The Past Christmas on TV

Once again it was another busy festive period on the tellybox, and here’s what I thought of what I watched.

Doctor Who  Resolution
Doctor Who: ResolutionNow, that’s more like it! After the damp squib of alleged-finale The Battle of [Mashes Hand on Keyboard], this New Year’s Day special does a much better job of putting a capstone on series 11. Despite its status as a separate “special” episode, it’s hard to deny that it’s actually part of the last series (despite what BBC Worldwide would have us believe, with their cash-grab move of leaving the episode out of the series box set, which isn’t even released for another fortnight): Ryan’s dad finally turns up (after being mentioned multiple times during the main series), while the primary storyline does a more subtle and effective job of mirroring series premiere The Woman Who Fell to Earth than Battle of Thingy-Wotsit did by just having a returning villain.

Resolution has a returning villain too, of course: the Daleks! Or, rather, one sole Dalek. Like 2005 episode Dalek, Resolution seeks to make a single Dalek a world-threatening force, and largely does a bang-up job. As has been thoroughly demonstrated by now, current showrunner Chris Chibnall isn’t half the writer that Russell T Davies or Steven Moffat are (and he only proves this harder by trying to emulate their styles so often), so Resolution doesn’t have as much freshness or innovation as some Dalek tales from Davies’ and Moffat’s eras. But, saying that, the Dalek ‘riding’ a human via some kind of icky telepathic link is a new idea, which makes for some effective horror moments, especially given the creepy cephalopod-influenced design of the creature. There’s plenty of exciting running about too, making this the most blockbuster-like version of Who we’ve yet seen from Chibnall’s era.

It still wasn’t perfect (as glad as I was to see Ryan’s dad turn up, the lengthy heart-to-heart scenes crippled the pace, and his inevitable redemption was narratively unearned; plus, Yaz continues to get shafted with “generic companion” duties), but overall it was a fun treat for Christmas New Year’s Day. More episodes with this kind of ambition when the series returns in 2020, please!

The ABC Murders
The ABC MurdersOnce upon a time it seemed implausible that anyone would ever try to play Poirot ever again, given how iconically (and thoroughly) David Suchet had embodied the Belgian detective during the 25-year series in which he starred. But I suppose it was inevitable that it would happen someday, and so following Branagh’s go at the end of last year, this year ends with another pretender to the throne: John Malkovich. Where Branagh stuck to tradition, with a flamboyant and fastidious embodiment of the character that seemed in-keeping with how Agatha Christie wrote him, Malkovich and regular TV-Christie scribe Sarah Phelps (she’s written all of the BBC’s new adaptations to date) have gone more revisionist. This Poirot is quiet, unassuming, ageing, almost embarrassed to be butting into the police investigation, especially as they would rather he pushed off, and he lives in a 1930s where fascism is ascendent and foreigners are despised, so he feels compelled to hide his Belgian roots as much as possible. It all feels psychologically plausible (and the mirroring of Brexit Britain is obvious), but it’s also a big set of changes to take in one go, which understandably angered some fans. I confess, I’ve never read a Poirot book, but I was a fan of the Suchet series. Nonetheless, I enjoyed this take on the character as an alternative — it may not be faithful, but it is believable.

The same could be said of the plot. Poirot and/or Christie are best remembered for country house-type murder mysteries, with a bunch of upper-class suspects in a confined location, who Poirot interviews one by one before bringing them all together to explain what happened. This was the format that Branagh used to reassuring effect in his film (and, presumably, will continue to use in his next one, if my memory of its structure serves me right). The ABC Murders doesn’t go that way, however, with Poirot on the hunt for a killer who taunts him via letters. The suspect pool is limited not by confined location, but by how sophisticated the viewer wants to be at guessing — the structure is that of a howcatchem rather than a whodunit, as we witness the murderer going about his deeds while Poirot attempts to find him out. But this is Christie, so there’s a twist in the tail. Look, I’m trying not to spoil it for anyone who’s not seen it yet, but everyone I was watching with figured early on that (last spoiler warning!) the guy who was Obviously The Murderer was not the murderer, and so it turned into the usual guessing game of “which recognisable guest star did it?” Well, at least one aspect of this was reassuringly familiar, then.

Watership Down
Watership DownThe BBC and Netflix teamed up for this £30 million CG animated adaption of Richard Adams’ children’s novel, perhaps most (in)famous for its 1978 film adaptation that is said to have traumatised all who saw it (I never have). I guess most of that money went on the all-star cast (seriously, the number of well-known names is mad — far too many to list here, so you can check out this list if you want), because it certainly doesn’t seem to have been spent on the animation. Frankly, much of the series looks like an unfinished animatic; the stuff you sometimes see on animated movies’ DVD release as deleted scenes or work-in-progress versions. And yet, there are occasional flashes of polish: look closely at the rabbits’ fur in many scenes and you’ll see high levels of detail.

Cheap production values are not the be-all-and-end-all, though — such things can be easily overlooked if there’s a good story or characters. But Watership Down’s animation is so poor that it scuppers that, too. Most of the characters are visually indistinguishable, made worse when there are so many of them to get to know, and very little screen time is invested in delineating them. It’s not even something you get used to or work out for yourself — the longer the series went on, the more confusing it became to follow who each rabbit was and what was meant to be happening to them. It’s frustrating and distancing, getting in the way of you caring about the characters or the story, which literally ruins the entire production. We stuck with all four hours of it because of a bloody-minded “we’ve started so we’ll finish” attitude. I’d recommend not even starting it.

Not Going Out  Ding Dong Merrily on Live
Not Going Out LiveNormally I’d fold this into the comedy roundup (see below), but I enjoyed it so much I’m singling it out. As the title implies, this was a live edition of the long-running sitcom. What inspired that, I don’t know, but it paid off with the series’ best episode for years. The storyline didn’t necessitate the live-broadcast format in the same way as 2018’s other live comedy special, Inside No.9, but writer-star Lee Mack built in various sequences to push what was possible live. And, naturally, some things went wrong — golden opportunities for a quick-thinking comic like Mack, who got to throw in plenty of improvisations and fourth-wall breaking. It may not be sophisticated, but it was funny. Indeed, I enjoyed it so much that I watched it twice within 24 hours.

Comedy roundup
Upstart Crow: A Crow Christmas CarolAlso tickling my funny bone this season were a new Upstart Crow Christmas special, given a prime Christmas Day slot. It riffed off A Christmas Carol, which was unfortunate because I saw rather too many version of that this year (see below for another). I can’t say Crow’s take was particularly special, but I’m fond of the sitcom anyway so another episode is always welcome. The night before that (Christmas Eve, for those not keeping up), BBC One had one-off comedy-drama Click & Collect, with Stephen Merchant as a dad who must travel to the other end of the country to collect that year’s most-wanted toy for his daughter, accompanied by his irritatingly over-friendly neighbour. It’s the kind of fluff that would feel a bit too daft most of the time, but hits the right light-entertainment note at Christmas. A bit more cutting edge was Goodness Gracious Me: 20 Years Innit!, marking the 20th anniversary of the groundbreaking British-Asian sketch show with a special that used some of the series’ funniest sketches as examples to discuss what made the show so important. It was a subtly clever way to be both “greatest hits” clip show and retrospective documentary at once. Sadly, the repeat of an overlong old Christmas special that followed wasn’t quite as vintage. And, as I’m rounding things up, there were also seasonal editions of panel shows Mock the Week (the usual clips and outtakes), Have I Got News for You (more compiled clips), and Insert Name Here (actually a new edition! I’m fond of it and was happy to see back on our screens). Several others I’m yet to catch up on (Would I Lie to You, The Imitation Game), though I did see both new episodes of Mrs Brown’s Boys. I know I “should” hate it, but the Christmas Day one, at least, made me laugh.

Also watched…
  • Black Mirror Bandersnatch — Was it a film? An episode of TV? Something else? I’m still not 100% sure, but I went with “film” and reviewed it in full here.
  • A Christmas Carol — A filmed version of Simon Callow’s one-man show, and another production that sits on the film/TV divide. They released it in cinemas before it was on TV, though, so I’ll be reviewing it as a film at some point. The only reason I mention it now, then, is because I thought it was very good and wanted to point out it’s still on iPlayer.
  • The Dead Room — Simon Callow reading again, this time in Mark Gatiss’ latest attempt to revive the beloved-by-some “Ghost Story for Christmas” format from the ’70s. It was an effectively creepy little tale while it lasted, but it seemed to stop before the story was over.
  • Mark Kermode’s Christmas Cinema Secrets — A festive edition of the series that entertainingly explains the inner workings of genre. In this case, we learn that pretty much every Christmas movie is basically A Christmas Carol.
  • Les Misérables Episode 1 — OMG there woz no singing!!!! (Proper review in a future post, when more of it has aired.)

    Things to Catch Up On
    A Series of Unfortunate Events season 3This Christmas, I have mostly been missing A Series of Unfortunate Events season three — the final one! Okay, it only came out yesterday, but I was with family and couldn’t watch it (ugh!) Not that I’d want to rush through it, anyway. By the time you’re reading this I’ll have made a start, and it’ll be reviewed next month. The same is true of Luther season four, which also started yesterday and which I’ll watch sometime later.

    Next month… look away, if you can: it’s the final series of Unfortunate Events!

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  • The Past Month on TV #41

    Christmas is on the horizon, with the usual glut of seasonal specials and high-profile miniseries/one-offs crammed into a couple of weeks. But that’s for my next TV column — this time, here’s a bit more of the usual stuff.

    Doctor Who  Series 11 Episodes 8-10
    It Takes You AwayThe most recent season of Doctor Who went out, not with a bang, but with a whimper, in perhaps the most underwhelming “finale” the show has ever done. It wasn’t really a dramatic and exciting culmination of this year’s run of episodes, which is what a true “finale” is. Rather, it was just the last episode shown before the season… stopped. Fortunately, before that were two more episodes that proved this new era’s best stuff comes from its guest writers rather than its showrunner.

