Every so often, a show comes along that is so derivative, so unoriginal, it becomes almost impossible to decide exactly what it’s ripping off. So it is with Eleventh Hour, a four-part series starring Patrick Stewart as a “government scientific investigator”.
Although it’s silly, that’s a pretty accurate job title, in fact. Stewart is charged by ‘The Government’ with investigating science, whether that’s Evil Scientists who try to clone human beings or Angelic Children who believe in the healing power of spring water. A pretty broad brief, given that as a physicist, he’s probably as qualified as the average PE teacher to talk about most of the medical issues Eleventh Hour focuses on, but that’s The Government for you.
Nevertheless, the countryside-patrolling Stewart is so important and vital to The Government that they’ve actually given him a bodyguard, played by Ashley Jensen. This could be a mistake, given she drinks any experimental samples Stewart takes, doesn’t bother guarding him at night, takes naps during the day in her Land Rover while he’s busy confronting angry parents, and rolls about on the floor having fights with blood-soaked potential smallpox victims. But we’re not talking police procedural here, so kooky bodyguard gets to stay and protect Stewart with her unconvincing gun work, no matter how much danger she lets Stewart get into.
With global warming and nuclear weapons research among the plots, it’s tempting for anyone versed in British television history to accuse Eleventh Hour of simply being Doomwatch reheated to a lukewarm temperature for the 21st century. But unlike Doomwatch, which literally plucked its plots from the headlines to warn society where it was going wrong, Eleventh Hour takes great pains to steer away from anything controversial. Instead of well-meaning scientists and civil servants who simply don’t think through the consequences of their actions, we get Hollywood-style moustache-twirling villains and fabricated threats that have no actual relevance to viewers. Why run the risk of complaints with an avian flu story when you can write about the risks of deranged researchers trying to cross-breed smallpox with other viruses? Lot of that happening, is there? Is that really something which we have to lobby Parliament to prevent? Thought not.
Equally, any resemblance to actual science depicted in the programme is purely accidental. When Stewart the physicist starts dipping pH paper in water as his sole test for contamination, anyone with even a GCSE in Combined Science knows we’re in the realm of science fiction rather than looking at a serious study of the potential dangers inherent to modern science.
Instead, to find the true inspiration for Eleventh Hour, we need to look at the show’s creator, Stephen Gallagher. While he’s best known for his equally irrelevant 1991 serial Chimera, Gallagher started out as a script-writer for Doctor Who. A pseudo-science spouting older man, always wandering into trouble with his naïve female sidekick? Ring any bells?
Just as Doctor Who is essentially an adventure show that uses aliens and technology as the MacGuffins that create and advance the plots, it would be wrong to think of Eleventh Hour as anything other than a thriller that uses ‘science’ and ‘scientists’ as an excuse for a jolly run round. However, while a good thriller, such as State of Play or Edge of Darkness, can leave you thinking about the issues and the characters long after it has finished, Eleventh Hour is nothing like a good thriller.
Stewart and Jensen do their best to inject life into their ciphers and Gallagher has an occasionally good line in humorous but predictable dialogue. But the show has next to no grounding in reality; the plots have more holes than a colander; the direction leaps from shot to shot without giving you any real idea of what’s happening; and when the usually incoherent plot explanation finally arrives, you’ll wonder what the five other impossible things you’ll be asked to believe before breakfast are.
Rather than provide warnings about the dangers of science, Eleventh Hour provides warnings about the dangers of not having a clear, original idea for your programme before you start filming it. With ratings of 3.8 million and Stewart’s schedule full for the foreseeable future, further instalments of the show look unlikely. But with no real raison d’être other than filling an hour and a half in the mid-week schedules, it won’t be a great loss to television.