Misfits: Series 3, Episode 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Misfits: Series 3, Episode 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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