Like David Attenborough, Carl Sagan’s success as a presenter came from a sincere and unrivalled passion for his subject. As he proved with his BBC lectures in the 1970s, he didn’t need props or special effects to be interesting; he spoke as well interacting with a group of school children as he did strolling along a beach, or standing next to a cardboard cut-out of what was supposed to be a spaceship.
Yet even when these devices were employed, such as in his landmark series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, the project upon which Sagan’s legacy still rests, he himself always remained effortlessly fascinating.
When he died of pneumonia in 1996, it seemed extremely unlikely that there would ever be a follow-up to the series, or whether a worthy successor to carry on in Sagan’s place would ever be found. But now, thirty-four years after the original aired, it returns, this time hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist, presenter of PBS’s Nova ScienceNow and one of Sagan’s close friends during his lifetime.
Gone this time around are the cardboard cut-outs and what Tyson calls “mutton chops” — i.e. scenes in which historical events are acted out by actors in tights and wigs; in Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey such stories are told through graphic novel-style animation and narrated by Tyson, who sits aboard an expensive-looking CGI spaceship, his face illuminated by flickering buttons and the kindly light of distant galaxies.
In episode one Tyson describes just how incomprehensibly old our universe is. He explains that if all time were to be represented as a calendar of the month, our history—that is, every war and battle there has ever been, every king and every queen, every person from Pytheas to Eric Pickles — would appear as a single tiny dot in the very corner of the 31st day.
He then takes us back into what is comparatively the very near past to tell the story of Giordano Bruno, the 16th century Italian philosopher who correctly proposed that the Sun was just another star moving in space and not the centre of our universe. Bruno’s epiphany, Tyson says, was not accepted in his time, and as he had no way of proving his theory, he was shunned and later burnt at the stake for blasphemy and heresy.
Some viewers — particularly those who know Tyson as one of the unofficially elected faces of internet atheism — may believe that this sad and gruesome story is Tyson’s way of suggesting that religion is detrimental to furthering our understanding of the universe. But in fact Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey is by no means explicitly anti-religious. The series instead encourages viewers to be sceptical of all that is unproved and seeks to open minds to what is unarguably a vast and wonderful universe.
More accurately, if it is against anything at all, it is against ignorance. Both Tyson and Ann Druyan, Sagan’s widow and one of the creators of the original Cosmos, have expressed their disappointment at a supposed trend towards anti-intellectualism, which they say is prevalent throughout the United States. A Spacetime Odyssey is thus their attempt to change all this by inspiring a generation of young people the same way Sagan and the original Cosmos did over three decades ago.
Whether this can be achieved remains to be seen. Yet judging from this first episode, full of dozens of humbling facts about the world in which we live and the stars and planets that surround us, it doesn’t seem improbable to hope that hundreds of astrophysicists will be created because of it.
That’s not to say that it’s entirely beyond reproach. Perhaps the worst thing that can be said of the new series, which is more a matter of preference than an overt criticism, is that it looks a little too slick. Robert Hughes proved with The New Shock of the New that a follow-up to a classic documentary series doesn’t need glossy production values; and though the Cosmos has much more need for elaborate visual aids, it does tend to overuse CGI to the point at which it becomes a distraction rather than a useful tool.
Nevertheless it is hard to be especially critical given that the original series, too, had its fair share of cheesy special effects—most of which were created using string and cardboard. Even for its time these effects were not great, though ultimately it didn’t matter: viewers tuned in for Carl Sagan, for his charisma and his ability of explaining the seemingly unexplainable.
With A Spacetime Odyssey, the same seems true of Tyson. Very few people could have convincingly stepped into this role, but he manages to pull it off by showcasing his own disparate talent as a presenter, as well as the boundless charisma he possesses. Though it contains far more distractions than its predecessor — particularly those of the CGI variety — Tyson ensures that A Spacetime Odyssey is as equally thrilling and concerned with celebrating the natural beauty of the universe as the original series was.
Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey starts on Sunday 16 March at 7PM on National Geographic
If the privileged aristocrats of ‘Downton Abbey’ cared to know about the underpinnings of World War I, they would take up roles in ’37 Days’.
The new fact-based drama on BBC Two takes a look at the political discussions and decisions leading up to World War I. Created for the BBC World War I centenary season, ‘37 Days’ aims to tell an unbiased, accurate depiction of wartime situations from the perspective of people who were directly involved in the operations.
During a time of high political strife and social tension in Europe, government leaders juggled the principles within their country’s foreign policy. In Episode 1, Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey attempts to respond to the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and work out relations with the other European nations, particularly Germany.
Ian McDiarmid leads the memorable cast in portraying their characters’ temperament through rich dialogue and emotional aloofness. The narrator of the episode shifts from an Irish telegraph runner to a German liberal working in the Reich Chancellery, both of whom provide an open-minded perspective of the uptight and otherwise secretive environment of their offices.
The programme recreates the era of history as if it were 1914 today, though fortunately not. The scenes in Episode 1 only begin to unfold the drastic events that would greatly impact the world we currently live in.
For any WWI historiphiles, ’37 Days’ may just be their cup of tea.
37 Days is on BBC now
Britain has such an eventful past that we can only just about piece it together today.
In ‘I Never Knew That About Britain’, presenter Paul Martin along with historian Suzannah Lipscomb and scientist Steve Mould set out to do just that and discover the untold stories behind Britain’s history. The programme follows each presenter to a different city, where they experiment with inventions firsthand or hear the stories from the experts.
First in Duxford, Cambridgeshire, Paul takes a ride in spitfire plane, comparing its construction to that of a buggy. He then explains the work of Engineer Owen McClaren who designed folding buggy based on the WWII plane and shares the story from McClaren’s granddaughter.
Suzannah, visiting Fishguard in Wales, uncovers the group of women who helped protect Britain against Napoleon, led by shoemaker Jemima Nicholas. The invasion also led the Bank of England to issue paper money for the first time.
In Edinburgh, Scotland, Steve learns about the early pain relieving methods used in childbearing. He meets with a professor at the Royal College of Physicians to relive James Simpson’s infamous dinner party.
Providing historical information as well as the recognition of unsung heroes in Britain, ‘I Never Knew That About Britain’ serves as an informative programme in multiple aspects. The presenters delve in the historical background of each invention or event while including the insights from a relative or scholar of the leading figure. The audience not only learns about a new, groundbreaking moment in Britain’s history but is also invited to provide their own stories with the Twitter hashtag “#ineverknewthat”.
‘I Never Knew That About Britain’ further proves Britain’s got talent…historically.
I Never Knew That About Britain is on ITV from March 7
The master of seemingly impossible crime solving has been on and off our tellies for over 15 years now, and much has happened in that time.
When we first encountered Jonathan Creek (Alan Davies) in 1997, he was working as a designer of magic tricks, living in a windmill and sporting a duffle coat. Now in 2014, he has settled down, got married to a woman named Polly (Sarah Alexander) and is working in an office and no longer wearing his old trademark garment. In terms of location, this is something later exploded in this new series and best not delved into further.
This new three-part series still has the same mix of crime detection and trademark comic writing from David Renwick, who also wrote One Foot in the Grave. During the course of the series, an actress starring in a rather shoddy stage musical adaptation of a locked-room mystery becomes the victim of a locked room mystery herself; and a retired mentalist seemingly predicts the lottery numbers fifty years before the draw took place.
Some of the stories are noticeably easier to solve than others. In the first episode, with the aforementioned actress in the locked-room, the viewer actually knows quite a lot about the case in advance. In fact, the story is less about the viewer trying to solve it and more about how the other characters are trying to get to the bottom of everything. This episode has already been noted for its mocking take on Sherlock, with Jonathan having to work alongside a forensic student and wannabe detective who is similar to Benedict Cumberbatch’s interpretation of the character.
