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Remediating the Literary

Reconstructing the Author for a Wide Audience: Dickens in Doctor Who (2005) and Assassin’s Creed (2015)

Reconstruire l’auteur pour un large public : Dickens dans Dr Who (2005) et Assassin’s Creed (2015)
Clémence Folléa


Cet article participe d’un courant universitaire qui étudie la culture du vingt-et-unième siècle au prisme de ses représentations du passé. Il s’attache en particulier à explorer comment et pourquoi le patrimoine culturel britannique peut être remodelé dans des créations contemporaines visant un large public. Il se concentre sur deux productions de la culture populaire où apparaît la figure de Dickens : un épisode de la série culte Doctor Who et un opus de la franchise de jeux vidéo au succès international Assassin’s Creed. L’auteur y revêt des traits familiers permettant de construire une représentation confortable du passé victorien, lequel devient alors simplement une agréable toile de fond. Mais cette reconstruction familière se trouve confrontée à l’esthétique spécifique de la série/du jeu et est ainsi perturbée. Il apparaît alors que le passé britannique peut également se faire terrain de jeu, permettant à la culture contemporaine de produire des expériences imaginaires originales.

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1The literary material created by Charles Dickens in the Victorian era has been repeatedly re-used, repurposed, and redesigned ever since it first appeared in the pages of the periodicals where it was initially published. While film and television adaptations have become the ‘obvious medium’ for the persistence of Dickens’s work in twenty-first century culture (Gardiner 236), his fictional creations continuously appear on a variety of other media platforms, such as novels, poems, plays, videogames, internet memes, advertisements, but also ‘“things” [such as] the China mugs and miniatures’ found by Juliet John in The Charles Dickens Museum Shop (John 251). With every new appropriation, Dickens’s fictions can serve a different political and cultural agenda. For instance, Neo-Victorian rewritings such as Peter Carey’s 1997 Jack Maggs or Lloyd Jones’s 2006 Mister Pip are challenging works, which refashion Dickens’s stories and characters to ‘look awry at virtual pasts, interrupt collective identities and the habitual coherence of cultural experience, and confront the social discourse informing memorable acts of literature’ (Mukherjee, 54). On the other hand, the heritage industry uses Dickens’s work to create nostalgic, satisfying, and simplistic representations of the past, which are then marketed to a wide audience. But, in popular culture, Dickens’s fictional creations also appear in rather unexpected places—next to a Chatham car park for instance, where an amusement park called the ‘Dickens World’ has been located since 2007. In Dickens and Mass Culture, Juliet John studies the case of this ‘multimillion-pound themed entertainment site’ which ‘represents a challenge to the process of familiarization and “heritagization” that has accompanied Dickens’s rise to respectability’ (John 273). With its ‘interactive computers […], 4D cinema, animatronix, and soft play area’, this ‘(post) modern entertainment complex’ (John 286) demonstrates that the presence of Dickens’s fictions in popular culture does not always adopt a predictable and familiar shape.

2Much like his fictional creations, Dickens himself has become the subject of many representations which travel through time and media in chaotic and contradictory ways. During his lifetime, the author’s image was so often represented that it ‘became one of the most widely recognised in the Victorian period, used to advertise anything from pens to matches’ (John 50). Today, representations of Dickens are still numerous and varied. The author is for example refashioned as a character in many biopics, historical fictions, and Neo-Victorian novels. He thus appears as a manipulative and self-inflated writer in Jack Maggs, as a mad mesmerist in Dan Simmons’s 2009 novel Drood, or as a passionate lover in Ralph Fiennes’s 2013 biographical drama The Invisible Woman. Such a proliferation of representations has made Dickens into an icon, that is to say a figure whose meaning and value are defined collectively and incrementally, as representations accumulate, continuously echoing and contradicting one another. This iconic author not only appears in print, on stage, and on screen, but is also refashioned for a wide audience in new media such as videogames and TV series. The present article focuses on two such reconstructions of the author: ‘The Unquiet Dead’, a 2005 episode from the new first season of the British TV series Doctor Who, and Syndicate, a 2015 videogame from the international multimillion-dollar franchise Assassin’s Creed. Both of these target a broad audience, both are set in the Victorian era, and both feature Dickens as a character. By analysing Doctor Who and Assassin’s Creed together, I will endeavour to ask what contemporary popular new media can (de)construct by reconstructing this iconic author.

