Misfits: Series 3, Episode 3

“You wear a costume and you jump off buildings. And you save people from muggers. Trust me, that makes you a superhero.”

MisfitsSuperhoodie

A doomier than usual episode of Misfits this week, as the focus shifts to Simon and his ‘destiny’ as Superhoodie, the most obviously comic-book-like of the gang. There was much musing on the subject of the temporal paradox we already know to be at the heart of his story, and while done in typical Misfits style, this was very much a thoughtful musing on fate and how much control we have over it.

All this was facilitated by the introduction of Peter, a shy, introverted, comic nerd whose personality is so wound tight he always wears his shirt buttoned right to the top. In other words, Peter was basically a carbon copy of Simon as he used to be, before the discovery of his powers and his future liberated him. As Peter, Michael Marcus put in a clever performance as the extent of his inadequacy and hero worship gradually gave way to what seemed like full on psychosis – like a dark mirror of how Simon could have ended up if things had gone a different way.

And things going a different way was at the heart of the story this week. The nature of the plot is that we know Simon, as Superhoodie, will come back from the future to save Alisha, being killed in the process. Alisha is obviously none too keen on this, for various reasons. She cites how good Simon is in bed (“Just pretend I’m not here,” mutters Curtis), and the fact that she’s never been the one on the receiving end of a dumping. But the truth is simply that she’s totally, believably in love with Simon, and knows that if he’s to follow the path time has laid out for him and travel back to save her while dying, they can’t have long left together.

Antonia Thomas was great as Alisha this week, showing how she’s matured while still retaining that sassy cockiness that defines her. Obviously very worried about what Simon’s getting up to as Superhoodie, she’s none too pleased to see his hand bandaged up, but when he tells her that yes, it does hurt, her response is a simple, “good”. This is not a girl that’s going to be walked over by fate. And true to form in such plots, both her and Peter want Simon to try and change his destiny.

Alisha falls prey to one of the common misunderstandings of a time paradox, as she tells Simon that he doesn’t need to go back in time – she’s alive now, so therefore she can’t die in the past. But therein, of course, is the paradox. Simon has to follow the future laid out for him or the present will be changed and Alisha will be dead.

Peter, rather more pragmatically, addresses the concern that nerds like me have had since this plot came on the scene – namely, since Simon knows he’ll be shot saving Alisha, why doesn’t he wear a bulletproof vest when he goes to the scene? And Simon’s answer was, thankfully, not some sub-Doctor Who technobabble about the Blinovitch Limitation Effect or the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. In keeping with his more mature, thoughtful personality these days, he explains that his future self dying is the catalyst not only for him to become that person, but also for Alisha to fall in love with him. And that’s not something he wants to give up, even if he can only have it for a short time before he has to die.

But there was also the fact that Simon – a comic nerd himself, remember – is clearly enjoying being Superhoodie, and the events of this episode served to bring him back down to earth somewhat. After saving Peter from an attempted mugging in full-on Batman/Kickass style, Simon’s plainly high on the idea of being a superhero. Ironically, it’s Peter’s slavish worship of him as one that serves notice as to how treacherous the idea can be.

Of course, this being Misfits, Peter had a power of his own – and it was very much in keeping with the themes of the episode that it was to draw comics and have the events in them turn into reality. So having discovered the true identity of his saviour in the toilets at the community centre (which Rudy, typically, assumed was Simon coming to terms with himself as “a beautiful, proud gay man”), Peter set about manipulating his hero into becoming his best friend, then disposing of his current friends when they got in the way.

This led to some clever musings on the tropes of classic superhero comics, not least the often ridiculously portentous dialogue. Manipulated into splitting up with Alisha, Simon announced, “I’m terminating our relationship… being a superhero is a great burden.” Alisha responded the way most of us would when confronted with such dialogue in the real world: “What the fuck are you talking about?”  There was also Peter’s declaration that superheroes can’t have girlfriends because their relationships never end well – true enough for anyone familiar with the relationships of, among others, Superman and Spiderman.

Simon was, however, acting very much out of character – something the rest of the gang were quick to notice, even Rudy (though he continued to assume that Simon was just coming to terms with his homosexuality, and offered Alisha a charming “rebound fuck”). It didn’t take Sherlock Holmes to work out that Simon’s newfound devotion to Peter must be down to Peter himself, and this was confirmed when they discovered his drawings of what had happened. As they were torn up, Simon snapped back to his usual self, the lights in his Batcave-like lair flickering on and off while the Hans Zimmer-like theme for Superhoodie played in the background.

Tearing up the drawings was an obvious save, but it did occur to me that burning them might have produced a more unfortunate effect. In Vault of Horror when Tom Baker discovers he can kill people by painting them and then destroying or disfiguring the paintings, he makes the baffling choice to do a self-portrait, which nearly kills him when locked into an airtight safe, then actually does when he spills paint thinner on it (he gets run over by a truck, making his face look as messy as it does in the ruined painting). I wondered whether burning Peter’s drawings would, similarly, burn Simon – though he doesn’t get torn in half from tearing them up. Still, that’s the sort of nitpicking that a nerd like Peter (or me) would do. And it’s not the end of the nitpicking either; the fight that Peter pre-choreographed with his drawings, where Superhoodie wiped the floor with his unwitting friends, must have depended on the idea that Peter knew they were all going to corner him in advance. Maybe there’s some timey-wimey stuff going on with him too?

