This year marks the eighty-fifth anniversary of the publication of H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu” in Weird Tales, in the February 1928 issue. (Lovecraft wrote the story two years earlier.) Although the anniversary was a few weeks ago, I bring it up because the New York Public Library posted a web page celebrating the publication yesterday, and they included my Cult of Alien Gods as recommended reading. Lovecraft’s story, of course, accidentally gave new life to Victorian pseudoscience when Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier, under its influence, wrote The Morning of the Magicians and sparked the ancient astronaut theory, which in turn bequeathed to us the Maya apocalypse, Ancient Aliens, and America Unearthed.
But in the spirit of celebration, I’d like to take a day off from thinking about all that. Lovecraft wrote “Cthulhu” as part of a project to modernize the Gothic, to bring horror fiction into the twentieth century and to marry it to the great scientific discoveries of the age. From the Gothic, Lovecraft retained the Romantic notion that the past dictates the future, and that secrets long buried will not stay hidden forever. This Gothic inheritance continues in more recent attempts to modernize the traditional trappings of horror.
All of this is a somewhat ramshackle preface to marking the end of the BBC television series Being Human, which aired its final episode Sunday night. (It should not, of course, be confused with its plodding American doppelganger on Syfy.) I will try not to spoil anything serious for those who haven’t seen the final series, which has not yet aired in the United States. (Yes, I miraculously viewed the program from afar via telescope, along the alignment connecting Mystery Hill to Stonehenge.)
Over five series, the program followed the adventures of a vampire, a werewolf, and a ghost trying to make a normal life in the face of supernatural obstacles. I enjoyed the show immensely, despite its major cast changes, which saw all the original leads exit the program. I’m sure I am in minority, but in the end I rather preferred the less traditional characterizations of the replacement wolf Tom (Michael Socha) and replacement vampire Hal (Damien Molony) to their more conventionally Gothic predecessors, George and Mitchell (Russell Tovey and Aiden Turner, respectively), the rather familiar bumbling Everyman (every wolf?) and tortured Bryronic anti-hero. On the other hand, the replacement ghost Alex (Kate Bracken) never really filled the gap left by Annie (Leonora Crichlow).
The series finale was everything one could reasonably have expected from a show that series creator Toby Whithouse had intentionally larded with a postmodern, pop culture mash-up of horror tropes. The program was always the stepchild of Buffy, Angel, and their ilk, but in its final hour, it paid homage to its predecessors and contemporaries more fully than (I would hope) they had even really intended. From a Buffy-style musical opening (easily the highlight of both series five and of Molony’s performance as Hal—hard to believe it was his first TV role!), to Hal’s compressed replay of Angel/Angelus’ struggle for a soul, to paeans to the power of friendship, the spirit of Joss Whedon floated over the proceedings. The final confrontation with series five’s Big Bad resembled elements of the ends of Buffy’s seasons three and five, as well as the self-sacrificing series finale of Angel, spiced with the alternative reality dream worlds of Buffy’s season four finale (an innumerable other science fiction and horror series). Surely more than a few viewers recognized the villain’s commandeering of a TV news channel, complete with world map backdrop and speechifying about the weaknesses of humanity, as a replay of the much superior scene of the vampire king Russell Edgington doing the same on True Blood back in season three.
But if Being Human borrowed, it borrowed from the best. What I appreciated was the show’s acknowledgement that the past impacts the present, and that old ideologies and ideas sit uneasily beside the needs of the modern world—a theme found also in Buffy, Angel, True Blood, The Vampire Diaries, and pretty much any modern show with vampires. It traces its origin back to the very first Gothic novel, the Castle of Otranto, where a forgotten ghost rose up to set right historical injustices. I think this stems in large measure from the modern love-hate relationship to the past, one that manifests in a love for period dramas but also the desire to rewrite history to serve as an analog for the modern world—as it is, and how we wish it would be.
On the other hand, the show locked itself into the template of housing a vampire, werewolf, and ghost together, and the rigidity of that format led to a hardening of the concept into a supernatural “trinity.” While the original cast were given a number of significant external relationships, by series five, the new “trinity” increasingly turned inward, leading to a finale that uncomfortably suggested that the series was advocating a ménage à trois. But if so, it was in keeping with the modernization of the Gothic, for at its heart Being Human reversed the traditional Gothic equation of the monster with the Other and asked us to see the monster within as an expression of what is essentially human.
Naturally, BBC Three is replacing Being Human with a zombie show, In the Flesh. And somehow SyFy’s Being Human lurches on, so much smaller in scope, in imagination, and in heart than its namesake. I'd rather have had more of the original flavor, which, while never perfect, had the courage of its convictions and ambition to be more than the sum of its parts.
3/14/2013 05:21:15 am
I watched the SyFy version a couple of times but wasn't compelled to become a regular viewer. In hindsight I should have sought out the original BBC version, but now it's too late...
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I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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