Saturday, October 29, 2005

Taboo Tuesday 2005

More wrestling! We're back with Raw this time, so prepare yourselves for the annual trainwreck.

Those of you who don't follow wrestling are probably thinking "Taboo Tuesday? What the hell kind of godawful name for a show is that?" Rest assured that everyone who does follow wrestling has been asking exactly the same thing. Even in an industry where Wrestlemania and Summerslam are considered good, solid names for pay per views, Taboo Tuesday is remarkably bad.

In fact, virtually everything about this show is either dizzyingly bizarre, self-evidently absurd, or probably disastrous. But this one's on Sky Sports in the UK, so I get to see it anyway.

TT is a gimmick show, which they tried for the first time last year. It stands out from the rest of the WWE shows for two reasons. First, it's on a Tuesday, instead of the usual Sunday. This is stupid. It's stupid because it means that on the west coast, the show starts at 5pm on a weekday, so in order to catch the whole thing you'd have to leave work early. Of course, there's always the replay, but that's not really the point.

Second, it's "interactive." What this means is that, for every match, is having a public vote to determine either the wrestlers or the stipulations. The winners of that vote will be announced on the show itself. At first glance this sounds mildly amusing, but the problem is that they're asking fans to buy the PPV on the strength of an unknown line-up. And, you know, it's a lot of money for a mystery main event.

The cynics among you may be wondering whether the WWE actually bothers following the results. Strangely enough, the answer seems to be yes. That's why last year's show was headlined by Shawn Michaels with a serious leg injury (one of the weirdest main events I've ever seen, as Michaels proved that he really can have a good match on literally one leg), and why many of this year's votes are either irrelevant or idiot-proof, meaning that either it doesn't matter what you vote for, or it's so predictable that they're not too worried about it going off the rails. All of which, of course, only serves to undermine what value the gimmick has in the first place.

Last year's show was a commercial disaster, drawing the lowest buyrate in the history of WWE pay per views. But WWE chairman Vince McMahon hates admitting defeat, and so he's perversely determined to prove that this time round, it'll work. To that end, we have potentially interesting feuds being rushed into a match before they're ready, and major semi-retired wrestlers being brought back for strange, throwaway matches. It's a damned weird show, from top to bottom.

The card:-

1. WWE Championship: John Cena -v- Kurt Angle -v- TBA. Cena has held the title since March, more on a wave of popularity than because of the strength of his matches. Even then, he's still plagued by the problem that hardcore fans don't particularly like the guy, and feel he isn't good enough to be headlining shows. Consequently, there's often a noticeable undercurrent in the crowds cheering for his opponent - especially when it's somebody as talented as Kurt Angle. These two already fought on the last show, when Angle won by DQ to set up a rematch. (Titles don't change hands on a disqualification.) It was a surprisingly good match, largely because Angle is so talented that he can still put on a good show even with a rather average performer like Cena.

Simply letting the fans vote on a challenger wouldn't work because, as we found out last year, they have an irritating habit of voting for the good guys, and the WWE would rather have Cena fighting a villain. On top of that, John Cena improvising a match with a lesser talent would not be a pretty sight. So Angle gets his shot automatically, and instead the vote is for the third guy in a three-way match.

The voting options are Shawn Michaels, the Big Show and Kane. Michaels was world champion in the mid-nineties but has made a surprisingly effective comeback in the last few years to put on a string of good matches. He's forty now, but unlike a lot of veterans still hanging around in wrestling, Michaels still entirely deserves his place at the top of the card. He's been using that horrible music for about fifteen years now, but the fans kind of expect it.

Big Show and Kane are really just there to be credible enough to make it seem like a real contest, without actually posing a real threat of winning. Big Show is a genuine giant, thanks to the wonders of acromegaly, who was WWF and WCW champion for a while before settling into a comfortable existence as a roadblock in the midcard. Historically, giant wrestlers tend to be huge immobile lugs who can do very little. In comparison, Big Show is surprisingly mobile for such a huge man, and can have good matches when he's motivated. The operative phrase being "when he's motivated."

Kane is another big guy (but just a normal big guy) who's currently stuck in continuity hell after an entire storyline about him marrying Lita was thrown out the window in order to clear the way for Edge and Matt Hardy's feud. In fact, Kane's whole character is a bit of a mess - suffice to say he's meant to be the Undertaker's younger brother, and slightly disturbed. Complicating matters further, he suffered a serious back injury at a house show this week and he's probably out of action. Look for a last-minute substitution on Raw on Monday.

Cena, Angle and HBK - the likely match - would probably be very good. The other two options would be shaky. Angle can carry one average wrestler to a good match, but two at once is pushing it. Given the WWE's insistence on getting Angle into the match, and their determination to make this seem like an important show, I wouldn't be at all surprised if he won the title.

2. World Tag Team Championship: Lance Cade & Trevor Murdoch -v- TBA. You can see where this is heading, can't you? Actually, there's no separate vote for this one - the two wrestlers who lose the vote for the World Title match get a shot at the Tag Team Titles instead. This is strange booking, because it's the first major title defence for Cade and Murdoch, the evil cowboys, since they won the titles last month. It would kill the characters if they lost the belts now, but equally it's hard to imagine the WWE letting them beat any of the possible opponents. The likely match is that they take on the two big guys, which will probably be awful. The usual result where neither team can afford to lose is a DQ finish, but in this case it's also possible that Kane and the Big Show turn on one another to set up a feud (and boy, that's not going to lead to any match I want to see).

3. Women's Title, Battle Royal: Trish Stratus -v- Victoria -v- Ashley Massaro -v- Mickie James -v- Candice Michelle -v- Torrie Wilson -v- Maria Kanellis. And you can vote on... their clothes. Fascinating. So basically it's a T&A segment. If they've got any sense, nothing of any importance will happen, and Trish Stratus will retain her title. If they do insist on advancing a storyline, then they'll do something involving rookie Mickie James, who turned up a couple of weeks ago proclaiming herself to be Trish Stratus' biggest fan (in blatantly stalker-esque terms). James is supposed to be one of the good guys, and in awe of Trish, which is why she's the only person listed above who doesn't have her own entrance music - she uses Trish's, because it's so great. Any logical storyline involves Mickie costing Trish the title, either by winning it herself, or by getting Trish eliminated and allowing heel wrestler Victoria to win. Ashley, Candice and Torrie can't really wrestle and are just there to make up the numbers. Mickie is at least a proper wrestler, but not a particularly good one.

