Pop Between Realities, Home in Time for Tea 63 (Life on Mars)

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Part of its success, of course, meant that Doctor Who by 2006 had acquired stablemates at the BBC. This is a prime example. One of the first acquisitions Julie Gardner made upon becoming Head of Drama for BBC Wales, featuring two writers who would be poached by Russell T Davies over the next two years, and, of course, featuring future Master John Simm playing Sam Tyler, the surname apparently picked by Matthew Graham’s Doctor Who fan of a daughter, Life on Mars is impossible to discuss Doctor Who without mentioning. Especially because it’s ostensibly a sci-fi show.

The word “ostensibly” is such trouble here, though. Life on Mars is in no way aimed straightforwardly at the normative cult audience. Yes, there’s something vaguely resembling a time travel plot. But it’s not a cult sci-fi show, as evidenced by the appalling ending cooked up by the American remake that postulates that the entire series has been a virtual reality simulation for the crew of the first manned mission to Mars. That this ending was so unsatisfying speaks volumes about how little this premise is actually a sci-fi show. Inasmuch as it is, really we’re in textbook Tzvetan Todorov territory where the suspense is whether there’s actually an element of the fantastic here or whether Sam Tyler is simply a cracked actor, if you will.

But even that struggles to quite account for the show. Yes, it has a straightforwardly Todorovian plot to string things together, but the bread and butter of any given episode is doing a cop show set in 1973. Its clever conceit is to do this in 2006 with a main character who is also from 2006, and who can thus provide self-aware meta-commentary on proceedings. But this is still just a light updating of the basic concept of the period piece. The entire Todorovian framework is really just there to jazz up a 1973 period piece with a hint of magical realism. Mind you, this isn’t a terrible idea. Magical realism makes most things better. But still, Life on Mars is a 1973 period piece first and a genre show second.

It’s actually worth remarking on that phrase briefly, as “1973 period piece” is not entirely obvious as a concept. It was, after all, relatively recent. And its existence points towards a larger trend worth pointing out. The first time that Doctor Who did a story that was both set in the past and set during a period where Doctor Who was transmitting was, of course, Mawdryn Undead. Since then it’s done it in Remembrance of the Daleks, Father’s Day, The Impossible Astronaut, Cold War, and Hide. If we want we can add “stories set in the past within living memory of Doctor Who” and scoop up the pair of 1950s stories (Delta and the Bannermen and The Idiot’s Lantern) and the three World War II ones (The Curse of Fenric, The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, and Victory of the Daleks) and hammer the point home more clearly - the range of what can be done in period pieces has expanded to include periods whose iconography has never quite left us. (In many ways, in fact, The Idiot’s Lantern is the key text in this argument, but we’ll get there next month.)

The trouble with reaching back to 1973 for a period piece, of course, is that it creates a heritage theme park version of lived experience. Which is unsettling to say the least. Heritage theme park history is a disturbing enough phenomenon as it is, but its application to things that are actually a part of the audience’s life is deeply creepy. Equally, however, Life on Mars has some savvy hedges against this tendency. For one thing, it’s a terribly detailed realization of 1973, done with the attentiveness that we’ve become accustomed to by watching Doctor Who Confidential. It’s not just a matter of slapping an orange tinge on all the lighting and putting everyone in bell bottoms. The 1973 of Life on Mars is built out of an impressive array of minutia and ephemera from the 1970s.

All of this is amplified by the show’s use of period paratexts, right down to its trailers using old BBC logos and its lead-in using an old-fashioned continuity announcer. The result is something that isn’t just a period piece but a thorough exploration of 1970s television and culture that often dismantles the culture and reassembles it into disturbing and haunting visions that plague Sam Tyler and try to undermine his sense of reality.

The problem is that this doesn’t go well with the other show they want to do, in which a modern day detective has to make it in a world where fingerprints take two weeks to turn around, DNA testing is impossible, and basic forensic protocols are ignored. One is a disturbing show about someone’s sanity slipping away, and another is a hymn to the bygone age of detective shows where cops had to be clever instead of just capable of checking their computers.

Except that’s not how detective shows work. A decent detective show is rarely about the particulars of the detective’s process as such, simply because that’s not really particularly engaging. As Edgar Allan Poe noted when inventing the genre, the detective story is not nearly as clever as it appears, as the writer in fact knows the ending and does not have to actually figure it out so much as make something that looks like a satisfying line of thought. Only a tiny subset of detective stories are actually done in the “solve along with the detective” mode, and even those tend to be based more on narrative convention than on careful analysis of the evidence. In practice, lengthy logical deductions are an absolute bore to put on the screen, since they in practice amount to huge infodumps, and only a handful of writers are any good at them. (Though when you have a writer who is good at a lengthy exposition sequences they can make some properly astonishing television with the skill.)

