I’m certain I’m ambivalent

My review of Primeval is up at Strange Horizons today. I know there can be few people in the world today who wouldn’t rate this groundbreaking drama as their favourite show of all time, so I know you’ll all want to head over and take a look. Ah, go take a look anyway.

I’d comment on the Life on Mars finale but it’s been covered in many other places. It’s odd for such a lightweight–if extremely skilful and enjoyable–series to have such a controversial ending. Like The Prisoner, Twin Peaks and even Quantum Leap before it the conclusion casts a strange shadow over the series. Right now I feel fairly ambivalent towards the finale, but I suspect that in a week’s time I’ll either hate it or have come to regard it as a work of genius. At least it wasn’t dull.

Although there’s a dearth of good TV on at the moment until Veronica Mars and Heroes make their long awaited returns, I’m quite enjoying House, Bones and CSI: Original Menthol Flavour (although so far this year CSI is not matching its superb sixth season).

We’ve also been watching The Dresden Files, an entirely formulaic piece of television involving a down-at-heel P.I. who’s also a wizard, and his Tim Curry-esque mentor, who’s a ghost. It’s exactly what you’d expect: vampire of the week, werewolf of the week, skinwalker of the week. I’d place it somewhere above Charmed and occasionally up to the standard of below par Angel, riding on the rumpled charm of its lead performance and the feeling that everyone involved is giving it slightly more effort than the show strictly deserves. I have to say that the second half of the 12 episode season has shown a notable improvement with a lot of input from Robert Hewitt Wolfe and Hans Beimler of Deep Space Nine fame: the plots have become less obvious, and the story arc involving Dresden’s father has moved forward very rapidly. I would only recommend it if you’re in an undemanding mood and predisposed to like this kind of thing, but on those terms I *would* recommend it.

The one thing I can’t recommend about The Dresden Files is the main theme music, one of the most anodyne themes-by-numbers I’ve heard since the 1980s. They try to funk it up mid-season with some up-tempo trumpets in the background, but it’s the very definition of polishing a turd.

Idlewild Again

Idlewild - Make Another World

I have to say I’m loving this Idlewild album. It’s entirely rekindled my enthusiasm for the band after their oddly lacklustre last effort (which I did enjoy in parts, but which was so turgid at times that it didn’t really feel like an Idlewild album). I posted the first track last time, so here’s the second track: Everything (As it Moves). The rest of the album is relentlessly up-tempo but blending from rock to pop (and even an unusually anthemic dance-tinged sound on ‘No Emotion’, which seems to be the first single) resulting in an album that feels energetic without sounding one note. It pulls off the tricky feat of seeming both familiar and fresh. The exuberance of the music is offset, as ever, by the solemn, overly-introspective lyrics; for some these might feel a tad pretentious but for me this is just about the perfect combination of cheery music and smart language. It all seems effortless. If you like the band and you haven’t already bought Make Another World you should rush out immediately1.

1 And buy it. Not just rush outside. Look, at least put some shoes on first.

Magic for Beginners

Today I took my first actual full day off sick (as opposed to leaving early) in at least six or seven years. Normally I struggle through, so I feel pretty guilty, but Janet was sternly insistent. It turns out that I slept for most of the day, and feel a great deal better this evening. I think it was a good decision and Janet was (as ever) right1.

In between my slumbers I’ve been reading Magic for Beginners, the short story collection by Kelly Link. Possibly it’s the illness but so far the stories are some of the more profoundly disorienting experiences of my life. Weirdness

The Weekenders

It’s been a fairly hectic weekend all told. By which I mean not even remotely hectic by most reasonable standards, but the kind of weekend which involves constant socialising – very pleasant, but also tiring!

On Friday we went to see Tom McRae and an ensemble of other singer-songwriters at the Carling Academy 2 in Newcastle. Lengthy rambling about Tom McRae

Casino Royale

I’ll lay my cards on the table: I have a sneaky nostalgic fondness for Bond movies, but I can’t say I have a great deal of respect for them. They’re the movie equivalent of one of Bond’s one night stands. I think Connery is the archetypal Bond, that Brosnan was actually pretty decent, and I regard otherwise sane people who think that Roger Moore is the best 007 with the kind of suspicion I normally reserve for Born Again Christians. It’s not that James Bond can’t be an overweight middle-aged lounge lizard who appears to be starring in a spin-off from Cannonball Run, but…

It’s also fair to say that there are few truly great Bond movies. As with the Carry On films, the moments that you love may be found in a truly dire movie and watching a Bond movie tends to involve sifting the good from the bad; admiring the parts not the whole. The formulaic nature of the films lends them to this method of viewing: you can happily admire Bond Villain A, but prefer Bond Girl B and Bond Finale C and they can all slot happily together in your head to form one really good Bond movie with the joins hardly showing at all.

