This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.
Russell T. Davies, a man synonymous with the successful revival of Doctor Who, was initially a graphic artist for Why Don’t You?, but he did several jobs on the show, eventually writing, directing and producing the programme.
Davies also showed his versatility when he presented an edition of Play School in its final year. Saturday morning summer filler On The Waterfront made its reputation in part due to Davies’ own unique take on the classic serial The Flashing Blade.
Next came Breakfast Serials, which Davies both wrote and produced. When Tony Robinson decided to take a break from making Maid Marian And Her Merry Men, an afternoon drama slot opened up and RTD’s first major breakthrough in Children’s television drama began with the 1991 science fiction thriller Dark Season…
Dark Season (1991)
Originally called The Adventuresome Three, Davies’ script was intended as a dramatic offshoot of Why Don’t You? He offered it to Granada, who wanted to make it as a six-part serial. BBC Children’s TV Department head, Anna Home, who liked Davies’ preferred structure of two three-parters, was very keen and commissioned the series.
Dark Season‘s main protagonists were three children: Marcie (Victoria Lambert), a third year pupil who was apparently wise beyond her years, and her older somewhat impressionable companions: Reet (the first TV role for future Hollywood star Kate Winslet), and Tom (Ben Chandler).
Davies was instrumental in the casting of Brigit Forsyth as their teacher, Miss Maitland, and Cyril Shaps as Polzinski, a mysterious character designed to wrong-foot the viewer. Both actors were veterans of Troughton-era Doctor Who, and Blake’s 7‘s Jacqueline Pearce, fresh from playing a villainous dual role in Moondial, was cast as the formidable and deliciously over-the-top Miss Pendragon, an archaeologist who was also — in RTD’s own words — “a devil-worshipping Nazi lesbian.”
Grant Parsons was cast as the enigmatic Mr. Eldritch, who looms large in the first serial and comes back to haunt the children in the second. Bearing a passing resemblance to Spike from Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Eldritch wears shades throughout to hammer home his enigmatic persona. An intriguing adversary, how many of us would have liked to have seen him grab the spade in the final scene?
Though seemingly set in the present, the series is determined to look unusual. A school where pastel-themed casual clothing appears to be the norm is given a large consignment of computers (frankly archaic by today’s standards — this was the time of the fledgling internet) by a mysterious benefactor, Mr. Eldritch.
Marcie, Reet and Tom investigate, roping in their reluctant teacher Miss Maitland and, on occasion, making use of her car. The children suspect the hypnosis-inducing computers are part of a sinister plot to discredit the work of Professor Polzinski, but will they be able to find the Professor to help them prove it before the entire school succumbs to Eldritch’s will?
The second three-parter — set three months later — features the icy Miss Pendragon, the head of an archaeological dig, deep beneath the school field, for the Behemoth. The set-up resembles a Teutonic version of Time Team, with only the most Aryan archaeologists preferred. Sadly, the rather obvious bulky blond wigs rather undermine these opening scenes.
Discovering the Behemoth is a war computer, Marcie and Tom investigate a former Ministry Of Defense outpost for answers, whilst Reet and Miss Maitland attempt to gain access to the heavily guarded dig.
Needing a human brain to activate it, (blond-haired Tom is the selected donor) the Behemoth is eventually reanimated by Miss Pendragon and it breaks through the floor of the gymnasium, where Eldritch is waiting to reclaim his war machine. Can Marcie convince the Behemoth not to instigate Eldritch’s destructive plan?
The spectacular visual effects finale as the Behemoth is seen to explode then submerge were by Tony Harding, in his time responsible for, amongst other things, the K9 and Malus props on Doctor Who.
Davies has described the series as “Doctor Who-ish” in retrospect, though at the time he was no doubt delighted to get anything resembling the Time Lord’s adventures onto TV — especially given the perception the BBC had as anti-sci-fi in this era.
Marcie, many have noted, seems to be channelling Sylvester McCoy’s portrayal of the Doctor — her spouting insults at her fellow classmates like a scattergun thesaurus being especially reminiscent of the 7th Doctor. Indeed, Marcie Hatter is even referred to in the epilogue of Davies’ Doctor Who novel Damaged Goods. She was perhaps devised to be to the Doctor what Wiggins of the Baker Street Irregulars was to Sherlock Holmes.
