The Past Month on TV #55

It’s SF/F-agogo in this month’s TV update, with new Star Trek, new Doctor Who, old Twilight Zone, and I’ve finally finished His Dark Materials too.

Doctor Who  Series 12 Episodes 3-5
Doctor Who series 12Well, it certainly has been an eventful first half to this series of Doctor Who! Never mind bringing back the Master and destroying Gallifrey (again) in the opening two-parter — showrunner Chris Chibnall has much bigger continuity-bothering ideas on his mind. But before that, two standalone episodes.

The first, Orphan 55, is currently the worst-rated episode of modern Who according to IMDb voters, with a score almost as low as the much-maligned Game of Thrones finale. But whereas I defended that episode, unfortunately I have no love for Orphan 55. I know a lot of people’s issue with it is that it’s a bit of a climate change polemic — some people just hate Who engaging with contemporary ‘political’ issues. Sorry, but it’s been doing that since at least the Pertwee era. It’s normally a mite more subtle than this, though. I mean, The Happiness Patrol is a blatant analogy for Thatcher, but at least it’s an analogy. So Orphan 55’s problem isn’t the content, it’s the delivery: an on-the-nose lecture, practically delivered straight to camera, stapled on the end like an afterthought. But it doesn’t exactly ruin the episode, because the rest of it isn’t much cop either: a logically-dubious runaround with a shopworn twist (one that Doctor Who itself has done before, in fact). But is it actually worse than previous “most despised” editions, like Fear Her and Sleep No More? Um, actually, I think it might be.

Thankfully, the week after things swung back in the right direction. In previous years Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror would probably have been regarded as a solid midseason bit of fun, but in the current era it virtually amounts to a classic. There were undeniable overtones of the Racnoss in the creature design, and Vincent and the Doctor in its depiction of an unappreciated-in-his-time historical genius (I half expected them to take Tesla into the future to show him there was a car named after him), but plenty of Who is like other parts of Who (it is 57 years and 879 episodes old, after all, not to mention the uncountable spinoff novels, audio dramas, comic strips, etc). All in all, it was fun enough.

But the real belter was the most recent episode, Fugitive of the Judoon. It’s most impressive as a bit of show-running stagecraft: foregrounding a popular returning monster in the title and publicity (the Judoon, obv) in order to hide the long-awaited return of a popular character (Captain Jack), which was a big surprise that in itself is designed to distract you from the real twist: another incarnation of the Doctor, played by Jo Martin.The two Doctors Social media and fan forums and whatnot have debated and analysed that revelation to death, so I won’t bother digging too much into all the possibilities of what it means — only time can tell. I will stake out this opinion, though: I am not a fan of the theory that she’s a pre-Hartnell version of the Doctor. The idea there were incarnations before the one we know as the first has always seemed disrespectful to me, somehow. Yeah, the Daleks ‘made’ Doctor Who, but Hartnell gave it his all too — without him week to week, and the effort he put into public appearances and the like, would the series have survived those early years? He’s not the only thing responsible for its success, and certainly not for its longevity, but he was The First — leave that be, thanks.

But, as I say, we’ll find out in time. More interesting to me, for now, is how showrunner Chris Chibnall is going about his job nowadays. Comparing his two seasons so far, Chibnall’s attitude to reusing stuff from Who’s past seems to be — very literally — all or nothing. Last season, he made a point of not using any continuity — no returning characters or villains, no significant references to the Doctor’s past or previous adventures. This season, he seems to be using all the continuity. I can’t remember a Doctor Who story so loaded with references to not-recent previous adventures as this one. Even the Chameleon Arch gets an outing, a thing that mattered in two stories that aired 13 years ago. It feels like Chibnall is an RTD-era fanboy revelling in bringing back stuff from a time when the show was at its peak of popularity. Maybe that’s what it needs right now. Though, in a broader sense, I feel like last season was Chibnall trying to copy RTD-in-2005 (fresh! new! start watching here!), while this time he’s doing his best to be Moffat-in-2011 (complicated mysteries! revisionist continuity! wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey explanations!)

Whether these additions to the mythology are interesting and productive, or whether it’ll be like “half-human” and fans ignore it ASAP, will depend on what’s to come. Either way, it’s the most exciting the show’s been in a good few years, and that’s something in itself.

Star Trek: Picard  Season 1 Episode 1
Star Trek: Picard season 1The Star Trek series boldly goes where it’s never gone before: into the Prestige TV market. (Despite initial appearances, based on things like the reviews I’ve read and variably-sized season orders, I’m not sure Discovery was really “prestige TV” in the end.) Is it up to competing with the big boys of this peak TV era?

