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December 31, 2013

My Sherlock prediction

Just to get this up before it airs.

I don’t have a full-blown theory for how Sherlock faked his own death, but I do have an idea about the one obvious clue that everyone missed that Moffat mentioned a few times.

The preceding episode. The Hound of the Baskervilles one. There’s a chemical there that makes people hallucinate their own worst fears. When Watson sees Holmes fall off the roof, his worst fear would be that Holmes is dead. So when he checks the body, that’s what he sees.

I won’t speculate on the rest of it, but I’m almost convinced that will factor in somewhere.

July 18, 2013

The transforming face of The Apprentice

With the ninth UK series of The Apprentice drawing to an end, it’s interesting to see that it’s finally following the trajectory of it’s US cousin. See over the past few years The Apprentice has become a joke. It started as a mildly serious business competition, and slowly devolved into a farce.

It’s not really the show’s fault – as any reality show progresses the applicants start to skew more towards people that want to be on TV rather than be in business, and with the state of the economy at the moment, successful business-people simply don’t abandon well-paid jobs for a one in sixteen chance at anything. So the show gets sillier and sillier, the mistakes get stupider and stupider and it all becomes a joke.

But something interesting happened this series: the show got it’s own joke. It’s in the music cues, the editing, where the show focuses – it’s now a comedy, and the producers and directors are acknowledging that. As such the show focuses almost entirely on the silly statements, mistakes and screw-ups made by various candidates, and plays them for laughs. Seeing Charlie Brooker show clips of the show and then taking the piss out it on 10 O’Clock Live was like him showing a clip of Only Fools and Horses then mocking Del Boy for falling through the bar. Dara O’Briain’s “You’re Fired” show is also becoming increasingly redundant as it’s mandate to take a light-hearted look at the events of the week’s episode is tough when the episode itself is a comedy.

This tonal shift made the final a little odd as it reverted back to treating them as serious business people after eleven weeks of taking the piss. It seems the only person that doesn’t get the joke is Lord Sugar himself. Actually wanting to start a serious medical business using the face of the winner to market said business demonstrates a complete failure to understand the average person’s opinion of an Apprentice candidate.

September 23, 2011

Why Torchwood: Miracle Day Sucked

So we’re a week on from the finale, we can finally get some distance and reflect on if this season of Torchwood was really that bad. Turns out it was. It’s sad because at the halfway point I was ready to defend it. I watched the first eight episodes over one weekend and so the pacing problems were obviously there but didn’t really hit affect me half as much as people watching it with a week between each episode. But then it went so badly wrong and gave us an ending that betrayed the whole show. Here’s my analysis of exactly why this was bad television.

Character development: there was none. Seriously. Look at every character’s first and last appearances in the show. They’re exactly the same. No-one changed. Maybe, just maybe, Oswald Danes changed a bit, but the show never let us in his head. We never knew what was real and what was fake. His character veered from one place to another every week. Less a character journey, more a character spider-diagram.

Esther Drummond: the exception to the above rule. She changed. She grew up. It was kind of hokey and obvious: nervous researcher slowly becomes confident field-agent, it’s not setting the world alight as a concept. But at least it was there. So of course, she gets shot and killed. Because god-forbid we have more than one strong female character on a Russell T Davies show. She doesn’t even get to die any sort of heroic death. She’s just cast aside. Imagine how much more interesting the next series of Torchwood would be if she was the one that ended up immortal.

The acting: the main characters were all fairly wooden – we know Barrowman and Myles are a little wooden but Mekhi Phifer is generally decent but was the most shocking of the lot in his portrayal of Rex. It didn’t help that the show kept introducing decent actors before killing off their characters a few episodes or even minutes later. The wonderful Nana Visitor gets about three minutes of screen time before getting blown up, and John de Lancie’s character lights up the screen and makes the show actually feel alive for an episode an a half before he’s… blown up.

The ‘Britishness’: producing a British show with US locations and money. Sounds okay in theory, in practice we get US-style seriousness peppered with hammy British ridiculousness from the two leads. On its own one can just about deal with how silly Torchwood can be. That sense of fun seems to be an all-pervading part of British drama, for better or for worse. But dropped into the middle of a US cable show it just feels embarrassing.

The science: no-one dies, but why is no-one dying? It’s the crux of the show, and early on we get a glimpse at what sounds like proper science-fiction. Morphic fields are real and an area of science that we currently don’t fully comprehend, something ripe for exploration. Then they discover the device under Angelo’s bed and it all starts to seem very interesting. Then it turns out no-one is dying because of a giant magic creature that lives in the earth and ate Jack’s blood. Sorry what?

