Good Omens (2019) [BBC One/Amazon Prime]

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I have a confession to make: I’ve never really got along with the novels of Terry Pratchett. I know he’s a beloved publishing phenomenon, but his books have just never worked for me. Comedy is a very personal thing and if something misses the mark for you, no matter how good it is, then that’s that. In a similar vein I’ve not read any of Neil Gaiman’s books either, although in his case I have at least watched and enjoyed television shows based on his work including Lucifer and American Gods along with TV scripts he’s submitted to existing science fiction series such as Doctor Who and Babylon 5. However, for me there was never any question that Pratchett and Gaiman’s seminal 1990 literary collaboration Good Omens held very little appeal to me.

And yet when a TV adaptation was announced, I confess that there was something in the idea of David Tennant playing the cynical demon Crowley and Michael Sheen as the prissy angel Aziraphale in a new BBC/Amazon co-production that got under my skin. The itch became such that I ended up getting the DVD of the series a few months ago, and I was sufficiently smitten to quickly follow that by purchasing and perusing the paperback of the original novel.

Adapted for the screen by Gaiman (who is also essentially the showrunner, in fulfilment of a promise he made to the late Sir Terry to finally get the project across the line after numerous thwarted prior attempts on both the big and small screen) it’s no surprise that this version is very faithful indeed to the book, with Gaiman performing just a little tidying up and polishing to correct or update some of the clunkier parts of the text. It’s also slightly reshaped to better fit into the six 55 minute instalments, which means that the first episode pushes back the introduction of some major characters in order to concentrate on the prophesied arrival on earth of the antichrist as the covertly adopted son of the US ambassador to the United Kingdom (a brief cameo from Nick Offerman), a scenario which is an obvious and cheerful homage to The Omen. Crowley and Aziraphale have been on Earth since the days of the Garden of Evil – and even played a crucial part in those events – and over the millennia since then have gone native albeit in very different ways. Neither want to see their cosy existence brought to an end by the inconvenience of Armageddon and so they try to thwart the ‘ineffable plan’ in such a way that will allow things to carry on as normal. Without getting caught by either side, moreover. Read the rest of this entry »

Doctor Who S12 E3 “Orphan 55” (2020) [BBC One]

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Contains spoilers

There’s a particularly nice touch at the start of “Orphan 55”, the latest episode of Doctor Who, which opens as the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) and her friends Graham (Bradley Walsh), Ryan (Tosin Cole) and Yas (Mandip Gill) are literally mopping up after their latest (unseen) adventure, in which the Doctor is called out for being unusually moody and downbeat. It is of course a reference to the way she is still processing the seismic impact of what she learned about Gallifrey at the end of “Spyfall”, but she’s not sharing that with the others. Instead, they decide it’s time for a holiday and duly head off for a break at the practically perfect paradise resort of Tranquillity Spa.

Naturally they’ve barely been there for ten minutes before everything starts to go catastrophically wrong, starting with Ryan being infected by a biological computer virus from a vending machine. Soon the entire facility is malfunctioning, opening the way for a full-scale invasion by terrifying monsters called the Dregs who make short work of dozens of guests until the Doctor can find a temporary solution to the problem. Long-time fans of the show will be thinking ‘this sounds familiar’ and the episode is indeed the latest iteration in one of the series’ most reliable variants, known to one and all as ‘base under siege’. It’s a very effective take on that established sub-genre, fast and furious from the start and not letting up for a second thereafter. The close-up, visceral way that the Dregs are photographed by director Lee Haven Jones is barely less horrifying than how Ridley Scott presented the xenomorph in the original Alien film, and I was amazed that the BBC cleared this for transmission so early in the evening. I suspect a lot of small children (and bigger ones, too!) had trouble sleeping afterwards. Read the rest of this entry »

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019)

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Longtime readers of Taking The Short View will know that I don’t get to go to the cinema very often these days, but that solid exceptions to the rule are the latest entries in the James Bond, Star Trek and Star Wars franchises. The latest of the latter series – Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker – opened just before Christmas but it’s taken until now for me to actually get to see it. Miraculously I had managed to avoid any major detailed spoilers, and it’s in that same spirit that I offer this review although those seeking an entirely spoiler-free review may care to look elsewhere – just a gentle advance warning.