And so for decades the trend in detective shows has been to move away from solve-along-with-the-main-character games and towards character pieces, typically involving the main character’s often troubled psyche. And when this trend really began in earnest with nineties classics like Prime Suspect and Cracker the actual mysteries took three hours to unfold with character pieces wound slowly around them. These days you can do virtually the same thing in a third of the time simply by virtue of having the detective work unfold faster, leaving more time for character bits. The main thing modern technology has facilitated is the velocity and density of narrative, which makes sense given that the major effect of modern communication technology is faster and higher bandwidth communication.

“Yes,” you say, “but all this modern technology business takes all the suspense out of stories.” Well, no more than the thriller died with the invention of cell phones. Yes, we’re all familiar with the deeply entertaining meme of classic plots that would be ruined by cell phones, but all that really means is that the particular narrative contrivance that’s used for the climax there doesn’t work any more. New ones do - recall Steven Moffat’s fantastic episode of Joking Apart in which he constructs a classic farce that’s facilitated by cell phones. Farce, of course, is one of the forms that in theory ought be most endangered by cell phones, since as a structure it depends on failures to communicate, but, of course, it’s perfectly robust and able to handle technology because cell phones, shock of shocks, did not end miscommunication. (Just think of the farce you could build around autocorrect.)

Put another way, modern technology hasn’t changed what does or doesn’t work in a plot. We can return to the old point about the sonic screwdriver, and its newborn cousin psychic paper. These are both useful because they quickly get through often tedious bits of setup and let the story get to the actual plot. In practice they work only when doing so is more interesting than wading through the plot, however. When a contrivance is actually needed to inhibit the Doctor you just need a line about a deadlock and you’re in business. When, on the other hand, you need the Doctor to get into the military facility and start looking for aliens you can cut through the five minutes of guard-charming and lock-picking and get to the good bits. It’s marvelous. Yes, resolving the overall plot of the story with the sonic screwdriver would be awful, but in a well-done episode the point isn’t the mechanics of what resolves the plot, it’s the consequences for the characters of resolving the plot that way.

All of which is to say that there’s not actually anything terribly interesting in the idea of doing a cop show without fingerprinting or DNA technology because in a remotely well-written cop show those aren’t the point of the exercise anyway. Note, for instance, that in the first episode of Life on Mars the plot resolves because of a contrived removal of an obstacle. The plot gets held up until someone finds an old file with a particular name on it. Yes, in a modern cop show this file would be found with twenty seconds of computer searching, but that’s not the point. The point is that all taking technology away does is provide an arbitrary contrivance that prevents the plot from getting resolved too early. But look, no remotely competent television writer has a problem with this. In a contemporary-set show you could do the exact same plot, only you have the delay come from the fact that the person whose name matters has changed names, and so the searches don’t work until they get a key piece of information. Figuring out how to delay your plot resolution is a basic skill of fiction writing.

What is interesting is the contrast between Sam Tyler and Gene Hunt as people. But this opens up its own set of problems. Hunt is an abusive, sexist, racist alpha male with little regard for people’s rights. He’s a nightmare of a cop, and the fact that policing in his style is, while not eliminated, at least no longer normative is unequivocally a good thing. But because Life on Mars is fundamentally a nostalgia piece the audience is invited to luxuriate in Hunt’s over the top nature. It’s not an unabashed hymn to police brutality, but it does ultimately decide that hyper-masculine renegade cops are, on balance, something worth missing.

It’s not clear that the show intends to go down this route. One gets the sense that it wants to have a less straightforwardly credulous relationship with Hunt than it does. It seems more likely that Gene Hunt became the breakout character and the show followed the narrative gravity. But this is a slender excuse. Quite frankly, if Gene Hunt becomes your breakout popular character you did it wrong. Which is the crux of the problem with this series. It’s not that it’s bad TV. It’s that it’s kind of… mediocre TV. This is not a huge problem. Doctor Who, after all, is often mediocre TV. I’m not entirely sure there’s any television show that isn’t medicore a fair amount of the time. Life on Mars succeeds at the basic task of being entertaining. Any theory of television that does not allow for the basic sufficiency of “not awful and reasonably entertaining” is be necessity flawed.