The politics: if you read any reviews of Children of Earth, the scenes in the cabinet office dealing with how the government react to the whole thing, making tough but selfish choices, are highlighted as one of the best parts. On the surface, Miracle Day is perfect for doing something similar. It’s a crisis, how are they going to deal with it? And this time there’s a chance to feature that sort of thing on an international scale with the UK-US connection. And they don’t bother. The classification system gets introduced but we never see the horrendous discussions that must have taken place to bring in that and the camps.

The medicine: some of the best parts of the early episodes are when Dr Juarez is attending the medical conferences, and they discuss the consequences of what’s happening, how medicine has to change and so on. None of this ever reflects on the plot, but it’s moments of interest and speculation that show how good the show could have been. And then one episode she turns up at the conference centre, only to be told they’re over. She looks disappointed, and so were we. Apparently they used them to work out the classification system, but somehow we missed all that.

The irrelevant episodes: there’s an entire flashback episode featuring Jack in 1927, and introducing who we assume will be an important character. Not the best episode, but I could live with it. But then that character is killed off in the next episode, the device he was protecting is talked about for a bit, Jack nicks part of it and it’s never mentioned again. It has no bearing on the plot whatsoever. Which means that the flashback episode was there solely to establish that in 1927 Jack died infront of three people and they watched him come back to life.

The failure of the arc: taking the previous point even further, nothing comes together at all. The camps are introduced, fought against and then accepted later on after a time-jump. The Oswald and Kitzinger stories both go absolutely nowhere at all. The Angelo thing has no point. The morphic field angle is dropped. There’s no effort made to tie it all together. Why not let the fact that Oswald was the first ‘survivor’ matter? Why not have the camps and ovens be a part of the story, perhaps the still living souls of the people burned affect the morphic field or something. Anything. Just have a story arc that actually ties itself together. We don’t even learn the motivations of the people behind it – they want to create a new world but it’s never really explained how they’re going to do that.

The missed opportunity: Russell T Davies got given ten hours and a huge budget with basically free-reign to do what he wanted. There isn’t a writer in television that wouldn’t jump at a chance to do that. And we get this. Something that can’t even hang together consistently over ten hours. And it’s such a good concept too – people stop dying. And the show even tells us what that would mean and the problems it would create, but doesn’t bother to show us. It should have been brilliant but it wasn’t. Worse than that, it was actively bad. It tore up the TV rule-book on mini-series and character development but instead of being a radical re-invention it just looked like Davies had no clue what he was doing.

I have a fairly high tolerance for bad TV, but Miracle Day was just so irredeemably, objectively awful that it should be university syllabuses as an example of what not to do. Wake me up if Moffat ever takes over this show as well.

September 21, 2011

The annual X–Factor rant

If you know me at all in the real world, you’ve probably heard all this before, but for those that haven’t, I figured I’d type this up after seeing Twitter once again light up on Saturday with things on one side of the debate or another.

So here’s how the theory goes: if you like The X-Factor, you don’t like music.

You might think you like music, but you don’t. At this point I’m also going to throw out any claims for watching it ‘ironically’ or ‘for a laugh’. If either of those are true, then you may also like music. But you are also wasting your life. Please stop.

It’s also okay not to like music. I don’t like literature. I read, I enjoy reading, but I read low-brow pap. I read Star Trek tie-in novels and quite enjoyed The DaVinci Code. When I’ve tried to experiment with tougher ‘proper’ authors I’ve found it too tough. If I try really hard I can get something out of the plot and characters, but it’s more effort than it’s worth and I never really appreciate the prose. And that’s okay. I recognise that. Some people will think I’m mad or pity me because I can’t get the immense joy they can out of books but I don’t care. Reading the odd bit of pulp fiction is just something I do for fun but I don’t consider myself someone that likes literature.

Music, on the other hand, I love music. It means a lot to me, I’m passionate about the music I love, because the music I love creates feelings, emotions and mood-spaces within my brain that are otherwise hard to reach. Music affects me, emotionally, intellectually, even physically.

No performance on The X-Factor has ever made anyone feel anything. Except maybe self-disgust. Oh the show can create feelings for sure, but for a show that is ostensibly about music to have to resort to pre-filmed sob-stories about the tough lives these contestants have had just to get some sort of emotional reaction from the audience is, to my mind, ridiculous.

