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.

  • 100 Films @ 10: Favourite TV Series of the Last 10 Years

    This may be a film blog, but you’d be a fool to deny the rise in quality and significance of TV series in the past couple of decades, to the point where a lot of mainstream TV is arguably of higher quality than mainstream movies. So it seemed only appropriate to include it in my celebration of the last ten years.

    We’ve all heard about how we’ve reached ‘peak TV’, and with so much television we’ve all missed something we should’ve caught — many things, probably (my list of “stuff I haven’t seen any/enough of” would probably be longer than this one). Nonetheless, here are ten of my favourite TV series that were on at some point during the last decade.

    10
    The Great British Bake Off

    There are all sorts of prestigious dramas I could’ve put in this position — things I’m much more likely to revisit, too — but there’s more to TV than that. Just because we’re not going to buy something in a box set and critically (re)analyse it for years to come doesn’t necessarily mean it has no value. Of course, if you don’t get the appeal of Bake Off then I’m not sure anyone can explain it to you. I mean, who could’ve predicted that a bunch of people in a tent baking cakes while a pair of comediennes make gently naughty puns would become the biggest thing on British TV? If that makes it sound undramatic… it is. Well, apart from bingate. But that’s actually why it works so well (and why so many people actually hated all the fuss provoked by the aforementioned dumping of a baked Alaska) — it’s just lovely. And surprisingly entertaining with it. Or it was until the producers got greedy and shuffled off to Channel 4, potentially shattering the alchemical mix that made the show work. Oh well.

    9
    Detectorists

    This understated BBC Four sitcom about the lives of a group of people who enjoy metal detecting (a hobby whose participants are not “detectors”, they’re detectorists) is quietly one of the best comedies on TV in recent times, both very funny and rather touching. Starring, written, and directed by Mackenzie “Gareth from The Office” Crook, it’s nothing like that series and all the better for it. It also includes a great performance from co-star Toby Jones, whose Lance starts as a somewhat-pathetic supporting turn but reveals many layers by the end.

    8
    Mad Men

    The critically-acclaimed story of ad men in ’60s New York, Mad Men is a rich and frequently abstruse drama that on the surface looks almost soapy but quite clearly is nothing so shallow. It works best in the long run, slowly accumulating character moments and events in ways that pay off down the line, resulting in some stunning scenes and episodes. It’s only so low on this list because it seemed to waver a bit in later years, and I’m still not sure how I feel about its ending. (On the bright side, it didn’t go thoroughly off the rails like, say, Dexter.)

    7
    Outnumbered

    At the risk of sounding like one of those music groupies who are all “I liked their early stuff, before they got famous,” I remember when Outnumbered was buried late at night and it seemed like no one watched it, but those of us who did hoped against hope for a second series because it worked so well. It later morphed into a mainstream staple, but deservedly so — its semi-improvised “kids say the funniest things” format created a veracity that even the best scripted sitcoms fail to match. As the kids have grown it’s become more traditional, I suppose, but retained a smart eye for the absurdism of real life.

    6
    Romanzo Criminale

    Little seen in the UK (or anywhere outside Italy, perhaps) because it was buried on Sky Arts just as the craze for European crime TV was taking off, this Italian gangster saga is consequently an underrated specimen of quality continental drama. Telling one epic story across two seasons and 22 episodes, like many of the best series its effectiveness comes less from individual episodes and more from the way events and complexities build over time. Fortunately Arrow have released it on DVD, so anyone with curiosity (and a spare £30) can see what they’ve been missing.

    5
    Sherlock

    Apparently Benedict Cumberbatch’s interpretation of the Great Detective is the most popular British TV character in the world now. I guess that’s in spite of the criticism the series has regularly attracted across its last two runs. Of course, the ratings continue to be massive, so it must be doing something right. The idea of updating Holmes and Watson to the present day seemed foolhardy at first, but with a clever attention to the canon, a raft of cinematic visual tricks, and a top-drawer cast, they made something that worked really rather well. There are a couple of duff episodes, true, but I think they’re more than outweighed by the successes. Hopefully said success — which has helped propel the leads into the realm of movie stardom — won’t prevent us getting more in the future.

    4
    Torchwood: Children of Earth

    Doctor Who’s ‘adult’ spin-off had a rocky start when it first launched in 2006, with a series that had been rushed into and through production and resulted in a few… iffy decisions. The second season improved its consistency, and those two original runs certainly have their fans, but it really got good when it changed its format for this third run. Children of Earth is an almost-standalone five-episode miniseries about an alien race coming to Earth and demanding we hand over all our children, with a fantastic performance from future Doctor Peter Capaldi as a politician embroiled in the discussions about whether to appease them. Torchwood would return to its muddled quality with the attempt at a follow-up miniseries, US co-production Miracle Day, but for five nights in the middle of 2009 it was one of the very best sci-fi miniseries ever produced.

