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Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Blood and Sex

As established very early in the life of this blog, I have something of a fondness for the fairer sex; I can't help it, and I long ago stopped trying to hide it. For the most part though, this fondness manifests as a slightly pathetic childlike crush, which I feel is so innocent, if not mockable, as to not require any apology. The truth is, while I joke about my 'pervy' tendencies a lot, when it comes to nudity, or full on sexual activity in my viewing, I barely notice it, unless it's gratuitous, and then it gets more of an annoyed, disapproving 'tut' than any kind of titillated response.

Which is why I tutted a fair bit at the opening episodes of Spartacus: Blood and Sand, but by the end of the season, I was barely aware of the (copious amounts of) flesh on show.

I came to Spartacus, as I did Edge of Darkness, as a stopgap while I was waiting to resume my viewing of Supernatural. In all honesty I didn't expect it to be anything particularly special, partly because it had aired in the UK on a channel not known for importing the most high brow of shows, and partly because I had seen a segment on You Have Been Watching which had made it seem, to be blunt, like blatant homo erotic soft porn. Not that there's anything wrong with soft porn aimed at the homosexual male, but it's not what I look for in a serious drama. Of course, as you watch the beginnings of the series it soon becomes apparent the show is very much a 'something for everyone' provider of naughtiness. Men and women both, wandering around with their bits out, indulging in some quite shocking sexual (hetero and homo; in fact the terms are somewhat redundant) shenanigans, make up a large proportion of the screen time. It all seems a little bit 'try hard' at times, as though the writers and directors were doing it as a sop to Starz (or were indulging the novelty value of being allowed to do it, by said network).

It's sad really, because there really are some very good looking people in the cast, and while I can't speak for the men; both because of my own sexual preferences and because their costumes are restricted to togas for the nobles and almost nothing for the Gladiators; the women were, to my mind, far better served by the costumes than by any amount of nudity; Viva Bianca especially looks stunning in some of the gowns she sports. Maybe that's just me being a prude, I don't know.

Lets leave behind the sex and nudity though, and talk about more dignified matters; namely, violence. Many moons ago I was talking to a gentleman of my acquaintance who doesn't watch a lot of television, and he was bemoaning the fact that he had stumbled across an episode of 'some kind of historical thing, and this bloke was in an arena and he chopped this other blokes head off with a shield; it was disgusting; how was that allowed on the telly?' He was talking, of course, about Rome, and I mocked him hugely for his attitudes, but I was reminded of that incident, and was slightly more sympathetic to his views, when watching Spartacus.

I have no doubt that the violence of the day; be it in the war of the first episode or the gladiatorial combat we see subsequently; was every bit as brutal and bloody as we see here, but the relish with which it is depicted leaves one once again wondering whether the makers may have been better off heeding the sage words of Jeff Goldblum, in that movie about dinosaurs (I forget the name but you've probably seen it; it was a modest hit). Now, I'm far from a gorehound and I don't believe there are many stories, especially good stories, that need it, but at the same time I'm willing to tolerate it to get at a good story; the early Saw movies being good examples; but here the story was sadly lacking, leaving me with the undeniable feeling that the gore was being used to mask this fact.

The biggest problem with the gore, at least to my mind, was the oceans of CG claret that would flood the screen at times. I'm not one of those so ignorant of film making conventions as to assume it was meant as a literal depiction of the amount of blood spilled (and was surprised to learn that some did assume this); I knew it to be a stylisation, used for effect to emphasise the violence; I just didn't think it was a particularly good attempt. The CG looked cheap (rightly or wrongly), and the effect tacky, so all in all a bit of a failure. Luckily as the series progressed this effect was used more sparingly, although it does recur throughout. In the commentary tracks on the DVD the producers have cited this effect as an attempt at 'The Graphic Novel' look. They mention 300 as an influence and since I've neither seen the movie nor read the book upon which it's based it's possible I'm not the best judge of how successful they may or may not have been. That said though, even if they've got it bang on, they haven't really based it on 'The' graphic novel style, they're basing it on 'A' graphic novel style. A distinction worth mentioning I think.

And so to the story. Because despite the impression I may have given up until now, the show does have one. Not just a story, but a tightly plotted, intricately crafted story, with an awful lot of twists and turns, some constantly shifting loyalties and a number of elements carried through from the pilot that pay off in the finale. A good, honest, proper serial; albeit one swamped by sex and violence.

We follow, as you might expect from a show called Spartacus, a man called Spartacus (Andy Whitfield). Or rather, a man who has his name stripped from him and is renamed Spartacus by his new masters. The pilot finds him living life as a loving husband and proud warrior, and follows him as he loses everything and ends up as a slave, bound for the arena, before the series proper charts his rise in popularity with the spectators, rise in privilege within his masters house, and rise in respect amongst his fellow gladiators.

There's more to it than that though. The show is as much about the people surrounding Spartacus as it is the man himself. The House of Batiatus is a hotbed of political intrigue, with Batiatus (John Hannah, playing one of the most entertaining sociopaths you'll ever see) and his wife Lucretia (Lucy Lawless, who isn't far behind in the scenery chewing lunacy) leading the way, although clerk (and former gladiator) Ashur could give them a run for their money.

Ashur (Nick Tarabay) is a bit of a favourite character of mine on the show; even though we know from very nearly the outset that he's a conniving little prick, you can't help but feel for him as his injury heals and he thinks he's about to re-enter the arena, before his dreams of glory are stripped from him by Batiatus, who thinks he's more useful as a back room man. All the poor guy wants to do is get his sword back, but he's denied at the last minute, and he's crushed. Of course, the other gladiators see his new position as being unworthy, and he is mocked, so his willing and sometimes even gleeful participation in fucking with their lives (and orchestrating their deaths) is perhaps understandable.

Anyway, Batiatus promises Spartacus that he'll reunite him with his wife if he fights well and remains loyal. Spartacus agrees and all goes well, even past the point where his wife (Sura, played by Erin Cummings) is killed. The way he figures it, Batiatus tried his best and it's not his fault she's dead. Ah, Sparty, how naive you are. There's a lot of that going on, with a number of seemingly permanent cast members, like Sura, getting killed off unexpectedly, and in very nasty ways, as the series progresses.

