A further curious tale of Yonderland: the post-screening wrap up

The tv series Yonderland has finally come to Australia.  That is, for anyone who orders it from Amazon.co.uk.  (The dvd is regions 2, 4 & 5)   A few months back I wrote about having little excitement about the show after I researched into it when it first aired in the UK on Sky1.  I had, however, come to the conclusion that it would be fairly harmless fun.  A bit conservative in its representations of women, but generally decent family tv.

* Minor spoiler warning

The sort-of good news first

The puppets are gorgeous, and are a far better use of Jim Henson’s legacy than what Disney has done recently.

Yonderland is fairly liberal in terms of its treatment of intimate same-sex relationships.

Also, I was slightly wrong about the visibility of women, and of non-white people.  A non-speaking Elder was a woman.  One of Negatus’ demon minions is female, and he answers to a mysterious veiled black woman – who, we find out in the last episode, looks suspiciously familiar.  And there were more non-white people as extras than I would’ve imagined – although as far as I can recall, none whatsoever with any spoken lines.  I would expect a show with abysmal representation of non-white people to get 6:30 pm Sunday billing in Australia, but not in the UK.

The not-so-good news

The show isn’t very funny.  But I don’t actually need all of my tv to be funny, so I can live with that.

The bad news

Yonderland is clearly not going to stand up to multiple viewings.  I came to the show with extremely high expectations, so high it was probably impossible to meet them.  But I didn’t expect that watching it would go as far as ruining my week.  Its precursor, Horrible Histories was a whole heap of fun, but it was also a stellar series that cut deep satirical gashes with black humour in our understanding of the past.  But while the main six actors and one of the main writers of HH came to Yonderland, the quality hasn’t.

The pathetically evil Negatus, wonderfully acted by Simon Farnaby, was the stand-out exception.  The character was so delightful and the most interesting that I wanted the entire show to be about him.  But otherwise, characterisation was weak.  The major players of their former sketch show – Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, Charles II, George IV and Bob Hale – had far more character than most who appeared in Yonderland.  Part of the problem lies in the constraints beyond the creators’ control: only 8 episodes of 20 minutes each isn’t a lot of time to work with.  But clearly that’s not the entire issue.  160 minutes was enough to flesh Negatus out.  But other than him, I only enjoyed watching a few of the minor characters – notably Jim Howick’s dragged-up old crone; Mat Baynton’s humble page and also his uninhibited Bombero (?).  I would have also cared about Howick’s ‘Idiot King’, but he was supposed to be an unlikable ass.

The main critique of my previous post still stands.  Yonderland has a poor view of women.  Debbie’s life before going to Yonderland consisted of traditional female domestic labour.  She then goes through a portal in her kitchen – the very locus of female domesticity – to continue to undertake more unpaid labour in a fantasy world.  She ‘makes things right’ in both places – only at least in Yonderland she’s appreciated for it.  At least there was one instance where the social issue of female domestic labour was met head on: Elf went back to Debbie’s home to undertake her housework for her (with disastrous consequences).  Thank you, Mathew, for writing that in.

In the bonus features of the dvd, there’s a revealing short film on the making of the show.  Apparently, because Martha Howe-Douglas was the only female of the group, it was ‘obvious’ that she should be the one to travel from reality to the fantasy land – and because of that, it was equally ‘obvious’ that she would be a mother.  Because… any woman over the age of thirty should clearly have a husband and two children.  While the husband added something to the story, the children certainly didn’t matter one bit.  Debbie could have easily just been partnered, and not a mother.

I was also disappointed that Howe-Douglas, the only woman of the team, was the only one who didn’t contribute to any of the screenplay writing.  And as to the writing, the only decent episodes were the three written by Farnaby (‘Wizard Bradley’, ‘Dirty Ernie’) and Baynton (‘The Idiot King’).  In particular, the first episode (‘The Chosen Mum’) can only be described as incoherent.

And, I have to say it.  I didn’t like the over-sexualised humour of the show, especially from the main writers, Rickard and Willbond.  It wasn’t explicit, but it was inappropriate for a family show.  So much so that I wouldn’t approve of anyone under the age of 15 watching it – let alone putting it on in prime-time children’s viewing.  I truly miss stories like Jim Henson’s Labyrinth that were about courage and friendship, rather making sex at the core of everything.  But perhaps Rickard and Willbond think that all people should only be seen as simply as sexed beings.  Again, in the ‘making of’, Willbond hopes to reprise the character of the sexist Knight (from ‘The Ultimate Prize’) in a possible second series.  Instead I wished the Knight hadn’t even been there to begin with as he was so repugnant.  But I’m honestly not surprised if middle-aged men should enjoy acting a character like that.  It probably fulfils a lot of their desires for the objectification of women.

However, Farnaby’s and Baynton’s episodes were better.  Their stories had a point beyond making women viewers feel uncomfortable.  Farnaby’s two were about the strength of camaraderie and loyalty, Baynton’s told of the follies of egotism and greed.  The latter’s did have the King singing a dubious ‘serenade’ about needing a queen to have children with, but that was a moment of intelligent satire rather than meaningless (or offensive) innuendo.  Perhaps not entirely suited to a children’s show and more for the adults, who, incidentally, Baynton has proven himself more than capable of writing for in his series with James Corden, The Wrong Mans.

And finally, the whole premise of Yonderland lacks imagination.  I am seriously bored of anti-rational stories about saviours that fill our entertainment.  I am bored of heroes taking responsibility for other people who simply give their own up.  Why Debbie had to fix an entire world instead of just having adventures there, I honestly don’t know.  But Yonderland is clearly more indebted to The Chronicles of Narnia than it ever will be to Henson’s fantasies.  Maybe that comes down to the long British tradition of monarchical authority over a dangerous populace, compared with American republicanism – which at its best embodies the liberal optimistic belief that individuals can make their own choices in life.  There are far, far too many sci-fi and fantasy stories these days that involve humans travelling to other lands and fixing things up for a population that is apparently oppressed, by evil dictators or by their own ignorance.  To an historian of empire, that comes uncomfortably close to the rationale that British imperialists gave for their ‘benevolent’ intervention in foreign countries: because it was for the native’s own good.  Sadly the culture of imperialism and the need to legitimate liberal capitalist democracy runs deep in the Western world, even into children’s television.

On the whole Yonderland makes for mediocre television.  There aren’t enough moments to prevent it from being disappointing.  But I’ll still watch the second series, if it ever happens, out of a loyalty to the members of the team that made the first series watchable.  And out of a nostalgia for Horrible Histories.

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