On another spiritual plane, the Angel of Light Helith (Sting) advances on his mother Magog, who has been trapped by a prison of earth and rock for some time, and sees his brother Asrael (Roland Curram) is trying to persuade her to awaken. If she does this, the fate of the planet we live on is in dire peril, for she will bring destruction on a vast scale, which is exactly what Asrael has been yearning for as he takes his power from acts such as those. Meanwhile, writer of science fiction and the paranormal Gideon Harlax (Hywel Bennett) has no idea his next investigation will bring him into contact with these otherworldly denizens, and he will be the man who chooses: life or death?
Originally intended as a three-part serial of one hour-long episodes, Artemis 81 was bizarrely broadcast as a BBC seasonal special in 1981, its three hour running time practically guaranteeing that most of those who began the programme would be hard pressed to finish it. This was no lowbrow entertainment, this was intellectual stuff, from the pen of David Rudkin whose most celebrated work was the TV play Penda's Fen back around five years before this. Not everyone had understood that one either, but its quality was obvious, so if you didn't fully get what he was on about, you could kind of perceive the gist of things and appreciate what Rudkin was attempting with the piece.
Artemis 81 was a lot less friendly and easy to get along with, and though it's mainly a small cult following who recall it today, at the time it was briefly notorious as one of the most confounding programmes ever seen on British television, so much so that aside from the odd Channel 4 effort, when they put out avant garde material during their first decade on air, few had the guts to try and push the envelope in quite the same way. There would be items released under a science fiction banner which excused what could be generously termed flights of fancy, but the general feeling was that alienating the majority of viewers to appeal to the rarefied minority was a bad idea.
This is why anything these days that tries to be ambitious runs a very strong risk of being damned as pretentious or elitist, two words that are anathema to the public: explain everything and they will be a lot happier. Confuse them, however, as this did, and they would get angry, and those who did stay the course and didn't understand what the previous three hours had been telling them were very angry indeed. Nevertheless, there was a number who enjoyed being toyed with by what was by any conservative estimate absolutely bizarre, for example, roping in Sting at the height of his fame with his band The Police, and having Hywel Bennett fall in love with him when they both end up in an unidentified Eastern European city that has suffered an almost complete devastation, possibly because of sea monsters that we never see.
You could run through various bits of the plot, where it starts with a group of travellers on a North Sea ferry coming home and committing suicide for no reason at all, which is what gets Harlax interested in joining the dots (literally) and fathoming that the entirety of humankind is under dire threat. Then there was organist Dan O'Herlihy who is persuaded to play a cursed tune at a cathedral for the finale, one which could bring about Asrael's wished-for apocalypse when it is broadcast on the radio if Harlax cannot prevent it. With the characters speaking a mixture of the blunt and the affected, there were so many layers preventing any but the most dedicated viewer from following the drama that you could well believe some thought Rudkin was springing some elaborate practical joke on the audience, but nothing could be further from the truth, he was wholly serious and as ambitious as they got in his belief that television audiences could be challenged and come away from the experience satisfied. This didn't stop Artemis 81 from being an endurance test, but an intelligence was assuredly present. Synth music by Dave Greenslade.