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.

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  • The Past Month on TV #17

    My name is Annie. I’ve been with Laura and Dale. The good Dale is in the Lodge and he can’t leave. Write it in your diary.

    Doctor Who (Series 10 Episodes 2-5)
    Doctor Who, series 10 part 1This is shaping up to be a top-quality run of Who. You have to go back a good few years to find a similar-length run of consecutive episodes with the consistency this season is boasting. Obviously there are some divided opinions out there (as I’ve noted before, there is literally no pleasing all of Doctor Who fandom), but the consensus seems to be pretty positive.

    So, the past month’s episodes kicked off with Smile, which sees writer Frank Cottrell-Boyce return after the mediocre In the Forest of the Night for a much stronger adventure. It plays like Doctor Who meets Black Mirror: emoji-faced robots try to keep people happy by killing those who aren’t. The use of emojis was a neat reflection of current culture, the episode looked fantastic thanks to some stunning location filming, and the Doctor/Bill dynamic is constantly entertaining. It wasn’t perfect: any sense of mystery or investigation was shortchanged by the episode’s own pre-titles that gave the game away, and the denouement was a little muddled on some thematic points. Still, A for effort.

    Thin Ice brought to mind previous Whoniverse episodes (series five’s The Beast Below and Torchwood series two episode Meat), but there’s a long, rich history of self-plagiarism within Who so that’s hardly unprecedented. Besides, the devil’s in the details: here’s another evocative location well-realised by the production team, and writer Sarah Dollard keeps things spry — again, Bill’s attitude pays dividends. The structure of her learning something new about the Doctor every episode, and challenging some of his actions and reactions, and in turn him challenging her, is working very nicely.

    Knock knock. Who's there?The fourth episode, Knock Knock, by Doctor Foster’s Mike Bartlett, is my least favourite episode so far this series; but it’s not bad, just not all it could be. The horror-movie-styled first half was suitably atmospheric, and there was some great gruesome imagery, but the episode runs out of steam as it goes on, with a talky and hurried resolution provoking as many questions as it offers answers. Guest star David Suchet gives an expectedly strong performance, with some particularly nice notes after the truth about his past is revealed, even if that rushed finale ill serves his subtle transformation. It’s a shame it’s this episode that has the iPlayer-exclusive “binaural” version, because I’m curious about that process but in no rush to rewatch the episode itself.

    Finally, Jamie Mathieson — writer of some of the best episodes of Capaldi’s tenure — returns with Oxygen, another superb addition to his CV. At a base level the episode functions as a zombies-in-space thriller, but it’s powered by a cynically satirical setup, which leads to plenty of great one-liners. Clever plot developments allow for some effective sequences (the spacewalk seen from Bill’s semi-unconscious perspective) and some neat “how are they going to get out of that?” aspects to the episode’s climax — yes, we know Bill’s not going to die and the Doctor’s going to regain his sight, but the “how?” matters here.

    Of course, as things turn out, it’s not all as neat as expected, and we have a hook to draw us on into the middle of the season. If they can keep this up, it’ll definitely be worth sticking around for the pay-off.

    Twin Peaks (Season 2 Episodes 10-22)
    Twin Peaks season 2In the wake of the network-enforced resolution of the Laura Palmer storyline, Twin Peaks flounders. The writers clearly took a while to find a new footing, not helped by behind-the-scenes kerfuffles that led them to have to scrap entire prominent storylines (primarily, Kyle MacLachlan vetoed a Cooper-Audrey romance, reportedly because his then-girlfriend Lara Flynn Boyle was jealous of co-star Sherilyn Fenn). Utter phrases like “Super Nadine”, “Ben Horne wins the Civil War”, or (especially) “James Hurley on the road” to a Twin Peaks fan and you’re liable to give them a chill up the spine — and not the good kind.

    Ultimately, Twin Peaks’ second season is a lesson in what happens when you take your eye off the ball. David Lynch was away doing something else*, Mark Frost was also away setting up his directorial debut, and by the time they returned Peaks had been bumped to Saturdays (TV’s biggest night here in the UK, but a graveyard in the US), ratings had plummeted, and the writing was on the wall. The last few episodes represent a return to form, and the Lynch-helmed finale is nightmarish filmmaking of a kind you’d be surprised to see on TV even today, never mind in 1991, but it was all too little too late. Of the cliffhanger ending, Lynch has said: “that’s not the ending. That’s the ending that people were stuck with.” Hurrah for the imminent continuation, then, which will presumably wrap everything up… as much as Lynch ever does, anyhow.

    * “Making Wild at Heart,” people usually say, but that film was released a month before Peaks’ second season even began airing.

    Eurovision Song Contest: Kyiv 2017
    Eurovision 2017A dancing gorilla! A man singing a duet with himself! A rap/yodelling mash-up! A Moldovan trio who could apparently only dance with their right legs! A guy up a stepladder wearing a horse’s head in a slate-walled room covered with chalk-scrawled words that looked like it was straight out of a horror movie asylum! Måns Zelmerlöw again! All accompanied by Graham Norton on fine form with his biting, sassy commentary (“All her family play the fiddle. In fact, her brother will be fiddling with her on stage later.”) Oh Eurovision, never change.

    Also watched…
  • 24: Legacy Season 1 Episodes 9-12 — more of the same, and it ends with a pointless 12-hour time jump to justify it still being called 24. The US ratings were mediocre so a second season feels unlikely, but if it gets one I hope they find some writers with new ideas.
  • Car Share Series 2 — let’s take its hilarity as a given and get on to the serious point: you can’t end it there! Peter Kay has said they’re stopping because they don’t have ideas for more episodes, yet this is a show where they spend a good chunk of time talking about Christmas but has never done a Christmas episode. I mean, c’mon!
  • Jamestown Series 1 Episode 1 — Sky1’s recommissioned-before-it-aired drama about the first women in America looks lavish, though its plotting is fairly predictable and its dialogue is heavy-handed. Well, what else would you expect from the producers of Downton Abbey and writer of Lark Rise to Candleford?
  • Our Friend Victoria Episodes 1-6 — I don’t think there are many comedians who could sustain a three-hour greatest hits series, but Victoria Wood definitely can.

    Things to Catch Up On
    American Gods
    This month, I have mostly been missing American Gods, the critically-acclaimed adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s novel by Bryan “Hannibal” Fuller (which reminds me, I also really need to get round to Hannibal). American Gods is on Amazon Prime on this side of the pond, so it’ll also allow me to test out my new telly’s 4K capabilities. Shiny.

    3 days until new Twin Peaks

    Next month… it is happening again.