Throughout the miniseries, there are scenes where astronauts, engineers, NASA administrators, politicians, and more list all the challenges facing Kennedy’s promise to put American boots on the lunar surface before 1970. In a great scene in the debut episode – titled, plainly, “Can We Do This?” – flight director Chris Kraft (Stephen Root) lists all the tasks NASA must master before even considering a moon mission. And as happens throughout the series, Kraft puts complicated issues into plain English. Describing the process of spacecraft rendezvous, he says: “Come over to my house. You stand in the backyard, I stand in the front yard. You throw a tennis ball over the roof, I’ll try to hit it with a rock as it comes sailing over. That’s what we’re going to have to do.”
If I remember correctly the show was broadcast in the UK on Channel 4 on Saturday mornings, and it was must-watch TV for me. There’s no word of it showing up on UK terrestrial TV this time round, but assuming that doesn’t change any time soon I’m just going to have to pay £9.99 for the HD version because it was a great, great story very well told.1
[Edited to add: Part of what made the show work so well is that it adopted a strategy of changing the focus of the story being told each week. One episode was about the experience of the astronauts’ wives and how they felt being in the spotlight while their husbands were on missions, and another dealt with the requirement that those astronauts whose missions might involve time on the lunar surface needing to learn enough geology to be useful field workers when they found themselves standing on the moon and required to determine where they could take the next rock sample. Another one was focussed on an individual astronaut, Alan Shepard, needing to find a way back into space in the face of his inner-ear disorder. Not entirely a different cast every episode, but very different angles on the story from episode to episode and a cast of folks who spent the next couple of decades being familiar faces in the age of Prestige TV.]
[Via Six Colors]
Peter Watts breaks the bad news to us:
A couple of months ago, its creators announced that Counterpart is dead after a mere two seasons. It just couldn’t attract enough viewers, out of all the people on two Earths. And I think that’s a shame; Counterpart was more than just SF for people who hate SF.
The first season of Counterpart got a Region 1 Blu-ray release, but that seems to be it for now.
I was looking forward to seeing J K Simmons 1 being great in a great piece of speculative fiction, but being an old person who grew up with a TV world where US shows frequently took a couple of seasons to be picked up by a terrestrial broadcaster in the UK 2 I took it that for a good-but-not-a-smash-hit show like this I just needed to be patient.3
I guess that if I really wanted to see Counterpart I’d look to BitTorrent, but dammit I don’t want to pirate content just because this era of capitalism demands that the players only consider making shows worthwhile if those shows have a decent prospect of turning out to be megahits that generate megareturns on their investment.
I want my Fully Automated Luxury Space Communism, and I want it now!4
Having caught up with the last episode of the latest series of Black Mirror, I was amused to learn that Nine Inch Nails were jumping on the marketing bandwagon, after an episode where a (real life) Pop Princess was repurposing a couple of their songs:
Head like a hole!
I’m on a roll!
Riding so high!
ACHIEVIN’ MY GOALS!
The episode felt really strange, starting as a slice of life from a distinctly average teenage girl a couple of years on from the death of her mother but then veering into pure Disney Channel TV adventure movie stuff as our teen hero and her older sister ended up teaming up and helping to bust a major criminal conspiracy that was preventing Miley Cyrus from fully expressing her love for Nine Inch Nails on stage.
It’s been an odd season of Black Mirror. After the Black Museum visit that closed season 4, it feels as if they want to shift to less bleak – dare I say “happy?”- endings, but are ending up exploring the themes underpinning their chosen stories more superficially than usual. Our two old friends getting diverted by the temptations of transgressive virtual sex in Striking Vipers X discussed how different sex feels as a man and a woman but as far as we can see never took the obvious step of switching avatar genders to find out in-game (or if they did,1 no mention was made of the attempt.2) Our grieving taxi driver in Smithereens was never destined for a happy ending, admittedly, and I did like the way they left open the question of whether the grieving mother found resolution once he got her access to her daughter’s social media posts.3 Then in the last episode we find a Disneyesque teen adventure.
