Your Christmas TV Highlights!

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It’s the time of year again when normally sensible TV genre shows abandon all logic in favour of doing “the Christmas episode”. While Christmas episodes sit well in comedy shows, they always seem oddly forced in shows like, say, The X Files, Supernatural or Grimm. Unfortunately it now seems de rigeur, especially for US shows – though we in the UK have the wildly fluctuating in quality annual Doctor Who special, which this year seems to have outdone itself by actually including Santa.

It’s only a matter of time before even critically acclaimed dramas will be obligated to produce a “Christmas episode” every year. What could that look like? Let’s find out…

Continue reading “Your Christmas TV Highlights!”

The 50 Doctors

Clyde: “Is there a limit? I mean, how many times can you change?”
The Doctor: “507.”
– The Sarah Jane Adventures, Death of the Doctor

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With the Twelfth Doctor nearly upon us, and an unexpected new Doctor revealed between 8 and 9, a lot of fanboys are very concerned. After all, it says in The Deadly Assassin that a Time Lord can only regenerate 12 times. Which is reiterated in Mawdryn Undead and The Five Doctors. Ah, but The Five Doctors also had President Borusa offering the Master “a whole new cycle” of regenerations. But recently, Steven Moffat seems to have confirmed that 12 is still the limit. Or perhaps not. Rule number one – Moffat lies.

Still, a Facebook conversation with young Mr Noel Storey recently prompted me to try and recall all the actors who’ve played the Doctor over the years. And it was more than 13. I actually came up with 31, off the top of my head. And then I checked the internet – and found there were quite a few more. And wouldn’t you know it, there’s actually, ooh, just about 50 of them. How convenient! So, in chronological order, without further ado, here’s… (drum roll)… THE 50 DOCTORS!

Continue reading “The 50 Doctors”

Coalition of the Daleks

Could Barry Letts, Louis Marks and Terrance Dicks predict the future?

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“It is agreed then. Join us and you can have a referendum on AV.”

Recently I was watching a rather excellent documentary on the DVD of Doctor Who story The Happiness Patrol, which examined the many, none too subtle references to contemporary politics in various Doctor Who stories. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that the planet Peladon’s divisive attempt to join the Galactic Federation is actually a comment on the UK’s entry to the Common Market. Or that the environment-trashing, brainwashing global corporation imaginatively named ‘Global Chemicals’ is one in a long line of protests against profit-driven multinationals. And somehow, until a couple of years ago, it seemed that few people had realised that the villain of The Happiness Patrol itself, the tyrannical dictator Helen A was actually a thinly veiled caricature of then current Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Yes, Doctor Who has frequently ‘commented’ (usually from a fairly liberal, inclusive perspective) on contemporary politics. But it dawned on me recently, while watching the nifty ‘new’ version of 1972 story Day of the Daleks (now with added CG explosions) that this story achieves a rather peculiar feat in managing to satirise events that, for the writers, would be far in the future. For rewatching the story for the first time in years, it swiftly became abundantly clear that the nightmare future visited by the Doctor and Jo, while it purports to be Earth in the 22nd century, is actually the United Kingdom in 2012.

Before I elucidate on this unlikely assertion, here’s a brief summary of the plot for those unfamiliar with this classic. It’s your basic Terminator-style time paradox story, in which rebels from the dystopian, Dalek-dominated future are trying to change history so that the series of wars which allowed the Daleks to invade never occur. To do this, they must assassinate the man they believe to be responsible, a British diplomat called Reginald Styles who, they believe, started the wars by blowing up a global peace conference.

With World War 3 looming (as it did most weeks in early 70s Who), security arrangements for the conference have been put in the hands of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart and UNIT. This is a rather baffling decision given what happened when they were in charge of security at a peace conference the year before; that didn’t go well, resulting in the deaths of US and Chinese delegates and the theft of a nerve gas missile. Still, somehow this has escaped parliamentary scrutiny, and their involvement means that when time-travelling ghosts from the future try to assassinate the bloke in charge, naturally the Doctor, currently in his frilly-shirted, gentleman’s club incarnation, is summoned to investigate.

