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.

  • The Past Months on TV #51

    When I mentioned in September’s monthly review that I hadn’t posted a TV column that month, I was intending to get one up within a few days. As it turned out, for various fundamentally unimportant reasons, it’s taken until now — so, really, this one covers two months.

    Much like my film viewing, my TV watching hasn’t been as prolific as normal, including some regulars falling by the wayside (no Twilight Zone again). But there are still a few things worth talking about.

    Stranger Things 3
    Stranger Things 3On what you might unkindly call a superficial level, the third season of Netflix’s signature series was thoroughly entertaining — it’s frequently funny and exciting, with cool moments aplenty (especially in the last couple of episodes), and many enjoyable callbacks to both ’80s pop culture and within the show itself. But dig any deeper and it begins to seem less surefooted, with what felt to me like muddled themes and character arcs, and a sense that the mythology was treading water. I don’t particularly object to the way any characters were treated, nor the destinations any of them reached (especially as a fourth season was inevitable, so wherever this run finished up was only ever temporary), but I didn’t feel like they were being guided anywhere with any real purpose. There’s something to be said for storylines like that, but when you’re trying to play some kind of redemption arc, or a coming-of-age tale about burgeoning independence (or whatever), I feel like you need to be a bit clearer-eyed. But hey, I still enjoyed it a lot — it’s a fun watch, and I imagine even more so if you have nostalgic memories of an ’80s childhood — I just think there’s still some room for finessing.

    Watchmen  Season 1 Episode 1
    WatchmenAlan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s graphic novel Watchmen is a seminal work of the form — I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you about that at this point. Over the past decade it’s been adapted into a film, and both prequelised and sequelised (I think? I dunno, I stopped paying attention) in comic books, to varying degrees of success and controversy. So when HBO announced they were bringing it to TV, there was much trepidation. Early promises that it wasn’t a remake or prequel or sequel, but instead a ‘remix’, just added to the confusion.

    Now it’s finally here, it’s clear that such bold reports were perhaps a bit of an exaggeration. Well, I say “clear” — I’ve only watched the first episode (two have aired, out of nine) so there’s plenty of room for things to change, but (so far at least) it seems to be definitively set in the world of the comic book (and not the movie, which made some significant modifications to the climax) and in 2019 (whereas the comic is set in the ’80s). So it is a sequel… but it’s not a direct sequel, because very few of the original characters have a part to play (yet, anyway). So it’s a new story set in the same world… albeit one where the events of the first story have had a massive impact, and some of the same thematic concerns are coming into play — not to mention a load of familiar iconography. Okay, maybe “remix” wasn’t a wholly terribly epithet after all.

    Anyway, it’s early days, but there’s a lot of promise and potential here. Reading the original before viewing may not be essential, but it’s going to help a lot (besides which, it’s a damn good book). And if you want to go even further down the rabbit hole, be sure to check out the tie-in Peteypedia website, which provides a lot of extra info to help bridge the gap between book and series.

    Catherine the Great
    Catherine the GreatHBO and Sky Atlantic have teamed up for this lavish four-parter about the life of the famous Russian ruler, conceived by and starring Helen Mirren. The big bucks those broadcasters are known for are all over the screen here — it looks suitable sumptuous, with grand locations that positively shine, especially in UHD. Unfortunately, nothing else about the production is up to scratch. The writing is thoroughly mediocre — it most reminded me of The Tudors, although that seemed to know it was a bit of trashy fun, whereas I think Catherine the Great wants to be taken very seriously. But the dialogue is uninspiring, the characters uninteresting and underdeveloped (we’re told the relationship between Catherine and Potemkin is some great love affair, but they strop around like moody, jealous teenagers), and the flat performances do nothing to elevate any of it — and despite her general acclaim, Mirren is probably the weakest of the lot. Pretty, then, but vacant.

    Dad’s Army: The Lost Episodes
    Dad's Army: The Lost EpisodesThe BBC’s 1970s policy of junking programmes because they supposedly no longer had commercial value is a familiar topic for Doctor Who fans, who’ve spent decades hoping and hunting for copies of missing episodes. But it was an organisation-wide policy, so Who was far from the only show that suffered — Dad’s Army was another. It’s a perennially popular sitcom here (even today repeats land among the most-watched programmes of the week), so you can see why it made commercial sense to invest in recreations of the missing episodes — especially as there’s only three of them.

    The pre-broadcast press and ads emphasised heavily that these were intended as a tribute (presumably because that attempt at a feature film revival from a couple of years ago went down so badly). The sense of affection for the original seeps off the screen, from the faithfully recreated set to the performances, which ably tread the fine line between flat impersonation and respectful imitation. By that I mean the cast were clearly trying to play the roles as they were originally performed, but without getting stuck in a rut of mere emulation, instead injecting a reasonable amount of their own interpretation of the characters.

    So, taking the project as it was intended — as a loving salute to the original programme, which also plugs a gap in its record — The Lost Episodes should be classed as a success.

