Heroic Studio 60

I’ve got four weblog posts that have been ‘in progress’ for the last two months, I’m writing up to 1000 words a day of fiction for a game, and it’s crunch time. But let’s forget that for a moment. Masi Oka – also known as ‘Hiro’ on Heroes – was on this week’s Studio 60. A crossover of my two favourite TV shows? It’s a wonderful thing.

The Ruby in the Smoke

Lately I’ve been seeing many people cursing the name of AA Gill (a TV critic for the Times), declaring that if they see his name, they skip to the next page. Given that I don’t watch any British television, I haven’t had much cause to join in on the cursing until now.

I quite enjoyed the BBC production of Philip Pullman’s The Ruby in the Smoke. While the story was rather dense and very fast-paced, I didn’t have much trouble keeping up, and that’s without having read the book. Apart from that, it was a fun, mysterious and dramatic adventure of the types that we rarely see on TV or film these days.

Since this was both the first book in Philip Pullman’s Sally Lockhart series, and of course the first adaptation, I expect things to improve quickly, although I have few complaints,: the casting was excellent, and while Billie Piper didn’t have much to work with, I wasn’t let down by her performance; and as usual, the atmosphere and sets were wonderful. To me, the production demonstrates that the BBC is quite capable of making world-class drama, particularly when it’s set in the Regency/Victorian era, and it adapts stories and doesn’t try to do the writing in-house (I’m looking at you, Torchwood).

Back to AA Gill. He reviewed the show in today’s Sunday Times:

The Ruby in the Smoke (Wednesday, BBC1) was an Edwardian-style adventure in the manner of John Buchan. It was adapted from a book by Philip Pullman, whose work my daughter reads. The story had all the elements of a boys’ adventure — an orphan hero, buried treasure, deathbed conundrums, shady characters from the East, mysticism and a really evil villain. It all rollicked along at a terrific pace and was stuffed with more plot than a Victorian municipal cemetery. It was replete, robust, flatulent with red herrings, dead ends, MacGuffins, nods, winks, threats and enigmatic ciphers. And, all this considered, it was a pretty good pastiche, though I’m sure Pullman would have called it a homage. Only two things were modernised. The hero and the villain had both changed gender: Billie Piper, a girl, played the orphan adventurer; Julie Walters, the very, very wicked nemesis.

Though I’m usually a great fan of Piper, she was rather lost in the role. I don’t think it was entirely her fault. She was called on to be both laddishly up for a scrap and femininely vaporous and lovelorn, all in a frock that precluded much physical activity in either department. The usual trusty sidekick had to double as the romantic interest, which confused, diluted and held up the narrative. Walters, though, was a brilliant villain, properly menacing, avariciously psychopathic. But making the boys’ roles female ranked as an improvement only to the publishers and producers, with their smug sense of political correctness. The damn good tale of The Ruby in the Smoke was spoilt by casting Violet Elizabeth Bott as Just William.

On my first reading of the review, I was dumbfounded. Did AA Gill really think that the BBC changed the sex of both the hero and villain from male to female? Certainly, Philip Pullman’s novel had a female hero and villain. I then re-read it, and realised that that wasn’t what he was suggesting (although given his writing, confusion was inevitable) – instead, he was saying that the story would have been much better if it was like the stories in the old days, that is, with male lead characters.

The only reason he gives for this belief is that the trusty sidekick’s romantic interest in the heroine held things up. This is laughable – would it have been a better story if Sally Lockhart, the heroine, was changed to Simon Lockhart, with a female romantic interest? Does he somehow imagine that the novel originally written by Philip Pullman had male leads and the evil publishers made him switch their sexes? Given that pretty much all of Philip Pullman’s novels had female leads, I find this rather unbelievable.

So, it seems that AA Gill is a sexist fool who doesn’t have the guts to insult Philip Pullman – who wrote the story, after all – and instead goes for the weaker prey of publishers and producers. No wonder people curse his name.

Belgian Split

The ghost of Orson Welles strikes again – according to the BBC, ‘the Belgian public television station RTBF ran a bogus report saying the Dutch-speaking half of the nation had declared independence.’ Lots of faked footage of celebrations, traffic jams, and 2600 calls were made to a phone number given out during the show, which was intended to spur debate given growing real separatist sentiment in Flanders. Apparently a number of foreign ambassadors were fooled and sent urgent messages back to their capitals. It just goes to show that TV news is still an immensely powerful and trusted medium, and that tricks like these still work.

Notes on the Futuremedia TV conference

“No-one’s watching TV any more, and even worse, all this user-generated content is killing us.” That was the cheerful attitude at the C21 Futuremedia TV conference I went to last week. The audience was composed mainly of TV executives, with a smattering of smug ‘internet people’ like myself, who alternately confirmed their worst fears and then told them that they still had something to offer (well, some of them, anyway).

