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“WAR is our imperative!” December 13, 2007

Posted by jackal in : TV , 2 comments

It’s a barren time for TV fans in general, with the Writers Guild of America strike now over a month old, no sign of fresh negotiations, let alone a deal, and hopes of salvaging anything resembling a full season for most shows fading fast. For Battlestar Galactica fans, the barren landscape is nothing new - we’re only in the middle of a looooong wait for the fourth, extended and final season of the insanely good drama. From last March’s season three cliffhanger we still have to wait until April of 2008 for episode 4.1 - and that’s assuming Sci-Fi don’t postpone the premiere due to the writers’ strike (only the first ten of the twenty episodes have so far been produced).

The Cylon surprise attack

There is a bright spot, however, and its name is Razor. Focusing on the Battlestar Pegasus, introduced in episode 2.11 “Pegasus”, the newly-produced TV movie Battlestar Galactica: Razor brings back Michelle Forbes as Admiral Cain, and fleshes out the journey of Pegasus during the missing ten months between the Cylon attack on the colonies and her eventual encounter with Galactica. We’re introduced to Lt. Kendra Shaw (Stephanie Chaves-Jacobsen), a young Pegasus bridge officer, who is witness to the brutal lengths Cain goes to in her quest to maintain a fighting force. Gradually Shaw herself becomes fashioned by Cain into a “razor” of war, as we watch events previously only described in passing on the show.

Starbuck and Apollo at his promotion to Pegasus Commander

Interspersed with the Pegasus backstory is the tale of Lee Adama’s first mission as Pegasus commander (ergo set after 2.17 “The Captain’s Hand”), the inclusion of which is justified by the Kendra Shaw’s presence, this time as Lee’s XO. In a deliberate bout of nostalgia, this thread of the story, as well as Admiral Adama’s flashbacks to events during the first Cylon war, feature the “old-style” Cylon raiders and Centurions - based, of course, on the models from the original 1970s Battlestar Galactica. There’s even a “By your command” in there, too. Very nice.

Old-style toasters!

Most of the BSG regulars get screen time, even if they’re just elbowed in for a scene or two. Featured most strongly are Jamie Bamber, Katee Sackhoff, Edward James Olmos and Tricia Helfer, who gets to once again play Gina, the “Six” model who is captured aboard Pegasus. Best of all is seeing Michelle Forbes return to the role of Admiral Cain. Her guest spot in season two’s “Pegasus” and “Resurrection Ship: Parts 1 & 2″ ranks among the show’s strongest, and it’s truly a pleasure to see her embody the tough and uncompromising Helena Cain once more, introducing some complexity to the character’s emotional backstory. Like the tagline once declared: The Bitch Is Back.

Michelle Forbes as Admiral Cain

Razor was screened a couple of weeks ago on Sci-Fi in an 88-minute broadcast version, immediately followed by a DVD release of the 103-minute “Unrated Extended Edition”, which I viewed. I don’t know what was omitted for the TV version, but nothing here feels overlong or unnecessary, and there’s extra blood and gore if that’s your thing. Razor is not Galactica at its absolute peak: the jumping timeframes are occasionally jarring and the finale a touch corny, but it’s still compelling and thoroughly entertaining. The SFX work is also more extensive than the show’s normal budget allows: Pegasus’ nail-biting escape from spacedock during the devastating Cylon attacks is particularly well-realised. Finally, there’s just the sheer pleasure of seeing these characters in action again while we wait for season four. So say we all.

Kendra Shaw, the Razor of the title

Massachusetts noir: Tom Selleck as Jesse Stone November 6, 2007

Posted by jackal in : TV, Film Noir , add a comment

Robert B. Parker is a fixture of American crime writing, most famous for his long-running Spenser series, now some 35 novels strong. In recent years, however, he’s also turned to a couple of new central characters: female Boston P.I. Sunny Randall (originally designed as a movie vehicle for Helen Hunt) and the troubled anti-hero Jesse Stone. A depressed, functioning alcoholic fired from the LA police force, Stone winds up as police chief in the small Pacific coast town of Paradise, Massachusetts. Haunted by the ex-wife he left behind, Stone’s humble new job is his last chance at salvaging a life and career, and he knows it.

From this starting point Parker is slowly building an increasingly rich and satisfying series of novels, a deliberate departure from the world of Spenser. Stone is younger, flawed, less of a wise-guy. Thus far we have had six novels: Night Passage, Trouble in Paradise, Death in Paradise, Stone Cold, Sea Change and High Profile, which is released in paperback here in the UK this month.