It’s another classic trope of comics to have a bad guy who’s basically how the hero could have turned out if things had been slightly different – Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke hinges on the Joker drawing that similarity between himself and Batman. Here, as Peter descended into what seemed full on madness, he kidnapped Alisha while actually dressed as Superhoodie. And when he died after Simon had stabbed him with his own butcher knife, Alisha even commented, “it’s like watching you die for a second time”.

But the story had one last twist to play. It seemed out of character for Simon to have actually killed Peter – yes, he did kill the social worker back in series one, but that was an accident that horrified him. But as the camera panned over some still intact drawings, it became clear that Peter had still been manipulating events up to the end, to both embody and teach his perceived idea that “a superhero has to be prepared to die for what he believes in”. Insanity or destiny? Hard to know, but it was a nice way to end the episode as the camera panned down to the last panel of the comic to reveal: “To be continued…”

While the plot generally hinged on Simon, Alisha and Peter, the rest of the gang were still not as sidelined as they were in last week’s Curtis-centric episode. Rudy got to be typically coarse and offensive – although I assumed that many of these were lines previously written for Nathan before Robert Sheehan chose to leave, as I could easily imagine him delivering them. Though I must note that his failed attempt to disable Peter’s burglar alarm featured him saying first, “I took a BTEC in computer science”, then after making the noise even worse, admitted “But I didn’t say I passed!” For the origin of that little gag, look no further then the introduction of Jo Grant in 1971 Doctor Who story Terror of the Autons!

Rudy also got to demonstrate his own power for the first time since episode one, leading to an amusing confrontation with probation worker Shaun when he discovered the two Rudys in the changing room. Shaun too was as drily funny as usual; assuming the two Rudys to be twin brothers, either of which might turn up for community service each day, he resignedly commented, “I’m going to forget what I’ve seen here. Because I really don’t give a fuck.”

Curtis didn’t get much to do this week beyond making the occasional wisecrack from the sidelines, but fair’s fair, he got pretty much the entirety of last week’s episode to himself. Kelly, though, was rather busier; besides once more exercising her ‘rocket scientist’ power to disable the burglar alarm, she also carried on flirting with ‘mysterious power guy’ Seth. He’s not as mysterious as he was, though. After Kelly flat out told him that she fancied him, we learned his backstory – he was a drug dealer who’d accidentally caused his girlfriend to OD, hence visiting her grave in the cemetery. And he can’t get it on with Kelly because he’s still in love with his dead girlfriend.

This caused me to speculate that perhaps the special power he’s so urgently looking for is the ability to bring the dead back to life; if so, he should be careful, as anyone who’s read The Monkey’s Paw will know, for resurrection seldom goes to plan. But Seth’s involvement is obviously crucial to this year’s storyline, and I also wonder whether it could give an out to Simon. Here’s my theory – Simon’s obviously going to have to acquire the power to actually travel in time, and Seth’s the only one who can deal powers out, so he’ll have to get it from him. But in the process, perhaps Simon might also, somehow, acquire Rudy’s power – meaning that it’s actually a duplicate Simon who dies saving Alisha, and the actual Simon can go off and live happily ever after with her.

Of course, I’m probably way off beam here, as I think Howard Overman’s plot solutions are rarely that obvious, but we’ll wait and see. Temporal paradox plotlines are very tricky things for a writer to get to grips with (unless you’re Steven Moffat perhaps), but Overman does seem to have an overarching plan for the show; that became obvious when Superhoodie was introduced at the end of series one. I think it’ll come together in the end, but in the mean time, this was a clever episode that combined comic fanboy enthusiasm with a bit of serious moral philosophy. Pretty impressive, and worth a look for those who still say that Misfits is just Skins meets Heroes. And next week’s trailer, with its plethora of Nazi uniforms around the community centre, seems to show yet another time paradox and comic book trope – I’m looking forward to that!

Misfits: Series 3, Episode 2

“You’ve no idea what it’s like, being a girl.”

Misfits Yr 3 Ep 2

After last week’s introduction episode for the new member of the gang, Misfits this week took on a rather less conventional plot as it explored the ramifications of Curtis’ new power – turning into a girl. Curtis had realised that this was a way around his ban from athletics, but as he began to spend more and more time as his female version, Melissa, he got a number of object lessons in sexual politics and the differences between the genders.

Plots involving identity confusion based on swapping gender are hardly new. There’s the ancient Greek myth of Teiresias, any number of Shakespeare plays (but especially Twelfth Night), Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, all the way up to modern comedies like Tootsie and teen fodder like It’s a Boy Girl Thing. Some of these involve mistaken identity stemming from the characters dressing up as the other gender, some from them actually transforming into the other gender. This Misfits episode fitted into the latter category, one I always think is more satisfying because it not only allows the character to experience that gender’s treatment, but how it feels physically to actually be that gender.

This is heavy artistic company to be in with (well, maybe not It’s a Boy Girl Thing), and it’s always a worry that with a theme so often explored, there might be nothing new to say about it. But writer Howard Overman manages to make it work all over again in the Misfits universe; typically, this involves some pretty scatological and sexual observations about gender, which may have been done before but have a great impact when dealt with by characters we’ve come to know and like.

