beware of doors

vandemar and croup,  neverwhereI have never been the biggest fan of Neil Gaiman, although I will happily admit that I rather enjoyed the movie adaptation of his novel Stardust (although I thought Robert DeNiro’s turn as Captain Shakespeare was somewhat overdone).   Anyways, I couldn’t get into The Sandman and while I’ve paged through some of his other graphic novels in the local Borders nothing has really leaped out and grabbed me.  Lately, he’s been writing mostly “regular” novels (meaning they have no pictures); this started back in the early ’90s when he co-wrote something with Terry Pratchett.   He hasn’t done a terrible lot of film work to date (which surprises me), the odd screenplay here and there,  an adaptation or two, none of which have piqued my interest (other than the previously mentioned Stardust.   Given my apparent lack of interest in his oeuvre in general I was somewhat surprised when Netflix recommended Neverwhere.  They seemed to think I would really like it so I threw it on the queue and a few weeks ago sat down and watched it over the course of a few nights.  It’s available as a Watch Instantly selection, so that made it mostly painless.

Neverwhere is a relatively short six episode TV show that aired on the BBC in 1996  and concerns the adventures of one Richard Mayhew in the alternate world of “London Below”.  Richard is a fairly pleasant but bland young man; he has a decent if uncompelling job and a go-getter fiancee who apparently spends much of her time modeling him into a better sort of man.  One night, on the way to dinner with the future Mrs. Mayhew’s boss, an injured young woman named Door falls  into his path literally out of nowhere.   Against his fiancee’s wishes Richard helps her, takes her back to his apartment to recover, and she tells him a fantastical story of an alternate London that exists in parallel to and below the regular London.   She tells him that assassins murdered her entire family and are now after her and in a desperate attempt to escape she created a “door” from her London into his.  In the morning Richard goes off to find a friend on her behalf but as soon as  he returns with the flamboyant Marquis de Carabas, both of them disappear and that is apparently the end of a modest little adventure.

It is not too long before Richard discovers an unfortunate effect of helping Door; those who come into contact with “London Below” cease to exist in “London Above”.   His ATM card stops working.  When he goes to the office, no one sees him and his desk is empty.  When he returns home he finds his landlord showing his empty flat to prospective tenants.  His fiancee acts as if he does not and indeed never did exist.   In order to get his life back Richard sets off in search of Door and once he finds her he joins her on her quest to keep ahead of the assassins and discover who ordered her family killed and why.

Unfortunately, for an imaginative work Neverwhere isn’t very…imaginative.  The notion of shadowy underground cities paralleling “real” cities is not new and Gaiman doesn’t do anything terribly new with the idea.  London Below is semi-magical; its denizens move about in the above-ground world by using illusion and their world overlays ours in a sort of imperfect image.  There are some barely clever creativities with London place names (Knightsbridge becomes the terrifyingly dangerous Night’s Bridge, for instance) that probably made more sense to British viewers than they did to me. London Below is  a pastiche of grunge, shabby chic, medieval weaponry, steampunk, simple magic, odd religious iconography, basically nothing you haven’t seen before.  On top of all that it is hampered by really cheap special effects and poor production quality.   While researching this article I read that it was filmed on video with the intention of later “filmising” the footage, a plan that was abandoned for budgetary reasons.  It shows.  With a couple of exceptions the actors are undistinguished and the plot itself is pretty thin.

There are a few interesting things about it.  Door is called that because that is what she is.  She and her family are “openers”; they can open all sorts of things, including doors between places, between realities.  This ability is why she is being hunted.  She is a singularly self-interested  young woman.  Her slaughtered family were nobility and her use and subsequent abandonment of Richard to his invisible fate after he saved her life is breathtakingly nonchalant.  Through much of the show she merely tolerates him and basically ignores his often-repeated desire to just have his old life back.   Richard himself is a likable but directionless young man.  He goes wherever his fiancee tells him and once he manages to track Door down in London Below he follows her with the same passivity.  It is not to hard to imagine him disappearing from existence without a trace; he was barely there to begin with.   Most of his time in London Below is spent gaping at the weirdness around him and trying not to get killed.  As he protects Door he develops both self confidence and a personality and eventually he is integral to the progress of her search for what happened to her family.

Easily the best things about the show are Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar, the assassins who trail Door and Richard through London Below.  As shabby and low rent as everything else in the world around them, they still bring a level of professionalism, commitment, and joie de vivre to the mundane task of killing.   They simply love their work.   They may or may not be human and there are some hints that they are some sort of malign lifeform, werewolves perhaps.  They have uncanny tracking abilities and take a great deal of pride in always completing their contracts.   One of them talks a lot and the other is nearly monosyllabic and while always focused on the task at hand they are also willing to take time out to enjoy little opportunities for gratuitous evil.   Gaiman obviously had a lot of fun with the them.  One of my favorite scenes from the show occurs when the two of them are talking in their office, which has vaguely science-y lab type gear scattered about.  Mr. Croup is going on at length about something while Mr. Vandemar practices his golf swing.  There is the occasional croaking of frogs, not an uncommon sound to hear in a science lab (or in a sewer for that matter).  It takes a couple of minutes and a few interrupted croaks and wet splats before you realize that Mr. Vandemar is practicing his golf swing with live frogs.

Overall, it is merely an OK show.  It’s only six episodes and if you like Neil Gaiman  and cheaply made TV shows you will probably enjoy it.  I liked it enough to keep watching it, although the ending  is a bit predictable.   Apparently a movie of the book (which differs a bit from the series apparently) is in production; this is actually possibly a good thing.  The story itself is thin enough that the right director with a real budget and some good actors could make a fairly decent movie that doesn’t do too much damage to fan expectations.  London Below could be quite an interesting place to spend a couple of hours.

Score:  Meh.

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~ by gun street girl on March 22, 2010.

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