July 17, 2007 Jill

Perhaps I have sufficiently conveyed to you my admiration of Jekyll. Now down to business:

The pilot episode, written by Steven Moffat, is laid out in a teaser and four acts and as Anonymous pointed out, it’s the pilot for a short-lived miniseries and not for an ongoing series. For that reason it’s quite different than many of the other pilots I’ve posted about.

No, it doesn’t apply to what most Canadian writers are doing to respond to the demand (?) from our broadcasters. Our marketplace wants stand alone episodes of unarced series. Miniseries are out of fashion here.

But maybe this is what we should be doing. Maybe an intense six part series is exactly what we should be doing. It seems to me that our audience could commit to a whole six hours of programming. And it’s certainly the kind of event television that would fulfill cultural mandates (if those still exist under the current government); drawing the audience into a shared experience. But never mind all that.

Even though this pilot sets up a miniseries, there are very specific lessons to take away from it and to add to my writing toolbox.

I’m going to focus on these things:
the structure, which shines a light on a new part of this world in every act,
the way the show slowly pulls us from a position of skeptical detachment into one of full emotional connection to the lead character
and, (in my next post) the way the tension builds through the episode.

I’m not going to break the whole thing down, beat by beat, but instead I’ll talk more about the shape of the acts,.

The episode has a short Teaser, which I described in a previous post, followed by four acts.

What the Acts Do
Each of these five acts unveils new aspects of the world of Jekyll.

In the Teaser, we learn the rules by which Tom Jackman co-exists with the as-yet-unnamed entity who shares his body.

Act One reveals Jackman’s life and the huge sacrifice he’s made because of Hyde. We get a hint that the rules between them are breaking down.

Act Two shows us Jackman investigating what he calls his unprecedented condition. Half way through the act, Hyde finally makes his first startling appearance. And now we begin to learn about Hyde’s life and his attitude toward Jackman.

By Act Three, we learn Jackman’s back story and are introduced to a theory about Hyde’s existence.

In Act Four, we learn how big the stakes really are for Jackman and it becomes clear that Hyde is going to fight him for total control of his body and his life.

The act by act turns are quite spectacular when you’re watching. Not only does more and more of the world get revealed, but the show begins to reveal itself. The special effects change, increase, intensify. And you are dragged further and further from reality as the fantastic elements of the series are slowly revealed.

And your emotional relationship to the show and characters changes as well.

First Shot, First Line
The show opens on a ticking clock.

The first line comes from Jackman, referring to Hyde:

He’s due at midnight. He’s usually punctual.

Act Lengths and The Curtains
Tease: 4 minutes
Act One: 6 minutes
Act Two: 20 minutes
Act Three: 12 minutes
Act Four: 91/2 minutes

The Teaser ends on an image of Hyde’s eyes popping open. It’s an intriguing moment, rather than one of jeopardy.

Act One ends with a dip to black as Jackman’s car pulls away and we are quite certain that Hyde is in the driver’s seat (although we don’t see him yet). Again, the curtain is more of mystery than it is of danger.

The long, long and very exciting second act ends with a startling display of Hyde’s powers which prove that he is not anywhere close to a normal human being. Now we’re weirded out and we can’t look away, but it isn’t a cliff-hanger; nothing is hanging in the balance, except what is at stake for the entire series: Jackman’s life (and maybe reality as we know it).

Act Three ends with an enormous cliffhanger. Characters we’ve come to know may or may not be dead or injured and innocent lives may be in danger. The stakes have gotten huge.

The episode ends with Jackman declaring war on Hyde. The stakes are huge, but the events in this episode are clearly complete. We have been reminded of the continuing story threads earlier in the act, but as the curtain falls what we have before us on the screen are Jackman’s intense emotions, his determination to protect what is dear to him from the other man inside his body. It is not a hard cliffhanger like the one at the end of the Burn Notice pilot or any episode of Heroes. Instead it’s an ending that closes off a story but drives you toward the next beginning.

