“We’re all losers.”

I didn’t want to like Glee. Honestly I didn’t.

Friends on three continents have recommended it – cheers, Evil Steve in Ireland, Brett in Australia and Shaun in the USA (isn’t that a Bruce Springsteen song?). But it sounded so… well… gay! A musical comedy drama set in an American high school centring on the Glee Club – where are the zombies, where are the spaceships, where are the explosions?

So I went into it expecting to tut cynically and hate every minute. For one thing, I’ve never heard of a ‘Glee Club’, but apparently these are show choirs run as extracurricular activities at many American high schools, whose members tend to be universally looked down upon.

The show’s set in the kind of suburban, small-town high school familiar to all viewers of 1980s John Hughes movies. All the cliches are present and correct. Students all divided into cliques? Check. Dumb jock with a secret sensitive soul? Check. Inspirational teacher set on building up the shattered hopes of disillusioned students? Check. Shallow cheerleaders who discover unexpected hidden depths? Check. There is nothing, and I mean nothing, new here.

And yet – here’s the kicker –it’s unexpectedly enjoyable. The most obvious comparison is to Disney’s ultra-saccharine High School Musical series. But thankfully, there are major differences from the formulaic style and grown-in-a-vat cast of those films.

Most importantly, it’s the style of the musical numbers. The thing I hate most about musicals is the way people spontaneously burst into song while going about their everyday lives, usually bringing the plot to a crashing halt while they get it out of their system through the medium of dance.

Here, the plot is about staging musical numbers, so they don’t interfere with the story and seem natural when they appear. And when they do, they’re actually rather excellent interpretations of songs you already know from a real range of genres. Already we’ve seen storming versions of Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’, Montell Jordan’s This Is How We Do It and a variety of old and new showtunes.

The cast are a lot of fun, despite playing characters so broadly drawn even Rolf Harris might disown them. Will Shuester (Matthew Morrison), the teacher determined to resurrect the fortunes of the Glee Club, is irritatingly talented and good looking, though implausibly heterosexual. Dumb jock with a voice of gold Finn is likeably incarnated by Cory Monteith with a nice blend of goofy naivete and good looks. Would-be diva Rachel is played by Lea Michele, who has a genuinely superb voice and (remarked on in one episode) a nose like Barbra Streisand.

Of course, it’s all utterly implausible, as though the late John Hughes had chosen to remake an old Judy Garland film. That bit where flaming queen Kurt (Chris Colfer) gets the football team to dance to Beyonce during a game? Never happen. Putting together a showstopping musical number overnight for the PTA? Surely not.

So it’s corny as hell, too. But sometimes it wrongfoots you. Mr Shuester has an unexpectedly shrewish, gold digging wife who’s faking pregnancy for selfish reasons. When Kurt comes out to his macho father, it turns out, unsurprisingly, that he’d worked that out already – “I knew when you were three and you asked for a pair of sensible heels.” – but more surprisingly, he doesn’t have a problem with it. And the apparently dumb neanderthal of a sports coach turns out to have a beautiful a cappella singing voice.

So- Cliched. Cheesy. Not entirely believable. And yet great fun and addictively watchable – my boyfriend Barry, who I expected to hate it, insisted on watching three episodes in one night. Turns out, funnily enough, that he was in a Glee Club too. You never can tell, can you? Maybe it’s a gay thing…

HMV fought the law…

My murky former employers are in trouble again! It seems that HMV Kettering have landed themselves in a spot of bureaucratic bother:


Apparently they were having a signing by Britain’s Got Talent ‘star’ Faryl Johnson (presumably that’s pronounced ‘for-real’ – ugh!), when she unexpectedly sang one of her own songs. Kettering council responded with outrage, as the store don’t have a performance licence. HMV refused to pay for one retrospectively (brave manager!), pledging to fight this one in court.