    3
    Doctor Who

    Every era of Doctor Who has its ups and its downs, its fans and its detractors. For example, every five-or-so years Doctor Who Magazine runs a reader survey to rate every story in the show’s history out of 10, and every single story gets at least some 10s, and all but one or two get some 1s as well. Nowhere are these extremities better exemplified than season 21, which ends with The Caves of Androzani (the #1 story in DWM’s 2009 poll) followed by The Twin Dilemma (perpetually placed last in pretty much every poll ever). But for the purposes of this list we’re talking about the revived show’s third series (the first one without Billie Piper) through to the most recent Christmas special (the one with a superhero). That encompasses the beloved and divisive second half of the David Tennant/Russell T. Davies era, as well as most of the divisive and beloved Matt Smith/Peter Capaldi/Steven Moffat era. For my money, any series that can produce the likes of Human Nature/The Family of Blood, Blink, the climax of Utopia, Time Crash, Voyage of the Damned, Midnight, Turn Left, The Waters of Mars, The Eleventh Hour, The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone, Amy’s Choice, Vincent and the Doctor, A Christmas Carol, The Doctor’s Wife, The Girl Who Waited, Hide, The Crimson Horror, The Day of the Doctor, Listen, Mummy on the Orient Express, Flatline, The Zygon Invasion/The Zygon Inversion, and Heaven Sent deserves a spot in my top ten.

    2
    The Americans

    A couple of weeks ago, US network FX released a trailer for The Americans’ forthcoming fifth season that unashamedly celebrated its increased critical standing, with quotes from half-a-dozen or so media outlets expressing the same fundamental sentiment: it’s “the best show on television”. It’s about a pair of Russian spies operating undercover in the US in the ’80s, who also try to maintain some kind of normal family life with their two teenage kids — who don’t know their parents are spies. Oh, and the FBI agent who’s hunting for them has just moved in over the road. Sounds kind of hokey put like that, but in practice it’s anything but. And like several other shows on this list, it works best in the long term, as things build, echo, and characters have to deal with long-brewing consequences. It works as a spy thriller, but also as a character-driven exploration of what makes people tick. There are just two seasons left to go, both commissioned (thank goodness), and if they can just stick the landing it’s surely destined for a place in lists of all-time greats. So why isn’t it my #1? Well…

    1
    Game of Thrones

    Here’s another show whose place in the all-time pantheon is sure to be claimed or dashed by how it ends, a point which is also exactly two seasons away — what are the odds? Of course, even if it ballses it up, Thrones’ legacy is assured in some ways: it’s basically the biggest TV show in the world right now, certain to remembered as a cultural touchstone of the 2010s. I’ve given it the edge on my beloved Americans primarily for two reasons: the penultimate episode of the last season, and the last episode of the last season (which I wrote about at greater length here). To summarise, they’re two of the greatest individual episodes of TV ever made. Thrones does all the long-brewing cumulative stuff too, but there’s nothing else on TV that can pull off a satisfying Big Moment in quite the same way.

    Tomorrow: back to the movies… the bad, bad movies…

    The Past Month on TV #6

    The other half’s love of tennis preempted a fair bit of TV watching this past month — but with an incredible Game of Thrones finale, and some stuff we’ve had time for since Wimbledon ended, there’s still plenty to talk about.

    Game of Thrones (Season 6 Episodes 9-10)
    Game of Thrones - Battle of the BastardsGoT produced two of its greatest-ever episodes to conclude this season. Actually, that’s arguably an understatement: based on IMDb votes, if nothing else, Thrones produced two of the best episodes of TV ever made. But what do IMDb voters know? Well, more than some people give them credit for. Obviously everyone has different tastes, but for the genres Thrones operates in — and, in some instances, even transcending those — these are incredible hours of TV. Episode 9, Battle of the Bastards, is surely one of the most thoroughly-realised medieval-style battles ever depicted on screen: the scale is epic, the strategy is clear, the feeling of what it’s like to be in the thick of that environment is palpable. How it turns out may have been predictable, but something being predictable is not the same as it being bad — not everything needs to be a twist.