Central to making it work was the casting of Curtis’ female alter ego, and Kehinde Fadipe does a great job as Melissa. She manages to physically portray the kind of awkwardness you’d expect from a male learning to work a female body – witness her slightly drunken-looking, tottering attempt to walk in heels. But this didn’t compromise a genuine femininity and beauty, which was crucial to the plot. After all, if she hadn’t been beautiful, we couldn’t have been plunged into the subsequent Twelfth Night-like plot of multiple confusion as various people fell for both him and her. Curtis and Melissa, that is.

It’s certainly complicated to sum up, as a confused Simon discovered when he became Curtis’ initial confidante on the situation. So, Curtis likes fellow runner Emma, but she thinks he’s shit in bed; Emma actually likes Melissa, who is actually Curtis, but thinks Curtis is sleeping with Melissa at the same time as she (Emma) is, while Kelly sees Simon zipping up Melissa’s dress and immediately leaps to the conclusion that her best friend’s boyfriend is sleeping around with Melissa, who is actually their mate Curtis, while Rudy and Shaun desperately try to cop off with Melissa, unaware that the object of their fantasy is actually a man. Got all that?

Summed up like that, it does come across a bit like a Whitehall farce (so does Twelfth Night, come to think of it), but this episode managed to use its convoluted plot to explore gender differences in ways that were thought-provoking, dramatically affecting, and often just dirtily funny. So as a woman, Curtis got to experience first hand what it’s like to have salivating, unattractive men lusting after you and groping your arse (take a bow, Shaun), and being patronised by sexual predators who are only after your body. But conversely, he (she? Pronoun confusion!) got to experience the delights of female sexuality without actually having to have sex with a man, when fellow runner Emma gave him/her some amazing head. This led to an amusing conversation with Simon about the delights of the multiple orgasm, which was plainly an eye-opener for Curtis, who previously had been rather taken with its male equivalent and now found it somewhat lacking.

Indeed, Curtis’ sexuality (and its shortcomings) was very much a topic of this episode. Previously, our heroes have never had the dual identity common to comic book super heroes, which so often leads to confusion and hurt as Lois Lane describes to Clark Kent quite how much sexier Superman is. But now, Curtis has a genuine secret identity as Melissa, and as a result, Melissa got to hear some things about Curtis which were less than flattering. Having bumped into him in his role as local barman, Emma had ended up in bed with him as a “sympathy shag”, purely to hut him up after an endless stream of self-pity, then discovered  it was one of the less satisfying sexual experiences of her life. Certainly the flashback to this showed Curtis very much as the sort of lover whose sensitivity in bed tends more toward his own satisfaction than his partner’s. This caused Emma to have what she thought was a bit of a giggle to Melissa about the experience, while Melissa for her part looked suitably discomfited.

Much of the episode was about Curtis’ realisation of his shortcomings, both emotionally and physically, and Nathan Stewart Jarrett did a fine job of taking it rather more seriously than some other Misfits episodes. Alisha was forthright enough to confirm all his worst fears about his own negativity and sexual selfishness (with the most amusing female mime of male masturbation I’ve ever seen), despite this obviously not being what he wanted to hear (“This is why I never talk to men about this sort of thing. If they don’t want to know, they shouldn’t ask”). This obviously got him thinking, and by the end of the episode he’d certainly changed; not only did he manage to turn down Emma’s attempt to throw herself at him, he even made a conscious effort to lighten up about his prospects.

This was a well-done exploration of gender differences (being Misfits, with a strong emphasis on sexuality), and I felt it covered almost very potential aspect bar one – it might have been nice to have seen Curtis overwhelmed enough by his new identity to actually have sex with a man. The sex scenes with Emma were very well handled, but in some ways it felt like the script was missing a trick by having female Curtis still only fancy women. Still, there was enough subversion of standard sexual mores on display here to make this a pretty bold piece of work even without that. And it was nice that, after displaying Curtis’ selfishness as a lover, the script let us know that not all men are like that with Alisha’s description of why Simon is so good in bed.

With all this going on, there almost wasn’t time for an antagonist; certainly not the standard Misfits trope of someone else with a power who’s misusing it. So what we got instead was arguably creepier in its real world plausibility – Emma’s sexual predator of a coach, Mark, who likes to get his women by slipping them Rohypnol and raping them in the back of his car. That Mark was, on the surface, a charming and good-looking young bloke only made this more disturbing, and credit to actor Jay Taylor for managing to make him slyly creepy from the outset.

Inevitably, Mark tried it on with Melissa; equally inevitably, Melissa turned back into Curtis, who justifiably gave Mark a good punch in the nose before running off still clad in a sequinned nightdress. It was a good scene, with the transformation signalled by Mark noticing that his quarry now had a penis protruding from ‘her’ dress. The only question in my mind was (like Joe Thomas’ exposed testicle in The Inbetweeners) was this really Nathan Stewart Jarrett, or was it a ‘stunt penis’? Certainly unusual even for E4, it was only there for a split second, so could have been either; but if it was real, that’s kind of brave of Nathan!

Good sport too, then, to Jay Taylor, as Mark’s much-deserved comeuppance involved him being tied naked to the fence at the athletics track, the words “I drug and rape girls” scrawled on his chest. His old chap was visible too, but only in long shot. Still, this was a nice table-turning moment after all the trouble Melissa/Curtis had faced from men throughout the episode.

