Monday, February 26, 2007

Miscellany: 26 February

- This week's X-Axis - feel free to use the comments thread.

- More dodgy TV phone-ins, this time with (of all things) Saturday Kitchen on BBC1. Apparently the show has been asking viewers to call in on a premium-rate number to ask question to guest chefs - even though the programme is pre-recorded. It also had a premium-rate competition with the announced prize being the chance to appear on next week's show - which was scheduled to be recorded that afternoon.

The latter is just about within the bounds of acceptability, since the intended prize was apparently simply the chance to appear on a future show, and they were genuinely offering that. But premium-rate phone-ins to a pre-recorded show? That's much more dodgy. The BBC's explanation is apparently that the chefs were asked the questions off-air, but that's a very different thing. They're also claiming that the phone lines were being run on a non-profit basis (not impossible, they could just be covering the running costs), but it still looks very bad.

Meanwhile, the Daily Mirror, of all people, spend a happy day watching TV quiz channels to see whether the questions have become any less insane. Quizcall, in particular, seems to be running questions that are just plain indefensible. Question: Complete the phrase "--- Water" or "Water ---." Answers from their list that, remarkably, nobody got over several hours of taking premium-rate calls: "rail", "milk", "raw", "orange flower", "welder" and "ouzel."

This is fraud, and if it somehow scrapes over the bar of legality at the moment, the law should be changed. This has been going on for years now, and Ofcom should have come down like a hammer long before now.

- Meanwhile, the Guardian rather overstates its case by claiming that "scores" of people have complained to the BBC about last night's Top Gear, which featured a train crashing into a Renault Espace in order to demonstrate the dangers of jumping the red light at a level crossing. The objection is that there was a fatal train crash on Friday in completely different circumstances, in which nobody died.

"Scores of complaints", in this context, turns out to mean 43. Technically that is indeed more than one score. It's 2.15 scores. Hardly a massive number, though, is it?

I've seen the segment, and I suppose it was a borderline case for the BBC. Top Gear long since abandoned any pretence of being a proper motoring show and turned into a bizarre comedy programme that occasionally reviews a Lamborghini. Some people don't understand this, and continue to complain about the lack of advice on hatchbacks. But it's a much more entertaining show for parting ways with reality. Last week they tried to turn a Reliant Robin into a working space shuttle. Now that's television.

Top Gear doesn't do safety warnings - and Jeremy Clarkson spends half his time ranting about the over-cautious health and safety types who interfere with his work. So the segment was a weird hybrid where they basically acknowledged that Network Rail had asked them to do something about level crossings, and then pretty much made clear that they were only doing it for the exciting crashy bit. Which they duly broadcast in loving slo-mo, while Jeremy Clarkson made mock-serious, completely irrelevant safety announcements over the top.

The segment ends with a shot of the ruined Espace, and the caption: "THINK! Always wear a high visibility jacket."

Now, that said, it was a pretty compelling demonstration of why you don't want to get hit by a train side on, and there was even a half-decent reason for choosing the Renault Espace (it has a five-star safety rating and it got ploughed to smithereens). I'd say that if you take the segment as a whole, it clearly is a legitimate safety warning, albeit done very tongue-in-cheek. I might have been minded to swap it with a report from later in the series if that was viable, but I wouldn't have pulled it.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Hot Fuzz

(Proudly reviewing films more than a week after they came out.)

After the cult success of the Channel 4 sitcom Spaced, Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and Edgar Wright were promoted to "great hopes of British cinema" after their zombie/romantic comedy Shaun of the Dead turned out to be remarkably successful and surprisingly good.

Hot Fuzz is the follow-up, again taking a well-established genre and splicing it with underwhelming bits of Britain. They say this wasn't a deliberate decision, but both films are based in large part on the joke of sticking Hollywood elements in mundane parts of Britain. Americans may need to recall that, for British viewers, Hollywood films take place almost exclusively abroad. It's not so much that we assume America is really like that; it's just that film and TV exports do so much to shape British perceptions of America that we're rarely conscious of any collision with the real world going on. We never quite believed America was real to begin with.

So Hot Fuzz takes the police buddy movie and relocates it to rural Gloucestershire. Nick Angel, an irritatingly effective policeman with an arrest rate four times higher than anyone else's, is summarily reassigned to the countryside because he's making everyone else look bad. He ends up stranded in a station full of completely useless police officers who spend their days eating cake. His partner, Danny, at least vaguely wants to be a proper police officer, but gets his ideas entirely from the movies. And there's an awful lot of suspicious things going on, which the locals appear to regard as totally normal.

It's good. Not as good as Shaun of the Dead - the genres don't mesh quite as neatly, the final couple of codas are a mistake, and the supporting characters are pretty one-dimensional compared to SotD. But it's still very good. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost have great chemistry, and Wright's comic timing is magnificent. It's inventive, it's clever, and it's beautifully structured, setting up jokes a good hour before they pay off, and yanking them back in when you'd almost forgotten about them.

Homegrown comedy seems to be undergoing a resurgence. I can remember when articles about the UK film industry generally just lamented the fact that it was stone dead. After that, we had a period when Four Weddings and a Funeral was very popular, but people felt obliged to point out that when you looked at the funding, it wasn't really British. But Hot Fuzz is definitely British, even though it clearly has one eye on export.

