From The Earth to the Moon Episode One: Can We Do This?

The history of manned spaceflight is defined by inconceivable scale and fragility. Hundreds of thousands of miles, hundreds of thousands of pounds of thrust, millions of hours spent designing, testing, flying, all for a small group of desperately human, utterly fragile people who would travel higher and further than anyone ever had before. A unique combination of desire and courage, design and persistence. The knight class of society put in flight suits and fired out of the atmosphere on top of the largest rockets ever developed and nowhere is this combination more evident, more compelling, than in the Apollo program.

Ron Howard and Tom Hanks’ mini-series, From The Earth to the Moon attempts to place this unscalable, inconceivably huge project in historical and personal context. The thirteen episodes explore the project in its entirety, from the initial announcement through the frantic scrabble to be ready, the loss of the Apollo 1 mission and, crucially, past Apollo 11 and the first man on the moon. This is not just a series about Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, it’s a series about what happened to place them at the tip of history and what it was like to be the people who followed them.

Sitting at the end of the first decade of the 21st century, it’s tempting to buy into the conspiracy theories that the moon landings never took place. As I write, the space shuttle program is about to be shut down, its replacement is several years away and whilst NASA have, again, announced a plan to return to the moon, there’s little chance of it happening in the immediate future. There are interesting developments, to be sure, and I’ll be looking at the Hundred Year SpaceShip program soon, but the moon is so far away, so distant, the Apollo project such a distant memory that it’s passing into modern myth. Tikur Bekmambetov, director of the Nightwatch movies, is currently producing Apollo 18, a found-footage horror movie about the ‘real’ last manned mission to the moon with the tagline:

THERE’S A REASON WE NEVER WENT BACK.

But why did we go in the first place? That’s what this first episode sets out to explore and does so in a clever, even elegant way. The project is inconcevably vast, inconceivably ambitious and instead of trying to look at it from a particular viewpoint, this first episode embraces that scale, embraces that moment of abject shock as the project is announced and asks the titular question;

Can we do this?

That question falls squarely on the shoulders of James Webb, played by Dan Lauria. As Russia gets the first man into space, and then the first space walk, it’s Webb who is put under continual pressure to try and get the Americans ahead of the game and that pressure, that need, is written all over Lauria’s perpetually hangdog face. The Americans were systematically out manouvered for much of the history of early spaceflight and the episode neatly contrasts the flight of Yuri Gagarin and the first space walk, conducted by Alexi Leonov, with scenes of worried men in suits trying to work out where they went wrong. The Russians are in flight, the Americans, it seems, are still trying to work out how to get off the ground.

That process begins with the Mercury and Gemini projects and culminates in Kennedy’s famous announcement, which is also part of the series’ opening credits. It’s a beautifully played moment as we see Webb and his colleagues react to the speech. There’s a long pause and then Webb asks who wants his job. His colleagues laugh and after a moment’s conversation, Webb again asks who wants his job and this time, no one laughs. Ten years to get an American on the moon. Ten years to get from pressurised cannisters lobbed over the horizon and back again to a world wide net work of communications and sensors and technology, designed from scratch, that could transport three people to the moon and back again. Needless to say, no one volunteers to take his job, and slowly, the impossible is rendered down to the merely all but impossible. Goals are defined, engineering contracts are developed, design work begins and the next step is defined; Gemini. Two men where Mercury was one, a chance to get more astronauts in orbit, more experience and begin achieving the seemingly endless list of objectives needed for a moon shot.

All of which begins in a hotel in Houston, where a man called Max Peck checks in over and over and over again. It’s a moment of quiet, slightly desperate comedy, as the new astronauts all check in under the same code name but the scene also carries a resonance that echoes through the rest of the project and the series. These men are all unique and all the same, each part of the mission but none more important than the others. Max Peck will walk on the moon and each of them is Max Peck.

But not all Max Pecks are created equal, something which becomes clear as the new astronauts make their way out into the country to help raise the profile and funds of the project. At one particular fund raiser, astronaut Elliot See is greeted with polite enthusiasm by some and barely contained derision by others, because unlike several of his colleagues, he hasn’t flown yet. An astronaut isn’t an astronaut unless he’s been above the atmosphere, unless he’s pitted his fragile humanity against inconceivable scale, inconceivable distance. This idea, that the astronaut corps are defined by their work rather than their personality, is something that continues to haunt the American space program and is explored throughout the series, most notably in episode two, Apollo 1, and episode 3 We Have Cleared The Tower.

