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Posts Tagged ‘Channel 4’

After about eight months watching not-quite-all of The Avengers, it’s a shock to get through all of Ultraviolet in less than a week, but here we are: the final episode, Persona Non Grata. This follows on directly from the previous one – the inquisition is holding a member of the opposition prisoner, while Kirsty is being manipulated by the bad guys for reasons which as yet remain slightly obcure.

Pearse is refusing to take his medication until this case is resolved, and decides their priority is to identify their prisoner – as he can’t be photographed or even fingerprinted, this is a little bit tricky. Their only lead is a scar he has retained from his mortal days, suggesting cancer treatment in his past. Nevertheless Pearse puts Mike and Vaughan on the job, and Mike promptly ditches Vaughan on the grounds they can cover more ground individually – he’s intent on his own parallel investigation into Jacob, the recently-turned journalist the opposition are using to handle Kirsty. Almost at once he runs into Vaughan, though: it seems Jacob was also recently investigating hospital cancer wards.

Meanwhile, Philip Quast and Corin Redgrave are getting some cracking scenes together, as the former priest and the former human being debate morality and philosophy – it’s implied that the experience which brought Pearse to his faith was an encounter with the undead, which, their captive suggests, rather suggests they are instruments of the divine will, rather than the abominations Pearse’s general shoot-on-sight principles suggest he thinks they are. ‘We are the source of all religion. We are the afterlife,’ whispers Redgrave; a compellingly creepy performance.

Off in yet another plot thread, Kirsty is essentially being kept in protective custody by Jacob, and being sold a line about Mike being part of the same death squad that killed Jack in episode one (which is basically correct). Inevitably, she discovers the truth of exactly what Jacob has become, before too long, but is clearly susceptible enough to buy his line about how the opposition are victims of propaganda from the Church and other sections of the establishment.

The team is clearly on the point of falling apart: Angie is tormented by the possibility she made a terrible mistake in destroying her husband and daughter, Pearse appears to be very aware of his own mortality and is perhaps even contemplating switching sides (which Vaughan predictably responds to with great hostility), and the enemy are exploiting Mike’s own misgivings and his feelings for Kirsty: she will be released, but only as part of a trade. There is someone in the inquisition’s headquarters whom the opposition would like sprung, very badly.

This isn’t quite the epic conclusion one might be hoping for, but it raises the stakes (sorry) very effectively and includes a lot of things assiduous viewers have probably been hoping for: Frances finds out just what Mike does for a living, for instance. The opposition also get some proper screen-time too, for a change. I’ve seen it suggested that Joe Ahearne initially considered doing a show where some of the main characters were undead, but realised that the budget wouldn’t permit it to be made exclusively at night – hence the existing format, where in the first few episodes the bad guys are mostly off-screen. Here, they get some proper scenes and meaty dialogue, as I’ve suggested.

In the end it largely boils down to the arcs of the four main characters, though (five if you include Kirsty), and this is quite satisfyingly done, without feeling particularly contrived. The plots of the previous episodes are also revealed to be connected to an overall plan to seize control of the world by instigating a nuclear winter and blacking out the sun for months – at least, this is what Pearse surmises, based on what they eventually learn about Redgrave’s character. The actual climax of the series isn’t its strongest or most convincing moment, but it ties nearly everything up quite neatly – there is a loose thread, but it’s not an egregious one.

Which brings us to the question – should we celebrate Ultraviolet as a superbly-effected miniature, or complain about the fact they only made six episodes? (Seven if you count the US pilot, which is supposedly awful.) Given the series was relatively well-reviewed, how come they didn’t do any more?

I seem to recall that in interviews around the turn of the century, Joe Ahearne indicated that the problem was that Ultraviolet was a show with a mainstream budget but only a cult audience (the same old story, sadly). However, more recently he’s said that it was all to do with how the series came together – other people were initially supposed to be writing and directing episodes, but it ended up with him doing the whole series, almost as an auteur. This meant he was fully occupied with filming and editing episodes at the time when the early work on a second series would normally have been done. Ahearne has said he always assumed there would only be six, and that it was a relatively high-concept show that would have struggled to come up with new plots anyway; the production company apparently did invite pitches from other writers on how a continuation might possibly be done, but most of these were very radically different takes on the series (which isn’t to say that Ahearne was unimpressed by them).

It is kind of a shame, because my feeling is that it’s usually in the second season that a TV show really hits its creative peak, and the prospect of another set of Ultraviolet episodes even better than the first would have been a mouth-watering prospect. (Perhaps they might even have managed to turn Mike into a more engaging character: Jack Davenport was one of the show’s big names at the time, but he’s playing such a hopeless individual that he doesn’t get much to do – the other regulars are all much more interesting characters.) But then again, I suppose one really shouldn’t be greedy about these things. All of the episodes are good, at the very least; some of them are exceptional. Is this the best British horror series of all time? It’s such a tiny genre that the answer wouldn’t mean much either way, especially when you consider that most of these shows are anthologies. Let’s just say that this really is an overlooked gem that transcends its origins as a sort-of knock-off of The X Files and becomes a great show in its own right.

