The Nevers – Season 1

neversNot that long ago, a new Joss Whedon television series would have been the most exciting thing in the whole world. These days however it’s tinged with sadness, anger and discomfort that it turns out he’s an asshole. Whedon is heavily involved in this batch of episodes as creator, writer, director and showrunner, but has since stood down and will not be involved in the next batch of episodes (technically the 2nd half of the 1st season). Given his actions (calling them ‘accusations’ would imply a lack of belief) it’s hard to not feel rather uncomfortable getting excited about his work, but in the end, it turns out that The Nevers isn’t really much to get excited about anyway.

The Nevers is set in Victorian London where ‘something’ has happened which has given many individuals (mostly, but not exclusively, women) special powers, some of whom group together to try to understand what’s happened and to support each other against the discrimination they face. It’s like the X-Men but with more corsets.

This is a strong concept that’s familiar ground for Whedon, most obviously the superhero films and comics he’s worked on and many elements of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (particularly the final season with all the potentials coming together). With HBO funding he has the budget to make steampunk London a beautiful reality and bring various superpowers to life (although there’s still some awkward greenscreen at times which is disappointing).

There are also some talented actors involved and a large number of rich characters. The core group of women are engaging, intriguing and good to spend time with, but they don’t always have the depth that I would hope for. Towards the end we see the backstory of one of the main characters and I’m not sure that it really worked. I couldn’t quite see how the person in the flashback turned into the person in the ‘present’. That leaves me worried that the characters don’t have the depth and roundedness that they need to be fully understandable. Certainly some of the ‘villains’ came across a little pantomime like.

One of the reasons I don’t think the loss of Whedon from the series is a disaster is that it didn’t really feel like a full Whedon series anyway. It just didn’t have the spark that made me fall in love with Buffy or Firefly. There was only the briefest flashes of wit and heart that should have been there in every moment. There were moments of humour, moments of passion, moments of power, moments of insight… but never a unified whole that wove them all together. It seems likely this may be a final note in Whedon’s career (he hasn’t seemed to make any form of apology) and it’s rather a whimper.

The Queen’s Gambit

I’m a bit late to the party on this one, by the time I finally got round to watching it Queen’s Gambit had already won a flock of awards, including the Golden Globe for best limited series. But if I’m late to the party, at least I’m showing up with enthusiasm. This is a great series, one of the best I’ve seen in a while, and one of the best crafted and presented characters I’ve seen in a very long time.

The first thing I will say, is that the series is overall a positive one and it ends well. That’s one of the key things I look for in a series at the moment, and although I guess it could be considered a spoiler, I think it’s more a part of the genre description. It’s no more a spoiler than saying something is “feel good”, or “gritty”, one gives away a happy ending, and the other means there’s going to be a lot of darkness (although something gritty can still have a positive ending, and something feel good might have darkness along the way). I wouldn’t describe Queen’s Gambit as light and fluffy, there are certainly dark moments along the way, but throughout there were more moments that had me smiling with happiness and satisfaction than there were that had me tensing for disaster.

The series tells the story of Beth Harmon – an orphan chess prodigy (or maybe a math prodigy who happens to get hooked on chess first). Give or take a couple of flash backs and flash forwards, the series tells her life story quite linearly from her arrival at the orphanage at age 9 in the mid 1950’s through the next 15 years or so. It’s not the most original or surprising of stories, but it’s well put together and well paced with ups and downs. Beth’s life is full of contrasts, she’s lucky and unlucky, smart and ignorant, aloof and needy, studious but rebellious, capable of planning ahead but also out of control. It would be easy for all that contradiction to come across as an incoherent, badly written character, but she’s in fact a brilliantly written and incredibly complex character where every seeming contradiction actually always makes complete sense.

That writing is brought to life by a completely mesmerising performance by Anya Taylor-Joy who is very deservingly picking up all the awards. She delivers so many layers in every scene that I frequently found myself rewinding just to focus on her word, or her face, or her body language and truly appreciate all the nuances. It would have been very easy for the series to get very dark and heavy under the weight of some of the stories, and even just the weight of chess, but Taylor-Joy brings the lightness to, delivering humour and vulnerability just as well as she delivers the dramatic moments, the controlled moments, and the quiet.

