Category Archives: TV

Recent TV

The joy of Netflix means I can start on a series and just really soak into it, and consume the whole thing in one stretch. No waiting weekly for episodes, and go at my own pace. There are some shows that are released weekly, to keep them in line or just behind the US, but for those I’m just stockpiling episodes until the series is done. It’s not as if there’s nothing else to watch in the meantime.

I’ve avoided spoilers in the following, so I’ve not given away anything about the stories for anyone who is worried.

The Last Kingdom – I’m not sure why I held off watching this show for so long. I’m a big fan of Bernard Cornwall’s books, I enjoyed the odd Sharpe episode back in the day with Sean Bean, and I’m a massive fan of his Arthurian trilogy. This falls into the same kind of mould, based on his long running book series that has been renamed to The Last Kingdom series I believed. Only instead of King Arthur, we’re focusing on King Alfred of Wessex.

Uhtred Ragnarson, son of Uhred of Bebbanburg is a Dane, but not, an English man of Northumberland but also not and heir to Bebbanburg (Bamburgh to use its modern name). Fantastic stuff. I cannot fault the show. The cast is amazing and some characters are really interesting, both to love and hate, sometimes at the same time. Uhtred himself is not someone you always root for and I have to praise David Dawson who plays King Alfred. You want to hate him so much for some of his decisions and yet a moment later you feel sympathy and can understand his motives. Such a gloriously rich and layered character, it must have been a dream of a role for the actor. The brilliant Ian Hart as Father Beocca and so many of the others in the cast are amazing, especially those who play Hild, Finan, Brida, Steapa and Leofric. Three glorious series to soak into, do it now, and season 4 is in production.

Titans – So, as an old school long time DC comics fan I was torn about this and initially had mixed feelings. I read Teen Titans growing up. I know the characters and the trailer for the TV showed something very different. However, I gave it a shot and if you can get past some of the changes to the main characters, and put that aside then it’s an enjoyable show. The writers had to change some stuff to adapt it to TV, and I don’t have an issue with that, but at times it feel as if some of the violence and language was dialled up to 11 just because they could, not because it was always necessary for the story. Changing characters is fine, as long as they stay true to the heart of them.

Dick Grayson is a lot angrier than normal, however, they explain why this version id Dick is like that. Kori is perhaps the most difficult character to do in a TV series (more so than Beast Boy in fact with modern CGI) because she’s not human. She has orange skin, which the could have created using CGI, however, it would mean wherever she went people would stop and stare, and since it’s supposed to be set in the real world where there aren’t many aliens walking around, I can see why they didn’t go with that. The actress in the role Anna Diop fills the character with warmth, heart and compassion, and I think she did an amazing job, although the wardrobe they gave her initially, and in the trailer, was not a good choice, at all. It really gave out the wrong message.

The first series is also packed with a lot of cameos, and I mean A LOT. There is the potential for at least 3 spin off TV shows from this, and I know that one of them, Doom Patrol, has gone into production. In Titans we get to meet all of those characters for the first time, get a basic introduction to them and their powers, and then the story moves on. Lots of tie-ins to Batman and the city of Gotham, which is to be expected as part of the story explores Dick’s backstory. Overall I was able to put aside my issues about the changes that were made and I enjoyed it. Will definitely be tuning in for season 2.

The Punisher Season 2 – Given all of the faffing around behind the scenes between Marvel and Netflix this could be the last time we’ll see Jon Bernthal playing Frank Castle so I’ve mixed feelings. He’s the best version of Frank I’ve ever seen. The first series was perfect. Gritty, brutal and heart-breaking in equal measure. This season is trying to recapture that formula and although there are moments, it doesn’t reach the heights of the first season.

The acting is all spot on, but some of the storylines are jumbled, the pacing is off, it gets quite mixed up at times, and not in a good way, so Frank is bouncing around between things, juggling too much stuff, but it just doesn’t work. Some of the actors don’t have a lot to do except mope about, a lot. I understand this season is all about broken people and those kind of people don’t always make logical choices and deep-seated mental problems are not resolved overnight but even so, this is a TV show not a documentary and it’s an action show too, so some parts of this season were a bit repetitive which made them dull for me.

When Frank is unleashed the violence is explosive, difficult to watch and Bernthal is terrifying, as he should be in the role of Frank, a brutal force of nature. Some outstanding acting once again from a few people in the show. It’s worth watching but I don’t think this season reached the highs of season 1 by a good way. I hope there is a season 3 but I have massive doubts that will happen. I expect Netflix to announce the cancellation of The Punisher very soon and then Jessica Jones.

 

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Altered Carbon

Has anyone else been watching and has now finished Altered Carbon on Netflix? If not, you really should make a start.

No spoilers from me, but a brief summary. At the start I was watching it with the subtitles switched on as it was all new to me having not read the books, they mumbled a fair bit to begin with, and there were lots of new terms to try and understand. As you might  expect given some the barriers mentioned, I was mildly interested but wanted to give it a few episodes as I knew the book was very highly regarded as is the author, Richard Morgan.

By the time I was a few episodes in I had changed from thinking it was ok to the place where  I was looking at the time and thinking just one more episode, just one more and then bed.

I’ve now burned through the whole series, all 10 episodes, in less than a week.

Some highlights. The look of the show is amazing. Shiny and futuristic but also grimy and seedy down below where all the poor people live while the rich live in the clouds and nothing is beyond them.