Spartacus' best friend Varro, for instance, who volunteered to become a gladiator to pay off his gambling debts, is dispatched in a tearjerking (read: emotionally manipulative) scene, which is spoiled only by the antagonist being played by a truly truly awful actor. Console yourselves though, because that guy gets what's coming to him as well. In fact, by the end of the run, I defy anyone to predict who is or isn't coming out of any given episode alive. And by this point, we care, which was far from the case early on; had you told me after 2 or even 3 episodes that I'd give a toss for any of the characters on this show, caricatures that they were, I'd have laughed in your face but by the home straight every death is a gutpunch (so the finale, bloodbath that it is, is very uncomfortable viewing, albeit in the right way).

Creator Steven S DeKnight came up in the Joss Whedon camp, so it's hardly surprising that the characters engender strong emotions in the viewer; what's surprising is that it took so long. DeKnight is responsible for the incredibly poor early episodes here, so there really is no excuse. He pulls it out of the hat though, and delivers a truly shocking finale, that opens up some very intriguing new avenues for the surviving characters going into S2.

Ah yes, season 2. The illness of leading man Andy Whitfield led to a postponement of S2, with a prequel mini-series, that didn't require his presence, going into production to maintain the brand, which if you want to look on the bright side of a very dark situation at least allows for a little more John Hannah, since we're unlikely to see him going forward. Sadly though, as I'm sure most people know, shortly after S2 did finally go into production, Whitfields illness returned and took his life. When we do see the second season, this time called 'Vengeance', it shall be with a new face in the lead role.

That's a ways in the future though; more so for me than for most, as I predict I shall remain a year or so behind with this show all the way (I have yet to watch the mini series). Why? Well, because when you are watching on DVD, waiting a while means the price drops, 'tis as simple as that. I picked up S1 when the mini came out, and I'll likely pick up the mini when S2 comes out. I'm not made of money, you know.

I have no idea what I'll be waffling about next week, but I'm sure it'll be just as insightful, well researched and scholarly as this piece was. So, you know, probably best to read Ally Ross instead. (Joke. Please don't read Ally Ross.)

Thursday, 15 December 2011

The Dude Turns Into A Tree? Are You mad?

There are few things more exciting in this life, or at least in my life, than the chance to watch, after years of listening to awed conversations and reading reverential magazine articles, a true classic of television. Shows that can evoke such extreme reactions are rare; The Prisoner is one (McGoohan version, lest anyone think me insane), Robin of Sherwood another; Twin Peaks is up there of course, and more recently the likes of Firefly and Smallville (joke!) have staked their claims as likely to be on the list in 10 years.

A Great Show

A Great Show

Not A Great Show

Of the shows mentioned above, I've watched all but a handful over the years. The only one not completely 'checked off' when it comes to the Quest is Twin Peaks; I saw it when Sci-Fi (as was) ran it about 10 years ago, but for reasons too complicated to go into here, I missed a number of episodes at various points in the run, which is far from ideal with any show but as anyone who has actually watched Twin Peaks will attest, with this show it's an absolute nightmare. Thankfully, the modern age has come to the rescue and I now have the complete series on DVD, sitting on my shelf, calmly awaiting it's chance to shine (which should be when I get to the end of Supernatural S5, barring any last minute change of plans).

When I was faced with a derailment of my viewing of Supernatural at the end of S3, I didn't want to delve into Twin Peaks straight away since I hoped that I'd be back with the brothers Winchester as soon as possible, so I picked up a couple of quite short lived shows just to tide me over. The first was Spartacus: Blood and Sand, and the second was another show that belongs on that list of classics above; Edge of Darkness. And it's this show which I plan to talk about here.

I went into Edge... with something of a tinge of regret; I had, after all, been pre-spoiled simply by virtue of the fact that the show was so old and so well regarded. I worried, as I often do with shows of this type (I had similar qualms when I started watching the aforementioned Twin Peaks for the first time), that the impact of the spiritual/mythological aspects would be lessened on me because I knew they were coming, rather than approaching the stories as murder mysteries and having the, for want of a better word, crazy, take me by surprise. Of course, then I realised that if it weren't for having foreknowledge of these elements, I probably wouldn't be watching the shows at all, so, you know...

Anyway, as is my totally arbitrary policy on here (me like, me no spoil; me no like, me spoil the shit out of), I'll not be spoiling this show. This poses something of a dilemma though, since discussing the plot past episode 2, in even the vaguest of terms, is going to result in pretty massive spoilerage. All I'll say is that it's about a copper who, whilst in the process of investigating a particularly personal murder, gets led down some pretty dark, and unexpected, paths; oh, and the people doing the leading are pretty much the epitome of shady.

Our hero is Ronnie Craven, played by perennially, if not underrated by those who actually know of his work then certainly under recognised, actor Bob Peck. Craven is everything you'd expect from the lead in an 80's British cop show; he's middle aged, he's gruff, grumpy and dour, and he leads a relatively dull life of domestic normality. Sonny Crocket he most certainly isn't. What he is, despite all that, is loyal, honest and surprisingly funny when he chooses to be, which is mostly in banter with his daughter. He's also, once he gets his teeth into the case, doggedly persistent; perhaps unsurprisingly given the deeply personal connection he has to it; and it's this quality that leads the various shadowy factions at play in the plot to choose him as their agent, whether he knows about it (or likes it) or not; they know he's going to get to the bottom of the situation, whatever the cost.

Getting second billing is Joe Don Baker, as Darius Jedburgh, an attache of some kind at the American Embassy. Now, we all know what 'attache at the American Embassy' inevitably means but as I say, no spoilers so I'm confirming nothing. What I will say is that it's an absolutely stunning performance that has you liking the guy when you're sure he's a baddie, thinking he's a tit when you're sure he's a goodie, and just plain admiring the guy, good or bad, flaws and all, by the end; layered is not the word for this performance. Of course, he likes Come Dancing, which is almost enough to turn you off him, but we're none of us perfect.

