TV

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Not literally all the TV, obviously. More accurately: most of the genre or genre-adjacent TV shows I’ve watched to the end in the last few months. That doesn’t make for a good blog title, though.

Brief reviews only, mild spoilers certainly possible but not guaranteed.

Star Trek : Discovery

Mad as a bag of squirrels. Don’t know quite what else to say, really. A bit like the reflection of something recognisably Star Trek seen in a heavily distorting mirror. Maybe half a dozen major plot twists get thrown at you – the kind of twists most series would probably settle for at most two or three per season. Honestly, I kind of like some of the twists, but not all of them. Two or three really good characters; several that are just OK; quite a few who are just blanks taking up screen space, really. Some really weird production decisions – nothing, from design to costuming to sub-plot to subtitles, about the Klingons works for me. Not one thing. Yet despite it all … I sort of enjoyed it. Sort of.

EDIT TO ADD: Since posting this, I had the misfortune to watch the last episode of ST : D’s first season. I did not like it. Not at all. If they’d all been like that, I would never have stuck with it through the season, I suspect. Ho hum. Fingers crossed for Season Two, I guess. More in hope than expectation. 

Godless

Netflix takes a swing at the Western, and for big chunks of the series I thought it was a home run. Beautiful to look at. Leisurely camerawork and pacing that often worked great for building tone and character. Some really nice scripting, delivered by some really good actors. But … it all got a bit too leisurely at some points. At least one, maybe two, episodes too many.

Still, I was fully on board until the last episode. At which point I was swept overboard by a tsunami of objections and reservations. I still give the whole thing a definite thumbs-up, but I could go on at nutty length about all the ways I disliked the final episode, and the degree to which it undid bits of the smart work done earlier in the series, but I’m committed to the ‘brief reviews only’ thing. So I’ll just say: what they did to Blackdom was, imho, horrifically misjudged; it sucks if you suddenly start relying entirely on coincidence and chance encounters to make your climax work; and the resolution of the various womens’ character arcs almost all left a slightly bitter taste in my mouth. Nuff said.

Punisher

Quite liked it. Just a fraction too violent for my taste on occasion – I’m turning into a big softie – but not enough to put me off. Probably goes in my top three (four?) of the Netflix Marvel shows, and at the very least is a return to some sort of form after the unfortunate misfires of Iron Fist and The Defenders.

Did leave me asking a profound question about TV dramas in general, though: What is it with the apparent inability of so many writers/actors/directors to even slightly conceal the fact that character X, who appears to be a goodie is in fact a villain? Is it deliberate or unintentional? I genuinely don’t know. Anyway, The Punisher contains the most screamingly obvious, borderline cliched, heel turn I’ve seen in … years, maybe. I mean, you know this guy – who’s superficially presented as a good guy for over half the series or so – is on the dark side from the moment he appears on screen. You’d have to have never watched any serialised drama in your life not to spot it, I’d have thought. Is it really that hard to conceal a character arc, or do the creators actively want the audience to know hours before any of the other characters figure it out?

Travelers

Have you watched Travelers? You should watch Travelers. I love Travelers. Fun take on time travel, with teams of future folks ‘possessing’ present day folks in an effort to avert future catastrophe. The genius of the show is in the casting, the acting and the focus on character and relationships alongside occasional outbursts of plot and action. I really can’t remember the last time I found an ensemble cast in a genre drama so engaging, both collectively and individually. Patrick Gilmore, in particular, is acting his pants off in this thing – seriously, I think he’s doing some of the most detailed, precise TV acting I’ve seen in a genre show.

