The Past Month on TV #59

Normally I format these TV columns with new (or new-ish) stuff first, followed by older/archive programmes, in a broad-sweep kinda way — i.e. it’s not strictly chronological. But this month not much truly counts as “new”, so I’ve gone for the strictly chronological approach.

In order of appearance, then, this month there’s an RSC production of Macbeth (staged and filmed in 2018 but debuting on BBC Four tonight); the most recent standup show from Daniel Sloss; Netflix’s revival of Lucifer; classic murder mysteries with Jonathan Creek; an early Doctor Who serial; and more of the worst of The Twilight Zone; plus the usual bits & bobs at the end.

Macbeth
RSC Macbeth (2018)This Royal Shakespeare Company production from 2018, starring Christopher Eccleston and Niamh Cusack, has apparently been on iPlayer since April, but only came to my attention thanks to a TV screening scheduled for tonight (on BBC Four at 9:30pm).

You probably know the story: Scottish lord Macbeth bumps into three witches who prophesy he’ll become king, a goal he sets out to achieve by murder. This particular production has some nice ideas, including casting the witches as a trio of creepy little girls in pyjamas, covering the various ghosts in dust, and an ominously reimagined ending. The real high-point, however, comes when Macduff learns of the slaughter of his wife and children, which is thanks to Edward Bennett’s understated but powerfully emotional reaction. It justifies why it’s Macduff who gets to vanquish Macbeth at the climax. That’s another good bit, actually, with a convincingly-realised stage fight (something I’ve not seen achieved too often).

There’s also a big countdown clock that starts ticking when the king is killed and then remains visible throughout — I feel like it takes some balls to have a countdown running during a live performance! Unfortunately, for much of the time the clock just serves to remind you how long is left during a production that I often found a bit slow. The cast frequently race through their lines and run about the place as if a race is on to the finish line, but, counterintuitively, that does not add pace. Altogether, it’s not terrible, but there have been better versions.

Daniel Sloss: X
Daniel Sloss: XHaving really enjoyed Sloss’s two Netflix specials back in 2018, I jumped on this 2019 one as soon as I became aware it existed (it was filmed for HBO in the US, but hasn’t made it to any UK broadcaster or streamer (though it had a theatrical release!) But where there’s a will there’s a way…) Hopefully it will become more widely available, because not only is it hilariously funny but it’s packed with so many insightful, timely routines that I don’t even know where to start. Some of the stuff he has to say should be glaringly obvious (about improvements to sex ed, for instance), and yet has society changed? Obviously not. And then, as is Sloss’s style, he blindsides you with a finale that is hard-hitting but still manages to elicit laughs. Few other comedians, or forms of entertainment fullstop, manage to be so funny or so effectively thought-provoking, and I’m not sure any others manage to combine the two so well.

Lucifer  Season 4
Lucifer season 4After three seasons on network TV (or Amazon Prime Video here in the UK), Lucifer fell prey to 2018’s bloodbath cancellation season. It was ultimately revived by Netflix, and it seems to have gone well for them: after this they commissioned a fifth and final season, then upped its episode count, then changed their mind and are negotiating for a sixth season.

The move to streaming had minimal affect on the show itself, with many things remaining exactly the same: 45-minute-ish episodes, each with a case-of-the-‘week’ plot, and fades-to-black for ad breaks that will never, ever come. It’s only subtleties that are different; the kind of thing only production geeks might even register — that there’s marginally more swearing, violence, and nudity; more special effects, suggesting a slightly increased budget; and 4K HDR-enhanced photography, which makes the image richer and prettier without fundamentally changing the style or visual language of the show.

As for stuff everyone would care about — plot, characters, etc — a lot of this season has to deal with the fallout from the revelations in the season three finale. That means the show becomes a bit more invested in the supernatural stuff than before, although that’s mainly left to the arc plots — the cases of the week are still grounded in the mortal realm, with the usual array of reasons and settings to motivate murder. Cunningly, it all ends in a place that would’ve been suitable (if unsatisfying) for the series to never return, had this revival been short lived. Fortunately, we’ve more to look forward to.

Jonathan Creek  Series 1
Jonathan Creek series 1I used to love Jonathan Creek back in the day. It was a huge hit, too, gaining high viewing figures and a BAFTA award. On the surface it doesn’t look so special: two mismatched individuals solve murders. But it’s the execution that’s different: these are all “locked room” mysteries, and rather than interview a small array of suspects to guess who did it, they must work out how the murder was even physically possible. Creek is a magician’s trick designer, and the stories kind of work like magic tricks: something seemingly impossible that has a hidden rational explanation. Personally, that’s right up my street, and while some elements of the show are obviously dated (the hairstyles; the cars; the pace is leisurely by modern standards), I think it holds up pretty well.

Doctor Who  The Time Meddler
The Time MeddlerLast month, Doctor Who Magazine ran a Twitter ‘world cup’ to find the most popular stories starring the First Doctor. Many of the usual suspects did well, but I was surprised to see The Time Meddler wind up in second place — I’d never realised how much love there was for this story. In fact, I’d never seen it, so naturally I was inspired to dive in.