    The Witchfinders saw the TARDIS Team head into the past for the third time this season, and once again brought up a heavy theme: after racism in Rosa and religious division in Demons of the Punjab, now it’s the misogyny of 17th century witch hunts. Fortunately it wore this somewhat more lightly than the previous two episodes, which meant it lacked their emotional weight. Instead, it was a fun adventure, revolving around an alien race reanimating the dead, and a broad, camp, but occasionally nuanced performance from Alan Cumming as King James I. I thought he was a lot of fun.

    It Takes You Away set its scene as a “monster lurking near a remote cottage” tale, but pulled off a couple of twists to reveal something entirely different. It was an episode rich in science-fiction ideas — almost too rich, arguably, as the emotional impact they led to was powerful but perhaps not given enough screen time to be fully processed. But with some typically Doctor Who quirkiness thrown in, this was one of my favourite episodes of the season. Even if the execution sometimes faltered, I admired its ambition.

    Which brings us back round to the finale, the stupidly titled The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos. It’s such a dumb, unpronounceable title that I don’t think I was alone in suspecting it was a cover for something else (in the same way the classic series used to hide the return of the Master by crediting the actor by an acronym in the Radio Times, for instance). But no, that sadly was the title. Even worse, it had barely anything to do with the episode itself — the titular conflict is over, with the Doctor and co arriving to help the few remaining survivors defeat the big bad. Or, rather, get a bunch of exposition from the survivor (with a few hoops jumped through to make sure that exposition is gradually doled out rather than received all at once), then virtually ignore him while they set about some other storyline.

    The Battle of Ranskoor Av KolosTypically for showrunner Chris Chibnall, it was a half-thought-through tale, with regular logic gaps and narrative dead ends, and none of the impact you expect from a season-ender. Kinder viewers may say that’s because there’s a New Year’s Day special imminent which is the real finale, but I think that’s just being optimistic. Certainly, the BBC haven’t seen fit to include the special in the season box set (even though it’s released a fortnight after the special airs), which I’m sure is partly a shameless cash grab, but also indicates its separate status.

    With that in mind, we can already take an overview of the season as a whole. It’s been a mixed one for me, with a lot of stuff I really liked, but frequently undercut by dodgy execution. I’m not at all convinced Chibnall has the necessary skills to be in charge of the show — even the best scripts exhibit a lack of polish that Russell T Davies or Steven Moffat would’ve brought. And considering there are niggling faults across the board (the direction is rarely terrible, but pretty much every episode has some odd shot or editing choices), the blame must surely lie at his door. The next season won’t materialise until sometime in 2020 — hopefully that’ll be long enough to get things more in order. But with pretty strong ratings and praise in some quarters, I’m not convinced the production team will see where they need to improve.

    Crisis on Earth-X
    I ended up finally quitting all Arrowverse shows just before this crossover event aired last November, though I’d intended to make it through these episodes first (I fell behind and just never picked them back up). The crossover itself seemed to go down well, and with a new one having recently aired that I also intend to watch (to see how they’ve handled Batwoman), I thought I’d first catch up on last year’s.

    Crisis on Earth-XWhereas the previous four-show crossover failed to really coalesce into a successful single narrative, Crisis on Earth-X manages to lose the sense of hopping about across different series to play more like a single four-part story. I suppose that’s not the only way to do a crossover, but for someone tuning in just for the event who isn’t interested in the ongoing storylines of each individual series, it’s more entertaining this way. That said, it’s not as if those elements go away: the story is kicked off by everyone coming together for the wedding of Barry Allen (aka the Flash) to his longtime love Iris West. The nuptials are eventually interrupted by Nazi doppelgängers from another dimension (I do love how outright comic booky these shows can be), but it takes most of the opening episode to get there — I’d forgotten how much time these shows spend on soapy stuff like weddings and relationship woes. In that regard, they’ve certainly been designed to fit their US network (The CW, more associated with teen-girl content until these series came along). From there it goes full superhero show, with large-scale action sequences and dimension hopping antics. It may not transcend its genre roots to be objectively high-quality premium TV, but it’s pretty fun.

    Agatha Christie’s Poirot  Series 2 Episodes 4-6
    Poirot series 2One day I’m going to watch all of Poirot from the start, but I happened to see these few episodes this month. They’re from the series’ early days (obviously), when episodes were an hour long and based on short stories (as opposed to the feature-length novel adaptations they did later). What’s remarkable is how different they are, structurally and tonally, from those later episodes, with which I’m more familiar. The feature-length ones each feel like a standalone movie, whereas these early episodes do feel like a TV series, with “case of the week” plots. For example, there’s a regular recurring cast (alongside the titular detective there’s his sidekick Captain Hastings, his housekeeper Miss Lemon, and trusty Inspector Japp), who all appear every week and each get some kind of subplot, even if it’s not tied to the main storyline — in one episode, while the other three are away solving a jewel theft, Miss Lemon has to hunt for her missing keys. And that’s another thing: there’s not always a murder. And there’s not always a pile of suspects, either — none of these episodes feature the famous “gather all the suspects in one room and explain what happened”-style finale, so synonymous with the series. So, in many ways it feels quite strange, but still entertaining.

    Also watched…
  • Great News Season 2 Episodes 1-7 — See last month for my comments on season one, which still apply (they tried adding Tina Fey as a guest star for a few episodes at the start of season two, which doesn’t massively change things). This little run ended with a Christmas episode (a fun riff on A Christmas Carol), which seemed a good place to pause for now.
  • The Royal Variety Performance 2018 — I haven’t bothered to watch one of these since 2012, but somewhat accidentally caught this year’s. It turned out to be rather good on the whole, I thought. Not so much the song-plugging music acts, but the comedians and circus turns, yeah.
  • Would I Lie To You? Series 12 Episodes 5-6WILTY is regularly superb, but sometimes it outshines even itself. There was one such moment back in episode three this series; there’s another in episode six, when regular panellist Lee Mack says he had to turn down an invitation to the Royal wedding to film that episode. It sounds like an obvious lie… but the other regulars, who didn’t receive invites, are worried it might just be true…

    Things to Catch Up On
    Death by MagicThis month, I have mostly been missing Death by Magic — not a high-profile show, maybe, but a new Netflix thing that seems up my street. Other than that, I’ve been conspicuously failing to get around to a bunch of “box sets” (I hate calling digital collections “box sets” — there’s no “box” involved) that I’ve been meaning to get to for varying amounts of time: The Little Drummer Girl, Killing Eve, The Haunting of Hill House, Lost in Space, the Netflix years of Black Mirror, Ash vs Evil Dead, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (which even added a new Christmas episode), Riverdale, Mindhunter, Inside No.9… Not to mention everything that’s on my long-term back-burner, like Breaking Bad, The Wire, The Sopranos, The Shield, The X Files, things that don’t begin with a definitive article… There’s no doubt many more that are currently slipping my mind, anyway. With an abundance of Christmas specials incoming, I guess whichever series I dive into next will have to wait until January.

    Next month… is January, but expect an overview of Christmas telly before that.

  • The Past Month on TV #40

    In the fast-moving world of television nowadays (where whole seasons appear at once, daft uber-fans burn through them in a single sitting, and the conversation around them is over in a weekend), it’s easy to forget that the latest instalment of Netflix’s ever-shrinking Marvel offering — season three of Daredevil — came out within the last month. (Well, month-and-a-bit — this column’s a week later than usual.) Anyway, that’s where I’ll begin.

    And there’s plenty more to cover after that, including a bunch of new Doctor Whos, the Inside No. 9 live Halloween special, the unusual finale of Upstart Crow, the latest Derren Brown special, and sundry episodes of other series too. So, as the Bard himself might say, without much further ado…

    Daredevil  Season 3
    Daredevil season 3For the 11th season of Marvel Cinematic Universe TV shows on Netflix, we make a long-awaited return to the hero who started it all: the Man Without Fear… the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen… Matt Murdock, Attorney at Law… Daredevil.

    And “return” is a good word to describe this season, which sees Daredevil’s nemesis, crime boss Wilson Fisk, aka Kingpin, negotiate a semi-release from prison in exchange for informing to the FBI. While Daredevil’s second season veered off into more fantastical storylines from the character’s comic book adventures, which continued into team-up miniseries The Defenders, season three returns to the street-level, almost-real-world, grittily-toned world of organised crime of the show’s first season. It makes sense: season two didn’t go down that well (I loved it, personally, but it clearly wasn’t for everyone), and it seems The Defenders was pretty much a flop, but Daredevil’s first season remains one of the most popular instalments of the Marvel/Netflix collaboration. Returning to its playbook seems to have panned out, because season three has been getting strong notices across the board.

    There are a lot of reasons for that, I think. Some are obvious: the show has always received acclaim for its superbly choreographed and filmed action sequences, and season three doesn’t drop the ball. Indeed, to mix metaphors, it raises the bar again, with an 11-minute single-take prison escape that is all kinds of impressive — and was done 100% for real, no hidden cuts (you can read more about that here). That may be the standout one this season (although there’s a four-way fight in the finale that’s a doozy), but there are numerous stunning sequences throughout all 13 episodes. They really put effort into making the action inventive and original, and that effort is appreciated. I guess if action sequences do nothing for you then it doesn’t matter either way, but seeing it be so well-executed is better than samey action-for-the-sake-of-action.

    Back in blackThere’s a lot more to this season than that, though. New showrunner Erik Oleson has crafted a narrative for his 13 episodes that is better formed than most Marvel Netflix shows — heck, than most streaming series fullstop. It doesn’t seem to drag things out or go round in circles just to fill its episode count, but has a clear sense of pace and purpose. Okay, it’s still a streaming series — it still feels it can afford to devote entire episodes to things a network show might dash through in a one sequence — but often that works to add depth. Spending a whole episode on Matt’s convalescence at the start of the season might seem indulgent, but it’s also important to his mindset for the rest of the season, which makes a big point of his morality, his religion, and his relationship with God — always a key aspect of the character, and foregrounded here without becoming objectionable to those of us with a less Catholicly inclined view of the world. The structural accomplishment really pays off in the final few episodes, too, with an array of surprising and game-changing twists and developments. My notes for later episodes were full of things like “shocking climax” and “oooh, twist!” and “ohhh shit!” At times Fisk feels genuinely unbeatable and you actually wonder how the heroes can win this one.

