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Rose Tinted Sci-Fi

May 18, 2012 Leave a comment

So I was rewatching a chunk of Babylon 5 recently, and it struck me how dated the special effects now are; back in the day, Babylon 5 won awards for its starship battles. I shrugged and thought “Ah, but it’s been around since the mid-nineties, I shouldn’t be so harsh”. And then something else, perhaps a clumsy piece of dialogue or poorly realised plot point came up, and immediately, I began to raise the same excuse. It’s at this point, I realised that really old shows (such as, say, 1960’s Doctor Who) have become bullet-proof in the eyes of the fans.

The past, they say, is another country, and by extension, one that’s pretty hard to get to. Unless of course, you’re a geek. We obsessive types love our nostalgia, and the constant reliving of things we enjoyed in our childhoods is part of what it is to be a geek. So we give the old stuff a bit of a free pass.2

The Myrka. It looked rubbish back then. It looks rubbish now. Let’s not pretend it’s age that has made it rubbish, it’s a pantomime horse covered in gunge; it’s totally bobbins.

A show that gets to a level of popularity and notoriety, it becomes a ‘classic’1, and all the flaws that caused it problems when it was new now become funny little quirks of its age3. This is a problem, however. Because in forgiving the flaws, we take something away from the experience.

Take Blake’s 7, for example. Great show, ground breaking. Wonderful ideas, interesting acting, top stuff. Also a show I remember watching from when I was small, so watching it again is like giving sticky sweets to my inner child. However, the production quality dips as the show progresses. It’s a real shame, and you can chart the collapse of show against its mismanagement. Should I give it a free pass then, because it’s old? Or should I get angry because a great idea with an amazing cast got fumbled? By forgiving it for its flaws, I also run the risk of ignoring its depth. I may, for example, decide that an episode which only has two sets was done for budget reasons, rather than the creative challenge.

A good story can be told in any way it needs to. Quality is nice, a super huge budget is lovely, but without a solid story, it will fail. Is the Tom Baker story Ark in Space any less of a great tale about humanity and survival because the monsters are made out of bubble wrap? Does it’s pacing, which was designed for the audience of the time, make it less valid than it is today? Of course not. Let’s enjoy things for what they are and forget terms like nostalgia; good is good, regardless of age.


1: Classic has been long over used, of course,I blame Coca-Cola myself. It’s really just a way of saying ‘old, but don’t let that put you off’. However, because it has the word ‘class’ in it, we assume to also means high quality, as if everything made back in the day is somehow better than now. If that was true, I’d be writing this on my ‘Classic’ BBC Micro Model B computer, or perhaps a ZX81. I’m not, there’s a good reason for that.

2: Which also explains the obsession with time travel.

3: If you don’t get a following though, you’re screwed. Poor Andromeda. Forever judged as Hercules in space. It has a small following, but not enough to give it sort of passionate armour that comes with nostalgia.

Categories: Rants, TV

Scandal

May 11, 2012 Leave a comment

Has anyone else seen Scandal? It’s an American TV show which seems to be illegitimate lovechild of The West Wing and Hustle. It’s not as good as either, but it could well grow into the role. The show has only turned up recently, mostly to fill in between releases of other shows. The very short first season (7 episodes) implies that the network wasn’t that confident it would work, and I can see why; this is a strange little show, but also gearing up to be a big wodge of fun.

Scandal revolves around former presidential aide Olivia Pope; she and her team of mostly lawyers who don’t practice law but do get things done. They’re sort of like the A-Team, but instead of making a fully functioning air craft carrier out of a battered Ford Fiesta, they instead use a variety of skills to fix things for people who can’t get help in the usual way.1 Clients may be super-rich or super-poor, it doesn’t matter; every week a new challenge. What does the team actually do? They stop people from getting their lives ruined by bad choices. They fight scandals, but in an LA Law sort of way.

Hard to be subtle when you have the words SCANDAL on your face in big red letters…

Well sort-of. You see, in addition to court-room, law dodging shenanigans, there is also an arc-plot involving the President of the United States, his aides, his ex-lover and this is actually where the show gets a bit interesting; it starts off fine as a series, though a little gutless and pedestrian, when then suddenly, about halfway through, the whole thing dips into real darkness. I like a good poltical conspiracy, and though the show may be biting off more than it can actually chew, it is fun to watch it try.