The Doctor is sceptical of the guerillas’ assertion that Styles is about to blow up his own peace conference, and rightly so. After both he and Jo, by convoluted means, travel to the Dalek-occupied future Earth, he realises that it’s a bomb planted by the guerillas themselves that killed all the delegates – in typical time paradox fashion, they actually caused the whole mess by trying to stop it happening. Fortunately, the Doctor is a Time Lord, and he can sort out the mess – but not before clobbering and shooting a surprising amount of people for a character who’s supposed to be opposed to violence.

So far, so standard-Who, you may be thinking. And yet, looking at the social conditions and power structures in this nightmare future, I found myself rubbing my eyes in astonishment and wondering at the remarkable precognitive powers of writer Louis Marks, script editor Terrance Dicks and producer Barry Letts. For clearly, this little science fiction story from 1972 was intended to be a savage satire of British politics in 2012.

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Let’s start with the Daleks. They are, quite obviously, meant to represent the Conservatives. “Ah, that’s too easy,” you may say, “you’re just assigning them that role because you see the Conservatives as villains!” But no, let’s look at what they’re actually doing in this story. For a start, the populace of Earth is only valuable to them as an expendable workforce to obtain commodities. All right, they’re concerned with minerals rather then hedge fund derivatives, but hey, maybe the writer’s crystal ball wasn’t perfect…

More telling is their attitude to workers’ rights in order to achieve the production of these resources. We see underpaid (well, not paid at all – they must have got rid of the minimum wage), rag-clad workers toiling away in factories (well, concrete car parks meant to look like factories) under the relentless whips of security forces who clearly aren’t going to put up with industrial action.

Later, in a meeting with human ‘superior slave’ the Controller, their comments clearly indicate their feelings not just on workers’ rights but on healthcare. Protesting that an increase in production targets is impossible, the Controller declares “But that’s impossible! If we push the workers any further, they will die!” To which the Daleks, with the kind of remorseless logic favoured by the CBI, respond, “Only the weak will die. Inefficient workers slow down production.” And I bet they’re not allowed industrial tribunals either.

As if their philosophy on productivity at the expense of workers’ wellbeing wasn’t enough to cement them in the viewers’ minds as Cameron, Osborne and co, there’s the little matter of their security arrangements. Clearly, Skaro’s public spending in this area is too high, so Dalek security requirements have been privatised and outsourced to what’s plainly the lowest bidder – the incoherent and frankly inept Ogrons, a race of gorilla-like thugs for whom the word “complications” is too complicated to pronounce.

So OK, the Daleks here do seem to be a kind of extreme satire of the Conservative ideology generally. But what makes the story specifically about 2012, and the Tory-LibDem coalition?  That’s where it gets interesting, with the denial-prone, conscience-stricken character of the Controller, a man who bows to the Daleks yet somehow thinks he’s wringing concessions from them. It’s now quite clear that he’s meant to be Nick Clegg.

Just like Clegg, he does dare to argue with the Cons- um, Daleks, and just like Clegg he backs down when it’s clear they’re not listening to a word he’s saying. Yet he’s somehow convinced himself that he’s a moderating force, and that the Daleks’ portrayal of the rebels as “cruel and ruthless fanatics” is accurate – perhaps in an earlier draft, they were also considered to be “terrorist paedophiles”.

Still, again like Clegg, he does do some good. He convinces the Daleks not to kill the Doctor, after all, and tries to persuade the recalcitrant Time Lord that he should help the regime rather than die. But the Doctor’s quite unconvinced that any good the Controller is doing justifies his culpability in doing his masters’ bidding. After all, it looks a bit dubious that he’s quaffing wine with them while the masses toil in starvation.

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Trying to justify his role in the state of affairs, the Controller parrots the usual Conservative homilies, with a look in his eye that suggests he’s not even convincing himself (just like Clegg at a press conference). “There will always be people who need discipline, Doctor,” he states hollowly, before asserting that, “this planet has never been more efficiently, more economically run. People have never been happier or more prosperous.” For a denial of what’s actually going on outside his little bubble, that’s right up there with Danny Alexander insisting that George Osborne’s austerity policies aren’t affecting people’s quality of life.

