Sunday, November 26, 2006

Survivor Series 2006

More wrestling, as we head into a ridiculously packed period. Tonight we have Survivor Series, one of the big WWE pay-per-views of the year. This one dates from way back in the early days when they only did two major shows a year. It even has a halfway sensible name. Traditionally the gimmick is 10-man elimination tag team matches, and although they've moved away from that in recent years, they've made more of an effort this time round.

Next week, on the other hand, sees the first pay-per-view from the ECW brand since its weekly TV show started. This show has "disaster" written all over it. They've announced precisely one match for the show, and it's not immediately obvious what the other matches could be. Presumably we'll see some desperate last-minute storylines on tonight's show, since all three rosters are involved. But they've left it far, far too late - and an ECW show needs all the help it can get, since they've got the lowest audience to start with.

But we'll get back to ECW next week. This time round, we have an oddball mix of singles matches advancing the regular storylines, and slightly arbitrary elimination tag matches. Overall, it looks like it could be fun.

1. World Heavyweight Title: King Booker v. Batista. Logically this ought to be the main event, since it's the Smackdown world title. The Raw and ECW title belts aren't being defended, since the champions are tied up in an elimination tag match. But with the WWE's mentality, you never know. Smackdown is actually often the most-watched of the three shows (since it's on network television while the others are on cable), but it's still treated internally as a B-show behind Raw. And the WWE's website seems to be treating DX's tag match as the main event, simply because, well, DX are in it. Hmm.

Anyway, this is presumably the point where Booker finally drops the belt after a surprisingly long run as champ, considering that he's basically playing a comedy character these days. Batista has been notionally chasing the title ever since he returned from injury, although it's all been a bit lacklustre. The stipulation here is that if Booker wins, he doesn't have to defend against Batista again. That virtually guarantees that Batista is winning (unless he's jumping to another show). I'm assuming that Batista wins in an adequate match, he goes into a storyline defending against Finlay, and Booker quietly drifts back to the midcard where his absurd "thinks he's a medieval king" gimmick belongs.

2. WWE US Title: Chris Benoit v. Chavo Guerrero. A year after Eddie Guerrero's death, we're still doing storylines about him. This time the angle is that Eddie's widow Vicky - now written into the show fulltime - is doing something dodgy with his estate, and Eddie's friend Chris Benoit is trying to find out what it is. Since this somehow or other has to lead to a match, Benoit will be defending his US title against Eddie's nephew Chavo.

The storyline is horrendous, and rumour has it that Benoit isn't exactly overjoyed about it. But on paper this is a promising match; Benoit can have good matches with almost anyone, and Chavo is substantially above average to start with. He's also got momentum from winning his recent feud with Rey Mysterio (since Mysterio needed several months off to recover from knee surgery). The storyline has only just got started, so logic says Chavo wins the title here, and Benoit can spend the next few shows looking for revenge.

As long as they keep the storyline stuff to a minimum, this should be very good.

3. WWE Women's Title: Lita v. Mickie James. This is Lita's retirement match, something that they only bothered to mention at the very last moment. In theory, Lita - the dastardly heel - wants to achieve the same farewell as the previous title holder, Trish Stratus, who won her final match and retired as champion. (Lita won the belt in a desultory knockout tournament to fill the vacancy.) Mickie James gets to be the opponent because... well, she's around, and at least she's a wrestler. Frankly, the options for babyface women are very limited at the moment; most of them can't wrestle at all, and Beth Phoenix is still on the injured list, so it's either Mickie or nobody. Even Mickie had to inexplicably turn babyface and drop her "psycho" gimmick in order to take the role - I suppose we're just meant to assume that she started taking the meds.

I'm sure they'll be motivated and it'll probably be an above average match for them, although neither is exactly brilliant to start with. Since Lita is the villain, she probably doesn't get to go out on top, so I expect Mickie wins clean and then spends the next few weeks gazing around looking for somebody to fight.

