Okay, I’m behind on TV, and there’s a lot to cover. I still need to catch up on my HolmesWatch experiences soon, but here’s some of my recent outings into the televisual ether.
Charlie Jade (Eps 14-20)
I actually finished watching this a while ago, but the sheer oddity of the last episode has meant it’s locked in my head and demanding a comment.
The absolute definition of ‘acquired taste’, the last leg of oddball Canadian/South African SF Alternate Universe saga Charlie Jade manages to push the levels of mind-boggling weirdness even higher. It’s a show that isn’t always easy to like – the plot veers from intelligent to inscrutable, while the long-running plotline also has its fair share of longeurs and dead ends. There was also a major change in the writing staff from around episode 10 onwards, and it does show, as the plot gains traction, but a little of the show’s distinctive flavour is lost. On top of this, we still get episodes where the plot really doesn’t advance at all – including, rather bizarrely, episode 18 – a point where the series should have been ratcheting up for the big finale, but instead spends most of the episode telling us a flashback about Charlie’s life in the Blade Runner-style Alphaverse that we really didn’t need to know. And yet, despite all this, when the show works it’s eye-catching, distinctive, ambitious and head-spinning. It’s the closest I’ve seen to the often used phrase “Live Action Manga/Anime” – and while there are certain visual echoes, it’s actually closest in terms of tone, the unique, semi-alien flavour to the show’s atmosphere, and the truly bizarre storytelling, where the central plot is both utterly fascinating and near-impossible to completely follow.
What it most reminded me of is an anime series called LAST EXILE, a Miyzaki-esque saga of flying machines and aerial combat on what appears to be a typical steampunk/Victoriana fantasy kingdom – except that there’s a running thread concerning the mysterious object known as ‘Exile’, which has a definite sci-fi connotations. It’s all kept terribly mysterious as to exactly what ‘Exile’ is, and the last episode hints at an incredibly complex backstory and a whole level of storytelling that we didn’t know about (suggesting that the entire series may have been taking place on an alien planet, and that Exile may be some kind of ancient colony ship), but it never actually comes out and says it, remaining somewhat frustrating. Charlie Jade takes a serious leaf out of this book, with a central plot that’s almost always interesting, but certain elements of which are very difficult to work out – for the life of me, I couldn’t tell you exactly what was going on with the mysterious brainwashing terrrist, while series villain 01 Boxer’s nefarious plan only makes complete sense if you look at it from a very oblique angle.
There’s also the sometimes overwritten dialogue, the freeform editing that’s occasionally too freeform for its own good, and the regular doses of self-consciously ‘look how bleak and adult we’re being’ material that bring back worrying memories of Torchwood S1 (even if it does, at least, have an omnisexual character- 01 Boxer- who feels genuinely transgressive and kinda creepy, if a little annoying as well). But even after the problems, it still manages to pull out satisfying episodes, oddball twists, and a final episode so completely and unrepentantly bonkers, it safely stands up with the climaxes of Twin Peaks and The Prisoner in terms of sheer off-the-wall ‘What the HELL just happenned?!?’ gusto. In fact, it’s heavily reminscent of anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion (which also had a thoroughly nutzoid finale), and goes in so many head-spinning directions that even I – who can normally cope with this sort of thing – was having to simply hang on for the ride at points. In the end, though, it’s a bizarrely thrilling episode that’s admirable for it’s demented and experimental structure, and also manages to bring the twenty episodes to something resembling a satisfying conclusion, while still leaving things open for a potential second season. To be honest, I think they knew a second outing would be an extreme long shot – you don’t make an episode quite as out there as the finale ‘Orobouros’ unless you’re pretty sure there’s little chance that you’re coming back. Nevertheless, it turns the whole ramshackle saga into something that’s truly satisfying, and delivers enough moments of mind-expanding surrealness to make me happy I took the ride. Charlie Jade may be destined to be one of those sci-fi series that falls through the cracks and gets forgotten (For example- anyone remember LEXX?) – but while it’s not a classic, it’s inventive, ambitious and downright weird enough to make me hope that more lovers of the odd and the strange do at least give it a shot.
Dear, oh dear – it can’t be good to be on the Heroes production team right now. Even without the writer’s strike, the second season was an unqualified mess, but all the interviews and pre-publicity promised that the show would be getting seriously back on track for season 3. Result? Within a few weeks of the season premiere, ratings are tumbling further, and magazines are running “How can Heroes be saved?” articles, and given the murky mess that Season 3 has become, it’s no surprise. It’s true that they’ve obviously learned certain lessons from Season 2 – there’s been very little romance, Claire’s stalkery flying boyfriend has vanished without comment or trace, and the snails-pace storytelling has certainly been cranked up several notches. Unfortunately, fast doesn’t always equal interesting, and Heroes is currently resembling being stuck in a lift with a coked-up enthusiastic partygoer who really, really, REALLY wants you to have a good time, but keeps changing his mind every thirty seconds as to how he wants to do it.
