2016’s Top TV: Planet Earth 2

planet-earth-2
Copyright: BBC.

It’s been quite a rough year but, thankfully, there was a welcome respite from the endless stream of bad news – a weekly 60-minute dose of highly-concentrated awe and wonder that would uplift and inspire even the most jaded and disillusioned viewer.

For 6 wonderful weeks, Planet Earth returned to our screens, causing many a jaw to drop and eye to water as it showed more amazing footage from many of the most extreme and environments of the world – even man-made ones. The fact that, after decades of documentaries which have pored over every inch of the planet with cutting-edge tech, there are still so many routine behaviours and remarkable events from the natural world that we are only now seeing for the first time is incredible.

Each episode featured several little vignettes following a dazzling variety of different animals and creating a narrative out of nature. These scenes were intensely emotional, full of tragedy, thrills, death and beauty, while also frequently showing how much of a prick nature can be.

Pity the poor baby iguanas who scuttle out of their sandy homes to face an ambush of snakes before they can reach their parents (these scenes were so nerve-shreddingly tense they put many big-budget thrillers to shame). Be glad you’re not one of the mountain goats who have to clamber along crumbling, razor-thin paths on a cliff face to reach the only source of water on the ground, where predators lie in wait. Marvel at the snow leopards fighting for a mate in the Himalayas. Laugh at the sloth who swims across a surging river to reach a potential partner and gets rejected.

The thrill of Planet Earth II comes from knowing that all of it is real, these things happen on a regular basis and there are millions of other moments that occur when the cameras aren’t there, many of which may be even more amazing than what the world-class crew managed to capture.

Filmed (but not broadcast) in 4K ultra-HD, the show’s higher resolution made tiny details that were previously unnoticeable crystal-clear, like a foetal tadpole breaking out of its egg early to flee from a deadly wasp while it’s transparent frog father tries to protect the other eggs.

It also allowed the show to broadcast eye-poppingly-pretty panoramic shots of a large island populated by hundreds of thousands of penguins, frosty mountain valleys that transform into lush green forests, a plague of locusts flying across Madagascar, and a peregrine falcon perched on an aerial overlooking Manhattan.

It looks nice, basically. When writing a review of this series, it’s very tempting to just type ‘It’s great because, well, LOOK AT IT!’, stick a load of pictures underneath and call it a day, but that would be lazy. There’s more to this than just eye candy.

For me, the most intriguing part of Planet Earth II was the final episode, which looked at city wildlife. There had been moments in other episodes where, in-between all the animal facts and gentle narration, Sir David Attenborough would briefly explain how humans had been making the world much worse. E.g: A parade of crabs now get attacked by crazy yellow acid-spitting ants literally called ‘crazy yellow ants’ which humans introduced to the crabs’ island, a jungle in Madagascar has been deforested so much that it’s cut the local lemur population in half, etc, etc, oh dear, oh dear.

Perhaps, I thought, the “Cities” episode would be where he’d really let loose, wagging his finger at the camera and scolding viewers for irreversibly ruining the planet with all the pollution and greenhouse gases we create that damage the habitats shown over the course of the series. It would be entirely justified, if a bit of a depressing way to end the show.

But the programme kept a light touch on its lecturing and the actual episode didn’t mention climate change once, instead giving an unexpectedly hopeful view of how humans can coexist with the natural world.

The camera crew applied the same film-making techniques they used in jungles and deserts to film skyscrapers and streets, which was a memorably odd viewing experience that gave us an exciting new perspective of very familiar territory.

There was also plenty of humour to be found in seeing animals learning to cope with humans and vice versa. Monkeys ran along rooftops to steal food from a market in Mumbai, making the locals furious, and a lonely bird in Townsville used colourful scraps of discarded rubbish to build a display to attract a mate, which even included a small felt heart.

An incredibly-edited timelapse of a city at night full of glowing neon and bright lights lead into heartbreaking footage of baby turtles on a beach struggling to find their way as the light pollution from the nearby town disoriented them. Millions of viewers watched in horror as the helpless creatures wandered away from the moonlight, which is supposed to guide them to the sea, and onto busy roads and into sewer drains. This was the only time the episode focussed on the drawbacks of city life on wild animals, which, all things considered, shows remarkable restraint from the producers.

It was a very positive hour of television. It revealed the mutually-beneficial relationship between a pack of hyenas and the residents of an African town: the hyenas get meat from the butcher shop and the locals like them because they peacefully ward off bad spirits. It showcased futuristic architecture in Singapore that created a jungle environment out of an enormous steel framework filled with flowers and trees. There were flocks of birds which flew and danced in mysterious patterns above Rome for reasons even Sir David couldn’t explain. The episode ended with an optimistic and inspiring piece to camera from the legend himself, a wonderful send-off to an unprecedented episode of this unforgettable documentary.