But what is perhaps interesting is the source of its failures - its nostalgia for the 1970s and, more broadly, its genre. The basic idea of rearranging the cultural debris of the 1970s into a surreal and slightly nightmarish dreamscape is, after all, wonderful. The show’s heart seems in the right place, as quite frankly David Bowie is the exact right basic frame to use here, given his repeated transformations across the decade. (Although one cannot help but suspect the title was picked because of one line in “Life on Mars?”) But at the end of the day a cop show is just the wrong genre for this sort of exploration. Life on Mars is at its most interesting when it turns the visual and cultural landscape of the 1970s into a strange and unsettling place, but its genre is fundamentally one about the restoration and maintenance of order, and so no matter how interesting that road is it can never entirely go down it. Todorov’s tightrope between the supernatural and madness is a strange bedfellow for a detective show where the crimes are decidedly non-supernatural.

And sure enough, when the concept reaches its end with Ashes to Ashes, its sequel show, its landing is vaguely unsatisfying. It picks the supernatural, but in a bland and understated way that is oddly anticlimactic, rendering the entire mystery uninteresting in hindsight. Because at the end of the day the premise of a cop show isn’t right for the sort of postmodern nostalgia that the show wants to do. It’s only a small problem - just enough to render the show perpetually “quite good” instead of brilliant or classic - but it is a problem. Thankfully, other shows similar to Life on Mars are, perhaps, better suited to that sort of nostalgia.

Comments

Nyq Only 3 years, 8 months ago

//It’s not an unabashed hymn to police brutality, but it does ultimately decide that hyper-masculine renegade cops are, on balance, something worth missing.//

hmmm more that hyper-masculine renegade TV COPS are, on balance, something worth missing. John Thaw in the Sweeney rather than John Thaw as Inspector Morse.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Sweeney
The Sweeney was fun TV in the 1970s but actual brutal thugish cops weren't fun in the 1970s.

On the note of cop shows have you seen The Bill?
It has a strange parallel with Doctor Who in so far as being a long run, repeatedly re-invented UK TV-show but which lived in the space between Doctor Who (i.e. started around the classic series decline and was cancelled when the Doctor returned).

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George Potter 3 years, 8 months ago

In defense of Graham/Pharaoh/Jordan, I don't think it was the character of Gene Hunt that made him a breakout character, it was Phillip Glenister's incredible performance. Simm is terrific, Liz White fantastic, and the rest of the cast as solid as can be, but Glenister just breathes fire and glory into that role. He's mesmerizing, hilarious, and slightly scary.

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Daru 3 years, 8 months ago

I watched this all of the way through recently with my partner and I found it really entertaining - but also at times, just under the surface, a slightly odd and unsettling experience.

Gene and his existing crew of male cops that Sam walks into hold so many resonances of the 70's I grew up around in Scotland in Leith in Edinburgh (Where Trainspotting was set). Grimy, rough and full of such male stereotypes who inhabited the Dockers world my father worked in. As I watched the show it was fascinating to see these guys reeled before my eyes, all of who had been living in Leith in the 70's and reminded me so much of the Dockers drinking clubs my father dragged me to as a kid.

Fascinating and disturbing - in many ways I did not care about the police stuff. Enjoyed it.

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elvwood 3 years, 8 months ago

"hmmm more that hyper-masculine renegade TV COPS are, on balance, something worth missing."

Absolutely. Life on Mars isn't about a modern detective in the 1970s; it's about a character from a modern detective show in a 1970s detective show. Which is where having lived through the 1970s really helps, because I was watching those shows.

It's also why Ashes to Ashes didn't work for me, because it seemed to be about a character from a modern detective show teaming up with characters from a 1970s detective show - but in the 1980s. Which was a warp too far. I didn't watch much TV in the '80s, but there was no resonance with what I did watch then (maybe there was for others); and anyway when everyone was a fish out of water the impact was lost.

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Spacewarp 3 years, 8 months ago

Unlike a lot of fans of the UK series I took great pains to seek out the US series (via Usenet, as it was broadcast) to see what all the fuss was about. I actually enjoyed it immensely, initially as a strange warped mirror of the UK series, but increasingly as a very well acted show in it's own right. Although I agree totally with everyone's views on the ending, I still advise people to give it a go, so long as you don't watch the last episode!

But by far the most fascinating thing about comparing the two shows is that whereas LOM-UK evokes the 1970s by basing itself on "The Sweeney", LOM-US shows us that the US had a completely different 1970s, based largely on "Starsky & Hutch", making the streets of LOM-US even more alien than those of 1973's Manchester.

Afro-haired, tassel-wearing black men and women abound, there are hippies on the streets protesting about the War, drugs are absolutely everywhere, the music is predominantly by the Velvet Underground and anyone with an Irish accent is given a lot more respect than they would by Glenister's Gene Hunt.