    Then that finale, The Winds of Winter, was full of long-awaited decisions and reveals, and stunning for different reasons. Perhaps the biggest star across both episodes was director Miguel Sapochnik (who also helmed last year’s remarkable Hardhome) and the variety of directorial inventiveness he displayed — not only bringing all that realism to the aforementioned battle, but the classically-scored opening sequence/montage of the finale is incredible moviemaking. Presumably the only reason he’s not one of the directors for season seven is because he’s been tapped for bigger things.

    Game of Thrones - The Winds of WinterAs for the forthcoming seventh season, it’s pretty clear we’re now entering the show’s endgame — though we’re going to have to wait even longer for it, with the next season set to have a later-than-normal premiere and the final end not coming until the season after that. It’s going to be an excruciating wait, but if they can maintain the form displayed throughout season six, it’ll be worth it.

    Person of Interest (Season 5 Episodes 1-4)
    Person of Interest season 5This is done and dusted Stateside now, but goodness knows when Channel 5 will choose to ‘officially’ air it over here, so I’m just getting on with it. I used to despise most of PoI’s arc plots and often wished it would stick to being just a pretty cool vigilante procedural; but at this point, it’s so invested in the epic Super-AI vs. Super-AI sci-fi storyline that any attempts at case-of-the-week episodes feel like a waste of time — especially when this truncated season is fast approaching the show’s final end. I really hope it comes to a proper conclusion, because there’s too much going on here to let it end forever on a cliffhanger. (Obviously that answer’s now out there, but naturally I’m avoiding spoilers.)

    Preacher (Season 1 Episodes 4-5)
    PreacherI’m a bit behind on this at the minute (the latest episode was the eighth), but, as of the halfway point, it’s definitely settled into its own skin — or maybe it was always settled there, but it’s taken time for viewers (or this viewer) to get past the expectations brought as a reader of the comic books. It’s still far from being a literally faithful adaptation, carving out its own path from some of the comic’s building blocks, which makes it an odd and hard-to-judge work if you have read any of the original. Still, it’s an entertaining series, and people involved keep talking about this season being something of a prequel to what we saw in the comic, so maybe the already-commissioned season two will feel more recognisable.

    Also watched…
  • Cowboy Bebop Episodes 17-18 — as regular readers will know, I’m unconscionably bad at getting round to watching things, and here is a case in point: I started this anime series way back in 2013 and have been slowly making my way through it ever since. It’s really good, though.
  • Gilmore Girls Season 7 Episodes 15-20 — nearly done! I guess they heard the fan complaints by this point, because things definitely pick up towards the end.
  • Poldark Series 1 Episodes 5-8 — for a Sunday night BBC One drama, this is surprisingly, consistently glum — the heroes never seem to win. Still, looking forward to series two!

    Things to Catch Up On
    The Living and the DeadThis month, I have mostly been missing stuff I don’t even know I’m missing. By which I mean, I haven’t been paying enough attention to the TV schedules to know what I’ve missed. The BBC’s supernatural drama The Living and the Dead sounds kind of interesting; I know Mr Robot is back, not that I ever got round to season one; plus The Musketeers continues (though I hear it’s gone off the rails this season); and I keep hearing vaguely good things about Netflix’s new series, Stranger Things, like that it’s a cross between Steven Spielberg and Stephen King, or The Goonies mixed with The X Files… which just reminds me that I need to get round to seeing The Goonies someday.

    Next month… it’s about time to get started on season four of The Most Underrated Show On Television™, The Americans. So. Excited.

  • The Past Month on TV #5

    Geek-friendly adaptations aplenty in this month’s (still spoiler-free) small-screen overview.

    Arrow (Season 4 Episodes 19-23)
    The Flash (Season 2 Episodes 20-23)
    DC’s Legends of Tomorrow (Season 1 Episodes 10-14)

    Legends of TomorrowFinally done with most of these (still need to find time for the last two Legends of Tomorrows). One shouldn’t have that attitude to something one is choosing to watch, should one? I have a certain loyalty to Arrow, because they did a good job for seasons one and two, even if it’s waxed and waned since; but I’ve never really got on board with the adulation The Flash has received, and Legends of Tomorrow is mediocre to poor with regularity… though now and then they all exhibit flashes of worthwhileness. I rarely make the conscious choice to give up on a series (do it all the time by accident, though), but I’d consider abandoning a couple of these before the start of their next seasons… were it not for the ‘promise’ that they’re all about to be completely interconnected, at least for one almighty four-way crossover (with moving-to-the-same-network Supergirl).

