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Being Human

Wednesday February 25, 2009 in television |

This week I’ve given myself an intensive course of the BBC’s Being Human, watching the first five episodes in quick succession. Being Human takes three archetypes from the supernatural and horror genre to create a rather wonderful and original series. A vampire and a werewolf move into a house in Bristol, where they meet a ghost. It might sound a tired idea for a series. It isn’t.

the cast of Being Human

Being Human unfolds neatly to introduce its leads. Mitchell (Aidan Turner) is frozen in time, never growing old and forever resisting the allure of fresh blood since becoming a vampire as a WW1 soldier. This is a member of the undead who doesn’t fit the archetype of sleeping in a coffin by day and creeping round in a large cape at night; instead he resembles a typical young man, slightly studenty in appearance, who make up probably 99% of the Bristol population (living there, I speak from experience). Mitchell is on the wagon, meaning he is trying to give up biting the necks of young virgins, although has a tough time resisting the charms of a thirsty ex-lover (who he’s turned into a fellow vampire) and the creepy Herrick (Jason Watkins). Herrick is a kind of head vampire, disturbingly comfortable in the role of the local constabulary, who’s keen to recruit new vampires and take over the world with blood suckers.

In his man-who-cannot-die role, Mitchell is similar to Captain Jack in Torchwood, although Being Human easily beats Torchwood in the humour stakes. It can be very amusing, and is equally clever because it appears not to take the horror genre too seriously, although I find it does treat it with the respect it deserves. And, sorry to say it, Aidan Turner is a much better actor than John Barrowman. But, at least so far, Mitchell’s immortality hasn’t been played on thoroughly and we only see a hint of his different personas over the decades, although in one episode he does run into an old flame from the 1960s. It would be interesting to explore Mitchell’s history if the series is allowed to continue next year.

Our second character Annie (Lenora Crichlow) is a ghost, who we learn has previously died in the house. Annie meets another ghost, a young man who died in the 1980s. He still owns a Walkman and attempts to pass around those long forgotten things called “tapes”, intent on sharing his love of The Smiths and Echo and the Bunnymen with everyone else. Annie’s main focus, however, becomes the haunting of her ex-boyfriend after she learns that he was responsible for her death. For me, Annie is the weakest of the three leads, although it may just be my unfortunate indifference to Crichlow as, again, Being Human deals rather well with this supernatural element of the story. Episode five ends with the hint that Annie’s time may be up, and it may be worth the series exploring other ghosts, or other horror archetypes, if – again – it is allowed to continue.

Our third character is George, a werewolf played by the excellent Russell Tovey, who gives a very good comic touch to things. I believe that Tovey was in the running for Doctor Who, and after seeing him in this it is interesting to imagine what his take on Tardis duty would have been like. Anyway, George is a natural worrier, and provides a steady balance to the quietly wayward Mitchell. George also has a complex love life (it being difficult to explain to your girlfriend exactly why you tend to go wildest in the bedroom when it’s a full moon). George also has some very good one-liners. When him and Mitchell are besieged upon by angry neighbours after a vampire-porn DVD has accidentally fallen into the hands of a twelve year old boy, they find themselves watching the 1931 film of Frankenstein, where an angry mob pursue the monster to his inevitable doom. George observes:

I used to think this sort of thing was a load of bollocks. Now it’s like watching Ken Loach.

Being Human is an excellent combination of horror and humour, the two “aitches” that tend to make the best television. The script is above average, as are the performances (even though I’m not crazy on Lenora Crichlow). The soundtrack is very good (especially during the 80s themed episode) although not intrusive and it’s refreshing to find a series that doesn’t immediately remind me of any particular film or author (for example I found the recent Demons attempting to be a little too Neil Gaiman-ish). I can’t wait for episode six, where the undead appear to be becoming a wee bit restless. Long live Being Human.


The Next Doctor

Friday January 2, 2009 in doctor who | television

The Next Doctor was the fourth Doctor Who Christmas special to star David Tennant. It was also the most restrained, and left me feeling less over indulged than other years. Whilst previously alien ships over London, giant spider women and a space Titanic featuring Kylie Minogue had me feeling as much bloated on tv sci-fi as I was on Christmas pudding, The Next Doctor at least allowed some breathing space.

Dirvla Kirwan with Cyberman in The Next Doctor

This year’s special received so much attention that you’ve probably been lost in the void (where Daleks and Cybermen are banished, although they have a horrible habit of escaping) if you’ve missed all of the hype and build up. A preview on Children in Need in November was followed by much speculation as to David Morrissey’s role in the grand scheme of things. Was he really taking over from Tennant?

I’m not giving anything away just in case you haven’t seen The Next Doctor yet. The clue, however, is in the widely available opening scene. As the two Doctors stand poised both with sonic screwdrivers in hand, have a closer look at what the Morrissey Doctor is actually holding… Russell T.Davies also manages to weave in some Who mythology and dash the hopes of the expectant fan. There’s a nice twist on the pocket watch theme from series three, and in one scene we get to see glimpses of all ten Doctors. Whether or not Morrissey is really a Time Lord, he’s still very good – and the Tennant Doctor gets a ride in the rather magnificent other Tardis.