Last but not least, the final ten minutes of each episode had a Diaries segment dedicated to the problems faced by the camera crew on their ambitious treks to remote parts of the world. These sections were just as fascinating as the footage they filmed, answering the question that everyone asks while watching documentaries like this: “How the hell did they film that?”. The answer, it turns out, is with months of preparation, plenty of clever improvisation, tough travelling and, sometimes, quite a lot of luck.

A documentary of this calibre only comes around once a decade. Cherish it.

Best Episode: It would be cheating to say ‘all of them’ so I’ll highlight “Cities”.
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2015’s Top TV: 3 BBC Book Adaptations

(Image ©BBC)

In 2015 the BBC ambitiously attempted adaptations of three very different books: a complex historical drama, a magical fantasy epic and a classic murder mystery, and they became three of my favourite dramas of last year.

Hilary Mantel’s big bestsellers Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies were carefully squeezed into 6 hour-long episodes of high-class conspiracy, courtly intrigue, royal marriage woes and dimly-lit conversations. Anchored by an incredible performance by Mark Rylance as  the quietly cunning Thomas Cromwell, with good support from Damian Lewis’ unusually svelte Henry VIII and Clare Foy as his unfortunate wife Anne Boleyn, the series was an award-winning success.

My historical knowledge of the period isn’t the best, which at first led to a bit of confusion about who was who and why they were important, and a lot of me desperately trying to remember high-school history lessons about Henry VIII. However, after the first couple of episodes it was easy to sink into the story. Lack of historical knowledge was actually helpful as it meant that the twists and turns of the plot, which mostly unfold through quiet dialogue and secret plans slowly being unveiled, came as a complete surprise.

Later in the year was a series based on Susanna Clarke’s alternate-universe Victorian drama with magicians Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. This doorstopper of a book, set around the Napoleonic wars, is one of the most highly-praised fantasy novels of the 21st century and the adaptation looked promising, but I had some reservations when I saw that it was being adapted by Peter Harness, whose last writing credit was an episode of Doctor Who where the Moon turns out to be an egg with a monster inside and everyone worries about it hatching but when it does hatch the monster immediately craps out another moon to replace it and flies away.

Seriously. How did that get past the first draft?

So it was with some relief and quite a lot of surprise that JS&MN became one of my favourite shows of the year, expertly mixing gothic otherworldly locations, spectacular special effects and wry humour into a Victorian setting.

Eddie Marsan was great as the sensible and stubborn Mr Norrell but the show was stolen by Bertie Carvel as Norrell’s polar opposite, the lovable eccentric Jonathan Strange who becomes fascinated by the dark, maddening power of forbidden magic which hasn’t been practiced in England for many years.

The two have great chemistry together which makes it easy to care about their bumpy, slightly reluctant partnership. There’s plenty of the dark, the creepy and the – ahem – Strange, nicely balanced with a fair amount of silliness.

Perhaps the embodiment of this silly/creepy balance is Marc Warren’s performance as The Gentleman, the mysterious Big Bad of the series that deals with the souls of the dead and shows up to menace and entrap those who summon him. He also happens to be a fairy with big white eyebrows wearing a ridiculous wig.

I loved the world and characters that the show brought to life and will be getting the book to experience more of it, though because of Vincent Franklin’s slightly hammy turn as Drawlight I think his yell of ‘MISTER NORRRRRRRRREELLLL’ will echo round my skull whenever I read Norrell’s name.

To close out the year, there was a three-part adaptation of the most popular murder mystery of all time, Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, because everyone loves a nice bit of multiple homicide at Christmastime.

The book was lingering on a bookshelf somewhere in my room, unloved and unread like many of my ‘buy-now, get-around-to-it-eventually’ books that I seem to compulsively collect.

So when the poor unfortunate souls that get invited to a remote island for the world’s worst dinner party start dropping like flies, I had no clue whodunnit, my guess changed several times (always hopelessly wrong) and I was gripped til the very end.

The whole thing is soaked in an oppressive gloomy atmosphere, with plenty of overcast skies, grey scenery, an entertainingly over-the-top use of sinister strings in the soundtrack –  especially during the voyage to the Cornish Island of Death and Misery –  and lots of of quiet shots of the characters looking suspicious. When they arrive at the extravagant mansion where they’ll spend their final nights, they are greeted by a butler who is so clearly and hilariously untrustworthy he might as well be wearing a sign saying ‘You’re All Doomed’.

It’s not subtle, quite the opposite, but it’s enjoyably pulpy and ominous. Most of the ten corpses-in-waiting are wonderfully obnoxious and watching them as they clash, become increasingly paranoid and reveal how loathsome they really are is fun and tense.

and then there were none
DOOOOOOOMED.