Since this was such a Curtis-centric episode, the rest of the characters didn’t get  much of a look in, though at least when they did, they were as consistent as ever. Rudy cemented his attempts to be more disgusting than Nathan by being caught unashamedly pissing into a sink (and somehow thinking that was a good thing because “she’s already seen my cock”). And then in a less than chivalrous moment he went down on the willing (because drugged) Melissa, somehow not noticing that she was referring to him as “Emma”. At least he got a pubic hair stuck in his throat for the rest of the episode as some kind of poetic justice.

Simon, meanwhile, was discussing the limitations of his new power with the gang. Last week, in a fit of hungover inattention, I completely failed to notice what this was. Thankfully, many friends soon pointed out that it was obviously the ability to see into the future for a short period. This week, we learned that, like Johnny Smith in The Dead Zone, he doesn’t get to choose what part of the future he sees; which rather put the kibosh on Rudy’s plan to win the lottery (and split the winnings “60/50”).

And elsewhere, Kelly’s definitely falling (in her own inimitably aggressive way) for “mysterious power guy” Seth. This week, after using her rocket scientist power to fix his old BMW, she trailed him to a local graveyard much to Alisha’s amusement (“You fancy him, don’t you"?” “Shut up.”). But who was the mysterious young woman on whose grave he placed his flowers? And what will all of this have to do with the gang in the forthcoming weeks? More urgently, now that Curtis has revealed his power to a ‘civilian’ (Emma), will she be able to keep the secret?

I’m continuing to be really impressed with this show, and its spot-on balance of humour, drama and fantasy; I’m also impressed that, unlike similar shows, the creator has so far written every episode, lending it a consistency in tone that’s often missing from, say, Doctor Who, or even Being Human. This week’s was another class episode which had a lot to say under the humour and pathos, and was an excellent showcase for both Nathan Stewart Jarrett and Kehinde Fadipe (and I hope we continue to see more or Melissa as the series progresses). But in typical Misfits style, the last word went to Rudy, and it was a bit dirty: “For a bloke, he’s got a lovely pussy.” Nice.

Misfits: Series 3, Episode 1

“Maybe it’ll be different this time. Maybe there won’t be any shit going down.”

Misfits Yr 3 Group

Yeah, right. At last, E4 have brought us the long-anticipated third series of their hit teen/comedy/drama/fantasy show Misfits, a surprise hit when it debuted a couple of years ago. Dismissed early on as Skins meets Heroes, the show was far more vital, far more inventive, and just far more scatologically funny than either of those. An everyday tale of five disparate young people on community service who unexpectedly gain superpowers, it was witty, well-written and well-acted.

Having successfully pulled off the “difficult second album” with series 2, series 3 actually has a bit more to deal with in terms of weight of expectations. An admittedly somewhat convoluted timey-wimey storyline has meant that writer Howard Overman has to pay very close attention to continuity, without alienating the viewers with masses of back references. On top of that, at the end of the last series, our heroes finished their community service, meaning that there was really no reason for them to stay together as a group. In order to retain the show’s flavour, it was necessary to get them back on the wrong side of the law. And to cap it all, loudmouthed (but funny) Nathan has left, as Robert Sheehan took advantage of his star-making turn to leap into a movie career.

Replacing Nathan was always going to be difficult. With his cocky attitude, loud mouth and propensity for highly inappropriate sexual references, he may not have been the smartest of the group, but he certainly stood out the most. This first episode of the new series rightly concentrated on presenting us with a new super-powered character to replace him, as we met Rudy, incarnated by Joseph Gilgun (best known as the hapless Woody in This Is England and Eli Dingle in Emmerdale).

At first glance, Rudy seemed a little like a carbon copy of Nathan (albeit more Northern and less Irish). He’s loud, he’s cocky, and he has a slightly disturbing fixation with anal sex.  But even before the opening credits we got an inkling of how he was going to differ. We first encountered him visiting “that mysterious cool guy who sells powers”, giving us the natural assumption that he wanted to buy one. But as he left after a fracas and cornered his mysterious assailant on a very dangerous looking rooftop, it became clear that he already had a power, and he obviously wanted to get rid of it.

As it turns out, Rudy’s power is that when he’s feeling down or insecure, those parts of his personality physically manifest themselves as another version of him springing from his chest. It’s in keeping with our heroes’ original powers, which reflected their personalities; and that’s where Rudy differs from Nathan. You often got the sense that there was a more sensitive (ie less crass) side to Nathan, but it was only ever hinted at. With Rudy, it’s right out there next to him. Or, more frequently, fighting with him, as his sensitive side seems to have a knack for exposing his insecurities. Their first disagreement on the roof showed that Howard Overman has lost none of his talent for very dirty (and very funny) humour: “Remember in the showers at PE when you got turned on by Richard Saunders soaping his balls? Yeah, and then you thought about it while you wanked into that fake vagina you made of mum’s rubber gloves.”

Gilgun is excellent as Rudy, delivering two quite distinct performances as the different versions of him. His public face is so boorish as to be almost a cartoon, but when the morose version pops out, you realise there’s more to him than someone who loves unprotected anal sex (“Nice girls never get HIV”). And in the calmer moments when he’s not fighting with his other self, both sides reveal themselves to be a bit deeper than the bloke who very publicly gets it on with his girlfriend in a bar (“Is he fingering her? Eww.”).