Well, after just the first episode, I’m going to hang fire on answering that — on the evidence of this one instalment, it could go either way. It can certainly walk the walk: it looks very nice, with plenty of lush cinematography and expensive visuals (both globe-hopping locations and swish CGI), and it certainly wants to appear weighty, with themes of ageing and decay (not only of people but also institutions). But can it talk the talk? Does it actually have things to say beyond “Picard is old now, and Starfleet’s a bit shit”? Once upon a time I’d’ve said the fact it’s heavily (heavily) embedded in existing Trek continuity was a barrier, both to entry (“only fans will know enough to follow the plot”) and quality (“it’s so busy looking to the past it doesn’t do anything new”) and acclaim (“I’m not a Trekkie so I didn’t care”) — but that’s not necessarily the case anymore, as HBO’s Watchmen only just proved: you can reuse and remix and lean hard on previous texts, and still produce a high-quality work. That said, while Picard does invest energy in making sure newbies have all the continuity stuff explained, I feel like the show already shows signs of wavering towards Trek’s usual habits, for good or ill. But there’s an interesting enough set of mysteries just getting underway, and it’s always great to see Patrick Stewart, so I remain optimistic it’s going to go somewhere good.

His Dark Materials  Series 1
His Dark Materials series 1I reviewed the first three episodes of His Dark Materials in my previous regular update, just over a month ago, but I’d actually watched them much earlier, so when I returned to the series in the new year I decided to restart from the beginning. That improved my opinion of them considerably, I must say, but then a second viewing always has the ability to help clarify things you were unclear of before. Still, I got much more invested this time, and was swept along for the ride and the mysteries the show unfurled. Like the two series I’ve reviewed above, there’s plenty of mystery and intrigue here — some of it answered, much of it left hanging for future seasons (there’s two whole books to come, intended to be adapted across four more seasons). But even in this first salvo, events and characters move in interesting directions. It’s a very dark show at times, especially for something adapted from what are ostensibly children’s books, but that at least creates a genuine sense of jeopardy and unpredictability. So too the way it handles its characters — there’s not just simplistic twists of “hero turns out to be villain” or vice versa, but definite shades of grey. With the promise of whole new worlds to come, I’m definitely excited to see what’s next.

Also, I bloody love the theme music now.

The Twilight Zone  ‘Best Of’
The Midnight SunIt’s been six months since I did one of my “best of The Twilight Zone” roundups, but I always intended to continue them, so here we are again.

Having already reviewed the top ten episodes as ranked by several different sources (IMDb voters, ScreenCrush, and Paste), I decided to resume my journey through the original Twilight Zone by producing an average of various different lists to identify which instalments are acclaimed by consensus (because that’s the kind of thing I do). To help broaden the range of opinions, I added a bunch of new lists to my calculations — namely, Ranker’s The Best Twilight Zone Episodes of All Time as sorted by voters; Buzzfeed’s Ranking Every Episode by Arianna Rebolini; TV Guide’s 50 Essential Episodes Ranked by Joal Ryan: and Thrillist’s The 50 Best Episodes by Scott Beggs.

This new average ranking gave me a fresh top ten with a couple of episodes I’d not seen. The first of those was in 9th place (also, for what it’s worth, it’s now in IMDb’s top ten too, having moved up from 11th to 8th since I last looked). That’s The Masks, which I think is one of the series’ best-paced episodes. I’ve found that even some of the greatest episodes can feel a little thin, with a singular concept that only just fills 25 minutes, but this one doesn’t overstay its welcome by a second — and yet it’s as simple and clear a concept as any. That’s perhaps when TZ is at its best: simple but effective concepts, cleanly executed. And there’s a moral lesson too, of course.

I was slightly less impressed by The After Hours, which finishes off the consensus top ten. It’s an effectively creepy edition for the most part, with some genuine scares, but for me it was slightly undermined by the final explanation, which I don’t think quite hangs together with what’s gone before. A definite case of “it’s about the journey not the destination”, then, because up ’til that point it’s superb.