4. First Blood match: The Undertaker v. Mr Kennedy. The Ken Kennedy push continues, as they attempt to present him as somebody who can take on the Undertaker, without quite biting the bullet and writing him as a strong enough character. Kennedy presently holds a victory over the Undertaker... by disqualification. Normally that's fine for a bad guy at the start of a storyline, but Kennedy is supposed to be moving up the card here, and they need to do better than that to establish him as a true threat to main event guys like Undertaker.

A First Blood match - first guy to bleed loses - is very often used as a way of compromise booking. It allows somebody to lose without actually getting pinned or submitted, and I strongly suspect that's the thinking here. It's a way of giving Kennedy a clean win without making Undertaker look vulnerable, and they'll have to be very careful to pull it off. The match will probably be okay but not great.

5. Elimination match: D-Generation X, the Hardy Boyz & CM Punk v. Rated RKO, Johnny Nitro, Gregory Helms & Mike Knox. Basically the latest chapter in the DX v Rated RKO feud, with six random guys from other shows added on. Rated RKO is, god help us, the official team name for Edge and Randy Orton. Because Edge is the "Rated R Superstar", you see, while Randy Orton's finishing move is the RKO. Clearly hours of work have gone into that. Their new entrance music - which simply fades randomly back and forth between their individual theme tunes, regardless of logic, key or speed - is even more of an atrocity.

On DX's side, we have the reunited Hardy Boyz, who were a big tag team in the nineties and now have solo careers on separate shows. Matt is stuck in a going-nowhere feud with Gregory Helms, the Cruiserweight Champion. It consists entirely of them wrestling one another, again and again, with no apparent direction or purpose. But the matches tend to be very good indeed, so it's not all bad. Jeff, meanwhile, is the current Intercontinental Champion and he's feuding with Johnny Nitro. So Nitro and Helms have been added to the heel side as obvious opponents.

Rounding out the teams are the two representatives of ECW - CM Punk and his current nemesis Mike Knox. Knox really doesn't belong in this company. He's been described as a man who "brings absolutely nothing to the table besides above average height", and it's tough to disagree with that assessment. He's competent at best. CM Punk, on the other hand, is an indie darling who built a devoted fanbase during his years wrestling for promotions like Ring of Honor. Success with ROH doesn't necessarily translate to success in a more mainstream promotion like the WWE, though - ROH is tailored unashamedly to the very serious hardcore fan, and its fans include a lot of chin-stroking purists who genuinely enjoy watching somebody reverse headlocks repeatedly for ten minutes. Top wrestlers in that style don't necessarily translate to the showbiz absurdity of the WWE. CM Punk has done better than expected, and he's ended up in ECW with his "straight edge" gimmick intact. Thus far, he's undefeated in ECW, so it'll be very interested to see how he's treated here. He really can't afford to get pinned clean in this match, which would be a waste of his first proper loss - either he has to survive to the end, or he has to get mugged. I have a nagging feeling it'll be neither. As for Knox, if there's any justice he'll run into the ring and get pinned in the first ten seconds.

Recent history suggests that the story here will be that DX's partners all get eliminated but the heroic duo fight back against overwhelming odds and either win, or at least go down fighting after nearly pulling it off. Hopefully it's the latter, since this storyline has a way to go yet, and DX have been written as so dominant that it's vital to establish that Edge and Orton can beat them, and do it repeatedly. Should be a fun match, anyway, since aside from Knox, these guys are all good.

6. Elimination match: John Cena, Rob Van Dam, Sabu, Bobby Lashley & Kane v. The Big Show, Test, MVP, Finlay & Umaga. Raw champion Cena versus ECW champion Big Show, in other words. But the rest of the teams seem to have been filled out drawing names from a hat. The story now makes a little more sense since Lashley has jumped to the ECW roster at the last moment. The main event of next week's ECW show is a six-man elimination match for their title, featuring Big Show, RVD, Sabu, Lashley and Test. The sixth guy is CM Punk, but he's already in another match. Anyway, this must be the match where they do the ECW angles, since the only obvious story here is the fact that half the participants will be fighting their own teammates next week in a match that probably means rather more to them.

