It's time to talk about Doctor Who

When the Britbox streaming service launched in the UK, the thing I was most looking forward to was watching the existing episodes of Doctor Who all the way from the start. While I’m old enough to have been alive from the very beginning, I have only the vaguest memories of William Hartnell, and my first Doctor Who memory proper is of Patrick Troughton as the second doctor. I have several clear Troughton memories: of the Cybermen bursting out of their pods in what I’m assuming must have been The Tomb of the Cybermen (September 1967); the appearance of the Yeti in The Abominable Snowmen (October 1967); and, most clearly, of the cobweb-filled London Underground in The Web of Fear (February 1968). I was between 4 and 5 years old when these episodes aired.

I might also remember William Hartnell “dying” and turning into Patrick Troughton in October 1966, when I was 3, approaching 4 years old.

In reality, then, it’s highly unlikely that I have any memory of watching William Hartnell in the role of Doctor Who, although I do kind of remember a strong emotional reaction to his first regeneration. I was disinclined to like Patrick Troughton because he wasn’t the proper Doctor Who. I also experienced a similar negative response to the later arrival of Jon Pertwee, although the introduction of colour was some compensation.

You might be wondering how one might possibly remember something from so long ago, when one was so very young. But if you peek at the episode count, you realise that Doctor Who really was an almost permanent fixture on Saturday nights in the 60s. The break between the 42 episodes of Season 1 and the 39 episodes of Season 2 was just about six weeks. Then it took a summer break in 1965 (during the school holidays, basically) before returning for the 45 episodes of Season 3. In other words, apart from the summer hols, Doctor Who was on every Saturday night of my childhood until June 1969, when it took a ridiculously long break until January 1970, at which point it was only on for half the year (26 weeks).

So. Hartnell. My goodness, but he was a crap actor. Of course, they were dealing with shaky sets, hastily written scripts, and limited rehearsal time, and Hartnell himself was 55-going-on-800 years old when they made these. But none of it is very good. It’s amazing it became so popular. The scripts are underwritten, with desultory dialogue, and at times seem improvised and padded out to extremes. Although the episodes are less than 25 minutes in length, in one of them, the characters spend 72 minutes deciding whether to jump over an abyss before someone you don’t care about plunges to his death. I don’t know if it was his death, actually, because I myself had fallen by then into a coma, from which I am yet to awake.

The Dalek dialogue is both preposterous and boring, and the chapter in which they are (finally) defeated, after a lengthy sequence of heavily padded episodes, is also hilarious. It turns out there were only 6 Daleks, and they look funny when they’re pushed over.

Hartnell had a habit of fluffing his lines, particularly the important ones — or when called upon to deliver the episode’s title in dialogue, as he does in “The Brink of Disaster”, which is one of two filler episodes after the first Dalek story and before the completely missing Marco Polo story. “The Brink of Disaster” follows “The Edge of Destruction”, and taken together they’re about 50 minutes of insult to the audience’s intelligence.

Onwards to Troughton…

Rewatching The Good Life on the eve of the election

A right-aligned image, fnar

Beloved British sitcom The Good Life is a snapshot of a better, kinder, Britain, the pre-Thatcher Britain of the 70s, with high tax rates for the rich and working infrastructure. House price inflation and property speculation hadn’t quite taken hold. A three bedroom detached house in Surbiton would have cost twenty times less when Tom and Barbara were buying. They’re supposed to have been there since 1967 at least, when they borrowed a nutcracker off the neighbours, which they failed to return. A similar property today would cost around £1 million.

So the lifestyle portrayed in the show is possible because it was possible, then, to have savings, to pay off a mortgage, to see a doctor, dentist etc., to cover local taxes out of the little money you brought in from selling your soft fruits, at a time when soft fruits were only sold when they were in season.

Politically, most of them are straightforward. Margot’s snobbishness and ignorance, her obliviousness about her privilege, her wilful blindness about how damn lucky she is to live in a socialist country all combine to make her a natural Tory. She expresses disdain for socialists and radicals and hates change. Would she vote for Johnson’s radicalised right wing party? Of course: ignorant, oblivious, stubborn; of course she would.

Jerry, with his constant complaints about traffic on London Bridge, of which he is part of the problem, is another natural Conservative. His kneejerk prejudices would also turn him, in the fulness of time into someone who would flirt with UKIP and then the Brexit Party. Farage’s fakery would appeal to him, his pints down the pub, rounds of golf, smutty magazines. But he’d be returning to the fold about now and voting for Johnson.