What began as a ‘scam of the week’1 style show looks like it will quickly shift into something that is actually about the collapse of a government, and possibly a nation. Scandal has the potential to deliversomething rather unique. Let’s hope it does.


1: They couldn’t build an aircraft carrier, but they could certainly get it out of jail if it got arrested for speeding.

2: Similar to monster of the week. Basically, the sort of show where the main draw is the monster, or the heist, or what have you. This is a pretty typical format, though with Scandal, it does just seem to be the minor-plot. It’s almost a bait and switch, though if it does go very weird later on, I may well become hooked.

Categories: TV

The Voice

May 8, 2012 3 comments

I usually don’t get on well with reality TV. Typically because the only real thing about them is that they feature someone in a position of authority bullying some sort of supplicant, be they a jungle dwelling media-idiot, a fat person trying to lose weight or some sort of awful parody of a businessman. I especially dislike X-Factor style shows. Not only does it reinforce the myth that everyone in arts wants to be a superstar1, it’s actively cruel, and is mostly an exercise in cramming square pegs into round holes.

So it was with some reluctance that I turned on BBC’s The Voice, expecting it to be yet another bit of awful exploitation of people’s hopes and dreams. Still, I thought, it’s got Tom Jones in it. He tends to be a sane voice when it comes to talking about music, and entertaining in general. Maybe it’ll be okay. I was wrong, of course. It’s not just okay, it’s remarkable.

The format, for those who’ve not seen it, begins with blind auditions of those who want to boost their career as singers. They are four judges, two of whom you’ve heard of, one of whom you’ll recognise when you check out his profile out and go “oh, the Black Eyed Peas” and Danny O’Donoghue.3. They listen to the artist, and only turn round if they’re willing to put them on their team.

The show’s logo, however, is less than good. It’s like all the pop-stars formed a red army or something.

Once the four judges have assembled a team of artists, they then put those artists in a boxing ring, where they sing at each other, in a surreal (yet entertaining) version of a gladiatorial match. Finally, after all that, the artists are thrown to the wolves. By which I mean a public vote. Because it’s a reality TV show and they have to make money from it somehow.

The novelty, however, is not the format. (Which comes from the Netherlands). It’s the fact that the show does not pretend that most of these artists have been pulled off the streets and thrust into stardom. Instead, almost all of the contestants have had some level of experience trying to become singers; these are people at the start of their careers, who are getting a massive boost by appearing on national television.

The show isn’t about selling you a dream of having superstardom thrust upon you, rather it’s about talent and hard work, as well as public participation. Whereas similar shows claim to be about training the next generation of artists (but are actually about letting the public throw peanuts at aspiring artists), The Voice is about the music, rather than the fame, and not only raises the bar for reality TV shows, it actually raises the bar for being a person, if only by a little bit. Let’s hope it stays this positive in future series.


1: If you sing, write or dance for just the money, it’s highly likely that you’ve chosen poorly. None of these things are easy, though of course, the professionals make it all look effortless. To encourage someone to get into the arts in order to be a superstar is the wrong approach entirely.
2: Seems to me that the general public has finally noticed that Simon Cowell really doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Possibly this is that he’s very good a playing the role of someone who can talent spot, even though the results of his talent spotting where incredibly pedestrian. The current gossip about the man is all sex scandal, which tends to be death rattle of the talentless.
3: Honestly, who? I mean he seems nice and his heart appears to be in the right place (by which I mean I don’t think he’s a Timelord), but seriously, who is he?

Categories: TV

Star Wars Clone Wars (2003)

I am a great lover of puns, so naturally, I have no problem with people using today’s date, May The Fourth, as an excuse to make sneaky little Star Wars references to each other. It’s also pretty fun that others wave their geek flag around by throwing in other sci-fi references , random quotes and the like1. So really, I should talk about Star Wars again.

As I’ve stated before, I don’t think the movies are anything terribly special. To me, it’s the shared universe and the fact that it’s given various arty types an excuse to produce epic, space fantasy style tales that matter. One fantastic example is Genndy Tartakovsky’s Star Wars: Clone Wars2. Set between Attack of The Clones and Revenge of The Sith, this is short cartoon series produced by the same guy who brought us Dexter’s Laboratory, The PowerPuff Girls and of course Samurai Jack.