Number 12 Looks Just Like YouMoving beyond the top ten to complete the top 10% (i.e. the 16 best episodes), next is Number 12 Looks Just Like You (which, by-the-by, comes 10th on Thrillist). This is what some people might call “proper sci-fi” — an idea of the future spun out of what’s possible in the present, using it to present an analogy for the times we live in. And what is the analogy? In this case, there’s a few things you can read into it: mental health; conformism; the transition from childhood to adulthood; maybe all of the above; maybe something else. The only real downside is the episode hints at a wider world that isn’t explored. It’s mentioned in passing that the writing of Shakespeare, Keats, and others has been banned. Why? By whom? And while a bunch of middle-class white people are choosing which generic model they want to look like, what about other races? Class is less of an immediate issue because it seems this is a government-backed thing that everyone must undergo — but then, why do the lower classes get to look just the same as their ‘betters’? Surely there’d be different models depending on your social station? Never mind a 25-minute episode, someone could spin an entire series out of this… Still, having so much to ponder is one mark of a very good episode.

The Midnight Sun is the penultimate episode in the top 16, and also is another one that’s 10th on one list, this time Ranker’s. I’d probably put it even higher — this is definitely one of my favourite episodes so far. It takes a massive world-altering event and shows it to us from the point of view of two ordinary women; and not even from when the event happens or is discovered, but from a month into the new status quo, when it’s become a fact of life rather than some revelation. It’s a different way to approach such a story even today, and it works all the more for it. And, of course, there’s a twist (spoiler to come!) — one of the very, very few times “it was just a dream” works.

Robert Redford invites you to The Twilight ZoneFinally for now, the last episode in the top 16 (and the only one of today’s episodes not in anyone’s top ten), Nothing in the Dark. Probably best known for staring a young Robert Redford, it’s about an old woman who’s paranoid and agoraphobic due to her fear of meeting Death; but when Redford’s cop is shot right outside her door, she has to let him in to save his life. It’s a nice idea for a story, but (to loop back to what I was saying about The Masks) it feels a little slight in the execution. Half of the second act is taken up in a diversion with a demolition guy which is just that, a diversion. Still, there are very good performances from the two leads, and it comes with a well-meant little message by the end.

Also watched…
  • The Goes Wrong Show Series 1 Episodes 3-5 — I love this show with all my heart. Episode 3 was perhaps the best yet (even the title, A Trial to Watch, is a gag). So this is a friendly reminder that the series so far is available on iPlayer and the sixth (and final, *sob*) episode is on tonight.
  • The Great British Bake Off Series 1 Episodes 1-3 — I joined Bake Off before it was an all-encompassing phenomenon, with series two. So I’ve always meant to go back and see the one season I’d missed, especially since the whole lot became available on Netflix. It’s funny watching it now, though, because so much of it is familiar as Bake Off, but it’s early days and it’s unrefined. It’s a bit like watching a version of the show made by someone who pretty much remembers how it works but not exactly.
  • Star Trek: The Next Generation — I’ve never seen all of TNG (far from it), so as Picard is expected to be heavily indebted to existing continuity, I sought out a few likely-to-be-relevant episodes. The first was season 5 episode 23, I Borg, which is regarded as one of the series’ very best, and deservedly so. The other was the season 6 finale / season 7 premiere, a two-parter called Descent, which I guess was decent. There’s some good stuff in the first half about Data dealing with the possibility of experiencing emotion, but the second half is a bit too pulpy in a way I’m not sure fits Trek (or at least my idea of it). If any Trekkies reading this have other episodes they’d recommend (for relevance to Picard, not just because they’re good), I’m open to suggestions.
  • Twin Peaks in UHD — The recently-released Twin Peaks: From Z to A box set includes a bonus disc with two episodes in 4K Ultra HD. Yeah, just two. Why they didn’t do the full series, who knows. Expense, I guess. Some people reckon this is testing the waters for a full-series UHD release, but I dunno — considering they’ve already released the whole series on individual season DVDs, then a complete box set DVD, then Blu-ray, now a collector’s edition Blu-ray, do they think they’ll manage to sell it to people again? Sure, there’ll be some customers, but enough? Anyway, the two episodes here are the original pilot and season 3 / A Limited Event Series / The Return (whatever you want to call it) Part 8. The latter looked pretty great, even without HDR enhancement; the former… I’m counting as a movie, so will write about in January’s Rewatchathon segment.

    Things to Catch Up On
    Good OmensThis month, I have mostly been missing Good Omens… again! I didn’t get round to it on Prime Video when it premiered last May, and now it’s airing weekly on BBC Two but I still haven’t started it. I read the book as a kid and absolutely loved it (for a very long time I would’ve said it was my favourite novel), so when they announced a miniseries adaptation I was excited — especially as it was being managed by Neil Gaiman himself and starred a bunch of my favourite actors, not least Michael Sheen and David Tennant in the lead roles. That’s almost the problem: I want to watch it properly; I can’t just bung it on. Maybe I’ll get to it before next month’s column.

