So, Farewell then, The Americans

Season 6 of The Americans has drawn to a close, with a stunning finale, almost silent in its final half, reminding us that so much of this story was told without dialogue, and with strategically targeted musical nuggets, such as Dire Straits’ “Brothers in Arms” in that last episode. Even, I grudgingly admit, U2’s “With or Without You” which I’d normally run screaming from the house to avoid.

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[Contains spoilers]

I previously wrote about this show just before Season 5, which was an in-between seasons, designed to build inexorably to the climax that would be Season 6. At the end of Season 5, after a disastrous operation, Philip announces that he doesn’t want to do “the work” any more, and Elizabeth agrees to take on new assignments herself, while Philip only works to wind up existing operations.

So it is that Season 6 begins on a tense note, three years later, with an exhausted Elizabeth running on fumes and shutting herself emotionally from her husband, who is trying to make a success of the travel agency front operation—and failing. In other words, not to put too fine a point on it, this man who had really started to want to be an American was failing at being a capitalist. Gorbachev is in office in the USSR, experimenting with openness and reform, and reactionary elements within the KGB are seeking to destroy him. Inevitably, this conflict at the top level of the Soviet Union infects the Jennings’ marriage, building mistrust and resentment.

It was the sound of The Americans, in the end, that haunted me. It probably took me three or four seasons to understand why the soundtrack always sounded so odd. In every scene, interior, exterior, office, home, street corner, there was a lot of background noise. Where there was dialogue, it was clear enough, but there was always a great deal of background hum, as if the volume (or gain) had been turned up on everything. And then I twigged: every scene in The Americans sounds as if it has been recorded using a listening device (or, in the case of outdoor scenes, a shotgun microphone eavesdropping from a distance).

What does one do when something so good reaches an end? I think, probably more than any other show, I might watch it all again.

(Seasons 1-5 are on Amazon Prime video. I assume/hope that Season 6 (episodes currently on the ITV Player in the UK) will end up there in due course.

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Childhood Canon

CometmoominlandSometimes you hear a podcast episode and think wistfully how you’d like to have been on it. Recent Incomparable episodes about childhood canon and recent conversations with colleagues about learning to read had me thinking about the media that shaped my tastes. I’m less interested in film and television than I am in books.

I learned to read with Dr Seuss – Green Eggs and Ham, Hop on Pop, and The Cat in the Hat – but at a very early age started the exploration of science fiction that continues to this day. I’m going to credit Tove Jansson with this: Comet in Moominland (1951) was the first Moomin book I read (when I was off school with whooping cough, I think), and although it isn’t scientifically accurate, it would be churlish to hold that against it, given that most science fiction of the time was similarly inaccurate. The description of the approaching comet’s effects on the earth and the crossing of the dried up sea on stilts gave me an early taste of the apocalyptic strand of SF that remains popular to this day.

I moved from the Moomins onto Enid Blyton’s Adventure series and Arthur Ransome, but started to spend more than 50% of my time reading about space and time.

220px-Blast_Off_at_Woomera_front_coverThe first science fiction proper I read would have been Hugh Walters’ series of books that included Destination Mars, Nearly Neptune, and Blast Off at Woomera (1957), which features another implausible plot as a 17-year-old kid is sent off to photograph the moon because of a feared communist plot. Having devoured those books, I moved on to Arthur C. Clarke, and his Islands in the Sky (1952), which also featured a teenage boy going up into space.

I then switched to Clarke’s more adult-oriented books, the most memorable being Childhood’s End and Clarke_Rendezvous_With_RamaRendezvous with Rama (1973), which at the time was Clarke’s most recently published novel. It lacks a proper plot, as much of his stuff does, but does manage to convey a sense of wonder at the (alien) technological sublime, which is another ongoing theme. Most recently, I’ve enjoyed Robert Charles Wilson’s take on it, with books like The Chronoliths, Spin, and Blind Lake.

My Clarke obsession was long enough ago that his novel Imperial Earth (1975) was published while I was in the midst of it. I turned 13 that year. But that novel was disappointing, as was his novelisation of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which might have been better left as the short story “The Sentinel”, which I had in one of the many short story collections I had accrued by then. These included his classic Tales From the White Hart, a fun collection of tall tales which gave me a taste for the playful side of science fiction.

I tried, around this time, to read some Isaac Asimov, but it never took. I never could read Asimov and only managed Heinlein in small doses.

