Morris Keeping an Eye On Today

Once upon a time a group of British comedy writers and performers – including Four Lions director Chris Morris, Veep/Death of Stalin creator Armando Iannuci, and Steve “Alan Partridge” Coogan – got their big breaks on BBC radio in the form of On the Hour, a comedy program satirising both the news of the day and radio news as a format. Much like The Hitchhiker’s Guide To the Galaxy before them and The League of Gentlemen after them, the On the Hour team got the chance to take their concept and unleash it on television.

With Chris Morris himself in the “lead news anchor” role, using his own name in keeping with the series’ love of pranks based on blending reality and fantasy, the show was one of 1994’s critical successes and spawned a substantially more controversial followup on Channel 4 – 1997’s Brass Eye. Let’s take a look back and see how they’ve aged.

The Day Today

The Day Today makes an immediate visual impact, and is a masterpiece of visual presentation even before the actual underlying writing is considered. It makes extensive use of out-of-context clips from the actual news, a visual style for the in-studio segments parodying the worst excesses of TV news of the era (and which remains a solid stab at the style of TV news today), and faked reports and extracts from other shows rounding out the episodes; it’s effectively a sketch comedy show where the sketches are framed as news reports.

The production team show an uncanny knack for mimicing the styles of media of the era, as is evident right from the first episode, which includes an extract from a US news report from “CBN” on a convicted serial killer who elects to be executed in a manner inspired by the death of his hero, Elvis. (He’s sitting on a toilet that’s been converted to an electric chair, which will electrocute him once he’s eaten enough burgers.)

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Revisiting the X-Files, Part 5: Hey, Did You Know We Have a Movie Coming Out?

So far on my X-Files rewatch we’ve seen the show’s muddled beginnings, cheered it on as it got good, savoured its prime, and tried to enjoy what we could as it gradually began its decline. (We’ve also glanced over at Millennium and gone “nah, can’t be bothered”.)

Now it’s time to look at season 5, produced in parallel with The X-Files: Fight the Future, the first movie. As we’ll see, that’s a circumstance which ended up overshadowing this season somewhat.

I noted how in the previous season the writing team had become somewhat contracted, and that’s exacerbated further this time. The inner circle has now contracted to just Chris Carter, Frank Spotnitz, John Shiban, and Vince Gilligan – four writers as opposed to seven last season – and once again, there’s much less outside contributions than in earlier seasons, with only three episodes having scripts which weren’t written outright or contributed to by those four people.

The season opens with another Chris Carter two-parter focusing on the mytharc, Redux and Redux II, resolving both the “did Mulder kill himself?” cliffhanger from last season (of course he fucking didn’t) and the “will Scully’s cancer be cured?” (of course it fucking will). The only really exciting aspect of the cliffhanger, really, is “Whose dead body is that in Mulder’s apartment that Scully misidentified as Mulder to cover for him?”, and the answer turns out to be “a generic agent of the Conspiracy we don’t care about”.

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Riffing the Comics

Mystery Science Theater 3000 is a geek institution (with “MSTing” entering the vernacular) for good reason. The original television show is, when you get down to it, a variant on the time-honoured tradition (which I believe to be distinct to America) of having televised genre movies in a special slot with host segments introducing the movie and maybe breaking in with little skits. This is an approach which started with Vampira – yes, the one from Plan 9 From Outer Space in the 1950s – and continued through Elvira and others up to the present day.

The MST3K difference is that the host doesn’t go away – whereas most horror hosts of yesteryear clear off for the actual movie, MST3K has its host (and their robot friends) appear in a silhouette of cinema seating at the base of the screen, cracking jokes about the (usually terrible) movies featured on the show. Anyone in fandom who has not seen the show – which is now easier than ever to access outside of its US stamping grounds thanks to YouTube and various other platforms – at the very least has reasonable odds of recognising two things: the term “MSTing” and the theatre silhouette.

Since the original run of the show closed out at the end of season 9, various “movie riffing” outlets have tried to continue this approach, with or without the silhouettes; The Rifftrax project spearheaded by Mike Nelson, final host of the original show, hit on the idea that if you went without the silhouette and just sold an audio file that people synced up with their copies of the movie being riffed, then a world of copyright headaches could be avoided. Joel Hodgson, creator of the show and the original host, established Cinematic Titanic, which tried to incorporate a few more comedians in the riffing crew with a redesigned silhouette in its first few episodes (released direct to DVD in a world where, already, some form of streaming or download setup would reach more customers), before shifting to a live show format which went without the silhouettes (because what would be the point of including them in a show where you can see the riffers onstage anyway?).