The only thing that slightly let down the series for me was actually the chess. I have absolutely no interest in chess (I haven’t the patience to play and watching makes no sense to me) and the series did not manage to change that. There were a couple of visual tricks to try and make it more engaging, but I was utterly unengaged for the most part in long recitations of different strategies and watching boards. The psychology elements of the game were interesting (the posturing, the confidence tricks etc) just like they are for any sport, but I’m not sure if the series could have lifted the game more, or if chess is just a completely lost cause for me.

Still, the subject of the story is just a means to an end and the character, writing, performance and story are easily enough to make this one of my favourite series of recent years.

The Queen’s Gambit is 7 roughly hour long episodes and available on Netflix.

Star Wars

I had a week off at the start of December and rather than going on Chicago as planned, I got a Disney+ subscription and settled in to watch all the Star Wars films. I like Star Wars, but I’ve never been obsessive about it in the way that I can be about other sci fi. The universe is incredibly rich, and the stories that are created in the films are reasonably solid, if alternately overwhelmed with over-complicated politics, or over-simplified fantasy quests. The writing quality similarly swerves about a bit and relies on charismatic actors to try and overcome the written words. But what makes them re-watchable are the beautiful visuals, the rich details of the backgrounds, the rousing music, and the energetic action sequences.

I watched the 11 films in chronological order within the story, rather than by release date, so started off with the dreaded prequel trilogy, before building up to finally watching The Rise of Skywalker for the first time. Oh, and look out for my review of The Mandalorian in the next few days too. I didn’t dig out the Holiday Special (I tried watching the Lego one but only lasted 10 minutes before getting too bored), and I’m also not counting the Ewok films here.

Star Wars 1: The Phantom Menace – The miss-steps in this film are painfully glaring. How did anyone think JarJar was a good idea? Every time he came on screen I just flinched. The pacing of the film is also all over the place, a weird combination of action sequences that are too drawn out (the pod racing being the key offender) and scenes that are way to short and topped and tailed with transition effects that ruin any flow. Oh and some dialogue that feels like it missed the final draft to take it from functional to realistic. But there’s good in there too, excellent effects, well choreographed action, breathtaking music, a couple of good twists and some good actors trying their best to rise above the dialogue. It just really needed a good polish all over. 6 / 10

Star Wars 2: Attack of the Clones – This whole film could have been improved hugely by removing just about any scene featuring Amidala and Anakin. I know it’s an important part of the whole story… but the scenes really were very bad. They were poorly written, poorly acted (well, Natalie Portman was doing her best, but Hayden Christensen is just not very good), it was creepy rather than romantic and the whole thing was so overblown with multiple costumes and locations that any impact of the doomed romance was truly lost. Remove those scenes and you’ve got a fairly likeable film in the finest tradition of Star Wars with some great action sequences, (Yoda with a light saber!), some funny one liners and an interesting contribution to the wider plot if you chose to pay attention to it. 5 / 10

BONUS Star Wars: The Clone Wars – I can’t be bothered to go down the rabbit hole of whether this is cannon or not, but I’m including it here because I watched it so I want credit. It’s not very good. I did like the animation, and I also like the idea of filling in the gaps between the films and getting to see a bit more of Obi Wan and Anakin’s adventures, but it’s undermined by a not very good voice cast. I never lost awareness that it was actors in a studio reading lines and so any of the nice character moments, flashes of humour or dramatic tension just fell completely flat. Still, at least it didn’t have Anakin and Padme mooning around. 5/10

Star Wars 3: Revenge of the Sith – This film was trapped by the plot it had to follow, i.e. flipping Anakin from hero to villain, giving characters the confrontations they needed but having everyone walk away from the fights to live for the later episodes. It sometimes felt more like the writers were plumbing in pipes to join A to B than writing satisfying narratives. I do think they did about as good a job as they could under the circumstances, but that didn’t make it amazing, particularly given that Hayden Christensen really didn’t have the acting ability to pull off the complexity needed for the character. It did a solid but unspectacular job, it had humour, action, adventure, intrigue, great special effects, interesting fights, but as usual let down by some terrible terrible dialogue that the actors did their best to chew through. The star of the film (and possibly the entire series) however was obviously R2D2 – he flies, he catches, he shoots, he sets things on fire! I think everyone does their best, but when the outstanding thing is a tin can that beeps, it’s not a great sign. 6 / 10

