Archives for posts with tag: science fiction

One of the signs you are getting old is the fact that the decade you were born in can be classed as ‘period drama’. How you define this genre is debatable – I personally would argue that anything sans bonnet and breaches is modern – but it appears that the 80’s are now a valid historical setting.

Perhaps there is a need for a string whiff of nostalgia for a past time that qualifies an era for that term. It is certainly nostalgia that drives Stranger Things 2. The detail it employs is beautiful if a little clichéd. The mullets, the double denim, the perms, the knitwear – all mockable yet slightly revered. And then there’s the pop culture references, with the excitement of electronic music and a new wave of sci-fi.

Anybody over 35 could spend the show simply ticking off things from their childhood and not pay any attention to the plot. Which is possibly a good thing as, let’s be honest, it feels very slow. Bar a few hallucinations it has taken four episodes to give us anything approaching chills, and that came from breaking the golden rule of ‘Don’t Kill the Cat’.

If anything, it is proving its strength as a coming of age story meets social drama. The introduction of Max as someone mixing up the fraternity of teenage boys is a good example of this. She also comes with her own mini-mystery, which I find more enthralling than the ones that are supposed to be taking centre stage. Ditto, the pseudo father-daughter relationship between Hopper and El is more honest when it isn’t enthralled to El’s telekinesis.

The comedy also appears to be stronger this time round and is very much appreciated. It comes as a relief to what would otherwise be a very bleak landscape of decaying pumpkins, small-town claustrophobia and paranoia.

Which brings me back to the central problem I have – I don’t know if I care too much about the mysteries being solved or the tension/horror heightened. What are the vines that the scientists are killing about? Why are the pumpkins decaying? Who is number 008 and are there others? None of these matter to me personally as a viewer, bar maybe the last puzzle.

It’s a sign the Duffer Brothers were relying on our binge watch habits to put 008 in at the start of the season and not mention her again for at least four episodes. As a non-binge watcher I have spotted this flaw. Not all of us want to digest all nine episodes in one go and we deserve a reward for our more episodic viewing habits.

Yet, despite these many issues, I am compelled to watch on, not least because this is the show everyone is talking about, be it good or bad. Next month it will be The Crown. Perhaps that is the secret of Netflix’s success – it doesn’t matter how good the show actually is, so long as it gets enough mentions on social media to draw more moths to the flame. You can only hope that quality is going to be a second thought.

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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.

In the absence of season 7 of The Good Wife appearing on Netflix and Once Upon A Time only just starting to upload its new episodes, now seemed as good a time as any to try out Stranger Things, Netflix’s much-talked about horror/mystery series. In many respects it shouldn’t be my thing. I don’t do horror, I don’t do hype and I don’t do government conspiracy shows. Nevertheless, I felt crossing it off the list was a must.

Overall, I’m enjoying it, but probably not for the reasons intended. The main reason I don’t do horror is that I find it either predictable or over-the-top, or both. I find that Stranger Things is a little bit of both. I’m not scared, but there is enough of a layer of creepiness for me to not ditch the show. Even so, for a horror, the thrills are not the main drive to keep watching.

The mystery strand is another one that works no doubt for many, but isn’t my main focus either. Missing people, weird government science base, yada yada yada. Again, it works enough for you to keep tuning in, but, for me at least, isn’t what I walk away thinking about when I have finished watching.

Instead, it is the more human dramas that enthral me. Nancy and her crush on the boorish Steve giving way to something deeper with the outcast Jonathan. The lingering of his daughter’s death on Hopper. Joyce and her desperate methods to find her son. Winona Ryder plays this mix of woman on the edge/steely blue-collar mamma grizzly excellently, her madness guided by enough logic to make her believable and sympathetic.

More than this, it is the child actors who steal the show. There is almost a Stand By Me quality to the programme when they take centre stage, and they really should do so more often. There is a humour which makes the emotional weight worthwhile and bearable, but don’t mistake them for fluff. Through them all the genres flow, be it coming-of-age drama, supernatural, sci-fi, mystery – all the while driving their own plot strand forward.

Netflix has done what Netflix does best – taken a punt on something that wouldn’t work on mainstream TV. A little bit Twin Peaks, a little The X Files, a lot of cult 80’s horror; they have given us something different. Is it my favourite thing this year? No. But it’s good. Sometimes when you throw everything but the kitchen sink at a show, more sticks than doesn’t.

Some shows attract such levels of fandom that making any comment about them, be it praise or criticism, draws ire from those who disagree with you. As someone who avoids discussion boards and the like (I literally upload my post and then go) I generally don’t get caught in the crossfire. Having said that, my geekiness towards most programmes is actually very low-key: I enjoy a lot of shows, but get whipped up into a frenzy about very few. In fact, Great British Bake Off is probably the only one that falls into this category.

Doctor Who is one that tends to excite a number of my friends. They pick over episodes, rabidly discuss theories, and speculate over the next casting change. Personally, I enjoy the show, but tend to find myself unmotivated to pursue my interest in it any further. There are some thoughts I have been having about the new series, which I feel in the absence of anything else grabbing my attention, I should share.

