Rawhide S1: Incident of the Tumbleweed

Posted on Updated on

Rawhide (occasionally popping up on cable on the likes of TMC) dates back to the end of the 1950s and into the early 60s, when things were so much simpler. The top ten TV shows were routinely packed out with Westerns such as The Virginian, Bonanza and Gunsmoke and American audiences just couldn’t get enough of them.

Happily for the TV networks, they were also cheap and easy to produce – all you had to do was get your actors, kit them out with costumes and props left over from the Western movies being churned out, and then decamp to the Californian desert and brush land for some good old-fashioned running around, shooting and punch-ups.

A plot would be useful, but really these sort of ‘oaters’ wrote themselves. In this episode, series star Eric Fleming playing Gil Favor has to step in escorting a wagon full of convicts to the nearest Fort after the marshalls are incapacitated (the Tumbleweed of the title is the prison wagon); his sidekick Rowdy Yates helps out. Rowdy is of course played by Clint Eastwood, but here he’s just a young kid with a big dumb-ass grin whose brains turn to jelly as soon as a beautiful woman shows up (in this case, the improbably-named female convict Dallas Storm.) Gil and Rowdy’s sense of proper security procedure is laughable (they leave locks undone, guns lying around where the convicts could get them) and they’re all together pretty poor at the stand-in job.

Surprisingly the pace is rather slow for a Western (although there’s a good couple of shoot-outs and punch-ups, never fear) and that allows the large supporting cast to make a proper impression and establish proper characters. It would be stretching it to say that the characters ever do anything genuinely surprising or are really changed or redeemed (save for the aforementioned Dallas), but they certainly emerge as more fleshed out and rounded characters than the usual “good guy/bad guy” cardboard cutout you’d expect of the era or the genre; predictably the one truly nasty character is an Englishman, played by 40s movie star Tom Conway who was George Sanders’ brother and took over from him in the role of The Falcon in a B-movie series of that name. In fact the only characters who don’t have any time spent on them are Gil and Rowdy themselves, but then they had another 22 episodes that season to get the job done.

The black-and-white film stock of this early episode of the series gives it a classy look and even stops the California backdrops from looking tired and familiar as they would become from TV show after TV show (mostly cop shows by then) in the 70s, and give a genuine sense of history to the whole affair.

It’s definitely a slice of history, and whether you’ll either roll your eyes with every cliché and the slow pace of the affair, or revel in its comfy, familiar embrace is very much up to the individual viewer. Personally I found it quite delightful – at least for a change.

Three seasons of the Fifth Doctor

Posted on Updated on

This article previously appeared in the Who fan blog Cloister Bell as a guest post. Since that blog is no longer active, I’ve reproduced it here for completeness.

peterdavison-titlesWhen Peter Davison took over the role of Doctor Who in 1981, he was following the tenure (reign might be a better word) of Tom Baker, who had starred in the series longer than anyone else before or since. By contrast, Davison stayed for just under three seasons (at a time when a season was half the length it was under William Hartnell or Patrick Troughton) and became one of the shortest tenants of the famous police box.

Davison made his decision to leave at the end of his second season, disenchanted with the quality of the scripts and increasingly at odds with the producer John Nathan-Turner (JNT to one and all.) But it’s often reported that Davison took one look at the script and production of his final story, “The Caves of Androzani”, and declared that if he’d had more stories of this calibre then he would have had no hesitation in signing up for a third season. That’s understandable: “Androzani” was indeed one of the finest classic Doctor Who stories, not just of Davison’s era but of all time. But in the Davison retrospective documentary “Come In Number Five” provided as an extra to the special edition DVD of Resurrection of the Daleks in the Revisitations 2 boxset, Davison goes further than this and suggests that as a whole, his second season was a muddled disappointment and his third season saw the show back in top form – and it was this overall trend that made him eventually disappointed to have opted to leave when he did.

This … surprised me. Or to put it another way, I fundamentally disagree with his assessments of the relative strengths of his three seasons.

Let’s start on reasonably safe ground: the 1982 season that started with “Castrovalva”, Davison’s first full story in the title role, was a very strong season, carrying on from what had proved to be an even stronger final season for Tom Baker the previous year. The show seemed to have a renewed sense of purpose and confidence, and was making efforts to take itself seriously again after several years of lampooning around (“Horns of Nimon”) and dealing with sets so shoddily constructed that they collapsed underfoot (“Nightmare of Eden”). There were strong scripts with real science fiction (and science) ideas – where else could you find a show with an entire story constructed around the concept of entropy and the second law of thermodynamics and actually have it work?

Davison’s first series started with a visit to the Big Bang and a cheeky appropriation of MC Escher’s work for “Castrovalva”, while at the same time Davison wowed us with his takes on all the Doctor’s former personalities; then there was the somewhat average but solidly turned-out and enjoyable “Four to Doomsday” before one of the season’s highlights in “Kinda” – not well understood or received at the time but now regarded as one of the finest serials the show ever did. This was followed by a crowd-pleasing historical adventure with “The Visitation” taking the crew back to 1666 Pudding Lane and some brilliantly constructed new alien monsters called Terileptils. The show’s confidence showed through in the next story, a two-parter for the first time in nearly a decade and one that landed the Tardis crew back in 1925, doing away with any science fiction or alien monsters whatsoever. It proved to be the calm before the storm, before one of the show’s most stylish and effective serials – “Earthshock”. The shock return of the Cybermen and the death of a companion: anyone who was a fan of the show back then will have the final, music-less credit roll over a background picture of a crushed and broken gold star for mathematical excellence seared into their memories. It had been a fantastic run of episodes, and if the season finale “Time Flight” was a huge disappointment then it was a shame – but a one-off exception to the rule.

So was Davison’s second season (more accurately, season 20 of the show) such a decline and disappointment, so bad that it resulted in Davison deciding to quit? It certainly had one major problem in hindsight – the fact that it was the twentieth anniversary of the show’s launch in 1963, which led JNT to decide that every single story must have some sort of callback to the show’s past.

It started with “Arc of Infinity” – not perhaps the greatest of stories, but far better than “Time Flight”. Fans got excited about seeing renegade Time Lord Omega back again (he’d last been seen in the tenth anniversary special, “The Three Doctors”); the overseas location shooting in Amsterdam was a first and looked rather good, making even routine runaround chase scenes something special; and Peter Davison himself put in a fantastically haunting performance as a dying “fake” version of himself. Then there was “Snakedance”, a sequel to “Kinda” and the source of all those clips of a young Martin Clunes in funny costumes that they like to embarrass him with on clip shows. It’s not as strikingly original as “Kinda” but in many ways is a better fit for the Doctor Who universe, and better written. This was followed by “Mawdryn Undead”, which certainly suffered from a director who didn’t seem to know how to dim the studio floodlighting to create atmosphere, but on the other hand did feature the return of the wonderful Nicholas Courtney in his signature role of Brigadier Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart, and also the delicious Valentine Dyall as the most evil being in the universe (the Black Guardian, returning in a trilogy of connected stories.) It had a clever time-stream jumping script, and while it rather lost its way and fell into mediocrity it certainly had its moments. “Terminus” showed ambition both in story and in set design (finally, a dark and dirty set with an atmosphere); and, erm, the lovely Sarah Sutton suddenly wearing a very short skirt and low cut top, but that’s not important right now. Next up there was “Enlightenment”, a show of such strikingly original ideas (eternals and ephemerals) and visuals (classic cutters using the solar system planets as marker buoys in a grand sailing race!) and superb cast (Keith Barron, Tony Caunter, Lynda Baron – just don’t mention Leee John) that the spirit of this serial seems to be making a comeback in the 2011 Matt Smith season with the third story “Curse of the Black Spot”. The script may sometimes have exceeded the reach of achievable FX at the time but this was still a magical story of the type only Doctor Who could ever do.

The season once again stumbled at the end with “The King’s Demons”, and sadly lost the story that was meant to be the big finish (featuring the Daleks – more of which in a minute) due to a BBC strike, but then there was the official 20th anniversary celebration “The Five Doctors” which went ahead despite having to recast the first Doctor (Richard Hurndall surprisingly good standing in for the late Hartnell) and having to work around a sulky Tom Baker who refused to return and had to be replaced with archive footage from the abandoned season 17 story “Shada”. (“Tom Baker, you should be ashamed of yourself!” says current series runner Steven Moffat in a recent interview about Baker’s refusal to appear. “”Every day of your life, you should regret the decision you took that day!” Of course, Moffat has his own reasons for looking back – he’s already planning the 50th anniversary special for 2013.)

Despite those compromises, and trying to fit in a galaxy of former Doctors and companions (most not able to be confirmed until the last minute) into a coherent plot was a small miracle of television production, and it’s hard not to look back at that second Davison season as overall being a success, if admittedly not of the same order as the first year. Why Davison should look back upon this group of stories and conclude despairingly that it was time to move on is difficult to fathom.

Now, let’s look at the third season, the one that Davison liked so much that it would have changed his mind about departing if it had come first.

