Judge Adam Arseneau has a hunk of plutonium in one of his hands. Can you guess which—hey, where are you going?
The original BBC miniseries.
Influential and apocalyptic, Edge of Darkness, the BAFTA award-winning, seminal eighties BBC miniseries makes its way to DVD—hey, just in time for a Hollywood adaptation. What a coincidence! Has time been kind to this Cold War relic?
Facts of the Case
Escorting his daughter home from college, Detective Inspector Ronald Craven (Bob Peck, Jurassic Park) watches helplessly as his only daughter (Joanne Whalley) is gunned down before his eyes. Craven is devastated beyond rational thought, convinced his daughter took a bullet meant for him. As he prowls the empty house and her belongings, deep in mourning, he finds a loaded gun with her possessions. Suddenly, Craven has newer, more pressing questions about his daughter's death.
Hell-bent on revenge and finding out the truth behind her death—and life—Craven begins his search. Who killed his daughter, and why? Perhaps more importantly, who was his daughter? His quest soon leads him deep down a rabbit hole of international espionage, into the black heart of the nuclear state, with the CIA, Scotland Yard, and the British government all at his heels.
Edge of Darkness: The Complete Series contains all six episodes of the miniseries spread across two DVDs.
Hugely impactful at the time of its release, Edge of Darkness easily drew in audiences in with its cold brooding and intensely cynical cautioning of nuclear self-destruction and political corruptness. At the height of Thatcher-era politics, the series hit a particularly dark chord with audiences, already disillusioned and frightened by a world hurtling towards dangerous and dark consequence. The series sets up an early feint, buttering up audiences with a simple "whodunit" detective story before hurtling into serious and introspective social commentary and criticism on the state of affairs of a world on the edge of cataclysm. As television miniseries go, no one can do a thinking man's drama like the BBC.
As a murder mystery and a revenge-driven father suddenly gives way to a complex and involved story of politics, corruption, nuclear proliferation, covert agents, and murder, it is exceptionally difficult to find a level on which Edge of Darkness fails to connect with audiences. With every secret uncovered, every stone unturned, we fall deeper and deeper into an inexorable web of deceit and deception. Suddenly, the stakes are infinitely higher than the revenge of a grieving father. There is madness afoot, but Craven's agonizing, hallucinating longing for his daughter ends up being the most sane voice in a world lost to capitalism and Cold War paranoia.
Bob Peck delivers a standout performance as the tortured Detective Craven, with genuinely unsettling moments of detached agony and emotional turmoil as the grieving, obsessed father obsessed with revenge and the truth. Some of his outbursts get a bit hammy in that distinctly Shakespearian theatrical sort of way, but it's hard to knock such a passionate and edgy performance, especially for a television miniseries. Boy, if looks could kill, his intensity could knock the bad guys right out. Peck's got kind of an eighties Clive Owen going for him, and he cuts a svelte, intense figure, even during the chaos. You wonder why nobody ever shortlisted him as a James Bond candidate. He could've given Timothy Dalton a run for the money.
Despite a twisting and convoluted narrative that takes agonizing amounts of time to unravel, audiences quickly surmise that the death of Craven's daughter was no accident or random reprisal against his own person. In death, Craven's daughter reveals herself to be an active and complicated person with a rich social life of eco-terrorism and political activism, attracting the attention of the British government, the CIA, and Scotland Yard, to name a few. Craven is quickly embroiled in a dangerous game, the rules of which he does not understand, played for infinitely large stakes involving the storage of nuclear materials. Nor does Craven particularly care; his role is to avenge his daughter's death and find out the truth about her life, consequences to be damned. His ironclad resolve leads him into some devastatingly dangerous situations, the ramifications of which are catastrophically dangerous for Britain and the world. The fewer details you know about the plot, the more rewarding the experience will be, but suffice it to say, it involves a helluva lot of plutonium, and where it should and should not be kept. There, I've said too much already.
