Anybody else rewatching UFO?

ufo3I have very fond memories from my childhood of late Sunday nights, when my Dad would come up to check if I was asleep, and if I owned up that I wasn’t (what kid ever slept easy on a school night?), he’d let me downstairs to catch an episode of Gerry Anderson’s remarkable series.  As I remember it being on Sunday nights they must have been repeats late in the evening, probably around 11 pm, because my Dad would have been out for a few hours and gotten back in about then, and popped upstairs to check on my brother and I. It would have been around 1972 or 1973, something like that so I’d have been about six or seven. Dad knew I loved space stuff so knew it would be a great treat: just like with Dr Who of that era, I’d be scared witless at the same time as being excited by all the futuristic hardware. UFO wasn’t really a kids show, at least not like the 1960s puppetry shows that Anderson produced previously- as I’ve gotten older and returned to UFO over the years on DVD and now Blu-ray, I’m endlessly surprised that while its officially a family show its really pretty dark and bleak. I mean, aliens abducting humans to steal organs and body parts? Yikes. I can’t imagine there’s any kids out there who didn’t get freaked out by the scary end-title sequence with Barry Gray’s creepy ambient music.

UFO is one of those shows that seems way ahead of its time while also inevitably dated as times have moved on (remember it was filmed in 1969/1970). Its decidedly non-PC, with sexist jokes and scantily-dressed women, clearly an indication of the times it was made in. Early in the pilot episode sequences of a character clearly ogling a female Shadow operative, while played for laughs, feels rather uncomfortable viewing now. And of course scenes feature characters endlessly smoking and drinking. There is something quite refreshing though regards UFOs non-PC credentials, a strange source of charm I suppose, but the show was ahead of its time, too, with black actors in fairly prominent roles of authority, with consideration of race relations and a mixed-race relationship featured in an early episode that feels very positive and forward-thinking. 

sherrytrekMarch seems to be a month for looking back; the lure of nostalgia seems irresistible while stuck in lockdown for so long now… maybe lockdown and Covid have nothing to do with it and its just the endless siren-call of old favourites. Maybe settling down to the first five episodes of UFO is a reaction to seeing a few episodes of Starsky and Hutch on the past few Saturday nights. Speaking of the latter, I was surprised to see a fairly young M. Emmet Walsh appear in an episode last weekend, and Sherry Jackson in an episode the week prior (Sherry having a particularly memorable role in a Star Trek episode that I’m sure left its mark on many a young fan).

But I digress. I started this post writing about UFO. It just occurred to me, watching it… all the smoking and drinking, it began to dawn on me that its possibly just a matter of simple direction back then. For instance, there are many scenes with Alec Freeman (George Sewell) and Ed Straker (Ed Bishop) in Straker’s office in Shadow HQ, mostly dialogue-based scenes which are expositional and moving the plot forwards. Its just two guys talking, so it seems likely that the smoking and drinking was just a crux for the actors, something for them to do physically while talking. So they are just using props to make the scenes interesting, visually- moving to the drinks dispenser, pouring a whiskey, drinking it, or taking a cigarette, lighting and smoking it, or thumbing through a document file etc. The drinking and smoking feels incongruous now, of course, as its obviously unhealthy and looked at differently now than back then, but my initial thoughts that it was a reflection of the time or a way of ‘selling’ tobacco or booze to viewers were eventually dispelled as I considered what the director might have felt necessary when spacing out a scene in rehearsals to try keep mostly dialogue-scenes interesting for viewers. Maybe I’m wrong. But they even feature characters smoking while relaxing on Moonbase (can you imagine that, NASA letting astronauts smoke after what happened with Apollo 1?) which looks wrong, even though when I think about it, characters smoked on the Nostromo in Alien. I’m reminded of references to the great Peter Cushing, who was considered a master at using props when on-set (something I often have a keen eye on when I watch him performing in films). 

ufo5Network’s Blu-ray of UFO looks pretty stellar- the series looks so much better now than it did back when I was a kid on my folk’s black and white television. I last watched the series on DVD several years back, and difference in the HD upgrade is really noticeable, its a great restoration, akin to that served The Prisoner and Space:1999 Blu-ray releases. Indeed its really quite extraordinary and I’m thoroughly enjoying it.  Its also something of a testament to the quality of the film-making I guess, and I do wonder what Gerry Anderson might have thought about the restoration. I bought my set when it first came out, so its accompanied by a 600-page book that serves as a great reference when watching the episodes. I expect later sets that were minus the book were better served by the disc-holders though- this set has a digipack featuring some of the most horrible clasps holding the discs that I have ever had the misfortune to encounter, truly horrendous packaging which is the sets weakest point. Such a shame the episodes had such TLC and the packaging (obviously well-intentioned) came so short. The box is gorgeous and the book is heavenly but the digipack is the work of aliens: still, its the show itself that counts (once you can pry a disc out of the bloody evil digipack). 

