We’re all in it together–especially the public sector

Strike!

On Wednesday, most of Britain’s public sector employees will be going on strike in what the BBC News continually refers to as “the biggest strike in a generation”. The buildup to this has been long and full of posturing from both sides; each has presented reams of ‘evidence’ to ‘prove’ that the other side is factually mistaken, morally wrong, or just plain selfish. Over the last few weeks, I’ve heard so many conflicting arguments made with so much confidence that, unless you’re easily swayed by demagogues such as union leaders or secretaries of state, you have to acknowledge that this is probably a more complex issue than either side is making it out to be.

Or is it? To boil it down to the essentials we’ve been hearing, it’s about pensions. Unions insist that their members will be working longer and paying more to receive less when they retire. Initially, government spokesmen took the tack of agreeing that this was so, but claiming it was necessary to reduce public sector spending, as the ‘overblown’ state sector was a huge contributor to the country’s unsustainable debt. By a strange coincidence, this happily fitted in with the Conservative Party’s longstanding policy to shrink the public sector; indeed, this is another in a long line of Conservative bugbears that have conveniently been judged to contribute to the dastardly deficit, and must therefore be cut.

So up until recently, it was more of a moral judgement than anything else. Both sides agreed that the proposed reforms would make pensions worse. One said this was regrettable but necessary; the other said it was unjustified and avoidable. Both sides have invoked Lord Hutton’s recent report on the state of public sector pensions, a massive 215 page document apparently capable of supporting any argument providing one takes a choice quote from it out of context.

As the wrangling’s been going on, however, it’s got more vicious, and often more surreal. Yesterday, Education Secretary Michael Gove popped up at a convenient press conference to assert that the unions were full of militant hardliners itching for a fight with the Conservatives, an increasingly popular government stance that’s been echoed by every opponent of the strikes.

Lib Dem puppet and Tory stooge Danny Alexander popped up to inform strikers that “a better deal” was on the table (for “better” read “still not as good as what we want to take away from you”) and issue the threat that if the strikes went ahead, he’d take it away again. It was like that bit in The Empire Strikes Back where Darth Vader sternly tells Lando Calrissian, “I have altered the deal. Pray I don’t alter it any further.” At least it was probably like that in Alexander’s mind; to everyone else, he came across like a 10 year old schoolyard bully.

Earlier, Alexander’s boss Francis Maude came up with the frankly bizarre idea that the strikers should content themselves with stopping work for 15 minutes instead of striking for a whole day; because obviously, the main aim of striking should be to cause nobody any inconvenience at all.

All of this smacks of a government floundering in panic at the prospect of some very bad PR, which the strikes would surely be. The various union leaders have generally come across as a little more reasoned, but they have a longstanding spectre of 70s militancy to overcome. The government’s current “militants spoiling for a fight” caricature is designed to play on this; if you think a one day strike is inconvenient, try one that lasts for weeks, as they frequently did over more trivial issues in the 70s.

But this isn’t a trivial issue. We’re talking about millions of people having their conditions of employment altered, to their detriment and without their consent. And as a direct result (and probably an intended one), it’s become a highly divisive issue between those who work in the public sector and those who work in the private sector, which misses the point that everyone’s getting worse off. A reduction in public sector pensions can be used to justify further squeezing of what’s left of the private sector’s, which can in turn be used to justify a further reduction of the public sector’s and so ad infinitum, in what’s being described with irritating frequency as a “race to the bottom”.

A prevailing view among many unsympathetic to the strikers (usually from the private sector) is that “my pension’s terrible, so I don’t see why I as a taxpayer have to pay for you to have a good one”. Leaving aside the fundamental anti-tax “I’m all right Jack” attitude, this still misses the point. What these people should be saying is that, if their pensions are terrible, something should be done about that. If the strikers succeed in getting the government to relent, there might be a chance of that (albeit a slim one). Ironically, it was Gordon Brown’s tax credit raid on private sector pensions that largely left them so much worse off; one more reason why I’m as disillusioned with the Labour Party as I am with either of the others.

Then there’s the view (taken by Call Me Dave Cameron) that the strikes are irresponsible because they’ll cause inconvenience. Well, of course they will! What on earth would be the point of striking if nobody noticed? As pointed out above, this is ONE DAY. And for those who say that the long strikes of the 70s happened under Labour, I’d point you to the 1980s Miners’ strike as evidence that the Conservatives have no better record on industrial relations.

Of course, the trouble with that is that the NUM’s defeat effectively broke the power of the unions (much to Mrs Thatcher’s delight), as a direct result of which so many in the private sector have had so much stripped away from them with no one left to represent their rights. It is probably true to say that the unions had too much power in the 70s and 80s; the problem is that, as their ideological opposite, the Conservatives left them with too little power to be of any use (in the private sector at least) in protecting the rights of workers. With this government poised to do away with the EU Working Time Directive, charge £1000 for unfair dismissal tribunals whether won or lost, reduce the consultancy period for involuntary redundancies and extend probationary periods to make it easier for firms to sack employees without consequence, the irony is that the private sector could really do with good representation right about now. Though I doubt the Conservatives and their friends the “wealth creators” would agree.

In fact, Call Me Dave has said that the strikes will cost the economy £500million, a figure so suspiciously round as to have probably been plucked from midair (or the fevered imagination of George Osborne). It’s hard to know whether this is true or not; certainly the strikes will cost the country something. But somehow our failing economy managed to accommodate two extra days of unproductivity to celebrate some irrelevant royals getting married this year, and will somehow manage to accommodate yet another for the Golden Jubilee next year. You don’t have to be anti-monarchist to think that the working rights of doctors, teachers and firemen are a more important issue than that.

But it’s not just doctors, teachers and firemen; the popular view of the public sector is that it’s massively overstaffed with midlevel bureaucrats who have no real function. On this, I’m really not qualified to say, without doing a lot of research. But I can say, having been an administrator myself, that it’s unlikely the public services could function without at least some of those. Notice the objections to Andrew Lansley’s proposed NHS reforms from doctors insisting they don’t have the time or the training to perform administrative functions. And given that the number of public sector redundancies has just been projected at 500,000 (another suspiciously round number) over the next year, if there is any deadwood it can surely be stripped away as part of that process without having to cut the pensions of those who are left.

In fact, if the public sector is as full of lazy, sick-day taking, workshy, useless bureaucrats as the more extreme right-wingers claim, how can they then go on to say that the strikes are going to cause so much inconvenience? For that matter, how can those critics in one breath say that the strikers are selfish, and in the next moan about having to pay them out of their taxes?

No, the caricatures are running riot on both sides, oversimplifying an actually fairly complex issue. Pensions (and finance generally) are a very nuanced and complicated topic, and I’ve seen debaters on both sides of the argument pull out some very convincing looking statistics and internet links that nonetheless flatly contradict each other. Bear in mind that, whatever you think of Hutton’s report, it took him and a large panel several years to properly examine the issue. That’s why – unlike some armchair internet warriors – I’m not under the impression that I’m infallibly correct in my views.

But they are my views, and like so many political issues, people’s stances on this issue tend to be shaped by personal ethics as much as reasoned argument. I try and balance both, and on this matter have come to the conclusion (informed by both) that I’m behind the strikers. Yes, negotiations are still ongoing (as Ed Miliband told us six times over when the last strike happened). But the details of the government’s new offer have yet to be supplied to the unions, and these ‘negotiations’ have now been going on for over a year. They may not have formally broken down, but I think a year’s worth of wrangling with no satisfactory result comes to the same thing, doesn’t it?

Of course, that’s not to say that there isn’t scope for reform of public sector pensions. It’s just that, curiously, the reform seems to be targeting the lower earners rather than those like, say, Eric Pickles (estimated pension £43,000 a year, index-linked) or the Permanent Secretary of the Treasury (not sure of the exact figure, but it’s more than the Prime Minister). And don’t forget they’re (unbelievably) still entitled to their state pension on top of this. Why not start by targeting the public sector’s massive pension inequality (which is what pushes the much-quoted average pension up anyway) rather than hitting those in the middle and at the bottom? That could make a start at saving money, surely.