As for Cena, he's basically between opponents at the moment, and he's been caught up in a ridiculous, but perversely entertaining, mini-feud against Kevin Federline. Yes, that Kevin Federline. Yes, they're really going to fight. Federline's desperation for publicity knows no bounds, although it must be said that he's a natural villain and turns out to be surprisingly good in the role. He'd actually be quite good as a manager, and given that he's probably in the market for a new line of work, he might want to seriously consider it. They're supposed to be fighting at New Year, so it wouldn't be a shock to see Federline turn up at this show.

Cena's next proper opponent is probably Umaga, which is most likely the reason why the big Samoan stereotype has been added to this match. Finlay seems to have been chucked in just to make the numbers, and finally we have Kane and MVP (it stands for "Montel Vontavious Porter"), who are stuck in an ill-conceived storyline on Smackdown. The big idea was that MVP would be given this huge build-up and then turn out to be rubbish. After doing this, of course, they realised the fundamental flaw in the plan: a character that high-profile needs to actually fight other wrestlers, and if he's going to do that, he has to be at least passable. So MVP has been clawing his way up the ladder over the last few weeks, to the point where it's no longer entirely clear what his gimmick is meant to be. Arrogance, I suppose. He also comes equipped with the stupidest entrance in wrestling, a giant inflatable doorway that they set up especially for him. Naturally, it takes an age to set up, and it causes real problems when he appears on a show that isn't pre-taped. Such as this one.

This match could go either way, since there isn't much storyline, but my instinct says Lashley and Cena win for their team, with Lashley eliminating the Big Show to establish him as a threat to the belt. It's all a bit random but it should be quite good fun.

7. Elimination Match: Ric Flair, Dusty Rhodes, Sgt Slaughter & Ron Simmons v. Kenny, Johnny, Nicky & Mikey. A bunch of old guys versus four of the Spirit Squad, in other words. This is the nostalgia match, and since the Squad are in the throes of a break-up angle with Johnny turning on the others, I imagine the legends win, to make the crowd happy and further the Squad's storyline. It won't be much good as a technical wrestling match but it should still be decent from a charisma standpoint. And yes, there are only eight guys in this one - Arn Anderson is in the corner of Flair's team, but given his accumulated injuries, they're not even pretending that he's going to wrestle. (Poor Nick Mitchell gets to sit on the sidelines for the Spirit Squad, to balance it out.)

Worth buying? Yes - most of these matches look like fun. Lita/Mickie is probably as bad as it gets, and that won't be too bad. The elimination matches have plenty of possibilities, and everything else should be decent or better. They'll have to work hard to botch this one.

Monday, November 20, 2006

How It's Made

Have you ever seen How It's Made? Probably not. The Discovery Channel shows it every night at 8pm for an hour. I've never seen more than two minutes of it. It's the dullest thing ever.

And yet, it's dull in quite an admirable way. In the busy world of multichannel satellite television, most channels desperately hurl shiny things at you during prime time. Not the Discovery Channel. How It's Made is a show that does exactly what it says on the tin. It consists entirely of short films of factories, with close-ups of machines making products. There are generally no people. A cheerful-sounding narrator offers gloriously uninformative commentary. It's a bit like the "through the round window" segments that Play School used to do 25 years ago, except much, much more boring, and shown in prime time.

The glorious thing about How It's Made is that there's absolutely no pretence of making an interesting show. They seem to carefully avoid covering any product that might be remotely intriguing. The introduction to each show - the only bit I ever watch, because it comes on directly after Mythbusters - is like a glimpse into a parallel dimension of extreme dullness. There's a sort of zen purity to it.

For example, here's the introduction to today's show. Imagine this being read out in a cheerful yet utterly bland voice, to the accompaniment of the sort of music you used to get during the countdown clock on schools' television programmes in 1987.

"Today on How It's Made:

Decorative mouldings - transforming your room into a palace.