Future Mrs Batman Joanne Whalley plays Cravens daughter, Emma. Emma is something of an activist, and her politics are somewhat (radically) at odds with those of her Father, but theirs is not an antagonistic relationship; they obviously care a great deal for each other, aren't estranged to any great degree, and seem to take great delight in debating (and baiting) each other on the issues of the day. It's a healthy relationship, and it's only when watching this show that you realise how rare that is; it's so easy to go down the route of generational differences leading to ideological differences leading to estrangement and bitter conflict, both in drama and in comedy. It's refreshing to see a couple of people who accept each others views and still manage to live together in relative harmony.

Emma is an important character within Edge of Darkness for... a number of reasons, but it's as her Father's sounding board that she makes her presence most keenly felt; throughout the running time we see him venting his thoughts, feelings and worries at her, while she plays devils advocate, as well as urging him on in his quest. It's an effective means of dramatising the thought processes (and crisis of conscience/confidence) of an otherwise very taciturn man.

Beyond those main three, the cast comprises a veritable who's who? of British television. Look, there's Ian McNeice and Charles Kay! Oh, and isn't that Tim McInnerny? Why, that woman looks a lot like Zoe Wannamaker! Greatest of all though, it's only Brian bloody Croucher! Of course, several of them weren't the household names they are now, but it's still a damn fine collection of thesps, who know what they have with this script and give it everything it deserves; there isn't a duff performance in the six episodes.

Edge of Darkness is murder mystery, political thriller, exploration of grief and... something else as well. What it really is though, above all of those things, is a classic piece of television. Regardless of country of origin, genre or age this is a show which, if you consider yourself a lover of good television, you absolutely owe it to yourself to watch. I'll say no more.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Busty Asian Beauties

Welcome one and all to The impossible Quest, back up and running at last (albeit a week later than advertised because wouldn't you know it, as soon as I committed to a start date real life got VERY complicated for a little while). That's by the by though and we're here now, so without further ado, let's kick proceedings off with a look at everyone's favourite show about wisecracking dudes in a cool car fighting monsters.

It's an odd one, Supernatural. I watched S1, way back in the dim and murky past, when it first aired in the UK and I remember it being a really dull, repetitive, stuck in a rut throwback. I wasn't kind to it, in my comments at the time, but luckily this was before my all-conquering assault on the internet (Klout score of 43, baby - no, I don't know what that actually means either), so my hasty criticisms were not recorded for posterity. Fast forward a few years and I decide that the time has come to bite the bullet; The Quest will not be denied and besides, this show has been going for yonks now and everyone seems to love it; it must have something going for it, right?

I realised quite quickly, when I slapped in the first DVD, that other than some pretty iconic imagery; the flaming title card, the Mother on the ceiling, the Impala cresting a rise in a road, and of course the Winchesters themselves, I had very little memory of anything from that first batch of episodes. I had watched them, but their events had slipped from my memory like so much pus from an infected wound. As, it seems, had my ambivalence. You see, it soon became apparent that yes, it does have something going for it; an awful lot, in fact. I look back at the 'me' of all those years ago and I'm thinking 'what the Hell are you on, mate'? (For the record, I wasn't 'on' anything. Just say no, kids.)

Is it flawless? Of course it isn't; it's formulaic in the extremis and is severely hampered by having such a small cast, but those are problems that are mitigated by the chemistry between that cast (and it is small, with only two regulars and occasional visits from their Dad, with his visits being, by necessity, brief and infrequent, since his absence is a core aspect of the shows premise). Big name guest stars, or at least big names in genre circles, help a little more, (I'm particularly fond of the Amy Acker appearance, but then; Amy Acker!) and of course a bit of gratuitous blood and gore never goes amiss. All in all though, I seriously doubt that the show would have enjoyed the longevity that it has, were things to have carried on in the same vein indefinitely.

Things improve immeasurably with the introduction of Sebastian 'I'm in everything but hardly anyone knows my name' Spence and Nicki 'I got my kit off in a rubbish show about soldiers' Aycox, as a pair of recurring villains, along with an almighty mcguffin in the shape of a Demon killing gun. These factors, combined with the return of Jeffrey Dean Morgan as John Winchester, mean that the show closes out it's first season on a reasonable high.

It's with Season 2 though, that the show really begins to show signs of what it's capable of. Old family friend Bobby (the only one of the Brothers oft mentioned but never seen support network not to be killed off at the end of S1) becomes a recurring presence, new allies are introduced in the (shapely) form of a kick-ass bar owning Mother/Daughter combo (and their geeky Tin Dog), and the boys are newly re-energised in their mission to take out the Big Bad, thanks to some additions to the mythology that widens up the scope of the show nicely. And while all this is happening, the human authorities are starting to notice the trail of unexplained deaths left in their wake; that'll be back to bite 'em.

As a serial whore, I make no apologies for enjoying S2 far more than I did S1 (and I enjoyed S1 just fine). The additional cast members and increased reliance on the over arching plot was always going to appeal to me more than the almost anthology nature of the previous year.

Serial structure vs episodic? Check. Recurring support cast instead of relying on the leads alone? Check. Deep and ever expanding mythology? Check. Hot chicks and violence? Check (Come on, I'm not gonna deny that's a motivating factor). The show had arrived. This was the year that I really felt like a fan for the first time.

The improvements continue into S3, with a new enemy being introduced as well as some intriguing new characters (one of whom would be given short shrift by the writing strike mandated curtailed season, with her storyline ending without the necessary build-up; a missed opportunity).

Of course, as all true Supernatural fans will tell you (or at least, all the Supernatural fans I've dared talk to, given my spoilerphobe leanings) the show really kicks into high gear with the dawn of S4. Why? Because it's here that we see the introduction of a certain Angel, going by the name of Castiel (as played by Misha Collins). He's the canine danglies, by all accounts, and I'm very looking forward to seeing what he brings to the table. As it stands right now though, I can't really venture an opinion because I've only actually seen his first couple of episodes.