And to all those persisting in demonising teachers, who seem to be the most conspicuous part of this strike – if you think they’re bad now (and they’re not, mostly) how do you think they’re going to get any better if you cut the incentive to do the job? So you have to take one day off work to care for your child rather than rely on state education as a free childcare service? Pardon me if I don’t feel too sympathetic. You may be losing a day’s holiday, but you’re still getting paid, which is more than the striking teachers are.

And just before you bring up the short working days and long holidays teachers get, do you honestly believe that the job consist of nothing more than manning a classroom in the school day? A decent teacher has to get in early, work late (usually at home, into the evening) and may well spend those long holidays researching the next term’s lesson plans and teaching. Or marking exams to get a better understanding of how to teach the qualifications. I think, if you do the sums, you’ll find that teachers aren’t having the great time you think they are. In fact, in my experience, a lot of them have so much stress it’s a wonder they don’t have nervous breakdowns. You think it’s hard doing a Powerpoint presentation to a hostile boardroom? Try doing something similar with 20 belligerent sixteen year olds all day every day, and see how stressful those board meetings seem after that.

Anyway, teacher-based rant over – for now. I will acknowledge that both sides of this debate are over simplifying it, but thus far no political party (even the suspiciously silent Labour) is helping at all. The cynic in me says that the strikes will almost certainly not win the cause of retaining the current pension arrangements, and also does run the risk of the government taking the excuse to further cut down workers’ rights to strike. But even if the strikers don’t win, they are, like the Occupy movement, sending a message – a message that there are other ways to pay for the country’s problems rather than stripping everyone’s rights to nothing. It’s a message that politicians would do well to heed, if only to win back the increasingly large proportion of the electorate who, right now, wouldn’t vote for a single one of them.

The Walking Dead: Season 2, Episode 7

SPOILER WARNING – I’M GOING TO TRY AND REVIEW THESE EPISODES AS CLOSE AS POSSIBLE TO THE ORIGINAL U.S. TV BROADCAST. IF YOU’RE IN THE U.K., AND PLANNING TO WATCH THE BROADCAST ON FX THE FOLLOWING FRIDAY, BE AWARE THAT MAJOR PLOT POINTS WILL BE DISCUSSED!

Pretty Much Dead Already

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And so, finally it’s the big mid season climax. The part where, traditionally, the viewers are whipped up into a frenzy of excitement and then left, hanging on a cliff and breathless for more. So did The Walking Dead manage to achieve that? Well… not really. At least not in this viewer’s opinion.

There was plenty of drama at least, as many of the character conflicts that have been simmering away over the last few weeks finally boiled over. As Glenn said, “secrets are killing us.” So after last week’s orgy of revelation, this week people started to confront each other over what had been revealed. Rick told Shane about Lori’s pregnancy – though, significantly, he didn’t let on that he knew about Lori and Shane too. Shane immediately went to quiz Lori over whether the bay was his, only to receive the terse reply, “even if it’s yours, it won’t be yours”, leading to a pissing contest in which Shane tries to prove that he’s saved Lori’s life more often than Rick.. Dale, worried after last week’s confrontation with Shane, went off to hide the guns. Because Dale and Glenn were about to reveal the one important secret remaining – Hershel’s barn full of zombies.

All the threads were fairly neatly drawn together. Shane is finally at snapping point with the discovery that Hershel’s been keeping a barn full of walkers next to where they sleep. Maggie’s furious at Glenn for divulging the secret, but as we discovered in a conversation with her father, she’s less convinced than before that the zombies can be cured. Daryl’s intent on searching for Sophia, even though her mother Carol is on the point of finally giving up; meanwhile Shane’s insulting him because of his poor background. And Rick’s trying his best to be understanding about Hershel’s view of the walkers, because it’s Hershel’s place and Rick’s a reasonable man – even though being reasonable may not be a factor in favour of survival in the new world.

There was much pontificating on that this week, as character after character seemed forced to concede that, while Rick was the better man, it might actually be that Shane is the better equipped to survive. This point was rammed home by Rick’s insistence on continuing the search for Sophia when, even in the old world, the police would surely have given up by this point.

But the ethical question remained of whether Shane’s pragmatism was worth giving up civilisation for. There was another electric confrontation between him and Dale, as Shane went to retrieve the guns that Dale was hiding, so that he could exterminate Hershel’s barn full of "sick people”. This was a tense scene with the threat of actual violence emphasised by Jon Bernthal’s tightly wound physicality; for a while, I actually thought he might kill Dale to get the guns. Then, as Dale pointed his rifle unwaveringly at Shane, I wondered if Shane would be the one to go out this time – after all, he’s long dead by this point in the comics.

But Shane’s shaping up to be the real antagonist of the series. Every zombie story needs one, from Cooper in Night of the Living Dead to Captain Rhodes in Day of the Dead. Zombies are a mindless menace; for true evil, you need a human. Dale summed it up with his opinion of Shane: “at least when the world went to shit, I didn’t get dragged down with it.”

Rick, meanwhile, was continuing to be reasonable, and trying to persuade Hershel that his group should stay, on the grounds that his wife is pregnant. He’s so desperate, he’s even prepared to help Hershel rope in a pair of zombies that have got stuck in the swamp for storage in the barn.

Which led, inexorably, to the ‘big climax’. Shane, already wound up by Lori’s dismissal and Dale’s contempt, saw the procession bringing the new undead arrivals and lost it completely. Fed up of Rick’s reasonable approach, he demonstrated the true nature of the zombies to a devastated Hershel by riddling one with bullets to show that it still wouldn’t die – until he blasted it in the head. Of course, for a medical man, Hershel was a bit blinkered in not noticing the creatures had decomposed so much as to be incurable, but that was another factor for comparison with Shane. Hershel had been so shut away from the chaotic apocalypse that he’d had no real inkling of what these creatures really were.

And of course, Shane then finished what he’d started by opening the doors of the barn to let loose “more than a dozen” zombies. It was here that I started doubting that this would be a particularly ‘big’ climax; there’d been more zombies than that in almost every episode of season one. Nonetheless, the scene had some dramatic impact as we saw our gang , left with no choice, pick up their guns and blast away at these people who had been Hershel’s friends and family as the man himself looked on in shock.

You could say Hershel was being naive. But then the script pulled out a bit of a surprise, that actually put the gang – and by extension, the viewer – in his shoes. For the last zombie to stagger out into the sunlight was none other than little Sophia, another in a long line of horrifying little girl zombies that started all the way back in Night of the Living Dead.

I must say, this took me by surprise, though with hindsight it seems an obvious dramatic denouement; I suspect I was wrongfooted once again by expecting the scenario to end as it did in the comics, which of course don’t feature this subplot. But it did pack a real punch as Carol shrieked hysterically, and even Shane had the anger stunned from him. In the end, it fell to Rick to put Sophia down, and the first half of the season ended with him standing over her body. Perhaps he is well enough equipped to survive this new world after all. The question posed by this episode being, at what price?

As a cliffhanger, intended to leave the viewers breathless for more, this didn’t seem particularly effective; the zombies in the barn have been put down, all the gang’s secrets are out, the search for Sophia is (finally!) over, and they can all take a breather and deal with the fallout. At no point was anyone in serious jeopardy from any of the zombies, and with them all put down, nobody was left in danger either. It felt, more than anything, like the kind of semi-conclusion often used on a season break when the writers aren’t sure if the show’s coming back.

But coming back it is, not just for the second half of this season but reportedly for a third too. Whatever happens, I think they’re going to have to up their game quite a bit. After the really effective first season, this one has overall felt very draggy, with its limited locations and endless infighting. Sure, there’s been some very effective character drama so far, but at the expense of the zombie apocalypse scenario. At times, it’s felt as though the writers have just chucked in the occasional shambling ghoul to remind us we’re not watching another soap opera.

Even this supposed cliffhanger break episode spent more time on the talking than the action, and when the zombies did show up, it still wasn’t what you’d call exciting; certainly not in the same way as the thrilling set pieces in season one in Atlanta. I’m certainly not saying that depth should be sacrificed for thrills – but some thrills to go along with the depth would be nice. It’s a balance the first season struck well, and one that, so far, this season is finding hard to replicate. I’m more and more convinced that this is due to AMC’s insistence on having a longer season on a smaller budget. I’ll be back to watch the rest of the season in February, but with the fervent hope that enough money’s been held back to make it pacier and more expansive than the first half.

