I’ve blathered on so much this month that, for the first time, I’ve split the TV post in two for ease of reading. It’s all about what’s best for you, my dear readers.
For this month’s introduction and a bunch of Doctor Who stuff, look here. For everything else — Red Dwarf: The Promised Land; Mark Kermode’s Secrets of Cinema series 2; the worst of The Twilight Zone; odds & ends, and what I’ve missed this month — continue…
Red Dwarf The Promised Land
The 13th iteration of Red Dwarf eschews the normal episodic format for a single 90-minute special, in turn ditching the expected Red Dwarf XIII moniker for a subtitle. Well, the show has form in this: for its 21st anniversary revival we got Red Dwarf: Back to Earth instead of Red Dwarf IX, which wasn’t a whole series but instead a 90-minute single story (in that case split into three half-hours, but still).
Indeed, despite the feature-length format, The Promised Land is not “Red Dwarf: The Movie” — it still very much looks and feels like the show has in its Dave era, not least because it was still shot in front of a studio audience. Fortunately, it does still justify its running time by being more than just three episodes strung together. Writer Doug Naylor probably could’ve separated ideas from the plot out into three separate storylines if he’d wanted, but as it stands it just plays like a super-sized normal episode. That’s not a criticism — everything’s on form, making this at least as good as any other episode the show has had recently (and, if you go looking through my previous reviews, you’ll see I enjoyed most of those too).
The feature-length shape does allow for some variety in tone, including a strikingly emotional scene between Lister and Rimmer. As I saw someone say on social media, “I didn’t know this show was capable of that.” It leans on the fact these characters have an onscreen relationship lasting over 30 years — not explicitly, but you do feel the weight of that time spent together. It’s actually quite a beautiful moment, with a lovely analogy that has a part to play in the equally emotional finale.
Talking of those 30-odd years, in so many ways this feels like an anniversary special. Not just because it’s a feature-length one-off (for which, as I mentioned earlier, the show has form), but in the way its plot calls right back to the very first episode of the programme, delivering on story elements not seen since that first series, and with a ton of nods and winks to episodes throughout the years too. It makes me wonder if it was written for the 30th anniversary (which was two years ago), but it took longer than intended to get the gang back together. Certainly, if it had been pitched as a 30th anniversary special, I don’t think anyone would’ve been disappointed.
Indeed, they weren’t disappointed now, with the reaction on social media looking overwhelmingly positive. I don’t think that’s a given, nor newness bias — I remember Back to Earth facing a mixed-to-negative response — so I think The Promised Land can be judged a success all round. Personally, it’s made me want to dig out all the old DVDs (or perhaps upgrade them to Blu-ray) and rewatch the whole series.
Mark Kermode’s Secrets of Cinema Series 2
Mark Kermode’s insightful deconstruction of cinematic genres returns for a full second series (following a few occasional specials last year). I say “full” — three episodes. Whereas the first series took on a fairly random selection of enduringly popular genres, this batch somewhat follows the example set by last year’s specials by being particularly timely. Those were themed around when they aired (Christmas movies at, obviously, Christmas; Oscar winners just in time for, obviously, the Oscars; and disaster movies ahead of, obviously, the current crisis. No, I jest, it was for Bank Holidays), whereas these episodes tackle the genres du jour: superhero movies (can’t get more top-of-the-zeitgeist than that), British history movies (including modern history movies like Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman, both recent hits), and spy movies (which would’ve coincided perfectly with the release of No Time To Die if that hadn’t had to be postponed).
In typical BBC Four fashion, the series if both educational and entertaining. Even if you’re a well-read movie buff, Kermode (plus writer Kim Newman) are likely to draw out at least some connections or comparisons you haven’t thought of it, but are always on the money and enlightening. But as well as being information, they make for an entertaining overview of the genres in question, working both as a kind of clip show to relive each genre’s highlights, and, with their relative comprehensiveness, to suggest some films you might not have seen yet. For example, British history is such a broad catch-all kind of subject (as Kermode acknowledges in the programme, each time period is really its own subgenre) that I came away with a list of 17 films I wanted to watch or rewatch. I always think that’s a mark of a good film documentary: one that makes you want to see the movies it’s talking about.
(Series 2 and the Oscars special are currently available on iPlayer. Kermode said on Twitter that they’ll be putting the older episodes back up too, but they haven’t yet.)
The Twilight Zone ‘Worst Of’
For the past year I’ve been working my way through episodes of The Twilight Zone that are considered to be among its very best. But if I carried on like that, my overall experience of the show would be to see its quality gradually tail off, and someday my time with it would end by watching its weakest instalments. That doesn’t seem a fitting fate for such a classic series. It’s too late for me to save some of the very best for last, but I can jump the gun a little and watch some of the most poorly-regarded episodes now. Naturally, I’ve used the lists I compiled for a consensus ranking to curate this selection. I’ve taken the last-place choice from each full-series ranking, and that also happens to include the episode with the lowest average score across all the lists.