It starts with “Warriors of the Deep”. It’s another show that badly needs some dark, moody, atmospheric direction to succeed – but instead gets some of the flattest floodlighting we’ve seen in the show. As a result, the show’s ‘monster moment’ features the series’ most derided creature, the Myrka. It looks like a two-man pantomime horse painted green and with some frills sown on: it’s utterly derisible. The story angered dedicated fans by riding roughshod over established series mythologies pertaining to the Silurians and the Sea Devils, and to the casual viewer is just dull and boring. Then there’s “The Awakening”, which isn’t bad and certainly looks good, allowing the BBC to play to its traditional strength of historical drama serials: but the story is rather confused, seemingly wanting to be some mishmash of Quatermass and Sapphire and Steel. It’s not bad, but it’s not particularly good either. After this the season moves on to “Frontios”, which has some very striking ideas and visuals – the shattered Tardis remnants littered around the place are truly unsettling. It’s let down somewhat by being very artificially studio-bound, and the story of the human colonists doesn’t really gell, but this week’s monsters – gravity slugs the Tractators – are remarkably effective and creepy. It’s not a story that will appeal to everyone, but on the whole this is one of the season’s hits, albeit flawed and “difficult”.

The next story should be a slam-dunk success – it’s the “Resurrection of the Daleks” delayed from the previous season, with added Davros. How could you screw this one up? Very easily it turns out. The direction and production design are all top-notch, but the writing for this story is appalling. The violence and body count is so high that at the end, when companion Tegan declares “It isn’t fun anymore, Doctor” and leaves, you’re with her every step of the way and feel like walking out with her. (A more detailed review of this story is available on the author’s own blog.) Then there’s “Planet of Fire”, which benefits from being this year’s “let’s take the production crew on holiday” story – set in the other-worldly volcanic landscape of Lanzarote in the days before it became an overly familiar top tourist destination. It looks great, but someone forgot to pack a story in their luggage: the script has to write out two companions (Turlough and the best-forgotten Kamelion), introduce another (Peri) and have the Master return. It’s overloaded by all this and implodes into indifference under the sun.

Then finally Peter Davison’s time is over, and we’re finishing up with “The Caves of Androzani” – a truly brilliant serial, one of the very best, no question. If Davison was still saying ‘I’d have stayed if they were all like “Androzani”‘ then we’d have no absolutely argument. But ‘if it had been like the third season’ – really? The dreadful “Warriors”, the confused “Awakening”, the difficult “Frontios”, the awful writing of “Resurrection”, the damp squib of “Planet of Fire” make this for me the start of another major slump in Doctor Who’s long history. Here the exception to the rule is “Androzani”, the jewel in the season’s crown, where before the exceptions have been the duds. The next season would see script writer Eric Saward get a Doctor more to his liking – the abrasive Sixth Doctor as played by Colin Baker – and we all know how disastrous that turned out to be.

I’ll take the second Davison season over the third any day: it might not have been as good as the first, it might have been self-indulgent with all those love notes to the series’ past, and it might have faltered and clung on by its fingertips at times, but it just about pulled it off and maintained the quality. By contrast, the third Davison season dropped the ball on multiple occasions (and Baker’s first season couldn’t even find the ball to start playing the game in the first place.)

It’s to Davison’s immense credit that despite being one of the shorter-serving actors in the title role – and at a time when the series was, to put it diplomatically, “struggling creatively” – both he and his portrayal of the Doctor are still very fondly regarded and seen as one of the best periods of the show. Indeed, in the DVD extra “Come In Number Five”, when documentary presenter David Tennant (who knows a thing or two about being a popular Time Lord) reiterates that for him, Peter Davison “was my Doctor” – not only is it heartfelt, he speaks for many of us when he does.

And as accolades and tributes go, it doesn’t get much better than that.

Doctor Who S21 E11/12 – Resurrection of the Daleks

Posted on Updated on

I was recently knocked offline for a week by a problem with my broadband: one of the upsides about not being distracted by any number of online or social media diversions was that it allowed me to spend some time with my ridiculously oversized DVD collection. After having watched the Doctor Who serial Kinda last month (and reviewed it), I followed it up with another Peter Davison adventure – his sole encounter the infamous Daleks.

Davison has a high opinion of this story and seems to regard it as one of the best of his tenure in the lead role. I honestly can’t understand why. If I was to pick out a script that is an example of an utterly dreadful piece of writing and which fails on just about every level required of it, it would be this story. The writer, Eric Saward (who was also the show’s script editor at the time) seems to have gathered together a few disparite threads – creepy policemen in industrial wastelands; a plot to kill, duplicate and replace key people; lots of deaths; Daleks; and, of course, Davros – and thrown them into the same episode in the presumption that this makes for a coherent story. It doesn’t. What we have is about four totally different storylines that individually barely hold together, but en masse don’t connect with each other and force totally unworkable overlaps and coincidences upon events. It doesn’t so much leave believability and credibility behind, as take them out round the back and shoot them point blank in the face. And then shoot them again ten times over for good measure.

Actually the amount of violence is often used as the main criticism of this story – more people die on screen (and brutally) than in any other Classic Who, and by the end the survivors are struggling to find space on the studio floor to walk on without tripping over all the killed-off extras. It even adds the “duplicates” thread so that the same actors can get killed once, cloned, and then promptly shot again just to add to the numbers. And even the Doctor gets in on the act, picking up guns and shooting things with a bloodlust that these days would never be permitted of the noble hero in NuWho. Personally I don’t actually have a problem with this aspect of the script: a story about the real cost and impact of bloody violence is a valid approach, and Tegan’s final speech about how she’s so sickened by the events – especially when an innocent bystander is killed because of her calling out to him for help – that “it isn’t fun any more” and understandably she wants to leave as a result makes this strand of the show actually effective and coherent.

It’s everything else that fails. Basically, things happen in this show because the script requires them to, not because of any internal logic. Where to start? Once a character has finished their purpose in the plot, someone just shoots them for no reason (why then and not half an hour earlier if they were so disposable?) Another character manages to activate a space station’s self-destruct mechanism despite having no idea how and no level of security access, just by poking at buttons at random for five minutes – because anything can be made to work by stabbing buttons long enough, right? The Daleks risk all to retrieve Davros, only to then decide an hour later than it’s rather troublesome and so they’d rather kill him. There’s a time tunnel between the space station and a warehouse in Earth because … because … Well, I couldn’t tell you. There’s some cylinders of a virus lethal to Daleks lying around in the warehouse for some reason, which you’d expect the Daleks to be wary about but instead they seem oblivious and happy to leave them with their enemies. One companion character (Turlough) is allowed to wonder the Dalek base at will: why? Even the Deputy Dalek asks the question, and all his Dalek Supreme can say is “leave him, he’s bait to reel in the Doctor”. Really? At least stick him in a cell if you want him to “act baity” rather than risk him running round and causing problems, surely? Oh – look at what he did. Caused problems and undermined your plans. Davros has some sort of secret weapon that brainwashes humans and Daleks alike to his cause … How? Where did it come from? When the Daleks finally trap the Doctor and take him to be duplicated, they leave him with a single human guard because all the other troopers and Daleks suddenly develop pressing business elsewhere and pile out of the room. Well, it’s not like the Doctor is going to be able to escape LIKE EVERY OTHER TIME THE DALEKS HAVE HAD HIM IN THIS POSITION now is it?!?

Arrrrghhhhhhhh!!!!!!!!!!!

Seriously, this is plotting of the laziest and worst kind. It makes absolutely no sense whatsoever and ought to be truly ashamed of itself. And Saward can certainly do much better when he tries – he wrote Earthshock which is regarded as one of Classic Who’s all time best episodes (it’s also criticised by being all surface superficial ‘wow’ and nothing underneath; I disagree and find it eminently rewatchable and well written.) In fact, Resurrection was supposed to be the show that relaunched the Daleks in the same way that Earthshock rebooted the Cybermen – but here it really is all surface action bling and absolutely nothing underneath.

But let’s give the serial its due and admit where it gets things right: that surface bling is really very well done. There’s a high technical level of quality of production that is really hugely impressive, and while they’re rather over-used the scenes of exploding Daleks (and especially one Dalek pushed out of a high warehouse window) give a real thrill. One scene (shamelessly ripped off from the opening of Star Wars where the stormtroopers board the rebel freighter) includes a slight miscalculation in the pyrotechnics that resulted in the biggest explosion ever staged within BBC TV Centre – and a severe reprimand to the production team as a result never, ever to do that again. Looks great on screen, though.

The sets and costumes all look great and are well-lit and well-designed, save for an over-prevalence of ‘Dalek bumps’ everywhere and some lamentably designed trooper helmets with stubby protuberances at the front that can’t help but make it look like they and the Daleks are in some sort of phallic “mine is bigger than yours” contest. The dilapidated locations (in the Shad Thames area next to Tower Bridge that is now fully renovated and the home of the Design Museum) are wonderfully chosen and suitably atmospheric. The guest cast includes some top talent (Maurice Colbourne, Del Henney, Rula Lenska, Philip McGough, Terry Molloy taking over as Davros, a first big role for Leslie Grantham pre-EastEnders stardom, and … err, Rodney Bewes) and is also impressively multi-ethnic for a production of this vintage, something Doctor Who had been very bad about in its recent past. And all that cast is putting in reliable, top-notch performances and believing in what they’re doing, in a way that so many other Doctor Who stories that followed never managed, which is amazing considering what the script gives them to work with (which is nothing.)

And a special word for the direction of Matthew Robinson (who moved on to EastEnders and remembered Grantham from this production.) He provides a kinetic, fast moving style to the show which at times comes close to being confusing and irritating, until you realise that he’s (a) having to chop around so much because that’s what’s in the script, and (b) the style is papering over the gaping cracks in the story by keeping it hustling along and that consequently slowing down simply isn’t an option. I suspect it’s the energy and visual flair of Robinson that so appealed to Davison and made this one of his favourite serials – he also highly rates The Caves of Androzani which was the product of the show’s other auteur director of the 80s, the delightful Graeme Harper.

