Monday 23 August 2010

TV: Life on Mars

My name is Sam Tyler. I had an accident and I woke up in 1973. Am I mad, in a coma, or back in time? Whatever’s happened, it’s like I’ve landed on a different planet. Now, maybe if I can work out the reason, I can get home.

Despite myself living practically on a different planet when Life on Mars was first broadcast in 2006 (I was a student in a house with no TV,) I was aware that it was a refreshingly original drama series: a new take on an old genre, the 70s cop show, but with a mystery. However, it wasn’t until this year that I finally sat down and watched the two series of Life on Mars and three of Ashes to Ashes in about a month.

Life on Mars began as the sort of TV programme that you really couldn’t make these days! A modern-day police show is far removed from the high-action cops-and-robbers chase shows that were around in the good old days, or so they say. Police officers have to be careful, professional and respectful - all well and good, but not so much fun to watch.

Until they get hit by a car, sent back in time to the ‘seventies and introduced to the Gene Genie. Make no doubt about it, although Sam Tyler (John Simm) is the protagonist of Life on Mars, Gene Hunt is who we watch the show for. Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister) is Sam’s new boss, and he has very different ideas about how a police force should be run. Rather, Sam’s ideas are the new ones: Gene runs his department on the tried-and-tested method of brute force and ignorance… and an unlimited capacity for creative and outrageous verbal - and physical - abuse. The differences between their styles of policing is most concisely shown when trying to gain access to a flat: while Tyler fumbles around attempting to pick the lock, Hunt kicks the door in: Crude, but efficient.
While at first 1973 seems a rather random date for Sam to be sent to, with great music and lots of nostalgia for a rather iconic era, as the story unfolds it is revealed that something significant happened to the Tyler family at that time and it’s up to Sam to change his family’s history. But is time changeable? In some ways it seems possible: in the very first episode, Sam manages to influence a chain of events that eventually help to save his girlfriend in 2006. But other events are inevitably, tragically doomed. Evidence suggests that one can’t change one’s own timeline in this version of time travel.

Life on Mars isn’t, however, a straightforward time-travel show. Even while in a fully-formed 1973, with flared jeans, awesome music and a lot of brown, Sam experiences strange, out-of-place phenomena that make the series far more complex, thought-provoking . The Test Card F girl comes to life and walks out of his TV screen to talk eerily to him, and he hears voices that he recognises from his life back in the 21st century.
So, is he mad, in a coma or back in time? Is 1973 real or in his mind? (Or, as Dumbledore suggests in the final Harry Potter book, both? Life on Mars in some respects reminded me of Terry Pratchett’s book Night Watch. If it weren’t for the fact that the novel was published before the TV series, you could be forgiven for thinking that Pratchett had borrowed some aspects of his story from a roundworld equivalent. Watchman Commander Sam Vimes is sent back in time by a freak accident where he has to survive a major incident in his past, and in this case, mentor his younger self with his modern-style policing to keep him from being influenced by the dodgy coppers. Interestingly, it is in Discworld where there is a straightforward morality in the Watch, while in Life on Mars, although we really can’t condone everything anything - that Gene Hunt says or does, it has to be confessed, he gets results and his heart is (more or less) in the right place.

Saturday 14 August 2010

Film: Sherlock Holmes (2009)

After finally getting reintroduced to Sherlock Holmes thanks to Steven Moffat's recent series, and having my prejudices surrounding the character and the stories challenged, I decided to rent the DVD of the film that I was so quick to pooh-pooh on my first impression, from a two-minute trailer in the cinema.

After such a good version on the TV over the last three weeks, perhaps the recent film didn't really stand much of a chance in my opinion, but I will be fair: it was a lot better than I had expected, and a pretty good period-action-adventure film. Unfortunately, I still wasn't quite convinced by Robert Downey Jr. as the title character. To me he came across as inconsistantly Holmes-ish, and as the film went along the Holmes-ish moments became longer and more frequent, but he wasn't actually Holmes to me. My impression was that he was trying too hard. His accent, his mannerisms, came across as a little too forced and unnatural, instead of the carelessly deadpan snarker, he came across as a smartass, as well as a bit clumsy and clownish. He did very well when Holmes was being more serious or showing off his "Holmes Clevers" but in other scenes I wasn't convinced. It's not that I objected to the action scenes when I came to watch the film itself (having been re-educated on the nature of the Holmes stories) but the way they were executed left me cold.

Jude Law as Dr Watson, on the other hand, was perfect. I find Law one of the more distinctive actors around at the moment and yet in this film I was able to forget he was Jude Law and just see Doctor Watson. Unlike the TV Series, which focuses on Holmes and Watson's first meeting and cases, these two have been working together for a long time and have an easy, bantering relationship.

The setting and atmosphere of the drama were well done, tension built by various uses of sound and lighting, and there were moments, while less "arty" than the TV series, that were effective in showing slow flashbacks to see Holmes's workings-out. The film begins in the middle of the action, as Holmes and Watson go after the villain, and yet it took me longer to be engaged than in the more thoughtful beginning of Sherlock. The plot itself was satisfactory, but a little weak and quite improbable. That in itself itself wouldn't have caused me to dock points - I am currently reading A Study in Scarlet which has moments which are probably almost as silly, but which can be excused by the time of writing. The climax in the Houses of Parliament, however, was too large-scale to be credible.

