The early 1990s were a very odd time. The 1980s fashions had devolved into sickly pastel colours and shell-suits, personal computers looked stunted and had no colours, and the end of the millennium was something to fear and use as a launch-pad/excuse for thousands of dodgy sci-fi plots. It was a also a very good time for children’s drama, particularly on the BBC.
Out of all this emerged Dark Season, scripted by Russell T Davis. He would go on to rebirth Doctor Who more or less successfully, at least if you trust the viewing figures. Before this he created several children’s dramas with a keen sci-fi and fantasy bent, most of which I remember seeing while I was in my ‘formative’ first year at secondary (or high) school. The very first of these was Dark Season – a cultural collision of Doctor Who and Grange Hill (with more than a little precursor to Buffy about it). It’s also most notable for having Kate Winslet in a major role about six years before Titanic. Intended as a complete series, Dark Season nonetheless divides its six episode run into two very distinct storylines, which I remember seemed extremely odd even then.
In the first three episodes, a mysterious man named Mr Eldritch arrives at a school with a sinister plot involving lots of free computers. Look at his hair and sunglasses – he’s clearly evil!
First to sense that something is up is third year student, Marcie (Victoria Lambert), who is to all intents the ‘Doctor’ in the show. She’s very bossy but also extremely perceptive. This girl can sniff out the weird at thirty paces. If she went to Buffy’s Sunnydale it’s very possible she’d explode. She’s aided, mostly, by her loyal friends – red haired Reet (Kate Winslet no less!) and bleach-blond Tom (Ben Chandler) although she also persuades her teacher, Mrs Maitland, that there’s something very “rum”, about Eldritch’s generous gift of free computers for every pupil. He’s like a Satanic Steve Jobs, basically, and he soon sets about testing his evil computers on the smarmy school swot, Olivia. Olivia eagerly joins Eldritch over lunch because of her love for computers, where he performs the test. Marcie is the only one to get properly alarmed when Olivia reappears after the break glowing “like the sun” and breaking light bulbs with her mind’s EMP device. Yes. Her inner EMP device. Marcie and her small band of allies have to act fast before every child takes one of the mind-bending computers home with them.
It’s never quite clear what Eldritch intends to achieve with this brainwashing beyond ‘chaos’ (well, if it’s good enough for Nylarthotep…). The range of altered Olivia’s powers seem to involve her breaking mirrors, scowling a lot and intimidating First Year students. She’s also even creepier with milky screen-wiped eyes than she was with her huge round glasses. The costume department had some odd ideas, too. Olivia wears tight blue polo-necks and short pleated skirts, along with ill-advised white tights. Freaky.
In a way the odd costuming works. All the other children at the school are kitted out in pastel shades and it makes Eldritch’s dark, shadowy appearance that bit more dramatic. Our three heroes stand out too; Marcie’s frizzy hair and matching jacket, Reet’s bright red hair, Tom’s bleached barnett, give a them really separate identity. Marcie also carries a paddle with her because, she explains to her baffled teacher, you never know when you might be up the creek.
Eldritch would certainly like to drown her after the mess she makes of his plans, although ultimately it isn’t really Marcie, or her friends’ efforts that thwart him. I’ve noticed something here bugs me about the new Doctor Who very much – characters, especially baddies, mainly just rant about their awesome evil visions without really doing very much. There’s a little too much chat on morality in dark rooms and a heavy reliance on a last second countdown (yes, with big digital clock and everything) which forces the show to wrap everything up with some magic hand waving and button pressing; even if it was a clever switch of mistaken identity, the impact of the ending gets a little swallowed by the general histrionics. This is an unsatisfying ending, which could explain why I couldn’t remember what actually happened in the first story.
So, the things I remembered best were the music, which is still awesome, and the argument about the origin of the yoghurt pot in the street, which Marcie uses to stimulate Reet and Tom’s imagination before she spots all the free computers. Actually, Eldritch was at least sensible enough not to give out free computers to a much dodgier school – they’re left lying around in the halls all day and I’m amazed more of them aren’t nicked during school hours as it was. The evil computer threat really feels watered down, today, in the age of Facebook and Norton Anti Virus, but Dark Season still a solid sci-fi romp with a fun script and plenty of explosions! Naturally, the baddie gets away….mainly because Marcie didn’t beat him to death with the canoe paddle. Well, she isn’t Jack Bauer, after all.
The first story arc, episodes 1-3, ends with Marcie sure that there’ll be a “next time” to face Eldritch, and she isn’t wrong. I think she lives on a Hellmouth. Three more episodes follow, and I’ll cover those next time.