It’s fair to say then that the Beeb has proved to be quite adept at adapting novels and abridging chunky bestsellers, turning them into brilliant, engaging television. Now, fresh off the success and acclaim of these three series, they’re attempting to trim one of the most intimidatingly-huge and dauntingly-dense novels of all time, War and Peace, into 6 hours.

Well… good luck with that.

Doctor Who: A catch-up guide PART ONE

doctors

With less than a month to go until Doctor Who‘s big 50th Anniversary Special, the advertising and build-up to the big day has really kicked off. There was that ’50 years’ trailer which was shown after Atlantis a week ago, with another trailer – this one with footage of the special – and a rumoured mini-episode still to come.

All of this extra attention on the show could attract new fans who, overwhelmed with episodes, may be unsure of where to start watching, or even understand what it’s about. Well, basically it’s a sci-fi show about a time-travelling alien, and each episode could be set in any time, place or genre. You could start with the Ninth Doctor’s first episode, ‘Rose’, and go from there, but be prepared for some very inconsistent quality (in the first series there’s a really good World War 2 two-parter, but there’s also farting aliens. So…). Or you could start slightly later with the Eleventh Doctor’s first episode, ‘The Eleventh Hour’. You would catch up faster, and there’s a lot of good episodes there, but there’s also a long story arc involving one character which isn’t quite as good as it could have been.

There we go, done. Boom, sorted. Off you go.Have fun!

The rest of this blog post is for those who may have once been fans but gave up watching, having had enough of the increasingly, and rather unnecessarily, complicated storylines that made up much of Series 6. For those who watched the finale, in which all of time happened at once, with Winston Churchill riding on a mammoth, the leader of the Silence being quickly defeated somehow and River Song killing/marrying the doctor at the same time, though he’d actually faked his death, despite repeatedly being told that he really, actually, honestly, seriously was going to die, really this time, and oh for God’s sake.

After watching that, I can’t really blame people for throwing their hands up in the air and going ‘I give up! I quit! Fuck this show, no more!’ But it’s gotten better, honest. The overarching storyline has gotten simpler and, in Doctor Who logic, actually makes some sense. None of the episodes (though, of course, this is very subjective), have been awful, and a few come close to being classics. A lot of them have been fun, standalone adventures, instead of head-hurting, nonsensical, overstuffed crap like ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’*. And if you have been away from the show for a while and start watching the special, you might be a little confused.

*(For any Doctor Who newbies still reading this, yes, there really was an episode called ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’. And no, no they didn’t kill Hitler. I know, what a waste. And yes, that Winston Churchill on a mammoth thing really does happen, but don’t let that put you off. Also, why are you still reading this? There’s spoilers everywhere, go! Go!)

So, here’s a quick, spoiler-free summary of every episode in series seven. In all, there’s only about 5 or 6 episodes that you absolutely should watch. They aren’t necessarily the best ones, but they are the most story-heavy. The rest of the series is also a rather good, a fun mix of adventure, horror, noir, Victorian silliness and dinosaurs.

I’ll try to keep this short, but no promises, alright?

Continue reading “Doctor Who: A catch-up guide PART ONE”

Doctor Who – A catch-up guide PART TWO

If you’re interested in the fiftieth anniversary of Doctor Who but haven’t watched the show for a couple of years and are thinking of jumping back in before the special airs on November 23rd, this is the guide for you. Here’s a mostly-spoiler-free summary of each episode of series seven, with the story-crucial MUST WATCH episodes clearly marked, and the fun standalone episodes briefly reviewed so you can pick and choose which ones to watch depending on whether they sound good to you.

Part one of the guide is HERE.

THE SNOWMEN – MUST WATCH

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The Doctor has become a miserable recluse after the events of ‘The Angels Take Manhattan’, staying above the clouds over Victorian London. Vastra, Jenny and Strax keep those who want to meet him at bay, but one girl gets through (by saying something which is supposed to seem clever, but is really massively coincidental). The girl is troubled by something lurking in a frozen pond and asks the Doctor for help. The Doctor recognises her voice, but can’t quite place where it’s from. Together, they fight baddies Sir Ian McKellen and Richard E. Grant in a fun Christmas Special.

THE BELLS OF SAINT JOHN – MUST WATCH

st john

The Doctor is jolted into action when the phone on the TARDIS rings. Clara is on the other end of the line, a girl who looks just like the Clara in Victorian London, and sounds like the soufflé girl in ‘Asylum of the Daleks’. But that’s impossible, isn’t it? Who is this Impossible Girl? Meanwhile, something weird is in the Wi-Fi, and the Doctor has to sort it out. Back to being happy and bouncy, rather than glum and Scrooge-y, he indulges his inner action hero to save the day yet again.