Quite what Maria Kanellis is doing in this match is something of a mystery. She's the backstage interviewer, and as far as I know, she's never had a match in her life. After a shaky start, she's settled into a "cute but dumb" gimmick, which has clicked a little better. Hopefully they won't break her.

With this many inept women involved, plus the fact that it's just a T&A stunt, the match will probably be horrific. Basically, it's a mixture of women who ought to be above this sort of thing, and women who are so bad they shouldn't be in the ring under any circumstances. But they fired so many of the women who could actually wrestle that they need the bimbo squad to fill out the match. (If their entrance video consists of nothing but bikini footage... there's a reason for that.) It's slightly odd that Lita, a former women's champion who regularly appears on the show, isn't in the match. Perhaps the injuries from her rather reckless ring-work have finally caught up with her.

4. Ric Flair -v- Triple H. Flair is the Intercontinental Champion, but this appears to be a non-title match. This usually means the other guy's winning but they don't want to give him the belt. "Triple H" is short for Hunter Hearst Helmsley, a hangover from a much earlier incarnation of the character. In reality, he's Vince McMahon's son-in-law and pretty much has carte blanche to do what he wants, which tends to result in storylines built around telling us what an impressive and intimidating villain Triple H is. He tends to win the world title a lot. Odd, that. He also tends to wrestle matches five or ten minutes longer than they really need to be, because he believes a longer match is the sign of a more talented performer. (Which it is, if you can pull it off. Triple H has a habit of trying it with opponents who aren't up to the job.) He's talented, but the audience has become tired of his overexposure, and a recent break for a couple of months hasn't entirely refreshed the character.

By all accounts, however, Triple H idolises Flair, who he grew up watching. And as one of the best wrestlers of the last twenty years, Flair can still have a good match even in middle age. On paper this could be quite good. On the other hand, it's a storyline which has only just begun, with Triple H turning on Flair in frustration that his last remaining sidekick from his Evolution faction has started emerging from his shadow. This needs some time to build, but instead it's been raced onto PPV to try and boost sales.

The voting options are for the type of match, and they've idiotproofed it by giving a choice between a steel cage match, a submission match and, er, a completely normal match. And then having Flair go out on Raw and say, repeatedly, that you should vote for a steel cage match. Conventional wisdom says you do at least one normal match to start the feud and then build to using the gimmicks in rematches. But they're desperate to boost sales for this show, so there you go. The actual match could still be okay, and Triple H will probably win.

5. Edge and Chris Masters -v- TBA. This is a Raw versus Smackdown match, furthering the inter-show feud which was meant to be building for Survivor Series, the next show down the line. But we must have sales to prove that this show was a good idea, so here's a match right now. The WWE make little effort to conceal the fact that they consider Raw the A-show, and so this feud has largely consisted of Raw guys beating up Smackdown guys, who then complain bitterly about the injustice of it all. They could rectify that by giving Smackdown the win on Tuesday, but I suspect they won't, because they want this storyline to continue for Survivor Series. That means the bad guys ought to win, to justify a rematch - and that means the Raw team wins.

To make matters worse, reports are that Edge has a partial pec tear, which will keep him out of action for a while. So either they'll have to replace him, despite him being a major player in this storyline, or he'll gut it out and let Chris Masters do most of the work. Which wouldn't be pretty, because Chris Masters is a mediocrity.

The vote decides which of five guys will be on the Smackdown team. The options are evil Republican stockbroker JBL, Latino underdog Rey Mysterio, Edge's nemesis Matt Hardy (who got kicked off to Smackdown after Edge beat him on Raw and won their feud, despite being the bad guy, and whose entrance video link doesn't work), the consistently underrated Christian and long-serving midcarder Hardcore Holly. The writers seemed to be pulling for Rey and JBL, which is bizarre considering that JBL's a villain and he was obviously never going to get votes. A more likely outcome is Rey and Matt Hardy - in which case there's something to be said for letting Matt destroy Edge, and giving him the credit for putting Edge on the shelf for months. If, of course, Edge is capable of working the match at all.

If they get a remotely unexpected result from the voting, the match will probably be mediocre at best, because I can't imagine Chris Masters being able to improvise very effectively. He's not much good when he's working from a script, after all. Rey and Matt would be a good team, but without knowing who's really going to be on the other side, and who's going to carry the workload, it's very hard to say what this is going to be like.

6. Steve Austin -v- Jonathan Coachman. Now things are just getting weird, on every level. This is the most blatantly idiotproofed vote on the show, as in theory the fans are supposed to decide what sort of match it is. The options, believe it or not, are a street fight, an arm wrestling contest, and a debate. Yes, a debate.

But it gets sillier! On the one hand, we have Stone Cold Steve Austin, the former champion who dominated the WWE at the turn of the century until retiring on medical grounds two years ago. On the other hand, we have Jonathan Coachman, who is a commentator. Bizarrely, this is not Coachman's first pay per view match - he actually beat Yoshihiro Tajiri a couple of years back - but in no way is he a proper, trained wrestler. He's the guy who used to stand around backstage and get heckled by the Rock until he finally lost patience and turned heel, becoming an Evil Commentator. Strangely enough, this kind of worked, because while Coachman is a hopelessly mediocre commentator, he's got genuine charisma as a bad guy.

These unlikely opponents are fighting because of one of the most demented storylines in recent months, and it only gets weirder when you know what's going on behind the scenes. Basically, the story is that in a fit of pique, the evil McMahon family have fired long-serving, much-beloved commentator Jim Ross, and installed the infuriating prick Coachman in his place. The official stipulation here is that if Austin wins, Ross gets his job back; if Austin loses, he's fired. (Which rather begs the question "Fired from what?", but the WWE writers don't think in that much detail.) Conventional wisdom would be that Austin annihilates the upstart Coachman, and JR makes his triumphant return on the next Raw.


Vince McMahon - and yes, he really does run the company - has genuinely turned on JR for reasons nobody's entirely clear about, and is looking to get rid of him. A few weeks ago he made a big offer to UFC commentator Mike Goldberg to take JR's job. This was despite the fact that Goldberg didn't actually know anything about professional wrestling. Eventually, after realising that he was being asked to take the job of a guy who'd just been fired for no reason, Goldberg turned down the job. Nonetheless, Vince went ahead with the planned firing storyline despite having no replacement lined up. Instead, Coachman has basically been shoved out there to die, in a job he's not particularly good at, in a storyline where everyone's invited to hate him for not being JR. Oh, and on top of that, he's got to try to do commentary in character as a villain. It's a hopeless task, and the results are as ugly as you'd expect. Given the way he's presented, though, it's clear that Coachman is not being thought of as a permanent replacement.