Tom is a Clarkson-style libertarian, a scofflaw and a sexist, at home with the aristocrats and tradesmen alike. He hates decimalisation, metric measurements, and changes to the Counties and local authorities. Of course he’d vote UKIP, then Brexit. The twat.

Barbara’s the only slight puzzle. She seems lovely, compassionate, kind, thoughtful. But then she stays married to her Brexit-voting husband, and somehow manages not to kill her Tory neighbours. So I’m afraid that Barbara, too, is a natural Tory. But would she vote for Johnson, a philanderer and liar? I actually think she’d probably bite the bullet and vote tactically.

Be like Barbara, not Tom.

CMA Awards – State of the Country Music Union

Dolly Parton, Amanda Shires, Maren Morris, Tanya Tucker, and Natalie Hemby

I came late to the CMA awards because there was no live broadcast in the UK – as usual – and only an edited highlights package on BBC4. Which, given the state of recent shows, is no bad thing.

This year, perhaps promted by the underlying rumblings over the lack of representation of women on country radio, perhaps by the Ken Burns documentary (which has also just dropped on BBC4), the CMA decided to do a show that was a celebration of women in country. Ken Burns has (unavoidably, because the truth has a feminist bias) demonstrated how integral women have been to the genre, going all the way back to the Carter Family, and so the CMA put women front and centre.

Some of it was good, some of it was bad, some of it was ugly.

The Good

It was so great to see so many of my favourite artists performing on the stage. The opening featured the likes of Jennifer Nettles, the right half of Little Big Town, The Highwomen, Martina McBride, Sara Evans, and Gretchen Wilson, as well as hosts Carrie Underwood, Dolly Parton, and Reba McEntire. Later on in the show, Maren Morris performed the title track of her album Girl, and both Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert got a solo slot. There was also another medley by up and coming women artists (performing the Little Big Town hit “Girl Crush”), and Kacey Musgraves appeared with her pal Willie Nelson. Even Sheryl Crow turned up, performing a spirited “Me and Bobby McGee” with Dierks Bentley. All in all, the representation of women artists was high, much higher than in previous years, and of Bro Country there was very little evidence.

The Bad

Here’s the thing (and I’m not the first nor the only person to point this out). Martina McBride’s most recent (non-Christmas) album was Reckless, released in 2016, and reaching #2 in the Country album chart. Its title track is an absolute corker. But the snippet of a song she got to perform in her opening medley was “Independence Day”, from 1994. That hit dates from the days when women could still get airplay on Country radio, and is probably still in rotation on some stations that don’t play much new stuff – especially by women. Similarly, Sara Evans performed a snippet of her hit “Born to Fly” from 2000, while her most recent album, Words, came out in 2017 and peaked at #4 on the Country album chart. In other words, while the men in the show mostly get to perform current or recent hits, the vast majority of the women were wheeled out to do 20+ year old material.

The Ugly

Luke Combs, for example, who was prominent last year as well as this, got to perform “Beer Never Broke My Heart”, which is fairly typical of the kind of fare that gets automatically added to Country radio playlists without needing to be “requested” or “liked” a million times on Facebook, which is one of the excuses given for not playing female artists. The best I can say about Combs is that at least he didn’t have a dixie cup glued to his hand this year (as last) and also only wore his fucking bro country signifying baseball cap on stage. Is he any good? Honestly, it’s all right, but he’s one of those vocalists – like Blake Shelton – who sings like he’s also trying to do a shit, and once you allow that thought to enter your head, you can’t listen any more.

But perhaps the starkest indicator of how women are still having to “backwards, in heels” their way to the top was the contrast between Carrie Underwood’s elaborate staging and immaculate costuming as she performed her showstopper — immediately followed by the overweight and scruffy looking Combs who performed in black jeans, black shirt and a baseball cap. Can you imagine the conversation if Carrie underwood turned up one year sporting an untucked shirt and a beer belly?

Finally, the show, which at least started with a stage crowded with women, descended into god-bothering religious mawkishness – as first cheatin’ Blake Shelton performed some pious crap about “God’s Country” and then Dolly Parton performed something like fifteen hours of gospel songs. There’s always been a certain amount of religionism in the genre, comes with the package, but this felt like some weird counterweight to all the unruly women we’d seen earlier. You’ve had your fun, girls, the CMAs seemed to be saying, now get back on your knees.

Britannia Season 2: still crazy after all these years

I had to remind myself how much I’d enjoyed the first season of this bonkers historical drama to persuade myself to (figuratively) tune in. Were NowTV smart to drop the whole series at once for a binge watch rather than putting it out weekly? There’s always the danger that you might forget between episodes how much you were enjoying it. Some kind of druid mojo at work, no doubt.

