The Demon Headmaster Reboot Review

4 Jun

“Look into my eyes …”

I have grown to hate reviewers and critics calling books, films and television programs ‘timely,’ ‘relevant,’ and ‘what we need to see,’ over the past few years.  It isn’t just that buzzwords imply a certain lack of clarity, confidence and/or self-awareness, although that definitely is a major problem; it is that storytelling exists, first and foremost, to tell a story and if it fails to tell a story it will also – inevitably – fail to tell a message.  The vast majority of the audience will not listen to your message, no matter how important it is, if you are unable to tell a story or – worse – undermine your own message.  Indeed, whenever I read a review that is not focused on the novel (or whatever), I instantly decide the reviewer has nothing useful to tell me.

And yet, The Demon Headmaster – rebooted by CBBC – actually is ‘timely,’ ‘relevant,’ and ‘what we need to see.’

I went back and forth on actually watching the show.  The Demon Headmaster, both the books and the TV series, were part of my childhood.  Dinah Hunter was the first true heroine I liked.  The show managed to adapt the novels and expand them without actually losing the thread, giving a greater role to the titular Headmaster than the novels could allow.  I was not impressed, however, when I heard of the reboot.  Too many rebooted shows have failed, in my view, because the people who rebooted them didn’t realise what made them popular in the first place.  And I didn’t really enjoy the latest novel, the one the new series is (partly) based upon.  Much to my surprise, however, I did enjoy the series.  The link to the older series – it’s really more of a sequel, rather than a direct reboot – seals the deal.  The producers are to be commended for taking a lacklustre novel and turning it into a workable show.

Lizzie Warren, and her younger brother Tyler, have been away from Hazelbrook School for six months after Lizzie was suspended for fighting with Blake, the school bully.  The two return to Hazelbrook with a complete lack of enthusiasm, only to discover that the once-failing school has been turned around completely.  The teachers are stern, the students are well-behaved … even Blake is well-behaved.  Increasingly creeped out, Lizzie and Tyler discover that the source of the change is the new headmaster, a man who exerts control over every aspect of the school.  They rapidly discover the headmaster has hypnotic powers and that they too are not immune.  The headmaster casts a spell over everyone who encounters him.  Their lives are torn apart to suit him.

Realising the headmaster is drawing everyone into his orbit, they start trying to resist.  But the headmaster is ahead of them at every turn, alternatively holding out the promise of a better world and manipulating them so they expose the flaws in his scheme before he takes it national.  Their first acts of resistance only make things worse, even though they find allies amongst the student body; it isn’t until they find clues leading them to the headmaster’s old school – from the original series – that they find a powerful outside ally.  Dinah Hunter.

But even then, the headmaster is ahead of them.  Dinah falls back under his spell, as does Lizzie’s mother … now revealed to be the missing Rose Carter, the headmaster’s servant from the original series.  Realising the sole gap in the headmaster’s plans, knowing he has to be stopped before he hypnotises the Prime Minister himself, they launch a final desperate gambit.  But even that seems to fail … until the original headmaster arrives, proclaims the project a failure and orders the new headmaster to shut down the school and retreat.  And he’s still out there somewhere …

The reboot gives us, in Lizzie Warren, a very different heroine to Dinah Hunter.  The young Dinah was a quiet girl with a genius mindset, who became friends with the kids who were immune to the headmaster’s powers.  Lizzie, by contrast, has anger issues … not, it should be said, without reason.  Her temper drives her on, but also leads her to make mistakes.  Dinah’s plan to stop the headmaster fails, at least in part, because Lizzie – under the impression that Dinah has betrayed them – accidentally blows the surprise too early.  She does learn from this and manages to recover, barely.  Tyler, Angelika and Ethan are very different characters too, struggling to keep their thoughts their own as they try to find a way to resist.  Indeed, all three of them serve as examples of how creepy the headmaster’s power truly is.  They are reshaped to suit him.

Blake is, in many ways, the most impressive character.  He starts the show as a bog-standard school bully.  I hated him on sight.  And yet, he manages to grow and develop – partly through an odd friendship with Tyler – into one of the most persistent thorns in the headmaster’s side.  It is Blake, dismissed as fit only for menial work, who has the bright idea of locking the headmaster up; it is Blake, caught in an endless struggle between the headmaster’s commands and free will, who frees the others and gives them their last chance to stop the headmaster. 