Constructing Popular Entertainment: Commodifying Dickens In Commercial Franchises

3First, such popular reconstructions of Dickens must to some extent abide by the rules of the Culture Industry. Doctor Who and Assassin’s Creed are commercial franchises, which target large audiences and seek to maximise consumption by using marketing techniques and by standardising their contents. In this context, Dickens features as a familiar icon supporting an easily enjoyable representation of the Victorian era.

  • 1 The series is set to have its first female Doctor in the next season, which will start airing in Fa (...)
  • 2 The series originally ran from 1963 to 1989, in twenty-six series. It was revived in 2005 with a ne (...)

4Doctor Who airs on BBC One, a channel known for broadcasting some of Britain’s most popular entertainment shows, such as Eastenders, Casualty, or Top Gear. The very popular series Doctor Who follows the adventures of a kind-hearted alien, ‘The Doctor’, as he time-travels in his iconic machine, a blue British police box called ‘the TARDIS’. The Doctor is a humanoid male,1 whose appearance varies throughout the seasons and who travels with different human ‘Companions’. This episode, entitled ‘The Unquiet Dead’, is the third in the new first season of Doctor Who.2 It is set in 1869 Cardiff and it stages this Doctor’s first venture into the past. Indeed, the first episode of this opening season was set in the present, in 2005, whilst episode two took viewers to a distant future. Therefore, ‘The Unquiet Dead’ is an occasion for this new Doctor Who to demonstrate its ability to create satisfying representations of the past and, as a result, to draw in as many potential viewers as possible. This marketing strategy is spelt out as such by Russell T. Davies, the show’s executive producer and head writer between 2005 and 2010, in a documentary about ‘The Unquiet Dead’: ‘Episode 3 is designed to show off the range of the programme, to go back in history […]. I wanted to go back to the Victorian era […] and I wanted Charles Dickens in there’ (‘TARDIS Tales’ 11:38-11:58). Davies makes it clear that, in the context of this new opening season, Dickens is reconstructed as a recognisable emblem of the Victorian era, serving as a strong sales pitch for the series’ ability to offer entertaining representations of the past. Doctor Who’s characterisation of the Victorian writer is indeed recognisable, as it relies on many familiar features of the iconic author. Thus, for instance, Dickens is seen giving one of his famous public readings. He also appears walking in the snow on Christmas Eve and exclaiming ‘God bless us everyone!’, like Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol. In addition, Dickens is here played by Simon Callow, who already embodied the author several times on stage and screen. According to Mark Gatiss, writer of ‘The Unquiet Dead’, the casting of Callow was a way of making the representation of Dickens easily accessible for a large audience:

I think in forty-five minutes, having Simon [Callow] do it is a bit like we’ve got Dickens. […] If someone else had played him maybe you’d immediately have had to get used to him, to how he’s going to play Dickens. But Simon has got such an association with it already, it was actually like we got him. We got the real thing! (Laying Ghosts 05:48-06:11)

5Gatiss then concludes by underlining the commercial value of this easily recognisable figure: ‘It was all part of the sort of headline-grabbing nature of the first season. It’s very simple, it’s even on the Radio Times, “Doctor Who meets Dickens”. It’s all you need, it’s a pitch’ (Laying Ghosts 04:58-05:07). Gatiss’s comment positions the series’ reconstruction of Dickens as a heritage product, designed to be marketed for and consumed by a wide audience. Such products belong to the Culture Industry insofar as they offer commodified and standardised representations, as David Lowenthal explains: ‘Celebrating some bits and forgetting others, heritage reshapes a past made easy to embrace. And just as heritage practitioners take pride in creating artifice, the public enjoys consuming it’ (Lowenthal 14). In ‘The Unquiet Dead’, Dickens appears as a familiar icon that can be used as an easily consumable ‘artifice’, supporting an entertaining representation of the Victorian era.

  • 3 The definition of the word ‘gameplay’ is subject to much debate in the field of Game Studies. Very (...)

