The Serpent (BBC One) | iPlayer Black Narcissus (BBC One) | iPlayerDeath to 2020 (Netflix)Doctor Who (BBC One) | iPlayerSpiral (BBC Four) | iPlayerKathmandu, Goa, Bangkok – particularly the last one – all serve as a perfect backdrop for The Serpent, the new year’s first major BBC drama, and a slow triumph.
Look over and under the prayer wheels, the mystique, the guards and the braids, soporifically radiant, and you see fat rats and collapsing masonry, gnarled disappointment, sickness.
For the hippie dream of the ’70s, it’s a pathetic fallacy that’s rarely done better: through a deft retelling of the crimes of Charles Sobhraj, the Frenchman from Vietnam who killed at least 12 tourists in that decade.
In each of his numerous stolen identities and fake visas, Sobhraj was seriously charming and winningly amoral. You didn’t know he was a sociopath until he shot you in a beer, threw a lamp at your head, or burned you alive: merely a shady gem dealer who invited you to recover from your “food poisoning” through one of his adoring henchmen or another. Though we don’t get to see the popular charm, which I think is a good thing, Tahar Rahim does a frighteningly good job as Sobhraj. It’s a sprawling and impressive eight-part story, but one you may want to concentrate on. Jenna Coleman demonstrates that she can do so much more than Victoria. The time jumps can also be jarring: but in the clattering flight departure panels, this is clearly seen, and I think it helps us to pay some sort of homage to the victims, rather than only dwelling on the psychopathy of Sobhraj.
As my colleague Andrew Anthony mentioned last week about his experiences with Sobhraj, it is desperately difficult to pinpoint the urge. The Hippies’ Hatred? From both angles, suspected racism? Simply a dog poorly behaved? But it was not so much Sobhraj that I took away from this, but the cultural shortcomings of the flower children, who were so often spoiled, careless, and frighteningly nonchalant. I can almost understand why Black Narcissus was remade: the attraction for filmmakers to revive the Powell-Pressburger shocker of 1947, a group of quarreling nuns; an eerie, deserted temple that reeks of old carnality and suicide; a bell tower that plunges to its demise, enormously seductive.
Plus, Gemma Arterton as Sister Clodagh’s top nun, and Alessandro Nivola as Mr. Dean’s handsome gentleman henchman.
Created. Completed. But the very same thing happened in the second episode: Nurse Clodagh and Mr. Dean engage in a little more light eye gouging; Tibetan pop shutters; Clodagh flashes back to a summer fling with a chap and flags herself; Dean looks even more like an Indiana Jones man-hungry. “By the time “Shivarti see what you deny yourself, you dried-up old slut” gets mad Sister Ruth, though, we’re into some distinctly un-nice words. Third: almost the same thing, but now – forgive me Shiva – I was half wishing that the now catastrophically mad Ruth (a beautiful Aisling Franciosi, almost the only one with the freedom to act through the mantle) will get on with the act and throw herself down. “Previously, the scenes given to the underused sister Philippa (Karen Bryson), the beautiful gardener, had a bit of hope, especially with her, “I’ll forget my intent if I stay.
I can’t think of anything but the wonder of it all because we came here.
That’s too much. It’s too transparent for the air. You can see too far away.
“It’s like the mountains are watching us, and not God.” There was a fascinating kernel of something in that. Unfortunately, we were pushed to pretend that, despite their undeniable beauty, the chemistry between Arterton and Nivola was there, because it was not. When they saw the Charlie Brooker name synonymous with Netflix and a 2020 analysis, many had high expectations: hopes for a screenwipe of sorts with Black Mirror echoes. What we received in Death to 2020 was what some would respectfully call a salmagundi; what some would crudely call a disaster. One issue was that there was no Charlie Brooker to dryly lead us through the conspiracy with all the talent involved.
It was as if a Netflix algorithm had somehow confused this with the U.S. show Saturday Night Live, which has been famously fat and mean on a weekly basis since 2016, by consistently pointing out that Donald Trump is fat and mean.