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Taking Another Bash At the Shield, Part 1

I could have done the black square thing for Black Lives Matter today, but instead I am going to link you to this list of places you can send support and post a review of a TV show about police corruption as a reminder that this has been a long time coming.

One of disgraced LAPD policed chiefs Daryl Gates’ innovations was the CRASH program – giving each LAPD district a specialist CRASH team with a brief to suppress gang activity. It was the sort of tough-talking, dogwhistling deal which Gates had made his trademark, and it paved the way for the Rampart scandal, one of the biggest police corruption cases ever, when massive corruption in the Rampart district’s CRASH unit was exposed.

The full measure of what happened is still unclear, with numerous investigations having petered out and the city authorities allegedly obstructing a lot of the investigations into what happened, but what was proven was more than enough to put the name of CRASH beyond the pale and prompt its disbandment and replacement.

This inspired a brief flowering in the 2000s of media works taking the idea of the CRASH unit as inspiration for the depiction of police brutality. Grand Theft Auto 3: San Andreas did it in Rockstar’s characteristically flippant fashion; more thoughtfully, The Shield was a seven-season exploration of the subject, focusing on a single badly-underfunded LAPD precinct house in the fictional LAPD district of Farmington (or “the Farm” for short, so the police HQ is known as “the Barn”).

For this review, I’m going to take a look back at the first season. Content warning: this is about a cop show which is unflinching about showing the worst of police corruption and brutality on the one hand, and the worst stuff the police have to deal with on the other, and in this season there’s at least one episode which deals with the subject of child pornography. Continue reading “Taking Another Bash At the Shield, Part 1”

Some Residual Highlights From the Beeb

The idea of a “residual haunting” – that ghosts, far from being the actual spirits of dead people, are mere impressions left on the environment by people in the past – is sometimes known in paranormal research circles as “the Stone Tape theory”, after a BBC ghost story on the subject. In fact, weirdly enough the BBC have produced two highly significant TV ghost dramas in which the concept plays a major role – The Stone Tape and Ghostwatch, both of which are most easily available on a 2-for-1 DVD set from 101 Films. One is a beloved classic; the other is highly regarded by horror fans but was reviled by the tabloid press. Let’s consider why.

The Stone Tape

Written by Nigel Kneale, the creator of the Quatermass serials and directed by Peter Sasdy (who at the time was focusing more on Hammer movies like Taste the Blood of Dracula), The Stone Tape was originally broadcast on Christmas Day in 1972 – the BBC having maintained a long tradition of doing a ghost story at Christmas, Crooked House being a recent example of such.

It opens in a disorienting fashion, with BBC radiophonic synth noises and the cacophony of various bits of scientific equipment blaring away as we see protagonist Jill Greeley (Jane Asher) driving into Taskerlands, a Victorian mansion which has become a hub of furious activity. The sonic distraction of the synthesisers, the building work, truck engines and the like all put an early emphasis on sound as a central feature of the story (to the extent that a radio play adaptation was produced decades later). In particular, the cacophony makes all the sound in the courtyard sound alien and unfamiliar at first, and they’re still grating once they come into focus. The opening sequence culminates in two large lorries almost reversing into Greeley’s car, their drivers apparently unable to hear her horn, but they stop just in time.

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Why I Won’t Be Fully Chronicling Millennium

As part of the process of doing my X-Files watchthrough, I’d been intending to also incorporate a look at Millennium, the darker and edgier show that Chris Carter had been commissioned by Fox to make and which went out alongside the fourth, fifth, and sixth seasons of The X-Files until its cancellation meant that it had to settle for a crossover episode in X-Files season 7 as its series finale. Having snagged Lance Henriksen to play the lead role, Chris Carter was primed to offer up a grimdark vision of Seattle through an aesthetic style heavily influenced by Se7en and morbidly apocalyptic themes.

Carter kicks things off with Pilot, and decides to confront us from the get-go with an almost comically tawdry strip club where the mysterious Frenchman (Paul Dillon) watches performers cavort in their underwear (but not showing any nipple because this isn’t that much of an adult show) to Rob Zombie and Nine Inch Nails tracks. As the Frenchman enjoys a private show, he hallucinates showers of blood and walls of fire around the performer and mumbles apocalyptic poetry.

