The Walking Dead: Season 3, Episode 1–Seed

“Weapons, food, medicine – this place could be a goldmine.”

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Warning – contains spoilers!

After a rather windy, badly paced second season, AMC’s zombie hit The Walking Dead was finally back on our screens last night. The often dull second season, aptly summed up on Facebook as “people argue… and sometimes zombies show up”, was a frustrating mixture of the brilliant and the utterly mundane, with, generally speaking, comparatively few sightings of the zombies that are the show’s raison d’etre.

It also settled into a tedious routine, with all the characters stuck on Hershel Greene’s implausibly utopian farm and settling into tropes of established behaviour. As sure is eggs is eggs, Rick and Shane would argue about the interminable search for little Sophia, T-Dog would struggle to get even one line, Lori would moan about stupidly trivial issues and Carl would wander off unsupervised into mortal danger.

Still, amid the soap opera, there were some good emotional beats and musings on the post-apocalypse scenario the gang found themselves in. And there were some good zombie set pieces; the freeway attack in episode 1, the barn full of walkers at the mid-season break, and finally, a memorably apocalyptic finale which saw a herd of them finally overrun and destroy (thank goodness) the farm that we’d got sick of the sight of by then.

Season 3 gives the show something of a fresh start in all sorts of ways. The alpha male territorial pissing between Rick and Shane is finally resolved what with Shane being dead and all, they’re off the farm at last, Rick has firmly taken charge to stave off the ceaseless arguing, and, refreshingly, the gang has split up into two parties, giving the possibility of separate narratives and settings that was absent last season.

As if to reflect the fresh start, the opening titles have been given a revamp for the first time since the start. They’re still in much the same style, but the sepia-toned rotting buildings are new ones, and obviously, the cast credits have changed to reflect the fact that we’re now free of Shane’s belligerent head-butting and Dale’s endless moralising. And the final building we see is plainly going to be the setting for this season. More downbeat and grim than Hershel’s farm, it’s the prison that’s so well-remembered from a fair chunk of the comic.

I’d have preferred it if they’d got there sooner, by dealing with the farm plotline halfway through last season then moving on. But the last season had budgetary problems, among others; a requirement to make more than twice the episodes of the first season with about half the money. Hopefully, given that it was still a success, AMC has thrown a bit more money at this even longer, 16 episode season.

It certainly seemed like it from this well-paced season opener, which certainly didn’t stint on the zombies but also left room for us to catch up on what the characters have been up to. Clearly, some time has passed; in the wordless precredit sequence as the gang raided a walker-infested house for supplies, it was noticeable that Carl’s hair is now longer and straggly, while Hershel has grown a beard. Everyone else’s hair looked the same as ever, though, making me wonder when on their lengthy flight from the walkers the guys found time to stop and have a shave and a haircut.

Turned out they’d been running all winter from the herd that engulfed the farm, with other herds closing in from all sides. Fortunately for Rick and the gang, a quick scout down the road revealed what was presumably the prison we’d seen in the distance at the end of the season finale. Given that they’d had all winter, you’d think they might have stumbled on it before, but I’ll let that pass.

The prison was heavily stocked with zombies, but had the advantage of several layers of boundary fences, enabling our gang to get in and clear the place out in the manner that was cursorily swept over in the original Dawn of the Dead. Here, we got to see it all, which meant liberal doses of zombie action for most of the first half of the episode as our heroes hacked, slashed and shot at rotting heads all over the screen. Just when they thought they could deal with the dead prisoners easily, out shuffled some riot gear-clad guard like the next level up in a first person shooter, which led to some inventive grue.

The fact that this is, among other things, a gory horror story was not forgotten about, and some of the effects were convincingly gruesome, a mixture of CG and practical work from the legendary Greg Nicotero. Probably the best was the unfortunate rotting guard whose face came off together with his gas mask as Rick pulled at it:

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Once inside, there was a bit of time to pause and reflect before the next round of searching the darkened, bleak setting. Lori, predictably, immediately took to moaning about how her husband and son can’t stand her any more (not to mention the audience), but her worries about the pregnancy were inventive and well-founded. What if the baby was stillborn? Would it try and eat her from inside? (That might be interesting to watch) Or if she died in childbirth, would she eat the baby? Hershel reassured her that in any of those scenarios, she and/or the baby would be promptly dispatched. Actually, if she doesn’t stop moaning, that might end up happening regardless of zombification.

Looks like Hershel may not be around too long though, as, during the claustrophobic search of the next block, he foolishly ignored a corpse that the camera kept suspiciously lingering on, which duly got up and bit him. Hustling him into the prison cafeteria, Rick lost no time in hacking his leg off to stop the infection spreading, another wince-makingly gruesome sequence. Whether it’ll work is anyone’s guess, as the show’s still making up its own rules about its zombies.Still, it was good to see another well-remembered incident from the comic book brought to life, even though it happened to a different character there.

Speaking of the comics, fans will doubtless be cheered by the arrival of well-liked character Michonne (though she’s yet to be identified by name onscreen). Memorably introduced as a silhouetted figure accompanied by two chained, jawless, armless zombies in the final minutes of the last season, she’d rescued Andrea from the chaos of the farm’s destruction and apparently they’ve been hanging out together all winter.

Danai Gurira is suitably grim-faced and badass in the role, first appearing here to hack off the heads of some inconvenient walkers as she foraged for aspirin. The katana is her chosen weapon, as in the comics, and she uses her neutered zombies as pack mules, an inventive touch. Unfortunately Andrea was a bit under the weather with some nasty cold-like symptoms, so we didn’t get to see much of a dynamic between their tow characters as yet, but hopefully that’s to come.