Although the film-makers did a wonderful job of scene-setting, almost certainly using plenty of CGI to get some pretty marvellous landscapes of Victorian London, the film felt more like a period drama by a modern author than the TV series, which although set in the present day, captures the spirit of the original.

Saturday 7 August 2010

TV: Sherlock

I'm the first to admit it: sometimes I can be a real literary snob. When I find out about a new TV or film adaptation of a favourite book, I find myself excited and apprehensive in equal measure. Don't get me wrong, I'm not going to leap on every use of artistic license in the FilmOfTheBook, but I do notice if someone acts in a way that is inconsistant with their character, (for example, Faramir in The Lord of the Rings) or if new events are inserted into the story that are noticeably out of place (such as the Death Eaters at the Burrow in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince) if a really significant, character-defining line is omitted, ("DON'T - CALL - ME - COWARD!" in the aforementioned Harry Potter) or if it just "feels wrong." (ITV's recent Wuthering Heights, though accurate, just didn't live up to the pictures in my head.)

When I saw the trailer for last year's film entitled Sherlock Holmes, I recoiled in horror. I am loath to repeat my exact snooty remarks about it, but I did not like the look of it in the slightest. It looked to my mind like a mock-James Bond action film which was trying to be funny. However, I never actually saw the film, and my friends who did, unanimously declared it a lot better, a lot truer, than the trailer implied. Also, except for The Hound of the Baskervilles I haven't actually read any of Conan Doyle's novels since I was about twelve, and am undoubtably influenced by my impressions of the time: very clever, but a bit old-fashioned and stuffy.

And then another version of the famous detective popped up, months after the last. I was alerted to this through micro-blogging site Twitter, when a rather successful TV writer named Steven Moffat opened an account to talk about his latest project. Mr Moffat's writing skills burst into the public consciousness in 2005 when he sent Great Britain diving for cover behind the nearest sofa with four words: "Are you my mummy?" Over the next four years Moffat wrote one Doctor Who story per series, awakening the nation's terrors of Things Under The Bed, Things That Move When You're Not Looking and Things In The Shadows, before making fans shudder and cheer when he took on the job full-time. It is this blogger's opinion that Moffat's first series was the most consistently good since Doctor Who was revived.

So when I heard he was working on a series about Sherlock Holmes, I determined to watch it, without knowing a thing about it other than its writer. When the Radio Times came in, I turned straight to the Sherlock feature and looked at the picture: Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Watson (Martin Freeman) outside 221B Baker Street. And they looked good. Cumberbatch looked younger than the usual Holmes but even from the picture, I could tell he had the right air. Watson, well, I never could quite picture him. TV and film Watsons never quite looked right to me, though I wasn't sure what he should look like. But Freeman has the right sort of everyman manner about him. It helped that he was Arthur Dent in a recent Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

Then I read the first paragraph of the article, which pointed out the thing I'd somehow managed to miss. His Sherlock was set in the 21st century. Oh, the heresy. And I didn't mind. More, I was embarrassed not to have noticed the characters were in modern dress. I read on, and, possibly hypnotised by the Moff's supernatural power of the pen, found myself agreeing with every word he wrote: Conan Doyle didn't write stuffy period drama, but fast-paced detective thrillers. TV and film adaptations formerly were in danger of forgetting this, and viewers certainly were, building up an idea of Holmes that wasn't actually there. At this point I became aware of an uncomfortable recognition of this in myself and resolved to go down to blockbuster and check out the recent film and examine it on its own merits.

Watching the TV series, it became clear that Holmes and Watson translated well into the twenty-first century, if in fact Conan Doyle didn't have a time machine and wrote it for this very purpose. Holmes' first line to Watson: "How are you? You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive."

I was hooked on Sherlock from the first minutes. The police are giving a press conference about their investigations into a string of "serial suicides," and every so often everyone in the room's mobile phones ring in unison. All have the same text message, a single word. "Wrong." This Sherlock is well at home with technology and the modern world, a fact that is shown through his deductions throughout the episode, which are truly astounding: being able to track down the killer from one scratched word: "Rache." The original story: A Study in Scarlet reveals this to be the German for Revenge, but knowledge of the book won't help with that detail in A Study in Pink.

To help us mere mortals, snatches of Holmes' thought-processes flash up on the screen, such as a map of London complete with traffic directions and short cuts during a chase.

Holmes is brilliant, arrogant, deeply unsettling, (seemingly) clueless when it comes to personal interaction, wonderfully, perfectly Sherlock Holmes. Only one person could call himself a "high-functioning sociopath" as a put-down to someone else. Also, his voice is perfect: a bit posh, deep and rather disdainful but somehow reassuring. I'm in control, his voice says.

Watson is a well-rounded character, brave and intelligent (as an army doctor should be) and ordinary, but holds his own against the rather other-worldly, impossible Holmes. The interaction between them is wonderful (more than one character in the first episode is convinced they are a couple, much to Watson's bemusement.)

There's so much more I could say about this series, but I don't want to give away plot spoilers, so all I will say for the time being is, if you haven't seen the first two episodes, go to BBC iplayer and watch them now. If you have: go anyway. Watch them again.

Alas, it is a British series, and only three episodes long. The last one is on Sunday night, 9PM. Watch it.
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