When I heard they’d made the horror tv show of the cult comic book Swamp Thing, I set out to watch it as soon as I could. After all, the legendary Alan Moore cut his teeth with Swamp Thing, along with V for Vendetta, and then Watchmen and so on. Then I had that terrible fear: what if DC had ballsed it up? It would be a crime beyond forgiveness. Let’s face it, DC has a very dodgy track record when it comes to comic book conversions e.g. the fun but very silly Green Arrow, the simply awful Batwoman, the earnest but super-hammy Black Lightning, the laughable movies, etc. Let’s not quibble – if they can get Swamp Thing right, then hope is restored.
So I sat down for the opening episode, waiting for it all to go wrong. The visuals are great – so good you can’t see they’re using stage-sets. The town of Marais set on the edge of the creepy gothic swamp is perfectly rendered and brilliantly atmospheric. And the horror-action sequences are suitably redolent of John Carpenter’s genre-defining The Thing (1982). You can absolutely understand why the opening episode cost $20m on its own! The script, characterisation and acting? Well, the script is on point, working through the detective beats that often come with horror… without actually becoming cliched. We are kept guessing but fed tantalising clues – keeping us hooked. The characterisation is organised in a similar manner to the plot – references to individual but interconnected back-stories without any clumsy exposition. And the casting/acting… is sufficiently good.
What is the scenario? Well, Doctor Abby Arcane Holland of the CDC (The Centers of Disease Control) is called back to her hometown to investigate an epidemic that’s broken out. It seems that something in the swamp is making everyone sick. Anything else would be a spoiler, so just go and watch it if you want to know more.
Yippee, I thought to myself. This is excellent. Well done, DC. Finally! Then I thought to check on the number of episodes and series available… only to learn that the DC Universe streaming service had CANCELLED the show ONE WEEK after the episode aired (31 May 2019). WTF?!
I checked the online reviews… the show had been well received by the fanbase and the critics alike. Even more WTF? What are you playing at DC? You’d finally got it right. Don’t do this to me… to us. It made no sense whatsoever.
Thus, I started to read around the industry speculation as to what had gone wrong. There was no clear consensus. One of the early signs of ‘trouble’ emerged before they’d even finished making the first series – the show got cut from its original 13 episodes to just 10. Aha. The production costs had to have been a touch too high… and that first episode cost $20m, remember. Was DC Universe streaming service ever going to get enough commercial subscribers to make the outlay on Swamp Thing back again? Probably not, especially when insiders began to fear that Swamp Thing might turn out to be a dud (just like all those other DC tv shows and movies). So there was a lack of confidence in the show among its own producers. And, between series, producers have to pay millions to store/warehouse expensive stage-sets… so decisions on a second series have to be made very quickly… even before the first series has finished production. The swampy plot thickens. And then the final issue: the DC Universe streaming service was owned by Time Warner… and Time Warner was taken over by AT&T in 2018. When takeovers occur, ‘economies of scale’, product rationalisation and redundancies ALWAYS follow, to recover a lot of the investment required to secure the takeover, and to maximise profits going forward. Apparently, then, Swamp Thing (but more specifically the DC Universe streaming service) was a victim of this new operating context.
Damn it. In summary, Swamp Thing was artistically successful and a proper hit with audiences. The writers and actors had done a good job. But it wasn’t the writers, actors or fans making decisions about the show. It was the money-men. And the decisions made weren’t made based on quality issues: they were made based on quantity (i.e. the numbers and the profitability). And here’s the rub in today’s rabidly impatient capitalist world – high-quality art will never thrive when it’s judged by numbers alone. Look at how they axed the superb and unsurpassed Firefly series by the mighty Joss Whedon. Look at my own inability to get that next book deal from Gollancz (I’ve only sold 20,000 books, which just isn’t enough, I’m told).
What comes next? Cheaper DC shows, of lower quality. Argh! It feels like we’re going backwards. Yup. Maybe it’s two steps forward, one step back? Nope. They didn’t learn from Firefly, did they. It’s a sorry state of affairs.
The fundamental problem of course is that they still haven’t perfected the business model for streaming services. It’s an ugly fight at the mo, with Apple’s new service, BritBox, BBCistream (in development) and the list goes on. It’s not sustainable, and there will be terrible collateral damage along the way. Why did it have to be the anti-establishment work of Alan Moore, though! The irony is sickening. I feel the rage of the Swamp Thing.
Post script. And I’m not alone in my rage. I have now seen the very sizable fan backlash against DC. DC are alienating the fans so much that the fans will now be hugely wary of starting a show till they know FOR SURE that the second series is a go. If fans become wary of even starting shows, then audiences numbers will be even lower… and it’s a vicious circle/spiral downwards. DC are close to BREAKING themselves entirely. Mark these words.