I find myself rooting for every single one of the main seven or eight or whatever characters; and somehow – not sure how – the writing pulls off a spectacular balancing act of selling not only the characters’ total commitment to and support of each other, but also their over-riding and potentially sacrificial (of themselves and others) commitment to their mission. It’s clever TV-making, if you ask me. Slow, at least initially, if you’re expecting slam-bang sf action; but stick with it and it sucks you in. And tragically not yet confirmed as having been renewed for a third season, as far as I know …

The Good Place

Have you watched The Good Place? You should watch The Good Place. I love The Good Place. I mean, who takes a hi-concept, long form genre narrative and turns it into a half-hour network sitcom? And builds it around questions of moral philosophy in the afterlife? And makes it good? It’s not something you see every day. In terms of weird pushing of format boundaries it kind of reminds me of Community, though it’s a very different beast. The twist at the end of the first season is pretty legendary. The one at the end of the second season I’m not nearly so sure about, but the creators have shown they can handle wild shifts of narrative and setting, so I’m prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt. Plus: Ted Danson is cool.

Stranger Things

Specifically, season two of Stranger Things. This, for me, was a demonstration of the power of the first time. It was fine. I liked it. But it didn’t have the impact of the first season, simply – I think – because I knew exactly what I was getting going in. The powerful sense of place and time and tone that the first season smacked you in the face with was a little bit diminished this time around, I think, but at least in part that’s because it’s familiar the second time around. Also, too many new characters; not all of them slotting into the narrative as neatly as the whole crew from the first season did. Still, it’s a distinctive, fun bit of TV and the world would be just a tiny bit duller without it.

The Expanse

Also specifically, season two of The Expanse. I liked season one, but thought it was slightly heavy going here and there (and can vouch for the fact it was more than ‘slightly’ heavy going for at least one non-sf fan of my acquaintance). Season two, though – which I had to solo watch due to that heavy going thing – I thought was great. A blast, on the whole. Much more stream-lined and coherent and almost accessible. Don’t know exactly what their budget is, but I reckon on the whole they’ve got great value for money on their effects and sets. It looks good and it bounced along very nicely and nimbly. Sign me up for season three.

But … I have one over-arching complaint that applies to The Expanse and at least a couple others of these series, which might be going to sound picky but really bugs me:

Basic Military Tactics, People! It’s Not Rocket Science!

Now and again in The Expanse, pretty much continuously in Star Trek : Discovery, in the final episode of Godless, and even in Stranger Things, people who are supposed to be either trained or in some way experienced and even expert in the art of combat – firearm combat of one sort or another specifically – behave during firefights like people who don’t even know which end of a gun is the dangerous one. The most basic notions of deployment, cover, tactical movement, etc etc sometimes appear to be completely unknown to soldiers who are supposed to be elites.

I mean anyone who’s played a few hours of video games could get the better of some of the supposedly fearsome warriors on display in these series. If you’re trying to sell the audience on the idea that these people are dangerous, militarily awesome or whatever, just make them act like they have a rough idea of what they’re doing. That’s all I ask.

Cover, people! It’s right there! I can see it, just a few paces to the side of you! Don’t just stand there blasting away, for … oh, never mind.

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The world’s so big and complicated these days I imagine there’s always some kind of golden age going on in some corner of it, geographical, cultural, commercial, whatever.

It occurred to me that there’re arguably three golden ages going on in bits of the cultural/media world that I pay attention to. I have caveats and pessimisms for this post,too, but let’s do the happy stuff first.

TV drama. I seriously doubt there’s ever been more scripted TV of decent or better quality available for our viewing pleasure. We have relatively modest TV pipes running into the Ruckley residence – Netflix and (only the Brits’ll know what this means) Freeview – but they still churn out more stuff than it’s possible to stay on top of, given the fairly limited time that gets spent on watching the box. But the choice is there.

TV drama reflects, like so many other bits of the cultural landscape, the invasion of the ‘mainstream’ by geek-accented product and I couldn’t be happier about that. And of course with Netflix, the multiplication of broadcast channels and the advent of the DVR there’s an ocean of both old and new material to merrily drown yourself in. I was about to namedrop specific TV shows here, but to be honest there’s no point. The list could go on almost indefinitely. That’s a total transformation of what the TV world was like just a few years ago. And the reponse to that blossoming of availability has been the production of more good stuff than ever before.