Matched with this need to build a reputation is the brutally simple fact that everything about the project is dangerous. The very real human costs of the project form the focus of Apollo 1 but they’re foreshadowed here, through See and Ed White, the first American to walk in space. See never flew, killed in a plane crash, whilst Ed White’s space walk was one of the defining moments of American space travel and is presented here as the moment the program really gained momentum. One of the final scenes of the episode is White, sitting astride his Gemini capsule as it orbits the Earth, pointing, just for a moment, at the moon. It’s a beautiful, complex image, evoking Doctor Strangelove as much as the heroic ideal of the Astronaut, the pressure-suited knight riding a steed built by hundreds of people towards glory. Arrogance and persistence, hard work and vision, cinema and history combine in a moment which is iconic, complicated and tragic.

It’s revealing that the episode doesn’t finish with this but rather with a group of astronauts being informed that they will be the staff for the Apollo project, that one of them will walk on the moon. Once again, there’s the idea of scale vs individuality, of one historical moment that any of them could carry. This scene answers the question at the top of the episode, definitively and with absolute confidence; we can do this, we will do this and one of these men will be the one to do it. Max Peck is going to the moon, but as episode two shows, the price of getting there is far higher than anyone in the project realises.

Stargate Universe: Darkness, Light and the Luxury of Shadow

Darkness subtracts. Darkness doesn’t just take away where you’re going it takes away where you’ve been, stranding you in an eternal present you can neither see nor touch. That removal of outside stimuli not only forces us to look inward it also brings our inner selves to the surface, reveals things we may not want ourselves, or anyone else, to know. In the dark, the wild things come out to play.

The fourth episode of Stargate Universe, explores the concept of darkness as both an external and internal problem. Externally, that darkness is caused by a sudden collapse in the ship’s power systems, one that Rush blames entirely on Col Young’s deployment of research teams around the ship. In an instant, the Destiny loses everything from lighting to propulsion and coasts, apparently out of control, further out into space. The crew are, literally, powerless and that realisation throws the internal darkness of several major characters into stark relief even as the Destiny slips further into the night.

For Col Young, the darkness gives him a moment to draw breath. A leader who has been almost incapable of leading for the last three episodes, Everett Young takers centre stage for much of this episode and Louis Ferreira’s dialled back, pensive performance gives the commanding officer as much fragility as it does authority. Young’s still badly injured, still trying to function and still doing what he thinks is best, but he’s operating in the dark in every major way and what he finds there surprises both him and the viewer. Young chose his career over his marriage and when the lights go out on Destiny he’s forced to re-examine that decision. There are no histrionics, no over wrought emotions here, just a cautious, reticent, dialled back man trying to re connect with a wife that he abandoned. He’s a good officer and a good leader but when the lights go out he has no idea if either of those things really matter.

For Nicholas Rush, the darkness is a brick wall, too high, too wide and too close. He’s clearly brilliant but he’s not quite brilliant enough, his inability to work with people combining with Young’s drive to get home to drain Destiny’s power. The only thing worse than that fact is that Rush knows it, his relentlessly analytical mind throwing up his mistake again and again until it’s all he can see. The moment where he breaks down is particularly interesting, his anger at Young clearly masking his own guilt and putting his shame and terror at his own failing to the fore. Whether Rush admits it to anyone else, he’s in the wrong and he knows it and that knowledge almost breaks him.

For Tamara Johannsen, the darkness is a chance to take comfort in what she knows. Alaina Huffman is rapidly becoming one of the show’s strongest cast members and TJ’s quiet, pragmatic compassion leads to one of the best scenes to date. Her conversation with Rush, after he wakes up, is the most open either character has been to date, Rush admitting his weaknesses to the one person that he doesn’t think will judge him and TJ taking clear and immense comfort in the doctor/patient relationship. It’s a moment for both of them to catch their breath, to be given support and validation without having to ask for either and it’s remarkable to watch.

For Eli Wallace, the darkness is an opportunity. David Blue’s slightly nervous comic timing is put to tremendous use here as Eli finds himself in three difficult situations, each of which tells us more about him. The first sees Lt. Vanessa James drag him away from a conversation with Chloe to talk to him ‘alone’. The sexual connotation is openly acknowledged in the next scene where James instead takes Eli to an impromptu council of war of the lower ranked soldiers aboard. Eli, to the surprise of everyone there, not only faces them down but acknowledges that their concerns are valid, becoming a bridge between the different crew factions as he does so. It’s a nicely played moment for everyone, where no one is quite right and no one is quite wrong. James may manipulate Eli but she does it for the good of everyone she works with and Eli’s acknowledgement of that is a clear step forward for both characters.
The second moment reinforces this as Volker and Brody, two of the engineers aboard report to Col. Young that there’s no way to solve the power outage. When Eli puts forward a solution, he’s not only thanked by Col Young but also used as a stick to beat the other two men with. Eli is an undisciplined college dropout who, on the first day on the job, was put in the worst situation possible. He’s still working, still doing everything he can and simply by doing that he not only becomes something more than the young man he was when he arrived but also becomes the first member of Destiny’s crew to accept and begin to adapt to their situation.
The third situation neatly undercuts that as Eli and Sgt. Hunter Riley are found using one of the ship’s Kinos to spy on Lt. Vanessa James. Operating in the dark, the two men have reverted to basic adolescent behaviour, a recent memory for both and the end result is a well written but deeply uncomfortable scene. Col. Young’s overt, deadpan disappointment with the two of them is a welcome break in the tension but the fact remains that one of the ship’s best scientific minds and one of the ship’s only Gate technicians are caught using alien technology to spy on a colleague in her underwear. No one’s perfect in the dark and whilst the sexism is in context, it’s still difficult to watch.