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The episodic nature which has characterised the first four instalments of Ultraviolet begins to disappear with Terra Incognita – although as there are only six programmes in total (this is a perfectly-formed miniature, really), it could really qualify as the first of a two-part series finale.

A man arrives at Heathrow on a flight from Brazil, but is stopped at immigration on medical grounds – he is bleeding from the ears. A full examination reveals an open bite wound on his neck, and suggests he is suffering from some form of haemorrhagic fever. More startlingly, the man’s sister, Maria (Ellen Thomas) indicates they have come here to get help from a doctor in London who is an expert on his condition, whom the man’s specialists in Brazil suggested could cure him – someone called Dr March…

All of this naturally raises an enormous red flag for the inquisition, and both siblings are brought in for examination and interview. Vaughan and Mike interview the crew of the flight they came in on, and discover it was carrying medical equipment – the cause of a last-minute flight delay. The equipment turns out to take the form of large, hermetically-sealed, time-locked casings, one of which Vaughan and Mike manage to secure.

It turns out the bleeding man has a history of sickle-cell anaemia, which appears to have mysteriously vanished – but an examination reveals that the opposition have been nibbling on him in a most peculiar way, almost as if they have been sampling his blood. Maria tells the team she has come here not to see Angie March, but her husband Robert – the man whom she staked years before – as apparently only he has the knowledge to save her brother. Angie realises it could make a certain kind of sense – the opposition could be trying to perfect synthetic blood, something which would free them from their dependence on human beings as a food source. Judging from the man’s condition, they’re not quite there yet – but Robert March was a brilliant haematologist who could conceivably crack the problem. Angie points out to Pearse that the breakthrough would not only remove the casus belli between the inquisition and their enemy, but also help in the treatment of conditions such as non-Hodgkins’ lymphoma.

However, their top priority is finding the other casings, as they assume each contains a member of the opposition – the time lock is set to open just after the sun sets. But the enemy has been cunning, and sold the team a dummy – and Vaughan is captured, knocked unconscious, and wakes up in a locked room with four of the casings, each set to open in only a few minutes…

There’s a slightly schlocky element to this, basically to enable its resolution – whichever Renfield has locked Vaughan in there has been gallant (or dumb) enough to leave him with his gun and pen-knife – but it’s still really the dramatic peak of the episode. Vaughan is difficult to read, as usual, but seems almost on the verge of terminal despair – we also get a glimpse of the man behind the tough-guy front, as he rings Angie with only moments to go. Idris Elba doesn’t get a great deal to do acting-wise in many of these episodes – he’s basically there as the team hard man – but he makes the most of this opportunity to do a little more with it, and it works well.

But apart from this, the episode doesn’t have same focus as the previous ones. The initial mystery sort of gets forgotten about in the aftermath of Vaughan’s ordeal, overtaken by other concerns – mainly the arrival in the team’s base of the occupant of the container they captured. It’s almost implied this is part of the opposition’s plan – insert one of their number into the heart of the inquisition’s operation, to sow dissent and misinformation. Emerging from the quasi-coffin is a quietly impressive individual played (as well as you might reasonably ask) by the actor Corin Redgrave. (Thirty years earlier Redgrave had turned in a fine performance as Jonathan Harker in an ITV adaptation of Bram Stoker’s most famous novel, although I’m not sure that’s enough for this to count as stunt casting.)

Corin Redgrave prepares to be interviewed.

Redgrave has the presence and technique to hold his own against the regular cast, and believably puts the team on the back foot, making Angie once again question their ethos and methods. The plotline is left unresolved, as events are clearly building towards some kind of climax: Mike has succumbed to his feelings for Kirsty and arranged to see her again, even if he does turn up armed and prepared to potentially put a wooden dum-dum in her chest if she turns out to have been turned by the opposition (the question of whether Kirsty is still human or not is left open, reasonably skilfully, until after she’s seen Mike getting ready to take her out – at which point there’s yet another homage to the Citizen Kane hall-of-mirrors shot, though here for a reason on this occasion).

This is an odd, all-over-the-place kind of episode, without the strong central plot of most of the others and containing a few convenient plot devices, and some odd digressions. At one point Vaughan and Maria have a discussion of Candomblé (a syncretic Afro-Brazilian religion), which is sort of interesting but doesn’t really go anywhere except in that it links into the episode’s theme, which I think is faith (and the loss of faith). Maria is a believer, and has faith in Robert March’s ability to cure her brother (though this ultimately profits her little); Vaughan nearly loses all hope during his moment of crisis; Mike is clearly having severe doubts about having joined the inquisition; and so is Angie – though it’s been clear all along she’s never quite recovered from destroying her own husband and child.

