Friday, 30 April 2010
Ashes to Ashes - Series 3, Episode 4
The good thing was that Chris was used sparingly. In fact the episode revolved around the guest character of a troubled undercover cop. And, unlike with Ray, Chris's problems were believable. He found it hard to express his feelings for the undercover cop and then over-reacted when he thought she'd been hurt, which led to him beating up a poor, defenceless thug. Putting aside the fact that the thug could have torn Chris into little pieces with one hand tied behind his back, this was consistent with the character we've seen before and his story came out in strong scenes rather than with tedious monologues. In addition the story didn't do what I was dreading of repeating the previous two weeks' plot structure. Keats didn’t drip bile in Chris's ear and instead he acted sneakily with the undercover cop. Neither did Chris think about betraying Gene before having a Life on Mars moment. This change of direction was interesting and improved my opinion of last week's episode slightly. But there endeth the good news.
The problem with this week's episode is something that has been increasingly annoying me about the format: the lead stories are just too routine and predictable. Ever since the first episode of Life on Mars when Sam had to catch a serial killer who left so many clues he struggled to avoid catching him until the end of the episode, the main stories have been weak, but it didn’t used to matter.
Life on Mars detailed the battles between Sam and Gene over how they should solve the obvious crime of the week. Sam solved crimes with his head and Gene with his heart, and they both got there in the end. The tension between them made the stories fun and it was the same with Alex and Gene, with Alex being even more analytical than Sam was. For no good reason I can see that tension has been abandoned. No longer does Alex get inside the bad guys' heads while Gene bangs their heads against the wall. They just accept each others' methods and don’t interact. The same goes for the other characters who stand back to let whoever is this week's designated main character take control. Also the nostalgic elements are now purely the pounding 80s music along with some moments such as Hunt accidentally trashing the Blue Peter garden, which aren’t as funny as they think they are. With the weird time-travel bits relegated to about 10 seconds a week, this all leaves more time for the central story. Big mistake. The standard Ashes story struggled to fill half the episode, but with the other elements that made the show work pared back so that the main story fills about 90% of the episode, it emphasises how uninteresting those stories are. In many ways this year the series has been more like a generic cop show, and that's not a good thing.
Worse, this time the brave undercover cop took up more screen time than any other character, which would be fine if she was an interesting character, but she wasn't. Last week's completely unsurprising revelation that the brave fireman was the bad guy provided some hope that things might be different this week. I kept watching hoping that she'd be for real and that for once the series would pull out a twist by not having a twist, but no. She was a bad guy too and so everything she said and did was a lie and so a waste of screen time, meaning that like last week I don’t think I'll bother watching this one again.
As for the rest: same old, same old. The intriguing possibilities about the stars in the centre of town was limited to Shaz mumbling, 'I dunno really'. The all-important Sam Tyler investigation moved backwards a micron or two when Alex rummaged around for a missing file. The ghost copper realized that only appearing for a half-second spooking wasn't good enough so this week he appeared twice, both times for half a second. The weather vane shadow had its weekly flitter on the ground when Alex imagined she was being buried alive, at least suggesting she might be the buried body in the future. Alex's tv came on, but provided static and it seems Molly has been consigned to the unresolved plot hole that swallowed up Summers, Evan, and Layton. And Keats delivered his usual narrative to the viewers, but he did cradle the undercover cop as she died like Hunt usually does, meaning something interesting I assume but frankly I find it hard to care any more. It seems likely now that there will be no plot development on the central mystery other than maintaining the status quo set up in the opening ten minutes of episode 1. And we'll just have to wait until the last ten minutes of the final episode when the clever reveal will be revealed. Based on the painfully poor reveals we get to the main stories every week I'm currently not holding out any hope it'll be surprising, interesting, or well thought out. Perhaps in the end it will be a triumph and show that all the clues really have been cleverly hidden in plain sight, but if we get a third dreary episode in a row I won’t be around to see it.
Luckily, next week looks like it might re-kindle my enthusiasm for the franchise when the bristling 'taches from Manchester arrive to bristle their 'taches and make fun of Hunt's smooth upper lip.
Thursday, 29 April 2010
Sharpshooter McClure in Large Print
I've received the welcome news that my most recent BHW Sharpshooter McClure will be coming out in Large Print as a Linford Western. I guess it'll be published around this time next year.
