The Past Christmas on TV

Continuing the spirit of publishing things about ten days late, here’s my Christmas TV review, about ten days after the season ended. (And if you’re thinking, “um, Christmas was 18 days ago,” well, the TV ‘Christmas’ season goes on until at least January 1st here, so there.)

Santa Goes Wrong
Here’s Santa to rekindle your festive spirit.
With alcohol.

This is now my fourth annual Christmas TV post, would you believe. I still feel like TV reviews are a fairly recent addition to this blog, but nope, it’s been four years. And this is, in a way, a vintage year, what with the Gavin & Stacey revival becoming the most-watched Christmas Day broadcast in something like 17 years; and, even more impressively, it was the only scripted programme to make the top ten TV broadcasts of the decade (the rest going to sporting events and one random episode of The X Factor).

As for whether it was any good, and what I thought of other stuff that was on… well, read on…

Doctor Who  Spyfall
Doctor Who: SpyfallFor the first time in 14 years, since the series returned, there was no Doctor Who Christmas/New Year special. Gasp! At least we got the first episodes of a new series, though — two slightly-longer-than-normal instalments (at 60 minutes each, which doesn’t feel that special when regular episodes are 50 minutes now). And a two-parter, too — the first of those since 2017. And a big two-parter at that, with big-name guest stars and big action sequences and big overseas locations.

Yep, this is Doctor Who with a bang — a marked contrast to last series, which mostly went for understated. Well, as understated as modern Doctor Who gets, anyway. But whereas series 11 had no two parters and no returning monsters and, as I say, a markedly calmer pace and tone, series 12 begins with the antithesis of all of that. In case you’ve not seen it I shan’t spoil the end-of-part-one reveal, which was a massive delight that I did not see coming (I guess someone learnt a lesson from last time that villain returned, when the production team basically spoiled it themselves before anyone else could). That was the highlight of an episode that moved at a mile a minute, not pausing to let you consider the logic of what was going on (which, yeah, was not faultless). But while it may not have been perfect, I’m glad to see a return for this fun, exciting version of the show. I didn’t find series 11 a total washout (I think my reviews as it was airing were mostly positive, even), but overall I felt like something wasn’t quite working.

Well, let’s be honest, what wasn’t working is showrunner Chris Chibnall. His episodes under previous showrunners Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat were never the very best (and I say that as someone who likes them more than most), but without their oversight to guide him, he seemed a bit lost. He’s a long-time fanboy of the show (somewhat famously, he appeared on a viewer feedback show in the ’80s to slag off the quality of the writing), and at times last series it felt like he was writing for the show as he’d loved it as a kid (that is to say, a bit slow-paced and old-fashioned). Now, possibly taking some of the criticism on board (or possibly just trying to mix it up), he’s attempting to emulate the whoosh-bang blockbuster-but-quirky style of RTD and Moffat. What he can’t grasp is their effortless-seeming slickness — when they rushed over something it was usually because “it makes sense if you think about it”, whereas Chibnall is trying to cover a logic gap; conversely, when there’s no gap to be hidden, he has characters mercilessly over-explain everything, I guess for the sake of anyone who’s just walked in.

So, not perfect, but I thought Part 1 was a blast nonetheless. Sadly, I was much less enamoured with Part 2 — a virtually nonsensical runaround through time, which didn’t seem to know what to do with everything that had been put in play, just throwing “more” at us until the Doctor basically said “time for the story to end now”, and so the baddies disappeared and that was that. Apart from an epilogue, which was quite intriguing — and dove head first into full-on mythology territory, something the series studiously avoided last year. Whether Chibnall’s got anywhere good to go with what he’s teasing, God only knows (I fear not, based on the evidence), but it’s a welcome bit of business that will hopefully jazz up the season to come.

Gavin & Stacey  A Special Christmas
Gavin & Stacey: A Special ChristmasI won’t recap Gavin & Stacey’s ratings success (what with already having mentioned it at the start), nor will I touch on the controversy around its use of Fairytale of New York (I kind of get why people complained, but also, the song is the song). As for the episode itself, well, I thought it was masterful. It may be nine years since the last episode, but it was like they hadn’t been away. Not that they tried to ignore the passage of time — clearly, the best part of a decade had passed in the characters’ lives, and naturally changes had come with that — but the characters and performances felt true to their old selves, as if they’d never stopped playing them, with the rhythms and comedic style of the show fully intact. Some decade-later revivals feel like new shows — the writers have forgotten how to write it properly; the cast have forgotten how to play it right — but not this one. This was bang on what it should be. Tidy.