In the end, though, it still works – it’s clearly doing things to set up the final episode, and there are lots of good individual set pieces, even if they don’t really link up with one another – Vaughan’s crisis with the coffins, Redgrave’s first appearance, and Mike’s confrontation with Kirsty. More than enough good stuff here for it to pass muster, anyway.

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Ultraviolet‘s fourth episode is entitled Mea Culpa, which would probably qualify as another fridge episode-name – were it not for the fact that there was a movie a few years ago entitled Mea Maxima Culpa, which it shares a few thematic elements with. The thing about this episode is that it really is trying very hard to be a proper serious drama for adults, rather than a campy bit of genre-based fun. This is always true of Ultraviolet, of course, but perhaps on this occasion they go over the top in the whole dour-and-gritty department.

The story opens at a school where a priest attempts to speak to a boy in his early teens named Gary (Robert Stuart). The lad is reluctant to speak to the older man, and when the priest refuses to take no for an answer, stabs him repeatedly with a craft knife. The priest dies of his injuries, Gary goes on the run. For some reason – and the episode really fudges this a bit too much – the inquisition are called in, as such a savage assault on a religious figure might be connected to the opposition’s activities. Even Mike is openly dubious of their getting involved in what looks like a job for the conventional police.

However, inquiries at the school reveal a suspicious degree of heliophobia amongst the boys, and Angie discovers they show a marked aversion to religious artifacts as well. Mike still thinks this might be symptomatic of something like meningitis, with the aversion to religion more closely linked to the dead man in particular. There’s also the question of how all the boys managed to pick up a Code Five infection given there’s no sign any of them have been bitten.

Meanwhile, Gary is in hiding in the local park, where he encounters a man named Colin (Rupert Procter). Here the episode starts heading into what seems to me to be quite dodgy territory: Colin is presented as pretty much the stereotype of the seedy gay man, cruising public lavatories, and so on. Anyway, Colin takes Gary back to his place, but before anything else can occur, Gary is attacked by Colin’s dog and badly injured. Colin dumps Gary at the local hospital and runs for it. Mike, on the other hand, who’s become rather appalled by the draconian measures employed by the team when there’s very little evidence of opposition involvement (all the children have been brought in for testing), has discovered evidence that the priest who was murdered was a paedophile.

(Round about this point, the A-plot is gently paused and we catch up on what’s going on with Kirsty and the journalist she has teamed up with – he has been digging a bit too deeply and got himself turned by the opposition – and Pearse and his mysterious ailment. Angie’s diagnosis is lymphoma, which is not good news for the team’s top man.)

Everything changes when it turns out that Gary indeed has a form of meningitis – but one which has been engineered to carry a version of Code Five infection, rendering the carrier heliophobic, hostile to religious symbols, and highly suggestible (by the opposition, anyway). This same virus is spreading through the school. The spectre of an epidemic of a disease which could render huge swathes of the population vulnerable to control by the opposition qualifies as a nightmare scenario for the team, but where has it come from?

Well, Vaughan and Mike track down Colin, and Vaughan – in a display of barely disguised homophobia – proceeds to beat the information they need out of him, while Mike looks on uncomfortably. Gary, Colin reveals, showed signs of having been groomed before, but not by the priest. All the evidence points to a man named Oliver – a recluse suffering from a genetic condition called xenoderma pigmentosum, which means he can never leave his home during daylight…

Vaughan Rice conducts an interrogation.

In many ways, this episode shares all the strengths of the rest of the series: it’s slick, well-played, and cleverly plotted with an inventive new take on the traditional lore (it turns out the opposition are indeed experimenting with producing mass infections without having to bite everyone individually, but one of their test subjects is refusing to socially distance himself). There are a couple of places where the plotting could be tighter, but this is only a minor concern. My issue with it is really that it just seems to be in rather dubious taste.

I’m not saying that paedophilia – even paedophilia involving the Catholic Church – is something that should be off-limits for drama. But if you’re going to use it as a plot element in a fantasy drama – and, when it comes down to it, Ultraviolet is ultimately a fantasy drama, an entertainment – you need to be justified in doing so. The problem is that the story doesn’t contain a metaphor for child abuse, or anything similar. It just seems to be there because including it makes the series look properly grown-up and dark.

I’m not sure this is enough, and there are other ways in which the episode doesn’t really distinguish itself in handling its subject matter: Colin, in particular, is a homophobic stereotype, and I don’t think the episode does anything like enough to clarify that not all gay men are paedophiles. The scene where Colin is beaten into helping the team is uncomfortable to watch – it really does add to the impression that the team are not terribly nice people. On the other hand, this may have been intentional: the suggestion seems to be that what they’ve all been through has left them damaged and callous. What new-recruit Mike’s excuse is, is another matter: Jack Davenport is always reasonably watchable, but Mike often comes across as glum and a bit moody. He certainly doesn’t seem to be enjoying the new job, referring to Pearse as the witchfinder-general and openly questioning his judgement. He’s even upset when he’s let off after accidentally shooting someone he thought was one of the opposition – Vaughan Rice, on the other hand, is more worried by the fact that Mike put two bullets into the guy and still managed to miss the heart.

