Archive for the ‘ British TV ’ Category

Doctor Who: 2017

Did I even bother reviewing the previous Doctor Who? I’m getting so dissillusioned with it I’m not sure I bothered. Reading back my own reviews it seems I reviewed the first season with Capaldi (which I was not a fan of) and didn’t bother wittering on about second. I know I watched it, but I’ve got little recollection of it.

The problem is that something went wrong with Peter Capaldi in the role and I don’t know how or why. Capaldi is certainly more than capable of delivering both the comedy and the drama required for the role, and the older doctor should have been an interesting change, but the character just wasn’t very well written. They couldn’t get the fluidity between the comedy and drama, it just felt like abrupt switches from serious to weird with little sense of an overall character holding it together. With Clara as the companion there was also an odd hangover of the relationship with Matt Smith’s Doctor which made things slightly flirty, weird and uncomfortable.

So it was a good thing to bring in a new companion, and I liked Bill a lot. She felt like a proper modern and normal character, rather than another in the long line of ‘special’ companions who have some kind of destiny. Bill was just normal, mostly unphased by the “timey-wimey” stuff and treated the Doctor how he looks – an older professor type, all-be-it a pretty eccentric one. Removing any implication of sexual chemistry made a nice change, and the fact that she was gay was completely incidental to the rest of the story, it was very naturally handled. Bill was doing very nicely until a lazy writer undermined her and she made a stupid choice that just frustrated me and made her look naïve and weak. Then she almost got sidelined to give time to the terrible character of Missy and her ever-wandering accent.

Something I did really like this season was Matt Lucas as Nardol. I always prefer when there are more companions along, particularly ones that don’t blindly fall for the Doctor’s charms (Mickey, Rory, even River Song). Having someone who cuts through the nonsense helps ground the whole series. Nardol did exactly that when it was most desperately needed.

The problem I’ve had with the last few seasons of Doctor Who is that nothing felt earned. Characters didn’t so much develop as just teleport from one mindset to another. It’s not the actors’ faults but the writing. Too often things happened just to get from A to B, things were forgotten or remembered as the machinations of clumsy plots required, mysteries were engineered, painfully deliberate hints were hammered home, good ideas were never developed, thrown away for a cheap effect or fast resolution, and elegance just went out the window. Was Stephen Moffat tired, or just too distracted with Sherlock?

With the recent announcement of Jodi Whitaker as the thirteenth doctor, partnered with a new executive producer in Chris Chibnall (a writer on Torchwood and creator of the excellent Broadchurch, which also starred Whitaker) I have hope again for the series. It will be a completely fresh start for the series, which is the great thing about Doctor Who, it can completely reinvent itself. Fingers crossed it can either re-find some of the magic, or even better, create all its own magic.

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Victoria and The Crown

victoriaEarlier in the year I enthusiastically tuned into ITV’s period offering of Victoria. Jenna Coleman was utterly charming as the very young queen and carefully presented the complex character behind the portraits and there was some wonderful talents in the supporting cast (most notably Rufus Sewell). The period, the truth of history and the potential for untold fictions were a great set up for something truly interesting. The sets and costumes were also everything that you might hope for… and yet sadly that is where I run out of nice things to say.

Someone decided that rather than play it relatively straight, they would aim for another Downton Abbey. Then to add insult to injury, they failed to read the reviews of Downton Abbey and notice that no one at all had enjoyed the tacky and pathetic schemings of characters like Thomas and O’Brien. While Coleman and Sewell were acting their hearts out and doing their best to deliver nuanced performances with heart and soul, others amongst the cast were hamming their way through petty plotting, ‘mysterious’ back stories and some rather painful accents. I gave up after about 3 episodes.

So I was rather dubious about Netflix’s offering of The Crown, fearing that it would take a similar route, possibly made worse by having Americans involved. I was extremely happy to be wrong.

the-crownFirstly, the story of the young Princess Elizabeth, her secession to the throne and the early years of her reign are absolutely fascinating. The first season covers just 8 years (plus some flashbacks) and frankly 10 episodes/hours was not enough to do it justice. I think the writers did an excellent job combining coverage of big events and taking time to also see smaller, more personal moments and development, but I still wanted more every time. This isn’t just about Elizabeth, but about those around her too and I wanted to spend more time with everyone, understanding the role in the household, their background and their interactions.