Solo: A Star Wars Story – The film got off to a bad start with a pet peeve of mine – over-colourisation and dim lighting. I thought it was just to hammer home the metaphorical dinginess of Solo’s home planet, but it followed him the whole film. Scenes looked grainy, dull, indistinct and colour filtered beyond any believability. With the visual spectacle crippled, there was more reliance on the story and there was a bit of a struggle there too as too many characters came and went too quickly, and so many betrayals that it was hard to emotionally connect to anyone. The plot also felt too bitty (a common challenge with Star Wars films, and in fact fantasy films in general) – go here, get the thing, go there, get the thing. On a surface level, I was entertained by the film – some sparky dialogue, funny one liners, and good acting, which have been a struggle for some Star Wars films. But it completely failed to immerse me and overall left me underwhelmed. 6 / 10

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – On the plus side, this film does a much more elegant job that Episode 3 of filling in some gaps in the overall Star Wars story. It’s all a bit “B story”, but in many ways the focus here on some of the “little people” behind the scenes expands the universe even further – everyone in the background has their own story even if they’re not directly connected to a Skywalker. That sentiment is admirable and a nice idea, but the delivery was a little underwhelming. The story was another convoluted sequence of “go here, do this, go to another planet, do another thing etc etc”. It relied on an increasingly ridiculous series of activities, technology and poor decisions and any sense of credibility disappeared quite early on. The characters were all quite one-note, without getting a chance to show complexity, most annoyingly the two lead characters – sanctimonious Cassian and flip-flopping Jyn. The wider cast seemed far more interesting, but with so many people crowding the screen didn’t really get any development. 5 / 10

Star Wars 4: A New Hope – I’ve seen this film more times than I can count, and it’s hard to review it objectively as a film rather than the foundation of a mega-empire. Sitting in the middle of my chronological watch, A New Hope is a breath of fresh air. All the other films have at struggled or completely failed to find the effortlessness of A New Hope. Maybe it was the pressure of trying to fit in and live up to a legend, whereas A New Hope could just do whatever it liked.
The thing about the original Star Wars trilogy is that they’re fun and a spectacle. Yes there are some serious storylines and character developments going on, but they’re not bogged down by that. You’re never far from a laugh or from a stunning effects sequence that even over 40 years later still completely mesmerize. Some of the dialogue is pretty clunky, but the actors are good enough to step lightly over it and move on. The universe that is being created is introduced gradually, starting small and expanding outwards no faster than the plot needs or the audience can take. Nothing in the film overwhelms or feels like it’s trying too hard, it’s just doing its own thing without any care or pressure. Just fun. 8 / 10

Star Wars 5: The Empire Strikes Back – Empire Strikes Back is a great middle installment. It moves everything along, but also manages to slow down a bit and flesh out some of the details. The decision to jump the story forward by a few years is a good one, meaning we jump straight into the middle of a new adventure without getting bogged down in the details of how we got from the end of the last movie to the start of this one. It means the story and the characters have all moved on a bit and it’s like we’ve just dropped in. There’s a good blend of light and dark, plot and action, drama and comedy, big and small. Luke learning more about the force may have dragged a bit if not for the wonderful creation of Yoda an inspired choice to make a master of the mind a tiny green muppet. There’s a lot more darkness in this film than in the previous installment, which as the name implies was a lot more hopeful than this rather desperate fan. I just wish that I could get to experience the shock of the reveal of Darth Vader as that must have been truly something. 8 / 10