The serial is notable in the history of Doctor Who for being the first pseudo-historical — that’s to say, a story set in the past but with science-fiction elements (beyond the presence of the regular characters and the TARDIS, obviously). Also because (spoiler alert!) it’s the first time we meet another member of the Doctor’s race (besides Susan, obviously). That reveal is a long time coming, though. We get there in the Part 3 cliffhanger, which is one for the ages — I can only imagine how it must’ve played back in 1965. (Of course, without internet discussions or fandom as we know it today, I guess it wasn’t as impactful. But for those kids in the know, whew!) It cues a genuinely superb final episode.

Unfortunately, the three before it feel like we’re taking the long way round to get to the point. The initial setup is enticing, with anachronistic technology turning up in 1066, given an extra zhuzh because new companion Steven doubts the TARDIS can travel in time, and the out-of-place tech seems to prove him right. After that, there’s a lot of back-and-forthing — the kind of stuff that feels like forward momentum in the moment, but ultimately just moves pieces back to where they were. The Doctor even goes missing for an entire episode (so William Hartnell could have a holiday), which leads to even more wheel-spinning. At least Douglas Camfield’s direction is really rather good… until he attempts to stage a multi-combatant sword fight within the budgetary, scheduling, and technological limitations of 1960s children’s television. It’s not really his fault, I’m sure, but it fails to be an exciting bit of TV.

I feel like that’s an excellent two- or maybe even three-parter in The Time Meddler — when it finally gets to the point in the final episode, it’s fantastic, but the first three-quarters are much less engaging. It’s worth it for that final part, but there are more consistently excellent First Doctor stories that I’d rank higher.

The Twilight Zone  ‘Worst Of’
Jess-BelleThis third selection of episodes deemed the series’ worst (according to the consensus ranking I compiled) mean I’ve now seen the bottom 10% of episodes, which I think is a good time to call a day on being miserable and return to the good stuff. As for the following seven editions, many of them are not fundamentally flawed, but each has some element that doesn’t work or a stumble in their execution that prevents them from achieving the full quality of a good Twilight Zone episode.

Continuing to move up the rankings, in 149th place is Still Valley, in which TZ basically tells us there are “good people on both sides” as a Confederate soldier is presented with a book of witchcraft that he could use to change the tide of the war, but refuses to do it because it means calling on the powers of Satan. And that’s all for your 25 minutes. As Oktay Ege Kozak of Paste writes, “we watch The Twilight Zone for its morally complex and hard-hitting narratives. Still Valley is so vanilla, it belongs in a show called The Light Zone.” It’s a solid episode for the most part, but with a maddeningly uninteresting conclusion.

Next up is a season four episode (i.e. an hour-long one), Jess-Belle. At its core it’s a gender flipped version of The Chaser (reviewed last time), in which a young woman wants a particular man to fall in love with her. The main difference is that whereas before the (male) daemon was actually trying to help the main character (by hoping to talk him out of it), the (female) witch here seems more of a malicious, trickster-ish force. There are one or two effectively creepy bits, but it’s weak sauce by TZ standards, with no lesson to be learned and an irritating folksy song that keeps popping up throughout. On Blu-ray it comes with an audio commentary in which TZ expert Marc Scott Zicree spends the entire running time singing the episode’s praises and the writer, Earl Hamner, basically nods along with a “yes, I’m a genius” attitude. On the bright side, it did help me to see some of the episode’s qualities. For example, the extended running time allows room for scenes that would otherwise have been cut, and are actually among the episode’s better bits. And you learn that it was written in just a week as a last-minute replacement — bearing that in mind, it’s not so bad.

Come Wander with MeThe next episode in our rundown is also based around a song: Come Wander with Me, in which a wandering singer attempts to buy a folksong from a young woman, only to find he might be living the lyrics… maybe. It’s a bit unclear what’s really happening, or why. It’s got some nice ideas, with mysterious characters, the haunting song, and some atmospheric direction by Richard Donner, but it comes to no kind of conclusion. How has this happened before? Has it happened before? Why is it happening again now? The episode barely even begins to ask those questions, never mind answer them; and not in a Lynchian “it’s up to your interpretation” way, which would be fine, but it doesn’t even seem to be aware those questions exist. Frustrating.

The Brain Center at Whipple’s is set in the future year of 1967, when a company is replacing tens of thousands of staff with a machine. What an implausible notion, eh? This episode is no more than a rather dated lecture about automation — the warning has been ignored, but none of the terrible things foretold have come to pass (…yet). The ending is both painfully obvious (Mr Whipple himself gets replaced by a machine) and silly (said machine is Robby the Robot from Forbidden Planet, waddling around Whipple’s office spinning a keychain for no reason other than Mr Whipple used to). It doesn’t help any that “Whipple” is an inherently silly-sounding name.