Later, in the face of the Doctor’s contempt for him (“They tolerate you as long as you’re useful to them.”), the Controller gets defensive. By the time he blurts, “We have helped make things better for the others. We have gained concessions!”, I was half expecting him to follow it up by telling the Doctor that he’d raised the income tax threshold as if that somehow made up for all that nuclear armageddon.

So that’s the Tories and the Lib Dems represented. But where in this incisive political satire are the Labour Party? The obvious candidates to represent them are the guerillas, yet at first glance, that seems a bit unconvincing. OK, butch female strike leader Anat could conceivably be an analogue for deputy leader Harriet Harman, but who’s meant to be the charisma-free school prefect that is Ed Miliband? Surely not the guerillas’ leader, the thrillingly virile Man With the Porn Star Moustache?

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And yet, if you look closer, the guerillas do share one defining factor with the Labour Party – as an Opposition, they’re completely crap. Not only do they expend a great deal of effort to try and kill the wrong man, most tellingly of all, they’re actually responsible for the whole nightmare situation themselves. Next time Miliband/Man With the Porn Star Moustache lays into the injustice of the ‘oppressors’, he might want to concede the role he played in putting them there – at least in Labour’s case, with a series of unjustified wars similar to the ones that began after the destruction of Styles’ press conference.

The only loose end that leaves is the Doctor himself – where does he stand in all this? The Doctor’s personal political leanings have always seemed a bit fluid, albeit generally biased towards acceptance, tolerance and fairness. Troughton, Tom Baker and McCoy have more than a hint of the anarchist about them, while Hartnell and particularly Pertwee (who hangs out in posh clubs with the likes of Lord ‘Tubby’ Rowlands) seem very much to be Establishment figures.

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There’s a lovely scene in an old Paul Cornell novel in which both the ever-conservative Brigadier and a young anarchist both firmly assert that the Doctor represents their own values. The implication is clear – there can be good in any political leaning, and the Doctor embodies that.

It follows that, in Day of the Daleks, he saves the day precisely because he’s actually apolitical. He’s able to rise above the petty tribal bickering of the factions in Earth’s devastated future and consequently he’s the only one who can see how to untangle the whole convoluted mess. We could do with some thinking like that in the UK right now, rather than the knee jerk tribalism that causes every party to attack the policies of every other simply because they are Other instead of rationally analysing how worthwhile the proposals are.

So, it’s clear from all this that not only were Marks, Dicks and Letts remarkably prescient, they were also masters of political satire with a very clear message to send in this story. Who would ever have thought that what seems like a simple, clunky BBC sci fi show from the early 70s would actually be such a biting, angry satire about the future of the United Kingdom? Unless of course I’m reading slightly too much into it…

Temporary Fault

Well, I’ve been off in Los Angeles for the last week at the Gallifrey One Doctor Who convention (about which more soon). On returning, I’ve got a little bit ill – the inevitable consequence of being in a restricted space with 3000 people from all over the planet and their delightful airborne pathogens.

As a result, I’m almost a week behind on reviewing Being Human and The Walking Dead, but never fear, these will follow in the next couple of days. Normal service will soon be resumed. In the mean time, here is some music.

The Spoiler Statute of Limitations

N.B. – Despite the subject matter of this piece, I’ve worked hard to ensure that it actually contains no spoilers!

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Spoilers! Don’t you just hate ‘em! Steven Moffat certainly does, as he repeatedly gets River Song to tell us in Doctor Who. It’s undoubtedly annoying, when you’re following a TV show, to be made prematurely aware of some vast, game-changing plot point that the creators had intended to come as a gobsmacking surprise. But recent developments in how we watch things have given rise to a new problem, and a new question – just how long should we wait before openly discussing (on the internet or in the pub or wherever) some major plot twist?