A side trip to Durham to visit relatives led to me scoring a pile of interesting, more grown up, SF books from a distant cousin. I’ll forever be grateful to him, whoever he was, because he let me choose a bunch of stuff from his shelves, which I never was to return.

1255867Two of the most important of these were Larry Niven collections: A Hole in Space and Inconstant Moon (1973). The title story of the latter collection was an echo of Comet in Moominland, as a too-bright moon signalled a catastrophic problem with the sun to people on the dark side of the Earth, who realise they have just one night to live. These harder SF collections exposed me to ideas such as ramjets, time dilation, teleportation booths, and flash mobs. Another book in that particular grab bag was the very first World’s Best Science Fiction collection edited by Terry Carr. This included the canonical Harlan Ellison story “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” but more importantly gave me a taste for these annual collections. I raided the library for every one I could find, and in later years, when Gardner Dozois picked up the torch, I have made a point of buying his annual collection every summer.

The final taste-forming book of my teens was a gift received during a hospital stay when I was 16 or 17. This was the all-time classic Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus, edited by Brian Aldiss. There were more good stories in that one book than in any number of annual Best ofs, and it remains the best introduction to Golden Age science fiction.

Besides all this, the importance of Doctor Who and Star Trek were comparatively minor. When it comes to film and TV science fiction, my support is grudging at best. Only Alien really cuts the mustard from that era, and I mainly watched Doctor Who for the companions.

Bosch Season 4

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Angels Flight, Los Angeles

People learn. Huh.

One of the absolute worst aspects of (especially long-running) genre shows is that nobody ever seems to learn anything or develop as a character. One notable exception to this was NYPD Blue, one of the all-time-great network cop shows, which had an 11-season story arc for Any Sipowicz which transcended the limitations of the format.

So to Bosch in its 4th season, and a welcome return for Titus Welliver in the title role, Lance Reddick as the now Chief of Police Irvin Irving, Jamie Hector as Bosch’s ex-partner Jerry Edgar, Madison Lintz as Bosch’s daughter Maddie (given more to do this time around), and Amy Aquino as acting Captain of Hollywood Homicide division.

As before, the season combines the plotlines from several of the Bosch novels by Michael Connelly, in this case the principle storylines come from Angels Flight and 9 Dragons. There is a lot less to do with ongoing cases in court this time around, and much more investigating, with a background of political manoeuvring and protests against police brutality. As such, it feels quite zeitgeisty, though there is a bit less of the stunning cinematography of Los Angeles that characterised Season 1.

This time the principle LA location is the titular Angels Flight funicular railway, which was originally located in Bunker Hill, but has since reopened as a kind of simulacrum that operates as a kind of intermittent and often neglected tourist attraction.

The fallout from previous seasons continues, but while Bosch remains a focus of contempt from many of his colleagues (mainly because he refuses to treat being a cop like being a member of a corrupt club), the people who work with him (including Captain  Billets and Chief Irving) no longer even pretend that he’s anything other than the best investigator they have. In other words, they’ve learned from working with Bosch that he is not corrupt, unwavering in his pursuit of the bad guys, and usually arrests the guilty party. So as much as other cops and politicians complain about him, this time they let him do his job. So there’s a lot less of the you’re off the case nonsense that sometimes besets this genre.

While investigating the murder of a lawyer who was about to embarrass the police department in a lawsuit, Bosch also pursues the man he believes responsible for his mother’s death, and deals with the unexpected death of a close family member. He’s forced to work with a couple of Internal Affairs detectives as well as the antagonistic Jimmy Robertson (Paul Calderon) and his former partner Edgar, returning to the job after injury.

It’s another solid outing for Bosch, and I remain puzzled at the critical disdain/indifference this show receives. Sure, it’s a police procedural, but it is better than anything else in this genre right now.

I previously reviewed Season 1, Season 2, and Season 3.

Amazon Prime vs. Netflix – which is better value?

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Remember The OA? It has that bloke from Star Trek Disco in it

I know what you’re thinking: it’s going to be Netflix, isn’t it? And you’d be correct, but not necessarily by the margin you’d expect.

I just reviewed my watch history on both services, and it was clear that I’d binged more shows on Netflix, by far, including back catalogue shows from other networks (Gilmore Girls, various Star Treks, Brooklyn 99 etc), but when it came to content exclusive to each service (Amazon Originals, Netflix Originals – both including some co-productions), it was much closer than you might think.

