Connections (BBC One) (1978)

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When I was growing up, there were two non-fiction television series that had a huge effect on me and the direction I would later go as an adult. One was Carl Sagan’s Cosmos which cemented a lifelong love of astronomy, the planets and space exploration; and the other was Connections, a BBC documentary presented by James Burke who had been the Corporation’s charismatic lead science correspondent during its coverage of the Apollo moon missions.

I still have the original hardback book that was published as a companion to the 1978 series, just as I still have my lavishly illustrated volume of Cosmos written by Sagan a couple of years later. However I’d long since given up any chance of actually getting to see the show on screen again, until I noticed an advertisement in a recent Radio Times for various new TV-related DVD releases – and was startled to find Connections listed among them. I don’t think I’ve ever decided to order anything quite so quickly as did here.

As always, the danger of revisiting something that was such an important touchstone of one’s childhood is that it can only disappoint when seen again. However in this case, it never even occurred to me to be wary about acquiring and watching Connections again, especially after nearly four decades having passed since my one and only previous viewing. And you know what? I was absolutely right not to worry. This is still one of the greatest factual shows in broadcasting history, with the power to keep you captivated and enlightened for every second of its ten 50 minute episodes. Read the rest of this entry »

Doctor Who S10E2 “Smile” (BBC One)

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Contains some spoilers for the episode

It must take a huge sense of self-confidence and belief to be the show-runner of a huge international series like Doctor Who, to the point of hubris and arrogance. That’s not a criticism – I just don’t see how anyone could do the job otherwise. Part of that mindset must include never fully accepting when you’ve made a mistake – or at least, not one that you can’t rectify down the line.

Back in season 8, Steven Moffat picked children’s novelist Frank Cottrell-Boyce (of London 2012 opening ceremony fame) to write an episode for Doctor Who. The end result – “In the Forest of the Night” – sharply divided both fans and critics, and was the least popular story of that run. Personally I liked the episode somewhat better than most people seemed to and found its change of pace refreshing, but even so I can’t say I was clamouring for more of the same anytime soon.

But Moffat sticks to his guns, and Cottrell-Boyce gets a second bite of the Who apple with this week’s episode “Smile”. This sophomore effort shows that the writer has worked hard to address the criticisms of his maiden outing and in some areas is much improved, while other aspects show much the same hallmarks of Cottrell-Boyce’s work – for both good and ill. Read the rest of this entry »

Doctor Who S10 E1 “The Pilot” (BBC One)

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Contains some spoilers for the episode

It wasn’t until the opening credits rolled on Saturday’s brand new series of Doctor Who that it was fully brought home to me just how long it’s been since we’ve had a proper first-run episode to savour, Christmas specials notwithstanding. It’s been more than 16 months since the end of series nine – already the travels of the Doctor and Clara seem like they belong to a completely different era of the show.

Clara’s extended tenancy in the Tardis also means that it’s been four and a half years since we last had the pleasure of being introduced to a new companion. In that time we’ve celebrated the 50th anniversary of the show, seen one Doctor bow out and another take over who himself is already about to move on. Fond as I was of Jenna Coleman, that’s probably too long a period than is entirely good for the show: while the Doctor might regenerate from time to time he’s still the same character, and these days it’s the companion who offers the best opportunity for the production team to refresh the show from the ground up with new blood.

Given that series star Peter Capaldi and showrunner Steven Moffat are both moving on after the current run, they would have been forgiven if they’d simply opted to just coast to the finish line on auto-pilot, before handing things over to Chris Chibnall who will do his own thing in 2018. But that’s not their way; revitalised by the lengthy interval between seasons, Moffat throws himself into this latest reinvention with the enthusiasm of a three-day-old puppy playing with a new favourite toy rather than the jaded 55-year-old who’s been grinding away at this every day for almost eight years now. It’s not the first time he’s reimagined the show: he transformed it into a charming fairy tale with Matt Smith’s first season, before going for a more hard-edged science fiction approach with convoluted time travel plots that continually tested the audience’s ability to keep up. He reinvented the show once more when Capaldi took over the role by daring to be darker, and played with the format again with more two-parters in 2015 than ever before. Read the rest of this entry »