    Also watched…
  • The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco Season 1 Episodes 1-4 — ITV’s cancelled period crime drama is revived in this US sequel/spin-off, because it was relatively popular on the other side of the pond. Unfortunately, this iteration does look and feel like cheap US network filler. It’s gently watchable enough, if you don’t mind that sort of thing.
  • Japan with Sue Perkins — The former Bake Off host pops over to Japan for a two-part exploration of modern cultural quirks and fads. Open-minded and consequently insightful, I feel like it could’ve been a longer series to dig in even deeper. Maybe a more indicative title, too — by getting so specific, it was hardly the overview/travelogue of Japan that you might’ve expected.
  • Monty Python Night — BBC Two marked the 50th anniversary of arguably the most influential comedy troupe ever with an evening of archive-derived programming. So, that was two repeats — of documentary Almost the Truth: The BBC Lawyer’s Cut and the first-ever episode of Flying Circus — and one new programme that was compiled from archive interview clips, Python at 50: Silly Talks and Holy Grails. If you missed it… it’s no longer on iPlayer because I’ve been so tardy in posting this column. Sorry.
  • World on Fire Series 1 Episodes 1-2 — Now, here’s a good idea: a returning series that follows multiple loosely-connected characters in multiple different countries as they make their way through World War 2. I’m not convinced by the execution so far (it feels remarkably small-scale for a premise that’s all about scope, and visually it looks a bit too “TV” for a major prime-time series in the present climate), but, eh, we’ll see.

    Next month… the golden compass leads us to the northern lights as His Dark Materials is readapted for TV.

  • What price a ‘Definitive Cut’?

    Provoked by, of all things, the Blu-ray release of The Wolfman (this started out as the opening paragraph of my review of that — oh how it grew), I’ve once again been musing on one of my ‘favourite’ topics. No, not “what’s TV and what’s film these days?”, but “which version of a film is definitive these days?”

    I apologise if I’ve written extensively on this before; I think I’ve only had the odd random muse in a review, at most. So, much as I got the TV thing out of my system (a bit) in that editorial, here’s an attempt at the “definitive cut” one:

    The age of DVD has managed to throw up all kinds of questions about what is the definitive version of a film. Never mind issues of incorrect aspect ratios, fiddled colour timing, or excessive digital processing — these are all potentially problems, yes, but usually quite easy to see where the correct version lies. The question of a ‘definitive version’ comes in the multitude of Director’s Cuts, Extended Cuts, Harder Cuts, Extreme Cuts — whatever label the marketing boys & girls slap on them, Longer Versions You Didn’t See In The Cinema is what they are. But are they better? Or more definitive? Does it matter?

    So many consumers hold off for the DVD these days, especially with the added quality offered by Blu-ray, that the old answer of “what was released in the cinema” doesn’t necessarily hold true any more. Filmmakers know some will be waiting for the DVD, so are less concerned with releasing a studio-mandated, shorter, mass audience friendly cut into cinemas when their fuller vision can be found on DVD. Equally, the PR people know that “longer cut!” and “not seen in cinemas!” and other such slogans can help sell DVDs, and so may be forcing needless and unwelcome extensions onto filmmakers. Then there’s all those older directors who think they’re doing a good thing finally getting to tamper with their film 30 years on, who may well be misguided.

    Some make it nice and clear for us. Ridley Scott, for example, is particularly good at this: Blade Runner has taken decades to get right, but The Final Cut is quite obviously the last word on this; he was well known to be unhappy with the theatrical version of Kingdom of Heaven, and was vindicated when the aptly-titled (for once) Director’s Cut received much improved reviews; conversely, he’s been very clear that the Director’s Cut of Alien and Extended Cut of Gladiator are not his preferred versions, just interesting alternate/longer edits.

    On the other hand, Oliver Stone has now churned out three versions of Alexander [2015 edit: now four], each with significantly differing structures and content. None have received particularly good reviews. Is one the definitive cut? Or is it just a very public example of the editing process; what difference inclusions, exclusions, and structural overhauls can (or, perhaps, can’t) make?

    The issue is somewhat brushed aside by two things, I think. Firstly, most stuff that suffers this treatment is tosh. Who cares which version of Max Payne or Hitman or Beowulf or either AvP or any number of teen-focused comedies is ‘definitive’ — no one liked them in the first place and they’ll be all but forgotten within a decade or two, at most (well, not AvP, sadly — its connection to two major franchises will see to that).

    Secondly, more often than not both versions are available. Coppola may have vowed never to release the pre-Redux Apocalypse Now ever again, but the most recent DVDs [and, later, Blu-rays] include both cuts — listen to him or go with the original theatrical cut, it’s your choice. The same goes for Terminator 2, or indeed a good deal of the rubbish listed above. Rare is the film that doesn’t fit into one of these two camps, or the third “it’s been made clear” one.