Aesthetics aside, it was a fascinating show about family, what constitutes a family and how to build a new one, religion and faith. Given the premise there is obviously a huge focus on what it means to be human.  There’s also a lot about gender, death, redemption and revenge. Power and money are strong themes as well. The future echoes the present in many ways where the rich can do and say whatever they want and the poor suffer the most. It was definitely a story about imbalance in society, rebellion, justice and also love.

The cast was incredibly diverse too with both strong, layered and interesting roles for men and women. It’s not a spoiler to mention the basic premise of sleeving, moving your consciousness into other bodies, so as you can imagine this led to some fascinating scenes and really interesting challenges for the actors. Men in women’s bodies and vice versa. People of different faiths and ethnicity finding themselves in sleeves that are so different to their own skin. One actor, whose name I will have to dig out from IMDB, must have come in for one bit part but by the end of two episodes his role had been transformed into a rollercoaster of a ride. It was a gift of an acting job. I can’t say more without spoilers but I would loved to have seen the casting sheet for that particular role as it required some unique skills!

If you have the time it is well worth the effort of persisting past the first couple of episodes where I wasn’t sure what was going on really.

Have you seen it? What did you think?

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World’s Strongest Man 2017 – The Heats

World's Strongest Man 2017 - The HeatsIt’s that time of year again where for once, I talk about sport, specifically the World’s Strongest Man. So if you’re not interested, switch off now.

I’ll do a post on the final once I’ve watched it, but the heats this year were brilliant and worth discussing in some depth. There were a few surprises along the way and some new faces that really brought a smile to my face.

Heat 1
Brian Shaw was always going to be the favourite in this heat and the large American proved that he’s still got it. A slightly more jovial approach this year, playing to the crowd a bit, but at times he was also the consummate professional, doing just enough to get through and win the heat, to conserve his energy for the final which is wise, given the  temperatures in Botswana. Tom Stoltman is an incredibly tough guy and proved it this year as well as the remarkable Slovenian, Belsak. A really good heat to kick things off and it was the Canadian, JF Caron, who proved his mettle in the new head to head event to decide second place. It’s a change to be sure, but it also gives others in the heat who might have slipped up on certain events, a slim chance to go through.

Heat 2
The second and younger, and very tall, Stoltman was competing, and aged only 22, this kid has a remarkable career ahead of him in Strongman if he continues. Thor was the favourite to go through and he proved that he was still hungry, as one of only two men to finish the punishing lift and drag first event. Another new face but a remarkable guy is Martins Licis, who is bursting with personality and strength. Licis came out on top for one event, the squat, and Thor seemed to be just taking his time, doing enough to get through, again conserving his energy. Being one of the heaviest men in the competition he did very well on the bus pull. There was some fun and games on the Axle press, as Thor went head to head with Licis, and both were almost egging each other one to do one more. Licis has an Olympic lifting technique with a split lift that seemed to work for him, as he came second. As expected it was Thor who went through, Savatinov didn’t make the cut and the other men battled it out in Last Man Standing. Apparently Licis used to spend time in his youth lifting heavy objects on his grandfather’s farm, so the stones are his bread and butter. He proved how tough he was as he just kept going and took second place.

Heat 3
The Brits performed incredibly well this year. Big Loz was back from injury and after a so-so start in the Load and Drag it was the newcomer, Rob Kearney who was in the lead. For such a compact guy he’s incredibly strong and he did really well in the log lift. This was always going to be a tough group with the mighty Russian Shivlyakov, the huge and powerful Georgian, Janashia. By the time we got to the deadlift it wasn’t looking good for Loz, but he’s been working on this, one of his weaker events. A couple of years ago he was doing well but then tore a muscle and had to drop out. This year he did really well and tied for 3rd place on the event, but it was the Georgian who proved just how tough he was doing a fantastic 8 reps. The top two men on the Elephant Carry, which is a huge stone not an actual elephant, were Janashia and Loz, who seemed to be digging in and proving his determination. After 5 events the Georgian went through and Loz was in the head to head Last Man Standing. But as 2nd in the leaderboard he had the most time to rest and was able to battle against the others to get into the final. A hard fought heat and well deserved to Loz.

Heat 4
Big Eddie Hall, the Beast, who in 2016 took 3rd place with an injury and this year seemed determined to do even better. He’s young, hungry and has broken world records being the only man in history to lift half a tonne. Just think about that for a second. There are lots of strong men, and women, working out in gyms around the world. This guy lifted half a tonne off the ground. With that kind of drive, if anyone could win, it’s him. In this heat he started out slow, on the Load and Drag, but as the events progressed he was mostly going head to head with Kieliszkowski  the slim but ridiculously strong Polish champion. He equalled Eddie’s reps on the log lift, was only 4 second slower than Eddie on the Bus Pull and was only 1 rep behind Eddie on the Deadlift. If anyone was going to blast the Deadlift it was Eddie. But he showed his professionalism, as he went last and only did just enough to win the Deadlift, a smart move with Kieliszkowski nipping at his heels. But the points started to clock up and every event win pushed Eddie a bit further ahead, so he qualified on top. It was almost inevitable then by the time we got to Last Man Standing that Kieliszkowski, the freshest guy in the heat, was able to best the others in a hard fought battle to go through to the final.