Jedi versus Sith; Six movies worth of conflict summed up in one frame.

Of these, the Star Wars cartoon most resembles Samurai Jack; itself a series about a swordsman fighting futuristic creatures. In Star Wars: Clone Wars, we get a series of short stories, each one a snap-shot of an epic inter-galactic war. The focus of many of these tales are the Jedi. The animation resembles Tartakovsky’s previous work, whilst maintaining the iconic Star Wars look. So for example, Padmé Amidala looks both cute and exotic, whilst also cool and deadly. Emotion is conveyed in a very simple, easy to comprehend style, and because it looks so simple, we accept it, move on and thus allow the story to draw us in deeper. (It would be unkind to point out that the cartoon version of Anakin Skywalker is more expressive than the live action version. It’s also true, sadly.) It’s also filled with visual reference to previous Star Wars cartoons, and lovingly crafted cues and homages to the broader franchise.

As Star Wars is so ingrained into the culture I’m a part of, I have no idea if it works out of context. I think it would; warriors doing cool things are a pretty easy idea to get a handle on and enjoy, after all. Star Wars: Clone Wars, really is the best thing to come out of the prequels, and is the closest thing to the promise of a War in the Stars that the Lucas franchise has come up with thus far.


1: It’s also a little dull, which is a sad and inevitable consequence of something becoming part of the background culture. For some, there’s a fine line between liking something because it’s fun, and liking something because everyone else does. Once the line is crossed, there’s a chance people will simply repeat the same lines and make the same noises simply to have something to say, rather than out of a sense of joy. Inevitably, the thing becomes mundane.
2: Not to be confused with the CGI series of a similar name, which came later.

Categories: Geek, TV

House

April 16, 2012 3 comments

A small amount of fuss has been generated recently by the announcement of Elementary, an unauthorised American remake of the BBC show Sherlock. This confused me greatly, as there’s already been an extremely successful version of the Arthur Conan Doyle’s hero, updated for a modern audience. It’s called House.

Powered mostly through the performance of Hugh Laurie1, House follows the exploits of a damaged yet brilliant doctor, whose genius sets him apart from the common man. His ego and arrogance is such that he must constantly seek challenges and solve medical cases, as to avoid doing so means that he would go quite insane and be driven to self-destruction. He is aided in this by an equally brilliant, but empathic companion, a Doctor Wilson. House and Wilson team up every episode to fight obscure illness and disease.

Well, that was the idea, anyway, and in earlier seasons, that’s what we got; the adventures of a damaged, cruel yet brilliant soul, an engaging and interesting puzzle to solve (though rather than a complex crime, it being a medical show, it was a complex illness) and a supporting cast designed to generate conflict, high-light the ethical side of medicine and generally allow us to enjoy Laurie’s full tilt performance of a dangerous yet brilliant lunatic.

Grumpy Doctor Adventures

House began brilliantly, but whereas British shows have a habit of finishing when the creative team have ran out of things to say, American shows are more likely to keep running until public interest wanes and the money runs out2. This is a problem, as they are only so many interesting medical stories that you can make fit into a crime-style story. At its heart, House is a detective story with a biological twist; the criminal may have always been some obscure illness3, but the crime was always interesting.

As the series progressed, however, it became formulaic; it was no longer about the good detective fighting the human condition, but instead, the broken curmudgeon fighting the world. This worked for a while, pretty much on the weight of Laurie’s acting, but what we have now is a better than average medical drama, rather than a brilliant detective show in a white coat.

House is reportedly in it’s last season, and I am personally hoping that the show ends with the grumpy git fighting the elemental force of cancer in a sword duel over a waterfall. I suspect I’ll be disappointed.

1: The talented one from eighties gag-show, Fry and Laurie.
2: That the BBC can do short-run, brilliant shows is one of the many reasons that you shouldn’t whine too much about your license fee. That and the fact that it irks Rupert Murdoch.
3: But never Lupus, which is a devastating illness and alas, is nothing to do with werewolves.