In the X-Factor version of Schindler’s List, it opens with a shot of holocaust survivor Poldek Pfefferberg walking down the street before he relates part of his experience in an interview. We’re then shown how he met Schindler’s Ark author Thomas Keneally who wrote the novel based around his life. The shot then pulls out and Steven Speilberg is stood there, who then proceeds to tell us how the novel inspired him and moved him so much that he just had to make the film we’re about to watch. Because if we don’t know all that, how are we meant to be emotionally effected by the film?

Actual music isn’t going anywhere, of course. There will always be people willing to pick up an acoustic guitar and sing their hearts out wherever and whenever they may be. And there will always be people willing to listen, looking for something to connect to, looking for something that moves them. But it is getting harder for people to find.

While the awful, anodyne, emotionless candyfloss-pop that the likes of The X-Factor give us gets more and more common, to the point that those who do like the show don’t understand. They think they like music. They think they’re like us. They think that when we go to gigs it’s sort of like watching ITV on a Saturday night. They think that when we say we’re going to listen to a band, we’ll put it on in the background while doing something useful. When we explain that we’re going to sit down with headphones on and just listen to a new album they look at us like we’re a bit mental.

And most of all, they’ll never understand why we hate The X-Factor because they simply can’t comprehend caring about music enough to not want to watch it abused and beaten in to a messy pulp by Simon Cowell for two hours every weekend.

August 03, 2011

Show Me The Funny review

I wrote about episode one over here, and now in the spirit of Edinburgh, a preview of my second piece on the show. The real article will go up on the same site I just linked to on Monday, where it will cost twice as much. If it gets enough hits, you’ll be able to see the article on tour in the Autumn, either as an extended version or with a support act.


I should admit that the reason I’m reviewing two episodes at once of ITV’s X-Factor-for-stand-up-comics show, is that I spent most of last week half delirious in bed with man-flu, barely able to string together a coherent thought, let alone a coherent sentence. Of course, that was less painful than having to sit through an episode of Show Me The Funny. Boom. Nailed it. Except… well after the atrocious first show I was all set to give the next few episodes a good slagging off, but ended up quite enjoying them.

Yes, episodes two and three of Show Me The Funny were interesting and entertaining. You’ll note I picked two very specific adjectives there. Interesting and entertaining. I didn’t, for example, use the word ‘funny’. Because they’re really, really not.

But we’ll get to that – like the show itself, I’m contractually obliged to spend the first half of this review on the tasks that the teams have to perform. While in the first episode they were doing completely random stuff around Liverpool, these two are more focused. Their audiences are an armed forces regiment, and 12-14 year-old school kids. The tasks are doing a bunch of ‘army stuff’ and creating and teaching a school lesson. The army stuff is basically making them suffer through physical exhaustion for our amusement. Which is fun enough, and it’s nice that the most unfit team eventually win, with everyone else having given up. The school lessons are less entertaining but interesting in a ‘fish-out-of-water’ sort of way.

And then to the stand-up. I criticised the show hugely in the first episode for not showing more of the actual routines. In that episode they were performing to a bunch of Liverpool women, who may be a bit scary, but are essentially regular people, just like the rest of us. We, the viewing public, should have found those routines funny.

But when you’re performing to a bunch of soldiers that have been drinking since 6pm… well you need a different approach. Because what is funny to a bunch of aggressive people on their eighth pint isn’t going to be funny to your average sober guy watching it on TV on a Monday night. That goes even more-so for the school-kids. The point of the show is for the comics to read the room and the crowd and write material that will suit that gig. And that generally won’t line up with the desires of the audience at home. So I get why we’re not being shown more of the sets. Because even in short clips, nine comics performing filthy jokes to a room of pissed-up people isn’t funny. You have to be there. And drunk.

So ironically we have a show called Show Me The Funny that isn’t funny. Not because the comics are rubbish, but because the format is genuinely not designed to be. But it’s interesting in that it demonstrates the process, it shows how material is developed, how different sort of rooms react to different things and so on. Seeing the army gig get increasingly raucous and scary as the night went on was genuinely interesting. As a documentary on the process of comedy, it’s quite good. It’d probably be even better if ITV acknowledged that’s what it is and edited it around that concept.

