Tuesday 13 December 2016

We Don't Go Back #23: Century Falls (1993)

So a couple of weeks ago, I posted about British children's serial dramas, and how they were a thing right up until the mid-nineties, when the form petered out. Century Falls, broadcast in six episodes across February and March 1993, on Wednesdays in the slot just before Neighbours, was one of the last.

TV historians note that it's one of the earliest scriptwriting credits for Russell T Davies, known now for Queer as Folk and the revival of this one ropy old sci-fi show that a lot of people seem to like.
Carey, Ben and Tess-Hunter.
I was 17 when it was broadcast, and the memories of it I had were of something histrionic, faintly operatic, that didn't make a whole lot of sense. I remembered its atmosphere and its tone exactly, but none of the details had stuck. I had put that down to how in my late teens I had the vague perception of not watching it so attentively as I had watched kids' TV when I was younger, of having other stuff to do.

Going on for twenty-four years later, and having watched it over, I found that my adolescent judgement was on the nose, more or less. It's just as histrionic as I remembered, constantly operatic in tone, and while it does make sense, I can see how weekly instalments would have damaged its coherence.
Old Mrs Harkness screams at least once an episode.
The story: teenager Tess Hunter (Catherine Sanderson) comes with her mother to the strange titular village of Century Falls, where nearly everyone else seems to be old, and somewhat strange. The only other young people are strange twins Ben and Carey Naismith (Simon Fenton and Emma Jane Lavin), who are established almost straight away to be psychic and to be connected with Century Falls, the strange waterfall that Century Falls is named after, and its strange ruined pagan temple in some way. Forty years ago the strange inhabitants of Century Falls, all psychic, attempted to manifest Century, a sort of thought-form personification of the collective supernatural abilities of Century Falls. It went horribly wrong, and created a sort of circumstantial condition preventing children being born in or around Century Falls, as well as traumatising the aging inhabitants. But strange plans are afoot to tangle the fates of Ben, Carey and Tess in the strange fate of Century Falls.
Richard Naismith sees a ghost. Or something ghostly.
If that sounds repetitive, well. Century Falls can at times be quite repetitive. It has this tic where characters restate its uncanny nature over and over in the same words. They remind you over and over that you're in Century Falls, and that it's weird.
The spectral child.
Part of the feeling of repetition is down to a peculiar quirk of Russell T Davies's writing, which anyone familiar with his writing on Doctor Who will recognise, where characters often address his protagonists by their full names, particularly when something Terribly Important is being said. In Doctor Who, Davies often names his characters so their full names fit into a single metrical foot, prosodically speaking, to accommodate that. Like Rose-Tyler, Martha-Jones, Donna-Noble.1 Tess, or, more accurately, Tess-Hunter, has someone (usually Ben) use her full name in a portentous way a dozen or more times an episode, and combined with the weird choices Simon Fenton makes as to what words Simon-Fenton emphasises, it's exhausting. In a five minute span in episode one alone we get:

"You'll have to get used to us, Tess-Hunter."

"You can't run away, Tess-Hunter."

"See it, Tess-Hunter! See the temple break!"

"Tess-Hunter, you're too fat."

...and oh my is there a lot of negative criticism of Tess-Hunter's size (and, worse, from her own mum too). And that's horrible. But even without the bullying, it's wearing after a bit. All of it is. This, Tess-Hunter. That, Tess-Hunter. The other, Tess-Hunter.

Everyone pitches their performance at "over the top and right back down the other side", and the music, all spooky BBC soundtrack synth, is constant; the serial has no time for silence or reflection. It's a barrage of creepy old ladies who scheme or scream in anguish in equal measure, flashbacks to disasters, spooky spectral little girls, cryptic villains, and jerkface psychic teenagers who bully people who are supposed to be their mates.
The plot travels in a fairly straightforward direction; Tess finds out what happened forty years before the story is set (and interestingly, Century Falls is set five months in the future of its broadcast date), and why it happened, and what that has to do with there not being any children born. The people of the village, having spent hundreds of years hiding for fear of being burnt as witches, decided that the twentieth century was too much for them and created Century, who is what a ritual magician would refer to as a servitor, to effect their removal from the sight of the outside world. Century got out of hand very quickly and burnt the temple down in a spontaneous display of pyrokinesis.

In episode four, we find out that Tess's mum is related to someone in the village. Tess and her mother, along with the Naismith twins, are here for the sake of Century's plan. Tess's unborn sister is a focus for the villains' plan: they're going to use the baby as a vessel for Century. And at the climax of episode three, we find that the twins' uncle Richard (Bernard Kay), who we thought was the villain, isn't actually the real villain, he's a dupe working for Julia (Tatiana Strauss). Which is a plot development exactly copied from Douglas Adams' 1978 Doctor Who serial The Pirate Planet (and if you think Russell T Davies hadn't seen that, you're underestimating the depths of his fandom). Julia has been posing as a housemaid (and a minor supporting character) for three episodes, and that's the biggest twist the plot has to offer. Julia is an interesting character. Right from her reveal, she explains that she's got nothing to gain from her plans ("except perhaps oblivion") – she's only a willing slave of Century, and the lack of profit to her is something that characters comment on. She doesn't really know why she is doing what she does herself.
The story escalates in a steady sort of way: Tess's mother and one by one all the Creepy Psychic People fall under Julia's baleful power, apart from Esme Harkness (Mary Wimbush), one of the Creepy Old Ladies, who turns out to be pretty heroic in the end. Julia masterminds a big attempt to recreate the disaster of 1953 and complete the unleashing of Century. Julia gets Ben to use his psychic powers to recreate a past echo of the temple. It doesn't come off. Esme is steady, Tess is brave and kind, Ben is an insubordinate jerk, and chaos ensues and order is restored. There's sort of a bleak coda, but in the end, it's too mannered, too theatrical to really make an impact and the effect of the story is exhausting.