    The return to gritty street-level criminal enterprises is more than just an aesthetic move, too. Well, that’s partly the joy of it — it makes for a refreshing change after multiple seasons of magic and mysticism if you watch all the Marvel/Netflix shows, after that side of the MCU even invaded the theoretically-grounded worlds of Luke Cage and Jessica Jones, never mind Iron Fist. But it also allows Oleson to bring more genuine depth to his characters. He’s spoken about being driven by psychological realism — what would these characters really want and need, and therefore do? That might sound like Writing 101, but I think it’s easy for writers of comic book material to fall back on comic book tropes.

    Hitting the BullseyeA good example of this is FBI Agent Benjamin Poindexter, who will turn out to be the villain Bullseye. Sorry if you think that’s a spoiler, but one of his first scenes shows off his mind-blowing marksmanship, so you ought to guess, really. In the comics, Bullseye has no backstory — he’s just a psychopathic killer — which is the kind of shit you can get away with if you’re being cartoonish. In the interests of psychological realism, however, Oleson wanted to give him one, to explore his origins, and they were basically free to do what they liked. They even spoke to psychiatrists and the like to make it genuinely realistic. I guess some may think this is unnecessary detail for what is still fundamentally a superhero-action show, but it has its rewards. It’s the same with giving the season a thematic weight to consider. According to Oleson, that was “fear” — how we’re all constrained by our fears and can’t be free until we face and overcome them. This applies to every character, hero and villain alike. Well, it’s a particularly pertinent choice for Daredevil, considering his sobriquet of “the man without fear”.

    If I have one complaint about the season, it’s the lack of crossover with other Marvel Netflix shows — not just for the sake of fan service, but for genuine reasons of in-universe plausibility. Oleson has said crossovers aren’t his style, because he’s focused on his characters and not shoehorning in others for the sake of it, but that adherence to the realism of the characters is why it’s silly that certain others don’t turn up. The most glaringly obvious omission is Frank Castle, aka the Punisher — who, in this iteration of the Marvel Universe, started out as a Daredevil supporting character (as one of the main threats in season two). The real-world reason he doesn’t pop up is probably that he’s now got his own show now, so I guess scheduling didn’t work out. But (as this Collider article points out) it makes no sense that Castle wouldn’t turn up to help Karen, especially as the danger to her life is literally headline-making news. As that article summarises, “Frank Castle’s absence doesn’t ruin the season, not even close, but it’s a burden an otherwise Who WOULDN'T come to her rescue? I mean seriously...well-told story shouldn’t have to bear, and one that could have been easily remedied.” With Punisher season two on the way it’s possible this apparent plot hole could still be explained and/or retconned (whether they’ll bother is another matter, although Karen was a major character in Punisher season one so they ought to at least reference it), but it’s a shame it went unexplained in Daredevil itself.

    Still, that’s the only major complaint I have about this whole season. Many are seeing it as a return to form — as I said, I loved season two, so for me it’s just Daredevil continuing to be excellent, just in a different way. Normally this would absolutely bode well for a fourth season, but with Iron Fist being cancelled (presumably due to ratings) and Luke Cage also canned (over bizarre creative differences, despite the season being half written), it seems like Marvel and Netflix don’t get along so well at the minute (might be something to do with that forthcoming Disney streaming service…) I really hope they don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, because in my opinion Daredevil is still one of the best things to come out of the whole MCU, on the small or big screen.

    Doctor Who  Series 11 Episodes 3-7
    Doctor Who - RosaI let this post slip a week, so there are five episodes of Doctor Who to look back over. First up, the new team’s first historical adventure, Rosa (whew, it feels like more than a month since this aired!) I wrote last month about how there seemed to be a conscious effort to take Who back to its roots; to do things in a way perhaps not seen since the William Hartnell era of the mid-’60s. Rosa continues this. Back then, historical adventures didn’t have alien threats for the Doctor & co to battle, instead taking a genuine(ish) trip into the past. Rosa does give them a time-travelling criminal to battle, but he’s a relatively slight element in how things play out: he’s trying to alter history by nudging it out of place with small acts, so the TARDIS Team have to nudge it back. Mainly, the episode exists to be a timely commentary on racism. Co-written by acclaimed author Malorie Blackman, it was mostly a success… though, like episodes one and two, it saw the villain less being defeated, more just teleporting away.

    Arachnids in the UK was more of a typical Doctor Who romp, as the supporting cast’s hometown of Sheffield was threatened by giant spiders, Trump-ish businessmen, and some dodgy thematic plotting (why is the villain bad for shooting an animal that was going to slowly die of asphyxiation otherwise?) Also, the villain is allowed to wander off at the end, like in episodes, one, two, and three. Continuing this less-revolutionary seam was The Tsuranga Conundrum, which saw the TARDIS Team trapped on a medical ship being torn apart by a metal-eating little critter. Strong design elements (the set looked great, as did the CGI monster) did little to hide some round-the-houses plotting and a cast too big to get enough adequate screen time. Also, it ended with the monster being set free into space, similarly to episodes one, two, three, and four. Was this a deliberate pattern?

    TARDIS TeamEpisode six and seven say “no”. Well, a bit — the actual villain did survive the first. I still hope they’re going somewhere with this, because otherwise it’s very sloppy. Anyway, episode six itself, Demons of the Punjab, was one of the highlights of the season. Like Rosa, it sees the Doctor and co going into history and facing up to the real issues of the day, with the aliens popping in to add some spice rather than properly drive the story — like Rosa, you can imagine a not-that-different version of this episode without them. Preventing the Doctor from interfering and being ultra-heroic is certainly a change of pace from the “heroic god” version of the character we’ve had since the 2005 revival, but it’s not an unheard of vision — again, it harks back to the Hartnell era.

    Finally for now, Kerblam! is the first-ever Who story with an exclamation mark in the title. Truly groundbreaking, this season is. I also thought it was the most successful sci-fi episode of the season thus far, feeling like the kind of excitement-filled runaround that would’ve fit in the Eccleston, Tennant, Smith, or Capaldi eras. Its satirisation of Amazon was quite fun, the design work was once again superb, and there was even a budget-busting action sequence. And the villain didn’t escape to live another day! Although, did they really deserve to die? Even when an episode succeeds this season, it still leaves you with questions…

    Inside No. 9  Dead Line
    Inside No. 9: Dead LineI’ve never watched Inside No. 9 before, though I’ve always meant to get round to it. For those equally in the dark, it’s a comedy-horror anthology series from writers Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith, aka half of the League of Gentlemen, with each half-hour episode a self-contained tale. The reason I’ve jumped in here was because this was a live Halloween special. For some reason I’m always intrigued by live TV drama (I even watched episodes of Eastenders and Coronation Street just because they were going out live), and Inside No. 9’s standalone nature made just dropping in feasible. Anyway, the episode itself was a typically playful endeavour — many fans switched off halfway through, genuinely duped by one of the episode’s tricks. The episode also managed to genuinely integrate the fact it was live, roping in a news broadcast from another channel and having one of the characters tweet. That means it played better live than it would, say, on iPlayer (where it’s still available), though it’s still worth a watch as an effective piece of drama — the way it played with the form of live TV was the best bit, but alongside that it snuck in an interestingly-constructed narrative. You can also view it as a half-hour homage to infamous BBC drama Ghostwatch, which is no bad thing. (That also reminds me I’ve still not got round to watching Ghostwatch…)

    Upstart Crow  Series 3 Episode 6
    Go On and I Will FollowI always wondered if this day would come. As many (though I would guess not all) viewers must know, Shakespeare’s son Hamnet died in childhood. Not exactly traditional material for a multi-camera sitcom, so I wondered if the series would just never go there; equally, it’s by Ben Elton, co-writer of the famously tragic final episode of Blackadder Goes Forth, a work of unequivocal genius. And so in the final episode of this series, Go On and I Will Follow, Upstart Crow does go there… eventually, in the final moments of an episode that’s mostly fluff about theatre awards. It makes for a somewhat bizarre ending. Hamnet was never much of a character in the show, so while his passing’s effect on the characters is obvious, it has little meaning to us viewers. Then there’s the dedication to him at the end, which just reads like a spoof. The only bit that truly worked for me was the final lines: read in solemn voiceover, a passage by Shakespeare himself about grief. Perhaps that’s fitting. Perhaps if the whole episode had been about it in some way, then it would’ve worked — it’s part of why that Blackadder finale is so effective: the whole episode is about going “over the top”, or trying to avoid it, and so the unity of plot and theme and character and historical fact builds to an emotional gut punch of an ending. But rather than do that, Hamnet’s untimely end is just one scene tacked onto the end of some achingly obvious satire about something inherently vacuous. Well, maybe that was Elton’s point, but I don’t think the contrast was sharply enough drawn if so. Without that consistency across the whole episode, the ending just feels… odd. Ah well, at least we know there’s definitely a Christmas special to look forward to.

    Also watched…
  • Batman: The Animated Series Heart of Ice, Deep Freeze, Cold Comfort / Batman Beyond Meltdown — Watched these specific episodes to accompany my viewing of the film Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero. Heart of Ice may be one of the show’s best episodes, but the other two suggest it was in serious decline by the end. Meltdown is pretty good, though.
  • Children in Need 2018 — I used to watch the BBC’s annual charity telethon religiously, but I’ve lapsed in the last few years. I unintentionally caught some of it this year, which just confirmed it’s continued downhill. What I saw was mostly either trailers for forthcoming (BBC) shows or pop singers just singing — where have all the original sketches and specials gone? There were still a couple, and they were the highlights.
  • Derren Brown: Sacrifice — Derren’s third Netflix “Original” is the first that’s actually new. In it, he tries to programme an anti-immigrant American to stand between an illegal immigrant and a gun-wielding biker. It’s not his best special (it feels like a recombination of previous techniques to an ending that’s only new in its specifics), but it’s not a bad one either. I imagine if you’ve not seen what he can do before, it’d be more impressive. Assuming you believe it, that is; which you should, because what would be the point if it was fake?
  • The Great Model Railway Challenge Series 1 Episodes 3-6 — Reader, I did end up watching the rest of the series. My review of the first two pretty much covers it all. It’s not a hobby I’d ever take up (I was never much good at arts & crafts or building model kits or any of that kind of stuff), but for some reason I’ve always liked miniature things (love a model village) and the creations here are often very impressive.
  • Great News Season 1 — This newsroom sitcom limped to two seasons on network TV in the US, but recently made its way to UK shores as a Netflix “Original” — but only after it had already been cancelled in the US. That’s a shame, because once it settles into its stride its often pretty funny, and one of those “save our show, Netflix” campaigns might’ve been warranted. Oh well, at least I’ve got season two to look forward to.
  • Mars Season 1 Episode 1 — There’s been a spate of dramas about mankind’s first mission to Mars in recent years, but this was one of the most high-profile: produced by Ron Howard, it mixes documentary footage with the drama to show the present-day reality behind what we’re seeing in the fiction. Unfortunately, the fiction part is bloody awful, at least on the basis of this first episode. I’ve had the series on Blu-ray for years and finally started watching it because season two was beginning, but I’m not sure I’ll even make it on to episode two.
  • What Do Artists Do All Day? Peter Jackson — Despite the general-sounding title, this is a straight-up behind-the-scenes about the making of They Shall Not Grow Old. Well worth a look if you’re interested in how they did it. (They Shall Not Grow Old was also on TV this month, of course. My review is here.)