Spenser never translated fully well to the big screen, largely because the right actor to play him hasn’t been found; neither Robert Urich nor Joe Mantegna fully fit the bill of the honourable Boston P.I., an ex-boxer from whom the wisecracks slip as easily as breathing. Parker’s own suggestion of Robert Mitchum in his prime doesn’t get us anywhere, at least without a time machine, and I struggle to think of anyone today who genuinely suits the role.

For whatever reason, Jesse Stone is somehow an easier character to cast. I’ve always pictured Kurt Russell while reading the books, but you could easily find a number of actors for the role. So when the novels came to Hollywood a couple of years ago, in a Stone Cold TV movie starring … Tom Selleck, it seemed an odd choice. Selleck was then 60, playing a character written as 35. It didn’t seem obvious casting.

As it turns out, Selleck was a fan of the books and, serving as executive producer of Stone Cold, protected the integrity of the adaptation. When that film was a ratings hit, a TV movie series bloomed, and Selleck has continued to ensure that the spirit of Parker’s books makes it to the screen intact. There have been plot changes here and there, but at other times entire scenes, frequently down to the dialogue, are lifted from the books unchanged. Parker has in fact called the Jesse Stone movies the most faithful screen versions of his work.

Following 2005’s Stone Cold (actually the fourth novel), Selleck and co. went back and filmed the first novel, Night Passage, as a prequel. Death in Paradise (the third novel) followed that, but was set after Stone Cold. Then (if you’re still keeping up), bringing the series back into line with the novels, Sea Change (a rather loose adaptation of the fifth novel) premiered earlier this year. Currently in post-production is Thin Ice, from an original screenplay, and planned for a Spring 2008 premiere. If it maintains the ratings success, the series will surely continue.

Parker’s characters, dialogue and plots aside, the chief reason for the movies’ success is Selleck, who has delivered consistently exceptional performances as Jesse Stone. Physically, he brings immense gravitas to the character. With his broad but aging 6′ 4″ frame he resembles a grizzled bear, bowed but not broken. Stone is just as he appears in the books: a man of deep regrets. In Sea Change he says “you know, you live long enough, you have regrets. And the ones that nag at you the most are the ones where you knew you had a choice.” The lone picture on display in his home is of a diving Ozzie Smith, a reminder of Stone’s own once-promising career as a shortstop, curtailed by injury. He’s a drunk, barely staying in control, and knows it. He’s also a disciplined police officer with a strong sense of justice and a line in self-deprecating humour (his catchphrase: “I’m just a small town cop; mostly I give out parking tickets”). There’s an economy to his actions; every move is deliberate, each word or gesture has a purpose, and backing it up is a quiet yet visceral strength. On top of it all, Selleck looks more than a decade younger than his 60-some years, negating any concern over his suitability for the role. He got an Emmy nomination for Best Actor in a miniseries or movie for the most recent adaptation, Sea Change, but lost out to Robert Duvall for Broken Trail. Selleck richly deserves to win at least once before the series is through.

Also integral to the continuing success of the films is director Robert Harmon, who has been behind the camera for every entry so far. He succeeds in letting the story unfold at a relaxed pace, allowing characters room to breathe and ensuring that the sparse action, when it does come, is sharply crafted and makes an impact. There are no car chases or gunfights every ten minutes; the movies are somewhat old-fashioned police procedurals, given real bite by the character of Stone and Selleck’s powerhouse portrayal. The atmosphere throughout is downbeat, melancholy; noir is the watchword, and Jeff Beal’s stark but haunting score is the perfect accompaniment. Okay, these are only TV movies, but they’re thoroughly satisfying, and several notches above the competition. They come highly recommended from these quarters. Just make sure you read the novels first.

Now if only somebody would make a similar series of Sunny Randall movies with Katee Sackhoff in the lead. Too young? Maybe, but she’s got attitude to burn, and more than enough charisma and talent to take on the role.

Sackhoff and Jamie Bamber in BATTLESTAR GALACTICA

Starbuck again. Hard at work as always.

Will Peter Falk don the raincoat one last time? September 6, 2007

Posted by jackal in : TV , 2 comments

 

A story has been floating around news sites for a few months now: namely that NBC-Universal TV have a script, Columbo’s Last Case, which is envisaged as a series finale and fond farewell to the character who first appeared on screens (as played by Peter Falk, anyway) in 1968’s Prescription: Murder. The studio are keen, Falk himself likes the script, and given his age - 80 next week - and 2008 being the show’s 40th anniversary, now is unquestionably the time for a proper send-off.

