Downton Abbey: Season 1

I missed this when it first aired; to be honest, I just wasn’t anticipating that there could possibly be anything worth watching at 9pm on Sunday nights on ITV after X-Factor – least of all a period drama!

But then everyone told me it was wonderful, I caught a random episode and the dvd box set promptly went on my Christmas list. I polished off the seven episodes in just a couple of evenings and I am absolutely delighted to report that my prejudice against ITV was sadly misplaced.

Downton Abbey was one of those really lovely television experiences, one that leaves you not just entertained, but really happy to have seen it. There’s a lot of stuff I watch that’s disposable, I enjoy it while I watch it, but wouldn’t rave about it, or send others out to watch it. Downton stands out from the disposable crowd and I’m a complete (if late) champion. It’s the kind of show that makes me willing to try other things that ITV does and that’s saying something – I think the last thing I watched on the channel was Primeval five years ago.

Julian Fellowes is a good name to have attached to this kind of drama – it’s not exactly a stretch to see a television series about the lords, ladies, butlers and maids in a stately home. Both have an abundance of characters, in Downton’s case eight above stairs and a dozen or so below, with some colourful histories and personality. Dame Maggie Smith is the most obvious link, playing a gloriously horrid character in both.

Where Downton Abbey differs most from Gosford park however is in the focus. Gosford Park was an extremely tightly focussed murder mystery, cramming dozens of little stories and relationships into just a couple of days at a weekend house party, all in just a couple of hours of film. Downton Abbey is more sprawling, spanning several years and accelerating through not only world events, but the development of relationships. I’m very glad I watched all the episodes together, while episodes do have individual plots, they all blur happily together into a completely immersive experience.

Unlike everyone who watched this as it aired, I saw this AFTER I’d seen the BBC’s Christmas showing of the new Upstairs Downstairs which didn’t invoke anywhere near the same response. Upstairs Downstairs felt more of a drama, with intensity and angst. While Downton did have its fair share of drama, it was handled a lot more lightly, with a lot more humour and grace about the whole thing. It had me laughing out loud, rewinding the DVD to replay beautiful little moments more than once. It’s a show that I want to share, want to discuss the character motivations and repeat funny lines. I cannot wait for season two later this year and will happily lend the dvd to anyone that wants it so they can join my obsession.

Downton Abbey – Series 1 [DVD] [2010] – 16 quid at time of writing.


2010: Some thoughts

I didn’t want to (or couldn’t be bothered) to do a “top shows/episodes/quotes/characters/props of 2010 post. I’ve seen a number of other people’s lists and was finding that I’d actually seen very little of what they were saying was the best of the year – either because I don’t watch the shows at al or because I haven’t caught up on the latest season yet. While I’m usually quite happy to compile slightly pointless lists, this year I decided to go a bit more freeform.

Where’s my rocket pack?
It’s tough being a science fiction fan these days and it was a particularly cold Christmas following the announcement of the cancellation of Stargate Universe. I’m not going to start shouting about the unfairness of it, SyFy channel has been quite vocal recently (e.g. @syfy on Twitter) that they don’t want to cancel shows, but they can’t carry a show that’s not covering its expenses and simply put the ratings for Universe just weren’t good enough. The problem is that while the ‘ratings’ don’t give an accurate representation of how many people are watching via delayed dvr, or download (legal or otherwise), at the end of the day they are what dictates the advertising revenue and that’s all the network has to go on. There’s a similar story for Caprica and Defying Gravity (which admittedly had some poor marketing to help it along).

There’s a fair bit of the softer sci-fi out there, Fringe is having a very impressive 3rd season with its alternate reality storyline really coming together. But concept shows like The Event and Flashforward are still floundering trying to find the Lost magic. Comic book/superheroes are well represented with Smallville, No Ordinary Family and the upcoming The Cape. There’s vampires and monsters in abundance on True Blood, Supernatural and The Vampire Diaries, and of course The Walking Dead, but if you’re looking for the proper hard-core aliens and spaceships stuff, you’re pretty much limited to V these days (which I hated).

Is it really not possible to make sci-fi profitable these days? Is it just that the sort of audience who watch sf are exactly the sort that watch in ways that don’t generate revenue? When Universe finishes its final 10 episodes next summer it will be the first time in 24 years there has been neither a Star Trek or a Stargate on the air. That’s depressing.