Mackenzie Crook is so good in this that they gave him a second part to play. By Season 3 he might be playing all the parts.

It’s a couple of years on from the Roman invasion of A.D. 43. The Romans are still living in tents, for the most part, complaining about what a shithole country Britain is, but some permanent structures are being built, even if the emperor encourages a certain exaggeration of details. And David Morrissey’s Aulus Plautius is up to something; something he’s so determined to see through that he’ll go to any lengths to ensure he does.

Meanwhile Nikolaj Lie Kaas, the Outcast, is still half-competently vision questing away with Cait, the girl from the prophecy, who suffers indignities (such as trying to fly off a cliff or having fish guts smeared on her face) but sticks around because of the thin shreds of evidence that the Outcast knows what he’s doing.

There are lots of meanwhiles. Too many. The druids are all over the place, there are hallucinogens being slipped into everyone’s water, and even the Emperor Claudius shows up, complaining about his piles. Then there’s the Roman legionary who seems to have stepped out of the pages of Lloyd C Douglas’ The Robe, and even a visit from someone who can only be Joseph of Arimathea. There are already plenty of talking and flying heads, so the Fisher King might be somewhere in there. And if you squint a little bit there’s a wizard and someone who gets turned into a fish and you might be watching a fucked up Sword in the Stone.

Everything is here. It’s crazy, hilarious, brutal, with a killer soundtrack and enough face paint for a dozen village fêtes. And apples. There’s still no sense of geography. Are we in Colchester? Wales? King’s Landing? Honestly, it’s too much fun for me to care.

Mediocre TV in the platinum age

My tolerance of mediocre television has hit an all-time low. I breezed through Season 4 of The Magicians (see below) in a few days, mainly because I wasn’t watching much else at the time. There are a few average-but-watchable things around (in which category I do include Succession – see also below), but there are also programmes to which I take an almost instant dislike.

Catherine the Great, for example, which is on Sky/NowTV, and which stars Helen Mirren and a bunch of other (too) familiar faces. I gave it half an hour and as George in Seinfeld would say, it didn’t take. I just couldn’t see the point in paying attention to it. For a start, it seemed like the wrong end of Catherine’s life. Surely the interesting bit was when she, as a young woman, helped organise the palace coup against her own husband, the king? In broader terms, how much interest do I have in Russian royalty? I don’t mind an historical drama, but have little interest in the aristocracy. They’re all awful in the same ways, really. And if I were to watch something about the Russian royal family, I’d rather see something about the Bolshevik revolution and their execution/exile.

I lasted less time with the Winds of War World on Fire, the BBC’s splashy wartime drama. Again, I couldn’t really see the point of it. Helen Hunt disturbs me (have never seen the appeal), but that aside, there was something a bit naff about this drama. It had a soapy quality that did remind me of the kind of 70s and 80s mini-series represented by The Winds of War or Rich Man, Poor Man. But also, and I think this is the crux, everything seemed too clean.

The doubtless expensive shots of “periodised” 1940s streets with old double decker buses and vintage cars just looked too pristine. Everything looked too digital, too much like green screen artificial scenery, and the skies were too unsmoky, as were the cars and the pubs. You feel too much as if you’ve been dropped into a simulation.

Which is before we get to the live music portrayed in the club scenes. It was as if a 20-something with no knowledge of the history of popular music nor any experience of seeing actual live music in, say, a pub or a back room, had been asked to create “authentic” 1940s entertainment. It seemed wrong in every possible way. And again: not enough smoke. More smoke would seem an obvious fix for a lot of this stuff: apart from anything else, it could hide the fact that everybody’s clothes looked too new and all the surfaces too clean. We’d just come out of a depression, for fucksake.

I think it wants to be Babylon Berlin, but it can’t quite hack it.

Meanwhile, there are things that I have in the background and quite like having on, mainly because they’re not even trying to be prestige television. One such is SyFy’s Reverie, a show about people who get lost in simulated realities and the woman who rescues them. It’s Sara Shahi, for a start, and Dennis Haysbert: both decent actors. I don’t know if I’ll stick with it, but it doesn’t offend or annoy. A similar-feeling show was Manifest, which is about a bunch of people who board a flight which disappears for five years before it lands. It’s like a lot of these kind of shows, like The 400, or Flashforward: high concept, and quite fun, until it gets cancelled. It’s no Counterpart, but it’s watchable.