Darkness focusses. When you can’t see anything, you find yourself turning to what’s important to you, a fact neatly reflected in the testimonials Eli spends the episode recording from other characters. From Vanessa James’ simple plea to not die out in space to Matthew Scott’s prayer, each one of them turns inwards and only some of them like what they find. Not all of these people are likeable, or even like each other, but all of them are fragile, all of them are human and all of them, in the end, are alone in the dark.
Even then, darkness doesn’t last forever. As the episode finishes, the crew realise they’ve dropped out of Faster Than Light travel on the edge of a solar system, itself an incredible coincidence. When that system is found to have habitable planets, the situation changes and suddenly, the crew find themselves with a tiny sliver of light, a reason to hope. They relax and watch as the Destiny, huge but dwarfed by the gas giant it’s flying through, aerobrakes into the system. Under deep blue, almost marine light, the Destiny’s crew take a moment to revel in the incredible place they’ve found themselves in. Until they realise that the ship is heading directly for the system’s star, the light at the end of the tunnel becomes all too clear and, suddenly, darkness looks like a luxury they will soon miss.

Light overwhelms. Light doesn’t just show you how far you’ve come it shows you how far you still have to go, stripping you of complacency, of the comfort of not being able to see all the way ahead. That flood of external stimuli forces you to fall back on instinct, on what we know best even if we’d prefer not to. In the light, all the lies we tell ourselves are stripped away until our true selves are exposed, whether we want it to be or not. ‘Light’, the season’s fifth episode, uses the backdrop of a lottery to decide who will leave the ship on the only shuttle to explore what happens when every weakness, every fault and every strength are illuminated.

In the light, Matthew Scott and Chloe find comfort in nothing but each other. The relationship, already forged in adversity through the death of Chloe’s father, is consummated in the light of the star that will kill them, a moment of desperate human intimacy that is all they can hope for and all they really want, It’s not quite love, not yet, but it’s the closest either of them will get. It’s also a moment that shows not only far they’ve already come but how far they still have to go. Chloe is painfully aware that she’s a fifth wheel, lacking even the scientific skills of most of the rest of the civilians whilst Matt is blissfully unaware of anything else, using his time with Chloe to delay the inevitable. He holds onto the belief that she’ll be one of the people picked as long as he can and when that’s stripped away, he falls back on the two pillars of his life; duty and faith.

In the light, Vanessa James remembers who she is. Despite her anger over the relationship between Matthew Scott and Chloe, she does her job, stands her post and looks after her people because in the end, that’s what she knows best. The relationship dies the moment she finds Matt and Chloe together, but something new, something deeper, is born the moment she meets his eyes when she arrives at the shuttle. Everything is said in a single glance and then she turns and guards the airlock, prepared to shoot any of her friends and colleagues who weren’t picked. It’s a moment of silent heroism that not only shows exactly how bad things have got but how strong James is. She’s rapidly becoming one of the most interesting second tier characters and it’s going to be fascinating to see how she’s developed.

In the light, Ron Greer and Nicholas Rush are given the last thing they expected; a moment of peace. Serving with unfailing loyalty, Greer accompanies Colonel Young on what he believes will be his last walk. The moment where Ron apologises for letting Colonel Young down and Young responds with a simple ‘At ease, Ronald’ is heartbreaking, an acknowledgement of a friendship and respect that never feels forced or tawdry.
Rush, for his part, is transformed by their apparent death. He becomes open, calm, even friendly, apologising to Eli and making his peace with Colonel Young. He welcomes their apparent doom for the same reason Ron does; as a chance to lay down his burdens and end his life in exactly the place he wanted to be.

In the light, Eli Wallace remembers who he is. The arrested adolescent who spies on women in their underwear is replaced by a young man who has, he thinks, come to the end of his life and likes where he and who he is. Like Lt. James he’s hurt by the relationship between Matt and Chloe and, like James, he deals with it. It’s Eli who comes up with the idea of recording final messages, Eli who gives Rush the gift of seeing the ship from the outside and Eli, along with Chloe, who faces their fate head on. He’s a good man, not a perfect one, but at long last he realises that he’s good enough.