Misfits: Series 3, Episode 5

“We were supposed to go for a drink together. Me and Kelly. I mean, it might have been nothing, maybe she would have been too high maintenance, maybe I would have got on her nerves. But it could have been something. We could have been good together.”

MisfitsKellyRudy

After the high stakes sci fi shenanigans last week, it was nice to have a rather more low key episode of Misfits which concentrated on character as much as concept. This was very much a Kelly and Rudy centric story; we already know and like Kelly, but we got to delve a bit more into Rudy’s troubled psyche, which was the lighter side to a story that actually had a few shocks along the way. And it was nice that, for the first time in quite a while, we got to see almost all of the gang using their powers.

It is fair to say that, like last week, we had a plot concept here that’s pretty old hat – namely, the good old-fashioned body swap. The script even spelled it out for us. Once Alisha had used her power to see through Kelly’s eyes, discovering she was in a coma ward, then the gang found a different girl there, Simon guessed what was up immediately. Of course, Simon’s the geek of the group, so it’s hardly surprising he’s come across the idea before; but even Rudy immediately blurted, “it’s like that film!” then lost points by saying Face/Off, while Simon patiently explained that it was more like Freaky Friday.

And of course it was like Freaky Friday. And Vice Versa. And Quantum Leap. And any number of episodes of The X Files, Buffy and Angel. Last week, I felt the show suffered a little from a very overused concept; but here, I thought the concept was given a nice twist that worked in the Misfits universe, and gave Lauren Socha another chance to shine playing, essentially, a different part.

The basic crux of the plot worked so well because it’s one of the things Misfits does best – a crisis caused by superpowers that directly affects the emotional lives of the characters. So, just as Seth was finally getting over his old girlfriend and arranged to meet Kelly for a drink to see where things might lead, their chance was cruelly snatched away when Kelly, trying to be helpful as always, took the hand of coma patient Jen and their bodies were switched.

Straight away, then, there’s an ethical dilemma. If we get Kelly back, Jen goes back into her coma, losing not only her boyfriend Dom but probably her life too. But here I felt the script missed a trick by deciding to make Jen a bit of a bitch once she was up and about again. Dom (a nice portrayal from Nick Blood) was a decent guy, and he couldn’t square having his girlfriend back with the idea of someone, even a stranger, having to unfairly suffer her fate. Jen, on the other hand, was so desperate not to be back in a coma that she was prepared to shut off the life support and let Kelly die.

That’s believable enough, I suppose, if you’ve been in a coma for a long time (and the traumatic revelation that Jen was aware of everything around her the whole time was pretty hard-hitting). But if anything, it made the ultimate resolution a bit too easy; we weren’t going to feel too much angst about returning Jen to her coma if she was like that. It meant that the only one we could really feel sorry for was Dom. And maybe we shouldn’t feel too sorry for him either, as it seemed like his initial reason for worrying about the situation was that his girlfriend was now in a body he didn’t fancy as much as her real one.

Elsewhere, we had a nice little subplot with Rudy’s ‘better half’ starting a relationship with his anger management therapist. This being Rudy, this was the funnier bit of the plot, as his initial therapy session involved his disappointment that they wouldn’t be “breaking stuff and putting on the boxing gloves”. But even this subplot was a bit emotionally affecting. Confronted with the question of whether he’d been a bed wetter, Rudy started clutching at his groin, and the natural assumption was that he needed to go for a piss. But of course, it was his more sensitive other self waiting to burst out. And when ‘nice Rudy’ found the therapist crying in her car and offered to talk, it was inevitable where this was going.

And equally inevitable that, as in so many identical twin comedies, the therapist would end up getting it on with the ‘wrong’ Rudy later, and all manner of hilarity would ensue. Except, after Rudy’s initial puzzled delight at getting a free handjob from his therapist, it actually turned out that ‘nice Rudy’ had really fallen for her, in a twist that reminded me of David Cronenberg’s twisted ‘identical twin gynaecologists’ movie Dead Ringers.

‘Nice Rudy’ it turned out, had never really had a girlfriend before, he’d just been present when his normal self carelessly shagged girls and threw them aside. So he was none too happy when his more boorish half told the therapist that it was over because she was “too old” (followed by the inevitable bit when nice Rudy, unsuspecting of this, offered to take her  for a meal and got a slap for his pains).

That got the two plots to nicely intersect, though, as ‘nice Rudy’ decided to drown his sorrows with ‘Kelly’, who’d found herself similarly rejected. The sequence in which the gang comically removed the comatose ‘Jen’ from the hospital before her life support could be switched off was entertaining (and reminiscent of a similar bit in Star Trek IV), but I had to wonder what was keeping her alive while she was being trundled around with her machines unplugged. OK, maybe they had a battery backup, but there was a noticeable lack of beeping noises when she was bundled into the back of Seth’s BMW.

Still, that’s just nitpicking. The plot was resolved as ‘nice Rudy’ managed to trick Jen/Kelly into joining her old comatose body at the community centre; but it wasn’t smooth sailing. It took a heartfelt plea from Seth to make her have a change of heart, realising she was effectively cheating two more people out of their chance at the happiness she’d had. The dynamic of this scene was particularly effective, as Lauren Socha played ‘not-Kelly’ dealing with Matthew McNulty’s impassioned Seth, and you could feel the chemistry between them. This burgeoning relationship has, more than anything, formed the ‘Big Plot’ of this year’s series, and I was glad to see that, by the very end, it looked like they were properly together at last, and not in some alternate reality this time.

It wasn’t such a happy ending for Shaun though. Reviving the show’s first season trope of killing off all the gang’s probation workers, he finally got his this week when Jen, in Kelly’s body, stabbed him with a screwdriver. Of course he got killed last week too, but this time it was in our reality, and it was for keeps. This actually made me a little sad, as I’ve really enjoyed Craig Parkinson as the lackadaisical, couldn’t-give-a-fuck probation worker. He’s been around now for nearly two series, and despite his generally lazy, slobbish and often downright creepy attitude, he’s been a likeable character in the way that previous probation workers weren’t.

In the event, his death scene was actually rather affecting. As Simon gently told him the truth and Rudy demonstrated that they really did have superpowers, his last words were, “I can’t believe I never picked up on it. You bunch of dicks. Fucking superheroes.” And with that, he was gone.

Of course, it was obvious that he had to die, as he’d have fingered Kelly for the stabbing; and Simon only told him the secret because he wasn’t going to live. But I have to say, I’m wondering how the gang will explain away yet another ‘missing’ probation worker without the police starting to seriously pay attention. Perhaps that’s a plotline to come…

And speaking of plotlines to come, it was nice to get reacquainted with Curtis’ female alter ego Melissa (Kehinde Fadipe) for the first time since episode two. Following up on his discovery of the delights of the female orgasm in that episode, it seems he’s been switching into Melissa every now and then just to have a wank, leading to a typical Misfits comedy scene of misunderstanding as Alisha discovers him just after this, then Simon discovers the pair of them and wonders if they’re getting back up to their old habits again. Comic it was, but I think there’s going to be fallout here. Not only did Curtis not explain that he’d been masturbating as a woman, but it’s sown some uncertainty into Simon and Alisha’s relationship. Looks like there’ll be more of this next week.

A good character based episode then, and an impressive first script from Jon Brown that really nails the characters we’ve come to know. This is actually the very first Misfits episode to be scripted by anyone other than Howard Overman, though like Steven Moffat on Doctor Who, he may well have had a lot of input. Nevertheless, it’s encouraging that other writers can take it on, especially with the slightly longer season of eight episodes this year.

This episode has also cemented Seth and Kelly’s relationship, and established Seth properly as one of the gang (in answer to Rudy’s question on this, Curtis grumbles “don’t call it a gang, we’re not in primary school”). Some viewers may be impatient that the show’s not getting on with the Really Big Plot of Simon’s time travel and death, but I’m just as happy for that to be kept in the background for now; if it’s resolved, either the show will end, or at the very least lose Simon, which would be a shame. No, I’m happy for the gang to have individual adventures each week, and if there has to be a Big Plot, I’m happy for that to be about Seth and Kelly.

Mega Beastie showdown!