So, not much sign of a turn towards the upbeat so far. I live in hope…
The trailer for Black Mirror season 5 seems mainly to exist to remind us that having access to some of Netflix’s money allows the show to cast bigger names and keep the standard of special effects up to scratch: no attempt to let us in on what any of the stories are about. Charlie Brooker seems to know what he’s doing thus far, so let’s see what sort of nightmares he’s going to share with us this time round.
I’d love to see them deliver a season of relatively upbeat tales in the vein of San Junipero, just to see how that’d feel, but I’m not going to hold my breath…
[Edited to add: ask, and ye shall receive… JR 23 May 2019]
A couple of weeks ago I finally got round to watching the first season of Netflix’s The OA. I was well aware that it got a mixed-but-respectful response from reviewers at the time, and I’d always had in on my list of shows to catch up with some day. I’ve since enjoyed various reviews of the first season, but this one is by far the one that chimed with me most, partly because the reviewer makes a connection with a very different big budget swing-and-miss that I love:
[The OA…] is a swing and a miss on a colossal level, but oh, what a swing. Both Jupiter Ascending and The OA share a thread of DNA, a plot that you just know, at one point, made complete crystalline sense to somebody, but somewhere down the line (or more likely, when morning came) the smudges on the glass became apparent. They are filled with lines of dialogue that could sound profound or heartwarming if you don’t think about them too long, but I’m to distracted imagining the writer nodding and smirking at his computer screen. They forgo rational characters for convenient or dramatic plot developments, and cohesion for spectacle.
The thing is, I adore what the Wachowski siblings do and, slightly against my better judgement, I loved The OA too. They established a strange mood and stuck with it, and ended up with something seriously compelling even if reason didn’t get much of a look-in at times.
I’m intrigued to see what they do with the imminent second season of The OA. I do hope they don’t react to the response to that first season by suddenly trying to explain themselves. More saving the world via the medium of interpretive dance, I say. Swing away!
When Netflix started screening season 2 of Star Trek: Discovery to the rest of the world I was aware that CBS had produced a number of shorts in the same setting and featuring characters from the show under the title Short Treks, but the word was that no UK service had picked them up so we right-side-of-the-pond users would be destined to miss out, at least until someone put together a DVD release for the series.1 Driven by curiosity after I saw Discovery season 2’s latest episode The Sound Of Thunder which tied in heavily with one of the Short Treks stories, I went looking around the web and found that somewhere along the way, without any fanfare or publicity that I could see, Netflix 2 do now have the four Short Treks on their site, slightly hidden away under the ‘Trailers and More’ menu option.3 I’m a little surprised that Netflix didn’t make any effort to let their audience know when they popped up, but I guess little stuff like this just slips between the cracks sometimes when you’re a global brand more focused on capturing an ever-higher higher percentage of users’ screen time than on catering to every show you offer’s cult following.4
Having seen more of Commander Saru’s home world in The Brightest Star, one of the Short Treks, I do wonder how much the characters featured in the other shorts are going to factor into the remainder of season 2. Will Tilly find herself calling on her relationship with a newly-crowned queen from a distant planet at some point? Given the hints that the Red Angels are using time travel, will we get to see why the crew of the Discovery abandoned their ship for almost a thousand years (and, more to the point, will they return to the ship after some time-travelling adventure meet their newly-evolved ship’s AI? And then do some more time-travelling – this time taking their ship with them – to get back into their place in the timeline? Will their new hyper-advanced ship’s AI replace the Spore Drive as the USS Discovery‘s secret weapon in future seasons?) Will the crew of the Discovery run into Harcourt Fenton Mudd again? 5 The four shorts aren’t going to set the world on fire for exploring a wild new range of science-fictional ideas, but they form a nice little look at the wider Trek universe a few years before the Kirk-captaining-the-Enterprise era that we saw back in the 1960s.6
For what it’s worth, I reckon season 2 of Star Trek: Discovery is doing well at compensating for many of the issues fans had with the first season. Anson Mount is doing good work of filling in what sort of captain Christopher Pike was, to the point where it’ll be a real shame if they can’t find a way to have him return to the Enterprise yet occasionally find him and his crew backing up the USS Discovery occasionally in future seasons of Star Trek: Discovery. Whether he ends up providing backup for Captain Saru or Captain Burnham (or Captain Tilly, even) is way less important than that he’s still around occasionally to provide an injection of proper, old school Star Fleet values to the story.
