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Posts Tagged ‘Neil Cross’

As chance would have it, just the other day I passed several fairly agreeable hours watching Euston Films’ 1979 pre-apocalyptic drama Quatermass, even as the telly was full of pre-launch publicity for Euston Films’ 2018 pre-apocalyptic drama Hard Sun, currently showing on BBC One. The media has also been marking the fact that it’s forty years since the TV debut of Blake’s 7, with some unusually complimentary retrospectives concentrating on the programme’s dystopian sensibility and paranoia rather the overacting and spaceships made out of hair-dryers.

I mention the last because Hard Sun is, by some metrics, an SF show for adults, a genre which the BBC has been reluctant to take a chance on since the failure of Outcasts in 2011. (Yes, yes: I know there is what remains of the world’s greatest fantasy series, which I no longer talk about, but here we speak of actual proper science fiction.) BBC disquiet about doing an SF series appears to have been assuaged by the fact that this is only really nominally science fiction, squatting on the border with the police procedural/conspiracy thriller genre. (The show is the brainchild of Neil Cross, who created cop show Luther and also wrote a couple of middling episodes of that fantasy series.)

The first episode establishes the tone for much of what follows, as we meet DCI Cockney Geezer (Jim Sturgess), who seems like a devoted family man despite the fact he’s quietly knocking off his dead best mate’s wife. The circumstances in which the dead best mate passed on are sufficiently suspicious for Geezer’s boss, DCS Annoying Pen-pusher, to believe Geezer may have done him in, and to this end DI Cynical Gamine (Agyness Deyn) has been planted on Geezer’s team to secretly investigate him. (I like shows which have a bit of Agy, but I’ve never seen one with as much Agyness as this one.) Gamine is doing this so her unhinged son, whom she appears to have given birth to when she was about seven, does not go to prison for attempting to murder her. One thing you can say about Hard Sun: it’s never knowingly under-plotted.

Well, in their first day on the job together Geezer and Gamine find themselves working on the case of a conspiracy-theory obsessed hacker with ASD (oh, sigh) who has turned up dead. One of his mates has got his hands on the dead guy’s USB stick, which is disguised as a Saturn V rocket but may as well just be a box with PLOT DEVICE scrawled on it. Our heroes recover the USB but find themselves pursued by the security services, intent on killing everyone who comes into contact with the information on the stick. But why?

Needless to say, Geezer and Gamine can’t resist taking a peek, hoping this will give them leverage to get the homicidal spooks to back off. It turns out that – well, here’s the thing: we never get to see what’s on the stick beyond a few blipverts of graphs and suchlike, but everyone who does look at it properly confirms that it concerns the government’s advance planning for the end of the world (codenamed Hard Sun), which is due in five years time.

Cheer up, it might never happen. Oh, hang on a minute…

 

I have to admit to being somewhat bemused by this, because the government appear to have managed to plan their response to the end of the world without ever letting on exactly what’s going to happen. Even after they’ve looked at the stick, Geezer and Gamine are left speculating as to just what is heading their way – is a comet going to hit Earth? Is it some kind of environmental catastrophe? They seem to be in the dark. Presumably this is just to maintain a sense of foreboding mystery; it also gives them a ready-made opportunity for a big reveal come the last episode of the series.

Well, the first episode reached fairly deep into the bag of Modern Cop Show cliches, but I do like a bit of apocalyptica, and I was curious to see just how the rest of the series would play out (episode one concludes with Gamine taking a redacted set of the information to the media), and just how strong the SF element would be in the mix.

Courtesy of iPlayer’s box set function and the fact I had a day with not much going on (not to mention the fact that Hard Sun is the kind of show you can put on in the background while doing something else and honestly not miss much), I ended up having watched the rest of the first series within the next day. And the answer to the ‘how SF is it?’ question is: really not very much.

Hard Sun boils down to being another of those bleak and bloody cop shows, with the difference being that this time it’s understandable why the leads are so glum all the time: the world’s apparently going to end, after all. The thing is, though, that the impending apocalypse is primarily just a mood-setting thing – the various killers that Geezer and Gamine find themselves contending with are all nutters who’ve been drawn out of the woodwork by the release of the Hard Sun info, but it’s established at the top of episode two that nearly everyone has been convinced this was a hoax. Life goes on as normal for nearly everyone; you could rewrite the middle episodes of this series to extract the impending doom/science fiction element very easily. It’s mainly just there to provide an atmosphere of existential misery – Hard Sun‘s signature bit is a scene where Gamine and Geezer sit down together in the middle of a case and wail ‘But what does any of it matter anyway? We’ve only got five years left!’, which happens in nearly every episode.