Dracula
Dracula“From the makers of Sherlock”, declared the publicity for this new adaptation of the Victorian novel — so you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a present-day reimagining. But it wasn’t. Well, until it was.

This new Dracula is very much a tale of three parts, and not just because it was in three 90-minute episodes. While undoubtedly a serial, each episode was almost a standalone instalment, which was a structural trick I quite liked — it doesn’t feel like you’re watching one four-and-a-half-hour work broken into three by the necessities of the schedule, but rather three separate-but-connected works. And I really, really liked the first two.

The Rules of the Beast is what you most expect of Dracula: a spooky Transylvanian castle; “I don’t drink… wine”; mild little Englishman Jonathan Harker discovering terrible secrets… Of course, writers Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss didn’t shy away from bringing a few affectations and twists to the piece, but I thought they all worked well. Claes Bang makes for a fantastic Dracula (a comment that holds true throughout the series), the rest of the cast were very good as well, and there were some proper horror bits — this adaptation was not, ahem, toothless.

The second instalment, Blood Vessel, dealt with Dracula’s voyage to England aboard the Demeter — a part usually more or less glossed over in other adaptations, as far as I know. But here Moffat and Gatiss spin it out into a full 90-minutes, kind of like a slasher movie set in a confined location, albeit we know whodunnit — so, naturally, there are other twists to be found. Again, I liked this a lot — the way it felt respectful to the source while also expanding and refreshing it; the interesting supporting cast; some very impressive production work (they built the entire ship on a soundstage!)

Then we get to episode three, The Dark Compass. There’s no way to talk about what happens here without spoiling it, so if you haven’t watched the series yet and are intending to, look away now. If you have watched it, you’ll know this episode jumps the action forward 123 years to 2020. And you also probably hated it, because it seems almost everyone did. My feelings were slightly more nuanced. In my opinion, its biggest mistake is that it’s a completely different show. Sure, we still have Claes Bang playing Dracula (and he’s still excellent), and we still have Moffat and Gatiss’s recognisable stylings in the dialogue and whatnot, but the entire setup has shifted. Judged in isolation, as a present-day-set reworking of the Dracula story as told in the novel, I don’t think it’s that bad. Maybe it’s a tad too cheesy (the scenes in nightclubs and whatnot do have a feel of “how do you do, fellow kids”), but it’s workable as a modern-day adaptation of the character and plot. The problem, as I say, comes from placing it as part of a whole alongside the reenvisioned-but-fundamentally-faithful adaptation we got in the first two episodes. In doing so, Moffat and Gatiss undermine the whole enterprise — it robs the first two-thirds of a fitting finale; and, by being so radically different to the style we’ve spent three hours getting used to, it doesn’t give itself a fair shake either.

And so many have judged the overall result to be a failure. Personally, I enjoyed enough of it that I was still entertained, but if they’d given us a ‘proper’ third episode to round it out then I think I may’ve loved it.

The Goes Wrong Show  Series 1 Episodes 1-2
The Goes Wrong Show - The Pilot (Not the Pilot)Oh my, what a treat! Regular readers will remember how much I loved Peter Pan Goes Wrong at Christmas 2016 (“the best thing that was on TV during the festive season”) and its 2017 followup, A Christmas Carol Goes Wrong. When the gang missed Christmas 2018 I feared we wouldn’t be getting any more, possibly thanks to the negative-nelly reception in some quarters. But oh no, for 2019 they’re back with a vengeance: not a one-off hour, but a whole series of half-hour Plays Gone Wrong. Reader, I am cock-a-hoop with delight!