Categories: TV

Eternal Law

February 27, 2012 3 comments

If you were very lucky, you will have missed ITV’s recent attempt at genre drama; supernatural stinker Eternal Law1. The idea is quite a nice one; angels in the form of man take the guise of barristers to defend the innocent, typically fending off similarly disguised demons as they do so. Potentially, this could have been a great mix of court-room drama and supernatural adventure.

What we got was a poorly acted, badly thought out melodrama. It’s almost as if the producers thought that the idea (which though nice, isn’t terribly original) would be strong enough to carry the whole show by itself. The problem wasn’t just one element; this was a potentially brilliant, genre defining TV show let down by a lack of decent stories. Plenty of good ideas and yet not a single one of them was handled well.

The main characters had a lot of potential; the naive and child-like Tom, the bitter yet savvy Zak and the mysterious and capable Mrs Sherringham may have been a bit cliché, but they were strong enough to carry the story. Sadly, instead of letting the viewers getting to know the heroes, we instead got a lot quick fixes and most of the problems in the plot seemed to be resolved either by having the heroes shout at someone, or another character having an inexplicable change of heart.

Great idea, pity about the execution

Eternal Law was filled with some great moments; two angels sitting on top of York Minster having a swift drink talking about saving the world through better legal-aid sold the show to me initially, as did the various one-liners. After all, few shows ever get to have someone say “Hosanna singing ponce”. But nice set scenes do not a story make, and it’s main problem was that it couldn’t decide if it was a low-budget courtroom drama show or a low-budget supernatural thriller. By trying to be too many things, it ended up being nothing.

The real shame here is that not only has the show been cancelled, every botched job like this makes it harder for similar ideas to take their place. Eternal Law wasn’t a bad idea, it was just badly made. It’s tempting to poke fun at the show, but its so poorly put together that I suspect strong language may somehow make it fall apart. I haven’t the heart to be mean, because it’s so naff that I feel sorry for it.

If you want an interesting take on the divine and infernal interfering with the affairs of man, I recommend you check out Chris F Holm’s latest book Dead Harvest instead. Not only is it a better idea, it’d make a cracking bit of telly.


1: Previous efforts to make interesting genre shows have included Primeval and Demons. Whereas the former probably deserves its own post, the latter was the forgotten offspring of Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Coronation Street without any of the charm that might imply. Best let sleeping Demons lie.

Categories: Reviews, TV

Castle

February 6, 2012 1 comment

Why aren’t you watching Castle?

For the uninitiated, it’s the show that Firefly star Nathan Fillion did next. It isn’t sci-fi, it’s a cop show1 and revolves around the adventures of Detective Kate Beckett, (played by former Bond Girl Stana Katic) and an incredibly successful crime writer, Richard Castle. (Played by Captain Tightpants himself, Nathan Fillion.) Beckett is a gritty New York cop on the edge, looking for the scumbags that have done her wrong, whereas Castle is a care-free, fun loving thrillseeking crime novellist who brings with him the power of imagination. Together, they fight crime.

Sounds cheesy, doesn’t it?

The pen. Mightier than the sword. But not mightier than a gun that shoots pens.

It is. It’s as clichéd as it sounds as well as silly and light. A classic cop show, the sort that many of us grew up with. If elements of it seems familiar, it may be because one of the main writers for the show was Stephen J. Cannell2, who wrote the Rockford Files and The A- Team.

American crime dramas are ten-a-penny but Castle is one of the few which focuses less on the crime, and more on the crime fighters. The show is filled with cross-genre references (and frequent nods to Firefly) and has had stories centring around comic books, alien abductions, steampunk parties and superspies. Each ridiculous premise is taken on the chin, without the show ever descending into parody. Fillion’s larger than life hero makes it easy to suspend disbelief, and as the show never actually crosses the line into pure fantasy, what we end up with is a cop-show that pretends to be as grime filled as the streets of New York, but instead happens to be filled with fun.

There is, of course, a will they/won’t they sub-plot going between the two main characters. Of course there is, it’s that kind of show. The support characters have their own sub-plots and romance things going on, and the world of Castle breathes. The show works because not only is each member of the cast distinctive and interesting, they’re important. We care about Castle’s family and the other detectives in the precinct. The lead character may be a care free clown, but as the show progresses, we grow to understand why.
Castle draws us in with charming little references to geek culture, entertains us with Fillions charm, makes us laugh with a cleverly arranged sight gag or subplot and then just as we get to relax, it reminds us that it is a cop show and that in crime stories, horrible things happen to good people, and because we have invested into the characters so much, we love it.