Falk back in the early 70s

ABC, however, aren’t interested. Columbo’s home network for 20 years has turned down Universal’s proposed movie, apparently because they’re now focused on young audiences and, to paraphrase NBC-Universal’s head of programming, no network wants to buy a movie with an 80-year old lead. It’s a bizarre decision, given the solid ratings achieved by the last movie, Columbo Likes the Nightlife. It won’t cost much, and people will tune in, so why not make it? Cable network USA, along with several others, turned it down as well, leaving NBC-Universal and Columbo fans alike thinking “well, ain’t that fucking marvellous.” Actually, series co-creator William Link puts it rather more eloquently in the article linked above: ”Ageism is rampant in Hollywood, at all levels, but this might be more than ageism. The detective shows on the broadcast networks are all police procedurals dominated by endless discussions of forensic evidence. Columbo was a classy, clever, witty show that challenged you to use your mind. It wasn’t something designed to just race across your retina. It didn’t rely on violence or technical jargon. It was a talky show, and there was an elegance to the talk, and that’s just the kind of thing that terrifies the networks these days.”

Falk in NEXT (2007)The idea of making a new instalment of a comfortable, old-fashioned show like Columbo, with an octogenarian lead, is on many levels dubious, but that’s simply not the point. The show lost any trace of reality years ago, as Falk continued to don the raincoat and pound the streets throughout the 1990s and into the new millennium. Even Columbo fans know it’s ridiculous to bring Falk back again, now grey-haired and grizzled like an old fisherman, but viewers deserve a proper farewell. Hell, I only grew up watching repeats on afternoon TV in the 80s and 90s; there are people who’ve watched this show for four decades. This is the chance to finally send the character off into retirement with a little class and warm sentiment. But no. Let’s make another reality show. About rabbits. In jetpacks. On the moon.

Anyway, how about a little history? Despite the original Columbo pilot being produced in 1968, it wasn’t until 1971 that it became a regular on TV screens. As part of NBC’s “Mystery Movie” revolving schedule, Columbo was greenlit, and aired every three weeks, originally alternating with McCloud and McMillan and Wife. It blossomed into a hit for NBC, although they were concerned about the reliance on a single character. Asked to give Columbo a partner, the series creators reluctantly agreed, and created the lieutenant’s now-famous comic sidekick … his nameless, bone-idle bassett hound, known only as “dog”.

The show, meanwhile, went from strength to strength, powered by talented young directors such as Steven Spielberg and Jonathan Demme, and penned by writers like Steven Bochco and Jonathan Latimer. Guest stars piled up like (for want of a better metaphor) garbage: a steady flow of big names, most admittedly past their peak, but still impressive catches. I can’t think of another show that boasts anything remotely close to this array of guests: Anthony Andrews, Eddie Albert, Don Ameche, Diane Baker, Gene Barry, Richard Basehart, Anne Baxter, Theodore Bikel, Honor Blackman, Johnny Cash, John Cassavetes, Jack Cassidy (thrice), Billy Connolly, Robert Conrad, Jackie Cooper, Lindsay Crouse, Robert Culp (thrice), Jamie Lee Curtis, Tyne Daly (twice), Blythe Danner, Faye Dunaway, Dick Van Dyke, Samantha Eggar, Maurice Evans, José Ferrer, Nina Foch, Anne Francis, Jeff Goldblum, Ruth Gordon, Lee Grant, George Hamilton (twice), Laurence Harvey, Edith Head (as herself!), Arthur Hill, Sam Jaffe, Louis Jourdan, Richard Kiley, Martin Landau, Janet Leigh, Robert Loggia, Myrna Loy, Ida Lupino, Ross Martin, Kevin McCarthy, Roddy McDowall, Patrick McGoohan (four times - he and Falk are good friends), Vera Miles, Ray Milland (twice), Sal Mineo, Ricardo Montalban, Leslie Nielsen (twice), Leonard Nimoy, John Payne, Donald Pleasence, Suzanne Pleshette, Vincent Price, Clive Revill, Ron Rifkin, Martin Sheen, William Shatner (twice), Mickey Spillane, Rod Steiger, Dean Stockwell, Rip Torn, Trish Van Devere, Robert Vaughn (twice), Oskar Werner, John Williams, Nicol Williamson, Burt Young, Anthony Zerbe and probably more that aren’t listed on Wikipedia, and that I can’t recall offhand. ;)

Guest star John Cassavetes

Althouth Columbo was a stalwart for NBC throughout the 1970s, the rotating nature of the format meant that only 45 movies in total had been produced by the time it was cancelled in 1978. At its peak, in movies like Murder by the Book, Try and Catch Me or Murder Under Glass, Columbo was superb television drama: tightly plotted, directed, beautifully acted by seasoned veterans, and with occasional moments of comic genius, usually involving the dishevelled lieutenant being mistaken for a hobo or other undesirable character. On occasion, the murderer is a more sympathetic character than the victim, leading to an odd split in the audience identification as he is slowly pinned down by the lieutenant. The fine episode Swan Song is probably the best example of the “sympathetic” villain, due largely to Johnny Cash’s outstanding performance.