It is amazing to think that all this was going on at the same time as Sam Tyler struggling to come to terms with the fact that there's only 3 channels on the black & white TV in his seedy Manc bedset.

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Ross 3 years, 8 months ago

Except that’s not how detective shows work. A decent detective show is rarely about the particulars of the detective’s process as such, simply because that’s not really particularly engaging.

Somehow, this didn't really come home for me until I started watching "Criminal Minds". I became suddenly and acutely aware of the fact that they never did any actual solving of any sort of mystery; they just sort of milled around making implausibly accurate predictions that were borne out, unknown to them, by the intercuts back to the killer, until about 40 minutes in, when everyone just sort of reached a gentleman's agreement that it was time to end the episode, at which point the team would show up at the killer's lair and capture him.

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Mike 3 years, 8 months ago

Your point about detective shows being more about character than detecting seems even more accurate following the success of 'Broadchurch', which I know you mentioned possibly covering in a previous post. Problem is I'm not sure what more you could say then you have done here - perhaps the village community aspect or that Chibnall can actually write good characters if he so chooses
?

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Scott 3 years, 8 months ago

I suspect this is why Hollywood is so in love with the idea of the Tortured Psychological Profiler With Haunting Insight Into The Homicidal Psychopathic Mentality™; they can basically do exactly this with the handwave that the implausibly accurate predictions are basically because "(s)he's the best damn profiler we have" and that "(s)he has an almost unnatural ability to get into the killer's mind."

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Scott 3 years, 8 months ago

'It’s not an unabashed hymn to police brutality, but it does ultimately decide that hyper-masculine renegade cops are, on balance, something worth missing."

Hmmm. Like Nyq Only and elvwood, I suspect that it's not so much the renegade cops themselves that are worth missing, more the dynamic and exciting cop shows and movies based around renegade cops that are worth missing. It's the same reason people enjoy "Lethal Weapon" movies despite the fact that any police department that employed Martin Riggs would quickly find itself carpet-bombed with lawsuits and damage claims; people simply enjoy stories about renegades who flaunt the system. Heck, "Doctor Who" is pretty much based on that appeal as well, just in a fashion seemingly more from the liberal-pacifist end of the spectrum.

I don't think many people outside subscribers to the Mail seriously want cops like Gene Hunt back on the streets for real, but say what you will about the innumerable police procedurals about haunted cops staring down the darkness of the human psyche while bound by an overworked and broken system that fails to provide true justice, it's a bit more viscerally exciting to watch Gene Hunt crash through an alley full of boxes in a sleek 1970s muscle car before getting into a gunfight with the villain of the week. It helps that, like George says, Gene Hunt is very dynamically and charismatically played.

People might want more cop shows like "The Sweeney", but it doesn't follow that they want their police forces to return to a point somewhere before the Scarman Report and Operation Countryman.

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Scott 3 years, 8 months ago

To add to the above, I call to evidence the short film "Detectives on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown" by The Comic Strip Presents..., which suggests that while these old seventies cop shows might not be very politically correct, they're still a lot of fun.

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Iain Coleman 3 years, 8 months ago

Life on Mars, of course, started out as a straightforward revival of The Sweeney, before developing into the much more interesting show it became.

Fundamentally it's a successful exercise in having your cake and eating it. We get all the fun of watching Gene Hunt be a charismatic arsehole, while Sam Tyler is always on hand as an avatar of the audience's conscience, tutting disapprovingly while Hunt beats up another wrong 'un.

Ashes to Ashes failed for me for three reasons. One was that it just wasn't recognisable as a 1980s cop show, in the way that Life on Mars just screamed The Sweeney (more accurately "The cool bits of The Sweeney that everyone remembers"). In Britain, the iconic 1980s cop shows were American, with Miami Vice probably being the top ticket. Glossy, glamorous and sunlit. Gene Hunt with an Uzi coming down the Thames on a boat doesn't quite cut it.

The second reason is that, as a woman, Alex Drake was not just an observer of Hunt's nasty attitudes, she was a target of them. This changes the underlying dynamic, and not for the better. Once our modern audience avatar becomes the victim of the old cop show, instead of a commentator on it, the whole thing feels that bit more nasty.

Third, Life on Mars always managed to walk the tightrope of enjoying Hunt's excesses without revelling in them too much. Ashes to Ashes got that balance wrong, falling too much in love with Hunt.

It's notable that Tony Jordan is credited on Life on Mars, but not on Ashes to Ashes. Now there's a guy I'd like to see a Doctor Who episode from.