 

Aborting The Walking Dead: World Beyond

beyondI can’t believe this is even a thing, really, but in hindsight maybe something like this was inevitable. I do find myself missing the days when zombies used to be scary and possibly threatening, but it seems AMC’s long-running pursuit of neutering the undead menace is now complete: we’ve now got a Walking Dead show with teen heroes. Let that sink in a moment. A teen Walking Dead show. 

Which I suppose makes it unsurprising that having tried watching this show (and to be fair, I gave it two episodes when thirty minutes of the first made it clear enough), I’ve hit that ‘abort’ button. This show is frankly abominable: badly acted, terribly scripted and directed, a clusterfuck, to be honest, pardon my language.  

It seems to be an attempt, and a rather late one, too, considering that the original show is approaching its eleventh (and apparently final) season, and that its first spin-off, Fear the Walking Dead (how ironic a title is that?) is into its own sixth season, to really establish some kind of endless franchise of The Walking Dead (we’re getting threatened with movies, too). 

beyond2The characters are one-dimensional, the acting is dire, the premise hysterically non-sensical. Our four teen heroes set off on an odyssey/vacation holiday across zombie-infested wilderness to rescue a father from some (suspected, mind) awful Evil Empire whose representatives are dressed in black (hmm, yes, suspicious), armed with rifles and fly around in helicopters. I mean, four teens, what chance will that Evil Empire have? The zombie menace being no menace at all, I couldn’t believe my eyes when at one point our heroes rest for the night in a Treehouse and the biggest mystery was proving not how they will survive the zombies but what are they eating, who’s doing the cooking and have they got any toilet rolls. More importantly, what’s with the lad persistently taking photos with an old film camera? I mean, a film camera? Where does he send the rolls to be developed, is Jessops or Bonusprint even a thing in the Zombie Apocalypse? And how many batteries does the lad with the Walkman have in his rucksack? Is that Walkman thing even playing music? No, I get it: the camera isn’t really taking any pictures and that Walkman isn’t really playing music. Tres Surprise in episode six.

No, that’s it. I’m out. Bad enough one of the kids looks like he’s auditioning to be the next Dr Who. Yeah, a teen Dr Who and the resultant decline of Western Civilization looks pretty inevitable at this point.

Lost in Space: Season Two (2019)

lost2A little bit late to the party? Yes I guess so, since Netflix dropped this second season of the surprisingly good Lost in Space back on Christmas Eve, 2019, if I recall correctly. I suppose that might have been a genius move for many, having a family show like that available for the holiday, but it obviously didn’t suit me as I’ve only gotten around to it several months later. Indeed, funnily enough two episodes in I was asking myself why I’d waited so long, as this show is pretty great, and it was like I’d forgotten just how good/successful that first season had been (reviewed here and here back in -gulp- 2018).

So its still good then? Like the Ron Moore BSG reboot, this Lost in Space is much, much better than its original: the 1960s Irwin Allen show was a childhood favourite of mine (I loved all those American sci-fi shows, really) but it was decidedly camp and hasn’t aged too well, but this new incarnation is much more serious and brought bang up to date. Obviously its still family entertainment, much less dark than the BSG reboot was (which was informed by Post-9/11 sensibilities, terrorism and dangers of AI into something quite removed from its Glen Larson original), so it has certain limitations, but it has to be said, within those limitations of a show that tries to offer something for all the family, it works very well indeed. The danger, particularly for sci-fi shows, is that there is a tendency to alienate adults by aiming for a kid audience, with sillier genre tropes, and likewise when aiming for an adult audience danger of no longer being family-friendly with darker, more violent genre tropes. Lost in Space manages its balancing act very well, indeed much better than recent seasons of the BBCs Dr Who, and I rather think CBS Access’ recent forays into Star Trek might benefit from learning a few lessons from the show too.

lost2bStill looks pretty? Crikey, almost absurdly so. Particularly so in 4K and HDR on Netflix- its absolutely gorgeous.  The sets, the costumes, the whole thing looks very spectacular and convincing and the visual effects even more so- really, shows such as this really cross the wide divide that lay between TV and film productions a few decades ago. Quite a few times early in the second season I was seeing sets/locations and effects that looked up there with recent Ridley Scott genre projects such as The Martian and Prometheus. I’m not sure how realistic it is to describe some of these cable/streaming-giant productions from Netflix, Amazon etc as television shows. Strictly speaking some of them have motion-picture budgets, really, and some of it is a little derivative, but fair play, its mightily impressive most of the time. Actually, it does give me some pause in considering what ‘proper’ movies can do to really distinguish themselves from some of these ambitious small-screen genre projects. Hopefully Villeneuve’s Dune will make things particularly clear for me. And certainly the script-writing and acting can actually be better than those movies, and while some of the acting talent may be a little suspect the characterisation and narrative writing is top-notch and on the whole, part of the success of the show is just how endearing the characters are. The irony that it doesn’t really need to look that bloody good because the character arcs and writing is rewarding enough to warrant a watch is quite amusing.

