The Past Month on TV #57a

I get the impression many people have been using their newfound homebound status to watch lots of TV. I’ve mostly been focusing on films, however, so this month’s TV update doesn’t actually have a whole lot of different things to cover (certainly not when compared to, say, last month). Even though I’m finally posting this about a week later than I originally intended, I still haven’t had much to add to it.

That said, what I have been watching is the kind of stuff I write a lot about — mostly, classic Doctor Who and The Twilight Zone — so much so that I’ve actually decided to split this update into two posts, because it was getting unwieldy. Today: Doctor Who stuff. On Friday: everything else.

Doctor Who  Rose
Doctor Who series 1If you’re active (or looking in the right places) on social media, you may have noticed that there have been a bunch of Doctor Who watchalongs happening recently — you know, where people from around the world all watch the same thing at the same time and tweet about it. Organised by Doctor Who Magazine’s Emily Cook to provide something nice for Whovians in these trying times, they’ve been rather a big success — they’re always all over the trending topics on Twitter, and big names from the show have been persuaded to sign up and join in. The most recent one, to mark the 10th anniversary of Matt Smith’s debut episode, saw all three of its stars (Smith, Karen Gillan, and Arthur Darvill), plus writer/showrunner Steven Moffat and director Adam Smith, sharing thoughts and memories during the episode. Plus some of them have been accompanied by new fiction or stuff dug out from the archive.

Personally, the only one I’ve joined in with was the 15th anniversary rewatch of nuWho’s first episode, Rose. I say “joined in” — I watched the episode, then went on Twitter afterwards to catch up. I mean, you can’t watch TV and tweet along, can you? I know people think they can, because they do, but they’re wrong — you can’t. Not properly, anyway. While you’re busy tweeting, you’ll inevitably miss something — lots of somethings, even. And as I hadn’t watched Rose in about 13 or 14 years, trying to read the thoughts of thousands of other people at the same time seemed a daft idea. So I didn’t. But, weirdly, even watching it alone but with the knowledge that other fans around the globe are doing the same thing, there’s an old-fashioned sense of community — a feeling you used to have every week, when watching a TV programme live was The Way We Did TV; a feeling that’s dissipated considerably in the modern streaming era, where even traditional-TV shows are on iPlayer or whatever and many people happily choose to catch up later.

Still, the best bit was the surrounding tie-ins written by Russell T Davies, including a non-canonical prequel about the end of the Time War (I love The Day of the Doctor with all my heart, but good golly can RTD write epic mythic Time War stuff better than anyone) and a gently satirical sequel that revealed Boris Johnson is, in fact, an empty plastic clown. I do so miss the days when RTD was in charge…

Aside from the watchalongs, I’ve personally been digging even further back into Who history…

Doctor Who  Animated Missing Episodes
Like silent cinema before it, early television was viewed as disposable, its value lying in the moment of its airing. The only reason to keep a TV programme after broadcast was to sell to other territories, or possibly to archive a handful of episodes as an example of what was produced. In the 1960s and ’70s, the BBC began to junk some of their archive, to reuse resources and make space for newer things. Many programmes fell victim to this destruction, but one of the highest profile has been Doctor Who. That’s what happens when there’s a dedicated fanbase who want to hang on to every second of something.

By the time the junkings stopped, 152 episodes of Doctor Who had been lost. Over the years there have been extensive efforts to recover these missing editions. There have been many successes, but 97 episodes remain missing. (For far more detail on all this, you could do worse than this Wikipedia page.) But thanks to the efforts of a few determined fans who recorded the programme’s audio as it was broadcast, the soundtracks for every single episode survive. Over the years, these have been used to help plug the gaps in various ways — released on cassette and CD; paired with photographs to form slideshow-like visualisations; and, most recently, used as the soundtrack for animated reconstructions. I’ll spare you another potted history of those, but after a faltering start they’re turning into a regular drip feed.

Now, during the most recent series of Doctor Who (reviewed in these three posts) I came to the realisation that I hadn’t watched any of the classic series in a long time — five years, in fact, back to when I paired up one classic serial to every new episode of Peter Capaldi’s first series. What better way to get back on the wagon than with the animated reconstructions, most of which have been released in that five year gap? So I’m beginning with the first of the current wave of animations, and more should follow.

