I was watching Doctor Who Confidential: The Eleventh Doctor the other day, and marvelling at just what a phenomenon the show is. It’s the longest running science fiction programme in the world (the first episode aired in 1963); having rebooted in 2005, it’s now one of the freshest, most entertaining family shows on TV; it has spawned several spin offs and it garners an obsessive following, with viewers and the media devoting as much speculation and discussion to the identity of the next doctor as they would the next heir to the throne. Which, in a way, he is.
Doctor Who seems to be in safe hands with the new, youngest ever Time Lord, Matt Smith, taking over the Tardis from 2010 (yes, I was dubious, too, but just check out the look he gives right at the end of the aforementioned Doctor Who Confidential episode – it gave me goosebumps). So who can blame ITV for trying to come up with a family friendly supernatural TV series of its own?
Demons stars Christian Cooke as Luke, a college boy who, unbeknownst to him, is the descendent of legendary vampire hunter and supposed fictional character Van Helsing. When a friend of his dead father turns up for a quick chat, Luke finds his life is about to take a very different path.
Rule one of the successful contemporary sci-fi series: get a fanciable lead. Dr Who did it. Buffy the Vampire Slayer did it. And ITV are definitely aiming for the teenage pin up angle, with poor Christian Cooke finding himself topless twice in the first ten minute of the programme for no discernible reason unless the thermostat in his house is on the blink. As Luke, Cooke’s acting chops are yet to be really tested, since he spent much of the first episode reacting to the news of supernatural beings, his legendary lineage and his numerous near death experiences with ridiculous nonchalance. Here’s hoping he gets a bit more dynamic. And with more mysteries to unfold over future episodes, perhaps we’ll also find out why Luke, who’s from London, has a broad northern accent. Spooky.
Rule two: the hero needs a mentor. That role falls to Philip Glenister, who plays Rupert Galvin, Luke’s godfather. Glenister is a great actor but is wrestling with a demon of his own in this series in the form of an unwieldy yank accent. Not good.
Rule number three: get some scary monsters. The first time we see demons is in Luke’s college where a PA who’s working late hears strange whirring noises from a deserted office. We know it’s the work of a small furry critter, because we’ve already seen it scuttling about. But what is it doing in there? Photocopying its arse? Oh no, it’s shredding. Well, stands to reason. There's lots of paperwork involved in being a monster.
Now unless you are a tax inspector, shredding is not especially frightening. But these were fairly low grade monsters. Oh yes, according to Galvin, they don’t care to name the monsters; they just grade them and then: “smite them with extreme prejudice”. Glenister has a lot of these kind of lines, perhaps to suggest he’s caught between ye olde worlde of vampire hunting and the contemporary world he actually lives in. It all sounds a bit daft though.
The olde-worlde stuff works much better when Mackenzie Crook turns up as vampiric bounty hunter Gladiolus Thrip, all Dickensian villainy and gnarled finger nails, and wearing a bonkers ivory nose shield to boot. Even if Crook’s character did seem to be an homage to Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow, I would have liked Thrip to be a recurring character. Shame he gets dusted (sorry “smited”) in the first episode.
Rule number four: have a base where the demon-hunters can congregate. In Demons it is a cavernous library underneath London called The Stacks. From the little we saw of it, it looked impressive, and let us gloss over the fact that Buffy’s Scooby Gang met in a library. And were mentored by a man called Rupert.
Rule number five: include some romantic tension. Cue Luke’s childhood friend Ruby, who fancies him, and Luke’s new ally, Mina, a blind, psychic descendant of Jonathan Harker (The protagonist in the novel Dracula) played by the brilliant Zoe Tapper (Survivors). This could have made for a tense plotline, except that Mina is rather intriguing whilst Ruby is like one of the least likeable characters off Hollyoaks, so much so that I found myself praying for her grisly death in episode one. Not, I fear, the stuff heart-rending love triangles are made of.
Despite a good stab at the essential ingredients, Demons does not live up to the sheer brilliance of Buffy or the slick likeability of Dr Who. It’s a strange mix of registers, with historic spookiness sitting uncomfortably alongside teen-soap banality and the inclusion of a Kaiser Chief’s track midway through which was laugh out loud awful. And frankly Galvin’s parting line, “Remember: they bite,” is a terrible catchphrase, not to mention a rather redundant piece of advice to offer a vampire hunter: 'What, you mean they don’t tickle? Yikes, I’d better re-read Bram Stoker.'
Demons, then, looks to be a poor man’s Buffy. In fact, I’m not even sure it’s a poor man’s Buffy. It may well be a poor man’s Primeval, if you can imagine such a monstrous beast.
But then, this was the difficult first episode, where the whole scenario has to be set up, and now we’re into the action there’s a good chance it will improve a little. Maybe. Let’s give it one more week. Especially since Episode Two features the seemingly ubiquitous Saturday evening staple of Richard Wilson in a straggly grey wig. Give it a year, that wig will have a show of its own. Possibly as the next Dr Who.
Demons, Saturday, ITV, 7.45pm