And the trailer reel included both Mitchell & Webb's Magicians - I'd have thought they were more TV performers, but you never know - and the admittedly dreadful-sounding I Want Candy. Apparently it's an attempt to do a British equivalent of American Pie, although the presence of Carmen Electra is hardly encouraging. Still, at least you can say the domestic film industry exists in some fairly substantial way. That hasn't really been true in a while.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Civil War ends...

...and Mark Millar claims he's delighted with the online reaction to it. Either he's reading some very different websites from me, or Mark Millar takes full-scale backlash awfully well.

I'll review Civil War on Sunday - not because it's any good, but because you can spend so long picking it apart and working out where it went wrong that it deserves a full length piece. For those who haven't read it, head on over to Chris Sims' blog, where he's pretty much nailed the series. And remember, this is the book that Marvel seem to genuinely believe is a political metaphor.

For all the attempts that will undoubtedly be made to claim that, hey, the Internet is negative about everything, the mainstream message boards were hugely positive about the first few issues and only started turning on it when the Clone Of Thor turned up. And there's a pretty big contingent saying things like "You know, I really liked the series as a whole, but that final issue sucks." So, er, claiming that it's just the Internet being negative again really won't do. Marvel just hyped the book up to the hilt, and failed to deliver. People don't like the damn thing.

With this, and Civil War: The Return, and the lacklustre sales on the Spider-Man unmasking stunt (as in, they've gone down)... I'm really starting to think that we've entered the final phase of this editorial regime. Obviously it went into decline several years ago, but over the last few months it feels like they've gone into a tailspin of directionless flailing, combined with an inside-the-bubble delusion that everything's just fine.

It just feels like they're on their last legs. We shall see.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Miscellany: 19 February

- Tomorrow's Guardian has a poll showing the Conservatives on a 40%-31% lead over Labour. More interestingly, it apparently shows that lead getting slightly wider if Gordon Brown becomes the next Prime Minister. Perhaps the party needs a more drastic change of direction.

On the other hand, the often-voiced idea that Gordon Brown should call an immediate election in order to get a democratic mandate is pretty silly. For one thing, the UK system is about voting for parties, not for individual leaders. For another, Labour essentially campaigned at the last election on the tacit basis that Blair would resign at some point and Brown would be the overwhelmingly likely successor. So this is exactly what people knew they were voting for.

- Richard & Judy apologise to the nation after their show reportedly gets 32,000 callers to a competition line at £1 a shot, even though the players had already been chosen earlier on. Whoops. This won't do the image of Channel 4, or the TV premium-rate quiz industry, any favours at all. But on the other hand, this is a particularly bizarre one, and probably is a genuine mistake. What's the point of choosing the players earlier on? Why not just do it at the last moment? There's no actual advantage to the broadcaster in cheating here.

Then again, perhaps it's just so endemic in the premium-rate quiz industry that they've started doing it even when there's no point.

- Well, No Way Out was not exactly one of the WWE's more successful shows. A largely dead crowd, and lead commentator Michael Cole losing his voice, to the point where JBL essentially did the second half of the show solo. Frankly, it turns out that Cole doesn't add a great deal. In another example of the WWE's rickety internal co-ordination, everyone on the show was also required to pretend that Chavo Guerrero's appearance in the Cruiserweight title match was a huge surprise, even though it had been announced on their own website earlier in the day.

Putting that belt on Chavo is a very odd move. It's almost as though they're planning to have him and Rey Mysterio feud over the belt, but it's almost unheard of for major characters to waste their time with the Cruiserweight title...

Saturday, February 17, 2007

No Way Out 2007

Back to wrestling.

No Way Out is a weird show, stuck in the schedules between January's Royal Rumble (major show) and April's Wrestlemania 23 (biggest show of the year). It's notionally a Smackdown-only show, but in practice it ends up being hijacked to continue the Wrestlemania build. The result is a show with a very, very odd line-up. The selling point is the main event, which is meant to be part of the storyline for the Raw and Smackdown title matches in April. The rest of the card is a strange mixture of filler.

Luckily for me, this is airing on Sky Sports 1 in the UK, so the question of paying for it doesn't arise.

1. Batista & The Undertaker v. John Cena & Shawn Michaels. Here's the high concept. Batista is the Smackdown champion; the Undertaker is challenging for his belt at Wrestlemania. Cena is the Raw champion; Michaels is challenging for that belt at Wrestlemania. So it's the champion and challenger from each show, fighting one another. There was some angle or other to justify this a few weeks ago, but basically it's just a Matter Of Pride with nothing much at stake. A happy side effect is that it's not obvious who will win.

All four wrestlers are supposed to be the good guys, but since the teams are fighting one another in a much more important match in a month's time, the obvious tease is that they'll turn on one another and the whole thing will be entertaining chaos. Cena, the most conventional babyface of the four, certainly won't turn on anyone. The other three plausibly could, since Michaels and Undertaker have always been much closer to antiheroes.

For some reason, Michaels and Cena are also the Raw tag team champions at the moment, but those belts aren't on the line here. Presumably. In theory the midcard comedy act Cryme Tyme are supposed to be the number one contenders for those titles, but that idea seems to have fallen by the wayside. It's not a match they can do at the moment, because the champs would have to demolish poor little Cryme Tyme, and kill their momentum stone dead. Normally this sort of angle, where a makeshift team of rivals wins the tag belts, leads to all sorts of internal tension, but I'm not sure it's really adding anything in this story. If anything, it just makes the tag belts look like afterthoughts to the main plot, which is a bad thing.