So, a promising start which looks like the showrunners may have digested many of the criticisms of the show’s uneven second season, and perhaps AMC have been a bit less stingy with the budget. The cliffhanger, which reveals that our heroes aren’t the only survivors in the prison, is straight out of the comic books, and promises more of a plot than just another year of everyone hanging around in one place and bitching. Meanwhile, Andrea and Michonne being already separated from the main party is a deviation from the comic, but a damn good idea, giving more narrative scope from the off.

Let’s hope the rest of the season maintains the quality here; but I won’t take it for granted, as the second season opener was pretty good too. I noticed that with all the action, T-Dog still barely got a line; though character beats were fairly frugal so far. And at least Carl now seems able to take care of himself with a gun, so hopefully there’ll be less worrying when he inevitably wanders off. The throw forward to upcoming events looks promising too, with the much-anticipated arrival of Britain’s own David Morrissey as the nasty Governor of Woodbury – though perhaps once again, fans of the comic will find their expectations of him cleverly subverted. Either way, this season opener has so far done much to dispel the fans’ anxieties after last year.

The Dwarf and the new season

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When I started this blog, I used to do catch-all round ups of TV shows I’d watched recently; but over the last couple of years, it’s tended more towards episode by episode reviews of specific shows. But it occurred to me that, however good it is, there’s not usually enough in each episode of the new Red Dwarf to warrant my usual lengthy musings, and maybe I should use it as an anchor for a periodic return to my older format. So here goes….

This week’s Dwarf, while perhaps not as much fun as the first, was still a successful effort in the show’s ongoing attempt to recapture what made it so loved in the first place. In this, it’s largely succeeded; the cast may look older, but otherwise it feels eerily like a stasis leak back to the early 90s. I’m loving that the new sets have the same chamringly low-budget feel as the original – where once you could identify Ford Granada dashboard panels built into the walls of Starbug, now you can see the backs of old CRT televisions sprayed red protruding from the Dwarf’s inner hull.

This week’s plot concerned Rimmer and Kryten installing a new ship’s computer to replace the much-missed Holly, only to find that it was efficient to the point of (logical) murderousness. Meanwhile, the script dealt amusingly with some recursive concepts that only a sci fi sitcom could do. As established in series 7 episode Ouroboros, Lister is actually his own father, and the episode amusingly showed how this mind-bending paradox might be stretched to accommodate a ‘normal’ father/son relationship.

In keeping with Lister’s personality, this involved him getting drunk and leaving his ‘son’ (ie himself) video messages that he wouldn’t remember from the previous night’s intoxication. Craig Charles’ interactions with his drunken self on the screen were not only funny, but actually felt like they had something to say about the relationship between fathers and sons.

The other recursive subplot (tied neatly into the main plot, as was Lister’s) was Kryten’s attempt to establish, via asking around of the food dispensing machines, whether the term “Chinese whispers” was as racist as Rimmer claimed. Of course, this descended into a game of Chinese whispers itself; as the question was passed around, it became so distorted that eventually the machines, having started with “is Chinese whispers racist?” were asking each other “do Chinese knickers have braces?” All of which was funny, but slightly undermined by Kerry Shale’s astonishingly stereotypical voice acting for ‘Taiwanese Tony’, which sounded like the crudest Asian parody I’d ever heard – and that really is racist.

All of this served to distract attention from the fact that the central plot’s main idea was essentially identical to series 2 episode Queeg, in which Holly’s incompetence triggered his replacement by the Dwarf’s tyrannical backup computer (actually faked by Holly himself). The glamorous jobsworth computer Pree was eventually defeated by a logic trap laid by, surprisingly, Lister – a classic sci fi convention played straight, which seemed to lack the usual clever inversion in Doug Naylor’s scripts.

It was plenty enjoyable still, though it threw Holly’s absence into sharp relief. Yes, his/her role as chief of exposition was largely rendered redundant when Kryten became a regular, and Norman Lovett’s return in series 8 was mostly to deliver a few hit and miss gags that had little point. But Holly did coexist with Kryten for series 3,4 and 5, and the character is missed, by me at least. I’m assuming that neither Lovett nor Hattie Hayridge wanted to return, which is a shame – it’s the one glaring difference from the show’s glory years.

Over the pond, the new US TV season has now started in earnest, bringing back some old favourites and the usual slew of promising newbies whose survival beyond mid-season is perilous in the cutthroat world of the networks.

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First back was last year’s critically acclaimed popular hit Homeland. Based on an Israeli show, it was basically a (slightly) more thoughtful version of 24, with which it shares a showrunner in Howard Gordon, in which troubled CIA agent Carrie Matheson (Claire Danes) must determine whether returned POW Sgt Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) has actually been turned in captivity to work for Al Qaeda.

A tense but slightly anticlimactic ending showed that indeed he had, but turned back from his attempted suicide bombing of the Vice President by dint of his own conscience, pledging to advance the interests of the Middle East via political means rather than terrorism. Carrie, driven to ECT treatment by her undeclared bipolar disorder, was meanwhile turfed out of the CIA but remembered a crucial bit of evidence just as she went under the electrodes…

As its inspiration, Hatufim, was a one season show, the problem for Homeland’s return was managing to credibly retain its two main characters despite the divergence in their fates. In this, it was only partially successful. Brody, now a Congressman, is on the up politically while Carrie convalesces in the quiet ambience of her dad’s home. But Brody is called back into the service of Abu Nasir with a visit from Palestinian journalist Roya Hammad, and after a bit of conscience-wrestling, is off to CIA chief David Estes’ office to nick a list of potential terror targets.