Jaws has a lot to answer for. In the 36 years since Spielberg’s seminal summer blockbuster, movie screens (well, mostly TV screens, actually) have been clogged with low rent ripoffs in which paper thin characters do battle against an increasingly improbable and needlessly gory parade of killer sharks. For a while, it seemed that this franchise was just about eating its own tail, as movies like Shark Attack 3: Megalodon (starring the mighty talent that is John Barrowman) seemed to be the thin end of the wedge.

But lo, then came the advent of cheap CG, and B movie producers everywhere saw that it was profitable. In the last few years, killer sharks are very much back. But now they can be as insanely big, or mutated, or just downright silly as the CG will allow. Perhaps one of them could stand as the next Republican party Presidential candidate, it might have a good chance…

At the forefront of this revival in ultra-cheap tat is cable TV channel Syfy (formerly the less stupidly named Sci Fi Channel). They’ve been producing a line of intentionally dumb but guiltily enjoyable TV B movies for a few years now, including SS Doomtrooper, Locusts: The Eighth Plague, and the unforgettable Pterodactyl, which starred no less a talent than Coolio.

All these films have certain things in common: they’re shot somewhere cheap (Romania, Mexico), they star D list actors that you might just have seen in a commercial once (Corin Nemec, say), and they have a budget of about $100, all of which seems to have been spent on less than convincing CG. But they’ve given a boost to the once flagging genre of killer shark movies, and now it’s cheap as chips to have a boatload of nubile tourists devoured by a badly composited fishy predator.

In the interests of objective criticism (and because they were in a cheap special offer on Amazon), I recently subjected myself to three of these neo-classics and can now report on them. In order:

Sharktopus

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We start with one of the more bonkers ideas. Sharktopus, as the DVD cover proudly proclaims, is “50% shark. 50% octopus. 100% deadly.” And a zillion per cent dumb.

This is one of the Syfy offerings, but for added B movie cred, it’s produced by schlock veteran Roger Corman, who’s been making ultra cheap monster flicks since the dawn of time. Roger clearly clocked the ‘popularity’ of another recent schlockfest, Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus, and thought, “wouldn’t it be even more scary if both those things were.. one thing?” And so the terror that is Sharktopus was born.

The titular creature has, for some unfathomable reason, been created as a genetically engineered weapon for the US Navy. Quite what use they think they’re going to get out of it is hard to tell, but their nefarious scheme is immediately established as we see a high ranking naval officer enter a top secret research establishment (depicted as a small windowless room with some old computers in it) and witness a test of the beastie, under the auspices of its creator, Dr Sands.

The typical mad scientist (would a sane one create a half-shark half-octopus hybrid?), Sands is incarnated by Eric Roberts, the closest this production could get to a star name. Roberts, brother to megastar Julia, has been condemned to this sort of dreck for most of his career; it’s telling that his highpoint was probably his ultra-camp portrayal of the Master in the 1996 Doctor Who TV movie.

Dr Sands has a glamourous daughter, who is also Dr (Nicole) Sands, and is played by Sara Makalul Lane (who she?). It’s a common trend in these movies for the female lead to be a scientist these days – cause women are empowered now, see? But it’s also common that these ‘scientists’ physically resemble the standard bikini clad nubile wenches of yesteryear, and their attempts to portray scientific scrutiny look like a combination of constipation and having sat on a vibrating washing machine.

Of course, the test all goes horribly wrong as Nicole’s incompetence causes the creature’s ‘kill switch’ to fail, and before you can say “WTF?”, it’s off on a tourist devouring rampage in Mexican beach resort Puerto Vallarta. Nicole is forced, against her father’s better judgment, to call in hated ex-colleague and hunky beach bum biologist and fish hunter Andy Flynn, and the chase through holiday locations begins.

Andy and Nicole are one step behind Sharktopus all the way, as it begins to chomp its way through the more attractive and mostly female holidaymakers. Only a cameoing Roger Corman (because he’s male and old) is safe. As they chase, Andy expresses his frustration at their failure by opening his shirt and flexing his abs a lot. Meanwhile, the body count rises; as Sharktopus has tentacles, it can rise out of the sea and walk on land to stalk its prey (just go with it; if you can accept fusing an invertebrate cephalopod with a fish, that’s not too hard).

Also converging on Sharktopus is a local TV crew, intent on exposing the madness of creating the creature. This doesn’t end well for them, as first cameraman and then intrepid reporter Stacy Everheart (no, really) are devoured by Sharktopus. Luckily, our heroes corner the beast at a local water park (though it’s not in the water) and manage to shoot it with an electrocution gadget that makes it explode. Cue many shots of Andy looking hunky with shark blood running down his immaculately sculpted abs.

Verdicts:

CG creature: nice design, but very badly composited into picture. Obviously beyond the bounds of any scientific credibility, but if you’re worrying about that, you’ve come to the wrong film.

Male lead: Model (but definitely not actor) Kerem Bursin is nice eye candy as Andy Flynn, but should never be allowed to open his mouth onscreen again.

Female lead: Sara Makalul Lane (really, who?) looks good in a bikini and can say the lines written in the script (just about). But you won’t believe for a moment that she’s any kind of scientist.

Quotable line: “This is your captain speaking. We’re getting more reports of this half shark, half octopus creature that’s terrorizing the coast, but please don’t panic.”

Next up:

Dinoshark

Dinoshark

It’s that man Corman again, and he’s bringing us another of his weird hybrid beasties. Dinoshark, as the name implies, is half shark, half dinosaur. This is visualised as a creature with the body of a shark, but the scaly skin and head of a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Because Jurassic Park and Jaws were scary, so a creature combining the two is scarier than ever, right? Of course it is.

The movie opens with a sobering comment on climate change, as we see shelves of ice melting into the ocean near Alaska. But the social comment is soon forgotten, as the crumbling ice releases … things into the ocean. Scary things. But they look small, so that’s ok, right? And…. “Three years later”.”

Dinoshark introduces himself to the world by leaping out of the ocean to devour a luckless fisherman before sinking his entire boat. Yes, unlike Sharktopus, Dinoshark is entirely confined to the water; but fortunately, he can jump very, very high. But there’s a short supply of bikini clad lovelies near Alaska, so Dinoshark must head south… winding up yet again at the unfortunately monster prone Mexican resort of Puerto Vallarta. At this point, I began to suspect Roger Corman shot these two movies mainly to give himself a free holiday.

In Puerto Vallarta, we meet our hero, boat-captain-for-rent Trace McGraw. Despite having a girl’s name, Trace is incarnated by the hunky Eric Balfour. Immediately you can tell they’ve put more thought into the casting; Balfour isn’t just hunky but can (sort of) act, as you may remember from such movies as Skyline and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre remake. Minus points, however, for Eric’s facial hair; his usual goatee wildly varies in length from shot to shot, often disappearing altogether in between lines. Continuity!

Trace is a bit of a lad, and has a bunch of similarly laddy beach bum friends, accompanied by their nubile, bikini-clad girlfriends. One of said girlfriends, it becomes clear, will be our heroine for the duration. Yet again, she is a scientist; Dr Claire Brubaker is a massively qualified marine biologist who for reasons of audience titillation has come to Mexico to lead a girls’ water polo team in a skimpy bikini. Iva Hasperger out of TV’s General Hospital imbues Dr Claire with all the scientific gravitas of an infomercial.

Meanwhile, Dinoshark is chomping his way through the local holidaymakers in the familiar pattern, but is a bit more inventive than Sharktopus. Having devoured our heroes’ best mate Rita (found on a beach with her legs buried to make it look like she’d been bitten in half), Dinoshark also manages to eat a local fisherman and two members of Mexican Search and Rescue before eating their boat. At this point, Trace’s suspicions are aroused, and he goes on the hunt.

Claire, meanwhile, has been doing some ‘research’ on the internet, while wearing a lip-chewing vacant expression presumably meant to convey concentration. Finding a picture of something like what Trace described, she’s obviously had a breakthrough. So naturally, she decides to take her top off.

