The Past Trisennight on TV #19

Although I only post my TV overviews once a month, I’m always looking ahead to what’s going to be included in them. That’s what made me realise edition #19, scheduled for July 20th, was going to be insanely busy: new episodes of Doctor Who, Game of Thrones, Preacher, Twin Peaks, and the entire latest season of The Americans — all things I typically review ‘in full’. Whew! So I’ve brought #19 forward a bit, and #20 will be in a fortnight anyway.

So, here’s what I’ve been watching in the past month three weeks (aka trisennight, a word that Google finds two other uses of ever. Cool.)

Doctor Who  Series 10 Episodes 10-12
The Eaters of LightHistory was made left, right and centre in the last three episodes of Doctor Who’s 36th-ever season. For starters, The Eaters of Light marked the first time someone who wrote for the classic series has written for the revived one. Rona Munro penned the last story of old Who, Survival, a personal favourite of mine and one that, stylistically and tonally, connects remarkably well with the first episode of nuWho, Rose, which is quite the coincidence. Anyway, The Eaters of Light was a solid episode with some very likeable parts, but it didn’t seem to quite gel entirely in the final mix. That’s been a recurring theme for the middle of this season, I feel, with every episode since Knock Knock featuring quality ideas and/or characters and/or scenes that aren’t fully developed into a final whole. Nonetheless, I’d certainly welcome Munro returning again in the future, but who knows what Chris Chibnall has planned.

And then we come to the two-part finale, written (of course) by departing showrunner Steven Moffat. The duology, which sadly is called neither Genesis of the Cybermen nor The Two Masters, continues his previously-stated aim of creating two-parters where each half is a distinctly different episode. The first part, World Enough and Time, is an immediate contender for an all-time great episode of the show. There’s a superb real-science setup with the time-dilated spaceship, plus a suitably eerie hospital in which we ‘unknowingly’ witness the birth of the Cybermen — my favourite Who monster, so perhaps I am a little biased.

World Enough and TimeI put “unknowingly” in inverted commas there because that’s the episode’s biggest problem: thanks to the show’s own promotion, we knew the Cybermen were coming back, and we knew John Simm was returning as the Master. In truth, the former isn’t a problem. Sure, the existence of the Cybermen is played as something of a reveal at the end, but it also works as ‘just’ the reveal that Bill has been converted, and there’s dramatic irony in the viewer knowing what those cloth-headed patients are destined to become. The Master spoiler is more of a problem. The prosthetics turning Simm into Razor are impressive, and even fooled some people who knew he was back… for a bit. I’m sure most people must’ve guessed before the episode ended. It therefore becomes a distraction: what’s his plan? When will he reveal himself? And when the big reveal does come, it’s played as a twist, which it isn’t because we were told about Simm three months ago. Moffat has said before that it was entirely his decision to put Simm in the trailer, and it’s clear it was a misstep. Not a fatal one — World Enough and Time is strong enough to withstand it — but a shame. Can you imagine the reaction if we hadn’t known?

So with the Master finally revealed at episode’s end, he teams up with Missy for the first multi-Master story ever in the extended finale, The Doctor Falls. With a lot of business to attend to, this isn’t quite as striking as its first part. Nonetheless, there’s strong material here. Missy and the Master are a hoot, the pairing of Simm and Michelle Gomez working exactly as well as you’d hope. Their storyline comes to a very fitting conclusion, too. The way Moffat handles Bill being a Cyberman, how she feels inside and how people react to her, was an original use of a well-worn villain. Her possible-departure was fitting too, tying appropriately back to her debut episode. Moffat buried a way for her to return in the dialogue, which hopefully Chibnall will pick up because Bill has been absolutely fab. It would be a real shame if this is the last we see of her. The Doctor FallsAs for the other current Capaldi companion, there was an almost touching exit for Nardole, a character Matt Lucas has managed to imbue with much more likability than was promised in his initial appearance a couple of Christmases back. Finally, Peter Capaldi was in as fine fettle as ever, getting to deliver a few more of his iconic speeches, before going out with a heroic last stand.

Well, not quite going out, because we have that exciting cliffhanger to lead us into the Christmas special. With such a promising setup, let’s hope Moffat can stick the landing. We’ll find out on December 25th…

The Americans  Season 5
The Americans season 5The best show on television” returns for its penultimate run. It’s currently mid-way through here in the UK (where it’s really, really buried on ITV Encore, more’s the pity — it deserves a bigger audience) so I’ll be extra careful to avoid big spoilers. It’s an interesting run of episodes, though: low-key, in their way; slow-paced, even by the standards of current high-quality TV. That’s not to say it’s without merit, but it’s rewarding of long-term investment more than ever. In truth, it may be the show’s weakest run, but that’s very much a relative assertion. There’s a lot of groundwork being laid here, probably the downside of them getting a two-season to-the-finish recommission — these are episodes 1 to 13 of 23, not 1 to 13 of 13.

