Wednesday 5 August 2015

Dark Season

Children certainly encumber adults what with their precarious antics and devil may care attitudes, but you know what? Sometimes, it's these juvenile traits which allow children to see and tackle the world in ways that adults can't even comprehend. You see, adults are too predisposed to sense and logic, so they flounder in the face of concepts they can't rationalise.

And that's why, when it comes to tackling psychopathic megalomaniacs, children have a slight edge. Now, I'm not suggesting that we send children into war zones, but when it comes to standing toe to toe in teatime TV dramas there's nothing better to have on your side than a precocious teenager who still doesn't quite understand risk.

If you want some definitive proof of this fact then just tune into the sensational tellywaves known as Dark Season.

Genre: Children's
Channel: BBC1

Transmission: 14/11/1991 - 19/12/1991

Tom (Ben Chandler) and Reet (Kate Winslet) are both fifth years (year 11), but they've only and committed a cardinal sin of secondary school by being mates with a third year (year 9) in the form of curly haired misfit Marcie (Victoria Lambert).

Thankfully, though, this 'cross-generational' friendship's only gonna go and save the entire planet. You see, the sinister Mr Eldritch (Grant Parsons) - who's all dark overcoats, dark shades and bleach blonde hair - has got a particularly heinous plan up his sleeve.

But what's this crime? He's donating computers to all the kids at the local school! Yeah, on the face of it we suppose he sounds like a bit of a philanthropist, but believe us his middle name isn't charity, it's megalomaniac. Probably.

And it's with these computers and a particularly devilish program called Symbiosis that he's planning to leach off the children's energies to make himself more powerful than anyone could ever imagine. He's already enslaved one of the pupils, stereotypical swot Olivia (Samantha Cahill) to test his modus operandi and it's gone like clockwork.

Problem is that Eldritch needs to locate Professor Polzinski - creator of Symbiosis - to fully put his chilling plan into action. Oh, and with all this power he's planning to destroy the entire planet through unregulated chaos. The scamp!

But Marcie, Reet and Tom aren't gonna stand for this. Even if their teacher, Miss Maitland (Brigit Forsyth) keeps rolling her eyes at their crazy stories of Eldritch's planned world domination.

And that's only the first half of the series. There's a different second half. All modern and forwards looking is Dark Season.Yes, the second half centres on an equally barking mad antagonist in the form of Miss Pendragon (Jacqueline Pearce) who's got Nazi sensibilities and is looking to dig up her beloved Behemoth weapons system to conquer the world.

Obviously, Marcie, Reet and Tom have got a bit of form in battling arch nutcases such as this, so they take it upon themselves to save the world yet again. But is there a higher power manipulating Miss Pendragon?

Behind the Darkness

Dark Season was broadcast in late 1991 on BBC1 in the CBBC 4.35pm slot on Thursdays. Each episode was then repeated on the following Sunday morning. And who was the man behind the scripts? Oh it was just some up and coming writer going by the name of Russell T Davies - you might have heard of him, he rebooted some show about doctors.

The man in charge of wringing every last drop of talent out of the young actors was director Colin Cant who had already directed Grange Hill, The Machine Gunners and Moondial, so he came to Dark Season well seasoned when it came to dealing with those tiny actors known as child actors. Dark Season was repeated in 1994 and then, in a highly unanticipated and noncommercial move, a further repeat followed in 2002.

A DVD release finally emerged blinking into the light in 2006, but this is now out of print. Supposed 'new' copies are on Amazon for extortionate amounts, but you can pick up more reasonably priced used copies on Ebay. Or you can just jog on over to YouTube where the whole affair is available.

The Doctor Who Element

Now, we're gonna have a little section here which investigates the flighty claims that Dark Season was Russell T Davies attempt at writing not just an original children's TV drama, but, in fact, a thinly veiled take on Doctor Who which had been sent to Coventry just a few years previous.

There's a lot of debate about this theory, so let's put on our investigating trousers and look at these curious claims.

Russell T Davies had first shown an interest in Doctor Who back in 1987 when he submitted a spec script to Andrew Cartmel for the time travelly show. The script was rejected and old Russell would have to wait nearly 20 years until he got his name on a Doctor Who script. Now, this certainly shows Russell had an interest in Doctor Who, but we imagine that there were a LOT of spec scripts being delivered by all manner of writers at the time.