As I said, this is a strong episode in lots of ways, sharing all the series’ usual virtues. But the nature of the story and the tone of it both leave me uneasy, despite all of that. It feels exploitative of real-world issues in a way that the previous episode wasn’t – and quite crassly exploitative, too. Worth watching, nevertheless, if only because the ongoing story elements do move on somewhat in the course of it – but I do think it’s problematic in many ways.

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The line between episodic and serialised TV has become very blurred this century, but they used to be two quite distinct forms. It was in the late 90s that ongoing plot elements began to appear on a routine basis even in programmes which ostensibly did stories-of-the-week. Bearing all this in mind, the question of whether Ultraviolet is a serial or not becomes a somewhat moot one. It’s really in a sort of netherworld between the two – it does build towards a climax in the final episode, but on the other hand, the second episode (In Nomine Patris, written and directed like all the others by Joe Ahearne) feels very much like an exercise in establishing the format for an ongoing series.

It opens with a woman named Danni Ashford (Jane Slavin) visiting her mother, who is deeply in the grip of Alzheimers’, while an associate (Christopher Villiers) waits outside in an expensive car. It looks like she has a big decision to make, and her companion – a smooth, handsome type – makes a big deal about not pushing her into it. They drive off, and the heavily-tinted windows of the car give us a big clue as to what may be going on here. Sure enough, the car is involved in a road rage incident after the man nearly runs a couple of bikers off the road: furiously, one of them attacks the vehicle with a wrench, damaging the window and allowing sunlight into the interior. The man begins to combust as the sun’s rays strike him, and he desperately drives away, running over his attacker’s companion as he does so…

Meanwhile, Vaughan Rice has been completing Mike’s induction into the inquisition – Mike is less than amused when the computerised firing range presents an image of Kirsty as a possible target, but Vaughan makes the point that their enemies are ruthless when it comes to exploiting any weak spots or vulnerabilities. Mike is clearly conflicted about the idea of cutting all ties with her (perhaps a bit too obviously conflicted, this plot element is laid on with a trowel), but before they can resolve the issue they are off on a job: news of the driver of a blacked-out car spontaneously combusting is right up their street, after all.

The evidence suggests their quarry is Lester Hammond, playboy son of tycoon Gideon Hammond (Trevor Bowen). The senior Hammond has recently specialised in constructing unusual bits of architecture – bunkers and basements with no windows, ventilation or plumbing – which is also rather suggestive. Pearse’s directive is to follow the money and find out what the opposition is up to, and the trail leads to a clinic researching into various blood disorders (which it’s suggested the opposition view rather in the same way that humans regard things like fowl pest and foot-and-mouth disease: they contaminate the food supply).

As usual, the episode takes great pains to be downbeat and naturalistic – there’s a reasonable twist towards the end, about the real identity of the man they’re hunting, but most of it you could watch with the sound turned down and not suspect this was much more than a routine police procedural show. I really like the way Ultraviolet generally eschews the flashy and the camp, not least because it just gives extra oomph to those moments when they do arrive. The set-piece with Hammond beginning to burn up in the car is very neatly done, and there are a couple of other pleasingly grisly touches: Slavin’s character ends up with a nasty hand-shaped burn on her arm as a result of the same scene, while the crushed vertebrae of a paraplegic turned by the opposition are visible when they send her to take out Mike.

Almost in passing, lots of interesting and flavourful world-building is going on here: Mike’s friend Frances indicates the inquisition is officially operating as part of the anti-terrorism squad (which sort of makes sense, although it may be another cover). Pearse suggests the opposition were responsible for the Great Fire of London, apparently an attempt to stop the spread of the plague. It’s confirmed that the opposition don’t register on cameras or phones, which just leads me to wonder – what about motion sensors? Pressure pads? (Some interesting possibilities here.) One twist on the usual lore is that the opposition can’t regenerate damage or injuries leaving Hammond permanently disfigured and in constant agony. On the other hand, being turned restores a paralysed young woman’s ability to walk, which does suggest some kind of regenerative ability, and Angie has already indicated this is one of their powers (presumably it’s just UV exposure that does irreparable damage to them). It’s indicated again that the dissolution of one of the bad guys is basically like a small bomb going off (so get ready to run after staking one of them).

What one of the opposition looks like after forgetting his sun block.

