To Know Is To Die

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Although the Mel Gibson movie adaptation, which guts its nuances in order to fit into a Hollywood-appropriate running time, might be more prominent in some circles, I think in the long term it’s the original production of Edge of Darkness that will stand the test of time. Written by Troy Kennedy Martin – whose other credits included the first draft of The Italian Job, and directed by Martin Campbell (who in between directing this and the Mel Gibson version directed Goldeneye and the Daniel Craig version of Casino Royale), it’s an unmistakeable artifact of the 80s which, perhaps due to the fact that it pays only passing notice to the Cold War and deals with subject matters with half-lives greater than the lifespan of even the most secure nation states, still seems deeply relevant.

Ron Craven (Bob Peck) is an experienced Yorkshire police detective, who one dark and stormy night in the mid-1980s collects his adult daughter Emma (Joanne Whalley) from a meeting of a left-wing student organisation. As they’re dashing through the rain from the car to their front door, a man steps out of the darkness, screams Craven’s name, and raises a shotgun; Emma rushes forwards and takes both barrels to the torso and the the assassin flees into the night, leaving Emma dead at Craven’s feet.

Craven’s colleagues in the police think it’s a revenge killing – Ron worked in Special Branch in Northern Ireland during some of the most vicious parts of the Troubles, and therefore doesn’t want for enemies from that quarter. However, as Craven goes through the weirdly intrusive but sadly necessary chore of getting her possessions in order, he makes a string of alarming discoveries – a Geiger counter, a radiation dosimeter, and a vicious-looking automatic pistol. Craven knew that Emma was a member of Gaia, a radical environmentalist group, and he was aware that Gaia had planned some sort of action involving Northmoor, a privatised nuclear facility owned by International Irradiated Fuels.

Is it possible that, despite all Craven’s warnings, Emma and her cohorts actually went to Northmoor – and if so, does that mean she was the assassin’s target? Mysterious Whitehall duo Pendleton (Charles Kay) and Harcourt (Ian McNeice) certainly think so, and so does an American contact of theirs, the avuncular CIA agent Darius Jedburgh (Joe Don Baker). On top of that, American businessman Jerry Grogan (Kenneth Nelson), owner of the Fusion Corporation of Kansas, seems to have his own interest in the affair, particularly since he intends to purchase International Irradiated Fuels (and Northmoor with it). Just what is inside Northmoor that could be worth all this subterfuge? What vision does Grogan have for the future that requires him to own Northmoor? What extremes will Jedburgh go to in the pursuit of his own agenda? And is Craven merely imagining things in his grief, or is he really being guided in his investigation by the ghost of Emma?

Edge of Darkness, whilst an impressive production, doesn’t exactly play with the sort of budget Martin Campbell could call on for his Bond movies, but it keeps you engaged with the twists and turns of its plot thanks to excellent performances from the cast. Craven would be an interesting character even without Emma’s death hanging over him, particularly with his “gentle cop” interrogation style, but Peck really earns his paycheque with his skill at conveying bereavement. He is helped there by a script which really understands bereavement and all its little components – the oversolicitousness of those touched in no personal way by the death, the awkwardness of having to comfort someone who is much more outwardly torn up about what’s happened than you are, the constant stream of little errands you have to do to clean up after the deceased juxtaposed with the long stretches of absurdly busy activity surrounding you when you’re sat there with your grief letting it all wash over you, and so on. (One of the more raw parts of the first episode involves Craven going through Emma’s things in her bedroom – a task which on the one hand is obviously incredibly intrusive, but on the other hand is clearly unavoidable, and precisely because it’s so intrusive can’t really be delegated to anyone else.)

In particular, Craven’s conversations and little visions of Emma postmortem are perfectly pitched to be right on the line between ghostly visitations and the sort of little conversations you sometimes end up having with dead people you were especially close to. (It’s particularly nice how he wavers between conversing with her as an adult and conversing her as the child parents can never quite stop seeing their children as being.) Joanne Whalley’s performance as Emma is carefully judged; the bits where we see her alive notably seem a bit more characterful than her ghost-conversations, where she is being a bit more of a detached spirit guide, but since she might be a hallucination in that state that’s fair enough.

Craven also benefits from being surrounded by a throng of great maybe-allies-maybe-adversaries. The trio of trans-Atlantic spies who guide Craven’s journey are a real treat. Harcourt and Pendleton are a gloriously slimy double-act, a pair of Whitehall demigods with the air of bored schoolteachers; Pendleton affects an air of affability which is transparently insincere, whilst Harcourt doesn’t even pretend to be anything other than a cold fish and a grump. Jedburgh is as expansively jolly as only a dyed-in-the-wool Texan can be, and of course as the most approachable and emotionally genuine of all of them he is the most dangerous; you get the impression that Pendleton and Harcourt don’t especially care about Craven, but feel at least some shame at the use they put him to, whilst Jedburgh seems to genuinely like Craven but equally feels not a shred of guilt at bringing him to the titular edge of darkness.

