Altered Carbon

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Is it time to talk about preposterously unrealistic punching? Because there’s an awful lot of it in Altered Carbon, a show that seems to revel in fight set pieces to the point of tedium. In each of these fight scenes, it appears to me that every single punch and body blow would be enough to kill, or render unconscious, the punchee, and break several metacarpals in the puncher.

This Netflix show has been trumpeted as a possible multi-year juggernaut ratings winner, Game of Thrones style, not that Netflix ever talk about viewing figures. If they make another series, and another, I guess we’ll know. It’s been well-reviewed: by Tim Goodman of The Hollywood Reporter, for example, and it’s one of a string of high profile genre shows that seem to be taking the TV world by storm. We’ve moved on from Cops and Docs and Lawyers to time travellers, space pirates, and cyberpunks.

I should be pleased. And I am, to an extent. Travelers is a great little show, full of human warmth and twisty plot lines; Star Trek Disco is a fairly triumphant return for Trek, give or take the last two episodes of the season; and Stranger Things is interdimensional MK Ultra-tastic fun. On the other hand, The Expanse, while glossy, is beset by plot pacing issues and dreadful dialogue; and the returning X-Files is mostly pathetic and confused.

So what of Altered Carbon? The premise is straight out of 90s cyberpunk: people are more or less immortal, if they can afford to keep growing new bodies, and their memories and personality are stored in “stacks”, solid state drives essentially, that live in a strangely vulnerable position in the back of their heads. The series is based on a 2002 novel by Richard Morgan, which I haven’t knowingly read, but the premise is familiar enough to someone who’s been reading SF for as many decades as I have.

It’s a dystopian, Blade Runner-alike world, and the series production design is a straight rip-off of Ridley Scott’s 1982 classic film. Furthermore, the jargon bandied about by the characters is similar enough to sound familiar: stacks and sleeves vs. replicants and skinjobs. But whereas the extreme fights in Blade Runner were a result of the replicants’ exceptional strength, the bodies fighting in Altered Carbon are supposed to be human (though one of them gets a bionic arm).

Anyway, super-soldier Takeshi Kovacs is woken from a 200-year hibernation by a rich immortal in order to investigate the murder of one of his skinjobs sleeves. Turns out, he’s been dropped into a cop’s body, and this cop’s partner Kristin Ortega wants him back. There’s your set up, and there are other interesting elements: a hotel run by an AI that thinks it’s Edgar Allen Poe; interrogations taking place in virtual space; naked clone fights like something out of an 18-rated Matrix movie.

But the parts are greater than the sum, and I did not ever warm to this show. For a start, I find it hard to understand who benefits from this dystopia. I mean, it’s a horrible fucking world, and the rich people live in the sky above the weather and all, but they don’t really seem to be enjoying themselves. Yes, a minor point, but the main thing I couldn’t get past was all the fighting. It seemed as if there were about three set pieces per episode, and though lots of minor assailants get their stacks blown out, and our main characters seem to get horribly beaten up on a regular basis, their powers of recovery are so remarkable that it seems they can bounce back from anything without any ill effects in a day or so.

Sure, it’s ridiculous to get uptight about unrealistic recovery times in a show about people who live in floating houses with their personalities stored in hard drives, but it just felt like there was nothing at stake.

So, my request to Netflix is as follows: if you want a Game of Thrones style fantasy drama to hook and enthrall people, consider throwing some money at some Tim Powers properties. Something about romantic poets beset by vampires, perhaps?

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Tappety tap tap – How The X-Files disappointed us all and how it’s all somehow Elon Musk’s fault

It’s no surprise to anyone that the 2018 season (11 of that parish) of The X Files started badly. What the producers should have done, if they really wanted to make more, was to throw away the unresolved story arc from the 2016 edition (Season 10), write it off as a bad job, and just give us a few monster-of-the-week episodes of a similar quality to Mulder and Scully Meet the Were Monster, which was the only decent one to come out of the revival.

Instead, they gave us Scully in a hospital repeating, ‘We have to find my son,’ and Mulder being irrational and Cigarette Smoking Man saying, ‘Mind if I smoke?’ And a lot of monologuing and frowny faces. Oh, and either an alien pathogen that will wipe us all out or a secret space programme: those are your choices. Important to remember that.