Subsequent episodes are mostly competent but fairly undistinguished takes on the kind of story you’ve seen before – a barking ex-husband takes his children hostage, a man outraged by the cruelty of the world starts killing nice people and challenges God to intervene and stop him, a serial killer preys on suicidal people, and so on. There are lots of people in hoodies stalking darkened streets, and so much knife-related violence that it’s easy to imagine the BBC being forced to pull Hard Sun on taste and decency grounds, given the current plague of knife crime in London.

What’s really absent is any kind of moral centre, for as the series proceeds Geezer and Gamine reveal that they are prepared to do just about anything to further their cause, which only occasionally involves catching criminals. When they’re not actively beating each other up with their collapsible truncheons, the doom-conscious duo are forever disregarding standard procedure, obstructing or perverting the course of justice, or plotting the cold-blooded murder of a government employee. This sort of thing reaches its most uproarious extreme in a scene in which Geezer seems to be actively considering waterboarding a priest (one story revolves around that old chestnut of a priest not being able to reveal the identity of a killer due to the seal of the confessional being sacrosanct).

I say ‘uproarious’ because so much of Hard Sun really beggars credibility – there’s the peculiarly vague contents of the USB stick, along with the behaviour of the leads and their byzantine back-stories. Coupled to the fact that the show clearly takes itself very seriously indeed, the result is a programme which is just an unintentional black comedy more than anything else.

I suppose I could imagine the BBC making a show like Hard Sun and it being more, um, good, about twenty years ago, when even the best of us were not immune to the odd pre-millenial jitter. Nowadays, though? Not so much. One plot thread which feels like a particular misstep concerns the ominous dark apparatus of the Security Services, who pursue Geezer and Gamine throughout the series in order to get the USB stick back (despite the fact that everyone is supposedly convinced the apocalyptic data is fake). Playing their nemesis is Nikki Amuka-Bird, who played the curiously inept government minister in New Survivors and plays a somewhat more competent spook here. That’s the thing, I would say: these days we’re not worried that our governments are up to brilliantly-conceived and ultra-secret machinations behind our backs. In the time of Donald Trump and Theresa May, our main concern is that our governments really are as hapless, clueless, and incompetent as they routinely seem to be.

It would be great if the BBC actually had the nerve to make a proper SF TV series, rather than just smuggling a few SF elements into what’s essentially a very dark, very silly cop show. But there you go: such is the world we live in today. Every episode of Hard Sun concludes with a countdown timer, ticking down the days before armageddon’s arrival, and one can only conclude that the BBC and their co-producers Hulu have half an eye on this actually running for five years. Well, I’ll be surprised – but if it even makes it to a second season, the manner in which this one concludes suggests that in any subsequent outings this show will become a rather different beast. That can only be a good thing, because at present there’s at least as much daftness as darkness in Hard Sun.

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Maybe there comes a time in a man’s life when he must admit that, regarding the current crop of Doctor Who, he is more often than not left unimpressed and disappointed. If so, then I am certainly reaching this point – and no-one is more honestly surprised by this than I am, given the obvious credentials and abilities of the key people involved in the making of the current series. Does it just boil down to the fact that – and this is such a shocking comparison I have to take a deep breath before making it – like Eric Saward, Steven Moffat is a better scriptwriter than story editor? I don’t know. Certainly the cheerful braininess of Moffat’s first season in charge feels like it’s evaporated, leaving in its wake a penchant for long-running, fiddly arc plots, and sentimentality which is at least as cheesy as that of the last days of Rusty Davies.

Which is a funny way of opening a review of a story which, in the end, I really liked, but there you go. I say all of the above, but only because enjoying Hide so much made me realise just how indifferent my response to other recent episodes has been. Not enjoying new Doctor Who makes me grumpy, and it shouldn’t happen.

Which is not to say that Hide was by any means perfect – if anything, it reminded me, in general terms, of a couple of older stories, namely The Android Invasion and The Stones of Blood: Android Invasion, because it showed how a really, really strong opening can do a lot to make up for a dubious climax, and Stones of Blood in the way it shifted somewhat jerkily from something approaching proper horror to a more scientifictional approach.

I enjoyed the full-on ghost story elements of the first part of Hide tremendously: this is surely the most full-on attempt at a scary episode in ages, and it’s just a shame that it ended up being broadcast on the first decent Spring day all year rather than on a rain-lashed winter’s night. Quite apart form the fact that the episode got the methodology of a ghost story so right, it convincingly evoked the atmosphere and some of the plot of The Stone Tape, Nigel Kneale’s legendary piece of SF-horror (the early-1970s setting seemed an obvious tip of the hat to Kneale’s play).

‘Please stop going on about how Hugh Jackman nicked your career.’

Of course, the problem with raising the spirit of The Stone Tape in Doctor Who is that in the original play, science takes on the supernatural and is found severely wanting – and you can’t have that happening in a show at least partly predicated on the primacy of rationalism and the general infallibility of the Doctor’s approach to problems. Which may be why the episode, with almost disappointing speed, turned into something rather more SF-inflected.