As indicated above, the humour is still a strong point; and not just the Sherlock parody. Ranging from unflattering portraits to cases of mistaken identity, from projectile vomiting to what might be seen as Victor Meldrew-esque suffering at the start of the series when Jonathan tries to stop people filming a stage show on their mobile phones. The characters are also entertainingly comic. Sarah Alexander’s Polly is rather similar to the role she had as Dr. Angela Hunter in Green Wing: seemingly perfect and slightly annoying. It’s a style that has worked before and works again. The second episode also has plenty of good comedy acting talent, including John Bird, James Bachman and New Zealand stand-up Jarred Christmas.
Overall, this new series of Jonathan Creek is nice return to form. The only real issue is that if you’ve not seen Sherlock, some of the references will be hard to spot and thus some jokes may fall flat.
4 / 5
Series 5 of Jonathan Creek starts on February 28 on BBC 1 at 9pm
The role of women in the workplace has provided much provocative televisual drama in the post-WWII era. The first series of the police comedy/drama WPC 56 focused on the work of woman police constable Gina Dawson (Jennie Jacques), or WPC 56, as the first female police officer to serve the Brinford community of Birmingham. In an industry dominated by men, Dawson finds herself initially serving her male colleagues instead. Despite the position this puts her in, she works with them to solve the central crimes of the series, which involve two missing boys, while also developing a budding relationship with her partner, Detective Inspector Jack Burns (Kieran Bew).
Series two opens with the episode “Cry, Cry, Cry,” in which a travelling fair sets the bustling scene for a foreshadowing crime. A couple engaged in a carnival game are quickly interrupted by an oddly suited man, watching from a distance. The man in the couple realizes they are being followed and a suspenseful game of cat and mouse ensues in a room of distorted mirrors. The couple escapes a mysterious shooting and encounters WPC Dawson, who asks about a girl in a photo, previously shown bumping into the woman. They are only able to direct her so far, which then leads Dawson to the fair owner, Brendan McCormack (Francis Magee). The missing girl’s name and age are revealed as Tracy Nicholls, who is 15. The owner is aware of the girl, who had a previous conflicting relationship with his son.
The office environment changes as the episode makes a significant turn away from the last series’ motif of sexism. The initiative not only involves a transformation of Dawson’s character but also an increase in recurring female cast members by placing more women in the office. Dawson’s step forward occurs as she returns a cunning remark to her colleagues when asked to bring them tea. Striving for gender equality while maintaining a realistic outlook of the times, the men still attempt to degrade her position.
Another aspect of Dawson’s character development is ironically DI Burn’s resignation. He reveals his wife has been released from the hospital and his family needs him at home. The male colleagues are rather indifferent, and some even suppress a celebratory reaction, while Gina experiences the detachment from her unrealistic expectations of their romance. The removal of Burns, however, allows Dawson to focus on herself and her career without distraction.
In place of Burns, new DI Max Harper (Ben Turner) wastes no time undertaking the duties of his predecessor. While the Brinford police force is assigned to maintain order amongst the “gypsy community” during the fair, Harper and Sergeant Fenton (Charlie De’Ath) investigate the death of a town Councilor. Harper later learns from Dawson that a redheaded woman accompanied the Councilor at the fair. This sparks the beginning of a partnership between the two.
Overall “Cry, Cry, Cry” may have juggled more crime scenes and new character introductions than it could manage. Although the pilot’s ambitious storyline left little time to process the events, the highlights of the episode include brief comedic moments with the aid of characters seemingly ill-fitted for law enforcement. Notably, Police Constable Tommy Perkins (Liam Jeavons), an awkward, well-intentioned pushover of the team, ends up in predicaments while trying to fit in with his colleagues. With more subtle humorous gestures, Desk Sergeant Swift (James Barriscale) serves as a loyal yet shallow assistant to Chief Inspector Briggs (Mark Healy), whose nameplate misspelled as Biggs, forms the basis of multiple office jokes.
After a successful first series, the future of WPC 56 series two remains optimistic and the desire to vicariously solve crimes through a leading female officer will only continue to grow.