Now, normally, I’d be dead against Kettering council on this, and would have to call them a bunch of killjoy jobsworths. But then I reflected on HMV’s redundancy payment to me. I’d been working for them for 9 years and 11 months when they made me redundant. “Pretty please,” I asked on bended knee (metaphorically), “could I have ten years worth of redundancy payments instead of the statutory minimum of 9 complete years’ service?”

Now for those unfamiliar with UK redundancy law, the statutory minimum is one week’s wages per complete year’s service. And I’m sure it’ll come as no surprise to anyone who’s worked for HMV that the letter of the law was what they stuck to, giving me 9 years’ worth (ie 9 weeks worth) of wages despite my being only three weeks away from ten years’ service. Well, they were having enough financial woes without losing another couple of hundred quid, weren’t they?

So in the same spirit of honouring the law completely, I’m bound to say – “Go get ‘em Kettering Council, you joyless bunch of automata!”


A little behind the times on this one I know, but I’ve been following with interest the comical spat between the Home Office and the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. It’s been like a pot-fuelled episode of Yes, Minister.

After Professor David Nutt submitted a well-researched scientific report stating that cannabis might actually be less harmful than legal drugs like alcohol or tobacco (both of which net the Treasury a tidy profit every year), he was promptly sacked from directorship of the ACMD, with several members resigning in protest afterwards.

Our esteemed Home Secretary Alan Johnson commented at the time that he couldn’t have science contradicting government policy. As Sir Humphrey Appleby once said, “I don’t think we need to bring the truth in at this stage…”

Letting Catullus out of the bag

“Pedicabo ego vos et irrumabo!”

So I read on the BBC News website that a City banker has been harassing one of his female employees: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/london/8375511.stm . Not least by trying to kill her, but also sending her obscene emails in Latin! Yes, a naughty message included the above quotation from Roman poet Catullus, a contemporary of Julius Caesar.

Banker Mark Lowe claims the quote is “light hearted”. Wikipedia offers the following translation:

I will bugger you and face-fuck you.

Hard to see how anyone might take that in a spirit of jest. But what mightily intrigues me about the whole thing is whether the company had an email filter sophisticated enough to screen out obscenities in a dead language? Perhaps I’ll try sending them a mail threatening to do naughty things to Mr Lowe written in Old Church Slavonic, Glagolitic alphabet…

Ode to the Fall Schedules

Ah, autumn. “The season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” as Keats put it. The season of “where the hell are my ratings?!” as American TV executives would doubtless say.

Yes, the fall schedules are on us again. A time of renewal (or not), maturation and the birth of hopeful new shows, their shoots emerging tentatively into a cold, unsympathetic field of Nielsen ratings.

Already growing strong is ABC’s FlashForward, being vaguely touted as some kind of spiritual successor to Lost. With that show coming close to its end, ABC have sown the seeds of a thematic cousin, hoping to harvest ripe ratings.

Actually, FlashForward has sod all to do with Lost. True, it stars Sonya Walger (out of Lost), Dominic Monaghan (out of Lost) and John Cho (out of, er, Harold and Kumar). Oh, and one episode featured an ad hoarding for Oceanic Airlines. But none of this can disguise the fact that it’s not Lost you’re watching.

It’s got a similarly tricksy structure though, a puzzle that will obviously be unravelled over time. Which will become more convoluted if it’s successful and the network want to extend its lifespan.

The premise is simple but interesting: everyone in the world blacks out simultaneously for a bit over two minutes,  experiencing, in that time, a ‘flashforward’ to what they’ll be doing for a bit over two minutes in exactly six months time.

This gives plenty of scope for drama. FBI hero Mark Benford (Britain’s own Joseph Fiennes with a surprisingly good American accent) knows that he will be hot on the trail of what caused it all, but people will be trying to kill him while he battles his recurring alcoholism. His wife Olivia (Sonya Walger out of Lost) knows she’ll be involved with another man. His partner Demetri (John Cho) won’t be doing anything at all. Because he’ll be dead. Oh, and their boss will be reading the paper while having a dump. I’m not making that last one up, honestly.