Wednesday, 21 April 2010
The Gallows Gang
Large Print (Soft Cover) - 240 Pages
Price - £ 8.99
After escaping the gallows eight condemned men, led by Javier Rodriguez, blaze a trail of destruction, leaving swinging bodies as a reminder of the fate they'd avoided. Four men set out to bring them to justice: prison guards Shackleton Frost and Marshal Kurt McLynn; Nathaniel McBain, a man wrongly condemned himself and under suspicion from Frost and McLynn, and the enigmatic man known as The Preacher. Can this feuding, mismatched group end the Gallows Gang's reign of terror?
Saturday, 17 April 2010
Ashes to Ashes, series 3, episode 3
My lack of interest is probably my fault as the story featured strong dialogue, good acting, and revolved around my favourite character. If I was writing objective reviews I'd find things to praise, but I write personal reviews detailing my likes and dislikes. And the overwhelming feeling I had is that if I wanted to watch this sort of drama I'd watch The Bill and not Ashes. It reminded me of the only Life on Mars episode I didn’t like featuring the inevitable bottle show hostage crisis that ticked all the right boxes for powerful, emotional, tense drama and which so failed to move me I miss that episode out when I re-watch. I reckon I'll do the same with this one.
The join-the-dots formula cop story was even dottier than usual involving a wave of politically motivated arson attacks on the eve of the general election designed to ensure that Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, doesn't get in, in, in for her disastrous second term. With the tv no longer talking to Alex this was illustrated by lots of uninteresting clips from real tv shows. The possibilities for political satire weren't taken up. Instead the story centred on the attempt to avoid working out who the mystery arsonist was until the end of the episode. In our house the previous record for solving an Ashes mystery was 1 second set in series 2. This week we bettered it by solving it in minus 5 minutes on spotting that the actor playing the heroic fireman who was putting out the fires also played Luke Hanson in New Tricks. What followed was painful and followed every cliché in the standard arson mystery plot in which firemen feature.
But as I often say Ashes isn’t a plot based drama. It's about characters. And this week the arson story gave Ray a chance to shine. Sadly he shone by doing one of the things I hate in episodic drama of suddenly developing a hitherto unmentioned crippling emotional trauma which links in with the story and which will never get mentioned again. Ray's trauma involved his relationship with his military-minded father, and although Ray did think about joining the army last series that didn't link in well with his problems this time. His crisis developed in the same manner as Shaz's did last week (possibly deliberately) in which everyone else acts uselessly and out of character forcing him to put his life in danger at which point he delivers an interminable monologue of the kind that only characters in tv dramas give. The actor who plays Ray is active and approachable on Internet sites, coming over as a decent bloke and so I kept thinking it was nice for him to finally get something meaty to do. But I also kept thinking I wish the episode would just end so I could go to bed.
The previous two episodes had a near-perfect tone of grit enlivened by crackling, fun dialogue that was so fast and clever I knew I'd have to watch them several times to pick up all the nuances. That was missing this time with a dreary tone, lengthy stilted scenes, uninvolving characters, and few one-liners. The only interesting asides were Gene Hunt getting in toy-stamping mood with an annoying brat and the stolen bikes he was storing in Keats' room to provoke him. As it turned out the one element of Ray's problem that did work for me was Keats. The creepy complaints guy is rapidly developing into the best thing about the final series. Last week I thought he wasn't being active enough in bringing down Hunt, but as he did the same things again this week I can now appreciate his sly technique. He hangs around on the sidelines, always creepy and smoking, speaking treachery into people's ears and undermining their confidence while pretending to be their friend. He is genuinely creepy in a way that Summers, the clown and the other creepy characters haven’t been because he's believable. He personifies the bureaucratic 'I was only following orders' evil that can lurk at the heart of any big organisation.
So as with Shaz he takes advantage of Ray's emotional crisis to encourage him to defy Gene and solve the crime using his own instincts. This dilemma would have had considerable tension if the crime hadn't have been so obvious even the ghost copper could have solved it during his half second appearance. In the end Ray does the same as Shaz did and he almost turns his back on Gene before deciding to follow Gene's orders, and that puts his life in danger. But he survives and so Keats loses and Gene wins again, and so Gene buys Ray a drink... and Ray has his Life on Mars moment.