Heat 5
A slimmed down Terry Hollands was in a tough group with the return of Big Z after injury and evergreen Nick Best, who as the second oldest in the competition seems to just keep going at a pace the other men sometimes lack. Terry started well and was only the second man to actually finish the Load and Drag, his weight, height and big feet helped him get enough traction to pull the mining cart across the paving stones. WSM has always been an international event, and every year it seems to add a new face but they are normally from familiar countries. Last year we had Janashia for the first time and in this heat we were introduced to Maheripourehir, our first Iranian strongman. Iran has a long history of strongmen, particularly Olympic gold medal weight lifters. Just watch the heavy weight class at the Olympics next time it comes around and you’ll see them. They have some of the best in history in that country but this is the first time we’ve seen one in strongman. For his debut I would say Maheripourehir did very well, holding his own against veterans. Nick Best was on fire in the squat, but surprisingly Big Z didn’t win the event and even though he is always slow away from the competition, he seemed to lack some of his normal pace or fire during the events. He really flubbed Fingal’s Fingers, and kept humping one of the fingers with his shoulder to try and turn it over, which is not allowed, while the ref screamed at him to stop. He just didn’t seem to be at his best. When it came to the Axle press he came out on top but didn’t smash it as I had expected. The most surprising was when it came to the Elephant Carry Nick Best won the event, by quite a way, which gave him enough points to win the heat! For the first time Big Z was in the Last Man Standing. Terry and Maheripourehir battled out for a while, but eventually the Iranian came out on top, but of course he was exhausted by then, enabling Big Z to beat him and qualify for the final. He seemed to be on cruise control, which given some of the competitors this year, could prove to be a mistake. I don’t think his age is a factor, just look at who beat him in this year and Mark Felix who is twice the age and more of some competitors like Tom Stoltman and still beats some of them. So perhaps injury is still holding Big Z back.

Final predictions and thoughts
The final is going to be one hell of a battle between Shaw, Thor, Eddie, Big Z, Janashia, Loz, Licis, Caron, Best and Kieliszkowski. Normally I would say Shaw, Thor and Big Z on the podium, but with Big Z apparently still not at his best, Licis proving to be a remarkable new guy and Janashia looking so strong, I can’t call it. There’s also Eddie, who has moved from a part time strongman approach, where he had a day job, to becoming a full time strongman who is investing a lot of time and money in technology to help him recover after training, and focusing so much on his goal, I just can’t call it. After several years where Big Z and Shaw were passing the title back and forth between them, I think it’s going to be one of the most exciting finals I’ve seen in years. And all on the 40th anniversary of when it all began.

 

 

 

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A review of 2016

This is going to be a best of the best post for me for 2016 covering TV and films.  Not the best ever. Not everything I’ve seen, or read or done, just some of the highlights.

Books

Bloodmage Stephen AryanBook round up first. So this year book 2 (Bloodmage) and book 3 (Chaosmage) were published. And it’s just over a year now since Battlemage was published. So that’s it. The first trilogy, the Age of Darkness, is done. To me it feels like Battlemage was published a long, long time ago, but that just because I’ve been working on it for a few years behind the scenes.

Looking ahead, the first book in the new Age of Dread trilogy will be coming out next October. Seems like a long way away, here in December. It will be here before I know it and I have a lot of writing to do before then.

Films

Captain America Civil WarCaptain America: Civil War – or Avengers 3 as it could easily be called because it had just about everyone in it, apart from Thor and Hulk. But Chris Hemsworth did a funny Thor video about what he’d been up to and why he wasn’t asked to join the fight. Anyway even without them the film was excellent. It was a top 5 Marvel films for me and maybea  top 3 although I need to rewatch it a couple of times before making that call, as currently The Winter Soldier is in the top spot. First outing for Chadwick Boseman as the Black Panther too and he was incredible, so I’m really looking forward to his solo film.

Dr StrangeDr Strange – It was weird, and different, and yes, Strange, and it made magic in the real world a bit more understandable and relatable. Also kind of familiar, for me at least, what with all the wizards and stuff. But this could easily have been a weird outlier of a film that didn’t connect to the others, but Cumberbatch made it fun and engaging and the rest of the cast were fantastic, from Benedict Wong to Chewitol Ejiofor to the entrancing Tilda Swinton.

Deadpool – I didn’t see this at the cinema. I’m not a fan of the character in the comics and think it’s one note that’s only amusing for 5 minutes. However, after some serious persuasion I finally watched the film on DVD. And then I proceeded to laugh all the way through from start to finish. It was the antithesis of superhero movies in so many ways. There were so many jokes I’m positive I missed lots of them, but the fact that it was a really amusing film was what completely surprised me. I can see why it was such a big hit as it made fun of so many things and bless Ryan Reynolds for having a sense of humour and broad shoulders, as he took the piss out of himself a lot.

CreedCreed – This film was released in November 2015 in the USA but here in jolly old England we didn’t get it until February 2016 for some reason. An oddity in modern cinema when the gap between America and the UK is normally a couple of days and sometimes we get the film first. Anyway, that aside, this film was a gem. I never wanted another in the Rocky franchise after the perfect end that was Rocky Balboa, and yet this film works. I’m a huge fan of the Rocky franchise, and if you don’t know already I co-host a podcast where we talk about action movies once a month (Bags of Action – on iTunes). I was amazed by the film and it quickly entered the top 3 films in the franchise for me. A new film for a new generation with a new hero that also respects everything that came before.

Honourable mentions – 10 Cloverfield Lane, Suicide Squad, The Magnificent 7.

