Archives for category: fantasy

One of the biggest challenges facing any science fiction or fantasy series is to get the balance between creating excellent adventures and encouraging long-term emotional investment. Ignore the latter and when you want to create a big hefty scene where a lead character dies or leaves you find yourself with an audience not that bothered and just wanting to you to move on to the next big showdown. Ignore the former, and you don’t really have a sci-fi/fantasy show at all, just a drama with a few weird references.

Doctor Who tackles this problem with varying degrees of success. In the Russel T. Davis era, it did this very well, bar the odd episode. The plots wrapped you in nicely and had a zing to them, but you still cared about the characters. One of the times I’ve cried at the TV was when the hologram of The Doctor cut out before he could say ‘I love you’ to Rose.

I feel, in my personal opinion, that the Steven Moffat era has been less successful. For a start, I have never fully understood why the loss of Clara Oswald is felt by The Doctor with the pain that Amy Pond or any others were not. So that’s the emotional investment side not hitting the right note. Then we have the adventure side, which I also feel is sometimes lacking. Too many episodes seem to end with The Doctor knowing what he was doing all along, which makes you wonder why someone so keen to save the world lets so many people get harmed in the process.

There are some bright moments though. I have always liked Peter Capaldi as The Doctor, playing him both that bit darker but also with stronger vein of humour than some of the other recent incarnations. I also think Matt Lucas as Nordole becoming a semi-regular character is a smart move, as I feel the Tardis actually needs a trinity of people. I’m undecided on Pearl Mackie as Bill – her mouthiness is welcomed but I feel we were spoilt in our early days with the near perfect Rose Tyler, with only Amy Pond so far coming close. I think the best solution is to give Bill time to grow.

Best of all though is we still have Michelle Gomez as Missy. Like Capaldi, she is bowing out this series, and could actually end up being the greater loss. There is a fizz from her that cannot be replicated. Her voice is an iron fist wrapped in a velvet glove. Like all the best villains, she makes being evil look fun.

There have been some genuinely strong individual episodes in this run. Thin Ice felt like a Tennant-era classic – evil human bad guy thwarted and some good done to the world in the process. Extremis has set up some interesting concepts and given us a decent story arc to get our teeth into. When the stars align, Doctor Who can still pull out a corker of an episode. But it needs to do this more often. The show is having a reboot next year – new Doctor, new showrunner. A perfect opportunity to audit it and gives us the best the show can be.

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And now, my annual appraisal of Once Upon A Time. I have a love-hate relationship with this show. Glimmers of something wonderfully tense and intriguing often gets buried behind sentiment and cheesiness. Season three marked a high point for me in terms of character development – Rumple, Regina, and Hook (to name but a few) grew as characters, whilst the storylines had a genuine tension.

So what of this season? Well, several things in it are working deliciously well. This season hasn’t been afraid of focusing on the darkness. This is seen most obviously in the very literal split between Regina and The Evil Queen, which has also thrown up the brilliant plot device of ‘How do you defeat your enemy if you are the enemy?’ But we have also seen it in Mr Gold’s own wickedness plumbing new depths, culminating in the most recent episode being one of the strongest for a while. I won’t spoil it for you, but it’s nice to see a plotline not get sugar-coated for a change.

Then there is the ongoing background plot of Emma’s fall as The Saviour. For a show that normally unravels its mysteries quite quickly (Jekyll and Hyde were dispatched within a handful of episodes), they are asking us to be patient with this particular plot. It’s a slightly daring plan, especially if the final pay-off is less than expected, but the return to form in other areas has given me optimism it will work.

Of course, not all is perfect. We have the nausea-inducing plot of Snow and Charming never being allowed to be awake at the same time under a new sleeping curse. While wickedly evil, it means we have an awful lot of two characters making eyes at each other while the other sleeps. I admit to lacking a romantic sense, but even the lovers in this world must consider this overkill.

I also find the Aladdin plot tedious. Once it had served its function as context to Emma’s storyline, it seemed to dribble into nothing. For a show that has a history of strong women, or at least women that learn to grow a backbone, Jasmine seemed exceptionally wet. Thankfully, it seems that this has been wrapped up for now. Unless we are going to see a sparkier double act, I would advise against investing much more in this.

Overall, it does feel as if the show is injecting itself with a bit of zing. Yet it is coming from going deeper and darker, something that runs head on to its usual vibe of love and family. It will be interesting how the rest of the season plays out, especially as there is no half-season split – what we are seeing now needs to sustain itself for the finale. I hope it does. When it works, this show is too good to fail.

Before anybody says anything – yes, I know I have discussed Grimm before. Twice, even. However, there is a good reason for me to come back to it. Quite simply, there is always something new to say about it. It is a show that keeps moving forward, even if sometimes it shoots of down a dark tunnel that looks hard to get out of.

Which brings nicely to the big season 5 story arc, the rise of Black Claw. There are a fanatical Wesen terrorist organisation, fighting to bring back old traditions and return the Wesen race to dominance. Apparently, Hitler wanted the very same, which begs the question ‘was Churchill a Grimm?’ Probably not, but never let being sensible get in the way of enjoying a fantasy series.