I'd been dreading that happening since last week and now that it has I have mixed feelings as to whether or not I like it. I'll have to see where they take it but for now I'm not happy. Last week was eerily effective when out of nowhere the picture darkens and zooms in on Shaz, a few lines of Life on Mars are heard coming from far away, and a sample of Nelson the bartender plays. In fact I'd say it was the single best moment in the whole franchise and if left at that it'd have remained memorable, but with it happening again this week it's lost its impact for me. It suggests that every week a main character will have an emotional crisis, Keats will drip bile into their ear, they'll ignore him in favour of the Guv, and then they'll have their Life on Mars moment. Presumably by episode 8 the bloke at the back of the office with interesting facial hair will have his Life on Mars moment when he has an emotional crisis brought on by being in a series for 5 years and never getting a line of dialogue.
As regards the bigger picture, the only plot movement this week was the confirmation that Keats is the key to resolving the bigger picture. We learnt this because Alex told him that she solves crimes and he deals with the bigger picture. Ashes has always worked well with its self-referential, ironic, post-modern, fourth wall, meta-fiction or whatever the right term is for knowing asides to the viewers. But there's a thin line between being clever and being smug, and that line, along with several other recent nods to the fans, makes me pleased that the show is ending this year and the temptation to make a Hunt in the 90s series is being resisted.
As for the rest, the complete lack of movement was even more static than usual. The ghost copper appeared for his usual doing bog all spooky moment. Movement on the Sam Tyler investigation consisted of Alex locking the drawer that contains his coat and giving Shaz the key. At that pace it'll be 2010 in the past world before she works out why Sam's car was standing upside down in Manchester's shallowest river. And the unsettling idea of Alex finding a part of town that doesn't exist got the interesting addition that Shaz has seen it too. Shaz was so shocked she doodled a star, but then as this is a show that thrives on never moving forward, it was promptly forgotten about, just like Molly, Alex's treasured daughter.
Anyhow, sorry for my grumpy attitude, but I hope the show returns to the style of the first two episodes or I'll rapidly lose interest. Next week, I'm getting a new sister-in-law so I don’t know when or if a review will appear, but I'm guessing the story will involve Chris having his Life on Mars moment when he suffers emotional trauma about being a complete and utter twonk. I hope I'm wrong.
Sunday, 11 April 2010
Ashes to Ashes, series 3, episode 2
Until now Sharon has been used sparingly and often for comic relief with her doomed relationship with idiot Chris. Now though the pressure of making all those teas for the blokes has eroded her confidence and she's ready to quit. Not surprisingly the answer to her professional crisis turns out to be a murder mystery with a tailored-made Shaz-shaped role that'll let her show what she can do. Accordingly Gene gives her a massive confidence boost. Then he and the lads hide in a van while he sends her off on her own, without back-up, in the dark, unarmed on to a vast piece of waste land to apprehend a rabid nutter who has a thing for murdering 5 foot nothing young women. I enjoyed seeing Shaz do something for once, but this is Gene Hunt, a bloke whose search warrant is a crowbar and whose catchphrase was once 'you are surrounded by armed bastards'. Not any more it'd seem, but with the blokes running around in the dark helplessly, Shaz fights back with a convenient screwdriver and saves the day, and her career.
Luckily despite this contrived story Shaz shines playing the role of a cheesed-off person to perfection. Although I felt that her decision to stay was the wrong one as everything she did only appeared to prove that she's in the wrong job and that Gene press-ganged her into staying. Perhaps that was the point.
The rest all get good moments too as they investigate a dating agency, run by the real-life Mrs Hunt, and Alex invents speed dating. We get to see everyone's attitude to romance and there's plenty of fun to be had. Alex dreams up a video of Uptown Girl with Gene Hunt lip-synching, to the actor's obvious annoyance, Billy Joel. Gene gives us insight into his romance technique involving steak, chips, beer and a love of westerns. Not surprisingly there are no takers, but I loved that while speed dating Gene sports the name Will Kane, Cooper's character in High Noon. Most shows would feel obliged to tell us who Kane was, but I had to squint at his name tag to read it. It's the small touches like that that make the show work for me. Chris gets to lose at strip poker and Ray gets more ambiguity about his womanising ways. Ray's personal life has provided an entertaining undercurrent through the series and I don't know whether we will ever find out if his non-stop sexist banter is over-compensating for something, but I've already decided for myself.
