Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Ten TV What-Ifs

Whether X-treme short form like The Forbidden Files or epic like Lost there's an edge that the fantastic holds for me that draws me to it without fail. What can fail is the execution which speaks for most. It is a tough call getting any new material onto a small screen that mostly illuminates only for the well proven let alone a series of stretchy concepts. History will always favour the bold in this case so while the original Star Trek is treasured but Land of the Giants is at best recalled with vague fondness.I've chosen tv rather than cinema here because it can stretch from the miniature to the mountainous to varying purposes. This isn't trying to be comprehensive. Like most of my list posts, it's what occured to me at the time. Happy to read anyone's favourites.

Twlilight Zone: Five years worth of short-form fantastic fiction shot like contemporary cinema and cast with veteran character actors as well as an impressive list of future stars, Rod Serling's brainchild still delights. I bought the entire set on dvd a few years back and slowly went through them over a year. There are certainly a few turkeys there but there would be with that much screen time. Interestingly, most of the longer fifty-minute episode season 4 is consistently below par; this is one series that knew its limitations (well, after it broke them). But overall such sharp and flavoursome scenaric punch is only rarely to be found in one place. I screened a few at Shadows to pretty much unanimous enthusiasm. I can only imagine what it felt like to find this kind of strangeness coming from a gluey little blue screen with rounded edges. It had to overreach with some of its performances and writing but, you know, it still cuts through. So does the Season 2 and onward theme tune which is still quoted in conversation as aural shorthand for weirdness.
Favourite ep: And When the Sky Did Open. A test crew pilot is visited in hospital by a crewmate. They have survived a crash from a spaceflight in an experimental craft. Problem is that the guy in the hospital has no memory of the third crew member who seems to have been erased from the previous day's newspaper headline.

Twin Peaks: Direct ancestor of all that is deep and strong about current US cable tv which thinks nothing of incorporating undeclared dreamscapes, experimental sound mixing or under-explained endings and is even celebrated for such. Lynch and Frost wanted the central murder investigation to become a MaGuffin for the dark undercurrents in the small logging town. Such were the times that the US network ABC forced the revelation of the murderer and, while that provided some fine headspinning moments, it was almost all downhill from there as irritating quirkiness and mainstream blandness crept into the dark and goofed about until what was available to wrest from the swell of failure was distilled into a forced if intriguing finale. But that first season and a good quarter of the second really did haunt its viewers. The cinemagraphic style and grownup music score set the bar for the decades to come.
Favourite ep: S02E01 Coop's on the floor of his hotel room from taking a bullet in the Season 1 cliffhanger and has a chat with "the world's most decrepit waiter" and then a whispering giant. Just gets better from that point.

The Forbidden Files/Les Documents Interdits: A series of twelve bitesized falls into weirdness quietly consolidated the found footage genre that would take root at the end of the decade with The Las Broadcast and The Blair Witch Project. Grainy small format film or home standard video images with glitchy sound and sometimes troubling edits and commentary beneath commentary provided some unnerving moments at a time when everything else was getting slicked up. I would tape Eat Carpet on SBS which featured these shorts while gallivanting on Saturday night and watch it the next morning, hungover and vulnerable. Sometimes this was a mistake. The first one I saw, The Ferguson Case, involved a reporter investigating a distress call for a gimmicky soft news show. He and the crew drive out to a huge mansion and roam through the house looking for the owner, going deeper and deeper until the live feed dies and all that's left on screen is static. I carried that around for days. Then there was the one about the witch..... I showed these, often with Twilight Zone eps, before the features at Shadows. They never failed to intrigue.
Favourite ep: The Ferguson Case (described o'erhead.)