Richard Basehart and Honor Blackman

Cancellation was the end of the road for Columbo until, over a decade later, ABC revived the show. Rounding up Falk, his raincoat, dog and battered Peugeot (the last of which had to be tracked down across America because Universal had sold it in 1981), Columbo returned - a little older and more crumpled - in 1989, and has been on the air intermittently ever since: 24 further TV movies, the most recent in 2003, for a grand total to date of 69.

Ray Milland and his wig.

The “new” movies generally aren’t up to the original standard. The weaker ones feel like TV movies too much of the time, and the occasional lack of a big name guest star does no good. There are several solid instalments among them, though: Butterfly in Shades of Grey, Murder, Smoke and Shadows and Columbo Goes to the Guillotine to name just three. The most recent movie, Columbo Likes the Nightlife, with a 75-year old Falk, is for my money the best episode of Columbo since the 1970s. It bodes well for a grand finale, and what would be the show’s 70th movie. Whether we’ll get it, or whether the lieutenant will just be left hanging, remains the big question. NBC-Universal’s plan now is to round up sufficient interest from foreign TV sales that a US network will agree to fund the difference. As Mark Dawidziak remarks at the end of his article linked above: No killer, no matter how ingenious, ever defeated Lt. Columbo. The insidious combination of ageism and demographics might manage this trick. And that would be a crime.

Falk in the 90s

“Good morning Mr Briggs …” August 14, 2007

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I’ve been watching Mission: Impossible again from the start in recent months, Paramount having finally begun to release the original 60s show on DVD (the first two seasons are out now; the third is coming in November). I remember the show fondly from my childhood; even then it was a quarter century old, repeated on Channel 4 each Sunday morning.

Steven Hill and Martin Landau

Now, spruced up on DVD, the show is 40 years old and just as entertaining. The first season is my era, with the original and, in my opinion, best cast: team leader Dan Briggs (Steven Hill), ’man of a million faces’ Rollin Hand (Martin Landau), glamorous Cinnamon Carter (Barbara Bain, married to Landau at the time), electronics expert Barney Collier (Greg Morris) and strongman Willy Armitage (Peter Lupus).

Barbara Bain as Cinnamon Carter

Everybody remembers Jim Phelps (Peter Graves) and seems to forget his predecessor. Graves took over as team leader in season two after Steven Hill was fired, reportedly for being difficult on set and (as an Orthodox Jew) refusing to work on the sabbath, often throwing the show behind schedule. Graves is an excellent lead, but for my money, Hill is just as good on screen, always cool and understated in his performances. Once Graves took over, he stayed for the duration of the show’s run, while the rest of the original cast were gradually whittled down. In came the likes of Leonard Nimoy, Sam Elliott, Lesley Ann Warren and others, and when the show ended after 7 seasons only Greg Morris and Peter Lupus remained from the early days.

Greg Morris and Peter Lupus

Watching those early episodes again recently, the show retains its lustre. Each episode is plotted to within an inch of its life, and while the general premise of the stories can get repetitive, the scripts - the ‘impossible missions’ themselves - are remarkably fresh. The primary cast - Hill/Graves, Landau, Bain - seem to relish the chance to essentially put on a different personality each week, as their characters go undercover in an ever-changing procession of false identities. Familiar faces frequently guest star as villains or allies: Lloyd Bridges, John Vernon, William Shatner, Mark Lenard, William Windom, John Colicos, George Takei, Diane Baker, Anthony Zerbe, James B. Sikking and more. The heavy use of the studio backlot and obvious LA location shooting to double for foreign locales does become a little tiresome, but the show overcomes its limitations through the ingenuity and pace of the action. It goes without saying that Lalo Schifrin’s driving theme tune - one of the greatest ever - is an immense asset, and the brief teaser presented during each episode’s title sequence is always a highlight.

Peter Graves as Jim Phelps

The one thing lacking on Paramount’s DVD releases of the series is bonus material of any description. A decent retrospective documentary would have been ideal, but even a little effort spent tracking down surviving cast members for a commentary or two would have added a welcome touch of nostalgia. 