The first episode was another Christmas special; the second a historically-inaccurate WW2 thriller (set in 1961); the third aired on Friday but I’m currently saving it. It’s a half-hour parade of utter silliness — slapstick, wordplay, entirely predictable tomfoolery… but sometimes the total predictability of what’s about to go wrong is part of the fun (episode one begins with a blatant setup for a joke that isn’t paid off until the very end of the episode). And it’s exactly the kind of thing the whole family can watch and enjoy, whether you’re 6 or 66. I genuinely can’t remember the last time I was driven to tears of laughter. Actually, I can — it was Peter Pan Goes Wrong. Long live the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society!

Also watched…

A mix of Christmas scheduling and non-Christmas stuff we just happened to catch up on.

  • Criminal: United Kingdom Season 1 — Netflix’s high-concept cop show wasn’t quite as classy as the publicity would have you believe (it still indulged in the old staples of office politics, breaking from the tension of the interrogation to faff around with romance subplots and whatnot), but the guest stars still gave it their all — I don’t think I’ve ever seen Hayley Atwell like that before, and David Tennant was superb as always. Good enough that I’ll check out some of the international versions.
  • In Search of Dracula with Mark Gatiss — This felt like it was planned as a promo for the BBC’s new Dracula, but aired after it. Weird. Anyway, Gatiss has fronted several great documentaries on horror before, and while this wasn’t quite in their league (the others are exceptionally good) it was still a solid and interesting look at the history of the Count. And it made me want to see a load of previous Dracula films, which I always think is the mark of a good movie documentary.
  • Miranda My Such Fun Celebration — I know the sitcom Miranda wasn’t to everyone’s taste, but I loved it, as did lots of others, hence this one-off special to mark its tenth anniversary. It’s a bit of an oddity — a mix of cast reunions, sketches, clip montages, and song and dance. Yes, song and dance. It was well-meaning but, well, I found it a little strange. But for those people whose lives have been positively impacted by the series (and, genuinely, hurrah to it and them for that), I’m sure it was a delight.
  • Vienna Blood Series 1 — A new crime series from “that other guy who wrote some episodes of Sherlock”, this adaptation of a series of novels set in Vienna c.1907 did feel a bit like Sherlock Lite, with its Freud-influenced genius consulting detective and some stylish visuals. But it lacked the innovation that marked out Sherlock, especially in its early days. You can tell this has half an eye on being an easy sell to international markets, able to sit comfortably alongside all the other 90-minute crime dramas the UK TV industry churns out. So, it was a bit predictable and formulaic, but decently done and reasonably entertaining. This Guardian article echoes my feelings on it pretty well.

    Things to Catch Up On
    A Christmas CarolThis month, I have mostly been missing the BBC’s new adaptation of A Christmas Carol, written by Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight. I know it went down with some degree of controversy, but its revisionist, horror-tinged style looked right up my alley. Unfortunately, it was stripped over three nights, and because I knew I was going to be away for the third evening I didn’t start it. By the point I had enough time to make room for it, it was so long after Christmas that I wasn’t sure it was appropriate. Now, it’s January 12th and it’s definitely too late. Guess I’ll have to try to remember to watch it next year, then.

    Next month… it’s a new year, so I’m sure there must be plenty of new TV. Although I kind of hope not, because I’ve still got tonnes and tonnes from last year to catch up on.

  • The Past Month on TV #7

    Oh sure, some people can run and jump and swim and stuff really, really well — but can they sit on the sofa and watch TV as well as me, hm?

    The Americans (Season 4)
    The AmericansAs much as I love Game of Thrones, and think season six’s final two instalments were some of the best TV episodes of this or any other year, I think the people who say The Americans is currently the best drama on TV may well be right. Even the Emmys have got on board, giving it some long-overdue nods in big categories.

    I’m not sure season four contains a single hour I can point at to say “here is where it beats Thrones”, but then that exemplifies The Americans: it’s all about how things build over time; the eventual consequences of long-term events, and the consequences of those consequences, and the consequences of… you get the idea. That was how I first got into the show: watching the first season, I thought it was good, an entertaining spy thriller, watchable enough. It was only after the finale that I realised how great it had all been and that I actually loved it. Season two is even more of a case of this: at times it feels like the show has lost its way, and then the finale comes along and shows you the endgame and suddenly the whole year makes sense. And seasons three and four have only upped the ante from there.