So what happens? Some people do well, others do badly, Rudi is more scared of school-kids than the army, and Prince Abdi and Cole Parker get sent home for not being very funny. And I get quite annoyed because a second person gets sent home for “not showing us who you are” when the entire concept of the show is to adapt and write new material to cater to a specific environment. I’m fairly sure all the comics have a good solid opening routine that sets up who they are and where they’re coming from, but they’re not allowed to use it.

Kate Copstick is also happy to describe Cole Parker as “shit” based on only having seen him do three five-minute bits of new material. Which gets me thinking that the whole concept of the show is backwards: they should have given the acts a normal gig, doing their best five minute routine at a comedy club, in week 1, then progressed to the more out-there gigs where they do new stuff. It’s a hugely unbalanced contest, because some comics can just write more quickly than others. Some are really good at riffing with a room and some aren’t. But equally, the slower writers often produce better material, and the ones that can’t riff can craft and refine exquisitely scripted routines over time. Which is fine, because it’s just a reality show and it’s never going to be balanced. But to describe someone as a “shit” comic in front of a huge TV audience when you haven’t even see their actual act is grossly unfair. I’d say it’s a horrible reputation for him to be straddled with, but frankly I think I’m the only person still watching this and I’d probably still book him.

Meanwhile, Rudi Lickwood is still somehow in the competition, despite being told-off in week 2 for doing old material when he’s meant to be doing new stuff, and then bottling it in week 3 and leaving the stage after only doing three of his five minutes. He’s another great comic that’s just entirely unsuited to this competition, but at least the others are trying.

Next week they’re doing a medical conference. This makes me happy, as it’s the first time they’re playing to a, shall we say, ‘sophisticated’ audience. Hopefully it’ll finally be a chance for the talented gag-writers to shine. Maybe there will even be some actual jokes.

November 18, 2010

On Jenny Eclair and responsibility

Some things annoy me disproportionately.

A few weeks ago a I had a really shit weekend. And on the Monday, I had a comedy show to run and MC. The last thing I wanted to do was get up on stage and be all nice and jolly and try and make a room of people laugh. I contemplated pulling the gig. For about three seconds. Then realised that would make me a cunt.

‘The show must go on’. It’s old cliche, but for some reason it’s one I believe in with a level of fervour. Perhaps it’s just general politeness. If you advertise a show and then pull it, you’re inconveniencing a bunch of people who had planned to go to that show. You’re ruined their plans for the night. If nothing else it’s rude. In my case it was probably just thirty or so people, most of whom wouldn’t have really minded. But still, the principle of the thing stands. Especially if you’re then going to go and ask them to come to future shows.

It’s a principle that I feel I apply fairly. Yes, I used it to mock Oasis when Liam cancelled gigs because he felt like being a dick. But I also dragged my favourite band, James, over the coals when they cancelled a show due to the singer having hurt his back and being told he couldn’t dance. Everyone else seemed to think that was perfectly reasonable. I didn’t understand why they couldn’t just get him a chair. In that case the crowd would have been robbed of the delight of singer Tim Booth’s insane dance moves, but when it comes down to it, he’s not Bez. His job is to sing, not to dance, and he was perfectly capable of doing that.

Still, that was a borderline case. And obviously there are circumstances where pulling the show is the only option: if the performer is genuinely too ill to perform then not much can be done about it. Unless you’re Frank Turner when you just perform anyway before running backstage, throwing up and fainting two songs before the end, then apologise profusely and try and sort out free tickets for a future gig for people.

Some cases though, aren’t borderline at all. If you’ve been avoiding it (good for you) you won’t be aware that Jenny Eclair has joined the cast of I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here. Even if you are, there’s a good chance that what you don’t know is that she cancelled 11 tour dates, including one on the afternoon of the gig itself, in order to get on the show. So what happened? It’s hard to say exactly as none of what she’s said about it makes any sense, but it seems she was on a list of eight reserves, who were flown over to Australia as potential replacements.

Now while I’m no fan of the show, I can see why she’d want to do it. It’s a big profile booster. It’ll help her sell more tickets for the rest of the tour. But the show is about two weeks long. Even if you’re a reserve, it can’t be hard to just avoid booking anything else in on those weeks. She basically knew there was a chance she couldn’t do the shows, but let the promoters and her audience continue to think she would until the day of the first show. Which frankly is hugely unprofessional and shows a disgusting level of contempt for her fans and the venues that booked her.