The headmaster himself is cool, collected and always in control, even when he’s scrambling to patch up the holes in his plan.  He never loses his cool, he never raises his voice … he has an odd verbal tic of addressing people by both names – “Lizzie Warren,” “Dinah Hunter” – if they’re interesting to him.  (He always addresses Blake as simply “Blake.”)  He’s always firm, lacking any of the weaknesses other evil characters have.  There’s no sense he’s got any interests or lusts beyond command and control.  His sheer confidence is as unnerving as his hypnotic powers.  He’s smart enough to round up the troublemakers, even the ones who stayed under his control, before his plan goes into the final stage.  His only real mistake is underestimating Blake.  This is a (sort of) recast that works. 

The show also reintroduces three characters from the original series.  Rose Carter has little impact on the plot, beyond providing more tension for Lizzie.  It’s not even clear if the headmaster knew – or cared – who she was, before she became useful again.  Dinah Hunter comes across as very different from her past self (not helped by both her and Rose being recast); it’s hard to draw a line between the two.  And the original headmaster steals the show, even though he only appears for a few minutes.  He’s as creepy as ever, but with a very different edge.  His mission statement is terrifying.  The only lighter moment is that he also cracks a very black joke that’s slightly out of character.

It’s rare for a show largely dependent on child and teenage actors to do well, in my view, but most of the child and teenage actors put on a convincing performance.  They come across as largely convincing personalities, particularly Lizzie and Blake.  And the headmaster is superbly recast.  Indeed, of all the major characters, Dinah is the only one who isn’t wholly convincing.  It might have worked better if they’d hired the original actor or simply designed a new character.

The reason this show is timely, however, is two-fold.  On one hand, it illustrates just how much power lies in control of security and surveillance systems.  The headmaster’s hypnotic powers may be out of this world, but everything from CCTV cameras to internet censorship and deepfakes are not.  The characters find themselves caught in a web that is horrifyingly real, where information can be scrubbed and rewritten to suit their enemy’s implacable will.  The headmaster’s plan to destroy the library is very far from (just) petty spite.  It’s a great deal easier to rewrite history online, particularly if you refuse to allow anyone to engage in honest debate.  I’m actually surprised they got away with it.

And, on the other, the sheer folly of the headmaster’s plan.  Programming students with knowledge is good for creating drones, but useless for original thinking.  That’s what does him in, at the end; hypnotic tapes are switched around, ensuring the students don’t know how to do what they’re supposed to do.  This has uneasy resonance in the real world, in that students are rarely taught critical thinking and parents are discouraged from supervising their children’s education.  The headmaster’s plan was doomed well before it ran into people willing to resist.

The resistance was dangerous too.  They came up with plans, or adapted themselves to fit an ever-changing situation, but never thought about the endgame.  Blake is the only one who tries to confine the headmaster, thus giving the group a moral dilemma about what to do with him, while Dinah is the only one who outright tries to kill him.  (Of course, none of them knew there was more than one headmaster.)  Most protestors don’t think about what they actually want, even though it should have been simple here.  Get the headmaster out.

As always, these days, the show nods towards wokeness.  The cast is fairly diverse – it’s made clear that Angelika’s mother is either bisexual or lesbian (her former girlfriend is black), raising the question of who fathered her – but this is mostly a second-order issue.  It does, however, run into a major headache.  At one point, to give Ethan a family, the headmaster convinces everyone that he’s Lizzie and Tyler’s brother.  This simply won’t last, once he steps out of the headmaster’s zone of control.  Ethan is black.  There’s no way he’s their real brother.  The headmaster seems to have overlooked this entirely. 

Overall, The Demon Headmaster works fairly well.  It does feel a little extended – apparently, the plan for five episodes became ten – and there are a handful of little nits, but it tells a fairly coherent story.  (And the headmaster’s powers ensure that any discrepancies have a fairly simple explanation.)  It presents a creepy mystery, a battle against a seemingly overwhelming force and a promise the story will be continued.  And it raises points that need to be addressed.  How much do you trust your child’s teachers?  Really?

I look forward to the next one.

“Until we meet again, Lizzie Warren …”

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