Recently watched on TV

I’ve been blasting through a fair few series of late. I temporarily resubscribed to Amazon Prime so I could watch Counterpart Season 2, and since I was there, I also watched Homecoming, The Man in the High Castle (season 3), The Exorcist (season 2), and Mr Mercedes (1 & 2).

I reviewed Counterpart Season 1 here and said it was unmissable, although it is in fact very easy to miss.

You have to jump through a fair few hoops to watch it. A lot of people don’t realise they even have Amazon Prime Video as part of their Prime membership, which they sign up to for the free next-day delivery option. But anyway, first you need Amazon Prime. Then you need to add the Starzplay channel within Amazon Prime. It’s quite a clever move by Amazon: a kind of mise-en-abîme of subscriptions within subscriptions. The good news is that you can get a 90-day trial of Starzplay, which is easily enough time to burn through Counterpart. Season 2 is near its end. Will it be renewed for a third? You need at least three seasons to be truly great, but we live in a strange world in which one of the best shows currently on TV is on an obscure network/service that most people haven’t heard of.

So it’s behind a paywall behind a paywall, but notwithstanding all that, it is well worth seeking out. Season 2 continues the theme of confusion and identity characteristic of the espionage genre at its best, but also begins to fill in some of the back story: we learn more about how the Crossing was created, who Management are, and how the two Howards (Alpha/Prime) became such very different people. It really is superb, on a level with The Americans, and just as challenging to watch.

While you’re on Starzplay for the 90 days, you can watch other stuff, including Mr Mercedes, which is an adaptation of a Stephen King novel. In its first season, it’s a fairly straight retired-cop-obsessed-with-old-case saga. It’s watchable enough and has an interesting cast, although Brendan Gleeson’s Irish accent is hard to explain away. Mary-Louise Parker makes an appearance, which is always nice. Then there’s season 2, which takes a more obviously King-like turn, and adds Justine Lupe as a cast regular. It all goes off the rails a bit. The main issue with something like this is that it doesn’t need 20 episodes to tell its story, and so it gets a bit repetitive and draggy.

The Man in the High Castle is actually more watchable in its third season, reaching an intense climax that leaves you gasping for another season. That said, in order to get to Season 3, you have to force yourself to watch Season 2, which is a hard watch. It’s on Amazon, so you might as well watch it, but don’t subscribe just to see it.

Homecoming is a TV adaptation of the podcast of the same name, with added star value in the form of Julia Roberts. I enjoyed it, especially the non-standard episode lengths, which make it more bingeable. There’s a lot to be said for these dramas that have shorter episodes. The story feels a lot less padded, and it’s easier to fit in one more before bedtime. Again, though, this is something you watch if you subscribe, but it’s not worth subscribing just to see it.

Amazon is very interested in what people watch first after they subscribe to Amazon Prime, in case you were wondering why they’re still employing Clarkson and Co. Even if you only watch one episode of The Grand Tour (because it is shit), you’re still a statistic. Personally, my sign-up series was Bosch, and if you’re a fan of those books, that is a reason to subscribe.

Meanwhile, there is stuff like The Exorcist, which in its first season did a good job of reimagining the film and turning it into a watchable TV series. Season 2 moves us on to a new location and a new possession, whilst keeping only a core few of the original cast. It’s pretty good at what it does, though the demon fighting scenes can get to be a bit of a drag. There is a lot less of the existential angst that characterises the film and the original series, but I still got to the end. It’s another one that didn’t need a full 10 episodes, though. And now it’s cancelled, so only Amazon knows if it’s worth a streaming service rescue. Netflix teased some viewing figures recently, such as the 40 million who watched You, which on its original network received 1/80th of that audience.

Which brings us to Netflix and what I’ve watched on there lately. Not much. Netflix, it seems to me, have a real problem with quality control, but I guess they know what they’re at. What seems from the outside like throwing spaghetti at a wall is probably a well thought out strategy.