Comics. Comics actually have a specifically defined Golden Age, so this isn’t The Golden Age, but it’s surely a golden age. There’s a greater variety of comics and graphic novels more widely available – digitally or on paper – than there has been in a long time. Probably ever. Online bookshops make them accessible in collected form to almost anyone. The graphic novel section is, by all accounts, one of the bits of bricks-and-mortar bookshops that’s actually thriving. They’re a big deal in libraries.

Unless you’ve been reading comics for a while, there’s something you might not be aware of, though. For all that certain types of comics (superheroes, notably) used to sell way more twenty or thirty or forty years ago, I can absolutely assure you of one thing: waaaay more objectively well-crafted and smart and technically accomplished comics are being produced now than was the case back then. The average quality of art and writing has improved a lot. The sheer volume and diversity of comics and titles and graphic novels being published has been accompanied by an uptick not only in the obvious measure – choice – but also in quality of craft and in ambition.

Podcasts. I talk about podcasts often enough here, so I won’t belabour this one. But come on: this has to be a golden age of podcasting, doesn’t it? There are uncounted thousands of the things, in every imaginable genre, covering every imaginable topic, taking every imaginable form. I spend far more time consuming podcasts than I do any other medium and I can’t do more than scrape the surface of the possibilities.

On one level podcasts are nothing more than radio on demand, but my ears are constantly filled with stuff that would never get on radio in a million years, for commercial reasons or because of silly geographic restrictions or whatever. Whoever you are, there are quality podcasts about almost exactly your interests, and accessing them is childishly simple. That’s pretty amazing.

Which is the peak of my merriment and optimism.

A couple of golden ages I’m pretty sure we’re not in. Movies and novels. It’s a commonplace to moan about the current state of Hollywood movies, so I won’t go overboard. I enjoy a spectacular blockbuster as much as the next person, but … well, I can’t summon up any enthusiasm for trying to claim the golden age of the franchise blockbuster as a particularly worthwhile kind of golden age.

Talking about novels, I’m on much shakier ground. I don’t read many these days, so I’m barely qualified to comment I suppose, but it doesn’t feel like a golden age. In many ways it feels just like business as usual, with at best an average distribution of quality product. I don’t detect a glut of innovation, boundary-expansion, inarguable genius. That’s OK. It’s just not what you’d call a golden age.

All the media – every single one – I’ve mentioned above are in the grip of ongoing technological and distributional revolutions. Those revolutions have, I think, caused or at the very least facilitated golden ages in TV and podcasting (comics to a lesser extent, but they’re part of the mix there too). But those same revolutions have emphatically not triggered golden ages in music, movies or prose fiction. If anything, I’d say they’ve had the opposite effect. Funny how things turn out.

Which brings me to my final point: how things might turn out. I reckon two of my three golden ages are heading for a fall. TV and comics. It might take years, but because of the revolutions in distribution and technology, and because of the ‘buzz’ surrounding these media, there’s an inevitable consequence: oversupply.

Once you reach a certain mass of available content, you can add as much new high quality content as you like and people just won’t have the time or inclination to consume it. So producers overextend. Retrenchment sets in. The golden ages wither and fade. I’m far from the first to suggest a tight, maybe imminent, time limit on TV’s golden age. In the case of comics, there might even be a crash – it’s a much smaller and more fragile market and it’s done that before. Probably not, though. Probably just a decline, a re-setting of the baseline. Fingers crossed.

Podcasts, though. Their golden age has legs, I reckon. Obviously, I’m biased, being an addict, but think about it. They’re new, and their audience still has lots of room to grow. They’re the only one of these media that can be easily consumed while you’re doing something else. Digital audio players in cars are only just really becoming 100% standard. And they have one other huge advantage over most other media: they’re free. We have a winner!

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Time to get back to the blogging business, I think. And here’s some trailers to grease the rusty wheels.

Hellblazer was one of the more important comics of the 1980s, for my money. It was one of the key foundation stones of DC’s Vertigo imprint, which punched way above its weight in terms of profile and significance in the industry as a whole. And it was a bit of a flagship for the transformative ‘British invasion’ of the US comics scene.

