Saturday Morning Funtime has a lot of ground to cover from here to the end of the world. A little uneven, if nevertheless stands head and shoulders over anything else on TV at the moment.
Good Omens, Neil Gaiman’s (Doctor Who – The Doctor’s Wife) epic adaptation of his own much-loved novel with Terry Pratchett continues to wind its way to the Apocalypse. And former Doctor Who David Tennant, along with sublime Michael Sheen, continue to win hearts with the most chaste love story in six thousand years.
Saturday Morning Funtime suffers a little in comparison to the first three instalments. But that’s the almost inevitable result of being one of those problematic middle episodes. By this point, there’s a lot of unpacking and moving about of boxes of the plot. Most of our characters have split into separate groups, with all their various subplots needing to be nudged forward. Even our two heroes find themselves split up for most of this instalment. Because Armageddon is coming. And there at least five different plot lines converging to make to sure that it does. The engines motoring along them all needed to form the big bang when they collide.
Well, Arizaphale’s attempts to forestall the end of the world are actually more of a cul de sac. But his scenes this week are probably the ones most important to Good Omens’ message as a story. In the 90s authors, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman described Good Omens as fundamentally a mashup of two genres. The apocalyptic horror of The Omen with the cold war spy paranoia of a LeCarre novel. That second element has received much more emphasis in Gaiman’s script adaptation. Now, with Saturday Morning Funtime, it kicks it up into a higher gear.
In many ways a perfect adaptation at the script level, it’s utterly faithful to the book but simultaneously adds new ideas that feel like they were there all along.
In fact, the series succeeds in earning the highest accolade you can bestow on an adaptation. It makes it seem like a flaw in the original that it wasn’t like this in the first place. In the novel, the only appearance by Arizaphale’s superiors is the Metatron’s materialisation in his shop. However, the series has featured the likes of the Archangel Gabriel from the start. This doesn’t just better parallel Crowley’s interactions with his own bosses (which actually are from the book). It’s also helped underline the political situation among the Angels. And it’s a job getting more complicated all the time.
Although introduced as a bit of an antagonist for Arizaphale, Gabriel comes into focus here as a genuine, if profoundly naive, middle manager who genuinely thinks he’s doing the best thing for everyone. He doesn’t think his London agent is much good at his job, necessarily. But he can’t imagine that Aziraphale’s heart isn’t in the right place. And Gabriel’s equally befuddled by the very idea of conspiring with Hell against one of his own.
Archangel Michael, on the other hand, reveals herself as a much more cynical figure. Hypocritically, she’s perfectly prepared to cut her own deal with Hell to scupper Arizaphale and Crowley’s Arrangement. Meanwhile, fellow Angel Sandalphon (mentioned in passing in the novel as having enjoyed his job smiting Sodom and Gomorrah a little too much) appears to be a true sadist. Even that conversation with the Metatron seems a little darker in this context. The Metatron is “the voice of God in the way a Presidential spokesman is the voice of the President.”
As their respective head offices both realise what Aziraphale and Crowley have been up to, they find themselves up into their necks in awkward questions
And the Metatron seems determined to block the Earth-based Angel from passing on what he’s discovered to God. Which, in turn, suggests the senior Angels fear God really might call everything off if She knew the truth and are circumventing Her for their own warmongering ends. It all adds to the apparent hopelessness of the situation. Sheen and Tennant’s pitch-perfect performances of, respectively, despondency and panic also ramp up the sense of impending disaster. And it’s key to one of Good Omens’ central themes too – not to look to higher authorities for moral guidance because they’ll always disappoint you. Instead, it suggests one has to rely on one’s own conscience. And to not let power push you into doing what you know is wrong. Not even in the name of doing right.
With the angelic side of the debate wrestling with such weighty issues, it’s down to the demonic side to bring the wildness and fun that also defines Good Omens. Because Crowley’s not in a fight for his life. It’s so much worse than that. He’s in a battle to avoid nasty things being invented especially to be tried out on him for all eternity. With the forces of Hell tipped off that he’s been conspiring with an Angel to prevent the rise of the Antichrist, he’s in deep, deep trouble. Something made clear when Hastur invades a children’s cartoon at the cinema. Some cartoon rabbits meet a thoroughly gory end as a preview of coming attractions coming to a Crowley near you.