Carrie is called back into action by Estes (“this is not you getting your job back”), as one of her former informants in Beirut has info about the forthcoming attack, but Carrie is the only one she’ll talk to. Carrie is henceforth sent to Lebanon despite her Ripley-esque qualms, and it’s all back on.

I have to admit, this does strain credulity a fair bit. Carrie is plainly still very unstable; would the CIA, incompetent though it often is, entrust her with a mission of that importance, with that much jeopardy, after it had (justifiably) thrown her to the wolves? It’s presented as a last resort scenario, but still felt like we were straying into the realms of 24-style improbability just to retain a major character.

Brody (whose wife still calls him only by his surname) had a more believable path with his meteoric rise to political success. But another major plot point was his daughter accidentally outing him as a converted Muslim. Again, it strains credulity that, in the current climate, that wouldn’t be all over the papers within minutes.

Still, perhaps it will be in forthcoming episodes. The season premiere felt a little clunky in its need to catch us up on the main characters’ doings, and credibly get them back into action. But I’ve seen the second episode (on UK TV tonight), and with that out of the way, it’s back to unbearably tense set pieces and thrilling action. If you can get past that initial credibility hurdle, I’m pretty sure you’ll start enjoying this as much as the first season.

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New to the current crop of US drama is an interesting post-apocalyptic sci fi effort called Revolution. Its central premise is that, fifteen years previously,an unexplained event caused every electrical device on the planet to stop working, with predictable chaos. The drama centres on the dominant militia, the only ones allowed firearms, and the struggle against their totalitarian rule while a mysterious USB stick might just hold the key to getting the power back on.

It’s an interesting premise, played out with Lost-style flashbacks each episode to the immediate aftermath of The Event which explain how the characters came to be in their current situation. Central to the story are the Matheson family, whose father Ben seems to know a lot about The Event; but he’s killed by militia thugs in the opening episode, condemned to appear henceforth only in flashback. With the thugs having kidnapped his son Danny for reasons as yet unknown, his daughter Charlie enlists the help of her long missing uncle Miles in getting her brother back. But Miles has secrets of his own, and they’re to do with the fact that his old US Marine buddy Sebastian is running the militia.

The post-apocalyptic scenario is well-done, with crumbling cityscapes and rusting (current) cars in evidence throughout. Similar shows often eschew such vistas with the (realistic) premise that, after an apocalyptic event, survivors would probably be better off outside of disease-ridden, corpse-strewn, ruined cities. This is not only credible, but keeps the budget nicely low, as you just have to mostly shoot in empty countryside (see the original Survivors for a good example).

But rotting cityscapes still look damned impressive, and Revolution doesn’t skimp on them, however implausible their inclusion may be. It also has well-drawn characters and a lot of thought put into its particular apocalypse (though so far nobody’s mentioned the problem that the human body also runs on electricity).

With post-apocalypse survivalist drama very much in vogue (see also TNT’s post-alien invasion Falling Skies and AMC’s zombie apocalypse The Walking Dead), NBC has thankfully promised that the enjoyable Revolution will run for at least one full season, rather than being cancelled halfway through. As with all shows since Babylon 5, it clearly has an intended long-running story from showrunner Eric Kripke, so let’s hope that it gets to tell it.

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Of course the flipside to that is that sometimes shows have a long-running story, reach its conclusion, but the network still want more. A case in point is the show that made Kripke’s name, Supernatural, now back for its eighth season despite the fact that it ran out of story after its fifth.

Supernatural is a sort of blue collar version of The X Files, in which tormented but photogenic brothers Sam and Dean Winchester traverse the US sorting out (ie killing) various monsters derived from classic myth, urban legend, and increasingly, Judeo-Christian lore. Over the first five seasons, this spiralled into a highly enjoyable sub-Milton epic of angels and demons fighting to provoke or avert the apocalypse, which reached a suitably dramatic climax at the end of season 5.

But then it went on. With Kripke having long since departed as showrunner, it’s been patchy since then, with some excellent episodes counterpointed by mediocre or outright rubbish ones, and suffering from the lack of an ongoing story to match the original one. In its place, we’ve had former good guy and renegade angel Castiel trying to set himself up as the new God, and inadvertently releasing Lovecraftian prehistoric beasties the Leviathans onto the world, while Sam struggled with having accidentally left his soul in the pit of Hell.

And now they’re back again, but it’s very much business as usual; we’ve been here before. Dean is back from Purgatory, much to Sam’s lack of surprise; these guys have been killed and resurrected so frequently now that it would be more of a surprise if they stayed dead. At stake is the fate of a ‘Word of God’ tablet showing how to permanently defeat all demons (again). Two episodes in, and the brothers are already enmeshed in a struggle to get it before king of Hell Crowley (the ever-excellent Mark Sheppard) gets his demonic paws on it.

It’s enjoyable enough, and has some tantalising hanging questions; what did happen to Castiel, what’s Sam been up to for the past year, how exactly did Dean get out of Purgatory and why did he bring a vampire with him? But it feels like old ground, as if the show’s now running on autopilot. Perhaps it’s finally time to let the Winchester brothers retire gracefully, or more likely go out  in a blaze of angsty glory.

Dallas (the next generation): Season 1, Episode 6

“Life always seems more complicated than you imagine it to be – especially in this family.” – John Ross Ewing

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Previously, on Dallas: Last week, everything came out in the wash, as all the double dealing so far was exposed.