6Similarly, as an instalment in one of the highest grossing video game franchises of all times, Syndicate partly relies on Dickens and history as commercial assets. Like all other Assassin’s Creed productions, Syndicate is what is called a ‘AAA’ game, which is the equivalent of a blockbuster in cinema. Indeed, each Assassin’s Creed game is developed across several Ubisoft studios around the world, by a myriad of game designers, programmers, graphic artists, writers, testers, etc. The budget for each instalment is estimated between fifty and a hundred million dollars, which makes it necessary for the franchise to target the widest possible audience, in order to remain viable. These games’ trademark is their immersive and graphically impressive depictions of different historical periods, which are used as background settings for the development of the story and gameplay.3 Thus, throughout the various instalments of Assassin’s Creed, players have been allowed to participate in the crusades, to roam around in Renaissance Italy, to interact with pirates in the eighteenth-century Caribbean, or even to help out in the French revolution. With Syndicate, the franchise’s ninth instalment, the game takes its players to 1868 London, where they meet a set of landmark historical figures, such as Queen Victoria, Charles Darwin, Florence Nightingale, Alexander Graham Bell, Karl Marx, and, of course, Charles Dickens. Like all the other historical figures in Syndicate, the author of Oliver Twist features as a recognizable emblem of the Victorian era, as is underlined for instance by this reviewer:

Syndicate’s London setting is meticulously crafted and filled with period details: its rich citizens stroll around in top hats, tailcoats, corsets and other finery; its flat cap-wearing poor sweep the factories; its buildings stand tall, alleyways dividing streets; and its rain-soaked cobbles are constantly busy with traffic from horse-drawn carts. It is so Dickensian that Charles Dickens is actually in it. (McKeand)

7This reviewer conjures up Dickens as a household name, associated with a familiar representation of Victorian London. In the game, the character of Dickens is indeed tightly linked with the city of London, as he is repeatedly shown walking its streets, telling its stories, and investigating its mysteries. The author engages in these activities with great cheerfulness and enthusiasm, thus embodying the ‘warmth and ebullience’ that, according to John Gardiner, constitute a popular facet of the Dickensian, especially in heritage reconstructions (Gardiner 228–29). In fact, the representation offered in Assassin’s Creed Syndicate adopts the codes of heritage productions in more ways than one: the game does not use only Dickens as a recognisable landmark, but does so with all its historical characters, thus making the past extremely ‘easy to embrace’ for a wide audience (Lowenthal 14). The characterisation of Dickens, like those of other historical figures, is therefore reduced to a few predictable features so that it may be immediately enjoyable. As a result, Charles Dickens, Queen Victoria, Karl Marx, and others can be seamlessly integrated into the entertainment experience provided by the game. For indeed, the essential function of these figures is primarily to guide the player’s interactions with the game, helping her to solve various missions in different areas of the city. The following review emphasises the predominantly functional role performed by Dickens in Assassin’s Creed Syndicate:

  • 4 Videogames can feature both ‘playable characters’, which are controlled by the player, and ‘non-pla (...)

Whether the cast of famous historical characters who provide missions and companionship will work for you, I can’t say–I expected to find the whole exercise vaguely insulting but was quickly won over. It’s not that these are particularly intelligent, relevant or interesting takes on the characters, it’s more that I’d rather solve supernatural mysteries with Charles Dickens than with a generic quest-giver NPC [non-playable character].4 (Smith)

8In Syndicate, Dickens thus provides an entertaining way of unfolding the gaming experience. In such a context, it is crucial that the author should appear under instantly recognisable traits, so that the player may easily make the most of this entertaining reconstruction without her experience being hindered or slowed down in any way. As in heritage productions, the iconic author is here used to support a standardised and highly marketable representation of the past.

9Thus, Doctor Who and Assassin’s Creed both rely on an apparently mainstream and predictable version of Dickens, which helps making their productions accessible and appealing for a wide audience. In so doing, they associate Dickens with a broad definition of the term ‘Dickensian’ which, according to Jeremy Tambling, is highly simplistic:

I have never much cared for ‘Dickensian’ as a word […] because it encourages a sense that we know what is going on in Dickens, with some things circulating as clichés about what relates uniquely to him […], and following the fantasy of the single, knowable author: Dickens. (Tambling 198)

10In the two popular productions studied above, Dickens appears to be this ‘single, knowable author’, used to support an easily consumable entertainment experience.