Batista hasn't been much good lately, but with the other three there, they should have a great match. This should be a strong main event, whatever actually happens. I'm not even going to guess at who wins, but presumably it's not going to be a decisive win either way.

2. Smackdown Tag Team Titles: Paul London & Brian Kendrick v. Deuce & Domino. London and Kendrick have held the Smackdown tag belts for over eight months, which says more about the level of competition in that division than anything else. They're good, but it's not as if they've got many people to fight. The original plan here was to do a rematch of the four-way ladder match from Armageddon with MNM, the Hardys and Regal/Taylor. But that was pulled at the last moment, apparently because the WWE are still vacillating back and forth about whether to keep the Hardys and MNM together permanently. This week the answer is "no." Last week it was "yes." Next week it might be "yes" again.

In the meantime, London and Kendrick will defend their title against 50s throwbacks Deuce and Domino, a team so retro that their hometown is announced as "the Other Side of the Tracks." According to those who know about these things, D&D really aren't very good at this whole wrestling thing, and they've basically been covering to some extent by using a classic technique for making your moves look better: just hit the guy for real. They don't actually look as horrible as all that on TV, and London and Kendrick have already managed to get some acceptable (but not great) matches out of them.

Deuce and Domino have already beaten the champions twice on TV more or less cleanly (despite being the bad guys), and arguably that gives them enough credibility that they can afford to lose this match. I don't really want London and Kendrick's titles to pass to these bozos just before the biggest show of the year; as with Cruiserweight champion Gregory Helms, the very fact that they've held the belts for so long is becoming a minor virtue in itself.

3. ECW World Title: Bobby Lashley v. Mr Kennedy. Don't ask me. Inexplicably thrown onto the card at the very last moment, ECW's world champion Bobby Lashley will defend his minor-league title against Ken Kennedy because, er, just because. ECW, the WWE's C-level show, seems to be mainly a project to build up Lashley these days. But throwing him, and his supposed world title, into a match on two days' build hardly makes him look like a big deal. ECW generally has a major credibility problem right now; nobody seriously regards the ECW belt as remotely equivalent to the Raw or Smackdown ones (even by wrestling standards), and it makes the characters look stupid when they pretend otherwise. Urgent remedial work is needed.

Amusingly, they've been running "early years of Bobby Lashley" films on ECW recently. Quite why somebody thought this was a good idea is a mystery. Since the WWE publicly insists that it has a strictly enforced anti-steroid policy, it seems deeply unwise to show footage of Lashley during his amateur wrestling days and his time in the US Army, when he was, shall we say, not quite so well defined. He must be working out really hard.

Lashley will win this match, obviously - unless they've decided to parachute Kennedy over to ECW permanently, and admittedly, it's lacking in star power. Both guys are relatively inexperienced, and I'm not expecting much from the match.

4. Kane v King Booker. This month's obligatory match featuring two guys on the fringes of the main event who don't have anything better to do. These two are feuding over the fact that they eliminated one another from the Royal Rumble match in January. Also, Kane's movie is out on DVD, so they need to get him on TV. Neither character really interests me, and I expect the match to be slow and plodding. Kane probably wins, while the announcers remind us that his movie is out on DVD.

5. "Diva Talent Invitational." The various anonymous women - whom the WWE insists on hiring even though they haven't meant a thing for ratings in years - do talent stuff, and the production crew hope that they can race through the segment before the live crowd turns on it. That's usually how it works. The political back story here is that Vince McMahon is angry that he couldn't strike a deal with Hulk Hogan for a big Wrestlemania match, and so he's taking out his sulkiness by getting Jillian Hall to do a new "really bad singer" gimmick. The joke is meant to be that she's impersonating Hogan's daughter Brooke, but it's flying over most people's heads, because the similarity isn't that close. Also, it's not funny.

This will be agony, and I will be fast forwarding through it.

6. Finlay & Little Bastard v Boogeyman & Little Boogeyman. We may have a first for professional wrestling: a match actually improved by the addition of midgets. The Boogeyman has been around for a while now doing his "mad bloke who eats worms" gimmick, and the blunt reality is that he's absolutely diabolical at wrestling. That's why his matches usually last about thirty seconds and consist of the other guy acting afraid while he does some dancing before hitting his one move.

Pairing him with Finlay is a last ditch attempt to see if anyone can get a good match out of the guy. As a veteran wrestler who actually managed to improve the quality of the women's division immeasurably during his time as a road agent, Finlay has a better chance than anyone else. They've now done two proper matches on TV and, well, even Finlay has his limits. But they've also turned it into a tag match with Finlay's leprechaun companion (don't ask), and a newly-introduced midget Boogeyman. I can say with some confidence that the Boogeyman will probably still be the worst wrestler in the match by a long way.

It'll be a comedy segment and hopefully it'll be kept short. And then maybe they'll resign themselves to the fact that the Boogeyman is simply too bad to put in the ring in any major way, making him essentially useless as anything more than an occasional novelty act.

7. WWE Cruiserweight Title: Gregory Helms v. Scotty 2 Hotty v. Jamie Noble v. Daivari v. Jimmy Wang Yang v. Funaki v. Shannon Moore. Bizarre thrown-together mess of a match in which Gregory Helms seems to be defending against the entire Cruiserweight division for no discernible reason. They've done this before, and the point still doesn't seem to have dawned on them: Helms is meant to be the bad guy, and if you put him in a match where he's massively outnumbered, he starts getting sympathy. That's not good. The fact that they've had to bring in Scotty, who was reassigned to the Raw roster only a couple of weeks ago, plus Shannon Moore, a jobber from ECW, says it all. (London and Kendrick are cruiserweights, but they're already being used elsewhere on the card.)