Star Wars 6: Return of the Jedi – I watched all three of the original trilogy back to back, and unfortunately Return of the Jedi feels like the series stumbled at the last hurdle. I’m not sure whether they were trying to make something lighter than Empire Strikes Back and just went too far, but the whole film lost the balance of drama and comedy that the previous films had and fell straight into daft. Thankfully the overall plot with Darth Vader and the Empire is still solid and draws everything together well, and the character arcs are also well built. However the main activity of the film is just a bit too focused on cuteness, comedy, and spectacle, so you have to almost look through what is on the screen to see the richness. The first set piece with Jabba the Hutt devolves into slapstick fights (alongside the unnecessary Leia in the gold bikini issue), and the less said about the Ewoks the better. I think maybe it was a reaction to bring it back to a more family focus, and I distinctly remember this being my favourite film as a kid, but now as an adult it feels like a jarring swerve from Empire and a disappointing way to finish. 6 / 10

Star Wars 7: The Force Awakens – This film manages to completely capture the FEEL of the original trilogy, in a way that the prequels just didn’t quite manage. Force Awakens connects into the greater cultural relevance that has grown into the franchise, it’s not just copying or referencing, it has the SOUL of a Star Wars film. As the words “A long, long time ago…” appeared on screen and John William’s still breath-taking score kicked in, a smile appeared on my face. And every time a past character, event or prop appeared or was referenced, the smile grew a bit bigger. The plot is still contrived (as my brother who only recently watched the original said, “the force is a handy little trick isn’t it?”) and either I missed or just didn’t understand how the political situation had evolved from the end of Return of the Jedi. There are also some character development questions that are rather dubious in my opinion. But it’s entertaining, the dialogue is fun, the sets and effects are gorgeous, the action well paced and the emotion hits when it needs to. 8 / 10

Star Wars 8: The Last Jedi – I liked this film a lot. It did all the things that I think Star Wars at it’s best does – character, action, fun, and wonder. Last Jedi had me pretty much gripped throughout and never entirely certain where it was going to go, even with the rather excessive runtime. After the film I started identifying some plot holes and McGuffins, but while watching I was completely carried along. The old and new casts felt much better entwined, with almost all the characters getting development and depth, with the slight exception of Finn. This felt far more a film of it’s own, rather than trying to prove something or having to focus too much on serving lots of different fans. It still had the same nostalgia with the music and the style all there, it’s still 100% a Star Wars film; but it felt like it was being a Star Wars film on its own terms. Completely entertaining from the opening chord and title card, to the final one at the end of the credits. 9 / 10

Star Wars 9: The Rise of the Skywalker – Once again, I think the final film of the trilogy might be the weakest one. Maybe it’s because I watched at the end of watching all 11 Star Wars films over the span of four days and I’d run out of enthusiasm. But I do feel that the plot of this film, compared to the previous, just felt a bit all over the place. There were a lot of new elements introduced that felt a little out of nowhere, and rather too much questing going from A to B to C etc and I lost track of why they needed to go to each place. In contrast though the character stories are very well told and the new cast really does carry the film completely, although the appearances from older characters are still welcome, and very moving. All the nostalgia is still there, the effects and action sequences are good, but I’m afraid overall it fell a little flat compared to the rest of the trilogy. 9 / 10

The Haunting of Bly Manor

The Haunting of Hill House really hit the spot for me, it was a well put together horror series, perfect for box setting on a dreary and low enthusiasm weekend. So I was quite excited when the next entry in the anthology series popped up on Netflix.

Unfortunately alarm bells started going off as soon as the characters opened their mouths.

I can understand the allure of setting a horror series in England – the glamour of a large manor house, the stiff-upper lip and ridiculous traditions of the nobility, inherent creepiness of servants beavering away while also being invisible, and the long history that gives plenty of time for gruesome deaths to leave behind supernatural ripples. However if you’re going to do it, you need to make sure that your cast can actually deliver the accents! If you’ve constrained yourself with using the same ensemble cast for multiple settings they either need to be flexible or you need to work your stories around their capabilities. There were several truly terrible accents on offer here, and the worst offender was the narrator who interjected with an accent that drifted all over the western hemisphere in the span of every sentence. Even the American actress playing an American character seemed to have picked up the problem and was also massively distracting.