  • JR revealed himself to be the new owner of Southfork
  • Rebecca came clean to Christopher that her brother had split up his earlier engagement, earning them both a one way ticket off the ranch
  • John Ross found out that his father had cut him out of the Southfork deed
  • ‘Marta’ revealed herself to be even more nuts than we thought she was as she seethed with jealousy over John Ross’ dalliances with Elena
  • Saintly Ann revealed her dark past as she went crawling back to her slimy ex, the owner of Dallas’ only trucking firm, for a favour – to stop the trucks carrying out JR’s oil
  • And Christopher discovered Marta’s ‘sex tape’ of her and John Ross, in which John Ross called her by her real name, and threatened to go to the cops unless John Ross proved his father’s involvement in the fraudulent sale of Southfork.

So, with Ewing battle lines drawn, the conflict was back out in the open for another week of twisty turny plotting, which soon laid the groundwork for yet more hidden wheels within wheels. Various parties competed for the favours of Ann’s ex Harris Ryland and his bounteous gift of oil trucks, marking him out as a major player in this second half of the series. Mitch Pileggi, formerly that nice Walter Skinner off The X Files, plays Ryland as a really nasty, creepy piece of work, so it’s good to see that he’s got a major role in the upcoming treachery.

Bobby, who bears the heavy burden of being the show’s only ethical character, predictably was not too happy when he discovered what his wife and son had been up to. Working out in a split second why the trucks belonging to his wife’s ex had ceased to turn up, he took Ann aside to spout homilies at her. Warning that Ryland was unlikely to offer favours for nothing, he counselled, “I just hope this doesn’t come back and bite us in the ass.” Ryland is so creepy, and Ann so repulsed by him, I wouldn’t put it past him to do just that – literally.

In fact, when Ann received an unexpected bunch of flowers from him accompanied by a mysterious small box, I half expected it to contain a human finger – or something equally unsavoury. But the seemingly innocuous little necklace inside was enough to cause Ann to crumple into floods of tears. Clearly it has some significance in her Dark Past. Still, it annoyed Bobby enough for him to hotfoot it over to Ryland’s office and give him an unannounced slap, which I have to say he took well. Probably enjoys that sort of thing.

Sue Ellen too was courting the unwholesome trucking magnate, on behalf of her desperate son, who needs that oil moving. Proving she’s got what it takes to make it in US politics, she offered Ryland a job in her cabinet should she win as Texas Governor. Ryland demurred; after being clouted by Bobby, he was going to send the trucks back in anyway. But he made sure to give Sue Ellen a big donation, now that he knows what her political honour is worth: “people like me, we need to make sure that people like you get into office.” The formerly honourable Sue Ellen looked dismayed – well, as dismayed as you can when your face is that immobile.

Christopher’s approach to screwing over JR and John Ross met with no more approval from Bobby than Ann’s did. ”A lifetime of dealing with JR has put me on both sides of blackmail,” Bobby averred, accurately. “It never pays off in the end. An eye for an eye just makes both people blind.” Fortunately for Christopher, the chance to hear more from the show’s ethical Yoda was averted by another possibility, as his conscience-stricken wife turned up bearing a gift filched from her shifty brother – an old document showing that the mineral rights to Southfork are not included with the land rights.

So JR and John Ross can’t drill for oil even if they own the place. One snag – Bobby and Christopher needed the original version of the document, which was harder to find than Arthur Dent’s compulsory purchase order in Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. They had to rummage through Bobby’s grandfather’s old storage unit, wherein they discovered a desk, which contained a shoe, which contained a key to a safety deposit box at the National Bank of Texas, which hadn’t been opened “since before Mr Southworth’s death”. This took most of the episode, and failed to address how, if the document was so hard to find, Tommy happened to have a copy of it in the first place.

Still, they’ve got it now, much to John Ross’ frustration. John Ross did not have a good week. Dumped “in the briar patch” by JR to sink or swim (as it were), he found himself menaced by mad Marta, who took to impaling photos of Elena, and terrorised by Vicente from Venezuela, annoyed at not receiving his oil. Stalking around dressed in black with his menacing sneer and scary Latino accent, Carlos Bernard was clearly having a whale of a time delivering lines like, “in my country, when the sons fail to make good on the commitments of the father, there is a price to be paid.” Comprende, muchacho?

Said father, that Machiavelli of the petroleum industry JR Ewing, was comfortably ensconced with a trio of young manicurists in a Las Vegas penthouse, from where he was trying to get into a high stakes poker game run by Cliff Barnes, for some reason. He thinks Cliff’s up to something. Well, of course he is, this is Dallas. Everyone’s up to something.

Family matters

A bit of history to cover the mysterious document seen herein – Southfork was originally built by the Southworth family, of whom Miss Ellie, JR and Bobby’s mother, was the sole heir. When she married oil magnate Jock Ewing, the ranch passed into another name for the first time since the 19th century; JR and Bobby, despite both bearing the Ewing name, represent the opposing interests of each family. One’s mad keen on oil and wealth, the other likes integrity and sticking his arm up cattle.

Who’s double crossing who this week?

Well, with the ammunition being freely offered from all sides, it looks like Harris Ryland’s gearing up to double cross absolutely everybody. I’d like to see him try and take on JR though.

JR has tasked his henchman, the curiously named Bum, with investigating Cliff Barnes’ henchman, the scarily bald Frank Ashkani. Bum is also trying to find ‘Marta’ for John Ross, while concealing that he knows perfectly well where JR is and how to get in touch with him. As a piece of treachery this seems fairly pointless, but I’m sure JR has his reasons.