Helms has held the title for over a year, largely because there's nobody around to challenge him seriously. But there's absolutely no mileage in having him lose the belt here, so hopefully they have him retain, and set up some kind of challenger out of this mess.

Worth buying? Er... depends how badly you want to see the main event, really, because the rest of it looks pretty damn ropey. Main event does look good, though.

Friday, February 16, 2007

The return of the fill-in issue

Once upon a time, when a comic was due to go to press but the story wasn't actually ready, the editor reached for a fill-in issue. By hook or by crook, an issue went out - sometimes complete with a rushed framing sequence explaining why, in the middle of a totally unrelated story, the characters suddenly felt the urge to have a flashback to whatever 22 pages of inconsequential fluff the previous editor had shoved to the back of his drawer.

For a number of good reasons, fill-in issues have been in decline for some time. Editors became more willing to use second-rate fill-in artists who would draw, in a terrible rush, the original writer's story. And fill-in issues cost money. They didn't sell as well, and since they didn't match the solicitations, all those unsold copies were returnable. Much cheaper just to hold on for a few weeks and sell the original story. Uncanny X-Men hasn't run an obvious fill-in story since the 1970s.

More recently, a tendency has developed to just allow the big name creators to take as long as they want to produce a comic, even if it bears no relationship whatsoever to the advertised schedule, and even if the finished project is basically just a trashy action story. This fits with the industry's self-mythology: if comics are an artform, then dammit, that means your story about Captain America fighting a Nazi cyborg is art, and the delicate creative process must be allowed to take its course.

Besides, it'll all be fine in the trade paperback. So well-entrenched is the notion that the trade paperback is the only format that counts, that this argument is wheeled out even for comics whose serial editions sell over 100,000 copies in the direct market alone, as though this was somehow going to be a trivially small proportion of the eventual readership.

But most of all, comics fans tend to be very forgiving of extreme delays - perhaps because the mythology of comics as Proper Art is something that's reassuring to them as well. (Those fans who express impatience with books running the better part of a year behind schedule tend to be greeted by professionals with a sort of hurt incredulity that anyone could be so reluctant to join the industry's mutual masturbation circle, and so ungrateful for their belated, self-important efforts.)

And if the fans continue to tolerate it then there's no economic argument for change - save to the extent that if you're only shipping four issues of Ultimates a year instead of twelve, then you're throwing away eight months of income. To be fair, since Marvel supposedly have creators already working on Ultimates volume 4 - which isn't due out until 2009 - the lesson about planning ahead may have finally sunk in.

It'll be very interesting to see whether Marvel can make their Dark Tower adaptation, clearly a high-prestige project in their eyes, ship on time. If they can, it'll be about the only major Marvel project in the last five years to do so. But the new readers that a project like this is supposed to be attracting may not be so forgiving about delays. They have no emotional investment in the medium. They have been dragged here, and it's up to the comics publishers to make them want to stay.

Over at DC, however, things seem to be changing. Batman and Action Comics have resorted to fill-ins in the middle of runs by high-profile creators, and now the high-profile Wonder Woman launch has gone off the rails as well. Issue #5 should have been the concluding part of Allan Heinberg and Terry Dodson's storyline "Who is Wonder Woman" but, er, it isn't ready yet. So they're running a fill-in issue instead. And then, from the look of it, they're into the scheduled Jodi Picault storyline starting with issue #6, and the conclusion of the current arc will be out... eh, whenever.

Conventional wisdom from the last few years says: don't bother. The issue will sell badly, the fans won't get the original story any faster, and nobody cares about monthly shipping in the brave new world of trade paperbacks. So why is DC bothering?

Perhaps they figure that the fill-in issues will still sell in decent amounts, and it's better than having a hole in the schedule. Perhaps Infinite Crisis and the emphasis on the monthly has had a cultural shift - for DC, clearly, it's the Minx and CMX imprints that are supposed to reach the bookstores, not the superhero books. Perhaps the idea of a fill-in issue has become more appealing now that retailers can adjust their orders until relatively late in the day, reducing the number of unsold copies. Perhaps the enormous success of the weekly book 52 has convinced them that reliable scheduling sells.

The sales figures will be interesting to watch here. How well do the generic fill-in issues sell, if the core title is doing well? How many of them can you ship before the title loses its lustre? How much of the audience comes back when the regular creators return? And how long before DC, the hell with this, and just gets another creative team to finish Heinberg's story?

When it happens with three major books, it's a trend. DC is toying with a new publishing tactic, and doing it with high-profile comics. The notion that an issue simply has to get out sits uneasily with the comics industry's favoured narrative of comics as art - but perhaps that no longer reflects DC's attitude to its superhero books, and frankly, given the self-indulgence we've seen in recent years, perhaps that's for the best.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Marvel solicitations: May 2007

Nothing says cheap space-filler like wading through the solicitations, but that's no reason not to flag up a few things...

- It's a very quiet week for new books - one miniseries, one ongoing title, and neither of them in continuity. This may be some sort of record.

- Civil War tie-ins are still coming out in May, meaning that the whole storyline is going to last over a year. You don't think this is stretching it beyond breaking point at all? Meanwhile, Archie announce Civil Chore, in which their characters have a strike about pocket money. No, seriously, this is a real comic. And I'll bet you Archie's comic is a better metaphor for industrial relations than Marvel's was for civil liberties.