Commercial pulleys - making the wheel that turns the belt that lifts the load.

Industrial rubber hose - supplying the machine's lifeblood.

And sheet vinyl flooring - lino's great usurper."

God bless them. They're practically daring you to turn off. Sheet vinyl flooring, as your big main event. In prime time. You've got to respect the purity. Nobody in their right mind would actually watch the show, but there's something comforting about knowing it's there, don't you think?

Sunday, November 19, 2006

The Big Picture

I was going to write about Casino Royale, but it was sold out for the next four performances and we couldn't be bothered waiting, so I'll get back to that some time during the week.

In the meantime... I'd always wondered whether the first Tori Amos album could really be as bad as everyone makes out. Y Kant Tori Read has been deleted for years, because even though her fanbase would probably buy it, everyone involved is apparently too ashamed of it. And of course, that just makes me even more intrigued to know what the hell it sounds like.

Well, YouTube is your friend. Here's the one and only video from Tori's sub-T'Pau period:-

Saturday, November 04, 2006

WWE Cyber Sunday

Another week, another pay-per-view. This is the annual "interactive" show, now in its third year, where the WWE show that they're down with this new-fangled internet thingie by allowing fans to vote on what the matches should be. It goes without saying that there is something terribly ironic about taking a show which is designed to make them seem modern and cutting edge, and then giving it a name like Cyber Sunday, which practically screams "1998."

One of the WWE's more endearing traits is that they simply won't admit when an idea is a failure. There's always an explanation for why it didn't quite work, and they just plough on until reality can't be denied any longer. In its first two years, this show was held on Tuesday nights (uniquely in the wrestling pay-per-view calendar) and it rejoiced in the name Taboo Tuesday. The buyrate was dire in both years. In year one, they blamed the baseball. In year two they couldn't blame the baseball, so they blamed the day.

And to be fair, the day was a terrible choice. Because it was a weekday, if you lived on the west coast and wanted to see the show live, you had to leave work early. Not exactly realistic. So moving it to the weekends is sure to help.

But it doesn't solve the other fundamental problems with this concept. For one thing, it means they're promoting a card full of mystery matches, and asking people to pay money without actually knowing what's on the show. For another, the WWE is (at least in theory) all about storytelling. So they really only have two options: try to steer the audience on how to vote, or make the voting irrelevant. And for the most part, that's what we see on this year's card - a few storyline matches where they're presumably hoping for the right result, and some other stuff to pad out the card where either the vote is inconsequential, or the match itself doesn't matter. In fact, we even have one match where the whole gimmick is that the vote is irrelevant, which suggests they haven't quite got their heads around the concept of the show.

So, this will probably do better than the last two years, but it still won't be a success. On the other hand, it can be quite a fun show for fans like me, because you get some straightforward matches without much in the way of silly storylines holding them down. Besides, it's airing on Sky Sports 1 in the UK, so I don't have to pay extra for it.

Nominally this is a Raw show, but in practice it's rather broader than that. They're building up to a much more major show, Survivor Series, later in the month - that show will feature all three rosters, and so they've got to start some storylines here.

1. Champion of Champions: John Cena -v- King Booker -v- The Big Show. In other words, the Raw champion versus the Smackdown champion versus the ECW champion. It says a lot about the quality of current storylines that this match hasn't generated more interest. Problem is, nobody takes the ECW belt terribly seriously, and King Booker is basically a comedy character who shouldn't be anywhere near a world title (at least, not while doing that particular gimmick). So the notion that it's three equals from different shows is purely theoretical.

That said, it should be a decent match. Big Show is good in his role as a giant bad guy, and he's been working hard in recent months on ECW. Cena is a good-but-not-great wrestler, but makes up for it with charisma and an intense connection with the crowd - the phase where half the audience was booing him seems to have burnt out. And Booker is a solid veteran who should keep it all together. It'll be just fine.