I confess, I’d been a little trepidatious about this movie. Partly that’s due to all the expectations riding on it as the climax of a series that has captivated me and millions (billions?) of other fans who have been on this journey since 1977. But it’s also because the few comments I did hear about the film in advance of seeing it suggested that the studio had given into agitated fans who had been vicious about the previous instalment. They suggested that Star Wars: The Last Jedi had been effectively erased from canon existence and retroactively rewritten to placate that section of fandom unable to deal with anything new and challenging and only want something warm, cosy and familiar. That really annoyed me, as I had genuinely loved and respected the previous film for trying something new and different. Now I feared that the ninth episode would capitalate and retreat back into the safety of being yet another tame refurb of the original movie, as Star Wars: The Force Awakens had largely been.

My viewing of the film this week did not start well. Read the rest of this entry »

Doctor Who S12 E2 “Spyfall Part 2” (2020) [BBC One]

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After a strong season opener on New Year’s Day, the main thing that part two of “Spyfall” absolutely had to do was stick the landing and not drop the ball in the process – if you’ll pardon the clumsy mixed sporting metaphor. And the good news is that it pretty much pulled it off, rewarding the audience with another largely enjoyable hour of television featuring thrills, spill, laughs, action, spectacle – as well as an unexpectedly dark mystery at its core to carry us through the rest of the season.

The episode picks up exactly where part one left off, which means that Graham (Bradley Walsh), Ryan (Tosin Cole) and Yas (Mandip Gill) are stuck on board a crashing airplane with the Doctor nowhere in sight – although that doesn’t mean she doesn’t also help save them from certain death. The two groups are subsequently kept apart for most of the rest of the episode, which means that the companions get some time to shine in their own right as they discuss what the Doctor would do if she was there. Graham meanwhile graduates from delivering muttered quips and witticisms to some full on slapstick as he uses a soft shoe shuffle to activate the laser shoes he purloined from MI6. Read the rest of this entry »

Tha Mallorca Files S1 (2019) [BBC One]

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With Father Brown returning to the BBC One daytime schedule today for an eighth season, it felt timely that we should pen a few words about a series that ‘sat in’ for the kindly country priest before Christmas.

The Mallorca Files is very much in the same light comedy/murder mystery vein, although generally tending so much in the former direction that the detective aspect of the show often finds itself elbowed entirely to one side. In many ways it feels like an attempt to make a new Death in Paradise albeit closer to home and on a much on a tighter budget, but still aiming for that winter ‘feel good’ viewing niche. A Clerkenwell Films/Cosmopolitan Pictures coproduction for BritBox backed by the BBC, France Télévision and ZDFneo filmed entirely on location in Spain’s Balearic Islands, it has a conglomerate European feel to it that for those of us of a certain age evokes the spirit of the BBC’s catastrophic failed 1990s soap El Dorado.

If you want a show that allows sea and sunshine to simply wash over you without being remotely demanding, then this might very well be the ideal show for you. However, others may find it frustratingly light on actual nourishment. It’s one of those classic mismatched police detective shows that plays with the well-travelled cliché of unresolved sexual tension between its two leads, with Elen Rhys playing the fish-out-of-water UK detective Miranda Blake who simply can’t stand the laid-back attitude of her German partner Max Winter played by Julian Looman. Just like Death in Paradise’s original lead DI Richard Poole, Miranda is only there because her colleagues and boss back in London can’t stand her because she’s so uptight not to mention a closet claustrophobic, while Max is a free spirit who has gone totally native on Mallorca in the years he’s been stationed there, and dreads the thought of ever returning to Germany. Read the rest of this entry »

Doctor Who S12 E1 “Spyfall Part 1” (2020) [BBC One]

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A year to the day since its last episode, Doctor Who has finally returned to our screens with the first instalment of season 12 which also served as a New Years Day Special in the UK.

