Close to the Edge: remembering Edge of Darkness

It’s hard to imagine in this multi-channel universe just how big an impact the thriller Edge of Darkness had when it was first screened on BBC2 back in 1986. In fact the six part nuclear conspiracy thriller, with sci-fi undertones, had such an impact that it was repeated a mere 10 days after its initial run, upgraded onto BBC1, unprecedented at the time.

Edge has of course just been remade, like State of Play before it, for the big screen this time with Mel Gibson replacing the late great Bob Peck in the main role as Ronald Craven, who is searching the truth about the murder of his activist daughter. Both the original BAFTA Award winning series, it swept the boards that year, and the new film were both helmed by Casino Royale director, Martin Campbell.

The thriller was written by the creator of Z Cars, Troy Kennedy Martin, who passed away last year, and was something I first saw in the late 80s and was something that has haunted and captivated me ever since.

Clearly I’m not in the minority as it’s omission from a list of the top 50 TV Dramas in The Guardian caused more than a bit of a grumble recently and it also won BAFTAs for its haunting music, composed by Eric Clapton and Michael Kamen, the latter who went onto become a genre fave, going onto score Highlander, X-Men, Event Horizon and perhaps most famously, Die Hard and Lethal Weapon.

Part crime drama, part science-fiction but totally absorbing, this rarely bettered 80s epic is a real slow burner, no seat of your pants editing here folks, and still commands attention in buckets 25 years later. The cinema remake seems to be getting a bit of a pasting, which is probably now more straight thriller, but don’t let that even think about putting you off the original, it would be like not wanting to take a punt on the original Planet of the Apes after seeing the Burton rehash.

Full of familiar faces from sci-fi and fantasy, Peck went onto feature prominently in Jurassic Park and was one of the main cast in the ill-fated Slipstream. It also featured Joe Don Baker, a feature of three Bond movies, Joanne Whalley, from Willow, John Woodvine from An American Werewolf in London and Zoe Wanamaker from Harry Potter. Of course a special mention has to go out to the shows special effects expert, a veteran of both classic Who and Blake’s 7, Mat Irvine.

Public concerns over nuclear war were at their highest than at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis, the two previous years having seen The Day After and Threads nuclear blast onto our screens. This, added with the Miners’ Strike and protests at Greenham Common, made Blightly a none too pleasant a place to call home, all of which are touched upon by this conspiracy thriller that chillingly captures the shadowy corridors of power and one man’s grief at the same time.

Trying to understand the reasons behind his daughter Emma’s murder, Craven uncovers a vast conspiracy involving the nuclear industry, environmental terrorism and Britain’s role in the ‘Star Wars’ Strategic Defence System. On his quest, Craven is joined by CIA agent Jedburgh, superbly played by Baker, one critic describing the pairing as “a nuclear Butch and Sundance”, as well as by ‘visions’ of his dead daughter.

So far so thriller, but where is the sci-fi I hear you scream? A thriller about the politics of nuclear power is not science-fiction as such, but this all changes gear in the final episode where Darkness is transformed from being a political thriller into a grim vision of the future.

Apparently, Kennedy Martin wanted to end the series with Peck killed and transformed into a Green Man tree being protecting the Earth, you certainly wouldn’t have found that in Inspector Morse! It would have been a conclusion that would almost certainly have left the audiences of the day…and even now, scratching their heads. It does show that the thriller didn’t just include very real world concerns but also the mythic and the mystical (there must have been something in the water as Robin of Sherwood did the very same thing at around the same time).

This ending was toned down somewhat. This was one of Troy Kennedy Martin’s speculative environmental theories, introducing the idea that the Earth, in the form of Gaia, the Greek goddess responsible for Earth and the name of the group Emma worked for, will protect itself from environmental damage with the creation of black flowers that draw in heat from the sun and create warm patches that allow life to flourish, as it apparently did during the Ice Ages. The concept was taken from a section in climate scientist, James Lovelock’s book Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth (1977).

Thus, in the haunting last image of the series, we see black flowers growing in the hills of the Scottish Highlands as man tries at playing God with nuclear materials. The good guys, just like Butch and Sundance, have lost and those in the corridors of power have won for now, until Mother Earth takes her revenge, the black flowers harbingers of Gaia’s coming war against mankind.

One of the other fantastical aspects of the series is the character of Emma, murdered early in the first episode but continues to turn up throughout the rest of the series. Whether Craven is ‘seeing dead people’ or she is a figment of Peck’s grief is ambiguous, personally I believe it is the latter but there has been much argument on both sides.

With the rise of global warming and an endless slew of natural disasters, who is to say that Kennedy Martin didn’t get it right after all, especially as the once dormant spectre of nuclear armament rears its head again. Perhaps 25 years on, the original Edge of Darkness is less of a relic of The Cold War than we think?

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