JR's on-air firing, which was basically just done to humiliate the guy without giving him the opportunity to say goodbye, naturally provoked a huge backlash, and the course of storylines suggests that Vince is re-thinking. But, according to all sources, Vince is still telling everyone, including the writers, that JR is gone and he's never coming back. Nobody seriously believes this, but that's what Vince insists. Quite what the long term plan is... nobody knows.

What's certain is that JR certainly can't make a triumphant return a week on Monday, because he's presently laid up at home recovering from colon surgery, and he won't be ready to return to any sort of work for another few weeks. So Austin really can't win on Tuesday because they can't deliver the pay-off. On the other hand, Austin surely can't lose to an announcer. This suggests that we're looking at a huge screwjob finish where Coach gets a technical win by cheating. Hopefully Austin can then destroy the guy to clear the way for somebody else to take over as commentator. Anybody else.

Throwing away Steve Austin's return match on a minor pay per view in a match against an announcer is a ludicrous decision; but that's the sort of thing they're doing in an attempt to boost sales. The match is highly unlikely to be any good.

7. Mick Foley -v- Carlito. In another example of a high-profile wrestler's return being utterly squandered, the legendary, much-loved and largely retired Mick Foley is fighting... midcard bad guy Carlito. And why are they fighting? Er... well... for no particular reason, frankly. I can only assume this is going to be another match where Foley does everything in his power to make Carlito look good, and try to create a star. He'll have his work cut out. Could be okay, but a ludicrous waste of Foley. He came back from writing novels for this?

Oh yeah - you get to vote on whether Foley wrestles the match as Mankind, Cactus Jack or Dude Love, all different characters he played at various points in his career. Unless Dude Love wins (which is highly unlikely, since he was a comedy character), it makes little difference.

8. Handicap match: Rob Conway -v- Eugene & mystery partner. God help us. This match hasn't even been announced on Raw, which tells you how much importance they place on it. Rob Conway, whose gimmick involves claiming to be a conman while dressing as a narcissistic gimp, and was inexplicable to begin with, has now complicated matters even further by declaring an open-ended feud with everyone in the WWE Hall of Fame, ie a bunch of retired guys. It seems to have escaped the WWE's notice that Randy Orton already did this gimmick, and he's still doing it. But apparently the WWE feel there's room for two guys who beat up retired wrestlers.

In a classic sign of writers who don't know what they're doing, Conway will be outnumbered two to one despite being the bad guy. So if he loses it doesn't mean anything, and if he wins, he's triumphed over the odds. Brilliant.

He'll be facing one of three old guys who passed their prime years ago (Hacksaw Jim Duggan, Jimmy Snuka or, god help us, Kamala the African Stereotype Who's Okay, Honest, Because It's Ironic Nostalgia For A Pre-PC Era), together with Eugene, whose gimmick is that he's mentally handicapped. No, really. I swear. Actually, Eugene is slightly less offensive than you might think - the idea is that he's a savant who has the mind of a child but enough innate talent that he's still an effective wrestler. As a savant, he has no signature moves of his own, and simply copies everyone else's. He never has a plan, and gets by on moment-to-moment wrestling skill alone. With a degree of charity, this all makes borderline sense.

But he's still essentially a comedy character, and condescending enough to press all sorts of buttons for Guardian-readers like me. And moreover, audiences have started to noticeably tire of the joke - he actually got booed in a recent match against Kurt Angle, which is a real warning sign. For some time, wrestling fans have discussed how on earth the talented performer Nick Dinsmore can be extricated from this dead-end gimmick. Hopefully somebody at the WWE is working on the same question as well, because this character has reached the end of its natural lifespan.

Overall: the main event will probably be good. Flair/HHH has promise. The Women's title match will be a joke and the tag title match will be no good (unless by some miracle Shawn Michaels ends up wrestling in it). The Raw/Smackdown match is going to be seriously compromised if Chris Masters has to do all the work, but has glimmers of potential. Everything else looks either average or mindbendingly bizarre. The whole thing looks like a last-minute panic attempt to turn a minor show into a major one, without actually thinking through any of the stories. I wouldn't pay for it if it was a PPV over here, but fortunately it isn't, because it's bizarre enough that I'm curious to see how on earth it turns out.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit

Okay, I actually saw this a week ago, but it's taken me a bit of time to write it up...

I've never been a big fan of Wallace & Gromit. I think it's the way they've always been presented in the UK. They first turned up in the Very Special Christmas Animation slot on the BBC, effectively with a big sign hanging over them saying "Behold the new national institution, which you shall adore." (Actually, this isn't strictly true - it first aired on Channel 4 months earlier - but that didn't stop the BBC promoting them as a new discovery.)

Placed in that spot on the schedule, and with its defiantly English tone, Wallace and Gromit duly wormed their way into my subconscious as "Something granny would probably love." I can't quite shake the feeling of being surrounded by Daily Mail readers offering me cups of tea and saying "Did you see Wallace & Gromit? Oh, we laughed and laughed, didn't we, Gerald? I thought it was wonderful. We're going to write to Points of View to say how much we loved it, aren't we, Gerald?"

All of which, of course, is a bit unfair. But that's first impressions for you.

In reality, Park's sense of humour puts him closer to somebody like Victoria Wood, gently sending up the Britishness of his characters at least as much as he's celebrating it. Much of Park's comedy is based on the English capability to get bizarrely worked up about total trivia, and the sheer irrelevance of the things these characters seem to prize as part of being so very English. In Curse of the Were-Rabbit, the town is gearing up for a giant vegetable competition, and we're left in no doubt that this is the most important thing in the world. Park clearly enjoys building his plots by taking the utterly banal - gardening and humane pest control - and magnifying them to demented proportions.

Not that you'd turn to Nick Park for satire or biting social commentary, of course. He's just not that kind of person. If you went into one of his films looking for that, you'd be completely missing the point. Park builds worlds that are simultaneously reassuring and self-aware, which is why he's got such a widespread following. There's just enough self-awareness to keep the more cynical audiences engaged, but not enough to put off granny. It's perhaps a little surprising that Park uses a hunter as his villain, played as a violent upper-class thug, but then his opposite numbers are fairly silly as well, with Lady Tottington pledging to protect fluffy things.

In fact, Park writes a good full-length story (not that this should really comes as a surprise after Chicken Run, mind you), nicely pacing his set pieces and throwing in some rather good misdirection in the middle. It's a measure of his ability to draw you into his world that he can make you care about the outcome of a story as silly as this.