Anyway, it’s all bollocks, and its a shame to see that pioneering beacon of the Platinum Age of TV – the TV series that led some of us in the 90s to argue that, “TV is now better than the movies,” and to really mean it – reduced to the level of a bedroom farce. And please: turn the bloody lights on.

Nowadays, I even wonder why Netflix bothers to put movies on its channel. They dropped The Cloverfield Experiment this week without much fanfare. Judging from the reviews, it’s about as good as The X-Files, and I’ve no interest in watching it or the hundreds of other Netflix Original movies on the service. I took up an offer of a year of Sky Movies on NowTV, and I can barely find anything worth watching on it that was made after 1975.

Which brings me to Elon Musk and why this is all, probably, his fault. Musk, lest we forget, gave us PayPal, which is literally the worst way to exchange goods and services for money. He’s also working both sides of the extinction/space programme equation with his claim to be saving the world with electric vehicles/batteries and also ensuring humanity’s survival when that fails by enabling a Mars colony.

But both of those things, like a bad X-Files episode, are dangerous fiction. The idea that you can save the planet by (a) building and selling big, ugly luxury cars to rich people and (b) increasing the use of current battery tech is a joke. The cheapest Model X in the UK is over £86,000, for which money you could buy, oh, three or four second-hand Priuses. And lithium-ion batteries require the extraction of finite resources from the earth: not just lithium, but cobalt and nickel too. The price of cobalt has increased from just over $20 per tonne in 2015 to around $60 per tonne in 2017. As the dollar signs spin in the eyes of mining company executives, there is certain to be a rush to extract these minerals cheaply. Last time I looked, the mining industry did not have the best environmental record. They’re not averse to blowing up mountains and pumping filth into the water supply. Increased demand for Lithium means that a smaller proportion is extracted from brine using solar energy and more is extracted from hard rock.

Which is before you get to the dead animal skin seats and farting occupant. If Elon Musk was building buses and mag-lev trains, I might view him more positively (I’m aware of the Boring Company, but private cars are the problem, not the solution).

Which brings us to Space-X and its rocket programme. I’m not one to argue that this is a waste of resources which could be used to alleviate human suffering. We can do both, just as we could have done both in the 1960s. Governments can always do more, and human suffering results from ideology, not scarcity.

No, my problem with Space-X is that it is both a pointless project with no chance of success and an elitist scheme for the rich to indulge their Ayn Rand fantasies about building a citadel to ride out the apocalypse. The notion that there can be an offworld human outpost to survive a catastrophe here on earth is as insidious as the idea of an afterlife. Both give believers permission to let this world, here and now, go to shit. Space-X is going to be used to launch spy satellites, woop de do.

Furthermore, I am sick to the back teeth of how our culture makes heroes out of billionaires. The worship of ‘successful’ people is another fiction, ignoring the factors that really enable them to get where they are. They’d be nothing without the society that supports them. The infrastructure, the education system, the facilities that their companies depend on to exist. I mean, did Musk build the internet? No, that was built with taxpayers’ money. The billions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies from which Musk’s companies benefit are rarely spoken of. It’s the welfare state, same as it ever was, for billionaires.

And as for the David Bowie music and the “Don’t Panic” cuteness, I’m not buying it. I was reminded of a Baudrillard quote last night, watching the launch: Behind these smiling eyes, there lurks a cold ferocious beast that’s fearfully stalking us.

Finally, yes, I did watch the launch, and the two-booster touchdown, but as the Space X presenter said everything was, “Awesome,” I couldn’t help thinking we were a long way from James Burke and the Apollo landings.

Britannia: the silly isles?

Contains spoilers for Britannia: the whole series.

Britannia-932x1398Britannia, a co-production between Sky in the UK and Amazon for the rest of the world, dropped onto NowTV at the end of last week, and I’ve, um, watched the whole lot.

Which must mean it’s good, right? Because in the Platinum Age, nobody needs to sit through mediocre TV. So, yes, spoilers: it’s watchable, enjoyable, sometimes too gruesome, but interesting enough to sustain my interest over its run.

Inevitably, even if it wasn’t trying to be, it’s going to be unfavourably compared to Game of Thrones, which is the last half decade’s flagship show, the one to which all others must aspire. Game of Thrones is big budget, epic, painted on a vast canvas, with a huge cast of characters and a multitude of storylines. So can Sky money and Amazon money compete? Not really. Let’s get that over with: Britannia is faster-paced, not afraid to skip “four moons” to get to the point, and in terms of locations seems to offer a limited range, with some characters seemingly sitting around in tents, others running around in the same woods, and a few others hanging around in some unlikely looking gorges. And, oh, Stonehenge, or something very like it. Filmed in the Czech Republic and Wales, it manages to look quite expensive, but without anywhere near the expansive geography and world-building of Game of Thrones, and without giving you a sense of where places were in relation to each other, or how long it might take to travel between them. And no dragons.