Series 2 of WPC 56 starts on 10 February 2014 at 1415 on BBC One
Man vs. Wild’s Bear Grylls meets Jason Bourne in this new series on the Discovery Channel.
‘Manhunt’, also titled ‘Lone Target,’ follows the adventures of Joel Lambert, a former Navy SEAL, as he works his way through a number of wild terrains to a set destination, or extraction point. As an added suspense-factor, he must not only survive the unpredictable conditions of his surroundings, but he’s also pursued by elite military trackers. Joel is given basic tools and must use the natural resources around him in an attempt to complete his mission within 48 hours, all the while testing the strengths and weaknesses of his pursuers as well as his own.
In the pilot episode of the series, “South Africa: Safari Survival,” Joel takes on the role of a poacher, crossing a wildlife reserve in South Africa while the International Anti-Poaching Foundation (IAPF) employs tactics to stop him in his tracks. Former Australian Commander Damien Mander leads the IAPF and works alongside a team of ex-poachers turned trackers, all of whom are well-versed in the area and more importantly, the methods of tracking.
The camera frame alternates between Joel and his trackers with both sides guiding the audience through their decisions. Although making more rash decisions, Joel simultaneously avoids the dangers of wildlife and stalls the trackers through his knowledge of diversion. The IAPF uses high-tech equipment and transportation, which serves to their advantage despite Joel’s efforts. Tracking Joel’s footprints, referred to as spoors, the trackers demonstrate the extent of their experience and meticulous inspection.
What constitutes a successful capture is quite ambiguous, at least in this first episode. On several occasions, Joel narrowly escapes captivity as the trackers are well within reach of him. At one point, an IAPF member sees him but chooses not to chase after him due to an apparent lion presence, which we see none of during his final stretch. Along with fortunate, or perhaps misleading external factors affecting the outcome of the game, Joel’s plans of action are blindly self-serving and often questionable. It is difficult to step in his shoes in the moments when it clearly appears his journey is cut short.
Questioning the authenticity of adventure-survivalist shows is unfortunately common, the main issue in Manhunt (as in others) is that the show seems to place excessive emphasis on entertainment value, and therefore suffers from obvious accuracy issues which reduce the show’s enjoyment.
Manhunt / Lone Target debuts on Discovery Channel on Thursday 13th February at 9.00pm
David Suchet’s portrayal of the Agatha Christie character Hercule Poirot has so firmly been established in our minds that it now seems impossible to imagine another actor in the role. Yet back in 1989, just before he made his debut as the great Belgian detective, Suchet must have known that he was stepping into some very well-worn shoes: he was, of course, by no means the first actor to play Poirot.
When the ITV series first began, the character had already been appearing on the big screen since 1931. Austin Trevor played him originally in the film Alibi, a role he reprised twice, first with Black Coffee that same year and then again with Lord Edgware Dies in 1934. Decades later, Tony Randall assumed the part in The Alphabet Murders (1965), which was more of a straight-up satire of the Christie novels rather than a genuine adaptation.
But perhaps much better remembered are Poirot’s later incarnations, especially Albert Finney’s performance in Murder on the Orient Express (1974), for which he received an Oscar nomination, and a series of Poirot films released shortly after starring Peter Ustinov. The final of these, Thirteen at Dinner (1985), is especially notable, for it featured a young David Suchet in the role of Inspector Japp—a performance he later described as possibly the worst of his career.
Included on this Blu-Ray release are three of the films mentioned above: Murder on the Orient Express and two of the Peter Ustinov films, Death on the Nile and Evil Under the Sun. Titled rather ambiguously as merely POIROT, this collection has presumably been complied to capitalise on the ITV series, which came to an end last year. But if the collection is to be judged fairly, then equivocal marketing shouldn’t spoil one’s appreciation of these perfectly decent films.
The premise of Murder on the Orient Express should be fairly obvious to even those unfamiliar with the ITV series, the Christie novel or even Graham Greene’s Stamboul Train, which deals with much the same themes. Aboard the Orient Express train, Poirot is tasked with investigating the murder of an American business tycoon, Mr. Ratchett (Richard Widmark), a case in which almost every passenger could be a suspect.
