UK TV

The Eleventh Hour: no original thought allowed

11th hour wallpaper

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.

Third-episode verdict: Life on Mars

Life on Mars, starring John Simm and Philip Glennister

Although I review US pilots as they come out (cf ‘Screening Screeners‘, ‘More Screeners‘ and ‘US shows: what to watch and what to ignore completely‘ to see which ones now ring true), I usually reserve my final verdict on new shows until the second or third episode’s aired.

Which explains why I’m only now talking about Life on Mars, the new nostalgia cop show starring John Simm and Philip Glenister. The basic plot: a cop from 2006 gets knocked down in a car accident and wakes to find himself in 1973. Is he in a coma, mad, dead or has he genuinely travelled back in time? We don’t know and neither does he, but until he finds a way back, he has to make the best of it. The trouble is, the police in 1973 appear to think they’re in either an episode of The Sweeney or the West Midlands Serious Crime Squad.

It’s actually pretty enjoyable, despite the fact the show’s from Kudos, who do the glossy but banal Spooks and Hustle. As with all shows where the heroes visit the past, you can get a kick out of the natives’ ‘ignorance’. Most of the show revolves around the gulf between Simm’s expectations of how policing should be done and what his 1970s’ counterparts actually do. Fingerprints take two weeks to be processed, interviews take place in the canteen and aren’t recorded, witness protection is for mafia grasses and Glenister keeps a pile of “bling” and acid in his filing cabinet for when he needs to plant evidence.

The biggest shock is the illiberal attitudes on display (AA Gill said it was as though the main character had woken up in a Richard Littlejohn column). The 70s isn’t that long ago. Most of us can remember the 70s: we’ve lived through it and we have a certain rosy view of the era of our early childhood. But watching Life on Mars, you realise the 70s might as well be one hundred years ago. Watching the treatment a deaf character gets in the second episode brings home to you just what isn’t acceptable these days: anyone ruing political correctness clearly doesn’t remember what things used to be like in the ‘good old days’. Similarly, you realise just how reconstructed today’s police are in comparison with the police of 1973, amazing though that may seem to some.

Of course, Life on Mars isn’t 100% realistic – nor is intended to be. There are hints throughout the show that Simm is still in his hospital after his accident, with mysterious voices talking about his condition and the sun always shining outside, no matter what time of day it is. Any historical slips such as policewomen being called WPC instead of PWs can then be put down to his faulty recall of the era, as can the occasional overly comedic moment such as a mass chase in swimming trunks, which even Simm’s character realises is implausible. Like Lost, though, until the ending is revealed, we won’t know how much slack to cut it on such matters.

Simm and Glenister, last seen together in the outstanding State of Play, get to ham it up a little and seem to have a great time doing it (Glenister more than Simm, who has to be constantly pained by his new colleague’s predilection for punching anyone who annoys him). There’s a rip-roaring 70s soundtrack, including, naturally enough, Bowie’s ‘Life on Mars’. It’s great fun to watch and while it’s not going to strain the brain too much, there are enough subtleties and unexpected twists to keep your interest piqued.