Looking at the original line-up, Martin Landau is undoubtedly the best-known nowadays, as famous for North by Northwest or his Oscar-winning performance in Ed Wood as he is for this show; Steven Hill found recognition decades later as the gruff District Attorney in Law & Order throughout the 90s; Barbara Bain is still on-screen too, most recently in a brief guest spot on CSI. I was curious about series stalwarts Greg Morris and Peter Lupus, though, neither of whom went on to anything significant.

Unfortunately Morris died in 1996, but it turns out that Lupus, now owner of a health supplements business, is still going strong - literally. In 2002, at the age of 70, Lupus set a world record for weight-lifting endurance, shifting a total of 76,280 lbs in under the alotted 30 minutes (27 to be exact) and immediately promised to come back on his 75th birthday and break the record again. True to his word, he did exactly that: during a birthday celebration held at a California gym last month, family and friends including his old co-star Martin Landau, together with numerous TV crews, watched the 75-year old break his own record, lifting 77,560 lbs in 24 minutes and 50 seconds. I tip my hat to the guy.

NEW: CHECK OUT VIDEO OF THE EVENT HERE.

Lupus during last month's record attempt

A Mars Bar for Veronica? *UPDATED 10/6* June 7, 2007

Posted by jackal in : TV , 2 comments

OK - it’s stupid. Veronica Mars is dead. I know this. It’s one of the cold, hard facts of life, as miserably true as death and taxes. But what the hell …

Hercules over at AICN has started a campaign to get VM fans to send Mars bars to CW network head Dawn Ostroff. The official deadline for renewing the show apparently falls on 15 June, so the hope is to convince them to exercise the option before then. It’s probably doomed to fail, of course, but hey, it’s only money. If you fancy wasting some of yours, go here, where for a couple of bucks your Mars bar will join the others soon landing on Dawn’s desk. Type in the code VERONICA at checkout and get free shipping. You can also get them direct from the Amazon seller’s website here. If you’re feeling generous, why not send a pack of six? The address you want to send them to:

Dawn Ostroff
President of Entertainment
The CW Network
4000 Warner Boulevard, Bldg 168
Burbank, CA 91522-0002.

You’d be hard-pressed to think up a more noble waste of $2. ;)  According to the Amazon seller’s blog, several thousand bars are due to be delivered to the CW from orders so far, and they’re now branching out into marshmallows (bulkier and cheaper - more bang for your buck). Not a bad start …

*UPDATE - 10 June*

In addition to burying the CW in marshmallows and mars bars, another thing now being planned is for VM fans to head over to itunes this TUESDAY (12th June) and buy the season 3 finale “The Bitch is Back” en masse, hopefully sending it to the top of the download charts. The episode costs just $1.99, so even if (like me) you’ve already got a *cough* illegally downloaded copy, why not just make the gesture anyway? The itunes link is here

*UPDATE - 9 June* 

OK, now that the entire US supply of Mars bars has been exhausted by this campaign (I kid you not), they’ve switched to marshmallows (since in the pilot episode Veronica is referred to as a marshmallow). 350 lbs of the stuff has been bought so far, but MORE is needed. Forget the Amazon links now - go here for details of how to contribute to buying enough marshallows to bury the CW. Part of my brain is aware of how stupid that sounds … but I just don’t care. :P

Also check out Herc’s latest plug for the campaign on AICN here.

 I will get back to posting actual movie-related stuff here soon (honest), but until then, here’s a glossy pic of Veronica herself, Kristen Bell, to relieve the boredom. Yowzzzzzzzza.

Farewell Veronica; we used to be friends … May 18, 2007

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So the axe has finally dropped. After surviving for three seasons on wafer-thin ice, Veronica Mars has run out of luck. No more smart, sassy Ronnie; no more intricately plotted mysteries for our heroine, romantic entanglements with bad boy Logan, clashes with the cops, playful banter with Wallace, Mac, and Keith. Cancellation beckons for this TV gem.

Season three cast

A post-modern hybrid of Buffy and The Big Sleep, Veronica Mars clicked from the start: a street-smart teenager wise beyond her years, a likeable ensemble cast, cleverly plotted mysteries, and a terrific atmosphere of fun. Season-long story arcs kept the interest up throughout, while the snappy dialogue kept the laughs coming. The dynamics changed when Ronnie went to college in season three, but for me (and I’m perhaps in the minority here) the move only strengthened the show in story terms. In the real world, though, Veronica Mars struggled Kristen Bell as the teenage sleuthright out of the gate, and in recent months the show’s future was in question. A major revamp was considered, with the fourth season fast-forwarding four years to find Ronnie training at the FBI. It could well have worked, too: Kristen Bell is undeniably one of the brightest young stars on TV, and given some smart scripts to work with, the show may even have thrived despite losing most of the supporting cast.

