Originally transmitted 14 - 19 December 1991 on Thursday's at 4.35pm on BBC1, with a Sunday repeat, Dark Season was only commissioned as a replacement for the highly successful Maid Marion And Her Merry Men when the latter series creator Tony Robinson decided to take a year off. What viewers got as a replacement for Robinson's multi-gong winning comedy was an atmospheric, imaginative and inventive six episode science-fiction serial from the future award winning creator of Queer As Folk, Bob and Rose, The Second Coming -and the creative force behind the revival of Doctor Who, - Russell T. Davies.
Strictly speaking, Dark Season is actually two closely linked three-part stories set in the environs of a fictional school in southern England and utilising the same core trio of lead characters comprising of fifth formers, Reet (a pre-superstardom Kate Winslet), Thomas, (Ben Chandler), and the younger, mysteriously enigmatic third former, - and defacto leader of the group - Marcie. (Victoria Lambert.) The initial three episodes find the young heroes striving to save humanity from the technological enslavement planned by the school's mysterious Bill Gates-esque benefactor, the sunglasses wearing, sharply dressed, malevolent, Mr. Eldritch. (Grant Parsons). No sooner is the threat posed by Eldritch averted when an even more dangerous menace arises in the form of the sinister archaeologist Miss Pendragon, ('Blake's 7' icon Jacqueline Pearce, at her archest, imperious best) and her team of uncannily blond and identical co-workers. Miss Pendragon is intent on unearthing a long forgotten bunker hidden beneath the school grounds, which houses a slumbering, but soon to be awakened self-aware supercomputer named 'Behemoth'. Only after much danger and expertly crafted suspense are Marcie and her companions able to once again save the planet from catastrophe.
Produced by Richard Callanan and expertly directed by the multi-talented Colin Cant, 'Dark Season' also boasted an impressive array of adult acting talent the likes of Brigit Forsyth as Miss Maitland, the trio's long suffering teacher and ally, Cyril Shaps, Rosalie Crutchley, Roger Milner and Marsha Fitzalan.
Featuring early signs of writer Davies' trademarked sharply drawn characters and tight imaginative plotting, the series remains even to this day a textbook example of a children's drama serial which near effortlessly transcended its category to easily rank alongside the very best example of its genre. Indeed, in Davies' handling of the character of Marcie in particular there are clear echoes of the writer's love of the BBC's seminal television science-fiction adventure, Doctor Who. Marcie is a girl whose origin is shrouded in mystery. Whose intellect is subtly far in advance even of the most intelligent of the adults around her. Whose sharp self-awareness leads her at one point to comment 'Oh marvellous, I'm a cliche!' following her evading capture by Miss Pendragon via a handy ventilation shaft, a clear tip of the hat by Davies to his character's inspiration, an acknowledgement that is further reinforced during an amusing sequence where Reet employs a simple yo-yo to enable her to take 'gravity readings', which is a blatant reference to the Doctor Who adventure, 'The Power of Kroll'.
Coincidentally, the series - especially the second story - foreshadows the basic scenario of future genre sensation, Buffy The Vampire Slayer as thrown into sharp relief by its basic elements of a school built over a site of great power and evil, and a group of young, fiesty teenagers as protectors of the wider innocent population. Davies himself in an interview addressed the parallel with amused modesty thus: "Though it's all archetypal stuff, Joss Whedon did it much better! And it sums up the difference between ambition in the UK and the US. I thought of a nice, humble six-parter. Joss Whedon imagined a global empire, and made it come true."
Production costs for Dark Season were kept economical by filming the majority of the production within a ten-mile radius of London, while the impressive Behemoth control room set was constructed and filmed at Ealing Studios. The series also boasted a tie-in novel written by Davies. Although Davies mooted a follow-up to the original series, unfortunately it wasn't to be, as he explained: "I did write asking if they wanted more, but it was only commissioned in the first place 'cos Tony Robinson took a year off from 'Maid Marion'. He then returned, so the slot quite rightly went back to him." Although denied the opportunity to chronicle further adventures of the mysterious Marcie and her friends, Davis went on to create another high watermark for BBC Children's drama output, the excellent Century Falls.
By turns amusing, aware, suspenseful, exciting and imaginative, 'Dark Season' stands as an almost criminally overlooked example of children's genre television of the highest quality, and also as an early indication of a future major creative talent in the form of Russell T. Davies taking his first steps on the long and winding creative road to a glittering future.
Published on December 7th, 2018. Written by SRH for Television Heaven.