    Y’know, I suspect this is why the interconnectedness and big crossovers in comic books works to boost sales, until it doesn’t and things crash and burn: because people who are invested feel compelled to buy the whole damn lot, but when they’ve had enough and want out, you can’t just reduce what you buy — it’s become all or nothing. So crossovers give you the short-term effects of everyone buying more than normal, but in the long run it just drives sales down. I don’t know what the current state of comic book sales figures is, but that certainly seemed to be the road they were on last time I looked. Maybe that’s where these TV series will end up, too — heck, maybe even the Marvel movies will end up there eventually — but those screen universes may still just be getting started, if you take the long-term view, so the resultant fall in popularity could be a ways off yet…

    Game of Thrones (Season 6 Episodes 5-8)
    Game of Thrones - The DoorFirst up: The Door, surely one of Thrones’ best-ever episodes. That ending rather overshadows everything else (because wow, in so many ways), but before that there was Sansa being badass, proper development of Arya’s storyline, the hilarious play-within-a-play, a marvellous scene between Dany and Jorah, and a great moment for Varys, too. The week after’s Blood of My Blood was more about setting things up the second half of the season, which is an important role to fulfil but less dramatic in itself. A couple of surprise returns, though, including a big reveal for book readers (maybe).

    There was definitely a confirmation for book readers in The Broken Man, amid the return of several well-liked characters (three, by my count). Game of Thrones - The Broken ManSometimes it’s hard to separate what one might count as story development versus mere place-setting in Thrones, but at its best they can be one and the same, and episode seven managed that. Finally for now, No One did actually bring some storylines to a head, including some very long-awaited developments, particularly in Braavos. Throw in an equally-long-awaited reunion and a couple more unexpected returns, and you have a pretty satisfying episode.

    Next time: fiiiiight!

    Preacher (Season 1 Episodes 1-3)
    PreacherSam Catlin of Breaking Bad and Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg of… all those films Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg have made (you know the ones) are the lucky group to finally bring this perpetual Development Hell resident to a screen, after multiple aborted attempts at movies or HBO TV series (it’s finally wound up being made by AMC, carried by Amazon Prime on this side of the pond). For thems that don’t know, it’s based on an irreverent and/or blasphemous comic book from the ’90s by Brits Steve Dillon and Garth Ennis, concerning the adventures of Texas preacher Jesse Custer who (trying not to spoil too much) acquires the power to order people to do things, with which they have no choice but to comply. This is a very loose adaptation, throwing out most of the comic’s actual plotting in favour of the broad strokes of the concept, including the budget-saving decision to base the characters in a single small town, and shaving out some of the equally-expensive otherworldly concepts. At least for now — I wonder if they’re hoping for a Game of Thrones trajectory, whereby increasing popularity leads to increasing budgets. I guess we’ll see. On the bright side, the show has also inherited some of the books’ batshit insanity, lending it an air of unpredictable craziness. It’s certainly not the best thing on TV right now, but it may just be the wildest, and there’s promise of room to grow.

    Also watched…
  • Gilmore Girls Season 7 Episodes 8-14 — 8 to go. Still no (confirmed) date for Netflix’s revival, though it does now have a name.
  • Upstart Crow Series 1 Episodes 3-5 — glad to hear this has been recommissioned for a second run.

    Things to Catch Up On
    The MusketeersThis month, I have mostly been missing anything I watch with my other half. It’s prime tennis season — eight weeks that starts with Geneva and flows through the French Open, Stuttgart, Nottingham, Birmingham, Queen’s, Eastbourne, and ends with the crowning jewel of all tennisdom, Wimbledon; all with near wall-to-wall coverage thanks to Eurosport, ITV4, and the BBC. It largely takes over the time we normally spend watching stuff together, so no room yet for the final seasons of Wallander or The Musketeers (not that we’ve watched season two yet, actually — oops), nor the just-finished fourth season of The Most Underrated Show On Television™, The Americans. Apparently it ended with “the Best Episode of TV So Far This Year”, according to one review’s headline (which obviously I can’t read because spoilers). Maybe in July.

    Next month… Game of Thrones reaches the ⅘-way point (if reports/rumours about its future are to be believed), as season six concludes.