It had a damp squib of a Keanu Reeves film adaptation, under the title of its lead character Constantine, a while back (which I confess I always thought was sort of not totally terrible as a movie, just not very good as a Hellblazer movie). Now it’s coming to TV – again as Constantine. The first trailer, a few weeks back, didn’t really do much for me but now there’s trailer v2.0 and it’s looking better, if you ask me. I might actually be able to get on board with this …

And talking about things that were important in their time, they don’t come much more important for me personally than Mad Max. The first two films – let us not speak of the third, which was a sad misfire if you ask me – made a big impression on young me when I saw them, videotaped of course. A new outing for the franchise has been floating on the horizon for years, tantalisingly never quite coming to fruition. Well, now it’s actually going to happen, in the shape of Mad Max: Fury Road and here’s what it’s going to look like:

More promising than I feared, even if not quite everything I would have hoped. Looks to be plugging right into the vibe of Mad Max 2, and doing it with a certain style – the visuals and the music are on the moody money, I’d say. Plenty of tone and ‘voice’ in there. The actual action that dominates the trailer looks a bit less moody and a bit more in-your-face, though – I kind of hope the final movie isn’t just wall to wall chasing and driving and mayhem (fun, and indeed essential, as all that is), and retains something of the bleak tone hinted at in the trailer. But hey: it’s Mad Max, it’s Tom Hardy and it looks interesting. That’s enough to put a smile on my face.

Truly, and I mean this without a trace of irony or sarcasm or exaggeration, we live in an age of total, unremitting sf, fantasy and horror saturation. We – those of us who always liked this stuff – are not so much inheriting the media world as consuming it, monopolising it.

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It’s a neat trick, to still be able to spring little surprises upon fans in this age of social media saturation and secret leakage. Not a total surprise, mind you – I’d seen speculation nailing various bits, basically all the bits in fact, of this over the last few months – but still, plenty of folks seem to have been taken a bit off guard.

The Night of the Doctor, the prequel minisode that leads into the imminentish tsunami of Dr. Who revelations, nostalgia and celebration, arrives and it’s a pleasing little stitching together of hints and threads that, above all else I think, makes me really hope we’re going to get a properly generous helping of John Hurt as the Doctor in our near futures, not just a scene or two. But the thing that made me smile most is right there near the start: ‘Not the one you were expecting’. Kind of contrived line, maybe, but let them have their fun.  They earned it.

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So, it’s this time of year again …

Dinosaurs, cowboys, weeping angels etc. All fairly promising. I do wish they’d leave the daleks alone for a while, though …

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So, I know I suggested yesterday that you might all be blessed today with the sound of me talking at you out of your computer/mp3 player, but it’s not to be. Not today, anyway. At least, not in the form I suggested. The debut of an audio file here on the blog is delayed in favour of … my TV debut. I know, I know: just when you thought you’d made a lucky escape …

What happened, in short form, is that Saint Bryan (fine, fine name, don’t you think?), a reporter for a Seattle-based NBC affiliate station, was over in Edinburgh for a Pixar PR blitz about Brave. He was casting about for other interesting mini-stories he could put together quickly, stumbled across my blog, and e-mailed me. The result is … well, you can see for yourself. Sorry about the advert at the start, by the way; can’t get around it, but it’s very brief.

If there’s one thing more destructive of one’s happily delusional self-image than hearing your own recorded voice played back, I can confirm that it’s seeing and hearing your recorded self played back. However, it was quite good fun doing the taping. Unbelieveably, staggeringly easy to get TV broadcast-quality pictures these days; seriously, this was just two guys wandering round graveyards with mikes pinned to chests and a tiny hand-held camera. Amazing.

Also amazing it wasn’t pouring with rain, the way this summer’s been going so far, but never mind that …

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The next instalment in my stubborn effort to convice the world that podcasts are the best thing since … well, the best thing ever, really.

People always say you shouldn’t look too deeply into the question of how sausages are made.  I disagree.  I find almost any insight into the process and trade secrets of almost any human endeavour intersting.  I’m peculiar like that.

