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Review: The X-Files 10x1 (US: Fox; UK: Channel 5)

Posted on January 25, 2016 | comments | Bookmark and Share

The X-Files

In the US: Mondays, 8/7c, Fox
In the UK: Acquired by Channel 5. Starts early February

Behold! Feast your eyes! Do you know what this is?

The Pharos Project 2 #1

Well, firstly, it's epic testament to how sh*t I was at Aldus Pagemaker 4.0, 22 years ago when I was still at university. Did you know there's a difference between black & white and greyscale? I didn't, apparently.

But secondly, you are looking at what is the very first magazine in the UK to contain an article about The X-Files. Well, the second magazine to be exact, but it was the first article written by someone who'd actually seen it. It was certainly the first magazine to have one Fox Mulder and one Dr Dana Scully on its cover.

See, I'd recently read that TV Zone, which contained an article about The X-Files culled from a press release, saying how good it was. Intrigued and since I had Cambridge Cable (which became NTL which became Virgin Media), which carried that new fangled Sky 1 and therefore The X-Files, I decided to watch it. I was sufficiently impressed by the episode, Squeeze, to decide to dedicate the cover of the university TV society magazine I edited to The X-Files

Before you knew it, I was publishing the UK's very first X-Files (and Baylon 5) fanzine. Probably the only one, too. And learning about greyscale and even colour printing at the same time. And thus my career in TV-magazine publishing was born.

We did very well for ourselves, once BBC2 decided to show The X-Files and it became a national phenomenon. In fact, we lasted a good few issues.

The Pharos Project 2 #2The Pharos Project 2 #3

The Pharos Project 2 #5But to fill our pages, we came up with all sorts of exciting wheezes. We reviewed the episodes. In fact, we came up with the hugely novel and mind-blowing idea of importing NTSC videos of the episodes as they aired in the US, converting them to PAL, and then watching them so we could preview the episodes before they aired in the UK and tell people if they were any good. Can you imagine the cunning? 

How we thrilled as we watched FBI agents Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) investigate the supernatural, particularly aliens who liked to abduct people, especially Mulder's sister. How we - or rather I - tried desperately to prove that Mulder and Scully were 'a thing' in 'The X-Files romance guide', while my partner in crime, Jonathan Templar, poo pooed the evidence right in front of his eyes. I wanted to believe… he didn't. How silly did he feel eventually, hey?

But all good things had to come to an end. In particular, we discovered, as young people often do, that time is not infinite and neither is energy, and if you're working two jobs to make ends meet, it's hard to publish a magazine as well. Particularly one that involves having to talk to that beardy bloke in Forbidden Planet who likes to have sex with teenage girls because they 'have no frame of reference'. 

Shudders.

Also, we went off The X-Files, which somewhat ruined the whole magazine. I can't remember the exact point we fell out of love with the show. Was it the first time or the second time it turned out that the previous definitive explanation for Mulder's sister's abduction was an elaborate government hoax? Maybe it was the third time. Perhaps it was when David Duchovny decided to leave. I can't even remember seeing those Doggett (Robert Patrick) episodes, let alone the ones with Annabeth Gish when she replaced Anderson. I think the last one I saw was with Scully staring at a spaceship underwater off the coast of Africa.

Or perhaps it was just because The X-Files was of its time. It fit the zeitgeist of the early to mid-90s nicely, with government conspiracies, UFOs, a man and a woman working perfectly happily and largely platonically together, mutually respectful of each other's skills (can you imagine that?). And then the late 90s hit and suddenly all those conspiracies seemed just a little bit passé.

Now, of course, conspiracy theories are back in vogue. Fox News used to have Glenn Beck literally drawing on blackboards to illustrate how the world is run by any number of secret conspiracies.

He may be gone, but Fox News carries on his work and with Edward Snowden revealing that Big Brother really is watching us all, some conspiracies don't look quite as unlikely as they used to.

And so it is, into this age of the Internet and smartphones and stealth drones above us, Fox has given us back The X-Files in a new series in which The Truth Is Out There, We Want To Believe, and it really all could be a case for Mulder and Scully. If only they were still together. And working for the FBI.

