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Wednesday, 29 September 2010

The Net

Right then, qualifications out of the way first, because it's only right. I've not seen the movie 'The Net'. I know it stars Sandra Bullock and I pretty much had the idea that it's to do with identity theft and people being able to control you based on your computer usage but that's about it.

I have however seen a few bits of the TV version. Many years ago, when it first aired in this country I checked out a few episodes and wasn't impressed but it kind of got away from me and I'll be honest, it completely slipped my mind that the show existed until I saw the complete series on a DVD boxset in a discount DVD shop I frequent. 22 episodes for £6.99 is not to be sniffed at and of course, now that I had been reminded of it's existence I had to watch it, so into the basket it went. That was a while ago now though, because I've allowed the fact that my vague memories are not positive ones to put me off watching it.

Within minutes of switching on the pilot I was mocking it. From the ridiculously excited woman who was practically ready to sacrifice her first born to satnav, so awed was she by it's Godlike abilities, to the really clunky scene that sets up the fact that the lead never has contact with anyone and the delivery boy thinks her assistant is her (ooh, might that mean something later?) and culminating in the shadowy villains, shot so we never see their faces (there is a lingering shot of the female villains shapely legs as she climbs some stairs to meet with her boss that suggests the Director may have been extracting the urine with his brief), the whole thing just begged to be ridiculed.

I turned it off.

I wanted to come at it straight and I was allowing my preconceptions to shape my attitude.So I went off and watched some other rubbish and came back to The Net the next day. At which point I really got into it. The show is essentially a Fugitive for the internet age, albeit an internet age in its infancy. Brooke Langton stars as Angela Bennet, computer software genius who runs a freelance troubleshooting business over the web, being a bit of a recluse and refusing to meet her clients in person. She receives a piece of prototype tech, which a client wants her to debug, because it is very susceptible to viruses etc. She plugs it into her system and it latches onto and patches her into the private communications of a mysterious online presence known as Sorcerer, who promptly tells her to get lost. This fleeting contact puts her on the radar of a group of cyberterrorists calling themselves The Praetorians, after the Roman faction. They frame her as Liz Marx, a wanted terrorist, and she goes on the run, aided by the mysterious Sorcerer character, although her communication with him is limited to online chatrooms.

The pilot throws in some interesting kinks which may have been in the movie or may have been added here in an attempt to give the show a spine to build on longterm. Angelas father, who left when she was a child, is revealed to have been part of a radical thinktank in the 80's, which was run by the Praetorians and which is now being killed off by them. So on top of being on the run for crimes she didn't commit, and vowing to bring the rightful culprits down (so far so Fugitive) , there is also the idea that she is attempting to track down and help her Father. The intimation though, and it really isn't subtle, is that her Father may actually still be in league with the bad guys.

The bad guys are led by a man called Trelawney, who seems incapable of grasping that if he is in pursuit of a woman who claims to be being persecuted by a man called Trelawney, it would probably be easier to keep people thinking she was crazy/paranoid/delusional, if he didn't go around introducing himself as Trelawney.Thats gonna set the old alarm bells ringing isn't it?

Anyway, he's a bit sinister and dark and creepy, but has a seeming desire to see our heroine captured and brought to heel without her coming to any harm. Hmmm. He is assisted by an even more sinister and dark, but considerably dumber, henchman who just likes to kill people and an attractive female sidekick who may or may not be in love with him. She also has nice legs, which is not just me being shallow (this time), you can't avoid them. Seriously, I think it was in her contract that she had submit to lingering close ups of her legs at every possible opportunity.

Once Angela is on the run the show, sadly, falls into a bit of a cliche rut. She is arrested in the teaser of episode 2, for example. They couldn't have waited a couple of weeks to tease her recapture? The same episode is based in large part on her having the chance to reunite with her father. A chance she passes up to help out the troubled soul of the week. Yes, by episode 2.