The online vote decides whose title is on the line. They haven't been pushing for any particular result, so presumably they don't have a storyline in mind, and the title won't change hands. It's unlikely the fans will vote for the Raw title, even though it's the most credible belt, because it's held by Cena and he's meant to be the hero. So presumably they'll go for the Smackdown belt. It's not inconceivable that Booker could lose it for a few weeks to set up Survivor Series, but I wouldn't bet on it. If they vote for ECW then Big Show can't possibly lose (unless they've lost their minds) because he's already involved in a storyline where Rob Van Dam is chasing him for the belt, and that story doesn't pay off until December.

So, my prediction: the fans vote for the Smackdown belt, Booker retains, and the match is above average.

2. D-Generation X -v- Edge & Randy Orton. This is the semi-main event, and the other major match for ongoing storylines. Even though it should have ended months ago, DX's feud with the McMahon family drones on because the company is convinced it's their hottest storyline. Ratings do not bear this out. But then, the company is run by Vince McMahon, and his son-in-law Triple H is one half of DX, and if they want to believe that they're the biggest stars on the show, who's going to tell them otherwise?

The problem for DX is that they're a tag team with nobody to fight. They've already comprehensively destroyed the entire tag division, including the tag champs. You'd think that logically they should have the tag belts, if that's how they're going to be written. But apparently the tag belts are beneath DX, so we find ourselves in this situation - a decimated tag division where the title belts mean nothing, coupled with an A-list tag team who have nobody to fight.

The solution is to pair up two main event bad guys, Edge and Randy Orton, so that they can fight DX. Unfortunately, in the build-up, DX have pretty much been destroying them without much difficulty too. God only knows why anyone thinks it's good for the long term health of the company - which, after all, Triple H and the McMahons own. It's a terrible waste of Edge and Orton, both of whom could be used much more effectively, but who are probably about to have their credibility and momentum sacrificed to the ego of the boss's son-in-law.

The online vote is to decide on the referee - you can have Vince McMahon, his sidekick Jonathan Coachman, or former evil manager Eric Bischoff (who they had to get onto the show because he's got an autobiography to plug). In other words, you've got a choice of three bad guys, so it doesn't matter. That's supposed to be the point - it's rigged against DX - but it's an absurd thing to do for the semi-main on a show where the whole concept is audience voting.

Still, there are four talented wrestlers in here, so it's almost sure to be a good match. The only sane finish is for the bad guys to win thanks to the biased referee, but regrettably DX matches have been awfully short on sane writing lately, so there's about a 40% chance they'll just squash these guys too.

3. Intercontinental Title: Jeff Hardy -v- mystery opponent. Your options are Carlito, Shelton Benjamin and Johnny Nitro. History shows that the fans always vote for the good guy, even when that means the resulting match has no baddies. On that basis, they'll vote for Carlito, and he'll have a straightforward wrestling match with his fellow babyface Jeff Hardy. Jeff's been surprisingly good since returning to the company a few months ago. Carlito, on the other hand, has been terribly hit and miss. Now he seems to be trying to sell himself as a high flyer, even though he's not exactly the most graceful exponent of the art.

Still, both guys are very popular, and Jeff might get a decent match out of him. This is a match where they could possibly do a title change in order to sell the importance of the fan vote, since it wouldn't cause any problems with ongoing storylines, and Jeff will be fine without the title. I suspect a title change, but it's 50-50, really.

4. World Tag Team Titles: The Spirit Squad -v- Ric Flair & mystery opponent. As noted above, the tag titles are a bit of a joke these days thanks to DX trashing the whole division. So here are the nominal champions - five male cheerleaders, under a bizarre arrangement where any two can defend the belts - versus the well-preserved veteran Ric Flair and a partner who you can vote on. Your choices are Dusty Rhodes, Sgt Slaughter and Roddy Piper, all of whom had their heyday back in the Reagan administration. Still, they all know how to connect with the fans. The WWE seems to be hinting that they want us to vote for Dusty Rhodes, so I strongly suspect that there may be a tag title change here depending on whether we vote for somebody who's going to be around for a few weeks more. The Spirit Squad have been so badly crushed that a loss to two geriatrics won't do any more harm, and in any event they're in the throes of a break-up angle where Kenny Doan is going to try and rehabilitate his career by blaming his teammates for the disastrous few months they've had. (And again, what does it say about the writing where the tag champs are doing an angle based on the fact that they're total losers?)

