Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Gonna break my rusty cage and run

Now that season 30 is over, I can hardly deny that in my own small way I've been fairly scathing about Russell T Davies and his approach to writing for Doctor Who. You may have noticed.

But I wouldn't like anyone* to think that I apply different standards to Rusty than I do to other writers. A level playing field is vital, after all. So, here's quick rundown of things I've been watching recently and how they compare to the Great Man's output.

Dark Season (BBC, 1991)
Starring Victoria Lambert, Kate Winslet, Grant Parsons, Brigit Forsyth, Jacqueline Pearce
Written by Russell T Davies

OK, so I'm cheating already. This is, as everyone knows, Saint Rusty's first stab at family friendly tv fantasy.

In fact, in many extremely obvious ways this is Rusty's first stab at bringing Who back to life. Marcie, the odd schoolgirl who makes huge intuitive leaps and appears always to kn
ow what's going on, is the Sylvester McCoy Doctor (or 'occupies the same narrative space' as yer film studies bods would say). Mr Eldritch, the largely two dimensional baddie with the stylised look, is the Master in all but hair colour, and there's even a Brigadier figure, in the shape of Brigit Forsyth's helpful teacher, Miss Maitland. Throw in Marcie's companions...sorry, friends and a plot revolving round aliens invading an English school, and this is Remembrance of the Daleks revisited.

It works well though and for all that it looks very dated nowadays (Eldritch with his peroxide hair, thin tie and black Raybans is the most definitely the Unhip Gay Master) neither story contained within the six episode running time talks down to the view
er or wanders off into the land of the Basically Stupid. The effects aren't bad either: at least on a par with latter McCoy seasons (if your personal definition of a not bad effect includes the Dalek spaceship landing in the Coal Hill school playground).

It's a good cast, too, with Victoria Lambert as Marcie a little stilted
at times (which is presumably why she was never heard of again) but Jacqueline Pearce suitably hamming it up as lesbian Nazi sex Goddess and Kate Winslet fairly obviously destined for bigger things. Grant Parons does what's expected of him as Eldritch, but the real star of the show is Brigit Forsyth, who demonstrates exactly why she's been in work for over a quarter of a century.

Rusty Rating:
It looks like he took his time over this, at least to the extent of bothering to come up with a satisfying ending, but he loses points for later denying that the series was at all based on Doctor Who. One point added for referencing Marcie in his Who novel Damaged Goods though, meaning that on a sliding scale of Rustiness from Gridlock to something he might write in the future which could be described as 'Five Star', Dark Season is a solid three.

Crime Traveller (BBC, 1997)
Starring Michael French, Chloe Annett, Sue Johnston
Written by Anthony Horowitz

It's ironic that having laughed at ITV's often feeble attempts to replicate Doctor Who in the 1970s (Ace of Wands, Timeslip, Tomorrow People et al) the Beeb then found itself without Who in the 1990s and in the exact same position of having a big sf shaped hole to fill.

Their attempts to fill that hole ranged from the sublime (Richard Coyle's much under-rated Strange) to the ridiculous (Henry from Neighbours in...ahem...'Avengers for the nineties'**, BUGS), but occupying the middle ground is Anthony Horowitz's Crime Traveller.

It should have been a hit. The star of the show, Michael French, was a decent sized name at the time and came fresh from a lead role in the BBC's massively soap opera Eastenders. Chloe Annett, playing Holly Turner, was known to genre fans as the later (and less good) Kristine Kochanski from Red Dwarf and Sue Johnston - well, you know, Sue Johnston. It was written by Anthony Horowitz, best-selling author of the Alex Rider series of kids' books and experienced television script writer (he adapted many of David Suchet's Poirots and created the excellent Foyle's War).

And yet it lasted exactly one series of eight episodes and was trashed by Chris Boucher in SFX magazine and described in Interzone as having scripts "generated by randomizing a cliche thesaurus"!

To be honest, it's not hard to see why it failed. French is barely competent at best (some of his line readings have to be seen to be believed) and though Annett and Johnson do their very best, the rest of the supporting cast are abysmal. Particular attention should be paid in any scene where Paul Trussell appears as Morris, a colleague of Jeff Slade (French). In fairness, the character is written as borderline special needs (he can barely read, for instance) and no explanation is given for the fact he's apparently a detective in spite of this, but Trussell over-plays the part for all he's worth, until you find yourself watching him stumble about through interlaced fingers. Richard Dempsey's Nicky Robson is better because Dempsey can just about act, but is equally off-putting due to the fact he seems to be about fourteen.