The cast is jam packed with absolute stars, all walking a very carefully balanced line between performance and impression. Claire Foy (who I’d never heard of before) as Elizabeth is very impressive, she has to do something I’m guessing is incredibly hard as an actor which is acting someone who is acting. Elizabeth is actually a woman playing different roles to different people, and at this point in her life, she’s having to work out how to do that and which roles are needed for who. It’s what makes the character fascinating and also human, The Queen is not really someone any of us can really relate to, but Elizabeth the wife, Lilibet the daughter and sister, even Elizabeth the woman promoted into a job she’s not ready for… those are all much more interesting.

The style and look of the show are phenomenal, clearly demonstrating every penny of the
Reported £100m budget. The period-ness of it is less far removed than Victoria, which maybe helps make it more relatable. It all feels a little more familiar, a distant memory rather than a completely new world. Given that the existence the royal family lead is so different to normal life anyways, the period differences such as everyone smoking like chimneys, old cars, or telephone switchboards seem the least of the worries.

I found the show completely compelling to watch, burning through the series in just a few days, and I’m sorely tempted to go back and watch it again as I’m sure I’ve missed a great deal. The history is absolutely fascinating (and something I know little about), but the show’s real success is telling it all from a completely human point of view, making me really care about the characters in a way that Downton Abbey never even came close to. I look forward to the next five seasons!

The Musketeers: Season 3

muskateerMusketeers is one of those shows that I found myself accidentally falling in love with and becoming mildly obsessed with, despite the fact that it’s a hugely flawed production. I’ve always thought it’s a near perfect setup and am astonished that it took so long to become a television series (not forgetting Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds of course). The four heroes are classic characters, the themes of loyalty, camaraderie, honour and betrayal are pretty universal and there’s plenty of opportunity for action, romance, thrills and humour. I’m guessing the period setting puts people off (although how good could a present day version be?), so it’s not surprising that it’s the BBC that finally took a run at it.

Frustratingly though, it seems the BBC gave up on the show before it even started, showing it hardly any love or support with the basic error of poor scheduling. I’ve always figured that the first season of the show was half written for a family Saturday evening slot to replace Merlin, but then pushed it to Sunday at 9pm, where its tone wasn’t a good fit, marketing was non-existent and its ratings suffered accordingly. Friday at 9pm for the 2nd season wasn’t much better and the 3rd season was announced as the last. By which point the BBC jut gave up altogether and scattered it around the schedules – Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday… you name it, it aired there.

You can’t really blame the writers for feeling a bit peeved and lazy, but I wish they’d been just a bit better. The writing has always rather suffered from a focus on what needs to happen to support the immediate plot, often sacrificing the long term consistency. Too much of the previous seasons was spent with Machiavellian villains repeatedly getting beaten in their weekly plot, while the Musketeers still manage to come out behind. The writers took a particular “well sod it” attitude towards things in the final season, basically writing plots and moments to keep themselves happy and playing pretty fast and loose with credibility of both plot and character/relationship development.

The four year time jump between series two and three simultaneously left too much time passing and yet not enough changing. Aramis left them for four years, Athos had to be a captain rather than one of the men, and yet nothing really changed. Other than a couple of remarks, by episode two Aramis was completely re-integrated and Athos still went on every little adventure. D’Artagnan’s character actually did seem to have matured in those years, and the others did treat him more like a peer than a junior. But despite the title of the series, it turns out that it’s Constance who really got the best development. She had some good material in the first two seasons, but in season three she is confident, commanding and a wonderful foil to all the male characters. Tamla Kari’s beautiful performance blended a woman taking control while not losing her emotional core and uncertainties.