With Rudy nicely introduced from the outset, and already on community service with two new girls, it was time to wonder what had happened to the heroes we know and love. At the end of the last series, they’d sold their powers to “that mysterious guy” whose own power was to redistribute those of others (following this?). Finding normal life less rewarding, they’d gone back to him and asked to buy their powers back; but he’d already sold them on, so they had their pick of a bunch of new ones. The question, at the opening of this series, was which powers they’d got.

The script cleverly eked out this information throughout the episode. We first found out that gobby Kelly (Lauren Socha, still superb this year) has now got the power of being… a rocket scientist. Literally. Her only ability is to design rockets. This turns out not to be all it’s cracked up to be, as her attempt to sell a design for a ballistic missile fell foul of a snobbish CEO who refused to believe that anyone who sounded like her could be capable of designing rocket propulsion systems. On the face of it, this power seems rather rubbish, but Overman has previously shown ingenuity at making each power crucial to one story or another – I look forward to seeing what plotline that’s going to resolve.

Curtis, meanwhile, has lost his ability to reverse time and change the outcome of events (which always felt like a copout way of getting out of things, anyway). And like Kelly, his new power, on the face of it, doesn’t seem that useful. He can change into a girl. And that’s it. The same girl each time, a female version of himself (causing Rudy to muse “I’ve always fancied a vagina… mind, I’ve heard they’re quite high maintenance, cleaning and that”). This is a bit of a sore point for Curtis, who admitted, “I was the last one to pick, and all the other powers had gone”. But it’s already been useful evading a pursuing policeman, and I’m guessing there’ll be some interesting… sexual issues coming up as the series progresses.

Alisha can now put herself “into someone else’s shoes”, and see what they’re seeing – potentially very useful. And Simon? Well, as of this episode, we still don’t know what Simon’s new power is, but he’s continuing to grow in confidence as the group’s nominal leader. Iwan Rheon has delivered a cleverly progressing performance as Simon has developed from the painfully shy and slightly creepy introvert of the first series into his destiny as the black-clad “super-hoodie”. This week, we saw him practising the free running we know super-hoodie will be good at, even if he bottled it at one particularly dangerous jump.

The most obviously superhero-like of the characters, Simon’s comic book knowledge is serving him well, and he still has the mysterious Batcave-like lair he inherited from his future self (now there’s a timey-wimey paradox for you). He’s also been working out, and I was rather happy that the new series continues the trend developed last year that every episode will feature at least one scene of him shirtless and displaying his impressively toned body. But exploitation aside, Iwan Rheon continues to give Simon a more mature feel – witness the touching scene this week as he consoled the guilty Alisha, ashamed of her past as “the cockmonster”.

With all this setting up to do for this year’s events, it was perhaps sensible that the actual plot (such as it was) was what has already been established as a standard Misfits story. The gang encounter someone else with a power who’s misusing hit, and have to engage their ingenuity to stop them. This time, it was one of the two new community service girls, who, after a misunderstanding with Rudy’s duplicate, took against him rather. As it turned out, she had the power to freeze people (though not time itself; the frozen barman’s pint continued to pour, overflowing into the drip trays) and do whatever she liked to them. Predictably, this escalated because of Rudy, who declared, “If you fuck me, I’ll fuck you right back with a cherry on top.”

After Rudy had framed her for nicking a charity box, she handily used her power to escape from the police. It all came to ahead as she froze Rudy and his equally anal sex fixated girlfriend, then stabbed her and placed the knife in his hand before they unfroze. And then Alisha happened upon them, and a bit more freezing later, she and Rudy were perched on the back of chairs with nooses round their necks.

This was the first instance of Rudy’s power coming in handy, as his morose other self came to their rescue – though not before Rudy had kicked their attacker over and accidentally killed her. Cue the funny scene in which Rudy is initiated into the Misfits tradition of burying the bodies of those they’ve accidentally killed; Kelly was hysterically blase as she smoked a cigarette and shrugged, “you just bury them and move on”.

But our gang were still free from community service; that is, until they took a ride in Rudy’s car, which turned out not to be Rudy’s car after all, but the property of “some guy with a perm”. It may have seemed a little convenient to get them back onto community service so quickly, but that’s the show’s formula, and Howard Overman is wise enough not to screw with it. Besides, it means they’re back in the purview of amusingly callous probation officer Shaun, who’s managed to somehow not be killed yet. Drily played by Craig Parkinson, Shaun is clearly a spiritual cousin to Mr Gilbert from The Inbetweeners: “I’ve found a new vocation. I’m going to totally rehabilitate you. I’ll get on with that after I’ve watched Homes Under the Hammer.”