The Romans are in Britain. Led by David Morrissey, who plays Aulus Plautius who historically did lead the (second) Roman invasion in 43 CE, and who became Britain’s first governor. He faces the divided tribes of Britain, led by King Pellanor of the Cantii (Ian McDiarmid) and hate-filled Zoë Wanamaker as Antedia of the Regni. The Cantii were historically based in Kent (hence Canterbury, I guess), while the Regni were next door in Sussex. Alongside these two warring monarchs are the druids, led by mystic in makeup Mackenzie Crook, who plays Veran. Presumably we’re supposed to believe the druids are all over the place, though if it is meant to be Stonehenge, then that’s Wiltshire, and the druids’ last stand against the Romans was in Anglesey.

So that’s the historical geography, westward from Kent to Wales, which is after all the route of Watling Street: all the way from Canterbury to Bangor. But this isn’t really a history, nor meant to be enjoyed as a historically accurate drama. Instead, it contains mystics and magic, prophecies and hallucinogenic visions; and at least one character who straddles the land of the living and the dead. The dialogue is salty, with enough modern idiom to make it clear that the showrunners (the Butterworths et al) don’t give a shit about accuracy. You just don’t get much of a sense that these people are spread all over Britain. It sometimes feels as if the Romans set up camp on the Medway and that was it.

It all begins with an interrupted naming ceremony, as a tweenage girl, Cait, is about to choose her adult name. She’s already broken a taboo by speaking to her badass sister,  and then the Romans arrive, and brutally kill or enslave almost everybody in the village. Cait’s captured father is blinded by one of the Romans, which leads all and sundry to freak out when they hear of a prophecy about a blind man and his small daughter. Cait herself knocks around in various places, but usually ends up teaming up, like Arya Stark, with a grumpy hypno-mystic, Divis (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) who variously tries to drop her, kill her, and protect her.

Meanwhile, Pellanor (who’s name is lifted from the Arthurian legends) is in conflict about how to deal with the Romans with his two kids, Julian Rhind-Tutt as Phelan, and Kelly Reilly as Kerra – who is supposed to have some Roman blood. There are complicated marriages, jealousies, spies, deserters, sieges, and gruesome, gruesome death ceremonies, with way too much gory detail.

Rhind-Tutt doesn’t have much to do at first except act as go-between for his sister and father, but it’s when he goes off on his own quest with captive tatooed bride Ania that he comes into his own, producing an entertaining turn, full of sardonic invective reminiscent of The Hound in Game of Thrones.

There is a lot of pointless running around in the woods, and a great deal of splashing around in chilly-looking water, and it does sag a little in the middle of its nine episodes, but the final three are great, and the ending of the siege in the season finale is spectacular. What the show needed was a tenth episode, Thrones-style, to set people up for what comes next, but instead a little of that was tacked onto the end. As I said, it doesn’t have the pacing quite right, but it is bonkers enough to win my approval.

Travelers and Manhunt: Unabomber – reviews

Travelers Season 2 (Netflix)

travelers-netflix-eric-mccormack-castI really enjoyed this “mid-price Canadian science fiction” series when I watched its first season on Netflix. You start out with low expectations, thinking it’s going to be just another one of those high concept shows that starts out okay, goes downhill, and/or gets cancelled quite quickly. But it turned out to be much stronger than I thought.

The basic (low budget) premise is that the future is fucked, so that ‘travelers’ from there are being sent back (in teams of five) to try to fix things. They transfer their consciousnesses* into the bodies of people who are about to die, take over their lives, connect with the rest of their team, and carry out missions. So far so ordinary. Where this show shines is with its cast (including Eric McCormack and MacKenzie Porter), and its emotionally intelligent writing, which is not afraid to spend time on the consequences that ensue when a different personality takes over a body. An old man in the body of an athletic teenager, for example. Or a highly intelligent medic in the body of a mentally disabled woman.

Where a lesser show might simply want to focus on the mission-of-the-week and forget the messy personal stuff, this show knows that in the end, that’s where the best stories are going to be. Like breaking Protocol Four, for example, which is don’t change the future by making a baby using your new host body.