Anyway, the parallels to our world are obvious. Black Claw are Isis or similar, wanting their culture to be the dominant one. People who don’t join are traitors to their kind, and winning over impressionable young minds is key to their success. The unrest is on a global scale and often disguised as general political disgruntlement (riots in Ukraine, the Troubles in Northern Ireland re-emerging etc.). It certainly feels very frantic.

This feeling of everything being at warp speed wasn’t helped by the first episode back from its Christmas break being very weird and feeling like it had been shot as a cross between a B-movie and bad soap opera. The filming was jerky and the background music obtrusive. Weirdly, only we in Britain seemed to notice, and by the next episode the faults seemed to have been corrected. Perhaps someone pressed the wrong button on the DVD player at the TV network. Bloody interns.

There is a general feeling that this season is going for the big payoff, as if someone knows this will be the last series. It is hard to imagine how the show would top this next time around, especially in terms of the depth of peril that the characters are rushing in to. The obvious comparison here is season 7 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where a similar apocalypse scenario played out. The team knew there was no way back from it, so called it a day.

If it is the last season, at least the people behind Grimm are throwing everything at it. Juliette as a weird cyborg-Wesen with a ridiculous amount of wigs, Nick kissing Adelind, Meisner looking so grumpy he puts Daniel Craig to shame. It’s a wonder there is any space in an episode to return to the crime of the week.

Like I say, as much as I love the show, it feels as if it is right that this is a swansong. This is their jumping the shark, their return of the First, their all or nothing. Just make sure the person putting the disc in knows what they are doing.

A guilty pleasure of mine is Once Upon A Time, a show that began as one that reinvents/’goes behind the scenes’ fairy tales but is now more of a general promotion of the Disney franchise, with ever more tenuous links to the source film or tale. Still, it was always rollickingly good fun, even if it did stray into schmaltz at every given opportunity. The second half of season 4, with its ‘Queens of Mean’ plot, was a high-camp delight.

Which is why the first half of season 5 felt such a damp squib. Part of the problem is the plot has been so deadly serious compared to some of the others. Emma as the ‘Dark One’, for me, didn’t work. This was probably because they interpreted her as being ‘dark’ by putting her in a leather trench coat and wearing bright red lipstick, with her hair in a bun so tight her face looked like it had been filled with a year’s worth of Botox.

The scenes in Camelot were also dull. Freeing Merlin seemed to take a ridiculous amount of time, and then he died not long after, making the whole thing just seem pointless. Thank god for the interplay between Zelena and Regina, both of whom seemed to remember that this is supposed to have an element of fun to it. The random shoehorning in of Brave didn’t help, an odd subplot that didn’t really go anywhere other than leave me wondering if the actress playing Merida was actually Scottish (to my surprise, she is).

The biggest frustration though is the lack of progress the show is making. Here was a finale that was supposed to end all Dark Ones, and would have tested the writers into creating new villains and new worlds. Instead, (spoiler alert) they copped out, having Gold pull a trick that saw him become the Dark One once again, only this time blackmailed by Emma.

So what does the second half of the season hold? Well the gang is off to the Underworld to rescue Hook, no doubt because the producers realised losing the best looking bloke from the cast would be suicide for the show, even if it would cut the mascara budget in half. The producers have promised the return, for one episode at least, Cora, Cruella and Peter Pan, the former two hopefully reinjecting the show with its camp edge, the latter a layer of creepy villainy. However, as it’s probably going to be dead people heavy, don’t expect a return of the humour we are missing.

I have to confess that I don’t normally watch adaptations of books on TV. I either have read the book in question and have no faith in the attempt to bring to the screen (my favourite bits in books are often obscure little moments that get cut in the necessity of making something 1000 or so pages long be told in the space of three or four episodes), or haven’t read the book because it was of no interest of me and therefore would have an equal lack of enthusiasm for the screen version.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell has managed to creep its way into my viewing schedule though, albeit accidentally. I must admit that although the book sounded interesting from the back cover blurb, it got pushed all too easily into ‘I should read’ list rather than the ‘I want to read’ one. Stuck on Sunday night with nothing to watch (seriously, do programme schedule people assume only the over-60’s turn on their TV on the Sabbath?) the adaptation easily won the ‘least bad’ option.

In truth, I am rather enjoying it, even if it is moving at a glacial pace. The chalk-and-cheese titular characters, played by Bertie Carvell and Eddie Marsan, are fascinating characters. Strange is all foppish aristocrat, tumbling upon his new life through accident and becoming a brilliant magician through innate talent rather than practice. Norrell, on the other hand, is the book-worm, jealous of his new protégé/rival’s talents and snobbish of how he acquired them. The second episode, where Norrell begrudgingly realised that all of his time honed-skills were paling in comparison to the natural gift of the upstart Strange, was smartly done.

