The Second Coming
by Russell T Davies
First broadcast: 9 – 10 February 2003
The Second Coming is a strange beast. This is ITV-broadcast, early-2000s, British, adult fantasy drama – virtually one of a kind then, and a rarity even today. It’s also (another rarity) very good.
The story is that, as predicted in the Bible, Jesus Christ returns… in the form of regular, Mancunian bloke, Steve Baxter aka Christopher Eccleston. Written by Russell T Davies and delivered by Nicola Shindler and Red Production Company, this comes hot on the heels of their collective successes in Queer as Folk (1999-2000) and Bob & Rose (2001). (You can see short reviews of those shows in my rundown of the best British dramas here… the fact they are included on said list shows just how highly I regard this partnership.)
And yet, The Second Coming is markedly different from those other productions. This is not a criticism, as both approaches are equally valid, but an observation. The Second Coming is lacking Davies’s and Red’s usual buoyancy, the optimistic world-view that is sought and discovered after some adversity. This is a bleaker – but still not jet-black – production. The script is relatively stripped of gags, particularly in the second half. The conclusion to the story, which I will return to later, is certainly a very negative take on the questions the drama poses. The world of The Second Coming is less welcoming than Queer as Folk or Bob & Rose. Gay politics only get a passing, if lovely, reference. And yet there remains some wit in the nice, mundane, human touches that are pleasingly endemic in Davies’s scripts.
That was the key to Davies’s success with his subsequent revival of Doctor Who and generally, one of his greatest skills as a writer. Everyone talks the way real people talk, even when they are talking about flighty, ‘high’ concepts – like the Son of God incarnate. It would be easy for such a big concept to slip into pretension, obscurity and intangibility. It takes a very strong production team to prevent the iconography and the received ideas overtaking the story. Instead those ideas just permeate gently into the drama as reference-points, like when Steve stands silhouetted at the window in a crucifixion pose. Any inspiration sought from the Bible (e.g. the disciples, Judas) are reimagined for this story, for this century.
Having said that, some of the direction from Adrian Shergold feels slightly unnecessarily frenetic. It is effective to ramp up the realism in some scenes, like news reports and riots, but less so in conversations, when you can feel the presence of the camera too much. Like Doctor Who and Queer as Folk, this is an example of the beautiful partnership between Davies’s scripts and Murray Gold’s musical score, which is mostly very effective. However, perhaps wisely, some of the most crucial scenes are kept unscored. In all, it’s a cleverly disciplined production.
If there is a fault with the script, it is that the concepts that allude even Steve himself (his big comeback, then the Third Testament, then Judgement Day) feel slightly like deus ex machina upon deus ex machina upon deus ex machina. Admittedly, the script turns this into an advantage, by having Judy work out that the latter two are linked. But before that, there are sticky bits in the script where everyone suddenly chucks out the last proclamation because there’s a new religious buzzword. It also makes sense that Steve wouldn’t quite know what is going on, but then the story is at risk of becoming slightly vague.
Almost every storytelling avenue is walked down, every logical consequence of this huge incident is explored. The news of Jesus Christ’s return ripples around the modern world precisely how it would in real life; through a series of news bulletins, another trick later deployed in Doctor Who. There are some startlingly good set-pieces in the first episode, namely the opening, the daylight in the stadium miracle, the big speech where Steve slams all of twenty-first century humanity, and the second miracle, in which he saves the disciples from an exploding pub.
Perhaps the best ‘fantasy’ element of the show is the Devil-people, heralded by a fantastically mischievous Mark Benton. Benton gives a sympathetic, layered performance as Johnny, aided by a script which shows us how people might become twisted, rather than simply showing us twisted people. Most of the moments of great comedy, and the great chills, come from Benton scenes – which is surely an achievement. The special effect that signifies this is nicely understated; it is in the performances like Benton’s where the concept shines.
The story strand involving Jesus’s disciples – or, originally, Steve’s friends – is particularly wonderful. They are set up in episode one, and then ruthlessly picked off in episode two. Ahsen (aka Ace) Bhatti of The Sarah Jane Adventures fame gives a spirited performance as down-to-earth and loyal Pete. (Spoiler.) His death at the hands of Steve’s devil-worshipping father is a particularly harrowing sequence, and I love the high-octane dance music in the background that both off-sets and ramps up the drama. Queer as Folk fans would be chuffed to see a cameo from the unstoppable Hazel Black, playing a mysterious matriarchal figure, much like her reappearance in Cucumber (2015). Peter Wright also turns in a surprisingly sweet performance as Len, the police officer ally, but it is Annabelle Apsion (Shameless, The Village) who almost steals the show.