You see, as much as I might have wanted to immerse myself in S4 immediately after the slightly rushed but still very very good cliffhanger ending to the 3rd year, I couldn't. Why? Well, I'll tell you why. Not a single shop in my near vicinity could see their way clear to selling me a copy. 3 different branches of HMV in 3 different cities and numerous smaller retailers all failed me. They all had S1-3, and 5-6 as well, but for some unfathomable reason that no-one could explain to me, not a one of them had 4. I was distraught. (One of them actually tried to convince me to buy S5 without seeing 4 first. I considered getting the guy sacked, I'll be honest with you.)

All is well with the world now though, because whatever caused the drought has been fixed and my last little excursion netted me a copy. So it'll not be long now until I;m singing Cas' praises with the rest of you. Or, you know, slagging him off; I'm a contrary bastard you know. Until then, in a blatant and cynical atempt to drag in views, have a picture of him. You're welcome.

WHEN I was blasting through the first 3 seasons of this show, and ruminating on what I'd write on this here blog about it, I asked a couple of questions on my beloved twitter. I figured, the show has a lot of very dedicated fans online, I may as well attempt to tap into that and cater the blog visuals accordingly; every view counts, right? The first question I asked was which of the two Winchester Brothers was considered hottest by the ladies (or gay men, I don't discriminate). The answer surprised me in it's vehemence, because I didn't get a single reply favouring Sam (Jared Padalecki). Bit of an ego blow for him, I'd think, if he ever, you know, gave a shit about a tiny little 5 minute poll on a twitter account with no folowers. Dean (Jensen Ackles) on the other hand; he'd get trampled in the rush. In the end I featured both of them anyway; it seemed wrong not to.

The 2nd question was whether people would rather see a picture of the iconic Impala, or a picture of Jeffrey Dean Morgan? If it's possible, the response was even more emphatic. And so, as a parting treat, to say thank you for reading this waffle, I give thee:

Daddy Winchester

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Awesome Relaunch! Kinda. Ok, not really.

Hello, and welcome once more to The Impossible Quest. It's been a while, so it has, but never fear, we're back in business. Almost.

Next Wednesday - make a note in your diaries - should see the first post on a new look Quest. Well, I say new look... basically, it'll look exactly the same, read exactly the same and, you know, be exactly the same, apart from one or two little tweaks.

I'm gonna stick a few links over on the right there; to some podcasts and whatnot about various shows, (and if you listen to more than a couple of episodes of any of them you'll be ahead of me, because I'm notorious for downloading shedloads and then forgetting to listen to them), and I'm planning to replace the blog list too. Most of them will find their way onto my book blog (as will an entry very similar to this; cut and paste, me?) and will be replaced with a few that are, funnily enough, TV related. (If you have any interest in television production at all, and you aren't reading Ken Levine's blog, you are seriously missing out).

Also, I'll have a list of lovely lovely twitter peoples that you should follow. Not celebs, but people that are great fun to shoot the proverbial brown stuff with regarding the telly. And isn't that all any of us really want?

So, yeah, a few minor changes to make the format a little more consistent and we'll be up and running and back to business as usual in no time. Upcoming shows I'll be writing about will include Spartacus (HIS WIFE HAS VISIONS SO IT'S FANTASY SO LEAVE ME ALONE IT HAS BOOBIES AND I WANT TO TALK ABOUT THE BOOBIES), Dangermouse (oh, yes), Edge of Darkness (really looking forward to this one) and a round-up of recent US pilots. Oh, and of course Supernatural, since I said shortly before disappearing from these parts that I'd be writing up my thoughts of S1 'imminently' (it'll now be S1-S3).

Until next week then. (And if I don't post, after all this, please leave me a shedload of abusive comments on here. Or you could send me hate tweets, those are always good motivators.)

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

A Good Show, A Bad Show and an I Don't Really Know Yet Show

So, while I saw bits and pieces of these shows as a child the Quest is not satisfied with such lackluster performance and I am engaged in a full, chronological rewatch on DVD to fill in the (many) blanks. Said rewatch has now seen me reach the end of Season 3 and as such the halfway point of the series as a whole; an opportune time, one might think, for a little well thought out, constructive criticism of the kind I am justly famed for. Hah!

CHILDHOOD. A time in all of our lives when we are awestruck by pretty colours and loud noises and need nothing else to entertain us; a time when our critical faculties are about as finely tuned as Channel 5 circa 1998; a time when it doesn't matter how utterly dire a show is so long as it's trippy enough to hypnotise you while your parents argue in the back yard about whose turn it is to lie to the landlord (although that may just have been me). Except that, despite what most adults think (which is odd, because weren't they children themselves once?), that's not really the case is it? I for one have some very clear memories of watching TV and thinking that it was just embarrassing, (especially in the post Tyler Butterworth days*), but by the same token I have been very pleasantly surprised to find that most of the shows which I remember as being good have in fact aged very gracefully when I've returned to them as an adult. X-Men is no exception.

Terrible animation - watch those wild gesticulations as characters get angry; I swear Wolverine is crouching to go No.2 when he's in growly accusation mode - and voice acting from the 'shout everything at the top of your lungs regardless of context' school of acting, mean that the show is VERY MUCH an acquired taste but stick with it and you are rewarded with some really rather good superhero action adventure stories that aren't afraid to tackle the big issues - Magnetos childhood as a Jew during the Holocaust and Morphs post traumatic stress are just two examples - while still remembering to be entertaining.

Now, as I confessed here, I'm no real expert on mainstream superhero comics, but even a relative philistine such as myself is going to recognise the likes of 'Days of Future Past' and 'The Phoenix Saga/Dark Phoenix'. This, coupled with onscreen acknowledgments for comic book writers on many episodes, leads me to believe that this show is likely far more faithful to the comics that spawned it than the fans would have had any cause to expect, or even hope. Which, while good for said fans, was a bit of a gamble for the producers, given that the comics in question are very long running with complex months, years, even decades long storylines behind them. To try to transfer that to the screen in a way that didn't bore the kids must have been a challenge. Luckily, a challenge they were more than up to the task of meeting.

I've gotten the impression from somewhere, I'm not sure where, that the show becomes a lot less serialised from this point on, devolving into the more standard episodic structure that you would expect from a Saturday morning cartoon of that era. I'm not sure how happy I am about that, to be honest, but we'll see how it goes; these writers have earned enough good will from me that I'm not going to write them off without a fair crack of the whip. It'll be a while before I find out though.

