Angel Reviews: In The Dark

With BBC2 making a big success of screening Buffy The Vampire Slayer on British terrestrial TV in the late 1990s and early Noughties, Channel 4 promptly snapped up the rights for its spin-off show, Angel. Friday teatimes would now be enlivened by the antics of Angel and his newly assembled Fang Gang, fighting the good fight in LA.

There was one little problem, though. While Buffy was generally geared towards a family audience (and even then, notable cuts for violence, language and sexual references were made on a frequent basis to meet watershed rules), Angel wasn't so much. The spin-off show was, by and large, tailor made for a more grown-up audience, with its uncompromising violence and darker, adult themes.

So poor old C4 had initially made a meal of the supposedly vaunted 6pm TV slot. Some of the stuff wasn't really geared towards the youngsters who might have tuned in out of curiosity, instead belonging in a post-9pm position instead. The endgame of this was only to annoy the new Angel fans who had to make do with a run of heavily edited episodes in the 6pm slot (although, if they'd stayed up late, they could have caught the repeats).

One of the worst casualties of the editing suite was the third Angel episode, In The Dark. In The Dark is actually one of the most entertaining episodes of the season. It's dramatic with plenty of dark humour to balance things out. Spike's on the guest warpath, looking for his beloved Gem of Amara. And it's one of the key stories that emphasises Angel's redemptive mission to help the helpless.

But does it belong in a 6pm slot? I'm guessing, no. After all, the episode contains plenty of torture, an abusive bully of a boyfriend, and a psycho creep of a vampire called Marcus. Grim stuff all round, and so it's easy to see why the original 6pm broadcast probably totalled 30 minutes of screen time as opposed to 45 (excluding adverts).

In The Dark acts as a sequel to the Buffy The Vampire Slayer episode, The Harsh Light Of Day, which saw Spike begin his quest to find the Gem of Amara, a piece of ring bling that renders a vampire unkillable. Having failed in Sunnydale, Spike's on the trail and has packed his bucket and spade to visit his old sire in sunny LA. In The Dark is probably the better episode of the two. While The Harsh Light Of Day is entertaining enough, regrettably the boring Parker Abrams stuff frequently blots out the Gem of Amara subplot. In The Dark, on the other hand, keeps things on point, with a fast paced, taut script provided by Douglas Petrie. It admittedly helps if you've seen The Harsh Light Of Day, but In The Dark can still be enjoyed in its own right as a cracking bit of telly.

One of the things I like is the way in which the secondary subplot neatly dovetails with the main one. Plot B concerns Angel's mission to steer a young woman called Rachel away from her abusive lover called Lenny. The problem with Rachel is that while Lenny's a bullying, snarling drug addict, she still wants to be with him for some odd reason. Rachel claims that she starts to “jones for him”, and that initially, the relationship can work for a little while. What Angel does is to persuade her that it's a short-term solution to a long-term problem. “It’s either go for the easy fix and wait for the consequences, or take the hard road and go with faith,” he tells her, saying that if she holds out, then one day, she'll get the kind of love that she deserves. By the end of the episode, Rachel has found that faith, and has chosen the slower path – just like Angel, who's in a bind over the Ring.

The Gem of Amara represents that quick way out for Angel. With the ring, he'd be unkillable, but it would come at a price. Angel would no longer be able to help out the people who are in the dark: “They don’t see the weak ones lost in the night - or the things that prey on them,” says Angel of the 9 to 5 crowd. “And if I join them, maybe I’d stop seeing, too.” Not only that, but Angel acknowledges that with his darker alter ego always lurking beneath the surface, the ring could actually do more harm than good. “I did a lot of damage in my day,” he tells Doyle. “More than you can imagine.” In the end, the victory isn't in getting the Ring Of Amara, but in ensuring that it doesn't ever fall into the nicotine-stained hands of the likes of Spike.