It'll be a short old-school comedy match relying in large part on a nostalgia reaction. Americans who remember these guys from the 80s will probably have fun; I'll take the opportunity to make a cup of tea.

5. Umaga -v- mystery opponent. Everybody's favourite jawdropping racial stereotype has issued an open challenge to wrestlers from the other two shows. They've done very little to set up this match, other than some generic promos from the challengers, but here it is anyway. Your options are Chris Benoit, Kane and the Sandman.

There's a storyline with Kane - he lost a "loser leaves Raw" match to Umaga, with no real build-up, because they needed an excuse to get him onto Smackdown and fill out the roster. Logically, then, Kane should be out for revenge and this should be his opportunity. But they've been very quiet about that, perhaps because it creates a booking problem. Umaga is still unbeaten and really ought to stay that way. There's no point in his undefeated streak ending at the hands of a wrestler from another show, since the storyline ought to continue. On the other hand, Kane can't possibly lose to him twice.

So... if the fans vote for Kane, it'll probably be some screwjob non-finish. Brace yourself for Umaga winning by disqualification, or a double countout, or some such nonsense.

If the vote is for Benoit or Sandman, then it'll just be a match, and Umaga will undoubtedly win. Umaga/Benoit is the best match in technical terms; Benoit can get a good match out of anyone, and Umaga is better than you might think. The Sandman seems to have been inserted simply as a representative from ECW; he's a technically poor wrestler who somehow still puts on a compelling performance due to his remarkable charisma in a role best described as "loveable violent alcoholic." He's really at his best in weapons matches where his limitations can be concealed. This would be a straight match and to be honest, I imagine it would be a train wreck. Part of me is morbidly curious to see it.

Prediction, though: Kane gets the vote, they do a power match which'll be okay but nothing special, and it'll end with some sort of DQ finish.

6. WWE Women's Title: Mickie James -v- Lita. The Women's Title has been vacant since Trish Stratus retired as champion. This is the final of a knockout tournament to crown a new champion, although really it's just served to show how depleted the women's roster is these days. After all, to reach the final, Lita had to get past Playboy model Candace Michelle, and Maria, the backstage interviewer. I know she's the villain and she's supposed to have the easier path, but really...

Lita is also coming up for retirement, but they've got a little while to go. The obvious way to go is for Lita to win the title in controversial fashion, and Mickie to finally win the belt in Lita's retirement match.

At least these two are both proper wrestlers, albeit of terribly erratic match quality. Unfortunately for them, the vote here is on the match type: a submission match, a no-DQ match, or a lumberjack match (which means a load of other women surrounding the ring, nominally to stop them running away). The final two options should be passable. The submission match would be an outright disaster - I can't remember the last time either of these women applied a submission hold, and I strongly suspect they can't either.

7. Cryme Tyme -v- The Highlanders -v- Viscera & Charlie Haas -v- Lance Cade & Trevor Murdoch. Ladies and gentlemen, the beleaguered remnants of the tag team division. A sorry sight. In fact, this match was never even announced on television, only on the WWE website. That's how much they care about these guys.

Cryme Tyme have only just debuted, and they're being pushed at the moment, so they'll win. They're an interesting example of the WWE's dodgy grasp of race relations. The gimmick is supposed to be that they're minor league gangstas from Brooklyn. They beat up lost yuppies who've wandered into their neighbourhood. They steal bits of the set. Things like that. What interests me is that the WWE feels the need to stress, at every opportunity, that Cryme Tyme are "a parody of racial stereotypes." The odd thing is, really, they're not. They're just a pair of inner city criminals who happen to be played by black guys. You could do exactly the same gimmick in the UK with white wrestlers playing chavs, and several indie promotions do. Ironically, the WWE's disclaimer seems to contain far more questionable assumptions than anything in the original skits.