  • The Past Month on TV #4

    It’s the moments we’ve all been waiting for, as David Tennant returns to Doctor Who and Game of Thrones returns to our screens. Spoiler-free reviews of both (and more) follow…

    Doctor Who: The Tenth Doctor Adventures Volume 1

    One of Doctor Who’s most popular eras is revived this week, as David Tennant returns to the headline role for the first time since 2013 for a debut series of Big Finish audio dramas. By his side is Catherine Tate’s Donna — what initially sounded like terrible casting but turned out to be a fantastic Doctor/companion pairing. (I know not everyone’s convinced by her even now, but you can’t win ’em all.) Given Tennant’s enduring popularity as the 10th Doctor, it’s no surprise his return to the role has brought Big Finish more attention than ever — their website even went down for a few hours on Monday, unable to cope with the rush of fans downloading the new stories. (And yes, I’m kinda bending the rules by reviewing audio drama in a TV column… but, a) these are designed to recreate a TV series in audio form, and b) it’s my column and I can review what I like.) So do they live up to expectations? Thankfully, yes. Setting out to emulate the era they’re from, they follow the model set out by the first three episodes of every Russell T Davies-helmed season of NuWho: a present day one, a future one, and a past one.

    The first is Technophobia by Matt Fitton, which is set in our recent past (and therefore Donna’s near-future) when the new M-Pad tablet computer seems to be causing the populace to forget how to use technology. Tennant and Tate hit the ground running — it’s a cliché, but it really does sound like they’ve never been away. Their sprightly performances contain little of the stilted “I’m reading this script aloud for the first time” acting that sometimes plagues audio drama. Fitton captures the style and tone of their single TV season to a tee — if they’d done a second year together, you can well believe this as its first episode. Even Howard Carter’s incidental music is a mostly-fitting substitute for Murray Gold’s iconic work.

    The middle tale is sci-fi adventure Time Reaver by Jenny T. Colgan, a best-selling romantic novelist who’s turned her hand to multiple Who projects (including a 10th Doctor and Donna novel published last week to tie-in with these dramas). For me, this was the weak link of the trilogy, though it’s by no means bad. There are some fantastic ideas, but at times their inspirations show through too clearly, and the execution is sometimes lacking. This was Colgan’s first audio drama, and dare I say it shows. Sequences like an action-packed barroom brawl are a little too ambitious to convey in an audio-only medium, and the dialogue is regularly forced to describe what’s going on. On the bright side, Mr Carter offers more magnificent sound design — the noises made by cephalopod villain Gully are immensely evocative.

    The final episode is the group’s historical outing, Death and the Queen by James Goss, and it may be the best of the lot. Our intrepid duo find themselves in the kingdom of Goritania in 1780, when it comes under siege from a destructive cloud that contains Death himself. Goss mixes comedy with peril in just the right quantities to create a story that is an entertaining romp but also manages to expose different facets of the Doctor and Donna’s relationship. If Fitton has bottled the essence of RTD, here Goss evokes Steven Moffat, with a time-jumping opening ten minutes that you can well imagine on TV, but which also work perfectly in audio. Things slow a bit later on, with the dialogue sometimes going in circles — a fault of all three of these plays, actually. They could’ve benefited from a trim to fit within the TV series’ 45-minute slot, rather than allowing the freedom of not having to conform to a schedule let them to slide to 55-ish.

    That’s only a niggle, though, and one that pales beside the excitement of having Tennant and Tate back in the TARDIS. This is a run of adventures that largely evoke the pair’s time on TV without being a needless carbon copy of it, meaning they work as both a marvellous hit of nostalgia and exciting new adventures in their own right.

    All three stories are currently available exclusively from the Big Finish website, going on general release from 1st September. They can be purchased individually (either as a CD+download or download-only), or as part of a limited edition box set (CD+download) that comes with a 78-minute behind-the-scenes documentary and an hour-long introduction to other Big Finish works, all encased in a book with exclusive photography and articles.

    Eurovision Song Contest: Stockholm 2016
    Ah, love a bit of Eurovision, even if the songs weren’t as good this year. Ok, you might say they never are, but there’s often one or two half-decent ones (I still listen to Conchita Wurst’s Rise Like a Phoenix sometimes, mainly because it’s the best Bond theme released in the last decade). Even then, the winner wasn’t the best of that middling bunch, though it probably had the best message. In fact, the best song of the night was the Swedish hosts’ half-time number, Eurovision-spoofing Love Love Peace Peace (watch it here). The much-heralded new voting system worked like a charm… at least for audience tension purposes. Poor Australia with that last-minute lose… though as they shouldn’t really have been there in the first place, it’s hard to feel too bad for them.

    Game of Thrones (Season 6 Episodes 1-4)
    Good luck to you if you’re not watching Game of Thrones but still trying to avoid spoilers this year, with the huge and widely-covered news that [REDACTED] was [REDACTED], or that [REDACTED] killed [REDACTED], or when [REDACTED] and [REDACTED] were [REDACTED] for the first time since [REDACTED], or when [REDACTED] was [REDACTED] but [REDACTED] the [REDACTED] and [REDACTED] of [REDACTED] in the process — even if more people seemed interested in discussing her [REDACTED]s.

