Sunday, 24 April 2011

The Impossible Astronaut: Part one

WARNING SPOILERS: If you've not yet seen this, then please look no further. Finally after much gnashing of teeth and beating of breasts, fandom on both sides of the pond can come together albeit a bit delayed , and on the same day discuss our brilliant and universally admired Doctor.

In order to stretch a bit and  make sure I'm not ruining anything for anybody... I'm going to spend a little time talking about something safe. Sad, but safe. Earlier this week our beloved Sarah Jane Smith aka Lis Sladen passed away suddenly at the incredibly young age of 63 from cancer. She was in my estimation THE companion. Part best mate, part first mate and part Doctor's conscience. Sarah Jane first showed up during John Pertwee's incarnation while working at U.N.I.T.  From that time onwards and till she left us first in her Andy Panda outfit, she became the companion we all loved. Oh we lusted after some, wanted to hug others, and yet others moved us to tears ( Adric), but Sarah Jane was the one we loved, the one we always measured the other companions too. Even in her return, years later with the 10th Doctor, it was hard not to feel the old  stirrings in your heart when she first saw the Doctor and when she finally said goodbye to him. If anything, Sarah Jane had not gotten old, she'd gotten better.  I must admit I was not a huge fan of The Sarah Jane Adventures, but even as a young adult programme it took much of it's character and force from the actress Lis Sladen, who I'm sure loved every second of it and would have gone on another 10 years if she hadn't died. Sarah Jane Smith asked us not to to forget her, how could we? Are our hearts made of stone? I'm not one to cry much or all that often, but last night during the tribute on CBBC, My Sarah Jane,  it was all I could do not to cry, nearly made it too, but then they hit us with that final montage and music. We will never forget you Lis Sladen, RIP and keep the Brigadier company. For an in-depth review of Lis Sladen's life I recommend my mate Keith Telly Topping's article.

Best comment on the night was yer Keith Telly Topping's response to my cryptic status right after Doctor Who finished.....Me: Wellll that was a sizzler wasn't it. Him: It was. Dramatic. Funny. Thought provoking. Mind you, I kept on expecting the hare to break down about every five minutes ... . Basil Brush would be proud.

Enough stalling already, The Impossible Astronaut: Part one  was precisely what it was supposed to be, a part one. If you were expecting to the Lord thy G-d Steven Moffat to neatly wrap up all the tiny details for you at the end of 45 minutes, you are clearly new to this Doctor Who thing. I will go further, while some say it was mehhh and a bit iffy, I was glued from beginning to end. It lasted 45 minutes but it felt like 20. When the credits rolled I went gahh and wanted the week to go by as quickly as possible so it could be Saturday again. This is not mehh telly, this is not iffy storytelling, it is however a master setting up a finish and adding extra layers to that story we've been wondering about for a long time, who is River Song? 

The ep opens with the throw away and yet amusing scene of the young marrieds in their sitting room watching clips of the Doctor waving at them from various points in history. A less practised hand would have been rumbled for padding, but not Moffat, this bit of theatre paved the way to making the Tardis blue card being less important than it actually was. After a bit of sussing, the numbered bit otherwise anonymous envelope yields instructions that only be from the Doctor. Fade to a dessert on planet USA and we have kicked off. Amy Rorry, Song  and the 1103 year old Doctor don't have long to wait for something to happen. And 10 minutes in shots, the Doctor is regenerating, more shots and he's dead. Welllll I for one didn't buy it. Yes he was dead, he got a lovely Viking send off, but like Gandalf the Grey, he was only hiding till later. And Presto, out the bogs comes a 909 year old Doctor. Are you keeping up people? 

Our merry band of very possible related persons now have to save the future doctor from the grisly fate of future Doctor, but can't tell him owt for fear of tearing yet another rip in the space time continuum, and wasn't that a pain the behind the last time? Moffat does well to separate the command and control structure where he usually tells them to jump and they ask why and River Song just ignores him. What with the trio plotting behind his back, Matt Smith resorts to the childish , "what's the point in having you all"  if you're not going to look at how amazing I'm being. At last  a spark of the alien egomaniac we all know lurks in every regeneration since William Hartnell got cross over being less than all powerful. 

