Sea of Souls

Tuesday, February 3, 2004 by

Lazily, and perhaps rather predictably labelled in certain quarters as Britain’s answer to The X Files, Sea of Souls seems in fact much more like one of those spooky old anthology series that Britain used to do so well in days gone by.

Despite the critical and ratings failure that was Strange, BBC Scotland has bravely chosen to take another leap into territories unusual. Unlike Strange, which appeared to be a (very late and overdue) reaction to the popularity of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Sea of Souls is grounded much more in the realms of the possible. As the focus is on a team of parapsychologists there are no demons or odd beasts for them to deal with, and the show has a more grown-up take on the world of the extraordinary. Dramatic, rather than comic-book entertainment is the level at which the series is pitched, and the producers appear to be trying to woo the more mainstream crime drama audiences who would rather chose to watch Touching Evil than Tales of the Unexpected.

In part one we dive right into the story of Carol, a woman who has an apparently normal, happy life with a good job and a family in her Scottish home. The regular cast are only briefly drawn at first, with the viewer discovering little about Dr Monaghan, Megan Sharma the postgraduate student or Andrew Gemmill the research fellow other than the fact that they work in a Parapsychology Research department of a fictional Scottish university. Typically, one of the team is a skeptic, while another is enthusiastic about the paranormal; an idea that hamstrung The X-Files for years. Hopefully this will not go on to become a major theme of the rest of the run. The trio are shunted into the background for a long time while we are shown a great deal of Carol’s story. She discovers for the first time that she has a twin sister and soon the two of them appear to be getting along as if they had never been apart. Helen ingratiates herself into Carol’s life, impersonating her and even seducing her husband following the death of her own.

The first episode suffers from being incredibly slow. There is a lot of set-up in the Carol/Helen story for the first half an hour, with the plot only developing significantly in the last third, ready for the big cliff-hanger. In contrast to this though, the second episode rushes along at a much faster pace, with lots of plot crammed in. The psychometric and telepathy tests that Monaghan is keen to carry out (for professional reasons, as well as viewing the case as a chapter for his forthcoming book) on the twins become less and less important as the story progresses, with the focus shifting away from the fact that the twins have led similar lives to the pure and simple fact that one of them is completely evil.

Throughout the two episodes there are a series of largely redundant flashback sequences that the sisters keep having of them as children and of wild, uncontrollable flames. The flashbacks serve as a clear signpost to the fact that something terrible is going to happen (and we later learn that Helen is a pyromaniac) and help reinforce the fact that we are in telefantasy land. These sequences are, however, redundant in terms of serving the drama – even if they do look good. The signposting of a major plot point comes again later on when Helen suddenly visits the dentist to give an explanation as to how her and Carol’s dental records are mysteriously swapped following the catastrophic house fire that Helen later starts.

Alas, as the heavy-handed storytelling indicates, this tale of twins is all rather predictable. From the moment we meet Carol and Helen, we know that one of them has to go bad. Any viewer who has been paying even the slightest bit of attention to the plot (or who has seen any drama based on twins, in fact) must surely guess that the “new” sister is going to be mad, bad or dangerous to know. There isn’t really any other way that the story could have gone and still been dramatic. And despite a terrifically chilling performance from Siobhan Redmond as the mad sister (especially when she delivers the “prove it” line to Monaghan right at the end), the ideas behind the first story are just too familiar to be completely successful.

Bill Paterson gives his usual reliable performance, but together with Archie Panjabi and Peter McDonald their characters do not appear to be explored to their full potential (was there really any good reason for both Megan and Andrew to have travelled to London to do the research into Helen’s background?). Hopefully in the next tale we will find out a little bit more about them.

This perfunctory story doesn’t feel at all like a season (or even show) opener, an observation perhaps borne out by whispers that it was shunted forward in the run at the last minute. A shame because Sea of Souls would perhaps appear more like a successful and engaging proposition had this story been held back for a few episodes.


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