Russian Doll is a winner, simply because it’s interesting enough to overcome its unlikeable cast of characters and nasty vibe. It also has those shorter episodes that can keep you watching through your dislike for the vision of humanity on display.

On the other hand, Nightflyers is simply terrible, an incoherent slab of dark science fiction that defies your ability to suspend disbelief. Interchangeable characters die in horrible ways on a malfunctioning ship in such quantities that it’s impossible to believe that their purported mission could continue. A ship which seems to have vast, empty spaces and at the same time an unlimited supply of crew to be killed in various horrible ways? Some kind of miraculous future power source and yet nobody ever turns a light on? Check and check. There’s a Game of Thrones style body count, but not a single character you care about, and some kind of mission you also don’t care about. It’s crap, in short, so save your time.

The only thing redeeming Netflix at the moment is Star Trek: Discovery, which in Season 2 is finally the show it almost was in Season 1. Each of the three episodes so far have been very good indeed, and as someone who’s loved Star Trek since I gave up the Cub Scouts so as not to miss it, I’m in love.

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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.

Star Trek 2017 – graphic designers in space?

StargateUniverseCBS have announced that they’re launching a new Star Trek TV series in 2017, to be screened (in the USA) on their streaming service All Access. I wonder what that means for the UK? Amazon? Netflix? A CBS app on Apple TV? Sky Atlantic? I’d be surprised if any of the terrestrial broadcasters bothered with it. Anyway, people are already speculating about what form the new series would take, and in what era. On a ship with a crew? A space station with a crew? Would it be in the JJ Abrams reboot universe? It’s unlikely to tie too closely with the recent films – if only because the rights to the film franchise is jointly owned by Paramount and CBS.

This is something I’ve thought about before. The last Trek series that was decent, even if only in parts, was Voyager, and that was mostly for a couple of years at the beginning of Seven of Nine’s residency. Even Voyager had too many silly characters. Enterprise was disappointing, partly because it seemed like too safe a choice, and partly because they allowed it to be derailed by the 9/11-style attack on Earth and all the subsequent War on Terror nonsense. So the show died, in my mind, before it could really get going. Prior to all that, I never much liked Deep Space Nine, although some people do swear by it. I expect if I saw it again now it would be better than I remember. Apart from those Ferengi plots. And Odo.

TNG was also a mixed bag. Better after its creator died, but like most things probably overstaying its welcome.

My ideal new Star Trek has already been made: it was called Stargate Universe, and like the Original Series of Trek, it was cancelled (too soon, I say). Others might argue that Firefly had something of the original Trek frontier spirit, but that too was cancelled too soon.

Here are some of my ideas for the new Trek.

  • Game of Trek – diplomats vying for supremacy, the Federation falling apart, intrigue, murder, a cast of thousands. Emilia Clarke as a sexy vulcan entirely optional.
  • Star Fleet Academy – a revolving cohort of young people on training missions that, like the holodeck of old, always go wrong. Emilia Clarke as a sexy vulcan entirely optional.
  • Star Trek Parallels – life is tough in the Mirror Universe. Emilia Clarke as a sexy vulcan entirely optional.
  • Star Trek Frozen – a character frozen in the OS era wakes up in his/her far future. Emilia Clarke as a sexy vulcan entirely optional.
  • Star Trek Bios – the crew of a ground station on a planet with a hostile biological environment but valuable secrets. Emilia Clarke as a sexy vulcan entirely optional.
  • Indistinguishable – the adventures of a small but dedicated group of researchers in the Advanced Technology Unit – creating and testing new, experimental tech that is indistinguishable from magic. Emilia Clarke as a sexy vulcan entirely optional.
  • Edge of Forever – time portal Trek. Emilia Clarke as a sexy vulcan entirely optional.
  • Starfleet Weapons Inspectors – trying to prevent the next devastating intergalactic conflct. Emilia Clarke as a sexy vulcan entirely optional.
  • Graphic Designers in Space – needs no explanation
  • Star Trek Dreamscape – the whole thing takes place in one of Chakotay’s vision quests. Emilia Clarke as a sexy vulcan bajoran entirely optional.
  • Star Trek Refugee – a small crew on a broken down ship try to survive in a hostile universe, and try to avoid the attentions of the Federation (hmmm… seems familiar). Emilia Clarke as a sexy vulcan entirely optional.
  • Star Trek Derelict – a crew of “wreck divers” discover an abandoned alien ship with technology so advanced they barely understand it – and attempt to fly it home (hmmm… seems familiar). Emilia Clarke as a sexy vulcan entirely optional.

