Realism was once again key, at least within the bounds of a populist international drama, and this plus the extensive effects ensured Ahearne directed, though his affinity for the subject already showed in his script. As he commented to the present writer, “I think the science is always possible while not necessarily being completely plausible. The expense for example. Or the size of crew. They would have to grow their own food which is alluded to in the first episode but we don't see the size of the operation. The radiation issue is tackled by the use of an artificial magnetic field [to protect the crew of the ship, Pegasus] which is the most sci-fi aspect to the voyage. This doesn't exist yet”. Fascinatingly, however, just such a magnetic shield was reported in the press a few years later.
Ahearne’s scripting included detectable references to 2010, the US television series of James Michener’s Space, and Apollo 13, and at times achieved real philosophical grandeur along with his now-customary snappy dialogue. Filming used existing Hollywood sets for budgetary reasons but also location work in the Chilean desert and Moscow’s Star City as well as aboard parabolic aircraft flights to generate true zero-G. Combined with very high quality CGI, mostly employed to realise the Pegasus, this approach ensured good production values for the two-part serial. Some good shot choices, naturalistic acting and a stirring score by Don Davis also contributed to its effect.
Further directing tasks followed, both within and without the genre, with five episodes of the revived Doctor Who starring Christopher Eccleston in 2005 (in Dalek, Ahearne made the most of the claustrophobic, one-to-one nature of Robert Shearman’s script), a This Life special and Perfect Parents, a drama starring both Ecclestone and Susannah Harker.
Ahearne’s most recent written work is the extraordinary Apparations (2008) for the BBC.
God versus Satan is a conflict familiar from many a cheap horror film but is here addressed calmly, rationally and through convincing arguments advanced by characters from both sides. Full of ideas, genuinely audacious and startlingly provocative, one has to go back to J.C. Wilsher’s Between the Lines (also a World production) or Jimmy McGovern’s Cracker to find something comparable.
Actor Martin Shaw originated the production, presenting to the BBC the idea of an exorcist priest. Ahearne was engaged by Liverpool-based Lime Productions to flesh out the concept, although it appears that a broadly collaborative approach saw several contributors. The episodes were written out of broadcast order as agreement to pilot then extend the series was obtained and to ensure audience-friendly ‘hooks’ at an early stage. John Strickland directed two episodes, but Ahearne directed the first and last pairs.
Ahearne, interviewed for the DVD release, confirms that current issues of concern for the church plus “particular points in Catholic history” informed his writing. Mother Teresa and her fate and the disputed involvement of Pope Pius XII with the Holocaust are thus revisited for a new audience. The inversion of expectations, which also characterised Ultraviolet, was clearly present. Satanism is presented as an equivalent belief system with its own rituals and purpose, and Ahearne places the same terms in characters’ mouths whether they are human or demon. There are scenes of satanic miracles, saintly possessions and demons converting Catholics to Satan.
Importantly, the Gordian Knot approach to fantasy that aided Ultraviolet’s effectiveness – avoiding tired, simplistic arguments over the existence or otherwise of the supernatural – allows the characters in Apparitions to explore issues of doubt, temptation, faith and morality in complex and highly challenging ways.
The opening pair of episodes alone showed right away that as with Ultraviolet, Ahearne has engaged with Catholicism in a testing manner to make a shocking and powerful piece of work, especially for a television audience. Ahearne’s unmatched ability to draw together complex intellectual threads made for a nuanced and gripping story, here featuring a character whose devout Christian upbringing had become confused with/by a traumatic, leprosy-affected childhood and a miracle cure. Added to this was his homosexuality, which his theology made him struggle with. All was turned febrile by his visions of a demon, interpreted as a command to succumb to his previously-denied sexual urges or suffer a return to his diseased state. The horrific climax was far from gratuitous and wholly justified.
Rewardingly, there are also detectable parallels with a very contemporary obsession – the war on terror. We have the clash of opposed philosophies, violent tactics intended to shock and a demon-incarnated tramp whose repeated talk of his “mission” recalls the modern suicide bomber. In this sense Apparitions might be thought to represent a missing seventh episode of Ultraviolet. Committed playing from Shaw and a truly exceptional performance from Rick warden as the possessed Michael added real quality.
The later addition of an atheist psychologist character made a useful third point to the triangle with God and Satan. Throughout, Ahearne’s tough but respectful handling of the issues, jolt-producing scares often hinging around the revelation of a demon and agility in handling multiple ideas intelligently mark the series out as a real career highlight. The score by Hal Lindes is an integral part of the programme.
Michael’s last words hint at a second series, but none has appeared to date. In any event the story arc has been completed and further episodes would run the standard risk of ‘demon of the week’.
The miracle (if one can be forgiven the pun) is that Apparitions got made at all, let alone screened at prime time on BBC One.
By his own admission, Ahearne took ten years to break into television. Disarmingly, he describes his fantasy work as merely “good investigation/ chase stories”, but more soberly, admits that he prefers these tales for their “visual dimension”. His work in the ten that followed have marked him out as a true talent; his next ten will be certain to be as involving.
Posted 2011. All quotes are from published sources except where stated
Rick Warden and Martin Shaw in Apparitions (BBC/stkarnick.com)
The ultimate trip. The Pegasus from Space Odyssey: Voyage to the Planets (BBC/berto-meister.blogspot.com)