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Spacewarp 3 years, 8 months ago

I'm part way through Series 2 of Ashes to Ashes at present, watching it with my 15-yr old son. It's very different watching it now, knowing what the resolution is going to be, and my son is enjoying it more than I am, because he's where I was, still trying to put the pieces of the jigsaw together. I take Iain's point that Alex is not as good a substitute for Sam, although I think Sam was as much a target of Gene's nastiness as Alex is. After all, how many times did we see they get into an argument that always ended with Gene flooring him? That's one thing you never see in A2A - unable to punch his co-star has resulted in Gene's teeth being somewhat pulled.

I do enjoy the part of London that they're based though - Fenchurch East - as I was working near there at the time (the early 80s) and I remember it well.

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Nick Smale 3 years, 8 months ago

As a Manchester resident, much of the charm of Life on Mars came from seeing a major BBC tele-fantasy series acted out on the streets where I live. I spent many happy hours spotting familiar landmarks, a familiar Stockport council office block transformed into Gene Hunt's brutalist police HQ, Manchester's trendy northern quarter regressed, with the ubiquitous modern art carefully hidden.

Manchester was a canny choice of setting, a great old city in 1973, a great regenerated city in 2006, but the two almost completely different because separated by the collapse of the 80s.

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Pen Name Pending 3 years, 8 months ago

Small correction: "The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe" was also set during World War II.

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Ununnilium 3 years, 8 months ago

Do we need, at this point, to point out that sci-fi shows aren't all cult shows? It just seems like belaboring the obvious at this point.

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Philip Sandifer 3 years, 8 months ago

No, but sci-fi shows are all in danger of being mistaken as cult shows.

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Philip Sandifer 3 years, 8 months ago

I think that most news stories about the broadening power of law enforcement and the surveillance state suggest that there's a large degree of ambivalence about this.

Take a comparable US show, 24, and look how Jack Bauer and the myth of Jack Bauer has become an active political force cited, as though he's real, in discussions of when torture or surveillance is or isn't necessary.

It's not that we want police brutality. We want a world simple enough that police brutality would be OK in practice.

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Adam Riggio 3 years, 8 months ago

This is going to come up in more detail once we cover Chibnall's actual writing for Doctor Who and Torchwood in the next few weeks/months, but here's my preview on him.

Chibnall's problem for many years was that he knew how to structure plots, but had no clue how to weave any kind of subtle character development into them. A lot of the time, plot and character stand mostly separate. Take the average Life on Mars (or Ashes to Ashes) episode: The plot is an investigation to track down a criminal, but what really entertains us (or at least me) is the interaction between Sam (or Alex) and Gene, and how that weird relationship of hostility becomes a hostile friendship (with added bits of unnerving sexual tension with Alex, as Gene's sexism combined with their attraction to each other to build a very disturbing relationship from which I could not bring myself to look away . . . maybe this says more about me). Sometimes a plot reveals something about one of their characters (the football hooligan episode about Sam's relationship with his father, the gay club scene episode about Alex's emotional sensitivity and Gene actually becoming somewhat okay with gays). Sometimes not.

Chibnall could write fine plots, but no characters. The best dialogue in a television show pulls double duty: revealing character aspects and pushing at relationships while also advancing the plot. Chibnall's dialogue couldn't handle that, because every line was about plot functionality. That's why he made some of the most lacklustre episodes of Doctor Who, and damn near turned me off Torchwood until Children of Earth hit.

Then something happened between season five and seven of Doctor Who. The plots of his Doctor Who stories became simpler, almost perfunctory to the character exploration. The "plot" of a given story was itself the development of the characters. Dinosaurs on a Spaceship had a ridiculously simple plot: thief hijacks generation ship, Doctor and friends stop him. The meat of the story was in Brian changing his outlook on life and his relationship with his son and daughter-in-law. Same with Power of Three: the plot was laughably non-existent (anyone who complains about this misses that the plot was never intended to be important), because the real story was the effect of a secret life on an ordinary life. PS hammered that home emotionally.

I think it was Moffat's influence. Chibnall never learned anything about plotting and character from Davies because Davies is kind of a shit teacher. If he thinks there are problems with a script, he'll just rewrite it in his apartment at 3.30am and you find out when the episode airs. Moffat actually works with writers to improve scripts collaboratively. It's a slower process, but it works better, because under Moffat's tenure, writers have improved, Chibnall being a prime example.

I haven't yet seen Broadchurch (though I badly want to), but this seems more akin to the new Chibnall focus where the characters are the plot. Yes, we want to find out who the murderer is, but Broadchurch seems focussed on that Twin Peaks lesson, that the audience is intrigued not by the murder mystery, but by the strange world that provoked the murder mystery.