Deconstructing Heritage Transparency: Remediating Dickens In A Science-Fiction Series

11As was mentioned above, the reconstruction offered in Doctor Who partly imitates the codes of popular heritage productions which, according to Jay Bolter and David Grusin in Understanding New Media, ‘recreate period costumes and places in order to make their viewers feel as if they were “really” there’ (Bolter and Grusin 5). The series’ instantly recognisable representation of Dickens conjures up the sense of ‘transparency’ or ‘immediacy’ which heritage productions seek to create by giving their viewer the ‘feeling that the medium has disappeared and the objects are present to him, a feeling that his experience is therefore authentic’ (Bolter and Grusin 70). However, while Doctor Who’s Dickens initially appears as a predictable figure supporting such a transparent representation, he soon accommodates new unexpected features which challenge the viewer’s sense of immediacy. Indeed, when working on pre-production, the episode’s screenwriter and director were careful to create a version of the iconic author that could certainly be accessible to a wide audience, but that would also disrupt some of the viewers’ expectations. In ‘The Unquiet Dead’, the carefully negotiated characterisation of Dickens stands out when the Victorian writer first meets The Doctor. Early in the episode, The Doctor hijacks a coach at random to chase a villain, shortly realising that its passenger is in fact familiar:

Doctor: Dickens?
Dickens: Yes.
Doctor: Charles Dickens?
Dickens: Yes.
Doctor: The Charles Dickens?
Driver: Should I remove the gentleman, sir?
Doctor: Charles Dickens? You’re brilliant, you are. Completely one hundred per cent brilliant. I’ve read them all. Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, and what’s the other one, the one with the ghost?
Dickens: A Christmas Carol?
Doctor: No, no, no, the one with the trains. The Signal Man, that’s it. Terrifying! The best short story ever written. You’re a genius.
Driver: You want me to get rid of him, sir?
Dickens: Er, no, I think he can stay. (‘The Unquiet Dead’ 13:23-13:47)

12This dialogue positions Dickens as a recognisable figure, a ‘brilliant’ writer whose most famous works will be familiar to a broad audience. But it also suggests that there is more to this ‘genius’ than what most viewers already know: by evoking a lesser-known short-story, The Signal Man, Doctor Who signals that its reconstruction will be less transparent than what meets the eye and will not come down to a heritage version of Dickens.

13In particular, whereas Callow’s association with Dickens might make it easier for viewers to recognise and relate to the character, the actor was in fact careful not to embody too standardised and predictable a version of the Victorian writer. In an interview about ‘The Unquiet Dead’, he inveighs against the highly simplistic characterisation of the iconic author in many productions: ‘When I heard that Dickens was going to be in Doctor Who, my heart rather sank […]. I get sent a lot of scripts which feature him as a kind of all-purpose Victorian literary character and really understand little, if anything, about him, his life or his books’ (‘Doctor Who Press Pack’). Callow accepted the part in Doctor Who precisely because the script contained elements going beyond the heritage version of Dickens as a quaintly familiar Victorian genius suffused with cheerfulness and enthusiasm. Indeed, the creators of ‘The Unquiet Dead’ consistently endeavoured to relinquish some of the traits usually associated with Dickens, as is discussed here by Simon Callow and Euros Lynn, the episode’s director:

Callow: I was so excited that you started with Dickens depleted. It was wonderful, because Dickens is always shown as the personification of energy, of Dickensian energy and the truth is that for the last twenty years of his life he was ill […].
Lyn: I remember we had lots of discussions about quite how far Dickens should be depleted and how ill we should make him.
Callow: Exactly. You know, if it were a whole film about Dickens then I think one could have gone further, but as it is you need to establish [the character]. He couldn’t be so un-Dickensian as to be unrecognisable. (‘The Unquiet Dead’ with audio commentary 07:05-08:02)

14Thus, whilst the format of a forty-five-minute episode does not allow for a deeply intricate exploration of Dickens’s psyche, the team of Doctor Who did work on twisting the expected characterisation of the iconic author. In so doing, they challenged the sense of transparency which heritage productions often seek to convey by producing predictable and seemingly authentic representations.