In the light, Camille Wray gets her priorities right. Ming Na has been the least used of the cast so far but there’s clearly a slow build with Camille that will pay off later in the season. Her Kino message, a simple, honest expression of love for her girlfriend, is one of the episode’s most affecting moments and gives her, and the situation the crew are in, welcome depth.

In the light, the Destiny’s crew learn they have no idea what’s happening to them. The episode’s closing scenes are where it really flies, as the ship plunges into the star to refuel instead of to die and the crew’s celebrations are cut short as they realise the shuttle and it’s crew can’t catch up to them. As Rush, Eli and Scott frantically cobble together a solution it becomes clear that the final lesson the crew learn is devastatingly simple; they must rely on each other to survive. For the first time, the Destiny’s crew are truly united in dealing with a problem and, whilst Rush recoils from his perceived weakness, that bond looks set to stay in place. They’re the wrong people, in the wrong place but,whether in darkness or light, they have no one else to rely on.

The Village is Open for Business: The Prisoner Preview

A nine minute trailer for The Prisoner remake is now up at The Prisoner Online. As well as the gorgeous setting, it seems to have neatly co-opted the original series’ surreal touches and used them to play three card monte with the viewer. Is it a conspiracy? Time travel? Aliens? Either way, it looks great and can’t turn up quickly enough for my taste.

Counting to 456: Torchwood and the Children of Earth

The Earth(This essay discusses the entire series in detail. Spoilers for every episode abound.)

In 1966, something terrible makes contact with the British government. Something worse delivers twelve children to it. One escapes to a life of homelessness and mental illness, a life of misery and nightmares of a man in a long coat who promised safety and lied. The others disappear.
In 2009, a voice speaks from the throat of every child in the world and the child who escaped, the man in the long coat and a group of civil servants, politicians and innocent bystanders find themselves at the centre of an event that marks a very intimate apocalypse.

Torchwood:Children of Earth throws everything the previous two series built up around themselves out and replaces it with something which is both infinitely darker and far more contemporary. Five episodes long, each one of them equating to a single day, it’s a story that deals with powerlessnes, societal collapse and what it means to face total, absolute change. These big ideas are all viewed through the lens of small, personal apocalypses, a very human look at how the world ends that hasn’t been seen on British television since The Day of the Triffids. Both are stories about normal people in impossible situations and both follow what happens when those people do the only thing they can; break.

This is clearest in John Frobisher, played by Peter Capaldi. Frobisher is a resolutely average man wth a wife, two daughters and no chance of moving any higher in the government. When the children begin to speak, he is placed in charge by the PM and finds himself giving the order to kill the only people who could uncover the British government’s previous interaction with the alien race known as the 456. When faced with this responsibility he does what almost anyone would do; delegates it to his assistant and murder becomes an item on someone’s to do list. Six people have their death warrants signed before the first coffee run of the day, thanks to something as innocuous as it is disturbing; a blank piece of paper.

Frobisher is at the heart of the story’s strongest element; it’s political dimension. Approaching an event of this magnitude from the perspective of a government allows the writers to take the impossible, fantastic events of the five days and not only ground them but curdle them. This is second contact presented as a policy issue, an action item and as a result this is a moment of singular, abject change that is tainted with the same air of polite sleaze and passive aggressive corruption that has tainted British politics for as long as I’ve been alive. Frobisher is a middle manager put in charge of negotiations with an alien race for no reason other than his diposability, a useful tool in the same way a pen is, or a gun.
He’s a flawed, unfaithful man who signs off on murder but is all too aware of what he’s doing. He knows why he has the job, knows he can never escape it and knows exactly who he’s dealing with. In one of the story’s best moments, he tells Jack that he has his daughter and grandson. Jack threatens to kidnap Frobisher’s wife and Frobisher smiles, apologises and tells Jack that he won’t do that, because he’s the better man. John Frobisher is not a good man, by any stretch of the imagination, but he knows exactly what he is and that makes for queasy, uncomfortable and riveting viewing.
Frobisher, in the end, is not even a monster, he’s the man who stands next to the monsters and in the end, that leaves him with no choice but to become one. His final scene, played out over Bridget explaining that he was a good man is heartbreak in needlepoint, an average life collapsing into horror in one of the series’ many quiet targedies. Frobisher returns home, and Bridget explains how they met. Frobisher sends his children upstairs, and Bridget remarks that he always worked hard and that that isn’t appreciated enough. Frobisher takes a gun from a box, his hand shaking and walks upstairs to the only conclusion he has left, the only way he can still protect his family.
Bridget, his aide, appears to be stronger than Frobisher for most of the story. She’s a career civil servant, a woman who is as calm as she is disillusioned, grinding her way through the same tasks in the same office for yet another decade. It’s only as the series continues that we see who she really is, a fiercely competent woman who has been overlooked and ignored her entire life and has come to accept that. Like Frobisher she’s not exceptional, like Frobisher she’s doomed the moment the job is passed to them but unlike him, she is lucky enough to be given a means of escape. Her final scene, calmly informing the Prime Minister that everything he’s said has been recorded could be played as triumphant, as a final victory but instead it’s played as the closing note of a career that stalled years previously. Bridget was in the room just like everyone else, she said nothing, just like everyone else but in what is surely the last moments of the government, she finds the strength to do the right thing.