Episode 3 is little better, with her foiling a Praetorian plot, helping a young homeless girl make something of her life and teasing a potential love interest that we will undoubtedly never see again, before having a big showdown with Trelawney, which she manages to walk away from far too easily.

I reckon this show would have done well to adopt the model used by The Pretender, and have separate storylines for Angela and the Praetorians, with occasional episodes were they meet. It would certainly help to keep the show fresh because the idea of them facing off, the villains getting egg on their faces and Angela running off into the sunset every week will get old quick. I've only seen the opening episodes so who knows, maybe they did go down this route and I've got something to look forward to.

The saving grace of the whole thing is Langton.

She throws off the 'soap star' stigma and crafts, in Angela, someone who feels like a living, breathing, real person. And a sympathetic one at that. In the pilot, when she is first arrested she doesn't play it brave, or bolshie; She plays it terrified and confused. When she is hurt in episode 3 she doesn't play the tough 'I aint got time to bleed' action hero; you see a young woman in shock and pain and desperation. Of course the scripts will only allow her to go so far in that direction, and to overplay it would make her seem weak but Langton pitches it perfectly. She impressed me.

Final point : what the hell is going on with the DVD release. I realised pretty quickly that something was up when the fourth episode started and some major changes seemed to have happened without explanation so I switched off and did a little checking. Turns out it has the episodes in completely the wrong order. 1,2,3,18,5,4, then 6 onwards. Last time I had to work this hard with a DVD was American Gothic, and at least they had the excuse that the episodes had aired in the wrong order originally, which doesn't seem to have been the case here. So what was the thinking with this decision? As I say, I switched off fairly quickly but even so, I now know of a pretty major cast change thats going to occur at some point. Disappointing.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Fangtastic. (I'll get me coat)

A vampire themed Quest this time out, because I've recently seen a couple of Episode Ones in that particular sub-genre. But first, a question. What do all of the following have in common?

It's mortal woman, vampire man. Every time. Has there ever been a show where it's the other way around? I'm hard pushed to think of one. The Vampire Diaries did something last year with a couple of its supporting characters but that wasn't allowed to last when she was pretty thoroughly killed off in the finale. Could it work as the central relationship of a show? Is the problem the perception that women ,or girls, fall harder and faster, are more invested, so the relationship feels artificially heightened? Or that women percieve 'bad' men as someone to be redeemed whereas men see 'bad' women as potentially guilt free opportunities for no-strings dalliances? Of course it could be that writers still feel beholden, even if it's unconsciously, to the Dracula/Mina template of woman seduced by vampire. Just something I've been wondering. Anyway...

I recently saw the 2nd season premiere of True Blood and the 1st episode (really half of the first episode, given it's a sliced up 2hr pilot) of Blade : The Series. True Blood is currently airing on C4 (thanks to FX only having 1st run, rather than exclusive rights) and Blade on one of Fives freeview subordinates. Blade has been available on a number of occasions in the relatively short period of time it's been in existence but there has always been something getting in the way of my seing it. This is as close as I've come and I'm determined to see the whole series this time out.

Without further ado let us now indulge in a little in-depth critical analysis of True Blood S2 Episode 1.

Sookie gets her norks out.


Okay, having brought the whole Rene storyline to a head and immediately setting up the fact that there is another killer operating in Bon Temps with the body in Andys car in the S1 finale the show just pretty much picks up right where it left off. I'd guess there is about a half hour time jump, just long enough for emergency services to arrive at the scene. From there it really is business as usual with Jason being a bit dim, Sam mooning around, Marianne being mysterious, Eric being vicious, Andy being a bit rubbish (at his job, Chris Bauer is a god among actors), and Sookie continues to get on Bills case about killing people before jumping into bed with him. And getting her norks out.

