The manner in which we consume and watch television has changed beyond recognition in recent years. Not only has the advent of social media ensured that viewers interact, discuss and dissect the minutiae of media moments more than ever before, but the introduction of streaming services has led to a clear shift in narrative structure. Writers no longer need to place the same emphasis on a dramatic cliff hanger in order to entice viewers to watch the following week. This also lifts any such dramatic restrictions upon a writer as they do not need to adapt their narrative into including five or six key moments within a series that they can end an episode on, rather the narrative can become more fluid and thus more subtle.
Thirteen, the first drama series shown on BBC Three after it became an online only service, is interesting in that it is clearly attempting to bridge the two trends, combining cliff hanger moments with a clear focus on the utilising social media, even going so far as to create an online presence through the creation of a ‘journalist’ who reports on the case. The series written by Marnie Dickens, Thirteen depicts Ivy Moxam (Jodie Comer), who kidnapped when she was aged thirteen, escapes from her captor after thirteen years. The series, unlike the successful novel Room and its Oscar winning adaptation, does not seek to unpick the complexities such an existence may have had upon a person psychologically (and indeed there is a shocking lack of expected patient care and diligence for Ivy) but rather attempts to unravel what may have happened to Ivy. Ivy then, is treated as both victim and suspect throughout the five episodes, and much of the tension stems from Ivy’s reluctance to discuss or share her experiences.
The programme was initially uploaded on a Sunday, with one episode going online a week. The programme was then shown on BBC 2, and all five episodes are currently online. This process, of an initial one episode per week, before all episodes being viewable simultaneously, has meant that viewers have been left with different viewing experiences. This has also led to the series attempting to fit into two very different viewing methods: the traditional, and the new, immediately available. For me, it is precisely this issue that really weakens the series. Watching, as I did, all episodes one after the other, meant that the dramatic moments (frequently overtly signposted through over-loud music) quickly felt tiresome and clichéd. Perhaps if I had watched each episode in isolation, then these moments would not have been so apparent, but viewing in the way I did certainly lessened the quality of the series. The tension created felt heavy handed and unrealistic, whilst watching repeated scenes in which the police dealt with Ivy’s experience in an entirely unempathetic manner just feel ever more ludicrous as it becomes increasingly apparent that these detectives should never be allowed to deal with a case of such nature.
This is not to say that Thirteen does not succeed as a drama, but rather that it seems uncertain as to what it is trying to do and trying to be. At points, it is clear that Marnie Dickens is interested writing about the aftermath of such an experience, but any quiet moments of reflection are frequently interrupted with scenes of high drama. As such, the programme struggles to really find its identity; any moments of action are not invested with any real ingenuity and it was not any real surprise to me when I read that Dickens had crafted her writing on Hollyoaks. Thirteen, in its schlocky moments obviously owes its tone to the soapy melodrama of Hollyoaks, but scenes in which Ivy attempts to reconnect with previous friends and acquaintances are rather touching and hint at the series it could have been.