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Archive for the ‘television’ Category

The Owls Are Not What They Seem

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March 2014 is the 25th anniversary of the murder of Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks. I watched the series for the first time last year and it is a gloriously odd. Not just odd in the way we might describe a work as Lynchian these days but often straight up baffling and sometimes simply bad. That goes double for Fire Walk With Me. But when it works, it really works. So I thought I would share my favourite scene from the series, one of the most unexpectedly powerful bits of television I can remember:

The score for Twin Peaks was composed by Angelo Badalamenti and has proved as enduring as the television series itself. This includes ‘Laura’s Theme’ which was a part of my life long before I’d even heard of Lynch via Moby:

Badalamenti describes composing the theme with Lynch at the beginning of this extraordinary Essential Mix by Nicolas Jaar:

(That mix truly is essential, make sure you download it.)

Written by Martin

3 March 2014 at 22:05

When You’re Strange

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Earlier in the year I bought Wild Palms on DVD with the intention of writing a review since it seemed like an interesting historical document – pretty much the first television programme dealing with cyberpunk ideas like virtual reality – and I had relatively positive memories of its Twin Peaks weirdness from when it originally aired back in the early Nineties. After I watched the first episode a problem quickly presented itself: if I wanted to review the programme I would have to watch the rest of this shit. Fortunately Arthur B is made of sterner stuff so you can read about its manifest problems over at Ferret Brain.

Written by Martin

2 June 2010 at 08:24

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Blood And Treasure

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You might remember that the other day I noted that there wasn’t any SF on HBO in a conversation about realism in genre television. Of course, that isn’t true; at the very time I wrote that I was also watching the first season of True Blood on DVD. Based on Charlaine Harris’s bestselling Sookie Stackhouse series of paranormal romance – or what ever it is being called this week – novels, it might not be science fiction (which is where that conversation started) but it certainly fits under the broad umbrella of speculative fiction. And yes, despite its kitchen sink approach to paranormal tropes, it is far more realistic than Battlestar Galactica, not to mention a hell of a lot more fun.

Now, your Adam Robertses or your David Moleses might complain that that opening is excessively strucuralist. I’m going somewhere with this, guys, honest. Those of us in the SF community have a tendency towards loose language (even “SF” itself is ambiguous). Take for example our pretty much indefensible fondness for the term “mainstream”. Or our casual equivalence of “genre” with SF when SF isn’t even a genre, let alone all genres. One of the create things about True Blood is that it is all genres: SF, romance, crime, drama, melodrama, sitcom, soap opera, gothic, it is all there. As a result it is messy, silly and, I think, rather loveable (despite the major flaws Roberts points out in the review linked above, particularly regarding the symbolic representation of prejudice). It is that kernel of realism mentioned at the beginning, a kernel that simply doesn’t exist in mainstream American television (more loose language), that holds it together and allows the reader to overcome the issues; alas, I can already feel it slipping away in the face of other inherent pressures of serial television. The urge to expand the universe and to top each cliffhanger with an even bigger one means that even as the season ends, they are already wheeling out the lost relatives with special powers for the next one.

Which brings us nicely to Heroes. I promised that I would quit while I was ahead but no, I went and watched season three. And it was very bad indeed. What started as a compulsively addictive obsession with the cliffhanger was ballooned into a showcase of everything that is wrong with the word “reboot”. This term is bad enough when it is applied to some innocent culture artefact of the (not so distant) past but Heroes had already taken it to the next level by rebooting at the end of every season. Now they not only have a complete reboot half-way through the season, they also have mini-reboots running through the season like a series of minor strokes. So, for example, Sylar’s personality can change entirely literally every single episode (and this wild oscillation is not confined to him, he is just the most extreme instance). Any attempt at consistency or realism has been abandoned with the result that the show has become untterably boring. It is postmodernism gone mad, I tells ya.

Written by Martin

21 April 2010 at 11:57

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Burn This Manifesto

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It has been a short week but it has also been a hard, slow week. So not much content round here but I’m reading The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by NK Jemisin, I’m off to see Kick-Ass tonight and I will be returning to The Ascent Of Wonder soon.

In the meantime, to celebrate his creation of Twenty Years, Two Surveys Niall Harrison has been posting
individual survey responses, including one from Richard Morgan in which he says:

What do you consider the most significant weakness in science fiction as a genre?

A preparedness to accept very poor levels of quality in fiction (as discussed above) so long as the gosh-wow factor is cranked up sufficiently high. Recently I was asked in an interview if I watched much TV and in response I cited The Wire as the finest TV drama around. This wasn’t what the interviewer was after, so he rephrased the question and asked me if I watched much SF&F TV. But the way he prefaced the remark was, I think, very telling. Of course they’re not in the same class as The Wire, he said, but have you seen the new Battlestar Galactica or Heroes?