YES, I AM TAKING A BREAK, (the halfway point seemed as good as any) to make an attempt to get a little bit caught up on a show some of you may have heard of called Supernatural.

Currently in it's 87th season I am slightly behind in that I have only ever seen the first and if I'm honest I can't remember a thing about it. So I've started from scratch and am currently chugging my way through the first season.

It's a little early to say, but first impressions are that I'm going to enjoy it, so long as it breaks out of the anthology rut and develops a decent story arc and support cast. I'm assured that it does and indeed I've already seen some signs of it as I delve into the back half of the season so signs are positive.

I'll talk more about this show next time, when I should have finished off at least the first season.

I KNOW IT'S SLIGHTLY LESS THAN TOPICAL NOW, as the show has been off the air for a few weeks, but this blog has been inactive so now's my first chance to say it; Camelot was a proper turkey wasn't it? I talked about my first impressions of it here and to be honest I'm disappointed in those who told me it improved because it blatantly did not. It carried on in the same bland, uninspired and frankly, boring way right up to the final cringeworthy twist. (I joked about Arthur/Morgan incest when the pilot aired, mocking the shows desperate shock tactics. I didn't think they'd ever actually do it.)

While I never actively celebrate a shows cancellation - every show has it's fans and who am I to deprive them - I'm certainly not going to shed any tears over this one either. Hopefully, the talented members of the cast can look on this as a lucky escape and move on to better things quite quickly. And if I could only think of any talented members of the cast I'd name them.

That's your whack from me for this here edition of The Impossible Quest. I'll be back, hopefully next week, with an in depth look at Supernatural. Until then, Go Away (c. Charlie Brooker)

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

My First Sci-Fi

Despite being determined to get a new post up on all my blogs this week I have singularly failed to put anything together for the Quest so I've decided to just waffle a wee bit of nothing about the first sci-fi show I can ever remember watching.

While I have literally no idea when it was, I can pinpoint exactly where I was (and even the position I was in; laid on my belly in front of a roaring coal fire) and exactly what the show was - to the episode. Why? Because it's a bloody good episode and one of the finest hours of a true legend of 70's/80' TV.

Dirk Benedict. Even his name is brilliant. Not until the arrival on our screens of Benedict Cumberbatch would a name ooze arsomness in quite such copious quantities. Just say it; Dirk. Benedict. Class.

The Return Of Starbuck (although I didn't know that's what it was called at the time) is basically Enemy Mine (it predates the film but is a contemporary of the novella that spawned it) or that thing with the Yank and the Japanese dude at the end of WWII (I forget what it's called and since it doesn't have aliens or robots I'm disinclined to look it up), except with a Colonial Warrior and a Cylon Centurion, but where Return...scores over both of them (aside from having Benedict) is that, well, I watched it first so it is obviously best.

Seriously though, it's hard to believe I would be the person I am today, or that this blog would even exist, were it not for this episode. Had I lain down a week earlier and seen - looks it up, sighs in dismay - 'Space Croppers', as my first ever sci-fi, things would have been very very different.

Years later, when BBC2 was running it's veritable feast of classic and modern sci-fi every night at teatime, we got a complete run of Battlestar Galactica. I remember thinking that I was going mad, as each week I would sit down in the hopes that this would be the week I'd get to rewatch the classic I remembered so well and it never came. Then that awful, awful day when suddenly it was over and this... this abomination that was Galactica 1980 was in it's place. What had happened? Where was Starbuck? Diiiiirk! Come back Dirk!

I literally could not get my head around the fact that Starbuck/Benedict had been written out and I had still not seen the episode of my memories. Had I imagined it? Surely not. And yet the fact remained that the episode heavily featured a character that simply was not on the show anymore. Try to remember, this was in the days before the internet; I had no way of bashing a few keys and having all my queries answered. I just had to sit there, week in and week out, becoming ever more sure that I was, in fact, insane. An insane person with a hell of an imagination, but an insane person nonetheless.

Then it happened. Another week, another naff disappointment as the once great show limped ever onwards; or so I thought. But no, what's this, 'The Return Of Starbuck'. Could it be... It is! Vindication is mine, I'm not mad after all! Sadly, no further episodes were produced after The Return... I would have liked to have seen the elements introduced here explored further in the series; perhaps they could have gone some way toward redeeming it. The damage had been done though, and the cancellation axe fell. I suppose it's some grim consolation that at least being canceled at that precise point meant that it went out on an absolute high. Galactica 1980 ended on the best episode it had ever produced.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Farewell and Welcome

One in, one out, as the old saying doesn't really go, but would if their was a bit less poetry and a bit more literalism in the world.

The last couple of weeks have seen me smash my way through the final few episodes of Battlestar Galactica and add to my schedule the new Arthurian show, Camelot. One endeavour gave me immense levels of entertainment, with action, emotion and noble sacrifices galore while the other was a big pile of try hard adolescent nonsense. Guess which was which.

I've been guilty in the past of judging shows before I've even seen an episode. I assumed, as I think most people did, that Buffy The Vampire Slayer was going to be disposable fluff; I assumed that Spooks: Code 9 was going to be arsom; and I assumed that Merlin was going to be really irritating youth oriented nonsense, more Robin Hood than Doctor Who. We all know about the incredible legacy that Buffy has left, the less said about Code 9 the better and Merlin has fast become a firm favourite of mine. The success of this latter show in winning me over was largely responsible for me attempting to put aside my prejudices regarding the latest addition to my schedule; Camelot. The thematic and narrative ties between the two led me to hope that where Merlin had succeeded in winning me over, Camelot would as well. Sadly, my preconceptions in this case were quite strong, since everything I heard about this show prior to watching pointed toward it being a dismal failure.

The first problem with Camelot was of course it's casting.There is no way on Earth that even the most talented PR man or woman is ever going to convince me that Joseph Fiennes is a suitable choice to play a) Merlin or b) any other character at all, in this show or any other, ever. To put it simply, The. Man. Can. Not. Act. Sorry, but there it is.

