Pop Between Realities, Home in Time For Tea: Broadchurch

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I want to start with an update to yesterday's appeal. When I made the appeal for boosting the Patreon by $200, I kind of doubted it could be done. Actually, not even kind of. It felt like the longest of long shots—a desperate appeal to avoid having to give up writing despite the fact that it obviously made the most sense for my financial security. Instead, we've blown past 2/3 of the goal in a single day. As I queue this up before dinner, we only have $61 to go, and what felt like an impossible dream is looking like it very well might happen. I am humbled and stunned and above all grateful to be so widely and deeply supported, and so, so thrilled that I really might get to continue on this mad ride. But we're not there yet, and if you clicked away yesterday because it felt like a pipe dream, well... it's not. But I still need your help. The Patreon link is right here. And with that said, let's get on to dragging Chris Chibnall.

Act I: The Woman Who Fell to Earth

The most impressive thing about Broadchurch is the unbridled, even cynical efficiency of its conception. Chibnall has suggested he had the idea for it going back to 2003, but from his account of the process this idea did not include characters, the plot, or a location so much as a vague idea to do a child murder story that would focus on the killing’s impact on the broader community. It wasn’t until 2011 that he started developing the program as a spec script after his time working on Camelot for Starz came to an end that was about as unpleasant as the series itself.

In 2011, however, the show’s influence is unmistakable: by that time Danish import The Killing, a brooding and meticulous crime drama, had made its bow on BBC Four, where it was a surprising hit, at least on the scale that BBC Four has those. The Killing, along with the late Stieg Larsson’s hit series of novels starting with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, jumpstarted the genre known as Scandi-noir. As a television genre at least, these involve making grimly serious crime dramas with a focus on place, both in their fascination with the lush desolation of their landscape and in their interest in in looking at community and social structure, and the way in which a traumatic incident like a major crime leaves a wound that traverses social strata. Think From Hell if it was actually a mystery, or, if you’re hell bent on staying in television, The Wire if it were.

So Chibnall gets to the deeply obvious idea that Britain has remote and desolate landscapes too and that there’s no reason they have to import difficult subtitled Scandinavian series when they can make this stuff on their own. And when I call that obvious, I mean it as a compliment. It’s a ruthlessly well-judged move, born of recognizing a growing trend and getting on board quickly and decisively. It’s calculated in the sense of reaching a correct answer. 

From that the show comes together fairly easily. Swooping landscape porn of the English seaside (chosen, amusingly, so that Chibnall could work from home, with his hometown actually serving as one of the filming locations), a broad spectrum of quality actors, and a methodical pace that hits a nice binge-encouraging cliffhanger at the end of every episode. It’s an idea that would be hard to screw up, and Chibnall doesn’t. The result is a smash hit that made his succession essentially inevitable. Part of this was simply that the other candidates were unpersuasive. Gatiss may have co-created Sherlock, but he’s never really convinced as a solo artist, and it’s far from clear he’d want to give up his acting career; Whithouse blew it with The Game; outsider candidates like Peter Harness or Jamie Mathieson might have been compelling to fans, but generally lacked experience. (And Harness was largely ruled out by Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell flopping, even if that was basically 100% BBC sabotage.) So Broadchurch, as a massive fucking hit, meant the crown was Chibnall’s.

The thing is, the idiot-proofing of the concept matters. It may be hard to fuck up, but Chibnall tries. Much of the construction of something like this comes from the sense of teleology. The solution should be both non-obvious and inevitable, and everything should quietly be built around it. This is, frankly, a fundamental part of the concept—if you’re going to show the way that a murder cuts a transverse wound across a community then you need to have the structure of the community tightly planned so that the detectives’ subsequent unraveling of it is suitably revelatory.

But Chibnall, in a preview of the pathological secrecy he would display on Doctor Who, freely sacrificed storytelling to a paranoia that maybe the Sun would figure out the plot. That he wrote several episodes before deciding who the murderer should be is one thing, and in keeping with the Agatha Christie method of writing the book, deciding the least likely killer, then rewriting it so they’re the inevitable one. But Chibnall went a step further, stubbornly keeping it loose and flexible so he could change killers at the last minute if spoilers got out. For a show that’s precision engineered to work on streaming sites and have a long afterlife, this is a baffling move, sacrificing the overall quality of story as it would play out for years just to manage the headlines during transmission. 

There are good bits—genuinely good, in fact. The fusion of landscape and mystery involved in having Danny’s body found at the bottom of the iconic cliff is fantastically savvy. It really is beautifully cast. And while the decision to dramatically overlight a Scandinoir is questionable, the show is generally fucking gorgeous. But it is, unfortunately, Chibnall’s bad instincts as opposed to the saviness of Broadchurch’s construction that would prove to be the bigger factor across both the show and his career.