So to Season 2, which picks up the conflict with things going wrong, the future changing, and the team’s Historian becoming less and less able to predict the present. This season takes time to build up relationships between some of the travelers and their host families, leading to some powerful episodes that have a real emotional impact — and a huge payoff at the season’s end.

I binged it over a few days: so good.

Manhunt: Unabomber (Netflix)

1998_unabomber_01Not to be confused with Netflix’s Mindhunter, this show is a dramatisation of another true FBI story involving profiling: the hunt for Ted Kaczynski, known as the Unabomber. Kaczynski carried out a decades long bombing campaign, targeting academics and others involved in modern technology, which he considered to be the root cause of all of society’s problems.

Kaczynski was caught thanks to what came to be known as forensic linguistics, which is to say, he had a very distinctive and somewhat archaic writing style, which his own brother recognised when the Unabomber’s manifesto was published in The Washington Post.

This is a fascinating TV dramatisation, which uses a multi-threaded narrative to take us through events before and after Kaczynski’s capture, and a number of flashbacks to the bomber’s childhood and the years leading up to his retreat from modern life. The show manages to find sympathy for the man, who was one of those child prodigies who never quite fulfilled his potential. In fact, I’d say he’s the poster child for the dangers of pushing kids out of their peer group. He skipped a grade in school (jumping from 6th to 8th), thus leaving behind his age mates and becoming a freak who ended up isolated and angry. There’s a fanciful scene in which he delivers a boobytrapped classroom note to someone who had hurt his feelings. Then he went to Harvard at 16, where he got pulled into a brutal programme of psychological experiments that led to him being personally abused and belittled on a weekly basis.

The upshot was a man who failed to fulfil his early promise, still got his PhD, but then gave up teaching after two years and went to live in the wilds of Montana in a mathematically perfect log cabin. His bombing campaign ensued.

Meanwhile, modern technology has brought us the 45th President of the United States.

Great series, well worth a watch.

*That’s a lot of esses

Television triumphs of 2017

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With Disney’s acquisition of (bits of) Fox, we may be entering a period of consolidation in the TV industry and may indeed have reached Peak TV. Tim Goodman of THR reckons there maybe over 500 scripted series this year. This would seem to be an unsustainable level of production. Here’s a list of my favourite shows of the year. In no particular order, except where they are:

14. Marvellous Mrs Maisel (Amazon). Reviewed here. An eye-popping period piece, Mad Men for standup, so watchable I binged it in a couple of days.

13. Casual (Amazon). Reviewed here. The 30-minute format has different pacing and energy than the 50-60 minute format, and there’s something warm and comforting about this show, which might not be what you think it is.

12. Stranger Things Season 2 (Netflix). A better show than the first season, this second season built on the first really well. There were a couple of missteps, but I choose to believe that they were seeds planted for future years. We truly do live in an age of incredible television.

11. Star Trek Discovery (Netflix). Reviewed here. A show that got better and better as it got closer to its mid-season hiatus, Disco was a triumphant return for Star Trek. I’ve been rewatching DS9 of late, which many rate as the Best Ever Trek, but Disco has 2017 production values and Classic Era titles and storylines. It sits alongside superb shows and really shows up The Expanse as the Load Of Old Wank it is. Best ever Trek?

10. Game of Thrones (HBO/Sky Atlantic). Growing pacier as it reaches its climax, this show’s ability to tie up years-long storylines is superb. Some heart-in-mouth moments, and the only criticism I have is that the (partial) season was too short by far. Meanwhile, remember when everyone thought The Winds of Winter would be published in 2016?

9. The Americans (ITV/Amazon). Reviewed here. As it heads towards its final season, this show is allowing storylines from Season 1 to play out. It’s got the storytelling chops of Game of Thrones, the period detail of Marvellous Mrs Maisel, and the ensemble cast of Westworld. You probably haven’t watched it, but you should.

8. Bosch Season 3 (Amazon). Reviewed here. Overlooked by most critics, I still love Bosch for its attention to detail, it’s pacing, and its cinematography – and for Titus Welliver in the title role. If you’re a fan of the books, you ought to be watching this.

7. Mindhunter (Netflix). This slow burn non-action series about the development of psychological profiling in the FBI is a superb watch.

