- Darwin's Darkest Hour, and: Creation
Darwin's Darkest Hour, a two-hour documentary-drama, was produced by Nova in association with National Geographic Television to show the development of Charles Darwin's evolutionary views in historical and domestic context. Unlike all the other TV documentaries that were released in 2009 to commemorate Darwin's bicentenary year, this is offered as a historical drama in full period costume. The script and the action are intended to carry the storyline with little further ado: there are no talking heads, no explanatory voice-overs. Issues of faith, scientific credibility, ambition, and research are handled as natural elements of the story. This reviewer has to declare an interest in that I read the script at an early stage of development. Even so, I do feel that this is well done. The documentary is a pleasure to watch, the main threads are easy to understand, the historical structure does not stand in the way of our emotional engagement with the characters, and there are some very nice moments that work extremely well indeed. The cast is excellent, especially the outstanding Darwin (Henry Ian Cusick). Their words are mostly taken from letters and diaries, discreetly updated.
The program sticks as close as it can to the facts. It recreates for viewers the crucial few weeks in 1858 when Darwin decided he must make his ideas public. That moment has always been noted as a dramatic one, full of cinematographic potential. The screenwriter John Goldsmith frames the story around Alfred Russel Wallace, the cofounder of the idea of evolution by natural selection. A letter penned by Wallace, the young English naturalist (Rhys Bevan-John), sets the drama in motion. Wallace is suffering from malaria, alone among his exotic natural history collections, located somewhere unspecified in the Malaysian forest. In this letter Wallace enclosed a short and brilliantly incisive essay describing his own theory of evolution by natural selection. As Goldsmith says in an online interview, "It's kind of like a spear thrown that goes thunk! into Darwin's heart as he sits there peacefully in Down House in North Kent. It's really where the story starts."
When the letter arrived at Darwin's home in England at some point in June 1858 (the date is unknown) Darwin recognized that he was forestalled. The action thence shifts to Darwin and his despair at perhaps having to give up the theory on which he had been working for two decades or more—ever since he stepped off the Beagle. The gentlemanly codes of scientific priority required it of him. [End Page 671] Whereas most historical studies would then go on to describe the processes by which Darwin came to publish a short sketch in conjunction with Wallace's essay—processes that included his friendship with Charles Lyell and Joseph Hooker, who persuaded Darwin that he could justifiably publish an extract from his own long manuscript, the social maneuvering to get the joint papers onto the program of the Linnean Society of London in July 1858, the anxiety that he was not acting honorably—the drama takes a different turn.
Thereafter the action pivots around an entirely fictional (although reasonable) assumption that Darwin and his wife Emma spent several days discussing the key points of Darwin's theory and whether he should publish. At the same time their youngest child is rapidly failing with scarlet fever. Within a few days, the baby dies. These two events, so closely interwoven in the correspondence of this period, allow the program to flashback to Darwin's special moments of achievement and make a number of significant biographical and scientific points. Most of these are straightforward enough and include the close family relationship between the Darwins and Wedgwoods, Darwin's return from the Beagle voyage to encounter first his cousin, the very attractive...