So another season…? Yes, a third season has been commissioned for next year, and its been announced that it will be the last season too, so I assume the show-runners have laid out a plan to wrap things up satisfactorily. I would imagine that there’s a danger Covid-19 might delay things as usual of late, but if the pre-production has been progressing in the intervening months since the commissioning in March, then perhaps things will move along roughly to plan: shooting I think was due to start in September and I believe many tv and film productions are aiming to be operational in September/October.

So looking forward to it, then? Punch me. Well, okay, maybe not, best pinch me instead. Yeah, really, its hard to believe that a Lost in Space remake/reboot all these decades later is so enjoyable.

Still Open All Hours: Season Six

Well, here’s a strange one to post about here, but I thought it might be apt, tying in with a few thoughts regards some genre shows etc of late.

still1First, a moment to explain what this show is for anyone outside the UK unfamiliar with the programme. Still Open All Hours is a British sitcom which airs on the BBC, and is a belated spin-off (how timely is that, in this day and age) of Open All Hours, a sitcom that aired between 1976 and 1985 (the pilot episode of which actually dates to 1973 when it formed part of an anthology show). Like the original series, Still Open All Hours is based around a corner shop in Balby, Doncaster; once run by his late uncle Arkwright (whose ‘ghost’ still gently haunts the shop), Granville, who used to be Arkwright’s assistant  now runs it with his son Leroy.  Its a very old-fashioned, very traditional show that really feels totally out of its time- which is, I suspect, much of its appeal with viewers. Having now totalled 41 episodes over six seasons Still Open All Hours seems to have quietly had some considerable success, arguably surpassing that of its shorter-lived predecessor (ratings not withstanding). Much of this is likely the charm of  David Jason, who has had a decades-long career on British television across all sorts of programmes, chiefly of course his role as Derek ‘Del-Boy’ Trotter in Only Fools and Horses, which is most probably the most successful British Sitcom of all time. Possibly its because it must be fairly cheap to produce, and is in this day and age, frankly, the ratings don’t have to be as high as they used to when such programming was more popular.

I never used to watch Open All Hours– back when that show aired I was a kid more interested in playing outside and my viewing was mostly more exciting stuff like Star Trek, Space:1999, The Tomorrow People or Dr Who. As I have grown older though, I have to admit its clearly part of Still Open All Hours charm and appeal that it calls back to such old-fashioned and gentle comedies of a bygone era. I’m sure many people sneer at it and some (the majority, even) think its quaint and traditional comedy old and irritating, but for an harmless thirty minutes of escape from modern-life anxieties its rather perfect. Comfort food, perhaps, for those who think the world has passed them by.

still2The success of the show is largely due to its ensemble cast, who on the whole are pretty good comic actors the majority of whom are old veterans of the genre clearly in the twilight of their careers (if not indeed actual semi-retirement). Much of the comedy is predictable, even hokey, but I suspect that’s part of the appeal, the audience being ‘in on the joke’ and ahead of things the majority of the time. While much of it centres on Granville and his relationship with Mavis (Maggie Ollerenshaw), a woman he met during his youth and whom he still loves- its something that mirrors Arkwrights pursuit of Nurse Gladys of the original series, the appeal for many are the recurring plot-lines surrounding the ensemble cast of characters. There’s Mr Newbold (Geoffrey Whitehead)  trying to escape the attentions of ‘The Black Widow’ Mrs Featherstone (Stephanie Cole)  Eric and Cyril’s (Johnny Vegas and Kulvinder Ghir) comic duo of foolish men somewhat frustrated by their middle-age and lost youth- its quaint and silly really, like the banter between the middle-aged and elderly women bemoaning the antics of their men. The (currently) final episode was a Christmas episode that ended with a surprising, and really quite effecting, coda that perhaps indicates the series is better than even its fans think, and while it manages a fitting moment of closure, it also suggests a certain affection for the characters and the humour that surprised me.

My point is, this show is not trying to be anything groundbreaking. It knows it audience and is quietly, gently efficient in being what it needs to be. The cast aren’t going to win any awards, and neither is any of the writing, but it works, and while the ratings possibly are somewhat niche, I suspect (and certainly) hope that they are sufficient enough to merit a seventh season. All the episodes have been written by Roy Clarke, a veteran of British television who is now ninety years old and clearly someone of another era who is writing what he knows as a throwback to those days of old, as he did in his other popular sitcom, Last of the Summer Wine (which incredibly ran for 295 episodes over thirty years). Clarke is just writing what he does best, and it works.

Compare this to some of the current incarnations of other long-running and ‘classic’ genre shows like Star Trek, Dr Who and film series like Star Wars. Taken over by a new generation of creative teams and aiming to update the franchises for modern audiences and more up-to-date social agendas, the series seem to be struggling to succeed at pleasing both old fans and new, and managing to sustain the properties of the originals with all the new updating. It suggests that possibly some of these shows should be less ‘new’ and more familiar (or ‘honest’?) to the originals. While there might be frustration with that, it does seem to be the dichotomy inherent in trying to bring back franchises of old if show-runners are going to take them in unusual or odd directions and lose the appeal of those originals. It would be much more preferable, I think, to just do something entirely new (like The Expanse, for instance) than keep on trying to utilise the old and familiar as a mechanism to exploit established IP and fanbases. Maybe.