And of course, even the most curmudgeonly of viewers can't deny his extraordinary ability as an animator. Gromit is the real achievement here - a character with no voice, and missing half of his facial features, who can still be incredibly expressive through hand and eyebrow movements alone. To do this sort of thing at all in stop motion is impressive; but it's amazing just how much Park is able to convey.

Granny probably would like it, but Park is a relic from an earlier day of genuine mass appeal, when it was possible to have a truly broad audience and satisfy them all. It's rare to see somebody even attempting this sort of thing, let alone pulling it off. It's true that he stands in a tradition of homespun Englishness, reflected both in Wallace's bizarre inventions and in Park's own painstaking stop-motion animation. But if more people were doing it as well as him, nobody would have a problem with that tradition.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

One more More 4...

More4's forums show, understandably, some confusion as to why More4 is running episodes of The Daily Show from a week ago, particularly considering that their own website claims that they run them on a one-day delay.

After some hunting (and god knows you won't find this anywhere on More4's own website), it turns out that the Daily Show is actually on holiday this week, which is why they're showing week-old episodes. In their launch week. Oops.

At least, that's what I take from the Comedy Central webpage. If any Americans would care to confirm that I'm right about this, please do so.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

More 4 ratings

Average of 269,000 throughout the evening, peaking at 574,000 for A Very Social Secretary. By digital multichannel standards, this is considered good - they beat ITV2 and E4, and got a 2% audience share.

It amazes me that the economics stack up for these channels, but the major broadcasters keep doing more of them, so I guess somebody's done the numbers...

Monday, October 10, 2005

More 4 Launch Night (part 5)

2300: The Last Word. Nightly topical discussion programme, presumably semi-comedy, because it's hosted by Mark Dolan this week. Apparently he counts down the top ten stories of the day, and discusses them with... the political editor of the Express, and TV historian David Starkey? Christ, this looks like a trainwreck. A low-budget trainwreck.

Well, they actually are discussing a story from the papers, so apparently it's not a comedy show. Starkey seems surprisingly relaxed about the whole thing. It's a bit Sunday-morning-on-BBC2. They're doing this every day - with a different host each week - so it could take a while to find its identity.

Video package about... whether politicians should be allowed to take drugs! Didn't we have this two hours ago on the news? It's a vox pop thing. I hate vox pops with a passion. A journalist wanders the streets until he finds somebody passably photogenic for either side, and then fucks off down the pub. Who cares?

Mark Dolan was not born to read an autocue. He's better when he's talking to the guests than when he's reading the script. The format is misguided. Ten stories in a 30 minute show is too many. There's not enough time to really talk about them properly, and they don't get the most out of their guests. They're going to regret this when they get a few weeks into it, and they're desperate for material.

The launch of the channel is modestly listed as the sixth biggest story of the day. Alison Jackson does a segment of a Blunkett lookalike watching the show from earlier in the evening. Never seen the big deal about her pseudo-CCTV things, but I suppose it ranks as a coup of sorts to get her to do something for the first show. More AJ stuff follows. I suspect I just don't have the level of fascination for celebrities that would be necessary to make me give a toss about her output.

2315. Adverts. I vaguely knew Mark Dolan at university. That gentle swishing sound is the dropping of a featherlite name. He did improvised comedy and stand-up at around the same time I was helping to run the student radio station. He did a show for us, which was quite good. His impro stand-up sets were genuinely very good, and he never seems to do anything on TV which shows that off. I went to some of his impro workshops, which established conclusively that theatre is not my milieu. Nice guy.

2320. Lawyer Mark Stevens comes on to discuss underage ASBOs, and promptly gets into an fight with David Starkey. This comedy-free argument seems slightly out of place on a lightweight show.

The Scottish First Minister is going on a world tour to beg Scots to come home, apparently. Hadn't heard that. Tend to agree with the general consensus that if you lived in large chunks of Scotland, London would probably seem like an improvement. Fortunately, I live in Morningside, which is lovely. Mark duly talks up his university time in Edinburgh, which is at least relevant to the topic. Starkey steers the topic onto the West Lothian question for some reason.

This is... not awful, but I wouldn't watch it if I wasn't determined to finish this exercise. The format's horribly cramped, and it can't make up its mind how funny it wants to be. Doesn't really work, but could potentially be tweaked.

And there we leave More4, as it embarks on a repeat of episode 1 of the Sopranos. Decent to okay, I guess. The Daily Show is the lynchpin of the schedule here, but that's no surprise. I can see what they're trying to do here, and in principle it's a good station, but there's a definite risk of getting bogged down in box-ticking programmes that are more concerned with fitting the remit (we're informative and entertaining!) than with actually being any good. There are formats here that need a bit of tinkering, but nothing fundamentally off the rails.

We'll see how it goes.

More 4 Launch Night (part 4)

2230: Rory Bremner. Well, I suppose he embodies the ethos of this channel. I remember when Rory Bremner was just a straightforward impressionist. That was the 1980s. Then impressionism came to be seen as a bit end-of-the-pier, and Bremner repositioned himself as a satirist. This is a mockumentary (Sky One pop documentary style) about, er, political scandals, because we've only had an hour and a half of that so far.

The formula is familiar by now - very good impressions, rather earnest satire, slightly lame jokes. Good when it hits the nail on the head, flat when it misses the mark. I'll let you know if there's any change from the norm.

2240: Nothing says cutting edge satire like Jeffrey Archer jokes.

2245: "Hey, Rory, we're launching this new channel. Could you do us half an hour of library footage with slightly funny voiceovers?" Wilting now. Then again, interesting point about what would have happened if John Major's affair had come out just before the 1992 general elections. The Conservatives lose, Neil Kinnock becomes PM, Tony Blair never becomes leader... Hmm.

Adverts. Mark Dolan does a slightly stilted piece to camera plugging The Last Word at 11pm, which we'll come to shortly. I have much to say about The Last Word, and I haven't even seen it yet.

Another horrific Microsoft advert. "I don't send pictures. I send stories..." Yes, now you can make your tedious bloody holiday videos interactive. I can see Bill Gates now, silencing everyone at a dinner party so that he can show them a presentation about his holiday. In Powerpoint.

2250: Completely lose interest and see what's in LITG this week.

2255: Good god, this really is phoned in. BBC3 could do better than this. Bremner's basic point is that resignations have become something which is done for PR purposes rather than out of genuine regret, but has anyone really not noticed that?