Other casting decisions were less worrying by comparison but only in the way that getting run over by a car is less worrying than getting run over by an articulated lorry; Eva Green, whose work I'm not overly familiar with, seemed to be talked about entirely in terms of how often she got her kit off, which while always a welcome trait in attractive female characters, dosn't constitute a character in and of itself.

Meanwhile, Jamie Campbell-Bower as Arthur spends the whole show looking like he'd be more comfortable running up and down a beach in Summer Bay than charming a nation into proclaiming him the greatest monarch they'd ever had. I should say that I have no problem with the concept of a reluctant young hero forced into responsibilities he doesn't feel ready for; it's a standard trope of the fantasy genre and plenty of solid drama can be drawn from the premise when it's done well but you need a charismatic lead for it to work and here we have, well, look at him.

All the casting woes aside though - and I won't even go into what a drippy mare Tamsin Egertons Guinevere looks - pale into insignificance when you factor in the big one; Executive Producer and head writer Chris Chibnall, who has proven time and again over the last few years that there isn't a cliche or plot contrivance he won't stoop to in his quest to thoroughly dumb down genre drama. I can see why Starz felt he was the man for the job, what with the two seasons of Torchwood he oversaw doing such great numbers in the States but really, they are television proffessionals; could they not recognise that that shows success was almost entirely in spite of his efforts? He wrote 'Cyberwoman' and 'Countrycide' for Gods sake.

So, despite my best mental efforts I couldn't go into Camelot with high hopes. The question is, did the show (under)perform as expected, or did it blow my socks off? I'll be brutally frank, it was the former. I tried, I really did, but Arthur was a sulky prick, Merlin was another one note performance from Fiennes exactly as I'd predicted and Eva Green seems to have been watching the BBCs Merlin series as research on how to play Morgan, since she has got Katie 'Morgana' McGraths blank eyed woodenness down to an art. Chibnall meanwhile has fulfilled all of my expectations of him by littering the script with dialogue that is by turns crushingly bland and cringe-inducingly try-hard, while his attempts at fore-shadowing and portentousness are so maddeningly unsubtle as to be insulting to the audience; we see Arthur sleep with his brothers girlfriend and then an hour later he meets Guinevere but, gasp, she is engaged to Arthurs new friend. Surely Arthur, as figurehead of the Government and squarejawed hero, wouldn't steal his friends woman? Of course not, he wouldn't drea...WAIT A MINUTE, THAT BIT AT THE START! HE TOTALLY WOULD! That's subtlety for you, people, Chibnall style.

I am reliably informed, by various anonymous commentators whom I've never met and whose opinions are therefore bullet-proof, that the show picks up dramatically as it progresses and ends the season on a massive high. I genuinely hope that this is true, but I'm afraid it's very much a case of "I'll believe it when I see it."

So, if Camelot is the less than stellar of this weeks featured shows then Battlestar Galactica must be the one that managed to float my boat. Having amassed a pretty hefty backlog of episodes I had resigned myself to having something of a slog ahead of me, due in large part to the attitudes of several people who had convinced me that it suffered a huge downturn in quality in it's latter days. Imagine my surprise then when what I actually encountered was a show so confident, both in it's story and in it's cast, that it continually pushed the limits of what it was and what it could be, right up to the very end of it's run, producing what I would describe as pretty much the exact opposite of a downturn in quality.

Knowing well in advance that the 4th season was going to be the last meant that there was no longer any need, nor indeed time, for tedious filler episodes like S2's 'Black Market' or S3's 'Unfinished Business'. Instead we got the most consistent run of episodes since S1, that looked, from the premiere onwards, for all the world like a show on a mission; confident in their story and in the ability of their cast to tell that story, the writers gave us a rollercoaster tour-de-force that more than delivered on the properties early promise. They even back-burnered the awful Apollo/Starbuck romance nonsense.

The biggest factor in the show going out on such a high was the recognition from the writers that when you make a show about warfare, and indeed genocide, you'd better be willing to shed a little blood if you don't want to appear toothless; and boy oh boy did they spill blood in S4. To be fair, the show had always acknowledged, and remained truthful to, the very dark premise with several recurring characters meeting untimely ends over the years but as the big finish began to loom it became apparent that while the writers may well be willing to give Humanity a happy ending, it was going to make them sacrifice a hell of a lot to get there.

Case in point; quite early in S4, the death of Callie (best looking woman on the show, fact) was as brutal and shocking as it was dramatically honest. I can't believe anyone, viewer or crew member, genuinely relished the prospect of Nicki Clynes departure from the show but the story is King and she needed to go, so go she did. It made me genuinely angry, but it also made me understand, perhaps for the first time, how far this team were willing to go, and made the rest of the season all the more thrilling, because you never quite knew who might be the next to go. I'll admit, too, that it did my little fanboy heart good to see that my favourite characters death was given extra meaning in the finale, as the reveal of her murderer initiates the last bout of bloodshed in the entire series.

When you take into account suicides (it comes out of nowhere and is properly shocking), executions (another of my favourites went in this way, following his part in a mutiny), and combat deaths (sudden and unglamorous, the way they should be) it really is shocking just how many regular and recurring characters don't even make it to the finale, and then it all kicks off just long enough to cull a few more, so that only the chosen (very) few make it to the redemptive new home. It's bleak, but probably realistic (if you can apply that term to a show about robots and spaceships), and one suspects that to end any other way would have fallen pretty flat.

Uber-foot RIPNow, final thoughts on the finale. In much the same way as Lost did, the finale ends on a very spiritual note. This has been used by several of my acquaintance as a negative, again just as with Lost. Now, without wishing to over stress the comparison, religion and spirituality has been a huge part of Galactica since the very beginning, just like Lost; in fact, Galactica was if anything even more explicit in that respect, so to point to the inclusion of such themes in the finales as a flaw or in some way a betrayal of the audience seems a little, well, dense and swimming in point missing. Maybe that's just me, though.

So there you have it. One great show ends and one mediocre show arrives and the wheels of the Quest continue to turn. Join me next week when I talk about something or other to do with the telly.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Psychoville. God I Love This Show!