Oddly, Spike seems more at home in LA than he does in Sunnydale. He's far more of a dangerous, threatening presence, telling Cordy that she'll be dead before the arrow leaves her bow, and relishing the thought of tearing Doyle's spine in two. He's also at the top of his game when it comes to the funnies. Pitting Spike opposite his sire always guarantees laughs, since the two are on vastly opposing sides of the fence. Angel's new quest to do good baffles and infuriates Spike in equal measure, and it's well summed up in his hilarious opening running commentary. Opening pre-credits teasers don't come any funnier than this, and James Marsters' perfect comic timing provides one great big belly laugh.

The problem with Spike is that he can under-estimate his allies. Take Marcus, the sinister, bespectacled bad egg, who initially seems to be there purely as Spike's lackey. Spike simply presumes that all Marcus needs is a series of lethal torture devices and a scratchy copy of Mozart's Symphony No. 41 to keep him happy. While this does entertain Marcus for a while (“What do you want, Angel?”), it's clear that he has a more sinister agenda at play.

The thing with Marcus is that like all true TV and film psychopaths, he tends to hang around quietly in the background at first. He's also reasonably smart, not only getting to the roots of Angel's psyche (noting that he's not one to take the easy way out), but sneaking the ring away from under Spike's nose.

Because he's such a demented and dangerous psychopath, his inevitable dusting seems to acknowledge this by being a lot slower and a lot more painful than your average pfff. Having been impaled on a large shard of wood, Marcus is horrified when Angel wrenches the ring from his finger. He dusts in what seems like slow motion – we get to see his leering, screaming skeleton which takes longer to crumble into dust. With that in mind, Marcus lets out one of the most pained screams in the Whedonverse – a protracted, terrifying yell of “Bleeeuuuuaaaaaaagggghhhhhhh!” It's suitable just desserts for one of the most disturbing vampires ever witnessed in Angel, and actor Kevin West effectively provides a chillingly memorable turn as Marcus.

It's this combination of dark humour and grisly drama that add up to a brilliant episode of Angel. It provides more familiar faces to the Buffy fans – not only do we get Spike, we also get to see Oz again, although Seth Green's appearance is effectively a cameo, only turning up in the first act and the memorable rescue denouement. Despite that, Petrie's script and Seth Green's marvellously understated performance capture the wry, droll personality of Oz to a tee (“We're usually laconic”).

After the disappointing material in Lonely Hearts, at least Cordelia and Doyle get better fortunes this time around. They make for an unwilling but ultimately brave double act, standing up to Spike and cleverly hatching a plan to rescue Angel. They are earning their pay like never before by investigating the goings on of Spike, while providing plenty of reminiscing (Cordy's story of the arm in the box is another pleasing nod to Buffy) and humour (Cordy's grossed out realisation of how Frankie Tripod earned his name). Charisma Carpenter and Glenn Quinn make for a brilliant double act, initially unwilling partners in crime, which gradually becomes mutual trust and respect. Watch this space for potential romance...

If there's one first season episode that sums up Angel and his moral code, then it's this one. He gets to play the heroic champion on all counts, helping Rachel find her faith, enduring painful torture, and even becoming a vampire torch in order to get the ring back from Marcus. He's fought the good fight, and today he's won. He even gets his own treat to stand in the hot rays of the sun without being reduced to crispy fried ashes. David Boreanaz plays this scene well through facial expression alone, combining delight, wonder and also a smidgeon of regret that the experience can't last.

In The Dark sees this series go from strength to strength. Angel has hit its stride as a dark, dramatic but funny spin-off of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. In The Dark makes the most of all these successful elements, and better still, Bruce Seth Green, the director, does a wonderful job of bringing Petrie's script to the screen. He combines a heady brew of fast paced action, high up camera angles (such as Spike's initial clandestine observation of Angel and Rachel) and also some superb location filming. It's unusual to see the sun out in all its glory in Angel, and Green makes the most of this in the final battle on the beaches of LA.

It may have got truncated in its initial British terrestrial telly premiere, but in the long run, In The Dark has stood the test of time well. It not only makes for a satisfying conclusion to the Gem of Amara subplot, it also tells a good, fun story in its own right, while proving that crossover episodes can be done with the right mix of writing, acting and production talent.

An early gem of a story.