So anyway, maybe that excuses writing a post about a show like Still Open All Hours. Normal service resumes tomorrow….

Star Trek: Picard Episode Two

stpicard2Where I think a lot of the current genre material, on both television and film, gets into trouble is that it often feels a bit like trying to get square blocks into round holes- it doesn’t really fit right. I don’t know if its a general lack of imaginative, new thinking creatively or just the Corporate pressure to keep resurrecting old properties (because its easier to update/reboot/sell old stuff than come up with something genuinely original) but when you think about it, a lot of the genre stuff we see now is Star Trek or Star Wars or based on Marvel and DC comics we read as kids back in the 1960s or 1970s.  Its rather like the old saying, ‘there’s nothing new under the sun’. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, after all, I’m not adverse to anyone making a show or movie based on a 1920s Lovecraft story or bringing back Conan or Tarzan or John Carter. But Star Trek was a 1960s show and of its time, retconned somewhat in the 1980s for The Next Generation, and Star Wars likewise was a 1970s/1980s film series. Bringing them back in the 2010s and now, crikey, the 2020s… well, its certainly causing a friction because a lot of our ‘wiser and more progressive’ thinking , as it is often referred to, is pretty much a bad fit for some of our genre classics.

Moreover, people rather forget that back in the day, there wasn’t a dozen other shows competing with Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek, and while there were a few sci-films etc (The Black Hole, Star Trek: TMP, Battlestar Galactica, take a bow) there wasn’t really much competition with the Star Wars films either. These days there are so many genre shows and films being made I think the talent pool is really pretty thin, and I think we’re getting films and shows written and made by people who just aren’t up to it, but are finding careers easy to pursue in an arena where Netflix and Amazon and Disney are throwing so much money into it. Genre stuff is too popular now and I think as we’re getting so much of it general creativity and the quality of writing is sinking fast.

I don’t think JJ Abrams was a proper fit for the Star Trek reboots and I don’t think he was a proper fit for the new Star Wars films either. His Star Trek films tried to refit so much of the old shows mythology but never seemed right, with characters and plot-devices (teleportation to ships in warp or across star systems) that just weren’t correct to established logic or mythology. I know, I sound like a raving geek all the time raising that stuff, but it gets to a point at which Star Trek stops being Star Trek, and it may as well be something else entirely, but of course the Corporate heads want to exploit already established and easily marketable IP. What, after all, does Star Trek: Discovery really have in common with Star Trek that isn’t just in name only,  if the Klingons don’t look or act like Klingons, the Vulcans don’t look or act like Vulcans, and Star Fleet doesn’t look or behave like Star Fleet proper? Its the same thing with the new Star Wars films, which I have frequently berated elsewhere on this blog- if characters or events are so indistinguishable from what was established before in the Original Trilogy or elsewhere, when is it frankly no longer Star Wars and something else?

Its happening now with the current iteration of the BBCs Dr Who, with established cannon being sacrificed, far as I can tell, to just excuse bad writing or lack of creative responsibility to the franchise. Fans and critics are being blindsided by a lot of ‘progressive’ and blatant  ‘social agenda’ material being thrown in, but on the whole its disguising the real tragedy that is a really crummy, lazily written show that is really Dr Who in name only.

Its not that everything is creatively redundant. Ironically some new stuff is very good- The Expanse, for instance, is terrific and is perhaps thriving because it isn’t beholden to decades of established mythology and fans who are experts on those decades of material. Characters in the show can be fresh and exciting and challenging because in behaviour they don’t have to be true to anything established decades before, only what has been written in novels written by genuine talented sci-fi writers who know what they are doing.

Which brings me, finally, to the subject of this post, which is the second episode of Star Trek: Picard. Yeah, I got here eventually. Its not that I dislike this show, its certainly watchable (if only much of that is simply from the presence of Sir Patrick Stewart) but it certainly has its problems, and a lot of this is the writing, the creative choices. Its not a disaster on Dr Who levels, but it does have the feel that the core idea for this series is from some other franchise. Maybe somebody at Alcon had an idea for a Blade Runner series on Netflix and retconned it into a Star Trek story, because all this talk about synths and rebellions Off World (sorry, Mars) feels more Blade Runner, or maybe Westworld, than it does Star Trek. I can almost imagine a pitch meeting where one of the suits responded “yeah, nice idea but that Blade Runner flick flopped, can you maybe write it for the bald guy from Trek, I hear he’s looking for a gig?” I’m sure that’s not how it happened but it feels like it could have. Or maybe the suits looked at HBOs Westworld and thought, “yeah, I fancy a bit of that on my streaming channel, what IP do we own that we can retcon?”.

