Note: This review was written a couple of days before The Second Coming was originally transmitted.

THE SECOND COMING

Director:  Adrian Shergold

Starring:  Christopher Eccleston, Lesley Sharp, Peter Armitage

After being missing for forty days, a man reappears claiming to be the Son of God.

British mainstream drama is currently dominated by star vehicles for former soap opera stars. Broadcasters are so driven now by the "appeal" of these performers that it's almost unheard of for anything to be made that doesn't star someone from Eastenders or Coronation Street. Thus we are offered an endless procession of safe, predictable and formulaic dramas. This makes Russell T. Davies' The Second Coming, an intelligent ITV primetime drama, featuring actors cast solely for their suitability for a particular role, a wholly remarkable achievement. The series stars Christopher Eccleston as Steven Baxter, a man claiming to be the Son of God, and Lesley Sharp as close friend Judith Roach.

Writer Russell T. Davies already has a remarkable track record, (including lesser-known early work, like the memorable children's drama series Dark Season and Century Falls), so it's not entirely surprising that The Second Coming is about as far away from Heartbeat and Casualty as you could imagine, given the restrictions of the current creative climate. If it can be compared to anything, it would be the high concept, thought-provoking work of Nigel Kneale (his 1979 Euston films version of Quatermass seems a likely influence).  Davies has already redefined the limits of television drama, with Channel 4's groundbreaking drama series Queer as Folk. The subsequent migration to ITV, where he created the more conventional romantic comedy Bob and Rose, seemed to blunt his ambition, although his gift for character was undiminished. Ironically The Second Coming was originally commissioned by Channel 4, who eventually dropped it after a change of management in the drama department. Instead The Second Coming became ITV's most compelling drama series in recent memory. Shame on Channel 4, and kudos to ITV, who showed real courage in tackling such a controversial project.

Carlton's timely DVD release of The Second Coming is a good example of how much things have changed in the video industry in the last few years. Five years ago there would have been very little chance that The Second Coming would have been released at all. Very little drama used to be issued on video unless it had generated sufficient critical mass over a long period (stuff like Inspector Morse or A Touch of Frost), or had a nagging cult following.  Nowadays some video companies are generally more pro-active, but releasing something like The Second Coming only a week after its transmission, still requires - ahem - something of a leap of faith.  

Carlton's disc contains both episodes of the series, more or less as they will air on ITV (the first episode ends with a "Next time..." trailer, the second has a "Previously..." recap, for example). The programme is presented in anamorphic widescreen format (with an aspect ratio of 1.78:1), with 2.0 Dolby Digital stereo audio (at 192kbps). Picture quality is generally excellent, and likely to be much better than it would have appeared as a broadcast image (it's clear of the MPEG encoding errors that routinely affect digital broadcasts, for example). There's some graininess evident, but no more than you'd expected from material sourced from Super 16mm film. The disc has optional English subtitles.

Purists should note that the DVD version has had some music substituted, since at least one song, the Mel C track (Goin' Down), which accompanied a pivotal moment in the second episode, wasn't clearable for home video. It should also be noted that a heavily-edited version of The Second Coming was prepared for broadcast in foreign territories, which, among other things, lacks the coda from the UK version. 

The programme is accompanied by an interesting commentary track by Russell T. Davies and Adrian Shergold, recorded on January 17th 2003, a couple of weeks before transmission. The tone is light-hearted, but there's a lot of useful information woven in, revealing many of the artistic choices that were made during the four-year long development process (including some things that were dictated by the budget or mere circumstance). They're keen to avoid the mutual back-slapping that many commentary tracks fall prey to, but do take the opportunity to praise some of the supporting cast (including, quite rightly, Jennifer Hennessey, who delivers a remarkable, spine-tingling performance as a TV news reporter). Many of the cast have previously appeared in other series written by Davies or directed by Shergold, including Denise Black (Queer as Folk), Mark Benton (Eureka Street) and Annabelle Apsion (from the David Jason version of Micawber, she also featured alongside Lesley Sharp in the Hughes Brothers' Jack the Ripper movie From Hell). Davies and Shergold also briefly speculate on what the public reaction to the series might be, discuss a "happy ending" twist that was in an early draft (which ITV liked, but which Davies eventually decided to abandon), and even admit to some minor changes that they'd like to make if only they still had the cast, crew and sets on tap. 

The disc also contains an extensive selection of deleted scenes, totalling about thirty-three minutes, presented letterboxed in non-anamorphic format, in the low resolution format used during editing (AVID offline material, for those who know what that is). The series was originally structured as four one-hour (50m) episodes, and was eventually cut down to two ninety-minute (72m) episodes, so it's not surprising that there was quite a lot of material squeezed out. The deleted scenes include an important character who was eventually written out (Frank's mother, whose absence was explained in the broadcast version with a clever piece of post-production dubbing). There's also a lengthy chunk that was cut from the second episode, which sees the forces of darkness sowing dissent among Stephen Baxter's followers. Some of the deleted scenes are mentioned during the commentary, but others are only given context by the scene numbers on the caption screens that separate the individual clips. This section also includes a couple of scenes with unfinished special effects (including a longer version of scene where the main character addresses a crowd, which still has the green-screen backgrounds in place, for example). For some reason this entire section seems to have two identical audio tracks, which, if nothing else, is a waste of precious disc space. 

Four minutes of outtakes are also offered, which are best watched after watching the episodes themselves and listening to the commentary track. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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