In fact almost everything in the series was distracting, making it impossible to lose yourself in the characters, stories and settings. It was often hard to tell whether characters were supposed to be unsettling, or if it was just over the top acting. I’m afraid particular examples of this were the two children, who were I’m sure doing their absolute best, but playing “are they possessed, weird, or just upper class English?” is a hard balancing act that the adult actors were struggling with, so the children really had no chance.

The nuts and bolts of the plot were fine, and the horror elements were a nice combination of creepiness, action, jump scares, tension and the sort of horror that just gets worse the more you think about how it. For all that the English setting gave problems to the actors, it was a gift to the cinematography, and the Bly Manor of the title was a characterful setting used to very good effect. If not for the ever present issue of the accents, I think it would have been almost as enjoyable as the Haunting of Hill House.

Picard: Season 1

It’s been well over a month since I watched Picard and it has taken me this long to summon up even enough enthusiasm about it to bother writing a review. I had been really looking forward to it, but wavered around a bit while watching. Maybe my hopes were too high, but I never really settled into it. Despite some lovely moments where I really felt part of the epic Star Trek universe, mostly I was frustrated and sad.

On one hand the series has a lot of nostalgic charm to it. There are plenty of connections back to the Next Generation, the series which introduced me to Star Trek, and to a certain extent to science fiction television as a whole. It’s hard not to smile as small refrains of the music come through, the glimpse of a familiar communicator, at Picard’s familiar mannerisms, or outright grin when Jonathan Frakes bounds on to screen as Riker. There are nods to the other series as well, it’s satisfying to see the ongoing growth of Seven of Nine’s character.

But with this nostalgia comes sadness for things that are lost, seeing once mighty characters and ideas become smaller, weaker and less relevant. Picard himself is a shadow of his former self and although it may be accurate to show him aging into a slightly doddery and occasionally foolish old man, I don’t really want to see that. Similarly the Federation and Star Fleet itself, Gene Roddenberry’s great ideas, seem to have floundered. The messages of hope and optimism seem a little lost. I can see what the writers are doing, the Next Generation is now thoroughly the Previous Generation, and it would be slightly ridiculous to not look at the themes of aging and being left behind. But I didn’t like seeing something I loved so reduced.

That may be my personal taste, the bigger problem I had with the series though was that it just didn’t always seem very good. It felt forced, lacking the organic flow that we’ve come to expect from modern TV series. It felt rushed, and that played out most heavily with the characters and relationships. The new characters mostly had little more than basic personalities built off just a couple of key traits or big mysteries about them, none of them really had any depth, and often their behavior just felt inconsistent. There wasn’t sufficient distinction between the depth of these new relationships, and the longer ones built on decades of shared experiences, I could understand Picard being desperate to find a new mission and a new crew, but the others just felt muddled. I think there were opportunities missed to make more connections to the previous series so there was more familiarity for everyone.

I suppose I should talk about the plot a bit, but it almost feels like it doesn’t matter. It certainly felt to me that the writers were mostly making things up as they went along in order to get characters together in locations that suited them. It starts off very slowly with a lot of mysteries, and then has to wedge in a lot of exposition later on – lots of flashbacks or explanations of something that happened offscreen previously. It felt clumsy and gave a very uneven pace. The level of mysticism also felt a little heavy for Star Trek (certainly the amount demonstrated by groups/races that are usually shown as more pragmatic). And I didn’t like the way it ended at all.

I’m disappointed I can’t write a more favourable review. When it was announced, the concept sounded amazing and there were plenty of Star Trek alumni in front and behind the camera to give any Trekkie a warm glow. But I think it was let down by some depressing story choices and some inelegant writing.

Locke and Key: Season 1

This series has been a long time coming. Based on a highly regarded comic series started in 2008 the rights bounced around various companies it was originally loudly announced as a film trilogy, before converting to a TV series and having pilots made in both 2011 and 2017. Off that second pilot, Netflix picked up the show and then recast almost everyone and making the 10 part series that eventually landed in Feb 2020 and ending up with something that is perfectly fine, but I’m not sure was really worth the wait.