Continue reading “Doctor Who – A catch-up guide PART TWO”

The Wrong Mans

The Wrong Mans

What happens when a stylish, gripping suspense-thriller crashes into an awkward British office comedy? You get The Wrong Mans, the BBC’s newest sitcom starring Mathew Baynton and James Corden. Sam (Baynton) works for the local council, and seems slightly scared and bewildered just by everyday life in general, so when he becomes entangled in a huge, increasingly convoluted web of mystery and violence, he adopts a permanent wide-eyed look of complete terror. Phil (Corden) is an unpopular co-worker who relishes the chance to live out his fantasies and go on a mission to save a beautiful woman from evil kidnappers.

The trouble begins when Sam witnesses a car accident while walking to work. After hyperventilating into a paper bag for a bit (which he does so often it’s practically a hobby), he calls the emergency services. After the road is clear and the driver’s on his way to hospital, Sam finds a phone ringing in the snow. He answers it, and we’re off! You see, the man on the other end of the line has taken someone’s wife hostage and unless her husband turns up at 5pm that afternoon with a lot of money, she’s going to be killed. The kidnapper doesn’t know that he’s talking to the wrong man.

Sam has other problems to deal with, like looming deadlines, being late to work, a co-worker mocking him and a boss who recently became an ex-girlfriend. These problems get forced onto the back burner as he tries to find the man from the car accident – he must be the owner of the phone in the snow, surely? And, surely, that man will know what to do, he can sort things out and make everything okay, right? Right?

Well.

With the kidnapper warning him not to call the police, Sam confides in the mail room worker, Phil, who could not be more enthusiastic about the horrible situation Sam finds himself in. Where Sam sees a stressful hassle, Phil sees an opportunity to do something extraordinary. Where Sam would rather give the phone to someone else and let them deal with it, Phil  insists they take matters into their own hands and negotiate with the kidnappers face-to-face. Of course, as the series progresses and the odd couple realise they’ve landed in some pretty deep shit, Phil becomes less gung-ho about the whole thing, borrowing Sam’s paper bag as panic sets in.

Some people react to the sight of James Corden like vampires do to sunlight, but I quite like him. His loud, brash confidence works well when playing Phil, and he can also do smaller, subtle moments of comedy that made me burst out laughing. And if you do find him irksome, well, in this show at least, his character is supposed to be a bit annoying at first.

Baynton, meanwhile, is the best thing about The Wrong Mans. He’s gawky, awkward and exceedingly polite even when confronted with some very nasty characters. As I mentioned earlier, he also has this wonderful deer-in-headlights look that is hilarious.

Image
[screaming internally]

Or perhaps I just like him because while watching The Wrong Mans I often thought, ‘Yeah that’s probably how I’d react too.’

It also helps that the supporting cast is packed full of familiar faces. Hey, that’s Jamie from The Thick of It as a menacing copper! Hey, isn’t that Dawn French? Hey, the kidnapper looks so familiar, oh, what is he from?

I did have some reservations at first. Some of the jokes in the first episode fell flat, or felt a bit forced – e.g, the hospital bed mix-up. And would Sam really wait that long to call the police after picking up the phone? But, after a little suspension of disbelief, I thoroughly enjoyed the first four episodes (There’s two more, one this Tuesday, and one next week). Positive reception from critics and viewers, as well as high ratings, make a second series very likely, which is great news.

The Wrong Mans is also surprisingly gripping at times. There’s a tricky balance between comedy and drama that the show has to make, and it usually does it quite well. After a lot of silly jokes and awkward cringe comedy, there’ll be a sudden shock, a twist, a ‘What?!’ moment, and the episode will lurch back into action-thriller mode. Every episode also ends at the best possible moment, leaving us desperate to find out what happens next. It’s really good fun, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it all ends. How much worse can it get? Will Sam ever regain his dignity after episode 4? How many more twists and turns can there be?

The BBC have clearly sunk quite a bit of money into it. Before the first episode aired, adverts were everywhere and media hype was high. It also has the all-star cast and stylish cinematography of a big-budget action movie, but with British comedians instead of Tom Cruise. It’s well worth a watch.

P.S. Speaking of stylish things the BBC have spent a lot of money on (yes, that’s a very tenuous link, but I really want to mention this), have you seen this? In anticipation of Doctor Who‘s 50th anniversary special next month, the BBC have made a special trailer celebrating the show and its history. All eleven doctors (though some are blink-and-you’ll-miss-them), plenty of monsters and a couple of companions pop up during the minute-long trailer, which also includes a creepily-realistic colour version of the first Doctor, William Hartnell. There’s no footage of the actual special, which may sound like a bad thing, but, frankly, after watching this I don’t really care. Have a look!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=loGm3vT8EAQ