Roll on to the Oval Office and President Nixon seems pretty cool for a cold war era politician raised on fear and paranoia. I'm surprised the lot of them weren't hoyed off to Area 51 on the spot. ANY ways, we're soon off to Florida and the source of the trouble. The Grey Amy's been seeing but forgetting since nearly the first frame, is now clearly part of a swarm or colony several centuries old. Now the last time such creatures blanked out minds we struggled to remember, this time the mobile phone is recruited in the battle to save Earth yet again. For a murderous race, the Greys are not what you would call scary in the same way Daleks, Cybermen or the Borg are. It's not like I've gotten jaded or used to uglies from outer space nesting in the bowels of the planet plotting dominion over the Human race, some of them still strike instant fear in me and turn me into a quivering bowl of 9 year old boy. This lot however still don't scare me. Like the somewhat ineffectual Sea Devils of old, these may take some time to get a bit of respect. 

And then the credits roll and we have to wait! Well Not quite, there's a lot more that happened , but that as I said before,  goes more to the story of River Song and the Doctor. Amy is pregnant, River fears something worse than her own death. What could be worse than your own death? Watching Don't scare the Hare? Another series of Candy Cabs? ( yes and yes) BBC One Comptroller Mr Cohen has a lot to answer for. In terms of Doctor who, there can only be one thing worse than River's own death and that has to be the death of the Doctor Himself. " Of course it's you, I understand" takes on a whole new meaning, but then again it could be somebody else entirely. So is River Amy, but older? Is River Amy's as yet unborn child? Will Amy's child marry the Doctor and give birth to River? As we know in Gallifreyan biology and family trees, the Hapsburgs would feel right at home and we cannot ignore any of these possibilities. My money is on Amy being River in the future, though that doesn't square with the statement of River's that they are moving in opposite directions.  If  I follow this line of inquiry much further, my brain will hurt and that is not something I need right now. 

Outstanding performances all around but Rory rises to the top of the pile with some strong moments,  I particularly enjoyed Rory as TARDIS orientation officer and funeral director, in both cases he show he could yet be a big player if he doesn't get eaten, dissolved, vaporized or other wise sent off to the old companion's home.One thing that did surprise me  was that while scenes were shot on location in the USA, the British nature of the programme was never in any danger. It's reassuring that despite being the world's greatest power, the Americans still need Brits and an alien to solve their problems. Some things never change eh? Fandom gets an echo with the spoilers banter and Amy fans will be pleased to see how she has become quite the domestic Goddess. I myself am more into the full figured River Song with her curves and barely concealed sexuality. Like the Doctor said, he likes the bad girls, and they don't get any badder than River Song. 

Something my wife said struck a chord with me tonight as well. RTD and to some extent even THe Lord Thy G-d SM have forgotten the Doctor is an Alien. He's been humanised far too much, he's been allowed to become simply eccentric without the acerbic arrogance of a superior being that finds it hard to deal with talking ants or chimps with calculators. In the old days... (here he goes again), Doctors used to get regularly frustrated at the lack of basic education and skill that humans, even from advanced eras, suffered from. Now he seems to have gone so native it's more like he's the 2000 year old man and can only tell tales of what it was like before the invention of the wheel. And when are we finally going to get stories that explore the vast space that is the TARDIS? It's like they've parked in the reference section of the British museum and  refused to  move an inch further. Perhaps If I say it often enough... from my to G-d's ears. G-d works in Cardiff, so it's not long distance like it used to be. Lastly, these Earth bound stories, are all fine and good, but we need more alien planets, more future times and creepy things in bad suits who are never pleased to see the Doctor. I'm not complaining, just wondering when we will reach for the stars again, just asking. 

