Thursday, January 31, 2008

Tarot Guards! Tarot the Diamond Man!

TV graveyards of the 1970s are littered with the discarded remnants of fantasy shows developed in order to grab some of the Doctor Who demographic. From the escapades of Simon and Liz through the fence in Timeslip, via the adventures of Catweazle 900 years into his own future, all the way to the campy awfulness of The Tomorrow People, the various ITV regions tried and failed time and again to usurp Who from its throne as the most popular family sf show of all time.

Sometimes (as with Catweazle) the effort was excellent in its own right but didn't have the legs to become a long-running serial; sometimes (as with Timeslip) a brave idea floundered under the weight of a small budget; and sometimes, as with The Tomorrow People, everything about the show was utter tosh* from start to finish. And on at least one occasion, a decent concept, backed up with good scripts and an intriguing setting, was blown out of the water by the sheer poverty of the acting.

Not that Ace of Wands looks all that promising as you slip the DVD into the player and sit back . For one, it gets off on entirely the wrong foot with the worst title song ever. Against a backdrop of folk psych images, some Rod, Jane and Freddy wannabe burbles out a toe-curling shitty hippy ditty which includes such lyrical gems as
"Jet white dove/Snow black snake". Snow black snake, eh? Really? Are you sure about that? Well OK, if you're certain...

Moving swiftly and mercifully on, though, it's reassuring to see that "The Meddlers", the first story in series 3** was written by the mighty P J Hammond, the creator of Sapphire and Steel and writer of one of the very few non-rubbish episodes of Torchwood last year. So, some thoughts...

1. The two lead actors are absolutely dreadful - two of the worst actors I've ever seen in a popular show. In their defence they both seem to have gone onto have better careers than the vast majority of Who companions, so possibly their mannered and stilted performances were the result of directorial fiat but regardless of cause watching them here is a painful experience.

2. This particular story has a fantastic set-up and scenario, largely thrown away by bad acting. The band led by Spoon, the duplicitous prophet of doom, and the almost Report on Probability A-style man in the tower block are all brilliant and, even if the actual realisation is a bit shoddy, the plot makes sense and everything ties together nicely in the end.

3. If you'd stuck McCallum and Lumley in this, it'd be a really good episode of Sapphire and Steel.

Actually that last point does kind of force me to conclude that this is better than I gave it credit for at the time (though it's also faitr to wonder if Hammond had ever read the Campion novel Tiger in the Smoke, which features a very similar creepy band/dodgy lock up) ^. As I say, replace Mackenzie and Markham with McCallum and Lumley and you have something which wouldn't be embarrassed in the highest fantasy company. And if it's that good, then maybe it's not possible for bad acting to blow it out of the water completely.

Hmm, maybe it's time to give the Diamond Man a second chance to shine^^?

* There's a reason Naoko Mori is called Tosh on Torchwood, you know. Originally she was going to be called Crap but Chris Chibnall thought that sounded more German than Japanese.
**
the first two series having been lost in the same great television purge of the seventies which destroyed nearly all of Magpie***
*** Oddly, you can download a pretty good dvd cover for the lost first episode, in spite of the fact that it's missing. Someone has gone to a lot of trouble for an essentially useless item.
^
I started writing this about four months but then stopped - this post is the result of remembering about it and then scraping the Drafts barrel on blogger
^^ Really - the crap I write at times :-)

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Tuesday, January 29, 2008

De Vere, There and Everywhere

I've just read Bill Bryson's pretty decent short biography of Shakespeare, which prompted this thought.

Claiming that Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, wrote the Shakespeare plays is akin to suggesting that Brian Jones wrote all of the Beatles hits, in that
  • he was dead while they were still releasing new work
  • his own surviving work shows he was nowhere near as talented as the writers of the Beatles' hits
  • no-one at the time ever linked him to the Beatles works
  • lots of people at the time were certain the Beatles wrote their own songs
  • and he never claimed that he wrote any such thing.
Even in a world where conspiracy theories are in vogue as never before, the idea is totally preposterous.

And de Vere is generally accepted as the best possible alternative author of Shakespeare's plays...

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Monday, January 28, 2008

And coming next on ITV, Doctor Who...

If ITV had made Doctor Who in the Seventies, then they'd have made something a lot like Destiny of the Daleks.

Think The Tomorrow People or, if you're that little bit older, Ace of Wands. Cheap sets and clapped-out props in an adventure apparently written by the same unimaginative computer which caused the Movellan-Dalek stalemate. Rumour has it that the BBC attempted to save money for the upcoming Paris-based City of Death, and so no big name guest stars were cast, instead leaving Suzanne Danielle and Tony Osoba as the 'big' names over the marquee.