    Trying not to add to the tumult of spoilers (just in case), I thought that The Red Woman was the now-standard GoT season opener (a mix of recapping/establishing where everyone is, and just beginning to shuffle those players around the board for their next moves) done as well as it’s ever been. Home was where the season really kicked into gear, though — quicker than some other years have managed, that’s for sure. One particular moment was much discussed, understandably, but events elsewhere — both in Westeros and Essos — would’ve been enough to excite interest without it. Oathbreaker engaged more with its flashbacks than its ‘present day’ actions, though another episode-ending scene at Castle Black reiterated the series’ warts-and-all vision of the world. Finally, Book of the Stranger was an immensely satisfying hour — the kind of thing Thrones allows us all too rarely, considering how often its heroes are crushed. Apparently the writers have said this is the year the series’ female characters finally begin to really ‘fight back’, and it would seem this episode is where it begins.

    Upstart Crow (Series 1 Episodes 1-2)
    I can’t remember the last time I saw a new multi-camera sitcom that wasn’t either, a) a bit meta (like Miranda or Mrs Brown’s Boys), or b) a revival (like Red Dwarf X). I don’t know if that says more about the current TV landscape or the kind of things I watch, but either way it surprised me when that was the form Upstart Crow took. It’s just one element that gives it the feel of Blackadder, which I don’t mean as a criticism. Even if it feels a little dated in its execution, there are plenty of laughs — some easy, some clever — and, really, what more do you want from a comedy than to laugh? It may not be up to Blackadder’s highest highs (yet — there’s still time; you never know), but I’d wager it stands fair comparison to the classic’s comparatively-lesser instalments… which I mean to be a less critical assessment than it sounds.

    Also watched…
  • The British Academy Television Awards 2016Wolf Hall director Peter Kosminsky’s barnstorming defence-of-the-BBC acceptance speech set the tone for the evening, which consequently was one of the best BAFTA ceremonies ever. The BBC broadcast had to cut some of his speech, no doubt out of fear of the government, but the full text can be read here.
  • The Flash Season 2 Episodes 15-19 / Arrow Season 4 Episodes 15-18 / DC’s Legends of Tomorrow Season 1 Episodes 6-9 — this is all getting a bit much now… and next year they’re probably adding Supergirl to the mix, as it’s moving to The CW too. I may have to give up on one or two of them at that point, I think.
  • Gilmore Girls Season 6 Episode 10-Season 7 Episode 7 — the much-maligned seventh season really is not good. I just want it to be over so I can switch to being excited for the Netflix revival.
  • Person of Interest Season 4 Episodes 16-22 — with the cancelled-after-filming final season underway in the US now, one of the showrunners was talking about how the series will nonetheless come to an ending, because they’ve tried to conclude every season with a suitable stopping point. I really, really hope they’ve done something different with season five, though, because the cliffhanger endings of seasons three and four would actually have been terrible places to end forever.

    Things to Catch Up On
    This month, I have mostly been missing the second run of The Hollow Crown, the BBC’s all-star adaptation of Shakespeare’s War of the Roses plays… though as I still haven’t got round to watching the first run from 2012, that’s no real surprise. In fact, Upstart Crow aside, I’ve not yet watched any of their still-running Shakespeare Festival, other highlights (so I’ve heard) of which have included the Shakespeare Live from the RSC celebration and spoof documentary Cunk on Shakespeare. There’s also Russell T Davies’ new version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which is on Monday 30th.

    Next month… as was just announced yesterday, AMC’s Preacher adaptation comes to the UK via Amazon.

  • The Falling (2014)

    2015 #141
    Carol Morley | 102 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | UK / English | 15

    Inspired by real events, The Falling stars Game of Thrones’s Maisie Williams as Lydia, a 1960s teen with an awkward home life who is a student at a repressive girls’ school. She’s best friends with the popular and charismatic Abbie (newcomer Florence Pugh, next to be seen as the lead in Lady Macbeth (which seems to have bugger all to do with Shakespeare)). When Lydia starts fainting for no apparent reason, it leads to a fainting epidemic at the school that no one can explain. Is it caused by illness? Fakery? Something psychological? Or possibly even some kind of dark magic?

    On Amazon Instant Video (where it’s available free to Prime subscribers from today), The Falling is billed as “a mesmerising psychological drama”, which isn’t too wide of the mark. However, presumably because of the prominent pentagram on the cover image there, all of the “customers also watched” recommendations are called things like The Exorcism of Molly Hartley, The Houses of Halloween, Haunt, Demonic, and Sinister House, or are other obviously-cheap-trashy-horror-looking films with less blatant names (like The Canal, Awaiting, and Robert (chilling!)). No wonder it has a low user rating if it’s a “psychological drama” being mainly watched by people who choose to pay to watch that kind of low-rent horror crap!