Now, with two episodes remaining in season three, we’re almost at the end of the line. Creator Rob Thomas confirmed yesterday that Veronica Mars is dead in the water: “I believe we’re out of hope.”

 I suppose you could say hey, at least we got 64 episodes, and be thankful, but screw that. This isn’t some past-its-prime show being mercifully put to bed; it’s 3 years young and firing on all cylinders. Veronica Mars may not be the greatest show on TV, but it’s head and shoulders above many shows which remain on the air. It’s a cult favourite, even garnering a season two cameo from fan Joss Whedon, it’s got heart, and it’s the kind of show you’re glad you discovered and want to tell EVERYONE to watch. A whole lot of people have fallen in love with it, myself included. I’ll miss it like crazy. Bah. Life sucks. What else is new.

Mr Clemmons: “I can’t decide if my life is going to be easier or more difficult with you gone. Anything else I should know in case I get another one like you someday?”

Veronica: “Don’t keep all your passwords taped on the bottom of your stapler … and stay cool, Mr C.”

the cast at play

Beyond the Final Frontier February 23, 2007

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I just got through watching the “classic” Trek movies, something I do every 2 or 3 years, once I get to the stage where my desire to see the supremely entertaining sequels outweighs my dread at having to endure The Motion Picture again beforehand (although I must admit to actually quite enjoying it this time). I love re-watching the classic Trek films over a short period, no more than a few days, because they’re not just damn good stories, well told; they comprise - together with The Original Series – the complete story of these characters over the course of 30 years (in the Trek timeline). We see the young adventurers embark on their Starfleet careers, watch them mature, earn promotion, take on new challenges, fight new battles - but always stay together. That’s what I love most about the Trek films: the sense of family among the characters I grew up watching, maintained over the course of six (and a bit) movies.

The Original Star Trek cast

It wasn’t there behind the scenes of course, a fact I was reminded of today upon rewatching William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy in the fascinating Mind Meld. Shatner speaks of how he feels affection for their fellow castmates only in terms of the amount of their working lives they spent together, but claims he never understood where any rift between them originated. Nimoy is a little warmer: “I’m always happy to see them when I bump into them,” he says, but admits that the original Trek cast have never been the kind who “get together at barbecues all the time”. Shatner makes a convincing argument that there was never the basis for such a relationship in the first place: The Original Series was a 3-man show: Shatner, Nimoy and De Kelley. The rest of the cast were never “regulars”; the show was never an ensemble in the same way as The Next Generation. With the advent of the movie franchise, the supporting cast were able toShatner and Nimoy in 2006 gain more recognition, but the resentments and ill-feeling were already entrenched by then. Shatner and Nimoy were, and remain, close friends, a relationship shared, at least in part, with Kelley until his death in 1999. Doohan, Nichols, Koenig and Takei meanwhile formed their own, somewhat independent unit, often making Star Trek convention appearances as a group in later years.

None of this really matters, though. I know that Shatner and Doohan couldn’t stand each other in real life, but does it make an ounce of difference when I’m watching them on-screen as Kirk and Scotty, best of friends? Does it hell. It’s nice that the Next Generation cast remain close friends after 20 years, but no matter how much I enjoy watching them on-screen (and I do, a lot), nothing compares to the sheer pleasure of seeing the original cast in action: whether’s it Kirk striking back at Khan in Star Trek II (”here it comes …”), Kirk and Spock’s priceless double act in Star Trek IV (”I love Italian - and so do you.”) the theft of the Enterprise in Star Trek III … I could go on all day. I once heard it argued (I can’t remember where) that one’s enjoyment of The Original Series is enhanced by the existence of the later films - knowing that you’re watching only the very beginning of the journey for the crew of the Enterprise, and that so much more is to come for each of them. It certainly works that way for me.

Captain Styles: ”Kirk … you do this, you’ll never sit in the captain’s chair again.”

Kirk: “Warp speed.”

Browncoats, Reavers and all that jazz … October 31, 2006

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As a lifelong fan of US TV drama, I’ve lost count of the number of promising shows that were cancelled, and swiftly drifted out of my mind. They’re ten-a-penny, and now I don’t even bother to start watching if I know that, over in Burbank, the axe has already been dropped. What’s the point of watching a show with no future?

And so when, a few of months ago, a friend pressed his Firefly: the Complete Series boxset into my hands, insisting that I’d love it, I was not enthusiastic. It may have been the work of Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon, but the way I saw it, if Firefly only lasted 14 episodes: a) how good could it be, and b) what’s the point of investing anything in the show?