But really, if you want to see how important and fundamental the script is to a show, then watch this for an example of how it can go catastrophically wrong. That this should be the work of the same person who wrote Earthshock is bad enough, but that he should be the show’s script editor as well for Heaven’s sake explains why the show went so disastrously off the rails soon after, when Saward finally got a Sixth Doctor more to his liking than ‘wet vet’ Davison but found that absolutely no one else liked his vision of the character or stories that he lumbered Colin Baker with. It really wasn’t Colin’s fault: he could only ever play the part and say the words that Saward put in front of him.

As for the DVD: wonderfully restored as ever and with the usual great selection of extras. There’s a great commentary track featuring Davison, Robinson and Janet Fielding (Tegan) well worth a listen, and the ever-interesting information subtitles. A new Special Edition has also just been released as part of the Revisitions 2 boxset which includes a second commentary from Saward, Molloy and FX man Peter Wragg, moderated by NuWho Dalek operator Nicholas Pegg; there’s also an hour-long documentary retrospective on the Davison years presented by David Tennant which heaps a lot of blame for the series’ problems at this time at the door of producer John-Nathan Turner. The documentary ends with a clip from the Children in Need Time Crash special in which Doctors Five and Ten meet, and then back to presenter Tennant donning the distinctive coat of the Fifth Doctor. It’s an odd moment: Who cognoscenti will be wondering whether Davison knew that his successor and de facto son-in-law and father of his granddaughter Olive had been rifling through his wardrobe at home that morning after breakfast before heading out … ! The extras, as ever, make even the weakest classic Doctor Who serials a must-buy on DVD for any reasonably dedicated fan.

The aforementioned documentary also inspired the writing of a related blog post for Doctor Who blog Cloister Bell comparing and contrasting Peter Davison’s time in the Tardis. Since that blog no longer exists, the “Three seasons of the Fifth Doctor” has now been reproduced here on Taking The Short View.

Monroe – S1 E5

Posted on Updated on

I feel the need to return briefly to the subject of ITV’s new medical drama Monroe and give it credit where credit’s due for improving week after week, and really becoming a rather strong offering.

A main reason for its improvement is that the title character has been getting increasingly snarky and bitchy about his best friend Shepherd’s on-off romance with cold-hearted heart surgeon Bremmer. The nastier he gets, the more like House M.D. he gets and as predicted in my original review, the better the show is for it.

A more surprising strength of the show has emerged in the cast of interns, who were rather anonymous background extras to be shouted at initially but who are emerging as engaging and interesting characters in their own right, especially in the latest episode where one of the interns collapses in surgery with her own medical emergency which leads to the revelation of a sweetly-played budding romance with another intern, and to emergency operations that give the senior staff anxieties about working on one of their own, especially when it appears that Monroe might have been too bold and pushed too far leading to permanent damage and the end of the intern’s career. Of course none of this is hugely original, but it is very well written and played.

I’m also liking a lot of the other minor characters – such as the hospital porter/caretaker Bradley who is played as an amusingly young “old curmudgeon”, who bans any displays of tears, hugs and emotion in his office unless connected with football. He’s played by Thomas Morrison whom I last saw playing David Morrissey’s teenage son in the surreal musical noir Blackpool which also featured a pre-Who David Tennant. How time flies.

In fact the programme’s only real problem now is not something it can do anything about by itself: its length. For some reason British drama these days seems to be increasingly limited to 5- or 6-part mini series, as though no one has much faith in anything and so better to keep it short in case it fails. Unfortunately it means by the time we’ve got into a series and got to know the characters, it’s gone. Are we going to be slavering over a second series and be waiting with bated breath for 46 weeks until it returns? Or will we forget all about it by the time it returns to the schedules? The latter I think.

Moreover, the abbreviated running time doesn’t give any of the storylines enough time to breath and develop at a proper pace. Shepherd’s clandestine romance has gone through starting up, being uncovered by Monroe, breaking up because of Monroe’s meddling, making up, hitting problems again this time because of basic incompatibility issues between Shepherd and Bremmer, and breaking up for good all in the space of three episodes, during which time it can’t have earned more than 15 minutes of screen time in the show itself. And yet we’re expected to believe that this stuttering whirlwind affair has had such a deeply traumatic effect on Shepherd that he’s so hurt he’ll quit his job and walk out? It makes him appear like a lovesick teenager for whom two days is an eternity, rather than a proper adult character. Brits like to scoff about the “factory production line” model of US drama which cranks out 22 episodes of even the most average drama every single year, but in some ways that offers more opportunities and greater realism for a show than trying to pack things into a miniature model that suffocates the stories. The whole romance sub-plot would have been milked for a whole season in America and yet here never has the chance to gain any substance or weight.

It’s a shame: the programme makers are doing a surprisingly strong job with this show; time for the network executives to buy a clue and back it.

Rubicon S1 E1

Posted on Updated on

There’s something very odd about the look and feel of BBC4’s new American import Rubicon.

It’s clearly set sometime in the 21st century – the main character Will Travers, played by 24 and The Pacific star James Badge Dale, is haunted by the loss of his family in 9/11 – and yet it looks very much like the world of the 70s or 80s, so much so that it’s jarring when a character suddenly whips out a mobile phone. The best you can say is that it’s trying to convey the “timeless” world of spying which still lives stuck in the mindset of the Cold War glory days, using subdued colour palettes of browns that at times practically fade the picture into sepia.

The show clearly has roots in the seminal 70s spy film classic Three Days of the Condor starring Robert Redford, and the way the timeless characters shuffle around an old office building full of books rather than computer screens puts one in mind of a contemporary TV show, the BBC’s own Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. In fact the show seems to dangle such allusion after allusion all through: with its focus on cryptography it’s hard not to recall the low key Bruce Willis film Mercury Rising or even the World War 2-set Enigma; the way the door closes on the conspirators at the end puts one in mind of how we’re shut of Michael Corleone’s life at the end of The Godfather, another film to which it looks visually similar. There’s something about the mysterious smoking men lurking in shadows that reminds me of The X Files. And so on and so forth. It certainly takes a large amount of time and spends a lot of money putting this high quality modern/period dichotomy on screen.

It’s also unapologetically slow, even if the first episode features two untimely violent deaths – one from an apparent suicide (and such a shame if the magnificent yet almost inexplicably largely unknown Harris Yulin as Tom is not in the show again), the other in a jarring, strikingly depicted train accident (Peter Gerety as David, best known for Homicide: Life on the Streets and The Wire.) But in fact most of the first episode revolves around Travers having to decide whether to accept promotion as David’s successor or to quit, the final scene ending up with him signing some papers for a security clearance upgrade and receiving his new pass – hardly cinematic action moments. It doesn’t help that Travers’ character is played as an emotionally shut down, intellectually ultra-brilliant but emotionally near-autistic personality that leaves him an impenetrable blank space in the centre of the story, however much James Badge Dale acts his little socks off with subtle little looks and mannerisms.

Where this show most likely will go wrong is by being oh-so-achingly-clever, and “blatantly subtle”. Already we’ve seen Yulin’s character Tom react to the sight of a four-leaf clover in his morning paper by putting a gun to his head leaving us in no doubt to its Grave Significance of some sort or other; everyone acts just that little bit suspiciously and exchange banner headline knowing looks; no one is allowed to wait on a train station platform without looking like they’re one of the men in black. That sort of constant stringing along could get old and exasperating very quickly if answers aren’t also part of the package.

Alas the show – from AMC, who also make Mad Men and who are behind the American remake of this blog’s favourite TV show The Killing – has already been cancelled. I’d say that’s a shame, but then I don’t know how it’s going to develop over the course of the 12 remaining episodes that were made before the axe fell; maybe it does get (or remain) so introverted, twisted, anal and up itself that it deserves axing. But I suspect and certainly hope not, and episode 1 certainly intrigued and impressed me enough to want to keep watching for the time being – even though the chances are that the early termination of the show means that any significant answers will never be forthcoming.

Spiral (Engrenages) S3 E1/2

Posted on Updated on

When The Killing started, I really didn’t want to tie myself into watching 20 hours of subtitled drama on a Saturday night, but I felt obliged to at least give it a go. And damn the thing if it didn’t leave me gasping by the end of the first hour, deeply and permanently addicted to see it through to the end.

Now The Killing – or Forbrydelsen as we true fans like to call it, to prove our smart arse credentials – is finished and a gaping void awaits us on the Saturday night BBC4 schedules into which the network hopes to inject another lengthy subtitled European crime drama – the third series of French drama Spiral, a.k.a. Engrenages. Since my ‘taste’ of The Killing led to such delights, I figured at the very least that I had to extend the same courtesy to Spiral as well: watch the first week’s episodes and then take it from there.

There’s no doubting that Spiral is a very solidly made piece of high quality programme making, with impressive performances all around. And yet at the end of that first week’s episodes, I came away … completely indifferent. When the following Saturday came around, I still felt a sense of obligation that I should watch, but once I made the decision not to, my mood instantly lightened and I knew that it was the right call.

So why did Spiral not work for me? I think partly it was because it seemed very similar to the likes of familiar BBC fare Silent Witness and Waking the Dead in the sense of being dark and gritty, and everyone having issues and rows with/shouting at everyone else, and the whole spirit of the show being of things being crap and falling apart. Lord knows, The Killing was no music-and-dance joy-fest and had its moments of friction, but somehow it did it all so much beter, with more subtlety, intelligence and class.