Oasis E1 “Pilot” (Amazon Prime), and The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber

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Last week I wrote about Sneaky Pete, an Amazon Prime original show that had gone through the ‘pilot season’ of being selected for a full ten-part series commission based on viewers’ comments and ratings. Another previously reviewed series, Bosch, also made it to series based on positive fan response compared with tepid critical reaction, and thank goodness it did.

This year, science fiction drama Oasis is one of five new pilots up for consideration. Set in a dystopian 2032, the story centres on Christian chaplain Peter Leigh who receives a request to travel to Oasis, Earth’s first off-world colony. Said to be located on the far side of the galaxy, the method of travel is not explained. When Peter arrives he finds that the person who asked for him to come – the colony’s founder, billionaire David Morgan – is missing, and no one knows why he wanted Peter there in the first place. Meanwhile the workforce is starting to experience hallucinations and an escalating number of serious and even fatal accidents that suggest the new world is rejecting their presence. Eventually Peter discovers a clue as to Morgan’s whereabouts and travels deep into the wilderness, where he makes a bewildering discovery in a cave… Read the rest of this entry »

Sneaky Pete S1 (Amazon Prime)

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I’m rather a fan of con and heist stories, so I confess that I was predisposed to like Sneaky Pete from the start. But this one is perhaps a little different from the kind of movies and TV shows from the genre that we’re used to.

These days the image we have from film and television of con men is a rather glamorous one – Brad Pitt and George Clooney striding through Las Vegas casinos on their way to scoring hundreds of millions of dollars in a daring heist, for example. Or there’s Adrian Lester, Marc Warren and Jamie Murray having impish fun on a small screen budget in Hustle. Then there’s Tim Hutton and his gang of latter day Merry Men (and women) using their grifter skills to right wrongs for others. Either way it all looks good fun, doesn’t it?

Of course the real world reality is a much grimmer and grimier affair. Grifters live in a darker, dirtier and altogether more dangerous world, surviving from hand to mouth and lucky to get away with stealing a few dollars and cents which they’ll gladly take from anyone gullible enough to fall for one of their cons. Usually they’re less than a day away from disaster – from being arrested if they’re lucky, or being beaten to a pulp by a deadly rival or a furious victim if they’re not. Read the rest of this entry »

Top Gear S24 E1-4 (BBC 2)

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A little under one year ago, everyone was watching the latest episodes of Top Gear with consternation as it struggled and faltered in its first post-Clarkson outing. The situation was so bad that at one point it seemed possible that the show – formerly one of the BBC’s most prestigious and profitable international brands – could even be summarily cancelled.

It didn’t help when Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May’s The Grand Tour launched on Amazon Prime later in the year and was everything that the BBC’s new take on Top Gear had failed to be – although naturally, anyone who had previously hated Clarkson on Top Gear continued to hate him in his new Amazonian habitat too. All of it piled new pressure on the BBC’s motoring show. Read the rest of this entry »

Watching the detectives: Line of Duty; Follow the Money; The Team; Broadchurch; Vera

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Without question we’re living in the middle of a crime spree. Television crime, that is. While the streets have arguably never been safer in real life, the small screen is delivering a never-ending stream of criminal activity right into our living rooms – and it seems we just can’t get enough of it.

Here’s a look at five detective shows that are currently back on the evening schedules. Spoiler alert: they’re all really worth watching, providing that you can stomach the glut of nefarious deeds on display! Read the rest of this entry »

Ronja, The Robbers Daughter (Amazon Prime)

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ronja-1If you’ve ever seen one of Studio Ghibli’s fantastical animé films such as Spirited Away, Laputa – Castle in the Sky, Porco Rosso or Howl’s Moving Castle, then this television show which was originally made in 2014 will look and feel very familiar to you – but with the slightest of twists.