Why Stargate Universe was under-rated

Air (Stargate Universe)

Air (Stargate Universe) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Over the years, I’ve grown all-too-used to my various Freeview boxes and PVRs choosing to fuck up scheduled recordings while I’m away in France, so I wasn’t surprised to discover on my return this time that a forced retune had buggered all my stuff from about Wednesday onwards, meaning that I missed the last few episodes of season 2 of Stargate Universe (SGU).

I also lost a Nashville and a Good Wife, but those are available online via catchup. I was gutted about SGU, because I’ve been gorging on it for several weeks as it enjoyed a re-run on Sky’s PickTV.

So I hadn’t seen it before. The original Stargate was all right, I suppose, but it suffered from the usual TV Sci Fi silliness, threats to earth and so on. It was occasionally watchable, but I wouldn’t have sought it out, and it and its spinoff shows were never really on my radar.

But I was intrigued enough to learn (via his promotion of Redshirts) that John Scalzi was a creative consultant on SGU to give it a go when I saw it appear on the free-to-air PickTV. If you like proper science fiction, you should watch out for another run of it (they just started showing Enterprise again, so it might well appear).

Like the superb Battlestar Galactica  of days gone by, SGU used edgy camera work, anti-hero character conflicts, and gigantic plot twists. There were also some very bold movies, doing things that the likes of Star Trek would never dare, like stranding main characters on planets, having everybody apparently die, and refusing to offer neat explanations.

We’re used to seeing excellent shows cancelled, and there’s no point dwelling too much on it, getting up a petition or blaming the suits. Often the fans of these shows are also their worst enemies, choosing to download instead of watching broadcasts, and then wondering why the network decides to cancel something that doesn’t have an audience and doesn’t attract advertising. If you love a show, then you need to see the big, commercial picture and understand that if you don’t pay for it by watching official broadcasts or paying for a download or boxed set, it’s going to die.

What I loved about SGU was its use of proper science fiction ideas and its setting in a universe with rules. So faster-than-light travel is possible, but the ship needs power, and chemicals for scrubbing carbon dioxide out of the air, and the people need to be fed, supplies need to be replenished. All of these ideas conveniently skated over in a show like Star Trek. Planets can be hostile environments, and remnants of long-ago civilisations refuse to give up their secrets easily, or offer “human” explanations for their motives.

The crew get to the ship entirely accidentally (they’re the “wrong crew” at the “wrong time”) and the show never loses sight of that, never forgets that these are people struggling and improvising a long way beyond their level of competency. Nobody trusts Rush (played by Robert Carlisle) and the ship’s commander-by-default is always fallible. And I don’t know who was really responsible for the storylines and scripts (or how much influence a creative consultant like Scalzi might have), but it was fairly obvious that the show was being run by people who knew science fiction and knew what was wrong with all the other Sci Fi shows.

It was cut short after just two seasons and didn’t have a proper ending, but maybe that’s better than going on for too long. Battlestar lasted a season too long, as did Lost, and having 40 episodes is better than the 13 or so that Firefly gave us. Give or take Battlestar or the early X Files, SGU may have been the best SF show that television has ever seen.

Blockade (Stargate Universe)

Blockade (Stargate Universe) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)