The Stone Tape (1972): Almost a can of worms to even mention UK tv in this list as for three decades no other national tv industry provided us with more intriguing and tasty ideas that the British. I have to be very picky here but I think this one extends to all Kneale's fantastical work, anyway. Industrial scientists move into an old manse to set up the search for the new audio medium and find infinitely more than they dared expect. Clear thinking portrayal of the research underworld and its politics as well as a string of typically wow ideas from this master of them. Made in the day when this could be produced for broadcast on boxing day; reheated plum pudding and ghosts as you've never known them. Extraordinary at every turn. See also Quatermas (any of the stories) and the tv version of The Woman in Black (1985).

This video is an ad for the box set but it's funny.

Lost: The most sustained tease in tv history, Lost began as a sprawling weird tale that could inject a shot of weirder just as it started feeling soapy. The trouble was that it had to start outdoing itself and began to spin out of control. By the time the time zones were competing for our attention Lost lost mine. I watched the home stretch out of habit and shrugged at the finale. In successfully innoculating itself against Twin Peaks syndrome the constant new mysteries that were offered as diversions to unanswered questions robbed the thing of substance. Would that have happened to Twin Peaks if it hadn't have been forced to reveal the killer so early? Hard to say but I don't think at that time that it would have been any better than the quirk 'n' jerk that we got. The ever more intricate devices on show in Lost started feeling like plugging a cracked dam with blutac but for a while there ...
Favourite ep: Pilot. the plane has crashed and everyone's on the beach or wandering back to it from the jungle. It's not just any island.

Star Trek: I'm going to limit myself to the original series. The first time I saw this it was in repeat on local tv and I was a child. I considered it a great adventure series and missed most of the subtlety and metaphor. The second time I saw a string of episodes was as a young adult. I saw concepts that I'd missed and a great amount of irony, also missed the first time. Just before I went on holidays I bought a box set of the original series on blu-ray and luxuriated in the restoration. Also, I have been marvelling at a lot of depth in the writing and performances that I'd never registered before. I used to think of Spock the same way that Dr McCoy does, as a kind of moral dart board but seeing Nimoy's performance again and finding out that Spock is restraining himself from emotions rather than being unable to express them. I always kind of knew that he and McCoy were two sides of humanity that reached their completion in the Kirkian godhead but didn't know how much Spock was actually holding back which goes even further toward his difference from McCoy. 'Part from that the stories are by and large not just hamfisted allegories as I remembered but hold subtlety and are far more genuinely sci-fi than I remembered. Ace! If you're iffy about it or revisiting get the blu-ray set and opt out of the rejigged effects (nice that they aren't imposed but optional). You'll dig it.
Favourite ep: The Naked Time. A kind of sci fi folktale where an alien catalyst has a kind of Walpurgisnacht effect on the crew. Worth it for Sulu's turn as a shirtless, sword wielding swashbuckler.

The X-Files: The two aspects of this one I was meant to like were the unrealised sexual tension between the two leads and the alien conspiracy arc but I couldn't care about either. Lost successfully kept its tease going through some really fancy footwork on the mystery ambush. Just when you thought things were getting soapy bam, the guy you thought was a busker from Ohio suddenly has the power to transform into a shoe. The alien arc tried something like this but it ended up being too samey: this guy is going to be treacherous, that granny is really a CIA black ops chief, someone trusted is going to betray Mulder, if you can't explain it it's aliens and the senior FBI comptroller of missions is really working for the secret government nd so weiter und so weiter .... But the strength of the X-Files was telling barefaced monster tales, what ifs that whispered from shadows or big bold weird monsters like Tooms the Mr Stretcho of Pittsburg. The moody Canada for USA forests and condensed breath morning scenes showed an America that existed in a darkness concealed within its own light. Whether it was the allegorical aspects of the liver fluke man or the self-parody Jose Chung's From Outer Space weren't accidents, the show for most of its nine season run maintained a strong atmosphere and developed an intriguing relationship between its leads (not just Scully and Mulder but the later Reyes and Doggett as well) and maintained a healthy connection to the zeitgeist. Favourite ep: Oubliette. Scully and Mulder investigate an abduction but find the victim of an old case with the same MO doesn't want to help. Finding out why leads to a gutwrenching answer. Really really powerful forty plus minutes of tv.