This week’s big cliffhanger:

While trying to regain her place in Christopher’s affections (this is not going to happen quickly), Rebecca discovered that she felt a bit funny and had a nosebleed. Being a soap opera, there can only be one of two reasons for this – she’s terminally ill, or she’s pregnant. Since we’ve already had a terminal illness plotline this season, it proved to be the latter of the two options, as she confessed to nasty old Tommy while trying unsuccessfully to shove him out of the door and her life. This cliffhanger is so effective it’s one of the very oldest soap opera can offer – the final two words of the episode being, “I’m pregnant.” You almost expected to hear the EastEnders theme thundering in. Or Neighbours. Or Corrie. Etc, etc…

After last week’s barnstorming apocalypse of revelations, this was another great slice of treachery and betrayal, as the forces of Light, represented by Bobby and Christopher, commenced their battle against the forces of Dark – JR and John Ross. Expect to see the Eye of Sauron over Southfork very soon…

No representation, no rights–the plight of the invisible working class

The attack on the rights of Britain’s workers continues apace…George-Osborne-laughing

As the Conservative Party Conference rumbles on in Birmingham, I was surprised to hear a note of what felt almost like socialism from Chancellor and professional “posh boy” George Osborne in his speech on Monday. New businesses, he said, should hand out shares to all their workers, giving them a stake in the company’s success and motivating them to work harder. I could hardly believe my ears. A senior Tory – the one most responsible for the ever-widening gap between rich and poor in this country – espousing the idea that the fabled “wealth creators” should share some of their largesse with their underlings, by forming, in effect, co-operatives?

Ah, but there’s a snag, which came up next. In order for the workers to take advantage of this munificent offer, they would have to sign away some, perhaps all, of their employment rights. That sounds more like the Osborne I’ve come to know and loathe. The Osborne that wants to, in effect, bribe the British worker, already one of the least protected workers in Europe, to give away some of the few paltry rights he/she has left.

Meanwhile, a recent brainstorm by some new Tory high fliers has produced a particularly nasty little pamphlet called Britannia Unchained, in which they proclaim that British workers are the laziest in the world. And all the time, unemployment figures are kept low with fixed term contracts and part time positions which now seem the default instead of a full-time, permanent position. Never mind that these workers have to claim state benefits in order to live. They’re not “unemployed”, which makes the figures look better. They’re the new working class – the “working poor”.

Remember when we actually had a “working class”? It used to be almost a badge of pride for some; the idea that you were getting an honest wage for an honest day’s graft, and you were thrifty enough with your meagre income to eke out a modest but unpretentious standard of living. Ah, it were grand in them days…

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Somewhere down the line, that disappeared. Perhaps it was during the blindly aspirational 1980s, when we were told that we all had social mobility; perhaps it was when John Prescott declared that “we are all middle class now”. Somehow, the label “working class” took on a mantle of shame, as though if you hadn’t reached “middle class” status, you just weren’t trying. So everyone started calling themselves middle class, regardless of how redundant that made the term. The rot probably set in when we started using terms like “lower middle class” and “upper middle class” in place of the middle/working class division. But however you want to label yourself, the vast swathes of the population toiling away for meagre payments means that the working class is still very much with us.

George Monbiot recently wrote an article recalling the July speech by Barack Obama, in which the US President proclaimed of businesses “you didn’t build that (by yourselves)”, the first part of which was ruthlessly appropriated out of context by the Republicans for their own agenda. Obama was referring to the fact that private enterprise always depends, to some extent, on spending by the state, financed out of taxes – roads, education, infrastructure and so on, while Monbiot focused on how many of these “self-made millionaires” had inherited the means to their success.

But they both ignored another vital aspect of “you didn’t build that by yourselves” – the workers who staff those businesses. The wealthy business owners like to twist the English language to portray themselves as benefactors by calling themselves “job creators”, a term predicated on the idea that their businesses give people jobs. And so they do. But it’s a two-way street. Yes, without those “entrepreneurs”, the businesses wouldn’t exist to “create the jobs”. But without the jobs then being done, by workers, the businesses themselves would crash and burn.

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There’s been a lot of demonising of the very rich by the left, and the rich have taken exception to being described as “parasites” (even though it doesn’t seem to bother them when applied to the benefit-claiming poor). But the increasing agenda of hacking away at workers’ pay, rights and conditions makes the label all too appropriate. In a fair capitalist system, the relationship between a business owner and his/her workers should be a symbiotic one; the business owner provides jobs for the workers, the workers do the jobs that need to be done, for a fair wage, to keep the business running. Both have a stake in the business’ success, and both are motivated to ensure it. That way everybody wins.

But the agenda of the parties on the right, both here and in the US, is that progressively fewer rights and benefits should be conferred on those workers, while progressively more should flow the way of the already better off business owner. The Tories in the UK and the Republicans in the US clamour for lower taxes and less regulation for the rich, while hacking away at the pay, conditions and few remaining rights of their workers.

In the UK, the lobbyists for the rich urge us to get rid of the already paltry minimum wage, which despite its recent increase from £6.08 per hour to a princely £6.19 is still falling in real terms and was never enough to live on. The shortfall is then made up by the UK taxpayer in the form of tax credits, which effectively subsidise the profits of big businesses by allowing them to get away with paying wages that aren’t enough to live on.

