It's time for a shameful confession I've never really gotten around to checking out the big works of Neil Gaiman. I vaguely recall reading a few "Sandman" comics, but it wasn't until "Stardust" that I actually invested time into something stemming from the man's creative output and from there, my only other foray was the fantastic "Marvel 1602." Strangely though, I've listened to numerous interviews via podcast and what have you featuring Gaiman. Then "Neverwhere" arrives, a miniseries co-created by Gaiman and British comedian Lenny Henry, which was also adapted into a novel by Gaiman and has gone to spawn a comic and stage play. Three hours after putting the disc on, I came away with two distinct realizations: I'm an idiot for having not having found more of Gaiman's work and solid writing trumps shoddy production values any day of the week.
"Neverwhere" is a unique series that manages to capture Gaiman's sharp literary skills and bring them to life in an ultra low-budget miniseries that vintage "Dr. Who" fans will find quaint on a production level. While it starts on shaky ground with the initial 30-minute installment feeling a tad aimless and the series hero, Richard Mayhew (Gary Bakewell) caught like a deer in the headlights, once one is able to wrap their head around what Gaiman and Henry intend "Neverwhere" to be, the magic begins. The story is on the most base level a reluctant hero's arc, as Richard through fate stumbles across Door (Laura Fraser) a resident of London Below. While Richard's fiancée Jessica would rather leave this helpless (or so she seems) girl to bleed out in the streets (a notable plot point is how the residents of London Below go unseen in plain sight or instantly forgotten) by those of London Above, Richard puts his career and impending marriage at stake, taking Door back to his apartment to help her hide from unseen forces. By the close of the episode, Door is gone and Richard after having been menaced by the series' villains, Mr. Croup (Hywel Bennett) and Mr. Vandemar (Clive Russell), finds himself forgotten to those he once knew or in other terms, he's now part of London Below.
The five episodes that follow are wholly entertaining, filling in Richard and viewers alike the London Below lore, piece by piece. Bakewell settles nicely into his role and the early stiffness vanishes, due in no small part to the fantastic supporting cast that acts as friend and foe to Richard. Paterson Joseph as the mischievous and mysterious Marquis de Carabas stands out, coming close to stealing every scene he's in, acting as a guide to Richard and Door, as well as a foil to the forces of evil. The character is masterfully written and solidly acted, which manages to draw focus away from "Neverwhere's" biggest blight, its poor production value. Gaiman has gone on record (including the DVD's bonus features) to call the BBC on the carpet for giving a fantasy series the budget of a sitcom and it shows throughout. While this afforded the production designers the chance to use all real, existing sets in London's industrial districts as well as abandoned subway tunnels, it also left them little in terms of giving London Below any visual flourishes. The series also looks very cheap, having been shot on video and then not given any post-production treatment as originally promised. As I stated above, classic Dr. Who fans will like the charm, but those unfamiliar with the "style" may be apprehensive as to whether the series is as smart and fanciful as it actually is.
It truly boggles the mind how much ground "Neverwhere" covers in only three-hours. The characters, good and bad undergo dramatic arcs and Gaiman always has a trick up his sleeve to play on viewers who think they have it all figured out. On a more serious level, the series is a nice allegory for the plight of the homeless and the themes of family and loss make the denizens of London Below compelling, sympathetic characters. There is a sense of nobility throughout that even extends to some of the villains, who at times exhibit restraint not often given to such evil and twisted characters. Whether one is a fan of pure fantasy, the works of Gaiman, or a fish out of water hero, "Neverwhere" proves to be a rousing success in all categories. I suspect "Neverwhere" has a strong cult audience, or else it wouldn't be getting a 15th anniversary edition re-release. While it ends on a relatively low-key and open-ended note, the main arc of Richard Mayhew is fully realized and proves worthy of repeat viewings. To make a long story short, you can't go wrong with Neil Gaiman.
The 1.33:1 original aspect ratio transfer is still rough looking, despite claims of a remaster. The video origins are very obvious, from the less than lifelike color scheme and average at best detail. The contrast is boosted higher than it should be and to be honest, "Neverwhere" looks closer to 25 years old than 15.
The Dolby Digital English stereo audio track also shows a limited budget in effect, with some softer than desired dialogue (Brian Eno's score also gets lost at times), but generally clear sound reproduction all around. English SDH subtitles are included.
Fans of "Neverwhere" and Neil Gaiman will want to snag this disc for the bonus features alone. Coming over from the original DVD release is a feature-length solo commentary from Gaiman where he points out the shortcomings of the series' budget and frustrations during production. A 20-minute interview with Gaiman is also included, however it's edited in a "hip" 90s fashion that was utilized in the intros for each episode. It works in small doses, not for extended periods of time. Rounding out the older extras are a photo gallery and set of character descriptions.
New to the set is an introduction to the release with Gaiman, Lenny Henry, and producer Clive Brill that touches on the genesis of the project. The trio returns for a new audio commentary that is just as interesting as the original. Lastly, a map of London Below is included in the case, but it's more stylish than "practical."
"Neverwhere" may be technically lacking, but it makes up for its shortcomings in spades through a solid, compelling script from Neil Gaiman and fantastic performances from a cast that doesn't sport a lot of name recognition. "Neverwhere" is probably an once-in-a-lifetime TV production and an idea that would only be restrained by time in the feature film department. This 15th anniversary release is nicely supplemented by fantastic new and old bonus features, making it a must own title. Highly Recommended.