Turkeys – Star Trek Beyond. I like the new Trek films. Love the cast. Very excited by them. Even with all of the flaws in Star Trek Into Darkness, this was the worst of the new Trek films. It was Star Trek: Kirk Too Fast Too Furious on a bike. It was action and effects over substance and character. A few funny character bits do not make a good Trek film. 10 minutes of good stuff in a 2 hour film is crap. Star Trek should make me feel something and normally it does. Whether that’s the TV shows or the Shatner films or the Next Gen films. I came away from this film feeling nothing at all. It was a hollow waste of so many talented actors. Another turkey was Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Yawnsville. Utter toilet. Again, great actors, huge waste of time and money.

Television

The Flash Season 2The Flash and Supergirl – These two shows are the best of the CW DC comics TV shows. They’re funny, quirky, don’t take themselves too seriously, inventive, they make me laugh, they give lots of nods to the comic book fans like me, and they’re uplifting and entertaining. Arrow and Legends are good, but not as good.

Daredevil season 2 – For me Daredevil is still the best of the Marvel Netflix shows. Luke Cage was good, but a bit too long at times, but even with some niggles this season, DD was amazing. From Elektra to the Punisher to Stick to Karen Page. Wow. How Deborah Ann Woll hasn’t received an award for her performance in this show I’ll never know. She’s mesmerising and a breath of fresh air. Also she’s a new face for me, as I didn’t watch Tru Blood, so I’m not thinking of her from that show. I’ve already rewatched most of this season again. It has that rewatch factor that the others don’t.

WestworldWestworld – no spoilers here, but this show was disturbing and worrying and very dark. It also bears rewatching now that I’ve come to the end of it and some things have been revealed. There are various mysteries in the show which they explain but a second run through will see if it all holds together now that I know what I’m looking for. Overall a great new TV show.

Marco Polo season 2 – Sadly the news just broke that this was the last season as Netflix cancelled it. I’m very saddened by this news as this show was fantastic. Amazing international cast of actors, filmed in glorious locations around the world and a fascinating fictionalised glimpse of a period in history in Mongolia and the court of Kublai Khan. Well, at least there are 2 seasons, and a special one off about a much loved character on the show. If you’ve not seen it, I would recommend watching it but take your time as it seems highly unlikely we’ll ever see any more of it in the future.

Stranger ThingsHonourable mentions – iZombie season 2, dark and twisty and weird. Stranger Things – an amazing and clever and weird and glorious homage to the 1980s. Loved it. Can’t wait for more next year.

This year we’ve had a complete glut of amazing films and TV shows in particular and next year looks to be no different. There are so many amazing things to look forward to I’m both keen to hold on to the few remaining days of 2016 as I don’t like to wish my time away, but I’m also desperate to watch some of the upcoming things like Defenders on Netflix, Iron Fist, Punisher, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Star Wars Episode 8, Thor 3, the new Star Trek TV show and so much more.

What were some of your favourite TV shows and films from this year?

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Star Trek is just a silly Science Fiction show

That’s what some people say. It’s just people in tight, uncomfortable, brightly coloured shirts, running around on a space ship. It doesn’t mean anything.

Those people, are very wrong indeed.

Netflix in the UK have just dropped a metric tonne of new Star Trek content  by adding every Star Trek episode ever, from every incarnation. Also, Netflix (outside the USA and Canada) have done a deal so that the new Star Trek show, Star Trek Discovery, will be shown on Netflix in 180 countries shortly after it airs on CBS in the USA.

I’ve been tempted many times over the years to buy the Next Generation DVDs and the rest, but the price has always been a bit steep. Now I’m getting my daily dose of Star Trek and I don’t have to find storage space for some more DVD box sets.

So, back to my original statement. For some people, mostly those who have never actually watched the show, and only know a little about it, they think it’s just another TV show. In some respects they’re right. It is a show that is designed to entertain. However, its creator, Gene Roddenberry, always wanted the show to do more. The original series with Kirk and Spock broke new ground several times, including the first on screen kiss between a white man and a black woman on American network television. You might say so what in 2016, but this was unheard of. And this was in 1968. That’s just five years after the Civil Rights march in Washington which led to Martin Luthor King’s famous speech. The show was also about so much more than that. It was about intolerance, hatred, racism, sexism, and so many other things, all wrapped up in a brightly coloured science fiction TV show.

Looking at it from another perspective, there are countless scientists, engineers and indeed astronauts that were inspired by the show. They went on to explore the universe, down to its smallest components and also into outer space. They believed in the underlying principle of Star Trek, where human beings are at peace with each other and their goal is to better themselves and explore the universe. A planet Earth where there was no more war or famine, disease was all but eradicated and we were united as a species.

Coincidentally, just as I was writing this post, SciFiNow asked fans to explain why they love Star Trek. I’ve added in my response below and one other from Ms Krystal which sums it up very well.

The shows are also full of unbelievable technology, which at the time seemed ridiculous. Some of this technology has become a reality. We don’t have transporters, but how about a system that plays music on demand. Something that is voice controlled that can store music digitally on a computer file and recall it instantly. This was on Star Trek: The Next Generation decades before iTunes and digital music.

How about a small, hand-held communication device that allows you to speak to someone very far away? This was the Star Trek communicator device, that goes back to the 1960s.

How about a very small, body mounted camera, that could beam its signal back to someone else, so they could see what you were doing, without being there in person. Much like today’s body cameras worn by front line police officers, or head mounted cameras for the armed forces. This was seen in Stak Trek: The Next Generation, where Geordie beams what his visor is showing back to the bridge so they can see what he can see on a mission.

How about data pads? Tiny computers that sit on a desk? These became tablets and laptop computers. I’ve barely scratched the surface but I’m sure you get the idea.

