Posts Tagged ‘Channel 5’

One Dog and his Show

Sometimes context is everything. Six or seven years ago, the appearance of a proper Doctor Who spin-off, no matter what its provenance or content, would have been guaranteed considerable interest and probably good-will. And yet the launch of the original K-9 series seems to have been met with total disinterest – and those who haven’t ignored it have been rather hostile. It’s turning up on terrestrial UK TV over the Christmas period, at odd times and on Channel 5 (not the best of omens), and… well, hmm.

I love the dog. I’m not ashamed to admit it. My memories of Doctor Who before the dog appeared are very nearly non-existent, but once he was on the scene I can recall virtually every story from its original transmission. That may be a coincidence, but it may not. There was general trauma in our house when he was dropped from the series, and very specific and much more shrill trauma when the BBC’s north-west transmitter fell over about an hour before the original K-9 spin-off show was transmitted.

1981’s K-9 and Company is an odd beast, essentially an illustrated guide to very nearly every single mistake one could possibly make in the production of a Doctor Who spin-off. Okay, they cast Lis Sladen and John Leeson, which is always wise, but the story (an odd fusion of Agatha Christie and Dennis Wheatley) is by turns eccentric and tedious, with every sign that the series projected to follow it would, like its star, not have legs.

K-9’s creators weren’t impressed, either, being of a much more science-fictional bent themselves. The K-9 series, as originally announced, sounds like something very much in thrall to the likes of Farscape (also produced in Australia), but what’s made it to the screen is a bit more down to earth. Sort of.

In a dystopian futuristic London (there are robot police with comedy accents and Blade Runner-ish floating billboards), a boffin is working for the government to build a space-time transporter gadget. When he actually turns it on, the interference of a couple of kids causes it to produce not his dead wife and children but a squad of hostile mutant warrior terrapins (the monster suits aren’t that bad, actually). Luckily the terrapins are followed by a robot dog who sets about saving the day in the traditional manner…

The new K9 in 'hover' mode. ('Twee' mode is permanently engaged.)

The makers of this show aren’t legally allowed to set it in Who-world proper or make any explicit references to the parent show (K-9 is afflicted with amnesia about his origins, for instance), but they seem determined to push the limits of what they can get away with. So the dog himself is voiced by John Leeson, and while he assumes a fairly egregiously cutesy new form early on, to begin with it’s the classic model that appears. (The whole K-9 rights issue – with his creator owning the character and the BBC the classic design – is the reason for his limited appearances in The Sarah Jane Adventures. The only reason SJA‘s been able to use him as much as they have is because of a deal that gave the new show limited access to the classic design.)

I have to say that, initially at least, I was rather pleasantly surprised by K-9. The production values are better than those on SJA and Torchwood and at times challenge the ones on the parent series. It’s not a kid’s show, or at least not in a silly and knockabout way. The look of the thing, if nothing else, has clearly had a lot of loving care lavished on it. I was, in fact, all set to declare that the way this show has been widely ignored is basically just down to the legendary intolerance of Who-fandom for anything non-canonical.

But then I watched another episode and was reminded of the fact that the plots seem to rely alarmingly on coincidence to work. Also that the tone of the show is extremely variable – the relatively gritty dystopian London stuff co-exists with the idea of a prison complex for outrageous space-opera-lookalike aliens – and the characters don’t quite convince (the young performers are all rather clean and polite, given they’re meant to be a gang of urban rebels).

Most crucially, after two episodes I still didn’t really have any idea of what the format of the show is supposed to be. Is it going to be about K-9 and his friends fighting the authorities? Or is a new alien menace going to emerge from the space-time transporter every week for them to sort out? It may even be a combination of both, which isn’t necessarily a problem, but it would be nice to know one way or the other.

Without the revival of Doctor Who and the success of the other ‘official’ spin-offs, I think it’s doubtful that this series would ever have made it to broadcast, but their existence does essentially reduce the dog to being the black sheep of the family (if you see what I mean). Still, in an odd way it has facilitated a greater presence for K-9 in the ‘official’ universe, and even if that were its only virtue (which it isn’t), it would be enough to justify its existence for me.

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Listings info derived from tvguide.co.uk that stuck me as remarkable for various reasons.

Doctor Who (BBC3, 7pm)
The Sound of Drums Part one of two. The Master seizes his opportunity to begin a reign of terror on Earth, becoming prime minister under the pseudonym Harry Saxon and announcing mankind has made contact with an alien race called the Toclafane. Guest starring John Simm, McFly, Sharon Osbourne and Ann Widdecombe. 
I mention this rather obvious choice simply to say that, had I read this at any time prior to about 2005, my head would probably have exploded. Mainly because of the last sentence.
A One Night Stand with Pixie Lott (ITV2, 9pm)
The singer performs a selection of hits and new tracks, including Mama Do (Uh Oh, Uh Oh), Cry Me Out, Turn It Up and Broken Arrow, and a cover of Kings Of Leon’s Use Somebody. She also sings a medley featuring Last Nite by the Strokes, Black Eyed Peas’ Meet Me Halfway, You Were Young by the Killers and her own Boys and Girls. 
When I first saw this advertised I thought it was a special offer, or possibly a fly-on-the-wall documentary. As it is had I tuned in I would probably have been very disappointed. Damn you, ITV2, for your misleadingly prurient programme titling policy.
Jaguar Adventure with Nigel Marven (Channel 5, 7.30pm)
The naturalist swims among Brazil’s spectacular aquatic life, a paradise of tropical fish. After watching giant otters up to two metres in length hunt for food, he follows a female jaguar for a whole afternoon as she searches the riverbank for a meal and plays with a discarded beer bottle. 
Surely giving away the exciting climax in the listing qualifies as a spoiler? Anyway, I suspect the female jaguar may have spent all afternoon looking for food because all the food was frightened off by the man in shorts shouting in a monotone that was following her around. (I thought Nigel Marven got eaten by a giganotosaurus last spring, but clearly I was wrong.) As it is, if playing with a discarded beer bottle counts as an adventure I’m glad I’m not a jaguar.

