Richard Berry reviews ITV’s latest drama series, Eternal Law.
I don’t know if it’s appropriate to consider a series about two angels sent to practise law in York to be ‘science fiction’. The alternative term ‘religious fiction’ seems rather tautological. I suppose ‘fantasy’ is the catch-all description to be used, although given that ITV’s heavenly new drama Eternal Law quickly descends into a run-of-the-mill legal procedural, that may be a bit of an exaggeration.
Still, given that Eternal Law is the brainchild of Matthew Graham and Ashley Pharoah, who brought us the last successful British sci-fi/fantasy series, Life On Mars, it provides a good opportunity to assess the state of the genre.
In the wake of Life On Mars and the equally acclaimed Doctor Who revival, commissioners have shown renewed interest in these ideas, and backed them with significant budgets. ITV’s own time-travel adventure Primeval was the best attempt, but couldn’t sustain its early promise beyond one series, although it survives in reduced form on digital channel Watch. Post-apocalyptic Survivors came next on the BBC, before again an intriguing first series was followed by a second that squandered any semblance of plausibility. Most recently was the BBC’s turgid and short-lived BBC’s Outcasts, the story of a struggling human colony on a distant planet.
Things can only get better, you might say. Unfortunately things really haven’t, because Eternal Law takes us to a new low. With the exception of Tobias Menzies’ (Rome’s Brutus) performance as the malevolent prosecutor, Eternal Law fails in every respect.
In the first scene we see angels Tom and Zak landing in a deserted field on the outskirts of the city, oversize wings and all. In case any viewers hadn’t heard the premise of the show in advance, here it was handily explained in visual form. In fact they landed with such a thud that you had to wonder if those wings even worked.
Zak is white and Tom is Black. Clearly, God is an equal opportunities employer. Although not if you’re a Yorkshireman, of course: Zak and Tom arrive in the heart of the county with a pair of perfect Received Pronunciation accents. Zak is the jaded veteran, with a dozen missions to earth behind him, while Tom is the rookie on his very first visit. Worryingly, his preparation for the job seems to have been entirely random. Thus, he has been instructed in the finer points of English criminal law but not, apparently, told what a motorbike is or how to eat a banana.
It’s hard to know which element of the show the writers have treated with more disdain: the fantasy or the legal drama. Legally speaking, the show was a farce. Zak and Tom end up defending a man accused of shooting at his ex-fiancée on her wedding day. Fair enough. Except that Zak and Tom were present at the scene of the shooting, spoke to the suspect before it happened, and Tom was the person who apprehended him while he was doing it. They were no less than the key witnesses in the case, and the idea that they would have been allowed to act as defence counsel was laughable.
Maybe that’s par for the course with legal dramas: I doubt Ally McBeal’s arguments could have stood up to much scrutiny, for instance. But science fiction aficionados won’t be so forgiving. One of the key tenets of sci-fi is that to suspend the audience’s disbelief you need to establish some rules for the universe you depict. Play with the rules by all means, bend them where you need to, but at least acknowledge them. Eternal Law shattered its own within seconds of the start. Again it was those magical, barely-functioning wings, the ones that Zak and Tom could make appear and disappear at will. In the first scene a feather falls from one of them and is left to be picked up by a passing motorist. Who on earth designed those things, so that they so easily fall apart and leave clues behind for the humans?
The rules are broken again in an even more profound way later on, when Zak and Tom decide to interfere with the free will of one of the humans they encounter, a big no-no for angels. Granted, it was obvious this was going to happen the moment we heard they weren’t allowed to do it. What galled was the way they laughed it off with a nod and a wink, with no notion that they might meet with any sort of divine punishment for this heinous transgression.
The main problem with Eternal Law and most recent British sci-fi is that our shows over-reach themselves. In cultural terms Britain is little more than an American province. That does not mean we are not capable of world-class excellence: our best sitcoms, for instance, outshine America’s consistently. But sci-fi is a more difficult genre in the sense that when you establish a premise based on, say, a deadly plague, time travel, or angels walking among us, it is easy for the writers to fall into the trap of making a show about the entire world. That’s where it becomes implausible, because it’s hard for even British audiences to swallow that the future of humanity could depend on what is happening in our little country.
That’s exactly where Primeval went wrong, with a plot involving one rogue palaeontologist planning to conquer the world with an army of dinosaurs she was assembling in London. How was she going to get them across the English Channel, on a Eurostar train? Survivors did it, too, when it became clear that the cure to the virus that had annihilated most of the species was contained in a suburban British housewife.
Accordingly, the worst thing about Eternal Law is the hint that its characters have been sent to practice law in York as part of some kind of immense heavenly confrontation between God and the devil. Based on this first offering from Eternal Law, it may well take His intervention to win Eternal Law a second series.