As regards the arc story, I could say nothing happened because it didn't, as such. After last week in which Keats vowed to destroy Gene, this week he sets about doing it by lurking ominously in the basement moving pens around his desk. I must say he lurks ominously very well, but if he's going to destroy Hunt he'd better hurry up and do something. The ghost copper continues to follow Summers' slow methodology of very slow spookiness, except he's being even slower. This week his role consisted of the final half-second of the episode in which he looked at the camera spookily. And the Sam Tyler investigation failed to move too with several dozen mentions of Sam's unexplained mysterious fantasy world death, but there were no actual developments other than some unconvincing hints that Gene killed him. As if!
Again though this isn't a plot-based series and so with the plot being static the main movements towards an explanation of what the show is about came in clever and subtle ways. At one stage the shadow of the weather vane, where in the future the body of someone will be dug up, flittered on the floor and we get a new and effective scary development in which while trying to find where Shaz lives Alex comes across a part of town that doesn't exist. It's just stars, and later the stars start to invade her mind. With the episode playing out against a backdrop of the office being torn down by noisy workers, there was a real sense of the world ending. Perhaps this happened to Sam. Perhaps there may be a sci-fi solution to it all. Perhaps we were seeing for the first time what happens to the world when the dreamer stops dreaming. Perhaps the makers have bought the rights to another Bowie classic.
The episode also makes excellent use of its own mythology and rules. The Sam Tyler investigation may look as if it'll drag on interminably, but a simple scene where Alex opens a package and finds Sam's leather jacket showed why this matters. The static on Alex's tv screen is also starting to be worrying. There's only one thing more disconcerting than having the tv talk to you, and that's having the tv stop talking to you. There were also hints that Keats might be from the future when a chat about modern day composers and serial killers doesn't faze him. The best moment though was when the music dies out while the camera is on Shaz and a few lines of Life on Mars are played, this being the first time we've heard that song since Sam took his leap of faith. The evocative lines about 'the girl with the mousy hair' may imply something about Shaz, but I think it means that the shows are now merging. And if the merging is to be this subtle, it'll be effective.
Next week, macho Ray has his moment in the spotlight when his macho bravery leads to him being trapped in a confined space with lots of sweaty macho men. Presumably they'll talk about girls.
Saturday, 10 April 2010
What a twit
Stuart Maclennan is my kind of politician. Not for him the soundbite, the smug avoidance of questions, the carefully constructed veneer of lies and deceit. Stuart took the almost unprecedented line of telling voters what he really thought and what he really believed in, without any thought about whether or not that would actually win him any votes. Stuart discovered twitter and thinking that posting on social networking sites was the way forward he started tweeting. With twitter only allowing a few characters to get your point across he therefore decided to convey his message exclusively using four letter words. Here are some of his opinions on the burning issues of the day:
Fairtrade: God this fairtrade, organic banana is **** Can I have a slave-grown, chemically enhanced, genetically modified one please?
Alcohol: Jeezo, I’m as dry as a nun’s **** today. You know I think I might be completely sober for the first time in 4 days.
Travel: Made my connecting train. No first class it would appear. Sitting opposite the ugliest old boot I’ve ever seen too.
Books: Woman next to me on the train is reading a Danielle Steele novel. I can, in fact, confirm that it is in very large print and double spaced.
Tory leader David Cameron: t***.
Liberal leader Nick Clegg: b****** he could f*** right off if he thinks he's in the same league as Brown and Cameron.
Labour MP Diane Abbott: a f******* idiot.
The speaker: an opportunist little t***.
The TV election debate: really couldn't care less. Why the f*** does Nicholas Clegg get to take part?
Barack Obama winning the Nobel Peace Prize: You've got to be f****** kidding me.
His prospective constituents: chavs & coffin-dodgers
His prospective constituency: stranded up north again
The local industry: Johnnie Walker Red Label is so awful they can't sell it in Scotland.
Sadly he paid the price when Gordon Brown removed him as our candidate yesterday, but his campaign for election was certainly fun while it lasted!