    So, with all that said, does it even matter? If we can choose which version we prefer, is that the right way to have things? Because, having gone through the options and examples I can think of, it’s not often that there’s not an easy way to resolve it — by which I mean, if the film is good enough to want the clarity of “which version is final”, we tend to have a way of knowing; and if the film’s tosh, well, what does it matter which we choose? There’s every chance no one involved in the production cares anyway.

    There remains one argument for clarity, I think. How does one guarantee that, in the future, the ‘correct’ version remains accessible? With new formats always coming along, there’s no assurance that every cut of a film will be released; with TV showings, there’s no assurance the preferred version will always be the one shown (though there’s another argument for how much the latter matters considering they already mess around with aspect ratios and edits for violence/swearing/sex/etc.) But then, even if a filmmaker makes it clear that their preferred version is the one that only came out on DVD/Blu-ray, what chance is there that unscrupulous disc / download / unknown-future-format producers or TV schedulers won’t just revert to the theatrical version by default?

    Sometimes one longs for the simpler age of a film hitting cinemas and that being that. We wouldn’t have had to suffer Lucas’ Star Wars fiddles, for one thing. But then nor would Ridley Scott have been able to redeem some of his films, or Zack Snyder treat fans to an improved Watchmen, or Peter Jackson truly complete The Lord of the Rings. If some level of uncertainty is the price we have to pay for these things, then it’s one even my obsessive nature is willing to pay.

    There are 20 different films featured in this post’s header image.
    Anyone who can name them all wins special bragging rights.

    The end is nigh…

    No, this isn’t a review of 2012, or any of the numerous other apocalyptic blockbusters that are foisted on us every year. Nor the Watchmen Ultimate Cut, which has that famous phrase of doom and gloom plastered over its back cover. No, this is simply an observation (and little more than that, I’m afraid) that there are a mere 31 days of 2009 left. Indeed, 31 days of this decade.

    Cripes.

    So, with such limited time remaining, my yearly goal is once again under threat. Long gone are the days of reaching 100 films in September, t’would seem. But fear not, faithful reader, for this time last year I’d only made it to 81, meaning I’m just one behind myself (#80 was Transformers 2. Look, there’s a review already! Isn’t it impressive that I reviewed it on Blu-ray before it was even in the shops? … What do you mean “no”?) — and last year I did indeed make it to 100… just.

    20 films, 31 days. Considering my average so far (7.3 films per month) I should only make it to 87. Well, 87.3. But, what was that? Yes, I’m only one behind last year and I did it then (did I say that already?)

    Heck, maybe I’ll even push it to 101 this year.

    [I didn’t.]

    2009’s summary posts will be republished in November.

    Watchmen 2: a couple of suggestions

    After finding Total Film’s humourous suggestions for a Watchmen sequel a little lacking in the funniness department, I thought I’d jot down a few myself. It doesn’t mean they’re actually any better, obviously, but it kept me amused for a few minutes.

    Betcha can’t spot all the references…

    The Watchmen Strike Back
    In which the Watchmen form a rebel alliance to fight crime and try to repeal the Keene Act! Sounds depressingly plausible…

    The Watchmen: Part II
    Split between shocking events of the present day (which, for the viewer, is still the past) and flashbacks to the beginnings in an even-more-past New York. Oh, wait, that’s the first film…

    Watchmen: The Superhero Who Shagged Me
    The first one deconstructed the genre, the second spoofs it! Hey, it can’t be any worse than Superhero Movie… probably…

    Watchmen Supremacy
    Modern-day version that induces motion sickness.

    2 Watch 2 Men
    In which the least memorable lead from the first film goes on some redeeming mission for no reason other than more ‘cool’ action sequences. Stars Silk Spectre, but no one else.

    Watchmen 2: Judgement Day
    In which the bad guy turns out to be a good guy and an implausible nuclear explosion destroys a major US city. Oh, wait…

    Watchmens
    “Get away from her you bitch!”, screams Nite Owl as Ozymandias tries to steal his woman.

    Watchmen to the Future Part II
    Dr Manhattan takes everyone to the future, and then back into the events of the first film, and into the past, and things get mucked up, and the present starts getting erased, and then the future’s different too, and it barely makes sense but it’s still pretty good. And then it ends with them in the Wild West.

    Watchmen Reloaded
    In which things get even more convoluted and pretentious. Most likely option, then. No need to do the rubbish sex scene set to inappropriate music in the sequel this time though.

    Watchmen: The Two Towers
    I think leaving it at that is insensitive enough.

    W2 (or, in the US ad campaign only, W2: Watchmen United)
    Bigger, better, and even more focussed on The One Everyone Liked (i.e. Rorschach). Refuses to resolve his plot line, but then doesn’t do it in a third film (directed by Uwe Boll as Snyder goes on to relaunch V For Vendetta) because Watchmen Origins: Rorschach is scheduled for a couple of years later.

    The Dark Nite Owl
    Just had to get that one in there.