Beyond all this, though, the episode does have a theme, and one which works well with the conceit of keeping the actual monsters off-screen and in the shadows most of the time. We see them more through their effect on the people around them – Gideon Hammond, though outwardly successful, has lived his whole life in the shadow of the thing which has dominated him, while Lester has clearly done a number of Danni Ashford. With (it’s implied) a family history of dementia, it’s entirely reasonable that she would look for a way to dodge the ageing process and its effects. Nevertheless, it’s made quite clear that there is nothing benevolent about the agenda or methods of the opposition – the question, of course, is whether this justifies the methods the inquisition adopt, or the cost to its members: they intimidate witnesses into silence, cover up mysterious deaths and other activity, and Rice indicates that none of them have any friends outside the unit – the risk to them is just too great. It’s a hard and cold life being a slayer, it would seem.

I think this is a strong episode, but I can see why Ultraviolet ended up as a cult gem rather than a mainstream hit: it’s mostly a detective thriller, but people who’d enjoyed something like Between the Lines would probably have issues with the whole concept of the show. On the other hand, its determination to keep things real and grounded may have meant it seemed rather dull to many members of the fantasy and horror fan tribe. It may be pitching to a small constituency, but it’s still a very effective piece of TV.

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Democracy, I commented recently, has had a rough couple of years. I must, of course, qualify this by saying I speak as a left-leaning progressive and internationalist; should you be a right-winger who fervently believes in the primacy of the nation state, you will probably be little short of delighted with how things have turned out for you. Perhaps it’s better to say that recent events have conspired to show up the cracks in the system. As Churchill famously said, democracy is a terrible way of organising things; it just happens to be better than all the others. It inevitably reduces the multi-layered complexities of human opinion and belief down to a black and white tick-your-preferred-box choice.

And this is when the system is functioning as it’s supposed to. Situations like the one in the USA last year, when the person who scored three million votes more than the second placed candidate did not in fact win the contest, almost inevitably lead one to wonder in what sense the electoral college system is genuinely democratic. Meanwhile, here in the UK, we have repeatedly had the problematic situation where the slenderness of a winning majority has had no effect on the behaviour of a winning side – you may only get 52% of the vote in a referendum, but that still gives you 100% of the power to impose your interpretation of the result on the population, under the cover of the useful phrase ‘the Will of the People’.

The extent to which the Will of the People really matters is one of the issues examined by A Very British Coup, a 1988 TV drama which I was recently moved to revisit (available free-to-watch to UK residents). Rather to everyone’s surprise, it is showing every sign of becoming prescient and topical: written by Alan Plater from Chris Mullins’ novel, and directed by Mick Jackson, it opens on the day of a general election, in which former steelworker and lifelong socialist Harry Perkins (Ray McAnally) is victorious and becomes the Prime Minister of a borderline-Marxist Labour government. In addition to the nationalisation of various sectors, Perkins’ legislative programme includes open government, limiting private ownership of the media, nuclear disarmament, and the removal of US Air Force bases from British soil.

Unsurprisingly, this is met with horror by various members of the British establishment, not to mention the current American administration, and a shadowy coalition including senior figures at MI5, the head of the BBC, a Tory press baron, and members of the CIA comes together to undermine and, if necessary, topple the elected government of the UK. For the good of the country, naturally.

As I say, the series was made in 1988, and has a near-future setting (most clearly indicated by the fact that there are various references to ‘the King’) – apparently if you squint you can see tax discs for the year 1991 or 92, not that it really matters. The story was apparently inspired by persistent rumours that a military coup against Harold Wilson’s government was a very real possibility in 1974, not to mention alleged CIA involvement in an Australian constitutional crisis at around the same time.

It’s a solidly-made production, a product of that time when the scope and production values of British TV drama were becoming more cinematic, while its tone remained more theatrical. It is quite talky, and the audience is credited with some intelligence. McAnally carries the production ably, and there’s one of those interesting supporting casts made up of people on their way to a somewhat bigger time – Keith Allen plays Perkins’ press secretary, Jim Carter is the Foreign Secretary, Philip Madoc is the press baron, Tim McInnerny is a ruthless MI5 operative, and so on. (Of interest to a more niche audience – Geoffrey Beevers, Caroline John, and Jessica Carney also appear in roles of differing sizes.)

It’s a product of its time in another way, too – it’s hard to imagine anything quite so openly party-political being made by a UK broadcaster nowadays: Perkins is unmistakably the good guy throughout, with the forces against him clearly those of conservatism (with both a big and small C) and the right. The series was made while Thatcher was in power, based on a book written when it seemed distinctly possible for a hard left politician to become Prime Minister (in the early 80s, prior to the Falklands adventure, it seemed that Thatcher might lose the 1983-84 election and someone like Michael Foot or Tony Benn would take over – V for Vendetta was also originally predicated on this type of scenario). One of Thatcher’s most enduring achievements is that for many years it seemed wildly improbable that a committed socialist could ever get the job again.