Sunday, 4 April 2010
Myself, I've been a casual fan since Hartnell scared me as a kid in the 60s. I've dipped in and out, enjoying it when I liked the Doctor or when the show had one of its infrequent dabbles with sci-fi, and ignoring it when it didn't click. At its best the show did what all old classic British cult tv did of being a triumph of content over style. The scenery shook, the acting was wooden and the special effects weren't special, but the characters, ideas and stories were memorable. The new re-incarnation had a big enough budget to resolve the style issues, but the content never quite scaled the heights of old. Except, that is, for the stories written by new head man Moffat. So it follows that we could be in line for a golden era. And as it turned out the best thing about the new version is the Doctor. I had doubts about Matt Smith, but he has the right mix of fun and seriousness. He brings energy to his performance and his odd features means he looks appropriately different. By the end I had the distinct feeling that he'll make the role his. I couldn't say the same for his assistant Amy who didn't dispel the feeling that she was picked purely to appeal to 12-year-old boys, but perhaps if she's allowed to wear more clothes later she'll be less irritating.
Peri-style casting aside I had hoped the show would become more adult. But instead the adult bits were mildly smutty innuendo with Amy working as a kissogram girl (rather improbably in a small English village) and the Doctor deleting cache memory after finding mucky stuff on the Internet. But then again this is a fun bit of light entertainment for the kiddies on a Saturday night. Producing a show to delight children that adults can still watch must be well-nigh impossible, and perhaps I was wrong to think the show would change too much. Certainly the opening scene came over as a perfect bit of children's fantasy and I'm sure the young ones were hooked by the time the Doctor started dipping his fish fingers in custard.
The story was a lightweight one and amounted to a giant alien eyeball that had been to the Vogon school of diplomacy decides to blow up the earth to kill an escaped shapeshifting prisoner, but luckily the prisoner is in the first place the Doctor looks. Additional details included a variation on Moffat's Blink aliens and a variation on the time travel idea in Moffat's Girl in the Fireplace. I'd got fed up with Davies re-hashing ideas, so I hope this was to give a feeling of continuity. Other than that I felt there was some subtle rejection of Davies' various cliches. The Doctor appeared irritated at using his screwdriver like Harry Potter's wand; the running bits to liven things up seemed more tongue-in-cheek especially with Amy struggling to leap over anything in that short skirt; and Amy's convenient family of dead parents, endearing aunt and gormless boyfriend didn't feel as if they'll feature much… And the plot resolution didn't make an ounce of sense as always, but unlike Davies' pompous resolutions it was fun and appeared to involve getting Patrick Moore to phone everyone on the planet with the message zero. I've worshipped Patrick for longer than I've watched Who, so any program in which he saves the world is fine with me.
There were many other small good things like the appealing child actor who played the young Amy, a montage of old Doctors, a sense of fun throughout with plenty of jokes, and an epic speech by the Doctor that was so good he did it twice. After writing this I had a quick read of the forums and it's getting universal acclaim, so I'm sure it'll be very popular and it is sure to keep the kiddies glued to their sofas, either on or behind, for the next three months.
Saturday, 3 April 2010
Ashes to Ashes - Series 3, Episode 1
For the final series we were promised that the show would become darker and feature a radical change of direction. The series will apparently explain not only this show but its predecessor Life on Mars to the extent that the shows will ultimately join up. This explanation has been described by the cast as 'bonkers' and by the writers as being one they didn't originally have in mind but which occurred during the writing of this series. This suggests that whatever theorizing has been going on, based on what we've seen so far, will be invalid.
So episode 1 demonstrated this radical change of direction by being, well, exactly the same as the show has ever been. There was a central cop story that was so lame and predictable it'd have made viewers of The Bill groan 25 years ago. It had plenty of camaraderie between the central cast and there were a few weird bits that as always appeared at first glance to move the plot along massively but which in reality did absolutely nothing. But perhaps that's being a bit unfair. The show did provide one of its promised big changes. It was darker. A lot darker. Sadly the director interpreted the need to be darker as shoot everything darkly. I kept wondering if I'd sat on the remote and changed the contrast. Everyone had highly contrasted faces, sets were stark, and even those warehouses where the bad guys always hang out looked duller. Perhaps it was the HD filming, but whatever the reason it looked dark. Luckily everything else was the same.