The series starts with Nina Locke and her three kids trying to get a fresh start following the murder of their husband/father the improbably named Rendell Locke. They’re returning to his family home – Key House, a massive rambling old house that looks exactly like the house in any horror or mystery film with massive rooms, antique fixtures, sweeping staircases and doors everywhere. My main thought is that it’s going to be a nightmare to heat.

It doesn’t take long for weird stuff to start and we learn that the house is home to a series of magical keys, each with its own exciting powers. It’s a nice gimmick and the series uses it well to have some fun, provide character insight and drive the plot forward. It does occasionally get a bit hard to track the number of keys, what they do, what the rules are and who has them, but generally when I found I was losing track a character would helpfully recap.

It is more teen drama than adult series, I’d liken it in tone to the later books of Harry Potter, not as childish as the early books because it deals with serious issues like alcoholism, grief and trauma, but still with a fair dollop of teenage ‘shenanigans’ like flirting and dealing with bullies. Given that it’s a story about kids, there’s no way it could go as ‘grown up’ as series like Game of Thrones, but it did feel like it was holding back on some of the more serious issues that could have been pushed darker. The kids aren’t too irritating, and the central trio of the Locke children have some fun sibling dynamics going on, but if you’re not a fan of teenage dramas, then you’re going to get frustrated.

The series is solidly put together, pacing fairly well through the 10 episodes. I did occasionally get frustrated with the frequent flashbacks (particularly because I found Rendell Locke a very annoying character), but it did feel like the history was revealed at a natural rate rather than people frustratingly keeping secrets just to drag the story out. Given the number of time periods, characters and keys to keep track of, it’s an achievement that it works as well as it does. There’s also some nice design work going on using the lock and key motifs (which I’m sure is straight from the graphic novel) which elevates the early episodes but feels like it fades out later in the series. The younger members of the cast are doing a good job with some complex roles, but disappointingly there’s something about a lot of the adult actors that just feels a little low impact, a little bit second tier and by the numbers.

I enjoyed watching Locke and Key a lot, but it’s not the kind of series that really stays with you and makes you want to re-watch it or desperately want another season. I do find myself wondering if there was a missed opportunity with the source material to make something superb, maybe by making it more grown up? As soon as there’s a story with teenagers though it feels difficult to make anything other than a teen drama which (apparently) requires cliches of love triangles and teenage uncertainties. But if you go in knowing what it is, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

American Horror Story: 1984 (season 9)

Naming the series 1984 conjures up two equally horrifying ideas, George Orwell horrible vision of the future, and the real world’s horrible vision of fashion. It’s not hugely surprising that Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk opt for the latter subject as the perfect target for their blend of humour and horror, taking the tropes of 80’s slasher movies. The result is one of the sillier seasons of American Horror Story, and unfortunately not one of its best.

The series starts in 1984 as a group of young twenty-somethings join up to go to Camp Redwood as counselors for the summer. But the Camp has a history as the scene of a massacre. Unsurprisingly the past comes back and the first five episodes are basically just an over-extended classic slasher movie playing out absolutely all the stereotypes and tropes, just with a 5 hour run time rather than a normal 90 minutes. There are plenty of twists and reveals of additional levels of complexity in the relationships, but I saw most of them coming a long way off and I didn’t find any of it particularly shocking or surprising. I’m also not entirely sure that the different ‘mythologies’ at play were applied consistently.

The final 4 episodes do something a little more interesting, stepping forward in time a couple of times to see more of the fall out, including some interesting cultural ideas about how people who felt completely at home in a time period feel as the world moves further away from that time. However for the most part I still felt this was a bit unremarkable for American Horror Story. It may be doing something that you don’t see in classic 80’s slasher films, but it’s not original for American Horror Story in season 9.

Overall I just felt it was a little ‘phoned in’. The majority of the series just doesn’t seem to do anything original with the ideas, it’s just a straight forward slasher movie that except for the improved filming quality and special/visual effects could have been made in the 80’s. The characters are too caricature, the humour too obvious and the story too simple. On the positive side, you can easily just skip this season of the anthology and come back next season which will hopefully be more interesting.