    Things to Catch Up On
    The Little Drummer GirlThis month, I have mostly been missing The Little Drummer Girl, the BBC’s new John le Carré adaptation from the makers of The Night Manager, their last (and very successful) John le Carré adaptation. As regular readers may know, I have a proclivity for saving series like this up and watching them back-to-back over about a week once they’re done — truly, I am of the Netflix generation. Dammit. Anyway, I’m looking forward to it, so expect me to get right on it and review it next month.

    And speaking of Netflix, I’ve still not got round to the new Sabrina or the much-discussed and recommended Haunting of Hill House. Whether I’ll be able to make time for those once Christmas TV ramps up, who can say. Oh God, and I’ve just remembered there’s still Killing Eve on iPlayer, too. Eesh.

    Next month… the final few episodes of Doctor Who, and an Arrowverse crossover or two.

  • The Past Month on TV #39

    Travel through time and space, into dreams and memories, and along miniature railways in this month’s TV review…

    Doctor Who  Series 11 Episodes 1-2
    Doctor Who series 11The 37th season of Doctor Who begins with the show’s biggest soft-reboot since at least 2010; arguably, since 2005; arguably, ever. With a new showrunner comes a new broom, and so we have a new Doctor, a new TARDIS, a new set of companions — sorry, they’re “friends” now — new locations, new monsters, and a new style (thanks to a raft of behind-the-scenes changes, including a new effects company, swish new cameras and lenses, and a new aspect ratio). It’s the perfect jumping-on point… and it worked, with the premiere achieving the show’s highest ratings for a decade; or longer, depending how you count it.

    Oh, and the Doctor’s a woman now, too. “It’ll kill the show,” cried a vocal minority. Hahaha, nope!

    But what of Jodie Whittaker, anyway? As with any new Doctor, I feel she needs a little time to find her feet — something that lies in the writing as much as the performance. There are some lines which would seem more at home in the mouths of David Tennant or Matt Smith, which Whittaker gamely tackles but don’t quite feel natural. But at other times the material and her performance click in perfect synchronicity, and we can see the promise that lies within. Hopefully as the writers become more familiar with her mannerisms, what works and what doesn’t for this particular incarnation, then it’ll all become smoother. There’s no reason to doubt she’s up to the task.

    Some question the new man in charge of running the show, though. Chris Chibnall’s TV record is… patchy. For every Broadchurch series one there’s a Broadchurch series two; for every Broadchurch series three there’s a Torchwood series one; and so on. He acquits himself decently with this opening pair of episodes. The first, The Woman Who Fell to Earth, may owe an obvious debt to Predator with its alien-hunter storyline, but Who has always liberally borrowed from other places and made the material its own.

    TARDIS TeamIndeed, even as it’s open-armed and newbie-friendly, Chibnall’s era already seems as Who-literate as you’d expect from such a long-time fan (somewhat (in)famously, as a teenager in the ’80s Chibnall appeared on TV criticising the then production team). His sense of what Who should be is at once indebted to the modern era (in particular the years of Russell T Davies, who I suspect may’ve been something of a mentor to Chibnall at one point) and also seeks to reintegrate elements long absent. For example, there’s the expanded TARDIS team, which calls to mind that of the series’ very first group of travellers; though whereas 1963 gave us a teenage girl and two middle-aged teachers, 2018 offers two teenagers and one middle-aged bloke. Such are the changing times. And for dedicated Whovians, the plot of episode two, The Ghost Monument, also had an air of early Hartnell serials, with its episodic trek across a danger-filled alien world. It was a brisk, entertaining 50 minutes, but stop and think about it too much and the cracks begin to show (read Andrew Ellard’s tweetnotes to see how it could’ve been polished up, for example).

    Still, two episodes into a new era is no point at which to make generalisations about it (despite what some people have been trying). This is a reasonably promising start, though: there’s a good cast in place, and a clear sense of purpose — this feels like a production team making the version of the show they want on screen, not one rushing headlong to get out anything so long as it meets the broadcast deadline (something that afflicted both RTD’s and Steven Moffat’s eras at times). Only the weeks ahead can really tell how consistently they’ve achieved this. Personally, I’m more excited for each new episode to come around than I have been for some time.

    Maniac
    ManiacNetflix continue to blur the line between movies and TV with this limited series starring Oscar winner Emma Stone and Oscar nominee Jonah Hill, co-created and directed by Cary “director of the next Bond film” Fukunaga. Well, I mean, it’s a line that other TV producers have blurred plenty in the past — movie stars on TV is far from a new thing at this point, and there’s no doubting this is a TV series rather than a movie (it’s 6½ hours long, for one thing) — but, still. And they bend the rules of TV, too, with individual episodes running everywhere from 26 to 47 minutes. (Does that matter when Netflix’s release-it-all-at-once strategy means you choose how much to watch at any one time? Maybe not. But if you’re the kind to still watch one episode at a time, a word to the wise: I recommend double-billing the ultra-short should-be-one-episode pair of episodes 7 and 8.)

    Anyway, Hill stars as the paranoid and delusional son of a business magnate who enrols in a drug trial, where he meets Stone’s addict in search of a fix. The trial is a new method for treating past trauma, something both of them have plenty of; and when the AI that’s a vital part of the procedure malfunctions, the pair find themselves in each other’s dreams and fantasies. It’s kind of like Inception made by someone with a kookier imagination than Christopher Nolan.

    In fact, an even better point of reference would be X-Men-adjacent TV series Legion: it has the same preoccupation with mental health, with mysterious possibly helpful / possibly evil institutions, with can’t-trust-reality trippiness, with retro-futuristic design… It’s certainly a heavily stylised series, which is half the charm. The other half is all the dreamworld stuff, which takes a few episodes to rock up but is worth the wait. And the other half — because this is the kind of show that would definitely have three halves — is the chemistry between Stone and Hill, which is unexpected but palpable.

    Kooky chemistryA significant amount of the series’ offbeat likability is down to idiosyncratic direction by Fukunaga, I suspect — the way he’s shepherded the visual creation of this world, the leftfield performance choices across the cast, and so on — but Emma Stone is definitely the MVP. While the aforementioned chemistry between her and Hill is important, and a lot of the rest of the cast get to excel at being quirky and funny, it’s Stone who really brings heart and emotion to the piece, making it more than just a zany fantasy.

    Maniac throws you in at the deep end, with a first instalment that’s densely packed with information and alternate-world building, which it races past and through, sometimes with two or three things going on at once, making it feel a bit like hard work. But, really, that’s all incidental detail. Once you settle into it, an inventive and kooky journey awaits. How much it all adds up to is debatable — though, for the characters, it definitely reaches a worthwhile place — but it’s the kind of trip where the journey’s worth at least as much as the destination.

    The Great Model Railway Challenge  Series 1 Episodes 1-2
    The Great Model Railway Challenge
    Long-time readers of this column with exceptionally good memories may remember that I once watched two episodes of Shed of the Year merely because one episode featured a Doctor Who-themed shed and another featured a cinema-themed shed (I’m still jealous of the latter, and you should be too — see photos at the aforementioned link). Well, here we have another show that wouldn’t normally be up my street… but episode one was all cinema-themed builds, and episode two featured a Doctor Who-themed build.

    As for the programme itself, well, the format follows the template established by Bake Off and since copied ad infinitum for almost every hobby TV producers can think of: a pair of affable, pun-delivering hosts; a mixed-gender pair of expert judges; well-practiced amateur contestants, who compete in a series of tasks and challenges over a period of three days — in this case, to build model railways. It comes across as being as nerdy a hobby as you’d think (and with one team choosing to do the Who themed setup, it’s like nerd²), but I don’t mean that as a criticism — the stuff they produce is, at its best, astonishing and a lot of fun. I think I’m going to end up watching the rest of the series.

    Also watched…
  • Upstart Crow Series 3 Episode 4 — It’s funny how this era of catchup TV can lead to both binge-watching and spreading stuff thinner than intended (or is that just me?) Anyway, the sole episode of Upstart Crow continued the quality run I commented on last month, this time with an amusing episode-long riff on Much Ado About Nothing.
  • Would I Lie To You? Series 12 Episode 1 — The best panel show on TV is back and as on form as ever, particularly with the ever-unguessable Bob Mortimer popping in for the first episode. A treat.

    The Not-So-Immortal Iron Fist
    Colleen the Iron FistHaving just last month written about how improved Iron Fist was and how I was actually looking forward to season three, Netflix went and cancelled it last weekend. That’s the first of their Marvel shows they’ve outright cancelled (it doesn’t look like The Defenders is coming back, but that was technically always a one-off miniseries anyway). There are lots of options for Iron Fist’s future, however: could be they’re planning to team up some of the characters into a new show; could be it moves to Disney’s forthcoming streaming service, which is set to have other MCU-related series. I figure the latter is unlikely — it’s tarnished goods now — but it would seem a shame to not pay off the second season’s cliffhangers/teases somewhere, somehow.