A strong start, then, and a likeable new character who seems to work well as a replacement for the much-beloved Nathan. So what’s to come? It looks like “the mysterious guy who sells powers”, aka Seth, is going to be much involved this year. It looks like he’s “lost” a power. And it’s an important one. Perhaps more worryingly, there’s more than a hint that he’s going to end up romantically entwined with Kelly. The Alisha/Simon romance continues to develop, as she matures into something more than “the cockmonster” and he sensitively takes his shirt off once a week to make me happy. And I’m sure Curtis’ sex swapping ability is going to lead to all sorts of confusion, and give Rudy the opportunity to make some really dirty jokes. Watch this space…

 

Addendummy Twitter friend Rob Taylor (@Stupid_Face_Rob) has pointed out that it looks like Simon’s power is to see into the immediate future. Hence the bottling out of the jump. I didn’t pick up on that, assuming he was just imagining the result, but I’m sure Rob’s right!

The Fades–he sees dead people

“Why do people assume death is fair? It’s totally random – just like life.”

FadesEp1

Dead birds are falling from the skies. In the dark night streets, a woman is attacked by a weird grey skeletal figure with yellow eyes. A teenage boy awakes from nightmares of the end of the world, wetting his bed, and sees grey cadaverous shades of the dead everywhere he looks. The recently dead roam a forest, light blaring from their torsos, seeking one of the few places left to ascend since man invented concrete.

Welcome to the world of The Fades, trailered so cryptically and effectively on BBC3 recently. “That looks cool, “ I remember thinking of the hyperdramatic but undetailed trailers, set my Tivo to record it and promptly forgot it existed. Yesterday I found my recording, watched it, and realised that this has the potential to actually be rather interesting.

Much has been made of this as a new ‘cult’ youth drama, much in the vein of Misfits and actually from the same channel that produced the sleeper hit Being Human. The Fades certainly does have this kind of potential, but it’s aiming at a far younger ‘youth’ audience than either of those shows. While the heroes of Misfits are young, they’re clearly older than school age; and the vampires and werewolves of Being Human must be pushing thirty (or far older if they’re vampires, whatever age they look). By contrast, The Fades has a hero who’s still in the sixth form, presumably between 17 and 18 years of age. The result is that, with its supernatural weirdness and teenage hero, this feels like nothing so much as one of those classic spooky children’s dramas that both BBC and ITV did so well in the 70s and 80s, updated to include swearing, sex references and some genuine horror.

That post-watershed slot might sadly lose it some of the teenage viewers it might otherwise have got; but in these days of Sky Plus and iPlayer, I doubt that. The fact that what seems ostensibly like a teenage show has so much in it that could be deemed ‘adult’ is presumably down to the writer. Jack Thorne is a playwright who cut his TV writing teeth on Skins, another show that tries to show a realistic portrait of British youth, then graduated onto working with Shane Meadows on the excellent This is England 86.

Those influences show; while 80s teenage dramas were all about gritty portrayals of joblessness (hello, Tucker’s Luck), and Skins is all about hedonistic fun laced with social reality, The Fades brings precisely those approaches to a typically freaky, Children’s BBC-like tale. Nominal hero Paul (Iain de Caestecker) is a believable and likeable teenage nerd; witness his hilarious attempts to smoke in a vain attempt to impress the friend of his sister he has such an obvious crush on. Or his convincingly irritating family – his mum smirks at his frustrated assertion that he’s “trying to be a man”, and his sister (Lily Loveless, worlds away from the lesbian earth mother type she played in, yes, Skins) is a constant source of patronising embarrassment.

Again as in classic children’s spook shows, Paul is accompanied by a wisecracking best friend whose primary function is to be the comic relief. Mac (played brilliantly by Daniel Kaluuya out of, guess what, Skins) is a horror fanatic whose pop culture musings on Nightmare on Elm Street and The Sixth Sense, delivered in a marvellously deadpan way, counterpoint a real horror story happening to his best mate that he can’t even see.

As in many classic children’s spook shows, our heroes become involved while messing about. An unwilling Paul has been dragged into an abandoned underground shopping mall by Mac, desperate to find ‘”weird objects” for a horror film he wants to make. Tumbling down an unforeseen escalator, Paul finds himself in the middle of a mysterious confrontation between gun toting nutter Neil (Johnny Harris, previously terrifying as Lol’s rapey stepdad in This is England 86) and the terrifying skeletal figure we saw attacking Natalie Dormer in the pre-credits sequence. Dormer is somehow involved; her character, Sarah, is already dead by this point. But she’s got top billing, she played Anne Boleyn in The Tudors, and anyway this is the sort of show where death isn’t really a handicap to further appearances.

Like any sensible teenage nerd, Paul is terrified and runs away. But he can’t escape, as he begins to suffer the same scary dream visions Sarah used to have – visions of the end of the world, with him as a lone survivor in a corpsescape where ashes rain down thick and fast. From here it just gets madder and madder; Neil turns up unannounced in Paul’s bedroom to act as a sort of Obi Wan Kenobi mentor, as Paul begins to see the shades of the dead on street corners. Some of the dead, Neil explains, can’t ‘ascend’, and linger on Earth; this makes them act “shitty”. They disintegrate into ashes if a living person ‘passes through’ them; we see this happen as Paul stumbles through one in in an underground subway, and she crumbles into precisely the kind of ashes that have been haunting his dreams.

Paul, it seems, has some kind of ‘purpose’; perhaps he’s the Muad’Dib. Later, Neil shows him hordes of the dead trying to ascend, but it looks like Sarah’s just missed the boat. She can still talk, it seems – for now. But only Neil and Paul will be able to see her. But she’s not the one they have to worry about; that scary skeletal grey thing that killed her – and nearly sucked out Neil’s eye with its green tongue – is “something new” that has the potential to end the world. It’s already killed not just Sarah, but Neil’s other sidekick – a welcome return for This Life’s Daniela Nardini, as a pistol-packing, faith healing Scottish vicar, and I hope she’s not dead for good!