I think it’s fair to say that the previous season had proved somewhat divisive, with a disturbingly large section of the audience less than thrilled by the new incarnation as played by Jodie Whittaker and helmed by showrunner Chris Chibnall. Some of the things I’ve read about the most recent run of Doctor Who were extraordinarily scathing and vitriolic. While there were aspects I was also admittedly underwhelmed about, I didn’t think it deserved a fraction of the vicious criticism that was hurled at it with gleeful abandon by internet trolls.

Still, it was clear that there was a problem with what ended up on screen in 2018 and that there had to be some changes made, and so it was a great sense of anticipation and not a little apprehension that we sat down to see what the show had in store for us in 2020. The good news is that “Spyfall Part 1” is a terrific season opener that should satisfy pretty much all fans old and new and win universal acclamation as being “back on form”.

The hour-long episode had a sense of energy, excitement, confidence and sheer joy that at times had been painfully missing from an oft-lacklustre S11 that too often seemed over-awed by the task in hand and by its painfully earnest heart-on-sleeve sentiments that delivered triumphs like “Rosa” and “Demons of the Punjab” but elsewhere proved too lacking in thrills and spills for many. Read the rest of this entry »

Dracula E1 “The Rules of the Beast” (2020) [BBC One/Netflix]

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I’m a big fan of the work of Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, but I confess that I was a little wary of their new take on the Dracula story. The trailers for the new three-part serial made it seem rather knowingly camp and full of quips, which didn’t appeal to me at all. And I wasn’t at all sure about the casting of Danish actor Claes Bang in the title role.

It turns out that I needn’t have worried. Moffat and Gatiss know exactly what they’re doing and stir in a rich mix of jet black horror into the well known tale of the Transylvanian aristocrat, keeping enough of the original source material while at the same time giving it an energising new approach to bring it alive for a new generation of viewers.

The first episode, which aired on BBC One on New Year’s Day, concentrated on the story of solicitor Jonathan Harker who travels to Count Dracula’s castle in order to conclude a property transaction only to find himself a prisoner, his life draining away while his elderly host (strongly evoking Gary Oldman’s 1992 take on the role) gets younger and more virile by the day. The first hour is surprisingly faithful to the equivalent early sections of the book, setting up the familiar (and not so familiar) rules by which vampires operate. However it does have to navigate through a century of contrary lore so some changes are inevitable – for example, the literary Dracula had no problem being in sunlight. And while this Dracula clearly has an issue with crucifixes and symbols of religious faith, he teases us by saying it’s not what we think it is – suggesting a series arc and a big reveal to come in part three.,

By sticking with this one story instead of jumping around as Bram Stoker did only enhanced the growing claustrophobia and terror. Moffat and Stoker respect the epistolic nature of the novel by having Harker relate his story to Sister Agatha, a nun at a convent in Hungary played by Dolly Wells. It’s only in the final half hour that the show starts to go in a new and original direction with big revelations about both Harker and Sister Agatha that will catch out anyone who thinks they know the story.

Yes, this Dracula is a little camp and comes up some eye rolling quips (although Sister Agatha is a match for him in terms of getting the laughs) but given how full-on the horror is elsewhere the light touches are a welcome variation in tone that work far better than I’d expected and/or feared. While still a little too louche for my liking, there’s no question that Bang assuredly delivers the big bucks in the main role. In the end I was quite taken by the first part and very much looking forward to the second, which airs tonight with the finale on Friday.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★

Dracula is airing in three 90-minutes episodes on BBC One on January 1-3 2020. It will be available after transmission on BBC iPlayer and is a co-production with Netflix.

… and a very Happy New Year 2020

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Hello again!

It’s been over six months since my last confession, excuse me, since my last update to this site. I can only apologise for my indolence and beg forgiveness for leaving you in the lurch. There’s no good excuses for my absence other than the usual observation that time flashes by so quickly when one is not paying attention.

But a New Year is as a good time to resolve to make amends to do better as any. And it’s also the time of year when we have new seasons of Doctor Who and Father Brown arriving on our screens in the UK, both of which have long been staples of the content of Taking The Short View. That made it seem like the ideal moment to leap back into the fray with some new content here, for anyone who has been missing all of our carefully crafted words since June.