In short, I loved the series opener, and look forward to many more stories. Keep em coming Mr. Moffat. I trust in your ability to make these things make sense without robbing us of all that suspense and fodder for discussion. Like Deep Thought, you have guided us from crisis to crisis, but please, no long drawn out Seldon plan, don't wait too long to free Gallifrey and return the Universe to normal service. I thank you in advance.

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Don't scare the Hare... it may kill you.

When the BBC gets it wrong, they get it horribly wrong. In order to not miss a second of my precious Doctor Who return tonight, I tuned into BBC One  a bit early. I did so with a great deal of trepidation. Don't scare the hare.....Game show in which two teams are invited into the underground forest of a 4ft robotic hare, voiced by Sue Perkins, where they face a series of physical and mental challenges. The contestants must avoid scaring the animal as they make their way through several rounds of games in a bid to win £15,000. Hosted by The Gadget Show's Jason Bradbury. .... the lead in show sounded bad, but not nearly as bad as the finished product. The only redeeming features of this turkey was that it had an end and that mercifully Sue Perkins wasn't voicing the hare, merely being Graham Norton like when at Eurovision. 

Gazza Hare
The low point was when we were told the contestants had to get past the "alarm frogs" to give Gazza the Hare his bait, which he'd forgotten. I was picturing killer frogs on duty holding pointy rifles or some such. As it happens, like all the other lame consequences of scaring the hare, it consisted of card board cut outs of frogs on lit raised pods going awooga really loud. It only got worse as the hapless victims had to hover in a sort of cherry picker balloon type thing over a garden of carrots to steal the hare's crop protected by laser beams. Sounds chilling, but was laughably bad. Blue Peter set up better challenges for young people than this nightmare scenario dreamed up by drug addled children's telly producers.  How were the questions you ask?  Easy enough if you've grown up in the Harry Potter era and paid the slightest bit of attention in school, but not this lot. Contestants quite possibly stupider than the programme itself. 

Not sure what they were they were thinking running this just before Doctor Who, but I reckon it was to immediately apologize to license payers for the worst ever game show by assuaging us with the Doctor.  One poor bastard who commented on the TV Guide site had this to say ...

Your lucky
You only had to watch it for 35 minutes. We sat in the studio for 5 hours while it was made.

My mate Dave Groggs watched after I posted about just how bad it was in Facebook. I'd like to say I'm sorry Dave, but I did warn you. This made Hole in the Wall look like pure genius. Prime time Saturday night, you'd have thought the brain boxes in scheduling would have had something better to show, like maybe cheese ripening live or watching a 20 something suburbanite looking for the ON switch to the first edition Dickens he's just got from Gran for being such a frightfully good boy.  In their the defence, the Beeb was looking to give this tripe it's best ratings ever by having it lead in to Who. But we all know that next week, should it even see next week, it couldn't have topped 100 people. So why even make it? Who knows, the way some things get commissioned you have to wonder. The pitch must have sounded awesome.... We have a robot hare you see, you have to steal it's carrots, (yawn) by answering questions and doing silly things (right) .... and if you get an answer wrong it goes barmy, lots of lights go off and the eyes glow a scary red.  "Does it shoot things when it's scared?" asks the jaded BBC type, "no, but it does run around a lot on the spot ... not being the least bit scary or funny".  That should of been the end of it, but no, clearly some dirt was covered up, we'll never know who at the BBC was once a rent boy and Don't scare the Hare was made. You've been warned, it's diabolically bad, trust me, you'll feel used and angry if you watch next week. And Sue Perkins, if you're reading this, I hope you really needed the money very badly, it's the only reason you could of done it, or maybe they had a gun to your head.