Act II: The Battle of Ranskoor av Kolos

Season Two of Broadchurch is fairly universally recognized as a disaster. Its plot is a bifurcated mess that splits its time between a tedious sequence of trial scenes that culminate in the murderer from Season One getting off and a sloppily formed mystery in which David Tennant’s character solves the case that he’d screwed up in his backstory, having, apparently, quietly stashed the key witness in Broadchurch without telling anybody. It’s boring, incoherent, and a case study in everything that Chibnall is bad at.

The first thing that rapidly becomes clear in Season Two (although it was frankly present in Season One as well) is that Chibnall does not so much write characters as assert them. Drama is not a thing that extends out of his characters, but rather a thing that happens to them, and that they then dutifully inform the audience of. Nobody has surprising reactions to anything because nobody is worked out in enough detail to be surprising. In the first season the compelling mystery provided enough momentum to mostly paper over these gaps, but with a plodding and directionless season the inadequate character work is quickly found out. 

The main counterweight to this ends up being the extraordinarily strong cast, who, even as the show becomes increasingly devoid of compelling material continue to do great work with it. One of the small but genuine pleasures of Season Two is watching David Tennant realize that his only option for making this work is to overact and then finding ways to do that with a preposterously dour character. Arthur Darvill does the usual magic that he does, whereby he has a profoundly narrow range of actual tones and approaches but nevertheless makes them always work. And Olivia Coleman is absolutely gobsmacking, finding her way into scene after scene despite the fact that she was blatantly not given any. 

Others fare more dubiously. Eve Myles, cast as the aforementioned key witness, spends most of the season looking vaguely lost, as though she signed up based on a description of a character who has simply failed to materialize on the page. (She is, notably, given one of the most unworkable in practice characters—she turns out in the finale to be guilty of the murders, which means that her motivations through the first seven episodes have to be murky and ambiguous. Chibnall, being Chibnall, handles this by just not writing her any.)  More troubling is Jodie Whittaker, who never tips into being bad, and who may well be the single worst served member of the cast (her scene on the witness stand is absolutely staggering in its misconstruction), but who seems distressingly unaware that she’s being poorly served, earnestly giving her all in a badly misguided belief that all these scenes and lines require to work is a sufficient quantity of sincerity. It’s a deeply flawed approach to Chibnall’s writing, which requires not conviction to sell it but the ability to project an illusion of depth to make up for the abject lack of it in the script. 

Act III: Kerblam!

The first fifteen minutes of Broadchurch Season Three are the boldest and most extraordinary thing that Chris Chibnall has ever written. They open with Olivia Coleman approaching a shellshocked Julie Hesmondhalgh, who is quickly revealed to have been raped. What follows is both excruciating and painstaking, a procedural of the initial police response to a rape report that focuses with exacting precision on capturing both the Hesmondhalgh’s trauma and what a sensitive but productive response to it looks like. It presents the fine details of evidence collection and sensitivity with brutal and unflinching forwardness. It’s legitimately excellent in a way Chibnall has nowhere else approached. And the underlying ethos continues throughout the season, with what is clearly an earnest and genuine desire to do right by the material.

It is worth returning to the sense of Chibnall as a calculating writer, because this is yet another example. The third season of Broadchurch is single-mindedly focused on doing rape right. This is a laudable goal, but it’s painfully obvious that Chibnall knows that and seeks to be lauded. How much that detracts is a largely personal matter; for me, it’s considerably more bothersome here than the equivalent cynicism in the show’s basic conception, but still not in and of itself a dealbreaker. But it’s certainly a preview of the thinking that will go into his Doctor Who. The uncomfortable truth of his era, after all, is that the right-wing critics of its diversity aren’t wrong about his motives. Yes, they’d accuse any take on a female Doctor and a heavily racially diverse TARDIS crew of being cynical pandering, and obviously their underlying antipathy for the basic idea of having the Doctor be a woman or of people of color existing deserves nothing but contempt, but the fact remains: Chibnall’s specific execution of diversity, much like the third season of Broadchurch, is fundamentally cynical—a decision to do something that will be praised in specific ways in the press coverage we’ve already seen that he unwisely allows to dictate his storytelling.