The storytelling is now so diffuse and shambolic that it’s hard to say exactly what the central thrust of S3 is, without it sounding like all the other seasons all over again (Future visions, world in peril, sinister company, Claire may be very very important), and instead of the sprawling Robert Altman-esque ensemble drama of S1, the show’s gotten so excited about making weird interconnections between the cast that it’s almost a surprise when two characters don’t turn out to be related. Combine this with a thoroughly illogical ‘let’s shake things up’ approach to character that sees headscratching moments like where Mohinder of the Meaningful Monologues becomes the world’s most stupidly irresponsible scientist and injects himself with a completely untested serum that (surprise, suprise) soon has him re-enacting various sequences from Cronenberg’s The Fly and turning into a gooey, snake-ish killer. When you have to give characters complete morality bypasses in order to keep the story going, maybe it’s time to stop – and elsewhere, we’ve had twists, and ‘surprises’, and the Petrelli clan turning out to be more extended than anyone would want (I’m still waiting for Claire to actually cotton onto the fact that Sylar is her uncle…), and yet none of it actually sticks, or has any real emotional connection.
It’s a collection of not-very-interesting ideas randomly thrown together, with major signs of behind-the-scenes turmoil (It’s the only explanation I can think of for Peter meaninglessly acquiring Sylar’s ability (and hunger), not really using it at all, and then losing it two episodes later). Where logic and a certain amount of thought used to be one of the show’s most distinctive facets, now there’s barely any point trying to keep up with continuity, as the writers are contradicting themselves regularly, apparently convinced that added complications are what the show needs. S3 has had some more watchable moments than the excruciating S2, but it’s getting harder and harder to care what’s happening, especially with a central bad guy who was only scary for the 2 1/2 minutes of screen time that he was stuck in a hopsital bed – after which Robert Forster’s gone on to sleepwalk his way through scene after scene. The one truly welcome change is some much-needed depth to Sylar, but even here they’ve only been able to do it by throwing continuity out of the window and retro-fitting his ability with ‘the hunger’ – which never seemed to be a problem when he was an unrepentant serial killer glorying in the chance to be special during S1.
There’s no logic, no shape, and no point. I’m watching out of curiosity, rather than any real sense that the show may manage to improve. I guess it’s not totally impossible – Lost fought its way back from the brink in its third season, but considering that the debatable talents of Tim Kring aren’t leaving the show anytime soon, I’m not convinced. After peaking so early, I suspect Heroes is now on the slippery slope downwards, and I’ll be surprised if the situation changes…
Back in the mid-90s, you had to take what you found when it come to Brit TV SF. So, when stony-faced vampire saga Ultraviolet (not to be confused with the exceedingly bad Milla Jovovich film of the same name) came along, many SF/Fantasy fans trumpeted it as great stuff, but I have to admit to not being completely convinced. While it did eventually develop into something genuinely gripping, and the last two episodes verged on being very good indeed, it had a somewhat funereal and straight-laced atmosphere that was almost completely devoid of humour, and its determination to not say the ‘V’ word eventually became rather comic. Having future voice-of-Visa Jack Davenport as a rather colourless lead didn’t help, and I wasn’t surprised that it never netted a second season. There was something a little too stiff and serious about Ultraviolet, but since writer-director Joe Ahearne did go on to direct some of the finest episodes of S1 of Doctor Who’s latest iteration (Dalek, and the two part Bad Wolf/Parting of the Ways climax), I was willing to give his latest show a whirl.
And, amazingly, what we get is essentially an Exorcist-themed remix of Ultraviolet, just as firmly determined to be utterly serious as the previous show (and actually described by Ahearne in an interview as very close to what a second season of Ultraviolet would have been like), and with an equally stiff and serious performance from Martin Shaw. An actor whose efforts to distance himself from his role in action series daftness The Professionals only ended up making him look like something of a berk, Shaw’s no stranger to pomposity, and here he’s the archetypal rebel in the system bucking authority, except here of course he’s a Catholic Priest who ain’t taking no crap from the devil on his watch. With the forces of evil massing to kick the arse of the latest potential Chief Exorcist, it’s demonic posession a-go-go, and Shaw makes an odd centre for this kind of a show, and certainly isn’t the warmest actor or the easiest to take seriously. The first two episodes of Apparitions are a two-part story that smells distinctly of a repurposed movie script (especially the late twist where the kindly hearted Italian priest turns out to be a devil-embracing blaggard), and there are some distinctly awkward bits of plotting (especially where Shaun Dooley’s troubled atheist gets turned into a sidekick for Shaw in episode 2, for very little reason whatsoever) – and yet there are some very effective and atmospheric moments, while it’s also prepared to do the most important thing that Horror should do – in the words of Guillermo Del Toro, “Horror should upset. Sometimes, you’ve got to shoot a hostage in the head, just to show them you’re not kidding around…” – and the climax of episode 1, with the sympathetic gay priest struggling with his homosexuality and getting flayed alive for his trouble, certainly qualifies. By episode 2, however, things do get a little weaker – with a demonic killer cutting a merry swathe through the supporting cast, we’re left with Shaw virtually on his own, and for all the script’s wrestling with the ideas of guilt, faith and forgiveness, there’s never any real sense that the main character’s faith is in any jeopardy (In fact, Shaw is regularly acted off the screen by the scraggy-bearded and distinctly menacing demonic killer played by Rick Warden). Hard to see where the next few episodes will go – and while the stiff and serious mode is really the only way potentially ridiculous material like demonic possession can be handled, and there’s no shortage of interesting little shocks, it also means that it’s a show that’s fundamentally difficult to be completely swept along by. It doesn’t have Jekyll’s clunky, self-aware humour, but it doesn’t have that show’s offbeat energy or experimentalism either – but then, it’s better than Bonekickers, so it must be getting something right…