- Dark Tower #4 still gets a prominent slot in the solicitations. Serious question: I've skimmed the major message boards and there really doesn't seem to be much discussion about this book at all. Newsarama's Review thread, for example, has only 5 replies. ComiX-Fan managed six. Now, it might be that people are discussing it somewhere else, or that the book really did sell in vast quantities outside the standard audience (although I imagine those readers will wait for the trade paperback). But the level of discussion about this book seems a bit anaemic to me, considering all the hype. Am I being too sceptical?

- A six-issue miniseries adapting Last of the Mohicans. "Plus - delve into the history of the man known as Hawkeye in a special bonus story." That would presumably be Hawkeye, the character from the Last of the Mohicans and not Hawkeye, the Marvel Universe superhero... but it's nice of them to leave it ambiguous. Actually, I'm all for the idea of doing adaptations to try and reach a wider audience, but it seems to me they'd be better off just going straight to digest format with it. Written by Roy Thomas, who's an intriguingly old-school choice for an obvious outreach project.

- Blade #9 carries the solicitation text "See why the Internet is raving about this sleeper hit." Sleeper? Try comatose. Where is the Internet raving about Blade? Seriously now. Let's try and keep a modicum of credibility.

- Black Panther visits the Marvel Zombies universe, so Marvel are clearly still committing to keeping the sales as high as possible. Can't fault them for that; they're obviously determined that this book will be a success, and they're throwing everything they can at it. On the other hand, stunt after stunt isn't good for the book to maintain its own identity.

- She-Hulk #19 is back to the law firm, which is reassuring. I had a sinking feeling they might be leaving it behind for a long while, and I'm glad to see they haven't been abandoned.

- Marvel Adventures Iron Man. Well, there's a movie coming up. Something tells me this version won't be a fascist with cellphone powers.

- A Spider-Man newspaper strips hardcover, with strips from the late 1970s. Well, they're certainly serious about the project of bringing everything back into print, and there's probably a bigger market for this than you'd first think. Good for them.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Diplo videos

I've always liked this one - it's the original video for a track called "Percao" (and yes, I know there ought to be a squiggle on there, but I can't remember how to type it) which gets credited to either Diplo or Pantera Os Danadinhos, depending on where you're seeing it. Basically, it's an American DJ and a baile funk track.

Now, apparently it's a video shot by Diplo during a trip to Rio and then cobbled together in the editing room, so strictly speaking you could argue that it's a middle class white guy doing a bit of cultural tourism. But it's got a nicely ropey, believable feel to it. It feels like a real place. It's not too polished or excessively staged. That's why it works.

And then, YouTube throws up this thing - apparently an revised edit trying to jazz it up a bit.

Seriously, now. What IS that? How does covering the screen with crap and sticking the result through a video filter make that video any better? Now it's 75% uglier and 90% less distinctive. Less is more, people. This video didn't need heavy editing, and somebody needs to leave the pretty buttons alone.

(Irritatingly, the second one has much better sound quality - but these are the best embeddable versions I could find. There's a better quality stream of the original video here.)

Sunday, February 11, 2007

World's scariest wrestling school

- On his website, former ECW wrestler New Jack has announced that he's opening a wrestling school.

That's New Jack. Quite aside from the fact that he's, shall we say, not exactly renowned for his technical prowess... it's New Jack.

What novice wrestler in his right mind would trust his safety to New Jack?

- And while I'm at it, here's an article in the Guardian from a week or so back, asking intellectuals about their guilty pleasures. A chap called Anthony Giddens singles out professional wrestling:-

I'm a fan of a very disreputable sports programme, one that I like because of its absurdist nature. It is a cable TV offering, featuring American professional wrestling. Watching it is certainly a guilty pleasure because the programme is politically incorrect in more or less every way one could think of. It is Americana at its most extreme, although put on in a knowing way and with a definite element of self-parody. I can't really work out what is going on, which is part of the reason it's addictive. Wrestling isn't a real sport and the contests are in some large part staged. On the other hand, the wrestlers sometimes do serious damage to one another and the losers surely can't always agree beforehand to lose. Do they hate one another as much as they seem to, or are they buddies behind the scenes? I don't know. Even more ridiculous, when there is a commercial break, the programme solemnly informs the viewer, "Whatever you do, don't try this at home." Do they seriously think people would?"

Wow, it's the last mark alive. A man who believes professional wrestling is partially real - something that even the promoters haven't claimed for 20 years. And the "Don't try this at home" bumpers are there for a very good reason, because yes, people do, and if you try some of this stuff without knowing what you're doing or how to land, there's a very real chance of breaking your neck. That's why wrestlers sometimes get hurt badly for real. (I can't bear to tell him how they do the blood.)

What's most amusing - or alarming, depending on your point of view - is that the slow-on-the-uptake Mr Giddens isn't just any old sociologist. He's Baron Giddens of Southgate, one of Tony Blair's closest and most influential policy advisers. He's the guy who invented the "third way." British politics for the last decade has been defined by the ideas of a man who thinks wrestling is real...


Well, there's no doubt that ITV want Primeval to be their answer to Doctor Who - and heaven knows they need one. It's been many, many years since ITV tried a mainstream, Saturday night action show of any sort. In fact, off the top of my head, I can't think of anything more recent than Dempsey & Makepeace, and that was twenty years ago. It's mainly been gameshows, police procedurals and cuddly low-impact dramas about things like 1950s vets.