Joe Don Baker’s performance is, in fact, one of the true revelations here. Aside from recurring bit part roles in the James Bond series, Baker seems to be mostly known these days for Mitchell and Final Justice, two movies he did which were the subject of memorable takedowns on Mystery Science Theater 3000 (the former, in fact, was written by Troy Kennedy Martin’s brother Ian). In both cases, the shoddy quality of the movies in question really weren’t Baker’s fault: in fact, in each of them he does a good job of playing his character the way that he is written, it’s just that the scriptwriters (deliberately or otherwise) crafted a character who’s a bit too repugnant to pass muster as a tough cop action movie hero. Here, he’s given a role that’s truly commensurate with his abilities and goes to town with it, turning up the energy onscreen every time he appears.

Part of what makes its depiction of the murky world of espionage feel so interesting is the way it creates a situation where everyone ends up so paranoid and mistrustful of each other that potentially vital co-operation becomes tainted and, at points, almost impossible. There’s a moment in the third episode where Harcourt and Pendleton offer Craven an opportunity to take a decisive action which would have peacefully and decisively settled the whole thing once and for all – but he doesn’t take it, because he doesn’t trust them. This is fair enough – they don’t exactly have a trustworthy demeanour – and it does of course set the story on the track to a much more chaotic and violent conclusion, but it still strikes a slightly odd note, almost as though it’s the remnant of a potential ending that Martin scrapped early on in the writing process.

Almost, but not quite; there’s a disturbing payoff in episode 5 where Bennett more or less admits to everything dodgy that has been going on, aside from the actual manufacture of plutonium, and the relevant Commons committee takes it in stride – and when Harcourt tries to make the case that there’s actual manufacturing happening he’s deflected by the committee members in such a way that you might think they’ve been got at. Of course, Craven giving evidence earlier might have yielded a different result – the committee may have found it more difficult to deflect his evidence given the moral high ground offered by his bereavement, and it’s always possible that Bennett managed to obtain the committee members’ co-operation in between Craven’s opportunity to speak and Bennett finally making his confession. So what might seem at first like a plot hole or a badly papered-over alternate ending actually ends up becoming an intriguing “what if” whose consequences are debatable.

As far as political thrillers go, this was cutting edge at the time; there’s even a proto-cyberpunk bit with the hacking, which is actually quite well thought-through: the writers clearly know that computer networks exist and refer to them, but the database involved is sufficiently secure that you can’t access it unless the physical terminal you are at is an authorised one, so Craven and some contacts of his have to do a little break-in to uncover the map of Northmoor Craven needs so that he and Jedburgh can mount a Northmoor expedition of their own.

It is, however, more than a political thriller; it works in science-fictional aspirations on the part of Grogan and a vein of mysticism that Jedburgh, Craven and Emma each tap into in their own way to produce a richer brew than that. At the most extreme end of the fantasy scale, Craven was originally supposed to turn into a tree at the end, but eventually Peck and others talked Troy Kennedy Martin into reconsidering – however, what happens instead can be interpreted in an equally mystical way with additional apocalyptic overtones, so it’s actually a more suitable conclusion by my book. The most science fictional bit comes with the true climax of the final episode, before the final action sequences and the downbeat coda, where we are taken into the heart of the NATO conference at Gleneagles. There, Grogan lays out a vision for the future of the human race as a whole founded in cosmic anthropocentric megalomania, and Jedburgh underpins just how awful the utopia outlined could end up being in practice. This taps into the sort of vision of space colonisation as a foolhardy repetition of the mistakes we made on Earth across a wider span of the universe than we really deserve to contaminate that was in vogue in some corners of 1980s British SF (with more garish incarnations in 2000 AD and Warhammer 40,000), and which Philip K. Dick had been enunciating since the 1950s.

Like I said, thanks to the subject matter the series manages to feel timeless despite being very much a product on its time. Little details which stand out include a bit where Craven watches an interview with Margaret Thatcher on television, wherein she is defending maintaining the Trident nuclear deterrent – an issue that remains a hot-button topic in UK politics today. And despite the modest budget afforded to those crafting BBC dramas, Martin Campbell is able to support Martin’s fine script and the actors’ excellent performances with some fascinating images, like the paranoia-inducing appearances of strange storage containers being shipped around the country at the dead of night on unmarked trains. Plus there’s the oft-commented on background music by Michael Kamen – fresh off doing the score for Gilliam’s Brazil – and Eric Clapton, which is outright perfect for the tone aimed for. The whole package is quite excellent, and it’s easy to see how Edge of Darkness inspired a brief spurt of UK drama series (like The One Game, Wipe Out, and Jute City) trying to emulate its thoughtful style and its mixture of high-tech paranoia and mysticism.

Early DVD releases of the series simply slapped the VHS transfer onto discs; this was a problem, since the VHS copies cut out the intro sequence from all but the first episode on each tape and the outro from all but the last episode of each tape, with clumsy edits that cut out important scenes and leave other scenes ending abruptly. The later BBC DVD set (pictured above) includes the full intro sequences and closing segments of each episodes, and doesn’t chop off any significant scenes, and is therefore to be greatly preferred.

2 thoughts on “To Know Is To Die

  1. Pingback: Out On a Limb – The Thoughts and Fancies of a Fake Geek Boy

  2. Pingback: Ferretnibbles 6 – Blood and Black Death – The Thoughts and Fancies of a Fake Geek Boy

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