Where The Killing compelled by concentrating on one case throughout, Spiral is structured with one over-arcing “Butcher of La Villette” serial killer (yawn) storyline but individual episodes seem like stand-alone instalments focussing on red herring or distraction cases and multiple unrelated sub-plots for the straggling cast all of which feels like an exercise in filling up an hour’s screen time instead of every single moment feeling like it’s absolutely vital to the storyline, as is the case with The Killing

And all of the above rather gives the game away with what’s really wrong with Spiral for me: it’s not The Killing. I’m comparing the two shows with each other all the time, and Spiral is coming out distinctly second best in every department. It’s not its fault, and I suspect that if the show had been aired maybe two months down the line when memories of The Killing had faded a little, then Spiral would leave a distinctly better impression. Simply put, I think BBC4 have made a mistake by bringing this show in so hard-on-the-heels of their Danish breakout super-hit – and that’s a shame.

Meanwhile I’m pleased to have my Saturday night’s freed up and not to have to commit to another subtitled programme straight off. It gives me time to build up my strength for the rigours of Forbrydelsen 2 in the autumn …

True Blood – S3

Posted on Updated on

When True Blood landed on our screens in 2009, it took no prisoners and hit you right between the eyes with more bloody violence, raucous sex and outrageous swearing than we’ve ever seen in a television series before – or pretty much any movie, come to that. It was an extraordinary, intoxicating, heady, trashy brew and I for one loved it.

The trouble is how to proceed when you start at such a crescendo. You either have to push further and further to keep topping yourself, or else find a completely different way to go instead. Season 2 duly went for the “topping itself” route – and against expectation it pulled it off brilliantly, by introducing a Big Bad nemesis whose very weapon was to incite more sex, violence and swearing in people in order to feed off the ensuing frenzy (Michelle Forbes as Marianne was a triumph as a delightfully vivid goddess.) It worked particularly well because there was a contrast with the expanded darker, more sobre vampire world.

But now we get to Season 3 and the show still tries to top itself … And it’s run out of space. Now the only room left on top is deeply into completely over the top high camp. So we have actors having to play love scenes to (and writhing in) a mess of bloody, gory entrails; the King of New Orleans giving such a high camp appearance on network TV that he wouldn’t go amiss as one of Batman and Robin‘s villains in Joel Schumacher’s laughably disastrous franchise-wrecking 90s film. Meanwhile, other parts of the show are getting rather tired and familiar: the central Sookie/Bill romance now goes through a break-up/make-up/break-up cycle in less than the time of a single episode so that frankly no one really cares anymore and both characters just seem rather pathetic.

Where the show does try to do something different, it falters. Where once the show was about how red neck America reacted to the emergence of vampires, now it’s awash with so many different supernaturals (werewolves, were-panthers, shapeshifters and more) that there are virtually no “ordinary” humans left. Even Sookie, our main audience point of identification, has been revealed to be the most rare of supernatural beings on the planet. Meanwhile Sam’s side story of looking for his family left him with a loathsome bunch of relatives including a brat of a half-brother, and for some reason has sent the former Mr Nice Guy into a spiral of heavy drinking and abusing everyone – as though discovering his genetic past has suddenly involuntarily activated those same genes in him. Jason’s dalliance with a love interest from another red neck family is equally as annoying. The once-sparking character of Lafayette has been given a love interest which is touchingly written and portrayed but feels rather a distracting sideline – except that it appears to be leading to an outbreak of magic ability, which would mean another ‘real’ character lost to the supernatural.

One character who continues to shine in all this is that of Nordic vampire prince Eric Northman, with Alexander Skarsgård really stealing any scene he’s in with his brooding presence and his ability to switch from light to dark, playful to lethal, trustworthy to deceitful in an instant. His relationship with his ‘progeny’ Pam has been one of the most interesting developments of the series, and it’s also given us the introduction of a shadowy Authority and a proper role/appearance for vampire PR woman Nan Flanagan (as well as a sadly final appearance from the ever-wonderful Zeljko Ivanek as the Magister.)

Alas, though, much of the vampire storyline is either getting bogged down in increasingly complex vampire politics plotting or else is now leading the charge of the show Over The Top via characters like the King, his concubine Talbot and a whole bevvy of werewolves. These characters are so rich that while they initially delight, it’s very easy to quickly become bloated and sick with a non-stop diet of it. It’s not that the show can’t do it right when it tries: the character of Franklin Mott (played by the ever-watchable James Frain) was both equally over the top and yet as black a psychopath as could possibly be, such an effective mix that it’s been one of the season’s worst mistakes to dispatch him so quickly.

The show certainly has its moments. I haven’t stopped watching. It’s just that I find I’m doing other things at the same time, and dipping in and out rather than sitting enraptured for the full hour. Maybe, at the end of the day, it’s me – and I’m just becoming weary and over-saturated by vampire shows at last.

Monroe – S1 E1-3

Posted on Updated on

If you watch ITV’s new medical drama Monroe without any knowledge of a certain American series starring Hugh Laurie, you might be forgiven for thinking this is an interesting, original and promising new show. Unfortunately, if you have watched the long-running House, M.D. then that series’ shadow falls heavily on this one and actually makes it almost impossible not to compare-and-contrast the two for the whole time you’re watching.

Both shows feature a brilliant, arrogant doctor with a case-of-the-week. Both doctors have a team of interns (Springer and Wilson in Monroe) that he likes to insult and play cruel mental mind games with. Both have a single nice, slightly wimpish “best friend” (Shepherd) as well as some unresolved sexual tension with a brilliant female doctor colleague (Bremmer). Oh, and both series are titled with their lead character’s last name.

There are differences in Monroe of course, but these differences seem to have been almost purposely introduced in reaction to House and give the show grounds to say “no, we’re different, honest we are.” So for example, Monroe is not anti-social, misanthropic, cruel and loathsome. Instead he’s rather warm, witty, sparkling and charming, as only James Nesbitt can be. Instead of avoiding patients at all costs like House, Monroe is actually the one who can connect with them and their families and heal their emotional damage at the same time as well as their brains. The simple and rather trite point made here is that it’s the brain surgeon who is good with his patients’ feelings while the heart surgeon Bremmer is cerebral and cold and entirely unable to connect with others. That actually makes Bremmer the more interesting, if far less likeable, character in the show. Unfortunately it means that Monroe is very likeable, which makes the line from Shepherd that he’s Monroe’s “only friend” rather perplexing – Monroe might be slightly arrogant and swaggering but no more so than many doctors, bankers or media execs with wide circles of friends.

Where House is in charge of a “department of diagnostic medicine” (a fictional conceit that allows the American show to range wherever it likes in the medical field), Monroe makes the title character a top neurosurgeon – which is far more realistic in how hospitals actually work, but rather limiting in terms of stories and patients. Inevitably it’s going to be head traumas and tumours, lots of MRIs and staring at computer screens before deciding how to operate. Admittedly that’s what modern medicine actually is at this level, but week after week it’s going to get very tedious. The story tries to give Monroe a morose side with the backstory of a young daughter who died of a brain tumour, the ultimate cruel twist of fate for a brain surgeon, but it’s a touch obvious and again just inclined to win us over to Monroe’s side and forgive him any trespasses. House was never so obvious, or so needy of winning affection.

If one can get away from the comparisons with House for a minute then the series is well made and very well acted by all concerned. In particular, Tom Riley as the low-key normal best friend has great charm and presence (Riley’s just coming off his breakthrough role in the Bouquet of Barbed Wire remake as the scenery-chewing Northern psycho Gavin.) We could do with slightly less tricksy/artistic director’s stylings: someone really needs to prise the “tiltshift” effect control out of the director’s hands once and for all – it’s effective and different when used now and again but not when used in almost every single scene.

Ultimately, though, you get the feeling that there was an interesting core idea here, and some very good talent both in front and behind the camera, but somewhere along the line the network executives got involved and needed to be won over before they would sign off on commissioning the series. The writers and producers ended up having to sell it as a “British House” and thereafter the show progressively got forced into a box that it didn’t really fit or believe in that made it into a sub-Houseian clone when it could have been something so much more, distinctly original and British. We really don’t need another House when we can watch Hugh Laurie being brilliant in the role already. Most disappointingly of all, Monroe completely misses the genius of House in making its central character totally unlikeable and unsavable: by contrast, Monroe simply doesn’t have that courage and it wants its central character to be loveable and only slightly flawed. That makes Monroe end up no more than a lightweight wannabe with all its nice visual tricks and promising cast.

Becoming Human – S1/Online

Posted on Updated on

This spin-off from Being Human was marketed as an “online-only exclusive”, and I confess that – having dutifully followed the bite-size instalments every week as released – I was a bit annoyed when the exclusivity went out the window and the whole thing – including the first showing of the final part – was suddenly scheduled for a BBC3 airing as a sort of post-Being Human care package for those viewers still traumatised by last week’s season finale. It felt like my “secret society” had suddenly thrown open its doors and become a tourist theme park. I’m still not sure whether the change is because the spin-off has been so successful and well-received that BBC bosses decided it needed a proper channel airing, or whether it was doing so badly that the only way to salvage anything from it was to seek the oxygen of broadcasting. I hope the former.

Still, enough about the production context; what about Becoming Human the show? Inevitably its original bite-size chunks (please excuse any vampire or werewolf unintended puns inherent in that phrase!) are evident when put together into one 55 minute program: despite the single through-story, the narrative clearly stops and starts every six or seven minutes by nature of the online format. It’s to the credit of the writers and the directors that this isn’t more annoying that it actually is, and the show more or less gets away with it – and even that some of the linking/segment start sequences are the nicest, most arty things in it.