6. Manhunt: Unabomber (Netflix). In a similar vein, this a companion piece to Mindhunter, demonstrating how the FBI finally caught the Unabomber, thanks to profiling. Narratively interesting, too, with two timelines adding to the mystery

5. The Vietnam War (PBS/BBC). An incredible documentary which manages to tackle a grim subject in an engaging way, and also told me loads that I didn’t already know about this most-documented war. There were some jaw-dropping moments and also some incredibly moving testimony. Tissues handy for the last episode.

4. Master of None Season 2 (Netflix). An antidote to everything grim in the world, this is a programme that comes from a loving place and attempts to find the best in people. Not only that, but it’s interesting

3. The Good Place (Netflix). Reviewed here. We had to wait for it, but when it arrived it was as brilliant as we hoped. Each 22-minute episode tackles a different philosophical conundrum. Ted Danson steals Season 2.

2. The Keepers (Netflix). A documentary that started off as an investigation into an unsolved murder, but took a dark turn into clerical sexual abuse, corruption, and cover up. Gripping, moving, and brilliant.

1. The Leftovers (Sky Atlantic). Probably (with The Americans) the best series that almost nobody was watching. But it’s all there, all three seasons, in all its strangeness and whiplash narrative turns, for future generations to treasure. While Twin Peaks tried too hard to weird The Leftovers remained watchable and yet still managed to send your jaw to the floor on a regular basis.

The Exorcist / Casual

Av1.dDsyNjY4MTA7ajsxNzU1MzsxMjAwOzE2MDA7MjQwMA.jpeg series I missed first time around was The Exorcist, the Fox TV series based upon the 1973 classic film by William Friedkin. Turns out, I’ve just also missed the first half of Season 2, which is currently playing on SyFy in the UK, a channel I hadn’t realised now appears in the channel list for NowTV. Season 1 is on Amazon Prime, however.

Now, I’m an atheist and I don’t buy into the Judeo-Christian theology at the heart of The Exorcist. I never have found it particularly frightening, but it is a superb film, especially in its editing and its use of sound. The use of Tubular Bells on the soundtrack is one of the things that sticks in the memory, and there’s a moment in Episode 1 of the TV series where they drop that music in as a kind of reference, and you realise that the show itself is in safe hands. You get a similar feeling in the new Star Trek Discovery: the people making the show have respect both for the source and the audience.

The Exorcist on TV does a good job of opening up the story in a new place and time, covering familiar beats but without contriving a situation that is exactly the same as the original. It might have sagged in a couple of places, with its producers’ insistence on getting to 10 episodes, but there were enough twists and turns (and a larger and ongoing story arc concerning the corrupting influence of evil) that it didn’t descend into longueurs. Mind you, my other half described it as nasty, so it’s not for everyone.

The first episode is a solid start, and was well-reviewed, but the show really rewards you if you stick with it, and by episode 5 or so, you’ll be hanging on every moment, and you’ve no idea how it’s all going to end. The series sets itself up for a Series 2, but rather than leaving you unsatisfied, you just want to see where it goes to next.

***

MV5BNGEwYTAwYzMtM2YyZi00MTJhLWE2ZDAtNTQ0OTVkNjFlNzRhXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMzU3NDIwNDA@._V1_UY268_CR0,0,182,268_AL_When I allowed my Amazon Prime membership to lapse earlier this year, one of the unfortunate side effects was that I was halfway through Season 3 of Casual, which is a show you might not have heard of. It’s in that horrible hybrid genre, the dramedy, which might be enough to put you off, but shouldn’t. The initial premise of the show was that a guy who has been very financially successful with a dating app is himself fairly hopeless at dating, as are his divorced sister and her teenage daughter.

But the show soon moves on from the suspect algorithms of dating apps and just lives with the people and their slightly broken selves and failing relationships. The characters are introduced organically, and the friendships (casual, natch) are portrayed in a fairly natural way. It’s not gloomy, however: just gently cynical and slightly melancholy about how modern life and our devices create distance between us. If you’re not in tears at the end of episode 10 of season 3, there’s something wrong with you. By the time you do get to Season 3, switching it on is oddly comforting, and I realised last night when I picked up the series at Episode 8 after a long gap that I had missed it.

It’s funny: it’s one of those shows, I don’t think about it much, or discuss it, or even rush to watch it, and yet when I sit down in front of it, I’ll happily watch several in a row. It’s a Hulu series in the States, so doesn’t suffer from the Amazon Problem.