This came to my attention recently, when a frustrated Facebook friend in the US complained of his friends in the UK discussing openly on the site a major plot twist in that night’s Doctor Who. Now, given the fact that BBC America broadcasts the show in the US pretty quickly after the UK (not to mention the, ahem, naughty downloads), I did see his point in complaining that it wouldn’t be too much of a burden for his UK friends to refrain from discussing the plot for a little while at least.

But I can also understand that some people still think that, once a TV show has actually been broadcast, it should be fine to start talking about it. It’s an understandable assumption, particularly for those who grew up watching TV when it was a communal, even national thing; when you could be reasonably certain that your friends would have watched the same show at the same time as you. Back in 1980, for example, nobody worried about spoilering the eagerly anticipated question of ‘Who Shot JR?’ in Dallas. International communication was rare and expensive, and most people in each country who cared were watching the show at the same time.

However, ever since the advent of the video recorder, that’s not been guaranteed. And the problem has intensified; in these days of international chat on the internet, via forums and social networking sites, you have to take real care that you don’t, however unintentionally, reveal something that should have come as a surprise. But how long should you wait? What, in a nutshell, is the statute of limitations for spoilers?

The trouble is, there’s no hard and fast answer to that one. For filmmakers, it’s not a new problem at all, as films have never had the same simultaneous viewings for whole nations. Way back in 1960, Alfred Hitchcock popped up on the trailer for Psycho to plead “Don’t give away the ending, it’s the only one we have.” Fair enough, but is there really anyone left in 2012 who doesn’t know how that ends? And if there is, is it unfair of them to expect those who want to discuss it to keep silent, 52 years after the fact? It’s actually a very common problem with films – they get older and older, but there’ll always be somebody for whom they’re new. Will that person’s viewing experience be tainted by a spoiler that’s become cultural common knowledge?

There are plenty of well-known examples. The first time I saw Psycho, I already knew the ending; I still thought it was a pretty fine movie, but I wonder how much more I might have enjoyed it had the twist come as a surprise? And yet, it seems churlish of me to demand that the entirety of society should refrain from discussing a very old plot twist on the off chance that I might not have seen the film yet.

But what about more recent films? How soon is too soon? The original Planet of the Apes, for example, has often been released on video and DVD with a cover picture that actually gives away the twist ending before you’ve opened the box – again on the assumption that it is, by now, common knowledge. OK, that movie was made in 1968. How about 1980, a ‘mere’ 32 years ago? Can there be anyone left who doesn’t know the twist in The Empire Strikes Back? Apparently so, if this clip of a four year old reacting to the previously unknown revelation is for real. I saw that one not long after it was released, but that particular spoiler was already common knowledge. Would I have been as gobsmacked as that kid if it had been news to me, too?

A bit more recently, is there anyone left who doesn’t know the twist endings to M Night Shyamalan’s early movies? I was about a year late seeing 1996’s The Sixth Sense; by then, the ending had entered common culture so thoroughly that I’d found it out in, of all places, an article in Boyz magazine. I still enjoyed the movie, but again, how much better might I have enjoyed it had the end come as a surprise? Similarly, I’ve never actually watched his 2004 film The Village; though that’s less because I’ve found out the twist and more because I’d seriously started to go off his work after the nonsensical Signs. I did manage to catch David Fincher’s Fight Club (1999) before its ending became common knowledge, and that was certainly effective – but again, 13 years later, I’m willing to bet that that’s become cultural common currency.

But now, an old problem for films is very much a current problem for TV shows. Some websites have hidden text sections for spoilers, others, like Facebook and Twitter, rely on the (apparently infrequent) discretion of their users to avoid releasing spoilers into the public domain. It comes back to, how long should you wait? One friend has a self-imposed limit of a week – seems reasonably fair. Some would say not – after all, how many of us now catch up with TV shows on DVD box sets long after the original broadcast?