First up, the episode with the lowest rating according to IMDb users, Cavender is Coming. On average it comes 107th (out of 156), the highest of these five, with TV Guide even placing it in their top 50 (at #38), but clearly IMDb users have something against it. It stars Carol Burnett as a klutzy lady who keeps losing her job, so she’s assigned a guardian angel to make things better. Said angel is last-chancer Cavender — if he fails this task, he’ll be kicked out of angel school… or something. I don’t know. The Twilight Zone is notoriously bad at comedy, and this is probably the most outright sitcom-y episode of them all — it even aired with a laughter track originally. Nearly everyone reserves some praise for Burnett, which I guess is to do with her being an iconic figure of American TV or something. Not that she’s bad, but she does little to elevate a message-less episode. Even after watching the next four, I tend to agree that this may be the very worst episode of them all.
Proceeding down the average rankings, next is ScreenCrush’s pick, Execution (135th overall). It’s an odd little story with a kinda daft premise: in the Old West, a criminal is about to be summarily hung, but he disappears into thin air… and appears in the present day, courtesy of a ‘time machine’ that randomly scoops a random individual randomly out of the past. How? Why? Who cares! No spoilers, but the unwitting time traveller finds the modern world all a bit much, and someone ends up being transported back. The point of the story is… cosmic justice? Or something? I guess? Getting into spoiler territory now, the episode almost poses an interesting moral question: “if a murderer deserves to be hanged, does the murderer of a murderer deserve to be hanged?” Unfortunately, it doesn’t actually engage with that at all. In fact, it seems to take it as read that the modern-day criminal who gets accidentally sent back to the 1880s deserves his fate. But, as far as we know, he only murdered another murderer — so, by that moral standard, don’t the rest of the “neck tie party” (as Serling repeatedly calls the group of hangmen) also deserve to be hanged? Food for thought. Unless you’re a brainless supporter of the death penalty, I guess.
The worst episode according to Buzzfeed is The Jungle, which comes 148th overall. It’s about an American engineer who’s just returned from a trip to Africa where his company is planning to build a hydroelectric dam, and he may’ve been cursed by natives opposed to the project. As you’ve probably guessed, the episode’s biggest problem is some old-fashioned kinda-racist stereotypes about Africa and its people. I mean, the episode doesn’t even bother to say which country he’s been to, it’s just “Africa”. It’s not overtly racist, I don’t think, but it’s certainly tone deaf. There’s a scene where our hero discusses the project with the board of directors that juxtaposes the idea of witchcraft, which they all laugh at, with the irrational superstitions they all practice (not walking under ladders, etc), which is kinda neat, basically saying that “you laugh at their beliefs because you think of them as simple folk, but it’s no worse than our superstitions,” which is truthful and borderline enlightened. But that’s about all the episode has going for it. By the time he’s travelling home through the implausibly empty nighttime streets of New York City and being haunted by jungle sounds, it all seems pretty silly; and then his cab driver just drops dead, and a tramp appears and disappears out of thin air, and you wonder what all that’s got to do with anything. The only moral the episode can offer is “maybe some superstitions are right”, which is poppycock.
So far I’ve watched nearly a quarter of all episodes of The Twilight Zone, but I’d only seen one from its fourth season before today. That’s probably because I’ve been focusing on the show’s best episodes, and everyone seems to agree that season four is its weakest. Nonetheless, there’s only one episode from that season among this initial batch of bad episodes: I Dream of Genie, Paste’s pick for the very worst and 152nd on average. It’s about a downtrodden clerk who’s presented with the opportunity to wish for anything he wants, and considers carefully via a series of imagined alternate lives — which conspire together to pad out the episode’s running time, of course. In his first imagining he fails to conceive of a world in which he’s not being pushed around, and if that had continued through his other fantasies we might’ve been on to something here — a sad examination of how being so mistreated can seep into your very way of being. But it’s not aiming for that, because this is A Comedy One and so tragic insight is out of the question. The whole thing is half arsed in conception, and also flabby — Serling could definitely have told the same story in half the time without losing anything of value, which I think is a consistent problem with the season four episodes. I didn’t hate it — it’s probably the best of these five — but it’s far from a great episode.
Finally, we end as we began, with an episode voted on by the public: at the bottom of Ranker’s list, and last on average too, is Sounds and Silences. It’s about an excessively-loud, domineering blowhard who gets some measure of comeuppance when he begins to be bothered by everyday sounds like a dripping tap or ticking clock. And then it goes the other way and he can’t hear loud noises at all. It’s poorly written and terribly performed — in the lead role, John McGiver is overacting something rotten. Some criticise the undercurrent of misogyny in the storyline, but I don’t know about that. He blames his mother and his wife for all his problems, but he’s an unlikeable sod so surely any misogyny is his rather than the episode’s — we’re not being asked to agree with him. The character’s ironic fate may be some form of poetic justice, but it’s too long coming to be entertaining, and too obvious to be satisfying. Whether I disliked this or Cavender is Coming more, I’m not sure, but they both merit their places at the bottom.
Things to Catch Up On
This month, I have mostly been missing Westworld season 3, which is now four or five episodes in. I’ve not seen anyone talking about it on social media, so I’ve no idea if it’s good or bad, but I am inferring that not as many people are talking about it anymore, which is its own kind of criticism. One show I have heard mentioned is Tales from the Loop, Amazon’s new anthology sci-fi series. That’s been picking up good notices, and I thought it looked interesting anyhow, so I must make time for it.
Next month… more animated classic Doctor Who; more of the worst of The Twilight Zone; and maybe I’ll even finish Picard or watch The Mandalorian, too…