The Marvelous Mrs Maisel – Amazon Prime

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I’m on record as saying that there’s something lacking in Amazon’s original television offerings. Production quality is high, and the shows are often very, very good (American Gods, Bosch), but I generally don’t feel the warmth and affection for them that I experience with my favourite shows, so they don’t have the unmissable quality that you get with, say, Game of Thrones, or Westworld, or The Good Place. Netflix’s Originals suffer from some of the same malaise.

It’s intangible and possible all in my mind, but it’s something that fascinates me. Take, for example, The Man in the High Castle. It’s a brilliant adaptation of the Philip K Dick source material, and the production design, costume, casting, and so on, were all state of the art. And it was a high concept show, which I love, and told (in the first season at least) a compelling story. It looked fabulous. And yet, I didn’t care about it. I watched it, but I didn’t feel like binging it, and (by season 2) it ended up feeling like going through the motions. A kind of, oh, all right, I’ll watch your stupid show, but don’t expect me to enjoy it.

To be fair to Amazon, I’ve felt this same indifference with offerings on other platforms and networks. I watched and admired Mad Men, but didn’t love it. I was talking with my daughter about it the other day, and I said, in the end, I’m more interested in the history-of-advertising stuff than anything else, and I don’t like or care about any of the characters. I felt the same way about The Sopranos and Breaking Bad. These are all shows with fanatical followings, and any number of people who’ll argue that they’re the Best Show Ever Made.

I’ve got a sentimental streak a mile wide, and I generally have to be rooting for someone. It’s a character flaw, I’m sure.

All of which brings me to The Marvelous Mrs Maisel, which I binged over two nights after signing up again for Amazon Prime following the release, finally, of their pretty shoddy AppleTV app. As an app, it’s the most grudgingly produced fuck-you to AppleTV users you can imagine. It follows none of the Apple interface guidelines and doesn’t even use the sound effects that help you know you’re navigating around. It’s a web view, by some accounts, not even a proper app at all.

But that didn’t stop me watching Mrs Maisel, which is a kind of Mad Men of standup comedy from the team behind the Gilmore Girls. It’s a delight of a show, with a host of clever and funny writing, and characters that are a kind of through-the-looking-glass version of those in The Gilmore Girls. The period setting is pristine, and the costume and production design puts you into a kind of hyper-real version of 1950s New York City that pops off the screen like a technicolor Gene Kelly musical.

One of the things I don’t like about Amazon is their tendency to place gratuitous nudity in the pilot episode. This kind of apes the Game of Thrones approach, and signals to the (US) audience that they’re not in Kansas anymore (which is to say, not watching a Network show). So there’s nudity in episode one, which is incongruous and unnecessary. I’m not being a prude. The nudity in Westworld was used to show the dehumanised quality of the robots; in Game of Thrones it stands as a signifier of the gritty realism of the fantasy world in comparison to, say, Lord of the Rings. Here, though? It’s just to make the pilot memorable so it gets upvoted by Prime subscribers… I guess? 

It does also have what I think of as the Amazon Look, by which I mean that it’s hard and bright and sharp, with everything looking freshly minted. It might be an effect of the latest 4K production techniques, and I wonder what it would look like on a 4K TV. Such a thing is not on my horizon, however. I don’t particularly like the Amazon Look, it’s part of the general Amazon Problem, but Mrs Maisel is a terrific show, and well worth a look.

 

A few reviews

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Lady Mary in the Wild West

Bit of a general round up, because one can’t consume anything these days without reviewing it.

Star Wars: Rogue 1 (iTunes)

Seemed like a pointless cash grab to me.

Tim McGraw and Faith Hill: The Rest of Our Life (iTunes)

An album of duets from Country music’s First Couple. There have been a number of collaborations on each other’s records over the years, but this is the first time a whole album has been released. This is okay: a couple of naff tracks (e.g. “Roll the Dice”) and a couple of corkers (e.g. “Telluride”). Most of all, it’s a pleasure to hear Faith Hill’s voice on new material. She hasn’t released an album of her own since 2005.

Sar Trek: Discovery (Netflix)

The new Star Trek turned out not to be about graphic designers in space, but was instead a fascinating and morally ambiguous exploration of cutting edge tech development at a time of war. The first two episodes were a bit dull (too much Klingon), but once the series proper kicked in, each successive episode seemed to be better than the last, and more and more like Star Trek. Produced by team that is clearly steeped in Trek lore, the whackadoodle episode titles are evidence enough that this new Trek is in good hands.