There are also many parallels between the characters of Dark Season and Doctor Who, well, there's mainly one big one and that's Marcie's similarity to Sylvester McCoy's Doctor. And, yeah, you know, we guess she's kinda eccentric and packed full of idiosyncrasies, but perhaps less self assured than the Doctor. Victoria Lambert, herself, has actually claimed that she actually took more inspiration from the Mad Hatter than Doctor Who [1].

Reet and Tom are also postulated to be the stereotypical companions to Marcie's Doctor, but to be honest they're just like the sidekicks of any hero. And the concepts of supporting cast members asking questions to push the plot along and cause all sorts of jeopardy weren't trademarked by Doctor Who were they?!

The number of people involved in Dark Season who had previously worked on Doctor Who has also contributed to the general Who rumours, but franklyt his is early 90s BBC here and the incestuous nature of cast and crew is hardly indicative of anything more than a limited gene pool.

Russell T Davies, himself, has scotched the whole theory and claimed he was just trying to create a unique drama for the kids. Certain elements of Dark Season were recycled into a number of new era Doctor Who stories, but Davies would hardly be the first writer to have ever delved into their past for inspiration.

One aspect that isn't mentioned much, though, is the opening and closing credits which feature a swirly vortex thing which immediately made us think "Hang on! That's all a bit Dr Who opening credits". Maybe it's a time tunnel, could be, but we don't know for sure, looks a bit too flamey!

We can't deny there's some resemblance to Doctor Who in Dark Season, but we think many of these are down to coincidence or, simply, the mechanics of storytelling. And, finally, if we hadn't been made aware of all these similarities - prior to watching - we doubt we would have noticed any of them.

The Dark Season Descends

Someone emailed us a while back asking whether we knew the name of a TV show where an evil villain was planning to infiltrate schools with computers, but it most definitely was not The Demon Headmaster. We, though, thought "Yeah, it is The Demon Headmaster". However, after a little research, we discovered it was Dark Season.

Marcie's pretty central to the whole shindig, so let's turn our peepers on this inquisitive little madam. We've already rattled on about how she shares certain characteristics with Doctor Who, but she's truly unique in our eyes. Sure, she's a bit highly strung at times and that paddle she carries round is highly contrived, but she's a great protagonist with wisdom beyond her years. And this is all thanks to watching a lot of TV so she reckons.

Reet and Tom are likeable characters and do their bit to save the day and help pose questions to Marcie, but sometimes we got the feeling they were a little too similar and perhaps one companion to Marcie would have been better. However, it's a kids show and kids thrive on the camaraderie of gangs, so we'll let this one slide in the name of vitality.

And, Eldritch, he's all sinister machinations and general wickedness, isn't he? And the beauty is that we hardly learn a single damn iota about him. Who is he? Where's he come from? Was he bullied as a child? Was he even a child or was he grown in a lab? All we know is that he exudes evil and is absolutely bonkers.

Miss Maitland's an interesting sort due to the way she evolves over the series from a disbelieving caterpillar into a forthright and determined butterfly. She's probably the only adult ally that Marcie, Reet and Tom have, so she's integral to the plot even if, at first, it's just acting as their personal chauffeur. She comes up trumps in the end, though, with a trenchant blow to the bad guys' plans.

But she's not the only Miss who deserves a forensic analysis as waiting in the second half of Dark Season is Miss Pendragon. Now, she's another one of those villains in the mould of Eldritch - stark raving mad and hellbent on power. So it's no surprise that she holds up Nazism as a fantastic way to get ahead. Just what Marcie, Reet and Tom need on their plates!

All these amazing characters, though, will be a complete waste of time if the acting ain't up to scratch. Thankfully, by a divine stroke of luck from the telly gods, the acting is GREAT.

We all know, of course, that Kate Winslet went on to have a successful Hollywood career - all thanks to some unbelievable story about a boat - but she's not actually the stand out here. Mind you, she's only 15, but that's by the by.

