Wednesday, 30 April 2008

BATTLESTAR GALACTICA 4.4 – "Escape Velocity"

Writer: Jane Espenson
Director: Edward James Olmos

Cast: Edward James Olmos (Adama), Tricia Helfer (Number Six/Caprica Six), James Callis (Baltar), Katee Sackhoff (Starbuck), Grace Park (Sharon Valerii/Sharon Agathon), Jamie Bamber (Lee), Mary McDonnell (Roslin), Michael Hogan (Saul), Michael Trucco (Anders), Kate Vernon (Ellen Tigh), Rekha Sharma (Tory), Don Thompson (Anthony Figurski), Colin Lawrence (Skulls), Finn R. Devitt (Nicholas Tyrol), Leah Cairns (Racetrack), Aaron Douglas (Tyrol), Leela Savasta (Tracey Anne), Keegan Connor Tracy (Jeanne), Lara Gilchrist (Paulla Schaffer), Hector Johnson (Marine Lieutenant), Laara Sadiq (Priestess), Steve Lawlor (Marine at Baltar's), Iris Paluly (Speaking Delegate #2), Marilyn Norry (Reza Chronides), Heather Doerksen (Surveillance Marine), Donna Soares (Speaking Delegate #1), Andrew McIlroy (Jacob Cantrell) & Judith Maxie (Picon Delegate)

Baltar promotes his belief in one true God, as Tyrol grieves the death of his wife...

"How many of us ended up with the people we
wanted to be with? Got stuck with the best of limited
ptions. And why? Because the ones we really want,
that we've really loved, are dead, dying, turned out
to be Cylons and they didn't know it..."
-- Chief Tyrol (Aaron Douglas)

Every so often BSG likes to throw out an episode that sits a little awkwardly – in a good way. Escape Velocity doesn't progress things to any major degree (ignoring the Cylon civil war and reducing Starbuck's mission to one brief scene), so instead it's a series of character-based situations – with Tyrol (Aaron Douglas) trying to cope with the "suicide" of wife Cally, Tigh (Michael Hogan) searching for clarity from Caprica Six (Tricia Helfer), and Baltar (James Callis) taking his first major step in creating a monotheist religion...

Following the shock death of Cally last week, we witness a typical funeral for the dearly departed, but her widowed husband Tyrol has a surprising reaction to the loss. He's unaware that Cally discovered the fact he's one of the Final Five Cylon models, so instead blames his closeness to fellow "toaster" Tory (Rekha Sharma) for giving Cally the wrong idea.

Of the four newly-revealed Cylons, Tyrol is clearly the one having the most difficulty adjusting – as a wonderful scene between Adama (Edward James Olmos) and Tyrol proves. The two men meet in a bar, with Adama offering his sympathies, only to have them thrown back in his face – as Tyrol launches into an astonishing attack on Cally, with her "boiled cabbage stench" and how glad he is that she's gone. His public outburst forces the shocked Adama to reprimand Tyrol.

It's a superbly-acted scene from both Olmos and, particularly, Aaron Douglas. I got the impression that Tyrol's really just rallying against all the things that make him human, trying to deny his humanity in the face of knowledge he's "just" a machine.

With Tyrol facing meltdown, the more pragmatic Tigh is trying to seek clarity by talking to the imprisoned Caprica Six -- who I was surprised to see didn't know she was in the presence of a fellow Cylon. Is it just the Cylon Raiders that have that understanding, or are all Cylons just programmed not to endanger the Final Five? That would seem to fit with Anders' survival of the Raider attack back in episode 1.

Anyway, Tigh is quite rightly guilt-ridden over his actions towards wife Ellen (Kate Vernon), who he killed on New Caprica for colluding with the Cylon enemy. The "enemy" he's now aware he's part of. It's certainly enough to cause some major turmoil for anyone, particularly a staunchly anti-Cylon military man like Tigh, and his scenes with Caprica Six are interesting – if slightly overplayed. Tigh begins to imagine Ellen as the one talking to him, battling with his lifetime of irascible hatred for Cylon-kind, whilst desperately trying to reach out for a mentor figure. Someone who can make him understand. Indeed, I really hoped Tigh would tell Caprica Six who/what he is, but the conversation (which ends in a queasy mix of pleasure/pain) at least looks to have formed a strange connection between the pair. Was anyone expecting a tender kiss to follow that punching violence?

