visuals were something I had to get used to though – something seemed not quite right about them, though I cannot quite put a finger on it. But that was possibly one of the intentions behind all of it. I kept having the feeling that I was looking through something – not as much a veil that obscures, rather some sort of filter that influenced my perception. (And I swear, it wasn’t the wine! Really.) Already looking at the intro disturbed me, not least because of the unpleasant tune that accompanied it and just made me a little uncomfortable. So everything had some sort of fleeting sensation, something seemed to say “Something’s not quite right.” This set the right tone for what was to come though – so addressing only the visual terms, it was unusual and certainly made me interested (but, as bad as that might sound, also somewhat glad that it was only six episodes). The plot premise itself now was a typical “Let’s go in search for the evil guy” kind of thing driven by revenge, a sense of justice, and an attempt to understand what was going on – and also to protect Door, because whoever did this is still out there. I’m not saying the storyline is bad; no, I liked it very much, but the initial plot premise isn’t as unusual as it appears to be. What makes it appear unusual and fascinating is, on the one hand, the magical setting and, on the other hand, the intriguing characters.

Speaking of which, those were the main things that captured and kept my interest (and I would love to say attention, but as it turned out, I wasn’t particularly attentive that night): setting and characters. I wanted to find out what kind of world they were living in, where for some reason people took orders from a king rat (or however I would call the cute thing) and are surprisingly eager to take drastic measures, such as… almost killing Richard if it hadn’t been for the rat, or where there was a market that kept changing the location. But as for characters – ah, I was completely and utterly happy with this.

Seeing that it’s a fairly conventional plot premise, we have the normal character types that come with it – an unknowing character trying to figure out what the hell is going on and in the process becoming a hero; a pretty girl who starts out being a damsel in distress and transforms into quite a strong character (despite crying a lot); an arrogant not-to-be-screwed-with kind of character who at the same time proves to be a loyal friend provided it fits into his schemes; a traitor; the ultimate evil guy and his ‘minions’, and many other characters (mythological or not) that added to the magical atmosphere. All in all a nice range of characters; I’ll only comment on a few though, for the rest you’ll have to watch it yourself.

Let’s start with the protagonist. Richard Mayhew is… not the kind of character that I particularly like, although it is clear why he is a necessity to a plot, to guide the spectator into a world that he does not understand. In fact, now that I think about it, this resembles the type of fantasy that Mendlesohn (I think) identified as “portal fantasy”, in which a portal gives the protagonist the chance to access the fantasy world through the real world. In that case the reader/spectator accompanies the protagonist on his journey and tries to make sense of it together with him/her. And if I remember correctly, portal fantasies have quest storylines that are linear and directed towards a certain goal, just like here. In that way it makes perfect sense. (Once again, I have to salute Anna because I wouldn’t have known that if I hadn’t proof-read several versions of her Honour Thesis last semester – on Neil Gaiman, coincidentally (or maybe not as coincidentally). However, no matter his value inside the plot, I was easily annoyed by him because he tended to be so… whiny. That can’t be helped of course, and I’m sure there are people who respond differently to his character type, but I largely depended on other characters to make this interesting for me. I didn’t much care for the bodyguard Hunter either. She was too straightforward, to linear for me, too flat maybe. One of the good things that can be said about her, though, is that she is quite badass, even though I only realised after a few episodes that she’s female. (I should have realised something before because I kept thinking: “Why does he look like he has boobs? Why did someone call him just her?” This really was not my most attentive day, I admit.)

Speaking of which, we also have my favourite character in the series, the Marquis de Carabas. Except for his weird hair, at which I laughed several times (and still giggle, excuse me dear Sir), he is quite a fascinating character, and very obscure. He is arrogant, selfish, overly
self-confident, obscure, is most loyal
to himself and does not seem to do anything without getting a favour in return (or at least the promise of “a big favour”, which he will then reclaim when the time has come). He’s sophisticated and intelligent, and he does have his secrets. When he was introduced, I already knew he was going to be my favourite – very stylish, very badass, while still being one of the good guys. (Although I did for a short moment think that he was the traitor, which luckily he wasn’t.) I won’t go into all the details why he was so cool, because that would be too many spoiles, but he was certainly enjoyable. There was so much depth that could have been explored – I’m kind of glad that it wasn’t explored too much because he remains mysterious that way. Who is he, why is he doing whatever he’s doing? I like the way he’s fairly uncaring when Door cries about her family, and just generally his character concept is interesting. The premise possibly inspired me for some of my own writing, we shall see. But he was by far the most intriguing character.

Speaking of intriguing characters: the assassins were hilariously disturbing, and certainly created a lot of comic relief. You know that Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar are the villains even if they haven’t said much yet. Mr. Croup, definitely being the one who got the brains on the team, speaks in this pompous and quite literary fashion that makes everything he says… well, sophisticated, even if it just all boils down to “So can we kill him/her/whatever?” That makes it slightly disturbing, too, but it’s much funnier than disturbing I would say. Mr. Vandemar, then, is the muscles without much brain. While Mr. Croup seems to have at least some other interests (or at least appears to be more sophisticated due to his manner of speaking), he is only interested in killing and destroying anything, even (at the beginning) his own hand. He is certainly more animalistic and considerably less human than Mr. Croup, which also becomes clear in the way he tends to eat animals and howl like some kind of animal – a dog maybe, or a wolf. Seeing that they are so active (and both smart and brutal), they definitely drive the plot forward, especially because you never know what exactly they’re up to, given that they hurt or do not hurt the group based on the orders they receive from the ultimate villain. They’re just the perfect kind of psychopaths that thrill you, but at the same time they do have a lot of humorous moments. Their plotting and schemes really manage to confuse the viewer because you never know what they really want. And that villain… well, I’m not going to comment much on him because that would be too much of a spoiler, but let me just say that I do like his character concept, and I appreciated all the plot twists involved with him. Nice idea, indeed.

So the series was certainly interesting, and entertaining to watch. There were quite a few little things that I really loved – the way the story was somewhat summarised at the beginning not by means of “What happened last time”, but by means of the characters speaking about what happened (and even then alternating between who gives the introduction to the episode); the way each episode seemed to end on a pseudo-shocking cliffhanger (Knife to the throat! – And the end!); just the whole atmosphere, the whole setting, the characters. I wished there had been more time to explore the characters’ depth, but apparently there wasn’t. In general, it was quite predictable in some points, but that might depend on how much experience with the fantasy genre the specific spectator has. (I had an inkling about the traitor early on, changed my mind in between, was confused at some point, and then had to say “I told you so!”) Definitely another plus of the series: the sense of humour. Sometimes it was just hilarious, and the sense of humour was reflected in many things: some piece of clothing; some character expression; some tiny piece of interaction among the characters…

Final judgement? Definitely something I’d recommend for fantasy lovers, and for anyone who feels like having some three hours of entertainment in which one can get lost in the respective world. Also, because I spent way too much time on this review (instead of doing my reading, or, you know, sleeping), that will be enough for now; and if I remember anything else, I know where to find the edit button.

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