Dr. Who: Hard to leave this one off but also hard to include it as we're talking about several decades of mostly impressive imaginative fiction. Though the more recent series have been light action sequences and cuteness that without the bloated orchestral scoring wouldn't be half as exciting but with it just feel overdone the majority of this character's long run has been distinguished by ideas and suspense that benefited from slower and deeper exercise of fantastical thinking. There were many stories that borrowed heavily from other sci fi, the fx and acting of the earliest episodes might be offputting to the new contemporary viewer but a little relaxation will allow the ideas through and all shall be well. And that theme tune, originally created with basic technology and giant minds will get you every time.

Les Revenants: The title is often translated to mean ghosts in English but the folk who walk back into their hometown years after their deaths are substantial enough. They walk and talk, eat normal food and remember everything except their own deaths. Variously welcomed, rejected or guarded against, they try to catch up with life that does not quite know how to deal with them. They appear one by one until the secret of their existance can no longer be kept by which time there is a horde of them shuffling into town. Other events that I won't spoil converge with this to create one of the eeriest final scenes in any tv show I've seen since Twin Peaks. If it's parent company can allow it to unfold at its own pace it will outstrip US cable fare like True Blood with ease. The score by Scottish post-rockers Mogwai is superb. If SBS shows it this year, do yourself a favour.
Favourite ep: La Horde, the finale of season 1 there's just no way of getting there until it happens in front of you.

VR.5: This is a dimming memory but the concept was a pace ahead of its time (if the tech was a pace behind). Lori Singer plays the young brains 'n' beauty Sydney Bloom, daughter of virtual reality pioneer Dr Joseph Bloom who disappeared while she was still a lassie. She has continued her own work in the field as a hobby but it's good enough to come to the attention of the mysterious Committee who recruits her to advance her work. This leads to some fine trippy invasions of other people's brains through the phone lines and while the episodes can be hit and miss this is one case where the complicated arc is actually interesting. Made at a time when the term cyberpunk crossed from hip to mainstream but shows with too much conceptual scaffolding didn't get past their first seasons (they weren't all good @AmericanGothic) and fanatically loved by a small fanbase who tried to petition its makers into continuing it or at least turning it into a movie. That continued to fail and it's one of those titles that seem destined never to appear in public again. Pity. It probably just looks hokey and silly now ... but pity.
Favourite ep: Had to go into an antique episode guide for this but I'll say Simon's Choice is one I recall having a strong effect at the time.


  1. Surprised by the absence of 'The Outer Limits'. The 60s series were at least the equal of Twilight Zone; a little less American morality, a little more freedom in direction and cinematography. Some great writers and well-known actors: Bruce Dern, David McCallum, Martin Landau, Roberts Culp and Duvall and Trekkers Nimoy and Shatner. The ep. from either show that stays with me, though, decades later, is TZ's 'Nightmare at 20,000 feet'. On a flight (to rehab. of nervous breakdown) only William Shatner can see a 'gremlin' clawing and chewing away at the engine, out in the ice and the wind. No one believes him ...

    1. Didn't leave it out so much as saved it for a list of failed what ifs. After I started on the TZ box set I picked up a copy of the complete original Outer Limits and was dismayed to find that it was almost entirely sotries of evil aliens with very little variation between them. Aside from a few great eps (and there are some) the sheer repetition and playing to the lowest cold war paranoia made Outer Limits a real chore to get through. I really can't recommend it (apart from perhaps three episodes) to anyone. Have you seen any of it lately? I was surprised to find how resistable it was having enjoyed it decades ago.

  2. No, haven't seen any lately. Must be the golden glasses of nostalgia. Glad I didn't buy the box-set. After all, I remember being scared witless by the (Hartnell) Dr Who, plumber's helpers and all.
    Now I wonder if the Three Stooges were as funny as they seemed at those two-bob matinees.