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Nicholas Tosoni 3 years, 8 months ago

RE: the US ending

It's not just a VR simulation, but a VR simulation that's *gone awry*, and the Game Master has lost the plot but is trying to get it back. In that case, it's interactive television!

Here's my take: The "game" is supposed to be a show about a cop in 2008 New York City, but the signal gets hijacked and the show gets retooled into a cop show in which a detective in 2008 ends up in 1973 New York City, with genre awareness. (A comment on executive meddling?)

If you think of it as the punchline at the end of a long, drawn-out shaggy dog story, it works much better. It turns out they really are looking for Life On Mars.

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Matter-Eater Lad 3 years, 8 months ago

I was born in 1974, so I don't remember much of the 70s. And Ashes to Ashes had an impact on my that Life on Mars never did, as much as I enjoyed it. There was one early episode where something about the fashions and the music in the background just resonated with something in my brain: "Oh, that's mom and dad when they were getting dressed up to go out on a Friday." It wasn't just that it was set in the 80s, but somehow struck a chord beyond the period trappings to make me remember being a little kid in the same period.

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David Anderson 3 years, 8 months ago

I only saw the second half of Broadchurch. Still, I think you're right about it. I liked Dinosaurs on a Spaceship.
I don't think I agree with you about The Power of Three: mainly because merely having the Doctor as part of the Pond's lives on Earth as your premise isn't sufficient. The premise needs to be developed in interesting ways so as to have something to say, and I don't think The Power of Three does. And what it does manage to do with the premise was already done far more effectively by The Lodger. By contrast P.S. works because the premise carries enough charge on its own.

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encyclops 3 years, 8 months ago

I've never seen the show, but it sounds as though Gene might be the same sort of character as Cartman, Bender, or Jayne, or for that matter Avon: part of the appeal is that these characters get to do whatever they want while still being "on our side." Sure, they're assholes, but they're "our" assholes. Even if there isn't a certain amount of vicarious pleasure to be had in their lack of inhibition, there's at least a refreshing unpredictability to the kinds of plot complications they can create through not playing by polite rules.

To tie this back to an earlier post: I get a lot more enjoyment out of watching characters like these than I do watching Daleks exterminate people. It might be no less perverse, but there it is.

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Daibhid C 3 years, 8 months ago

I only saw a bit of Ashes to Ashes, but the impression I was left with was that Alex herself fitted the 80s cop show aesthetic better than the 70s holdovers did, being basically Harriet Makepeace without the title.

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encyclops 3 years, 8 months ago

And by the way, this is why characters like Gene (and Cartman, and Bender, and Avon) become breakout popular characters. Of course they're going to overshadow your straight lead, your Stans, Frys, and Blakes. If you're clever you give your lead some of the asshole qualities, as with Mal, House, or Cumberbatch's Sherlock.

Or, as was cleverly pointed out above, you could make your lead an immortal alien who doesn't behave according to human rules and at least occasionally needs a straight human to keep him on the moral path.

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Iain Coleman 3 years, 8 months ago

Avon was the charismatic bad boy, but Blake was the real bastard.

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encyclops 3 years, 8 months ago

Having just rewatched the whole of Blake's 7, I think I know where you're coming from.

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BerserkRL 3 years, 8 months ago

So, there's this Doctor Who rumor: http://www.bleedingcool.com/2013/06/13/wqill-doctor-who-have-a-very-special-surprise-for-us-in-november

Comments, anyone?

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Theonlyspiral 3 years, 8 months ago

We were talking about this yesterday. I remain hopeful. Dr Sandifier was horrified. Froborr and others will disbelieve until proven otherwise.

I am eager to see a full Reign of Terror.

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Chadwick 3 years, 8 months ago

I think the article misses the point about the two shows. On the one hand we have Gene Hunt and his crew but although they have some of the trimmings of their genuine 70s counterparts: The Sweeney, The Professionals, Special Branch and even Dirty Harry, they are not in the same league of competence.

Hunt is the most effective of the detectives, but he couldn't solve a single case without Tyler and Drake, which is in contrast with the cop shows and films of the 70s where the direct and maverick cops know more than the orthodox police and their methods. The supporting characters are blinkered in their methods to the point of being ineffective.

So Tyler and Drake alter the way the squad tackles crime and you see that over the course of both series. Hunt is brought to life by a fantastic performance and he's given choice quips to repeat by fans but his role isn't that of the thuggish alpha male as Mr Sandifer implies.