I have put off writing this blog for a week because I was trying to prolong the notion in my head that the show in question was still an active concern in my viewing schedule. I've tried my best to draw out the experience, watching the first series again this past weekend and using said viewing as a chance to re-engage various twitter friends in discourse on the show, but it can be put off no longer; the time has come to put finger to key and discuss the show that I believe, in all honesty, to be the best thing on television this year.

I came to League of Gentlemen, as I seem to do to many things, late in the day. I caught an episode from the tail end of S2 on the BBC2 and decided at that moment that this was something I was definitely going to get into in a big way. If you want to know, it was the episode in which Tubbs and Edward attempt to get a girl for David from the supermarket, which I now know to be 'Anarchy In Royston Vasey.' Then,as was so often the case when you're trying to watch everything, it slipped my mind. Shocking, I know. It wasn't all bad news though because it meant that when I did come around to watching them all from the beginning they were readily available to buy. It was off to my beloved MVC (rip) and home again with the first 2 seasons on video (rip2).

I watched all 12 episodes of the first 2 seasons in what can only be described as a gluttonous orgy of sick, twisted, pitch black laughter. I was hooked, and would remain so for the remainder of it's life. Season 3 is of course the year that many fans abandoned the League, claiming that it wasn't as good, when what they really meant was that it wasn't the same, but I loved it right up to the final grotesque yet oh so brilliant twist, as Royston Vasey was once more visited by possibly it's most iconic guest.

With Mark Gatiss off making himself indispensable to the Doctor Who production team while co-creating Sherlock with greatest living television writer Steven Moffat and Jeremy Dyson enhancing his reputation with comedy/thriller Funland and stage play Ghost Stories, the other two members of the team set about creating what many assumed would be League of Gentlemen MKII. A show about a group of grotesques? Check. Multiple characters played by the principals? Check. Surreal, horror tinged comedy? Check. The show that eventually graced our screens, however, was so much more than that. Coming as it does from the pen of two of the League of Gentlemen you could pretty reasonably expect that Psychoville was going to be a little, shall we say, dark. And you'd be right. What you might not have expected, given the sketch based nature of much of the Leagues output, was that the show would become as much tightly plotted serialised thriller as it was sit-com. Is there no end to these guys talents?*

The show begins with a mysterious masked figure sending blackmail messages to five disparate characters;

Oscar Lomax (Steve Pemberton)

Mr Joll...sorry, Jelly (Reece Shearsmith)

Joy Aston (Dawn French)

David Sowerbutt (Steve Pemberton)

Robert Greenspan (Jason Tomkins)

and proceeds to follow the five as they deal with this unwelcome reminder of a shared past that they'd rather forget, and that we the viewer will have to wait to see, as it is drip fed to us over the course of the first series. Except, well, that's not what the show does at all; not really. Joy tries to ignore the letters and carry on with her 'normal' life, David doesn't actually see his, while Robert assumes that he's being blackmailed about something completely different. Oscar Lomax, meanwhile, is far more interested in tracking down the last 'commodity' he needs for his collection. Only Jolly, sorry Jelly really makes any attempt to get to the bottom of the note, teaming up with rival clown Mr Jolly in the process, but even here things are very much 'not what they seem'.

I really, truly adore Psychoville. The six main protagonists (Davids Mum Maureen, as played by, you guessed it, Reece Shearsmith has as big a part to play as any of the aforementioned five) are all (with the possible exception of Robert) beautifully observed examples of how to make 'crazy' characters sympathetic and likable, while the supporting characters - including a couple played by, what where their names again, oh yes, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith - are never less than utterly believable in this world, however insane the idea behind them or the events they are involved in.

One of the biggest differences between this show and the League shows is that while Royston Vasey was populated almost entirely by freaks, Psychoville goes to great pains to show us that this is the real world, with real people, whose reactions to our 'heroes' is often fodder for some beautiful little moments. Like the married couple who are fascinated by the bodily functions of the Crabtree Siamese twins, or the family who have to deal with Joll...shit...Jelly at their daughters birthday party and of course the ultimate 'ordinary' bloke, Michael 'Tealeaf' Fry, who gets sucked into the bizarre world of Oscar Lomax when assigned to help him as part of his community service. Tealeaf, or Teeaaaleeaaaf, became a firm favourite of mine, with his weary acceptance of all the weird stuff he encountered and also, subtle though it was, the genuine affection he obviously had for Oscar.

As the first series nears it's climax all of the characters converge on the same location and we learn the truth about just what they really did.Then everything is turned on it's head with a masterstroke of a twist and everyone appears to die in a massive cliffhanger. You don't get that with Life Of Riley.

Before I move on to Season 2, check out what I think is one of the greatest moments of television comedy ever. Hilarious in the context of the show, it's almost as funny simply as a sly dig at todays bureaucracy fuelled world.

Anyway, Psychoville returned with first of all a Halloween Special - and boy did it live up to that tag - that told a few apocryphal stories about it's leads before introducing a shadowy new figure that we would see a lot more of in S2, and then a brand new 6 episode season. There was no trepidation this time around, only excitement, as the thought that they would let us down was, well, unthinkable.

Even the most excitable fan, though, couldn't have predicted what they delivered. If season 1 was great then season 2 was nothing less than an absolute masterpiece. Far more tightly plotted than the first run, which was actually quite loose in it's early stages, the writing is never anything less than tightrope taut with the - surprisingly large number of - survivors of the season 1 cliffhanger discovering that their ordeal is far from over and the new threat in their lives, though it be chasing the same Macguffin as the S1 villain, is rather more ruthless and organised about how it goes about it.

Some complained that too many survived the events of the cliffhanger; that the loss of life would have been far greater and they had perpetrated a cop out. These complaints didn't last very long. Had they given a reprieve to more people than was perhaps realistic? Yes, they had, but those same characters were very soon being picked off by the psychopathic Detective Finney, a Police Detective ostensibly investigating the events of the cliffhanger who nevertheless has some much more sinister motives.