Firstly, the structure of the series. This time around two-part stories dominate. I inwardly groaned when this was first revealed, as I find many of them in the past to have been slow and clunky with disappointing pay-offs. However, this time around there seems to have been a general tightening. The first two-parter in particular was a joy, a clever tale of who the Doctor is. I must admit his outwitting of Davros felt slightly derivative – how many times can you play the ‘I knew what you were doing all along card’- but other than that it was near-perfect.

A great deal of this lies in the character of Missy, who is probably one of my favourite characters to be created for any show ever. Michelle Gomez plays sociopath’s disturbingly well, and the lines zing out of her mouth. It has got to the stage now where I long for a spin-off just of her, causing chaos around the galaxies. I’m not sure if this idea has legs or not, but it would be damn fun to try!

I also am warming to Peter Capaldi as the Doctor. The dryness of his humour is fitting the rest of the character quite well now, and it’s a pleasant change to have his social awkwardness to actually border on being slightly insensitive rather than it being just a zany affectation. I do feel as if he is a Time Lord carrying the weight of the universe on his shoulders near permanently though, one that is that little wearier of everything. Whilst this is not necessarily a bad thing, it is a shock to the system after the hyperactive puppy energy of Tennant and Smith. It will make it harder for Capaldi to play lighter episodes as well.

Finally, Clara. Bless her, no matter what they try I just can’t take to her. I actually think this is no fault of Jenna Coleman, or the writers, or Stephen Moffat. It’s like those relationships where you can see that the other person is wonderful, and they could be good for you, but your heart isn’t in it. Still, at least she isn’t mooning after her late boyfriend constantly. And her interactions with Missy were a joy. If Clara does survive, maybe put her in the spin-off as well. Missy could do with someone to be her moral compass, just to level out things a little bit. Because they will do a Missy spin-off, won’t they? Please?

In the world of catch-up TV, creating an event or ‘water-cooler moment’ is hard to do. Not everyone watches TV ‘live’, and invent their own schedules. Big drama series can be saved up for weeks and then binged on, soaps play out in a time frame that works for the viewer. the dull bits of reality shows fast-forwarded. TV feels like it is moving from being a communal experience to an individual one, and everyone dreads the risk of spoilers on social network sites.

There are exceptions to this though, one of which is special episodes of Doctor Who. A combination of a 50th anniversary and the regeneration of The Doctor made the show a big enough event to overcome the barriers others have faced. The Day of the Doctor was worth putting time aside for. It was a rollickingly good tale, with cameos, nods to the past and genius little touches that made the whole episode zing. A whole nation screamed ‘It’s Tom Baker’ at the final scenes and the likes of Twitter (bar a few curmudgeons) lit up with joy at the whole affair. It was close to perfect.

So a high bar was set for the Christmas episode, Matt Smith’s swansong. So many questions were to be answered. A chapter needed to be closed. A new Doctor was to be born. And in all fairness, all this was done. But to the satisfaction of the audience? Well, no. Not for me anyway. A number of things disappointed. Which is a shame when you consider what was at stake in the episode.

Firstly, there was the role of The Silence. After being so malevolent in previous story arcs, to suddenly find there were some kind of alien UN task force, charged with preventing all-out war felt disjointed. Yes, their motives and the Church’s were thoroughly explained, and the banter between Tasha Lem (the best character in the entire episode) and The Doctor was brilliantly written – “We created a psychopath to kill you” “I married her” – but still, even as essentially the good guys they seemed far scarier than the Cybermen or Dalek’s.

I also have to say, and I hate myself for doing so, but I just can’t bring myself to like Clara. The likes of Rose Tyler and Amy Pond were always going to be big shoes to fill, but it’s just not happening for me. Bar one scene with her grandmother (Sheila Reid taking second prize for best performance behind Orla Brady’s Tasha Lem), I never bought in to a connection between Clara and The Doctor. It’s telling that The Doctor in his final moments hallucinated about Amy, the dream team of the pair of them with Rory is far more beautiful and nuanced than what Clara can offer.

Finally, there was the regeneration itself. I don’t mind that the Gallifreyan’s last-minute awarding of extra-regenerations to The Doctor was a bit of a cop out. It was a passable solution, and tied in nicely with the lore of the show, with echoes of The Master receiving the same gift two decades previously. It was the length of time the regeneration took. First Smith, who had been aged with all the money the BBC make-up department could muster, was reset to a young man, then after some hallucinations and a few empty words to Clara, became Peter Capaldi. Eccleston’s transition into Tennant, was much stronger, the emotional heft was there, the sense of sacrifice for those he loved so simply yet beautifully told.

There are some good things to report. Firstly, enough of the questions have been answered to satisfy viewers at an intellectual level at least. Also, Handles the Cyberman was a nice touch. Most importantly, Capaldi looks like he is going to be a great Doctor. He has the eccentricity of Smith, with the gravitas of Hartnell. He is going to be a much spikier Doctor, and less of a geek-come-action hero attitude. I hope when he appears properly in the autumn he gets to show what he is made of. Based on the Christmas episode, the show needs a bit of a kick to get it back to the level it needs to be on.