    Things to Catch Up On
    InformerThis month, I have mostly been missing Informer, BBC One’s new thriller. Well, it only started on Tuesday, so that’s fair enough, right? I guess I’ll save it up and see how it goes down — I’ve managed to avoid wasting time on a few initially-promising-but-ultimately-poorly-received series with this method; though, equally, it led to Radio Times spoiling Bodyguard for me, so you take your chances… And as the lack of review may’ve told you, I’ve yet to start Killing Eve. With a bunch of stuff popping onto Netflix over the coming weeks (see below), it’ll be lucky to make next month’s column either.

    Next month… after a 2½-year wait (which has included seven seasons of other Marvel/Netflix shows), it’s finally time to give the Devil his due — that being, a third season.

    Plus! Netflix’s spooky Riverdale spinoff, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, and more new Who.

  • The Past Month on TV #36

    There are schizophrenic superheroes, deconstructed movie genres, Italian thefts, and even some ball-kicking competitions in this month’s TV review…

    Legion  Season 1
    Legion season 1The first live-action X-Men TV series is only tangentially connected to either the movies (there are a couple of vague nods) or even the original comic books (apparently the title character is the only thing taken from them), but instead creator Noah Hawley (the man behind the Fargo TV series) has been allowed free rein to do as he pleases. Turns out that’s a massive mindfuck; a series that’s focused on atmosphere over narrative coherence, full of crazy visuals and abstruse plotting. If you’re thinking, “that sounds a bit Lynchian,” then yes, this is probably the nearest thing we’ll ever get to a David Lynch version of the X-Men.

    That’s not just a pithy comment, for two reasons. Firstly, although the series is based around the character of David Haller (Dan Stevens), an exceptionally powerful mutant, by the end of the first episode he’s joined up with a team who are based at an educational facility that teaches mutants how to use their powers, in part so they can fight for their rights against humans who want to oppress them. For those not in the know, that’s more or less the overarching plot of the main X-Men series. Secondly, it’s not just that “this looks a bit weird, let’s reference David Lynch” — the series has a Lynchian attentiveness to dream-like sequences and visuals to convey meaning, and an awareness of the importance of sound design to create an effect or atmosphere. Unlike Lynch, there are some answers to be found; and while they’re often still very weird, at least there’s definite satisfaction in them.

    I watched the eight episodes of the first season over eight days, which I have mixed feelings about. As ever, it makes it easier to connect up the dots of the plot; on the other hand, the show’s style comes so out of leftfield, maybe it would work better spread out at a traditional pace, offering a little hour-long oasis of weirdness in your week. The second season has already concluded, so I’ll have to decide before I approach that one.

    When that will be, I’m not sure. I bought this first season on Blu-ray, so I’d like to do the same for the second, but there’s no sign of a release being scheduled yet. Hopefully this won’t be one of those series that never gets a complete disc release — that happens every so often (and I believe Legion’s network, FX, are regular culprits) but it never pleases anyone.

    Mark Kermode’s Secrets of Cinema  Episodes 1-2
    Mark Kermode's Secrets of CinemaMark Kermode is our guide for this BBC Four documentary series that seeks to expose the inner workings of movie genres and what makes them so effective. Co-written by Kermode and encyclopaedically knowledgeable movie guru Kim Newman, the series certainly has the chops to take on such a task. Focusing on one genre per episode, it makes an interesting choice to start with romcoms — a massively and enduringly popular type of movie, unquestionably, but one that’s often ignored by serious film analysis. That makes it the perfect choice for a series such as this, because, as the episode makes clear, the whole point of the genre is to do something very, very hard (produce a funny movie with loveable characters) and make it look easy (and when they succeed, that’s why it gets ignored!) As insightful as the first edition was, I preferred the second one, focusing on heist movies, though that’s purely because it’s a genre I’m more disposed toward.

    Kermode’s teachings are illustrated with superb graphics (the 3D realisation of each film’s timeline is fantastic), examples drawn from the entire history of cinema (the heist episode takes in everything from 1903’s The Great Train Robbery to last month’s Ocean’s Eight), and throws in a few pleasantly unexpected curveballs too (John Carpenter’s The Fly is a romcom? Half-forgotten black-Vietnam-vet drama Dead Presidents is an archetypal heist movie?)

    Future editions will focus on science fiction, horror, and coming of age films. Of course, there are considerably more than five movie genres — maybe if we’re really lucky there’ll be more series in the future…

    Lupin the 3rd: Part IV  Episodes 1-5
    Lupin the 3rd: Part IVAs I mentioned when I reviewed The Secret of Mamo, this is the first main Lupin III series to receive a release in the UK (spin-off The Woman Called Fujiko Mine was released back in 2013. I’ve still not watched it). Part IV, also known as The Italian Adventure, sees Lupin and co in, you guessed it, Italy, where the master thief and lothario is, much to everyone’s surprise, getting married. Naturally, he’s got another plan up his sleeve. It’s the first of many, as these early episodes are mostly standalone adventures; but with Lupin’s thievery attracting the attention of shadowy MI6 agent Nix, there are hints of a bigger story to come. So far it feels somewhat lacking compared to the two Lupin III movies I’ve seen, but it’s still quite fun.

    Also watched…
  • 2018 World Cup — I’m not much of a sports fan, and even when I am it’s not the ball-kicking tournament that floats my boat, but even I got a little swept up in the England hype… for all of two-and-a-half games, anyway. We won the first (hooray!), lost the second (boo!), and the third-place play-off was so mind-numbingly dull that I spent most of the first half updating my database with that week’s Blu-ray purchases, then wandered off entirely before the second. So that’s that.
  • Doctor Who Series 11 Trailers — You wait ages for a Doctor Who trailer to come along, and then you get two in a week. Well, maybe it’s something to do with time travel. Neither the World Cup-themed teaser nor fast-cut clip-fest proper trailer gave us too many details on what to expect from the forthcoming series, but it’s enticing nonetheless.

    Things to Catch Up On
    Picnic at Hanging RockThis month, I have mostly been missing Picnic at Hanging Rock, the new adaptation of Joan Lindsay’s novel (perhaps better known from Peter Weir’s 1975 film adaptation), which is currently halfway through airing here in the UK. It looks up my street, so I intend to binge it at some point. Also, Keeping Faith, the BBC Wales drama that was such a hit on iPlayer they’re finally giving it a run on BBC One proper. Oh, and the third series of Unforgotten is also partway through, and they’ve gone and revived The Bletchley Circle too. Who says summer is a quiet time for TV?

    Next month… I’m intending to finally get lost in Netflix’s space.

  • The Past Christmas on TV

    Ah, Christmas — it could be called “the season of TV” here in the UK. (Apparently Christmas Day telly is Not A Thing in most/all of the rest of the world. What do they do, actually interact with their family?! Madness.) Consequently, although it’s only two weeks since my last TV overview, my list of stuff watched that could go in this post included 26 different programmes. That’s all those one-off specials for you. From that long, long list, here are the ones I felt like writing about…

    Doctor Who  Twice Upon a Time
    Doctor Who: Twice Upon a TimeAnother year, another divisive Doctor Who Christmas special. It’s the third time that the Christmas Day spectacular has to serve double duty by writing out the programme’s lead actor, and it follows the format set out by David Tennant’s swan-song The End of Time and Matt Smith’s finale The Time of the Doctor by being a very inward-looking fan-focused edition. I’m not sure that’s the right tack to take on Christmas, quite frankly, when the show’s playing to a wider audience of more casual viewers than normal. Former showrunner Russell T Davies and immensely popular leading man Tennant had earnt that kind of indulgence by the time they exited, and the series was pretty much the biggest thing on British TV at the time, so most of those so-called “casual viewers” were actually regular watchers of the show anyway. I’m not convinced exiting showrunner Steven Moffat and departing Doctor Peter Capaldi are quite in the same position.

    Oh, but what does it matter? Capaldi’s been brilliant, and is brilliant here again. It was great to see Pearl Mackie back as the wonderful Bill, even if her return felt like a massive fudge about. How you felt about Clara’s cameo really depends on your opinion of Clara (I wasn’t surprised she cropped up; I also wasn’t bothered). David Bradley was absolutely spectacular as a recreation of the First Doctor, originally played by William Hartnell, who Bradley managed to evoke without doing a flat impression or a disrespectful re-envisioning. I’d love him to pop up again in the future, but that would make this a bit less special. The actual plot was a bit of nothing, though it led to a lovely conclusion on the battlefields of World War One — oh, and how good was Mark Gatiss in an almost thankless little role as a WW1 soldier? His reaction to the news that there would be a World War Two was heartbreakingly understated.

    And so, after Capaldi’s overwritten exit speech, we come to Jodie Whittaker’s debut as the Thirteenth Doctor. “Oh, brilliant,” was all she could say before she was kicked out of a crashing TARDIS — just as Tennant, Smith, and Capaldi all were immediately post-regeneration. We’ll have to wait until the autumn to get a proper handle on her interpretation of the role. Under the guidance of a new showrunner, Chris Chibnall, hopefully it’ll be worth the wait.

    The Miniaturist
    The MiniaturistThe BBC’s two-part adaptation of Jessie Burton’s 2014 bestseller promised to be a supernatural treat, though in that respect the trailers were somewhat misleading. Set in 17th century Amsterdam, it’s about a girl who marries a wealthy merchant, but finds his strict and secretive household is not all she’d hoped. He buys her a dolls house as a wedding gift and she commissions a miniaturist to produce items for it, but she soon starts to receive things she didn’t order — things which suggest the miniaturist somehow knows people’s secrets, and can possibly see the future… In actuality, The Miniaturist is more of a period drama, albeit one with lashings of Gothic that were right up my street. It was beautifully made, with a fantastic eye on the costumes and locations, and cinematography that evoked painting of the era. There were strong performances too, particularly from Anya Taylor-Joy (yes, her out of The VVitch and Split), once again brilliant as the initially delicate but increasingly confident lead, and Romola Garai as the merchant’s overbearing sister.