If Frobisher and Bridget have greatness thrust upon them and are crushed by it, then Brian Green, the Prime Minister embraces it for all the wrong reasons. Nicholas Farrell has the hardest job of all, playing a man who could and in some ways should be a caricature, a politician who sees nothing but an opportunity in the greatest crime ever committed against humanity. He’s polite, plausible, slippery and utterly convincing, telling Frobisher his children will be taken so the government can appear to be ‘victims’ too with exactly the right amount of sympathy needed to get him out of the door. Green is the embodiment of decades of failure in English politics, a man who exists to do one thing; continue to govern. After all, there are things to be done, policies to be made, elections to be won.

This attitude leads to the series’ most horrific and best scene, the axis around which everything else ultimately revolves. The 456 issue their demands for ten percent of the world’s children and the PM and his cabinet begin discussing the logistics. In the space of ten minutes, they go from the absurdity of attempting to haggle, to excusing their own children from removal to discussing how to ‘spin’ the biggest crime in human history to a single line which embodies the series’ uniquely horrible approach to science fiction:

‘”If we can’t identify the lowest achieving 10% of this country’s children, then what are the school league tables for?”

This is it. This is the moment that Torchwood has talked about for two years, the moment ‘where everything changes’ and it’s only when it arrives that two awful truths become clear; the wrong people are presiding over it and no one ever said things would change for the better. This is the end of the world decided by committee, a very English, polite, sickening apocalypse.
In isolation, this would simply be disturbing. However, we see it through a resolutely normal perspective, Lois Habiba, a new secretary played by Cush Jumbo and that’s what makes it truly horrifying. Lois is a normal young woman who finds herself, along with Frobisher and Bridget, in the middle of history. She’s also the key to the rest of the characters’ survival, the only woman who is prepared to believe not just in Torchwood, but in the idea that something other than appeasement is possible. The series has already been criticised for its jet black ending and the incredibly cynicism with which it views humanity but Lois embodies the best elements of us, the quiet, polite young woman who still believes in doing the right thing, even in the face of incredible pressure to turn the other cheek. She grounds the political scenes, reminding the viewer that millions of lives are being weighed against billions and that each and every one of them is a child, is innocent. They all know they have blood on their hands but Lois is the only one horrified enough by it to do something.

She’s also where the real hope of the story lies, not in the people we are expected to trust but in the people who are just like us. It’s given voice by both Lois and Ianto and Jack’s families, resolutely normal people who are consumed by the bad choices made further up the line. Ianto’s sister Rhiannon (Katie Wix) and brother in law Johnny (Rhodri Davies) provide much of the comic relief with Johnny’s cheerful approach to petty crime a stark contrast to the resolutely proper Ianto. However, for all this they’re compassionate, nice, normal people. They worry about what Ianto does, whether or not he’s gay, cheerfully pump him for information on Jack and are all but destroyed by both his death and the total betrayal of the population by the government. They’re everyone, a normal couple trapped at the end of the world and despite everything, desperately concerned with keeping their kids safe.
In stark contrast, Jack’s daughter Alice knows exactly what her father does and wants no part of it. Where Rhiannon and Johnny are brash and honest and open, Alice is closed off, cautious. Through her, we see what a life lived next to Torchwood does, see a woman who never quite relaxes and who is sharp enough to know her father is prepared to use his own grandson as a test subject. She’s played with total reticence and reserve by Lucy Cohu and like many characters gets a final scene of incredible emotional weight. After Jack has sacrificed Stephen, he’s sitting, alone, in a corridor. She walks through one set of doors, pauses, then turns her back on him. Jack looks at her, then leaves via the other doors. In any other series it would be a moment of redemption and triumph, two people finally breaking away from one another to build their own lives. Here, it’s a moment of acceptance as Jack heads for a future stripped of everyone he loves, or at least, those who’ve survived.