Chernobyl

It wasn’t an easy sell to watch a drama about the Chernobyl disaster, I didn’t know much about the incident before watching, but the word ‘disaster’ is rarely indicative of light and positive easy watching. However there’s also been a huge amount of praise for the show and it swept best series, director and writing Emmys in the limited series categories, so I took a deep breath and settled in.

First up, the praise was right. This is truly superb television. I cannot imagine the amount of material that the writers had to work from, and they’ve boiled it down to a tight 5 episodes, each just a bit over an hour. They’ve clearly had to simplify, amalgamate, and I’m sure occasionally outright make stuff up, but the result is a compelling narrative, just enough technical information and exposition, but also plenty of breathing space for the characters to tell representative stories of all the different types of people involved. We come to understand what happened, and all the reasons why it happened, the complex collection of cultural, technical and personal issues that coalesced to cause the disaster and shape the response to it. You’ll come out knowing more about nuclear power, the Soviet Union and what villains and heroes look like.

The speed of the timeline is also very carefully paced, early episodes playing out over the space of just a few hours, while later ones step through months. The series starts at the very moment of the explosion and for the most part the events are told completely linearly, from there, it’s only the final episode that includes flashbacks to explain what happened. There must have been dozens of approaches the writers could have taken with interweaving timelines, or starting earlier to build the tension, but this presentation worked incredibly well. It meant we could follow along with the characters as we never knew more than them (except for whatever knowledge we went in with). At each point we were focused on exactly what the characters were – putting out a fire, stopping the next problem, working out what happened. The characters and audience are united in living in the moment, the immediate decisions that must be made with only the knowledge available at that instant. It’s incredibly gripping and that tension and pace would have been lost if there were jumping timelines to keep track of. When they eventually start using them in the final episode it is an equally good choice, taking us back before the start of the first episode to see what happened, now that we have the breath to reflect.

The cast is absolutely jam packed with acting talent and one of the things that made me want to watch were the headliners of Jared Harris, Emily Watson and Stellan Skarsgård, all actors that I always really enjoy watching and they are all at the top of their games here. The wider cast are all outstanding, many with minimal screentime to convey what it would feel like to be in the centre of something completely unimaginable. The only thing I wasn’t entirely certain about were the accents, everyone staying with their usual accent rather than attempting a Russian accent which was easier to connect with, but it then seemed a bit weird that all the signs and background writing were in Russian.

I was truly impressed with this series. It didn’t help my anxiety much as I was completely engrossed in it, wondering what I would pack if given only a few minutes to evacuate my home, what I would do if I knew something was seriously wrong but everyone was saying it was fine, how I would decide on the horrible choices people had to make. It’s utterly horrible and completely compelling. You may not want to watch it, but you really should.

Fosse/Verdon

I would consider myself someone who likes musicals, but I’m not really a fan. I think to be a fan you need to have at least a small element of obsession about something, it’s not enough to just watch and enjoy them, you need to really dig into them which is something that I don’t really do. So although I’d heard of Bob Fosse and could probably (at a push) have identified that he worked on Chicago and Cabaret, I knew nothing more of him and I had never even heard of Gwen Verdon. The latter I can at least partially blame on the long tradition of overlooking and burying women’s contributions.

The Fosse Verdon mini-series is an important step to rebalance that. Importantly it doesn’t just swing in the opposite direction and portray Verdon herself as a hero or a martyr, the series presents both characters warts and all, and there are a lot of warts for both of them. It clearly shows the unfairness Verdon encountered in the industry and in her private life, but it also shows her as manipulative and conniving, working within the system to get at least some of what she wants. The performances from Michelle Williams and Sam Rockwell are utterly mesmerizing, shining through the inevitably slightly strained age makeup. The relationship between them was fascinating, both using each other with varying levels of self-awareness, the relationship is at times toxic and at times beautiful. It doesn’t really change over time, it’s just the small adjustments in power that make things interesting, although the circular nature of their relationship does become frustrating at times, every time it feels like things are reaching a finishing point, they manage to produce something beautiful and the cycle starts again.