As I mentioned over there, this picking up on an interview I conducted with him in 2007 and it has in turn sparked a long and interesting comments thread on Torque Control. I agree with Morgan pretty much wholeheartedly, right down to the frack/fuck issue, and it has always been a sore point for me that most SF TV is so poor.

Niall also points me towards Ritch Calvin’s ‘Mundane SF 101’ essay in Volume 289 of SFRA Review. There are a couple of notable things about this essay. Firstly, it has recently won the Mary Kay Bray Award. Secondly, it describes Niall as “her”. Thirdly, Calvin writes that:

After the Manifesto was published, critics and criticism were swift and ranged from the well considered to the vitriolic. One of the first individuals to produce an extended commentary was Ian McDonald on his LiveJournal blog.

I feel like I deserve some credit since I’ve been hating on mundane SF since 2004. Thankfully it seems to have now died a death but there are always people happy to drink the Kool-Aid.

Written by Martin

1 April 2010 at 11:51

Posted in genre wars, sf, television

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The Cradle Of Civilisation

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What’s the difference anyway, man? I mean, war’s almost over. We’re just about done with this bitch.

In 2003, I watched the invasion of Iraq on television. Later that year Evan Wright published a series of articles in Rolling Stone on his time embedded with the First Recon Battalion of the US Marine Corps, the first coalition unit into the country. In 2004, Wright turned these articles into a book, Generation Kill, which I read in 2006. This was, in turn, filmed as a miniseries for HBO and released in 2008. In 2010, I watched the series on DVD and the war continued towards its eighth year.

All this context is by way of posing the question: what is left to be said? When the book was first published it was still a rare glimpse and an important critique. Now, as the Chilcott Inquiry daintily picks through the paperwork, it is much too late. Generation Kill has passed from journalism to entertainment. To their credit, David Simon and Ed Burns have filed off the rough edges of Wright’s functional approach to create an extremely skillful adaptation. However, if it is too late for truth, it is too early for drama.

Instead, here are two bits of meta-commentary that have lodged in my head. Firstly, Sgt Rudy Reyes – the bodybuilding object of the marines’ homoerotic gaze who find that the war interferes with his diet of sushi and vegetables – is played by… Rudy Reyes. The war has dragged on so long that he has been able to reinvent himself as an actor in his own biopic. Secondly, the guidance on the back of the DVD states that the programme “contains strong language, violence, sex references and real corpses.” What can you say?

Written by Martin

3 February 2010 at 10:02

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You’re Fucking Out, I’m Fucking In

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As exemplified by Dollhouse, me and television don’t always get on. Thankfully me and HBO have no such issues. Most recently they have introduced me to the brilliance of Eastbound & Down. I watched the whole of this last weekend and recommend watching it in a burst like that, it is only six episodes long and each one is quite rightly referred to as a chapter. It starts on UK TV this week and if you like swears and straightfaced monsterism – and who doesn’t? – then this is the show for you. It is sort of like a redneck version of The Thick Of It but, er, nothing like that.

Written by Martin

20 September 2009 at 15:24

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Dollhouse 1.7 – 1.13

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It is deeply unfortunate that ‘Omega’, the final episode of Dollhouse aired in the US, closes to the sound of Beck’s version of Everybody’s Got To Learn Sometime. That cover version was recorded for Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, a film that covers similar ground but does so with an intelligence, wit and poignancy that is utterly lacking from Dollhouse. This may be the “good” half of the season but it is still hopelessly crude.

And then we have ‘Epitaph One’. Not aired in the US, filmed apparently as an afterthought and only available on the DVD and foreign transmissions, it completely explodes what has gone before. It doesn’t change the rules but it does change the game. It awakens a tiny thought that hey, maybe the second season might actually be interesting. The DVD also includes the original first episode, ‘Echo’, which turns out to be far superior to the aired first episode, ‘Ghost’. If it hadn’t been shelved it would also have mercifully eliminated the pointless clutch of turgid episodes that opened the season and almost derailed the whole series. Ah well, it wouldn’t be a Joss Whedon programme if you didn’t regret what might have been.

Written by Martin

19 September 2009 at 18:17

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Dollhouse 1.1 – 1.6

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Who would have thought it? Joss Whedon has decided to remake Mr Benn and cast Eliza Dusku as the titular bowler-hatted gent.