For two years Torchwood has described itself as being beyond the government and above the law. If the idea that the government are to be trusted is the first great lie of Children of Earth, this is the second. Every single weakness of the previous two years is exposed and used as a weapon against the team, from the open secret of their existence to their uneasy relationship with the government and Jack’s immortality. By the end of episode one they are cut off from their support structure, their headquarters and their past. By the end of the story they are decimated, reduced to one member with their status in what is surely a very different world unclear.
This is also their finest hour as every single one of the series regulars turns in career best performances. After two seasons of being told how charming and human Gwen is, Eve Myles is finally allowed to show us that side of the character. For the first time we not only see the quiet, friendly, commanding young woman that Gwen is supposed to be but also the very natural and surprisingly poignant relationship she has with her husband, Rhys. Myles and Kai Owen are an incredibly charming double act, finishing each other’s sentences and bantering with one another like people who’ve spent years of their lives together. The moment where Rhys finds out Gwen is pregnant and insists on carrying her rucksack is another of the series’ best and quietest moments. Gwen has survived a bomb explosion, fought for her life against government assassins and kept the pair of them alive but Rhys is damned if he’s going to let his pregnant wife carry a rucksack. They are the heart of the story and the chilling, bitter monologue Gwen delivers at the start of episode five is made all the more affecting by the sight of Rhys, tears rolling down his face, filming her.
Gareth David-Lloyd as Ianto is also given some great material, especially in his interactions with Jack and his family. For the first time, we see something beyond the proper, old fashioned young man with a fondness for good suits and the moment where he arranges to meet Rhiannon where their father broke his leg is another of the series’ best moments. Rhiannon defends their father, Ianto holds his ground and in less than ten seconds we all that we need to see. Ianto decided to be a good man a very long time ago and whilst he’s not always succeeded he’s never stopped trying. His final moments drive that home and for a character who started out at the heart of many of the show’s weakest episodes, his death is the most affecting of them all.

At the centre of it all though stands Jack Harkness. John Barrowman’s work here is exemplary, balancing the playfulness of Jack’s personality with moments of total emotional collapse. His reluctance to treat his relationship with Ianto as something serious makes for some of the best jokes in the series but has a real edge to it as we see Jack run, time and again, not just from happiness but from responsibility. He knows what he’s done, knows how Ianto will react when he finds out and keeps himself at arm’s length because that’s where he feels he deserves to be. The events of Children of Earth do nothing to change that.
Just as the Gwen we see here is the one we’ve always been promised, this is the Jack Harkness that should always have been at the heart of the show. He’s a matinee idol fifty years out of time, a man who doesn’t age but knows death and who has done terrible things for what he thinks is the greater good. He’s the dark mirror of the Doctor, a man who does bad things for good reasons and who is covered in so much blood, a little more won’t matter. Here, at long last, the writers let Barrowman show the weight of Captain Jack’s thousands of years of life, the damage done to a man who can do nothing but live. Yet again, his best moments are the quiet ones, his distraught reaction to Ianto’s death, the scene with Alice in the corridor, the moment where Gwen asks if he’ll come back and he says simply ‘Why?’. Jack has done it all, the bad far more than the good and he can no longer take it. He’s a broken hero in a broken world and in the end does the one thing he can do; leave.

Ranged against all of them is the 456, an alien we never see as anything but an abstraction of beaks and mucus. This is the true genius of the piece, sidestepping the traditional, slightly poor Doctor Who monster for something which is as implacable as it is invisible. The 456 repeats the same phrases over and over, utterly confident in its superiority and presented, at least at first, as just that; a superior force, an alien that can’t be seen or stopped, only communicated with. When that fades, when the 456 are revealed as nothing more than junkies wanting children for the chemicals they secrete, it’s shattering, the accepted wisdom of modern science fiction in general and Doctor Who in particular collapsing as we realise we’re not even important enough to conquer, just to farm. Again, everything changes and we’re shown not only how small we are, but how cruel the universe around is. We’re cattle, to paraphrase Charles Fort and Clem, the only survivor of the 1966 incident played with tremendous strength and dignity by Paul Copley, is defective cattle. His death is as casual as Ianto’s, as cruel and whilst it holds the key to defeating the 456, he’s still dead and he is far from alone.

Children of Earth is stunning, in the most literal sense of the word. It evokes classic British science fiction but does so with an approach which is modern without once being self conscious or mocking. This is a story about what we do in the face of total disaster, of tiny disasters and tiny victories and the way they weave together to make history, for better and for worse. Packed with incredible performances, it’s a relentlessly grim exploration of the moment everything changes for humanity and what happens to those left behind. It’s a modern classic in every sense, a story that takes old elements and makes them timely and new. 21st century TV drama has rarely been better.

From Gallifrey to Elsinore

The 12th DoctorFor a ‘gap’ year, there’s a lot of Doctor Who news around at the moment. First off, the long awaited movie version has been officially announced by the BBC. On top of that, David Tennant, Russell T Davies and Euros Lyn are all at the San Diego Comic Convention this month, leading a lot of people to believe an announcement is forthcoming.
If so, the project couldn’t have stronger figureheads The kudos of having a project fronted by one of the most popular Doctors, produced by the man who resurrected the series and headed by one of its most successful directors can’t be over estimated. Nor, perhaps, can the fact that Lyn will be appearing on the back of his work on the Torchwood: Children of Earth mini-series.