It occurred to me while watching this that HBO has managed to make the sensational banal. In that, all the sex, violence and foul language that they used to such great effect in their early days of scripted drama to court press coverage are now so commonplace that they no longer raise comment. We accept them, no questions asked, as part and parcel of a HBO show, without even really noticing them. It's well documented on here that I have a healthy(?) respect for the female form but joking aside, the Sookie/Bill sex scene in this episode was nothing at all to do with tittilation at Ana Paquin baring her breasts and everything to do with the state of their relationship and Sookies further acceptance of and descent into (despite her protestations to the contrary) Bills world. Sex and violence (and violence plays a big part in their sexual relations, in that she submits willingly to his biting her, drawing blood from her, even seeming to derive pleasure of her own from it) can be used and are used as narrative tools rather than sensationalist stunts. It's a fact that I feel certain other groups, keen to capitalise on HBO's taboo breaking, would do well to take note of.

On to Blade now and I'll be honest with you, I go into this series with some pretty low expectations. The fact that it was cancelled after only one season doesn't raise too many red flags given the early deaths meted out to so many shows in these days of 'succeed instantly or die' commissioning decisions, but the fact that no-one seems particularly sorry to see it go does. The show aired in 2006 which means it's long enough ago that people aren't discussing specifics (if they ever were) but recent enough that it occasionally comes up in conversation so I've been able to get a rough idea of peoples opinions without worrying about spoilers and the consencus seems to be that it was a bit meh and didn't really try to do anything particularly fresh or ambitious with it's set up.

Fom what I can gather so far, and remember this is still very early days for the show, the main problem for me is that Kirk Jones simply doesn't convince as Blade, and thats when he finally appears, because the focus seems to be almost entirely on the character of Krista (Jill Wagner), a military type who returns home from Iraq and sets out to discover the truth about her brothers death, which leads her into contact with vampires and, eventually Blade. The episode 'cliffhanger' if you can call it that (2hr eps never break properly do they?) is even based around her, as she walks into danger at a party attended by vampires.

I'll be honest with you, given Jones' limitations in the role, and his sidekick isn't much better, I wouldn't be at all sorry to see the focus stay on her. Wagner can act, seems capable of acquitting herself well in action sequences and is easy on the eye. A lot of shows have had worse leads. I can say that though because I know the show to already be cancelled and just want it to be as good as it can be for as long as it lasts. Had I been watching when it was still on the air I'd have been singing a different tune. The show is called Blade and for it to have any chance of forging a strong identity for itself and hopefully prosper I'd have been calling for a much stronger focus on the so called lead, ideally following a post pilot re-casting.

One thing this show does have going for it is the lack of any kind of sexual frisson between Blade and Krista. I hope they keep it that way, although I'm not pinning my hopes on it. (In doing some image searches after writing this post I came across a number of shots of Blade and Krista looking a bit 'close'. Say it aint so. Not to mention looking suspiciously like Krista with fangs. Have I just spoiled myself?)

So anyway, heres to the next 3months of vampire action, some of it classy, some of it not so, but all of it, if nothing else, necessary for the Quest.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Ulysses. Only he could do the things he did.

There was a time, thankfully in the dim and distant past, when the prevailing wisdom among television executives was that live action sci-fi was, at heart, a juvenile genre. This being the case, they would often feel the need to furnish shows with an audience identification character for the kiddies. You know, a kid, because kiddies can only follow and enjoy a story if it has other kiddies in it. Which just goes to show that the average network executive understands the thought processes of a 12yr old boy about as well as they understand nuclear physics or the inner workings of the cardio-vascular system in an asthmatic donkey. Just ask Noah Hathaway how much respect he got.

Kids don't want to watch kids because kids can only do kids stuff. Floppy haired whiners stowing away in cargo holds are nowhere near as exciting as square jawed macho men having laser gun shootouts with robots or state of the art outer space dogfights. Simple psychology. In fact the only token kid on any sci-fi show ever that was anything other than a total dead loss was (and yes, this is absolutely just a transparent excuse to post a pic) Rachel Blanchard on War of the Worlds.