Next up is one of the show’s frequent excursions into the Old West in Showdown with Rance McGrew. They surely made sense at the time, when Westerns were ubiquitous on US TV, but if you didn’t know that it can seem a bit weird that a sci-fi/fantasy show is so obsessed with the era. You do need to know that context for this episode, though, because it’s actually a riff on all those TV Westerns. The first half is basically a spoof of them, which I imagine was rather effective back in the ’60s, because it remains moderately amusing now. After establishing that the show’s star is a bit of a prima donna sissy, he’s magically transported back to the real West, where he must face up to the actual Jesse James, who’s been watching the show and is none too impressed. It’s quite a fun episode, but the idea that gunslingers in the afterlife spend all their time watching movies and TV and getting their feelings hurt about how they’re portrayed is… well, it feels kinda daft, but eh, why not? It makes me wonder if Serling didn’t like Westerns or their attitude to history, and so this whole episode was just an exercise in critiquing them. As such, it’s not too bad.

The Mind and the MatterThe ‘hero’ of The Mind and the Matter hates people. They bump into him on the subway; they squish against him in the elevator; they accidentally pour coffee over him at work. If he had his way, all the people would just disappear. After he reads a book about the power of the mind, he instantly gains the power to make his thoughts real (no practice required, apparently), and so immediately does away with everyone else. Hurrah! But after a morning’s work in peace and quiet, he’s bored, with no idea what to do. So the first thing he imagines to enliven his world is… an earthquake. Um, what? Unsatisfied with imagining different weather phenomena, and apparently unable to conceive of anything else whatsoever to occupy his interest, he decides to fill the world with people just like him. That results in a world full of grumblers and moaners, which he finds even more distasteful than how it was before — so he just puts it all back. It’s almost a lesson in what happens if you give unlimited power to unimaginative people… except that’s not the point the episode actually wants to make, so it doesn’t really make it. Instead it’s going for “this world isn’t perfect, but it’s better than the alternative and there’s a lot to like”. But it doesn’t make us feel that, it just tells us it. Heck, even the character doesn’t feel it — he’s just as miserable at the end as he was at the start. The whole affair is sort of an infinitely stupider rehash of the classic Time Enough at Last, only without any ironic point. And there are some terrible prosthetic effects, which I struggle to believe convinced anyone even on low-res ’60s TV. Basically, it’s a wholly inadequate episode from every angle.

Finally for now, The Mirror is the story of a Castro-analogous rebel general (played by Peter Falk) who has successfully taken control of his Central American country, when the former ruler introduces him to a magic mirror that will show any would-be assassins — which just so happens to be more-or-less everyone he knows. I guess it’s meant to be a study in paranoia, although Serling’s opening and closing voiceovers seem to be framing it more as a criticism of tyrants. As the latter, it borders on propaganda, which kind of undermines the former. It’s a reasonable concept, thinly executed.

Also watched…
  • Elementary Season 6 Episodes 1-14 — I last watched this modern-day Sherlock Holmes in 2017 (and last properly commented on it here in 2016), which I guess shows my level of dedication to it. In truth, I’ve warmed to it over the years. I’m still not convinced it’s a faithful adaptation of the original characters (and certainly not of the stories), but, taken on its own merits, it has good qualities. My favourite of those: the way it’s sometimes prepared to offer quite outlandish storylines, ones that border on science-fiction or pulp genre fare, rather than your bog-standard procedural homicide stuff.
  • Eurovision 2020 — Didn’t actually happen, of course. In its place, the BBC offered a special called Come Together, in which past highlights chosen by a panel of experts were voted on by the public. There were some spectacularly weird choices in there, and of course Waterloo won. That was followed by the official replacement show, Europe Shine a Light. The title is a reference to the last time the UK actually won — were they attempting to keep us on side? It was an odd affair, but still entertaining in its own way. There’s nothing quite like Eurovision… and this wasn’t quite like Eurovision. Still, I suspect it’ll be better than that Netflix film, if its trailer is anything to go by.
  • The Great British Bake Off Series 9 — Beginning a catch-up on the last couple of series. This is the 2018 one, if you need a point of reference. Also watched all of companion show An Extra Slice, which is sometimes even better than the main programme, mainly thanks to Tom Allen’s caustic humour.
  • The Rookie Season 1 Episodes 16-20 — Another handful of episodes (spanning from the unexpected, emotionally devastating Greenlight to the gripping and now-timely season finale (it’s about the risk of a deadly virus released into the population)) that remind this is a more-than-solid example of a US network TV police drama. Looking forward to season two… though with US networks currently cancelling many police-related series, I guess a third season looks uncertain.
  • Star Trek: Picard Season 1 Episode 8 — Just in case you think I’d forgotten about it. Hey, next month I might finish it!

    Next month… I’m not aware of anything in particular coming up, so hopefully I’ll finally dig into my massive pile of “stuff I’ve been meaning to get round to”. Roll a dice for whether that means The Mandalorian or Devs or Killing Eve or Westworld or Jack Ryan or Jessica Jones or The Witcher or Veronica Mars or Peaky Blinders or The Boys or…

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