Since there’s a lot to catch up on, and in an effort to ensure that our momentum doesn’t stall again in 2020, I’m going to keep the posts short – just a paragraph or two in the main – in the hopes that this will forestall any more abrupt and unannounced periods of hiatus this year. We’ll just have to wait and see how these best of intentions turn out…

Universal Horror: The Invisible Man, Creature from the Black Lagoon and The Old Dark House

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When it comes to my home media collection, the Universal Horror franchise is probably one of the longest ongoing ‘relationships’ that I’ve had, perhaps second only to the decade and a half spent picking up classic Doctor Who stories on DVD.

I originally watched the 1930s and 40s horror classics when I was a teenager, when they were shown as a series of late night double bills on Channel 4. Sadly they then disappeared from the schedules (too hokey and creaky for modern audiences, no doubt) and it wasn’t until 2004 that a DVD boxset of 14 assorted Dracula, Frankenstein and Wolf Man films plus one-offs from The Mummy, Phantom of the Opera, Creature from the Black Lagoon and The Invisible Man was released which I eagerly picked up despite the frankly exorbitant price. The rather excellent busts of the three top monsters included in the set actually made it worthwhile, and they still have pride of place on my shelf to this day.

After that it was nearly a decade before Universal released eight of their main classic monster films on the Blu-ray format as the Essential Collection (see review). The high definition restorations were truly spectacular, and far beyond what I had thought possible given the age and quality of the original materials. The only problem was that a lot of my favourite sequels such as Son of Frankenstein that had been in the original DVD boxset had been omitted. Read the rest of this entry »

Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan – Season 1 (2018) [DVD]

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Stories about US federal agencies bravely defending America from global terror threats go back a very long way – even before 9/11, all the way to the days of the Cold War when the ubiquitous bogeyman was the Soviet Union. Times were simpler then, and the situation is much more complex and diverse in the 21st century; although in terms of media representation the menace is usually given a Middle Eastern face.

In print terms, one of the foremost proponents of this type of tale was Tom Clancy, in particular though his series of novels featuring Jack Ryan. The character began his fictional life as a lowly CIA analyst in the 1984 book The Hunt for Red October before going on to become an accidental President of the United States over the course of the 21 titles to date and counting (Clancy’s death in 2013 not having stopped the literary output, as is the modern way in publishing.)

The huge success of the book series inevitably attracted the attentions of Hollywood, with The Hunt for Red October premiering in 1990 featuring Alec Baldwin. Then there were two sequels starring Harrison Ford as an older version of Ryan before the franchise stuttered, two further instalments starring Ben Affleck and Chris Pine also failing to reboot its box office fortunes. That meant it was time for TV to have a go, with Amazon Studios producing a 2018 miniseries featuring the character for its online streaming service in association with Paramount. Read the rest of this entry »

Marvel Cinematic Universe: Phase 1

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Regular readers of Taking The Short View can hardly have missed my many mentions of how far behind I have fallen in my viewing ot the Marvel Cinematic Universe films. For the record, those are the 22 movies to date that have been produced by Marvel Studios in-house since 2008, as opposed to those made under license by other companies such as Sony’s Spider-Man entries and Fox’s X-Men, Deadpool and Fantastic Four films.

After falling off the MCU wagon very early on, I was never quite able to catch up and climb back on. I always intended to do so when I had the time, but the longer it went on the bigger the task became and the more I put it off – especially when the films accelerated from at most a couple per year to the current three or four in rapid succession. The latest, Avengers: Endgame came out just six weeks after Captain Marvel while its predecessor was still in the UK Box Office top three.

Locked out of the main continuity I limited myself to watching those films such as Guardians of the Galaxy that didn’t connect directly into the overarching MCU narrative. But they became few and far between, and when I finally totted up which of the MCU films I had seen, the situation was even worse than I had realised: of those 22 films, I had seen … Four. Ouch. Or epic fail, you might say. Clearly something had to be done! So the last few weeks I’ve been trying to address the situation, viewing an MCU film on average every other week with the aim being to get through the first six films which between them comprise what is currently referred to as Phase 1 of Marvel’s remarkable franchise.