Where the show deviates into unexpected waters are the poignant environmental themes of self-destruction; the notion that mankind plays a dangerous game not with its own survival against its fellow man, but against the very earth itself. Craven's daughter, a member of an environmental terrorist group, alerts the CIA, Scotland Yard, and the British government into action, landing Craven in a never-ending web of espionage and deceit. For him, it is about finding the truth, but for his daughter, the guiding principles of action were to protect the planet, or else. Like the bacteria that inhabit our own bodies, the Earth tolerates the human presence—right up until the sickness begins, or, in our case, the nuclear weapons. Edge of Darkness has heavy undertones of a Gaia-based theology, of Mother Nature as a living organism capable of calculated response towards any aggressors. It is a controversial and confusing concept, and one totally surprising to find smack dab in the middle of a Cold War espionage drama. It makes for a sweet little twist ending, but its addition to the mix is peculiar.
Edge of Darkness is an investment, but a satisfying and complex drama that encapsulates virtually every element of fantastic television in a neat package: fantastic and gripping writing, a spectacular performance from its lead protagonist, and a marvelous, moody score. Director Martin Campbell (Casino Royale) has long shopped the idea around of a Hollywood adaptation of his work. With that movie set to be released in 2010 starring Mel Gibson, it is little surprise to see the BBC getting an early start releasing this miniseries to North American audiences.
From a technical standpoint, this isn't the greatest DVD release on the market. Little has been done to the source material to optimize or clean it up for its DVD release, and it shows every day of its twenty-five-year pedigree. Presented in full frame with a mono soundtrack, Edge of Darkness: The Complete Series does the job well enough, but will not be thrilling your home theater by any stretch of the imagination. Black levels are washy, colors are muted, detail is soft and all manner of peculiarities, defects, print damage, and abnormalities crop up throughout the presentation. Dark sequences, especially those in the fifth episode are so dimly shot that it is near-impossible to tell what is going on on-screen. The mono presentation is tinny and ineffective; dialogue is clear, but it lacks bass response and punch. Set your expectations accordingly—this is after all a BBC television miniseries from a quarter-century ago. It's not going to look or sound particularly good. Still, it gets the job done. Special mention needs to go to the score, with original compositions from Michael Kamen and Eric Clapton. Clapton's haunting-yet-extremely 1980s guitar solos interweave with throbbing ambient waves of sound to create a near-constant emotional howl. Only about 30 minutes of music make up a near six-hour runtime, so the pieces are recycled and reused throughout the series, but the quality of the composition far exceeds any criticism as to its brevity. Say what you want about the drama, but Edge of Darkness brings it in the music department.
Spread over two discs, the set has a respectable offering of supplemental material. An alternate ending is included, along with a much-appreciated music only isolated track, where one can sit and jive to the BAFTA-winning Clapton/Kamen score. "Magnox: The Secrets of Edge of Darkness," your standard behind-the-scenes interview featurette with cast and crew; "Did You See," a collection of reviews of the original BBC broadcast; an interview with Bob Peck from the BBC's Breakfast Time; a highlight reel from the BAFTA award and Broadcasting Press Guild Awards; and a photo gallery make up the rest of the features. All in all, not a bad offering for a BBC release, especially one this old.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Now over twenty-five years old, Edge of Darkness certainly shows its age; certainly in the production values and DVD transfer quality, but more importantly in its pacing and narrative. For modern audiences—especially younger viewers—the languid pacing may be off-putting. Minds jumpy with adrenaline and accustomed to the rapid-fire calamity of shows like 24 and other high-octane adventures are going to find the pacing here slow, for lack of a better word. Agonizingly slow. Events that Edge of Darkness takes three hours to slowly and laboriously set up and organize, a more flashy show would tear through before the second commercial break.
A dark and influential cautionary tale, Edge of Darkness is a shining example of the quality and sophistication of television that the BBC can produce when they set their mind to it. Few dramas this old have held up this well. The environmental overtones today seem heavy handed, but still oddly prophetic. We never evaporated in a puff of nuclear smoke, but now twenty-five years later, it is hard to shake the uncomfortable feeling that the world is starting to get a little peeved with us.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
• Alternate Ending
Review content copyright © 2009 Adam Arseneau; Site design and review layout copyright © 2015 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.