Best of British
I generally watch two types of things on British television – Saturday evening family stuff (Doctor Who and Merlin) and documentaries (Universe, Inside Nature’s Giants, um… Top Gear). I still don’t watch a great deal of home-grown drama, but whenever I do I’m really surprised at how good it is. I don’t know why I’m surprised every time, I’m sure that’s a definition of stupidity, but for some reason UK TV to me means Strictly Come X-Factor and Eastenders Street. Then I’ll happen to catch something like Sherlock, or Upstairs and it’s absolutely superb. Maybe I should actually start getting the Radio Times, but I definitely want to watch more British produced stuff this year… don’t let me down!

Should old acquaintance be forgot
For someone who watches so much television and still holds a grudge against cancellations from years ago, I find myself relatively unemotional when I look over the list of cancelled shows. Most of the headline cancellations, or planned endings were actually for shows I had no emotional investment in. I never watched 24 or Scrubs, gave up on Lost and Heroes and although I enjoyed the couple of seasons of Law & Order, Numb3rs and Ugly Betty I saw… I never got round to watching more of them.

Even Dollhouse, from the god that is Joss Whedon, got a pretty good run at it. For whatever reason the show wasn’t really working and I’m grateful it got the chance to wrap the story up, but I’m not angry about it. My anger at Flashforward’s cancellation is mostly directed at the show-runners who ballsed it up, rather than the network that pulled the plug on the embarrassment. The only shows that upsets me on the list are the previously mentioned Stargate and Trauma – the little watched paramedic drama set in San Francisco which had an amazing cast of characters, was thoroughly entertaining and failed to find an audience for some reason.

The Walking Dead title screenIn with the new
I’m not massively excited by the 2010-2011 freshman shows so far and from the number of cancellations, neither are other people. Of the ones cancelled, the only frustration is Terriers which is another Tim Minear series that failed to find an audience thanks to mis-marketing but had a lot of charm to it. There’s a couple of shows I’ll pick up when they make it the UK (Hellcats, Blue Bloods, maybe Detroit 1-8-7) but even those aren’t exactly remarkable. The Event is slowly building up on my Sky+ box and I’m just not sure I can be bothered at all.

The Walking Dead was supposed to be one of the big events of the television year, and it appeared on a few people’s Top 10s, but I found it didn’t live up to the hype. Too short, too slow, too familiar. We’ll see how it does when it returns with a longer season, but there’s going to be a long wait for that.

I think the networks have all decided to pace themselves a bit more this year, give things time to breath. So some of the biggest, most highly anticipated shows are actually premiering in January. There’s new series from some of the biggest, most reliable names in television – Shonda Rhimes (Off the Map), David E. Kelley (Harry’s Law) and Shawn Ryan and Tim Minear (The Chicago Code). Hopefully these shows will have the spark that’s been missing from a lot of the other offerings. Maybe not powerhouse names, but I’m also looking forward to Matthew Perry and Allison Janney’s new series (Mr Sunshine).
Coming back for more..

If I’m not grabbed by the new shows so far, I’ve still been finding plenty to fill my viewing hours. All my usual procedurals (CSI, Criminal Minds, Lie to Me, Bones, House) are trundling along quite merrily although a little unremarkably thus far, cable shows like Mad Men and Sons of Anarchy grab my attention for their short runs before fading away for another few months. Fringe and Supernatural both had big changes this year, but are maturing beautifully and entertainingly. And about to start on UK channels are all the guilty pleasures – Grey’s Anatomy, Brothers and Sisters and Glee. It’s going to be a pretty cheesy January, and I’m looking forward to it!

Merlin: Season 3

Merlin is a great example of what the BBC excels at – the great British institution of Saturday evening family entertainment. American mainstream television doesn’t seem to have an interest in producing this stuff, but if the success of BBC America (and I guess syfy channel fair such as Warehouse 13 and Eureka), is anything to go by there’s definitely a market for it.

The Autumn season of Merlin is the perfect counterpoint to the spring season of Doctor Who – two shows which understand the balance between cheesy jokes and action for the kids, with character development and intricate backstory and mythology for the adults.