After doing this, though, she contacts said website’s owner, who is varyingly described as ‘Dr Reeves’ or ‘Dr Reeve’ throughout. Dr Reeves (or Reeve) turns out to be Roger Corman himself, and is actually a better actor than most of the cast. He also has a supercomputer (it looks like an ordinary Dell) which can “extrapolate the DNA” of the creature from a sample of its stomach acid, and from this, produce a realistic picture of it onscreen and tell him that its one weakness is its unarmoured eye. That’s some computer.

Trace’s continuing beastie hunt is being hampered by local police chief Calderon, doing the ‘disbelieving authority’ bit from Jaws. But even Calderon has to admit they might have a problem when Dinoshark literally leaps over his head, eats one of his officers, and pulls his CG helicopter into the sea. He can always draw another helicopter, I suppose…

In the meantime, Dinoshark has eaten a whole bunch of people (most of whom seemed to deserve it for their stupidity). And yet, despite the fact that the local police chief has actually seen the creature eat a helicopter, he’s neglected to advise people to stay off the beaches. This is fortunate for Dinoshark, as nothing is quite as tempting as a young girls’ water polo team.

Having eaten as many as he could manage, he finally heads into the bay to consume a handy jetskier and a man on a para sail who’s filming the whole thing for posterity (and Roger Corman). Leaping pointlessly into the sea, Trace grabs the jetski and it all goes slo-mo as he leaps into the air… Dinoshark leaps towards him… he throws a grenade (no, really)… boom!

But a grenade’s not enough to kill Dinoshark. Fortunately, Dr Claire has remembered what Dr Reeve (or Reeves) told her. She’s got a harpoon, and a hell of an aim. But before she lobs it unfailingly into poor old Dinoshark’s eye, there’s just time for a Schwarzenegger-style one-liner: “Welcome to the endangered species list!”

Verdicts:

CG creature: Silly design, but better than Sharktopus. And might technically be a reptile, therefore not half fish after all, making it at least a bit scientifically plausible. A bit. The compositing’s pretty good, and the thing actually looks halfway convincing.

Male lead: Eric Balfour’s not much of an actor, but then this isn’t much of a part. But he’s quite charismatic, and definitely nice to look at. If only he could control his goatee.

Female lead: Iva Hasperger is so wooden she makes Keanu Reeves look like Gene Hackman. And her attempts to look ‘scientific’ and serious are incredibly funny, so points for that at least.

Quotable line: (Trace, talking about Rita) “She made me food. It was the first time I tasted food made out of love.”

Next up…

Mega Shark Vs Crocosaurus

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The ‘official sequel’ to Mega Shark Vs Giant Octopus (would anyone produce an unofficial sequel to that?), this is the first film in my troika not to have been produced by Roger Corman or Syfy. Rather, it’s been churned out by ripoff factory The Asylum, who specialise in straight to DVD ‘homages’ to upcoming  big budget Hollywood productions. They also have nice sideline in cheap ‘giant monster’ things, including the even more bizarre Mega Piranha, starring Tiffany (yes, that one).

In the original movie, as you’ll doubtless recall, the west coast of America was plagued by a gargantuan shark while Japan had some problems with a similarly scaled octopus, until ‘scientist’ Debbie Gibson (yes, that one) had the bright idea of luring them into a fight to the death. But as it turns out, no one saw Mega Shark die, and the US Navy are still on the lookout for it – so that’s where all those taxpayer dollars get spent.

But they’re right to be cautious, as in the first five minutes Mega Shark reappears. More ambitious than Sharktopus or Dinoshark, Mega Shark is big enough to sink an entire US destroyer. Which he quickly does, leaving irritating ‘hero’ Lt McCormack (Jaleel White, best known as TV’s Urkel) as the only survivor. McCormack is burning for revenge, and has the way to do it; he’s pioneered ‘underwater hydrophonic spheres’ which can lure sharks.

He is therefore sought out by the Navy department which spends billions of taxpayer dollars in case of giant sharks, represented by Sarah Lieving as the glamourous Special Agent Hutchinson. More serious than other crap shark movie heroines, Hutchinson doesn’t appear to even own a bikini. She takes McCormack to a special shark hunting ship captained by ‘star name’ Robert Picardo (you may remember him as the holographic Doctor from Star Trek: Voyager). This fearsome ship is represented by a stock footage exterior and a dimly lit windowless room full of computers, as usual.

On the other side of the world, it’s time to meet the other contender. In the Democratic Republic of Congo (somewhere in Southern California, apparently), we see an attempt at social comment, as miners for blood diamonds are brutally crushed by a VERY big crocodile which erupts out of the rock for no clearly explained reason. Enraged by the loss of profits, the mining company hire caricature English big game hunter Nigel Putnam (only Englishmen are called Nigel) to chase it down. Nigel is incarnated by British boxer (and, improbably given what he looks like, model) Gary Stretch, whose accent veers from South African to Australian to cockney, while never losing its essential Scouseness.

Nigel captures Crocosaurus by the unusual expedient of letting it eat him then tranquilising it while he’s in its mouth (I’m not making this up). He then decides to transport it, still alive, to the US in a King Kong-style attempt at showmanship. Unfortunately, his plans are somewhat derailed when the ship Crocosaurus is on is sunk by Mega Shark, and then, it’s on, baby!

Joining forces with McCormack, Hutchinson and the Navy, Nigel watches with a cynical smirk as Crocosaurus levels Miami and Orlando (which suspiciously contain the same buildings as each other) before facing off with Mega Shark, who for some reason wants to eat Crocosaurus’ eggs. That might have been the end of it, but for a fruitless attack from some CG warplanes, so an attempt is made to trap the giant beasties in the Panama Canal. This of course doesn’t work, as they’re fighting again, and lurch over onto the city in the process (“They’ve destroyed Panama!”).

Later, our heroes discover that Mega Shark has an appetite for Crocosaurus’ eggs when it swallows a nuclear submarine carrying one (I’m really not making this up!). But McCormack has a plan – he’ll lure the squabbling beasties to an undersea volcano which his ‘hydrophonic spheres’ can set off (somehow). Somewhat surprisingly, this actually works, and we’re treated to an especially cheap motionless silhouette of the two antagonist sinking into stock footage of lava.

This was more fun than the original Mega Shark Vs Giant Octopus, as that was a bit stingy on the creature fighting moments and suffered from a misapprehension that we had some sort of interest in the ‘characters’. Of course, “better than Mega Shark Vs Giant Octopus” is not particularly high praise.

Verdicts:

CG creatures: The most unconvincing of the lot, they look like badly textured cartoons in the inept way they’re composited into the picture. Some credit for the sheer mind-boggling size of them, but that seems to vary from scene to scene. In one scene, Crocosaurus is described as “1500 feet long” by McCormack when it’s plainly not that big. When we first meet it, its foot is just about big enough to crush a luckless African miner, but later one foot is enough to crush a tank.

Male lead: I’ve never seen Urkel, but if Jaleel White was as irritating there as he is here, I never want to see it. And Gary Stretch as ‘Nigel’ is about as convincing as a big game hunter as any other boxer.

Female lead: Top points here; Sarah Lieving can actually act, and her character Special Agent Hutchinson is convincingly written as more than just a beach bimbo with a marine biology degree.

Quotable line: “They’ve gotta stop firing at the shark. It’s got a nuclear submarine inside it.”

And the winner is…

Dinoshark!

Let’s face it, these films are all very silly (intentionally, I’m sure) but enjoyable. But of all these Z-grade no-budget schlockfests, Dinoshark comes closest to being a good movie (it’s still not very close). Eric Balfour is a good lead, the creature looks good (and stays the same size between scenes) and there’s some genuinely good editing and camerawork in the climactic scenes with the parasail and the jetski.

Sharktopus comes a close second, let down by its wooden lead and less convincing creature. And last (and definitely least) is Mega Shark Vs Crocosaurus, for its actively annoying heroes, unconvincing and elastic creatures, and its implausible ability for ships to travel thousands of miles in a few minutes.

OK, so they’re terrible films, every one. But they’re undoubtedly guilty fun, and I guess that means there’s no end to them in the foreseeable future. I’m looking forward to Wolfsharkvampire myself…

The Walking Dead: Season 2, Episode 6

SPOILER WARNING – I’M GOING TO TRY AND REVIEW THESE EPISODES AS CLOSE AS POSSIBLE TO THE ORIGINAL U.S. TV BROADCAST. IF YOU’RE IN THE U.K., AND PLANNING TO WATCH THE BROADCAST ON FX THE FOLLOWING FRIDAY, BE AWARE THAT MAJOR PLOT POINTS WILL BE DISCUSSED!