Perhaps more obviously Dollhouse can be compared to Alias. Both feature a young woman working for a super secrit organisation whose job mainly consists of wearing a small dress and punching people in the face whilst her older black partner hangs about in the background. Both programmes are also boring, repetitive and ludicrous. Thankfully Dushku’s Echo gets her mind wiped every episode meaning we avoid any Sydney Bristow-style spy angst but still, it is a terrible template for a show. It is as if Whedon looked back at Buffy and Angel and thought “hmm, I wonder what people liked about those shows?”, only to inexplicably decided that it was the tedious Monster of the Week episodes used to bulk out the seasons.

I’m deliberately writing this only six episodes into the season because by all accounts this is a season of two halves; a shit one and… a slightly better one. ‘The Man On The Street’ quite clearly marks the beginning of this shift, the first suggestion Whedon is actually going somewhere with this. It takes five episodes – almost four hours! – to get to this point though. I hope there is going to be some ultimate pay off for this slow burn beginning, the complexity that was ironed out of Firefly even before it was brutally choked will finally emerge. Then again coherent worldbuilding and moral sophistication were never Whedon’s strong suit so I’m not going to hold my breath.

Written by Martin

10 September 2009 at 20:45

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A Time For Heroes

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When Heroes was first shown in the UK a great deal of fuss was made over it, both by the BBC (who broadcast it in this country) and by British SF fandom. I watched the first couple of episodes, thought it was bollocks and switched off. I did promise to return to once it was released on DVD and I didn’t have to make it a weekly commitment though. I have now done this and, in fact, I devoured them. This is not because Heroes is any good, it is because Heroes is crack.

In a recent discussion about spoilers I suggested that:

You’d have to have a pretty mechanistic way of consuming art if the only thing that held your interest was wanting to know what happened next. Equally if that it is all there is to it then it would be a pretty lousy work of art.

Heroes is just such a work. The whole point of the programme is finding out what happens next. There was some kerfuffle over the fact that the whole of the season was nominated for the Hugo in the Best Dramatic Presentation: Long Form category. Every episode ends with “to be continued” because it isn’t really an episode, simply a sliver of the whole, and the cliffhanger at the end is no different from the cliffhanger at the end, apart from the fact it further escalates the arms race of gotcha moments. You can forgive everything – the awful writing, weak acting, Sendhil Ramamurthy’s voiceovers – in exchange for the glee with which they endlessly pull rabbits out of hats. Characters aren’t really characters, rather they are endless malleable pieces of scenery, anyone could die but only because anyone could come back to life, it is utterly free of any need for consistency. It sounds awful but somehow it is not. Actually, it sounds like Lost, a programme I similarly gave up on after a couple episodes and also keeps a drug-like hold on people.

Apparently seasons two and three are shit. So it goes. I’m interested to see what “shit” means in this context though.

Written by Martin

23 July 2009 at 21:21

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Your Favourite Show Sucks

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Patrick West watches Torchwood and asks why are the British incapable of making decent television science fiction? There are two main problems with this:

a) Holding Torchwood up as an exemplar in this way is like scrapping up a plateful of sick from the pavement outside Leicester Square tube and presenting it as proof the British can’t cook.
b) No one is capable of making decent television science fiction (at least on the available evidence).

Torchwood is a programme for people who found Doctor Who – a programme for under tens – too sophisticated. As it happens, I accidently saw the fifth and final episode of Torchwood – Children Of Earth on Friday. Like 24 its main aim was to wring cheap drama out of tawdry manipulation of the audience, although here Jack Bauer having to torture a terrorist to prevent a nuclear bomb going off is replaced by Captain Jack having to shoot a puppy to save the world. Sort of. West’s point is pretty similar: Torchwood is utter toss. Where he slips up is in his comparison to US television:

But whereas the US has given us Flash Gordon, The Twilight Zone, many incarnations of Star Trek, The X-Files, Quantum Leap, Futurama and, more recently, a re-vamped Battlestar Galactica, Britain’s principal contribution to the field can be summed up in two words: Dr Who.

It is notable that none of those US shows are currently on the air but it is also debatable how many of them were actually any good. Battlestar Galactica which has garnered more column inches and mis-directed praise than any SF show in recent memory (except perhaps Dr Who) was The West Wing in space but re-written for the politically illiterate and morally confused. I gave up on after the first season and, by all accounts, goes into Total Bollocks Overdrive thereafter. Futurama is, of course, great but it is strange he includes it when he dismissed The Hitch Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy as being “sci-fi parody” that “inadvertently betrayed our timidity when it came to taking this genre seriously”. Quantum Leap? Seriously? It is true that American serial dramas are usually superior to British ones but this probably has something to do with the fact Britain doesn’t actually make any serial dramas. Even in America though, no SF approaches the truly great television of the last couple of years: The Sopranos, Deadwood, The Wire and so. Hell, it doesn’t even approach the level of second string shows like The Shield or ER.

Written by Martin

12 July 2009 at 15:30

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