The other big problem is that the series clearly had a budget of slightly over a fiver. The time machine which allows Slade and Annett's scientist, Holly Turner, to go back in time and gather evidence is plainly a heap of whatever glittery crap was lying about in the BBC effects department cupboard that week. More tellingly, on more than one occasion the director must have decided to save cash by filming all of Slade and Hunter's driving scenes at one time - which is fine in terms of clothing, so long as neither actor is supposed to have changed clothes at any point, but it is a little cringe worthy when you can see the same 2CV in front of our heroes on several different streets at allegedly several different points during the day!

The other big problem are the scripts. There's plenty of scope in the set-up for good story-telling which avoids the usual cliches of the genre, but Horowitz ignores them in favour of hitting all the most ham-fisted staples, week after week. For instance, there's a suggestion at one point that the machine itself is in some way aware and limits the amount of time travel allowed in order to protect the timelines, but instead of doing something with this Horowitz churns out scripts which settle for the usual 'two people from different times cannot meet' and 'you can't buy a lottery ticket in the past which will win you money in the future' (and he even messes that up).

Rusty Rating: Promising, but ultimately a failure, Crime Traveller is the equivalent of Rusty's Casanova - proof positive that a couple of good actors cannot save a crap script.

Battlestar Galactica (Sci-Fi, 2008)
Starring Edward James Olmos, Katie Sackhoff, Mary McDonnell, Lucy Lawless
Created by Ronald D Moore

And now for a change in pace, money and effects - and generally in quality too. The first couple of seasons of the 're-imagined' BSG were superb television and for all that last year didn't have the same weight, the ten episode splurge which constituted the first part of the fourth and final season has been of a consistently high standard.

Thinking about it today, though, the mid-season finale (can you have a mid-season finale?) didn't entirely work. I don't know if it was due to the Writers Strike or because the writers knew the show had to be wrapped up during this season, but there's a real feeling of rushing to get to the end in "Revelations".

One of the best things about BSG is that things happen at a natural pace. Characters change slowly, as a result of their experiences, and those experiences happen at what's almost a glacial pace, just like real life. There aren't instant solutions and a dead end is as likely as a way out in the BSG universe, and the show is all the stronger for that.

In "Revelations" though, the long, slow search for the mysterious Final Five Cylons who hold the secret of the path to Earth suddenly gets squeezed into literally five minutes of action, as first Saul Tigh confesses to being one of the Five, then grasses up the others, before Starbuck finds a setting for Earth mysteriously in place on her Raptor. It's clumsy and hurried and not at all like a series which has in the past stopped mid-arc to have an episode about workers' rights or the possibility of rehabilitation. Time has obviously become pressing but it undoubtedly works to the detriment of the narrative (I'd have liked to see Mr Gata's reaction to the realisation that he was nearly forced out of an airlock as a collaborator by two Cylons, for instance).

But let's not dwell on it - the colonials had to get to Earth eventually and even with the new frantic pace, it's still head and shoulders above any other science fiction series currently showing.

It's also worth mentioning that some of the acting is sensational - Adama's collapse after Tigh's admission is top-notch, as is the scene shortly afterwards where Lee comforts his father, but the performance Michael Hogan turns in as Tigh is probably the best of the series to date. I've said it before, but how does US television keep turning out such a high standard of actors in an environment where every second show seems to star a failed film actor slumming it in a bid to kick-start his flagging career?

Rusty Rating: Might well have been a five had "Revelations" not thrown away so much slow burn in favour of quick resolution, even if it wasn't really the writers' fault. BSG is Midnight in the Rustiverse: a flash of real quality largely surrounded by the mundane and the cliched.

The Sandbaggers (Yorkshire, 1978)
Starring Roy Marsden, Ray Lonnen, Richard Vernon
Written by Ian MacIntosh

Astonishing is an over-used word on t'internet where everyone either loves or hates everything. So are awesome, genius, brilliant and fantastic. But The Sandbaggers fully deserves all of those adjectives and a few others.

A spy series where 90% of the action is two or three guys sitting having meetings and where the good guys often act the most brutally, Sandbaggers is like no other espionage series you've ever seen. It's leapt like a salmon into my top five television shows of all time.

And you all how fussy I am when it comes to making lists of Things I Like.

Really though, there's no point in rattling hyperbolically on about how good it is - get a copy of the series 1 episode, "Special Relationship", watch it to the end and then tell me you didn't spend the final five minutes expecting a further twist.

Rusty Rating: Television of this quality doesn't exist in the Rustiverse. It almost exists in the vicinity, with Paul Cornell's "Human Nature/Family of Blood", but Rusty himself couldn't write this cleverly or subtly if his life depended on it. Not that he'd want to - his idea of brutal is Adam getting a joke window in his forehead, not Sandbagger supremo Neil Burnside emotionlessly putting work before everything and everyone.