Secrets

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It’s a very straightforward, to the point episode title for The Walking Dead this week – Secrets. Our heroes may not be moving, but the character development – or soap opera, if you’re being more critical – aspect of the plot was very much to the fore, and the festering secrets held by so many of the characters started to come out, one by one. And some of these have been long overdue for an airing; this show has often been one of those cases where the drama is driven by secrets, to the extent that if the characters would only tell each other what they all knew, their lives would become infinitely simpler.

To start with, I was a little surprised when the episode opened at plainly the day after Glenn’s discovery of Hershel’s barn full of zombies. You’d have thought Glenn might rush to tell the others what he’d found that night, so immediately I started to wonder whether he’d been tied up somewhere. But no, he’d apparently been convinced by Maggie not to tell anything to the others. I have to say, I wasn’t totally convinced by this turn of events; budding romance or not, you’d think most people in Glenn’s shoes would think a secret barn full of zombies was something that shouldn’t be hushed up.

And of course it wasn’t, not for long. In an episode filled with people’s secrets, poor old guileless Glenn was stuck with not just that one, but the one about Lori’s pregnancy too. And you could tell he wasn’t very good at keeping secrets: “I can’t even play poker. It’s too much like lying.” So, inevitably, when Dale caught him out in a lie about helping to “clean spark plugs”, he just blurted it straight out: “Hershel’s got a barn full of zombies and Lori’s pregnant.”

Dale looked somewhat taken aback at this. It was a nice scene, very well played by Steven Yeun and Jeffrey DeMunn, both of whom got some meaty material this week. Glenn’s been very much to the fore the last few weeks, which I’ve enjoyed; this week, he was given cause to question his place in the group, much like Daryl last week. Having acted as Lori’s confidante, then placed both his and Maggie’s lives at risk to get Lori some morning after contraceptives, he heard some unpalatable opinions from Maggie. She sees him as taken for granted by the group as an errand boy; basically, as she put it, “walker bait”. Again like Daryl, he got some immediate reassurance, this time from Lori, who considers him a supportive friend. But in both cases, Daryl and Glenn, I can see the seeds of self-doubt will likely lead to plotlines to come.

Glenn may have had a lot of the limelight this season, but Dale’s hardly had much to do apart from uttering the occasional wise and gnomic remark. This week changed all that, and we saw how wily he really is – and occasionally, perhaps, a little foolish. Armed with the information about the barn, he quietly confronted Hershel about it, in a well-played scene which revealed Hershel’s motives in keeping the zombies captive. They’re his friends and family, and as far as he’s concerned they’re sick people. And you don’t kill someone when they’re sick, you wait for a cure. Meanwhile, he’s been feeding them live chickens to keep them docile, and we got to see an all too realistic depiction of the chickens having their legs broken so they couldn’t run away. For a vet, Hershel has interesting priorities about avoiding suffering; but then again, he’s also a farmer. And I’m sure the American Humane Association made sure the chickens weren’t really tortured like that!

Dale couldn’t convince him that what was in the barn was actually walking corpses, and there’s no coming back from that. So, rather than jeopardise their already shaky toehold on Hershel’s farm, he agreed to keep the zombies a secret himself – one more secret stored up. But he’s obviously better at keeping secrets than Glenn, and this episode revealed just how much he had known and kept secret for the good of the group. His chat to Lori not only revealed that he knew about her pregnancy, but also that he thought the baby might be Shane’s – so he’s known about Lori and Shane all this time.

Not only that, but he also remembers how, back in season one, he came across Shane sighting his rifle at Rick in the woods. This came up in an electric scene in which Dale confronted Shane with advice that now might be a good time for him to move on. This exchange positively crackled with tension, as Dale told Shane, “I know what kind of man you are.” And it turns out Dale even has his doubts about Shane’s story of how Otis died – something else that may well come out in the near future.

For his part, Shane was coldly furious and not a little scary. Yes, he’d done what he did to Otis to ensure Carl would be ok; but as he put it, if Dale was right about what kind of man he was, threatening to reveal that information might not be the smartest idea. Jeffrey DeMunn and Jon Bernthal were excellent in this scene; Dale full of anger and contempt, and Shane plainly heading deeper into darkness with his cold, quiet threats.

Elsewhere, Shane was coaching the gang in how to shoot, and just like in the comics, Andrea turned out to have a surprising aptitude for it. But Shane went too far in trying to motivate her to hit a moving target when he shouted that she should imagine it was the walker who killed her sister. This led to a mini-subplot about Andrea’s shooting ability, which was resolved when she accompanied Shane to a nearby housing development in the latest development of the seemingly interminable background plot of the search for Sophia.

It really is beginning to stretch the bounds of credibility that our heroes still hope to find Sophia alive, and as a plot, I’m very much hoping they drop it soon; either by finding her, alive or dead, or accepting that they won’t and giving up. Nonetheless, this week’s instalment of the search was a nice set piece that gave us some more good zombie action, together with a chilling depiction of the aftermath of the apocalypse. Shane and Andrea’s search took them through a suburban street where the houses were filled with corpses, including a quite gruesome pile of charred bodies in a burnt out garage. And then quite a horde of zombies turned up, allowing Andrea to perfect her shooting skills. It gets easier after the first one, apparently.

And obviously zombie killing is a pretty aphrodisiac pursuit, as in the car on the way back to the farm, Andrea couldn’t wait to grab Shane’s crotch, to which he responded by dragging her over to the driver’s seat and getting it on then and there. Cut to a long shot of the car with a (presumably unintentionally) hilarious sound effect of the horn going off as Andrea bounced off it (the car’s horn, not Shane’s. Well, both, presumably).

So that’s one more secret to be kept. But the really big one was about to come out – finally. After having changed her mind about the morning after pills, it was time for Lori to talk to Rick about the baby. Actually, it turned out Rick had already figured it out when he found the empty pill packets, and he was less than happy about it.

This was another cracking two-handed scene in an episode full of them. As a character, I’ve never found Lori all that interesting; it’s no reflection on actress Sarah Wayne Callies, it’s just that she’s not written particularly deeply either here or in the comics. But this scene allowed her to reveal some more depth, and reflect yet again on the fairness or otherwise of bringing a child into such a world. Kudos to Callies, and also to Andrew Lincoln as Rick, but the writing was the star here; Lori’s conceit of surviving via good memories of the world that’s gone was an incisive one. As she said, Carl has little enough of that to remember, and any new child wouldn’t remember it at all; he/she would only know the hell of the world they were born into.

Rick was understandably angry at having been kept in the dark, both about the pregnancy and Lori’s dilemma about ending it. If nothing else, that rules out the pregnancy as being the subject of what Dr Jenner whispered into Rick’s ear at the end of season one, leaving me with no clue about that now. But the pregnancy wasn’t all that came out. Rick had also figured out that Lori and Shane had slept together while they thought he was dead, a fact that she now guiltily confirmed. Rick seemed understanding, given the circumstances; but I can’t help thinking that this is far from forgotten.

So, an explosive episode for the characters, even if little else happened in the way of driving the overall plot forward. Some great performances on the parts of all the regular cast, though it must be said that most of the inhabitants of Hershel’s farm remain sketchy and ill-defined – for example, who’s the teenage boy that occasionally pops up? I don’t think we’ve even been told his name, or if we have, it was a fleeting reference and hasn’t been mentioned again.

And there was, thankfully, rather more zombie action than usual amongst all the character drama. Besides the shambling inhabitants of Hershel’s barn, we got not only the horde of walkers encountered by Shane and Andrea, but also a nicely gruesome bit of business with Glenn’s rather sloppy killing of a zombie in the town pharmacy. With recent zombie appearances seeming rather tokenistic, it was good to have more than two around this week.

With next week’s episode being the last before the mid-season break till February, it looks like the events of recent weeks will probably blow up in everyone’s faces, and this week has been as much about moving pieces into the right places as anything else. It’s well done, and seemed less like filler than some weeks. But I’m hoping we can get a bit more momentum back for the second half of the season; resolve the interminable search for Sophia, move the gang on from the rather static setting of Hershel’s farm, and get back to some epic zombie action. It might make the characters’ lives hellish, but it makes the viewers far more entertained.