One more to come... oh no, hold on, wait! Adverts, and it's the results of Lulu's cholestorol test. We were all on the edge of our seats waiting for that, weren't we? She's feeling much better. Well done, Lulu.

More 4 Launch Night (part 3)

2100: A Very Social Secretary. This is the big one-off comedy-drama for the opening night. It's a dramatisation of the David Blunkett sex scandal. Blunkett threatened to sue over this, before noticing that there isn't actually anything illegal about taking the piss about of politicians. But at least we know he's watching.

Or rather, he isn't watching, because David Blunkett is blind. There's an interesting drama to be done about David Blunkett and I suspect this might be too busy playing for laughs to be it. There's a part of me that really wants to admire David Blunkett. If he only he wasn't wrong about everything. Still, somebody's got to be the enemy of civil liberties, I suppose.

As somebody pointed out, somewhere in Britain right now, a close friend is doing audio description for David Blunkett. That must be the most awkward room in Britain.

They're playing Blunkett as an arrogant bastard who thinks that his triumph over disability is evidence that everyone can succeed no matter what the odds, and thus that anyone who hasn't succeeded is, ipso facto, not trying hard enough. Hmm.

Robert Lindsay's doing Tony Blair. He's trying to play it as a proper character, lapsing into outright impressions occasionally. They're doing Tony and Cherie as the comedy suburban middle class couple. I think this film isn't quite sure how broad it wants to be.

2114: How can you underplay Boris Johnson?! The man's a self-conscious clown in real life! He's a gift for this show! Mind you, come to think of it, it's probably a dramatic impossibility to go over the top with him.

2117: David Blunkett-related sex scene. An advertisement for blindness, in more ways than one.

2124: Boris Johnson not being underplayed. Boris Johnson being very badly played by a man who's trying to go over the top but just can't reach high enough. I like Blunkett's aides arguing in mime about who has to handle the dog, though. And Robert Lindsay's great in this.

2135: Odd couple stuff with Blunkett and Kimberley. He's marginally more sympathetic when he's standing next to the adulterous editor of the Spectator, strangely enough. Looks like the writer has finally decided he needs a sympathetic lead character other than Blunkett's liberal aide who isn't actually involved in the plot. And it's hardly going to be the adulterous editor of the Spectator.

2145: Kimberley Swan gives birth after remarkable five-minute pregnancy. Battle for custody foreshadowed one minute later. I think we're getting to the good bit.

2150: I think I see where we're heading with this. Blunkett well-intentioned but stubbornly wrong-headed in the face of all the facts, in love as in civil liberties. Hmm.

2210: Final ad break. I'm in two minds about this. I'm really not sure there's a point to this other than "aren't these people funny." Yes, the whole affair was like a farce, we get it. It's quite amusing, but it's awfully self-righteous. It's taking an unrelentingly liberal line on everything, despite the fact that that really doesn't have a tremendous amount to do with the subject, and that's starting to grate on me even though I agree with the sentiment. I have a rising urge to vote Conservative in rebellion. I fight it down.

Christ, this Microsoft "break-ups are the best" advert is punchable.

2217: A pregnant Kimberley assaults a giant teddy bear with a spade. Her surname is finally given and I belatedly realise I've been typing it wrong for the last hour plus. I go back and fix it.

We're nearing the end of the running time, and the writer belatedly realises he's got to get the unwise comments from the biography in there. Nothing to do with the story, but it does give us a funny scene of him apologising to his colleagues. Oh god, I'd forgotten about Blunkett's karaoke routine at the Christmas party. (He did "Pick Yourself Up And Start All Over Again", in a way that only a man physically incapable of judging the mood of the room could.)

2225: Blunkett gets fired and the film ends. Oh no, hold on, he's straight back in office two minutes later after the election. And they wrap up with yet another bit about how the Labour Party isn't liberal enough. Put down the sledgehammer, we get the point!

Not bad, but really poundingly unsubtle, in a way that I suspect it doesn't realise. Next week in this slot: Capturing the Freidmans. Ooooh.

To be continued...

More4 Launch Night (part 2)

They have interview snippets between the programmes. Interesting idea.

2031: The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, thank god. There's your station right there. If you've got the Daily Show, you can run anything the other 23.5 hours of the day. You can show nothing but footage of an old man shitting on the testcard for all I care, if you're carrying The Daily Show. At the moment, the UK only gets the international edition, a half-hour "best of the week" edit which CNN airs at some ludicrous hour of Saturday morning.

They're running this show a day behind (because we're six hours ahead), but of course there isn't a Daily Show on Sundays, so the Monday slot is going to be highlights from the previous week. Decision to open the UK edit with a Tom DeLay joke possibly ill-advised. Don't care, I get it. Jon Stewart deconstructs a George Bush press conference. He is a genius. Whooping American audiences not to my taste. We do things differently here. I shall tune them out.

I am too busy watching this show to type.

2042: Adverts. The Daily Show is a show that makes you feel better about the world. It's nice to be reminded that there are nice Americans too. (Technically the Democrats ought to be fulfilling this function, but as near as I can make out, their strategy is to hide behind the sofa and hope George Bush goes away.) We still love you, America!

Lewis Black talks about Hurricane Katrina. Did the Observer really run a story about counter-terrorist dolphins? I wouldn't put it past them...

David Rakoff is here to plug his book. Imagine a greyer version of Moby. Stewart is sucking up a bit. Have Americans really never heard the "What's the point of asking people whether they've ever been in the Communist party?" joke before? Well, the interviews have never been my favourite part of this show. It's thoughtful of them to put them at the end.

To be continued...

More 4 Launch Night (part 1)

1943: Only fifteen minutes to go before launch of More4, the latest addition to the Channel 4 media empire (alongside Channel 4, E4 and Film Four). There hasn't been a new TV station launched in Britain since... er, well, this morning, when the Baby Channel debuted on channel 285. But this is the next phase in the big fight to turn Freeview into a big scary multichannel platform to destroy the dominance of Sky, and that's got to be a good thing.

More4 bills itself as an adult entertainment channel. Presumably that's as opposed to E4, which targets teenagers and students with schlock like Fool Around With My Girlfriend (don't ask). Channel 4 have built expectations high, promising great things. We shall see. Conventional wisdom says they need a good first night. Preview loop promises "programming that confronts as well as entertains." This is code for "We are targetting ABC1s, and if you're not an ABC1, Men & Motors is just down the hall."

Wonder if there is a MoreS4C in Wales?