Spoilers for Casino Royale

Thangs

Day 34. Internet connection still crappy. PlusNet finally agree to move us back to the BT network at no charge to us – which will take at least 7 days since they basically have to ask Tiscali for the MAC code to move us. This is no different to the situation if we were moving ISPs. How crazy is it that they would put us on a product that’s essentially with a different supplier, which makes it significantly more problematic to troubleshoot problems or indeed to leave?

Still, they’re actually moving us back, which means that either the connection returns to the lovely stable 2MB one we used to have – win – or we can now up-sticks and move to any other ISP as normal – win! Here in the customer trade we call that… well, we call it a month of hellishly poor service followed by an achingly slow resolution with the prospect of further disruption to come. But we’d probably try to work the word “win” in there at least once.

Changing tacks and slipping gracefully below the spoiler space we’ve now seen episode 2 of Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip…

Shamelsss, moi?

So I could feign professional indifference and tell you that I really don’t mind if you read my review of School Reunion, part of the Doctor Who week that Strange Horizons is running. But it would be a transparent lie which would shame both of us. And you wouldn’t want that, would you?

There are also some great reviews from some other fine people coming up later in the week.

Doctor Who – Season 2

Nicked from parma_violets: Doctor Who Season report card with a score out of 5:

BEST
1. The Girl in the Fireplace (5/5)

2. School Reunion (4/5)
3. The Satan Pit (4/5)
4. Tooth and Claw (4/5)

5. Doomsday (3/5)
6. The Impossible Planet (3/5)
7. The Idiot’s Lantern (3/5)
8. Army of Ghosts (3/5)
9. Love & Monsters (3/5)
10. Fear Her (3/5)

11. The Age of Steel (2/5)

12 Rise of the Cybermen (1/5)
13. New Earth (1/5)
WORST

I think this sums up my feelings on the season: a handful of great episodes, but also a high proportion of merely middling episodes, or good episodes sunk by bad endings. Even in the mid-range there were some truly great moments, but the overall package wasn’t consistent enough.

CSI

What a great conclusion to a great two-parter for the original CSI tonight. I prefer the show when it’s more about the science but this was exactly the right way to push the characters in a more dramatic direction – by making it all about the case. Some really nice performances, great little moments, and a far cry from the cartoonish mystery-by-numbers approach that the other two CSI shows are taking.

In other news, why when I bite my lip once (which is painful enough) am I then condemned to bite it several more times the same day? Ow!

Catch-up

My sister was supposed to be visiting this weekend but Ticketline managed to take the money for the rail tickets from her account and fail to actually deliver the tickets, or have any record of her order. This wasn’t helped by the fact that they ask you not to ring them unless your tickets still haven’t turned up the day before you travel, leaving no time to resolve the problem. So now my sister is visiting in a few weeks time instead! This may be for the best as a nice relaxing weekend seems like a good plan after a fairly stressful week at work, and it’ll give us the opportunity to see V for Vendetta into the bargain.

It also gives me the chance to mention the many things I’ve heard, read and seen over the last few months without bothering to write about them.

Books, Music and Films, oh my…

Good Night, and Good Luck

A couple of weeks ago we saw Good Night, and Good Luck, the title taken from journalist Edward Murrow’s sign-off to his weekly current affairs programme. It’s a lovely little film, shot in gorgeous black and white, and focussed to the point of insularity on its subject matter. Murrow (David Strathairn) was a journalist who spoke out against Senator Joe McCarthy’s infamous communist ‘witch-hunt’ hearings in the 1950s. The film is a very simple, very straightforward telling of a few short weeks at the peak of that period when Murrow and his colleagues chose to speak out, risking great personal consequences, against Joe McCarthy’s methods and what they saw as a violation of the most fundamental human rights.

So simple is the film that it borders on docudrama, like a big screen edition of Days That Shook the World. Only the sardonic use of radio jazz songs to punctuate the film lends it a sense of artifice. The film’s main failing is its inability to set this intimate story in the larger context of the era. Unless you already understand the scope of what Senator McCarthy had set in motion, you can only make broad inferences about the persecution which Murrow was attempting to counter. Nonetheless the film makes some powerful points by quietly allowing us to watch key moments of injustice, including genuine film footage of the hearings and McCarthy himself. Particularly powerful, and never overplayed, is the gut-wrenching fear which grips the main characters as they make their play. It’s this palpable tension which hits home as we observe journalists who otherwise appear to be going about their jobs with a degree of calm professionalism. The performances, including Strathairn’s commanding lead and unshowy support from co-writer George Clooney, are excellent. The dialogue, especially Murrow’s solemn monologues, is literate and compelling; moreso than anything you’re likely to hear emerge from the mouth of a modern TV journalist.

Clearly and deliberately this is a film with great relevance to the current political climate in the US. The film’s lack of context makes generalising its message all the easier: that in a time when anyone who speaks out against government wrongs is labelled unpatriotic, it is the duty of any patriot to speak out. The film believes passionately in freedom of speech, and in the immutability of human rights no matter the political climate or the justifications for violating them. Although it remains a small film, it succeeds in both personalising and generalising a very dark, very modern time in American history.