The usual philosophical questions surrounding this kind of time paradox are already rearing theit heads. can the future be changed? One character chooses the most direct way to find out by killing himself, ensuring that his flashforward will never happen. That’s that one answered then. But for me, the most obvious question is – how come everyone’s flashforward didn’t consist of them all saying “hang on, this is what I saw during that blackout six months ago”?

FlashForward shows promise, but, tenuous Lost connections aside, is a totally new show and therefore a risk. Network execs don’t like risks. Much safer to take something you know used to be a success and ‘re-imagine’ it. It worked for Doctor Who and Battlestar Galactica, didn’t it? Let’s just try to forget the attempted revivals of Knight Rider, The Night Stalker, Flash Gordon etc, etc.

With this in mind, a brace of remakes (sorry, ‘re-imaginings’) have landed on our screens. Literally, in the case of ABC’s V. Yep, those water-stealing, flesh-eating alien fascists from the early 80s are back.

And the results are not too bad. In common with other ‘re-imaginings’, the show’s been cleverly retooled for a new era. Gone are the overt allusions to Nazi Germany, replaced by an intriguing plot thread that many of the Visitors have been here for years, infiltrating – like terror cells, geddit? And the admittedly implausible idea of their human disguises being flimsy rubber masks has been supplanted by a covering of synthetic mammal flesh to hide their scaly features. Joan Collins-alike alien commander/super bitch Diana has been replaced by the more reasonable seeming alien demagogue Anna, whose dress sense extends beyond New Romantic style orange fascist uniforms. But the central thread remains the same – they’re only pretending to be our friends, and by the time we realise that, it’s going to be too late…

Again, though, we can’t be trusted to know we’re watching a cult sci fi show without a little guidance. So the casting gives us a helping hand. It stars Elizabeth Mitchell (out of Lost, again), Joel Gretsch (out of The 4400), Rekha Sharma (out of Battlestar Galactica), Laura Vandervoort (out of Smallville), Morena Baccarin and Alan Tudyk (both out of Firefly). Safe to assume it’s a sci fi show, then.

Still, it looks like an intriguing update, and already commentators (Republican ones) are interpreting it as a damning indictment of the Obama presidency. The Visitors keep using words like ‘hope’ and ‘change’ and offering universal healthcare. No wonder they’re a threat to humanity.

The other big remake isn’t a network show at all, being offered by cable guys AMC. And it should be far more political than it is, but somehow it’s not. Yes, disturbingly someone has decided to remake The Prisoner.

The original Prisoner is very much a product of its time and location. There’s something quintessentially British, and inescapably late 60s about it, to the extent that one expects any re-imagining of it to be doomed to failure like that mind warpingly awful film of The Avengers in 1992. And yet, this doesn’t do as badly as you’d think. It’s flawed, sure, in the way that it can’t quite decide whether to be entirely new or nick wholesale from the original, but it’s getting the themes and the atmosphere right.

Jim Caviezel, an actor surprisingly devoid of charisma considering his previous big role as Jesus Christ, is our hero, 6. Note, not ‘Number 6’; the denizens of the new Village are referred to by number alone. And at least as of part 1, no-one’s asked him anything about resigning. In this sense, the new version seems to be deliberately even more obscure than the original. Going into it with memories of the original might be a red herring, because as of part 1, we don’t know who 6 was or what he did. Maybe he was some kind of a spy, but it’s not been stated. All we know of his backstory is that he used to live in New York City and he resigned from something (by spraying ‘RESIGN’ on his office window – letters must be too subtle these days). And as yet, no-one in the Village has mentioned it to him; in fact we have even less idea than the original why he’s there or what ‘they’ want with him.