The result is something that looks good, and can even be entertaining, but doesn’t quite feel right. I enjoyed the first episode because for all its issues, it at least felt more like Trek ‘proper’ than Discovery did, but with its second episode that feelings getting a little stretched. Moreover, returning to my point about the talent pool getting thin, some of the writing here is really pretty atrocious and slipping to Dr Who levels. The rooftop fight (and explosion, remember) of the first episode, has been cleared up, the evidence disappeared, we are told, as if it never happened. Picard doesn’t wake up in hospital but in his villa back in France and his testimony apparently the ravings of a crazy old fool. Going back to the apartment of Dahj we see that it has been cleared up, all traces of the fight (and murder of her boyfriend) all gone, until some magic gadget can recreate what happened in a 3D Hologram until some point at which even that has been erased clean (my sorcery is more powerful than your sorcery!). If it wasn’t for the charisma that Stewart had, or the fact that this show would still be watchable if it was just him reading names out of a phonebook, I doubt I’d be sticking with it. You see, in the old days of Babylon 5, Fringe, the BSG reboot etc, when shows like this had mysteries or multi-episodic arcs, they were often worth sticking with, because I could have confidence in the creative team and the main arc winning through, but on the evidence of so much current genre stuff I really have my doubts here.

And really, I don’t know if its the writing, but other than Stewart, some of the acting is really pretty bland and dire.

Here’s hoping it gets better!

The War of the Worlds (2019 BBC Mini-series)

rwar1The Good: I quite liked the title sequence. It had the flavour of the old Quatermass or Dr Who shows, rather dark and foreboding – I thought the period movie-reel footage was a nice scene-setter and helped establish the time-frame of the show, which in itself was a welcome decision returning to the source novel rather than re-imagining it for contemporary time frames the same way that the George Pal and Steven Spielberg versions did. I think I quite liked the title font (hey, I’m trying to find the positives about this turd, its tricky).

I liked the conceit of continuing the story beyond after the Martians themselves perished (where the story usually ends), instead showing us the world after the war, and those trying to survive and reestablish civilisation- it seemed to offer something a little new. That being said, it infuriatingly made no sense whatsoever as from what I remember in the novel the red weed perished alongside the Martians, killed by the same micro-organisms and bugs of Terran nature that saved humanity. The suggestion that the Martians were infact killed from eating contaminated humans (themselves infected by a typhoid outbreak) and that the red weed (and the Martian Terra-forming) would continue unabated until scientists (well, okay, Amy, our heroine) dumbly figured out that we needed to battle the red weed with the same Typhoid disease etc. was just an incredibly stupid way of doing it.

Er… that’s about it for the Good.

The Bad: Pretty much everything else. The silliness and reliance and poor CGI spectacle was infuriating. I hate nonsensical production design, like the Martians themselves- three-legged monsters that looked like rejects from Pitch Black or any other creature design in the tired-out style of Patrick Tatopoulos, which had fiendish-looking claws etc. but no way (I assume) of actually piloting or even building the War Machines they used to attack the Earth or indeed build the Spaceships to invade it. They didn’t even have opposable thumbs (a requisite of using tools, writing etc) or mouths to communicate with (instead some silly proboscis to eat with).  Sure, they looked creepy, but as a scheming intelligent inter-planetary life form able to build huge war machines and space ships, it made no sense whatsoever. It seems to be where we are now; silly writing, silly design, nothing thought-out.

war1

war2Likewise those spaceships/canisters- hardly large enough to contain a Martian, never-mind the Tripod War Machines that they use to wage war on humanity. I think Spielberg’s movie, as I recall, had some ridiculous conceit that the machines have been buried under the earth for millennia waiting for the invasion to commence- this BBC edition, per its general intelligence level, didn’t feel the need to even bother explaining it. We’ve got some silly spinning levitating sphere that burns people with a heat ray and then the Tripods show up from nowhere.

The flash-forwards to the Red Earth were jarring and managed no real purpose. I assume it was a decision in the editing stage, an attempt to establish some sense of mystery or foreboding but it just irritated me personally, taking me out of one situation into another, and as I have mentioned earlier, typically for this show that Red Earth sequence when it came ‘proper’ in the final episode never really made any logical sense anyway.

The Ugly: Well I feel like I’ve devoted to much of my time and effort on this show already, but  lets see- the cast felt wrong, the pacing was all wrong, the effects were sub-par (which I don’t usually mind, as I can manage my sense of disbelief regards visual effects as long as the narrative is interesting enough, but this one wasn’t). The oddest thing was the period setting, and what it offered visually and narratively (simply not having the narrative bogged down with excuses why they couldn’t use their mobile phones or the Internet etc) was completely wasted. There was no real sense of tension nor terror. It wasn’t so much a War of the Worlds as a skirmish with a few villagers and dumb scientists when all is said and done. The leads of the show,  George (Rafe Spall) and Amy (Eleanor Tomlinson), share absolutely zero chemistry. We are supposed to believe that charisma-less drip George is married to another woman who cruelly refuses to grant him a divorce and that Amy is pregnant with his child. We are supposed to believe that this frustrated love affair between these two lovers is the soul and heart of the entire drama. Instead its this hopeless void, ensuring we simply don’t care about either of them. Considering everyone seems to be starving and dying in the Red Earth five years after the War, Amy not only doesn’t seem to lose any weight, its alluded to that she may have been one of the very last women to have given birth, and its up to Amy and her scientist buddy to finally figure everything out and save the world from the red weed.  Its such a good thing that Amy is around to save us. There’s some very 21st Century anti-Colonial message shoved down our throats towards the end that’s as hackneyed as anything else across the turgid three hours but I won’t comment on it, its just one last example of the kind of thing that ruins modern Dr Who too.