The story is told brilliantly in the ITV series, due to the great moral dilemmas that arise as Poirot slowly comes closer to solving this mystery. Yet here Poirot doesn’t seem especially tormented at all; the tone of the film is instead quite comical, and many of the jokes feel unmistakably 1970s. Star power is really the film’s biggest asset: suspects are played by Ingrid Bergman, Michael York, Sean Connery, Anthony Perkins and Jacqueline Bisset—five tremendous talents, who here seem disappointingly underused.
Albert Finney, on the other hand, receives plenty of screen time to demonstrate his take on his character. If David Suchet’s Poirot is eccentric and introverted, Finney’s portrayal is generally loud, brazenly dismissive and sometimes downright rude. If Suchet has taken his cues from either of these actors it is more likely to be Peter Ustinov; his Poirot is generally more likeable than Finney’s and chooses to solve his mysteries with an air of unconcerned nonchalance.
This is perhaps best exemplified in Death on the Nile when he advises one suspect not to let evil into her heart. “If love can’t live there,” she replies, “evil will do just as well.” And then solemnly Poiriot quips, in a way Finney’s character never could have, “How sad, mademoiselle.”
The Ustinov films in this collection are almost equally enjoyable, though Death on the Nile benefits considerably from a fine performance from Mia Farrow, whose character I quote above. The atmosphere of both films trumps Murder on the Orient Express, largely for the reason that so much of the Ustinov films have been filmed on location: they’re simply much more aesthetically interesting.
Of course, Finney is inimitably brilliant in almost any film he stars, and the same was more or less true of Ustinov; but by contrast, Suchet’s Poirot still remains the definitive portrayal. Only he it seems is able to truly bring out the subtle eccentrics of the detective’s character. Nevertheless, this collection shouldn’t be overlooked for this reason alone: it will no doubt appeal to fans of the ITV series, who will surely find these films intriguing, if not thoroughly enjoyable.
POIROT: The Films are available to own on DVD now
Now settled in as one of the powerhouses of the HBO elite (rising to the high bars set by Mad Men and of course, their pastiche-muse Sex and the City) Lena Dunham’s Girls is now already in its third series, with more nudity, cutting wit, and Richard E Grant!
We begin the series pretty much where we left off. Post-breakdown Hannah is now at the level of her relationship where Adam has to spend time with her friends, Marnie is slowly trying to move on from her second failed attempt at life-long lovings with Charlie, Jessa is in rehab, and Shoshanna is still happily just being Shoshanna.
The two episodes show Girls on good form, and the return is a very welcome one for Dunham after the show has been generating the star writer press attention in all shapes and sizes over the past few years. It’s nice to return back to the basics – especially as these 20 minute escapades are becoming more reflective as we drift into the third season. Embarking on a semi-road trip to pick up Jessa from rehab, it’s interesting to see a new dynamic with Adam strongly in toe. Whether or not we’re still supposed to like him, remains uncertain, but there is certainly a more tranquil feeling to the series this time around. Of course, with a wonderful coffee shop altercation with an old one-night-stand in episode one, this could all once again turn around.
Elements remain the same, albeit exaggerated. Shoshanna’s witless Sex and the City pastiche, is now teetering on the edge of becoming, well, a pastiche – with an overlay of naïve one-liners that sends warning signals the character could be overplayed into Joey Tribbiani territories of stupidity.
Richard E Grant’s cameo is welcomed, but unusual. Presented initially as an elderly Withnail father-figure for Jessa whilst she is locked in the ever turning wheel of group therapy, the appearance takes a peculiar turn. It is not long before inevitably, Jessa skedaddles from rehab.
Overall though, it is good to see the four girls back, in a more developed atmosphere, everyone in carthatic states, and Hannah’s writing career finally beginning to take off. (She is even invited for lunch with an editor where the tea cups are made of chocolate!) Things seem pretty rosy now for The Girls, but the question is – for how long?
Novelty ties, continuous jazz, and Simon Pegg playing an American mobster; these are the stand-out features of an otherwise featureless series.