Godless (Netflix)

A seven-episode limited series, this Western didn’t really add much to the oldest film genre, but was quite well done. A town in which most of the men had been killed in a mining disaster finds itself the focus of interest from speculators and bad guys when an injured outlaw shows up at the ranch of a woman who has survived a terrible ordeal. There are several interweaving plot-lines, and the storytelling is slow-paced, but reaches a satisfying (if a little OTT) climax. Mind, there are too many endings, a bit like Lord of the Snores. The Daily Mail got a little overexcited by Michelle Dockery’s all-too-brief love scene, but then who didn’t watch Downton Abbey living in constant hope that Lady Mary would get her boobs out?

Lee Ann Womack: The Lonely, The Lonesome & The Gone

51w4uGcJHkL._SS500This new album from one of the most talented female vocalists in country music is her first for three years (which is better than the previous album’s 6-year gap). Womack co-wrote half of the 14 tracks, and there are a couple of interesting covers. Musicians include several members of the Nashville A-Team (Paul Franklin, Glen Worf etc.), but the vibe of the record is meant to be East Texas and soul, whatever that means. There are a couple of gospel-tinged numbers, and the whole record sounds great. The fact that this peaked at #37 on the Country charts with sales of just 3,200 in its first week tells you all you need to know about the perilous state of the music industry today, which increasingly relies on big-hitters like Taylor Swift (1.05 million sales in 4 days) while everybody else scrambles for scraps. The only way to make a living as a musician is to tour constantly. And it’s not even just about sales. Of the three “Official Audio” videos released on YouTube to promote the album, only one has more than 20,000 views. The fact is that the music press is in a dismal state, there are virtually no music shows on TV, and (of course) Country radio doesn’t play women. So there is no real promotional push for artists like Lee Ann Womack, and Chris Stapleton-like miracles are black swans.

Guerilla Media?

220px-Power_to_the_PeopleToday presenter, former political correspondent of the BBC, and obvious Tory Nick Robinson last week wrote an article in which he set out the challenges and attacks faced by the BBC and the mainstream media from the alternative media: the likes of The Canary and Westmonster.

Worth pulling apart.

Robinson raises the stakes to near hysteria when he describes all this with the language of warfare:

Attacks on the media are no longer a lazy clap line delivered to a party conference to raise morale. They are part of a guerrilla war being fought on social media day after day and hour after hour.

They don’t like it up ‘em, do they?

I’m no fan of sites like the Canary. I’ve always regretted following links to them from Twitter. I don’t like the style or tone of their journalism, and I don’t like their obvious bias, even if I might share it. But they exist because of a well-founded perception that the BBC in particular has been letting us down, not just lately, but for year after year and month after month.

The BBC has a duty, baked into its charter, to be impartial. But, weasel-like, the BBC always manages to be a tacit supporter of the government of the day. Knowing full well that angry ministers can do a lot of damage to the institution via their friends in the right-wing media, the BBC is notoriously brown-nosed, no matter who is in power. They brown-nosed the neoliberal “New Labour” government too. Robinson tries to argue the opposite, citing times when government ministers complained about the BBC, but he’s being selective with the facts. He mentions Churchill complaining about the BBC during the General Strike of 1926, knowing full well that Lord Reith was ensuring that the broadcaster was quietly supportive of the government:

since the BBC was a national institution, and since the government in this crisis was acting for the people… the BBC was for the government in the crisis too.

Robinson says,

Our critics now see their attacks as a key part of their political strategy. In order to succeed they need to convince people not to believe “the news”.

This seems to imply that the BBC is spending much time reporting facts. Sure, it might tell us about a hurricane or two, feeding the usual oh dearism, but the real beef these alt. news sources have with the BBC is with political coverage, and in particular its apparent inability to be impartial to the truth.

This is what they do: debate. Perhaps it’s a hangover from their days at Oxford or Cambridge, but notwithstanding BBC editors’ love for them, debates can be rigged. For example, a debate between a completely unqualified and paid-for climate change denier (e.g. Nigel Lawson) and an actual climate scientist is not unbiased. Robinson justifies the airing of Lawson’s lies on behalf of the oil industry secretive charitable foundation he ‘founded’ with the idea that people with ‘alternative views’ should not be silenced:

They should be challenged and if, as Lawson did on Today recently, they get their facts wrong we should say so.

