Last Night's TV - The Deep, BBC1; Glamour Models, Mum, and Me, BBC3

Still not safe to go back in the water
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The Independent Culture

Being stranded in a submersible that looks like a bell jar is a common jam in deep-sea horror. It's a modern, multi-faceted depression of a situation. Not only are you slowly suffocating, you're also in a confined space. You're in alien circumstances, and dependent on unfamiliar technology. Any one of these would give me the heebie-jeebies. Add to it a 300-metre-long incubus peeking its head on to your radar and you've got something like suspense filling your underpants. That and the opening of BBC1's latest sci-fi drama, The Deep.

The ocean floor is Earth's dark side of the Moon, a nautical Mordor, a Stygian morass of biological oddity and physical danger. More than 100 years after the death of Jules Verne, none of us really knows how big the squid are down there. But cynical is the citizen who ventures to the banks of Loch Ness and doesn't wish for a friendly plesiosaur. The Deep plays off this wilful ignorance; the murk supplies wonder as well as menace. Good drama allows a hellish setting to cast a shadow over the psychological landscapes of its characters. Like, say, a really big tax bill.

The setting here is deep beneath the North Pole. A group of research scientists are investigating an evolutionary "event horizon" surrounding a Manhattan-like assembly of thermal vents on the bottom of the ocean. As relayed to the audience before the initial credits, the group mysteriously goes missing. A follow-up mission manned by Clem (James Nesbitt) and Frances (Minnie Driver) return to the Arctic to continue the first team's work. But Clem's wife was on the original, lost expedition and Frances is having an affair with Samson (Goran Visnjic), another of the sub-aquatic brain-boxes. The sub-plots of their relationships (or lack of) either inform or influence their primary goal, the somewhat idealistic pursuit of scientific truth. This, however, is perverted by the personification of "The Man", a government stooge called Raymond who is a late addition to the crew, and is more concerned with salvaging the pioneering researchers' wreckage than engaging in the academic peer-review process.

The mise-en-scène is familiar after James Cameron's The Abyss; supernaturalism infusing sci-fi, Kubrick's loneliness of space sent hurtling into the briny void. Some of the craft have clunky classical names like Orpheus, or Hermes, the equivalent of a trainee pilot nicknaming their aircraft Icarus. Some of the CGI looks like it has been knocked out on an Atari, though TV audiences are grossly more accepting of such things than their silver screen cousins. The soundscape is flooded with digital choristers, which while atmospheric, conjures up the image of cherubs brandishing keytars. The scientists say things like "all systems are synchronised", which essentially means nothing, and sport leather jackets instead of Gore-Tex and Birkenstocks. But it's still a lot of fun.

The series is set to evolve into an environmental homily in later episodes; mankind may well be the Kraken gobbling up the dark as it seeks untapped oil reserves. At the present time, however, it's all quite ambiguous, and in the first episode, our teeth chattered through 30 minutes of crepuscular exposition before the scientists got into trouble, and their plans quickly capsized. It's not so much a cliffhanger as a sedimentary-layer-clinger.

That aside, one person without a need for a buoyancy device is Alicia Douvall, a professional kiss-and-tell go-to woman for the tabloids (cf, John Terry's Range Rover) and plastic-surgery junkie. Her bust has been modified 15 times and cast a shadow over BBC3's Glamour Models, Mum, and Me like a punctured Zeppelin. In Douvall's household, rebelling isn't snorting miaow-miaow in your mother's SLK, it's hitting the Letts guide and boning up on the Krebs cycle. The model's 14-year-old daughter, Georgia, wants to study, and one day become a "serious actress"; her mother wants her to yank her top off, hit the surgeon's table and boost her bust. Given that Douvall's plastic surgeons all resembled The Simpsons' huckster Nick Riviera, with a degree from "Hollywood Upstairs Medical College" (few mainstream surgeons will see Douvall any more, because of the large number of procedures she's had), you'd need steel balls to want silicone fillets in her household.

The heroine of this orgy of schadenfreude was undoubtedly Georgia. She sucked up her mother's insecurities like a deep-sea sponge. During a trip to Los Angeles, Douvall berated her daughter for not being excited at the prospect of visiting a modelling agency; Georgia greeted it with level-headedness.

I expected to hate this show. I was planning to write here how the production team should ring up their own mothers and apologise for this scabrous blip on the cultural head-up display. Instead, I found myself warming to Georgia and her mother. The latter undoubtedly participated because self-publicity is her means of making money after a difficult upbringing. It was satisfying to see her realisation – or her obvious knowledge, suppressed for the purposes of storytelling – that her lasting legacy was not the topless shots whose masturbatory pixels will quickly dissolve. It was the person with a heart of gold helping her drain her post-operative breasts of blood while trying to make sense of trigonometry.

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