Innocent young me had one of his first crushes on her then.(Slight cheat here cos I couldn't find a War of the Worlds pic. Clueless will have to do, although she was a couple of years older in that.)

And quite frankly, the me of today would struggle to resist the older model. ( Seriously, did you see her in Peep Show? That woman does things to a man.)

But wait, I hear you cry, the title of this post had led me to believe we'd be getting talk of Ulysses 31, what's going on? Well, I'll tell you, I realised that I'd posted a blog about Smallville and not stuck any pictures of hot women in it. SMALLVILLE! The show with a hot woman:everyone else ratio of approximately 97000678763:1. What was I thinking?. Of course I couldn't not redress the balance, that would be immoral, so I settled down with my thinking cap and came up with a wonderfully subtle, no it's not blatant at all, method of shoehorning something into a post on an '80's kids cartoon. So, ahem...

When it comes to being a child and trying to watch a television show, perhaps the only thing more annoying than the presence of these 'identification' characters in live action shows is the presence of their spiritual cousins, the cute comic relief character, in cartoons. Grown up geeks such as myself are often shot down by those who just don't get it, whenever we bemoan these woeful creations existence, with the argument that the shows were designed for kids and we should not expect them to adhere to the standards of an adult show. "It's just for kids" they cry. "The kids love it. Get a life." etc. etc. etc. I never used to be sure just how to respond to that argument.Certainly it seemed to have logic on it's side and it was oft times expressed with a sheer eloquence than my own crack handed paraphrasing cannot do justice to .So I was left in a quandary. Was I wrong? Were my opinions, of which I had been so certain for so long actually worthless? I needed to know.

Much debate, research and perusal of dictionary, encyclopedia and thesaurus later I had my answer. I was armed with a rebuttal so eloquent, so insightful, so downright intellectual, that there could be no argument. It went like this. "Bullshit"

I loathed these hateful little monstrosities as a child just as much as I do now and I never had any friends that said differently. So there. Every show had one and be it Uni squealing, Snarf, or Orco with those bloody magic tricks, you just wanted to punch the screen whenever they appeared.. The bottom of the barrel though, the absolute nadir, is NoNo. Yes, NoNo. I mean really. NoNo?

The robotic, well, plaything I suppose, of Ulysses' son Telemachus spends his time eating nails,looking gormless, complaining about being left out of things and being generally annoying. There is actually a scene in an early episode where Telemachus tries to dump him completely. I quote "Lets hide from him. He's so slow and stupid." Now at first I thought that this was a prelude to a story about friendship and loyalty and 'leave no man behind' and so on but no. Now the show being a French/Japanese co-production I'm willing to assume that the line was probably not intended to be quite so harsh and suffered from an over literal translation somewhere down the line but still, it made me laugh. It's made even funnier by the vehemence with which it is delivered by the dub artist.

Which brings us to the second of the problems with Ulysses 31. The dub suffers, as other shows have done, with the problem of trying to match the English translation to the foreign animation.This leads to some very odd pacing of dialogue and occasional lines that seem completely out of place, obviously added purely because the lips were still moving. In fairness though, this is a problem that is excusable in a kids show because kids don't notice shit like that. Certainly I was rather taken aback at how noticeable it was when I came to watch the complete series, having no memory of it ever having occurred to me back in the day.

The thing is though, dodgy dubbing (excusable) and annoying comedy character (par for the course) aside, Ulysses 31 is, quite possibly, one of the best cartoons of it's era. It's got a quite spectacular high concept, some absolutely stunning designs with the Odessy itself being a beautiful piece of work and the huge room stacked floor to ceiling with comatose crew members, doomed to lifelessness until Ulysses can escape the curse of the Gods is still a chilling concept all these years later.

Plus, of course, the insanely addictive theme song. Hear it once on the morning and you were guaranteed to be singing it all day. (At this point I was going to attempt to have a video here, of Philip Schofield and Gordon the Gopher in the broom cupboard, miming along to the song but I didn't for 2 reasons. I didn't trust myself to get it right and the video is all over youtube so I suspect I might be 10 years late to the joke.)