It certainly shows.

Watching Romana in comedy regeneration mode, Daleks with their side panels clearly falling off, and a cut-price Davros with a head which doesn't quite fit, my first thought was Come back Mrs Noah!, the Mollie Sugden vehicle from 1977. Partially this is because I was looking for a copy of the sole series of Mrs Noah the other day, but equally I think I saw a resemblance because a resemblance was there.

Don't get me wrong - I like the single episode I've seen of Mrs Noah but it looks like it cost about seven and six to film and even its most ardent fan couldn't claim it as an example of careful and considered scripting. Instead it's a quick knock-up, utilising a name with a degree of cachet in a genre with equal, if potentially equally transitory, status as the in-thing.

For the BBC combining Mollie Sugden and Star Wars-generated sf fever, read ITV squeezing Doctor Who into a Buck Rogers in the 25th Century shaped hole.

Hence the Movellans' camp as a row of caravans uniforms, complete with silver disco wigs and groin enhancing tight white trousers. Add their fabulously trashy pink guns, the Dalek bombs which look like nothing so much as giant antibiotic tablets and Romana wearing a cerise version of the Doctor's long coat and you have a story which costs sod all, plays up to the campy attraction of a major ITV import success and where story and plot are of far less importance than the aliens looking cool and with it.

Having said all that there are things to like in Destiny even if you ignore the camp.

There's a nice (I suspect scripted) touch where the fluttering of Davros' hand as he first awakens is mirrored by that of a Movellan crushed under rubble, highlighting the similarity between the species before the reveal that the Space Disco Queens are robots.

Suzanne Danielle is quiet lovely as Agella, the fit Movellan.**

The shots of the Daleks gliding about the sand and rubble strewn hills of Skaro are very effective, especially in those scenes where the Doctor hides at the bottom of an escarpment along which the Daleks are hunting.* In fact, the location filming in general is excellent.

It's just a shame that the interior filming is less successful. As with the Dalek scenes in the Pertwee serial, Day of the Daleks, the set designers have obviously decided that evil alien mutants in state of the art travel machines would, for preference, choose to live in a city largely composed of plywood painted black and illuminated by the sort of free standing lamps only otherwise seen in...well, TV studios. There's a definite air of 'good enough I suppose' about the construction of the Dalek city. The fact it has none of the quality of the same city as seen in Genesis of the Daleks isn't terribly surprising given budgetary constraints, but they could at least have tried to make it look the similar.

Now that we're back to complaining, this might be a good time to enquire - what happened to the dangerous radiation? In episode 1 the Doctor warns Romana that the radiation on the planet could be deadly and gives her a beeper to tell her when to take radiation tablets. He then (a) doesn't give her a supply of tablets, rendering the beeper just a cruel, sick joke and (b) never mentions it again, except at one point later in the same episode when his beeper goes off and he scoffs a couple of tablets. Romana feels a little ill in the mines later on, but that too passes as writer Terry Nation entirely forgets what's going on.

Or maybe the radiation continues but shows itself in unexpected manner? How else to explain the stoned looking willingness of various prisoners to be shot by the Daleks in a scene only a little while after those same prisoners were shown actively shifting rocks and trying to protect Romana from herself? Or indeed the exact same prisoners in the exact same scene doing weird mugging and grinning when told they could leave so long as they take their recently murdered friends of theirs with them.

In the end though none of this really matters, nor does David Gooderson's sub-standard Davros or the fact that Nation certainly implies that the Daleks have wholly eradicated their organic element. Having sat down to watch part one on a Monday, intending to watch one part an evening over the week I ended up watching three parts that night and the last part (and the two decent extras - check out how pissed Ken Grieve acts in his interview) the following evening - it may be loosely plotted, dodgily acted and seemingly cast from Saturday's crowd at Fire Island, but it keeps the attention and - as with most Nation scripts - careens along at such a clip that you do always want to know what happened next.

If only ITV's actual science fiction output had been half as good...

* Less so, admittedly, in those scenes where bits of the Daleks keep falling off or where you can clearly see operator feet sticking out from under the Daleks' skirt
** Amusingly, this image of Agella which I nicked off of the BBC website was originally tagged "Ra-Ra-Rasputin. There was a cat who really was gone." :)

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Friday, January 25, 2008

Survivors Reborn?


I love Survivors. Along with Goodnight Sweetheart, it's the only genre show which I might watch instead of Doctor Who. I love the starkness and brutality of Nation's vision for the post-Death future in series 1, I love the often banal but sometimes lyrical farming stories of series 2, and I even love bits of series 3, at a point when Terrance Dudley had tried his ham-fisted best to make the entire series rubbish.