No wonder it took the BBC so long to finally air the thing, it was obviously so bad they were wondering where to dump it in the schedules, so they went ahead and spoiled Christmas.

But Doctor, what about the Aussies?

ausiiewhoI don’t like to nitpick, but I was watching the first episode of the new Dr Who series last night and… well, it was awful, yes, but that’s not my issue, I mean I rather expected it to be lousy, the last series was such a disaster that I only managed to get through four or five episodes before giving up (and I can tell it’ll be just two or three eps this time around before I bail)… but anyway, the bit that really annoyed me…

To be frank, a lot of it annoyed me. But the bit that annoyed me the most, more than the homicidal car or Jodie Whittaker’s astonishingly ham-fisted impression of David Tennant that continues to annoy, and yes even more than the endlessly lazy script-writing that keeps putting the Doctor into increasingly convoluted emergencies and then writing itself out of it by her switching on her bloody sonic screwdriver (one size fits all emergencies, apparently), yes more than that and more than the increasingly inept companions, it was the Aussies.

What about the Aussies!?  The Doctor tracks down an ex-MI6 colleague of hers, ‘O’ (Sacha Dhawan), who MI6 sacked and who went into hiding and even MI6 have no idea where he is… but of course the Doctor knows how to find him in just a jiffy, and when she gets there, the guy is waiting with two Aussie Secret Agents guarding him. But hang on, if nobody including MI6 know where this guy ‘O’ is then how come the Aussie Secret Service know where he is? But that’s not what bugged me about the Aussies, even if it did irritate me that the script’s internal logic was broken again and we’re expected to be too stupid/distracted (hello 100 star destroyer planet killers! oh wait wrong franchise) to notice.

No, what bugged me was that during an attack on the isolated hideout somewhere in the Australian desert, and yeah, how convenient it happened to be just after the good Doctor showed up, but anyway, whilst the Doctors frowning her most serious-looking frown, the two Aussie agents are killed during the alien attack and after it has been repelled by our good heroes, NO-ONE ASKS ABOUT THE AUSSIE AGENTS, NOBODY LOOKS FOR THE BODIES, NOBODY THINKS TO INFORM THE AUSSIE SECRET SERVICE… maybe I blinked and missed it, but it was like they were never there, never existed. Whats the point of writing two secret service agents into a plot if you drop them into what approximates a really tense sequence for New Who and then kill them (to demonstrate how relentless and evil the bad guys are) if you immediately afterwards ignore/forget them?

I hate scripts like that. Its a little thing I know. But its the kind of thing that gets under my skin. I don’t mind all the other stupid stuff (explaining why the companions never seem to be doing their real jobs or are never around, or all the daft Bond references/homages/send-ups, or the daft bike chase or the MIB (sorry, MI6) agents picking up all the companions in seperate cars and then putting them all in one car with just a single MIB (sorry MI6) agent for protection and then someone turning the car into a Homicidal SUV); the quality ship has sailed as far as New Who is concerned but its the little things that wind me up.

But of course its only Dr Who and its only sci-fi entertainment… which is rather like people saying ‘its only Star Wars and its only fantasy entertainment’… I’ll stop now. Its clearly going to be a very long year.

Welcome to 2020, eh?

Await Further Instructions (2018)

afiA low-budget British horror film, Await Further Instructions betrays such an amateur feel it’s almost like a student film. The script is all over the place, its ambition far beyond the budget – so much so it just looks silly and does more harm than good; the script, such as it is, should have been reined in to match what the budget could handle. When it starts it looks like it might  something like a good Black Mirror episode, but instead turns out to be more like a pretty bad modern Dr Who episode. Both are tv shows, which perhaps indicates how much of a ‘movie’ this movie, er, isn’t.

It’s Christmas, and the Milgram family unites to spend the holiday together in their pleasant unassuming suburban home. Tensions are strained however as they don’t really seem to get along- prodigal son Nick (Sam Gittins) has been away for a few years due to falling out with his dad, Tony (Grant Masters) who himself has issues of his own with Grandad (David Bradley) who bullied him as a child and continues to belittle him. Indeed Grandad is a completely horrible old git, and evidently a racist who does not approve of Nick’s Asian girlfriend, Annji (Nerja Naik) who Nick has brought along. Completing the ensemble are Nick’s incredibly stupid (and very pregnant) sister Kate and her almost as stupid partner Scott. Mom is of course just happy to have the family all together at last just as long as she can keep the peace. Cue arguments playing Boggle and comments about ‘bloody foreigners’.