I'll be honest, I've had the DVD box set of this show now for quite some time but while I devoured a huge chunk of it in one go upon purchase I've only just gotten around to watching the final few episodes. Why? Well, as great as it is it suffers slightly from the fact that it was made in a time when childrens shows, and most live action shows in the action/adventure and sci-fi genres for that matter, were made episodically. That is, serialisation was frowned upon and every episode had to end with a big old push on that reset button. Robbed of any kind of forward momentum the episodes can begin to seem a little repetitive and the over earnest nature of the characters (seriously, this lot take humourless to another level) means it's not really suited to viewing marathons. More of a dip in and out show. I'm ashamed to say I shelved it for a while.

I have mixed feelings about these last few episodes. On the one hand was frustration because I knew the episodes were running out so all the resets were extra frustrating, especially since some of these later episodes could so easily have been building blocks in a grand finale. One episode sees Ulysses aiding a rebellion against the Gods in exchange for a map home but it comes to nothing. In another episode the comatose crew are awakened but at the end of the story they return to their curse to save Ulysses life. It was all so maddening.

On the other hand we have the finale which I loved. Given the above instances so late in the series I was kind of resolved to getting another open ended final episode that finishes like all the others with the Odysseus flying off to the next adventure, never to return home. But no, Ulysses defies Zeus, passes his final test and gets everyone safely home. Would it have been better if the episodes mentioned above and others like them had been allowed to play into the finale? First impulse is to say yes, but then we would be expecting it. Was it an elaborate double bluff by the writers? Nah, I reckon a fortuitous by-product of other factors more than likely but regardless, it fooled me. And I'm glad it did, it ended the whole affair on a proper high note.

Saturday, 4 September 2010

Forever Young Superman

This week, a show I really can't make my mind up about;

I read comics. I read less comics now than I once did but there was a time when a goodly portion of my monthly wage was spent in Traveling Man, Forbidden Planet or Waterstones (or more usually all three), hoovering up TPBs by Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, Garth Ennis, Brian K. Vaughan and their fellow scribes. As well, of course, as whatever was new from Rebellions fantastic range of classic 2000ad goodness. Those days are gone now, thanks mainly to the fact that I no longer have a monthly wage to squander in this fashion, but they will come again, oh yes they will, and when they do I shall be back there, filling my boots in an effort to catch up with whatever I've missed in my wilderness years.

The stuff I read though, which you'll know if you are at all familiar with the names I've mentioned above, tends not to feature a great deal of superhero stories. The majority of the American comics I read are from DC's Vertigo offshoot and while some (but not all) are set in the same fictional universe as the likes of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman et al. crossovers with these characters are really rather rare. Vertigo titles, those set in the DCU, are usually based around the mystical/magical corners of that universe. So we have Sandman (Neil Gaiman), Lucifer (Mike Carey), Swamp Thing (various) and John Constantine (various) amongst others.

All of which means, when I sit down to watch a TV show based on a comic book character I am rarely in a position to judge its level of faithfulness to the source material, or recognise which episodes/scenes are derived from specific comic stories, given that it is usually superhero comics which make the transition. The only way I can judge these shows is in isolation. Taken separately from the comics, how do they rate as television shows? Do they stand up on their own? I'll be honest though, I do sometimes feel like maybe I'm missing out, just a little bit, knowing that that little fanboy thrill that comes from getting a reference could be achieved so much more often were I better versed in the books. The show that I am most aware of this with, the show that taunts me on a weekly basis with it's flaunting of the mythology, is Smallville.

The show purports to be about Clark Kent before he adopted the Superman moniker but has now left that premise so far behind that even Channel 4 have given up the pretense and stopped billing it as Superman : The Early Years. (And didn't that just wind me up. It was as bad as Batman Beyond becoming Batman of the Future.)