Next up, Tennant will be returning to Elsinore as the RSC‘s superb Hamlet will be filmed for both DVD release and broadcast. It’s a staggeringly good production with the first definitive Hamlet of the 21st century at its head and I can’t wait to see how it holds up to being recorded.

The Dalek Incident Finally, Cubicle 7 have announced the Doctor Who roleplaying game will be published in October. It’s a boxed set, and I can particularly recommend the adventures booklet…

Back to the Village

The Prisoner was arguably the oddest piece of genre TV ever produced, a feverish mixture of espionage, psychological thriller, science fiction and the surrealist architecture of Portmeirion. It’s the definitive cult classic, a series as fascinating as it is frustrating and a puzzle people are still struggling to solve, decades later.
Later this year, it returns to television. The new version will star Jim Caviziel as Number Six and Sir Ian Mckellen as Number Two and is apparently set to explore the nature of identity and personal freedom in this wired, paranoia-drenched world. So like the man himself used to say, be seeing you…

Ghost Facers, facing the ghosts…up north

Rogue Events appear to be organising what may be the oddest convention I’ve ever heard of; a convention for a TV show that doesn’t exist outside the world of another TV show. With me so far?

The Ghost Facers have appeared in two episodes of the excellent ‘Supernatural’ and are the polar opposite of the show’s heroes, Sam and Dean. Where the Winchester brothers are effortlessly cool, leather jacketed hunters of the dark, the Ghost Faces are endearingly rubbish, massively self righteous and as far from the square jawed heroes as you can get. They’re also, and this is the important part, not remotely real.

Which is why Hell Hounds is such a pleasant surprise. Running from October 30th to November 1st in York which is far more accessible than normal convention venues for me, Hell Hounds features the entire Ghost Facers team as guests, a vendors room and various events.

But what I really want to know is; will it feature panels about the entirely fictional show? Will there be discussions of events in a series that doesn’t exist? Will the series suddenly exist once I step across the threshold? More news as I get it…

(TV) The Landing, not the Take Off

The hardest thing, a lot of the time, is not to know where to start but knowing where to end.  Big entrances are relatively easy to pull off, but big exits?  Leaving your audience wanting more?  That’s hard.  After all, openings have a natural structure to them, you introduce your protagonist, introduce the situation they find themselves in, their antagonist, their allies, the time and place and throw in a little drama.  Effectively you’re setting out the stall, showing people your wares and, provided you have a good grasp of your story it’ll go well.

Sometimes, if you’re very lucky or very, very good, then your opening is exceptional.  The first episode of The West Wing, for example, is a spectacular piece of drama for three reasons.  Firstly, the essence of the show is contained in it’s opening ten minute swoop through the lives of the White House senior staff, the graceful, almost balletic way that Leo Mcgarry coasts through his arrival at work and the way his massively intelligent, utterly broken colleagues all answer their call to arms.  This is the show, the movement, the dialogue, the big ideas and bigger personalities and the way they dance around one another.
Secondly, the cast is beyond exceptional.  There’s not a single bum note in the entire hour from the principle players, everyone from Jon Spencer’s charming, fiercely intelligent Leo to Richard Schiff’s quietly seething Toby Ziegler and Bradley Whitford’s utterly confident, utterly arrogant, utterly broken Josh Lyman are pitch perfect.  Even the guest stars work supremely well and by the time you get to the final scene, the President gently taking his staff to task and turning to face the affairs of state it’s somewhere between cheerfully triumphant and deeply moving.
The final and most important reason though is that every element of the series is in play from the start, some more than were initially apparent.  For all Aaron Sorkin’s statements that the series was never intended to be centered around the President and Josh Lyman it’s next to impossible to impossible to look at the first episode and not see seven years of Martin Sheen as the most intelligent politician the world has never had, not see seven years of Josh slowly becoming the man he thinks he is instead of the man he is.  An opening episode is a series in microcosm, a snapshot of the story as much as the gateway into it.

But what about the ending?  Having taken the toys out of the box, how do you put them back in?  To continue to use the West Wing as an example, the final episode, ‘Tomorow’ continues to split opinion, as do all the post-Sorkin years.  There’s no big moment of triumph, even in the inauguration, and as a result of that and the sense of the chairs being put on the tables and the lights turned out, a lot of people find it unsatisfying.  But in many ways it’s the perfect ending to the series, mirroring the personal crises of the first episode and bringing them into land.  The affairs of state are bigger than everyone, even Bartlet and as the new administration gears up, as characters move on to higher positions or leave the White House, that’s communicated with elegance and pragmatism.  In the beginning, Bartlet appears quoting the 10 Commandments and at the end he leaves thinking about the future he’s earned, the chance to not be the President, but to be Jed Bartlet.