The Tories’ pet businessman Adrian Beecroft and state-dismantling fanatic Mark Littlewood, of “thinktank” the Institute of Economic Affairs, hector us constantly that even that level of minimum wage is too restrictive for businesses to succeed, and it should be done away with. Together with the right to redundancy pay, or to appeal unfair dismissal (the qualifying term of which has already been doubled). There are already moves to legislate that industrial tribunals to consider unfair dismissal should be paid for by the plaintiff regardless of their success, which coupled with the massive slashing of entitlement to legal aid will ensure that this means of redress becomes less and less of a viable option for those sacked because they’re the wrong race, the wrong gender, the wrong sexuality, or simply because the boss doesn’t like their face.

Meanwhile, when the workers threaten to protest against legislation whittling away their pay and rights by threatening to withdraw their services, they’re portrayed as being selfish and uncaring by the political establishment (even Ed Miliband, who can’t tell us that strikes are wrong often enough). But if the rich threaten to withdraw their services, by moving abroad to a more desirable tax regime, politicians can’t kowtow to them quickly enough. A protesting worker gets demonised by the Daily Mail; a protesting business owner gets the tax laws changed in his/her favour. We live in a democracy (allegedly). Which of these groups could rightly be said to constitute a majority?

When we’ve reached a state of affairs when the business owner’s appreciation of his workers’ contribution to that business is non existent, and the business owner wants to take more for less from the workers, that relationship is by definition no longer symbiotic. In a situation where one party takes from another while giving nothing back, you call it what it is – parasitism.

Now, to be sure, the working class of today bears little resemblance to that of yesteryear. The wholesale destruction of Britain’s industrial base began by the 1979 Tory government, and carried on with such gusto by the ideologues of New Labour, left the country’s workers (those it had left) employed primarily in service industries. As much as possible was outsourced overseas to where maximum profit could be gained by exploiting workers used to far less.

But not everything could be shipped overseas. Today’s working class is the vast army of people who serve you in shops, who serve you in restaurants, who answer the phones in the few call centres still left in the UK. And they have nobody to represent them at all. The Tories, of course, never did, despite the Alf Garnett-alikes who always voted for them. The Lib Dems, protest though they will, are so keen to be centrist they represent very few. And the leader of the Labour Party, started by the Trade Unions precisely to give the worker a voice in governing the country of whose population they were the majority, now bleats about the need to appeal to “the squeezed middle”, following in the Middle-England chasing footsteps of his supposedly discredited predecessor Tony Blair.

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There was a time when workers had representation, of course. Arguably too much of it. The collective bargaining power of the Trade Unions, hitched to the political clout of the Labour Party, was responsible for attaining many of the workers’ rights we have today, the ones being sliced away at by the Coalition. Thanks to Trade Unions, we no longer have children working sixteen hour days in factories, and workers have the ability to challenge perceived unfair dismissal.

But like so many given a dose of power, the unions grew arrogant. The heady scent of power rose to their heads so that, by the 70s, their fits of pique over the most trivial of issues would regularly bring production to a standstill, while madly unreasonable demands for pay increases crippled Britain to such an extent that the tremulous Heath government, embattled by power cuts and three day weeks, was effectively toppled as a result.

It was inevitable that there’d be a reckoning with their old enemies when the Conservatives got back into power in 1979. So it proved, with the Thatcher government introducing legislation that crippled them while peddling a media narrative that they were all nest-feathering “loony lefties” on the take. Militant union leaders blindly played right into their hands, with the bitter conflict of the mid-80s NUM strike effectively destroying their reputation for good.

So like a seesaw, the balance of power had swung from bosses to workers back to bosses again. And it continued to stay over on the bosses’ side with a “New Labour” party that sought to emulate its adversaries’ agenda. Tony Blair’s modification of the party’s defiantly socialist Clause IV allowed him to start peddling off the state’s assets with the same fervour that Thatcher and Major once did; under New Labour, we got the first public/private partnerships in the NHS, and the first academy schools.

Today, trade unions have so little sway in the private sector that only one in seven employees is a member. The public sector remains the only area in which unions are strong, which explains the Tories’ rabid desire to promote a private/public conflict. Demonise the “tax-sucking, gold-plated salaries” in the public sector, and you’ll have the private sector crying out that its working pay and conditions should be brought down to their level.

This is the political equivalent of shooting yourself in the foot. Let that happen, and bosses will be free to suggest that pay and conditions should be degraded yet further, with no one left to have a higher standard to compare with. Private sector workers shouldn’t be angrily demanding that their public sector equivalents get worse off; they should be angrily asking why they themselves aren’t better off.

Sadly, the current crop of unions are still doing themselves no favours wheeling out 70s-style caricatures like Bob Crow as their figureheads, and demanding full-on socialism. I may have some left wing views, but I think total socialism has, to all intents and purposes, been proved unworkable. The thing is, so has total free-market capitalism.

What’s needed to redress that balance is a compromise between the two. And what’s needed to achieve that compromise is a voice for that now-voiceless mass, the working class. If Labour won’t do it, and the unions can’t do it, maybe it’s time for some new kind of organisation that will, before the few persuade the many to give up their last pennies in exchange for cheap trinkets.

Red Dwarf: Series 10, Episode 1–Trojan

“While you sleep, we’re probably saving the universe.” – Space Corps slogan

“While you sleep, we’re probably shaving off your pubes and gluing them to your head.” – Dave Lister

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Ten years ago, I would never have expected to see new series of Battlestar Galactica, Doctor Who and Dallas. Yet they all came back, and were actually rather good. Now, after 2009’s misfire ‘special’ Back to Earth, Red Dwarf too is back for its first proper series since 1999. And like the others, it’s also actually rather good.