    The Falling is certainly not low-rent horror crap. Is it a horror movie? Not really — there are no monsters, no jump scares, none of the obvious tropes; but it does have a distinctly unnerving air a lot of the time, and there are definite references to and hints about some kind of mysticism playing a role. It’s often incredibly atmospheric, with some beautiful cinematography courtesy of DP Agnès Godard and effective editing by Chris Wyatt. Writer-director Carol Morley has kept the pace and tone slow, in an enchanting rather than ponderous fashion, but it’s a “not for everyone” pace nonetheless. For me, it only really lost its way as it moved into its final stages. Without wanting to spoil where it goes, in my opinion too much was explained, but at the same time it explained nothing.

    Indeed, I feel it might’ve fared better overall if it had stuck with the magical-realist / folk horror / olde-worlde magik styles it veers towards early on. But then Lydia says she’s a rationalist, and I suspect Morley is too, and so they well know that such things as spells and lay lines have no bearing on the real world. If one wants to present the possibility of a real-world explanation for the film’s events — and, as they were inspired by actual events, I presume Morley does — leaving things at “because magik” isn’t going to cut it.

    The immediately obvious explanation — certainly as far as the school’s teaching staff are concerned — is that the girls are faking for attention. One comment-review on a website asserts that “one of the central questions of the film is whether or not the girls were faking their illness,” before going on to outline how this could’ve been improved to make the film into an “entertaining thriller”. I think this is a prime example of reviewing what the reviewer expected or wanted rather than what they were given, because it didn’t seem to me that the issue of fakery was the “central question” here. Of course, that’s only my interpretation of the filmmaker’s intent, so no more or less valid than this other commenter’s; but I really don’t understand how you can watch The Falling and think it was anyone’s goal for this film to be considered an “entertaining thriller”. It’s simply not that kind of movie.

    An element I do think was at the forefront of consideration is sensuality and sexuality, which plays a large and significant part in the film. Pretty much any movie bar “bawdy high school comedies starring obvious twentysomethings” seems to veer away from schoolgirl sexuality these days, wary of inevitable “OMG u a pedo” reactions, I guess. Sexuality does not equal pornography, though; and, as I alluded, here it’s played out as much through a heightened, tactile sensuality. It does probably ‘help’ that it’s a film written and directed by a woman — it would carry a very different, more Lolita-ish air if it had been written or directed by a man. What exactly it’s saying with all this is arguably as mysterious as the cause of the fainting epidemic, but then it’s all tied together: teenage years are a period of sexual awakening, of course, and if you’re in an environment where nearly everyone is of the same gender, and where such things are massively repressed… well, how is it going to manifest itself? If “sex” is somehow the cause of the fainting, it’s not because sex is bad, it’s because there’s no other appropriate outlet for it.

    Or maybe that’s got nothing to do with it at all.

    A lot of this has to be carried on the shoulders of a relatively young cast, but all are capable. Maisie Williams is by far the best known of the girls, though viewers of Ripper Street will recognise Anna Burnett. She was good in the Victorian detective series, but she’s even better here. Williams gives a strong performance too, afforded the ability to show some range and variety from Arya Stark (unlike her appearance in the currently-airing Doctor Who two-parter-that-isn’t, for instance). There’s also a quality adult supporting cast, including the likes of Maxine Peake (in an initially quiet but ultimately key role), Greta Scacchi, and Monica Dolan, while Peaky Blinders’ Joe Cole acquits himself well in the subtly complex role of Lydia’s brother. Best of the lot, however, is Florence Pugh. Reportedly discovered when The Falling’s casting directors visited her school, you can see why she’s quickly been snapped up for a leading role. I wouldn’t be surprised if Hollywood come knocking looking to make her the next Kate Winslet/Keira Knightley/Gemma Arterton/etc “English rose”-type lead in some blockbuster or other.

