Fiona McCade: Have TV remakes passed their peak?

Elementary lessons on improving on the originals are lost on most shows
Elementary lessons on improving on the originals are lost on most shows
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Revisiting the past is an easy way of making headlines and tugging on the heartstrings, but it’s no guarantee of quality entertainment, writes Fiona McCade

Sometimes I feel like a mother sheep. You know, when a sheep’s lamb has died, and another lamb has lost its mother, the farmer will cover the living lamb with the skin of the dead lamb and take it to the mother sheep in the hope that she’ll think it’s hers? Well, that’s how I feel sometimes, when people remake old television shows.

Come on, bear with me, here. I feel like there’s always some TV executive saying to me: “This is your show, remember? Look, you love it!” and I’m invariably baa-ing – I mean, replying: “No, it’s not. You may have given it the same title as the show I loved, but apart from that, it’s absolutely nothing like it. Please, stop embarrassing us all and take it away.”

That’s happened so many times now, I’ve lost count. The Bionic Woman; Knight Rider; they even tried to remake The Prisoner, but luckily, very few people remember. Now yet another, the latest incarnation of Dallas, has been cancelled. The whole TV remake business is a minefield and those who step into it had better be very confident indeed.

David Lynch is one such person. This week, two days after Dallas was officially reported to have perished, Lynch announced that he’s going to bring back Twin Peaks.

I’m not so jaded that I don’t get a teeny-tiny lurch of hope every time something like this happens. I loved Twin Peaks, even if I didn’t understand it, and at least this new version will be made by the same people who created the original, so it could be good, couldn’t it?

Mind you, I thought the same when Upstairs Downstairs reappeared – then disappeared again – because Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins who wrote the 1970s version were involved.

Unfortunately, they soon gave up and Downton Abbey was left alone and supreme to rule the Sunday night schedules. So, another new-old show bit the dust.

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It’s a pity that UpDown and Downton appeared at the same time, because there really could only be one winner, but I’m glad that Downton was the one to prevail, because it stood on its own merits and didn’t rely on a pedigree that, as it turned out, was past its best.

I’ve often wondered why the media moguls keep insisting upon giving us sequels, remakes and spin-offs of old shows when there must be so many great new stories to be told.

I think it’s because competition to get on screen is so intense, trading on viewers’ enduring love of long-lost, but much-beloved, shows is an easy route to getting more attention – which naturally leads to a higher profile and more investment.

But this is a cynical play on our heart-strings, hooking something new onto the legacy of something we once loved. What’s more, it rarely works, because it’s unusual for any new show to have the substance of its predecessor.

For instance, I’m currently seething at the mere thought of Guy Ritchie’s upcoming film version of The Man From UNCLE.

Less discerning females may be seduced by the thought of Henry Cavill out of his Superman suit and into a Brooks Brothers single-breasted as he tries to be Napoleon Solo, but I’m made of tougher stuff. I may only have discovered UNCLE about 20 years after it was cancelled, but it’s one of my favourite shows of all time and – here’s the rub – for me, its appeal depends on two unrivalled and utterly unique things: David McCallum and Robert Vaughn.

The new UNCLE can be a spy drama; it can have comedy, it can have cool, Sixties stuff; it can have two characters called Napoleon Solo and Ilya Kuryakin – but it won’t have the men who mean so much to so many of us, so why bother? Why not just make a fun, slick spy film, have Cavill and Armie Hammer take their shirts off, kill a few people and then we can all relax; happy and undisturbed by the shades of greater things past?

Besides, UNCLE came out when the Cold War was at its height and the shock was in seeing the American and the Russian working together, like it was perfectly normal. Now it is perfectly normal (or supposed to be), so what’s the point?

I know, I haven’t seen the new UNCLE film – nobody has – but I feel I’m a little bit justified in rolling my eyes in anticipation. The success rate of bringing great television shows back to life is abysmal, but yes, of course there are notable exceptions.

Star Trek is a formula that seemingly never fails. The updated Battlestar Galactica was a big hit. Sherlock has brought a very old franchise to a new and delighted audience. Doctor Who has survived its ups and downs to achieve a popularity unprecedented in its 50-year history, but in each of these successes lie some common factors that David Lynch would do well to remember.

All the successful revamps have been “re-imaginings” of the original idea. They are all stories that have grown organically out of the original concept, with top-quality writing to help them along. It helps when a show is set in a futuristic or fantastic world, because that gives even more scope for new ideas, but in intelligent hands, even Sherlock Holmes has been brilliantly re-imagined for the 21st century.

Another aspect they share is a reverence for – and, where possible, featuring of – original cast members. OK, this didn’t save Dallas, but it’s something David Lynch should bear in mind.

It’s already too late for Guy Ritchie.

I want the new Twin Peaks to succeed, really I do, but I’ve seen too many of my favourite programmes turned into televisual train-wrecks to hold out much hope. My fingers are crossed that David Lynch will remember and respect what we loved about the show in the first place and, most importantly, never treat his audience like brainless sheep.