'Jekyll' Goes to the Dark Side

A classic tale about the duality of the human soul gets a 21st-century, high-tech twist as BBC America premieres "Jekyll" Saturday, Aug. 4.

The six-episode series, which launches with a two-hour installment, is a modern take on Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson's 1886 novella, in which a London lawyer investigates strange happenings between his old friend, Dr. Henry Jekyll, and the enigmatic and dangerous Mr. Hyde.

In the end, the lawyer discovers they are one and the same, the result of a lab experiment that split Jekyll's nature into two separate and opposite personalities.

After creating and penning the British relationship series "Coupling" and writing for the new version of "Doctor Who," Scottish-born Steven Moffat decided to take a fresh look at Stevenson's iconic tale, which he discovered long ago.

"Most people have seen a movie rather than read it," he says. "I have actually read it, also probably saw it on television -- I forget which version. When I was quite young, I wrote a stage play my friends could do with Jekyll and Hyde.

"I was always, like most kids, excited by the idea that you could turn into somebody else, a bit of magic. It was just that, really. It's one of those big, grand, daft stories that everyone wants a shot at."

Many versions of the story have appeared on film, television and the stage, and the phrase "Jekyll and Hyde" has worked its way into the language, representing the dark and light, yin and yang of human nature.

"Let's be honest," Moffat says. "It's kind of a mad story. It does map onto aspects of male behavior and things like that quite easily, but anything that survives that long survives because it's a fairy tale, because it's a fable, because of an inherent madness."

In bringing "Jekyll" into the modern world, Moffat (who wrote the episodes and executive-produced with Beryl Vertue) turned Jekyll into Dr. Tom Jackman (James Nesbitt), a descendant of the original Dr. Jekyll.

He has a deadly alter ego, nicknamed Mr. Hyde, who inhabits the same body but has a slightly altered appearance, greater speed and strength, and savage appetites.

The two have come to an accommodation of sorts, with Jackman using modern surveillance techniques to keep an eye on Hyde's misbehavior and keep him away from Jackman's wife (Gina Bellman, "Coupling") and children.

He's even hired a psychiatric nurse, Katherine Reimer (Michelle Ryan, "EastEnders"), to help him lead his double life. But Katherine's got her own agenda.

There's also a shadowy corporate entity that has a particular interest in Hyde, and the secret and unexpected connection between Jackman and Jekyll.

Also starring are Denis Lawson as Tom's friend, scientist Peter Syme; Meera Syal as a private detective who stumbles upon the truth about Jackman; and Paterson Joseph as Benjamin, a brash American on Hyde's trail.

Asked what his plan for "Jekyll" was, Moffat says, "It's purely putting Jekyll and Hyde in a modern-day setting. That's quite a fun idea. If you're afflicted with this problem that you could turn into this other character, in the modern day, you could do more about it. You could put yourself under surveillance, which is, in effect, what [Jackman] does. He works out a deal with him."

Moffat wasn't particularly interested in doing a period piece.

"To be honest," he says, "the Victorian setting of the original is a mere incidental fact of when Robert Louis Stevenson happened to be writing it. Whenever you do a period piece on television or in the movies, it becomes about the period. It becomes about the lovely frocks and the hansom cabs, and that's really not right.

"In one way, it's good baggage to lose. Frankly, it's just taking a big, familiar, iconic monster of a story and placing it in the modern day and seeing what it's like. That's cool and fun.

"You can complicate the idea, but that's just a fun thing to do. What would a modern Mr. Jekyll do? It also means you literally don't know how this version of the story ends, so that becomes exciting again."

It's also fun for Nesbitt, a Northern Ireland native whose work ranges from the comedy of "Cold Feet" to the serious drama of "Bloody Sunday" and "Murphy's Law."

"It's a big performance," Moffat says, "especially as it goes on. It's a big, mad performance. Hyde is a loony. It's just a rare opportunity for an actor to really go to town, to be much bigger and more lunatic than you normally would be in a part, to do all those things, do the funny voices, do the scary bits.

"Playing the other character is, in a way, the real heft of the acting. The heavy lifting of it is actually playing Dr. Jekyll -- or Dr. Jackman, in our case -- because he's got to be real and haunted, and you've got to break your heart a bit for him.

"There's a certain amount of showboating which goes on for Mr. Hyde, which is tremendous."

Fans are advised to start at the beginning of "Jekyll" and stick through the end, because, as Moffat says, "It's quite a serial, rather than a series. It's a thriller. There's got to be lots of twists and reversals; trust no one, and Mr. Hyde may not be the worst thing out there."

As for the next six episodes, if they happen, Moffat says, "I know the ideas we could do if we went to a second run. But at the same time, it's written in such a way that if the first run is it, then that's fine. It's got a proper ending."