(You could also note that they're in the ring with Cade & Murdoch, the stereotypical rednecks, and the Highlanders, who seem to come from a version of Scotland that has yet to be equipped with electricity or running water. In comparison, and when you factor in the WWE's dreary track record of casual sexism and xenophobia, Cryme Tyme are practically a shining beacon of multicultural realism. And yet they're the ones the WWE feel obliged to make excuses for...)

Anyway, the match. The vote is on the format - either it's a four-way match with the first pin winning, or it's a Texas Tornado match (which means all eight guys in the ring at once) or it's a gauntlet (in other words, three matches in a row). Some of these guys are very inexperienced, and I'm confident that a Texas Tornado would be a complete mess. It's just too many people to keep track of, and even a group of veterans would struggle to make it work. The gauntlet means three very rushed matches because they won't get any more time. So the best option is the four-way, in terms of likely match quality. But I still wouldn't hope for much from these guys; they won't get much time and they're terribly new.

Worth buying? Hmm. The likely matches aren't too bad at all, but there's nothing that seems like a potential show stealer either. It'll probably be a solid but unexceptional show. A borderline one, but then I don't have to pay for it...

FAQ: Are you going to see Borat?

An occasional feature in which I try to avoid having to answer the same questions more often than absolutely necessary.

No, I do not want to see fucking Borat. I hate Borat. I hate all things even vaguely connected with Sacha Baron-Cohen. And let's be clear that by "hate" I do not mean "strongly dislike." I mean that he makes me want to throw a brick through the screen.

There's a rather self-serving meme doing the rounds in the broadsheet newspapers at the moment, to the effect that we all like Ali G and Borat because he's so satirical. This is true to a degree, but only to a degree. In large part, both characters are meant to be funny simply because they're inherently ridiculous, and because they're taboo-bustingly offensive in some of the things they say. Fine, whatever.

But a lot of what Sacha Baron-Cohen does has nothing to do with satirising legitimate targets, or people with genuinely stupid or arrogant views. A lot of it is just going up to basically nice people who are trying to be helpful, annoying them intensely, and then going, ha ha, aren't they annoyed? Tom Green built a fair amount of his career on the same principle, and I feel much the same way about him. There's something deeply smug, bullying and unpleasant about it. It's cheap.

From the look of it, 99% of people react to Sacha Baron-Cohen by siding with him and laughing at the people he's interviewing, whether they actually deserve it or not. Save in the tiny minority of cases where he's dealing with somebody genuinely hateful, I don't react that way. I sit there thinking "I violently hate this little prick and everything he stands for, and his very success makes me detest the human race."

So no, I will not be paying money to see his film. Please feel free to make your own arrangements, though.


Dear me, it's been a while since I posted here. Tsk.

So - Torchwood. We're now three episodes into the BBC's post-watershed spin-off from Doctor Who, and it's a strange beast. Frankly, at this stage I'm not entirely sure the creators know quite what it's meant to be either.

The idea is perfectly straightforward. It's about the five guys who work in the Cardiff branch of the Torchwood Institute, whose job is to investigate alien stuff and store it up for future use. Torchwood itself has cropped up several times in season two of Doctor Who, and in charge of the Cardiff branch is Captain Jack Harkness, who has somehow survived his apparent death at the end of season 1, and returned alive, well, and with superhuman powers to get things ready for some sort of world-changing event that's apparently just around the corner.

The thing is, you could do that idea in many different ways. You could do it as a bog standard BBC sci-fi series like the late, unlamented Bugs. You could make something a bit like X-Files. All sorts of possibilities exist. So far, though, the creators don't seem quite sure which take they're supposed to be following.