The high concept is that creatures from the distant past are randomly appearing in unlikely places thanks to inexplicable time portals, and a team of experts end up coming together to investigate while (from the look of it) fending off the Home Office's interference. But wait, there's more - for Douglas Henshell's wife disappeared years ago while investigating just such an incident. Could she have become stranded in the past? Can he rescue her?

As action show pitches go, I've seen a lot worse. And it's a decent enough first episode, gathering the characters and setting up the roundabout premise. They're also lucky to have Henshell playing it dead straight, wich is what you need if something like this is going to work.

On the other hand, some of the plotting is ropey in the extreme. Are we seriously being asked to believe that a full-scale dinosaur turned up in a housing estate and attacked a bedroom window, and nobody saw it? Come on, that's pushing your luck even by the standards of this genre. I'm not sure they've really thought out what all their characters are for, either. They've got a comic-relief conspiracy theorist who seems to be there to deliver expository dialogue about lizards - but since there are two other expert characters already, one of whom is the lead, what do we need him for? Two Home Office liaison characters seems like overkill as well.

The CGI dinosaurs are surprisingly good for an ITV budget, but it's also clear that the director is shooting around their limitations. They look good, and they move right, but they can't really interact with the human performers. This leads to a lot of rapid-cutting sequences of people reacting to off-camera dinosaurs, or dodging heavy objects thrown into the shot. The first episode's director and editors got away with it, but it's going to take careful script editing and direction to keep that up. The potential is there for some seriously bad-looking episodes.

Still... it's silly, but it was better than I'd expected from ITV. Total hokum, but pretty enjoyable. I can see this working.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

This week in television

I haven't done this in a while, so... here's some stuff kicking off this week:-

- Primeval (ITV1, Saturday, 7.45pm). ITV's attempt at a Saturday-night sci-fi show to rival Doctor Who, wisely launched when the opposition is off air. It's something about dinosaurs in the Forest of Dean, from what I can gather. And that's handy for ITV, since presumably it means they get to reuse all those dinosaur special effects from Prehistoric Park (a pseudo-documentary about vets in a time-travel safari park, which was every bit as bizarre as I'm making it sound - and it, in turn, was made by the same production team who did Walking With Dinosaurs for the BBC, clearly wringing every penny out of their investment).

ITV hasn't attempted a homegrown sci-fi or fantasy show in primetime since... er... wow, it's got to be at least a decade. The BBC is clearly taking this one seriously, since they're scheduling Shrek against it as a spoiler. Mind you, I never get too worked up about anything on ITV - their track record over the last few years has been pretty poor.

- Saturday Night Live (ITV4, Sunday, 1.40am). Saturday Night Live has never been aired regularly in the UK, despite its track record for churning out film stars. There are good reasons for that; it's just too American, in terms of the frame of reference it assumes. And by all accounts, it's usually not very good. But mainly, it's the frame of reference - jokes about TV shows nobody's seen, and politicians nobody's heard of, simply don't work on UK television. Nobody watched the David Letterman show when ITV tried running it on their satellite channels either. (Oddly, The Daily Show does alright on More4, perhaps because it's good enough to overcome the barriers.)

There's something a little surreal about the idea of bothering to buy this in at all, and then dumping it in an overnight slot on ITV4, a channel that most people barely even know exists. They appear to be running it on a week's delay, too. Weird.

- The Verdict (BBC2, Sunday, 9pm). Questionable BBC2 reality show in which a celebrity jury debate their verdict in a fictitious rape trial. Somehow or other, this is supposed to shed light on the mysterious world of the jury room - notoriously difficult to investigate in the UK, because of our insanely restrictive laws on the subject. But quite why you need Jeffrey Archer and a member of Blur to explore the topic is a mystery. (The best argument is that they're established personalities, and so we have a better frame of reference with them, but it's a flimsy argument at best.)

This might actually be okay if everyone takes it seriously - and to be fair, the trailers suggest that they do. But it teeters on the edge of rape-u-tainment. The very concept makes me a little uncomfortable.

- Living With Two People You Like Individually - But Not As A Couple (BBC3, Monday, 9.30pm). Surely a strong contender for the worst title of all time, this is a sitcom pilot. BBC3's homegrown comedy has always been a little hit and miss, to put it politely, and here we seem to have a show written by a man who can't tell the difference between a pitch and a title. Sounds terrible.

- Life on Mars (BBC1, Tuesday, 9pm). Back for a second season, as DI Sam Tyler remains either comatose, or stranded in 1973, or both. The central mystery can't be dragged out indefinitely, so they're quite rightly promising that this will be the final series. (Although there's talk of a 1980s spin-off.) It's a sci-fi/fantasy show of sorts, it's a throwback to The Sweeney, and it's got some decent points to make about how much the country has changed in thirty years without us really noticing. Some of the best touches are when it quietly reminds you of 1970s features that you'd completely forgotten about - for example, the fact that the ambulance drivers in those days were just that, guys who drove the van.

This show walks a dangerous tightrope by openly teasing the "It was all a dream" ending, and hopefully they've got something better than that in mind, because it'd be a terribly lame finish. (And "It was all a dream... or was it?" wouldn't be much of an improvement.) But they must have thought of that, so I'm giving them the benefit of the doubt. Good show.