Star Trek means a lot to some people because it’s just an entertaining show. It means so much to others because it drives them to be better, to go further, to do more, to strive for the impossible. For others it inspires them to create and for others, to turn their gaze towards the heavens and the majesty of outer space. Underneath all of it, the show rests on the core principle that human beings are united and right now, with so much chaos and despair in the world, a little bit of hope is very welcome.

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Storytelling on TV

I’ve been thinking about this for a while, but most recently it’s because of new TV series appearing from new places like Netflix and Amazon Prime. These series are shorter, in terms of the number of episodes, compared with the traditional network shows, which can vary from 22 to 26 episodes. This isn’t a new thing of course. Shorter TV series have been around for years with the likes of HBO and for the last 8 years one of my favourite shows ever, Dexter, had seasons that were only 12 episodes every year. More recently some American TV channels have moved away from their traditional content, creating fresh new stuff which starts out small and if successful grows to longer series. AMC did it with The Walking Dead which was only 6 episodes long in the first season. By season 4 it had swelled to 16 episodes and it seems to be holding at that number for now and I hope it stays there. All of which brings me back to my original thought.

There is so much more content out there now than ever before across all media. Hundreds of TV channels filled with content, some good and a lot of it quite poor. Then you’ve got all of the stuff on the internet and the free content that people create, plus books, comics, video games and so on. Maybe our attention spans are shorter, or maybe we’ve just become more demanding, but I’m steadily falling out of favour with the longer TV series that are still in that traditional 22+ episode mould. There are a couple of exceptions, but even then I have a few issues.

Very recently season 2 of Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD concluded and I won’t spoil it, but in general terms, I feel that it was all over the map. There was a lot of bloat, lots of sub-plots that were started and then skipped over, then picked up a few episodes later which I think leads to uneven storytelling. I appreciate with more episodes there needs to be more content to fill the screen, but it’s very rare that a show keeps a very tight focus over 22 episodes. Even some of my favourite shows that are longer, like Arrow and The Flash, have wobbled in places. Although to be fair, Flash season 1 has to be one of the strongest I’ve seen in a long time. It came flying right out of the gate, it knew what it was and where it was going and never stopped. The cast did start to bloat after a while, which created some problems, but now that DC has spun out a new 3rd show, Legends of Tomorrow, several characters from both Flash and Arrow will emigrate over there. Both shows will have a stripped down cast, back to basics really, and I think both will be better for it. It allows them to explore the characters they have in more detail. It allows the stories to breathe and have room for quiet moments. It doesn’t always have to be pace, pace, pace in every single scene.

There is also the problem of scheduling. In the UK we sometimes have breaks, but I believe it’s fairly common in America to air a few episodes in a row, then break off, then come back later and this can occur several times in one season. Even if that didn’t happen, keeping someone entertained for 22 consistent weeks is not easy as there is so much more noise to pull them away and make them forget.

This won’t happen but I wonder what would happen if the network went to the people running Flash and Arrow and said, ok this season we’ve only got 16 episodes, so you need to cut out some stuff.  There would be fewer monster of the week episodes. They would strip out certain plot-lines and push them to next season or just dump them altogether.It would be a fascinating experiment.

There are some shows that I absolutely love, and I always want more episodes, like Person of Interest, Castle or Blue Bloods, but these are more episodic and not really constructed around a seasonal arc like a lot of genre TV, for lack of a better term. You can go away, miss 6 episodes and come back and pretty much catch up. So I’m going to put them to one side for now, shows like CSI and NCIS etc.

Looking at some of the shows I’ve been watching in about the last ten years, some of the most memorable have been those with shorter series. Even BSG, for all of it’s problems at the end, started on 13 a season and then went to 20. But looking at other shows that stick out in my mind they are things like Dexter, Six Feet Under, Longmire, Sherlock, Haven, Game of Thrones, The Shield, The Wire and Deadwood. There are some shows I’ve not mentioned that are critically acclaimed with shorter series, but either I’ve not seen them or was not a fan.

Do we have shorter attention spans than we used to in the past? Is the old 22+ episode model just too long these days? Do prefer more episodic TV or shows with more of a seasonal arc?

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Supernatural: Bloodlines

The CW show Supernatural has been going for ten years now and series 11 has been given the thumbs up. I was a big fan of the show in the first five years for many reasons too numerous to get into. Created by Eric Kripke, it follows the adventures of two brothers who hunt monsters. It’s a family basis, one they inherited from their father and they and other Hunters keep the world safe for the rest of us.

After the success of the first season information started to come out that Kripke had a detailed five year plan for the show. However, at the end of the fifth season there is an ending, that is both satisfying and moving, but then like The Return of the King, there’s another tacked on ending. That extra bit opened up the door for them to do more. The show was successful, the ratings were good, so he stepped down as showrunner, someone else picked up the reigns and the show continued. Some of the seasons after were quite good, some less so, and there were some stand out characters and moments.

In the UK we’re currently getting to the end of season 9, and season 10 has just finished in America. There has been talk of a spin off show for a few years and episode 20 of S9, simply called Bloodlines, was supposed to act as a back door pilot. Spoilers ahead for those who haven’t seen it and bits and pieces from previous seasons. I don’t work in TV, so I’m coming to this purely as a fan.

