“It was only commissioned in the first place 'cos Tony Robinson took a year off from Maid Marion.”
Russell T Davies, interview for BBC.co.uk’s Cult site.A chum kindly leant me Dark Season, Mr Rusty’s first go at telly drama. (Well, technically he’d done dramatic stuff to Why Don’t You…?, but anyway…)
Three kids – Reet (played by Kate Winslet), Marcie and Thomas – suspect a suspicious blond man of being up to no good when he offers everyone in their school free computers. And they’re right – the suspicious blond man plans to use a decades-old programme (coded by Cyril Shaps) to blow up the world. Blimey.
CBBC don’t make this kind of spooky stuff any more (at least, that’s what they said the last time they rejected me), and it does feel like telly from another age. And here are a few thoughts scribbled down as I watched it.
The serial owes an obvious debt to the then-just-dead Dr Who. The strange and scary Other invades an everyday street and school, and only the sassy kids notice. There’s evil computers, neo-Nazis and archaeology. And it’s up to the misfit kids and their nerdy, clue-spotting mate to save the day. The kids themselves could go to Ace’s youth club, and be just as sulky about it.
As well as Shaps, there’s a brilliantly batty turn from Jacqui Pearce as a big lesbian Nazi, with Brigit Forsyth as a put-upon teacher, trying to keep everyone calm. A bit cheaper looking and much more aimed at kids, it still says a lot about the state of the last years of Who that it wasn’t a whole lot more clever.
The Cult site mentions similarities to Buffy in the set-up, though it’d only be Season 1, and then the more silly episodes. Then again, the not-a-uniform pastels all the kids wear at school reminded me of the rock n’ roll utopia in Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey.
Like his subsequent Century Falls, Russell creates a great spooky mystery, which is not altogether explained. There are some odd continuity things: what happened to Olivia – the swotty girl taken over by the baddies in episodes 1-3? She doesn’t even warrant a mention in the second half.
Likewise, it’s established early on that Marcie’s in a different year to her friends, and there’s some stuff about the irony of her being the youngest and bossing them around. In part 4, though, she’s in the same class under Miss Maitland, allowed a visit to the dig. Maybe part four is many months after part three, and the school’s brought in some drastic streaming.
Such nit-picky details don’t matter – it’s the atmosphere conjured that counts. Dark Season is more a mood piece than Dr Who usually ever was. Holding back on the explanations ensures that the weirdness is never punctured, and leaves the viewer to join the dots for themselves. And, I’d argue, is something we’ve seen more of in New Show.
The splitting of the serial into two 3-parters is again like late 80’s Who (squeezing the most from the budget while also not trusting the audience’s loyalty for six weeks). The return of Mr Eldritch at the end of part five is exactly the same gag as the Daleks popping up right at the end of Bad Wolf.
The stuff about kids not being listened to by adults is a little over-wrought, and the gag about Marcie carrying a canoe paddle is too contrived. The Nazism stuff is just… shit, to be honest. But there’s plenty of wit and mystery, and things crack along at some speed.
I also really like Miss Maitland finally rolling her sleeves up to combat the Nazis, and her taking charge of the JCB is a joy.