    Also missed: The Trial of Christine Keeler (I hear it got pretty good, but only after a couple of episodes); White House Farm (I’m interested in the case, but apparently the series is overly slow and long-winded); Deadwater Fell (David Tennant again); and probably a tonne of other stuff that’s slipped my mind for the moment…

    Next month… more Doctor Who, more Picard, more Twilight Zone. As for new stuff, Locke & Key finally makes it to the screen via Netflix… but that’s about all I can foresee for now. Maybe I will finally do Good Omens

    P.S. If you’re an attentive regular reader who’s thinking, “hold on, did I miss #53 and #54?”, the answer is no, you didn’t — the mistake is mine. A whole year ago, I forgot to count the 2018 Christmas post towards the numbering, which is the way I’d previously done things, so I am belatedly correcting for it by ‘hiding’ the jump alongside the one for 2019’s Christmas post. If you think that’s terribly confusing, just remember: it doesn’t really matter anyway.

  • The Past Months on TV #52

    I didn’t post a TV column again last month, so this roundup is thoroughly overdue. So before the Christmas TV season gets properly underway (it kind of already has, but shh), here’s my final regular TV review for 2019. (I still intend to post my usual Christmas-TV-focused one at some point.)

    His Dark Materials  Series 1 Episodes 1-3
    His Dark Materials series 1If I’d posted this column on time, this series would’ve just been getting underway. As it is, the final episode airs tonight. And, obviously, I’m quite far behind. I do intend to catch up, but I’m not entirely sure what I make of it.

    Philip Pullman’s novels are acclaimed and beloved, of course; there’s a starry and talented cast, naturally; the production values are sky high; there are plentiful interesting ideas and threads to be explored… but the execution is a tad confusing, offering little quarter to those of us who are pretty new to this world (I have seen the film, but that made significant changes) and need it explaining to them — well, aside from a text prologue that feels like it was a late addition when someone realised they hadn’t explained things particularly clearly for newcomers. Even if you get a handle on it all, though, it feels like there’s an indefinable spark missing that would really bring it all to life as an engrossing drama.

    Or maybe I’m just expecting too much — this has been a long time coming, with an attendant amount of hype. Perhaps it’ll all cohere as it goes on. As I said, I do intend to stick with it to find out, but I don’t feel it hit the ground running in quite the way I’d hoped.

    Watchmen  Season 1 Episodes 2-9
    Cause for celebrationWhen I reviewed the premiere episode of this last time, I said “there’s a lot of promise and potential here.” Well, reader, I do believe the series lived up to that and then some — it just got better as it went along, with a lot of the very best stuff coming in the final third.

    Last time I also wrote about how it was both a sequel and a so-called ‘remix’ of the original novel, and that only became more apparent as the season went on. For the former, there’s no denying this is a follow-up to the book — it explicitly references and builds out of events and characters from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s original work. But it also takes a lot of the iconography, themes, and storytelling devices from the book and rearranges them to help support its own narrative. That kinda makes it sound like just a remake, but that undervalues it — creator Damon Lindelof and his team of writers have brought a lot of other ideas to the table too, mixing those with what’s taken from the book to make a work that is new. So, whereas a traditional sequel would just be “the next adventure of the same characters”, maybe this is more of a companion piece. Whatever you want to call it, I think it’s a worthy addition. But it’s definitely an addition — I dread to think how this plays if you haven’t read the book.

    And just like the book, there’s an awful lot more that could be written about what this series has to say and how it says it. I’ll leave that to others — there’s plenty of writing out there about it already. Some of that is a bit clickbaity (well, when isn’t stuff nowadays?), in particular with reference to the ending, which some sites have taken to calling a “cliffhanger”. It isn’t. Indeed, there may not even be a season two — not because HBO don’t want one, but because Lindelof doesn’t necessarily have a story to tell. It’s admirable that they’re not forcing it to happen just because season one has been a success (learning their lesson from True Detective, I suspect), but I also hope Lindelof does alight on an idea for more — if it can equal this, it would certainly be worth seeing.

    Indeed, some commentators have been calling Watchmen a late entry for best TV series of the decade, or even one of the very best TV series of all time. Well, I don’t know about that, but it is very good — certainly better than it has any right to be, considering its provenance. That’s an achievement not to be undervalued.