Still, I’d have let it pass. I’d have shut up because other people do this sort of thing all the time and why make a big deal of it. Then I read the official statement her spokesperson gave: “Jenny apologises profusely to all her followers and ticket holders who will be were planning to see her. She has never cancelled a live show before in over 20 years of performing and hopes her fans appreciate these are very exceptional, unexpected circumstances and looks forward to seeing everyone again very soon.” Sounds fairly reasonable, let’s just re-read a bit of that “exceptional, unexpected circumstances”... oh no, my mistake, it’s a bare-faced lie. If you’re booked as a reserve on a reality TV show, it’s not ‘unexpected’ if you’re then asked to go on it. It’s… what’s the word? “expected”. That’s it. Lovely of them to just insult the intelligence of her fans there.

My advice? If you’re a theatre comedy booker, and thinking of booking Jenny Eclair, check that the date doesn’t clash with any celebrity reality TV shows, as there’s a good chance that the producers of said show won’t actually want her to be on it but might end up asking her to do it if someone more famous drops out.

Dean would also like to point out that no, he didn’t have tickets for one of the cancelled shows, and you’re wrong, he really does rate Jenny Eclair as a comic

August 10, 2010

Sherlock Episode 3 Review

Well apparently I’m alone in thinking the third episode of Sherlock was down there with the second and not up there with the first, so let’s explain why.

We’ll start with plot. Sherlock solves five different cases in about fifteen minutes each. As such, none of them get to room to breathe or to make you think about them. It’s all far too rushed and it kills one of the great appeals of the show: the slowly unraveling mystery. Of course, there’s an overall mystery going on too: who is setting up all these cases for Sherlock to solve? Well it’s Moriarty. Of course it is, the show’s only been going two episodes and in both of those it’s revealed that he’s behind both the cases. Plus he’s basically the only recurring villain in Sherlock Holmes ‘mythology’ so, no suspense there then. I mean if it’d turned out to be LeStrade behind it all then I might have been surprised.

Still, we don’t know who Moriarty is, perhaps they’ll surprise us there. Oh, it’s some guy we met for five minutes earlier in the episode. That’s… disappointing. I mean, there were so many more interesting possibilities: I really thought it’d be Watson’s girlfriend at first. A female Moriarty would have been a wonderful curve-ball, and might help explain why she was still with Watson after being tied to a chair and nearly killed by a giant crossbow on their first date. I mean, I’ve known girls that were in to bondage but I find, as a rule, that bringing an evil Chinese circus in to the bedroom tends to send them running. Alas any chance of it being her was ruined when the blind woman said he had such a soft voice. And erm… can someone explain why she was shot at that point? The case was solved, Moriarty was going to let her go like the others, so she could have told them all about his voice after they’d rescued her. Unless he was going to have someone keep a sniper aimed at her all episode, which may have been awkward when they took her to the police station. Either he was always going to kill her as she’d heard his voice (in which case, Holmes figuring that out and then leaving her to die would have been ten times more interesting) or he was going to let the information about his voice out the minute he talked to her.
Who else could Moriarty have been? I personally loved the idea, hinted at in the first episode, that he was Holmes schizophrenic other side, that he was setting the crimes up for himself to solve. That, would have been a twist, and one that could have been dragged out a long while: you could have Holmes and Moriarty meet and later explain it was all in his head, Fight Club style. But that’s ruined now, as Watson interacted with Moriarty too so it’s out.

Oh and the Watson-is-Moriarty fake-out was a nice idea. But did they have to Watson act quite so unconvincing and have the jacket be quite so bulky. Odd complaint, I know he wouldn’t be, but it’d been more fun if we’d actually have been fooled for a few seconds. I also can’t help but think they failed in making the best use of the Watson-taken-captive concept. It was made clear that Holmes didn’t actually care about the victims, but would he have been more interested and involved in solving the case if Watson was the one covered in explosives? Well we don’t find out, as there’s no case for Holmes to solve in this instance.

Moriarty could have been LeStrade. Hell, it could have been the grumpy forensics guy who from the first episode who made more of an impression in his five minutes of screen-time than gay boyfriend did. There’s one other possibility of course. Moriarty could have been Stephen Fry. By which I mean to say, the big reveal could have been the actor that was playing him. It’s cheating, of course, it takes the reveal out of the plot and puts it in the showbiz gossip column, but still I could have forgiven a lot if, in that last scene, someone awesome would have turned up. But no, it’s that guy that was in John Adams. He’s awful. Not his fault, it’s the direction I’m sure, but it’s so over-the-top it jars you out of any sense of realism that’s been built up for this modern take on Holmes. He’s a cackling Bond villain. At least when the holographic Moriarty became sentient in Star Trek: The Next Generation he didn’t try and playfully bum Jean-Luc Picard.