I selected 20 shows from each service that (give or take a couple of grey areas) you have to subscribe to see. On Netflix, these include some Marvel shows (Jessica Jones, Luke Cage), Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Master of None, 13 Reasons Why, Stranger Things, Manhunt: Unabomber, and The OA. Grey areas for Netflix include Star Trek Disco and The Good Place, and shows like Travelers and The Expanse.

On Amazon, the 20 included such things as Casual, Outlander, Bosch, The Man in the High Castle, Patriot (aka Sad Spies), Marvellous Mrs Maisel, Red Oaks, and American Gods. Grey areas include Mr Robot, Halt & Catch Fire, and Catastrophe.

To be fair to both services, I limited it to a top 20 and bumped out (where I could) shows that I watched and gave up on, or ended up hating. So, for example, the only two Marvel shows I quite enjoyed on Netflix were included, but the others weren’t. I also excluded movies.

I then scored each show out of 10, and gave it a multiplier based on the number of seasons available – but only if I’d watched them. So although Amazon are about to drop Bosch Season 4, I’ve only counted the three I’ve watched.

It’s clear that Netflix has more strength in depth, and I found myself bumping more shows from that top 20 list in order to include stuff I’d enjoyed more. With Amazon, on the other hand, once you exclude other networks’ back catalogue (Seinfeld), you find yourself scraping the barrel of forgettable filler and including the likes of Hap & Leonard, One Mississippi and Hand of God.

That said, the scores were much closer than I thought. Taking account of Season multipliers, Amazon rack up points for Casual, Outlander, Bosch, Mozart in the Jungle, Mr Robot, and Red Oaks. They seem to be better than Netflix at continuity. Looking back through the Netflix list, you come across stuff like The OA and other Limited Series, which occupy you for a few nights and then disappear forever.

Anyway, here are the totals. Netflix scored 217 points. Amazon scored 215. A narrow victory, but if I needed to cancel one of them, I’d still cancel Amazon first, and I’d struggle to recommend it to anyone over Netflix, unless the question was, which streaming service has the nastiest aesthetic? or, which service has the worst user experience?

Annihilation / Jessica Jones season 2

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Either I’m getting jaded from Too Much TV, or both of these recently released Netflix properties were somewhat disappointing.

I’m not sure if I’ve ever read any of Jeff VanderMeer’s fiction. One of the oddest things about the science fiction field is that, even after 45 years or so of reading it, there are still a tremendous number of writers I’ve never read. It’s comforting, in a way.

Anyway, I read nothing about Annihilation before settling down to watch it, on the recommendation of two different people. It’s based on a novel by VanderMeer.

I have until now totally ignored Netflix’s one-off/movie offerings. Not a single one of them has appealed to me. I know a lot about movies and I know what I like, and I generally don’t like things made in the last 15-20 years. If I invest two hours in something, I generally want more of it (TV style), because I’d have made a choice, usually, to watch a second episode. But a two-hour film can steal two hours of your time and then leave you with a shitty/lame ending, either because they didn’t know how to end it, or because they intended to make a sequel. A case in point: the movie Life, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, has a trick ending that’s a total swizz, based on cheeky editing.

Annihilation started slowly, with a framing device that already put me on guard, because it revealed that the protagonist was the sole survivor of something. This meant that I didn’t emotionally invest or care about any of the other characters because I knew they were going to die. Neither did I invest in the flashbacks, which struck me as lacking in affect and underplayed, and not really illuminating the main plot. A lot of the reviews of this film make the case that it’s somehow doing something different, but if you’ve been reading science fiction for 45 years, it’s really not.

Once the premise was revealed, I was reminded of something I had read, which is Ian McDonald’s Chaga series of stories and novels, about a slowly unfolding singularity event borne to Earth on a meteor, and spreading across Africa like a slow motion version of the “Genesis Effect” in that Star Trek movie.

Like much science fiction, you’d consider these kinds of books unfilmable. You could do it with CGI, of course, but it would be mostly animation, which I tend to find uninvolving. Actors staring at tennis balls on poles in front of green screens are rarely convincing. Anyway, VanderMeer’s books are slightly different, it turns out, but there was still a lot of CGI animation in this film, and my reaction wasn’t wow, as some critics’ seems to have been.