The Viewer’s Emotional Thru-Line
The teaser introduces us to Dr Tom Jackman and Katherine Reimer, the psychiatric nurse he’s hired as his minder. Watching the tease, we share Reimer’s detached p.o.v. and feel maybe even more than a little skeptical about the drama Jackman’s laying on. Even as the act ends, with the startling moment when Hyde’s bloodshot eyes pop open, we don’t feel any sense of danger, just clinical interest. We definitely want to see what’s coming next, but our emotions haven’t been sucked into it yet.

In Act One, we meet Jackman’s family, see that his wife and kids love him and the agony he feels at his forced separation from them. His emotion brings in ours. By the end of the act, when he seems in physical pain as he tries to prevent Hyde from making an unscheduled appearance in front of his wife, we are sympathetic toward Jackman, even if we aren’t quite sure whether his fear is warranted.

Act Two continues to build Jackman’s reality and our empathy for him. Then comes the sequence when he visits the private detective and suddenly we are in Jackman’s shoes with him. It’s all as new and bewildering to him as it is to us. It’s taken the tease plus one and half acts to get us to the point where we’re seeing the world through Jackman’s eyes; what a perfect time to put him in physical danger.

Boom. Hyde bursts out.

First fag of the day always hits the spot.

And Moffat toys with our emotions here. Because we hate this punk with the knife who’s been bullying Jackman and want to see him put in his place. So yay for the appearance of the cavalry in the form of Hyde. And he’s funny. And larger than life. And maybe, kind of appealing. But out of control. Too violent. Scary.

And what do those special effects signify? We’re not quite ready to accept the implications.

And by the end of the act, the jury’s still out on Hyde. He’s a complicated character and we’re not sure how to feel. But one thing’s certain; reality has slipped away and we’re in a world of unprecedented possibilities.

We’re already exhausted by the time the curtain goes up on Act Three and so is Jackman. Now that Moffat has revealed to us how distant from our reality he’s prepared to take us, he’s ready to give us some back story. We fully appreciate why Jackman has that deer in the headlights look about him and know that his level of anxiety is justified. In fact, we begin to suspect that maybe he’s not quite fearful enough. And that’s when we get hit with the first truly scary act break.

Act Four is a web of filmic tension, the sweet agony of horror. Along with Jackman, we know that worst may have happened. We want to look, we don’t want to look. The identification with Jackman is complete. And when he freaks out we know he’s justified. And when he finally declares war on Hyde, we applaud him.

The Third Act Statement of Theme
Isaac Ho, over at the Script Enabler, tells us to look for a statement of theme in the third act and here it is about the 41 minute mark:

How often in this world does the sun rise on something completely
new? And how often do we mistake a miracle for a monster?

That’s enough for today. Next time, the patterns of escalating tension through this pilot.

Comments (8)

  1. Bill Cunningham

    I think it’s crucial to point out that the first act is told mainly from Katherine’s pov. She is us, as we peel away the onion that is Jackman and Hyde. When Jackman speaks it’s as much to us as it is her, and we are instantly pulled in…

    It’s hard to ignore someone who’s speaking to you.

    And he’s very clinical about it too, which speaks to his profession, his character and to the fact that Moffat is very matter-of factly grounding us in this world. For any student of scifi and horror it’s a great case study on how to make your world “real.”

    I agree with your take on the mini-series idea. We all used to have great mini-series (and by great I mean water-cooler discussion-worthy)like ROOTS, WINDS OF WAR, THE BASTARD, NORTH AND SOUTH….

    And mini-series are great packages for DVD.

  2. DMc

    Okay, Jill…I can’t really read this post til I see Jekyl, but I want to hear what you think of Mad Men. Stat!

  3. Jill Golick

    You’re so right about the pov and everything else.

    I have Mad Men but it has to wait to I finish reading Deathly Hallows (only 200 pages to go…)

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