Within the first ten minutes of the episode I could see why Bloodlines wasn’t picked up to be a spin-off show. Sam and Dean were in the episode, so that was familiar, but the focus was very different. It tried to create sympathetic monsters and for them to be the majority of the cast. It was somewhere between The Sopranos and Romeo and Juliet. A human gets caught up in a fight between two warring monster families, and through the course of the episode we find that there are five monster families fighting each other for power in Chicago. There is also a shapeshifter who is in love with a werewolf from another family, and at one point in the show there are knowing nods to various bits of pop culture. I think Dean mentions The Sopranos and he even calls the male character, Romeo.

In the story someone is attempting to make things worse and stir up a fight between the families. The perpetrator turns out to be a normal human who did it because he hates the monsters. They killed his son and countless other humans in their fighting. There is also an guy called Ross, just a regular guy who is unaware, who gets caught up in events, and he works with Sam and Dean to try and find out what is going on. At the end he sides with the two monsters in love, even going so far as to kill the ‘villain’, the human being.

While we’ve had sympathetic monsters in the past, this was just a step too far for me. The everyman character, Ross, whose past had some interesting hints, knew nothing about this world. The fans do. They know everything. Watching him catch up would be very tedious after nine series. Oh look, silver kills werewolves. We know. We’ve known for nine years, 23 episodes a year. Neither of the ‘good’ monsters were particularly nice or that interesting.  She appeared to be nothing more than a love interest for the male shapeshifter character, and he was an outsider who left the family business but has now returned. Very Godfather, but it didn’t grip me.

There wasn’t enough grit under the characters’ fingernails. It spent too long focusing on the family business and not enough on the characters. As fans we know the world, and if these are going to be our main characters for something independent, I wanted to really care about them. After approximately 43 minutes, I wasn’t that fussed about them and can’t really remember their names. I didn’t sympathise that much with any of them, apart from Ross, but even he didn’t engage me that much.

For me the strength of Supernatural, even for all of its ups and down over the years, is in its characters. Dean and Sam. We’ve spent so much time with them now that when Dean turns on a TV in a motel and there’s something adult on there, we know he’s going to grin, open a beer and sit back to watch it while Sam will roll his eyes. Over the years they’ve come into contact with so many people that not all of them can just go back to their ordinary lives after the monster is dead. Some of them become recurring characters over a season, or multiple seasons.

Bobby was a great character, and a surrogate father to the boys, who was in the show for many years. Ellen and Jo, a mother and daughter hunter pair, plus Ash, were in the earlier seasons.  Ruby and Bella were introduced and then later Castiel and even Crowley who have both become part of the furniture. Felicia Day’s character, Charlie, has been cropping up in the last few seasons too as she’s become a fan favourite. There are others, who have shown up only a couple of times per season, like Sheriff Mills, or Benny. There are too many to name, but in some ways I think what they would have been better off doing for a spin off show is mining the existing characters to create a new blended, ensemble show.

DC have just announced their Legends of Tomorrow show, which takes characters from Arrow, Flash and the general DC universe to create something new. Arrow and Flash were both getting a little clogged as the main cast was massive, so this was a smart move for a number of reasons. Supernatural has announced there is going to be another attempt at a spin off. Just imagine…

Imagine if Sam and Dean went back on the road, and their base was populated by a number of characters in training to be new Men (and women) of Letters and Hunters. Even if the main show ended, the boys could still crop up from time to time, or guest star with crossover episodes if it continued in parallel. I’d love to see certain characters come back and step up to embracing their destiny or just trying to make up for all of the hideous things they’ve done and find some kind of redemption.

In season 9, Sheriff Mills gets the boys involved with a vampire nest, except it’s not that cut and dried. A girl called Alex lived with a vampire family as their bait and she lured countless people home so her family could eat. At the end she turns on the monsters to save Mills. Lots of pathos and redemption, and family issues, and so much to mine. They’re both wounded, both have lost their families and in a weird way are a new family, and kind of mother and daughter.

Season 8, Aaron Bass, inherits a golem from his grandfather who fought against the Thule Society in World War II. The episode was so much fun, he was so different and so very interesting. There was so much going on that you could have a whole season around it by itself.

Garth has cropped up a few times, and is now a werewolf, but he wants to be a good werewolf with his new wife. He used to be a hunter too.

Benny. I loved the character of Benny played by Ty Olysson, and having someone like him in the mix would be great as he’s a bit of wildcard and yet is someone who is trying to do the right thing. Dean trusted him because of what they went through but Sam never really did until right at the end.

There are more, many more, that they could pull into an ensemble show and then explore in more depth. I hope the next spin off show is a success and I hope they use a lot of good material that has already been laid out because it will mean more to the fans than trying to create something new from whole cloth.

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Trying Something New – A Writers’ Room

Writing is normally a very solitary thing. You sit alone and create something while staring at a screen. You can go out and write in public (if you can write in a busy and noisy environment) but it doesn’t change that it’s still just you alone in your head.

As a writer of fantasy novels, I spend a lot of time writing alone and I’ve always envied the writers’ room style I’d often heard about that’s common to TV. A group of people get together in a room for hours and hours, they brainstorm ideas, then break it all down into story arcs, episodes and even character arcs. It’s a group mind meld where the power of many brains outweighs the creative output of one.

It’s good, but it’s not quite right

In recent years I’ve been co-writing comics with a friend of mine, Pete Rogers, and we have both enjoyed the process of writing together. I should say that obviously further down the line of making a comic book it does involve other people (and it’s the same with novels) but at that initial story-burst stage, where you are throwing stuff out there, it’s normally just you.