Tom Welling as Clark Kent. Not really taking the secret identity thing seriously
Anyone who has stuck with it for it's incredible 9yrs and counting run (S10 was announced as definitely being the last but rumours are now circulating as to the possibility that it could get a nominal spin off, effectively S11) knows that it is now essentially the entire DCU on a television budget. Lois and Clark are effectively an item; Green Arrow has been a regular for a couple of seasons; Jimmy Olsen has been and gone; Zatanna has cropped up more than once (including one of the most recently aired episodes here in the UK); Aquaman, The Flash, Martian Manhunter and other members of a proto Justice League are recurring characters; nd so on.Watching this unfold has been a torturous experience because while I recognise who they are and I know the basic facets of their characters, I just know that they are bringing with them years of backstory that will be referenced and homaged to the hilt; most of which will go straight over my head.

Justin Hartley as Oliver Queen. Lad's well put together.

And then we get 'Absolute Justice'. Which is the point where, quite frankly, they start to extract the urine. The 2part story, which I think went out as a 'movie' type event when it first aired in the States, although don't quote me on that, is written by Geoff Johns, a big cheese in terms of writing at DC Comics. As I say, I'm not massively into Superhero comics but I get the impression that he is the 'main man' when it comes to crafting the big, multi character, Universe shaping storylines at DC. And apparently he's pretty good at it. So it should probably come as no surprise that he's up to the same tricks in Smallville.

Erica Durance as lois Lane. I defy you not to fall in love.

Having been responsible last year for the episode that melded all the recurring heroes into the team that will one day be the Justice League (in an episode appropriately called 'Justice'), he's back this year to bring the leaders of this group - Clark, Oliver Queen/Green Arrow and John Jones/Martian Manhunter, into contact with their in-universe predecessors the Justice Society of America. And so, rather than the gradual introduction over a number of years that the League received, we have an influx of as many characters again within a scant 2 hour running time. Of course we then proceed to see a lot of them killed off almost instantly, which I'm sure probably rubbed a lot of fanboy viewers up the wrong way but I'll be honest, it's really the only way they could have gone with the whole thing.

You see, as saddened as I was to see the incredibly short shrift payed to Wesley Dodds, aka The Sandman (a character I was familiar with from his fleeting appearances in Neil Gaimans Sandman stories and the first couple of arcs of Sandman Mystery Theater) I quickly came to the realisation that it was really pretty inevitable. The introduction of the JSA was such a massive deal for the show that their was no credible way to then ignore it completely; it simply must be referenced again in future stories. To do that with the JSA back at full strength would seriously overbalance the show in favour of these newer, less established (in terms of the show) characters and work to the detriment of the established regular and recurring heroes. So the decision had to be made to streamline and choose maybe a couple of characters to go forward into future JSA themed episodes. Dodds,as awesome a character as he is, is simply not recognisable enough to have a hope of being chosen. Artistic merit aside, television is a business and the producers were always gonna go with characters they felt would bring in the punters. Hence 'cute girl in skin tight lycra' and 'brooding hunk played by established genre veteran' get the nod as most likely characters to be revisited. Such is life.

Zatanna. Oh yes.
E4 has screened a few more episodes since Absolute Justice, including the aforementioned Zatanna one, none of which have come close to matching it in terms of quality. Indeed, the Zatanna one especially, dealing with a wimpy child who gets to be a hero for a day, or the Valentines Day episode that has Lois tranced into being the perfect '50's wife for Clark, are contenders for some of the most cringeworthy episodes of anything on telly this year. The thing is though, these less successful episodes, which if I'm brutally honest are actually in the majority with Smallville, never seem to sap my enthusiasm for the show. Where other shows are chores, which I watch purely because they exist and which I actively wish to see canceled, Smallville has enough charm and wit in it's characters to make every opportunity to spend time with them a pleasure.

And when it does work there is nothing on television like it.