As usual, I receive new Doctor Who adventures with mixtures of excitement and disappointment. Russell T. Davies writes the Two Doctors story very wonderfully, although he fails to deliver in the second half of the adventure when the large and loud sci-fi takes over. And I’m not sure if Davies, like all of his predecessors, really knows what to do with the Cybermen. And the 1850s setting does little more than make it appear seasonal. Although it’s buried somewhat, there is some comment on woman’s role in Victorian society; Morrissey states loudly to his companion that she should remain solely in a Seen and not heard role, and Dirvla Kirwan makes an excellent villain with a timely agenda. The graveyard scene with her dressed in red is memorable and effective. Scarlet clad evil ladies and Cybermen stomping through the snow go together rather well.

The recent Doctor Who at the Proms easily highlighted what the modern Who does successfully. Tugs on the emotional strings with music that tells you just when to stifle that tear (Tennant’s face of a thousand expressions helps with this), and over familiar monsters to scare the kids. I’m happy to go along with this, although I still wait impatiently for Steven Moffat to step into Davies’ shoes and take the show somewhere new and original. And reports say that we really do find out the identity of the next Doctor on January 3rd…

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Who's End

Friday July 11, 2008 in television | doctor who

Last Saturday marked the passing of Doctor Who Series Four. This was possibly my favourite series so far, with the excellent Catherine Tate proving all of my original doubts about her wrong. Doctor Who fans speak these days of story arcs, and the Doctor-Donna story of 2008, including in no particular order the return of Rose, the emergence of the Doctor’s daughter, the inevitable resurrection of the Daleks and a supporting turn from the brilliant Bernard Cribbins, had me hooked.

Doctor Who

Our house was packed with Who fans young and old last weekend and the final episode left us exhausted. Adults and children sat around the table confused and dumbstruck, raising their heads to start talking only to sink back into inner thoughts. It was just too much to absorb. Two Doctors (or was it three?), practically everyone the Doctor has ever befriended in the last four years (Captain Jack, Donna, Rose, Martha and even Sarah Jane who he’s known since the early 70s), Davros at his most insane (and at last played by a decent actor – Julian Bleach) and a final wrapping up of the Bad Wolf ending from two years ago. Just too much for my simple mind – for a moment I needed a nearby Time Lord to come along and wipe my memory clean to stop my head exploding…

But what – I think – we learn from it is several things.

That head writer Russel T. Davies will pull all the stops out on an ordinary day, but pull a muscle when it comes to end of season.

That we’ll face a familiar foe in episodes 12 and 13. Last year the Master, this year the creator of the Daleks.

That the Doctor will always, always end up on his own. So what better way to highlight this than to surround him with all his friends and then pluck them all away, one by one. I’ve noticed that, when he’s on his own, the Tardis looks huge with just him standing there in the control room. And the camera likes to dwell on that.

That we’ll want to buy the DVD of the series when it comes out, to check and recheck all of the clues. The references to “The Medusa Cascade” and “the Doctor-Donna” (not to mention “your Song will end soon” – I got that one). The Rose sightings. The whispering in ears. The name (or lack of) theme. The hand. The timey wimey stuff.

So tonight I sat down with my daughter and we watched the BBC Three repeat. The episode was still confusing, but it was the last fifteen minutes or so that got me. Brilliantly written and acted and just painfully sad. The Bad Wolf business was superbly done, but what was just sensational was the conclusion to the Donna Noble story. I just found it very moving that once the Doctor had introduced Rose to the earlier angry, immature, dangerous version of himself ready for taming he suddenly faces the earlier, less travelled, less enlightened Donna. And there’s nothing he can do about it. So while Rose gets a rougher version of her man, the Doctor nods goodbye to the original incarnation of his best pal. And the sight of the scared Donna pleading “don’t let me go back there!” as he approaches her to wipe that dangerous memory was, for just a tv show, heartbreaking. And the final Cribbins/Tennant scene was an absolute joy.

Of course, if you’ve not seen it yet this post is meaningless to you. Don’t take what I’ve said as spoilers, just enhancements to the story arc. All I really wanted to say was well done Russell T. Davies for having a nine year old and a man fast approaching middle age in tears at the same time. I never thought I’d see the day.


Now's the Time

Thursday June 12, 2008 in television | doctor who

When interviewed, Doctor Who supremos Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat always say that they judge a good Doctor Who story by the reaction of children. In 1963, playgrounds were full of kids screaming “Ex-terminate!”. Ten years later, when I was a small child, the playgrounds were full of the less remembered but still absolutely terrifying Green Death, where my little gang played at escaping from giant, deadly Welsh maggots. Three years ago, when the series was revived, the sound of “Ex-terminate” echoing from a school playground as I strolled past brought a small tear to my eye. Since then, the playground has cowered to the cries of the Moffat-penned terrors “are you my mummy?”, “don’t blink” and now “hey, who turned out the lights?”.