So Christmas morning these charming characters awake to find that their house has been sealed off by a strange black metallic surface blocking all doors and windows. Phones, the radio and the internet are no longer working, and the tv only displays a text message: ‘Stay Indoors and Await Further Instructions‘. Something obviously Apocalyptic is happening outside and Dad takes charge to ensure every instruction that follows is dutifully obeyed.

Well, cue all sorts of bickering and fights and family politics and general carnage as the instructions become ever more provocative and testing. Dad does not seem to think it’s particularly odd that the house has been sealed off during the night without anybody being awoken by any loud construction work or trucks or workmen outside, or that nobody in authority thought to warn or advise of them. A bag of hypodermic needles is dropped down the chimney with precisely enough needles to inoculate the number of people in the house (remember, some of them are visitors not on any register)… wait, I’m thinking about it too much. It really does not reward thinking about it too much, because it increasingly collapses into nonsense and almost parody.

By the time the deaths start and the bodies pile up in the spare room, its beyond silly, and the climactic descent into body horror is hampered by just being too much with too little money. Its rather a shame. The actors have little to work with, the characters all very stereotypical and almost caricatures (did Grandad really have to be an old racist bully, or Dad a childhood bedwetter, or sister so remarkably stupid?). The script really needed much more work and more of a focus on the psychological pressures/tension in what is essentially a preposterous scenario. Maybe the family should have heard  noises outside, of explosions etc or sirens or maybe a car alarm or horn occasionally going off to suggest what may or may not have been happening outside in the street. Maybe somebody (a neighbour?) outside banging the barrier trying to get in, to reinforce Dad’s assurances that everything is fine and the family safer inside the house?

Anyway, here I go again writing too many words and divesting too much of my time reviewing what is essentially a pretty poor and supremely forgettable bit of nonsense. One for you lucky buggers who have not yet seen it to avoid, I think, and one for me to forget as soon as possible.

 

Missions (2017 – ?)

French tv series in an unusual 30-minute format comprising of ten episodes, and unfortunately it ends teasing a second season so doesn’t really have anything near a satisfactory conclusion. Which is doubly infuriating as it offers lots of stupid mysteries and then gets away without offering any decent answers.

The stupidity of the writing is what really nails it though. I don’t know how anyone could stomach this nonsense without shouting at the screen; the characters and the coincidences and the plot-twists are so infuriating- really, this kind of rubbish makes me rather furious. A bad Dr Who episode is usually more scientifically accurate (and sensical) than this. And did I not yet mention that this rubbish has, officially, the Worst Spacesuits Ever?

missions2

So anyway, here’s the story: A European manned mission to Mars (there’s the first gap in logic) approaches the red planet and they are summoned to a meeting to be told that, actually, they aren’t the first to land on Mars, the Americans at NASA have just beaten them to it. Gosh, boo, hiss from our motley crew. But actually there’s another twist- NASA has lost contact with this American expedition that somehow escaped ESA notice so now this is a rescue mission. Now, I don’t know intricate details of inter-planetary trajectory or orbital insertions, but just because you arrive in Mars orbit it doesn’t strictly infer you can just pop down wherever you like. If your landing target was the Acidalia Planitia I doubt you’re going to be able to redirect to the Terra Cimmeria without some kind of flight path change midway to the planet. Anyway, forget that science nonsense.

So our heroes decide to go down and save the day, although, wouldn’t you know it, during the trip down the decent module has a fault and cannot detach from the main ship so the captain has to go out and manually detach the ship and perishes in the attempt. So no leader! Much squabbling ensues, especially when they land without enough fuel to take off again and a ship computer that is on the blink (and life support fried). Oh, and the interior sets do not in any way match top the CGI ship exterior, at all. I mean, they ‘show’ members of the crew getting into the airlock from the interior but not where this airlock is on the exterior, because the sets do, er, not match the CGI ship.

mission1

Even if this turkey had any fuel, how, exactly, would it lift off?

So anyway, they get to the American landing-site and its a wreck. As if NASA satellites in orbit couldn’t have told everybody that. There are no survivors. Except one, but he’s not American- he’s Vladimir Komarov, a Russian cosmonaut who died during re-entry to Earth during a Soviet mission back in 1967. Well, isn’t that strange. What a mystery that he’s alive decades later, and on Mars no less. It just so happens that the last-minute replacement psychologist in the crew now has flashbacks to her childhood, and her astronomy-hobbyist father who considered Komarov to be his hero. Mere coincidence? We’ll return to this a paragraph later.

