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The Nightmare Man

December 5, 2011 Leave a comment

The BBC has a long history of delivering quirky and intelligent drama, be it science-fiction, crime stories, thrillers or something else entirely. One example the springs to mind is 1981 drama The Nightmare Man1 adapted for television by genre hero Robert Holmes 2.

This short, 4-part drama contains all the elements you need for a classic British creepy story; a remote Scottish island, a new arrival and of course, a mystery that needs solving. In this case, a series of bizarre murders, caused by some sort of weird thing. As the cast get bumped off in gruesome ways and more mystery gets stirred into the plot, the tale gets darker and more bizarre with every turn.

The series features familiar faces looking much younger than you're used to

This is classic eighties telly, and proves the point that you don’t need a big budget to achieve a strong story, The Nightmare Man was shot on location in Cornwall with a cast that would be familiar to anyone who’s ever watched something made by the BBC.
Though the pacing is slow (a common feature for dramas made last century), this lends the series a much needed feeling of claustrophobia. The Nightmare Man is just the right size. Too much longer and we’d want to know more and if it was any shorter some viewers would be confused. 3

Fans of spooky stories with a distinctly British edge will enjoy this. If you’re a fine of the likes of Steven Moffat or Warren Ellis, I’m confident that’ll you get a kick out of this.


1: Based on a book called the Child of Vodyanoi by David Wiltshire. The story is apparently inspired by the Howard Hawk’s 1951 movie The Thing from Another World; the same movie which inspired both John Carpenter’s The Thing and Ridley Scott’s Alien. Or to put it another way, the story has an excellent heritage.
2: Robert Holmes wrote some of the more popular and well-known episodes of Doctor Who, including Spearhead in Space, which introduced us to John Pertwee as the third Doctor and the Autons and The Talons of Weng Chiang, which gave us Tom Baker in a deer-stalker doing a Sherlock Holmes impersonation. Holmes also wrote scripts for police drama, Juliet Bravo.
3: TV Tropes calls this British Brevity. If you’ve never seen the TV Tropes website before, I should warn you that it’s a massive time sink.

Categories: Reviews, TV

The Avengers, assembled once again

November 10, 2011 1 comment

One of the fascinating things about Marvel Super Heroes is the way it constantly re-invents itself; for example, though the origin story of Spiderman has been told endlessly on the screen, stage and indeed in comic books, The House of Ideas1 likes to mix it up a lot, retelling the same ideas in different ways. In recent years, this has applied to Marvel’s foremost and best known superhero team, The Avengers2. Stories with teams in them are a bit of a bargain, you get to enjoy the adventures of multiple characters, rather than just the one, and if you’re promoting a brand3, it has the added advantage of exposing the audience to characters they may not have met yet.

The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes is a recent cartoon TV series, that yet again re-invents the classic Marvel Super Hero team. We can see elements of previous versions within its structure; Iron Man resembles his recent movie incarnation more than ever (he even looks like Robert Downey Junior), Captain America’s origin resembles both the version seen in The Ultimates comic book and the recent movie. Each episode has been plugged together with a great deal of love and care for the mythology surrounding these heroes, and each one has been re-imagined in a way that’s fresh but also familiar.

(c) Marvel

The main problem with the show is that, in parts, it’s a retelling too far. Every time Marvel redoes a story featuring the Avengers, it always starts the same way; the band gets formed in a way that generates a lot of tension and then they unwittingly face a conspiracy of mystically manipulated villains, almost falling apart in the process but ultimately becoming stronger because of it. If you’d never heard that story before, then I’m sure it would be fresh and exciting, but for me, I’ve already been there, many times.

Part of the reason for my fatigue is actually one of the strengths of the franchise, as this particular story is one of human frailty. It’s an examination of what happens when you thrust power and responsibility into the hands of flawed people.4. This is great, but I want to see the character development go beyond the first handful of stories. I want to see this aspect of the myth evolve in different media as well.

I want to see other, more obscure, stories about The Avengers retold in different ways; the comic books are filled with amazing weirdness and fantastic ideas. I want disassembled robots, the scattered souls of twins, world conquering androids and alien war zones; some of this is hinted at in The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes but I’m greedy and impatient, and am never sure how long a show like this will run for before it gets cancelled.

I’m sure it’ll get a lot of attention in the run up to the forthcoming movie The Avengers, and if you’re in the mood for cartoon action, it’s worth a look.