The Beeb not content to torture us with dreck like Don't scare the Hare, wasted a bit more money. I know this because I was recently the victim of a mugging on the iPlayer.  Looking for something new to watch, I checked out something that had been billed as a comedy, there like a shiny new toy was Candy Cabs.  An all female cab company, based ever so loosely on the Carry on film with which it shares a plot. There the comparison ends. The women are repellent, unsympathetic and about as funny as a case of the trots. The near universal low brow ill educated accent and lack of class on display made the far superior Benidorm ( which I love) look like Royal Shakespeare. There is nothing good about this programme, the casting is awful, the premise is dull and predictable and the writing can't make up it's mind whether we're supposed to like the women or their victims. Oh wait we're supposed to hate them all. It's more footballers wives on scrumpy than a comedy. The idea is that a group of fat charvy women with a bit of money try and save their unique business while being nasty to everybody around them. Hardly the sort of thing you want to go through let alone watch. 

Feeling it was duty to at least try it for a bit, I got through the first 10 minutes of the first ep , then sampled bits of the second.   I had hoped to find a glimmer of talent and or good writing, but all it was, was an unrelenting moan fest of bitchy women past their prime who had scared off even their closest friends. As for the language, I find it hard to imagine an entire community that hasn't a single person who speaks proper English or hasn't the manners of a drunken Essex girl.  I'm more angry over this to be honest than the Hare tripe, Candy Cabs could have been a bit of good old fashioned Oh Matron with some Packet of crisps, but instead is a bowl of sick, seasoned with a bit of glitter.  If you want to see angry people being nasty to each other, watch Jeremy Kyle, at least he doesn't bill himself as a comedy. Can it be that the sitcom division of the BBC is well and truly broken? I have yet to evidence of fresh new comedy from them that isn't derivative, poorly paced and dull since the brief flare of Mongrels and Rev. More misses than hits and sadly most of them are run out for ducks they are so bad. Somebody set up an enquiry please. If Mrs Brown's Boys is the best they can do, then you have to wonder what the rest of them are doing with their time. 

Thank God for Doctor Who and Spiral, or even great dramas like The Crimson Petal and the White. I know in my heart of hearts that the BBC can't be perfect all the time, but this has to be a pretty bad run at comedy central by any stretch. Not sure when the lunatics running the asylum will be rounded up, but it can't be soon enough. 

Saturday, 16 April 2011

I laughed, I cried, I vomited: New sexy history

History was never tougher than this. I can hear India Fisher reaching for the " Hey that's my line" special number, but the first thing went through my mind when I watched Dan Snow present the Medieval London part of BBC's Fithy Cities, was who did he cross to get this grotty, shitty, manky, mingning gig? My overwhelming feeling during most of the episode was nausea and a strange compulsion to make gagging noises  and squirm in my chair. Having watched other dirty cities programmes, I had something to compare this to,  as it happens the others played the filth as archaeology card and tried not to go for the gag reflex, Proff Snow on the other hand wants you to watch this with a sick bag inches from your face.  What is he telling us that we didn't already know? Well plenty, we knew our ancestors were vile disgusting things with little or no idea of hygiene, but  we knew that  long ago intellectually, in Filthy Cities Snow illustrates with copious clips of urine, runny poo and  puss infested wounds, just how unpleasant life in medieval London was. In case you were thinking  good thing you couldn't smell it Mietek, he's got on offer scratch and sniff cards for your enjoyment, honest, I couldn't make this up.

This commando history that seeks to gross you out, does have an agenda and it is still despite the smelly nature of the material, worth the watch. I suspect it's all part of a cunning plan by the boffins at the BBC to get boys watching more historical programming as well as being part of the social history movement that wants to literally stick your nose in it so you can understand the "real" history, of in this case, London. Seems we wallowed in streets so filled with waste (human and animal) that we needed special sandals fitted with lifts to rise above the mess. Several expressions that we take for granted come from this era, "Not taking shit from you" and variations on it, was literally a cry from neighbours who did not wish to have somebody else's poo diverted into their homes by less than kind spirits who seemed happy to find ever more creative ways to move the stuff along and away from their homes.  The rolls are filled with interesting and stomach churning stories of people building pipes, extending homes out as far as possible over the street and clogging water drains with  shit.

