When I was a child, my dad was in the Air Force, and as such, I grew up on various Air Force bases. As an adult, I shifted back and forth between Ft. Drum in New York, training posts, and being deployed. Needless to say, I’ve spent a lot of time shopping at AAFES.
What does any of this have to do with Bonekickers, the show widely regarded as the worst in BBC history?
Well, as someone who’s spent most of his movie-buying life on the government tit, I’ve noticed a pattern: the things that end up for sale in government shops are either the biggest names in current film, or direct-to-video action movies and first generation DVD releases of TV shows that no one remembers. The film section of AAFES is a bizarre paradox of being the sort of crap that no one in their right mind would want, while being so mainstream that it collapses into complete self-parody.
Spend too much time in this sort of environment, and you might come away liking Bonekickers, too.
I, like most of the internet, first heard of this series when Diamanda Hagan reviewed the entire series, and when a copy turned up in my neck of the woods, I felt all but honor-bound as both a fan and an acquaintance to check it out for myself. It was everything she said it was, and yet, it was also something else…
I’m getting ahead of myself. What the hell is Bonekickers?
Bonekickers was an attempt to create an American-style CSI knockoff about archeologists. In addition to having poorly written scripts with plot holes that you could drive a truck through, incredibly cheap cinematography, and being so desperate to appeal to American syndication that the (British) characters routinely display ignorance of their own culture that actual Brits would not, the show had, shall we say, a less than stellar relationship with the world history it was attempting to depict. Though, that may have had less to do with the writers and more to do with having to somehow squeeze so much historical skullduggery into the backstory of Bath, a former Roman settlement in Somerset located just off the highway between the exits for Fuck and All. Which isn’t to suggest that Bath doesn’t have a rich history of its own, but over the course of the show, the Bonekickers (led by Julie Graham’s Dr. Gillian Magwilde) found:
- The One True Cross,
- A sunken slave vessel that proved that George Washington’s generals were involved in a conspiracy to keep a group of Maroons from establishing a colony in the Americas, which is somehow connected to the 2008 U.S. Election,
- A secret Roman catacomb which turns out to be the true final resting place of Boudica,
- A clay pot which has something to do with the ancient Mesopotamian god Marduk, which had been discovered (and reburied) by Alexander the Great and almost gets a young chess champion killed by radical Muslims (I honestly can’t follow the plot of episode four all that well),
- The original tank, which got wrapped up in a failed plot by a secret society that worshiped Joan of Arc to bring an early end to World War I by reminding the French and Germans of their ancestral friendship, which, in turn, was squashed and covered up by the British military,
- Proof that Alfred, Lord Tennyson was involved in a conspiracy (and yes, they do call it “The Tennyson Code”) to hide the location of Excalibur, and were directly responsible for driving Magwilde’s mother insane.
Across the series, they encounter the Knights Templar, something called the Disciples of Good Use, and various other characters and entities that would have made for good television if there was a strong cast of heroes to bounce off of.
The main cast isn’t terrible. Hugh Bonneville’s Dr. Gregory “Dolly” Parton, a perpetually drunk old lecher, is an absolute riot to watch, and Adrian Lester as Dr. Ben Ergha is a put-upon everyman who acts as the sane counterpoint to some of the mad theories that get thrown around on this show like panties at a Mötley Crüe concert. Viv Davis, played by sexiest woman alive Gugu Mbatha-Raw, is a bit of a weak point, since the writers can’t seem to find anything for her to do except to stumble into Magwilde’s Room of Crazy, and be ultimately revealed as her sister.
Which brings us to Magwilde. Unlikeable, dismissive, certifiably insane, more than willing to risk other people’s lives to prove her mad theories, Magwilde is just about the epitome of How Not to Write a Main Character. The fact that her character is often proven right is one of the show’s main faults. Despite being someone who’s supposed to represent the rational scientist, she more often than not plucks some theory out of the air and pursues it like a dog, despite the fact that, for the viewers at home who paid attention during history class, the words that come out of her mouth always, always, always describe something that’s historically impossible.
It never gets as bad as, say, a giant metal spider walking around during the Grant Administration, but this is, after all, still a BBC show. Just having more than one set probably bankrupted the producers.
Even if you really love junk television, this show will try your patience in ways you never thought possible. Let’s take the first episode for example: in addition to finding the One True Cross, which they accidentally destroy, they inadvertently cause the death of an extremely powerful right-wing talk show host with legions of fans so brainwashed that they willingly attack and murder Muslims with broadswords in broad daylight! This is perhaps most endemic of their attempts to appeal to an American audience. The guy is clearly meant to be an analogue for Bill O’Reilly, and even setting aside the fact that they seem to be vastly overestimating just how dedicated fans of Fox News are, I have it on good authority that people like Bill O’Reilly don’t really exist in the U.K. Even the real-life person the guy is supposed to be based on (former songwriter-turned-minister George Hargreaves) is basically a non-entity there. Not to be dismissive of the many political parties he’s formed, but I have a better chance of getting elected to Parliament than this guy! And he’s supposed to be so influential that a new order of Templar Knights have sprung up around him?
Either way, he’s a celebrity, they cause his death, and they never have to deal with any consequences for their actions.
Right about now, you might be asking, how the hell could an intelligent and handsome individual like myself possibly enjoy this show?
Why do people enjoy Degrassi?
You can tell that the makers of the show really wanted to make something big and impressive, but just got in completely over their heads. In a way, this is like a show one would make online: a group of people with wildly divergent interests, all thrown into a massive pot to see what happens. Any episode of Bonekickers might have made for a halfway decent Homestar Runner cartoon, but that would have required the writers to take a step back and realize just how damn silly the whole enterprise is. There are parts of the show that achieve almost genius in their insanity. My favorite is when the stand-in for Barack Obama gets into a gunfight with assassins over a centuries-old British slave ship that crashed ten years after Britain abolished the slave trade.* Yeah, it’s that kind of show.
[*Britain technically still had slavery at that point in time, but they’d recently passed a law that made any slaves who set foot on English soil British citizens, while allowing citizens of the Crown to own slaves elsewhere in the world. Meaning that no matter what they intended by sending them back to England, the law would have freed them and there would be nothing stopping the Maroons from sailing right back to America. Ironically, in the episode, the name of the ship is the same as the name of the trial that established this law in the first place! I’d like to thank Diamanda Hagan herself for pointing this out to me.]
There’s a certain charm in things that have more ambition than money, and get weird trying to bridge the gap. PJ Katie’s Farm made that into an art form.
Though, if there’s one aspect of the show I simply cannot let slide, it’s the absolute contempt it seems to have for archeology as a science. Magwilde often insinuates that if you’re not discovering things that completely rewrite history as we know it, then the whole enterprise is a waste of time. I know that finding belt buckles and coins might not make for very good television, but if you can’t find a way to turn archeology into a cop show, then maybe you should have found a different format.
Still, for all that, not a bad way to pass the time. Or, have playing in the background while reading the TV Tropes entry on Space Cases. (Incidentally, freaky shit, man…) Just beware, fans of this show are called “Boners”. You don’t want to be a Boner, do you?