Reasonably, if you’re desperate to avoid spoilers, it looks like your only pragmatic choice is to stay away from the internet. Completely. Because if something’s popular enough, any major plot developments end up being referenced anywhere and everywhere. I recall rushing through the final Harry Potter book for precisely this reason, and avoiding Facebook et al for fear of finding out the ending before I reached it. It’s not ideal, I know, but unfortunately it’s a more sensible solution than expecting everyone else in the world to be sensitive to your viewing (or reading) habits.

Of course, some people take a perverse, trolling delight in spoilering. One old friend of mine had an irritating habit of flicking to the last page of whatever book I was reading in order to tell me that (character X) made it to the end. Others use it as a status-building ego reinforcement – “look how important I am, I know something you don’t, and I can prove it!” Unfortunately, if you’re a true spoiler-phobe, complaining is like a red rag to a bull for this kind of person; you’re actually better off not encouraging them. Just try to close your ears, or step away from the internet.

So can there ever be a ‘statute of limitations’ for spoilers? I’d have to conclude not, pragmatically. If you find them annoying, then your only recourse in the real world is to do as much as you can to avoid them, because, sadly, they’re not going to go away. On the flipside, if you have a friend who shares your interests, it might be courteous to refrain from discussing plot points unless you know your friend knows them too. But for how long is between you, your community, and ultimately, your conscience. Everyone has different standards, and in the end, if you want to avoid spoilers for as long as you deem fit, the final responsibility has to be your own. We could wish for a more polite, considerate world where that’s not the case, but somehow I don’t see it happening soon…

Language, Jeremy!

Clarkson

So, in a week which has seen the most blatant budget attack on the poor yet devised by the Conservatives, followed by the largest strike in a generation, while the UK was severing all diplomatic ties with Iran, what is it that’s got everyone exercised the most? It’s that man Clarkson again, who has this time offended the nation with comments on The One Show, in which he said of the strikers, "I’d have them all shot. I would take them outside and execute them in front of their families."

A storm of protest inevitably followed, presumably giving Jeremy masses of free publicity for the upcoming DVD he was on the show to plug. Apparently the BBC received 4700 complaints, despite The One Show apologising almost immediately, and calls were made for Clarkson to apologise personally. The Twittersphere was ablaze with (non-ironic) calls for Clarkson’s head, public sector union Unison are contemplating complaining to the police (!) and even Clarkson’s mate Call Me Dave Cameron was keen to distance himself in an interview on ITV, commenting "It was obviously a silly thing to say and I am sure he didn’t mean that." If only he could apply that to himself and his policies…

Ironically, the parties were united for once in their attempts to curry public favour by riding the wave of fury against Clarkson. Ed Miliband called on him to apologise, describing the comments as “absolutely disgraceful and disgusting" , while Pensions Minister Steve Webb, one of those busy provoking the strikers himself, said that "he should apologise and we should get on with your lives”. I can only hope that’s a BBC News typo, but it seems horribly plausible that the current government want to get on with our lives.

For myself, I’m a supporter of the strikers, an avowed liberal, and generally hate right wing politics. And you know what? I wasn’t offended. I actually thought (guiltily) that it was a little bit funny. Although not half as funny as the po-faced overreaction to it.

The thing to remember about Clarkson is that, on TV, he’s projecting a persona; virtually a caricature of himself. He’s got plenty of form at this kind of thing. Who could forget his unsubtle insinuation that all lorry drivers habitually murder prostitutes; or his description of Gordon Brown (for which he did apologise, halfheartedly) as a”one-eyed Scottish idiot”? Not to mention the recent near-diplomatic incident with Mexico after Mexicans were described on Top Gear as lazy and had a cuisine that “looked like vomit”. To be fair, the Mexican tirade was actually started by Richard Hammond, and then exacerbated by James May before Clarkson even chipped in, but Clarkson’s the show’s figurehead, so he’s ‘the one to blame’.

It’s dumb, sniggering schoolboy humour of a very low common denominator. But it is delivered with a sense of irony; even official Clarkson-hating organ The Guardian was forced to concede that the comments “appeared to be at least partly in jest”. Well, of course they were. It’s true that Clarkson is generally quite right wing, and as a friend of Call Me Dave from the same Chipping Norton set, I doubt I’d ever have much in common with him politically should we ever actually meet (except perhaps on certain aspects of transport policy). But I don’t believe that he’s right wing enough to earnestly believe that the strikers should be shot, whatever his TV persona might say.

