Archive for return to oz

Dinosaurs on a Spaceship (Review)

Posted in British Shows on American TV, Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 15, 2012 by Tom Steward

In the spirit of writing posts that have little or nothing to do with the theme of this blog we submit for your disapproval a review of a pleasingly throwaway episode of Doctor Who which despite its self-conscious tone of inconsequential fun-a take-it-or-leave-it proposition made abundantly clear by the Ronseal title ‘Dinosaurs on a Spaceship’-has been lambasted by fans as infantile. Labelled an unfunny, tonally confused mess, the second episode of the new season of Doctor Who is in fact a refreshingly straightforward piece of storytelling with a number of fine performances from a top-notch cast and some spot-on characterisation.

It does exactly what it says on the tin!

For the record, when it comes to family entertainment I’m far fonder of efforts that package heavyweight ideas and adult themes with fun and simplicity than those which adopt a portentous and ambiguous style and tone which ignores the majority of its audience base. This is why family movies The Wizard of Oz and Babe are such enduring classics. They have profound things to say about adolescence and animal rights (respectively, although you shouldn’t glue wings to a monkey) but deliver them with a lightness of touch. It’s also why their self-consciously darkened sequels Return to Oz and Babe: Pig in the City are artistic failures. Disturbing and inappropriate for children, these movies address the serious issues of adult life head-on without regard for how young viewers react to or understand them. As an institutional mongrel straddling the BBC’s drama, children’s and light entertainment departments, Doctor Who has often struggled to know where to draw the line on adult content.

Looks fun, doesn’t it?

Doctor Who has always been the scourge of conservative parents and campaigners who claim that it broadcasts material unsuitable for children. Generally, though, the programme has been pretty responsible on this count, erring on the thrilling and exciting side of horror without any of the lingering mental scars. What’s more, when it blundered in the 1970s and 1980s with unacceptable levels of physical violence, producers had the good sense to revert to stories that played up the light-hearted and comedic side of the programme for a while. That said, the first time I’ve ever thought that the show had gone too far was last year’s ‘The Almost People’ in a scene showing Amy giving birth while imprisoned in a coffin-like capsule. The sheer visceral horror could only alarm young women about what would happen to their bodies in adulthood. It irresponsibility pursued shock value without giving children guidance on how to interpret what was happening.

Adult body horror in a children’s TV show

It’s no surprise then that an episode which makes good on Doctor Who’s commitment to its younger viewers has been added to this year’s run, or that it works so well. Chris Chibnall’s ‘Dinosaurs on a Spaceship’ opens with a time-shifting montage familiar from Steven Moffat’s episodes but while the latter writer uses this technique to convolute the storyline, the former’s intentions are to suggest whirlwind adventure. It also glosses over what is a satisfyingly linear narrative structure, an episode purposefully striding to its conclusion that makes the best of its simple story by gradually unfolding mysteries like a detective novel and maintaining the breakneck pace of the fixed timeframe. Manichean character contrasts abound: macho chauvinist/female supremacist, righteous hero/amoral villain, emotionally reserved father/compassionate son. This superficiality allow the characters to be quickly absorbed into the action-packed storyline and does a good job of orienting younger viewers in what to feel about the characters. But in working through these stark oppositions, a thoughtful message emerges that extreme viewpoints should be eschewed in favour of tolerance and compromise.

The gang

The gang

The comedy of his episode succeeds more than in previous attempts as humour derives effortlessly from character rather than being pasted in as anomalous gags and set-pieces. It lies in Brian (Mark) Williams’ passive-aggressive chastising of his son’s lack of DIY masculinity and relatable rendition of fathers’ eccentric habits. It is in the oblivious taboo-breaking misogyny of Rupert Graves’ big game hunter and our unnerving attraction to the politically incorrect male heroes of old. Even the incompetent robot double act (voiced by David Mitchell and Robert Webb) which smacks of extraneous vaudeville makes shtick out of their incongruous personalities not just their funny voices. Making characters’ actions easier to understand conversely makes them more authentic rather than one-dimensional. Rather than inject forced notes of pacifism and make him apologise for causing suffering, The Doctor here is allowed to destroy an evil enemy at the cost of life (an animal’s at that!) without the usual dismay and remorse that writers think makes him seem more complex but in fact insults viewers’ intelligence. And villain Solomon (David Bradley) oddly seems more genuinely menacing the more of a caricature of unrestrained capitalism he becomes.