Serenity herself

But I’m a polite guy, so I watched the first few episodes … and was not convinced. It was an interesting enough premise to keep me watching, though: a western action drama that just happens to be set 500 years in the future in another solar system, coloured with Whedon’s quirky sense of humour. A civil war has just ended; our hero is on the losing side, and rather than live under occupying forces, he becomes captain of the small freighter Serenity and ekes out a living running inter-planetary smuggling jobs with his rag-tag crew of outsiders.

Mal (Nathan Fillion) and Jayne (Adam Baldwin)

The show grew noticeably over its short run. By the end of the 14 episodes, the Firefly ’verse felt real, a living breathing place. The characters, many of whom had initially struck me as thinly drawn cliches, had grown in my affections immensely: the quality of the writing, and the actors’ performances bringing them vividly to life. The show’s myriad plotlines were just beginning to take root and develop - from my days of watching Buffy, I could sense the rich, creative, immensely entertaining future that Firefly would enjoy.

And then it died.

Cancelled shows, as I said at the outset, usually slip fairly quickly from my mind. Only Firefly isn’t your regular canned show. After all, how many cancelled shows have such a dedicated fan base that they’re resurrected as a big-budget movie? Star Trek achieved it, to huge success, but it took 10 years. Firefly was snuffed out in 2002, only to be back less than 3 years later as Serenity, written and directed by Joss Whedon. Part rebirth, part series finale, it wrapped up the series beautifully, and simultaneously took it to another level: a grander scale for the story, bigger and better SFX, the larger budget shining through in every area, and the cast clearly relishing the opportunity to inhabit their characters again. Whedon’s script (the most difficult thing he’d ever had to write, he says) tied up most every loose end from Firefly, and the film was also one mother-frakker of a fun ride (sorry; switched franchises with my sci-fi curse words there) ;-)

The cast (plus Joss, back row 2nd from right) at Comic Con 2004 - all smiles at being reunited for 'Serenity'

But after the big, fat Serenity grin had faded from my face - now, in fact, months down the road, I still feel the urge to hunt down and strangle the Fox network executives responsible for killing the show. Was Firefly a truly great show? In all honesty, I’d have to say no, not quite - but it was well on the way. It had the potential to be so tremendously good in the long run … and never got the chance. That’s what makes it so hard for me to swallow.

There’s only one Sydney Bristow August 17, 2006

Posted by jackal in : TV , add a comment

 Like the Chairman once sang: “It was a very good year”. It’s a bittersweet day indeed for me: I just got through watching the fifth and final season of my favourite TV show ever: that utterly implausible, frequently daft, and hugely entertaining beast that is Alias.

JJ Abrams’ innovative spy series was a whirlwind combination of spectacular action and outlandish plots with frequent twists, revelations and cliffhanger endings. And at the centre of it all: the personal and family conflicts of young, intelligent, and drop dead gorgeous (why not?) CIA agent Sydney Bristow.

Seasons one and two remain THE most fun television I’ve ever seen. Sydney (Jennifer Garner), unwittingly working for bad guy Arvin Sloane (Ron Rifkin), becomes a double agent for the real CIA, and discovers that not only is her father also an agent, but her mother was a KGB spy. With its season-long story arcs involving 500 year old “Rambaldi” prophecies, weekly exotic missions, action galore, appealing characters and strong cast, nothing matched Alias for sheer entertainment value.

season one cast

It couldn’t last forever, though, and in season three the show jumped the shark, with an ill-advised shake-up in which Sydney wakes up with amnesia after being missing for two years. The action and stunts were still there, but the show’s central dynamic had been fundamentally altered.

In season four, another shake-up attempted to recapture the show’s original setup and dynamics. It was a bold move that could have worked, but for the lack of a compelling, extended story-arc. Instead, each episode became just a mindless series of covert missions, shootouts and near-misses. Things improved with an epic season finale that brought back key guest stars from previous seasons, but it was too little, too late.

season five cast

Which brings us to the fifth and final season. The end of the line. I had my doubts as to how it would turn out, not least when Jen Garner’s pregnancy was announced last year. After all, what’s Alias without Syd going on an undercover mission in a figure-hugging disguise? Then ABC, after falling ratings, announced that the season would be cut to 17 episodes, complicating the writers’ plans as they attempted not only to go out with a bang, but also to tie up once and for all the myriad unresolved plotlines and character arcs.