So in conclusion: no suspense over who’s behind the crimes, no suspense over who Moriarty is, and no big reveal on who the actor playing Moriarty is. Still, how will Holmes catch Moriarty? There’s plot there to be sure, no? Err, no. He asks him to meet up on an internet forum. Moriarty, so cautious he’s only spoke to Holmes through other people so far, and killed someone for mentioning the tone of his voice, turns up.

Rest of the plot then?

Oh god that fight scene. On the one hand, it was utter genius. The rapid-cut, flashing-lights cacophonous fight scene that’s impossible to follow has become Hollywood’s calling card of late. See any of the new Batman films or the Bourne films. I hate it, it gives me a headache, I can’t wait till we get past it. In Sherlock, it was genius, as they added an (admittedly far-fetched) plot-based reason as to why the scene looked that way. So on that basis, it’s a brilliant parody. The problem with parody though, is if you’re doing it well enough, you take on the annoying aspects of the thing you’re parodying. This just went on too long. I went from thinking it was brilliant to wanting it to end as soon as possible. Before I got a headache.

And the ending. Not only was it a cliffhanger, but it was, I’m fairly sure, a Spooks cliffhanger. By that, I mean I’ll be shocked as hell if the next series (which hasn’t even been commissioned yet) picks up here and shows us exactly what happens. No, the next series will start in the middle of a case, Holmes or Watson will have some unexplained injury (maybe Watson is using the walking stick again) and there will be some dialogue to briefly explain what happened. If we’re very lucky, we might get a quick flashback. And Moriarty won’t turn up again until the season finale.

So what we get is a 90-minute story with no pay-off of any kind. No reveal, no twist, and they might just have got away with that had there been an ending to the episode, some closure, either plot-wise or for the characters emotionally. But instead the whole thing ends in the middle of the final scene, with no room for a coda.

Despite all that it’s still one of the better things on TV, and certainly one of the better things the BBC have done in the past ten years. But compared to that first episode it’s woefully mediocre. Can Moffat write all of them next time please?

In conclusion, this episode was like the worst sex I ever had: to rushed, no big pay-off, an awkward fight in the middle, and at the end Graham Norton turns up and ruins it.

I give it 5 out of 17.

August 06, 2010

On Sherlock

I’ve been trying to pick apart why that first episode of the new BBC drama Sherlock was a lot better than the second. The obvious answer of course: the writer of the first episode was better. The more sophisticated answer… well let’s see.

The truth is I found the first hour of the second episode of Sherlock rather enjoyable. But then it all went a bit wrong. Let’s start at the end. The big finale to the first episode was a battle of wits between Holmes and the villain of the piece. Holmes has been introduced to us as this master observer, and so he gets tested a psychological game of bluff and double bluff with the killer. It’s all nonsense of course. If he was that desperate to know if he’d chosen correctly he could have just taken the pill to the lab after. More to the point, you’d think with all that knowledge in his head he’d have seen The Princess Bride too. Still, it’s tense while it lasts and while it’s easy to take it for granted on first viewing, it’s not until you see that second episode that you realise how rare that sort of thing is: a high budget crime drama where the finale is two people matching wits, rather than some big action scene. It’s Pemberton getting a confession from someone in the box, rather than the killer being shot dead in a raid. In fact, in that first episode, the one action scene stood out like a sore thumb: the chase through London was a bit silly and utterly at odds with the tone of the rest of the episode. But even then, it managed to incorporate something new (Holmes’ head-GPS) and serve the development of the characters (Watson dumping the stick) if not the plot.