And yet here we are. The series failed to foresee the fall of the Soviet Union, which inevitably colours its international outlook, and barely touches on the topic of the UK’s relationship with Europe, but to me it still feels like one with relevant things to say about the country’s situation today. Our papers are full of editorials referring to the Will of the People – or at least a particular, narrow interpretation of what that Will might be – and we see the privately-owned media united in attempts to discredit the leadership of the Labour party. ‘Partisan’ and ‘biased’ doesn’t even begin to properly describe the treatment of Jeremy Corbyn by many papers. Once again, no doubt the editors involved would say they are doing it for the good of the nation. They may even believe this themselves.

A Very British Coup takes biased press coverage as being just the first of the conspiracy’s moves against Perkins, going on to include fomenting industrial action, forged evidence of financial impropriety, and actual murder (a pro-disarmament scientific advisor is assassinated by MI5 – or so it is strongly implied). The series ends ambiguously, with another election, talk of ‘constitutional uncertainty’, and the sound of rising aircraft engines, implying that perhaps a genuine coup d’etat is in progress (again, there has already been speculation as to the likely response of the military to a Corbyn victory). Before all this, however, is a scene between Perkins and the head of MI5 where the civil servant admits that the prospect of a successful, genuinely left-wing government terrifies the establishment and those with a vested interest in the status quo, hence their determination to destroy Perkins and his government.

It’s a powerful scene and a disturbingly credible one, although still slightly theatrical. Who really runs the country? Does the Will of the People carry any real power? Or is it just the case that our elected officials are only allowed to govern within certain parameters, regardless of their popular support? If so, who has the real power, and what is it based on? In a few days there is a chance that all these questions may feel very urgent and significant indeed, and it will be interesting, to say the least, to see if any answers emerge.

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JMS’s philosophy when putting together every season of B5 but the first was something he would happily discuss on the internet and elsewhere: at the beginning of a series B5 was likely to get more new and casual viewers, and so to encourage them to stick around and become regular viewers, those parts of the season included more standalone episodes and stuff designed to bring people up-to-speed with what was going on. Conversely, fewer people were likely to watch the show for the first time towards the end of a season, and so the overall story was much more prominent.

This is certainly the case with season 3, with most of the final five episodes comprising one ongoing story, namely the planning and execution of a counter-attack against the forces of the Shadows and its ultimate consequences for all concerned.

Walkabout, episode 18, has the testing of a new weapon as its B-story. This part of the episode is competently done with some decent special effects sequences, even if some of the drama leading up to the climax feels a bit contrived (G’Kar has to be wrangled into sending a Narn ship to help in the test). My problem with the episode is the A story from which it gets its name: it’s just terribly, terribly dull, concerned with Dr Franklin (still coming to grips with his drug problem) getting involved with a cabaret singer played by a former Kid From Fame. (Her songs are JMS compositions, and all I will say is that the music of the 2250s seems to be looking over its shoulder to that of the 1980s.)

Hey ho. There’s a bit of a tangent in Grey 17 is Missing, which is partly concerned with the aftermath of Sinclair’s departure – apparently War Without End and Walkabout swapped places in the running order, which would have made this flow a little more smoothly.

With Sinclair gone, Delenn is taking on some of his responsibilities, including the leadership of a Human-Minbari paramilitary organisation, the Rangers. As she is a member of the religious caste, the warrior caste want one of their own people installed instead, and so recurring nuisance Neroon turns up making various dark threats against her person. Having been made to promise not to warn any of the station staff about the danger, Lennier gets round this by telling (oh dear) Marcus, who resolves to delay Neroon long enough to complete the transfer of power by challenging him to a duel.

It turns out you *can* get the staff after all.

It turns out you *can* get the staff after all.

At the time this episode originally aired, B5 was still running in a teatime slot on Channel 4 and, as such, was occasionally savagely edited to fit the timeslot. This occasion was the first time I’ve seen it uncut (the same is true of Shadow Dancing), and I’m not completely sure what the fuss was about. All right, so there’s a prolonged action sequence in which Marcus gets beaten half to death (I’m tempted to say ‘pity about the half’), but not what you’d call buckets of blood. Some dialogue about broken ribs is fairly on-the-nose, I suppose. Anyway all is resolved in the stately manner one would expect of an episode about Minbari politics.

Except all this is the B-story! The A-story is a frankly rotten and silly one about a religious cult living in a hidden level of the station, complete with their own pet monster. Garibaldi – who’s never had much to do this year – discovers their existence, and, well, nothing much happens. The premise strains credibility, the dialogue is JMS-waffle, and the conclusion is nonsensical. I don’t think season 3 comes close to the heights of season 2, but it only contains one real stinker of an episode – and, mainly due to the A-story, this is it.

Centauri politics get some screentime in And The Rock Cried Out, No Hiding Place, a neat little political thriller which is basically setting up locations and plotlines for early in season 4. Peter Jurasik, Stephen Furst and Andreas Katsulas all get lots to do, which is always a sign of a good episode. The B-story about a convention of religious leaders visiting the station – complete with a gospel service – is a little clunky but on the whole this is strong.