What this has to do with, well, anything is not immediately apparent; after the opening titles we’re introduced to a much more sunny, domestic scene, as Frank Black (Lance Henriksen), his wife Catherine (Megan Gallagher), and their adorable little daughter Jordan (Brittany Tiplady) settle in to their brand new home in Seattle, with Frank having stepped down from his job at the FBI. Before he was at the FBI, though, Frank was a local cop in Seattle, and when he sees a news story about a brutal and apparently sexually-motivated murder – that of the stripper we see giving the private dance at the start – he feels an urgent need to stop in with his old colleagues at the homicide division, now led by Frank’s buddy Bob Bletcher (Bill Smitrovich)

After Frank discusses the case with them – and exhibits an uncanny, possibly-paranormal ability to visualise the circumstances of a crime from the killer’s perspective (in a sort of rudimentary, much less artistically interesting version of Will Graham’s visualisations in the Hannibal TV series), Frank mentions his new job: he’s taken up a post at the Millennium Group, a private investigation firm of retired law enforcement personnel, and this sort of case happens to be their forte.

As the slayings continue, Peter Watts (Terry O’Quinn), who’s been assigned by the Millennium Group to act as a sort of mentor to Frank as he finds his footing within the organisation, takes his own look at the case and concurs with Frank’s assessment of the situation – encouraging Frank to continue and promising he’ll have the Group’s full backing on this case. But how does Frank know what he knows, and if the Group is merely a perfectly ordinary private investigation outfit – albeit one with a high calibre of employee – why do they seem to show up like furtive little visitors in the night, rather than having a conventional office?

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Revisiting the X-Files, Part 4: Fourth Into the Unknown

After establishing itself, refining its approach, and hitting what may prove to be its creative peak as a showThe X-Files ruled the pop cultural universe by late 1996. Its fourth season would enjoy its highest overall ratings ever, and Chris Carter was busier than ever. Not only was the main show still going strong, but preparation for the first movie was gearing up – though set after season 5, most of the filming for the movie would take place in the filming gap after season 4 was in the can – but Carter had also been asked to produce a new TV series for Fox. This ended up being Millennium, which would involve a significant number of the X-Files creative team and ultimately end up being integrated into the X-Files universe as a result of character crossovers. (In fact, an episode of season 7 of The X-Files was set aside to give Millennium the series finale that cancellation otherwise denied it.)

Would all these creative directions end up diluting the attention of Chris Carter and his production team, or would they be able to keep up the high standards of season 3? Let’s crack open this case file and find out…

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Revisiting the X-Files, Part 3: The Third Assignment

After experiencing its initial growing pains in season 1 and taking perhaps a little too long to restore the series status quo at the start of season 2, The X-Files found itself snowballing into a serious cultural phenomenon – true must-see TV in perhaps the last era when “must-see TV” was really a thing, before the proliferation of options out there meant that shows had to content themselves with lower ratings overall due to the pie being shared between more content providers and audiences having the freedom to choose the niche pie which really hits the spot for them, rather than having to make do with pie that they aren’t that keen on for want of anything better. (I think my analogy’s gotten away with me: both the audiences and the TV shows are pies and they’re eating each other.)

Season 3, then, had some lofty expectations to meet, as well as a major cliffhanger to resolve, with season 2 ending with the Conspiracy torching a buried train car full of alien bodies which Mulder had discovered in the New Mexico desert – with Mulder inside. Carter-penned season opener The Blessing Way is divided into two halves, one of which has substantially more legs than the other. The lesser half doubles down on the appropriation of Native American spirituality which Anasazi flirted with as Mulder gropes his way back to the land of the living with the aid of a sweat lodge sequence that gives way to some full-blown Carlos Castaneda shit. Whilst giving Mulder a near-death experience to match Scully’s from the start of season 2 makes a great seal of sense, the episode abandons almost all the subtlety and nuance which accompanied her visions in favour of going full blown New Age with Mulder’s – and with some disquietingly Messianic overtones at that.