Then there are two shadows to contend with, The Gentleman and The Raven King. The former, played by Marc Warren as some devilish rake with a side-line in tart ripostes, is front of stage at the moment, proving to be an added complication to Norrell’s fall from grace. The latter, so far unseen, is likely to be the more malevolent force, and will hopefully step things up a gear (bar the odd moment this programme as hardly tested the viewers’ mettle).

My one dislike about this is the two main female characters – Strange’s wife and Lady Pole, seem to be a little on the outskirts of the plot at the moment (even the Gentleman has started paying more attention to a male servant). However, there are hints these two characters could develop more when they interact with each other.

Is this my favourite show of the year? No. But it is passing the time on Sunday evenings quite pleasantly. It’s a long wait until Downton Abbey comes back, and we need something to fill it.

When you watch the same show season after season it can be worthwhile to take a step back and see how the show has moved on from its beginnings. Some move on from their original premise to something wider or narrower (e.g. Revenge, which I’m still not sure needed to go beyond its third season climax), whilst others add layers to the original story, fuelling the story.

Grimm falls into this category quite nicely. As the fourth season moves along, more characters are being given light and shade beyond Nick himself, as well as different permutations of what his powers actually mean. In the case of the latter this has included episodes dealing with what happens when a Grimm goes bad (or rather loses the ability to make decisions) and the consequences of losing his powers. Being behind America here in the UK, we are only just beginning to see him get his powers back, as well as the return of Josh Porter, who I must confess I had forgotten about until his back-story was re-explained to the viewers.

It is the added depth to the characters though that this show has made the biggest advances. Nick is no longer the only one facing dilemmas. Rosalee and Monroe’s relationship has become a good allegory for racial and homophobic race crime, a love that was condemned by parents and is still under threat from the wider community. Yes, comparisons to the KKK are made a little obvious, but this is a mainstream series after all, not some abstract play where you have to puzzle over the meaning for hours afterwards.

It is in Adalind’s development though that I am most intrigued by. Having spent the first two series playing a sharp, smart and manipulative (if slightly unloved) character, the past couple of seasons have added nuances. The realisation she is just a pawn in men’s games led her to almost becoming a good guy, coupled with motherhood. Then the loss of her child, in a plot so tangled it has taken even the smartest villain in the show nearly half a season to figure out what happened, has led her to being a more amoral figure. She doesn’t care for good or evil, she just wants her baby back.

It will be interesting as this season develops to see how different sub-plots ferment. How will Adalind and the Royals trace Kelly Burkhardt? How far will the Wesen community go to destroy Monroe and Rosalee? And will Wu ever be allowed to learn what the hell is going on? With all this going, the ‘Wesen crime’ plotline in each episode is almost the distraction. Still, you have to stick to what you do best, I guess.

The past two weeks have seen three topics dominating my Twitter feed: Gaza, The Great British Bake Off, and Doctor Who. Each has come attached with its own controversies. The first two I hardly need to expand upon, but the last I feel as if I do. For those unaware, there is a tangible anger amongst some social media commentators on the misogyny of the show. The argument is that under Steven Moffat’s reign the show has become a show where the heterosexual, white male is dominant and anything else be it sexuality, gender or race is under-represented and under-developed.

Do I agree? Well, yes. A little. Certainly compared to Russell T. Davies at least Moffat seems a cultural conservative. Clara Oswold is no Rose Tyler; she is far too needy and quick to revert to ‘helpless damsel’ mode, compared to Tyler who seemed to be almost on a level with The Doctor in many scenarios. Amy Pond started out promisingly, before everything revolved around her being a wife and a mother, utterly dependent on the men around her.

The case for the defence is weak, but not non-existent. Madame Vastra and Jenny certainly break the hetero-normative stranglehold but it all feels a bit token. Likewise the introduction of Danny Pink, who now we have an ‘older’ Doctor seems to be filling the role of eye-candy, as if the show doesn’t trust female viewers to stay with it unless there is someone to ogle.

Speaking of which, what to make of Capaldi? Deep Breath did not sell him to me very well at all. Bar a few in-jokes this seemed a crueller, more cynical figure, which in itself is not a bad thing (I never really brought Matt Smith as playing someone with the weight of the universe on his shoulders) until you see that bitterness directed as those he loves. In contrast Into the Dalek won me over. The cynicism of Capaldi was balanced by the frustrated optimism of Jenna Coleman, who finally got to be a little more than fodder for the plot. This was ruined though by her scenes with Samuel Anderson. This relationship better develop into something more substantial, because right now it feels like two minor characters from Glee mooning over each other in a story arc ends off camera after about three episodes.

One final note. It may be worth pointing to Zawe Ashton’s appearance in the episode. People may know that she was tipped as a more ‘left-field’ choice for The Doctor. This may be my own relentless optimism talking, but perhaps this is a sign that when the role comes up again, she could be a real contender. A female Doctor would be an excellent move for the show, not just to silence the critics, but to give a new dynamic. Let’s hope Moffat comes round to the same way of thinking.