And when Hastur and Ligur come for him, the resulting battle and chase scene is one of the funniest and maddest portions of the book brought enthusiastically to life.
Tennant and Sheen are missed whenever they’re off-screen, with the other subplots struggling to match them
Michael Sheen and David Tennant are undoubtedly the stars of the show here. Certainly, the relationship between their Arizaphale and Crowley has been the major selling point. But ultimately theirs is only one strand in this tangled tale. And, as of episode four, the other pieces begin to move more clearly into focus.
And, to be honest, that’s a slight problem with this episode. Ever since the book was published, talk of any adaptation has always had to grapple with the fact that so many scenes of heavy drama fall on the shoulders of four eleven-year-olds. In fairness, Sam Taylor Buck acquits himself well as Adam Young, the accidental Antichrist. As do all the young actors playing the Them. But still; during all their scenes you’re a little desperate for Sheen and Tennant to show up again.
And the same could be said for Newt Pulsifer’s journey to Tadfield and meeting with Anathema. Jack Whitehall would probably never claim to the world’s greatest actor, but he seems particularly miscast here. His interpretation of Newt’s hapless and downtrodden natures involves giving long blank stares at everything around him. It’s a part that really requires someone like Tennant’s fellow Doctor Who, Matt Smith. As it is, in Whitehall’s hands, many otherwise funny moments simply lie there, flatter than a delivery man crossing a motorway.
It also increases the imbalance with Adria Ajorna’s Anathema a thousandfold. Ideally, Newt and Anathema should be two socially awkward misfits living on the margins. But re-imagining Anathema as an almost impossibly beautiful multi-millionaire of impeccable style and brains, who takes up with an incredibly dull version of Newt just because a book tells her to feels wrong.
By episode’s end, all seems hopeless and lost, with the promise of a literally apocalyptic ending around the corner
Our final strand in the Apocalypse to be pulled tight is the summoning of the last two Horsemen. The 1990s decision to introduce Pollution as Pestilence’s replacement seems simultaneously bang up to date, and also sadly optimistic. We meet Pollution gazing contentedly over a canal choking on plastic debris, all its wildlife dead. It feels like it was ripped from today’s headlines. But, wisely, the line from the book about Pestilence having retired in the face of humankind’s progress with antibiotics and vaccines is discreetly dropped. Because, thirty years on, it looks like we’ve actually added a Fifth Horseman to the world rather than replaced one.
Although slightly hampered by that ‘middle episode’ feel, Saturday Morning Funtime also follows the tradition of such episodes two, like The Empire Strikes Back, leave us in a tremendous pickle. The Apocalypse now seems unstoppable. Our various heroes are all trapped or missing. The Horsemen have assembled, and all seems lost. So bad are things that Aziraphale drops an F-Bomb. Crowley will be disgusted he missed that.
Did you spot all the references to Doctor Who and more?
- When discussing aliens and what the sort of messages they expected them to bring, Brian suggests “EX-TER-MIN-ATE!” It’s nice to know Doctor Who is a feature of Sunday nights in Tadfield.
- When desperately plotting to quit the Earth entirely for a different planet, David Tennant’s Crowley magically throws the pages of an astronomy book to float around his flat. One of which shows a dark red world clearly marked “GALLIFREY.” But if Doctor Who is a TV show in the Good Omens universe… could Adam have willed Gallifrey into existence this episode?
- The passerby in Soho who commiserates with Arizaphale after what he interprets as the angel being dumped by Crowley is played by none other than Dan Starkey – none other than Strax the Sontaran in Doctor Who.
- Paul Kaye (who also appeared in Doctor Who’s Under the Lake) plays the energy industry spokesman giving an interview to BBC Radio about the missing uranium, doing his best Terry Pratchett impression. The late novelist actually really was a Press Officer for the Central Electricity Generating Board early in his career, before he was earning enough from his books to give it up.
- Not only does Neil Gaiman voice the cute cartoon rabbits that Hastur dismembers, but he plays the strangely unfazed cinema patron sharing the otherwise empty cinema with Crowley.
- The Metatron is played by none other than Sir Derek Jacobi, who was previously the Master in Doctor Who episode Utopia.