- The Dresden Files (Sky One, Wednesday, 9pm). Another US import from the Sci-Fi Channel (Sky also picked up Eureka). Adapted from a series of books, this sounds amazingly contrived - it's a series about a professional wizard who investigates crime in Chicago. So, er, a police procedural with magic. I've seen this sort of thing work occasionally, but the way it's being pitched, it has the ring of "If you like cheese, and you like peas, then you'll like..." Anyone know if it's remotely worthwhile?

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Miscellany: 8 February

- Now here's a really bizarre business plan: Sky are launching a small pay-TV presence on Freeview. We've known this for a while. Obviously the plan is to use this to try and convince Freeview owners of the joys of subscription television. But, first, they're going to include Sky News in the package. A channel that everyone currently gets for free. What's the point of that? Who's going to pay money to get Sky News when they'll still have BBC News 24? Alright, it's a perfectly decent channel, but it's hardly a unique selling point.

And two, it's not going to be compatible with any of the existing Freeview set-top boxes. Of which there are 9.3 million. Thus, limiting the potential market to people who are so excited about pay TV that they want to buy a new set-top box, but not excited enough that they want to subscribe to Sky.

This doesn't sound like a terribly clever plan to me. Am I missing something?

- Paul Jenkins writes a truly odd column reacting to the overwhelmingly negative response to his Civil War: The Return one-shot, providing us with an unexpected nostalgic throwback to the defensiveness of Chuck Austen. Then he shows up on page five of the comments thread to back away sharpish.

It's certainly one of the most misjudged columns I've read from a comics professional in a quite a while; if you've just produced one of the worst-received comics of the year (by the critics, the mainstream message board posters, the shop owners... pretty much everyone), it's really not a good idea to write a column that seems to be dismissing all criticism as coming from the maniac fringe.

- Meanwhile, Ultimates 2 #13 moves even further into the "Does anyone still care?" category, as Marvel push it back to April. Issue #12, you may recall, came out last September - so we're now looking at a seven-month gap between two issues.

It's largely forgotten now thanks to the passage of time, but the launch of Ultimates 2 was delayed by eight months, expressly so that the series would come out monthly. Issue #1 came out in December 2004, so by the time this series finishes, it will be running one year four months late, despite the lead-in. What the hell have the creative team been up to?

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Banksy makes more money.

Banksy sells rather banal painting for £120,000.

I've never had much time for Banksy, and this painting pretty much sums up why. Of course, technically it's just fine. Nothing wrong with the composition. But god, the actual idea barely scrapes over the level of sixth-form poetry.

They're harmless old people playing bowls, you see... but with bombs. It's, like, totally symbolic of something or other.

You could say much the same thing about 99% of Banksy's work, most of which he has generously collected in a series of oversized books aimed at the sort of people who use the words "street art" in casual conversation. To be fair, at least he tends to produce paintings that actually make something of the environment around them. But it's still essentially vacuous stuff. The real theme to Banksy's work is self-promotion. In that, at least, he's at one with the rest of graffiti art, even if he's aesthetically miles from the mainstream.

Banksy doesn't say anything about the topics that come up in his paintings. He just sort of points at them, and says, "Look at me, I'm dealing with an issue." It's art with the superficial appearance of content, for people whose thought processes run about as deep. If this is the best we can come up with for mainstream modern art - some third-rate prankster with a spraycan, a press officer, and no real content whatsoever - then god, that's a thoroughly depressing thought.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Hell freezes over

Civil War #7 sent to printers. This, of course, is the book that should have been out in November, meaning that the crossover has dominated almost Marvel's entire output for ten months. Arguably diminishing returns set in around the time of the Thor clone.

Come to think of it, remember those two issues of Fantastic Four that were billed as Civil War lead-ins? The ones about Thor's hammer?

Well, what did those have to do with Civil War, anyway?

They sold 36,000 extra copies on the strength of the crossover billing, so it would be nice to think there was some connection. To be fair, I'm sure there was meant to be one at the time, but whether it's survived months of rewriting is another matter. I can't see how it becomes relevant unless the final issue is "And then the real Thor shows up out of nowhere and sorts it all out," something for which there's no foreshadowing whatsoever. Mind you, the clone Thor doesn't seem to serve any actual story purpose either, other than to boost sales by teasing the character's return in a shameless bait-and-switch, so who knows...

Monday, February 05, 2007

Wonder Woman

Well, I figure I'm now adjusted to the idea of daily wittering without necessarily having any point in mind, so we'll leave aside the random music selection for those days when something else leaps to mind.

Joss Whedon has quit as director of the upcoming Wonder Woman movie, something that I thought was reported several days ago, but apparently qualifies as today's news over at the cutting edge BBC Online entertainment news division.

Whedon's explanation of his departure is that he "had a take on the film that nobody liked," although helpfully the BBC don't actually explain what it was. One version has it that he wanted to reinvent the character and get rid of all the tacky camp stuff that she's usually associated with. You can probably see why they wouldn't go for that.

Wonder Woman is a problematic character. To people who live inside the comics bubble, she's an icon. But frankly, she's a confused and garbled concept. The character is based on some very out of date ideas about femininity, and the costume is just plain dire. Quite how you start with the idea that she's an ambassador from a pseudo-Greek culture, whose whole purpose in life is to spread the values of that society to the ignorant people of the outside world, and then end up dressing her in the stars and stripes... well, that's just absurd, despite the occasional efforts that have been made to justify it.

Yes, she's the only top-drawer female superhero with any claim to iconic status. Yes, it would be nice if she was any good. But really, you've got to be terribly forgiving to take Wonder Woman seriously - or willing to reinvent her from scratch.