All of this is great stuff in itself, though as of part one, who knows what it can all mean? It’s reminiscent of so many classic children’s spook dramas, from King of the Castle through Moondial to Century Falls. But what makes it even better is the Skins-like sense of realism about what it’s like to be a teenager, that presumably gave it its post-watershed slot. Aside from the swearing, and sex references (when Paul starts telling Mac about his dreams, Mac automatically leaps to the conclusion that they’re of the wet variety), there is plenty of wince-making accuracy to Paul’s position as the school’s introverted nerd. “Nobody even notices us,”comments the more excitable Mac, shortly before a slightly comic bit of business ends up with them hiding in a cubicle of the girls’ toilet while a girl does her business next door. “That’s probably the most sexual thing that’s ever happened to me,” notes Mac. Elsewhere, Paul is in therapy because of his bedwetting, but is understandably unkeen to reveal what’s been happening to his therapist, and he has a massive, possibly requited crush on his sister’s best friend, much to his sister’s malicious amusement.

This blend of classy supernatural drama with teenage realism makes The Fades like the sort of drama I would have killed to have seen on Children’s BBC when I was a teenager. It’s all very well having your hero as a teenage boy but if those central teenage boy things like sexual frustration, swearing and wet dreams don’t get mentioned, how much can you truly believe in the character? This has all that in spades, plus some genuinely witty dialogue, taut direction and scary special effects. It’s only part one of the first series, so who knows how good it’ll be, but I thoroughly enjoyed this, and if there’s any justice, BBC3 will have another Being Human-style hit on its hands. Not sure yet if I’ll blog on this episode by episode, but if the next one is as good, I very probably will.

The most wonderful time of the year

“Everything has to end some time. Otherwise, nothing would ever get started.”

Ah, Christmas. The time of year which, for the British at least, is sacrosanct. It has to be absolutely perfect – the tree, the presents, the family gathered together in some mythically perfect pseudo Charles Dickens fantasy of non existent Victoriana. To make Christmas perfect, the British will go through anything – witness the savage consumer competitiveness of Christmas shopping, the weeping and rending of garments as the snow disrupted everyone’s plans for this to be ‘the best Christmas ever’. I sometimes wonder if, put in the position of having to, the British would actually kill to make it the best Christmas ever, as if the holiday was capable of improving its Christmassiness indefinitely, its zenith ultimately unattainable yet tantalisingly in sight. All of which may make me seem a little, perhaps, like that ultimate Christmas monster, Ebenezer Scrooge.

Which brings me neatly to this year’s festive Doctor Who offering, the derivatively titled and plotted A Christmas Carol. Not that the qualifying adverb ‘derivatively’ means it wasn’t a lot of fun. It was as intricately plotted as you’d expect from a Steven Moffat script, making full use of the show’s intrinsic timey-wimeyness to put a fairly novel spin on the Charles Dickens classic.

This meant there were moments when the use of the time travel concept led to some trademark Moffat jaw dropping moments. I absolutely loved the moment when the Doctor popped out of Sardick’s office to suddenly appear in the home movie he shot decades ago. The story also brilliantly subverted your expectations, based on the Dickens original, of how the Ghost of Christmas Future would work. “Are you going to show me that I die alone and unloved?” the elderly Sardick sneers, which is exactly what Dickens’ ghost does to Scrooge. “Everybody does.” And then we see that, for the boy Sardick, the present we’re seeing is a future he’s seeing. Mind warping stuff, for a family Christmas show on at six in the evening.

It was a show full of brilliant concepts, realised with some stunning visuals from the Mill. A planet covered in ice clouds, through which swarm beautiful fish, its climate tamed by the weather machine that was controlled by Scrooge-lite Kazran Sardick. Which also led to the fan-baiting dialogue about the machine’s ‘isomorphic’ controls – a claim the Doctor made for the TARDIS console in 1976’s Pyramids of Mars. “There’s no such thing!” exclaimed the Doctor, fiddling with the machine to comical effect. This probably made the hackles rise for many an earnest, humourless fanboy – and I dread to think how much they frowned when Sardick hugging his younger self failed to yield the expected explosion from ‘shorting out the time differential’ (1983’s Mawdryn Undead, and 2005’s Father’s Day, for that matter).

All of which, besides being a laugh for fans who don’t take the show as seriously as all that, underlined the point that a Doctor Who Christmas special doesn’t really have the same agenda as a normal episode. It’s a bit of fun, a romp, with a yuletide flavour. Po-faced fanboys shouldn’t expect a serious exploration of the show’s labyrinthine, already inconsistent continuity. Particularly not from the man who coined the scientific phrase, “wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey… stuff.”

And a fun romp it indubitably was. We had some well-realised set pieces – who’d ever have thought you could have a terrifying shark attack in the safety of your own bedroom? Or a sleigh ride through the clouds with the aforementioned shark in place of the traditional reindeer? It’s a mark of the continuously improving CGI from the Mill that these looked as good as they did, though I think we’re still some way off from when CG on this budget looks indistinguishable from the real.