As revealed in the last episode of Ashes To Ashes, the entire setting is a purgatory for failed coppers. Hunt himself is a failed 19 year old junior policeman (which indicates why his emotional development is arrested, pardon the pun). But he serves as a counterweight to the modern police person catapulted into this world. Otherwise the show would be a post-modern sneer at the past, which it's not. We can root for Tyler and Drake as they drag the team, sometimes kicking and screaming, towards more thoughtful and honest policing but Hunt cuts down the smug superiority afterwards. Modern police may be more tolerant and reliant on technology, but the 70s police had the bravado and the team spirit (notice how Sam Tyler's modern day police are bland and sterile in comparison). Hunt also is the spirit guide; the link man to the afterlife and by the final episode he's softened incredibly.

Of course, the shows have been a huge success and are still fondly spoken of and I suspect they will be for years to come. I suspect some in left wing critique can't get past Hunt being RACISTSEXISTHOMOPHOBIC! (always one word) but he's our hunter-gatherer within us which needs taming, but not extinguishing.

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George Potter 3 years, 8 months ago

This reaches something of a crescendo in NBC's Hannibal, where Will Graham's 'profiling' is presented as basically a psychic phenomenon. He literally walks into a room and has visions of what the killer did, which are -- of course -- always right. And, seriously, I don't have a problem with it at all, because the forensics and detection are not the point. The point is the character relationships, between Graham and his co-workers and friends, and -- most importantly -- Hannibal himself. It's a great show, and realism would actually [i]lessen[/i] the impact, taking narrative time from those relationships and robbing the show of much of its visual style and verve.

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Nyq Only 3 years, 8 months ago

Oh very true - I'm from Wigan originally but Manchester of the 1970s was a place I visited regularly as a child.
Nice setting but also added to the slight unreality - because the Sweeney element of the show was a very London thing. 1970s Manchester is substantially more daggy (as the Australians would say) setting. So that added another layer - even taken as a 'real' setting it made Hunt's character look more pretentious - i.e. a provincial policeman trying to be a hip London cop.
If Tyler had fallen into a TV police show of the 1970s set in the North of England he'd have fallen into Z-Cars not the Sweeney. So there is a double invasion - a modern TV cop lands in 1970s Manchester and a 1970s London TV cop also lands in 1970s Manchester.

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Nyq Only 3 years, 8 months ago

I hate to mention The Bill again because it wasn't a great TV show but in terms of a populist TV show about the police (i.e. one that The Daily Mail target audience would watch) it is more relevant than Life on Mars (which to stick to newspaper stereotypes was aiming for a lot of Guardian readers).
The relevant Bill character was DCI Frank Burnside - an attempt to fit in a quasi-corrupt Seeney-ish cop into the soapy structure of The Bill. Very popular character who spawned one season of his own spin-off series http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frank_Burnside#Frank_Burnside

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BerserkRL 3 years, 8 months ago

Ah, missed it. Thanks!

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encyclops 3 years, 8 months ago

I missed it too, so thanks for posting it again. It seems so unlikely to me, and so utterly welcome if true.

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BerserkRL 3 years, 8 months ago

I am eager to see a full Reign of Terror.

May I quote you out of context?

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Josiah Rowe 3 years, 8 months ago

I haven't watched Hannibal, but the presentation of a profiler's abilitities as quasi-psychic derives from the flawed-but-fascinating 1990s series Millennium, in which the series' writers and producers themselves seemed unclear on whether the protagonist's profiling abilities were rational or supernatural. (By the series' end they were definitely supernatural, but early on there was a very interesting ambiguity.)

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Ross 3 years, 8 months ago

My understanding is that Chris Carter was very clear that 'Millennium' was not supposed to involve anything supernatural, and the protagonist's profiling abilities were purely rational. But the series had been greenlit entirely on the basis of "Chris Carter has a new show. Ooh! A second The X-Files. MAKE IT MORE LIKE THE X-FILES!"

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mengu 3 years, 8 months ago

I would advise Dr Sandifer not to worry: nothing wrong with making a third edition.

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Scott 3 years, 8 months ago

"most news stories about the broadening power of law enforcement and the surveillance state suggest that there's a large degree of ambivalence about this"

A good point, but I'd suggest that's more a a general ambiguity about technology, the role of police authority and the increasingly shrinking private / public space divide rather than a yearning for the renegade cop specifically, though, since the renegade hyper-masculine cop of the 1970s model generally doesn't really gell with technology and the surveillance state either. The surveillance state, generally speaking, is characterised as bland people in smart suits hiding in plain sight while soaking up information, while the renegade cop's often a bit of a luddite; how many scenes in how many cop shows does the renegade cop scoff at the process of getting forensic evidence? He's all about action, following gut feelings rather than this whole 'chain of evidence and procedure' thing and seeing what the word on the street is rather than sitting in a room with a pair of headphones listening to a wiretap. If anything else, the renegade cop would be even more out of place in the modern surveillance culture environment of modern policing.