1: Rather than Crime Drama, which is a terribly broad term. Sherlock is a crime drama, as is The Killing. Cop shows tend to be less intense, and have good guy cops versus bad guy robbers. Or to put it another way, are more likely to be escapist and fun, rather than thrilling and gritty.
2: Cannel passed away about a year and half ago. He was an incredible talent, and great scriptwriter and also happened to be dyslexic.

Categories: TV

We’ll Take Manhattan

January 30, 2012 2 comments

The BBC has this odd habit of creating excellent drama and then hiding it somewhere in the schedule1 where it will then sink into obscurity and DVD sales. We’ll Take Manhattan was tucked away on BBC 42, and is a bit of a rare gem, being a biographical drama that isn’t afraid to be bold and interesting.

We’ll Take Manhattan follows the early years of now world-famous photographer David Bailey, and goes a long to explaining why he’s such a big deal. It also follows the early years of Bailey’s muse, model and lover Jean Shrimpton, played by Doctor Who companion, Karen Gillan. It’s a fast paced little drama, with absolutely thrilling performances from both Gillan and Aneurin Barnard (who plays Bailey).

Other people to have taken Manhattan include The Muppets

The drama itself is pretty straight forward; Bright young things take on the establishment and win by being energetic, keen and brilliant, though not without some level of personal cost. This may seem like a cliché to us, but the thrust of the drama is that back in 1962, things were less dynamic. Bailey is not portrayed as a rock star, but as a young man desperate to make his mark on the world. Barnard steals the show entirely, and though Gillan is very good (and shows the audience that she is much more than a one-dimensional character), it is Barnard’s depiction of a man who is so hungry to prove himself to the world that he is willing to destroy everything, including himself, to get there.

Another thing that impressed me is how terribly appropiate it all looks; everything but the lead characters look old-fashioned and stiff. (Not just Sixties, but established and ancient). The sets tell the story as much as the actors, the only things with life in them are the shots created by Bailey. The producers have clearly taken great joy in framing as many shots as possible in such a way that they resemble the great photographer’s back catalogue3.

We’ll Take Manhattan can be found on iPlayer, and is worth your time if you have an interest in the Sixties, the history of modern photography or Karen Gillan’s legs.


1: Case in point; Christopher and His Kind, a rather brilliant drama about Christopher Isherwood’s experiences in Germany during the eve of World War 2. Isherwood’s story inspired the musical Cabaret, so you’d have thought it was must see television, especially as it featured a rather striking performance from Matt Smith. I find it odd that the BBC commissioned two Doctor Who actors to do adult dramas, both of which are rather good, and then hide them.
2: The channel for interesting documentaries and semi-factual dramas, formally known as BBC 2.
3: Including the shot with the chain link fence and the teddy bear. You’ll know it when you see it. Though the bear gets abandoned. Karen Gillan’s character keep doing that.

Categories: Reviews, TV

In defence of Stargate: Universe

January 20, 2012 5 comments

Stargate:SG1 is, in many ways, the closest America has come to producing a show with the depth and joy of Doctor Who. Though very different, both shows enjoyed a flexible format that required the lead characters to investigate and explore new things. In keeping with an established formula for TV shows, SG1 was responsible for two spin-offs Stargate:Atlantis and Stargate:Universe.

Atlantis stuck to a formula established by the original show; an over-arching race of baddies, a reason to go to a different planet every week and political shenanigans threatening to destroy all the good work of the heroes. The main deviation from the original show seemingly happened by mistake. You see, the stars of the show where meant to be the ruggedly handsome Colonel, the Whiny Nerd and two interchangeable Combat-Wombats1.

The actual stars turned out to by the Whiny Nerd and his sarcastic chum.2. So when it came to Stargate:Universe, they’d learned the lesson that square-jawed action heroes don’t always equal interesting. Universe is filled with flawed characters, so much so that the entire premise of the show was based around the consequences of having the wrong people in the right place at the right time.

I also loved the design classic sci-fi feel to the set design.

Unlike the previous two shows, Universe exiled its cast from the any sort of support, and distanced itself from decade’s worth of mythology.