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Blake’s 7: Final Foray

The story so far: after a slightly bumpy first season, a second season which found a team of additional writers taking the show to new heights, and a third season which managed excellent ratings despite not featuring the title character of the show, Blake’s 7 was renewed for a fourth season, which would prove to be its final one. This was a great surprise to everyone involved, who had fully expected it to be cancelled after the third season, crafted the season finale to act as a plausible end to the story, and in the course of that finale blew up the Liberator, the starships our heroes had flown since early in season 1. Terry Nation, the show’s creator, had gone to the US to take up a scriptwriting job in Hollywood, but the BBC wanted one more season and so someone had to pick up the slack and perform a thorough revision of the show’s premise in the process.

For this season the showrunner role – to an extent that a TV show of this era could be said to had one – was arguably shared between Chris Boucher and Vere Lorrimer. Boucher, as the script editor since the start of the show, had always exerted significant oversight over the writing process, to the point where in season 1 he was effectively the unnamed co-author: Terry Nation had only intended to write a few episodes of the season but was unexpectedly tasked with the entire thing, and the only way they could make it work on schedule was for Nation to pass his first drafts to Boucher and for Boucher to whip them into shape. He’d also written the General Notes and Baffle Gab Glossary that served as the show bible for incoming writers in the production process for season 2. Nation’s exit naturally solidified Boucher’s command over the writing side of things, and this would be underlined by Boucher penning the first and last episodes of the season – slots which had traditionally been Terry Nation’s beat.

On the direction side of things, Vere Lorrimer had been a regular director for the series from the beginning, and indeed was credited as director on nearly a quarter of the series’ episodes. For this season he stepped back into a producer role, though he would step in to salvage Assassin when David Proudfoot, the episode’s director, fell ill and wasn’t able to finish it (which may explain why that episode is a bit janky).

Lorrimer was keen to shift the tone of the series, leaning into the more gritty aspects of the universe which had always been part of the show but had previously also had a significant dose of space opera camp leavening it. The destruction of the Liberator, with its fantastical technology, seemed the perfect time to update the aesthetic of the show to something a bit darker, and also perhaps made it necessary on a behind-the-scenes basis; since they’d fully expected season 3 to be the end of the show, the crew had destroyed the actual Liberator sets in the process of making Terminal, so a retcon to allow the Liberator to rebuild itself out of the smithereens it had disintegrated into wouldn’t really have helped – the interior would end up looking different anyway, so they might as well just introduce a new ship and let the Liberator‘s destruction and the death of its onboard AI Zen stand so as to not undermine the consequences of the third season finale unnecessarily.

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Blake’s 7: Third Front

The story so far: show creator Terry Nation and his loyal script editor sidekick Chris Boucher had managed to shepherd Blake’s 7 through its first season, by the skin of their teeth – Nation having unexpectedly being landed with the task of writing all the episodes, and getting through the deadlines largely by passing his first drafts to Boucher and relying on the latter to punch them up to shape. This resulted in a season which, at its best, has some actually incredible moments, and a few extremely strong episodes. The Way Back, the debut episode, has seared itself into my brain with how powerful it really is, and the season did a great job of establishing its cast (and has the best version of Travis). At the same time, at its worst season 1 Blake’s 7 is clearly struggling to find itself and work out how to do the sort of show it wants to be.

It was good enough to snag a second season for the show, at which point a broader range of writers were drafted in and the overall quality improved. Yes, season 2 has the crap Travis – but it also has the show finding its feet properly, adjusting as it went to cast members’ departures as it went. With everyone’s contracts up for renewal at the end of the season and some cast members intending to leave – including Sally Knyvette, who was finding that she didn’t have that much to do as Jenna, and Gareth Thomas – AKA Blake himself.

Not knowing who’d come back, who’d depart but leave the door open for a potential return, and who would leave forever, Nation crafted the end of the second season around an alien invasion from Andromeda – an invasion with the avowed end of total human extinction. This prompts the Liberator crew to gallantly interpose themselves between the Andromedans and their point of attack – Star One, the Federation’s isolated computer centre – in order to give the Federation time to muster a response, because despite their hated of the Federation the Andromedans were clearly an even bigger threat.

The season ended mere seconds before the eruption of an almighty space battle, which of course was a situation where any character could plausibly end up killed or separated from the others to cover for their actors’ exits. The battle would also allow for an adjustment to the status quo of the series to be made – arguably necessary, if you were going to continue the show without its title character. Would they pull it off? Let’s take a look at season 3 and find out…

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