Century Falls (1993)
Nineteen-ninety-three’s Century Falls was a more accomplished work than Dark Season, and much darker in tone. Davies explored several adult themes, often pushing what was acceptable on television at 5pm in the afternoon.
Director Colin Cant (the creative behind 1988’s gothic fantasy Moondial) had asked Davies to come up with a six-parter in a hurry when another project fell through. Cant then took Davies’ new idea to his bosses and, thus, Century Falls was commissioned.
Davies wanted to explore a favourite archetype: the dark sinister English village. When he planned a possible second series of Dark Season, one of the concepts he investigated was psychic twins. Both of these became the foundation of what was to be Davies’ love letter to those spooky supernatural dramas, which often appeared just before Christmas, on children’s television back in the day.
The serial owes much to the folk horror genre. It is reminiscent of the Play For Today Robin Redbreast — a strange village full of eccentrics, where suspicions abound and things don’t make sense. RTD’s own memories of (perhaps inevitably) Doctor Who, especially “The Daemons” and “The Stones Of Blood,” are detectable.
The serial also evokes memories of several serials from the 70s. The uncertainty of Mandog, and The Changes; the pastoral superstition of Children Of The Stones and The Moon Stallion and the scary claustrophobia of “plague village” drama The Bells Of Astercote.
Davies, keen to reinvent classic ideas, manages to weave all these concepts together into a broadly-satisfying whole. However, the pace of the serial feels rather clumsy, perhaps because there was enough material taped to fill a seven-parter. That said, Davies teases and often wrong-foots his audience with twist upon unexpected twist.
Teenager Tess Hunter (Catherine Sanderson) is shy and self-conscious. She and her expectant mother (Heather Baskerville) are newcomers to Century Falls, an isolated Yorkshire village with many secrets.
Tess meets twin brother and sister Ben and Carey Naismith (Simon Fenton and Emma Jane Lavin), who both possess psychic powers, but choose to use them in different ways. Together, they investigate the village’s notorious infertility problem: no child has been born there since 1953. Ben is quite unpleasant, a deliberate departure from the likeable protagonists of much children’s drama, a real wildcard who reveals his mental powers were given to him by the seemingly sentient waterfall, Century Falls, that gave the village its name.
There is quite a cast of characters, perhaps a tad too many eccentrics for one village: The village store-cum-Post Office is run by aggressive elderly spinsters the Harkness sisters (a name RTD would return to later!): Esme (Mary Wimbush), May (Georgine Anderson), and Alice (Doctor Who veteran Eileen Way).
The local landowner is Richard Naismith (Bernard Kay, another Who alumni) who is in possession of a precious golden mask artifact. He also has an ultrasound picture of Mrs Hunter’s unborn child — but how and why? Naismith has a particularly sinister subordinate called Julia, who thrives on being as enigmatic as everyone else. All the villagers appear to share a collective consciousness enabling them to view past events with a simple glance into the middle distance.
The children discover a secret ceremony was conducted at the temple near the waterfall in 1953 and that Tess’ mother is one of the “scattered children” who were forced out of the village. Will the children be able to solve the mystery and free the village from the 40-year curse that now threatens the future of Tess’ unborn sibling?
Century Falls is an emotive serial with much to say about both loneliness and emptiness. It is told in a very uncompromising way that Davies, with hindsight, felt might have been “too adult,” suggesting it could have done with “more clarity and exposition.”
Cant’s visuals are, as anyone familiar with his work might expect, both impressive and memorable. The flames which appear in the waterfall and the wonderful golden mask being especially well achieved.
Dark Season & Century Falls’ Legacy
Both serials marked out Russell T. Davies as a name to watch, and one can see the seeds of his later successes here. His witty, self-aware characters and dialogue were a breath of fresh air in the early 90s as children’s television faced the challenges of remaining relevant as multi-channel technology took hold.
Yet there remains in these serials a great sense of what had gone before. Davies’ work is testament to his thoughts on reinvention: “…it doesn’t matter if the story is original or not, it’s how you tell it.”
Both serials have their share of Doctor Who-style moments and indeed former Who actors. There is a real sense of Davies having the chance to cast actors he really wanted to work with, based on a love of his favorite formative television show.
Fundamentally, from a Geek viewpoint at least, through these serials, Davies began to make a name for himself at the BBC at a crucial time, indirectly keeping the memory of a certain Time Lord alive. When the BBC eventually decided to revive Doctor Who, Russell T. Davies was top of the list to run the show.