But Lawson didn’t “get his facts wrong”. He’s paid to tell lies on behalf of a powerful lobby, which hides the sources of its funding behind charitable status. By all means, get him on and challenge the “views” he’s paid to have. But make it fucking clear to the listeners that he’s there representing not ‘alternative views’ but the tiny and wealthy membership of a ‘charitable’ foundation that seems to be swimming in mysterious money.

Claim and counterclaim: that’s most often what the BBC reports when it comes to political issues. And they structure reports so that the most ‘important’ person goes first, and any responses to the claim being made are buried further down in the story. And in-studio debates, notoriously, are stage managed and constantly interrupted by hectoring presenters (or other guests who won’t shut up), hurried along, and cut short by artificially generated arbitrary deadlines dictated by weather bulletins and news summaries.

What the BBC could do, but never does, is demonstrate an impartiality to the truth. Rather than allowing, say, Boris Johnson to make a completely false claim about the amount of money that would go to the NHS following Brexit, the presenter could stop him — in his tracks — and point out that he’s lying. Could quote the Office of National Statistics at him, and therefore let him know in no uncertain terms that he would never be allowed to get away with telling such a lie on a BBC news programme. The popularity of a recent clip of NBC journalists challenging a lying contributor shows how hungry the public are for this kind of thing.

But they don’t do that. Instead, they demonstrate ‘impartiality’ by having someone else in the studio to make another claim that Johnson is lying, which just makes it all seem like a game, with the ‘winner’ being the person who repeats themselves the most, shouts the loudest, or speaks last, before the arbitrarily imposed cut-off point. This suits Johnson and his ilk down to the ground, insulated as he is by his family money from the consequences of anything he says.

Unfortunately, the alt. media that have come along are mainly just offering a different kind of bias. For Robinson to talk about these news sources as waging a war against the BBC/MSM is disingenuous in the extreme, because the real and present threat to the BBC has always been from the Murdoch-owned right-wing press, the Dailies Mail, Express, and Telegraph who have no interest in reporting the truth and every interest in destroying a national institution they see as a barrier to their profits.

The BBC follows their news agenda, focuses on their obsessions, giving disproportionate time to the bugbears of the political right: immigrants and the “undeserving poor”, and continually failing to reveal when contributors are representatives of right-wing thinktanks, or corporations, or simply nutty minority pressure groups. They give airtime to the likes of the Taxpayers’ Alliance, offer blanket coverage of everything UKIP does, but more or less ignore, say, the Green Party, which probably has more members and more widespread support. And they repeated the attacks on Corbyn from the press as if they were news, lending credence to the idea that they are all Tories.

Star Trek: Discovery

star-trek-discovery-klingonsThis new Star Terk Trek arrived on Netflix UK without much fanfare. There was no more hype for it than there was for The Expanse, and there were no critic previews, so no big reviews dropped in the runup.

All of which makes me, someone who watched first run Kirk Terk on the BBC in 1969–70, slightly nervous about this series.

The double pilot episode of Star Trek Disco did not exactly make clear what the show’s premise is, and I don’t want to look it up, so all I have to go on is that we have a human protagonist raised by Vulcans who, as a first officer on USS Shenzhou is overdue for her first command. I think we’re around the time period of the Krik era, but there’s no sense that the timelines are going to overlap. I don’t think it’s going to be graphic designers in space, though.

But there are Vulcans, including Sarek, Spock’s father, and there are… Klingons.

Original series Klingons were simply heavily made-up white (?) men with fancy facial hair. Then came the brown-skinned people with forehead ridges on TNG. And now we have a range of skin tones including jet black and albino and more facial prosthetics than seems decent. 8 hours in the makeup chair etc.

But here’s the thing. Klingons are the most boring people in the Rats Kert universe. It’s like watching a rugby team play drinking games. And, oh, the subtitles.

Over the two pilot episodes, it felt like 50% of the time a bunch of actors in uncomfortable prosthetics were hacking up phlegm, and you had to read bloody subtitles, which weren’t about anything other than the usual Klingon blach blach blach.

So, the story, about an incident on the edge of Federation space that sets off a war, is a bit of a drag, and the pacing is badly affected by the extended sequences of people in rubber masks with hacking coughs. Groan.

And even after a feature length opening, our protagonist isn’t on a ship called Discovery, and in fact we haven’t been introduced to the ship. Nice title sequence, though.