1: Marvel Comics prides itself on the creativity, hence the self-styled ‘House of Idea’ sub-title. After all, you take away the amazing stories that Marvel has brought us over the years and you’d have nothing.
2: Not to be confused with the classic British TV series of the same name, which features super spies with vengeance in mind. That’s a wholly different kettle of fish, and I’ll talk about that some other day.
3: It isn’t soul-less to to think of superheroes as brands, provided you remember that the story should come first. This is storytelling as a business, and Marvel has proven time and again that thinking about the money makes a story no less valid. Disney bought Marvel for $4.24 billion. A business founded on comic books. Frankly, anyone who doubts the worth of storytelling through the comic medium is woefully misinformed.
4: The battle cry of The Avengers is ‘Avengers Assemble’. I often wonder if that’s because so many of the heroes are so interestingly broken.

Categories: Comic Books, Geek, Reviews, TV

Far too clever for a Cardinal

October 6, 2011 1 comment

History, they tell me, is an excellent source of ideas for storytellers. The more cynical like to say that history is itself an excellent work of fiction.1 When I look at the more recent trend in “Historical” drama, I can see their point. These days, a mere retelling of history is not enough to hold the interest of the general public. It has to have sex and violence in it, and luckily, most history does.

The Borgias2 is a case in point. Historically, The House of Borgia is fascinating. Pick a family member at random and we have reports of murder, fraud, blasphemy, betrayal and all sorts of sex related shenanigans. They also happened to be doing all these things just as the Renaissance was kicking off, so you have interesting people doing interesting things in interesting places during an incredibly important period of history. This pretty much makes The House of Borgia a big shiny jewel in the crown of historical drama.

Holiday Grainger asLucrezia Borgia i (c) Showtime

Lucrezia Borgia, looking nothing like a member of goth band, The Sisters Of Mercy.

It’s rather a pity then, that actual historical fact is a mere footnote; instead the show concentrates on telling a cracking story which is sort-of-true if you squint a bit. Luckily, there’s so much good source material provided by history that it’s almost impossible to do a story about The House of Borgia badly, and The Borgias is well written, directed and cast, though thoroughly over the top.

The plots are fairly Machiavellian, which is spot-on, because this is a show that features Machievelli as a supporting character. Enough attention is paid to history to make it feel authentic without it being a history lesson. If you want to know about 16th Century Italy, read a book. If you want sex, violence, fabulous frocks and an engaging story about power and madness, watch this.

Jeremy Irons is marvellous in his papal splendour, and plays the role of the cunning, clever and quite insane Pope Alexander VI to the hilt, hardly a piece of scenery goes unchewed. The rest of the family are equally marvellous, François Arnaud plays Cesare Borgia as an almost noble yet conflicted man, torn between being a little bit evil and incredibly evil, and Holliday Grainger gives us a demure, slightly naive and yet incredibly deadly Lucrezia Borgia. I am very glad that rather than pitch Lucrezia as a femme fatale from the start, we get a steady run-up to it. The entire first series really does seem to be a prologue for the madness to come, and as history is only given a passing nod, anything could happen. A good start, but one that I hope will improve with subsequent series.


1: A news editor I used to work with used to describe history as “Human interest stories that have stood the test of time”. I sort of like that.
2: I’m talking about the recent 2011 TV series produced by Showtime here. Rather than the 1981 BBC production of the same name, which, if memory serves, suffers from not being as good as I, Claudius. By the way, if you’ve not seen I, Claudius, then you really should.

Categories: Reviews, TV

Confidentially Cancelled

September 29, 2011 7 comments

The BBC has announced that this weekend’s episode of Doctor Who Confidential will be the last one ever. The next series of Doctor Who will not have a documentary style companion show with it. Which is fair enough; every Doctor Who fan knows that eventually, all companions have to leave, and this may as well apply to low-budget documentaries as much as it applies to highlanders, savages, future girls and hot redheads.

What’s more interesting is see the reaction of the Who fandom. Sci-fi fans react to the dreaded word “cancellation” in the same way that baby starling reacts to the silhouette of a bird-of-prey; by generating a hell of a din and panicking blindly at the same time. Despite there being no sign of the BBC cancelling its flagship family-friendly drama, the e-petitions1 and twitter hash-tags are out in force. Thanks to the power of the internet, you too can fill the web with sound and fury, and at the same time, signify absolutely nothing.

According to former Doctor Who Producer, Russell T Davies, Confidential started out as a way of squeezing out an additional 45 minutes worth of telly out of a relatively expensive show. After all, pointing a camera at some people and asking them to talk is much cheaper than producing high-quality drama, and the trick was copied elsewhere (Heroes and Merlin, to name but two) as way of making a budget stretch as well as keeping key production staff in employment between filming blocks.