15This rupture in immediacy is soon made evident in the episode, when the character of Dickens comes into direct contact with the supernatural creatures chased by The Doctor. Indeed, as part of the Doctor Who series, ‘The Unquiet Dead’ deals with aliens and supernatural phenomena. In this particular episode, The Doctor has to confront an alien race which, in the shape of a blue vapour, takes possession of dead bodies and aims at taking over the planet. Thus, in ‘The Unquiet Dead’, the heritage-like representation of the Victorian era is mixed with the series’ specific science-fiction elements, which thus compromise its transparency. Such hybrid aesthetics produce an experience resembling that of the amusement park studied by Juliet John in Dickens and Mass Culture:

[…] despite its claims to represent the past authentically, Dickens World disrupts familiar expectations of the past and of cultural heritage sites because it frames that past through the conspicuously (post)modern […] It has the effect of violently detaching Dickens and ourselves from a more familiar sense of the past. (John 286–87)

16Like the Dickens World, this episode of Doctor Who toys with our expectations, as it offers a hybrid reconstruction of the author, both relying on and rejecting familiar features: the casting of Callow, the atmosphere of Christmas, and the public-reading scenes are now familiar traits, often used in heritage representations of the iconic author; however, in ‘The Unquiet Dead’ these predictable features soon clash with the series’ science-fiction content. By mixing these two genres, Doctor Who suggests that previous reconstructions of Dickens, especially those emphasising the author’s cheerfulness and enthusiasm, are no more real or authentic than a time-traveling phone booth or a tribe of blue gaseous aliens. The series thus underlines the fallacious quality of seemingly authentic heritage productions and their strategy of immediacy.

17In fact, the sense of transparency briefly conjured up at the beginning of ‘The Unquiet Dead’ is soon replaced by the antagonist strategy of ‘hypermediacy’, defined by Bolter and Grusin as ‘[a] style of visual representation whose goal is to remind the viewer of the medium’ (Bolter and Grusin 259). Indeed, when Dickens first comes into contact with the episode’s blue aliens, he voices his disbelief by comparing the phenomenon to a visual illusion specific to a popular nineteenth-century medium: ‘What phantasmagoria is this? […] It is a lantern show! It’s trickery!’ (‘The Unquiet Dead’ 10:55-11:18). The magic lantern was developed in the seventeenth century and reached a mass audience in Britain during the Victorian era, when its optical illusions became a popular form of entertainment. The phantasmagoria was one of those and consisted in a projection of rapidly moving supernatural figures, often accompanied by sound effects. Therefore, when Doctor Who’s Dickens refers to ‘a lantern show’ and a ‘phantasmagoria’, he conjures up the very ancestors of this contemporary science-fiction series. Here, ‘The Unquiet Dead’ adopts a strategy of hypermediacy, gesturing towards its own genealogy and thus reminding its viewers of its status as an audio-visual artefact inheriting from a long line of media. This strategy emphasises the inevitable cultural process of ‘remediation’, which Bolter and Grusin define as ‘the formal logic by which new media refashion prior media forms’ (Bolter and Grusin 260). This, in turn, underlines that every new representation of Dickens necessarily adds to and inherits from an incremental definition of the iconic author. As a result, Dickens’s self-reflexive comment further disrupts the strategy of transparency adopted in heritage productions, by making authenticity utterly unattainable for contemporary representations. Moreover, in a playful twist, ‘The Unquiet Dead’ emphasises the chaotic and uncontrollable nature of this cultural process. Indeed, the show’s science-fiction elements eventually come to inspire Dickens, who considers integrating these supernatural phenomena into his own writing. Near the end of the episode, Dickens explains this to The Doctor:

This morning, I thought I knew everything in the world. Now I know I’ve just started. All these huge and wonderful notions, Doctor! I’m inspired. I must write about them. […] I shall be subtle at first. The Mystery of Edwin Drood still lacks an ending. Perhaps the killer was not the boy’s uncle. Perhaps he was not of this Earth. The Mystery of Edwin Drood and the Blue Elementals. (‘The Unquiet Dead’ 40:20-41:08)