This is season one of Frank Darabont’s ‘Mob City’. As a man who has ‘Shawshank Redemption’, and ‘The Walking Dead’ to his name, one could reasonably assume, or at least hope, that his latest work would be of a similar calibre.
To read about the series is more enjoyable than to watch it; based in 1947 (with frequent trips back to the 1920s for contextual reference), it is an adaptation of John Buntin’s non-fiction account of ‘L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City’. The story features genuine historical figures (Bugsy Siegel, Meyer Lansky) and follows the layers of corruption and morally ambiguous destruction in the city’s puppet masters: the Mob and the L.A.P.D.
We are told, by the unnecessary narrator, that where once the good guys wore the white hats, and the bad guys the black hats, he ‘lives in a world of grey hats’.
The series is monotonous and slow, with paroxysms of shooting and bloody violence. My lack of appreciation will likely be labelled as a misunderstanding of the Noir genre. Perhaps that’s fair; but if this is an exemplar of Noir, it says little for a genre that appears to embrace flaccid story lines, vacuous characters, and almost parodic cliché.
In its favour, it does look good; from the heavy curtain of smoke indoors; to the wet streets outdoors. The shoes, the ties, the cars – they all look good; Jasmine Fonatane (Alexa Davalos) looks particularly good. It’s easy on the eye, and too easy on the mind. The characters are actors in dress-up, evoking no emotional investment and therefore no interest in their mysteries. ‘So damn beautiful. But only from a distance; up close, it’s all gutter’.
Mob City premieres on Fox UK on Friday 17 January at 10pm
The Spoils of Babylon’ is the U.S. show, directed and written by Matt Piedmont, established Saturday Night Live writer and partner of Will Ferrell. It’s the unapologetically silly satire of ‘TV Events’ adapted from books such as ‘The Thorn Birds.’ Although if you haven’t watched these then don’t worry (or bother), as The Spoils of Babylon is a show of great satire in its own right; prodding fun at all of the TV and film clichés in the book, from the dying cough, to symbolic and hallucinating love scenes. No rock is left unturned.
Will Ferrell plays Eric Jonrosh, the oafish and self proclaimed ‘Legend’, ‘Novelist’, ‘Yachtsman’, ‘Fabulist’ and ‘Dreamer’, but most importantly ‘Director’ and ‘Writer’ of The Spoils of Babylon. A story of the young orphan Devon Morehouse (Tobey Maguire), who is taken under the wing of a poor-turned-rich oil driller (Tim Robbins), and his daughter Cynthia (Kristen Wiig). Their relationships are as complicated and bizarrely varied as Morehouse’s adoption suggests.
Toby Maguire gives a wonderfully varied performance as everything from a war hero to a jazz age junkie, while maintaining the exuberance the show flaunts. His pairing with an equally strange and diverse Kristen Wiig is a show highlight. And while the two lead characters require them to overplay the part (cue the despairing cries), they do this with such confidence and ease that you actually begin to believe that they are awful actors. Bravo.
Although, as is unlike the TV events it satirises or any comedy of the same type, The Spoils of Babylon looks strikingly stylish. Even if it was intended to be seen as something silly, this falls nothing short of ice cool. All the while adopting the style of the period/genre that they push through, taking clear inspiration from everything from Sin City to Breaking Bad.
While skipping through periods of television and movie history, The Spoils of Babylon bizarrely begins to subtly address topical subjects, supposedly as its TV event counterpart sort-of attempted. This varies from the attitudes toward women, to addiction, even touching on war ethics. And even if these moments really are blink or you’ll miss them, when noticed they provide a nice touch to what can be a bit of a hollow program.
For The Spoils of Babylon think less in the direction of big names or laugh a minute scripts which you may expect with the like of Will Ferrell, but for more discreet gags. And although at times it can fall slightly flat, it cannot be denied that this show is bursting with character, seen heavily through its razor sharp cinematography.
The Spoils of Babylon premieres on Fox UK on January 18 at 9pm