So I should in theory be over-joyed the BBC are bringing it back. But now that the euphoria has worn off, I'm more than a little bit worried.

First cause for concern: the Doctor Who revival experience

Take something which I treasure for its underlying themes and tropes as much as anything else, and drop all of the elements which made it worth watching. Next, wrap it up in brainless bright lights, chuck in a Mary Sue companion and throw it onto prime time.

So I worry that where Rusty dropped the idea of the heroic Doctor as a man of science who made sense out of the nonsensical, and replaced him with an idiot savant who more often than not needs saved by Rusty's prefered heroine, the young feisty female companion, so I'm concerned that the bleakness at the heart of the first two series of Survivors will be buffed up and brightened for modern viewers, and that post-Death Britain will follow the same brain-dead pattern as American series with similar settings.

For an example try watching a few episodes of the perfectly adequate, if fairly brainless, Jeremiah, which is packed to groaning with extras from the first Mad Max film and where every town has a curiously clean and well organised market where they trade for batteries and old transistor radios.

Second cause for concern: The Writer

Survivors is a series for grown-ups, but it's been put in the hands of Adrian Hodges, the brains behind Primeval, a series primarily noted for being full of shiny effects and pretty girls inexplicably in their underwear. Admittedly basing my views entirely on that show, he really doesn't do thoughtful at all well, and I simply can't imagine him doing justice to a series about the adult (note, not teenager or young adult) reaction to an apocalypse. As with Chris Chibnall and Torchwood, adult will be confused with sex obsessed and what we'll get is lots of scenes of hard 'n' nasty nookie because there's nothing else to do after the Death, man.

Third Cause for Concern: The America Perspective

Which in part also informs my belief that New Survivors will again ape New Who and be written with one and a half eyes on the American market. I fully expect guns and explosions and lots of Survivors with great figures and a penchant for walking about in vests looking all sweaty. And if the ratings still aren't great, I predict aliens who need to mate with humans to ensure the survival of their species will land at the start of series 2.

Final Cause for Concern: Happy, Shiny People

TV execs nowadays don't really approve of bleak or downbeat. It doesn't do well in focus groups of stoned students and bored housewives, nor does it sell well to advertisers. So expect every episode to be a self-contained feast of sanitised squalor with a suitably chirpy ending in which everything Turns Out All Right. Certainly don't expect anything like 'Law and Order'.

Actually all those moans basically boil down to the same thing - after New Who I no longer trust the BBC to stay true to the spirit of any show they relaunch. Scrabbling after as broad a demographic as possible as defence in their battle to keep the license fee, combined with a deep desire to make any new series as US-friendly as they can manage, means that quality comes a distant second to saleability. Anything which is different or which could ever be seen as cause for offense to anyone must be jettisoned in favour of the innocuous but glittery.

And Survivors, in its original incarnation, is as different as can be from the BBC's current anodyne fayre.

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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

After Blake Part 1

[or what I thought of the audio play 'Mark of Kane' which continues the Blakes 7 story]

War Crimes


From this remove, Alan Stevens and David Tulley's War Crimes comes across as pretty schizophrenic. With its purpose being to fill in the background for Travis' betrayal of humanity to the Andromedans, it would seem to be aimed specifically at the hardcore Blakes 7 fan and yet barely five minutes go by without one character or other info-dumping all over the tape.

In short order, for instance, Travis explains what Central Control (why not call it Star One?) is in torturous detail, then follows it up by talking about Klein aka Docholli aka Masterton without bothering to give even a vague idea of who he is. An joke about Bayban the Butcher follows directly on from the action stopping so that a supporting character can spell out to Travis exactly why he's wanted by the Federation, as though he didn't actually know (and this in itself is a fannish continuity fix designed to show that Travis was responsible for both the massacre on Zircaster and the one on Auros, thereby clearing up an apparent contradiction between the TV episodes 'Seek-Locate-Destroy' and 'Trial').

If the play seems unsure of its audience, the primary sub-plot (if something so flimsy could be called something so concrete) simply makes matters worse. As he tries to corner Blake, Travis first allows one of his blood-sucking Mutoids to become dangerously low on serum and then reveals that the weakening Mutoid is in fact the remnant of the widow of the surgeon who saved Travis' life after Blake shot him (the sheer clumsiness of that sentence exemplifies the unnecessarily convoluted nature of the relationship). That established, Travis allows the Mutoid to replenish herself whilst briefly expressing disappointment that she has no emotional link to the surgeon, who Travis is keen to exonerate in her eyes from accusations of treason to the Federation.