The poor consistency for the Musketeers themselves is frustrating because all the actors are more than capable of great performances, individually and as a group they’re hugely charismatic and versatile making each character a complex individual building from the classic archetypes. The characters and actors play off each other, always forming a balanced set. Athos, Porthos and Aramis as the triangle in everything – sword, fists and gun; head, heart and soul, thought, action, words – while D’Artagnon is always in the middle, tying them together or pushing them apart depending on what’s needed. You could pick any small scene and watch the poetry in motion of the actors and characters working and moving together to make a unit. Individually they’re ok, but together they’re wonderful.

Unfortunately, I’m not sure the writers fully understood that and it was the very last episode that left me frustrated both as a critic and as a fan. The writers knew this was the final season and they wanted to basically go out with a huge bang while also tying everything up in a perfect bow. This required some particularly clumsy manoeuvring to get people (and history) in the right places. As a critic it was a frustrating exercise in fan-service with very few of the happy endings really feeling like they were earned. But the bigger problem is that as a fan, I still wasn’t satisfied.

You see the final resolution for our four musketeers is that each of them individually get their happy ending. Athos who had been driven to be a soldier because of the betrayal of his wife, gets the girl and a baby on the way and leaves soldiering for them. Porthos who had come from the streets and was treated as the muscle, is recognised for his leadership and strategising and made a general. And spontaneously gets married to a woman who doesn’t mind him soldiering (despite the fact that her husband, and father of her new baby, was killed on a battlefield). Aramis who craved adventure and as many women as possible to escape memories of the true loves he’d lost, left the musketeers to become First Minister of France where he can be near to the Queen and watch over his son. ‘Trainee’ D’Artagnon became captain, running the musketeers with Constance. Each is a happy stories individually, but they missed the point of what I loved about the stories of the musketeers – the group of them together. How can it be a happy ending when they are going in different directions?

Despite the somewhat clumsy plotting, and that somewhat sour end note, the series was never anything other than entertaining. I wonder what this show could have been if only the BBC had committed to it more. With the mixture of action, comedy, romance and drama; not to mention the incredibly detailed and beautiful period sets and costumes; it should have been a perfect candidate for an absolute hit. As it was, it’s a show that I suspect I will always remember more fondly than it maybe deserves, giving it the benefit of the doubt for what it came so close to being, rather than the slight mess that it actually was.

Forgotten (,) River and three others

riverRiver
This is a pretty formulaic concept, the quirky, grumpy, distanced cop who rubs everyone up the wrong way but is some kind of savant when it comes to solving crimes. It’s a formula that works, so I’m not being snotty about it, but there has to be something to make me want to watch this rather than just dust off an old box set. The first episode had two things that really hooked me. The first was Nicola Walker cutting through any sense of scandi-noir tone that the casting of Stellan Skarsgård might have had by layering on the London accent and the horrendously cheesy 70’s music. The second was the reveal of what makes River (the character) quite so quirky. I won’t spoil it, because it’s a really great moment when you realise what’s going on.

Unfortunately, I didn’t think the rest of the series didn’t quite live up to that opening. The twists and turns of the mystery start off ok, but they become increasingly tenuous until the final conclusions left me underwhelmed and actually a bit cross. Skarsgård and Walker could easily take their place in the pantheon of great detective duos, but sadly the material didn’t quite live up to their talents. I’m not sure a second series would work, and I’m not sure I’d really want to watch it.

unforgottenUnforgotten
I’m not sure of the timings of the release of these two series, as I actually pretty much binge watched them both on catchup, but I came to Unforgotten second and I only actually watched it at all because I figured I’d been so impressed with Walker in River (and Last Tango in Halifax for that matter) that I should give this series a try too. Thank heavens I did.

Where River is ‘quirky’ this is just a straight up police murder investigation, the only peculiarity being that the murder took place decades ago. The first episode nearly overwhelms you with the sheer number of seemingly disparate characters it introduces, but just as it all became a bit too removed, the links are revealed. In fact that was a pattern throughout the series, everything was stretched to the limits at time, but just before it became unbearable or inappropriate, it was pulled back, or the tone was changed. Unlike River, Unforgotten actually managed to carry me through to the end. I don’t think the resolution was as interesting or satisfying as the journey to get there, but it felt right enough.