And now I’m here to send dispatches from the front line of that ongoing catch-up campaign. I should add that there are spoilers, but given that these films are so old that they are practically historical texts I dare say that this won’t trouble any up-to-date reader. Read the rest of this entry »

Golden Oldie Movies: Khartoum, The Night of the Generals, The Andromeda Strain, Horror Express

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I’ll be honest, I’ve gone off modern day big screen entertainment in the last couple of years and haven’t made a trip to the local Odeon since Solo – A Star Wars Story. Recent films just haven’t appealed to me, bearing in mind that I’m so far behind in watching Marvel Cinematic Universe films that pretty much the whole genre of superhero films is out-of-bounds to me at this point.

But in recent weeks I realised that I have instead been watching a number of films on Blu-ray from the late 60s or early 70s. That’s around 50 years old in other words, which is actually too far back to have been films I remember from my childhood since I wasn’t nearly old enough to see such fare at the cinema back then – if I’d even born at all!

I thought I’d write up brief reviews of four of these films, which are quite varied in nature while also very much of their time. They certainly won’t be for everyone but hopefully there’s be at least a little something for everyone with the selection… Read the rest of this entry »

Thriller (1973-1976): Possession, Someone at the Top of the Stairs, An Echo of Theresa, The Colour of Blood

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thriller-titleEvery now and again I post a new batch of thoughts on the 1970s suspense anthology series Thriller created by one of the great writers of British television, Brian Clemens. It’s been a while since the last one in 2015 and I only have four more episodes under my belt to write about. However, I figure it’s better to post them now rather than continue to wait until I’ve had a chance to watch some more to feel that I have ‘enough’ to collect together!

So here goes with the latest set of reviews. Read the rest of this entry »

Annihilation (2018) [DVD]

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Contains some mild/implied spoilers

I’m a huge fan of writer-director Alex Garland, whose Ex Machina was one of my favourite films of 2014. So I was a bit irked to find that I’d missed his follow-up offering Annihilation which for the life of me I couldn’t remember doing the rounds at the local cinema.

I was somewhat mollified to find out that in fact the film apparently bypassed a theatrical release in the UK and was offered here instead exclusively via Netflix. Since I’m not a subscriber to that particular streaming service, I would have had to wait for its release on old fashioned DVD and Blu-ray home media in any case, which it turned out happened to be earlier this month.

The film, based on a novel by Jeff VanderMeer, features Natalie Portman as Lena, a former US Army soldier who is now a leading cellular-biology professor. She’s in mourning for her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) who left on a top secret covert military mission a year ago and hasn’t been heard of again since. Except now he turns up, a shell of the man she remembers and also seriously ill. Lena sets out to find out what happened to him in the hope that she can find a cure, and her search takes her into a strangely warped area of Florida land in which the natural laws of reality no longer apply after a meteorite impacted the shoreline three years previously. Read the rest of this entry »

Doctor Who: The Macra Terror (1967) [DVD/Blu-ray]

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The first part of this year has been good for Doctor Who fans, with no less than four new home media releases in the first three months of 2019. The latest of these hit the shelves on Monday and is a brand-new version of the four-part 1967 serial “The Macra Terror”.

It’s the latest in the BBC’s series of animated reconstructions of ‘lost’ stories, where the original broadcast episodes were wiped by the BBC shortly after transmission and only the soundtrack remains thanks to a fan’s off-air recording at the time. The first of these recovery projects was “The Power of the Daleks” which I reviewed back in 2016 when it originally came out. Since then there’s also been a new version of 1979’s “Shada” in which similar animation was used in place of scenes never actually filmed at the time due to industrial action, meaning that the story was never completed or broadcast. Again, you can catch up with a detailed review of the end result that I wrote a year ago: to be honest, I found the back-and-forth between new line art sequences and the surviving original filmed footage rather jarring.

These are expensive projects and I’d wondered if the sales had been sufficient to justify any more of these reconstructions. But it appears they were, and hence this month Who fans got a brand new release to add to their doubtless already groaning collection of merchandise. However, I confess that I initially wasn’t wildly excited by the prospect of “The Macra Terror”, never having been particularly eager to see the story in question which to me had always sounded rather humdrum in synopsis. Read the rest of this entry »