Misfits: Series 3, Episode 4

“We’re all doing what we need to do in order to survive.”

MisfitsShaunAlisha

So after cleverly and successfully deconstructing many of the superhero tropes of comic books last week, this week Misfits writer Howard Overman turns his attentions to another classic trope of sci fi and comics – the alternate reality where the Nazis won World War 2 – with, arguably, rather less success.

This plotline’s as old as the hills. Philip K Dick went there with his excellent 1962 novel The Man in the High Castle, Stephen Fry more recently with Making History, not to mention any number of Twilight Zone stories, Doctor Who novels and comic book stories. Its very familiarity as a fantasy scenario has the advantage that it’s instantly clear to the viewer what’s going on, so not too much explanation is needed; but it also has the disadvantage that it’s been pretty much done to death. It’s the common post-1945 cultural nightmare, and it’s so ubiquitous that it’s hard to come up with anything new to say on the topic. While I love Misfits, it has to be said that this didn’t really come up with anything new either.

But then maybe Overman wasn’t trying to make his scenario especially original. The point – and the fun – of doing an alternate reality episode of an established TV show is to show familiar characters behaving in very unfamiliar ways. Hence, for example, the Doctor Who story Inferno, in which the Brigadier appears as a fascist stormtrooper, or the Mirror Universe stories of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, which re-imagine Major Kira as a leather clad bisexual dominatrix and Captain Sisko as an unscrupulous space pirate.

And yet, oddly, this episode of Misfits doesn’t really do that either. True, Simon’s a Nazi soldier in this reality, and Curtis an undercover resistance leader; but neither is particularly different in their character from what we’re used to. Simon was unwillingly conscripted, and Curtis may be a latterday Victor Laszlo but he’s still working as a barman in that ratty old bar. Kelly and Alisha are still doing whatever the Nazi equivalent of community service is, and seem no different to usual. And Rudy is still Rudy, falling in with the resistance because the Nazis want his power, but being about as much help as a chocolate tea strainer.

The only character who is – perhaps – different from usual is Shaun; a low ranking Nazi functionary who still functions as a kind of probation worker, he’s as slapdash at fascism as he is with his usual role. And yet being an authority figure in a Nazi world allows all those really nasty aspects of his character, usually only hinted at, to stand out proudly. He’s blackmailed Alisha into sleeping with him by getting her off a drink drive charge, and he’s quite willing to actually shoot people. Craig Parkinson makes this version of Shaun a natural extension of his familiar loathsomeness rather than something completely different; you get the believable impression that, given the right circumstances, ‘our’ Shaun could be like this too.

As with last week’s episode, this is necessarily a very timey-wimey plot, steeped in potential paradoxes. Taking a similar tack to Fry’s Making History, the McGuffin to set the alternate universe into being is an elderly victim of the Holocaust travelling back in time ostensibly to kill Hitler; as in that novel (and most other versions of this plot) he actually succeeds in making things worse. Not only does the Fuhrer overpower him, but he drops his mobile phone during the struggle, handing the Nazis advanced technology decades before it should exist. Result (as usual) – the Nazis win the war and Britain in 2011 is still an occupied country. Swastikas hang from the familiar community centre, black clad troops are everywhere, and we see Seth being hauled from the boot of his car and taken away in handcuffs. After a nice precredits sequence establishing this chain of events, Kelly sums up the situation with typical bluntness: “Fuckin’ Nazis.”

The Nazi-run Thamesmead housing estate is only marginally more grim than it usually looks, but the equally grim nature of the scenario means that there’s far less humour this week than usual, something that felt somewhat lacking. Kelly is thankfully her usual self, pithy insults and all, and Shaun’s usual creepiness is enhanced but still funny. Rudy, as usual, is reliable comic relief, but his scatological observations are kept to a minimum as the story tries to get perhaps too serious. Elsewhere, Curtis is unusually earnest and Simon still looks soulful and troubled, but jokes aren’t the order of the day here: Overman seems to want to keep his scenario unrelentingly grim.

Thankfully, the script doesn’t go into too much detail about the bigger picture of a Nazi-dominated world, relying instead on the familiarity of the scenario for viewers, and painting in minutiae like swastika headed paper and armoured Jeeps. The lack of exposition is probably wise, as it would be easy to pick holes in the scenario. For example, given Nazi racial policies, it’s highly unlikely that Curtis or Alisha would be around at all; this isn’t even acknowledged in the script, though Shaun does acidly explain that homosexuality is illegal when Rudy tries to pass himself off (hilariously) as Curtis’ gay lover (“I’m the butch and he’s the bitch. I’m the sausage and he’s the muffin…”). Then there’s the fact that the Nazi military vehicles are very obviously (American–made) Jeep Cherokees (you can even see the company logo on the steering wheel). And the most glaring flaw in every alternate reality episode of any TV show – with history having changed so substantially, it’s highly unlikely that the same group of characters would still be together in the same place that they are in established reality.

The intentional lack of exposition makes such holes harder to poke, but the scenario still felt a bit low-rent. The Nazis only appear to have two military vehicles, the housing estate is only altered with a few swastika banners and a (very obviously CG) statue of Hitler, and the local resistance movement comprises only Curtis, Kelly, and latterly Rudy. Even if they’re only one cell, that seems a remarkably small one – even if Rudy can conveniently up their numbers with his duplicate.

It was nonetheless a good episode for Kelly and Seth, using the all-bets-off nature of alternate reality to further explore their feelings for each other. The plot hinged on the Nazis wanting to use Seth to acquire the superpowers which they were somehow aware of; having already sold Curtis’ old time-travelling power to the elderly man who started the whole thing, Seth was obviously also the key to putting history right. In the mean time, though, a few old faces cropped up, having not died in this history. Thus, Kelly was accompanied by Josef Altin as Gary, the less than pleasant member of the group who was killed way back in the first episode, and we also saw Peter from last week’s episode brutally shot by the Nazis (killed twice in as many weeks, he’s an unlucky guy). And Catrin Stewart popped up as Lily from the second episode of last year’s series, forced into trading her freezing power to proper Nazi bad guy Captain Smith (Glenn Speers managing to make him a scary enough bad guy despite him basically being paper thin as a character).

Seeing the old faces was a nice nod to the show’s past, and demonstrates the attention it pays to its own continuity; but of course, it did make one wonder where Nathan had got to. Obviously Robert Sheehan is still ‘unavailable’ but it’s a shame he couldn’t have popped in for a cameo at least – this of all episodes would have fitted that beautifully.

Interestingly, none of the regular characters – with the exception of Rudy – had any powers in this alternate reality, allowing a potential changeover of abilities yet again. This might have been very confusing though, and Overman wisely resisted the temptation to do it. Quite apart from anything else, it would be yet another temporal paradox in a show that’s becoming riddled with them for any of the gang to have acquired a new power in a timeline that never actually happened. But equally obviously, someone would have to be given the old man’s time-travelling power to sort everything out. I’d expected this to be Simon, thus giving him the ability to time travel that he’ll need for his future self to come back and die saving Alisha; but obviously that’s being saved for another day. Instead, it was the increasingly marvellous Kelly who got the power, transmitted in a light-blazing kiss with Seth – another admission that there’s definitely something going to happen with these two in the regular reality.

Kelly’s fast becoming the best character in the show, with her pithy humour and down to earth decency – a character who by sheer likeability manages to overturn all the potential ‘chav’ stereotypes. She didn’t disappoint in this episode; first she stormed the community centre/prison with two silenced pistols, being punch-the-air badass, then she travelled back to the past and gave Hitler a good kicking to sort things out, mouthily declaiming “Why do you have to be such a dick?” If there’s any doubt as to who should be the next breakout star from the show, I’d say it’s definitely Lauren Socha. She even gets the episode’s fantastic last line; as the only one aware of the alternate timeline, when asked what she’s been up to, she responds with “fighting Nazis and kicking the shit out of Hitler. What about you?” Oh yeah!