Fiona’s story is the most interesting, with her husband being on the fringes of the friendship group set up before her marriage starts to crack. She is the one who believes the most readily, but that means she is one most ready to opt out. Without a doubt, the standout scene in the story is when Fiona’s husband is leaving her. She takes a few lines longer than the viewer to realise that now the world’s ending, he has the impetus to tell her she’s not good enough to spend his final hours with. Still holding the remote, she hurries after him in the pouring rain, couples breaking up and falling apart all around her. She’s terrified – not of being alone, but that him leaving her might sully her in the eyes of God. That is a startlingly good idea. “What happens TO ME?????” Apsion screeches, her voice hoarse. It’s hard to watch, but do, because it’s one of the best performances I’ve ever seen.
(Spoilers.) Even then, there’s no let up for Fiona as she makes the horrifying decision to take her children to Heaven before Judgement Day can hit. Another incredibly emotive and nail-biting sequence, but what especially stands out is the way each character’s motivations are subtly explained by what happens to them in the story. Ordinary people end up doing extraordinary things in The Second Coming, but with barely a word of expositional explanation, the story brings you along with their way of thinking. It’s believable that Fiona would do what she did.
In the centre of all this, of course, is two powerhouse performances from Christopher Eccleston, later Davies’s Doctor Who, and Lesley Sharp, of Scott & Bailey, Bob & Rose fame. Steve Baxter is a slightly pathetic, slightly dim, ordinary man, but played with warmth. Judy meanwhile, is recently divorced and only now realising that she has loved her best mate Steve all along. I could write a whole essay on what I love about Sharp’s performances, particularly the mocking way she plays Judy’s scepticism – always with a hint of the love she feels for Steve, lurking underneath. It’s all there in that perfect post-coital exchange, which sums up the colliding stories of their love, and of God: “Do you love me?” “Yeah.” “Are you the Son of God?” “Yeah.”
The last twenty minutes or so is television perfection. (Big spoilers ahead.) Steve’s pilgrimage through the burned-out wastelands of Manchester is particularly, visually glorious. Christopher Eccleston and Lesley Sharp up their games even higher for this final act, playing the poison dinner scene very interestingly. They are understated, and (particularly Judy), raw, all-cried-out. “It stops… cos I say so.” “Millions out there disagree with you!” Sharp dialogue articulates, but doesn’t get weighed down by, the huge debate at hand. Is religion, belief, a good thing? Or does it stop people directly and responsibly living their lives? The whole thing has essentially been an atheist’s musing on the merits and demerits of religion. Here, ultimately, Judy ends Jesus’s life. The atheist wins. But the opposition is given a full and respectful airing, and we leave on an ambiguous note. The drama knows it would not be able to definitively answer such a huge question, and doesn’t try to.
Much as I love the ending, my first reaction as a viewer was to expect that Judy and Steve’s conversation and his death had been (to an extent) staged, and that Steve would survive. Judy decides the world must think God is gone, but did He actually have to go or did we just have to believe He was gone? After all, the whole story has been about belief, and Steve has already demonstrated the ability to magic people into not recognising who he is. Maybe this is missing the point – and I must stress that I love the ending as it is. I don’t think it feels wrong that Judy and Steve don’t end up together. Theirs is a tragic romance; it took them until a miracle to realise their love but the miracle is what tore them apart too. There is a toughness and an untidiness to the way Davies’s script ends, which is fitting.
I adore the form-breaking talking heads sequence at the end. Well, it’s less form-breaking and more form-making, as much of The Second Coming’s reality has come from snatched real-style news reports etc. The talking heads go to great pains to show that the world is not necessarily better now – but not necessarily worse. Fiona doesn’t have custody of the kids anymore, she is dealing with the consequences of her actions, God or no God.
It was wise to round off the story in a bleached white, heaven-like supermarket. One might spot a similarity between this and the supermarket sequences at the start of each of RTD/Red’s Cucumber, similarly starkly white and purgatory-like. Maybe this is the afterlife that Davies’s characters reach, and browse the aisles, and wonder if they did the right thing.
“Do you think I was right?” Judy bumps into and redeems Johnny, but he can’t offer her the same. We tie up a few loose ends, but not, by any means, all of them. As with the rest of the drama, the scale of the idea never swallows the honest domesticity of it.
A bold, assured and unusual piece of TV, as divine as the idea it presents.