    World on Fire  Series 1 Episodes 3-7
    World on FireThis is good enough that it probably would’ve been A Major Series if it had been made 15 to 20 years ago; heck, maybe even 10 years ago. Today… well, as my previous comment implies, it just doesn’t feel slick enough in the modern TV landscape. It has its plus points (the recreation of Dunkirk was suitably epic, at least compared to the low-key-ish earlier episodes, and Lesley Manville is always magnificent), and it’s done well enough to get recommissioned (thank goodness, because the finale left a tonne of stuff dangling as if it was a midseason episode), but I’ll be surprised if it ends up in the zeitgeist in the manner of, say, Downton Abbey. (Brief thoughts on episodes 1 and 2 last month.)

    Shetland  Series 5
    Shetland series 5This ITV-produced BBC-aired crime drama is so popular that they recently recommissioned it for both a sixth and seventh series. Originally it took the form of two-parters adapted from novels, but for the past few series they’ve done original season-long six-episode storylines. For this run, the gang find themselves up against human traffickers, using Shetland as a waypoint to get slaves into the UK. Overall it’s not as engrossing or remarkable a story as the ones told in the last two series, but it remains a more-than-solid cop show bolstered by a likeable regular cast. That double series recommission is welcome news.

    Also watched…
  • Comedians Giving Lectures Series 1 — Dave’s latest comedy concept is to give comedians the titles of real scientific lectures and have them deliver their own version, judged by an actual expert and a studio audience. Some go for all-out laughs, some actually deliver surprisingly decent lectures with gags thrown in. As with all mixed-bill standup, the overall result is variable depending on the skill of the performers, but it’s a nice little format.
  • Death on the Tyne — Comedy murder mystery sequel to Murder on the Blackpool Express, which aired back in 2018 but I’ve only just got round to watching (because they’ve recently aired a third). My review of Blackpool Express sounds quite dismissive, but I did enjoy it overall. Sadly, this follow-up is quite a bit worse. I’ll still watch the third one, though it may yet take me another year to get round to it…
  • Doctor Who Series 12 Trailers — At the risk of getting ahead of ourselves, the new series of Who looks like an attempt to move away from the slower-paced, kinda-serious Series 11 and back into the action-packed monster-stuffed fun that made the show a hit on its return in 2005 (almost 15 years ago now! Jeez…) It begins with a Bond-parodying two-parter in the new year.
  • The Great Model Railway Challenge Series 2 — A fabulously nerdy show. As this is a film blog, I have to recommend the second semi-final (episode 7), in which the teams created magnificent layouts based on Jurassic Park, Harry Potter, and James Bond.
  • There’s Something About Movies Series 1 — This Sky comedy panel show about (you guessed it) movies passed me by when it was on back in April, only coming to my attention by coincidence when the second series started. Unsurprisingly, it’s daft and aimed at general audiences — nothing special for avowed film buffs.
  • World’s Most Scenic Railway Journeys Series 1 Episodes 3 — No offence to the featured people of New Zealand, who all seem thoroughly lovely and likeable, but this travel doc kind of plays like a Taika Waititi mockumentary.

    Things to Catch Up On
    Jack Ryan season 2This month, I have mostly been missing Jack Ryan season 2 — perhaps not the most high-profile show I could mention here (it’s on Amazon Prime, which never gets the same buzz as Netflix, however hard they try), but I enjoyed the first series a lot so I really do want to make time for this. Speaking of Netflix, they’ve just released The Witcher, which they clearly hope is going to do for fantasy what, er, Game of Thrones did for fantasy — i.e. be a much-talked-about series that brings big ratings. They’re pushing it hard, which for a company that claims to only use word of mouth and let the cream of their output rise naturally… well, it certainly suggests it cost a pretty penny. One show that has generated plenty of word-of-mouth self-promotion is The Mandalorian. Okay, it’s a Disney-produced Star Wars spinoff, it hardly needs the help, but you can’t’ve missed everyone going on about Baby Yoda. It’s not out on this side of the pond until Disney+ launches in the UK on March 31st, but where there’s a will there’s a way… And that’s without mentioning the BBC’s new War of the Worlds (which was poorly received but, as a sci-fi fan, I still feel compelled to watch); or thriller Giri/Haji (which was well-reviewed and sounds right up my street); or… oh, loads of stuff!

    Next month… Diddily-dum diddly-dum diddly-dum ooo-weee-ooo, it’s Doctor Who.