* Yeah, from the thousands who read this :)
** according to Brian Clemens, who should really have known better
*** The Rusty Rating is a bit like Rob's Carusometer, only not half as funny or clever. Never mind, I won't use it again, promise.


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Blogger MediumRob said...

Told you The Sandbaggers was good. Therefore all my other reviews must have been true and accurate...

Don't you want to do the Rustometer? "Sorry. it's not working today. It's a bit Rusty."

3:51 pm  
Blogger SAF said...

Honestly, I wait till you get caught up on BSG before I do a review, then you beat me to it. ;)

Good one though and clearly I am a) going to have get a move on and do mine now and b) it looks like I'm going to have to take a look at The Sandbaggers as well. :)

4:18 pm  
Blogger Stuart Douglas said...

Rob: "Therefore all my other reviews must have been true and accurate..."

Yep, that's how it works. In similar vein I trust everything Boris Johnson says because he was funny on Have I Got News for You :)

The Rustometer is very tempting, but I can't help thinking that even Rusty is sorely lacking in sheer incompetence comared to the mighty Mr Caruso.

Also, your wrongness about themes in New Who is now legendary :)

7:59 pm  
Blogger Stuart Douglas said...

SAF: "I wait till you get caught up on BSG before I do a review, "

Ah but that wasn't a review of the series really, just the final episode - and then only because the speediness of the shift to Earth started to bug me.

BTW, did you recognise the ruins of the Brooklyn Bridge on Earth (and how cool would it be if it turned out actually to be the Planet of the Apes!)?

"I'm going to have to take a look at The Sandbaggers "

Blame Rob for that - he seemed so positive abut it that I had to buy the DVDs. It's worth it though - a fine additon to the ranks of 70s miserabilism.

8:02 pm  
Blogger MediumRob said...

"but I can't help thinking that even Rusty is sorely lacking in sheer incompetence comared to the mighty Mr Caruso."

That's probably the nicest thing you've ever said about Rusty. He's probably crying like Bob Cratchett after Mr Scrooge gave him a lump of coal for the fire. ;-)

"Also, your wrongness about themes in New Who is now legendary"

See previous comment about all statements of mine now proven to be true. As for legendary, can I took at look at your web stats?

8:03 pm  
Blogger Stuart Douglas said...

Rob: "See previous comment about all statements of mine now proven to be true."

Damn caught again in your fiendish jounalistic logic. But if I may (inbcrdibly sadly) quote Astrolabus, 'LOGIC IS A NEW TOY'.

Rob: "As for legendary, can I took at look at your web stats?"

Did I say it was a big legend? :)

8:07 pm  
Blogger SAF said...

Stuart: "BTW, did you recognise the ruins of the Brooklyn Bridge on Earth (and how cool would it be if it turned out actually to be the Planet of the Apes!)?"

I did indeed - and even had the same thought. Expected them to pan across some more and show the Statue Of Liberty poking up out of the sand :)

Stuart: "Blame Rob for that - he seemed so positive abut it that I had to buy the DVDs."

I dunno. Maybe the target for the blame ought to be passed on along with the recommendation ;)

10:45 pm  
Blogger MediumRob said...

Incidentally, I'd probably recommend catching Century Falls if you haven't already. It's another one of Rusty's kids shows but better than Dark Season: it should shift him up in your estimation a bit by the end of it.

How far have you got through The Sandbaggers, BTW?
A) because I want to know what will be spoilers and what not
B) because I want to know if you've seen All in a Good Cause yet.

1:45 pm  
Blogger Stuart Douglas said...

Rob: "It should shift him up in your estimation a bit by the end of it."

It's on the incredibly long list of things I have sitting waiting to watch. I don't think Rusty is a bad writer per se, just not the genius some people have made him out to be.

I've just watched the episode where Willie and Karen's plane gets hijacked. For the first time since the last season of West Wing, I'm trying to ration my viewing to make it last longer.

1:51 pm  
Blogger SIMON TEMPRELL said...

Hi Stuart: Sorry to use this forum to send you a message but I didn't know any other way of doing it! I'm glad that you found my blog after reading 'Intents & Purposes' and equally pleased that you enjoyed the novel. I did a bit of Googling myself and I'm not sure if you are also a novelist writing under a pseudonym?

It is encouraging to know that after just a few weeks of publication my book is being recommended to other people; this is my first attempt at self-publication (my previous books were published by Macmillan) and there's something thrilling about doing everything myself this time around. It is increasingly difficult to find publishers or agents willing to take a chance.

I would be interested to know more about your writing experiences. My email is simontemprell@cox.net.

Thanks again,

10:47 pm  

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