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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.

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