It’s a bit difficult to know where this show is being pitched: it feels like a rather odd hybrid, and rather too easy to lose the audience in the gap. If Being Human is for mid-20-somethings then I guess Becoming Human would be for mid-teens, which explains its school setting and the age of its principle cast; and yet the show is a little too smart and stylish and intelligent to be really aimed at the Hollyoaks audience. There might not be nearly as much blood, guts and top-grade swearing as its parent show, but there’s still too much horror and general cursing for its supposed main demographic. Some of the dialogue relies (very wittily) on 80s pop-culture references, which again will be over the heads of a teen audience. In the other hand, would a grown-up audience really be that taken with a show whose main story is about being a teenager, the pains of surviving school-life, dealing with teachers – and bullying? In any case, who would be watching this spin-off if they hadn’t already been of an age to be fans of Being Human? If anything, this feels like a relaunch of the core series concept of a vampire, a werewolf and a ghost meeting up and becoming friends – a return to the original Being Human series which was fun and light and happy to be occasionally insubstantial, before it became all Dark and Angsty and Meaningful. If you liked that first series of Being Human and miss its lightness of touch then Becoming Human could be the show for you.

All that said – if you’re willing to go with it, and are a 20- or 30-something still happy to go back to school in TV land, this is a terrific little gem of a show. The writing is wonderful, the show looks and sounds terrific for an online-only venture (until its broadcast airing I hadn’t properly appreciated the great soundtrack), and it’s just terrifically witty throughout with some great dialogue brought to life by a top-grade young cast. In particular it stars Craig Roberts, playing the young vampire Adam who debuted in an eponymous episode of Being Human, who manages to steal every scene by little looks, gestures and quirks that make his character spring off the screen. I would at this point be predicting a brilliant future for this actor, if only the little blighter hadn’t beaten me to it and be currently starring in Richard Ayoade’s film Submarine at the cinema right now, with both the film and Roberts’ lead performance getting rave reviews. Not that the other leads – Josh Brown as XXL-sized ghost Matt and Leila Mimmack as werewolf Christa – aren’t also excellent. Christa gets some of the best put downs, usually directed at Adam: “Seriously, do you not have an off-switch?” she barks at him after his latest inappropriate quip as the two continue their love-hate (mostly hate) screwball relationship.

As for the through-story – about who made Matt a ghost in the first place, and where his body is – it’s inevitably underdeveloped given only 55 minutes and that the online format was to fashion each instalment around confronting a new red herring suspect, but the writing is successful enough that the whodunnit reveal when it comes is one of those gloriously “out of the blue”/”why didn’t I see that coming” moments that many a more “serious” show would kill for.

On the whole, then, well worth catching. I doubt it will get picked up and developed further, but that’s a shame – this has real potential and genuine class.

The Killing (Forbrydelsen) – S1 E17+18

Posted on Updated on

Over the course of the last nine weeks, The Killing has become one of my favourite TV shows – not just of the year but of all time. It’s as good as State of Play or Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy – but where those shows spun out perfection over six episodes, The Killing has managed to do it over an astonishing 20 hour-long instalments; and there hasn’t been an episode, a scene, a line that hasn’t been brilliantly done. It’s a quite astounding achievement, and I can’t remember the last time that I was so keen for a TV show to come around that I was literally counting down the hours till the next episode, and so emotionally involved while it was actually on that it hurt. While other shows can lose momentum and struggle to run to full length, this show hasn’t put a foot wrong and has sustained the mystery, intrigue and tension through a longer time than even most full length American TV seasons. The only disappointment is that it all comes to an end in a little under seven days, and Saturday nights are going to feel very odd and empty afterwards.

The show’s various individual strands – the anguished drama of a bereaved family, the political machinations of a campaign, the dark conspiracy arcs – are powerful in their own right and would fuel many a British TV series on their own, but here of course they’re all bound together by and in support of the whodunnit aspect which hones the series into a ruthlessly efficient and compelling mystery. If there were any justice in the world then “Who killed Nanna Birk Larsen” would be every bit as much a seminal television question as “Who shot JR?” and “Who killed Laura Palmer?”

Spoiler crime scene tape

The rest of this longer-than-usual post focuses on that question, as this penultimate week is my last chance to muse on some theories in public. Of course it can only do that by talking openly about the events to date right up to the end of episode 18, so if you’re not up to date with the series then look away now and read no further. (I have no spoilers from the final two episodes or any internet gossip to share, so you’re safe in that respect if you’re on the BBC4 schedule.)

Final chance! Look away now!

Right, still with us? Then let us begin.

Once again the series threw us some almighty curve-balls in these two episodes, which totally transformed the substance and nature of the investigation. The series has done it before (when car fuel logs suddenly focussed suspicion on city hall; then when a cold case and a belated video tape from Nanna transferred the focus back to Birk Larsen’s haulage company.) Now, as the series enters its end game, the producers seem determined to flip us into chaos once again – by making literally everything and everyone a suspect, and by resurrecting doubt in characters we long ago thought ‘cleared’. The key drivers in this final turn in the show have proved to be:

  1. Nanna’s passport was found in the basement of her family’s new home, putting suspicion back on the family. Since the passport was the object Nanna went to the principle crime scene to pick up, and because it has blood on it, this is the biggest piece of “first-degree” direct evidence that’s emerged. At the time of the murder, Nanna didn’t even know about the new house.
  2. Another body (from 15 years ago) has been found in the canal, seemingly confirming that Nanna’s murder is one of a series. Mette Hauge’s corpse was wrapped in a removal sheet from the defunct company Merkur, but is this purely circumstantial and a red herring? A search for the decedent’s possessions takes the police on a fatal visit to a derelict storage warehouse.
  3. A journalist has been asking some awfully good questions of politician Troels Hartmann: was the package containing a key piece of evidence sent from Hartmann’s office? If so, by whom? And why was his party’s flat – the main crime scene – not used for two weeks afterwards in a frantically busy pre-election period and able to stand untouched, soaked in blood? (I admit, I thought this “two weeks undiscovered” was the series script’s one poor lapse/oversight but instead it’s transformed into possibly the vital clue.)

What new light do these latest developments and other events from E17 and 18 shed on the suspects in the case? Many of them could be red herrings and are circumstantial at best, so we have to start with with the one incontrovertible bit of direct evidence – the passport. It could only have been put in the basement of the new house after Nanna’s death, and almost certainly by the killer.

That seems to cast suspicion back on the family, and it’s interesting how the father, Theis Birk Larsen, is now being filmed and acted in a markedly more sinister way in these episodes; the way his impassive face looms at the back of shot, the way his calm demeanour only grows agitated when he finds police inside the house (and moreover in the basement) for the first time, and demanded they leave; the way he shut the door on the basement at the end of E18 … Guilty signs, or just a man pushed beyond his limit? Even his wife Pernille Birk Larsen, whose anguish over her daughter’s death has been so strikingly portrayed, is suddenly unnaturally calm and distanced. The scene where she and Theis faced down their previously trusted live-in friend, employee and lodger Vagn was actually quite chilling and cold blooded. But can either of them really be suspects? We saw their reactions in the first episode when Nanna was missing and they seemed totally genuine – the mounting panic and grief as worst nightmares were confirmed. Theis’ search for Nanna, his rage and his bid for violent revenge against the then-prime suspect teacher are hard to reconcile with being guilty of his daughter’s murder; and surely both have alibis, being at a country cottage on the key weekend? That it’s one or both of them is not quite entirely impossible – the grief could have been guilt over a tragic situation that got out of hand, for example – but it feels a stretch.

A more likely family suspect is the aforementioned Vagn Skaerbaek. Right now he’s the prime suspect: he had access to the house, it’s unclear where he was or what he was doing at the weekend, the police did a lengthy job of demolishing his alibi and proving he had opportunity, and he worked for the old Merkur company. As an employee of Birk Larsen’s haulage company he could also be the person Nanna’s boyfriend Amir thought had overheard them making their plans to elope, a critical aspect with regard to the opportunity to commit the crime (as well as a possible motive, if the killer had a sexual fixation on Nanna and was feeling betrayed by her plans to leave.) The smart money right now has to be on Vagn, and the fact that at the moment people are behaving as if Vagn’s been cleared with everyone apologising for ever unfairly suspecting him almost adds to the sense of sleight-of-hand and misdirection. Vagn’s no longer in the crosshairs only because the police have been distracted by the emergence of Leon Frevert, a co-worker of Vagn’s who also worked at Merkur and had the same access, opportunity and haziness of motive. Leon was also moonlighting as a taxi driver and had previously been questioned as the last known man to see Nanna alive; he has sold off his furniture, got tickets for a flight to Vietnam, and has a creepy serial killer-esque collection of press clippings of the murder case stuck to his wall. In real life this is exactly the sort of person who would be revealed as the killer. Short of a big neon arrow saying “I’m the killer” pointing at his head, he couldn’t be making it any more obvious for them – which is why he’s surely a red herring? Perhaps most significantly of all is why he phoned the detective (the wonderful Sarah Lund, played by the incomparable Sofie Gråbøl) and told her, when asked why he had kept his connection to Nanna a secret: “You have no idea”. That seems a tantalising link to an altogether different conspiracy mystery rather than an admission from a killer. He’s running to Vietnam because he’s scared.

If not the family, and with the school friends and teachers not seen since episode 10, we have to look elsewhere for people who have been in that house. What about the police for example? Lund herself is beyond suspicion – the show wouldn’t work if there was any chance of it being her, or any doubt about her. I confess I was keeping an eye on her rude and arrogant partner Jan Meyer – the murder happened just days after he had arrived in town after all, and where was he 15 years ago? Being a cop is a great cover. But even paying close attention to him there seemed nothing untoward, and with his relationship with Lund developing as it did it seemed less and less likely that he was under any suspicion. Instead, I’d rather come to fear that he wouldn’t be getting out of the show alive – I just didn’t expect it to happen in episode 18 as it did.