The Nerdist Writers Panel is the inside story of how US television series get made; or, more precisely, the unique and odd way in which they get written.  In every episode, three or four writers who worked on series you know and may or may not love – Buffy, Terra Nova, Community, Walking Dead, Supernatural, CSI, Fringe, etc etc – get together and talk frankly and often amusingly about all the behind the scenes stuff.

It’s revealing and informative and sheds a lot of light on a kind of writing that’s radically different from almost any other.  Fascinating and entertaining, even if you’ve no desire to ever be a TV writer yourself; indispensible if you do have such a desire, I should imagine.

My favourite recent episode is number 26, but I’d honestly recommend just about any episode to anyone interested in hearing gifted creators talk passionately and honestly about the joys and frustrations of working in one of the toughest entertainment businesses on the planet.

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British SF TV and Me

In one sense, I couldn’t really care less whether the sf I enjoy on TV is homegrown or not.  It’s not like I’ve got vast reserves of unused time that I long to sink into watching more TV or anything; and those windows of opportunity that I do manage to fit a spot of TV into are quite satisfactorily filled by quality output, SFnal or otherwise, from various parts of the world.

However, there’s undeniably a bit of me that craves some polished UK sf to get my teeth into.  Britain can, after all, make some sort of a claim to be the homeland of modern sf, fantasy and horror, what with Frankenstein, Dracula, Lord of the Rings etc.  Would be shame if we can’t make a decent stab at adapting those genres to the greatest mass entertainment medium ever invented.

So, what have I been watching?  First, what I haven’t been watching.  I only ever saw a little bit of Being Human – an episode here or there of the first season, I think – and was appropriately impressed.  Good stuff, which knew pretty much exactly what it wanted to be and duly delivered with commendable verve.  I’ve also heard  invariably good, sometimes great, things about Misfits, which I haven’t watched at all.  Don’t know quite how that oversight came about, but there you are.  And I entirely missed Outcasts, because I … well, to be honest I didn’t even know it was on until the series was halfway over.  I think I was on holiday or something when it started.  Critical feedback leads me to suspect I didn’t miss too much.

Stuff I have been paying attention to this year is mostly the more high profile offerings.

Doctor Who has been a bit hit and miss for me this year, which seems to be a not uncommon reaction.  Still like Matt Smith as the Doctor, at least when he’s given a good script to work with.  Still in love with the anything-is-possible, genre-bending aesthetic of the plots and mood.  Still think, when it works, it works quite brilliantly (Neil Gaiman, obviously).  But when it doesn’t work, it really doesn’t work, fumbling the ball in a way few, if any, comparably high-profile US series would ever do.

I’ve got at least one foot in the camp of those who reckon the show’s gone a bit too convoluted and dark this season.  I would defy even a Nobel laureate to come up with an explanation I could get my head around of the contorted timelines in which the Doctor, Amy and River Song have been entangled.  I’m not saying such an explanation doesn’t exist, in principle, just that I suspect it’s far too elaborate for me to grasp without more application of brain power than I think the question deserves, or is entirely appropriate to early evening family viewing.  That said, I quite enjoyed the season finale, despite the fact that I’m still not sure it made a lick of sense.

Torchwood: Miracle Day … now what can I say … well, maybe …

That’s a bit unfair. It had its moments, and there were glimmers of some good stuff peeping through – occasionally really good stuff. Not enough to carry ten episodes, though. Maybe seven? Maybe only five.  I had high hopes for this series – I would really like a Torchwood I could be an unreserved cheerleader for – but I fear this outing may have killed off this particular corner of the Doctor Who franchise for a while.  If you’re going to go the co-production route, I suspect anything but instant success spells trouble.

Primeval, ITV’s attempt at biggish budget sf entertainment, got a similar co-production makeover this year.  It didn’t over-reach itself, stayed on pretty familiar territory plot- and cast-wise, and all in all was …  fine, I thought.  Not quite as much straightforward fun as it used to be, maybe.  I find it more consistent than either Dr. Who or TW – you kind of know what you’re going to get with Primeval, and though it rarely hits exhilarating heights, it also rarely delivers a real clunker of an episode.  And consistency really, really matters in serial TV: it’s one thing the best US series nail that often seems elusive when us Brits go after it.