If you’re my age, you probably have a nostalgia for the early to mid-90s, when Red Dwarf really hit its peak originally. Series 1 and 2, both in 1988, were pretty good, but it was with series 3, 4 and 5 that it really got the formula right – a perfect synthesis of high concept sci fi and traditional sitcom. When series co-creator Rob Grant left, leaving Doug Naylor to go it alone, it went a bit too far down the ‘sci fi’ route at the expense of the comedy, with ambitious, over complicated multi-part stories.

The nadir of that trend was perfectly encapsulated in the 2009 comeback Back to Earth, which was little more than a self-referential, self-indulgent rerun of classic series 5 episode Back to Reality. Back to Earth was three times as long and about a tenth as good; there were a few good gags and character moments, but it really had little to offer beyond a redundant restaging of Blade Runner and some post modern fourth wall breaking. It didn’t help that there were no actual sets (all CG), and no studio audience for the cast to bounce off.

So for this new series, it’s gone back to basics. Single episode stories, told in half an hour, with no complex continuity and a decent balance of comedy and sci fi. Let’s be honest, the comedy in Red Dwarf was never what you’d call cutting edge or groundbreaking – stick those characters in a 1950s army base and you’d basically have Sgt Bilko. But traditional though it was, the comedy worked because it had well-crafted characters, some good gags and perfectly timed performances from a cast who had genuine chemistry.

And now they’re back. Noticeably older, yet still very much the same people. Lister is still a “semi-literate space bum” who’s smarter than he lets on, Rimmer is still “a sad weasel of a man”, Kryten is still a neurotic mess, and the Cat is still shallow, superficial and comically dumb. There’s a comforting familiarity about this that Back to Earth never seemed to quite capture. True, Kryten now has a beer gut (impressive for a mechanoid), and Lister is noticeably pudgier, but it’s the old guys behaving in the old ways.

Still not groundbreaking stuff, but genuinely funny – if you’re looking for groundbreaking, look somewhere else. Half the fun of the comedy is in its sheer inevitability; you just know Rimmer’s well-crafted air of sanguinity (“hey ho, pip and dandy”) won’t last as soon as he sees he’s failed his astro-nav exam again. The fun is in seeing how long it takes for him to crumble and how Chris Barrie’s face will contort when he does. Sure enough, it hit with perfect timing, and Barrie’s face was an utter picture.

Elsewhere, running gags involving the high incidence of moose-related car accidents in 70s Sweden or the agony of being endlessly on hold with an inane shopping channel were delivered with exquisite timing both on the part of the cast and the director (Doug Naylor back at the helm again). Having a studio audience has really helped here. It was notable that the old series 7, the only one until Back to Earth without an audience, never sparked properly in humour terms either.

The plot, such as it was, was fitted in between various sketch-like comic exchanges, just as it ever was. It involved the crew salvaging another space derelict that turned out to be a super duper Space Corps ship just like the ones Rimmer’s loathsomely successful brothers commanded. Then lo and behold, who should turn up but Rimmer’s brother Howard, also a hologram, leaving Arnie J no option but to pretend to be Captain of the Space Corps ship.

As a result, we got some of the digs at the style of Star Trek pomposity Red Dwarf has always delighted in puncturing. The crew wear “snug, elasticated jumpsuits”, the control board has a “green glowing thing”, the captain’s chair has “a whole 40 buttons”, and turning right is signified by everyone aboard leaning in the same direction.

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But as ever, the humour was counterpointed with the real pathos that comes from having genuinely likeable characters. As Rimmer discovered that his brother wasn’t a Space Corps captain after all, but a lowly vending machine repairman just like him, it threw his character into sharp relief. He may be a “cancerous polyp on the anus of humanity”, but you understand why and even (reluctantly) care about him.

There were plenty of callouts to the past to please the fanboys; references to Petersen (originally played by Mark Williams) and Kochanski (thankfully not here) were present and correct. Howard Goodall’s title music was unchanged, and his incidental score even included a repeat of the Rimmer Munchkin Song melody in Arnold’s last scene with his brother.

 

This episode felt like a throwback to 1993, when the show as at its best. Fanboys might be annoyed at the lack of resolution to previous plot points; how did the Dwarf escape the corrosive virus at the end of series 8, what happened to the rest of the resurrected crew, why is Rimmer now dead and a hologram again, whatever happened to Kochanski? But Red Dwarf, much like Doctor Who, has never been afraid to junk established continuity for the sake of a good (and funny) story. I don’t care that the boys from the Dwarf are older, or that they’re doing the same things they always did. It’s just good to have them back, and back on form.

Dallas (the next generation): Season 1, Episode 5

“I’m gonna make this right. And I’m taking you down – brother.” – Bobby Ewing

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Previously, on Dallas: Last week, the double dealing reached fever pitch as final moves were made in the game to get Southfork.

  • The deal to sell the ranch to the ‘Del Sol Conservancy’ went through, and Bobby had a farewell barbecue
  • Bobby’s treacherous lawyer Lobell was prevented from blowing the deal with a nifty bit of blackmail, as ‘Marta’ entrapped his beloved son into some druggy looking photos
  • JR succeeded in shafting his own son, by using Marta and Lobell to remove John Ross’ name from the newly minted Southfork deeds, leaving him as sole owner
  • John Ross spent his week blackmailing Rebecca with his knowledge that the fateful email which averted Christopher’s marriage to Elena came from her IP address
  • Calling his bluff, Rebecca took Christopher aside at the barbecue to tell him everything…

This week opened with a splurge of revelations that pretty much blew open every double-dealing plotline in the show so far. Rebecca did indeed reveal that the email had been sent from her computer, and that it had been sent by her shifty, stubbly brother Tommy, who’s now wormed his way into the Ewings’ affections, as the opening move in a scheme to set her up as Christopher’s wife, gaining… something. Chris and Bobby think it’s money, but we know it’s actually the frozen methane plans (whatever they might be).