The second episode is back to more familiar territory. It ends with Holmes saving the day by winning a gunfight and rescuing the girl at the last second. Really? Oh sure, they try to dress it up with a bit of talking to show that Holmes is using his brains “the bullet’s will ricochet” but when it comes down to it he may as well have said “let the girl go, you’re surrounded by armed bastards”.
It’s a shame as that first hour was great. Okay, the killer being a gymnast was a bit far fetched but still, the mystery was interesting. But then out of nowhere “oh it’s an evil circus troop what done it”. Of course it is. I don’t know how closely this episode was based on the original Conan Doyle story, but “evil Chinese circus group” is one of those elements that really needed updating. Assuming of course, that we want to keep the series grounded in reality, and not veer off in to the slightly dodgy latter-day Holmes stories and the very dodgy spin offs that throw in supernatural stuff. Who knows, maybe this week’s episode will see Watson hit a zombie with an urn. As he faded in to old age, Conan Doyle believed in faeries.:

They could have gone a lot more gritty. Make them drug dealers, make the lost heirloom some blood diamonds, get Naomi Campbell to guest star… okay maybe not… but still the episode really needed updating. And the possibilities could have been really interesting. Say they were human traffickers. And the one smuggler let a girl escape on purpose. The treasure is the girl. The cover is that they’re a Facebook game development group doing market research. Okay maybe not that last bit. Although.

Instead we got that interminably long scene where we just watch a circus trick. Except it’s not even impressive as it’s in a piece of fiction so it’s not real. I thought she was going to ask for a volunteer from the audience so there was at least a mild bit of peril for a character we’ve met before but no, the scene just ends. They may as well have flashed up a big sign saying “did you get that? we’re going to be using that weight-based harpoon thing later!” Because what we really needed was to basically seen that scene twice. Everything from that point onwards is just a bit silly. Remember at the point last week where Holmes considers risking suicide just to prove himself right? Well at that point this week he’s in a gunfight with an evil Chinese circus. Oh dear.

Let’s hope the final episode gets it right.

April 25, 2010

A few thoughts on the second debate: the long shot

I’ve only just caught up on this, having been away for a few days. It was certainly interesting, there’s a whole host of things I could pick up on but one thing jumped out at me.

This story has been going around about how a Lib Dem win could cause major problems for Rupert Murdoch and his ilk. It’s a fascinating and exciting read. Couple that with the mostly blunt knives the press have had out on Clegg over the last few days and they’re clearly panicking. Now the second debate was show live on Sky News, which is of course part of the Murdoch empire. However, the debate rules are so detailed that’d be impossible for the broadcaster to influence it, wouldn’t it?

Let’s put aside Adam Boulton’s rather rude attempt to bring up the recent newspaper stories about Clegg, despite them having nothing to do with the question asked. We’ll do that as Clegg swept him aside brilliantly. Instead, lets look at the long shot. I’m not talking about Clegg. I’m talking about the camera angle used when they wanted to show all three leaders in one shot.

First note that the positioning of each leader in the debate was arranged between the parties beforehand. Presumably to make it fair. You have three people, so someone has to stand in the middle. That has it’s advantages and disadvantages (makes you look better, makes it easier for the other two to gang up on you) but overall it gives the person in the centre greater prominence.

Now in the first debate, the general shot used when they wanted to do that was this one:

Debate 1 Long

A straight on view that shows all three leaders from a distance.

If they wanted to punch in close you got something like this:

Debate 1 Close

An angled shot that was still clearly in front of the leaders but balanced the prominence a little between the closest and centre leader.

Now, lets take a look at Murdoch’s debate. It’s worth saying that these screencaps say a lot more, as the camera was very dynamic in the ITV debate, panning around the speakers and cutting to close-ups more often. The Sky debate use static cameras almost exclusively other than when showing the audience. As such, these particular angles were used a lot more. As far as I could tell, the favourite shot of the Sky production team was this one:

Debate 2 Long

A distant shot over Brown’s shoulder that emphasises him and places the other two leaders in the background. There was a similar shot from the other direction, but that was rarely used. Also for some reason Sky kept showing shots from this entirely pointless camera:
Debate 2 Pointless

I’d argue that we only really needed that shot once just to establish that all the leaders were in fact wearing trousers.

Also of note is the colour scheme. The ITV debate gave equal weighting to the red, blue and yellow colours of each party. Sky only used red and blue, but cleverly did it in the style of the UK flag, hence heading off any arguments that they had no reason to exclude yellow. Rather, they had no good reason.

I’d point out that if you look carefully you can probably find examples of these angles being used in the other debate and vice-versa, I’m not claiming that they were used this way exclusively. Just that the ones I present here were used much more often in comparison.