When it became obvious that people were not going to be moved by fines, the city Fathers found new ways to deal with the rising piles of excrement and the odours that went with it by inventing jobs that exist to this day. You may not recognize  Muck raker, Surveyor of the pavements and the Gong farmers (who cleaned cess pools and privies) but today they are the street sweepers, bin men and hardy souls who clean the  sewers. Proff Snow doesn't miss the opportunity to dunk a poor actor into chocolate syrup and mud, when he recreates the death of an early Gong farmer who passed away when he drowned in his own waste having fallen in during a bowel movement. Next stop Revolutionary Paris, If the London ep is anything to go by, Paris the smelliest city in Europe will be a laugh riot of humiliation for Dan Snow and for the more delicate of us, yet another hour during which we will ask ourselves, can the sight of poo, pee, rotting fish other food waste, maggots and animal entrails ever become "nothing special". Not for the feint of heart, but if you are not afraid of a lot of disgusting things each more repellent than the last, then Fithy Cities is for you.  As for Dan Snow, I hope he's a good boy from now on, that way Antie Beeb won't have to punish him for a good long while.

Moving onto a different kind of manky history, the BBC4 was kind enough to repeat the 2008 production of Fanny Hill starring the delectable Rebecca Night. Along with a collection of other talent well used to donning period costumes, this version made Diary of a Call Girl seem like a pale copy of the original. Full of lush period sets, clothes and sense of fantasy that populated the novels of Georgian England, this Fanny worked on a number of levels, not least of which the sexual level. The timing of this project coincides with looser rules when it comes to the portrayal of sexuality and the limits beyond which Mary Whitehouse would simply have never dreamed of. Secret Diary of a call girl starring Billie Piper goes out of it's way to shock, surprise and titillate while Fanny did the same without hardly trying... even if you were a 14 year old boy up past your bed time. But for an adult, even a most shy one who's "slept with a lady", Fanny was straightforward without being crude or insensitive, and yet the amount of exposed flesh and eroticism on display was enough to stir even the most somnabulant libido. The sanitized sometimes fantasy story of a simple country girl who moves to that London to make her way in the world, becomes an 18th century appeal to those who would otherwise condemn women to the poorhouse or the far worse fate of back alley street walker. It is as much attempt to sell a bit of salcious filth to  Georgians   as it is a crusading tome that wants to break down rigid morality that pretends there was nothing wrong with the set up of the day. Besides, Fanny Hill as a book was far more representative of the genuine feeling of people of the time, at least when the pastor wasn't looking, than any of the saccharine upper middle class books by girls about Mr Darcies.

If you prefer your history safe and without nudity or vomiting, Neil Oliver's History of Celtic Britain is the thing for you. So far We've visited the Bronze and Iron ages complete with spectacular artefacts and interesting speculation that I frankly wouldn't be too surprised to find out was true eventually. His assertion that Celtic people don't have a common linguistic heritage is utterly wrong as any anthropologist who's studied the cultures, architectures, traditions and words of the Slavic and early Irish and Scots peoples would tell you.  A paper published in Poland in the 1970's demonstrated a clear link between the Gaelic and old Slavic tongues in groups of root words they would have shared when the Celts dominated from Moscow to Dublin. As well, I question his loyalty to the whole Roman invasion of Britain that has been successfully challenged by both recent archaeology and a revisiting of certain texts. I bring this up as the next ep is precisely about that period of time. It's clear that like almost everywhere else in the Empire, the Romans were invited in by a client state and got involved in local affairs on the side of the people who go them to come in the first place. So much is known about those events now that to persist with the invasion story is ignoring the historical and archaeological record. It would of course be madness on my part to question the assertion that the effects of romanization on ancient Celtic Britain was anything less than rapid, lasting and dramatic, in as much as romanization had been taking place for at least 50 years before that. It remains to be seen just how Oliver handles the material and I refuse to criticise him any further before I see the programme. I have no doubt the rest of the series will as interesting as the first two eps and the style so far of mixing on site visits to locations normally closed to the public mixed with clips designed to show just how hard our Neil has worked, will continue to entertain and inform. In the Bronze age film we saw him enter a series of tunnels each narower than the last in a mine that was almost assuredly dug out by small children in places. Much of the material on display will be familiar to you if you've watched other such programmes, but it's the way the material presented and explained that shed new light on the very objects for you. Already a few accepted ideas present in the naming of the objects or the people excavated as far back as a century ago are being overturned through fresh eyes and the conclusions are painting a picture of a far less isolated or ignorant ancient Britain. Keep an open mind about some of the assertions, but do please watch this excellent series, it is helping lay the ground work for a deeper understanding of an age that till now was quite literally  held hostage by a few "trusted sources" that had not been challenged in a very long time.