Make no bones about it, S2 is darker, scarier and more violent than anything S1 provided. Characters; and we're talking major regular roles, are despatched left and right as dark forces close in on our heroes; new character Jeremy Goode manages to go from deeply sinister to likable to ultimately pitiable defeated figure while his unwelcome companion Silent Singer is just, if you'll pardon my French, creepy as fuck; and Finney is as remorseless a killer as you'd find in any Bourne movie. No-one is safe in this story and it's safe to say that every Psychoville fan will have lost a favourite or two - I know I did - before the last men standing find themselves at the eye of the storm as all is explained - if you said you'd guessed it you're deluded or lying - with the MacGuffin they'd all been chasing being revealed as exactly that and most of the loose ends from both runs nicely tied up while leaving a number of intriguing avenues for any potential third season to explore.

Only two left
Sadly, the likelihood of a third season is slim, by all accounts. Viewing figures were down and reviews from the mainstream press less than stellar, which can only be described as a travesty. I can not overstate to you how sad this makes me. With the exception of Moffat Doctor Who and, maybe, the Life On Mars / Ashes To Ashes franchise, British telefantasy has not produced anything at even a fraction of the level of writing, performance and just sheer class of this production in many many years and here we have a team that has the talent, not to mention a sheer love of the medium that shines out of every scene, to provide us with something that could, if nurtured, have run for years of classic material and what do we do? We throw it in their faces. The British public get what they deserve. And they deserve what they get.

In a final note on this show; the viewers may not have been there in huge numbers but those that did stick around where of the none-so-loyal variety. Watching this show in the company of fellow fans via the wonder of twitter has done nothing but enhance the experience and I have connected with a couple of people this way that I am still in contact with on a daily basis. This is my first experience of this phenomenon of people coming together online over a shared love and I'm better off for it. If we get no more Psychoville, that at least will be a pleasant legacy.

*Well, Steve Pemberton failed to make Benidorm watchable but we're none of us miracle workers are we?

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

A Good Man...

So, the last few days have seen not one, but two absolutely glorious finales grace our screens. And they were both British shows as well, what are the chances?

First up was Saturdays 'Mid-Season Finale' of Doctor Who. As big a fan as I am of this show - and I am - I have to admit to a deepening sense of frustration with this first batch of episodes from what is the second season under the control of Steven Moffat (Winner, Faplads Favourite Showrunner, 2011)

There have been a number of complaints that the show has, under Moffat, become too dark, or too complicated, or that there are too many unanswered questions. Funnily enough, most of these complaints seem to be coming from adults; the kids are loving it the same as ever. Personally, while I do think that this latest batch of episodes has had problems, I don't think that it's any of the above named; it's simply that too many of the episodes have just not been very good. Moffats episodes, as they invariably are, were fantastic; exciting, clever, funny,thought provoking and just a little bit scary (or a lot scary, in places), they did everything you want a Doctor Who episode to do, and then some, but sadly, of the episodes between, only master fantasist Neil Gaiman has managed to write, with 'The Doctors Wife', something that in my opinion deserves to be in the company of Moffats contributions.

That the Steve Thompson penned episode 'The Curse Of The Black Spot' was poor should perhaps not have come as a surprise, given that Thompson was the weak link on the writing team that brought us S1 of Sherlock and has done little else of note in the world of television. This relative inexperience should perhaps earn him a little leeway though.

Mathew Graham on the other hand has no such excuse. A highly experienced television writer with form for producing classic science fiction works of his own (he was one of the big guns on the Life On Mars/Ashes To Ashes project and was responsible for many of the best episodes on that, including it's extremely well received - and rightly so - finale), Graham also has previous experience of writing Doctor Who. His episode starring David Tennant as the Tenth Doctor, 'Fear Her', was not the best received of Tennants first season but I've always had a bit of a soft spot for it; woefully saccharine ending aside of course. I had high hopes indeed for what he could produce with a 2part running time and a decent Doctor to write for.

Sadly, he let me down here with 'The Rebel Flesh' and 'The Almost People', producing a story where the characters just lurched along from one poorly contrived set piece to another with little in the way of natural plot progression or relatable character motivations. Indeed, the guest cast, superb performers though most of them were, were locked in a constant struggle to convince us that we were watching actual people, living actual lives. In the end, the struggle proved to be a futile one; rather than becoming products of their experiences throughout the tale, characters became what they needed to be to forward the plot. And not particularly gracefully either, the main antagonist played by Sarah Smart being the prime but by no means only offender.

So with three of the six aired episodes having been duffers, the season was looking a little shaky. Luckily though, the man himself stepped up to the plate for the final episode of the run and what a magnificent return to form it was for the show.

Matt Smith showed us once again why he is quite possibly the greatest actor to play the Doctor (he has yet to topple John Pertwee from the top spot for me but he's very comfortably ensconced in the no. 2 position, and gaining fast) as the Doctor moved from comic bravado to chilling menace to sheer, red in the face anger; and when the Doctor is truly angry, the Universe shakes. You only need to listen to the Doctors response as Kovarian mocks the rules good men live by. "Good men don't need rules. Today is not the day to find out why I have so many." Translation: I am a badass. Fuck with me and mine and I will end you. This is a Doctor we've not seen before (although it perhaps owes a debt to the later McCoy stories) and I for one am very intrigued as to where Moffat intends to go with it.

Elsewhere; we get laugh out loud comedy from, of all things, a Sontaran nurse, ("Don't slouch, it's bad for the posture", he tells his defeated foe.); there's a joke involving a tongue that I still can't believe they got away with; Oh, and the 3yrs in the making mystery of River Songs identity is finally laid to rest. Well, sort of; I have no doubt that there is a lot more to this particular story.

In all then, Moffat did what Moffat always does; he brought the genius and proved once again that writing Doctor Who is pretty much the job he was born to do, managing in the process to banish some of the sour taste this run had left. It's to be hoped however, that the back half of the season sees him perhaps exercising a little more quality control over the work of the other writers, so that watching Doctor Who doesn't become a game of 'waiting for Moffat'.

Could this man soon be dethroned?

Far more consistent in it's quality (if not, sadly, its ratings) was Psychoville; the second of this weeks big finales.

However , you shall have to wait until next week to find out what I thought of that because before I put pen to paper, or finger to key, I feel it only right and proper that I do my research and re-watch the first series again, to the ensure that the whole thing is fresh in my memory. It'll be tough, but I'll persevere.