This is a problem, but one that can in theory be overcome, as the opening scenes of the season show. Cynical plays at dealing with diversity or important social issues still deal with them, with all the inherent virtues therein; alchemy always begins with base matter. The point where Season Three of Broadchurch goes irreparably, unbearably wrong is in the resolution, when it comes time for Chibnall to actually try to make a point about rape. In some ways it’s not even bad. The villain reads decently well as a pastiche of the most openly rapey of MRAs, talking about how because the people he rapes aren’t virgins it doesn’t really matter. It’s the right way to do a rapist on populist television in 2017. Except the villain isn’t, in this case, the rapist—instead he’s someone who groomed the rapist and then forced him to do it with threats of violence. So we’ve already got a badly misjudged move into “isn’t it sad how the rapist’s life has been ruined” territory. 

But it gets worse. The plot ends with David Tennant reassuring Olivia Coleman that not all men are like that. And there’s a genuinely bizarre thread running through the season about pornography. Broadchurch has always been interested in the idea of perversion, with the villains of the first two seasons being pedophiles. But in its third season Chibnall widens the net, with a recurring motif about pornography. Olivia Coleman finds out that her son has porn on his phone, while the pin-up images in the villain’s office are an early sign of his evilness, and a later admission that he watches hours of pornography a day. And, just to hammer the point home, in the climax we see reaction shots as Tennant and Coleman’s characters look at the videos the villain took of his past rapes. 

It’s clanging and obvious and prudish—an almost Daily Mail sort of moral righteousness that was always there in the lurid obsession with pedophilia but that is allowed full run here. Irritatingly, Chibnall doesn’t even really seem to know what he’s talking about; at one point the question of where Coleman’s son got the pornography is a major plot point, which both utterly fails to understand how Internet pornography worked in 2017 (it was overwhelmingly streaming by that point) and shows a troubling naiveté about the capabilities of your average fifteen year old. So a prudish sex negativity that can’t even be bothered to accurately depict the object of its critique. All wrapped up in a story where the actual rapist is a tragic kid and where the ultimate moral point is “not all men.”

So the long-term future of Doctor Who was, to say the least, worrisome. Heck, after Sherlock so was the short term future. At least Moffat had engineered himself something he’d never really had before: low expectations. These would prove to benefit them, but he was also about to exceed them handily.

Comments

Christopher Brown 1 week, 1 day ago

Here are your medals for completing this monumentous task!

🥇🥈🥉🏅🎖🏆

Sorry they're a bit small, and probably only viewable on mobile :/

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Dave 1 week, 1 day ago

It does make a big difference but the first series of the Danish The Killing, if you can take the initial 20-episode instalment as one series, also has a terrible and rushed resolution with many of the middle episodes faffing about with red herrings that don't progress towards the actual killer. In that sense, Chibnall did actually capture the structure of his primary inspiration quite well...

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Dave 1 week, 1 day ago

Sorry, that should say 'it doesn't make a big difference'

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David Anderson 1 week, 1 day ago

I don't think the BBC is entirely to blame for the failure of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.
One failing stems from the source material: the plot to put it kindly takes a while to get going. The book gets away with it if you are the sort of reader who takes pleasure in a pastiche of early nineteenth century prose being applied to high fantasy, and in the comic use of straight-faced mock pedantic footnotes. The other failing is that, while the book is about the problems of treating white male angst as a narrative centre, the television series doesn't I think always successfully negotiate the gap between being about the problems of treating white male angst as a narrative centre and being about white male angst.
Still, would have been a better choice than Chibnall.

Season Two of Broadchurch is interesting... the trial subplot can be seen as a deconstruction of the standard police procedural: here is why the narrative conventions of the police procedural are a bad guide to real police work. Problem is that deconstructing genre tropes is not much fun to anyone except narrative theory geeks unless you have something better to put in its place. And Chibnall doesn't.

Back when you (El) were reviewing Chibnall's Who you said that Whitaker had the longest run of stories without any turkeys of any Doctor barring the Third. But I suspect also the longest of stories of any Doctor without anything better than average. That really sums up Chibnall: low-level basic competence that comes acropper as soon as he tries anything ambitious.
Even so, better Chibnall than Whitaker.

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Christopher Brown 1 week, 1 day ago

I'm assuming you meant "Whithouse"? :X because I would totally take an alchemically resurrected David Whitaker as head writer right now.

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David Anderson 1 week ago

Um... yes.

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TomeDeaf 6 days, 22 hours ago

"The other failing is that, while the book is about the problems of treating white male angst as a narrative centre, the television series doesn't I think always successfully negotiate the gap between being about the problems of treating white male angst as a narrative centre and being about white male angst"

I agree about this distinction between book and series, though I don't think it's really a factor in the series not doing well. If anything, "more white male angst" is a bit of a golden ticket to doing well with the general public, if anything. Folks still love that shit.