The series is very much about MAKING musicals, rather than the musicals themselves, in fact if anything I would have liked to see a bit more about the productions. The rehearsal process was really interesting, but the supporting characters came and went very quickly and it was hard to connect to them, or see them as anything other than a means to an end to drive Fosse and Verdon. The series never set out to do anything but tell their two entwined stories, but it felt quite a very blinkered view, one that continues the concept of isolated genius – jut a partnership of two, rather than an individual. I know enough from studying history that it’s a very regressive approach to look for individual stories, bound to ignore the many and varied contributions (particularly from ‘minorities’).

There are also some hints at really troublesome aspects of the story, that are not really surprising given what has gradually trickled out about the discrimination and abuses that have been inherent in the arts for so long. There are classic “casting couch” situations with Bob Fosse sleeping with young members of his cast who then get better parts, and those that refuse him pushed aside. The presentation of this is troublesome, it’s not exactly excused, but Fosse is still made a sympathetic character and plenty of people around him (including Verdon) dismiss his actions, or only feel about them from their own point of view, not the victims. While the series relishes in the complexity of Verdon and Fosse, it still in the end falls into the trap of celebrating their creations as troubled geniuses. The final moments of the series celebrate their creations, successes and impacts on culture, not of the people that helped them, or the people that were damaged by them – there’s enough subtext in the series to see it if you look, but it’s easy to overlook. Even the first draft of my review didn’t mention it and it wasn’t until I thought a bit more that I realised what I’d missed.

I think as a piece of entertainment the series works very well and the performances from Williams and Rockwell are something special. It starts to open a door on some interesting questions of artistic creation, and the fact that it does it in a mainstream way is very important. However, I was left feeling a bit frustrated that it didn’t push the door open further.

Another Life: Season 1

There’s a special place in my heart for good old fashioned naff science fiction set on spaceships. Whether in film or TV form, they generally manage to delude themselves into thinking they’re doing something original while hitting every single cliche in the book. I’m not claiming that this doesn’t happen in plenty of other genres, superheroes, series set in high school, procedurals – they’re all just a subset of character and plot tropes pulled out of a jumbled bag. Maybe I just notice it more for space shows because I’ve watched so many of them.

Another Life is a Netflix series that is so utterly forgettable and uncharismatic that I keep forgetting what it’s called. The concept is that an alien ship has landed on Earth and we in turn send a spaceship back to where it came from. Katee Sackhoff (Battlestar Galactica) is captain of the ship which (of course) hits some obstacles on it’s travels. For some utterly inexplicable reason her crew is made up of a bunch of twenty-somethings who immediately start bitching, whining and shagging. A chunk of time is also spent on Earth with Nico’s husband (Justin Chatwin) who is trying to communicate with the ship, oh and there’s an annoying reporter buzzing around as well.

There are a couple of nice little ideas. The ship carries a full reserve crew in stasis, so it’s possible to inject new faces into the otherwise isolated crew. That also means that the show has no qualms about killing people off in what is probably meant to be a distressing fashion, but given most of the crew are incredibly annoying it’s actually quite nice to see them go. The fluidity of relationships and gender are uncommented on in a way that makes sense for the future and the use of swearing feels quite natural. The AI on the ship (Samuel Anderson) is an interesting character too (although one that’s a disaster waiting to happen), and alongside Sackhoff and Chatwin provide some solid, grown up, acting talent.

Unfortunately the rest of the cast is not the strongest and not helped by the fact that their characters make little sense; even the best actors in the world is going to struggle to play characters that are supposedly hand picked for an incredibly important the mission but written as panicked children barely out of training. There’s a lot of shouting about the peril that Earth is in, it never really feels like there’s any scale to anything, just a handful of scientists on the ground and a ship full of junior officers sent off. The logic repeatedly falls down and the plot holes, inconsistencies and contrivances are so epic that you could drive space ships through them.

It makes it very hard to suspend disbelief and enjoy the series, even as mindless fluff. The little glimmers of potential were just about enough to hold my attention through ten episodes, but it was touch and go a few times. It’s just seems such a waste to spend all this time making something but not bother to find a way to address the insulting holes in the story.