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Edge of Darkness

Reviewed by David Longhorn
Posted September 12, 2004

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First screened to critical acclaim (and very good viewing figures) in 1985, Edge of Darkness still defies categorization all these years later. The plot is that of a gritty, realistic police procedural, with familiar ingredients from British shows of this type. But there are also elements that can be loosely termed mythical/supernatural, and ‘hard’ sf of the Heinlein/Pournelle school. So how do these disparate ingredients come together?

Inspector Ronald Craven, a Yorkshire police officer, is asked by his superiors to ease up on his investigation of vote-rigging at a miners’ union. After agreeing to delay, but not postpone matters, Craven picks up his daughter Emma from a local college. Emma is a physicist and radical activist. As father and daughter rush through the pouring rain from car to home they are confronted by a gunman who screams abuse at Craven. Emma throws herself in front of her father and is shot. As she dies she whispers to her father: ‘Don’t tell.’

Bob Peck’s portrayal of Craven’s shock, rage and grief at his daughter’s murder is so brilliant that - at first - viewers might not quite realise that EOD is not your everyday thriller. It emerges that Emma was a member of Gaia, a militant eco-warrior group keen to expose underhand activities at Northmoor, which is supposedly just a low-level nuclear waste storage facility. Members of Gaia were convinced that in the old mine workings of Northmoor something far more sinister than storage was going on.

Craven finds a gun and a Geiger counter in Emma’s room. He is startled by the counter’s response when he brings it near his jacket. It has been triggered by something in his pocket - a lock of his daughter’s hair that he cut when he formally identified her body. A post-mortem confirms that Emma has been exposed to massive dose of radiation. She was part of a Gaia team that broke into Northmoor, to be met with ‘ultimate force’.

Soon Craven starts seeing Emma’s ghost and things really get weird. At first one might accept that Craven is simply hearing his daughter’s voice - this was, apparently, the intent of script writer Troy Kennedy Martin. But when Emma appears in person there’s no doubt that she is ‘really’ there. This was the director’s decision, made during filming, and it pays off brilliantly. It is implied - though never overtly stated - that Emma is in some sense still ‘alive’ as part of some kind of spiritus mundi. This would explain why a spring and flowers emerge in Craven’s garden on the spot where she died. Magic realism is a very odd ingredient in a thriller of this sort, and helps account for EOD’s cult status.

The hard sf elements emerge alongside this quasi-supernatural plot. Northmoor is of great interest to shadowy figures in the British and US governments, as powerful forces are at work there. It’s rumoured that Northmoor contains a ‘hot cell’ where plutonium is being created from low-level waste by a new, revolutionary laser process. Rival forces gather around Craven, a useful pawn, while the sinister Grogan of the US Fusion Corporation arrives in London to buy the facility.

Two smooth British agents - Harcourt and Pendleton (played by Ian McNeice and Charles Kay) - offer Craven clues as to what Emma was up to and why she may have been the gunman’s real target. They also introduce him to Darius Jedburgh, a CIA special operative with a neat line in repartee. Eventually Craven and Jedburgh penetrate Northmoor and are met with extreme force. The last episode is, to say the least, remarkable.

EOD is truly original because it effortlessly moves from the deeply personal - Craven’s relationship with Emma, and his wary admiration for Jedburgh - to the ultimate question: what is the destiny of the Western world? It becomes clear that Grogan and his cohorts plan a nuclear-powered, interplanetary future. In a keynote speech to Nato top brass, Grogan speaks of future man as ‘a celestial warrior’ setting out, pioneer-style, for the stars.

Grogan’s opponents (a motley awkward squad) see his ‘hard sf’ dream as a nightmare of pollution, violence and corporate slavery. Our planet, Jedburgh declares at the same conference, will be strip-mined and then abandoned. The celestial warriors will be ruthless thugs - spacefaring Teutonic Knights with nukes. And then he gets out the plutonium to illustrate his point…

There’s yet another plot strand, concerning Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis and global warming, that I won’t give away here. Suffice to say it’s weirdly compelling. But according to one of the DVD extras, Bob Peck drew the line at turning into a tree.

No synopsis can do justice to the series, which is many-layered and replete with subtle menace and sly humour. Suffice to say that EOD offers brilliant, moving and imaginative drama with strong fantasy and sf components. Bob Peck (a revered stage actor whose only big film role was in Jurassic Park), and Joe Don Baker give the performances of their lives, and are supported by a brilliant supporting cast.

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The series’ imagery is that of myth and religion, its premises that of (popular) science. The score, by Eric Clapton with Michael Kamen, is atmospheric and haunting, especially when combined with Willie Nelson’s song ‘The Time of the Preacher’, which links Emma, Craven and Jedburgh.

And, just to put the icing on the cake, Bob Peck returned a few years later for another BBC mini-series, ‘Natural Lies’, which is all about the way multinational food corporations… But no, I’ll let you find out about that for yourself.


Related Links:
BBC's I Love TV Edge of Darkness page


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Troy Kennedy-Martin

Martin Campbell

Broadcast Dates
November 4-December 9, 1985 (six episodes)

Bob Peck
Joanne Whalley
Joe Don Baker
Charles Kay
Ian McNiece
Hugh Fraser


Full Credits at IMDb

Available on DVD

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