Doctor Who was created to be a Saturday tea-time show for all the family, and succeeded brilliantly in that role, crushing everything that competing channels threw at it. And now we have the adults-only version, but why? The BBC already has a Doctor Who for adults. It's called Doctor Who. They watch it in their millions. That's precisely why the BBC think there's a market for an adult-targetted spin-off, but who ever watched an episode of Doctor Who and thought "You know, this would be better with tits, swearing and a bit more blood?" It's just not that kind of show.

At its best, Torchwood is basically just Doctor Who, only a bit more sophisticated. It wouldn't look entirely out of place in US primetime, where they evidently aspire to sell it (the running time is 50 minutes, leaving space for American adverts). That's probably the right way to play it. It's got decent performances all round, and the characters have potential as a team. Episode 3 is by far the best, since it makes some proper effort to flesh out one of the B-characters, and it's structured more like an adult drama than an episode of Doctor Who. It's not desperately original, but it works.

On the other hand, we also have some obvious copying of the Doctor Who template. Episode 1 has the "spunky neophyte female lead discovers strangeness and joins in" structure lifted wholesale from the first episode of Doctor Who, and despite it being a nominal team show, it's clearly focussed around Captain Jack in the enigmatic alpha male alien role, and Gwen as the young female sidekick, complete with irritating moron boyfriend, with only one of the other characters getting any noticeable screen time. (Poor Toshiko seems to serve no purpose whatsoever, other than to deliver expository dialogue, and to not be white.)

Then there are glaringly horrid instances of the show trying its best to be "adult" even though it doesn't know why. Episode 2, "Day One", is appallingly misguided on almost every level. Although written with the style and sophistication of a typical Doctor Who tea-time episode, the plot involves an alien coming to Cardiff to feed off orgasmic energy, possessing the body of a teenage girl, and sending her on a mission to kill men by fucking them to death and absorbing their energy. Somewhere along the line she snogs Gwen as well, for no terribly clear reason other than to get a bit of open-minded lesbianism onto the screen.

Now... really. This is a concept straight out of the grimmest depths of fanfic, which should never have been commissioned at all. But to put it on in episode 2, when the show is still finding its feet and defining its tone? Absurd. It's Lesbo Sluts from Outer Space, for crying out loud! It's something that you'd pitch to an adult Doctor Who spin-off as a joke to see whether they'd take it seriously. But there's not even a hint of irony in the broadcast product.

And then there's Cardiff. Cardiff, Cardiff, Cardiff.

Torchwood, like Doctor Who, is made by BBC Wales. The real reason this series is set in Cardiff is budgetary - it's the nearest major city. That's also the reason why the good Doctor has fought a surprising amount of Welsh-related evil over the last couple of years. The problem is that, whatever BBC Wales may think, Cardiff still registers in the minds of most non-Welsh viewers as terribly provincial. Of course, logically any location is equally unlikely as the setting for repeated alien invaders, but London and New York can get away with it because most of us don't experience them as real places, only as shared reference points from TV and movies. But Cardiff... I'm not sure what a good American counterpart would be, but readers might like to imagine something along the lines of an X-Files-type show based entirely around the idea of aliens invading Missouri.

Now, some of the creators clearly recognise this problem. They've moved to solve it by giving Cardiff its very own Hellmouth, in the form of the time rift previously established back in the Doctor Who episode "Boom Town." We're told that aliens and technology either slip through the rift or are attracted towards it. Well, fair enough. It's as good an explanation as any.

But the directors persist in pretending that Cardiff is a desperately sexy, metropolitan city, deserving of loving aerial shots and footage of characters standing moodily atop local landmarks. This is just silly. It doesn't work. People simply don't buy Cardiff as that sort of place, which is why they rightly introduced the time rift to begin with. By far the best use of location, in fact, is in the chase scene in episode 3 with characters leaping through suburban back gardens, with Cardiff treated as a sort of generic everytown. All too often, though, the show seems to be on the verge of putting up a phone number for the Welsh tourist board.

The potential is there for this show to be good; the potential is also there for it to fall off a cliff. They just don't seem to know quite what sort of show they're making. If the template is episode 3, it'll be worth following. If it's episode 2, well, god have mercy.