And even if I can't remember exactly why I stopped watching it the first time round, it did remind me of at least one reason: FFS, Chris Carter. Would you just quit it with "That thing we know definitively was true? That we actually saw happen? That was just an elaborate government plan. This is the real truth." 

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Preview: Teachers 1x1 (US: TV Land)

Posted on January 12, 2016 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Teachers

In the US: Wednesdays, 11/10c, TV Land. Starts January 13
In the UK: Not yet acquired

The trouble with reviewing things is you actually have to have opinions about them. This means Teachers is causing me a fundamental problem. I've sat here for ages, staring at the screen, trying to have an opinion about Teachers and it's almost proving impossible. So how I can review it?

I've thought about merely stating the facts. Teachers is based on a web series created by and starring improv comedy group The Katydids, who presumably named themselves after the famous children's book, rather than the crickets, pop groupboat or even the sculptures. It's about six elementary school teachers who have their own personal issues about things like dating, friendship, body image, etc, and have a marked tendency to bring those issues into the classroom, which is in no way like pretty much any show about teachers of the past 20 years, including Channel 4's Teachers. It's produced by Alison Brie of Community fame. It's on TV Land, which with shows like Impastor and Younger is trying to reinvent itself as a network watched by people other than those one heart bypass surgery away from death. 

That at least gets me a few words further into a review. Then I figured if I described the plot of the first episode that will get me even further. Here, the teachers are tasked with developing an anti-bullying programme in a school that has no reported bullying. Rather than search the Internet for any anti-bullying campaigns who could advise them, go to their teachers union for best practice advice or ring another school and ask what they did, they come with a whole bunch of ill advised ideas based on their own personal issues, which ends up with an outbreak of bullying.

See? Halfway there already in terms of word count. But the key to the whole review thing is to have an opinion about a show, and I'm struggling to have one. The characters are pretty much what you'd expect - a whole bunch of comedic stereotypes that you'll have seen before and probably work well in improv, but aren't really innovative or individual in any way. Dumped woman still hung up on her ex? Check. Single woman desperate for a man, particularly hot dads? Check. Vain woman who thinks kids' drawings of her are unflattering? Check. 

But now I'm getting stuck, trying to remember if any of the other characters had any significant character traits. That's no help, is it? I can't even few inspired or insulted by them if I can barely remember them, let alone care about them, can I?

What I do remember is that about 10 minutes before the end, Alison Brie turned up and was funny. A lot funnier than anyone in the regular cast. I thought that was probably a bad sign. Do I think the lack of comedic acting talent will destroy the show? I honestly don't know. I just can't decide. 

Oh yes. I remember now. It was quite funny that the anti-bullying campaign was called STAB (stop teasing and bullying) and that they got the kids to say mean things to one another. Erm. Ish.

So there. I can't review it. It feels like I'm covered in some kind of space age material that causes opinions to roll off me without leaving a trace when it comes to Teachers. So I guess all I can say is Teachers is there. It's a programme on TV that you can watch. 

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Preview: The Expanse 1x1 (US: Syfy)

Posted on December 11, 2015 | comments | Bookmark and Share

Expanse

In the US: Mondays, 10/9c, Syfy
In the UK: Not yet acquired

As I've remarked before, nothing's original these days - you're basically just mixing elements of previous works together to come up with novel combinations. In sci-fi, that goes doubly so. Indeed, given any new sci-fi series, it's usually possible to spend your time going, "Oh, that's X meets Y," where X and Y are the TV shows being synthesised together to create the new series. 

So you have to at least credit the creators of The Expanse with developing something that enables viewers to play this very nerdy drinking game not twice but thrice over, with the option of further plundering later on. Based on the books of 'James SA Corey' (really Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck), it's set in the 23rd century and postulates a future where the solar system has been colonised. The UN runs Earth, Mars is an independent military power and the asteroid belt is a source of raw materials that both Earth and Mars are looking at eagerly.