Based on the children’s fantasy book by noted Swedish author Astrid Lindgren (creator of Pippi Longstocking), Ronja, The Robbers Daughter is the charming story of Ronja, the ten-year-old daughter of bandit chief Mattis and his wife Lovis. The early episodes spend time with Ronja as she explores the forest around the castle fortress that she calls home, but it isn’t long before a rival clan moves in literally next door and a feud builds up which is further complicated when Ronja develops feelings for the rival chief’s son Birk. Read the rest of this entry »

24: Legacy E1-2 (Fox)

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24-legacyNew 24: Legacy – exactly the same as the old 24.

Seriously, I could leave it there and make this a candidate for the shortest review on the site. The only surprising thing about the new 12-part mini-series spin-off is how little difference losing its iconic star Kiefer Sutherland has made to the franchise. Honestly, you’re more likely to notice that the on-screen ticking clock has gone from red and orange to a cool blue, or that the end credit music has been changed, than you are to notice that Jack Bauer is sitting this one out. And who can blame him?

It turns out that the lack of any returning characters really doesn’t make any difference, because the show is still packed with exactly the same archetypes as it always has been. The name tags might have changed, and the actors might be different this time around, but they’re going through exactly the same motions and spouting the same interchangeably homogeneous, bullet-point dialogue so it really doesn’t make any difference. You could just as easily be watching a rerun as a brand new show. Read the rest of this entry »

Bull S1 E1-6 (Fox)

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bull-tv-seriesWhen an actor has become synonymous with playing one of the most popular characters on one of the highest-rated television series for over a decade, it’s hard for the audience to detach them from that long-standing role and accept them as someone completely new, so it’s understandable if we’re initially struggling to see Doctor Jason Bull as anything other than an undercover role for NCIS’ Tony DiNozzo, complete with thick-rimmed spectacles to make him look more serious and introspective.

That’s not the fault of Michael Weatherley, for whom Bull is something of a star vehicle after finding fame on NCIS. It’s just an acknowledgement that after 13 years on a weekly television show, an actor has put so much of himself onto a recurring role that the audience believes that it has a familiarity with them that is hard to overcome – especially when he moves direct from one part to another over the summer hiatus without so much as a breather. And truth to tell, the character of Bull really isn’t all that far from that of DiNozzo, and it doesn’t help that both NCIS and Bull are both rather similar story-of-the-week crime procedurals: although that said, while NCIS is a traditional cop show investigative whodunnit, Bull is more of a legal ‘how are they doing to get the client out of that?’ format that extends all the way back to the classic Perry Mason series of the 1950s. Read the rest of this entry »

Constantine S1 (Amazon Prime)

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constantineDespite his appearance in a cross-over episode of Arrow, the character of John Constantine has always felt an awkward fit with the rest of the DC Comics television universe. Rather than being part of the usual milieu of masked superheroes with fantastic powers, or cartoonish metahumans or angst-ridden dark vigilantes, Constantine exists in an out-and-out supernatural universe of magic, demons and angels.

Originally co-created by Alan Moore, Constantine first appeared in The Saga of the Swamp Thing in the mid-1980s and was subsequently granted his own long-running comic book Hellblazer a few years later. A firm favourite with graphic novel fans for three decades now, the first attempt to make a live action version came in 2005 with a movie starring Keanu Reeves. Unfortunately that strayed too far away from the source material to satisfy fans, such as not honouring Constantine’s famously British (and blond) roots – although having heard Reeves’ attempt at an English accent in Bram Stoker’s Dracula I think we should call that a lucky escape.