Their superior, Lennart Brix, is an obvious dark and evil suspect – almost laughably so in a pantomime-villain way, which is why I tend not to think it’ll be him. He’s the front man for some conspiracy no doubt, just not murder – not least because he only came into the series midway through and has had no detail given to his character. He seems to be there mainly to be an obstacle for Lund’s work, this week by pulling her off a crucial raid that gives the prime suspect the chance to escape or, more likely, be inconveniently shot dead in the raid by Brix’s more trusted personnel. He is too obvious, too underdeveloped for it to be him as the killer, but he’s clearly playing a major role in some grand plot.

Which leaves us with the political strand, and here we’re overflowing with suspects – the problem is that none of them have a connection to the Birk Larsen basement. They do have access to the party flat/crime scene, however, and a major question right now is why that flat was untouched for two weeks. Mayoral candidate Troels Hartmann was a prime suspect for several episodes and even arrested and charged, having admitted being in the flat just minutes before Nanna was known to have arrived and been assaulted there. Charges against Troels were dropped when suspicion fell on one of Troels’ opposing party leaders, Jens Holck, who looked and acted incredibly guilty and ended up being shot dead by Meyer but who has been posthumously cleared by airport CCTV footage. Does that mean the investigation of Troels was distracted and derailed but that he’s still the guilty man? He had all the access he needed, and he’s been pressing the police very hard for updates about the investigation to allow him to stay one step ahead. His ‘alibi’, that he went to a country cottage and tried to kill himself, could well have been remorse at what he had done; and his loyal campaign manager Morten Weber could have been an accomplice, clearing up after him (and been the “shorter” man at the flat window that an eyewitness saw.) In fact, Morten could be the killer in his own right – he has the aura of being a man who has been exonerated from the investigation, but in actuality that was because he was reinstated after being briefly fired having been unjustly framed as a political “mole”. Despite the off-hand revelation that he has driven the car in which the body was found, and some increasingly suspicious snooping round the office and being busy casting doubt on others, Morten has oddly escaped any serious suspicion for the entire series …

Troels’ assistant and lover Rie Skovgaard has also not been suspected of the crime, although Morten’s suggestions in response to a journalist’s enquiries about who sent the key piece of evidence from the office and who cancelled a toilet repair at the flat that would have caused the crime scene to be discovered immediately, seem designed to make her emerge as a suspect now (while they could just as equally apply to Morten – or to Troels.) Rie appears cunning and opportunistic, her affair with Troels suddenly back on after a frosty couple of days while simultaneously suspicions fly around that she’s been getting her valuable secret intel by sleeping with the mayor’s top aide Phillip Dessau who was briefly presented as a possible suspect in the murder itself. And yet despite them being nasty, double-dealing, two-faced political operatives, it’s hard to really see either of them resorting to murder. Rie might kill Nanna if she mistook her for a rival for Troels’ affections or a threat to the campaign, but murder – and in the party flat – seem grossly ill judged and unsubtle, totally out of character for her, while in other ways she’s too obviously hard and nasty to give us the ‘jolt’ we need when the murderer is unmasked.

That’s just some of the suspects. With two hours of drama still to go, the show could still pull a suspect “out of plain sight” that we hadn’t considered before just as Leon the taxi driver was. What about Lund’s boyfriend Bengt? Seems unlikely as he was the one who triggered the police to seek out previous cold cases. Maybe her odious ex-husband? Surely too coincidental and contrived. One of the detectives who’ve been handing Lund and Meyer files – or in particular, the detective who ‘searched’ the Birk Larsen’s basement just before the bloody passport was discovered? Talk about opportunity. Hell, I’d even suspect the Birk Larsen’s little boys, one of which – Anton – found Nanna’s bloody passport and then oddly just threw it back where he found it and wandered off without a reaction. If only the boys were old and tall enough to drive a car! Very strange. Let’s put that one down to wooden juvenile acting and an attempt to generate more tension and false leads!

And finally …

But there comes a point where I have to present some idea, some theory about it all, and here it is. It’s not perfect and I’m really not sure about it, but what the hell, right?

From the above analysis I’d have to say that the leading suspects must surely be Vagn (if the political aspects can be explained away by other conspiracies) or Morten (if there’s a convincing reason why he would have ended up in the Birk Larsen basement.) These are the suspects that my head says are the most logical and rational.

But without a doubt, the character I’ve been most irrationally suspicious about since midway through the series has been the incumbent mayor, Poul Bremer – for no good reason, I have to say. Just a feeling. His purpose in the series – as Troel’s scheming political opponent – has been clear, and he’s been overtly lying and deceiving everyone in sight, most recently manufacturing a couple of witnesses to escape a charge of political malfeasance and obstructing the police by withholding evidence because it gave him an electoral advantage. But the closest he’s come to being suspected of involvement with the murder was when a civil servant, Olav Christensen, confronted Bremer and said he’d procured the party flat (the crime scene) for the mayor in the past. Bremer denied it, and minutes later Olav was dead after being run down by Jens Holck.

And while we’re on that: just what was Holck’s involvement in all of this? The investigation into him went cold when he was shot and assumed to be the killer; if he wasn’t, then why did he do what he did and practically confess all to Lund before dying? Holck was suspected because he was on a particular foreign junket some months ago – with Bremer, it was pointed out, although no one attached any significance to this; Holck was also Bremer’s lapdog, and you have to consider whether his apparent affair with Nanna wasn’t actually just him setting up meetings for Bremer all the time instead. Rather than Holck buying her gifts, were they in fact from an even bigger political fish?

Bremer’s certainly got all the information he needs to carry out the crimes – he frequently knows developments before anyone else, even the police: he knew who was paying Olav for access to the party flat months ago, despite his look of bafflement and denial when confronted by Olav. If he’d been having an affair with Nanna months ago and needed to hush it up, then how clever to use the flat to frame Troels and gain unbeatable political advantage out of a potential career-ending scandal over an affair with a schoolgirl?

Bremer being the guilty party would explain much, and would tie up the various strands into one tight cohesive whole in a dramatic context. And yet for all that, there are major problems with the theory of it being Bremer. Can we seriously see the elderly mayor managing to climb through a broken window into the storage warehouse? (Although the slow, deliberate way the killer stepped toward a prostrate Meyer could easily have been someone of Bremer’s age …) Or of outrunning Nanna in the woods by the airport in the opening scenes of the series? Like all those from the political side, how could he have ended up leaving Nanna’s passport in the basement of the Birk Larsen house? Moreover, the detectives seem very convinced that the killer is in his/her 30s-40s and that the link between the killer and his victims is through removal hauliers – are they simply wrong on both counts? The Merkur sheet could certainly be a red herring (it might have simply been to hand when the killer murdered Mette Hauge, who had just employed the company to move house 15 years ago) but the idea that the killer meets his victims and gets to know where they live through this ruse is a compelling one and simply can’t apply to Bremer.

The Killing‘s greatest trick is to present us with such a large cast of realistic, beautifully-drawn characters, all of whom we suspect and yet none of which ultimately make complete sense as the killer. It could well be that we’re talking about at least two different culprits in the end – Bremer perhaps is guilty of something (the mention of Vietnam put the idea of a child paedophile ring in my head from out of nowhere, for example) and his cover-up conspiracy may have massively affected the murder investigation because of some overlapping factor; but the killer might be someone else entirely, such as Vagn or Morten. Or even Troels after all …

Safe to say, I can’t wait till next Saturday to find out. And yet at the same time, I dread finding out because that means the end of this superb show. I suspect that when the end comes, I’ll want to go back and rewatch the series from the start and see whether I can get it right second time around and see all the small signs and clues that I’ve missed that would have made this article so much more accurate if only I’d been paying attention at the time …

If you do comment on this story – and please do! – then speculate to your heart’s content but please don’t put in any known spoilers from E19 and 20 until those stories have aired in the UK on BBC4 on March 26. Thanks!

Being Human S3 Ep7/8 – Though the Heavens Fall/The Wolf-Shaped Bullet

Posted on Updated on

Toby Whithouse’s show started as a one-off pilot play about a vampire, a werewolf and a ghost in a flatshare, but once it was picked up (and substantially recast) it took on a whole new life of its own. With a US spin-off/remake and three popular and successful series under its belt, it’s been one of the BBC’s few unequivocal genre successes outside of the venerable flagpole Doctor Who franchise (for which Whithouse has also written.)

I thought the first season was a triumph, a blend of genuine sitcom fun with serious drama and outright moments of horror. For my money it lost that ability to ‘balance’ so well in season 2 which was heavily weighted toward the darker and bleaker aspects, and there’s been a notable attempt in season 3 to set time aside for the lighter things in life which has been much to its strength, although sometimes it’s felt that those more fun moments have been wedged in somewhat awkwardly, such as a out-of-place “zombie” episode or werewolf George’s bottle show to visit his dead father’s grave. Perhaps the show’s increasingly complicated relationships and mythology gets in the way of the central part of the show reconnecting with that lighter elements. Of course, by the time of the big season finale two-parter there was no longer any time for the fun things and it was all-action and very, very heavy and dramatic.