The Power of the Daleks

The Power of the DaleksThe first of the current wave of animations was The Power of the Daleks — a good place to start anyhow because it’s Patrick Troughton’s debut serial in the lead role. As he was just the second (canonical) Doctor, that makes the serial significant for the ground it was breaking — it’s the first time we’re introduced to a new actor taking over the series, something that’s become a staple of the programme (to the extent that the major plot lines and revelations of the most recent series were about the Doctor’s ability to regenerate). Sensibly, the production team paired their new leading man with the thing that had ensured the series’ popularity: the Daleks. And while the Doctor is dealing with a change of face and attitude, so are his enemies: these Daleks are keen to act as subservient aids to a human colony who have discovered their long-buried space capsule. Surely the evil fiends can’t’ve turned good?! (Spoiler alert: of course they haven’t.)

Away from such juxtaposition of temperament, it’s a good chance for the new Doctor to prove his mettle. It worked, too — obviously so in the case of ensuring the series’ longevity, but also as a story in its own right: in the last Doctor Who Magazine poll, this was voted the 19th greatest Who story ever (which, out of a list of 241 stories at the time, is no small achievement, especially for a missing black & white adventure. Indeed, if you limited the poll to just black & white stories, it came 3rd). It’s easy to overlook now, when we’re so used to regeneration, but Troughton comes in and makes the role his own, plays it his own way, isn’t even vaguely an emulation of Hartnell. It would’ve been the easiest thing in the world to cast someone like Hartnell and have them behave like Hartnell, but changing the character up so much is a braver, more interesting choice — and probably really helped the programme in the long run.

As for the story itself, as well as the mystery and threat of the Daleks it has a nice line in the petty political squabbling and machinations of the human colony’s leadership. Almost as much time is spent worrying about rebels, sabotage, and plots to rule as there is about the Daleks. I feel like that’s the kind of extra angle that often gets overlooked in Who nowadays, what with the need to deliver fast-paced 45-minute blocks of entertainment. (Maybe that’s unfair — almost everything of interest gets overlooked in Who right now, and previous eras of the revived show certainly weren’t averse to a little commentary on the pettiness of humanity.) There are some great performances too, especially Robert James as the scientist Lesterson, who has the most prominent character arc of anyone across the serial. His ultimate fate is particularly well written and acted, his final moments tragic and hilarious and barmy all at once.

As for the animation, it’s understandably a bit basic (these are not big-budget productions) and at times unsure what to do with itself — there’s the occasional bit of ‘dead air’ in the original soundtrack, probably where someone was just walking across a room or giving a reaction shot or something, and the animation isn’t quite up to filling the gap with something of interest. There are definitely times when it feels like you’re missing a little bit of business that was deemed too difficult or vague to animate. It would’ve been nice if they could’ve invented something to happen during those moments, instead of just holding on shots of literally nothing going on. But that’s probably nitpicking. As a visual to accompany the soundtrack, it’s more than adequate. Given the choice between this, a slideshow of rarely-changing photos, and audio-only, I’ll take the animation, thanks.

The Moonbase

The MoonbaseNext up by the series’ original chronology is The Moonbase — in terms of animation, Power was released in 2016 while The Moonbase was done in 2013; and half the serial survives, so it’s only half animated. It’s actually this older effort that looks better, the animation feeling much smoother and more realistic than Power, and making that look even more stilted and Flash-y by comparison. Apparently production on Power was incredibly rushed, and obviously they had to complete six episodes vs just two for The Moonbase, but the visual style is also slightly different; less obviously cartoonish.

As for the story itself, we move from one iconic Who monster to another: the Cybermen. And it’s another landmark in Who history: the first base-under-siege story, a subgenre that would become a staple of the Troughton era and keep popping up in the decades to follow. It’s also only the second Cybermen story, and they show off a sleeker redesign, which sets a precedent — whereas the Daleks have looked fundamentally the same since their first appearance, the Cybermen are redesigned almost every time they appear. Personally, I love the Cybermen, but this is not their finest hour.

The serial’s biggest problem is that it seems slow and uneventful. It begins with the Doctor and friends having a jolly holiday on the Moon, which I actually quite liked — bear in mind this was made in 1967, two years before man actually walked on the Moon, and you can see why the very fact of our heroes being there would be worthy of such emphasis. But it sets the tone for the story to come — Episode 2, for example, mostly revolves around the base’s crew spouting technobabble while they run checks to repair a machine. This came 113th in the aforementioned DWM poll, and with time wasting like that it’s easy to see why. At least the cliffhangers are effective, even if they don’t always make sense — but you can see how that would build the series’ reputation for them. It’s a shame such a defining aspect of the show has mostly been lost in the modern era.