Mind you, it seemed a little redundant that, having given her the time-travel power, Overman had her give it up again when she returned to regular reality. Going back to the ‘rocket scientist’ power felt a bit odd given how limited its usefulness has been so far (even if in keeping with Kelly’s basically decent, down to earth nature). Still, perhaps this power will yet prove to be instrumental in a later plot; in the meantime, Seth has placed the time travel power in his pet iguana “for safekeeping”. Hopefully this won’t mean that we’ll shortly have to see our gang stranded in ‘planet of the lizards’ alternate reality…

Overall then, this was a bit of an uneven episode, whose success depended on how tolerant you were of the much overused ‘Nazis win WW2 alternate reality’ plot. It might have felt less overfamiliar to me if Howard Overman had used the episode to deconstruct the cliche, as he so successfully did with superheroes last week. As it was, this felt like an uneven romp, which was enjoyable enough but missed a lot of chances to be more original. Being Misfits, though, it was still miles better than a lot of versions of this story; it’s just that, given the show’s usual stellar standards, this felt like it didn’t live up to the usual quality. There was plenty to like, but let’s hope Overman can return the loveably pithy mix of reality and fantasy to a better balance next week.

Oh, and one final thing – it only occurred to me last week (after the superhero musings) that the name ‘Overman’ is a literal English translation of the German ‘ubermensch’, which was itself later Anglicised (from Nietzsche’s work) as ‘Superman’. Is Howard Overman secretly Superman? Smile

The Walking Dead: Season 2, Episode 5

SPOILER WARNING – I’M GOING TO TRY AND REVIEW THESE EPISODES AS CLOSE AS POSSIBLE TO THE ORIGINAL U.S. TV BROADCAST. IF YOU’RE IN THE U.K., AND PLANNING TO WATCH THE BROADCAST ON FX THE FOLLOWING FRIDAY, BE AWARE THAT MAJOR PLOT POINTS WILL BE DISCUSSED!

Chupacabra

The Walking Dead (Season 2)

It was a slow burn for The Walking Dead this week, after the major character revelations of the last few weeks. Nonetheless, tensions are really starting to build, both within our original gang and between them and Hershel’s crew, and it feels like the show is ramping up the tension for the mid season break after episode 7.

With the seemingly neverending search for little Sophia forming a backdrop to explore how het up the characters are getting, it’s a little easier to forgive the fact that it seems to dragging on interminably. That was actually addressed this week in a revealing scene between Rick and Shane as they combed the woods near Hershel’s place. Starting out with blokey banter about their high school love lives, the scene gave you the impression that these really were two very close friends; but then it took a darker turn as Shane reflected that all that, the old world, was gone now, and harking back to it constantly was a nostalgia that bordered on dangerous in their current situation. Given that, Shane angrily told Rick that he wasn’t up to making the big decisions – the crucial one being that now would be the time to give up on Sophia.

I must confess, I found myself agreeing with him – both from a pragmatic perspective within the drama and also as a viewer who’d like the plot to move on a bit, thank you very much. I’ve not harped on about the alleged budget cuts for a couple of weeks, but with the setting now being largely restricted to Hershel’s farm as the search continues, it is beginning to look like both plot and setting are a cost-saving measure. Still, at least the writers are addressing it in the script, and the doubt-ridden Rick conceding that he wouldn’t give up the search if it were his son that was missing came across as believable enough.

I don’t mind my post-apocalypse drama being character-driven and thoughtful as well as spectacular – as I said previously, this was a positive strength of the BBC’s original Survivors in the 70s. But it’s worth noting that even that began to drag in its middle series, with the characters mostly settled in a farming commune and having minor disagreements about using manure as fuel. The Walking Dead hasn’t quite reached that level of static inaction – yet – but the limited setting and plot inertia is beginning to look tellingly cheap compared to season one.

Given the limitation – if it is a limitation – the writers are at least making the best of it, introducing more tension this week as Hershel begins to think Rick and his crew are basically freeloading. It doesn’t help that Glenn’s getting noticeably close to his daughter, his adoptive son’s heading off into the woods with Andrea and T-Dog, and Daryl’s nicked his horse.

Much of the focus this week was actually on Daryl, who’s fast becoming one of the best characters in the show. Apparently given the challenge of “making a racist likeable”, Norman Reedus has taken Daryl from strength to strength these last few weeks, and made us realise that a poor redneck can still be a decent guy.

The potential class turmoil of Daryl’s background was thrown into sharp relief this week with the surprise (and very welcome) reappearance of his no-good brother Merle. Memorably incarnated by Michael Rooker, Merle was one of the scene-stealing characters in season one, and many of us have been waiting to find out what happened to him after he sawed off his own hand to escape from Rick’s handcuffs then headed off into the Georgia wilderness.

But while it was nice to see Merle again, these answers weren’t forthcoming. For the Merle we saw was actually a hallucination of Daryl’s after falling down a hill and impaling himself on one of his own crossbow bolts. Rooker was as memorably monstrous as last year, but Merle’s function here was to act as an inner voice for Daryl’s fears and self-doubt; it was pretty obvious that it wasn’t the real Merle as he had a full complement of hands.

So (imaginary) Merle taunted and insulted his little brother with his fears about how Rick and co looked down on him: “One day they’ll wipe you off their shoe like a piece of shit”. And for a while it looked like Daryl was convinced. The way his hallucination faded into what was actually a zombie trying to chomp through his boot was a nice touch, and it was Merle whose goading prompted Daryl to tear the bolt from his torso the hard way and use it to despatch the next zombie along. But when he cut off their ears and put them on a bootlace to wear as a necklace, it seemed that he was well on his way to losing the decency we’ve seen and becoming just like Merle.

It was a good depiction of Daryl’s long dark night of the soul. There was a genuinely tense sequence as he staggered, bedraggled, back to the camp and Andrea, assuming he was a walker, had a damn good go at shooting him in the head. Thankfully the bullet only grazed him, and later his doubts seemed to be assuaged when Carol thanked him for risking his life to look for her daughter: “You’ve done more for her than her daddy ever did in his whole rotten life.”

Nonetheless, I wonder if this issue has entirely gone away; I don’t think we’ve seen the last of this potential class conflict. And I’d like to see Merle come back properly to bring it to the boil. If they can get Michael Rooker back to play a hallucination of himself (and I wish they hadn’t given it away with his name as a guest star in the opening credits), then it would only be logical for Merle to come back in person in the near future. Watch this space…

Elsewhere, Lori was still troubled by her confirmed pregnancy, the more so since Glenn has figured it out and hasn’t – yet – sworn himself to secrecy. But Glenn has other things on his mind, as he and Maggie continue to act like smitten high school sweethearts. The none-too-well-concealed passing of notes at the dinner table didn’t go unnoticed by anyone; and Glenn has also let slip to Dale (with smirking teenage obnoxiousness) that he and Maggie have done the deed already.

Unfortunately Glenn’s choice of venue for their next sexual assignation turned out to be rather ill-advised – and we finally got the payoff to all those heavy hints about the contents of Hershel’s barn. It turns out that, as in the comics, it’s full (well, as full as the budget will allow) of locked in zombies. “You weren’t supposed to see that,” says Maggie, looking aghast.

So, some good character development this week, but the show is starting to feel as though it’s dragging a little again. It didn’t help that there wasn’t much in the way of zombie action this episode; after only seeing one of the buggers last week, it really is starting to seem like a budgetary consideration. There was a slightly spectacular pre-credits flashback to our heroes trying to reach the refugee camps in Atlanta, only to see the city napalmed. That looked like it cost a fair bit, but seemed oddly pointless; there was no payoff anywhere in the plot of the episode, and unless it relates to something in the coming weeks, I’d rather have seen the money spent elsewhere.

Still, with the reveal about Hershel’s barn full of zombies coming on top of the stress between the two groups, it does look as though things are set up for next week having rather more excitement than this week. I’d say this part of the plot – the search for Sophia, and being mired at Hershel’s farm – may well come to a head after the mid-season break, and the plot can move on more significantly. I certainly hope so; while there’s been some good drama in the season so far, it’s worth noting that it seems far more static than season one. After all, we’re at the fifth episode now, and compared to the first season’s entire run of six episodes, it’s felt overstretched and draggy from time to time. It’s still a good show, with some good drama, but it needs to pick up the pace a little.