For one thing we had the return of ‘evil’ version Herrick, after several episodes of the vampire being locked in the attic with his memory and sanity distant acquaintances. This sounds like a really interesting idea, but while well-written and excellently played by a superb Jason Watkins this somehow wasn’t as satisfying as it sounded on paper, and this was underlined by how wonderful it was to have the out-and-out monster Herrick return for the season finale. Also excellent in the supporting cast were Erin Richards as a dogged detective Nancy (I genuinely didn’t see the twist coming about her shouty boss) and ex-EastEnders star Lacey Turner as ghost Lia, plus Spooks star Nicola Walker hysterically funny in a one-episode cameo as a social worker and George Gently‘s Lee Ingleby as a late addition “Old One” stealing several scenes in the final 20 minutes. The biggest guest star name was undoubtedly Robson Green, and he was faultless as hardened werewolf McNair.

In the main cast, Sinead Keenan has really come into her own as George’s werewolf girlfriend Nina and finally made to be a strong addition to the core cast; meanwhile Lenora Crichlow’s ghostly Annie finally got some strong storylines that really drove the series rather than just end up being a comedy B-plot off to one side. If there was a character who had become slightly sidelined in this series it was George, played by the wonderful Russell Tovey, which might explain the need for that “dead dad” bottle story; but he certainly came back in strength for the final episode where the resolution revolved around his relationship with his vampire best friend Mitchell, played by Aidan Turner.

If there’s one person who has been made a star by this show, it’s Aidan Turner. Since the start of Being Human he’s already been the lead in Desperate Romantics and had a major role in BBC4’s Hattie, and now he’s been cast in Peter Jackson’s forthcoming The Hobbit films. His influence on the show is such that the US remake of the series even rechristened the Mitchell character ‘Aidan’. And he certainly dominates the season, with his downwardly-spiralling Mitchell consumed by guilt over dark deeds driving the series forward. His romantic scenes with Crichlow have been both touching and comic, while the look on his face as he arranged for detective Nancy to visit “Uncle Billy” in the attic was a shocking look of dark, evil cunning.

Look away now if you haven’t seen the end of the series and want to avoid spoilers

The problem with the season is that Mitchell’s downwards spiral had left him irredeemable and beyond the point of no return. His fate was inevitable from early on, and while the final scene is nicely played it still ends the only way it can given the season arc – with Mitchell staked and dead. It’s the right ending for the season, but it’s also the right ending for the show which has always been about his and George’s friendship more than anything else (and guess who gets to do the staking?) It’s where the show should finish, which makes the news that a fourth season has been commissioned all the more surprising.

Of course, being dead in a genre series does not need to be final, or even much of an obstacle. But Turner’s presumably now spending a year or more on Hobbit duty in New Zealand which is a bigger, more practical problem for the show: without Mitchell’s dark presence the series loses a lot of its dark core and narrative drive. Who really wants to see a show about a well-adjusted werewolf couple with their once-a-month problem and their ghost lodger, without the ever-present danger of the bloodsucker flatmate and the vampire clans? On a purely commercial level, these days a series that doesn’t have a ‘vampire’ on its cast roll loses a huge amount of marquee pulling power. Most of all, Being Human without Mitchell is just … wrong. It wouldn’t work, nor would pulling in some “Mitchell substitute” to fill the vampire-shaped hole in the dynamic (although Craig Robert’s teenage vampire Adam who appeared in one eponymous episode before being spun out to a digital-only mini-series could be a possibility.)

There have been times during this season where my attention has wandered and I’ve had to force myself to pay attention to it – not a good sign. That certainly doesn’t apply to the riveting two-part finale, and the season as a whole has had some impressive high points, but while the slaying of Mitchell is undoubtedly a dramatic coup per excellence to end the show with I’m not sure I’m minded to return for another series if he stays staked – or that willing to forgive them a “beyond the stake resurrection” either, come to that. Whithouse may just have written a cliffhanger from which Being Human can’t be saved.

JAG S8 E20/21 – Ice Queen/Meltdown

Posted on

I’m feeling under the weather this week, which might explain why I’m taking refuge in some old TV viewing while sniffling and sneezing my way through the day. Hot on the heels of yesterday’s review of the pilot episode of the ultimate comfort viewing series Murder, She Wrote comes another US pilot – that for NCIS: Naval Criminal Investigative Service (as it is officially known), currently the top-rated drama series on American TV amazingly enough.

As opposed to a traditional stand-alone pilot project, this actually appeared as a two-part instalment in a different series called JAG: we’re more used to seeing this today, with the CSI franchise launching spin-offs with a story in the parent series used to set up the new series, and Criminal Minds has recently done the same – as has NCIS itself with its new LA-set offspring. JAG itself never really made much of an impact here in the UK (although it circulates through on cable channels such as Hallmark/Universal, so at least the episodes do air occasionally as part of the normal run of episodes as opposed to the rarely-aired Murder, She Wrote pilot) partly because it was always very militaristic and then after 9/11 cranked up the ultra right-wing patriotism to full-on bombast which played very poorly outside the American heartland. Fortunately NCIS reigned this sort of thing in, although in this pilot there’s still some whooping and hollering by the series regulars at a display of ‘extraordinary rendition’ in action and some interrogation involving keeping a prisoner naked and chained, which is uncomfortably fascist.

The two episodes are very strange indeed as instalments of JAG: despite being in the episode credits as usual, that series’ regulars barely appear in the first episode, which instead follows the NCIS investigation of the death of a pregnant naval lawyer. The first of the two parts is almost exactly how NCIS was formatted when it started to air in its own right, and most of the characters are present and correct from the start: David McCallum’s Ducky is a little creepier and more of a skirt-chaser than the amiable eccentric uncle he would become; Pauley Perrette’s Abby is toned down and less confident; Michael Weatherly’s DiNozzo is younger, more casual and less of a smart-ass. But Mark Harmon’s Gibbs arrives fully formed and lends credence to the idea that the series was always a vehicle specifically created for him after his popular turn as Secret Service agent Simon Donovan in the 2002 season of The West Wing the preceding year. The pilot also includes Alan Dale as the NCIS director, indicating that his role in the eventual series was expected to be rather larger than it proved to be.

The one character that really, really doesn’t work is Robyn Lively’s former FBI agent Vivian Blackadder, who is humourless and grates badly not to mention screwing up a vital mission. No wonder she wasn’t invited back and got replaced by Sasha Alexander’s much warmer Secret Service Agent Todd (until she too was replaced by Cote de Pablo as Ziva.) The other major change is that the “corpse-eye view” sequences depicted in a 60s psychedelic false colour – which are really odd and off-putting – are fortunately dropped before NCIS went to series.

After the first episode of the two-parter, Ice Queen, which ends in the arrest of JAG series lead character Harmon Rabb for the murder, the story then defocuses from the NCIS team and takes time to establish the lawyers for Rabb’s trial – the OCD defence attorney played by Alicia Coppola and the laid-back, disorganised prosecutor played by Michael Muhney. Its odd that these two get such screen time which is already bursting at the seams trying to fit in both JAG and NCIS cast and makes you think that maybe the original idea for NCIS had more of a “law/investigation” and “order/trial” format in mind. (Coppola’s character did indeed make three appearances in NCIS.) And even then, the trial is wrapped up with 10 minutes to spare to allow the NCIS team to retake centre stage for an overseas anti-terrorism raid in Tunisia which suggests that this sort of guns-blazing undercover strand was intended to be a big part of the NCIS series (instead of having to wait for the LA spin-off to pick this action thread up in any depth.)

Pilots are always interesting to see “where it all began” and also what worked right away and what didn’t. Plenty about NCIS exists right from the first scenes but there’s enough distractions around the periphery to make you think that it could very easily have gone off in totally the wrong direction if they hadn’t been careful – or at least lucky.

Murder, She Wrote Pilot – “The Murder of Sherlock Holmes”

Posted on Updated on

I cheerfully admit a weakness for cosy whodunnit crime books, and this Angela Lansbury series was surely the cosiest and one of the longest running of the genre on television. It’s my idea of comfort viewing – the televisual equivalent of apple pie and custard, which works thanks to its familiarly formulaic structure and the warm presence of Lansbury at the centre. The series is endlessly repeated on BBC Daytime and on UK Alibi, but curiously the feature-length first/pilot episode is rarely aired these days so I was keen to go back and see “where it all began.”

In many ways this was Lansbury’s ‘retirement plan’ after a lifetime of film and stage success in much higher quality but less well paying roles. But she certainly works for it: for the vast majority of the series’ 12 years she’s the only recurring character and in virtually every scene. Compare that to the way modern stars complain about the work they have in an ensemble drama where the work load is shared by up to a dozen regulars and you’ll have some appreciation of Lansbury’s work ethic despite being almost 60 even when the series began. Her star power certainly gave the producers access to big Hollywood names they wouldn’t have had otherwise, and the pilot duly features Brian Keith, Arthur Hill, Anne Francis and Ned Beatty – and Anne Ramsey in a cameo as a bus bag lady on the eve of her late-life movie stardom in The Goonies and Throw Momma From The Train.

Created by William Link and Richard Levinson who had previously devised the Colombo series, the pilot hits the ground running with Lansbury’s Jessica Fletcher suddenly finding her book published and a bestseller, throwing her into a trip to the Big City on a publicity junket, and so it’s very much the story of how she copes being out of her depth – by melting even hardened New Yorkers with her small town charm and homemade recipes for curing corns. As the series went on the character would become more assured (as her literary fame grew) but here Lansbury plays a good many scenes for laughs with a lot of scuttling around and gurning for the camera revealing her old fashioned stage roots at this point, making it interesting to see how much even an old pro has to learn in a new medium. At one point she seems to be intentionally channelling Magaret Rutherford’s version of Miss Marple (Lansbury had just ‘aged up’ to play Marple in a recent big screen version of The Mirror Crack’d before creating this original American version of Christie’s sleuth.)