The Clapper Board (c)BBC

As nice as it is, do we really need another ten hours of this sort of thing?

Things have changed. When Confidential first came out, no one was sure if Doctor Who would be a hit. When it quickly became apparent that the Time Lord and chums was here to stay, plans for a permanent studio were laid and the show saw some heavy investment. As production continued and producers changed, they have learned that the show benefits from being shown in short bursts rather than longer ones, and how to market the whole thing to foreign markets. All things considered, it’s safe to say that we should be enjoying the adventures of a mad man in a box for some years to come. The benefits of Confidential are simply no longer required.

Other factors are worth bearing in mind as well. BBC Three, the home of Doctor Who Confidential, is desperate to cut away the apron strings of the larger, terrestrial channels. Three aims to be the channel you go to watch fresh new telly. It has already cancelled the long running (but awful) Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps and the axe is falling on various docu-dramas as well. At the same time, new and different shows such as The Fades are appearing on Three, and if this is a sign of things to come, then it is a very good sign.

Still, it’s going to be missed. This year’s series gave us some lovely insights, such as the episode that let us follow writer Neil Gaiman round the set and watch him glow with delight as he got to caper about the set of TARDIS, and it’s always nice to see how things work. However, all these things will still be around, you’ll just have to pay for them when you buy the DVD, and given that we have been spoilt for this sort of thing in the past, you won’t hear me complain. Or sign an e-petition.


1: Ah, the e-petition, the modern way of showing you care without actually having to do anything.

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Torchwood – It’s Doctor Who, but mixed up

September 19, 2011 Leave a comment

Torchwood: Miracle Day, finished its fourth season recently. I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t seen it yet, but despite some excellent scenes, I thought it was disappointing.

Torchwood, for the uninitiated, is Doctor Who’s younger, swearier brother. Unlike the family friendly Doctor Who, Torchwood is aimed squarely at the grown-up market, but with the same sort of ‘sci-fi adventure’ flavour that Doctor Who has. The idea is that by aiming a similar show at adults, we can have stories that feature adult themes. Potentially, this could be great. Doctor Who is famous for its wild ideas, and with a license to explore the sort of thing only older people really understand, the potential for rich story telling is great indeed.

The thing is, Doctor Who has had years to hone its trademark streak of insane brilliance. Daleks, for example, look silly, but time and again have been portrayed as horrific monsters to great effect. This is partially because any writer worthy of the name knows Daleks well enough to pitch the terror at a level children can understand. And by doing so, also creeps out anyone who was once a child.

Torchwood, Miracle Day. (c) Starz and the BBC

Actually, Torchwood could do with a talking dog. Never did Doctor Who or Scooby Doo any harm.


Torchwood, on the other hand, aims straight at the grown-ups, and misses the mark. The first two series of the show had more bad episodes than good, and the good episodes only served to show us how much potential the idea had. More often than not, we sat down to watch the show expecting an adult-thriller with a sci-fi twist, and instead got something that resembled Scooby-Doo taking itself way to seriously. And the only thing that makes Scooby Doo worth watching is its silliness.

Torchwood’s third series, Children of Earth, however, hit the target dead on. The menace was one that most people could easily relate to, and the show built up a momentum of creepiness, the horrors getting more horrific, the conspiracy getting more labyrinthine, until the inevitable tragic ending. Though not perfect, this was what I expected from the idea of ‘Doctor Who for Grown-Ups’; wild sci-fi ideas, the implications of which grew to be more thrilling (and worrying) simply because I was old enough to understand the implications.

So then onto the fourth series, Miracle Day. Having learned from the previous season, they tried a similar pitch; a simple yet wild idea that allowed the show’s producers to tell a story of conspiracy, of healthcare gone wrong, of the brutality of man’s urge to endure and how redemption is not something that can always be gained through noble sacrifice. Sounds great doesn’t it?

A yet somehow, they missed again. Partially, the tale was too flabby round the sides. Too many episodes, not enough story. It meandered, it took itself too seriously, and it had way to much of the lead actor’s naked bottom in it. Shorter stories can get away with less exposition, and one of Miracle Day’s flaws is that is became a bit of shaggy dog story. We’d waited too long for an explanation, so when it came, it was a disappointment.

They tell me that there may not be a fifth series. If there is, I’ll watch it, but if never comes back, I’m okay with that as well, and that, is not a good sign.

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