If you've somehow missed Tony Robinson's crew since their return, Time Team  and the Time Team Specials are back with even more digs and special secrets. Remaining regular Time teams from the current series cover moats, mills and cannons, while the Specials are no less interesting with a visit to  find a key War of the Roses battlefield,  a super sized flame thrower from WW1 and a lost Roman Circus in Colchester. This year in addition to the usual suspects, we have a new member, Asian Raksha Dave who brings the same kind of enthusiasm and faith that sends Tony off wondering why he's the only one who seems to think the mud filled hole is just a mud filled hole and not an Iron age mill. 18 years and Time Team still has the same power to draw us in as ever.

We cannot forget our mates at Masterchef. Jaunty Roads and Gregg Wallace  have despite getting a new set, not compromised too much on the premise that has made the show a hit for so many years. This year's crop of hopefuls that are by now reduced to four,  but include a vegetarian that seems to cut herself every few minutes, is as interesting as it could be, considering they aren't being as exacting with ingredients and tests as they used to be. Having said that, famous caterers and chefs including both Michel Roux Jr and his father have made memorable appearances. If I was to pick a winner with only a few left standing , it would be the Italian Sara, but if I'm honest, I haven't been jazzed about regular Masterchef since Dhruv won the last time. That particular series was by far the best and was only eclipsed by Masterchef Pro. This crop is far from deserving of any of the accolades and prizes offered to others in past years, even the less than hapless celebs from last year seemed better equipped to deal with the situations at hand. So to summarize, we have an accident prone nervous vegetarian who rarely if ever is challenged on her lack of meat in most of her dishes, an American who experiments and thinks that peanut butter and jelly are a gourmet dish, a competent but dull Englishman who fires hot and cold and an Italian nurse who has the passion and the knowledge but not the skill to be let loose in a professional kitchen on a regular basis let alone write a cookbook. Hardly the stuff of legend, but it gets me through  the week.

Another culinary treat is the second series of Raymond Blanc's Kitchen secrets.  Like the last time, each recipe is a new set of skills and a series of recipes you cannot fail at if you follow the directions. What is particularly wonderful this time around is the array of treats I remember from my childhood. Much of what he does is traditional French but hardly exclusively French. Many of the pastries and puddings are familiar to Polish tastes and with the death of my Grandmother, lost to me till now. Do yourself a favour, if you are to watch but one cookery programme right now, make it this one. Your stomach will thank you and your guests will never again turn down an invitation. 

Lastly there was the fabulous and must watch Great British food revival. Sadly it's no longer on the iPlayer, but the brilliant recipes for breads, puddings, gnoci, pork, beef, mutton, apples and other things can be found here. The BBC chefs share their recipes in the hopes you too will pick up these sometimes long forgotten or neglected foods.

In case you been living under a rock, Doctor Who is coming back, make sure you are ready for Saturday 23rd of April at 6 pm!!!! on BBC One. For all the craic, not just Amy pond's, log onto the Doctor Who page for trailers and other clips to keep busy till the big day.

Happy telly and see you soon