18As The Doctor then tells his Companion, Dickens will never be able to include the blue gaseous aliens into his last novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, since he will die before being able to finish it. Nonetheless, this scene suggests that the relationship between Dickens and Doctor Who works both ways. On the one hand, reconstructing the author allows the series to create an accessible and appealing version of the Victorian past and its most iconic writer. But on the other hand, the science-fiction narrative of this popular show rekindles the author’s imagination and gives Dickens a new lease of life. By intermingling heritage aesthetics with its own science-fiction content, the episode thus emphasises that every reconstruction of Dickens takes part in a chaotic and enduring process of remediation. As its title suggests, ‘The Unquiet Dead’ offers a representation of the Victorian author which precludes any ‘quiet’ or stable relation between the past and the present. Doctor Who’s strategy of hypermediacy shows that while the past constantly penetrates into the present, with every new reconstruction building upon previous ones, the past, in turn, is repeatedly invaded by the present, as new media refashion prior representations.

Constructing Medium Specificity: Interacting with Dickens in an Action-Adventure Videogame

19The relationship between past and present is also considerably disrupted in Assassin’s Creed Syndicate. Like Doctor Who, this production uses a mainstream version of the Victorian past as a background setting, which is then twisted in order to accommodate particular aesthetics and experiences. In Doctor Who, 1869 Cardiff and its guest star Charles Dickens are integrated into the science-fiction narrative which constitutes the show’s trademark. In Syndicate, 1868 London and its set of historical figures serve as little more than a pretext for unfolding the specific gameplay of the franchise, namely the third-person exploration of an open world, with focus placed on stealth, free-running, and occasionally combat. Nonetheless, as in Doctor Who, the reconstruction of the Victorian past and its most iconic figures is carefully laid down and, in the case of Syndicate, relies heavily on familiar heritage features. Here, Dickens appears as a genius writer whose enthusiasm and imaginative vigour is not at all depleted. The author is first encountered during a cinematic, that is to say a non-interactive sequence during which the player has no control on the game; the following dialogue is abruptly launched when the two playable characters, Jacob and Evie Frye, along with their canny guide Henry, bump into Dickens at a street corner. The author is deeply absorbed in a manuscript and does not see Jacob, Evie, or Henry coming; in his surprise, he lets go of some pages, which are thus blown away by the wind:

Dickens: Confound this city, no one looks where they’re going!
Jacob: Yes, I’ve noticed that!
Dickens: Bloody Drood! I’ll never finish it at this rate. Only providence knows where those words are headed now… Well, I must get to work replacing them. Should you ever be in the mood for a tale or two, you can always find me where the ale is warm and tempers are hot! Ta-ta!
Jacob: What an odd man.
Henry: That, Mister Frye, was Charles Dickens. Knows everyone and everything in the city. If I were you, I would keep that connection in your back pocket. (Assassin’s Creed Syndicate)

20Unlike Doctor Who, Assassin’s Creed spares no clichés in its reconstruction of Dickens: as this dialogue shows, the author is reconstructed as an eccentric genius, full of what Simon Callow calls ‘Dickensian energy’ (‘The Unquiet Dead’ with audio commentary 07:06). In addition, Dickens is introduced to the player as someone who ‘knows’ London perfectly. This feature relies on a familiar association between the author and the city, often brought to the fore in documentaries, TV dramas, museum exhibitions, and even an iPhone app called ‘Dickens’s Dark London’. But in Syndicate, this connection serves a function which is specific to videogames as a medium. Indeed, every time Dickens appears, he gives the playable characters a mission, each of which belongs to a section of the game called ‘The London Stories’. The six quests given by Dickens throughout Syndicate are all based on reconstructions of London-related stories: some are remotely inspired by the author’s novels; some are loosely based on Victorian folklore; some even constitute a foggy mix of the two.