Arvin Sloane (Ron Rifkin)

I needn’t have worried; after a bad start, season five caught fire and never looked back. If I may switch into surf-dude mode for a moment, Alias ROCKED again! Plotlines not touched upon in years were reopened and pursued with vigour now that the end was in sight; familiar old characters, long forgotten, returned for one last appearance; halfway through the season, Jen got her figure back and started kicking ass again; but most importantly, the Rambaldi storyline that had driven the show since day one was finally and ultimately resolved in the series finale.

Alias’ success was due to many things: the inventiveness of creator JJ Abrams, the quality of writing, and the cast. The contribution of Jennifer Garner can’t be overstated - one of the brightest new stars of recent years, Sydney and JackAlias caught her on the rise. Garner’s genuine, believable performance as Sydney gave the show the emotional core it needed to anchor the far-fetched plots, and also won her a Golden Globe for Best Actress. Garner’s natural beauty and physical fitness also made her perfect for a role in which eye-catching outfits and demanding stunt work were the norm. Equally as impressive were the supporting cast, in particular Ron Rifkin - superb as the tormented, Rambaldi-obsessed villain, Arvin Sloane - and Victor Garber, who to my mind never got the credit he deserved for his role as Jack Bristow, Sydney’s father. Garber took a cold and frequently ruthless character and made him human.

I’m tremendously sad to see the end of Alias, but also damn proud that my favourite TV show went out the way it started IMO: at the top of its game. How many other shows ever recovered their top form after jumping the shark? Exactly. There’s only one Sydney Bristow.

Rewriting the future? August 4, 2006

Posted by jackal in : Films, TV , add a comment

teaser poster for the new movie. Oh ... joy.We’ve all heard the Star Trek rumours bouncing around of late: JJ Abrams will direct the eleventh Trek film, it’ll be set around/before The Original Series, it will likely feature new actors playing Kirk and Spock, Matt Damon may have been cast, there’ll be a talking monkey sidekick … OK, I may have made that last one up, but after the Matt Damon news, it doesn’t seem all that far-fetched.

I come to this as a lifelong Trek fan. I’m not a complete geek (honest I ain’t), I just grew up with it - The Original Series and Next Generation in particular - and love it. I watched all the spin-offs that followed, even down to the last death throes of Enterprise. I’d kill to see a Star Trek XI, I really would, but another prequel? Re-casting Kirk and Spock? Are they f*****g kidding?

Star Trek should look forward, not back. It should chart new territory, not retread old. Why not bring back Jonathan Frakes and Marina Sirtis for a Titan spin-off show? I’m sure they’d love the work. Better still, why not bring back Nick Meyer (director of the fantastic Star Trek II & VI) to pen another Next Generation movie? But, cry Paramount, Star Trek: Nemesis made no money (well, that’s what you get for hiring a director with no understanding of the franchise), and so we must find *another* directionWhat about the young guy who made our new Tom Cruise movie? Oh yeah …

I’m a big fan of JJ Abrams - Alias and Lost are (or were, in the case of the former) terrific TV shows - but he’s clearly not the right man for the job if all he can come up with is ”hey, let’s reboot the franchise!” Star Trek’s success derives from the original concept, and by returning to the start, recasting the familiar roles, fundamentally changing the central core of the franchise, you wipe that out. A new Trek prequel, done well, could be phenomenally successful, but would it be true to the franchise’s origins? N-o-p-e.

The Original Series

Some fans don’t seem to mind the possible recasting of Kirk and Spock, either. James Bond has been played by more than one actor; so has Sherlock Holmes, etc. What’s the big deal? The difference is simple: the original Trek characters don’t have their basis in literature. They’re not portrayals of existing characters, in the way that Bond and Holmes are; before William Shatner, Kirk didn’t exist. Shatner didn’t just portray a character, he created one, week in, week out, for 79 episodes. Same with Nimoy’s Spock and the rest of the cast. Over the course of six (or seven) movies they aged, progressed, grew old together, retired (or died) - essentially lived out a character’s life on screen. James T. Kirk isn’t just ‘a character’ who used to be played by William Shatner; without Shatner, there is no Kirk. End of story.

Star Trek VI

Whenever I read anything about the new prequel idea, I think of McCoy in Star Trek IV, upon being assigned the task of building a huge whale tank. Folding his arms resignedly, he mutters, “oh … joy.” Couldn’t have put it better myself.

_______________

As an afterthought, I must mention the fabulous documentary Mind Meld, released on DVD a couple of years ago. It’s basically just Shatner and Nimoy sitting in Leonard’s back garden, chatting for an hour; two old friends talking candidly about their lives, careers, personal demons, triumphs and disappointments … and an old show called Star Trek. It’s utterly fascinating, and essential viewing for all fans.

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