The episode started with a great opening line that perfectly summed up why I like the franchise. The previous 2 years have featured Alex's lengthy explanation of the format over the title credits. This time all that's gone to be replaced with, 'My name is Alex Drake, and quite frankly your guess is as good as mine.' That is brilliant on every level. We then carry on from where we left off with Alex in the present day recovering from being shot in the head by dangling a forelock of her dark hair over her wound, wearing dark clothes, and talking soberly in dark rooms with the light off. Her daughter Molly, who presumably has grown another foot since the last season, has been sent to stay with her father, and Alex is finding real life as depressing as Sam Tyler did when he returned. Worse, Alex caught the recent Red Dwarf revival and so is seeing Gene on banks of tv screens and dvd covers. Sadly even a gloriously silly fantasy scene of Gene shooting up gun-toting baddies to the Ride of the Valkyries can't convince Alex that she's happy. So, after meeting this year's mysterious stranger of a ghostly disfigured man who is dead in the present day and who clearly has been picking up stalker tips from the clown from season 1 and Summers from season 2, she returns to the past. She meets a darkly moody Gene in a dark alley with the lights off and after finding that he's spent three miserable months on the Isle of Wight, they agree to see just how dark things have got.
There have been changes. Ray is the new and ineffective boss, Chris and Shaz have split up (although if you missed the line of dialogue you wouldn’t guess it), Viv is getting funny lines, Luigi is getting less lines, and one of the extras got a whole line. And we've got a new main character of Keats to fulfil the role Alex's mum had in season 1 and Mac had in season 2 of shaking things up. Apparently Keats is in charge of complaints and he deems that shooting up a fellow officer and hiding on the Isle of Wight is serious enough to kick Gene off the force. As Alex got kicked off the force twice in season 2 and got away with it Gene ignores him and carries on as normal as they now have a case to solve.
The case involves a kidnapped kid called Dorothy (ooh!) and even if you haven’t seen the episode yet, you could still easily write a review of the surprise twists and revelations for yourself. As always the rubbish central plot is not the point and the fun comes from the characters. Ray makes a mess of being in charge and shows he's not a leader. Gene is in full-on shouting mode. And he gets some good non-PC one-liners that only someone stuck in the 80s could deliver including a 'Billy the Thlid' line and a long and torturous one involving nuts and squirrels which I've had several goes at writing but it doesn’t scan well. Alex looks suitably ill and is so distressed she watches Top Gear, but messages from the future are drying up.
The rest don't get much to do as more time is spent on developing Keats, and this is time well spent as he looks as if he'll be interesting. The actor provides an odd performance that's different to anything anyone else is doing and is one that makes we wonder if he's a terrible actor or a brilliant one. He's creepy, shifty-eyed, unsure of himself, and everything he says and does is off-note and wrong. It reminds me that true evil is often banal. I look forward to seeing where he'll take things as he's convinced Gene did something bad in the past, possibly involving Sam Tyler's mysterious death, and he wants to expose him. As he kicked him off the force about five times during the episode and Gene ignored him every time that threat doesn't sound too worrying. The office may have a gym now, but where's the growly boss to do the kicking off the force properly when you need one?
Then there's the bigger picture and I'm struggling to say much there as again it only inches along in the usual style with something odd happening at the start and then again just before the final credits. We have a ghost. Alex trips over a file and Sam Tyler's picture falls out. And we have Keats being weird. The fact that there'll be a surprising reveal at the end means it's probably not worth discussing and it's best to just go along for the ride. For the record my opinion has always been that Sam Tyler was in a coma. Hovering between life and death his brain constructed a dying dream to keep him mentally active and to help him make sense of his existence before he passed on. So he went back to the time when as a kid his father left him and along the way he learned some lessons about life. But he didn't die and when he came back those lessons didn't help him move on and so he killed himself to continue the dream. Alex knew of this and so when she nearly died she constructed her own dying dream with the same characters to resolve her life, except with a daughter she has more reasons to live than Sam had. Based on what we've seen I think that's a reasonable explanation, but I assume if the final explanation is as suitably bonkers as promised, it'll be a different one entirely.
Next week things get even darker and scarier when Gene and Alex recreate the classic 80s video Uptown Girl. I'm getting ready to hide behind the sofa already.