Nigel Marven being eaten by a giganotosaurus. Not a very good picture, but it always cheers me up.

Eurotrash: The Sexy Bits (Channel One, 11.30pm)
A visit to a town that banned plastic surgery. 
Mmm, that does sound erotically enticing – sagging, leathery skin and wobbling dewlaps as far as the eye can see… excuse me, I need a moment here. From what I recall of Eurotrash, it was nothing but sex most of the time, so why they’ve bothered to retitle it I don’t know. Oh, hang on, this time it’s an accurately prurient programme titling policy, it’s just the channel that has a daft name…
Kara Tointon: Don’t Call Me Stupid (BBC3, 9pm)
The actress and Strictly Come Dancing contestant discusses her personal battle with dyslexia, assessing how the condition defines her and shapes her day-to-day life. As she sets out to undergo tests and receive specialist help, Kara asks whether she can ever stop it from holding her back, and meets other dyslexics, who reveal the impact of the much-misunderstood condition.

Kara, love. You’ve been in EastEnders. You’ve been in FHM. You’re the face of a lingerie brand (not that I’ve Googled for images, or anything) even if it is for Asda. You’re currently hanging in there on Strictly, though obviously Widdy’s going to outlast you. Just how exactly do you feel dyslexia is holding you back? Tell you what, you stop asking damn silly questions just to get your own documentary, and then I’ll stop calling you stupid.

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Boy, they sure do like to do things big-style over in the States. Last week I spent some time banging on about discussing the wouldn’t-it-be-horrible-if… drama-documentary The Taking of Prince Harry, wherein said royal has a nasty time with the Taliban but eventually escapes. The British press were not impressed. This week, however, complete silence seems to have greeted Life After Armageddon, a vastly more lavish and actually slightly frightening wouldn’t-it-be-horrible-if… about the aftermath of a flu pandemic which offs an unspecified but significant percentage of the global population.

I suspect this is because a) this was an American show b) it was broadcast on Channel 5, which is still really the lightweight of the main UK networks and c) most people perceive this kind of thing as being the stuff of science fiction and thus Not Worth Worrying About. Certainly I myself sometimes feel like I’ve been vicariously enjoying the collapse of civilisation pretty much non-stop since I was seven, starting with John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, then proceeding fairly briskly through the work of John Christopher, Threads, The Stand, Dawn of the Dead, Survivors (70s version, of course) on tape and DVD, 28 Days Later, World War Z and…well, you get the idea. (During the 2000 fuel crisis, when the fabric of society seemed to shudder in a way it very seldom does, many people’s response was to dig out their bicycles and do a spot of panic-buying. Mine was to sit down and watch the Survivors episode Something of Value, which seemed thematically appropriate. I wonder who feels more foolish now.)

Well, this was a solidly put-together show, with a range of talking-head boffins popping up to give their opinion of exactly how we’re all going to die (possibly). I particularly enjoyed Dr Joseph Tainter and his sonorous delivery. Possibly because this was made for a credulous/American/Channel 5 audience, of course, it was felt necessary to illustrate whatever they were saying with the insertion of dramatised scenes from the life of Mr and Mrs Average of Los Angeles and their desperate attempts to flee the dead city and make a new life for themselves. Either the drama or the documentary would have worked fine on their own, to be honest – both together (particularly with the amount of recapping around the ad breaks) just made me feel rather patronised.

It served Mr and Mrs Average right for living in LA, if you ask me. To be honest, they and Average Junior were just a bit too naive and bland to really engage my sympathy, particularly when they started doing very silly things like heading into the Mojave Desert with no real destination in mind. The drama-plotline had to engage in some rather unconvincing jinks and swerves just to keep them from getting themselves killed some time before the conclusion of the show.

The thing about this programme, which seems to me to be the case with a lot of bad post-apocalyptic narratives, was that the main characters seemed to be miraculously untouched by the general collapse of society and moral standards, looking on in aghast horror as the new realities of existence came into hard focus. The gangs of raiders and ad hoc militias they fell foul of were treated as one-dimensional, bogeyman figures. These people would have had lives before the disaster too, but despite the fact that they, also, were simply doing their best to survive (and generally rather more successfully than the Averages!) they were basically dismissed by the tellers of the story.

We’re going off on a bit of a tangent here, but I was reminded of one of my favourite pieces of apocalyptic fiction, John Christopher’s The Death of Grass. In this story a virus causes a global famine, eventually leading to national governments ordering the use of nuclear weapons on their own major cities in order to cut down demand on food stocks. But what makes this story really special is the way in which the main character – very much akin to Mr Average at the story’s opening – forces himself to embrace the passing of the old order and its morality. By the end of the book he’s repeatedly committed murder, simply because it’s the only way he can be sure of keeping his family and friends alive, and he remains largely sympathetic throughout. This is a world away from the well-mannered catastrophes we’re normally presented with, especially on screen. A touch of that would have made Life After Armageddon a considerably more engaging and challenging viewing experience.

Then again, it was American TV, part-financed by Channel 5. I suspect challenging the audience did not appear on the list of programme goals. In the end this was a nicely-made riff on material that’s becoming slightly well worn – sometimes I think the only thing that’ll stop the flow of documentaries about armageddon is the onset of their subject matter. In which case, by all means keep ’em coming.


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