Still, as I said, it’s most decidedly not without merit, it’s just that the drama is very much internalised into the characters. A lot of it is about Philip and Elizabeth becoming increasingly tired of their life — the toll that all the killing and lying takes. That’s not exactly something new for Philip, but is he reaching breaking point? And to see Elizabeth beginning to struggle too really rams home how tough it is. Indeed, the detrimental effects of this lifestyle are felt across all the storylines and returning characters, as people on both sides come to doubt the justification of their respective causes. Is someone going to snap and betray their country?

Although the season starts (and, in some cases, resolves) plot lines of its own, ultimately the big underlying thread is (picking up from last season) the debate about how, when, and if can they go home to Russia. The kids are a big factor: Paige is still being initiated into the realities of their cause, but Henry is off building a life of his own, now more than ever. At the same time, we’re shown how difficult it is for other people to adjust in similar circumstances, including Russians who’ve defected to America with their kid. These kind of storylines could be heavy-handed parallels on other shows, but The Americans unfurls them gradually and carefully and subtly enough that you come to see it for yourself rather than the show screaming at you to notice the mirroring.

Not the most dramatic run, then, but this deep in I think it’s earnt our trust that they’re going somewhere with it all. It’s also earnt our investment in the characters to the extent that it can base storylines about their internal struggles rather than just exciting espionage stuff. It’s clearly been a not-for-everyone season (reviews are largely positive still, but there are more dissenting voices) but there’s still quality in spades. And it’s still completely unpredictable how it’s all going to wind up next season.

Twin Peaks  Season 3 Episodes 7-8
In its 7th episode, the new Twin Peaks suddenly delivered a surfeit of story, forging ahead with actual plot developments in several of its disparate storylines. It was almost bizarre. It was good. Heck, some of the scenes were incredible. Laura Dern is perfect here. So did this mark a turning point? Was the series finally getting stuck into the meat of the story? Well, as it turned out, no. Not at all. Indeed, perhaps David Lynch was just pre-trolling us, in his own way, because Part 8…

Twin Peaks Part 8I don’t know if it was the reaction across the board, but on Twitter the reception the 8th episode received was adulatory to the nth degree. Having given us massive developments and beloved characters just one episode before, suddenly we were in a different era, in black and white, with mostly unknown characters, and a narrative conveyed through Lynchian visions rather than traditional storytelling. It made some kind of sense… some of it… in the end… but you certainly had to stick with it. Some of it was incredible — the tracking shot into the mushroom cloud is, somehow, almost inexplicably, one of the greatest shots of all time; an instant classic. But other bits… they did go on rather. I’m not one of those people who wishes the new Twin Peaks was a pure nostalgia fest, all repetition of famous lines and quirky goings on in the Double R over cherry pie and coffee, but I also think Lynch’s indulgence has run a little too rampant. Much of his surrealist imagery works if you’re prepared to engage with it, but I also think much of it doesn’t need to go on for as long as it does. There’s a difference between a slow pace and no pace.

So, I don’t really think Part 8 is a total revolution in television and one of the greatest episodes of all time, as some people do. For one thing, the opening stuff with Evil Cooper and the Nine Inch Nails performance felt like it belonged at the end of the previous episode but had to be moved for time. It was certainly an experience, though, I’ll give it that. I just hope it’s one that all makes sense in the end…

Preacher  Season 2 Episodes 1-2
Preacher season 2After a sometimes uncertain but ultimately promising first season that was, really, all prologue to the main story, Preacher returns with a confident bang, filled with unstoppable cowboys, exploding SUVs, Maced testicles, intestinal fuel syphons, baby foreskins, and Come On Eileen — and that was just the opening ten minutes. Shows like Legion, American Gods, and, especially, Twin Peaks may have been duking it out for the title of craziest series on television these past few months, but there’s nothing quite like Preacher.

With our trio of heroes — a Texan preacher with the power to make anyone do what he says, his badass girlfriend with a criminal past, and a rough but charming Irish vampire — now on the road, the series itself also feels free of the shackles of the first season’s small-town setting. We’re let loose into a world that can equal the barminess of the leads. A world where we meet a friend who keeps a girl locked in a cage in his garage (for good reason); where you can see a man cheat death nightly at the Mumbai Sky Tower Resort and Casino; where a drug-fuelled binge of pillow-fighting and reading Archie comics can solve your woes; where God goes to a strip joint for the jazz…

Sadly, you can’t really jump in here — too much was established in season one — but the ongoing unpredictable zaniness makes it worth the investment to reach this point, in my view. And with some fan-favourite characters just around the corner, hopefully it’s gonna be a helluva season.

Also watched…
  • The Persuaders! Series 1 Episodes 6-13 — it’s funny watching this in production order (as it is on the DVDs), because it seems pretty clear they blew the budget sending the cast around Europe for the first few episodes — all the exotic locations are being done with back projection by this point.

    Next fortnight… winter is here.

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  • 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.