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Sean Dillon 1 week, 1 day ago

Scandi-noir. As a television genre at least, these involve making grimly serious crime dramas with a focus on place, both in their fascination with the lush desolation of their landscape and in their interest in in looking at community and social structure, and the way in which a traumatic incident like a major crime leaves a wound that traverses social strata.

Wait, so "Scandi-noir" is just everyone else finally deciding to rip off Twin Peaks?

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Brian B. 1 week ago

Twin Peaks wasn't "grimly serious". It was deadpan -- not the same thing. Also, frequently surreal and inexplicable-on-pupose, which I don't think "Broadchurch" or "Dragon Tattoo" aimed for.

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Lambda 1 week, 1 day ago

Was that "rapist is under duress" detail driven by the need to be surprising? Prioritisation of that seems to frequently undermine real dramatic values, since the reality they need to relate to somehow is so often not very surprising at all.

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Przemek 1 week ago

I would guess so. The same (probably) happened with "Kerblam!", hence Dr. Sandifer's choice of title for Act III.

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Adam Thompson 1 week, 1 day ago

It's Colman. No e. I've made this mistake too.

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Daibhid C 1 week ago

I'd forgotten Starz's Camelot was even a thing. I don't know if I'd ever known Chibnall was involved.

(Did anyone else kind of get the feeling Starz's USP was "adulty versions of things BBC is doing for a children's/family audience"? (Camelot for Merlin, Da Vinci's Demons for Leonardo, Torchwood obvs.) I was half-waiting for them to announce a gritty, sexy show about wizards fighting aliens...)

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Set Spade 1 week ago

Well, they've got American Gods now...

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Ozyman.Jones 1 week ago

I recall my parents telling me I should watch the original Broadchurch, and then telling me to avoid the second series. So I avoided them both (being busy with my business I skip TV that isn't guaranteed to hit the spot) until the Chibnall/Dr Who announcement. And then decided to catch up, so to speak.

And what a disappointment that was. And has continued to be.

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Przemek 1 week ago

Holy shit, the way you titled the three parts of your essay is just on point. And it quietly sets up some important points of discussion to be had about the Chibnall era. Bravo.

I've never watched "Broadchurch", but my girlfriend has and it convinced her to give the Chibnall era of DW a try. Boy, was that a mistake. She often says that she can't believe both shows were written by the same person. I couldn't either, having heard almost nothing but praise for "Broadchurch". But this essay does a great job of explaining the underlying issues that apparently plague both (all?) of Chibnall's shows.

Chibnall seems to me to be a writer without any interiority. He doesn't write deeply personal stories that burned inside him for years before he started working on them. He doesn't write strange stories full of idiosyncratic obsessions and quirks. He's doesn't even write purposefully bad, cynical "fuck you"s out of spite. He writes artificial, empty drama that the media will like. And they do. And so he gets to write more.

Also, judging from this essay, "Broadchurch" has the same problem with villains as Chibnall's "Doctor Who". They are never fully confronted, never satisfactorily defeated, they just sort of disappear. The murderer ultimately walks free. The rapist turns out to be a tragic figure. Not all men. Evil people exist in a vacuum: the systems are not the problem, individuals are. And so even as we cure the symptoms, the underlying disease is either misidentified (pornography in "Broadchurch", crazy terrorists in "Kerblam!") or goes entirely unnoticed (Thirteenth Doctor's passivity).

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mx_mond 1 week ago

“Drama is not a thing that extends out of his characters, but rather a thing that happens to them, and that they then dutifully inform the audience of.”

Before series 11, I tried to be optimistic and said that if nothing else, people who complained about Moffat Who being confusing will enjoy the clarity of Chibnall, who always makes sure the characters explain exactly what is going on. Now I kinda want to go back in time and throttle myself.

“The plot ends with David Tennant reassuring Olivia Coleman that not all men are like that.”

And all the men who for seven episodes were shown to be implicated in misogyny in various ways, including the husband and boss who spied on/stalked Trish, are excused at the end. It was so disgusting and disappointing.

To me, the mood and actors (even lost ones, like Eve Myles) were what carried Broadchurch. I thought that would be enough for Chibnall Who (and it almost was for The Ghost Monument, for instance). I guess I underestimated how great the Broadchurch cast actually had to be to pull that off.

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Andrew 1 week ago

I bailed after the first season of Broadchurch because, while I generally enjoyed it, I have a low tolerance for the sort of misery-porn that the show obviously set out to achieve.

I managed to figure out the murderer 2 episodes early by foreseeing which character would cause the most damage by being guilty.