Here I thought I detected an echo of James Tiptree’s The Man Who Walked Home, though the correspondence may well have been coincidental. To be honest, I thought proceedings started to unravel somewhat at this point, with people visiting pocket universes on the end of ropes and so on, and a general lurch back in the direction of soft-centred wooliness that has afflicted so many recent episodes.

The stuff with Clara and the TARDIS not getting on is interesting, even if the bit with the TARDIS actually having a conversation with someone surely contradicts Neil Gaiman’s last script? We know that the TARDIS didn’t like Jack Harkness after his resurrection, as he was an unnatural space-time event, so it seems logical to assume the same applies to the new girl. Will this stuff be explained at the end of the season or in the 50th show? Of the two, I’m betting on the former, although…

Well, look, here’s some wild speculation – Oswald isn’t the most common surname, and we know that Moffat names his major characters with a degree of care (plus some repetition). The 50th anniversary show, in which Ms Oswald will be a major participant, will be going out around the time of the anniversary of another famous event in which the Oswald family were involved, an event with which TV Doctor Who has never properly involved itself. Could this be the time that they do?

Let’s face it: probably not. Anyway, to reiterate, I enjoyed the beginning of this episode so much that it lifted me over all the business with everyone turning out to be in love with and/or rel ated to each other – even the drokking monsters are now falling in love with each other, for crying out loud. Okay, so maybe I am a high-functioning psychopath with zero empathy and no ability to establish normal human relationships, but this just strikes me as absurd and unnecessary. Nevertheless, Neil Cross can consider Rings of Akhaten atoned for. Onward and inward…

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I’m as big a fan of post-modernist self-referentiality as the next person, but packing the Doctor off to a place where the basis of everything – the common currency – is carefully-articulated sentimentality is surely tempting suggestions that Doctor Who is actually visiting itself. That’s overly harsh on the modern show, I suppose, but not by much.

Even so, when even the Radio Times – whose default setting these days, when it comes to Who, is a sort of brainless enthusiasm I find rather disagreeable – starts poking holes in an episode, you know you’re in for something distinctly sub-par, and so it proves with The Rings of Akhaten. Cos this is tosh.

I commented last week on how The Bells of St John was oddly reminiscent of Rose is many ways, and now it’s been followed by an episode where the Doctor takes his new companion off to a distant inter-species gathering to witness an epochal event, which concludes with everyone being menaced by a swelling celestial body and the Doctor getting a load off his chest. Oh well, if this series of resonances with the 2005 series continues, at least it bodes well for Cold War – Mark Gatiss’ script for Eccleston is surely his best contribution to the TV series to date.

That said, I enjoyed this story much, much more the first time round. Actually, when I read the publicity for it, alarm bells started to ring in my head. The gist was – and I paraphrase – ‘we wanted to tell a story where the location and the alien creatures were the stars’, and a little voice at the back of my mind whispered ‘The Web Planet’ – for the uninitiated, a Hartnell story where they really pushed the boat out on the monster costumes and weird sets, and ended up with something truly bizarre and, truth be told, rather underwhelming in the script department. (Is this a set of remakes of the Eccleston series or a series of sequels to stories with ‘Web’ in the title? Me is confused.)

And this is surely what The Rings of Akhaten actually is: the visuals are garish and striking and very much unlike anything else on British TV at the moment, but I got no sense of an internal logic to the story, of a real (if alien) world underpinning and informing the spectacle – in that respect this is a story which seems entirely unaware of all the scripting innovations and narrative strengths brought to the series by Terrance Dicks and Robert Holmes when they were custodians of its storylines.

Things just seemed to happen to suit the story, and not for any other reason. The wider details of the plot seemed equally thrown together – given everyone was standing on a tiny asteroid, what were they all breathing? Where did the gravity come from? Why was the translation function of the TARDIS suddenly not working? What was the backstory of the singing monks, and the sleeping grandfather, and the angry space blob?

'I hadn't even realised it was Halloween. Hey ho.'

‘I hadn’t even realised it was Halloween. Hey ho.’

It wasn’t as if this episode was so crammed with incident and plot that they couldn’t squeeze any of this stuff in – this felt like one of the slowest and most linear episodes in recent memory. Everything about it felt laboured and half-baked. Of course, this is still Doctor Who, so I can obviously find good things to say about it, just far fewer than usual, and many far fewer than I’d like.

Obviously, this is the anniversary year, and it’d be great for the series to pay homage to its own history and legacy – but this episode seemed to be reviving many of the flaws and problems with stories of the Sixties, rather than celebrating their positives, and slathering them with the usual slightly gloopy character-driven stuff did not improve them much.  As disappointing, in its own way, as Nonsense of the Daleks, and a bit of a retrograde step following the two good Intelligence stories.

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