    The Falling is an odd film, really; though in many respects that shouldn’t come as a surprise. Some will love it; many will despise it. Personally, I felt a lot worked very, very well, but the bits that didn’t, well, didn’t. For what it’s worth, I ranked it 3.5, aka 7, on sites that have half-stars or are out of ten. It would’ve been a solid 4 if not for those niggles, but equally they’re not so bad to drag it down to a 3. Some viewers seem to put the niggles aside entirely and push it up into the 4.5 or even 5 margin; for others it doesn’t work at all, dragging it down much lower. Everyone’s reaction to any film is completely subjective and personal, obviously, but this is the kind of film where it’s more true than others — you can’t pigeonhole it like you can a superhero actioner, or a rom-com, or, well, most movies, to be honest. It’s part high school coming-of-age drama, part supernatural thriller, part kitchen sink drama, part arthouse tone poem. How well that uncommon mix works is entirely down to the individual viewer’s personal predilections.

    For me, it’s the kind of film that, with time and subconscious reflection, I may come to remember more fondly and be keen to see again, or all but forget. It’s the kind of film I could, without even re-watching it, re-evaluate and want on my year-end top ten, or could see on my top ten contenders long-list come January 1st and wonder, “dear God, what was I thinking?!” It’s the kind of film I’m not sure I wholly liked, but I’m glad I’ve seen.

    4 out of 5

    As mentioned, The Falling is available on Amazon Prime Instant Video from today.

    Thor: The Dark World (2013)

    2014 #70
    Alan Taylor | 112 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    Thor: The Dark WorldThor was one of the best surprises of Marvel’s Phase One for me: they took a character I had no interest in, and if anything thought seemed like a silly idea (what’s a Norse God got to do with superheroes?), and produced one of the first wave’s most entertaining and accomplished movies. They followed this up by turning the widely-acclaimed Avengers Assemble team-up into Thor 2 in all but name: sure, there’s plenty for all the other sub-franchises’ characters to do, but the major villain and cosmic scope are much closer to the events of Thor than any of the other lead-in films.

    Cut to the real Thor 2, The Dark World, and there’s no small degree of expectation to live up to — not to mention that director Alan Taylor and the five credited writers (story by Don Payne and Robert Rodat, screenplay by Christopher L. Yost and Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely) are landed with the need to resolve plot threads left dangling by not one but two preceding films. What are the chances of them succeeding?

    Mixed, as it turns out. When it works, The Dark World is exciting, inventive, and often genuinely hilarious. Placing most of the movie’s biggest laughs during its climactic battle — which already features a thrilling conceit in and of itself — makes the ending one of the best action sequences in the entire Marvel movie canon. Sometimes that climax is a long time coming, though, with a story that has so many disparate elements to juggle, you can be certain some have got lost in the mix. There’s hints of a love triangle, which disappears almost as soon as it begins; the rules of Loki’s green-tinged cloaking-y-thing are never expounded upon, meaning it can be whipped out whenever a cheap twist is required — indeed, it’s ultimately used once or twice too often.

    Dark Who, Doctor ElvesGood will towards the participants counts for a lot, though. Tom Hiddleston’s Loki steals pretty much any scene he’s in, but Chris Hemsworth’s Thor is not an unlikeable hero, building further on the responsibility-and-honour story arc of the first film. Idris Elba also benefits from an expanded role, but others are less lucky: one of the Warriors Three is ditched as soon as we’re reacquainted with him; more criminally, Christopher Eccleston’s villain has nought to do but stomp around spouting exposition in a made-up language. Anyone could play that role, you don’t need an actor of Eccleston’s ability. Maybe something got cut (though it’s not in the Blu-ray’s deleted scenes), because I don’t see why else he’d’ve taken the part. Well, possibly the payday.

    At the helm, Taylor was a late-in-the-day replacement for Monster director Patty Jenkins. Previously best known for TV’s Game of Thrones (as well as episodes of pretty much every other major HBO series), thanks to Marvel Taylor is now a Major Motion Picture Director: his next project is the Terminator reboot/prequel/whatever. He steps up to feature film level well enough, though the much-heralded “more grounded” Asgard he was supposed to be providing is little shown: we see a pub and a training area, and other than that there’s too much going on to linger in the one-realm-to-rule-them-all. In fact, we get a better look at the film’s Stonehenge-and-sunny-London version of England, where if you get arrested at Stonehenge you’re locked up in London. Ah, American movies.

    Ooh, look at his hammerDespite the title, there’s much fun to be had with The Dark World. It can’t deliver on all of its aims — the equally-promised expansion of Thor and Jane’s relationship is equally sidelined — but there’s enough entertainment value to make it a worthwhile proposition. Perhaps the longer lead-in that the third film seems to be getting (there’s no announced slot for it among Marvel’s numerous future release dates, meaning it’s unlikely to arrive before 2017) will allow them to round everything out a little better.

    4 out of 5

    Thor: The Dark World is on Sky Movies Premiere from today at 4:15pm and 8pm.