Carrying the audience through is the wonderful Nicola Walker, just as in River she grounds the series into utterly believable human reactions. There’s just something about the way she delivers lines that’s completely compelling, the pauses and the body language, the emotions that are all over her face. She’s absolutely fascinating to watch and while River didn’t have great material around her leaving the series suffering a bit every time she wasn’t in a scene, Unforgotten had a solid story to back up the performance.

jeckylandhydeJeckyl and Hyde
After about 20 minutes I had a sudden revelation that sometimes, it’s not necessary to watch the WHOLE pilot episode of a show if you think it’s so utterly miserable and unremarkable that you’ll never watch a second episode voluntarily. It just seemed a mess. Too many characters and locations, too little acting talent, too much exposition, too little caring. Nothing at all that made it worth watching.

The Frankenstein Chronicles
It’s a sad fact of Sean Bean’s career that I find it hard to accept him as a leading man. He just doesn’t feel like he’s every really more than a one-note character who is waiting around to die and motivate other, more interesting characters to greatness. It’s not fair, but it is what it is. He’s not really got much to work with here, the “good soul with a troubled past” is laid on tediously thickly in the first episode. Maybe it will develop a bit more, but it could really do with getting a move on. The rest of the idea is ok, but like the character, could do with moving a bit faster. Maybe I do just watch too much tv, but I spent most of the episode just going “yes yes, we get it, move along”.

Last Panthers
I didn’t make it 15 minutes into this before I gave up. I suspect if I’d been better prepared for how much was subtitled, I’d have been more engaged, but I just couldn’t seem to keep focus on it and every time I was distracted I missed more subtitles and cared even less. I was expecting things to kick off with an action and adrenalin fuelled heist, but was pretty disappointed and nothing in the next 12 minutes managed to rise me out of that funk.

Humans: Season 1

humansOnce again, I’m late watching and reviewing something because of my housemates. That’s my excuse anyway. We started watching this together but then their enthusiasm waned and other things took priority in our limited joint tv watching time. Eventually I gave up waiting for them, because I actually liked this a great deal more than they did.

It’s always nice to see an interesting series appear out of nowhere, when you least expect it. It sounds patronising, particularly given some of their recent series such as Utopia, but I didn’t expect a Channel 4 series about robots to be so well put together.

I think my housemates lack of enthusiasm was that they felt the story was a bit simplistic, that it lacked a view of the bigger picture of what was going on in the world. But I actually liked that we only saw things through a handful of limited perspectives. I liked that we were never really told how far in the future we were or if it was an alternate present; the design of technology and clothes was generic enough that it could be anytime, it wasn’t trying to distract us with shiny outfits and lots of whizzy tech, the only difference between our world and their world was the robots.

That is a bit of a simplistic approach, changes like that don’t happen in a vacuum, but from a story telling point of view I like it because it gives focus to the central issue and makes it easier to relate to. I loved all the relationships that were established amongst and between the Hawkins and Synth families. It was complicated and real, everyone having frustrations with the people they loved and moments of connection with strangers. Not all of the characters get quite as much depth as they might which is a shame, Anita is a bit of a Mary Sue and various characters’ technical abilities are pretty magical, but I was willing to forgive that for the sake of moving the plot along at a satisfying rate and focussing on the characters.

Humans may lack the epic feel that much science fiction uses, and also loses the sense of wonder when everything is just focussed so tightly. But that’s ok by me. It’s not the kind of series that will change the world, or have a particularly profound impact on its audience, but for me at least, it did have an emotional impact that has stuck with me and I hope will carry through season 2.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

strange_norrellI’m a bit surprised it’s taken so long for this book to make it to the screen, but after the wait I’m very glad that it ended up as a seven part miniseries with the BBC. For a start the BBC can generally be trusted to do a faithful adaptation, taking the tone and essence of a story while not being so tied to the details of the original that they reproduce flaws or fail to adapt for a different medium. Also seven parts, while a rather odd length, was perfect to show the evolution of the world and the characters, but avoided the slight dragginess of the original breeze block of a book.