As a result you catch her ‘acting’ more in this pilot than in most of the series where she became so natural and at ease many viewers felt she wasn’t even acting but just being herself (the curse of many a star of a long-running show.) The pilot actually gives her more to do than the typical series instalment, with a romantic interest touchingly played by her and Hill, and an outcome that is presented as truly heart-breaking for the character despite the preceding light comedy. The pilot doesn’t quite play fair with the whodunnit aspect, relying on a literary reference that only makes sense when some background facts are introduced right at the denouement; the series when it got underway would learn how to put all the facts in evidence during the show, rather as Agatha Christie was always scrupulously careful to do in her novels. It doesn’t hurt the pilot but it’s a little annoying and means it’s all but impossible to guess who the murderer is, with most of the running time given over to a red herring theft plot.

It’s not world-changing TV, it’s not edgy or different. But Murder, She Wrote is the ultimate in professional, well-put together and thoroughly enjoyable light drama entertainment which is easy to watch and to appreciate, and Angela Lansbury shines as one of the true stars of her generation.

Doctor Who S19 E9-12 – Kinda

Posted on Updated on

Kinda is one of the original Doctor Who serials to be very well regarded – indeed, its stock has risen considerably in the intervening years since its first airing in 1982. Coming at a point of a major renaissance of the show following the departure of Tom Baker and the arrival of Peter Davison in the title role, it mixes themes of colonialism with some very deep Buddhist teachings and is very unlike most Doctor Who serials of its age – although in another sense it was following on from a pattern laid down in the previous season of the series with Warrior’s Gate in having one surreal, abstract story in among the more normal alien invasion/science fiction/pseudo-historical fare.

Children who watched it at the time would have been fairly lost by the highly philosophical concepts and disappointed by the lack of any action, fights, guns or even a clear bad guy. The dominant figure is that of security officer Hindle, played by subsequent The Bill regular Simon Rouse, and I remember as a child being perplexed and rather put off by his erratic, hysterical behaviour. In fact, if truth be told, I found the way he was reduced to an infantile state as the serial progressed to be profoundly unsettling without really understanding why; instead, I dismissed it as “I don’t like it.” Being older and marginally wiser now, watching Rouse’s performance as the mentally disintegrating Hindle left me gob-smacked and deeply in awe as one of the more honest, accurate and raw portrayals of a man having a complete nervous breakdown that I can remember seeing on television – which makes it still as profoundly unsettling as it was when I was a kid, although at least now I understand why. How Rouse then ended up stuck in a police soap for 20 years is a mystery and a waste.

The strength of this serial is in the stunningly big name supporting cast: as well as Rouse, there’s also Richard Todd – yes, the star of Hollywood films and The Dam Busters; Nerys Hughes, who was one of the biggest TV stars around at the time; and also the brilliant Mary Morris as an old, blind wise woman. All of them are excellent and well suited to the characters, and by no means evidence of the “stunt casting” which became tiresomely routine in later years. The DVD also reveals another future star is in the show: one of the child extras brought in during the third episode is a seven-year-old Jonny Lee Miller.

Watching the story with the optional information subtitles, it was fascinating to read just how much at odds the writer (Christopher Bailey) and director (series stalwart Peter Grimwade) were in their vision for the story – Grimwade was trying to wrestle it into a more ‘normal’ Who structure while Bailey found this to be undermining and dumbing down the story’s point. Bailey shouldn’t take it personally, as Grimwade was apparently falling out with everyone – Davison describes the on-set atmosphere as somewhere between mutinous and homicidal toward the end. In fact this is one of the occasions when the friction probably proved a creative advantage and the eventual balance achieved is for the best, because in its ‘pure’ state Bailey’s script had some big problems, not least the fact that no one seemed to have told him that Tom Baker was no longer the Doctor, or that there were three companions to write for. One has to be parked back “asleep” in the Tardis for the whole story, another hardly appears for one episode, and only the oft-derided Adric (Matthew Waterhouse) has a constant presence. Instead, the Doctor takes up with colonial scientist Todd (Hughes’ character) as his main companion figure, seemingly to allow for the chance of a spark of romantic interest. As a whole, it all feels very unlike a Who story with the Doctor almost shoe-horned in as an observer into a stand-alone tale, which may be a weakness for some viewers but it allows the story and the guest characters to really blossom into a full-realised, realistic and fascinating environment.

It’s not a perfect story: Adrian Mills (yes, him off of That’s Life) is weak in a key role; instead, series regular Janet Fielding is only allowed a couple of scenes as the “possessed” Tegan when her evil persona could and should have been the outright star of the show (her scenes in the surreal black “wherever” with another The Bill longtime regular Jeffrey Stewart are eerie and brilliant). The show is also totally studio-bound despite being set in a forest paradise with all the problems that implies; although actually I have a weakness for a good studio artificial forest set no matter how fake it looks, as I find the “unreality” works better for an alien world than going on location in a familiar English countryside, garden or the inevitable quarry setting.

But the biggest problem with the original serial was the FX of a giant snake at the climax, which looked like an inflatable bouncy castle and totally shattered any suspension of disbelief even for kids of the day. On the commentary track (which features Davison, Fielding, Waterhouse and Hughes) all four actors deride the bouncy snake and petition for the DVD creators to create new CGI FX for the sequence, which has subsequently been done. It’s one of the most effective bits of retro-FX work I’ve seen, and almost certainly the new CGI snake would have been too realistic and traumatic for the target audience at the time: it’s really quite startlingly chilling and a world away from bouncy castles. The commentary track as a whole is a delight and is the closest thing you’ll get to sitting down to watch a programme with a bunch of well-informed friends as you could hope to get, with all four participants getting on really well – even Matthew Waterhouse, who still sometimes comes over as being as potentially weird and sulky as his on-screen character Adric from 30 years ago. He takes the inevitable ribbing from the others good-naturedly when the old anecdote is trotted out about how he offered to ‘tutor” movie legend Richard Todd in the art of TV acting with all the benefit of his two years experience on the small screen.

But let’s finish off with some words of praise: first for Peter Howell, who despite working with very dated synthesiser sounds for much of the background music, does come up with some stunning sound design for windchimes, the “shriek” of the Mara, and the disturbing soundscape of the black “wherever” which Howell himself feared could be too much for children to handle. (Naturally, we loved it). And the story contains one of the most iconic visual shots I remember from the show – a zoom into the eye of Fielding’s character Tegan and into her black subconscious in one ‘take’ thanks to the loan to the show of then-revolutionary Quantel video effects equipment. It’s still a brilliant moment, augmented with another great bit of sound design from Howell as well.

Kinda has just been released on DVD as part of the Mara Tales boxset with Snakedance, the sequel to this story which is not quite as good and has less originality, but the two make a perfect pairing and one of the series’ stronger boxset offerings and well worth purchasing, with some excellent-as-ever special features. The video restoration for Kinda is once again outstanding, with the first two episodes given a depth and vibrancy of colour and contrast that makes it look far better than I remember it from the original broadcast (although for some reason the picture goes softer and flater in episode three.)

The Alchemist’s Secret – by Scott Mariani

Posted on Updated on

If the novels of Dan Brown and Lee Child were laid out on an autopsy table and forensically dissected and analysed, then put back together again by a decent literary technician, this is pretty much what you would expect to get as the end result.

Hence an obvious Jack Reacher-inspired hero is parachuted into a story that seems cookie-cutter produced from Brown’s best known works: secretive millionaires, secret extremist religious group, a homicidal fanatic, and a trail of clues from history leading to one of the best known hidden secrets of all time – in this case, the alchemists’ Holy Grail of eternal life and how to change base metal into gold, rather than the Holy Grail itself. The book pads out the rest of its pages with plot and style drawn from films, so that the central relationship between the hero and a female scientist is inspired straight from those rom-coms where the pair hate each other on sight but predictably fall into each others’ arms in the final reel. The good guy is unequivocally heroic (he has a vague drink problem, but that’s forgiven by being the result of a childhood tragedy) and the bad guys blacker than black. Interestingly it seems the good guys drive Renaults, Citroens and Peugeots in the French-set story, while the bad guys all drive German cars – it’s not exactly subtle.

Its lack of ambition for any originality is really rather depressing: it’s the literary equivalent of popcorn, an impressive amount of volume but almost no calorific content, a meal that’s forgotten almost before you’ve finished eating it. At least the prose is an improvement of Dan Brown’s execrable tomes (although it simultaneously also shows up just deceptively well told and nuanced Lee Child’s best-sellers are.) It manages to be be perfectly readable, retaining Brown’s annoying readability strategy of continual “just one more chapter” cliffhangers and proceeding at a fair clip. The language is kept very simple, the words, sentences, paragraphs and chapters are all very short – it’s writing for people who don’t generally read or have attention deficit problems, and has something of the air of a ‘young adult’ series (something that’s actually been planned by the publishers, apparently.)

Still it’s a perfectly fine holiday beach book – something that’ll be diverting enough while your brain is on auto-pilot. It’s also ideal to read on an e-reader like a Kindle or an iPad. The historical background of alchemy and its relationship with first the Catholic church and later the Nazis is interesting in its own right. However, the book’s smugness on its level of research is undermined by some mistakes in some of the incidental modern day background about cars, and later by some odd mishandling of timings that makes no sense and should have been picked up by the editors.

Overall, there’s enough untapped potential in both the lead character and the author to make me interested in revisiting later books in the series (there are now six – five of them in two and a half years). If the series can shake off its slavish adherence to pastiching existing best-sellers and find its own groove, language and direction then there’s certainly enough promise of talent to make it work.