Merlin is more kiddie oriented than Dr Who, there are far more jokes about bodily functions and the plots are generally pretty straightforward. The villains are all about long lingering evil looks and flouncing about the place. The ‘next time on Merlin’ sequences were often eye-rollingly frustrating this season, the brief trailer for the next episode seemingly packed full of repetitive motifs (a character falls for someone who’s not what they seem) and crawlingly slow character development (Gwen and Arthur look longingly at each other again). But actually when the episode rolls around there was always something new and the episodes were always entertaining.

The key to Merlin is the interactions of the characters and the humour they find everywhere. The banter and teasing is played with perfect timing, both laugh out loud funny and feeling perfectly natural. The contrast of these lighter moments with the weight of destiny which is clearly pushing on them all is nice managed, the jeopardy never so much as to get overwhelming. There’s the added satisfaction of seeing the elements of Arthurian legend slowly come together, not starting from where you expect, but gradually working their way together. Merlin is one of the staple shows in my house –excellent storytelling (all be it occasionally working with somewhat repetitive plots), entertaining writing, charming acting, beautiful costumes and locations, and a healthy dose of people hitting each other with swords add together to make near perfect Saturday evening entertainment.


A topic for a longer post will be “Why I don’t watch much British TV”, but for now I’ll leave it at “I don’t, and it’s complicated”. The few bits of British TV that I rate as must-see however tend to be of the family targeted Saturday and Sunday night stuff, Doctor Who being a fine example, Primeval a more mediocre one. Sherlock, airing on BBC1 on a Sunday night and being written by Stephen Moffat of Doctor Who fame seemed a perfect fit. And it was.

Sherlock Holmes is in many ways an easy choice for any kind of remake, with complicated characters, interesting cases and an abundance of fans, I’m surprised its been so long since a television show was made about him. Reimagining him in 21st century London was a great idea, bringing a new twist to the situations and handily distancing it from the recent Robert Downey Jr film. The London that Holmes lives in however is still the same in many ways, vibrant and eclectic, so a Victorian throwback doesn’t actually stand out as much as you might think.

The casting was superb. I’d not heard of the fantastically named Benedict Cumberbatch before, but he’s breathtakingly good. He bounces around mentally and physically, rattles through the dialogue and leaves you equal parts impressed and irritated – perfect for Holmes. His long suffering companion Watson is played by the better known Martin Freeman who manages to convey that impressed/irritated dichotomy beautifully. He also manages the proud/ashamed, caring/infuriated and competent/insecure balanees, making Watson an amazingly complicated character hidden under an everyman kind of shell. Great actors, amazingly written characters, and fantastic chemistry – the holy grail.

If anything lets the show down it was the plots of the main mysteries. While Sherlock’s insights into small puzzles and people were borderline magic, the big case of each episode always seem to elude him, leaving me shouting at the screen “it’s obvious!” and getting increasingly frustrated. It’s a difficult balance to find, because you want the audience to be able to understand where the solution came from, but hopefully to not have them see it ½ hour before the supposed genius gets it. I think there were tricks they could have used (Watson failing to tell Holmes a vital clue, so the audience has seen more than Holmes has or something) but for some reason the writers fell down a bit there.

Back on the positive side and the show is beautifully produced. London looks great AND like London (even if it’s filmed in Cardiff), it’s not just the shiny buildings and tourist sights that are shown, but back streets and suburbia that look right. The direction uses a number of effect to good measure – smooth panning from one scene to the next, reflections and odd framing (probably leaving people watching in 4:3 a bit bemused). The slickness of the production is very impressive, from the music to the lighting, everything fits and works in a really creative and satisfying way.

The only other problem with the series is that it was so short. The long hour and half episodes work really well, allowing plenty of space for the mysteries and characters. But only three of them meant you were only just falling in love with it when it disappeared. Ending on a cliffhanger also felt a bit presumptuous, at only four and a half hours it felt we’d only just connected before it left us wanting more, it came across as a bit of a tease. The good (and unsurprising) news is that it will be back for a second series, the bad news is that it seems like a very long time to wait.

Doctor Who: 2010

Wow, that season went by fast. There were only 13 episodes of this new shiny doctor to start with, and with three two-parters the season really only had 10 stories in it. The problem though wasn’t that the season was short, but that it felt rushed. There just didn’t seem time to introduce the new doctor, new companion(s), new TARDIS, new Big Bad (to coin a Buffy-ism) and all of the relationships between them.

