Apparitions (TV, 2009)


A cracking TV show reviewed in Death Ray 17. Sadly it never got a second series.

FOUR STARS

UK/BBC1/60mins/6 episodes

Director: Joe Ahearne

Writer: Joe Ahearne

Starring: Martin Shaw, John Shrapnel, Siobhan Finneran, Rick Warden

There’s a war coming, and it could be hell on Earth. Don’t worry Martin Shaw, is on the side of God.

This is Joe Ahearne’s second sole-authored supernatural series (however, it is not his own idea). We were all fond of his 1998 take on vampires, Ultraviolet, which went halfway to giving a scientific reason to the undead. Here he goes into the totally mystical, conjuring a story from the Christian mythology of demons of one good man’s struggle against the devil.

Father Jacob (Martin Shaw) is a member of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, that part of the Catholic Church that investigate miracles, but he has a sideline in exorcism. He’s rather good at it too. The Church is not happy when he exercises his gift; though neither is he, it being a duty rather than a preference to him. Father Jacob is under suspicion as demonic possession is regarded as extremely rare, and he’s been involved with more than a few. His bosses suspect he is barmy and dangerous, really he is being assailed by demons who, in preparation for a renewed war with heaven, seek to bring this powerful enemy over to their side.

For an avowed atheist, Ahearne’s managed to write a surprisingly religious piece; Father Jacob is comes across as kind and selfless, though prone to pride. The most appalling things happen to him and those he cares about, but he never loses his faith in God, and this is ultimately what allows him to triumph. It’s quite nice to see a priest on television who is so grounded, not some quaint old man, deluded fool or secret paedophile, though the broader Church in the show has its fair share of villains. On a less partisan level, it’s just great to have heroes who are good; not almost-good tortured or dark cynics. The modern heroic arc is often one of redemption, in Apparitions it is that of a good man, sorely tested, but who does not succumb. It’s unusual these days, and uplifting in its way.

Apparitions might present Christianity in a good light, but it’s not one-sided apologia. Ahearne gives the demons some good points as they argue the toss with the pious Jacob. They’re drawn from the usual familiar batch of agnostic arguments: If God is so loving, then why does so much bad stuff happen? Ahearne bungs in a few of the Bible’s more well-known contradictory statements to support it. But no matter how persuasive our diabolical villains seem, they are still evil bastards, and Shaw’s smoothly warm screen presence brings such charisma to his role that you can’t help but believe in the character’s cause, whether or not you believe in his religion. It’s pretty damn good, all told.

The series is a bit disjointed, understandable, really, because the first two episodes were written as a standalone drama, the other four commissioned off the back of them. What we really have is one four-hour story, with two more or less standalone episodes in the middle, the whole linked together by the struggle for Jacob’s soul and an ongoing plot about ex-possessee Michael (Rick Warden). This doesn’t work all that well. Michael is exorcised at the end of episode two, so he spends the rest of the time being tempted back into being the bad guy the series needs. It’s back to front. Episode two’s twist is almost beyond credibility, and the standalones in the middle are weak. It hots up for the final pair, however, and comes to a satisfyingly exciting climax with enough loose ends dangling to justify a second series.

Unusually, this is a genuine horror series. Not a show that uses horror tropes with flip dialogue. It’s not full of gore, but there are several moments of shocking violence (a flaying, an immolation, the defenestration of a pig and various wounds, supernatural and mundane). So we take issue with Ahearne’s comments that it is for everyone, if only because it fulfils its remit well: it’s spooky stuff.

Did you know?

The Catholic Church rarely sanctions exorcisms, but is not so vehemently opposed to them as Apparitions suggests.

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