Shadow Dancing is very much akin to Walkabout, featuring big space battles against the Shadows and Dr Franklin and his drug problem – though thankfully that gets resolved in this episode. The battle with the Shadows looks good, but doesn’t have the same emotional clout as the assault on Babylon 5 from earlier in the season. It leads very smoothly into the climax of the season, Z’Ha’Dum.

The lesson we learn from this story is that Sheridan makes a very bad houseguest. More than that? Hum, well, to me I don’t think this story is doing what JMS wants it to – the audience is so invested in the characters by now that it’d take more than a philosophical debate to make the Shadows’ point of view seem reasonable. JMS-waffle obscuring the identity of their key spokesman is also arguably counterproductive.

But if nothing else it’s a strong end to a reasonable season which is possibly the last one to show Babylon 5 as a consistently good TV series. Seasons 4 and 5, mainly for behind-the-scenes reasons, have – how shall we put it? – specific issues of their own, which will probably become apparent quite soon.

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Crikey, it’s only the Second of Jan and already we’re enjoying brand new realms of stupidity courtesy of the nation’s TV program planners. I refer, of course, to the crack lemurs employed by ITV and Channel 4 who, brilliantly, decided to schedule the network premieres of Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk at exactly the same time.

This is outstanding because, of course, both these movies appeal to exactly the same audience. But what makes it particularly special is that not only are they both from the same studio, but they also have many of the same creative personnel even down to members of the cast: in a possibly unprecedented feat, for a few seconds today Robert Downey Jr. was appearing as the same character in two different films on different networks.

Artist's impression of the ITV and Channel 4 schedules.

However, this run of form did not stop there, as the ITV guys have pioneered a strange and rather astonishing new variant on censorship. Regular censorship, of which I am not a great fan, generally consists of hacking bits out of films to make them less overtly violent or sexual. Much to my amazement, The Incredible Hulk was actually edited to make it look more violent and sexiful than was originally the case.

For instance – in the version I saw at the cinema, the Hulk kicks Tim Roth’s character, who flies back about fifty feet and splats into a tree. In the ITV version, you see the big guy start to swing his leg, then there’s the crunching noise of Roth hitting the tree and a crumpled limb flopping into shot. The original is kinetic and overblown in that unique Louis Leterrier way, but not actually nasty – the ITV cut just makes it look like the Hulk’s stomped him into paste.

Moving on to sex (how infrequently I get to use those words in that order), in the theatrical release Ed Norton and Liv Tyler rekindle their old romance, but are forced to abandon things mid-foreplay as Norton’s heart-rate is becoming dangerously elevated and he’s about to turn green and level the place. It’s a poignant moment (and illustrates yet another drawback to being the Hulk). Now, I thought the foreplay was very mild, but still enough to get ITV flustered – they’ve snipped everything after their initial kiss. So a scene of which the original point was that they don’t have sex has been re-edited to imply that they do. Good work at maintaining the moral standards of the nation, guys.

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In another bold innovation, your correspondent breaks new ground (for this blog, anyway) by reviewing a programme before it’s actually finished airing. Well, this isn’t an actual review per se, but anyway. Our text for the evening is Channel 4’s The Taking of Prince Harry, another in the broadcaster’s series of  made-up documentaries about bizarre and unpleasant things that haven’t actually happened but, you know, might one day.

Following last year’s cheerful and not at all provocative exploration of what might happen were the government to have a former glam rocker lawfully killed (reviewed right here in one of our earliest outings), this year’s production poses the question of ‘What would happen should the Queen’s grandson get shot down over Afghanistan and be nabbed by the Taliban?‘ Knowledgable coves pop-up and speak gravely and measuredly about things they no doubt know a great deal about, while – er – reconstructions of things that were never constructed in the first place play out, giving work to many actors who are otherwise unknown. (It also offers a glimpse of a pleasing otherworld where Chinless Dave isn’t the Prime Minister.) Occasionally glancing through the Daily Mail (know thine enemy and all, and it’s not like I actually pay for the wretched thing) means I know how it actually ends – young Ginger gets sprung by special forces at the last minute.

As you’d expect from such a high-profile production this is lavish, credible, and solidly made (though it did seem to drastically overestimate how popular the Prince is with the general public). But it also seems to me to be a fundamentally pointless exercise. Yes, no doubt it would be utterly ghastly if Prince Harry returned to play a further role in Operation: Endless Bloodbath (as I fondly refer to the Afghan adventure), and if he was then shot down and then captured by the Taliban. But one way and another I’m not sure we can do anything to stop that happening, short of telling the lad he can’t be in the army after all (in which case we still face the problem of what to do to keep young members of the Royal Family from hanging around on street corners and making a nuisance of themselves).

It would similarly be horrible should pigeons develop a taste for human flesh and savage office workers and city dwellers across the country, but I can’t see C4 throwing money at a drama-documentary on the subject. If X Factor finalists started spontaneously detonating at random intervals, scything down their retinue and crew members with bone fragments and the like, many people would doubtless get rather distraught – but once again I don’t see much mileage in going on about it, as I strongly doubt it’ll happen. The only reason this got made was because its very nature and subject matter was guaranteed to provoke a loud response from certain elements of the media, and in turn guarantee the network a healthy dollop of cut-price publicity.