There’s plenty of evidence on display that much of it is playing up to his image, not least on Top Gear. Clarkson’s often accused of homophobia, the evidence cited being his constant use of the word “gay” in a derogatory manner, and his frequent descriptions of his co-presenters as being “a bit gay” (because of James May’s hair and shirts, and Richard Hammond’s strangely obsessive personal grooming).

And yet he’s frequently interviewed personalities who famously are gay, such as Will Young and Stephen Fry, and appeared to have a genuine rapport with them. So he obviously doesn’t have a problem with gay people. As for the use of the word “gay” to mean “rubbish”, that’s a wider societal problem which I may write about one day; remember, Russell T Davies, crafter of the “gay agenda” himself, was castigated for using the word in this sense in a 2005 episode of Doctor Who.

The thing about the sniggering schoolboy humour on Top Gear is that it actually depends on knowing it’s going to offend (some) people – witness the gang’s smirks the week after the Mexican incident every time the script made some knowing sideways allusion to Mexico. Offense, to a greater or lesser degree, is exactly the reaction Clarkson seems to hope for, so well done to all those who’ve given him his wish.

The subject of “how far is too far” in comedy has come up with alarming frequency of late. Frankie Boyle has been on the receiving end of it many times, most notably for his jokes about Katie Price’s disabled child, and recently Ricky Gervais was taken to task for his use of the word “mong”. Boyle tends to give the offendees short shrift, which is probably the right thing to do; Gervais, on the other hand, completely mishandled the fallout by getting ridiculously defensive, and ended up having to apologise anyway.

While I don’t have the same fondness for Gervais as I do for Clarkson (I find him insufferably smug and arrogant, something I know a lot of people do with Clarkson), I do wish he’d dealt with it better. Yes, he did cause some people offence. But it’s worth reading this stout defence of “offensive comedy” from American standup Doug Stanhope. He makes the very valid point that the range of things people might get offended by is huge, and that to remove all potential causes of offence from a standup’s act, you’d be left with mime. Which, come to think of it, might still offend somebody.

This viewpoint tends to get particularly humourless liberals arguing that, by that token, I should be perfectly happy to see the return of comedians like Bernard Manning or Jim Davidson, with their acts consisting of (entirely non-ironic) racism and misogyny. And do you know what? I wouldn’t have a problem with that. Because, quite simply, they stopped doing what they did because people didn’t find it funny any more (mostly). Remember, nobody banned Manning or Davidson; they fell out of favour with the vast majority of punters because of their style, and simply weren’t selling tickets any more.

In a way, the culture that Top Gear promotes (largely driven by Clarkson) is in itself a rather archaic thing. It’s the post-PC, “ironically offensive” style popularised in the 90s by lads mags like Loaded, itself a reaction to what was perceived as an excess of “political correctness” in the 80s. And even that wasn’t quite as po-faced and humourless as the reactions to Clarkson’s latest outburst; check out Ben Elton’s mickey-taking of his popular PC image in 1994’s Harry Enfield and Chums.

You may or not believe Clarkson is being ironic. You may have a very low tolerance for dumb schoolboy humour. As it happens, I enjoy it. But if you’re worried about finding the man offensive, the answer is simple – don’t watch him. As we were all fond of reminding Mary Whitehouse whenever she took umbrage at a racy TV show such as Doctor Who, your TV set has an ‘off’ button. All of us liberals got pretty exercised when she demanded to control the viewing of adults based on her own personal code of morality, so why are so many of us acting like her opposite number?

I actually hope Clarkson doesn’t have to apologise, and that Unison do make a complaint to the police, which will almost certainly provoke more laughter than Clarkson ever could. In the mean time, I’m sorry some people don’t enjoy his brand of humour. But it shouldn’t mean that you go spoiling it for those of us who do.

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

MegaSharkCrocosaurus

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…