And you know what? It really worked. Every show was filled with internal conflict. It didn’t really matter what monster of the week threatened the heroes in any give episode, because we tuned in to find out what was happening to the characters. Would the young, naive genius with a low self-image finally find his self-esteem and maybe love? Would everyone realise that the go-get-‘em jock type was actually a bit of jerk? Would I ever stop thinking that Robert Carlysle’s character was nothing more than Trainspotting’s Begbie in a tweed jacket?

A lot of the fans hated it, and I can see why. The first two Stargate shows are all about luck and optimism. One can take on city hall and win (and by city hall I mean a vast army of intergalactic warlords). Science and romance tends to win out, though a little brute force tends to help out. Universe had utterly different themes; cynicism and struggle where the order of the day, problems would not go away once someone had shouted “SCIENCE!” at it and the conflict was almost always internal, rather than some horrid threat from beyond the stars. Which made for great television, but after 10+ years of seeing Stargate Command take on gods and win, I can see why fans were disappointed. They wanted bright heroic romance, not dark struggle.

Which is a pity, because the show was all about triumphing over the impossible. Universe also suffered from being compared to the new Battlestar Galactica, which, despite stylistic similarities, it really was nothing like. It had arch-plots, an established setting, and was clearly designed to run for a long time, whereas Battlestar Galactica suffered from being a mini-series that went on too long.

Sad to say, Stargate:Universe got cancelled before we really gave it a chance to get going, and joins the long line of sci-fi TV shows that could have been a contender, if it had only been given a chance.


1: Sadly, not actual wombats. Actual wombats would be more interesting. Especially if they had guns.
2: Rodney and Zelenka; the great unfinished bro-mance story. If they had their own show I’d watch the shit out of it. Seriously, natural chemistry, comic-timing and sarcastic science speak? Awesome.

Categories: Geek, TV

Sherlock

January 16, 2012 1 comment

Sherlock, for those of you haven’t been paying attention, is the BBC’s latest take on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Set in the modern day, it re-casts the iconic British crime-fighting duo, with Holmes as a high-functioning-sociopath and Watson as a war-veteran turned blogger (Rather than the classic Gentleman Detective and bumbling doctor friend that has become the cliché.)

Each episode is a 90-minute mini movie and is at its best when it reworks classic Sherlock Holmes stories with a modern twist. Every show is laced with references to original works1, and all are clearly labours of love. Though the individual cases are intricate as well as interesting, and even though the weakest episodes have a strong detective story at their core, the show is actually about the relationship between a genius and the rest of the world.

There is a certain amount of cross-over appeal between Doctor Who and Sherlock. Though this is, in part, because Steven Moffat is involved in both, I’d like to think that it’s more to do with it being character-centred adventure drama. Both shows centre on a brilliant person who can perform miraculous feats of mental agility and yet has difficulty relating to other people, and though they are set in entirely different worlds with utterly different legacies and goals2 it is the lure of the brilliant maniac that compels us to keep watching.

Smaug and Bilbo Baggins, together at last

The true genius of Sherlock is the way it draws on the wealth of history surrounding the stories to create a unique tale every time. Though the show misses the mark on occasion3 , it avoids formula. Sherlock will never be a genius centred procedural drama such as House (which is also a re-imagining of Conan Doyles famous creation).

My only criticism is the fact that we only have a limited number of Sherlock stories left. The two main actors are now both much sought after by Hollywood and the shows producers are also involved with big budget projects. This is actually a good thing; like Fawlty Towers and The Prisoner it will stay on our screens long enough to enter the hall of fame. And quite right too.


1: So many references and nods, in fact, that you could probably write many scholarly papers on it. The love and care devoted to show is right there on the screen. The producers love the fans, and the fans love them right back. There’s even a shout-out to the fanfic community, if you know where to look.
2: For example, Sherlock’s cynicism has no place in Doctor Who . The Timelord’s adventures are romantic and impossible, whereas Sherlock goes out of its way to place us slap bang in reality. We can almost taste the smog and sweat that is unique to modern London.
3: The episode The Blind Banker is noted by many of the fans as the weakest episode. It isn’t weak, it just draws upon source material that is not as interesting as it once was.

Categories: TV