Everyone seemed to be reasonably aware of the difficulties facing the TV industry, although there were many differences on how best to adapt, let alone thrive. As the conference went on and we heard more and more speakers talking about user generated content and how wonderful it was, there was definitely a sour mood among some executives. Anyway, I’ll explain all of this in time. First, to the keynote! Continue reading “Notes on the Futuremedia TV conference”

Notes on the BBC Audio Drama Festival

On Tuesday, after about five hours of sleep following the Second Life ARG panel, I found myself at the BBC Audio Drama Festival in London. As usual, I was due to give a talk about ARGs. I did think it was a little strange that I was invited to speak, because while we do have audio drama in Perplex City, it’s not our focus, but what the hell – it seemed interesting, and I thought I might learn something.

And I did. I won’t go over my talk because it was the usual introductory stuff (although I might write up something about the audio components one of these days), but I’ll provide a few notes on the other speakers. Continue reading “Notes on the BBC Audio Drama Festival”

Doctor Who on Earth

Despite my dislike in the direction that Doctor Who is currently going (immature jokes, nonsensical plots), I found Russell T Davies’ remarks on why Doctor Who never seems to leave Earth very refreshing:

“People will say, ‘Why doesn’t he visit alien planets more often?'” he said. “But that’s because they are expensive. They’re hugely expensive.”

Davies also told Doctor Who magazine that these episodes gained the lowest viewing figures of the series.

“The programmes that do show alien planets are not prime-time programmes,” he said. “Star Trek and Stargate are subscription-based programmes for a dedicated audience.”
The writer added that he would not be using forests and quarries as stand-ins for alien landscapes, as was often the case in classic Doctor Who episodes.

“The mockery we would get walking into a forest and saying that we’re on the planet Zagfon! If you think we had one or two bad reviews in the second series, they would become like a machine gun the moment we started doing that.”

It’s not that I wish Doctor Who went away from Earth more – I think there are plenty of good stories to be told on it – but at least he has a reasonable excuse. Having said that, I still think that the show either takes the easy option (recycle old enemies/visit famous Victorian people) or the startlingly weird option. How about some interesting new enemies, eh? How about getting some new music other than the two tracks that the show always uses – namely, upbeat excited, and slow depressed? How about at least attempting to make the stories consistent and logical?

There’s nothing worse than a show that has unquestioned support and no competition. The Matrix was a fine movie, and so successful that the studio apparently left the Wachowski brothers alone to direct the two sequels without much interference. The result? Disastrous. I won’t pretend that Season 2 of Doctor Who was that bad, but I didn’t feel it improved much. And the news that there are not one, but two Doctor Who spinoffs now in production – Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures – simply confirms to me that the BBC lacks balls and imagination. There are surely other good ideas and directors out there – why not give them a chance? Doctor Who won’t be popular forever…

London happenings

Two interesting developments have occurred in London in the past few days. The first is the Sultan’s Elephant. I haven’t been able to see the three-storey mechanical moving Elephant myself, since I’m in Oxford, but I intend to come back early on Sunday to see it off. The Sultan’s Elephant is performance art of the highest quality – a story told over three days by an expert theatrical company, where a time-travelling elephant is looking for a girl who crashlanded in a spaceship. It roves all across London, and makes absolutely no attempt to explain itself. It has no adverts and no visible sponsorship (although its website does list some). It’s just a part of London.

I’m not going to bother making the obvious ARG comparisons here. I will say that one of the reasons I love it is because it’s a piece of art and story that exists purely to inspire wonder and surprise, and change people’s lives a little bit. It invades our normal shared spaces and us out of our daily rhythm. It’s not for sale, it’s not promoting anything, it just is.

The other development is that the movie of 24 is going to be shot in London. 24 is one of my favourite shows at the moment and I get a lot of dramatic inspiration from it. I’m already concocting a plan to become an extra on the set…

(24 is a constant reminder to me of the inferior nature of British action dramas. There’s nothing in the UK that can even approach the quality of 24’s story and action, and it’s not just because we don’t have as much money as US dramas. It’s because commissioners don’t appreciate good writing and think that a bunch of guys sitting in an office looking moody constitutes good drama.)


A conversation at work:

“I wonder what’ll be in the adverts for Lost tonight?” I pondered, thinking about the imminent ‘Lost Experience’ (aka ‘we didn’t want to call it an ARG because it might put people off and look as if we didn’t think of it first’).

“It’s going to be a phone number.”

“I think it’ll be either a phone number or a blipvert,” I said.

“It’s a phone number, they said so on the web.”

“Huh,” I said. “What I want to know is who’s doing this game. I’m pretty sure it’s not anyone I know. It just doesn’t feel right. Plus it’s kind of confusing who’s behind it, with ABC, Channel 4 and some Australian company all acting as if they’re making it.”

“Probably in-house.”

“Yeah,” I agreed.

“At least they’ve finally managed to make me watch Lost on Channel 4 now.”

“Yeah… I don’t think I can be bothered. I’ll just read about it on the web.”

