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.

  • Star Trek: Nemesis (2002)

    2010 #107
    Stuart Baird | 112 mins | TV (HD) | 12 / PG-13

    After the widespread disappointment with Insurrection, the ninth big screen outing for Star Trek, fans hoped the tenth, Nemesis, would mark a return to their old adage “even ones good, odd ones bad.” They had reasons to be hopeful: a new director, an Oscar-nominated screenwriter, and (potentially) the final outing for the beloved Next Generation crew. Surely they’d be given a fitting send-off?

    Sadly, it wasn’t to be: Nemesis was a critical and commercial flop, the only Trek not to open at #1 in the US, the lowest-grossing of the entire franchise. And quite rightly, because it isn’t very good.

    While Insurrection was accused of being dull because it was largely about a dispute over who got to live on a planet, the political side of that kept it engaging. Nemesis’s plot, on the other hand, just doesn’t go anywhere fast. Attempts to liven it up with some action sequences often come off as tacked-on asides, while discussions about just who Picard’s clone is and what he wants feel hollow — of course he’s a nasty piece of work, otherwise your film is completely villain-free!

    Picard’s clone is played not by Patrick Stewart, but by a shaved Tom Hardy. Yes, that Tom Hardy. We should be glad Nemesis didn’t kill off his career, which at the time consisted of small roles in Band of Brothers and Black Hawk Down but has gone on to acclaimed leads (or other significant parts) in TV such as Stuart: A Life Backwards, Oliver Twist and Wuthering Heights, and on the big screen in Bronson, Inception and (soon) The Dark Knight Rises and Mad Max 4. He’s not got much to work with here, Only the clonelythough the knowledge of better things to come means his presence somehow lifts his scenes a notch.

    The film ends with the most pointless heroic sacrifice I’ve seen for a while. OK, the well-loved character’s dead, but that identical clone — you know, the one they downloaded all the character’s memories into — is still hanging around. Give me strength.

    It’s a shame the Next Generation lot had to go out on such a duff note, their series of movies conforming more to the usual sequel pattern of diminishing returns (their first, First Contact, is highly praised, with the next two increasingly slated) than the original series crew’s good/bad alternation. Still, at least it cleared the way for what Trek probably needed more than anything: a good, clean, rebooting.

    2 out of 5

    Star Trek: Insurrection (1998)

    2010 #81
    Jonathan Frakes | 99 mins | TV (HD) | PG / PG

    Star Trek: InsurrectionMany years ago, back when both the shows I’m about to mention were still on the air, someone drew a comparison that I felt summed up the whole of ’90s/’00s Star Trek. The two series in question were Farscape and Star Trek: Voyager, both of which concern humans trapped far away from Earth with no feasible way home, and the comparison went something like this: if the crew were offered a way to jump straight to Earth in exchange for a crewmember’s limb, in Farscape they’d discuss it briefly, then hack the limb off, hand it over, and be betrayed, all before the opening titles; in Star Trek: Voyager, they’d sit around discussing it for the whole episode before deciding “better not” and going on their way. Hopefully the point makes itself.

    Insurrection seemed, apparently, the very personification of this idea. Rather than the broadly action-adventure style of First Contact, or other big contemporary sci-fi movies like Independence Day, The Fifth Element, Lost in Space, Armageddon, or even Star Wars Episode I — itself lamented (in part) for featuring too much discussion of trade blockades and whatnot — Insurrection concerns a minor dispute over a survey mission to a single planet. Yawn, right?

    Picard had accidentally added a 0 to his iPad orderActually, this is when Insurrection is at its best. Action-adventure undoubtedly has a place in science-fiction, but so do wordier stories — when they’re done right, and when they’re where you expect them to be. You shouldn’t expect them from Star Wars; you should from Star Trek. (That doesn’t make Voyager’s attitude better than Farscape’s, incidentally; not if it was boring or implausibly honourable considering their situation. But that isn’t the matter at hand.) And so the first 45 minutes or so are mostly enjoyable. Critics say even this isn’t as deep as The Next Generation on TV got in its prime, but having not seen much of that I can’t compare; as a film by itself, the disputes and political wrangling kept me engaged. But then it begins an attempt to be all Exciting, at which point it begins to get dull, degenerating into a stock runaround and shoot-out, only with some disappointingly cheap CGI here and there.

    Mad eyes; moodyThere’s a greater array of fan-pleasing nods and winks this time out. As with First Contact, they have to find an excuse to get Worf back on board (at the time, in universe continuity, he was on Deep Space 9 in Deep Space 9). Luckily little time is spent on this, but there are myriad references to DS9, the Dominion, the Borg, the Romulans — all of it irrelevant to the story at hand, all of it suggesting stuff was happening in the concurrent TV series that the filmmakers wanted fans to be sure they were aware of. Removed from that context by over a decade, and to a viewer not submersed in the Trek universe, it’s safe to say we don’t care. Elsewhere, Data gets a significant subplot — as per usual, then — and Picard gets a sort-of love interest. Perhaps it’s actually these bits the critics latched on to…

    Die PicardMost negative reviews — so, most reviews — accused the film of being essentially a TV episode (or two, of course), not earning itself a spot on the big screen. They may have a point. The subject matter isn’t at fault — a planet with the ability to make everyone live forever has suitably large potential — but the execution of it is frequently low-key. This isn’t too bad in the first half, which maintains the interest as it unfurls the story, but when it degenerates into action in the second half it falls apart. It’s no longer interesting and, ironically, looks made-for-TV, lacking inspired direction or suitable scope. Perhaps it would’ve been better served as a TV episode; or, as a film, better served by a writer and/or director and/or producer with greater vision.

    3 out of 5

    Film4 and Film4 HD are showing the first ten Star Trek films across Saturday 16th and Sunday 17th October. Insurrection is on at 9pm on Sunday.
    Star Trek: Insurrection is on Channel 4 today, Sunday 21st September 2014, at 3:30pm.