This is presumably intended - along with another scene where Travis explains that he never betrayed Kline/Docholli because he too was once in the military - to show that Travis has his own code of honour and then contrast that with his betrayal of the entire human race. But if so, the play is too brief and the pertinent moments too trite to convince.

The acting is generally fine, except it takes Brian Croucher as Travis about half the play to warm up and stop sounding as though he's reading directly from the script. Croucher, like Paul Darrow, has a fairly flat intonation anyway so it's not quite as distracting as it might be with a more flamboyant actor, but it's not ideal.

Friendly Fire

If War Crimes seemed unsure of its audience, the linked second play, Friendly Fire is aimed squarely at the most rabid of Blakes 7 fans. Peppered with minor continuity references and fannish in-jokes, it should be a guilty pleasure for those likely to be listening, but instead it ends up a mishmash of missed opportunities and self-indulgent writing.

These problems are evident from the very beginning. In only the second scene, Blake (played as excellently as ever by Gareth Thomas) enquires after a bounty hunter named Kane who is described to him as tall with a false hand containing a built in weapon and what sounds like an artificial eye. We quickly find out that it's not in fact Travis, but what could have been a decent bit of audience misdirection by the authors is completely wasted by the fact that in the first scene Kane is introduced and is clearly not played by Brian Croucher.

To be honest, and not wanting to be cruel because Alan Stevens and David Tulley are much better writers than these two plays suggest, Friendly Fire sounds for all the world like Blakes 7 as written by Gary Russell. Like Russell's series of dreadful novels and plays for Big Finish, the humour is forced and hackneyed:

TANDO: I 'ate sharkas... sarcum... er... shack... eh... people bein' clever like.
and

TANDO: Why 'ave I got to be the one who 'as to sit by the vampire? The smell's 'orrible.
KANE: Don't worry. She'll get used to it.

and the script littered with repeated references to earlier TV episodes (Jevron, Blake's clone, Tando being a friend of Gan, Tando himself, Blake calling himself Dev Varon the same surname as his defence lawyer from the first episode, Jenna, trekkers and more) and fannish in-jokes (Boucher rifles, for instance, and 'shooting zombies off an elevator').

Finally, and most Russelly of all, the authors can't help themselves but (a) unnecessarily provide continuity fills (now we know how Blake got the scar across his eye seen in 'Blake') and (b) interject their own per theories into semi-official canon. This last is particularly annoying for two reasons. First, for all that Stevens and Fiona Moore's excellent guide to Blakes 7 makes an interesting case for the idea that Olag Gan was a multiple rapist and sex murderer, there is really no concrete on-screen evidence to back it up and plenty to suggest it's just a clever if incorrect reading (the death penalty clearly still exists and a multiple killer would surely be executed not provided with an expensive limiter and shipped to a penal colony). Secondly, and more pertinently, the description of Gan as serial killer is a long and dull info dump which takes up several minutes of an already short play.

Finally, the Mutoid from War Crimes provides a link between the two plays (Kane is the other) but as with the earlier part it's entirely unclear what her purpose is. Badly damaged and left behind by the late Travis, Kane finds her and feeds her, without knowing who her former Commander was. In the end she is killed by Tando and dies whispering the name of her dead husband, Maryatt. Which is sad and all but not actually all that interesting.

Both as seperate plays and as a combined whole, The Mark of Kane (a title as confused as the rest of the play), is a big disappointment, especially considering that Stevens and Tulley went on to collaborate with Jim Smith on the far better Logic of Empire and Stevens eventually launched the absolutely first-rate Kaldor City series.

Best I think to view this as a piece of historical juvenalia and makes excuses for it on that basis...

[The complete script to Mark of Kane is available here]

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Saturday, January 05, 2008

Major Andrew Olmsted

I just heard today that Major Andrew Olmsted of the US Army in Iraq was killed yesterday in an ambush.

Which would not generally be something I would take much notice of, but he wrote an interesting and insightful blog about being in the US Army and volunteering to go back to Iraq. I can't remember how I came across him (via Geoff Wessel maybe, which is where I saw the news he'd been killed) and I didn't always agree with everything he wrote but he was honest and intelligent and certainly not the gung-ho military fool that their idiot of a Commander in Chief might be thought to represent.

His final, posthumous post, which he asked a friend to put online in the event that he was killed is a wonderful, touching and humbling piece of writing and makes me wish I acted...I don't know...better in many aspects of my life.

Anyway it's online here and I recommend everyone read it.

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