July 22, 2007

What Would Stephen Baxter Do?

"Heaven is empty, and hell is bursting apart at the seams."
To be honest, Russell T. Davies' work on Doctor Who - especially some of his scripts - have been hit-or-miss for me. He is touted as one of the best television writers in the UK, but I wanted to sample some of his non-Who work. At the very least, I would expect some of the same weaknesses to show up, so I chose (appropriately) a more fantasy-based piece.
The premise of The Second Coming is simple: video-store clerk Stephen Baxter is out for a night of drinking with his mates. After that, he disappears for six weeks, and upon his return, announces that he is the son of God. Consequences ensue.
I am trying not to spoil this piece, because quite frankly, it's one of the best written pieces for television - a worthy inheritor to the legacy of writers like Rod Serling. It's not perfect, but watching it makes me wonder if the pressures of DW are not allowing Davies' to play to his strengths.
That may be an unfair call - it's tougher to write three to four 50 minute stories than a solid two and a half hour story. If, given the plot description, you're expecting Second Coming to be a solid parallel to the Gospel stories, you will be disappointed. If anything, it is like an episode of the old Paulist-produced Insight series (which did a kind of interesting take way back in 1977), but updated with a fresh, modern sensibility. For example, Baxter tells a priest that certain members of the clergy are too busy "shagging choir boys", and the priest gives a thoughtful yet assertive defense. This is not a show that takes sides - although Davies is an admitted athiest, there are some really strong seeds for discussion for people of any faith.
(And for those who would claim this is sacrilegious, answer me this - after watching this, why should this piece be considered blasphemous and the Left Behind series so sacred? Or is any piece that attempts to deal with religion and spirituality in a serious manner automatically suspect? Much like The Prisoner, Davies' script asks many questions, and even when possibly positing answers, provides much to talk and debate - this is not a DVD to watch alone. In fact, here's a meme - everyone who reads this post, rent Second Coming, and blog your thoughts, linking back to me.)
In viewing this story, it's very easy to see why Christopher Eccleston was on the short-list to play the Doctor on the 2005 revival. (Although, personally, I thought he was flat-out brilliant as Bilbrough on Cracker. His sudden shifts from being manically "power-mad" to flat-out despair (at one point, claiming that accessing his divine knowledge was like "downloading 50 million megabytes into a pocket calculator") seems to be an audition piece for his performance as the Ninth Doctor. (In fact, it is reminiscent of Paul Cornell's script for Father's Day, where the Doctor admires a couple for running into and out of bars, having "an adventure I can never have." Stephen Baxter, as a consequence, is having the adventure that he doesn't want). Granted, it is hard not to see 2005 story elements in this 2003 piece...but there you go.
However, there are two aspects of this production that might not get much recognition: Lesley Sharp's performance as Judith and Adrian Shergold's direction. Shergold masterfully handles the material in a way that is realistic and engaging - it would have been easy to make this mauldlin and manipulative; Shergold does neither. (In fact, his handling of the more "fantastic" material is almost Hitchcockian in its subtlety). But Sharp, as Judith, provides a character who really is the centerpiece, moving between doubt and faith, temptation and acceptance, and who (at the end) provides the "explanation" and climax of the story.
Now many who have seen this have problems with the ending, ranging from it being too humanist to being an out-of-nowhere cop-out. Without spoiling, on the one hand, I see their point...but Davies seems to have carefully set out on an almost subliminal level where the story was leading. In addition, there is a slight ambiguity about the ending - not like the Sopranos final episode, more like Fall Out - suggesting that, at times, spiritual decisions are often difficult. (The final two to three minutes, providing a coda, seems unnecessary, almost as if Davies were under pressure to provide a "happy" ending).
However, there is much to recommend about this - as a "rough draft" for Davies' later work; as a meditation on religion and its impact on society; as a purely entertaining piece of fantasy. Whether you are Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, athiest, or some other background, there's enough to warrant watching this.
It is as close to a masterpiece as Davies has come...so far.
Not only strongly recommended, but mandatory.

1 comment:

Andy Land said...

I have no comment about this post. I'm merely rejoicing in the fact that my updated browser and pop-up settings now allow me to comment here.