Better than the Empire State Building

But there’s no doubt that what truly makes this episode excel is the performances. Mark Williams‘ deadpan yet emotionally resonant portrayal of Rory’s father is hilarious, observant and poignant, simultaneously so in the penultimate image of Brian enjoying a flask coffee and lunchbox sandwich from Earth’s orbit. David Bradley’s classically styled posturing and vocal intonations held all the gravitas of a great theatrical villain but with the nuance and naturalism to make it credible for the small screen. Solomon’s material and sexual avarice, which struck a discordant note with many viewers, gave a welcome clarity to what should constitute pure evil in the world of Doctor Who. And crucially it did so without spoiling a rollicking good time.



Watching Telly with Americans

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Americans watching British TV with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 11, 2011 by Tom Steward

Over the past few weeks I’ve had a taste of my own media medicine. I’ve been watching British TV with an American and absorbing rather than catapulting those oh-so-clever anthropological field notes about the bizarre idiosyncracies of a national TV culture. And what’s even more humbling is that I’ve been doing it with someone far, far better at it and more succinctly expressive than me (see-that sentence only needed one ‘far’). G stayed with me in July and from time to time we embarked on the daunting prospect of sitting down to watch British TV. I say ‘daunting’ because I want G to move here next year, and it felt like the onscreen lack of Real Housewives after their most recent divorces and Kardashians sporting the previous week’s surgical alterations might set back the emigration propaganda campaign several ages. G found a lot of British culture in catch-up mode, especially when it came to fashion, so finding programmes on TV we had watched together in the states months before weren’t too much of a surprise for her, though it was pleasantly for me. I thought we were at least three or four years behind. Turns out we are on the meat (great drama, comedy and reality) but not on the gristle (celeb fucking and shitcoms)-thanks ITV2!


Keeping up with the Kardashians...barely.



But we had a bigger problem than an out-of-date hat. British TV was ‘weird’, ‘so weird’ and ‘weird’. For G, it was as if Britons had collectively decided to substitute a working TV set in the corner of the room for a 19th Century ventriloquist dummy with its mouth sprung to repeatedly gawp the word ‘Mummy’. I vigorously protested this as a case of cultural alienation but didn’t exactly have the backing of the TV stations themselves, who throughout the month defected to G’s side by broadcasting footage of old men arguing with Simon Cowell about the existence of a Worzel Gummidge musical before Pertwee-lisping through pop hits or swapping their tried-and-tested flagship mobile spectacle reality shows for season finales where half, quarter and minus wits get berated in four rooms by several regional accents. Round One to G.

The Apprentice Indoors

 And Round Two to her as well. It was through G that I realised something that had never before occurred to me; that American TV, even the rough stuff, is by and large far more innocent and sanitary (I mean this more than sanitized-you’ll see why when I tell you what show made me realise) than British TV. What was the breakthrough programme? Why-eye, Geordie Shore, the Return-to-Oz style dark sequel to Byker Grove. An identically-designed British re-make of MTV reality hit Jersey Shore, it eschews the likeably harmless original premise of laughing at mutantly muscled, beboobed and tanned buffoons for an exponentially grotty and lewd indoor dogging video and creepily crass cock-size discussion show. All the lovably hare-brained schemes and dopey catchphrases of the original sunk  sewage-like into ruthless dirty-dicks campaigns of professional fornication and fuck-punctuated verbal cesspools. I initially thought this was just censorship differences but it’s also about our predilections as a nation for sleazy Sodom-and-Gomorrah docs set in seventh circles like Ibiza and late-night town centres. Why we want these on TV baffles me just as much as why we want them in reality. G said all that in one word: ‘nasty’.

Byker Grove was never like this...

Some of G’s confusion derived from how British TV was scheduled and broken down. She found the advert breaks interminably long, which at first I refused to accept from an American, until I realised that US TV commercial interludes are short but frequent, and just because UK TV is covertly irritating in its spread of adverts doesn’t mean it’s any better, worse in its sneakiness possibly. US TV timings are rigorously routinised-all programmes begin on an hour or half-hour. We’re far more casual with our timings, at least on terrestrial TV-a 10-minute documentary on bees here, a 10 no 12 minute news spot there, oh look, there’s an independently-made short film that’s exactly 3 minutes long for some reason. I can see how it would irritate someone brought up on regimented TV time, but I was left feeling rather proud of our irregular randomness.

There were some notable successes. G was an instant addict of Come Dine with Me, proving that it is a faultless universal formula (something like ‘Idiot + House + Cooking x4=Compulsive Sneering’) and that the world is brought together by its response to the show’s contestants with the global chant ‘Where do they get these people?’.

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