Pulse is the first of this year’s BBC Three new drama premieres, a short season of three new pilot programmes that the makers hope will get enough viewers and positive critical feedback to justify funding for a whole series. Pilots aren’t a new idea, but while in America many examples get made but never shown, in the UK the BBC, Channel Four and their respective websites have recently used them as a way to showcase new talent and ideas. As with some excerpts of both TV companies’ comedy output of late, the BBC have innovatively put the whole of each of these pilots online a week before transmission. It’s an interesting experiment, which presumably is designed to create an internet buzz about the shows, but might risk decimating the viewing figures.
Putting it online first is a safe way of gauging interest for what is a slightly unconventional drama: Pulse is a medical drama with a horror and supernatural twist. While there haven’t been many horror series on British television – and those that do exist are generally mini-series based on famous novels like The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – one of the BBC Three pilots that did well enough to earn a series a couple of years ago was Being Human, a very likeable supernatural drama with a touch of black comedy, which is about to enter production on its third season. While the premise for Being Human sounds like the set-up for a joke – a vampire, a werewolf and a ghost share a house in Bristol – Pulse seems like a safer bet. The writer and director are both creators of some of the best of recent Doctor Who episodes and the writer and producer also have experience of successful medical dramas – Casualty and No Angels respectively. In addition, the production has many elements that are familiar to genre fans such as a blood-soaked operation that combines elements of Alien and Re-animator, body horror in the style of early David Cronenberg and mysterious characters and strange goings-on in a hospital that recalls The Kingdom (Riget) and its risible American remake Stephen King’s Kingdom Hospital.
However, while the programme will undoubtedly and deservedly attract fans of SF/supernatural entertainment I imagine the BBC would also like fans of more general hospital dramas to tune in. The exploits of the student doctors and the various traumas in their lives depicted in the self-contained pilot are very engaging, and it is well directed, edited, cast and shot. The only criticism is that it feels that too much has been packed into this one episode (clearly in order to sell the ideas that would progress over the series) and casual viewers might feel like the programme makers started shooting the script from page 10 rather than page one.
I’ll admit I’m a long-time fan of the writer, Paul Cornell, but his presence in the writing teams of Robin Hood and Primeval wasn’t enough to make me watch those series. However, the varied elements he and his predecessors, who have apparently been attempting to bring Pulse to screen for a while, combine here make for a very successful mix. Personally, I like hospital shows to have an additional unconventional element such as zombies, surreal comedy or Mandy Patinkin and as TV schedules feel the absence of Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, Green Wing and Chicago Hope, I certainly hope Pulse will go to series.