He does, I grant you, tie into the torture debate (the whole argument of whether you can beat a confession out of a suspect if you 'know' he's guilty), so I'll grant you that one. But while you make a good point with Jack Bauer, from what I understand (having not seen 24) from what I understand he kind of ties into my point, since he doesn't really gell with the surveillance culture he's nominally part of; he's the 'doer', the physical man of action who gets information with his fists rather than collating information.

"It's not that we want police brutality. We want a world simple enough that police brutality would be OK in practice."

This is undeniably true, but it's also nothing new. We've always wanted a simpler world morally speaking (although granted, 9/11 and the resulting consequences probably helped intensify these yearnings).

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ferret 3 years, 8 months ago

a third edition of this nature would be most welcome - a before-and-after analysis could be fascinating.

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ferret 3 years, 8 months ago

the various shows in the CSI franchise are - from what little I've seen - an example of pure procedural crime-solving shows at the expense of character pieces that are highly popular (or at least, highly prolific). I'm not a fan, but from the early episodes I watched I cannot fathom why they are so successful and long-living.

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Theonlyspiral 3 years, 8 months ago

You can if you want to?

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encyclops 3 years, 8 months ago

Surely Manhunter, the first cinematic adaptation of Red Dragon, predates Millennium, and the way George Potter describes the presentation of Will Graham's abilities sounds exactly like what you see in that film.

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David Anderson 3 years, 8 months ago

During the last election Labour put out an advert that backfired (or was taken to have backfired) comparing Cameron to Gene Hunt.
Phil's post does and doesn't ring true to me. On the one hand, I think the series is intended to confront the problems Phil identifies. It's not meant to be merely a nostalgia piece: it's supposed to be about nostalgia. On the other hand, I think Phil is largely right that the series doesn't negotiate the problems its posing itself well.

Hunt works as pirate fiction for Guardian readers: you get the thrill of identifying with the transgressor and then the pleasure of having the transgressor condemned by Sam or Alex. Except the problem is that in a long-running series Gene Hunt can't be a one-dimensional character who is always wrong, and can't ever get permanent comeuppance. So he becomes even more ambiguous: he works in both the transgressor and the upholder of justice which makes him far too close to the narrative centre of gravity.

I didn't find the ending of Ashes to Ashes weak; I thought it worked emotionally. But then I never considered the series unmissable so maybe I wasn't invested enough to be disappointed.

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Mike 3 years, 8 months ago

I think that's a very good analysis Adam that even Phil might have to rival (though we're a bit way off yet). I really enjoy '42' which, as you say, is a good plot with shallow characters. I also think 'Power of Three' is a terrific character drama and 'Dinosaurs' is at its best when focusing on drama (and it helps that Mark Williams is perfect for the role - that image of him drinking tea on the edge of the TARDIS looking at Earth is the highlight of the episode).

Broadchurch is a solid murder mystery although it seems nearly the entire audience worked out who the killer was before the last episode. But it wasn't the point - of course it was obvious, we knew more about the town and its people. Again, Chibnall's scripts get great performances, especially David Bradley (also in Dinosaurs - probably a coinicdence but interesting nevertheless. Tad spoilery but the roles mirror each other: appearing good but being bad and vice versa.)

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Mike 3 years, 8 months ago

Damn ment Brian, not drama

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George Potter 3 years, 8 months ago

Surely Manhunter, the first cinematic adaptation of Red Dragon, predates Millennium, and the way George Potter describes the presentation of Will Graham's abilities sounds exactly like what you see in that film.

Yes. One of the reasons that I took almost instantly to the show was that it was obviously harking back to Manhunter in visual style rather than the more recent Brett Ratner adaptation, to the point where I'm pretty sure cinematographer Jim Hawkinson is visually referencing Dante Spinotti. :D

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George Potter 3 years, 8 months ago

Oops. Meant to add: if you like Manhunter you really should check out Hannibal.

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William Silvia 3 years, 7 months ago

Are you avoiding the fourth one because Poland hadn't been invaded yet? Because the Japanese attacks started before Let's Kill Hitler.

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Jarl 2 years, 1 month ago

I once read a description of CSI as the modern version of competence porn, IE the sort of semi-cinematic sci fi we used to see back in the day. The example that always comes to mind is This Island Earth, with the heroic scientists receiving instructions and parts for a mysterious machine and then building it in a very sterling hard-work montage.

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