In a prolonged lull between jobs, I've had plenty of opportunity to watch TV. There's been a mix of DVDs and electronic copies of stuff handed to us by friends, and far be it from me to say which is which on this blog. In between marathon viewings of the old Twilight Zone, the old Outer Limits and the Ray Bradbury Theater, I've taken in these items of note.
Doctor Who: The Enemy of the World
Doctor Who: The Web of Fear
Well, let's not get off the subject of DW just yet. The rediscovery of a complete Patrick Troughton story and another almost complete one was pretty exciting news in DW's jubilee year. One episode of each already existed in the BBC archives and had been made available, and I'd seen those, but otherwise I came to these stories completely fresh since I don't have the patience for slideshow reconstructions of otherwise missing stories. We've now seen a friend's copies of these, and bought our own copy of The Enemy of the World.
Enemy has a lot going for it. It doesn't have any "missing episode" gaps, for one thing. It takes the show in an unusual direction at a time when almost every story revolved around monsters laying siege to an isolated human community - there are no monsters here, and the whole world is this story's stage. It makes fuller than normal use of its sensational leading man, with the Mighty Trout gamely mugging and accenting his way through a side role as Mexican villain Salamander. It twists and turns, with a reveal in episode 4 that upends the whole story. A flawless split-screen shot of the two Troughtons facing off in the final episode is the cherry on the cake. It's a lot of fun.
Web has none of these points in its favour. Episode 1 was and is brilliant, but the rest of the story doesn't live up to its promise - most of the middle four episodes is spent running up and down replica London Underground tunnels, with occasional eruptions from the BBC's foam machine. The replica tunnels are, of course, beautiful, but we already knew that from episode 1. Two or three episodes could have been cut from this story at the scripting stage and no one would have lost any sleep over it (apart from the producer, I suppose). The standard critical line on this story is that we cannot appreciate the introduction of Colonel (later Brigadier) Lethbridge-Stewart as viewers at the time were meant to, since we know he's going to be a mainstay of the show in decades to come and they only knew he was a potential Great Intelligence zombie; as far as I can see, though, he's already being played and filmed here as if he were the biggest thing to happen to the show all year. Even with the visuals, the denouement is a bit of a mess. It's nice to have it back and be able to watch it, but I'm not itching to buy a copy.
Takin' Over the Asylum
A blast from the past, this. Ken Stott stars as a failing salesman and wannabe DJ who starts up a life-changing patient-run radio station at his local mental institution. Notable for featuring some young fellow by the name of David Tennant as Stott's number one loony protege - we'll have to watch out for that lad, I'm sure he's destined for great things. Certainly not a comedy, although it has its light-hearted moments. Its downfall is that it tends to treat its characters as puzzles to be solved, which I suppose is true of a lot of shows about the mentally ill; but for all that, it's respectful of its institutionalised characters, and never hesitant to show aberrant behaviour in its supposedly sane characters. Good viewing.
Sherlock, series 3
Great stuff. Seems like Sherlock allows Steven Moffat even more opportunity than Doctor Who to experiment with scenes that exteriorise the characters' thoughts, which have gone from supertitles showing Sherlock's deductions to entire non-literal environments standing in for the inside of a character's head. In Series 3 this is taken to such an extreme that it actually sets up the big denouement of the final episode. Meanwhile "I Married a Psychopath" becomes the theme of yet another Moffat TV show, following in the footsteps of Jekyll ("Love is a psychopath") and DW (River Bloody Song, of course) - I'm not sure what we should all be reading into this, but it looks worrying. Season highlight must be the scene of Sherlock deducing while drunk in episode 2, although the "What to do when you've been shot in the chest" sequence in episode 3 is also pretty spectacular. It's hard to fault this series.
Fringe, series 1
Silly. I already know second hand that later seasons focus largely (perhaps even exclusively) on the parallel universe, but barring some material in the last couple or three episodes that sets that up, the first season is pretty much an X-Files knock-off. And I was prepared to allow the series plenty of latitude on that basis, but what broke my suspended disbelief wasn't any of the weird phenomena but the behaviour of the characters, particularly in the pilot episode. The whole series is being carried by John Noble's performance as Dr Walter Bishop, literally mad scientist, but there's just no believable way the other characters would have brought him in in the first place. I might watch season 2, but it's not a priority.
Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries, series 1
Australian detective series, based on a popular string of books, set in the ever-popular Roaring Twenties. This is moderately entertaining fluff, but Phryne Fisher is such an extreme wish fulfilment figure that it pretty much breaks the show. She's decades ahead of her time, an independently wealthy liberal (and libertine) polyamorous feminist, dead shot with a gun, speaks a dozen more languages than are required in any given episode, shelters and benefacts the worthy poor, has the Detective Inspector eating out of her hand (and his one and only constable - except where the episode requires the inclusion of a second, corrupt copper - eating out of her maid's hand), knits her own Faberge eggs, and you get the general picture. Not enough interest or novelty in the mysteries themselves to distract from the all-consuming Miss Fisher herself. Passes an idle hour, but not what I'd consider a must-see.
The three Big Serious SF films of last year, as far as I can tell. Gravity is pretty good, very artfully executed but essentially just Sandra Bullock in a room surrounded by visual effects. Oblivion was better than I was expecting given the prominent Tom Cruise content - probably the prettiest Big Serious SF film of 2013. Elysium is a story I feel I probably would have enjoyed reading, but watching it was a bit trying, not least thanks to scenes of Sharlto Copley with the front of his head missing. Notably, Gravity is the only one of these that's made it onto the Hugo Award shortlist alongside several not-so-serious films.
Also on the Hugo shortlist, not at all serious. This was a must-see simply because it was very obviously made as a tribute to - and with real knowledge and love of - Japanese monster movies. It thus puts the 1998 Godzilla film firmly in its place. Highly conventional adventure fare, but look, it's got giant mecha and big weird animals all over it. I may not know much about art, but I know what I like.
23/04/14: And almost immediately, I was reminded of other things I'd watched that deserve a mention but that completely slipped my mind. Proof again that it's important for me to actually write stuff down. Oz the Great and Powerful can be dealt with quickly enough - it's a lovely film, a nice modern take and yet also a good fit for the old Judy Garland film. Sundry superhero films and the ongoing TV series Agents of SHIELD might be better handled in a separate post.