1959: Preview loop stops dead halfway through so that the continuity announcer can start. Smooth. And what do they put on first? Yes, it's a re-edit of the loop I've just been watching for the last fifteen minutes! Oh dear.

2000: The More4 News. Crikey, that's a bold choice of opening programme. Sarah Smith talks about the dead in Pakistan. I am too busy wondering how long the set designer took to come up with a big purple cuboid and an incongruously placed laptop, ten feet behind the presenter and miles from anyone who might actually be using it. Is this a news set or the result of a drunken bet with the editors of Wallpaper*?

The very existence of the More4 News is odd, since no multichannel station has ever been able to launch a successful news bulletin. BBC3 and BBC4 have both tried (admittedly only because the government ordered them to), and both failed. Not convinced there is a market for this. What's the unique selling point? I already have seven 24-hour news channels - nine if you count Fox News (raving lunacy from the red states) and CCTV-9 (raving lunacy from the government of the People's Republic of China - mesmering in small doses, not least because most of their presenters aren't actually fluent in English).

Jon Snow thinks the earthquake might bring India and Pakistan together. Well, let's hope.

Report from an actual Pakistani journalist. That's something different, I'll give them that. There's something a bit... fifteen years ago about the way this is edited, though, and I'm not sure it's really adding anything to the ten minutes of carnage they've just shown us. Good idea, though.

Fifteen minutes on Pakistan. No other stories yet, and I'm not sure they did the headlines, either. Hmm. Is this going to be a features show, then?

2015. First ad break. Car advert. Car advert. Car advert. Oh, hold on - Renault have bought the entire break. Renault think that the sort of person who watches the first ad break in a news show on More4 might be in the market for a Renault. Come to think of it, I drive a Renault.

Good lord - part two, and we're back to Pakistan. Rundown of the headlines finally comes twenty minutes in. Unusual decision and I'm not sure it's very user-friendly. They move on to a slightly tongue-in-cheek package about whether politicians should admit to having taken drugs. A reporter tries to get MPs to admit to taking drugs. The chap from the Liberal Democrats says he hasn't, but thinks that it might actually be a career boost in his party. He might be right there.

But first! More of Pakistan, because they've managed to reach another reporter by phone. You can't fault this show for its coverage of Pakistan, but are people really looking for a news programme that only covers two stories in half an hour? I suppose on a really big news day, maybe. Perhaps this is an unrepresentative show.

Back to drugs. They've been inviting comments about drugs in their online (oh god) MoreForum. Everyone thinks drugs don't matter, but then what do you expect? These are the sort of people who sign up to a discussion forum for a news programme that hasn't aired yet on a station that doesn't yet exist. Of course they're Liberal Democrats.

Really not sure about that format at all.

Further coverage to follow as the night goes on...

Saturday, October 08, 2005

No Mercy 2005

Because you demanded it... more wrestling. There's another WWE pay per view on Sunday, and this time we do have to pay for it in Britain, so let's run down the card.

No Mercy is a Smackdown show, and boy, they've made a complete mess of promoting this one. Partly that's because they've had their minds on other things - the other WWE weekly show, Raw, jumped networks last Monday, and they've spent most of their effort promoting that. On top of that, they seem to be starting a Raw versus Smackdown inter-show feud, presumably with a view to doing a match at Survivor Series, the next dual-show PPV. But that's in three shows time.

In the meantime, No Mercy is still going out on Sunday, offering a range of dismally uninspiring matches which, for the most part, the writers have either forgotten about entirely, or utterly screwed up with ill-advised attempts to do something "different."

I don't think I'm giving anything away by saying that I will not be buying this dreary show.

This time round, I'll link to the wrestlers' entrance videos, which tell you a lot in their own right. There was a time when only the really top guys had big entrances. Nowadays everyone has a personalised entrance video, and the giveaway is how much effort has been put into it. Broadly speaking, the generic WWE entrance video will feature an animated graphic of the wrestler's name, some typical action shots, and possibly some exciting footage of them walking down a ramp, to the accompaniment of some rock music. The more elaborate the video, the more they care. This doesn't always hold true - every so often the production team fall in love with a minor character who happens to have an unusual gimmick - but it's usually a pretty good indication.

If they've bothered to write a song for you rather than just pick something off Generic Radio Soundtrack Beds vol 9, they like you. If they've commissioned an actual band to play it, they adore you. On the other hand, if your video loops in ten seconds, they really can't be arsed. And in all fairness, bear in mind this stuff was intended to be projected on a back wall, and talked over by the ring announcer and the commentators. And there's only so many lyrical variations on "I'm going to win the next match."

Right - the card.

1. World Heavyweight Title: Batista -v- Eddie Guerrero. Dave Batista's entrance video is actually a hangover from a previous interpretation of the character, when he was just sort of angry and violent. These days, they're playing him as an unflappably cool alpha male, mildly amused by the strange little people who think they can beat him. This works much better with his natural charisma, and also solves the problem of the character being a little too dark and angry for a hero champion. As a power wrestler, he's not bad at all, and should have a perfectly good match with Eddie Guerrero, a world class performer who can bring the best out of any opponent. And no, I've no idea why his entrance music opens with a ringtone.

In theory this is a good match, but the writing is little short of bizarre. Eddie, the bad guy, is announced as number one contender, and then promptly declares that he has had a change of heart. He's going to be Batista's friend, and there will be no feud or bad blood between them. And, indeed, there hasn't been. Yes, the build-up for this match is that they aren't fighting. In theory we're meant to be wondering whether Eddie's faking or not, but ultimately, does it matter?

Despite being a dreadful piece of writing - Eddie's resorted to playing it for comedy, which is always a bad sign in your headline match - these two should have a good match, and at least it's not a story that'll drag them down.

2. United States Title: Chris Benoit v Booker T v Christian v Orlando Jordan. Despite what you might think from his entrance video, defending champion Chris Benoit is the good guy, doing a sort of "worryingly intense but ultimately noble warrior" bit. Love the little screaming boy near the end of that clip. Benoit is another of the WWE's world class wrestlers, and really, a secondary championship like the US Title ought to be beneath him, but it desperately needs somebody to restore its credibility after several months around the waist of Orlando Jordan. Jordan is the sidekick of JBL (who we'll come to in a bit) and only won the title in the first place to further a storyline between JBL and John Cena. He's crap, and utterly out of his league in this company. He's spent most of the last month losing to Benoit in embarrassingly short matches, which rather suggests he's on his way down the card for the foreseeable future.