Anyway, Primeval’s not going to revolutionize British sf TV or anything, but I’ve always found it a diverting way to pass an hour or so.  Some vaguely promising hints of what’s to come, as well: apparently we’re to get a spin-off, Primeval: New World, which sounds potentially interesting.

And then, there’s the programme that actually prompted this post in the first place: Fades.  I might have missed the Misfits bandwagon, but I got in at the start for this new BBC 3 fantasy horror series and on the basis of what I’ve seen so far, I’d advise those who can to join me.

Audience-wise, it’s shooting for a youthful demographic, but it does it with plenty of style, a smart script, good acting and some resolutely unpleasant horror elements. (All stuff that, I can’t help but think, Torchwood could really have done with a bit more of).  There are one or two aspects to it that seem slightly off – I’m a bit puzzled, for example, by the decision to make what seems to be the only significant non-white character a comedy sidekick – but all in all, it’s very promising stuff, two episodes in.  It’s coming from roughly the same place, creatively-speaking, as Being Human and Misfits, and that is clearly one corner of the sf programming world that us Brits are getting right.

So there is stuff to celebrate when it comes to homegrown sf TV, it’s just that it’s not necessarily in the high-profile places an old codger like me naturally expects to find it …

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I am not a Twitterer. Not yet, anyway, and probably not soon. Maybe not ever, since I seriously doubt I have the staying power to turn out a regular stream of tweets, or twits, or twitters or whatever they’re called. But if I was on Twitter, things I might have Twittered in the last few days:

– Aren’t staples brilliant? Man, I wish I’d invented staples. That would have been a life well spent.

– Finished Locke & Key: Welcome to Lovecraft. Is good.

– Seen some old X-Files recently. Also some old Friends. Thought the latter has aged far better than the former. What does this say about me?

– Sunshine! Sunshine! I almost felt warm just now. Every winter, I forget how good that feels.

– How to tell something (i.e. Twitter) is about to head down the far side of the cool parabola: I start thinking ‘Hmmm. Maybe I should get me some of that action.’

Me, I have other means than the 140 character outpourings of countless Twitter pros to amuse myself online. Amongst them is googling the phrase ‘crushing the frantic penguins’. I’ve been doing it on and off ever since I first stumbled upon this means of trawling the depths of the internet for oddities last August. Strange behaviour, you say? Well, I’m not going to argue.

Anyway, I thought it was about time I shared my findings. Because I just know the world has been eagerly waiting to hear what new waymarkers have appeared on the virtual trail of once frantic, now flattened penguins since last we checked. And the answer is:

the complete text of the rather good HP Lovercraft story in which the noble phrase first appeared. (Specifically, it turns out, in Chapter 11 of said story).

a Lovecraftian monstrosity made of batteries. Like it.

an entire range of perfumes based on the works of HP Lovercraft. No, really. Call me unimaginative, but wouldn’t have occurred to me as an obvious source of perfumey inspiration, but the one relating to crushed penguins – Shoggoth – does actually sound quite nice: peony, lemongrass, coconut, lime etc. If they’d included ‘essence of dead flightless birds’ as an ingredient, I might have been tempted.

A Trio of Trifles

So there’s this book tournament going on see, over at bookspotcentral. It’s a knockout deal, and Bloodheir’s in the first round – but going no further unless it gets the votes! So should anyone happen to be a member over there, maybe voting for Bloodheir might be a possibility? Not saying you have to, just saying … you could. You know. If you wanted. If you’ve nothing better to do.

Arguably better to do would be browsing a fun website for writers, aspiring or otherwise, and readers and viewers come to that: tv tropes. It’s got seriously extensive lists and descriptions for all kinds of themes and conventions that show up in fiction of all sorts, not just TV writing. Handily organised into sub-categories, too, including one devoted to speculative fiction. Hours of diverting browsing. Plus it’s a wiki, so the whole thing’s user generated and edited.

And many a true word is spoken in jest. In support of which contention I direct you towards this instalment of Penny Arcade.

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