The serials was written by the Cybermen’s co-creator, Kit Pedler, an actual scientist who was brought on to bring “scientific rigour” to the programme. These scripts do feel like they come from someone with a keen interest in science — there’s plenty of jargon thrown around; the Doctor runs medical tests and experiments (rather than just waving his sonic screwdriver around as he would nowadays); Ben and Polly cooking up a plan to defeat the Cybermen with a solvent cocktail, based on Polly’s nail varnish remover…! It’s easy to joke about “defeating Cybermen with nail varnish remover”, but it’s a scientific way of problem solving, which is quite good really for a show that was still very much aimed at children and with some degree of an educational remit. It’s just a shame that the narrative around it is so sluggish. Maybe they were going for “atmospheric”. I don’t think it worked. Shame.

The Macra Terror

The Macra TerrorMuch more successful in that department is The Macra Terror. No full episodes survive of this serial, so it’s back to 100% animation, and once again we have a change in style. It’s in widescreen, and it’s in colour, and the locations are bigger and more varied than they would’ve been on ‘60s TV, and the audio is so clean and clear it could’ve been recorded yesterday. It makes for a surreal viewing experience at first — are we sure this is a genuine Second Doctor story from over 50 years ago, not some recreation with perfect impressionists? After the previous animations tried to emulate the style of the original episodes, it’s a definite change of pace, but why not? It certainly brings some added dynamism to a few of the scenes — like Power, there are some all-but-silent sections; unlike Power, many of them now have some interesting visuals, which is most welcome. They had to make some trims here and there, I think for budget reasons (stuff that is inessential to the main narrative and would’ve been time consuming to animate), which is a shame (it would’ve been particularly fun to see the whole TARDIS crew dance a jig to escape at the end), but it is what it is.

As for the story itself, it offers an intriguing setup, with a good setting (a colony of happy workers) and mystery (what was seen by the ‘mad’ man they want to hush up?) It unfolds at a much better pace than The Moonbase, with a regularly developing and shifting plot. For example, many penultimate episodes of classic Who serials devolve into running around in place to delay the ending by another week. The Macra Terror is the antithesis of that, introducing brand new locations and plot points to genuinely further the narrative and mystery. There are exciting cliffhangers, too — again, probably much more so in animation than it was in the original live action. The Macra themselves benefit in particular. They’re basically giant crabs, which was a bit overambitious for the series to attempt in the ’60s. The originals have the look of an awkward primary school art project and aren’t actually that big, whereas the animated versions are huge and genuinely threatening. When one attacks Polly in Episode 2 it’s epic and exciting and scary… in animation. This is one of the few parts that survives from the original (thanks to censors in Australia) and… it ain’t that. The Macra is so much smaller and so much less manoeuvrable that you can see Anneke Wills and Michael Craze working overtime to convince you their escape requires any more than just getting up and wandering away. It’s a perfect example of how the artistic licence taken by the animators has paid off in dramatic terms.

I’ve always got the impression that The Macra Terror has a pretty poor rep among Whovians. I hope the animation has caused it to be re-evaluated, because I think it’s really rather good.

The Wheel in Space: Episode 1

Finally for now, an abridged version of The Wheel in Space: Episode 1, which was created for the BFI’s annual Missing Believed Wiped event about missing TV. The Wheel in Space is a six-parter, meaning it runs approximately 150 minutes, but here we get just 11 of them. The animation itself is about the same quality level as the others, and it’s a nice little bonus in its own way, but ultimately it feels rather pointless; like an extended tease for a full-length animation that isn’t coming. The serial may well be animated in full someday (if they’re happy to do The Faceless Ones and Fury from the Deep, which have no obvious hooks to interest casual / on-the-fence viewers, then surely something with the Cybermen is a no brainer), but if they do then what purpose will this have served? I expect they’d want to do these 11 minutes again rather than make the remaining 139 to match. And if they don’t ever do it in full, well, the serial is still left with three-and-a-half episodes visually missing. But, like I say, it’s enjoyable enough for what it is.

In Part 2… new Red Dwarf; Mark Kermode’s Secrets of Cinema; the worst of The Twilight Zone; and quickies on McDonald & Dodds, The Rookie, Star Trek: Picard, and National Theatre’s YouTube stream of One Man, Two Guvnors — which, I’ll tell you now, is great fun, worth your time, and you only have until 4pm tomorrow to start watching. It’s here.

The Past Trisennight on TV #19

Although I only post my TV overviews once a month, I’m always looking ahead to what’s going to be included in them. That’s what made me realise edition #19, scheduled for July 20th, was going to be insanely busy: new episodes of Doctor Who, Game of Thrones, Preacher, Twin Peaks, and the entire latest season of The Americans — all things I typically review ‘in full’. Whew! So I’ve brought #19 forward a bit, and #20 will be in a fortnight anyway.

So, here’s what I’ve been watching in the past month three weeks (aka trisennight, a word that Google finds two other uses of ever. Cool.)

