A love letter to 1980s science fiction television, filled with references to show business, science fiction, and fan culture, Dark Sublime asks what happens next.
Marianne Hogg (Star Trek alum Marina Sirtis) is the face of Queen Ragana from the short-lived 1980s ITV sci-fi series Dark Sublime. Unavailable on DVD and unlikely to interest Netflix, Dark Sublime is banished to the BFI archives – until 21-year-old superfan Oli (Kwaku Mills) creates the internet’s biggest fansite and pulls the series from obscurity. He wants to interview Marianne, long since a regular face on television, for his podcast. And Marianne, struggling with decades of unrequited feelings for her best friend Kate (Jacqueline King) and a desperate need for validation, is more than inclined to agree. What follows is an examination of ageing in show business, queer relationships and science-fiction fan culture.
One of the first things to pluck from Dark Sublime is it is funny. From the start, the show pulls plenty of laughs for its sharp jokes about show business, fan culture and 80s television. In one scene, Oli admits he knows Marianne’s drinking preferences from her interview with Terry Wogan in 1989. In another, Marianne reveals to Oli that a secret unfilmed script of Dark Sublime exists. Shocked at his reaction to a throwaway piece of information, Marianne quips “if you’re interested in things that didn’t get made I can talk all night”.
The relationship between Marianne, an actor, and Oli, a fan, is one that is explored in depth, though never reaches an unexpected outcome. Oli is thrilled with every moment of Marianne’s time, pushing for more information about his beloved favourite series and help with the convention he is running. Marianne, befuddled as to why a science-fiction series she can barely remember filming excites this boy so, is mostly along for the ride to soak up the interest and compliments he provides.
More interesting is the relationship between Marianne and her best friend Kate, who is not particular impressed by Marianne for humouring Oli. The pair have been friends for decades, since the days of Dark Sublime, and yet years of unrequited feelings have gone unspoken about and ignored – manifesting in some rather unpleasant behaviour in the presence of Kate’s new girlfriend Suzanne (Sophie Ward).
These relationships are interesting to watch due to some excellent performances from the cast. Kwaku Mills hit close to my heart with his adorable (and deadly accurate) portrayal of a fan overwhelmed by his proximity to his obsession. Marina Sertis takes to the London stage like she owns it as the deeply flawed Marianne, while Jacqueline King is every inch the confident mature best friend. Sophie Ward’s Suzanne is the perfect calming balance to the warring Marianne and Kate, while Simon Thorpe’s appearances as science fiction lead Vykar (and his less impressive actor counterpart Bob Fraser) are consistently hilarious.
Length and pacing are the main issues here. Dark Sublime starts with such a funny, coordinated bang that it can’t possibly keep up the pace – and it doesn’t. By the depths of act two, the show starts to feel needlessly long and unnecessary, dragging so much that the two hour forty run time feels even longer. The show’s real drama, between Marianne and Kate, isn’t really resolved – though the two apologise to each other, so it’s not entirely clear what the point of it all was.
Some of my favourite moments in the show were the transitions, which featured snippets from Dark Sublime, including Vykar in conversation with communication device Kosley (voice of Mark Gatiss). These go all out in their attempts to recreate the exaggerated acting, hilarious props and scientific mumbo-jumbo dialogue of the genre. It all builds to an extended scene, the same scene Marianne reveals was never filmed, which is pulled deep from nostalgia. It is too long a scene, particularly for how late in the play it takes place, although possibly worth the extended runtime if simply to admire Neill Brinkworth’s lighting design, which deserves all the plaudits.
Dark Sublime raises some interesting ideas as a show. What happens to the casts of old cult television series? How has the internet revived the fandoms of shows long since forgotten? Can an actor ever be friends with a fan? These are the thoughts I’m interested in, and why I would recommend the show as an exploration of fan culture and a fun homage to 80s science fiction television. As an examination of LGBTQ+ relationships, I’m not so sure.
By Susan Brett
Dark Sublime will play at the Trafalgar Studios until the 3rd August. To book tickets visit ATG Tickets.