Warnings – this review will likely be a little more spoilery than usual, I really recommend not reading on until you’ve watched the final episode. Also, I’ve no idea how to number the season, so I’m going with 2010.

The good news though is that I quickly came to love the new Doctor. I thought the David Tennant Doctor (Ten) was wonderful and really wasn’t sure that this obnoxiously young Eleven could be anything other than a step down. But by the end of the second episode, Ten was a part of history. I criticised Eleven in the first episode for being ‘David Tennant Lite’, but it was actually a very clever plan to gradually ease him in, smoothing the transition between the two contrasting doctors. Ten was all sadness and anger – sadness at losing his people, sadness at losing Rose, sadness at losing Donna’s memories, sadness at losing the Master and anger at the universe that let that happen. Eleven seems like a puppy in comparison – all curiosity bouncing from one thing to the next, trying to keep out of trouble and have some fun. His speeches aren’t about threatening his enemies, they’re about scaring them away – “remember every black day I ever stopped you, and then… do the smart thing, let someone else try first”. Over and over through the season the stories aren’t about destroying the evil badguy, but about trying to make peace and bring people together – the silurians and the humans, the hopeless couple in the Lodger, even Van Gogh and his sanity. It feels youthful and energetic and maybe a little naive but not sad, angry or dangerous. While Ten needed a companion to keep him ‘human’, Eleven just wants a playmate, and he conveniently found one that came with a puzzle attached.

While I quickly came to love the new Doctor, I struggled a lot more with Amy. I adored her backstory, that she was the girl who waited, the idea of the Doctor was her imaginary friend who everyone told her didn’t exist. The way that idea was brought round full circle in the final episode was very cleverly played. I liked her shouty bluntness, her spirit, her fearlessness. I could have done without the directors’ overuse of wide eyed close ups and the costume department’s overuse of shameless short skirts, but even that just made me roll my eyes a bit. I also loved Rory, not quite sure what to make of the Doctor , but so hopelessly in love with Amy that he’d follow her everywhere.

The problem came in the weird triangle set up between the the Doctor, Amy and Rory. She starts off being about to marry Rory, throws herself at another man, realises she really loves Rory when he dies and commits to him when he comes back. Then Rory dies a second time and she forgets him, then he comes back yet again, she remembers him and then she dies, before 2000 years later they finally work it all out. All in 13 episodes, and Rory barely appears in the first 5.

Maybe if there’d just been a couple more episodes between each twist and turn it wouldn’t have felt so rushed, but as it was Amy just came across a bit fickle. I honestly thought that she was possessed the first time she threw herself at the Doctor, it seemed to come so out of nowhere. There’s a really beautiful love story in the idea of “the girl who waited” and “the boy who waited” except for the massive flaw in that she was waiting for another man. There are some heartbreaking moments in the relationship, wonderfully scripted and acted – Amy’s realisation that she doesn’t want to live in a reality without Rory, Rory casually committing to wait 2000 years for her, Amy crying happily but not knowing why. With a little more time to breath between each twist, time to fully appreciate the relationship at each stage, each of the twists and turns would have had a much greater impact.

The rest of the stories ranged a bit in quality, often a superb episode was let down by one small element. The Van Gogh episode was beautiful… except for the invisible chicken, the Lodger episode was a lot of fun except for the ridiculous ‘TARDIS in the attic’ mechanism. I was pretty bored by the Silurian episodes, but maybe that was because I don’t remember the Silurians from the first time round. The Weeping Angles were very cool although I was mentally troubled by “if someone never existed, surely the people they killed shouldn’t be dead?” paradoxes. The development of the River Sun character was really interesting, tying this Doctor into a wider storyline and completely befuddling him in the process.

I’m looking forward to next season. Given that my biggest problem with this season was the flip-flopping relationship between Amy and Rory and that is resolved at the end of the season, I think they can move forwards. I’d commented at the start of the season that I wanted to see a different style of companion and a married couple would certainly fit the bill. I think now the characters and the production team are ‘settled’ and have worked out the initial kinks, they’re going to do something spectacular together.