Doctor Who  Series 10 Episodes 10-12
The Eaters of LightHistory was made left, right and centre in the last three episodes of Doctor Who’s 36th-ever season. For starters, The Eaters of Light marked the first time someone who wrote for the classic series has written for the revived one. Rona Munro penned the last story of old Who, Survival, a personal favourite of mine and one that, stylistically and tonally, connects remarkably well with the first episode of nuWho, Rose, which is quite the coincidence. Anyway, The Eaters of Light was a solid episode with some very likeable parts, but it didn’t seem to quite gel entirely in the final mix. That’s been a recurring theme for the middle of this season, I feel, with every episode since Knock Knock featuring quality ideas and/or characters and/or scenes that aren’t fully developed into a final whole. Nonetheless, I’d certainly welcome Munro returning again in the future, but who knows what Chris Chibnall has planned.

And then we come to the two-part finale, written (of course) by departing showrunner Steven Moffat. The duology, which sadly is called neither Genesis of the Cybermen nor The Two Masters, continues his previously-stated aim of creating two-parters where each half is a distinctly different episode. The first part, World Enough and Time, is an immediate contender for an all-time great episode of the show. There’s a superb real-science setup with the time-dilated spaceship, plus a suitably eerie hospital in which we ‘unknowingly’ witness the birth of the Cybermen — my favourite Who monster, so perhaps I am a little biased.

World Enough and TimeI put “unknowingly” in inverted commas there because that’s the episode’s biggest problem: thanks to the show’s own promotion, we knew the Cybermen were coming back, and we knew John Simm was returning as the Master. In truth, the former isn’t a problem. Sure, the existence of the Cybermen is played as something of a reveal at the end, but it also works as ‘just’ the reveal that Bill has been converted, and there’s dramatic irony in the viewer knowing what those cloth-headed patients are destined to become. The Master spoiler is more of a problem. The prosthetics turning Simm into Razor are impressive, and even fooled some people who knew he was back… for a bit. I’m sure most people must’ve guessed before the episode ended. It therefore becomes a distraction: what’s his plan? When will he reveal himself? And when the big reveal does come, it’s played as a twist, which it isn’t because we were told about Simm three months ago. Moffat has said before that it was entirely his decision to put Simm in the trailer, and it’s clear it was a misstep. Not a fatal one — World Enough and Time is strong enough to withstand it — but a shame. Can you imagine the reaction if we hadn’t known?

So with the Master finally revealed at episode’s end, he teams up with Missy for the first multi-Master story ever in the extended finale, The Doctor Falls. With a lot of business to attend to, this isn’t quite as striking as its first part. Nonetheless, there’s strong material here. Missy and the Master are a hoot, the pairing of Simm and Michelle Gomez working exactly as well as you’d hope. Their storyline comes to a very fitting conclusion, too. The way Moffat handles Bill being a Cyberman, how she feels inside and how people react to her, was an original use of a well-worn villain. Her possible-departure was fitting too, tying appropriately back to her debut episode. Moffat buried a way for her to return in the dialogue, which hopefully Chibnall will pick up because Bill has been absolutely fab. It would be a real shame if this is the last we see of her. The Doctor FallsAs for the other current Capaldi companion, there was an almost touching exit for Nardole, a character Matt Lucas has managed to imbue with much more likability than was promised in his initial appearance a couple of Christmases back. Finally, Peter Capaldi was in as fine fettle as ever, getting to deliver a few more of his iconic speeches, before going out with a heroic last stand.

Well, not quite going out, because we have that exciting cliffhanger to lead us into the Christmas special. With such a promising setup, let’s hope Moffat can stick the landing. We’ll find out on December 25th…

The Americans  Season 5
The Americans season 5The best show on television” returns for its penultimate run. It’s currently mid-way through here in the UK (where it’s really, really buried on ITV Encore, more’s the pity — it deserves a bigger audience) so I’ll be extra careful to avoid big spoilers. It’s an interesting run of episodes, though: low-key, in their way; slow-paced, even by the standards of current high-quality TV. That’s not to say it’s without merit, but it’s rewarding of long-term investment more than ever. In truth, it may be the show’s weakest run, but that’s very much a relative assertion. There’s a lot of groundwork being laid here, probably the downside of them getting a two-season to-the-finish recommission — these are episodes 1 to 13 of 23, not 1 to 13 of 13.

Still, as I said, it’s most decidedly not without merit, it’s just that the drama is very much internalised into the characters. A lot of it is about Philip and Elizabeth becoming increasingly tired of their life — the toll that all the killing and lying takes. That’s not exactly something new for Philip, but is he reaching breaking point? And to see Elizabeth beginning to struggle too really rams home how tough it is. Indeed, the detrimental effects of this lifestyle are felt across all the storylines and returning characters, as people on both sides come to doubt the justification of their respective causes. Is someone going to snap and betray their country?