I suspect that Channel 4 might be a little disappointed that their screening of The First doesn’t seem to have captured the public’s imagination. I’d seen a couple of reviews after the first episode that tended to lean heavily on the “Sean Penn’s show fails to lift off” line, which is about the angle you’d expect a busy TV reviewer who had only seen the first episode to go with.1
The show was originally made for Hulu, and having looked around online I’ve found a number of reactions from critics who’ve seen all eight episodes in the first season. Clearly the show isn’t imminently going to find itself canonised as part of the Golden Age of Quality Television, but it sounds a lot more promising than you’d think from the reaction to the first couple of episodes. As Todd VanDerWerff puts it in his review of the show for Vox:
This is not a show about the people going to Mars. It’s a show about the people going to Mars.
As I understand it, the show’s only just going to start the journey to Mars at the end of the first season, which is not to say that it’s pointless prior to that. Sean Penn’s character, an experienced astronaut.2 He finds himself bonding with the relatives of the doomed crew (who had been his crew until his being unseated as the team’s leader for reasons we’ve not gone into as of episode 2) in the wake of the accident, and making the case through the media for a manned space programme earnestly but with a certain gravitas it seems he’s earned through his previous space exploits, all while he’s also dealing with the recent return into his life of his estranged daughter, who has had her share of problems and is still coming to terms with the disappearance of her mother, his wife, a few years ago.3 Penn is a more than capable lead for this show, and I suspect that by the time we get to episode eight he’ll have cemented himself as the rock against whom a good cast4 have assembled to tell a good, mature story. It probably won’t be the flashiest of stories, but it could be something special given time.
Such a good weekend TV-wise.
Catching up with a new season of The Good Place was a delight. (Provided you could ignore Ted Danson/Michael’s attempt at an Australian accent when he was posing as a librarian to help nudge Chidi in the right direction at one crucial moment. It’s entirely possible that half a dozen episodes from now we’ll discover that there was a reason that accent was that bad.)
But of course the big TV event of the week came this evening when we got the debut of Jodie Whittaker in the Chris Chibnall-as-showrunner era of Doctor Who. I had my doubts, but they were more about Chibnall on the basis of how poor his past efforts at writing for the franchise had been than they were about his choice of an actor to play the lead role in his take on the show. 1
On the basis of the first episode of the new era, I think it’s going to be fine. The first episode spent much of the time showing us what the new Companions are like, which is fair enough, but still left plenty of time for Jodie Whittaker to show us that she’s got the chops to give us a memorable Doctor once she’s reunited with the TARDIS and she gets a couple more stories under her belt. At this early stage, that’s as much as we can reasonably expect.
It’d be marvellous if writers about TV could spend a few years never mentioning Lost at the drop of a hat,1 but otherwise Person Of Interest Was Anti-Prestige TV And Too Smart For Primetime is a pretty great tribute to a genuinely great show that never got the credit it deserved.
Reese and Shaw are brute-force objects, fighting for what they believe is right. Root and Finch argue over letting the machine free, with Finch understanding that his Machine is just another interpretation of Samaritan, with Root’s belief that Samaritan is simply a badly taught God. Fusco, even when he knows the full scale of the stakes, acts as moral anchor. Faced with two giant computers fighting a global war, he mostly says things like “What the fuck?” and “All right, I’ll shoot at the bad men, but there better be a hot dog in it for me.”
And that’s the beautiful thing: You view the whole struggle from varied but understandable perspectives. That’s just sharp TV writing. You see the plot for what it is, you know who dies or survives, you know why things happen and who everyone is, and you are never thrown into the quagmire of Lost. I’ve deliberately left out the fact that J.J. Abrams was an executive producer of Person of Interest as it feels so distinctly not like the J.J. Abrams of Lost. It certainly feels more like Alias, with an ensemble cast, a shadowy enemy, a truly shitty bad guy (Arvin Sloane is a top-10 television shithead) – but it corrects many of that show’s mistakes. Person of Interest rarely leads you astray, avoids red herrings and rewards you for watching flashbacks. It’s a show with little filler, few eye-rolling twists, and yet deals with some absolutely batshit science-fiction elements.
It’s a crying shame that Peter Watts never got to release his tie-in novel for the show.