There isn’t much that will make me commit to watching TV at a particular time. I suppose that if I was in the US I would probably manage to watch Lost and 24 on TV, mainly because they’re first-run over there, but even then I might be tempted to just use a Tivo. The way it is now, it’s Bittorrent all the way, I’m afraid; there’s no way I’m going to put up with being months behind the US when it comes to quality TV, and then be forced to watch TV without the option to pause or rewatch a particularly good bit.

Now, that’s not to say that appointment to view is dead; it can certainly work in many cases for first-run eps for big shows. The problem appears when TV and radio networks expect people to make an appointment to view a particular show that has already been shown once elsewhere in the world. What’s the point of that? It’s not like the viewer is getting any more out of the experience by being forced to watch it at 8pm on Tuesday; might as well make it available on the web with some commercials, streamable at any time (which, indeed, ABC is beginning to do). However, when you can offer the viewer or player a real reason to make an appointment to view or take part in a game at a specific time – perhaps because they’ll be interacting with live persons, whether they be game characters or other players – they’ll be more willing to play along.

While I was at GDC in San Jose this year, I had the odd experience of idly turning on the TV and seeing a first-run episode of 24. My first reaction was, ‘Huh, I haven’t seen this episode before.’ I then realised that in the real world, TV doesn’t just magically appear on Bittorrent sites – it actually gets broadcast first! As it was, I just set my laptop to download shortly after the episode finished…

Holiday bumper issue!

Prepare for a special holiday bumper set of posts in the next few days! I’ve spent the last week or so getting up late, reading books and watching a lot of TV, which surprisingly has given me the time to think about a lot of interesting things, such as Sky Movies, zombie language, boardgames, the Xbox 360 retail performance in the UK and the Peloponnesian War…

One of the great things about being home is having access to satellite TV, and more specifically, Sky Movies. This is not because it lets me watch good movies – I can do that perfectly well via DVDs and my nearby cinema. It’s because there are nine movie channels on Sky, and on a given night, there are four or five reasonably entertaining movies showing between them in parallel. So for about two hours, I can sit down, flick between every five or ten minutes, and be sure to catch the best bits of all of them.

I know this sounds like a completely ridiculous thing to do, and it would be if I hadn’t seen any of the films before, but Sky Movies normally shows films that are 12 or 18 months old, which means I have seen them at least once, perhaps in the cinema or on a plane. I’ll usually buy a film on DVD if I particularly like it, but otherwise I won’t bother; however, this movie-surfing technique allows me to rewatch all these movies without all the tediousness of listening to the expository dialogue, and just catch the good scenes (by which I mean either good jokes, or things blowing up, or both).

The interesting thing is that even with DVDs and downloaded movies, I still can’t movie-surf on my computer; the selection just isn’t great enough, and there’s something about having a random selection of movies foisted upon you that’s refreshingly different from just watching movies you’ve picked out yourself. For example, a couple of nights ago, I was flicking between Minority Report, Independence Day, American Wedding, Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King and Mean Girls. What a choice! Certainly not one I would pick out myself, and they’re all films that I’ve seen before, but it was plenty of fun zapping between them. More on forced limitations tomorrow…

Why not, Who?

I didn’t think I’d see the day when the BBC made good science fiction, but it has finally come with the new series of Dr. Who. I was never a big fan of the show when I was a kid; it seemed completely inferior to Star Trek and I can’t remember a single episode. In comparison, the new series has achieved the impossible – it made me plan in advance to sit down in front of a television at a specific time. In fact, it’s done the same for a whole bunch of my friends who don’t otherwise watch TV.

Never mind the decent special effects and excellent stories, the one thing that I noticed is how much effort the writers have put into the show. During the second episode, The End of the World, set 3.5 billion years in the future, Rose points out that the sun expanding into a red giant would have taken place over millions of years and slowly destroyed Earth; she also notes that the continents are incongruously in the same position as they are in the present. The Doctor then goes on to explain that the Earth has been artificially protected and preserved in this state. What kind of show would even bother addressing these points? Most would simply wave the ‘science’ issue away, so I was very impressed Dr. Who made a real effort at it.

Despite watching the show on TV, I’m still downloading it for rewatching (so what? I don’t have a VCR, and that’s legal), in this week’s case to check out the promo for the next episode where an alien spaceship destroys Big Ben and invades London. Take that, America! Looks like your monopoly on alien invasions of New York, Washington DC and occasionally San Francisco has finally ended.

I was intrigued to see in the promo, during the BBC news section, a phone number for an ‘Alien Emergency Helpline – 08081 570980’. Since they did set up a fake website to accompany the first episode, I was hoping that the phone number would also work. Unfortunately it’s not active, but perhaps it’ll work next week. Anyway, that started me thinking on the opportunities for making an alternate reality game to tie into Dr. Who. Clearly the audience demographics are perfect and the writers are up to the job of handing a complex, multimedia story – why not give it a shot, BBC?