Every day I drive 2-3 hours to and from work, and as a result I consume a lot of podcasts. Several of those I listen to feature creative people in comics, TV and film talking about their projects, but also their process and how they got started in their industry. Once again I heard several examples about the joy of a writers’ room and the unusual dynamic it creates. That itch was still there and I wanted to find a way to scratch it. But I don’t work in television and have no experience in that business, and no-one was going to invite me onto their staff just because I asked.

A Writers’ Room

So the next logical thing was to try a writers’ room approach to creating a comic book. It’s not completely new and unheard of in the industry, but it is uncommon. At the most recent Thought Bubble convention I pitched the core underlying series to a couple of writers. They were intrigued by the initial idea and where we could go with it, and they said they were interested. Then they looked at me slightly askance and perhaps with some bafflement when I said I wanted to approach it with a writers’ room style.

A couple of weeks after TB we got together online for a group Skype call. As I came up with the idea, I would act as the showrunner, as it were, so although we all had equal ownership and it became our idea, there still needed to be someone guiding the conversation. I was nervous but shouldn’t have been. I was careful in who I had approached because as well as being creative they were people I knew I could work with. My writing partners on this project are Pete Rogers and Cy Dethan.

Setting goals

On the first call we laid out the initial rules of the story and its framework. We established some goals for the short term and scheduled to meet up a month later and carry on from there. In that first call, which was less than two hours long, we accomplished more than Pete and I had done as a partnership in months. When I came off the call I was buzzing with excitement and energy and keen to get to work on the series. From speaking to the others I know that it also energised them.

Since then we’ve had a number of calls and each time we’ve moved the story on quite a bit in a short space of time. We’ve created a story arc, broken down the themes and then more recently we all came in with several ideas and pitched them to each other. We all said which we preferred and now we have several strong ideas to turn into first draft scripts.

As a group we’ve accomplished so much already and it’s proven to be an incredibly rewarding experience. We’ve all forced each other to be better, but also we’ve helped each other improve on our initial ideas and tease out details. I can’t wait to see where we go with this first mini series but I hope it’s just the start of something much bigger.

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Defenders of the Earth

Defenders of the EarthIn the late 1980s, when I was a wee lad (ok, not that little but a bit younger than I am now) there was an awesome cartoon called Defenders of the Earth. It featured a number of very brightly dressed heroes that went out on exciting adventures together to battle the forces of evil, usually led by Ming the Merciless. I was previously aware of Flash Gordon, from the old black and white TV shows and then later from the seminal 1980 film starring Sam Jones, Timothy Dalton and of course the fabulous BRIAN BLESSED! You have to type his name like that in caps, because he is never ever quiet, in any interview. Then there was the Phantom, the Ghost Who Walks, who I knew from the comics created by Lee Falk. Added to that was Mandrake and Lothar, who I didn’t know plus a whole bunch of their kids, and unfortunately a weird fuzzy little alien thing, allegedly for comedy effect.

Anyway, the cartoon itself was pretty awesome, as it mashed all of these characters together on screen. Long before we had The Avengers battling aliens in New York City on the big screen we had the Defenders of the Earth. We had Flash blasting stuff out of the sky with his spaceship. We had Mandrake doing all sorts of clever and cunning things with his magic and generally outwitting the enemy. We had the mysterious and slightly brooding Phantom who was a physical and yet philosophical hero and Lothar, the muscle of the team who could build anything. He kind of reminded me of Panthro from Thundercats. The others would really be lost without him as he was the backbone of the team. Together they destroyed countless armies of ice warriors, saved villages from the evil Ming and a wide array of nasty allies and fought the good fight.

Normally the children in these shows are really annoying. They flap around and don’t do much, but in Defenders they were actually pretty involved, and reasonably competent. The most interesting character among them was Jedda Walker, the Phantom’s daughter. For those not familiar the Phantom is a legacy character, a seemingly eternal and ageless presence, but in fact the mantle is passed on from one generation to the next. In one episode of Defenders, the Phantom goes missing and is believed dead, and so Jedda becomes the Phantom. It might sound trivial but that kind of thing didn’t really happen a lot back then, especially not passing the mantle of a superhero from a man to a woman. I haven’t watched the episode since, and couldn’t tell you any details about it, but I still remember it today which indicates how unique it was at the time. Today we’ve currently got a female Thor at Marvel comics, but this was about 25 years ago and things were very different.

The whole series came out on DVD a couple of years ago and while some of the special effects and stories might not be great by today’s standards, it’s still a fun show to watch and one you can sit down with your kids to watch and not worry about. Partly in honour of the show, and partly because I like creating things and love Lego, I’ve submitted a project to Lego Ideas which you can find out about here. Those Lego Idea that receive enough votes are submitted to Lego for consideration and those they think have legs get made into proper sets. Previously submitted Lego Ideas that have made it into the shops include Back To The Future, Ecto 1 and Ghostbusters, Lego Birds, Research Institute with scientists and an awesome Exo Suit space thing. More info on the successful projects is available here.

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Beauty and the Beast – Month 5

Ep.17 – Down to a Sunless Sea – On the whole this episode was just ok. In short, an old flame of Catherine’s who was overbearing and controlling, turns up after several years and wants to reconnect with her before he dies. He’s supposed to be a changed man but slowly we start to see the signs that all is not well and he’s just as bad, in fact much much worse, than he was before. Then it all goes wrong, she gets into trouble and Vincent has to save her again. So, on the whole despite some changes, pretty formulaic. What’s most interesting to me is, long before Vincent and Catherine talk about this man, long before she even mentions it to Vincent, he has been having nightmares, and then waking flashes of the same thing. This vision of being pursued through the woods at night by someone persists and he tries to warn Catherine. In the end it all comes full circle, Catherine does end up running through the woods in terror, just as he saw. They fudge how he knew, but part of me today is thinking, wait, so does that mean that no only does Vincent have a strong empathic link with Catherine, but he’s also having visions of the future? He’s able to see the future? That is pretty cool and I hope the explore this a bit more but I have a feeling they don’t.