21For example, the player is invited to chase and kill a demonical figure named ‘Spring-Heeled Jack’, about which very little is said within the game. Curious players may go and read the Ubisoft blog page dedicated to Dickens’s stories, and discover urban legends about this demon who assaulted a woman in 1838 and was then repeatedly seen doing mischief in the streets of London (Reparaz). Jack appeared in several accounts and articles in the press as well as in Penny Dreadfuls, in the late-1830s and over the following decades. In Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, this Victorian demon serves as a building block in the reconstruction of the London folklore which Dickens is generally thought to be fond of and inspired by. In another mission entitled ‘50 Berkeley Square’, Dickens asks the playable characters to investigate a haunted house. This particular quest conjures up another Victorian urban legend: in the 1870s and 1880s, several witnesses attested to having seen there the ghost of a young woman who killed herself after she had been abused by her uncle. At the beginning of the mission in Syndicate, Dickens takes the playable characters to this address whilst telling them the story of the house, whose mystery he intends to solve. But soon, he conjures up unforeseen elements, which are not usually a part of this urban legend. The house, Dickens says, was once briefly inhabited by a man named ‘James Jasper’, whose story sounds nothing less than familiar:

[A] legend claims the attic is haunted by the spirit of a young woman, who purportedly threw herself from the top floor window to escape her abusive uncle. Her screaming ghost has reportedly been sighted hanging from the window ledge. This residence was briefly owned by a Mister James Jasper, a choirmaster and an opium-addict. His nephew Edward was betrothed to one of Mr Jasper’s pupils, the fair and delicate Rose. However, Edward disappeared under mysterious circumstances, followed by Jasper himself. Perhaps grief sent him back to the soothing arms of his narcotic mistress. (Assassin’s Creed Syndicate)

  • 5 These are approximations. In the actual Mystery of Edwin Drood, the main characters are called ‘Joh (...)

22Dickens’s additions to the urban legend, the choirmaster and opium-addict ‘James Jasper’, his nephew ‘Edward’ and the beloved ‘Rose’, are taken from his last novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. The first draughts for this novel date from 1869, that is to say soon after the game’s time period.5 When visiting 50 Berkeley Square, the player is indeed attacked by an apparently narcotised Jasper who had been hiding in the attic, mourning the disappearance of his nephew and his unreciprocated love for Rose. After the player has killed Jasper and left the house, Dickens ironically expresses his regret that the mystery was solved, but then suggests that he might rekindle it in a forthcoming novel: ‘Alas the myth has been discredited. There was no ghost in Berkeley Square, just a wretched soul, driven to murder and madness by guilt and intoxication. I think this is the makings of a rather fine novel. I wonder if I’ve got one left in me’ (Assassin’s Creed Syndicate). The reference to The Mystery of Edwin Drood and, more generally, the subtext of what constitutes Dickens’s ‘London Stories’ might very well go unnoticed: whatever the finer details, players may simply understand that Dickens was an inventive and brilliant writer, fascinated with Victorian London and its folklore. Nevertheless, Syndicate engages its users in a disrupted relationship with the past since, like ‘The Unquiet Dead’, it shows the Victorian author being inspired by the content of a contemporary medium. Here, the process by which Dickens is inspired is specific to videogames. Indeed, the author declares that he finds inspiration in a mission just performed by the player. As a result, the game playfully suggests that, by interacting with Dickens, the player has influenced the author and has shaped her own version of the past. Here, the representation of Dickens hinges upon the notion of interaction, which constitutes the very specificity of this medium.

23In fact, Syndicate’s reconstruction lays much more emphasis on the player’s interaction with Dickens than on the game’s characterisation of this historical figure. Indeed, the stories surrounding its version of Dickens are clearly not at the heart of the experience created for the audience. For one thing, these narratives are strikingly hazy, oddly constructed, unfinished, or even incomprehensible, as if the plot did not really matter: they are not particularly well written, they often feature flat characters, they offer no genuine sense of logical development, and they almost never achieve satisfying closure. Actually, the stories built around Dickens stand out as little more than another pretext for the game to create its specific experience. Assassin’s Creed does not really attract players with the quality of its plots and characters. Rather, it reaches a wide audience thanks to the particular gaming experience which it offers: the franchise uses historical backgrounds as playgrounds, with which players are able to interact with in various ways. Especially, these games offer a gameplay of stealthy free-running and more particularly climbing: every building and structure is endowed with handholds, ledges, sills, ladders, etc., which are strategically positioned so that players may move around horizontally as well as vertically, thus exploring the game’s vast map whilst outmanoeuvring enemies. The various historical eras reconstructed by the creators of Assassin’s Creed thus serve as satisfying and entertaining environment in which players may roam around and build their own stories. As in Doctor Who, the iconic author is here to serve an aesthetic experience which is specific to this production. It matters little whether this brilliant and enthusiastic storyteller provides the game’s audience with compelling narratives. What matters mostly to players is which wall to climb up on or hide behind in order to assassinate a London demon, or which skills to use in order to find and explore a haunted house, since such decisions are what constitutes the specificity of the gaming experience.


