The Robert Carlyle Effect

Stargate Universe was mediocre, at best and at worst. It was never good enough to be eagerly or even slightly anticipated but also never bad enough to be watched ironically either. Bland characters, weak scripts and contrived situations with cheap resolutions. There were a couple of high marks, such as the time-bending episode Time and an occasional decent cliffhanger but it was never enough. What it did have, and what everyone watched the show for, was Robert Carlyle. Robert Carlyle, who once played the role of a mindless, snarling, Rage-infected monster in 28 Weeks Later and still managed to be the most personable character in the film.

In Stargate Universe Carlyle played the bitter and mean-spirited Dr. David Rush. A sullen, sarcastic Scot, he had all the best, nastiest lines, he had all the worst character traits and had a ruthlessness that made him the only interesting person on board. Not evil per se, but the interests of the rest of the crew were secondary to his own. He was always fun to watch, and there was nobody else in the cast that could match his wit. Rush probably wasn’t the character you were supposed to sympathise with, but he always ended up being the one you were rooting for.

So that was why I watched Stargate Universe, and now it’s why I sit through Once Upon a Time.

Once Upon a Time, a series where a load of fairyland characters are unknowingly trapped in small town America by the evil queen, is about as average as Stargate Universe, perhaps a little more so. Dodgy scripts and performances, sloppy storylines and bizarre lurches in tone that see light comedy moments up against a woman having WHORE painted on her car, the show is almost relentlessly, intentionally bland and unenjoyable.

But then there’s Robert Carlyle, playing Rumpelstiltskin in the fairy tale world and a sinister property tycoon in the real world. As Rumpelstiltskin he seems to be having more fun in that role than anybody else in the history of all roles, ever. This series of clips of every single laugh he’s made during the show so far sums up what you can expect. Carlyle plays the part in full-on pantomime mode, seemingly the only actor there who realises that that’s probably what they’re supposed to be doing.

In the fairy tale flashbacks you get Carlyle on acid. In the real world scenes he’s essentially reprising his Stargate role; scheming, manipulative, not directly evil but always placing his own interests ahead of anyone else’s. Again, most of the best lines are his, puncturing the earnest and irony-free American performances every step of the way.

I don’t know why Carlyle is slumming it in these shows; an actor of his calibre could be and should be getting more high-profile roles. Whatever the reason, it’s a win-win for the audience; we get to watch trashy tv and we get to watch Robert Carlyle acerbically slicing every episode open. I’d love to see him take on a more respectable series; Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire or Treme perhaps. Until then, I’m happy to watch him taking Snow White down a peg or two.

By Paul Haine, in