April 03, 2010

On the side–benefits of World of Warcraft and the travesty of 'background' TV

I spent four hours on World of Warcraft today. Note that I specifically don’t say “playing” World of Warcraft. See, what I actually spent that time in-game doing was killing a few hundred ogres and looting beads of their dead corpses. Except in game terms these ogres were very much beneath my attention. Way back when the first expansion pack had just come out, they were a challenge. An interesting fight. Now, 15 levels and some years later they’re a joke. They die in two hits, and even if I just stand there and ignore them they’ll take about half an hour to kill me. All I’d do was run up to one, hit the 3 key on the keyboard twice, then right click them to loot the beads. Then move on to the next. By the time I’d killed the last one, the first one had been replaced. I then repeated this for around four hours.

Contrary to what some may claim, this mindless ‘grinding’ is not all World of Warcraft is. Generally, fighting in the game involves picking the right moves at the right time – it’s an interesting balance of planning, adaptation and reaction. Played properly, it’s a very interesting and compelling game. Thing is, there was no reason for me to be killing these weakling ogres at all. In story-terms, handing the beads over to a certain organisation would make them like me more, and so I’d then get to buy one of their elephants to ride about on, and could add “the Diplomat” to the end of my name when it appears for others to see on screen. But the elephants are just like any other horse/tiger/ram that you can ride about on. And the title merely tells everyone else how much spare time you have. All this time spent didn’t actually advance my character or make her anymore powerful or skilled.

But you see, if you asked me what I did in those four hours, I wouldn’t have said “played World of Warcraft”. What I actually did in that time was catch up on a few podcasts and listen to some albums I have to review. Understand: I’m easily distracted. Typically my only podcast and music listening time is the half hour to-and-from work every day. Don’t get me wrong, I have music on a lot, I’m just not always really listening to it. It’s pleasant background noise, not the focus of my attention. And while that works with an album you know well, it doesn’t if you’re trying to pick up on specifics so you can write about it.

I can’t just sit down and listen. If I sit at the computer I to listen I’ll end up feeling compelled to check my e-mail and Facebook and Twitter. And once something catches my eye that’ll have my attention and I won’t be able to tell you a thing about what I’m meant to be listening to. Likewise if I sit on the sofa I’ll just get restless and my mind will wonder. If I lie down, I’ll probably fall asleep. I very much struggle to just sit and listen.

To digress a little, I’m aware that’s not entirely normal. Or at least, I seem to be lacking the ability to properly listen and do something else at the same time. I think for this reason I’ve never understood people who want to put the TV on ‘in the background’. Either there’s something worth watching on, in which case you sit down and watch it, or there isn’t, in which case the TV can stay off. For the same reason I get remarkably wound up by people that insist on talking over TV shows. Just, no. We’re watching it, and unless your comment on it is utterly hilarious or hugely incisive then wait until the adverts or the end. Watch now, discuss later. The fact that TV has reduced itself to making shows designed to be watched ‘in the background’ is a fucking travesty. People like me think the X-Factor is shit because when we ‘give it a go’ we actually watch it. The millions of fans that love it some much all get a bunch of friends around, order in food and enjoy each others company while keeping it on ‘in the background,’ only stopping to pay attention at the ‘important’ bits and just talking over the boring stuff. They might be talking about the programme, but they’re still not paying attention to most of it. Under those circumstances, I can see it might be fun, but it’s not the TV show that’s doing the heavy lifting here.

As an adjunct to this, I imagine that people actually watching a show properly are a lot more likely to be attentive during the advert breaks. We basically need to replace TV ratings boxes with mind-scanners that also measure a person’s attention level. Suddenly those 800,000 people entirely engrossed in something like The Wire become a lot more attractive to advertisers than the 8 million half paying attention to X-Factor. The BBC also need to start taking this in to account and not use ratings as the sole arbiter of what is deemed ‘popular’. Again, just because more people have been sat in a room while Any Dream Will Do was on than have been during The Thick Of It, I’d argue that we should be counting the latter group as 2-3 times more important as they’re actually engaged with the show.

But to bring things back around to my point, while I’ll sit and watch a TV show as otherwise I just can’t enjoy it, I fail when attempting to do that with music. The lack of a visual component just throws me – I’ll happily sit focused on a concert DVD without issue. What doing something mindless on World of Warcraft does, is occupy my mind just enough that I can focus on the music or podcast. My hands, eyes and brain have something to do, but it’s not something distracting enough that it pulls any attention away from my primary activity: listening. And of course, at the end of it all there’s a small sense of achievement that I’ve done something, even if it’s utterly pointless.

It’s an odd reflection on my generation that multi-tasking is so hard-wired in to our brains that many of us now require some sort of outlet for excess brain-power if we want to accomplish simpler tasks.

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