What I loved most about the book and what this adaptation captured perfectly were the quirkiness and the sense of wonder. Susannah Clarke created a rich and deep world, and most importantly left elements of the history slightly muddled. Different people see and remember events differently; fact to one person is legend to another and the audience can never really know what the truth is. It’s wonderfully immersive and I never felt like I was stupid for not understanding something, or overwhelmed with explanations.

The other strength of the book that is beautifully recreated here is the complexity of the characters. Rather than the traditional simplicity of good guys and bad guys there are a collection of individuals with their own priorities, ambitions, flaws, courage and beliefs. Bertie Carvel and Eddie Marsan are truly superb and show the complexity of their characters with impressive subtlety. It’s not really the plot about the restoration of English Magic, or the threat of the Fairy that is the centre of the story, but the shifting relationship between the titular Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. Their story is epic, but is told in relatively small moments and acts, each character insecure and uncertain, acting and reacting until the immensely satisfying conclusion.

The production values are everything you’d anticipate from a period production for the BBC. It also matches the tone of the book perfectly, it’s not the hyper-realistic detail that you might be used to, but at times it feels very much like you’re looking at sets and manufactured locations. It’s sort of as if you’re watching a production, rather than watching something that’s supposed to be as if you’re there. I don’t quite know how to explain it, but it makes it feel like you’re watching a tale being told, acknowledging that it’s a story. It works really well with the other-worldliness of the story.

I really enjoyed this series. Not only is it fascinating to watch, but it’s also really entertaining with plenty of wit and laugh out loud moments. I can really see this becoming a classic.

Critical: Season 1

criticalSky have pretty much built their business on buying in shows from other countries, but gradually they’re starting to do their own productions and commissions and Critical is an interesting, although not necessarily completely successful, entry into that list. It sits well alongside The Smoke and like that series brings an originality to the approach to a fairly standard television setting.

At its core, Critical is just another medical drama. Patients come in with varyingly horrific injuries and the dedicated team of experts fight to save them, with the familiar televisual mix of strict procedures and maverick creativeness to save a life. Meanwhile they have their own personal issues to deal with, their own insecurities, fears and egos not to mention a convoluted network of relationships for them to agonise over.

What really sets Critical apart is the absolutely incredible level of detail for the medical procedures. Firstly the process details are rigorous, and will the formality and structure will be familiar to anyone who’s watched something like 24 Hours in A&E (e.g. introductions, specific roles, precise language and cross-checking dosages etc). The most impressive however is the breath-taking graphic detail of every medical procedure. It’s really not a show for the squeamish, there’s blood and organs everywhere, and the brutality required to save lives often seems worse than the actual injury. I really have no idea how they’ve made these scenes so realistic, but the sounds and visuals are horrifically compelling.

Most episodes focus on just one patient. The patient rarely speaks and has minimal background, they are practically a prop at times. The episode is real time, the first hour of their treatment in hospital. The adrenalin the characters run on is contagious and I found it utterly engrossing and frequently more edge-of-seat than most action films. There are also some nice character choices, the lead consultant is an army veteran, and his military approach to processes, team management and improvisation is fascinating.

But then it lets itself down in the most obvious and stupid of ways. You know what’s exciting? Literally heart stopping medical action. What’s not exciting? Bureaucracy. I want to see the processes and the techniques and the passion that goes into saving people’s lives. I do not want to see bickering over schedules, ego driven arguing or micromanaging budgetary concerns. The ‘evil’ bureaucrat was a pantomime villain, his sole reason for being apparently to complain and bully the team as they try to save lives and I just don’t want to believe that it’s realistic a doctor would behave that way, or that a hospital would allow it.

Likewise, I could have done without most of the personal elements. The relationship woes just didn’t add anything to the series for me and took time away from more interesting subjects. They often inserted those moments right into the middle of emergencies and completely killed the pace.

I wasn’t expecting much from this series, so was really impressed at the areas of originality. I’m hoping that they’ve got some of the wrinkles out in the first season and I really look forward to next season.