This short-lived TV series produced in 2014-15 was much more respectful to the comics than the movie, and consequently rather better received. Even so, it only lasted 13 episodes on NBC before being cancelled; in the UK it’s been exclusive to the Amazon Prime streaming service, which is where I happened upon in this month. Read the rest of this entry »

Legion S1 E1-2 (Fox)

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legionTired of the overwhelming number of superhero shows and films around at the moment? Then you probably groaned to see yet another one added to the list with the arrival of Legion, a Marvel Studios mini-series based on a minor character from the X-Men comics. But don’t come to any hasty conclusions: this is a superhero story unlike anything you’ve seen before; indeed, it’s unlike any other show, period.

The central character is David Haller, a psychiatric patient diagnosed with severe schizophrenia. Among other things he has hallucinations in which he is a powerful mutant with telepathic and telekinetic abilities, which is of course complete nonsense. But an encounter with a fellow patient leads to him leaving the hospital and being taken in by a group of similarly gifted people who teach David that his abilities are very real, and that his powers are needed if the mutants are to overcome persecution from the government’s sinister Division 3… Read the rest of this entry »

SS-GB E1 (BBC One)

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ss-gbA few weeks ago, while reviewing Amazon’s The Man In The High Castle, I confessed to a particular weakness for ‘alternative history’ fiction. one example of the genre that I failed to cite at the time was Len Deighton’s 1978 novel SS-GB for the simple reason that despite having owned a copy of the paperback for 25 years, I’d inexplicably – and inexcusably – failed to actually get around to reading it until only a few weeks ago, finishing just in time for the start of this new BBC adaptation that started at the weekend.

Like The Man In The High Castle and Fatherland, Deighton’s story postulates a world in which the Nazis win the Second World War. However while those other stories are set several years later in the 1960s, SS-GB takes place in 1941 only months after Britain has lost the aerial battle and been forced to capitulate to the Nazi invaders. The first scene of the television version sees a Spitfire land on the Mall in London in the shadow of the bombed-out shell of Buckingham Palace, with swastikas plastered on every building as the subservient British people scurry about their business beneath the harsh gaze of their new masters. Read the rest of this entry »

Ray Donovan S1 (Amazon Prime)

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ray-donovan-1Ever since Showtime aired the first episode of this series back in 2013, Ray Donovan has irritated me. Not the show itself, you understand, but more because I’ve never been able to watch it, or really get a proper grip on whether it’s even the type of show that might interest me if I could. In the UK, it’s aired on a channel that isn’t carried by my cable provider; since it clearly doesn’t fit into a neat genre it’s usually unhelpfully classified simply as ‘drama’, and the series description tends to be just as broad and sparse. As a result it’s a show that’s appeared on the television listings tantalisingly out of my reach, while the DVD boxsets that started coming out a year later were too expensive to buy sight unseen when there was a real risk that I’d watch the first ten minutes and hate it.

Three and a half years later I’ve finally been granted a way in, after finding that the first three seasons of the show are available free to Amazon Prime subscribers. That has allowed me to dip a toe into the world of Ray Donovan and finally work out what the show is actually all about, and whether I like it or not. Read the rest of this entry »

Case S1 (All 4) [2015]

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case-s1Contains some general plot details

Icelandic drama Case is one of the latest additions to Channel 4’s Walter Presents foreign drama brand on its digital streaming service All 4. Not only has it been promoted quite heavily on the network’s broadcast channel, it even had the extra accolade of the first episode itself actually being aired on Channel 4, with the remaining eight episodes then released as a online ‘boxset’ exclusive.

The series has been described as being ‘in the spirit of The Killing‘, but it really isn’t. For one thing, the inciting incident that gets the plot underway – the discovery of a 14-year-old ballet student found hanged on the stage of the theatre where she trained – is quickly ruled a suicide, after which the multi-faceted investigation that follows becomes more focussed on what could have driven her to such dark despair and desperation. Less a murder mystery, then, and more a socio-political dramatisation of the pressures and ill-treatment that are too-often inflicted on young girls in today’s modern society, making it closer in spirit to the likes of Ken Loach’s seminal Cathy Comes Home than to Nordic fare we’re used to in the form of Forbrydelsen or The Bridge. Read the rest of this entry »