‘They’ is personified by Ian McKellen as 2, who seems avuncular enough, what with his bedridden wife, gorgeous teenage son and genial manner. That’s another weird change in this new Village – the inhabitants have families. There’s also plainly a lot more of them than in the original show – 2’s son has the number 1112, while none of the inhabitants of McGoohan’s Village had numbers higher than double digits. The most curious thing of all is the new twist that no-one in the Village is aware that anything exists beyond it or before it. They just look blank at the very idea.

The new Village – shot in Namibia – is distinctly different than the 1960s Portmeirion setting, but seems determined to retain the eccentric, off-kilter feeling as a location. The houses all seem to be identical wooden triangles, while 2’s grand palace is plainly some kind of old British colonial building. In keeping with the automotive theme from the original, the cars are rather peculiar, though they’ve gone a bit over the top with that one. Rather than the original’s ubiquitous Mini Mokes, we’re presented with a panoply of 1960s European classics. The taxis are all Renault Dauphines, and a Morris Minor with incongruous alloy wheels endlessly circles the Village to make it look like there’s more odd cars than there actually are. For an American audience, these small, odd-looking autos are presumably very freaky.

So far, then, no idea what’s going on. In that respect, it’s like and unlike the original. A mysterious explosion rips through the Village cafe. “These things just happen. Then it all goes back to normal” comments one character. 6 sees things that either aren’t there or invisible to everyone else – very Life on Mars. And mysterious twin towers glitter glassily in the distance, looking unmistakably like the ones that used to grace the New York skyline. Just when you thought it couldn’t get more peculiar, old faithful watchdog/weather balloon Rover turns up. Only in this version, he’s fifty feet wide.

So it’s like they ignored the early, spy themed episodes of the original series and went straight for the abstract, “what the bloody hell is this about?” later ones. A nice idea, but unlikely to win it many new fans. Still, I’ll be interested to see where it goes in its short, six episode run. (Six of one…)

It’ll be interesting to see how these new crops develop in the harvest of Nielsen ratings that is the fall schedules. All are worthy of further growth, but which will end up as compost and which shrinkwrapped in the veg section of HMV?

(NB – Yes, I know I took the ‘autumn crops’ metaphor too far.)

Doctor Who Special Number 3: The Waters of Mars

“The Laws of Time are mine. And they will obey me!”

Now that was good. I was rather disappointed with the previous two specials; The Next Doctor, once one got past the striking images of Cybermen in Victorian London, had a flimsy and predictable plot, and Planet of the Dead seemed an empty, overambitious romp with some gaping plot holes.

Waters of Mars, conversely, may be one of Russell T Davies’ best scripts ever. Shorn of his desire to play to the crowds by having Cybermen fight Daleks, or having a reunion of every companion since 2005, he turned out an economical, chilling script that worked on several different levels.

First, and most obviously, it was an effective little horror story, playing on some of Who’s staple strengths. A relentless, thoroughly alien adversary that takes over and changes your very body is straight out of Philip Hinchcliffe’s darker stories – The Ark in Space being the prime example. And the ‘base under siege’ scenario is a formula that’s worked in any number of Who stories – not to mention classic horror films like Night of the Living Dead and most of the work of John Carpenter. Indeed, there were scenes reminiscent of a number of horror films. The basic premise is not dissimilar to Carpenter’s far inferior Ghosts of Mars, and the bit when Roman was infected by a single drop of water recalled nothing so much as Brendan Gleeson’s infection with a single drop of blood in 28 Days Later. Ratcheting up the tension with his customary expertise was the reliably superb Graeme Harper, who could show John Carpenter a thing or two about direction these days.

The possessing aliens were genuinely imaginative and unnerving. The possibility of running water on the surface of Mars has a plausible scientific background, and the possessed humans, bodies shedding a horrifying amount of water, were just scary enough for a show on at 7 in the evening. Like Russell’s other horror classic Midnight, their nature and motivations were left deliberately unclear, and were more disturbing for it. All we got were disquietingly ominous hints, with the viewer’s imagination left to fill in the rest.