Meanwhile ANOTHER ship lands on the red planet. Human expeditions to Mars are like buses, it seems, you wait millions of years and then three turn up at once. This one, however, is another American expedition but financed by a billionaire philanthropist  searching for immortality because he’s a Rich Bastard With A Terminal Illness (somehow Mars is the key to living forever, although its never explained exactly why or how this logic has been arrived at).  This guy is more Eldon Tyrell than Elon Musk, so this crew has gun-happy goons on board and they throw their weight around, threatening to shoot dead the ESA folk. The lead woman on this crew of gun-totting goons though is the ex-girlfriend of the billionaire philanthropist who has financed/hitched a ride on the ESA mission. No, really, I’m not making this up. Maybe if our bearded rich guy apologizes for his romantic failure she might have a change of heart and betray the Rich Bastard With A Terminal Illness back on Earth? How very French.

So back to our pretty psychologist who now has special significance according to the enigmatic Komarov who, wait for it, may not be human. It then transpires that she was chosen for the mission because photographs of the Martian topography/landscape perfectly matched photographs of her face! Either that means the Martian landscape is pretty or she’s as ugly as a Martian rock. Anyway, when you see a woman’s face in Martian landscape photographs she clearly has to be put on a mission to Mars.

She is some kind of Chosen One and nobody told her until they dumped her on Mars. Anguished flashbacks to her father being ill. A trip to a Martian pyramid. The terminally-ill billionaire back on Earth decides if he can’t get his cretins on Mars to bring Komarov to him, he’ll get the next flight to Mars and do it himself (I had no idea missions to Mars were that easy to organise or so quick a trip). Somehow this all ties in with some Alien Intelligence which the scriptwriters confuse with Artificial Intelligence because now Mars/Komarov has taken over the ESA computer and their ship is now sentient and there is some twist that the Martians are all ancient (ha, ha! More initials- Ancient Intelligence!) and died out long ago except for -gasp!- the ones who flew to Earth to populate that world. Wait, what? Do you mean— WE are the Martians?

I’ll stop now. Hopefully that is more than enough to banish this hellish nonsense to the ‘AVOID’ pile. To be fair, some of the music sounds alright.

Did I mention it features the Worst Spacesuits Ever?

mission3

 

The Crown – Season One (2016)

crownAnother Elizabethan drama about a young Queen in a man’s world whose reign marks a turning point for the British Empire and the dawn of a new era. We’ve seen this before, right? Not exactly- we’re not going back to the 16th Century for one thing; this is far more recent history, for this story is about Elizabeth II, and the (miss)fortunes of a fading British Empire following the Second World War, and the role of the modern monarchy in this new world.

I will say this- I didn’t expect to enjoy this series as much as I did. As an historical drama recreating the 1930s/1940s and 1950s Britain, this is a very accomplished effort, not withstanding historical accuracy regards the Royal Family etc. It is clearly drama more than documentary -although there is some surprising truth in what it portrays- but it is very accomplished technically and the ten episodes are well written. For a modern epic drama it is pleasantly restrained regards graphic indulgence or sensalitionism. More Downtown Abbey then than Game of Thrones, to be sure, and none the worse for that. The contemporary tendency for television dramas to go for excess and strain credibility (as Hard Sun recently did) is in little evidence here. While it may seem more establishment fairytale than council estate reality, Americans lap this stuff up and us Brits often like to lose ourselves in Downton dreamland in the face of the present-day soap opera of Brexit Westminster.

Personally speaking I’m far from a Royalist and have little affection or interest in the modern generation of  privileged Royal elite that ‘graces’ our Isle, but all my life I have lived during the reign of Elizabeth II and its difficult to ignore the fact that she has been this constant figure in my lifetime, for good or ill.  She represents the England of my childhood of the 1960s and 1970s, particularly her Jubilee of 1977 when I was in the Scouts – we had a street party and felt a real sense of community that feels as long gone as, well, my childhood. The inevitable pangs of nostalgia mean something I guess, but in any event, I have, if not affection, then some grudging respect for her if only for what she represents of my childhood: those rose-tinted images of simpler times, less murky politics and social responsibilities. Certainly it is clear from the ten episodes of this first season (of six, apparently) that she has lived through historic times and seen/met many historic figures: perfect recipe for historical drama on television, anyway.

Claire Foy is excellent in the lead role (it seems such a long way from Little Dorrit) , though Dr Who seems rather bereft of his Tardis as the Duke of Edinburgh, but the real surprise is John LIthgow as the raging-against-ageing Winston Churchill, whose story proves just as interesting and involving as that of the Queen. If anyone were to tell me that Lithgow could pull off Churchill I wouldn’t have believed them, but he manages with considerable aplomb, damn near stealing the show. The strangest casting decisions sometimes work.

As a whole the rest of the cast manage well enough in fairly routine character roles that seldom really surprise but it is all very entertaining. In the old days this would be the staple of BBC drama and watching this I always had a nagging feeling that this sort of thing is exactly what the Beeb should be doing, but considering the cost and scale of this enterprise perhaps it’s just another sign of the changing times this being a Netflix production. It’s certainly is much better than I had originally expected and I quite look forward to seeing season two.