24In both ‘The Unquiet Dead’ and Syndicate, a familiar version of Dickens is used as a shortcut towards a heritage representation of the Victorian era, which may be accessed and enjoyed by a vast audience. But in the videogame as in the series, this predictable reconstruction of the author is twisted to fit into the production’s specific aesthetics, whether it be a science-fiction narrative or an interactive experience based on stealthy free-running. While these two reconstructions abide by the rules of the Culture Industry system, reproducing the iconic author for commercial purposes, they also engage their viewers/players in a dynamic relationship with Dickens, since they challenge our expectations by ostentatiously submitting the Victorian writer to a radical process of remediation. Doctor Who and Assassin’s Creed demonstrate that the afterlife of Dickens is a truly intermedial adventure, by underlining how the collective meaning of this icon is consistently redefined in different media. In fact, the successive reconstructions of Dickens might even constitute what Henry Jenkins calls ‘transmedia storytelling’, which he defines as the creation of a storyworld through several media channels. Indeed, the iconic figure of Dickens is made out of many elements which are dispersed across media, forming what could be called a ‘character-world’. The proliferation of these elements can encourage ‘consumers […] to seek out new information and make connections among dispersed media content’ so that ‘[e]ach of us constructs our own personal mythology from bits and fragments of information extracted from the media flow’ (Jenkins 3). As a result, the character-world shaped by the many reconstructions of Dickens not only accommodates different media specificities, political agendas, and cultural dynamics, but also rests on an active synergy between collective and individual meanings.

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1 The series is set to have its first female Doctor in the next season, which will start airing in Fall 2018.

2 The series originally ran from 1963 to 1989, in twenty-six series. It was revived in 2005 with a new opening season that features the same characters and plot principles as its ancestor. Today, in 2017, the modern Doctor Who is still running on BBC One and features Peter Capaldi as its ninth Doctor.

3 The definition of the word ‘gameplay’ is subject to much debate in the field of Game Studies. Very broadly, the term refers to the ways in which players are able to interact with the game-world.

4 Videogames can feature both ‘playable characters’, which are controlled by the player, and ‘non-playable characters’ (NPCs), whose behaviour is either scripted or controlled by the game’s artificial intelligence (AI). In Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, the player can control either Jacob or Evie Frye, and encounters many NPCs which are either historical or invented figures.

5 These are approximations. In the actual Mystery of Edwin Drood, the main characters are called ‘John Jasper’, ‘Edwin’, and ‘Rosa’.

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Référence électronique

Clémence Folléa, « Reconstructing the Author for a Wide Audience: Dickens in Doctor Who (2005) and Assassin’s Creed (2015) »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 54 | 2018, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2018, consulté le 23 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Clémence Folléa

Clémence Folléa is senior lecturer in English Studies at Paris Diderot University. Her research focuses on the synergies between nineteenth-century and contemporary culture. Her PhD thesis, entitled ‘Eccentric Dickens: Afterlives of the Dickensian’ and completed in 2016, focused on the persistence of Dickens’s work in twentieth- and twenty-first-century culture. She also published several articles on this topic, including ‘Normative Ideology, Transgressive Aesthetics: Depicting and Exploring the Urban Underworld in Oliver Twist, Twist (2003) and Boy Called Twist (2004)’ in Cahiers Victoriens et Edouardiens (Spring 2014), and ‘Crossing Thresholds: The Aesthetics of an Urban Experience, from Oliver Twist to The Wire’ in the collection Unsettling Dickens: Process, Progress and Change, directed by Christine Huguet and Paul Vita and published in 2016. She is currently working on new media, with a focus on the specific cultural status and aesthetic experience of popular immersive videogames.

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