But ‘Tomorrow’ continues to be the exception that proves the rule.  The Star Trek franchise is particularly bad at final episodes with Voyager‘s ending laden down with a lumpen Borg plot and Enterprise‘s a simultaneous slap in the face to fans of the show and the larger franchise.  Even Buffy, cult favourite as it is, is regarded by many, including show creator Joss Whedon, as having reached it’s logical end with the close of it’s fifth year, a full two seasons before it actually finished.  More recently, Lost, widely pilloried for treading water for much of it’s third year was allowed to set an end date and almost straight away became much more focussed, much more coherent.  An end is a start as the Editors might put it

Sometimes though, endings arrive a little sooner than expected.  A few years ago, Alias was one of Marvel Comics’ critical darlings.  Written by Brian Michael Bendis and drawn by Michael Gaydos it was the story of a third-rate ex-Avenger who was reduced to acting as a private eye, working on the streets as her former colleagues soared overhead.  It wasn’t a perfect title but it was consistently smart, funny, dark and marked the start of the company’s drift towards the very contemporary, politically charged work that’s the mainstay of the Marvel Universe today.

Then, one day, it ended.

Bendis freely admits it was the last thing he was expecting, but one day he got to the end of an issue script and realized it was the final issue.  He’d finished the story and once you write those last two words, two words that have more weight and gravity to any others, there’s no going back.

THE END

Bendis, and his boss, Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada played it absolutely straight, cancelling the title and spinning Jessica, the main character off into a new series, The Pulse and later appearances in the Avengers family of titles.  The story had ended, there was no sense in stringing it out and they acted accordingly,

That’s an awareness, not just of text but of consequence that’s surprisingly rare in both TV and comics.  Sometimes you have to know when to get off the stage and sometimes that decision is made for you.

Grey’s Anatomy, for example, finished at the end of the fourth season and so far, no one on either side of the camera appears to have noticed.

The final two hours of Grey’s Anatomy‘s fourth season, ‘Freedom’ are an unusual combination of the spectacularly goofy and some of the most needlepoint perfect character work in the last five years.  Mixed in around Derek and Meredith’s clinical trial and the desperately complicated, intricate attempts of the entire surgical staff to extricate a teenager from a block of concrete are quiet but definitive endings to every single character’s plot line.  Each relationship, each character beat is moved to a point where if the ending is not on screen, it’s certainly within sight.  George finally expresses his frustration and stands up for himself, Yang regains her confidence in the operating theatre and Meredith not only finally realizes her mother wasn’t suicidal but is given a chance to finally be with Derek and grabs it with both hands.  This level of resolution is everywhere, as Mark breaks up with Callie voluntarily so she can pursue a relationship with Hahn, the Chief finally asks for and is given forgiveness by his wife and in the closing moments, Izzy is given Denny’s Memorial Clinic by Bailey.  The show even ends with Bailey, literally, turning the lights off and going home.  It’s a genuinely beautiful montage, each character moving onto new things as, underneath it all Bryn Christopher sings ‘The Quest’ like he’s just been released from prison.  As final scenes go, it’s right up there with the final swoop through Cicely in Northern Exposure, the final moments of The Peacekeeper Wars, the wonderful and very odd final scenes of Due South.  This is a series that’s done and it makes sure everyone looks good on the way out of the door.

But it didn’t end there, and that’s the problem.  The fifth season has seen TR Knight, who plays George, asked to be released from his contract, Katherine Heigl finding herself in the middle of a plot that appears to involve Izzy having a relationship with Denny, her dead boyfriend who is haunting the hospital and Brooke Smith dropped overnight for, it would appear, being too good at playing Hahn, the lesbian character in a lesbian relationship she was hired to play.  The fifth season is indisputably in trouble and it’s difficult not to look at the perfect tie off to the show that season four offered as one of the reasons why.

In the end, it comes down to expectation.  Mulder and Scully have a potential romance and the series soars, Mulder and Scully become a couple and the series collapses.  The mystery of who will destroy New York powers one of the best opening seasons in history whilst the disaster being averted puts Heroes into a flat spin it may not recover from.  The story has to please it’s viewers and it’s creators and in the revenue driven world of network TV that’s very nearly impossible.  Get it right and you’ll be given your time on the spotlight, get it too right and you might not be allowed to leave again.
There are exceptions to this of course, with Bill Lawrence, creator and producer of Scrubs for example.  Lawrence, along with series star Zach Braff, is off at the end of this season but is quite open about how happy he would be for the show to continue without the pair of them.  His justification is simple; if the show’s on the air then a couple of hundred people are employed.  If it isn’t, they’re not.

There’s no easy answer here, no magic bullet to keep networks, producers, writers, actors and fans happy.  Some will want the show to last forever, others will want to wrap it up at set points and someone’s certain to go home unhappy.  The best that can be hoped for is that a series aims higher than it can reach, that in the end it knows when to leave the stage as much as when to arrive.