So Earth: think Elysium meets 24, with Shohreh Aghdashloo as the UN boss running black sites to try to find out what Mars is up to, as war in space looks inevitable.

The Asteroid Belt: Think Total Recall meets Babylon 5 meets Blade Runner meets Dune. Thomas Jane (The PunisherHung) is a 'belter' private detective investigating the disappearance of a rich girl who's run away from home. The belters have grown up in low g, so often have things wrong with them, such as weak muscles, overly long limbs and problems with bone fusion. They also have their own language, which Jane speaks but his non-belter partner doesn't. They're also feeling a bit grumpy, since they're the working class who make everything happen, doing dangerous work for low pay, while everyone gets rich on their labour.

Mars: We've haven't seen that yet. Take two shots when we do.

Outer space: Think Alien meets Virtuality, with a proletariat crew grumping around the solar system with their cargo. Steven Strait (Magic City) is the unambitious second officer who gets a promotion to XO when the captain, Jonathan Banks (Breaking Bad, Community), gets a touch of the space blues. Then they get a distress call and thinks start to get a bit more dangerous.

What links the otherwise totally unconnected outer space and asteroid belt strands is that the distress call is from the missing rich girl. What's going on, what will happen next and will everyone get to meet up by the end of the 10 episodes to become Elysium meets 24 meets Total Recall meets Babylon 5 meets Blade Runner meets Dune meets Alien meets Virtuality? You'll just have to wait and see.

So far, so derivative. But, as I said, so's everything these days. So does The Expanse do much that's interesting with this pot pourri of sci-fi stories past, or is it just a rip off?

At the very least, The Expanse does indicate that following a somewhat fallow period for Syfy, in which it was more content to make B-movies like Sharknado and "me, too!" shows like Alphas and Z Nation, it seems relatively determined to make proper science fiction that leads rather than follows. Like Defiance, it loves itself a bit of world-building and tries to imagine what these 23rd century societies might be like. Life in the belt is well realised and no one has a modern-day fashionable haircut; bravely, even Jane has deformities from having grown up without the benefit of billions of tons of rock beneath him.

The Expanse also wants to emphasis that it is more Battlestar Galactica than Star Trek, with some attempts at correct physics which it credits its audience with having the brains to understand. For example, the solar system is very big and you need to go very fast to go any distance; that means accelerating quickly, which isn't something the human body is very happy about and might need some assistance dealing with the associated difficulties. None of this is explained to some newbie - you just have to work it out for yourself.

But as is also often pointed out, science-fiction rarely tries to predict the future so much as extrapolate the present or even the past, and where The Expanse does fall down quite severely is in its depiction of cultures. Everything is basically the Wild West in outer space. There's some racial diversity, but not much. Everyone appears to be straight.

And everything is run by white men (yes, captain, XO and 2nd officer of the spaceship are all white and men). Women, despite the fact that we're talking about zero-g mining so physical strength isn't an issue, aren't numbered in the miners at all. And by the end of the first episode, there are only two female members of the cast left alive in outer space. One's an engineer on the spaceship who has an oddly, cleavage-revealing outfit. The other is…

No. Have a guess what she does for a living, first.

Bet you can.

Yes, she's a prostitute. 

As you may have noticed, the show's Achilles' Heel is the people side of things. As well as devising a future that's less progressive than the 1950s, it's also quite poor at creating characters you might care about. Jane's almost interesting, but his is more or less the only person in the show who has any depth. Attempts to make Strait a slacker don't endear him to you so much as irritate you. And they're the ones who get the bulk of the characterisation. Pity everyone else who doesn't even get that much.

The Expanse is very much science-fiction aimed at the 'Sad Puppies' contingent - big ideas, science-based, very little about the people, with heroic white guys running the place, the centre of all attention. If that's your bag, The Expanse is one of the best offerings in this field for some time. If it's not, then while you can admire it, like all that ice they're mining in the asteroid belt, it's a slippery affair that'll you find hard to grab onto.

But don't just take my word for it - try the trailer and if you like it, underneath is the entire first episode for you on YouTube.

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