Benoit is defending the title against three people at once, because he's so hard that he accepted all their challenges at the same time. Presumably this is sudden death rules, since we'll be there all night if it's an elimination match (although admittedly, Orlando wouldn't last long). The other two challengers are Booker T, the other good guy, who still won't shut up about the fact that he held the WCW Title five times. Five years ago. He's still capable of having a good match, though. His current storyline is that his over-eager wife keeps helping him win matches even though he doesn't want her to. That might suggest he's going to win. Finally, Christian is there to make up the numbers. He's the nearly man of the WWE, somebody the audience persistently loves and cheers for (particularly impressive considering that he's a bad guy), and yet never gets rewarded with a push up the card. He's got the talent, he's got the charisma, he's got the fans on his side, but somehow the promotion never seems to see it, and poor Christian is stuck in a holding pattern forever. Just look at that horrific entrance video, a classic example of why you should lock up the edit suite on Take Your Daughter To Work Day. Mind you, I suppose at least somebody tried to make it stand out. Somewhere in a parallel universe, he's a champion.

Should be a reasonably decent match - Benoit is excellent, Christian and Booker are very good, and Orlando... well, Orlando can't fuck it up too badly when he's outnumbered three to one by good workers. Logically, Booker ought to win, since that would further his storyline.

3. WWE Cruiserweight Title: Nunzio v Juventud Guerrera. Some of you who watch wrestling will now be asking yourselves: hold on, when was that announced? Well, that's the WWE Cruiserweight Title for you. The WWE simply doesn't understand cruiserweight wrestling, and hates the crazy acrobatic displays that made it successful in Mexico, WCW and TNA - even though history has always shown that audiences like that sort of thing. Basically, they want the cruiserweights to do the same matches as the heavyweights, only smaller. This never works, but the WWE's reaction to that is to blame the cruiserweights, rather than change their philosophy. So the cruiserweights languish at the bottom of the card, either wondering why they bother, or thanking god for the regular pay cheque. Not surprisingly, this has led a lot of extremely good smaller wrestlers to avoid the WWE altogether and take the gamble of signing with TNA, the number two company - it's a big step down, but at least you can have better matches and be appreciated.

Anyhow, the defending champion is Nunzio, who won the title from Paul London simply because London annoyed WWE management by complaining to them about everything in the previous paragraph. He's okay. His challenger Juventud Guerrera has been around for years and is currently one of the Mexicools, a faintly ludicrous band of Mexican wrestlers who are nominally parodying Mexican stereotypes by riding around on lawnmowers. Uh-huh. Oh, and it's a match between two bad guys, which guarantees the crowd won't care.

Juventud got this title shot by winning a battle royal on Velocity, a show which was cancelled in America two weeks, but is still filmed for international distribution. You can watch it on the WWE website, if you're really so inclined. This is the level of importance that the WWE place on the Cruiserweight division, and should tell you how much time they're likely to give the match. On paper it could be decent, but in practice it'll probably be five minutes at most, and no better than anything you can see on Smackdown or Velocity every week.

4. Handicap casket match: The Undertaker v Randy & Bob Orton. Yes, the Undertaker's still going. Actually, he's only 40, and he's had the good fortune to spend the last decade doing a gimmick that doesn't require him to take much punishment. He was never exactly a fantastic wrestler, but at least he's still in shape. Randy Orton is a rising second-generation wrestler whose gimmick is that he beats legendary wrestlers - most of whom, of course, are entirely past the point of being able to defend themselves. He's a bit hit and miss, but he has his moments. He's a natural heel - it says a lot that he's still using the entrance video prepared during his abortive run as a hero, in which he still looks like a smarmy prick. As a bad guy, of course, this is a positive boon.

The Undertaker/Randy Orton feud has been droning on for most of the year, despite the fact that the Undertaker has won convincingly several times now, and there's nothing left to fight about. It genuinely doesn't seem to have occurred to the writers that the bad guys need to win sometimes, so that the Undertaker has something to seek revenge for.

This time the Undertaker will be fighting young upstart Randy and his father, retired wrestler Bob Orton, in his signature "casket match", where the object is to put your opponent in a coffin and close the lid. This is usually no more interesting than it sounds. Some dreary low-rent SFX will probably be wheeled out for mystical purposes. Hopefully Undertaker wins, because then the story might end. If he loses, a rematch is guaranteed. In fairness, Undertaker and Orton had a surprisingly good match on pay per view earlier in the year, so this might well be better than I'm expecting, but I still have no desire whatsoever to see it.

5. Rey Mysterio v JBL. A holding pattern match for two of the major Smackdown wrestlers who don't have anything else to do right now. Mysterio is a tiny Mexican underdog who's been around for years, and has succeeded in the WWE despite (a) being small, (b) being foreign, and (c) coming from WCW, any one of which is enough to kill a normal man's career in this company. Crowds love him, and rightly so. JBL used to be the hard-drinking, poker-playing Bradshaw, but was drastically repackaged after he started turning up on talk shows discussing (in fairly lucid terms) his thoughts on the Stock Exchange. Now he's John Bradshaw Layfield, evil Republican from Texas via New York. This is actually quite entertaining, albeit that they really shouldn't have made him world champion for ten months, because it's still a comedy character, and his matches aren't that good. They're fighting because... er, because Mysterio's a Mexican, and JBL is an evil Republican. Well, it's better motivation than most of the matches on this card, I suppose. This will probably be good but not great.

Mysterio's new entrance video, incidentally, represents the WWE's first faltering stab at reggaeton. This is unusually ahead of the curve for them.

6. MNM v Christy Hemme & The Legion of Doom. God help us. This is a six-person intergender tag team match, a prospect to strike fear into the hearts of wrestling fans everywhere. MNM are Joey Mercury, Johnny Nitro and Melina, and they're pretty good. They're one of a cluster of acts who were brought up from the training league, OVW, with their gimmicks intact a few months ago. Basically, they're obnoxious Hollywood types, and they have the best-staged entrance in the WWE (complete with red carpet, paparazzi photographers, and Melina's ridiculously flexible "under the bottom rope" schtick). Please ignore Jillian Hall in their entrance video, since she was moved on to work with JBL a month or so back and is no longer dragging them down. Jillian's gimmick is that she's facially disfigured, as symbolised by a godawful prosthetic which live audiences still can't see. No audience has ever reacted to this gimmick, save to lament its dreadfulness, but the WWE haven't got the hint yet. Supposedly she can actually wrestle, in which case she's utterly wasted in that role. It's one of those gimmicks that proves that even in wrestling, it is possible to underestimate the intelligence of the audience.