Ep. 18 – Fever – Mouse discovers a pirate shop full of treasure under the city. Greed infects the whole of down below and people who had nothing suddenly have the chance to use the treasure to buy new stuff they need but also want, instead of relying on stuff they find, or borrow, or are given.  All of this is focused through Cullen, one of the senior adults on the council who does some pretty nasty things for money, but we also hear about his life before and what made him leave the world above. Like most of them it is a tragic story full of heartache but he is the worst infected. There’s an odd moment when Catherine says it’s a disease from my world, as if the people down below are a different race of people. Not a bad episode, and the best bit about it was probably the cameo of some guy reading a George RR Martin book in a diner. It might even be him for all I know, but I spotted it straight away. A nice episode to get a bit more background on one of the supporting characters but I’m still waiting to find out about Winslow played by the great James Avery.

Ep. 19 – Everything is Everything – In this episode Catherine and Vincent try to help a gypsy boy clear his father’s name who has been wrongfully exiled from his people. Catherine is shown up by a street-wise kid with a mouth on him, but eventually she manages to win him over and prove that she’s a good person who is only trying to help him. The episode is so so and a little predictable, but it’s sweet and touching, and there are some interesting moments such as when the boy first comes face to face with Vincent. He doesn’t freak out, scream and run, but is just curious like most children. Yet again there is an echo of being an outsider, someone different from everyone else in society, living on the fridges and not being accepted.

Ep. 20 – To Reign In Hell – The show has always had more freedom than others. It’s not a cop show, so it is not always the same thing every week in terms of structure. There are recurring themes, being a modern day twist on an old fairy tale, but in general it has a lot more scope for stories than some TV shows. That being said this was by far the weirdest episode yet. Laden with quotes, visual cues to mythology, heck even the title of the episode comes from literature and is quoted and explained by a character in the story, this felt like a completely different story. A giant, yes a real giant who is never explained, kidnaps Catherine to take her down into the underworld, a red and hot and hellish place, where a cast out character now rules. He even wears a mask that makes him resemble the Phantom for cripes sake. So many things going on here, Vincent punting a narrow barge across a river in the underworld, a quest to save a damsel in distress, there was just too much. I felt bewildered and that someone had thrown everything at the wall and most of it had stuck. Also I had to go and open my big mouth a few episodes back about wanting to know more about Winslow. We find out a little more about him and then of course this is his last episode. All in all, a very jumbled and visually exciting episode that generally left me feeling a bit cold this close to the end of the first series.

Ep. 21 – Ozymandias – This episode was more on more familiar ground. Elliot Burch is going to build a giant mega huge tower, because he has a big ego and because he wants to and because he thinks he can do whatever he wants. Unfortunately the deep foundations necessary for the building threaten the top layers of the underworld which mean Vincent and everyone else would have to relocate even deeper and rebuild their lives again. Father is a little bit more dramatic saying it’s the end of their world, but to be fair to him there doesn’t seem to be any sites as suitable as the one they currently live in. Meanwhile Catherine is struggling with mixed emotion about Burch who is both evil and generous and he appears to care for her. Their interactions awaken emotions for both of them and there’s a marriage proposal. The resolution for this episode was quite interesting and unexpected. It also showed how much Catherine was willing to sacrifice for other people, especially Vincent, which is weird given what happens in the last episode.

Ep. 22 – A Happy Life – There’s been no mention of Catherine’s mother up to now, but we quickly learn in the first few minutes that she died when Catherine was young. On the anniversary of her mother’s death Catherine becomes emotional, sees how her friends are getting on with their lives, having families and apparently living the good life and she begins to feel alone, bereft and seeks psychiatric help to unravel and resolve her issues. What follows is a bit jumbled, but essentially Vincent is both the root of her loneliness and the best thing in her life so there’s lots of emotional wrangling before she decides something has to be done and she can’t go on like this. Vincent tells her to walk away from him forever, to go and live her life and be happy and there’s a lot of angst and heartache. Then it turns out her friends who apparently have perfect lives envy her life in the city. In the end Catherine decides she can’t live without Vincent and comes back to the city as she cherishes what she has even if she can’t be with him as a normal couple. Despite what I felt was rather a flat ending to the series that didn’t have a lot of punch there were a few good scenes, such as those between Catherine and her boss Joe. Once again it’s a rare male and female friendship without any romance and some great dialogue which gives a sort of shorthand about their relationship. I had kind of hoped that at the end of this season their relationship would progress a bit more, but apparently we’re not there yet.

Looking back at my comments about the last few episodes, I think the end of season 1 tailed off a bit. However, overall I have been continuously surprised and amazed by this series for many reasons and it has proven to be far better than I remembered with my rose tinted glasses of memory. I am now a proud owner of the whole three season box set so I will continue to watch the rest at some point, but probably at leisure without a self-imposed schedule.

A great bonus I found at the end of watching season 1 was a documentary and a short interview with Ron and Linda, which looked fairly recent in fact, with them talking about the series, favourite episodes, the writers and the style and dialogue of the show. Also, an added bonus which will spur me on to watch the next two seasons is they have done short introductions to certain episodes in series 2 and series 3.

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