Five women, supposedly scientists, head into a mysterious area that has been colonised by some kind of  possibly alien organism. I say “supposedly” scientists, because they’re dressed in military fatigues and carrying automatic weapons, and they don’t really do much science. In fact, most of the time they act exactly like the space marine grunts in Aliens.

They make a series of illogical and dumb decisions, upon which the whole flimsy plot rests. Science fiction is good at creating Big Ideas and Wonder, but it often doesn’t translate to film very well. I’m kind of dreading Amazon’s attempt at Ringworld, if it ever appears. Once you’ve done the worldbuilding, you’ve basically got a giant ring around a star and it takes forever to get anywhere. (One SF writer who does do interesting things with human stories is Robert Charles Wilson. TV execs take note: you could film The Chronoliths, Spin, or Last Year and you could do better than this.)

Jennifer Jason Leigh is present in Annihilation, in a distant and affectless way. Natalie Portman has a bit more to do, but not much, and you always know how it will end.

There are some interesting ideas: lost time, for example, but not much is done with these ideas. There’s a bunch of CGI and some nice photography. Dialogue is strained and peremptory.

A trick ending. I might have a go with the books, to see if they’re better.

Jessica Jones is back for Season 2, and I found myself similarly uninvolved. The problem, I think, is the same one that afflicts a lot of these Netflix/Marvel shows. They make 13 episodes, but they only have 8–10 episodes of story. So it drifts a bit, and you stop paying attention, and then you wonder what’s happening, and then you don’t care.

Weeds

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Since January, I’ve been working my way through all 8 seasons of Weeds, which was Breaking Bad before Breaking Bad was Breaking Bad. I started watching Weeds, back when it was first on, but then it either switched channels or I lost interest or something. Anyway, in this fallow period between unmissable TV seasons, I’ve been watching between two and four episodes a night.

If you don’t know it, the concept of this show is as follows: suburban widow turns to drug dealing in order to maintain her lifestyle. So it has baked into it, as it were, the blinkered, selfish entitlement of white middle class America, meaning that Nancy (Mary-Louise Parker) is not a terribly sympathetic character. She could have moved to a less prosperous neighbourhood and got a job. Instead, as the series progresses, she becomes something of a nightmare, manipulative, inconsiderate, and treacherous. A lot of the online chatter about the show concerns this difficulty, with a lot of people claiming that the reason they stopped watching was because the character of Nancy annoyed them or made them angry.

I can see that. I also wondered, as I started to watch, how much of this irritation was because Nancy is a woman whereas her male counterpart as an anti-hero Walter White (Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad), is given much more leeway by that show’s fans.

Well, it’s a head scratcher. I found Weeds watchable to the end, notwithstanding Nancy, but I might have stopped watching (or at least paused it) without compunction if Westworld season 2 had come on.

It was a show that didn’t go in for much realism. Nancy’s existence, with no visible means of support for long stretches of time, is hard to credit, and the writers revelled in creating preposterous, jaw-dropping situations, such as the one in the final season, when Nancy has sex with someone on the very spot that her first husband dropped dead. As a weed dealer, she was really a failure, getting ripped off over and over again, and constantly encountering supposedly ruthless gangsters who somehow failed to kill her. The most problematic aspect of the show was probably the way that Nancy neutralised these male threats by sleeping with them, or sleeping with someone else who then did the neutralising. I can see a lot of people switching off for that reason alone. At the same time, the masochistic self-loathing that such behaviour represents was true to character.

Most of all, Weeds wanted to foreground its status as a premium cable show all the time, with frequent nudity, mucho swearing, toilet humour, and some very squirmy sexual situations, which sometimes got in the way of the narrative drive and became tiresome. On the other hand, one of the pleasures of the show was the supporting cast and array of special guest stars, including Martin Donovan, Albert Brooks, Carrie Fisher, Alanis Morrisette, Matthew Modine, Julie Bowen, Richard Dreyfuss, Elizabeth Perkins and Jennifer Jason Leigh. In fact, you never quite know who’s going to show up to do a foul-mouthed turn.

The final two episodes manage to tie up most of the storylines, though a number of guest stars do disappear without further mention (Elizabeth Perkins, for example, who was a major character until she wasn’t). As a long-running series finale, it actually works quite well, with its science-fictional flash forward and refusal to get too sentimental. If this review had a star rating, it would be three. Anyway: it’s all on Netflix, so knock yourself out.

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?

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