A fairly small cast also shone, giving Moffat’s sparkling dialogue the delivery it deserved. Matt Smith, in particular, is fast becoming one of my favourite Doctors ever, with his weird physicality and studied eccentricities. He got some terrific dialogue with which to emphasise this, unsurprising from the man who used to write Press Gang and Coupling. “That’s got me written all over it! Well, it will have me written all over it, with a crayon and enough time…” Or “You know what boys say to fear, don’t you? ‘Mummy’.” All of which delivered at breakneck speed, as though Smith’s Doctor is continually thinking of something new before he’s finished vocalising what he’s already thought.

He also got some memorable philosophical sound bites, in keeping with a character who, in 1969, told us “Logic, my dear Zoe, merely allows one to be wrong with authority,” and countless others. Besides the line quoted at the beginning of this review, he memorably described Christmas, and Sardick, as “Halfway out of the dark…” and best of all, said “in 900 years of travelling through time and space, I’ve never met anybody who wasn’t important!” Which immediately recalled, for me, Dr Stephen Daker’s plaintive enquiry to a ruthless corporate shark in 1988’s A Very Peculiar Practice – “Isn’t everybody important?” Dr Stephen Daker was, of course, portrayed by Peter Davison.

Michael Gambon was, unsurprisingly, brilliant as Sardick. In keeping with some fairly emotionally complex writing, he made someone who initially appeared to be a one-dimensional monster increasingly layered and full of the contradictions feelings give to people. The character was also well-served by a great performance from his twelve-year-old counterpart, whose name I didn’t catch but who gave a more charming performance than Laurence Belcher as the teenage Sardick. Not that Belcher was bad – and very nice to look at – but the boy got all the best lines and scenes.

Katharine Jenkins was also surprisingly good, considering that, as an opera singer, she’s not exactly experienced at acting. Her character, Abigail, didn’t get that much to do, but great use was made of her voice in a beautiful musical moment as she sang to the storm to calm the clouds. What a great concept! It’ll be another memorable track on Murray Gold’s next soundtrack CD – although the music may generally be better remembered than the dialogue, considering that the dialogue could often barely be heard over the score. Sweeping and cinematic is fine, but that sound mix still isn’t right, and I think it’s probably worse if you’re not watching on a 5.1 surround system.

With Amy and Rory largely sidelined, Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill managed to still give us some memorable – though mostly comic – moments. The judicious reuse of two of their more incongruous costumes from the previous series was a hoot, and I couldn’t help but what wonder what kind of kinky role play would result from a scantily clad policewoman meeting a Roman centurion!

With carol singing, a planet that seemed to be modelled from idealised Victoriana, and the conceit of the Doctor not only coming down the chimney but appearing at every Christmas Eve from then on, it certainly matched Steve Moffat’s promise to be ‘”the most Christmassy episode ever”. And, as I alluded to in my introduction, this could well prove to be an insurmountable challenge. If each year’s festive offering has to be “more Christmassy” than the last, where can next year’s go? Where will it end? The logical extrapolation is an hour of television in which the TARDIS constantly circles a giant Christmas tree, chasing a reindeer driven sleigh and dodging friendly giant snowmen. Christmassy, to be sure, but less than thrilling.

I’m carping – a little – because, while the episode was a lot of fun, and had some dramatic and scientific concepts that boggled the mind, it left me, in the end, curiously unmoved. And that, I think, was because it was obviously trying so hard to be moving. There’s a lot of criticism one can level at Russell T Davies’ Christmas episodes – and God knows I have – but he did genuinely know how to make a moment tug at the heart. The emotional moments here seemed so dramatically contrived that I could actually see the strings trying to do that, and when I can see the emotional manipulation at work, it just doesn’t have any effect on me.  I realise that, for a lot of others, it worked very well, but maybe I’m too much of a cynic. Maybe I need my own Ghost of Christmas Past to visit…

Still, another good effort from Mr Moffat, with Matt Smith as excellent as ever, and the glimpses of the series to come were tantalising. The ‘Next Year’ trailer did seem to focus very heavily on the Doctor’s much publicised trip to the USA, but it still looks plenty exciting. Sitting at the President’s desk in the Oval Office, meeting X Files style aliens, wearing a stetson – “stetsons are cool” – and growing a beard a la Pierce Brosnan in Die Another Day. Though that last did make me wonder when the Doctor actually finds time to shave, given that he’s always immaculately clean shaven. I think I’d always assumed he just didn’t grow facial hair! There’s the po faced fanboy inside me coming out…

Before I end this – as usual – lengthy piece,  mention should be made of this year’s other great science fantasy festive special. Hastily commissioned but steeped in the show’s usual impudent quality, the Christmas episode of Misfits was a thing of wonder. It’s at the other end of the family friendly scale from Doctor Who, but how can you not love a Christmas special which includes the lines “Fuck me, Santa!” and “I’m going to kill Jesus.”? The second series of Misfits has built beautifully on the first, enlarging a concept that seems initially VERY silly – young offenders gain superpowers after a mysterious storm – into a show that incorporates imagination, drama and humour. If you haven’t seen the Christmas episode, I’d urge you to seek it out on 4OD. Just beware – you shouldn’t watch it with granny and the kids like you can with Doctor Who!