Neverwhere is a television series Neal Gaiman wrote for the BBC that originally aired in 1996 and is now available on Netflix. Like most geeks I’ve had affection for Gaiman’s writing since he was working on Sandman. But to be perfectly honest, his writing has never really grabbed me the way it does some people. Watching Neverwhere I was reminded of why.
Let me start by saying that I enjoyed the program. Considering how much really dreadful SF and Fantasy gets produced and put on TV, it was nice to see something that was interesting and didn’t insult the viewers’ intelligence. True, it has that “BBC look” that has come a long way in the last few years but was still pretty dreadful in the mid-1990s. You know what I mean- the sets look like they were built by a repertory troupe in an abandoned warehouse somewhere and everything is lit blue on one side and green or red on the other like the only lighting equipment they had was left over from some discotheque of the 1970s. Occasionally there will be a matte painting and when there is you almost can’t see the line where it begins. Still, the production values are much better than the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy series’, or the earlier Dr. Who programs’ where often things looked so bad it would interfere with your enjoyment of the story.
The acting is also an obvious intermediate step between what passes on BBC genre television today and what they were doing in the 70s and 80s. It isn’t quite as natural and what they are doing on Dr. Who nowadays, but it’s far better than the line readings from a decade earlier. I won’t say that anybody here is exceptional but Patterson Joseph, who plays the Marquis de Carabas, does stand out.
But now, back to the heart of all this. What is it about Neil Gaiman’s writing that keeps me from considering him as great as my all time favorites? Tell me if you’ve heard this one: an ordinary fellow makes an unusual decision on the spur of the moment and as a result meets someone who takes him on and amazing adventure into a world he was completely unaware of, filled with strange, dangerous characters that are vaguely familiar yet oddly different from the way one would normally think of them.
I’ve just told you the plot to everything Neil Gaiman has ever written.
Oh, he does it well. In Death: The High Cost of Living it was easy to get caught up in Death’s personality and how different and appealing it was compared to any other personification of Death. In American Gods it was fun traveling all over the country visiting with the aged visages of familiar deities, some who had gone sour and weird in their dotage. In Sandman it was intriguing to see Morphius travel from heaven to hell in the DC Universe visiting with familiar characters of the macabre who were all as fun-house (of Mystery) distorted as he himself was from the guy in the 1940s with the gas-mask and squirt gun we remembered The Sandman as being.
But I digress.
In Neverwhere we watch a clerk in some soulless London company help a homeless girl lying on the street, drawing the ire of his yuppie shrew girlfriend who stomps off and leaves the pair to draw a door on a brick wall (Betelgeuse! Betelgeuse! Betelgeuse!) and step into a journey through the London Underground (Subway for us Yanks) that will wind up determining the fate of an angel. (Ghad! I ought to write blurbs for book jackets!) Along the way we will meet a pair of eternal assassins, the owner of the cat named Puss-in-Boots, a cadre of female vampires, the traveling miracle fairs of the underground, and lots of other stuff that is imaginative and strange but really doesn’t have anything to say about anything other than “Look at us! We’re imaginative and strange!!”
In fact, the closest thing to a moral in the story is ‘how you can’t keep ‘em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree’ (or in this case the London subway system), or ‘you can’t go home again’. That is if there is a moral at all, which really there doesn’t seem to be. And the cleverest bit of allegory is that the Undergrounders can travel in the world of normal London because the mundanes “don’t pay any attention to them”, which makes them effectively invisible. It’s clever and glib, which is better than most television, but still not much.
It seems even to me that I’m being unduly harsh. After all, it’s just a friendly romp through a fantasy landscape. And at six half-hour installments, it moves quickly and has way more structure than crap like Lost and Heroes that just meander around everywhere in hope of doing something interesting eventually and take an investment of a significant piece of your life for you to get anything from them. In fact, I think this format- shorter (3-6 hour) self-contained stories as miniseries- is a much better way to tell genre stories on television. And if you have Netflix then it’s free through their streaming service. So if this were a review I’d recommend it. And if this were a critique I’d be wondering if Neil Gaiman has anything else up his sleeve.