Part of my problem was of course that I watched the whole thing back-to-back, a solid three hour marathon of it, and it's clearly supposed to be consumed at a rate of 25 minutes a week with a Ramsay Street comedown immediately afterwards. Just under three hours of loud synth-operatic incidental music and wildly over-the-top performances and digitally overlaid flames and screams and things, and you just give up. Watched all at once, the serial doesn't give you space to understand properly what the stakes are. And when everything is at a tone of breathless melodrama, no space opens up for a feeling that stakes might be raised. You need a break between each episode to digest it. But you also need to be paying real attention, the sort of attention that watching it as a marathon benefits, to follow it.

Everyone involved is tied to the action (seriously, the only person who is not psychic is the villains' henchman, Ashe) and that leaves the story increasingly without an anchor in the mundane world. It seems at times as if it might be in another universe. 
The circle.
Century Falls continually tells you that the raising of Century was a Really Bad Thing, but we don't really know what Century is like, or what she does, or what she wants to do (other than come back), only that conjuring her is a terrible idea and that last time anyone tried, it left a whole community traumatised enough to consign themselves willingly to a decades-long death. The rationale for her return at least makes a lot more sense: she never really went away, possessed Julia and is working through Julia to come back properly. That at least works.

The resolution works, too: Ben might be resolutely unsympathetic all the way through – you could easily interpret the twins as a single character, since Carey acts as his conscience – it's exactly his mean-spirited refusal to co-operate with anyone that saves the day, that and a final appearance of the ghostly little girl, whose explanation is both reasonable and unexpected.
The summoning.
Century Falls has all the appearance of folk horror. And it has, underneath the crazy Gothic mood, some interesting ideas about time, memory, age, adolescence and the land (all things that Red Shift also raises). Apparently Davies was intending the village of Century Falls to have a stone circle as well, but fortunately decided that the falls and the temple were enough. The apparition of the creepy girl is explained in a bizarre but satisfying way. The pagan practices of the villagers look like a late twentieth century spiritualist circle (maybe it's just all the old people though) but Davies is smart enough not to go into the nuts and bolts of the villagers' practices too much.

I've been piling on the criticisms, but while it makes something like Children of the Stones, its closest televisual ancestor (and a clear influence), look like kitchen-sink naturalism, it isn't bad TV. I remembered its atmosphere and performances clearly from my teens, and was a bit fuzzy on the details. A week after watching it, I found the timbre of voices and the style of the thing stuck with me, but I had to go and rewatch parts in order to pick up the details, which get lost under the atmosphere. The atmosphere in a large part drowns out the detail. Much of that detail is derivative, too; aside from the one big plot reversal being a close copy of a Doctor Who story, the homage to Children of the Stones is clear.
It seems quite clear that this (and Davies' first children's serial, Dark Season2) was well regarded. You can still find on YouTube a compilation of continuity links,3 where CBBC presenters Andi Peters and Phillipa Forrester (and Edd the Duck) rave about how brilliant it is. And of course, this is just the start of the career of Russell T Davies, and we know where he ended up. It wasn't a misstep, it was the beginning of better things. And you can see that, you can. I think Davies, whose style does not often allow for a reduction in volume (although when he does turn it down, he usually does so brilliantly), wasn't really suited for folk horror, and you can see how, having tried it once, he avoided it in his later work.

Century Falls had potential for good things, but that potential wasn't, I think, for things that remained in folk horror territory, and Russell T Davies was smart enough to know that maybe he should stick to other sorts of story.

1Davies had clearly run out of names by 2007, when he named Special Guest Star Kylie Minogue's character Astrid Peth. "Peth" is Welsh for "thing" or "thingummybob" or "whatjamacallit". Davies, a Welsh speaker, knew exactly what he was doing there. (back)

2Which oh my goodness is completely worth your time. The protagonist Marcie is basically the Doctor as a teenaged girl fighting against an occult techno-baddie modelled closely on the bloke from the Sisters of Mercy. With the help of Kate Winslet. Does that sound like your idea of a good time? Because it's pretty close to mine.

Dark Season has the same wild-eyed, desperate flavour as Century Falls, but in Dark Season this works a lot better because its subject matter is so wild that it positively needs to be over-the-top. (back)

3Seriously, someone somewhere not only kept them all on a videotape from 1993 but also then thought to upload them for our archival pleasure. Sometimes I despise nerds, but you know what? This is not one of those times. (back)