At the other end of the scale from ‘scary’, I was a little dubious about the inclusion of an intentionally ‘cute’ robot. Not that I have anything against cute robots per se – as a Star Wars fan that would make me something of a hypocrite. But it did seem that Russell was trying to have his cake and eat it by both including a cute robot and having the Doctor make contemptuous remarks about cute robots. Still, younger kids will probably love it, as will the merchandise manufacturers. For me, I found the robot’s operator, young Roman, far more cute.

So, on one level, Waters of Mars was very much a thrilling, family friendly slice of horror in the style of old school Who. If it had had a decent budget and more convincing effects. But what definitely wasn’t old school – and will, I suspect, be the part that excites and divides the fans – was the parallel thread exploring how the Doctor squares his increasingly omnipotent power with a sense of morality.

This is what made the episode truly dark, and made it one of the most audacious scripts Russell has written. The Doctor’s a difficult character to deconstruct, as ultimately he’s the hero of the show and necessarily its moral compass. To show him as both fallible morally and arrogant to boot is nearly unprecedented.

I say ‘nearly’, because the show has touched on the idea before. In the very first story, William Hartnell seemed prepared to bash in a caveman’s head  to help himself escape. Patrick Troughton’s deliberate misdirection of the archaeological team in Tomb of the Cybermen always struck me as a bit suspect, too. He plainly knew what was down there; if he wanted to avoid bloodshed why not just tell people? Then we saw Jon Pertwee confronting his own ingrained prejudice towards the Ice Warriors in The Curse of Peladon. And most famously, Tom Baker agonised over the decision of whether or not to commit genocide against his deadliest enemies in Genesis of the Daleks – a moral debate slightly undercut in light of the knowledge that Sylvester McCoy will later blithely blow up the Daleks’ entire planet.

But this is undoubtedly the most overt use of the idea as a central plot thread. We’ve known about ‘fixed points in history’ almost since the beginning, of course – witness the First Doctor telling Barbara “you can’t rewrite history; not one line!” in 1964’s The Aztecs. And last year we had the point underlined in The Fires of Pompeii, which also clarified that,as a Time Lord, the Doctor did have the power to do so. It’s an interesting, and consistent approach to show that there are points in our subjective future that are just as fixed.

Simply by having the ability to travel in time and alter such fixed points, the Doctor has power not far removed from that of a god. And the only check on that power – his own people – is long since gone.

It is, of course, with the best of intentions that the Doctor chooses to exercise that power – you know what they say about the road to hell and its construction methods. That point is neatly underlined as we see him grimly walking away from the base listening to its crew members die one by one. When he finally snaps and decides to act from the heart rather than the head, it’s a neat reversal of the ruthless morality often displayed by the Seventh Doctor – this is a man who wants to save individuals even at the expense of the bigger picture.

And, of course, he’s wrong. More wrong than he’s ever been before, in a dark turn that could only really be pulled off with a character so strongly established. As he piles transgression on transgression, at best he seems arrogant and hubristic; at worst he seems simply mad.

David Tennant perhaps chose to overplay the ‘close to madness’ feel of the dialogue in the scenes set at the base, but the later scene outside the TARDIS on Earth was played to perfection. The Doctor is all haughty arrogance, convinced of his moral superiority in his actions.

And as in The Runaway Bride, it takes a mere human to show him he’s wrong. Lindsay Duncan’s quiet, dignified performance in that scene with the Doctor was masterful, and the way Tennant just crumpled when he realised she had shouldered the responsibility that should have been his by ending her own life was heartbreaking.

This moral complexity and fallibility makes Waters of Mars the most interesting look at the Doctor yet, and undoubtedly one of Russell T Davies’ finest scripts. There were many other excellent aspects in an all-round excellent production, but this was the core of it for me.

“The Time Lord victorious… is wrong.”