Anyhow, MNM have been feuding fore-e-e-e-e-ver with the Legion of Doom, who retired years ago, but are currently the tag team champions because they have a nostalgia DVD to promote. Or rather, Road Warrior Animal is currently back promoting the DVD - his partner Hawk died a couple of years ago. John Heidenreich, a well-meaning but ultimately useless clod of a wrestler, has been plugged into the missing role, and the result is one old fat guy, and one young crap guy. Everyone then has to react as if they were really impressive. It sucks. Making up the team is Christy Hemme, the winner of last year's Diva Search competition who, unusually, has actually earned her keep because she has real charisma and connects with the crowds. You'd have thought the WWE might learn something from the fact that, presented with a parade of interchangeable women, the audience voted to give a job to the one with a personality. But apparently not. Her entrance video has recently been retooled to remove all her personality-driven antics and replace them with bikini shots, making her look like a poor man's Geri Halliwell. And no, you're not imagining it, her entrance music really is "Walk Idiot Walk" by the Hives. Don't ask me.

The match will be abysmal, and it can only serve to kill off MNM's act even further, if that's possible by this stage. And since it's not even a title match, there's at least one further LOD match to come, god help us. I'd fast-forward past this even if it was on Smackdown.

7. Bobby Lashley v Simon Dean. Bobby Lashley is a big strong guy who was just called up to the roster a couple of weeks ago. He's yet to do anything particularly impressive. Simon Dean is a comedy loser with a bizarre "evil fitness guru" gimmick. He's spectacularly underused, and will be spectacularly underused again on Sunday, when he bounces all over the ring in an attempt to make the newbie look at good as possible. They already did this match for free on Smackdown two weeks ago, and I have no idea why I'm supposed to want to pay to see it again. Incidentally, Lashley does have a proper entrance video now, but hasn't updated it yet, so you can admire his flashing graphic instead. Dean's entrance is an example of the production team getting very excited about a trivial wrestler with an odd gimmick.

8. Ken Kennedy v Hardcore Holly. And finally, another relative newcomer, Ken Kennedy, will (hopefully) continue his winning streak by beating long-serving midcarder Bob Holly. (If you think "Hardcore Holly"'s a bad name, bear in mind that before that, he was Sparky Plugg, an evil NASCAR driver. It was a step up.) Kennedy's gimmick is that he insists on doing his own ring introductions, in the most over the top fashion imaginable. On paper this sounds dreadful, but it actually works, because it gives him an opportunity to get his character over. Take a guy with charisma and give him a live mike, and that's half the job done. As a wrestler, he's... okay to decent, with a spectacular finishing move. (Those who know about such things claim, however, that it's also an insanely dangerous finishing move that nobody in their right mind would be performing on a regular basis due to the risk of serious neck injury.) He probably won't have a great match with Holly, who has an unfortunate track record of trying to teach newcomers their place. Again, this is nothing you wouldn't expect to see for free on Smackdown itself.

Overall... there's precisely one match here that genuinely intrigues me, which is the Batista/Eddie match, and that's solely because I'm interested to see what they can do together. The US title match has potential to be decent. Everything else is likely to be either terrible, or the same standard as Smackdown matches. Am I spending fifteen quid on this? Am I hell.

Next pay per view - and trust me, wrestling fans find this name every bit as stupid as you do - is Taboo Tuesday on Tuesday November 1. Nominally it's an "interactive" show where the matches (or, more commonly, irrelevant stipulations) are chosen by online vote. They did this last year, and it bombed, so naturally they're doing it again because they refuse to accept that it was a bad idea. That's how the WWE works.

Friday, October 07, 2005


Because if I review it, people will stop asking me if I'm going to review it.

Serenity is, of course, the film version of Joss Whedon's abortive sci-fi-western TV show Firefly, which got cancelled in America 11 episodes into its first season. The upside was that they sold a hell of a lot of DVDs, as the loyal audience of hardcore fans had to buy the box set to see the rest of the story. I believe the whole first season aired in the UK, but only on the Sci-Fi Channel or some other such fringe station. Which, come to think of it, is odd, since Buffy and Angel were consistently top performers for Sky One, so you'd think they'd want this show.

Anyway, I've never seen the TV show so, like most of the audience (they hope), I'm coming to this cold. Whedon faces the obvious difficulty that he's already halfway through his story, but recaps his set-up material concisely in the opening scenes. It's the far future, it's another solar system, there's been a war with obvious similarities to the American Civil War, the Serenity crew were on the losing side, and somewhere along the line they've picked up River, a mentally ill psychic who's wanted by the government. Clear enough. Oh, and there are space zombies too.

You can tell this started out as a planned storyline for a TV show. The plot is actually fairly straightforward - the Serenity crew investigate what's bugging River, while an infuriatingly calm and ruthless government agent pursues them at every turn - but it's packed with events in a way that suggests that Whedon is cramming five or six episodes of TV into two hours. The pace is a touch episodic, and it's easy to imagine each sequence being expanded into a whole episode of TV in its own right. Budget considerations aside, it would probably have been better at TV pace, but in this format it's certainly got breakneck speed on its side. It doesn't slow down, simply because it never has time to.

As an action film, it's good stuff, building to a suitably excessive finale. Whedon's still got his knack for snappy dialogue, and the ability to flesh out a large ensemble cast efficiently and concisely - strictly speaking he doesn't really need all of these characters for this story, but dammit, they're here, so he's going to find something for them to do.

Where it falters slightly, for newcomers, is that it never really fleshes out the Alliance government, and what the central worlds are actually like. There's an Alliance villain, but he makes pretty clear that he's a black ops type and doesn't consider himself representative of values back home; there are Alliance soldiers, who for the most part just obey orders and do as they're told; and it's evident that the government has some dodgy projects on the side. But this is standard stuff for most governments in genre fiction, and we don't really get a sense of what the culture is like for the general public. Which is kind of important, because the culture clash seems to be a key theme for Firefly, and at times we're almost left to take it on trust that certain things will strike at the heart of the Alliance. The coda, blatantly leaving the way clear for a sequel, begs the question: "Hold on, what did they just achieve...?"

Even so, I liked the film. It's remarkably accessible for something that follows fourteen episodes of Firefly, and even when it doesn't quite manage that, it left me kind of wanting to see the show, instead of just feeling baffled. The hardcore fans will no doubt praise it as a work of genius, but it's certainly a superior, intelligent and fun sci-fi film, ahead of the competition.