It is, in fact, Victoria Lambert and Grant Parsons who really stood out to our scrutising glare. Lambert, as Marcie, delivers buckets of determination and has that slightly cocky demeanour to help put all the adults in their place by delivering her wry lines just perfectly. And Parsons inhabits Eldritch like he himself is a complete nutjob - he reminded us of Richard E Grant at his manic best. Lambert, like many child actors, however never acted again after Dark Season and Parsons left the stage for a career as an agent.

Brigit Forsyth looks absolutely amazing here as a 50 year old and even more attractive than in her 1970s pomp. Nearly twenty years on from Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads and her acting has matured gracefully as well. Jacqueline Pearce - for whom sci-fi is almost a second home - brings a suitably unhinged and almost possessed performance as Miss Pendragon where the self belief and arrogance is flowing through her every sinew almost to the point of ecstasy.

Winslet, yeah, she's pretty good here, but still learning her craft. She's capable of a deep and penetrating glare here which says a thousand words, but maybe her command of dialogue still needed a bit of polish at this point. Ben Chandler plays the slightly slower companion with a comic zeal and had a promising career in comedy acting ahead of him, but sadly Dark Season was his final TV appearance.

All these perfomances are helped by the sparkling dialogue that Russell T Davies is now renowned for. For a children's TV show the dialogues clever, self referential and, more importantly, capable of pulling a laugh out of grim and strenuous circumstances. It's a delight to listen to and Davies probably had a real hoot writing it.

So, we've got great characters, weighty performances and a fizzy script. But what about the plot?

What we loved about it the most is the fact that Davies has crowbarred two practically unrelated stories into one series. And by creating 3 episode stories there's absolutely no time to catch your breath and, crucially, no filler. We won't give any spoilers away, but each story arc has a couple of fiendishly brilliant twists that you cannot see coming until the very last second. Davies, you old scoundrel, we salute you!

And, finally, we really loved the direction at play here. Instead of the standard 'point the camera at the action' we're treated to the whole gamut of camera angles from bird's eye, worm's eye, dutch angles and close ups to create a real sense of urgency and tension throughout the series.

Oh, one more final thing, what the hell's going on with the fashion at the school? Almost everyone is wearing some bizarre combination of pastel colours and many of the lads are wearing colourful boots? We know it's the early 90s, but it's quite a fashion disaster at times!

Final Thoughts

No doubt you've come to the conclusion that our uninterrupted stream of gushing means we loved Dark Season. And, yes, we bloody loved it!

It's an ingeniously clever show which demonstrates the might of children in the face of adversity and, even as an adult, we'd be more than willing to watch a showstopper of Marcie's might. Screw adults, they're simply not funny or adaptable enough judging by this!

Dark Season has got pretty much everything going for it. Sparking dialogue, well thought out characters, great acting and surprise after surprise. It's not as well known as other children's dramas, but we suspect this is due to it's one series wonder status. Indeed the only tragedy about Dark Season is that they didn't do any more.



  1. I loved the bit where we are lead to believe the scientist Eldritch is looking for is the bloke... when really.. hurrah! .. it's his missus.

  2. Yep, it completely blindsided me! Marvellous stuff!

  3. LOVE(D) Dark Season and if you'll permit me to share a link to my gushings

    I seem to recall that the tender 12 year old me occasionally felt a bit funny about Reet (and indeed the 35 year old me still feels funny about Ms Winslet!) as well as the rather bonny girl with glasses you've also pictured here

    1. That's a great post on Dark Season, Mark! Thanks for sharing your ramblings!

  4. I loved this series, and took to recording them on VHS (awwwww .. those days!) and snatched up the novelization as well. Happily snagged the DVD when it was a reasonable price. Does anyone recall the amazing CENTURY FALLS, also by Mr T Davies?

    1. You know, I started watching Century Falls last year, but couldn't get into it. Maybe I need to dip my toe in again...

  5. In the cold open for Episode 1, Eldritch comes out with

    "Nothing in the world can stop me now"

    and if that's not a Dr Who deep cut, I don't know what is.

  6. Thanks for this review - loved both century falls and dark season, and checked them out again over lockdown, still love them. Anyone know the filming location of Eldrigdes base in episode 1 - 3? The outside shots that is - a small random castle or fort?? Century falls is Gibson Cave near Bowlees. Thanks again :)

    1. I think it’s what’s now the Stoke Newington climbing centre