    There were some striking revelations and twists along the way (even if we guessed a few of them), but where the narrative really struggled was as it moved towards its conclusion. Weirdly divided into ‘halves’ running 90 and 60 minutes respectively (did they accidentally make it half-an-hour too long, or half-an-hour too short?), the second episode felt like it was merely playing out the obvious repercussions from the first episode’s cliffhangers and reveals. The answers about the titular character were particularly underwhelming. Thematically, there was something there about being the master of your own destiny, but if that’s what they wanted to convey then I didn’t think it was played out as effectively as it should’ve been. A real mixed bag, then: I loved the overall style and many individual elements, but a disappointing second half failed to stick the landing.

    A Christmas Carol Goes Wrong
    A Christmas Carol Goes Wrong
    A follow-up to last year’s magnificent Peter Pan Goes Wrong (see the “also watched” section), this sees the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society attempt to redeem themselves by gatecrashing the BBC’s new production of A Christmas Carol. Cue a parade of slapstick, farce, puns, tomfoolery, and general merriment. Last year’s production was adapted from an already successful stage show, while this is a brand-new production, which perhaps explains why it doesn’t feel as meticulously fine-tuned as Peter Pan. It’s still funny (though, as the Twitter reaction proved, this style of comedy isn’t to everyone’s taste), but it didn’t surpass last year’s instant Christmas classic.

    The League of Gentlemen  20th Anniversary Specials
    The League of Gentlemen“Oh God, I’d forgotten,” says one character early in the first instalment for almost 15 years of BBC Two’s pitch-black comedy series. He’s been confronted with some other returning characters, but I have to say that the sentiment kind of sums up my reaction to a lot of this revival, in two ways: firstly because I had to keep rummaging in my memory to make connections back to a series I haven’t watched for a decade and a half, and secondly because the hilarious grotesquery of the League came crashing back. Revivals of once-great comedies can be a mistake — they’re often little more than an exercise in nostalgia; and this one is certainly aimed at fans, as the vast majority of it continues or riffs off stuff from before — but, in spite of that, it still felt fresh and edgy, not like a gang of middle-aged men reliving past glories (the other thing that goes wrong with revivals). So it was all really rather good, and it’s gone down very well too. Officially it’s a 20th anniversary special rather than a fourth series, but might we see more? I think it would be welcomed.

    Comedy roundup
    300 Years of French and SaundersSo much comedy, so much of it a passable time-killer that I have little else to say about. The highlight was probably 300 Years of French and Saunders, an excellent celebration of the comedy double act, reminding us of many of their greatest hits alongside a few nice additions. It made me want a whole highlights series repeating all their many hilarious film spoofs. Shakespearean satire Upstart Crow offered a neat riff on one of the better-remembered storylines from modern Christmas classic Love Actually, which it executed with surprising subtly (or, at least, I had to point out the references to my fellow viewers, which was followed by half-an-hour of scouring through Richard Curtis’ film for the relevant scenes). I enjoyed the pilot for Tim Vine Travels Through Time back in September, so was delighted to see a Christmas special in the schedules. It’s good clean silly fun. The same can’t quite be said of Mrs. Brown’s Boys. I only ever watch it at Christmas if I’m around other people who are, but I always laugh more than I feel I should. Other than that, I also chuckled (to one degree or another) through festive editions of Gogglebox, Have I Got News For You, Live at the Apollo, Michael McIntyre’s Big Show, QI, and Travel Man, plus the annual Big Fat Quiz of the Year, one-off Miranda Does Christmas, and a Romesh Ranganathan standup special.

    Black Mirror  White Christmas
    Black Mirror: White ChristmasBlack Mirror series four was released last Friday, but I haven’t even watched series three yet. Well, I did only watch series two just before series three came out, so I guess I’m catching up at a set speed. One of the obstacles (kind of) was this, the show’s only Christmas special — you can’t watch a Christmassy Christmas special any time other than Christmas, can you? Of course, I could’ve watched it last Christmas, but shh. Originally airing at Christmas 2014 (so I’m only three years behind), the feature-length edition introduces us to a couple of blokes isolated somewhere on Christmas Day telling each other a trio of technology-inspired tales that (surprise!) turn out to be connected after all. It nails Black Mirror’s best-known qualities: future technology that’s incredibly plausible due to being just slightly more advanced than our own, the way it considers how such marvellous innovations would actually be used and affect us as human beings, and particularly how it might go horribly, horribly wrong. Merry Christmas!

    Also watched…
  • The Dresser — This adaptation of Ronald Harwood’s superb play, starring Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Anthony Hopkins, was actually on over two years ago, we just finally got round to watching it now. Should I have counted it as a film, perhaps?
  • The Galaxy Britain Built — The centrepiece of BBC Four’s Star Wars Night, a new documentary on the British designers and craftsmen who contributed so much to the look and feel of a galaxy far, far away — and continue to do so today, in fact. You’re welcome, geekdom.
  • The Highway Rat — I normally devote a bit more time to discussing these animated specials (previous ones include The Gruffalo, Room on the Broom, and Revolting Rhymes, all brilliant), but I was a bit underwhelmed by this year’s offering. The actual animation was as beautiful as ever, but the story and writing left something to be desired. Hey-ho.
  • Peter Pan Goes Wrong — Sadly this highlight of last Christmas wasn’t repeated this year, but my parents still had it recorded so I got to see it again. Last year’s review is here.
  • Snow Bears — This was an odd one. The BBC are normally so good at nature documentaries, yet this took a bunch of different bits of footage and mixed them up into a fictionalised narrative, and did it so obviously that they had to put a disclaimer at the start. Some cute stuff with bear cubs, mind.

    Things to Catch Up On
    Little WomenI may’ve watched 26 different programmes, but there’s still an awful lot I’ve missed. Like the BBC’s new three-part adaptation of Little Women — I’ve never read it or watched another version, so here’s my chance to get cultured. Less worthy but no less lovely, there’ve been a couple of Great British Bake Off specials featuring contestants from the BBC years even though it’s now on Channel 4. Gasp, indeed. And despite that long list up above, there’s still a handful of comedy specials I’ve got to catch up on, like Not Going Out, Would I Lie to You?, and even some not featuring Lee Mack. There’s bound to be something else I’ve forgotten — I’ll have to go through the Radio Times, again…

    Next month… New Year, new shows!

  • The Past Month on TV #24

    After my busy summer of TV, this month has been very quiet. Isn’t it meant to be the other way round?

    The Great British Bake Off  Series 8 Episodes 1-3
    The Great British Bake Off 2017After its move to Channel 4, which was as controversial as it was high-profile, I wasn’t sure if I was going to continue bothering with GBBO. What would it be without Mel and Sue’s effortless chemistry and terrible puns, or Mary Berry’s kind twinkle? But cake always wins, and after a few weeks I caved and am now gradually catching up (I mean, too much cake in one go is bad for you, right?) Unsurprisingly, it’s still fundamentally the same show. Sandi Toksvig and Noel Fielding seemed like random picks for the new hosts, but they have the right mix of daftness, quick wit, and empathy to fill Mel and Sue’s shoes, and function surprisingly well as a double act too. New judge Prue Leith is no Mary Berry, but she can do the job. The judging’s hardly the most important bit anyway, is it? That’s the bakes, and they’re as incredible as ever. It’s funny that something that was a tough technical challenge back in series two or three is now just an unmentioned part of something much grander and more complicated. GBBO may have been slightly tarnished by the whole kerfuffle of changing networks and losing popular presenters, but the revised show has turned out to be less a soggy bottom and more a batch of ten almost-but-not-quite-identical sweet treats.

    The Great British Bake Off: An Extra Slice  Series 4 Episodes 1-3
    An Extra Slice 2017One thing that’s actually been improved by the Bake Off franchise’s move to C4 is this companion show. It always felt a bit cramped before, squeezed into a half-hour when it wanted to be longer, and not allowed to really cut loose with its content because, although it was on the more irreverent BBC Two, it was still on The BBC. In its new home, it’s only been extended by about seven or eight minutes (presumably a result of C4’s commitment not to cut the series’ running time — the old 30 minutes of material plus ads wouldn’t quite fill a 45-minute slot) but that seems to have made the world of difference, allowing it room to breathe and throw in a few more gags. It’s got distinctly cheekier too, which befits host Jo Brand and the kind of guests they have on (mostly comedians). And somehow it never stops being funny how people at home have messed up baking.

    Unforgotten  Series 2
    Unforgotten series 2I get the impression ITV’s cold-case thriller was a bit of a surprise success when the first series aired, because it felt like a finite unit that wasn’t expecting a continuation. Despite not having the grand old acting talent that perhaps made the first run a draw, the second series’ storyline is every bit its equal, a compelling mystery about how a successful entrepreneur came to be murdered and stuffed in a suitcase 26 years ago. The tone of the show takes its lead from its stars, the ever-excellent Nicola Walker and Sanjeev Bhaskar, playing a pair of coppers who are calm, understated and methodical when doing their job, but with deep wells of emotion and empathy for the people that job touches. Much of the series ticks along in this way — a good drama, but without many histrionics to wow you — until the finale, when the truth comes out in a devastating episode with heartfelt writing and incredible performances across the board, culminating in a striking final act. Unforgotten is far from the flashiest cop show on TV, but that doesn’t mean it can’t pack a punch.

    Also watched…

    Where we're going, we don't need sheds...

    Where we’re going, we don’t need sheds…

  • Amazing Spaces: Shed of the Year Series 4 Episodes 1-2 — Not normally my kind of thing, but episode one featured a cinema ‘shed’ and it was amazing. I’m not sure I’ve ever been so jealous in my life. You might think it’s just the façade pictured above, but oh no! You can have a look at a whole gallery of photos here and weep that you don’t have one in your back garden. Then, episode two had an impressive home-made TARDIS, as well as a little hedgehog rescue. I love hedgehogs. Someone should do a Pixar-esque animated movie starring hedgehogs.
  • The Musketeers Series 3 Episodes 5-6 — This final series seemed to attract a lot of criticism when it aired, but I think it contains as much good ol’ swashbuckling fun as ever.
  • Tim Vine Travels in Time — Exceptionally silly comedy pilot. What else would you expect from Tim Vine? It was pretty divisive on Twitter (too silly for some, it seems), but I enjoyed it. Hopefully they’ll do a series.