More to the point, the rest of the world couldn't care less about her. As a character concept, she means nothing to the general public who are supposedly going to see her film. It speaks volumes that when the writers of the BBC story were casting around for suitable links, it never crossed their minds to throw in DC Comics. No, when they wanted a Wonder Woman page, they chose this one - a brief summary of the Linda Carter TV show under a banner saying "I Love 1978."

And that's Wonder Woman. That's the franchise. That's all the public know about her. Linda Carter used to go twirly-twirl, around 30 years ago.

Superman and Batman are at least, on some vague level, understood by the general public as characters. Wonder Woman is just nostalgic camp. Trying to sell her to the general public as a serious character is, at best, an uphill struggle and, at worst, desperately unwise because she simply won't bear the weight.

Still, on the bright side, perhaps Joss Whedon will now be able to hurry Astonishing X-Men along a bit. Marvel have just announced yet another rescheduling of the series, which means that it'll now be coming out quarterly.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Randomiser #31 - 4 February 2007

Hmm. We're slipping badly here, aren't we?

Today's song: Chicks on Speed, "Kaltes Klares Wasser"

Chicks on Speed are one of those oddball arthouse-electropop acts based in Germany, a curious little movement that acts like a less glamorous and more semi-intellectual cousin to electroclash. (And whatever happened to electroclash, anyway?)

Off at the far end of the "really belongs in a gallery, if we're being honest" spectrum, Chicks on Speed are a trio of artists who, as I recall, basically hire other producers to do the tricky and tiresome business of actually making the records, with them contributing the lyrics and vocals. Surprisingly, the album Chicks on Speed Will Save Us All is really very good, and "Kaltes Klares Wasser" (which I think means "cool, clear water") is a lovely track, icily reciting a monologue over a minimal but oddly compelling beat.

To my astonishment, YouTube reveals that there's a video for it...

By the way, the rest of the album shows enough sense of humour to give this track the benefit of the doubt, since on its own, you COULD interpret it as terribly self-important and teetering on absurdity. I like to think that Chicks on Speed get the joke just fine. Here's "We Don't Play Guitars", which is actually more typical of their records - a great little electroglam stomper, if you can live with the staggering display of off-key shouting.

Also today:

- Continuing my "Luke Haines stuff from Youtube" theme, it turns out there's a video for "The Rubettes", which always sounded to me like one of the more commercial Auteurs singles. How do you take a big glam number, complete with a hit chorus, and guarantee no airplay? You make this video, a decade early for Life on Mars:-

I mean, it's fantastic, but I don't think I've ever seen it on TV anywhere, and it came out years before the Internet took off, so what was the point? Mind you, you can see why Luke Haines insisted on going in a more, er, idiosyncratic direction after some of their earlier videos. "Lenny Valentino" - great song, awful video. "Light Aircraft on Fire" is apparently a Chris Cunningham video, but it's still absolutely terrible. (Even Cunningham is reportedly embarrassed by it, understandably when you consider that he went on to make classics like this video for the Aphex Twin's "Come To Daddy", or even this one for Bjork's "All is Full of Love".) So the 1970s stock footage starts to sound like a sensible choice.

- While I'm in the mood to post links to obscure videos, I might as well chuck this in - Cylob's "Rewind", which is basically a rapping speak'n'spell machine, but inexplicably ended up with this as its official promo video:

Friday, February 02, 2007

Randomiser #30: 2 February 2007

Tsk, I'm slipping here...

Today's song: Blur, "Jubilee"

An album track from Parklife, the definitive Britpop zeitgeist album. Ah, the happy days when indie had finally conquered the world, and was just about to turn in on itself and start the Blur/Oasis feud. With the benefit of hindsight, of course, Blur were clearly infinitely better, and I'd just like to point out that I always thought Oasis were insanely overrated.

Now, to be fair, it's all too easy to see how songs like "Jubilee" could grate on people. Even I have to suppress a shudder at the words "Jubilee's dad, Billy Banker...", or Damon Albarn bleating "So he just plays on his computer game!" And yes, this is pretty much the Blur formula for this period - a bouncy little mini-anthem complete with the Kickhorns, who seemed to be on every major indie album released that year. But Blur reinvent their formula every couple of years and move on, and although this album wears its influences on its sleeve, it still found a way of making them sound fresh for the time. You're not going to mistake it for a Kinks record. Oasis, in comparison, always struck me as classic rock homagists. Never liked them.

Also today:

- Not much, to be honest. There's a minor distribution squabble in the movie industry as some major UK cinemas have pulled Night in the Museum, apparently in protest at the early DVD release date. Since the DVD is set down for easter, this does seem a bit over-sensitive. I see where they're coming from, but realistically, there's only so much you can do to create artificial scarcity these days.

Surely the selling point of cinema these days has to be the experience. Which, for some people, I suppose means being part of the crowd, although personally, I usually try to pick showings that are likely to be as minimally attended as possible. In fact, "almost completely empty" would be ideal. (Incidentally, I note that my local multiplex has stopped its irritating policy of trying to assign everyone specific seats. I don't want an assigned seat. I want to enter the cinema as late as possible, and pick a seat that doesn't have anyone irritating-looking nearby. From the fact that this policy lasted only a few months, I suspect I'm not alone.)

But even for people like me, you've got a level of projection equipment that you can't match at home. That's the selling point. So who cares about the DVD release date, really?