Although the season starts (and, in some cases, resolves) plot lines of its own, ultimately the big underlying thread is (picking up from last season) the debate about how, when, and if they can go home to Russia. The kids are a big factor: Paige is still being initiated into the realities of their cause, but Henry is off building a life of his own, now more than ever. At the same time, we’re shown how difficult it is for other people to adjust in similar circumstances, including Russians who’ve defected to America with their kid. These kind of storylines could be heavy-handed parallels on other shows, but The Americans unfurls them gradually and carefully and subtly enough that you come to see it for yourself rather than the show screaming at you to notice the mirroring.

Not the most dramatic run, then, but this deep in I think it’s earnt our trust that they’re going somewhere with it all. It’s also earnt our investment in the characters to the extent that it can base storylines about their internal struggles rather than just exciting espionage stuff. It’s clearly been a not-for-everyone season (reviews are largely positive still, but there are more dissenting voices) but there’s still quality in spades. And it’s still completely unpredictable how it’s all going to wind up next season.

Twin Peaks  Season 3 Episodes 7-8
In its 7th episode, the new Twin Peaks suddenly delivered a surfeit of story, forging ahead with actual plot developments in several of its disparate storylines. It was almost bizarre. It was good. Heck, some of the scenes were incredible. Laura Dern is perfect here. So did this mark a turning point? Was the series finally getting stuck into the meat of the story? Well, as it turned out, no. Not at all. Indeed, perhaps David Lynch was just pre-trolling us, in his own way, because Part 8…

Twin Peaks Part 8I don’t know if it was the reaction across the board, but on Twitter the reception the 8th episode received was adulatory to the nth degree. Having given us massive developments and beloved characters just one episode before, suddenly we were in a different era, in black and white, with mostly unknown characters, and a narrative conveyed through Lynchian visions rather than traditional storytelling. It made some kind of sense… some of it… in the end… but you certainly had to stick with it. Some of it was incredible — the tracking shot into the mushroom cloud is, somehow, almost inexplicably, one of the greatest shots of all time; an instant classic. But other bits… they did go on rather. I’m not one of those people who wishes the new Twin Peaks was a pure nostalgia fest, all repetition of famous lines and quirky goings on in the Double R over cherry pie and coffee, but I also think Lynch’s indulgence has run a little too rampant. Much of his surrealist imagery works if you’re prepared to engage with it, but I also think much of it doesn’t need to go on for as long as it does. There’s a difference between a slow pace and no pace.

So, I don’t really think Part 8 is a total revolution in television and one of the greatest episodes of all time, as some people do. For one thing, the opening stuff with Evil Cooper and the Nine Inch Nails performance felt like it belonged at the end of the previous episode but had to be moved for time. It was certainly an experience, though, I’ll give it that. I just hope it’s one that all makes sense in the end…

Preacher  Season 2 Episodes 1-2
Preacher season 2After a sometimes uncertain but ultimately promising first season that was, really, all prologue to the main story, Preacher returns with a confident bang, filled with unstoppable cowboys, exploding SUVs, Maced testicles, intestinal fuel syphons, baby foreskins, and Come On Eileen — and that was just the opening ten minutes. Shows like Legion, American Gods, and, especially, Twin Peaks may have been duking it out for the title of craziest series on television these past few months, but there’s nothing quite like Preacher.

With our trio of heroes — a Texan preacher with the power to make anyone do what he says, his badass girlfriend with a criminal past, and a rough but charming Irish vampire — now on the road, the series itself also feels free of the shackles of the first season’s small-town setting. We’re let loose into a world that can equal the barminess of the leads. A world where we meet a friend who keeps a girl locked in a cage in his garage (for good reason); where you can see a man cheat death nightly at the Mumbai Sky Tower Resort and Casino; where a drug-fuelled binge of pillow-fighting and reading Archie comics can solve your woes; where God goes to a strip joint for the jazz…

Sadly, you can’t really jump in here — too much was established in season one — but the ongoing unpredictable zaniness makes it worth the investment to reach this point, in my view. And with some fan-favourite characters just around the corner, hopefully it’s gonna be a helluva season.

Also watched…
  • The Persuaders! Series 1 Episodes 6-13 — it’s funny watching this in production order (as it is on the DVDs), because it seems pretty clear they blew the budget sending the cast around Europe for the first few episodes — all the exotic locations are being done with back projection by this point.

    Next fortnight… winter is here.