Battlestar Galactica – 2×13

I haven’t had much time to post recently, due to a mixture of bringing work home, a very pleasant lunch with some friends we haven’t seen in a while, and becoming utterly addicted to box sets of The Wire. As a result this will be a stream-of-consciousness version of my thoughts on this week’s Battlestar Galactica.

Spoilers for Battlestar Galactica – 2×13

Balderdash & Piffle

Just caught Balderdash and Piffle on BBC2. Having seen the adverts I wasn’t sure if it would be a panel show, a documentary, or something else. It proved to be one of the BBC’s beloved part-information, part celebrity waffle shows, with a mildly irritating woman presenting it.

The programme barely scratched the surface of the material, and the presenter appeared strangely bemused by the OED’s insistence on actual printed evidence for when words were first used in a given context. (The OED people didn’t do a very good job of explaining, to be fair). But it’s still a subject which has an inherent appeal because language is something we use every day without stopping to wonder how recent – or ancient – is much that we take for granted. It’s really hard to go wrong with the subject matter.

I must confess I’m increasingly fascinated by language and etymology. It’s a topic I haven’t really studied (my English degree barely even covered semantics, let alone etymology), but I’m increasingly reading up on the subject at a ‘popular science’ level and finding it highly absorbing.

Last year I read (aka nicked off my wife) a book called Port Out, Starboard Home which explains the origins of phrases and, equally importantly, debunks the invented and erroneous explanations that have arisen over the years. For example, “Posh” is not an acronym for “Port Out, Starboard Home”. And “Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey” is apparently not derived from the brass plates used to stack up cannonballs; it is in fact literally referring to a brass monkey’s most treasured possessions, with early variants being “talk the tail off a brass monkey” and “hot enough to melt the nose off a brass monkey”. Sometimes phrases go right back to Latin, while other phrases can be traced to a specific modern date or person; or shown to have been used in print before the event which allegedly inspired it. I highly recommend the book (released in America as Ballyhoo, Buckaroo and Spuds), which is both accessible and convincingly authoritative on the subject and even goes so far as to debunk explanations trotted out by other similar books. If you’re interested there’s a related website, World Wide Words.

I’m also reading a fascinating book on the alphabet called Letter Perfect (formerly Language Visible; what is it with language books changing their names?) which among various bombshells made me realise that, in English, ‘J’ and ‘V’ weren’t officially recognised as letters in their own right until Webster’s American Dictionary in 1828. And prior to the late 19th Century the name of the letter ‘J’ was pronounced “Jye”, not “Jay”. (Why yes, I’m up to the chapter on ‘J’, why do you ask?) What’s especially fascinating is that the shapes, sounds and even sequence of many of our letters can be traced right back to the very first Semitic alphabet around 2000 BC. Whole civilisations have consciously appropriated the same system of letters, which has trickled its way down to us through the centuries. This may be elementary stuff to anyone who’s studied the subject, but it’s the kind of thing I just enjoy learning.

It has to be said, having waffled off the topic, that the BBC TV programme really did a very poor job of conveying these things – especially the ways language changes and the dizzying historical perspective – but at the same time programmes on the subject are few and far between and I’ll certainly be tuning in next week.

Christmas in brief

Christmas dinner good. Not as stuffed as normal. More room for snacks. Mmmmm.

Presents also good. About fifteen new DVDs plus books about language and other cool stuff. (Including whisky that’s 61.5% proof! I keep expecting it to spontaneously combust.) Me happy. Lots of lying around vegging with christmassy music and telly, and even time for a quick Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes which was excellent.

Doctor Who really rather enjoyable. David Tennant splendid and the right side of OTT. No plot to speak of but a nice second series pilot, and some pleasingly dark bits in amongst the running gags. Preview of season 2 = cool.

Now, must return to guests. And beer.

Battlestar Galactica 2×08 – 2×10

A flurry of Battlestar Galactica to catch up with my backlog.

Various uninteresting life events have got in the way of posting recently; my brother and his girlfriend came up to visit for the Great North Run last week, and since then we’ve been locked in tiling hell after a spur-of-the-moment decision to redo the bathroom floor. I must remember to multiply my estimates of how long DIY will take by a factor of three…

Obviously I haven’t actually seen any of these episodes, but uncannily if you play James Blunt’s top-selling album backwards you can hear the entire soundtrack to all three episodes, plus some extra material mostly concerned with worshipping the devil.

Spoilers for Battlestar Galactica – 2×08

Battlestar Galactica – 2×06

This episode hasn’t aired on UK television yet, but earlier this week our living room was invaded by Mole Men in their infernal drilling machine, and I found this episode lying in the rubble when they departed.

(I did ask if they could get me into the Serenity preview screening, but apparently their navigation computer had a worm in it.)

Spoilers for Battlestar Galactica – 2×06