Why can I stand that kind of middle-of-the-road fare but get turned off by Helen Mirren and a bunch of white people in period frocks? I guess the simple answer is genre, but also the feeling that these shows aren’t trying to convince me they’re better than they are.

In short: don’t waste time watching overblown period dramas when you could be hooting your face off watching The Magicians.

The Magicians

An average of just over half a million people watched The Magicians on its US Network, and I imagine even fewer watched it on whichever of the Channel 5s it was on in this country. I say on. I can find no evidence that the 4th season of this show was broadcast anywhere before it showed up on Amazon Prime recently, along with its first three seasons.

All of which means that you have the opportunity to watch this show that you probably didn’t watch but which is definitely bonkers enough to be worth your time. And the good news is that although this is exactly the kind of cult show that usually ends up being cancelled after half a season, it has miraculously survived for four, so there are 52! episodes! to! watch!, with 13! more! to come in season 5.

So what is The Magicians? As The Observer.com would have it, it’s basically sexy Harry Potter — well, that was the original premise. Lev Grossman’s original novel, upon which the series is based, was published in 2009, two years after the last of the original run of Harry P books was published. An 11-year-old who read The Philosopher’s Stone in 1997 was 21 when The Deathly Hallows appeared: old enough for graduate school, which is essentially what Brakebills University in The Magicians is.

I haven’t read any Harry Potter, by the way. Neither have I read Grossman’s novel(s). But I watch the TV show because, and this is important, it’s bonkers, hilarious, and brilliant.

So it’s what if Harry Potter but sweary and slightly sexy? Kind of. But also, what if smokin’ hawt magicians discovered a fictional magical realm (think Narnia, but sweary) was real and became kings and queens and fought battles and turned people into bears and discovered alternate timelines and had the occasional musical episode because Margo licked a lizard? And not just a musical episode, but one complete with snide remarks and bitchy rivalry.

“Great, a puppet show.”

Season One, I have to say, is merely competent television and focused too much on the magicians-at-university premise. But! With Season Two, the show licks a lizard and becomes both a little bit deranged and revels in that madness. With Season Three, and this almost never happens, it gets even better, even more demented.

The plots, about threats to the real world from the magical realm, about magic being switched on and off like a tap, about a Library that is reluctant to lend certain books, and which makes people sign eternal contracts to work there, about monsters who possess human bodies, are there to get the characters rubbing against each other, falling in and out of love, teleporting all over the place and occasionally, yes, licking lizards because they are thirsty.

So get thee to Amazon Prime and prepare yourself for a bumpy ride.

Succession

I slept through most of the eighth episode of the second season of Succession. As I felt myself drifting off (it had been a hard day), I thought to myself that I could always watch it again; but when I woke up, I realised I was totally fine with missing it. I saw the first five minutes and the last five minutes and got the gist, as it were.

It’s had some rave reviews, has Succession, and it has got a kind of addictive, soapy quality to it. It’s yet another TV series about horrible rich people, but something about their horribleness, and the sense that you’re watching a roman-à-clef, with thinly disguised Murdoch idiot children bickering over their father’s empire, makes it more watchable than, say, Billions, or Downton Abbey.

But then it kind of goes along and keeps going but nothing much changes or happens. Oh, sure, there are corporate raids and shareprice crashes, whatever, but these are no more interesting than they are on the news, and its the human relationships that remain static and unchanging. This one is jealous of that one; this other one is irredeemably stupid; this one is flailing helplessly. And when the patriarch asks them, disingenuously, to give him an opinion on a matter of import, they’re too fucked up and ignorant and so desperate for his approval that they are hopeless.

But you can only take so much of this kind of psychodrama. Nobody learns anything, nobody changes, and anyway, you don’t care enough to want to stick around.

The problem with a show like this is that the reviewer is done and dusted after 1-4 episodes, but sticking around to watch the end is a different experience. One week the family fly here and fuck around and stab each other in the back; the following week they fly to London and do the same thing; and the week after that they fly to Dundee and do the same thing. And there a cringeworthy moments galore, and if you like to cringe, cringe away. But I’m rapidly losing interest.

In the real world, do we care who takes over from Murdoch père? Sure, the man has spread his poison for 50-odd years and is probably in some degree responsible for our Brexit mess, but I’m not one to point fingers at powerful individuals. Brexit was a collective enterprise. The people who work for these powerful men, who do their bidding, who write the words that result in the toxic discourse, who present the news programmes and apologise in Parliament and spread lies for money: these people are the real enablers. Succession shows this to an extent, with the patriarch’s immediate minions trying to outdo each other in venality and ruthlessness, but of course, the cancer spreads deep and wide.