So C4 deserves a tut and a disappointed shake of the head for making this show, but the media deserve no less for going along with it. Every outraged double-page spread and stringent leader article denouncing it as provocative and unnecessary just ensured more viewers for the actual programme, which in turn increases the chances of an even-more-dubious offering appearing next Autumn. (The Mail, which as you’d expect honked louder than most that this programme should be cancelled and the makers dragged off to the Tower, then went on to list it as one of its TV Picks of the Day.) 

Many of the brickbats slung at this show were truly moronic – it might give the Taliban ideas, screeched one article. Really? Do we honestly think the Taliban are so thick as to need to take strategy tips from Channel 4 programme makers? It might upset the Queen, somebody else said. Well, I find the majority of prime-time TV upsettingly banal and formulaic, but no-one ever thinks of my feelings.

So I’m left wondering – are the press really so dim as not to realise that complaining about programmes like this provides them with exactly the oxygen of publicity that their makers are relying on? Or do they simply not care, overwhelmed by the chance to have a really good outraged chunter about something,  secure as ever in the belief they have the moral high ground? If you really don’t like a show like this then the best thing you can do is to pretend it doesn’t even exist.

(Advice, I notice, which I am contradicting simply by offering. Sometimes you just can’t win.)

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UK Channel 4 can always be relied on to provide something provocative, thought-provoking and more often than not downright grotesque, and most of these boxes were well and truly ticked by The Execution of Gary Glitter, a mock-drama-documentary by Rob Coldstream about the reintroduction of the death penalty in England. The film told the story of the arrest, trial, and hanging of a disgraced former rock star upon his return from living abroad in Vietnam. What made this film particularly jaw-dropping was that while the story was fictional, the disgraced former rock star was a portrayal of a real person. As you may have guessed, the man in question performed under the name of Gary Glitter in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, and his releases included ‘Do You Want To Touch Me There’ and ‘What Your Mama Don’t See’. Hmm. I should point out that Glitter is a convicted sex offender who’s done time in both the UK and Vietnam for various offences, so this isn’t a defence of the man.
But still… I’d lost track of the guy and was mildly astonished to find he’s currently living in the UK. What he made of the film, if he watched it, I can scarcely contemplate. There can’t be many people in the world today who’ve been treated to the sight of a fictionalised version of themself (Hilton McRae, possibly best known for playing Green Leader in Return of the Jedi – he’s the guy who brings down the Super Star Destroyer) on Death Row, with baying crowds outside demanding their death. Didn’t they need Glitter’s permission to do this? Wouldn’t he be on the phone to his lawyers the moment he even heard a rumour of this project? I suspect Channel 4’s legal department was kept very busy by this exact topic, which must mean that all the evidence of the offences Glitter eventually hangs for is real, and presumably the offences in question are the ones he did time for in Vietnam. (The fictional Glitter’s speech in his own defence during the trial seems to have been largely based on interviews the real Glitter’s given about what occurred.) In which case, isn’t that just muckraking against a man whose image is pretty irredeemably ruined anyway?

One can understand why Channel 4 took the decision to put Glitter in the centre of this film rather than a fictional paedophile: it may have been a provocative and sensationalist move that could arguably bias the audience, but it’s certainly one guaranteed to grab the attention of the media and generate publicity (a move which I’ve just realised I’m inadvertantly justifying. Bugger), which sometimes it seems is all the channel is interested in these days. In its defence the film was commendably restrained in its approach, with uniformly strong and credible performances from the actors involved. If Coldstream himself has an opinion about capital punishment, then it wasn’t clearly discernible in his film (although the pro-hanging case probably didn’t benefit from being represented by the likes of Garry Bushell and Anne Widdecombe – let’s not forget that she also came out in support of Harry Saxon, for heaven’s sake). The credibility of the film suffered somewhat from the hoops it had to jump through in order to live up to its central concept. The whole thing had to shift into a definitely parallel dimension to obscure which party it was that reintroduced the death penalty, to allow Glitter to be tried here for offences he’s already been convicted of in Vietnam, and – most fundamentally – to allow the UK legal system to try someone for crimes committed in another country.

I can’t help thinking that a serious and balanced look at the possible return of capital punishment to the UK would have been better achieved differently – but as I say, seriousness and balance didn’t appear to be on the agenda here, whereas sensationalism and prurience quite clearly were. I wasn’t even aware that it was even a topic for serious discussion by the main UK parties. Then again, given the ominous rightward drift of the nation, with Fotherington-Thomas and his pals way ahead in the polls and the BNP in the European Parliament, maybe this film was appropriately timely after all. It was certainly appropriately depressing.

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