Doctor Who

Moffat, who is about to replace Davies as head writer on Doctor Who, is writing some of the best television of recent years. I began to realise that the new Doctor Who was something quite special with the Moffat two-parter of series one The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances which introduced the “are you my mummy?” line. It also introduced Captain Jack Harkness, and the dark WWII-themed story suggested that Doctor Who could be much more than screaming metal monsters. Moffat followed this in the second series with The Girl in the Fireplace, an imaginitive story that nicely played on the woes of time travel, but the writer made his mark in series three with the BAFTA award winning Blink. The Doctor as a DVD extra, more time woes and capers and some very scary stone statues, Blink deserved all of its praise that has already made it classic tv.

Blink has given Steven Moffat a level of writerly fame, and his two-part story for series four was long-awaited. I was anxious about Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead as he’d raised the stakes so high. Luckily, I got the setting just right in order to calm my nerves. Strangely, for reasons beyond the boundaries of this post, I came to watch Silence in the Library with three children in a small … library. A perfect, eerie and uncannily – quiet – setting. Well written, brilliantly acted, odd, confusing, clever but most importantly scary, the episode had me transfixed along with my three small companions. I was even treated to a pre-playground frenzy on the Sunday morning, with cries of “hey, who turned out the lights?” and “now you be the monster!”

Forest of the Dead confirmed Moffat’s greatness for me. This was a beautiful, multi-layered episode, that has me thinking about the themes it had introduced on the next Sunday morning, where kids were still running around scaring eachother. David Tennant’s portrayal of The Doctor is really something special, and Catherine Tate, who I admit to having doubts over, is also impressive as Donna. What’s best about it is that Moffat et al are really trying hard to make this good; rather that producing a visually impressive yet simple programme, Doctor Who dares to challenge its own mythology and its own audience. And The Doctor certainly carries some mythology, the mysterious 900 year old who we’ve known since 1963 yet we don’t even know his name. Although that’s reserved for people really special…

Doctor Who. Certainly my favourite television since 2005, and possibly since The Green Death in 1973 too.

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Wake up, it's Heroes

Thursday May 29, 2008 in television | science fiction

Okay, so we were all warned about the second series of Heroes. Even Tim Kring, the series creator, famously apologised for its lack of vitality. But I was willing to cast doubt aside. The first series was so good that the second couldn’t possibly be that bad. Could it?

Hiro and Ando

And it started very promisingly – I couldn’t understand what was supposed to be the problem. There were imperfections, some of them laughable, but let’s not forget that the first series had its silly moments too. What’s made me laugh about season two is the lengths taken to strip the most powerful of our Heroes, nasty Sylar and nice Nathan, of their abilities. The point, I guess, is that these two all-powerful characters just had nowhere left to go and convoluted ways of making them vulnerable again were the only option. To recap, Sylar could absorb the super powers of other heroes by doing something horrible and slicing off the top of their heads; Peter could also absorb powers by just, well, saying hello really. In the new series Sylar, lucky to be alive after a nasty brush with Hiro’s sword, is reduced to hitching a ride with some utterly tedious new characters and pulling very nasty faces in an “okay, so I’ve no powers, but I can still look real scary” kind of way. Peter, on the other hand, has simply lost his memory and is reduced to hanging out with some very dubious and unconvincing Irish people who make me quite uncomfortable because I am waiting for them to say “The Pogues, The Pogues”, “Roddy Doyle novel” or “I know a nice pub in Cricklewood”. Peter is reduced to pulling very convincing gormless faces in an “oh, I didn’t realise I could fly or makes things explode” way. He hasn’t lost his powers, he’s simply forgotten all the clever things he can do. And got gormless.

Elsewhere, Peter’s brother Nathan has developed the ability to grow a very impressive black beard. Nichelle Nicholls, Urura in Star Trek, turns up as someone’s gran, nicely complementing George Takei, Sulu in Star Trek, as Hiro’s Dad. Matt Parkman, the mind reading one, went off to meet his own Dad. I was secretly hoping his Dad to turn out to be William Shatner, but unfortunately this wasn’t the case. Mohinda, whose own Dad was bumped off by Sylar in the last series, is still wandering round trying to make sense of it all. He’s still pally with Mr Bennet, Clare the cheerleader’s Stepdad. And so on, into infinity. But still, as yet, no more cameos from Stan Lee to complement the comics theme.

There’s some good stuff though; Hiro’s exploits in feudal Japan are very entertaining, and Nathan and Matt are embarking on a dark story arc of their own. What’s possibly wrong with this series is that it is very literate. It’s like reading a very long, rambling and slow novel. There’s nothing wrong with that – it’s a great pastime – although an odd concept for television to adopt. But I like that; Heroes is daring to be overcomplicated and strange and bold enough to risk losing some of its audience. What I don’t like is it is very, very tedious at times and I’ve even nodded off, which is something I never usually do. Unless I’m just getting old. Hopefully I’ll make it through to season three where it’s rumoured that Leonard Nimoy makes an appearance as Stan Lee. Or something like that…

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