    Things to Catch Up On
    Star Trek: DiscoveryThis month, I have mostly been missing the return of Star Trek to TV, in the form of Discovery. It’s “a Netflix original series” everywhere outside the US and Canada, so I imagine I’ll catch up during one of my irregular Netflix subscriptions (after the whole first season is available to binge, of course). Also missed: Rellik, the new thriller with a Memento-esque structure from the writers of The Missing and One of Us, and the second series of Doctor Foster. I’m saving up both for a consecutive-day binge once they’re done.

    Next month… if rumours about a surprise mid-October release date are to be believed, I’ll probably review Netflix’s sixth Marvel show, The Punisher. If those rumours are rubbish, who knows?

  • The Past Fortnight on TV #20

    Like some kind of Walder Frey impersonator, I’m having two feasts in a fortnight — two feasts of TV reviews, that is!

    It may’ve passed you by (don’t think I’ve seen any coverage of it anywhere at all), but Game of Thrones is back, so that’s where I’ll begin…

    Game of Thrones  Season 7 Episode 1
    Game of Thrones season 7Season premieres of Thrones are typically concerned with re-establishing where all the major characters are, and maybe moving their stories on a few baby steps to indicate where they’ll be headed this season. Dragonstone is no exception. So where Arya had arrived in Westeros to kill the Starks’ enemies, now she’s slaughtering them by the hallful; where Bran and Meera were headed for the Wall, now they’re passing through it; where Jon and Sansa were taking charge in the North to be ready for war, now they’re preparing for war; where Sam had headed to the Citadel to research important stuff, now he’s in the Citadel researching important stuff; where Cersei had taken the Iron Throne and Jamie had his doubts, now Cersei’s preparing to defend her kingdoms and Jamie has his doubts; and where Dany was sailing for Westeros with her hodgepodge military, now she’s landed in Westeros. The wonder of Thrones is that it can take such scene-setting and turn it into riveting television.

    That’s because everything about the show is so well put together. Each sequence offers one or more out of sharp-witted dialogue, sublime direction, surprising emotion, or badass mass-murder, alongside consistently stellar performances. David Bradley, Rory McCann, and Sophie Turner were the particular standouts this episode, I thought, with special mention for all that John Bradley had to endure in the name of a montage. Although some scenes only left us with more questions about the future, others were satisfying vignettes in their own right. It’s a good mix.

    Ed SheeranIn fact, the only thing letting the side down was the well-publicised cameo by Ed Sheeran. If you have no idea who Mr Sheeran is then perhaps his appearance was fine — his acting was no worse than dozens of other bit players they’ve had on the series before now. But if you do know who the singer-songwriter is, his appearance was like being served a cheese board accompanied by cheese crackers with a glass of melted cheese and extra cheese on the side. After devoting what felt like a significant chunk of time (but was probably mere seconds) to him singing a song, Arya trots over to him and goes, “I don’t know that one,” and he says, “it’s a new one,” which he may as well have followed up with, “which you can hear in full on my new album, available now everywhere music is sold.” I have no idea if he has a new album out, or if that song would be on it if he did, but that’s how it felt.

    Anyway, maybe next week Arya will murder him in his sleep. Things to look forward to…

    Twin Peaks  Season 3 Episodes 9-10
    Happy times in Twin PeaksSlowly, very slowly, the disparate strands of Twin Peaks Mk.III seem to be coalescing into a coherent, connected story… which is almost more frustrating, in its own way. By that I mean: when it was wilfully obscure, you just kind of went with it — it was Lynch being Lynch, and you had to let it wash over you and allow your feelings to do the deduction about what it was supposed to signify. Now that the plot is beginning to crystallise into something your rational brain can make sense of, it feels a mite slow in getting there. I mean, while Dougie Jones is less annoying than he used to be (helped in no small part by the brilliance of Naomi Watts), I still miss real Coop, and we’re running out of episodes to spend time with him again. Was MacLachlan just feeding us a red herring when he said he’d “almost forgotten how to play him”? Because he hasn’t played him yet! Ach, we’ll see. It remains defiantly its own thing, and at least we can trust Lynch is going somewhere with it — even if we may never be able to work out precisely where that somewhere was…

    Automata  Season 1
    AutomataBased on a webcomic from the creators of Penny Arcade and funded through Kickstarter (so far it’s only available to backers), this miniseries-cum-pilot (the five short episodes total 58 minutes) takes place in an alternate Prohibition-era America, where “Prohibition” instead refers to the ban on production of automatons — sentient robots. Ex-copper Sam Regal (Basil Harris) and his partner Carl (voiced by Doug Jones), an automaton, now make ends meet as PIs, doing the usual PI thing: photographing cheating spouses. Only this time the run-of-the-mill case leads them into a murderous web that encompasses speakeasies, robo-gigolos*, underground automaton-hating gangs, and a twist ending (natch).

    There are two particularly striking things about Automata. The first is its interesting alternate history. From this opening season (which, as I alluded to earlier, is equivalent to a single episode really) it’s tricky to get an idea of how fully imagined it is, but this is a promising start. Secondly, it has really strong production values, especially for something on such a low budget. In particular, the CGI used to create the automatons is exceptional. But it’s also very nicely shot, with the deep shadows so evocative of noir. It was made available in 4K, so it’s the first thing I’ve bothered to properly watch in that quality since I got my new TV. I must say, I’m not sure it looked any better than a good 1080p transfer. That said, I didn’t watch it side by side with its lower-res version, and my screen is on the low end size-wise of those available in 4K, so maybe it wasn’t the fairest test of the format. When I finally get round to American Gods, or when The Defenders comes out, then I’ll give it a longer trial.

    Anyway, personal technological observations aside, Automata is a well-made proof-of-concept that should satisfy anyone who thinks “Prohibition-era noir story, but with robots!” sounds like a good pitch. And if you’re still not sure, you can watch an atmospheric trailer here. Whether this’ll lead to a full-blown series, or even just further miniseries like this one, it’s too early to say, but I’ll be there to watch them. (And I’ll try to remember to mention when this one becomes available to non-backers, too.)

    * That’s not what they call them, I just thought it sounded good.

    Also watched…
  • Line of Duty Series 3 Episodes 1-3 — with the tennis over, it’s time to dive back into series the other half also cares about. This is the season of Line of Duty, apparently, so it should be a corker. More thoughts on this one next month when we’ve finished it, but that first episode… must’ve been great for those who hadn’t had the twist spoiled!
  • Wallander (UK) Series 4 Episode 1 — it’s been yonks since this final series was on, but we’re finally making time for it. The first episode upped sticks for a South African setting, and so did the production — and they clearly wanted us to know it, with tonnes of truly stunning location photography. It was almost worth watching for that alone, but I also thought the episode had a strong, weighty (if ultimately predictable) story.

    In other news…

    The 13th DoctorThe biggest TV news this fortnight was undoubtedly the BBC’s announcement of the 13th actor to take the title role in Doctor Who. (Well, the 14th. Well, the… oh, let’s not get into that.) As you surely can’t have missed, it was Jodie Whittaker, who is a woman! Gasp! Naturally, there was some outrage. After all, it makes no sense whatsoever that an alien being who can travel in time and changes his whole body every time one gets worn out could possibly, during that change, switch from being a man to a woman, even if it’s been established multiple times within the series itself that such a change is possible. It’s just not plausible, is it?

    It’s difficult to tell whether the loonies who actually believe that groundless claptrap are in the majority, or if the day instead belongs to the many who were mightily pleased by the news. Hopefully the latter. There’s certainly a lot of positive word of mouth, so hopefully the naysayers will be converted. Even most of the media were on side, though some of our pathetic excuses for ‘newspapers’ reverted to predictable type and ran articles on Whittaker’s previous roles that featured nudity. Apparently one paper accompanied it with photos of previous Doctors topless, as if that somehow justified it. On a more intelligent note, Variety ran a piece about the importance of the casting: “Coming from one of the biggest media franchises on the planet, the news that the new Doctor Who is female is huge — and almost completely delightful.” (Emphasis my own, because it pleases me.)

    Anyway, I guess the proof will be in the pudding — in this case, the “pudding” being the ratings. I hope it’s a success. I mean, I always hope Doctor Who is a success, but there is extra weight on this particular incarnation, like it or not. New showrunner Chris Chibnall doesn’t have the strongest track record on the show, but he’s done first-rate work elsewhere, so fingers crossed — at the end of the day, it’ll be the quality of the writing as much as the quality of the performance that will make or break the first female Doctor.

    Things to Catch Up On

    The Handmaid's TaleThis month, I have mostly been missing The Handmaid’s Tale. It belatedly started airing on this side of the pond at the end of May, but it slipped my mind so much that I didn’t even mention it in the May post. Ironically, it’s no longer fully available on demand so I’ll have to get hold of it (at some point) in the same way I would’ve before anyone bothered to air it here. Meanwhile, in “things I’ve actually started”, I’m three episodes behind on Preacher. This happened last year, too. I’m sure I’ll catch up on some or all of it before next month’s column.

    Next month… Cannes hit miniseries Top of the Lake: China Girl.

  • 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.

  • The Past Month on TV #18

    One-third of it has happened again…

    Twin Peaks (Season 3 Episodes 1-6)
    Twin Peaks season 3 UK posterWhen the return of Twin Peaks was announced with the tagline “it is happening again”, I think everyone assumed it was, at worst, just an echo of one of the series’ famous lines which happened to work well for a revival; or, at best, an indicator to the plot — that the strange, sometimes otherworldly events of the original series were about to reoccur. As it’s turned out, perhaps what the tagline is most applicable to is the series’ effect: 27 years ago, Twin Peaks pushed new boundaries for what could be done on television, and the medium as a whole spent a couple of decades catching up. Now, rather than merely return to what he did all those years ago, as most revivals do, co-writer/director David Lynch is once again pushing at the boundaries of what’s possible or acceptable on mainstream(-ish) television. If “it” is “David Lynch being way beyond everybody else”, then it is indeed happening again. If you were after a comforting pile of references, callbacks, reflections, and imitations of the original series, you’re going to be disappointed — as one or two critics have been. If you were after something new in the weird world of Twin Peaks, well, step on up.