    This season really nails all the things the show does best. The central espionage storyline about chemical weapons could be a painfully obvious metaphor for the whole premise of the show, but that element isn’t overplayed. Themes of home and family, and the ever-present issues of loyalty, are examined from every angle and in every storyline. There are huge (huge) twists and changes to the series’ status quo, which is a bold move in a fourth season when there are two still to go — to leave behind characters and storylines that have helped fuel the series for so long, when there’s an endgame in sight (and it’s not that close) is kinda bold. And the season finale is a real kicker, with powerful performances and drama, and an ending which is strikingly unresolved… though, at the same time, if the show had been cancelled it’d be pretty resolved (that’s a bizarre, Schrödinger-y thing unto itself).

    With the end now in sight, I don’t have the foggiest how the creators are going to choose to wrap things up (in two years and 23 episodes’ time), which is exciting in itself — how many shows genuinely feel like they could go for any option from a number of different endings, assuming they even get to end on their own terms in the first place?

    Speaking of which…

    Person of Interest (Season 5 Episodes 5-13)
    Person of InterestWatching this, it’s difficult to imagine anyone involved really believed they would get a sixth season — which is good, because (a) they stood very little chance, and (b) that means it wraps everything up to a nice, proper ending. My feelings on Jonah “brother of Christopher” Nolan’s cyber-thriller have oscillated over the years, and I’m a long way from agreeing with those who assert it’s actually one of the best sci-fi series ever; but for a show that started out as a fairly standard CBS procedural thriller, it did ultimately manage to play with and work around the network’s expectations to produce something superior. It’s a shame they clearly had to rush the final arc (marred further by having to hit a quota of ‘case of the week’ episodes, for some reason), but it still got to a good place. If you’ve not watched it but are interested, consider finding one of those “episodes you should definitely watch” guides (like this one) rather than committing to all 103 filler-riddled instalments.

    Preacher (Season 1 Episodes 6-10)
    PreacherIn the end, this turned out to be less of a TV prequel to the comic book series than an expanded and rejigged adaptation of the comic’s opening four-issue story arc (with some stuff from later thrown in for added fuel). As Seth Rogen explained on the post-finale chat show Talking Preacher, the books throw an awful lot of quite comic-book-y ideas at you very quickly, and TV viewers maybe needed a little longer to digest all of that. Plus extra space to develop and examine the characters, of course. It’ll be interesting to see how future seasons handle the issue of adaptation. By the end of season one, the characters are in a place to launch into something closer to the rest of the comic; but, at the same time, budget issues have already forced some reimagining, so what else will it be forced to compromise or reinvent? I think the bold, fearless barminess of the TV series has earned it the right to our attention, whether it goes further off piste or hews closer still to its roots.

    Also watched…
  • Cowboy Bebop Episodes 19-20 — slowly slowly reachy movie
  • Friday Night Dinner Series 4 Episodes 1-3 — an underrated gem of British comedy. Each episode is a perfectly-crafted little farce performed by a stellar cast.
  • Gilmore Girls Season 7 Episodes 21-22 — after a mostly lacklustre season, it wasn’t a bad finale all told. Still, November’s revival will hopefully be even better.
  • Miranda Series 1 Episode 1-Series 3 Episode 2 — starting (and almost finishing) a completeroni what I call re-watch. Such fun!
  • The Musketeers Series 2 Episodes 1-3 — if you like swashbuckling drama (and I do), this is a real gem. Shame on me for being so tardy about keeping up with it.

    Things to Catch Up On
    Max WhitlockThis month, I have mostly been missing… not that much, really. With the Olympics dominating the good TV channels and much of US drama on its summer hols, there doesn’t seem to have been much on. I haven’t gone crazy for Rio 2016 like I did for London 2012 (much to my surprise at the time, that was), though we’ve caught bits and pieces, not least Max Whitlock’s double gold (along with 10.4 million other people) and Andy Murray’s gruelling final. The drama of the next few days, when we’ll see if Britain can become the first host country ever to increase its tally at the next summer games, is sure to hold my attention.

    Next month… with its spin-off on the horizon, I’m finally getting round to 24: Live Another Day. Also, Bake Off’s back! Who doesn’t love Bake Off?