Afflicted with a conscience that must be a severe hindrance to her chosen occupation as con artist, Rebecca thinks that confessing all to Christopher because she loves him will get her off the hook. Fat chance – Christopher may be nice, but he’s still a hot-blooded Ewing man. Pausing only to slug Tommy in the face in front of the whole party, he got on with packing Rebecca’s things and telling her to “make sure I never see you again”.

A bit of a blow, to be sure, but a mere trifle compared with the next scene’s revelation to Bobby (handily delivered by the US mail in a sealed envelope) that the new owner of Southfork is none other than JR Ewing, and not some nice Conservancy after all. Bobby hit the roof (as much as a nice guy can), and Patrick Duffy got an electric confrontation scene with a smirking Larry Hagman. Inventing some guff that he had to buy Southfork to keep it out of Cliff Barnes’ hands, he told Bobby, “I’m taking back what should have been mine in the first place”.

Understandably not convinced, Bobby vowed to undo the deed. With everything now in the open, battle lines have again been drawn between the feuding Ewing brothers, just as they always were in the original series.

Lobell, knowing his plotline’s over at this point, had the good grace to clear out his office and bugger off, so Bobby found a more trustworthy-looking lawyer to explain (at some length) the rules of the plot to come. It seems that JR’s ownership is legitimate even if the original sale was fraudulent, as the subsequent sale to him wasn’t – unless he knew about the initial fraud himself. All clear?

So Bobby and the ‘nice’ Ewings must now find a way to prove that JR was in on it from the start. Shouldn’t be too difficult; I predict it taking another five episodes or so. Christopher and Ann have made a start by promising to undertake the kind of dodgy dealing that Bobby would never stoop to. She was straight off to see her ex, conveniently the owner of the trucking firm JR’s employed to move the oil, and ask him to stop the trucks; while Christopher went straight to the breaking and entering of John Ross’ office.

John Ross, meanwhile, also found out that he’d been done over by his own father, and wasn’t very happy about it. Not only had he had his name removed from the Southfork deeds, his father has also screwed up his sex life by telling the increasingly loopy ‘Marta’ about his dalliances with Elena. Cue Marta looking psychotically annoyed as the camera jump cut to ever closer shots of her deranged stare.

But it looks like JR’s doing it for John Ross’ own good, like a sort of malign Obi Wan Kenobi. “You wanted to learn about the oil business,” he sneered at his son while watching the Dallas Cowboys. He then announced that, his plans accomplished, he was heading off to… somewhere. And leaving John Ross in charge, to get that oil drilled. Before he went though, there was a symbolic passing of the Stetson from father to son – or old baddie to new baddie. But JR’s still the best thing about this show, so wherever he’s gone, let’s hope he’s back soon.

Family matters

Nothing new on the Ewing front, but we discovered that Bobby’s saintly wife Ann may have a bit of a dark past. She hinted as much to Rebecca, this being the reason why she’s prepared to give Miss ConArtist 2012 another chance. I’m guessing Ann’s dark past has something to do with her slimy ex-husband Harris Ryland, who owns what seems to be the only trucking firm in Dallas. She seemed creepily willing to accede to his every demand in a 50 Shades of Grey-like submissive style, so who knows what they used to get up to behind closed doors?

Who’s double crossing who this week?

Actually, at this point, pretty much nobody. Everyone’s cards are on the table now, and they all know where they stand. That can’t last though, or it wouldn’t be Dallas. Expect a new round of double-dealing to commence next week.

Hey look, it’s that guy from that thing:

A few guest stars this week might have rung bells. Bobby’s earnest, exposition-spewing new lawyer is played by Glenn Morshower, a prolific player of solid, dependable authority figures. You might remember him from such TV shows as every season of 24, where he played Secret Service Agent Aaron Pierce, one of the only characters in that show who never betrayed anyone to anyone else:

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Ann’s unspeakably creepy ex-husband Harris Ryland is played by well-known follically challenged genre stalwart Mitch Pileggi. Pileggi’s played quite a few baddies in the past, but for most of us he’ll forever be stern-but-fair FBI boss Walter Skinner from The X Files:

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And not strictly an actor (as his performance here amply demonstrated), but a well-known sports figure popped up to hobnob with JR – Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones:

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This week’s big cliffhanger:

Only one this week, a change from recent episodes. Having obtained Marta’s sex tape from John Ross’ office, in which John Ross calls her by her real name, Christopher now has proof that JR’s son at least was in on the fraud. But that’s not enough to take Southfork back from JR – they have to prove that the slimy old reprobate knew about it himself. So Christopher confronted John Ross with the evidence (which must have been sort of creepy, knowing your cousin’s been watching you have sex with a psycho), and gave him an ultimatum – either testify to his father’s involvement in the fraud, or go to jail for it himself. Where I’m guessing he’d be quite popular, with his pretty face and hot body…

After last week’s fairly sedate episode, it was good to see the show back on rip-roaring form in a packed episode as all the secrets came out and finally everyone can be as nasty as they want to be. Now that Bobby, Christopher and Ann are on the defensive, it looks like the battle for Southfork will be truly joined as of next week. But I’m guessing JR has more than a few cards up his sleeve still…