    Before the series aired, Lynch said that prequel movie Fire Walk with Me would be important to understanding what’s going on. As much as it’s possible to understand what’s going on in the new Twin Peaks, that’s very true — there’s a ton of stuff touched on that wasn’t part of the series. Tonally, too, this is much more aligned with the movie: there’s a brand-new murder investigation; it’s set largely outside of Twin Peaks itself; and some of the biggest moments are based more around emotional resonance than strict storytelling necessity. It’s also sometimes reminiscent of The Missing Pieces, or what Fire Walk with Me would’ve been if they had remained included, as it shoots off on scene-long tangents that don’t seem to connect up to anything else. Some people are assuming it will all make sense and come together eventually, but based on how many of those Missing Pieces went nowhere, I’m not convinced it will.

    Evil CoopIt’s also been widely reported that Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost wrote a single 400- or 500-page screenplay, shot it all, then chopped it up into 18 episodes in the edit. This I can very much believe. Individual episodes are almost shapeless as hours of television, and plot threads disappear for several episodes at a time, only to crop back up as if we’d never been away. While many series these days boast they are “actually an X-hour movie”, they still often function as individual episodes — they may not be completely standalone, but the shape of each hour, the way they’re paced and build to a cliffhanger, and so on, is episodic. Twin Peaks, however, feels like it means it — no doubt the legacy of Lynch’s production methodology.

    Because of this, it feels tailor-made for binge-watching, except Lynch himself requested that it be released weekly, reportedly because he didn’t want to spend three years making something only for people to polish it off in a weekend. I can understand that position, but given the pace of the series, I can’t help but feel it would be better binged. When it’s over, a lot of viewers are going to remember the Dougie Jones material as a long, slow trudge, possibly putting it on a par with some of the worse plotlines from the middle of season two, and that would be ameliorated slightly if it could be consumed across a few consecutive hours rather than several weeks (or, possibly, months). Of course, I’m not sure Lynch cares about that. He may be planning something different altogether. What that plan is, maybe we’ll never even know.

    Damn good coffeeSome five-and-a-half hours into this 18-hour movie, Dougie hands his boss a stack of files. The boss slowly looks through them one by one, baffled by the seemingly senseless doodles Dougie has scrawled all over the pages. But after a while he begins to see a pattern, and comes to understand something. In the end he thanks Dougie. Dougie, as ever, looks blank, before doing a failed imitation of being a normal human being. Is Lynch deliberately setting out to say that he is Dougie and we are Dougie’s boss? That all of us are taking a long, slow look at Lynch’s indecipherable doodlings until we eventually discern some meaning. Or is it just a scene in Lynch’s world that we can coincidentally project that interpretation on to? As ever with David Lynch, I’m not quite sure.

    Doctor Who (Series 10 Episodes 6-9)
    Doctor Who series 10 part 2Well, I suppose it was too much to hope it would last. The most consistently great season of Doctor Who in over half a decade threw it all away with a frustratingly variable trilogy of stories (note: not a three-parter — this pedantic old-school Who fan insists we observe the difference). It all began with Extremis, which starts strong with a decent mystery (there’s a book in the Vatican library that causes anyone who reads it to commit suicide) and some good humour (Bill’s interrupted date), but increasingly becomes a lot of running around to delay the reveal. It’s a non-story pretending to be a story, basically. I don’t even care that it basically has an “and it was all a dream” ending. In fact, writer Steven Moffat found a way to make “and it was all a dream” work, which is a rare and miraculous thing. But the episode that leads to that ending doesn’t do enough heavy lifting to support it. A waste.

    That leads, sort of, into The Pyramid at the End of the World, where the Monks — who were technically the villains in Extremis — actually commence their invasion of Earth. This is where the trilogy is most clearly a trilogy rather than a three-parter: Extremis is a prologue to Pyramid, not a vital component of it. Again, it’s a frustratingly imperfect episode, with some ideas landing very well and others feeling hurried or ill thought through. Like, it’s neat that the Doctor’s hubris in hiding his blindness ultimately becomes his (and everyone else’s) downfall, but the hoops the show has to jump through to make this work get in the way.

    That leads to The Lie of the Land, which could justifiably be classed as part two of a two-parter — Pyramid ends with a direct cliffhanger, Lie deals with it, albeit in an atypical way because it’s now months later and there’s a new set of problems. It suffers from the same problems as the first two instalments, however, in that it’s regularly disingenuous. The opening act, with Bill and Nardole attempting to rescue the Doctor, who’s working with the Monks, feels like a massive sequence designed to provide some shocking moments for the trailer — again, the internal logic is not completely wrong, but is slightly off. Same with the “love conquers all” ending. It’s a potentially powerful message, but the episode doesn’t invest enough in making it work. It also squanders the successful invasion / 1984-esque dystopian world it sets up, which is a pity because I don’t imagine Who will re-attempt the same milieu anytime soon.

    So, it’s a run of three almost-there episodes, which sadly undercuts the quality displayed in the first five episodes. They’re not bad per se, but they’re wasteful. Though, that said, I’ve developed a strong dislike for Extremis after some people went head-over-heels for it. No. It’s not good.

    I only speak the truth

    Finally this month, Mark Gatiss writes for the series for the ninth (and possibly final — we’ll see) time in Empress of Mars. I like the Ice Warriors; I don’t dislike Gatiss’ episodes in the way some people seem to — I’d say he’s more-or-less 50/50 on really good ones / not very good ones. Empress basically straddles that divide. There’s strong imagery with the Victorian soldiers on Mars, and the seeds of some nice thematic material in issues of honour and cowardice, and what actually characterises either. Unfortunately they’re not allowed to grow properly, the episode wasting time on silly business like the TARDIS flying off for no reason when it should be developing the Victorian soldiers beyond shallow archetypes. Like the three episodes before it, it feels like the necessary time wasn’t devoted to polishing these episodes; to making all the decent ideas they exhibit coalesce in the most effective way possible. It’s a shame.

    Still, the season isn’t a write-off yet. These four episodes may have underwhelmed, but there are promising ideas to come in the remaining three instalments.

    The Kettering Incident (Season 1)
    The Kettering IncidentIn a remote small logging town where everybody knows everybody else, a teenage girl, who’s secretly into drugs and partying and is the daughter of a prominent local man, goes missing under mysterious circumstances in the creepy woods, which have a history of possibly-supernatural strangeness… Yes, this is the Australian answer to Twin Peaks — a comparison I have perhaps unfairly amped up with that description. It’s more about Anna Macy (The Night Manager’s Elizabeth Debicki), a London doctor who has been getting strange black outs since she was a child, when she lived in Kettering and her best friend disappeared after they saw mysterious lights in the woods — the “incident” of the title, in which some believe the other girl was abducted by aliens. Now she’s returned home and, as one character literally says (as a deliberate or accidental homage to Peaks, I’m not sure), “it’s happening again.”

    Sadly, The Kettering Incident lacks the quirky charm of classic Twin Peaks, but neither does it have the balls to be as bold as the new one. (I’m not sure anyone bar David Lynch has those balls, so perhaps that’s an unfair comparison too.) It’s more like The X Files crossed with Top of the Lake — both series I enjoyed, but not on the same level as Peaks. (Well, maybe X Files was in its prime. I need to watch it more thoroughly, to be honest.) Where Peaks started out looking like a small-town murder mystery and gradually mixed in undeniably fantastical elements, Kettering has them in from the start, with the UFO stuff. Will that be explained away by something normal and earthly? Well… that’d spoil it. Though it’s worth noting that, despite looking like a miniseries, Kettering is nothing of the sort: it ends with some answers, but even more questions, and it’s clear a further season (or, according to some sources, two) is needed to actually explain everything.

    Stranger thingsPersonally, I want to know what the hell is meant to be going on, but the finale felt a lot like weak sci-fi to me and I’m not sure the answers will be worth it. I have that same hot/cold feel about the series as a whole: whenever it’s actually in front of my eyes I become engrossed, invested, and enamoured; but within hours of it finishing I feel a kind of indifference creep in. I can’t really explain why. It’s probably not a fair reaction.

    Not a glowing recommendation, then. However, if you’re looking for something else that plays in Twin Peaks’ tonal ballpark, although it’s surely just a pretender to the throne, there are certainly worse.

    (As a side note, it’s brought to my attention that Tasmanian Gothic is a thing. Colour me intrigued.)

    Also watched…
  • Arrow Season 5 Episodes 21-23 / The Flash Season 3 Episodes 21-23 — oh no, Barry Allen’s trapped in the Speed Force and most of the cast of Arrow died (off screen)! How will either show be able to go on without such major characters?! (Or: why bother with cliffhangers that are so extreme they can’t possibly stick? Though they may actually be planning some kind of cull on Arrow, considering the cast is now so large that they can’t afford to have every regular in every episode.)
  • Cowboy Bebop Season 1 Episodes 23-26 — as news comes in that the US remake is moving ahead for TV, I’ve finally finished the original series. Now to make time for the movie.
  • General Election 2017 — quite unplanned, I ended up watching election coverage for 25 hours straight (well, with breaks for a couple of hours’ sleep, and just one or two other things). I’m not sure I learned much I couldn’t’ve got by just reading updates every few hours, mind.
  • Grantchester Series 3 Episodes 4-6 — in which the lead character almost resigns from his job because it won’t let him be with the woman he loves, but ultimately chooses the job over her because how else are they going to have a fourth series?
  • Jamestown Series 1 Episodes 2-3 — not bad, but I didn’t find it especially compelling either. As noted last time, the writing was the problem. With so much stuff to watch nowadays, it wasn’t worth another five hours of my time.
  • The Persuaders! Series 1 Episodes 1-5 — they don’t make ’em like this anymore! They should though, because it’s such fun. RIP Messrs Moore & Curtis.

    Things to Catch Up On
    Poldark series 3This month, I have mostly been missing the start of the third series of Poldark. Well, I’ve not even watched series two yet. I also still haven’t started American Gods, the finale of which is here on Monday. I guess that can go on the finished-and-ready-to-binge pile beside Westworld and Legion (and goodness knows what else), then.

    Next month… as if TV wasn’t crazy enough right now, Preacher’s back. Plus: The Americans season five.