In a proper mystery series, the killer would be the one with the cleverest motive and opportunity. In a thriller, the killer would be the most shocking person. Broadchuch wants the characters (and us) to wallow in sadness and self-pity, so it had to be Joe.

That said, it is pointless to criticize a show for doing exactly what it aims. Broadchurch's (at least season 1) real sin is being obvious.

To change the topic slightly, I think Chibnall's first season of Doctor Who will age better than its detractors assume. Maybe there aren't any out-and-out classic episodes (although several are pretty good) but there haven't been any real clunkers either. To be sure it is a change of pace, but DW really needed a shakeup.

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taiey 6 days, 11 hours ago

I really can't grasp the line of thought that defines Ghost Monument as "not a clunker". Battle of Rancour too. Kerblam! very enthusiastically goes clunk! in the last 5-10 minutes, and then there's The Tsuranga Conundrum...

[I'd call Demons of the Punjab and maybe Rosa outright classics, though.]

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Przemek 6 days, 9 hours ago

I've heard several people declare that Chibnall Who "rekindled their love for the show" and "is finally about the characters and the relationships between them".

I think they might've been disguised Slitheen. It's the only explanation I can think of.

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Andrew 5 days, 16 hours ago

I won't go so far as to say my love of DW is rekindled but I'll defend my comment. I don't really understand the dislike of Kerblam! or Tsuranga, they seem very much on brand with the sillier (not using the word pejoratively) episodes in past seasons.

The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos was the only real disappointment. The Ghost Monument was about 80% brilliant, let down by the weak villains.

Part of the issue I think is that Chibnall is either less able, or less willing to paper over a weak plot point with a long speech delivered over a stirring soundtrack. Too many previous doctor's episodes have huge flaws where the doctor basically shoves the audience into position to accept whatever ending the writer wants to shove down their throats.

Chibnall has structured the show differently, and the best episodes have the companions discuss the issues at hand in a more organic way that I find more engaging. Thats not to say it is perfect but I am enjoying something new.

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Przemek 5 days, 8 hours ago

I'm happy you're enjoying the Chibnall era. I really am. I didn't mean to attack anyone who enjoys it. I just personally found nothing organic in anything the new companions do. They all feel like two-dimensional and, frankly, boring plot devices. (The actors are fine). I feel like I know them less after a whole season than I knew Amy or Clara after one episode - and at this point I don't think I even want to know them more. Dr. Sandifer said it best:

"Chibnall does not so much write characters as assert them. Drama is not a thing that extends out of his characters, but rather a thing that happens to them, and that they then dutifully inform the audience of."

And for me "The Ghost Monument" was about 80% shit, so I don't think there's much point in us trying to reconcile our points of view...

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Andrew 1 day, 19 hours ago

I don't feel attacked and your opinion is completely reasonable. Everything in this thread is a matter of taste.

Can we at least agree that the new opening titles are great?

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Grapes 6 days, 17 hours ago

I went into Broadchurch with so much goodwill. I love Colman and Tennant, and I'd heard nothing but glowing praise for it. So I was baffled to find it so thoroughly dull and awkwardly written. My partner (who knows the ways of crime drama) confidently picked the murderer in episode 2, so we didn't even have suspense to lean on. By the end, it was only the amusingly permanent-late-afternoon cinematography and a dogged Colman/Tennant devotion keeping us going. But no force in nature could make me watch beyond season one.

Nice critique, El. It was the memory of Broadchurch more than anything that made me apprehensive when Chibnall took the reins of DW, for all the reasons you state here.

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John G. Wood 6 days, 9 hours ago

I remember reading an interview with Chibnall, shortly after the show had begun, in which he said it was designed as a single self-contained season and he didn't think it made sense to do more. (There might have been some wriggle room since my memory's not perfect, but it was certainly a strong implication even if he didn't directly say that.) By the end of the season, when it was clear what a massive hit he had, he was backtracking hard and saying that what he wanted was to avoid Midsomer Murders syndrome and keep the focus in future seasons on the fallout from the one big crime rather than adding others. It sounds like his ideas had been further revised by season three.

Everyone in our house thoroughly enjoyed the first season, but we got a couple of episodes into the second and then couldn't be bothered to carry on. (To be fair, we've not watched the final Sherlock series either.)

I think his initial instincts were good, but he should have stuck with them.

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Daru 3 days, 9 hours ago

I did watch all three seasons and in retrospect I prefer the third for its treatment of the rape case, at least in its initial stages. Overall though I think for the whole of Broadchurch it was the cast and the setting that was all that works in the end for me. Structurally the first season worked ok until it fell apart, and things like “the problems of pornography” and a whole lot more just felt heavy handed.

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