Baltar's story gets very interesting, as his followers become the victims of a religiously-motivated attack by the Sons Of Ares. President Roslin (Mary McDonnell) decides to stop such attacks by limiting the numbers of people who can gather together; an act that essentially puts a spanner in the works of Baltar's group, and other religious groups (like those who believe in "Mithras", whatever that is.)

It's actually a little bit disappointing how hazy the religious aspect of BSGs society is, as I personally find the religiously-themed episodes the more intellectually stimulating. I tend to just think the humans believe in the Lords Of Kobol (a multiple God religion), as opposed to (some of) the Cylons' "one true God". But it seems more complex than that – which is more realistic, but at the same time frustrating. This is the fourth season, and the writers are suddenly muddying the waters with what people believe.

Still, Baltar's own branch of mysticism (in-keeping with the "one true God" belief, and half fuelled by the visions he has of Virtual Six), takes a significant step forward here. Fed up with being cowed by Roslin and attacked by disbelievers, he makes a stand by intruding on a religious ceremony and sacrilegiously vandalising the event, before he's prevented from returning to his harem – blocked by soldiers there to enforce Roslin's crowd-limiting edict. Encouraged by Virtual Six, Baltar is prevented from entering by violence, leaving him bloodied and beaten on the floor. Fortunately, Lee (Jamie Bamber) arrives to end the violence, as he's managed to have Roslin's new law overturned.

For mythology-lovers, this corridor scene with Baltar is very memorable for the way Virtual Six seems to have a physical effect on Baltar – heaving him up to his feet, manipulated like a marionette. I was actually surprised people didn't notice the puppeteering of Baltar (maybe Six should have picked Baltar clean off the floor!) But this does mean that Virtual Six has a physical presence that can interact with her surroundings. She's can't just be a mental construct, or hallucination. That's quite a revelation for anyone who's puzzled over Baltar's "visions" since the mini-series – although I note that showrunner Ronald D. Moore talked down its significance in the episode's commentary podcast. Hmmm.

Written by Jane Espenson, who has a loyal following thanks to her tenure on genre shows like Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Escape Velocity is accomplished and interesting work. There are a handful of brilliant scenes, crammed with insightful dialogue, vividly brought to life by the actors. Callis, Hogan and Douglas are particularly excellent here.

Respect must also go to star Edward James Olmos, who once again sits on the director's chair. Olmos seems to love the stranger, mystical episodes of BSG, after helming last season's Taking A Break From All Your Worries, and this is another fine piece of work. Some great editing here, too; in the early Son Of Ares attack and the closing sermon, with its meaningful links to various characters' situations.

Overall, while lacking in big developments, Escape Velocity is a very interesting character study that provides meaty material for some of the show's best actors. I'm personally very excited by the possibilities of Baltar establishing his own religion now, and the continuing strain being felt by Cylons Tigh and Tyrol (but not so much Tory and Anders -- yet) is delivering plenty of drama.

29 April 2008
Sky One, 9.00 pm

MOONLIGHT 1.11 – "Love Lasts Forever"

Writer: Josh Pate
Director: Paul Holahan

Cast: Alex O'Loughlin (Mick St. John), Sophia Myles (Beth Turner), Jordan Belfi (Josh Lindsey), Brian J. White (Lieutenant Carl Davis), John Everlove (Paramedic #2), Maurice Compte (Bustos), Emilio Rivera (Chemma Tejada), Manuel Urrego (Jorge Perez), David Blue (Logan), Margaret Easley (Dr. Alison Lin), Luis Fernando Moncada (Huerta), Jon Emm (Judge), Shelbie Bruce (Nicole) & Jeremy Denzlinger (Paramedic)

Josh is working to convict a dangerous gang member, who threatens Beth's life...

"The truth is, I don't know what I would do. What I
do know is, at the end of the day, not a lot separates
life and death. Only one thing... eternity."
-- Mick St. John (Alex O'L oughlin)

By focusing on its own fledgling mythology, Moonlight has become a lot more interesting in recent weeks. The introduction of Coraline awhile back, and last week's focus on Josef has invigorated the series, and this energy continues into Love Lasts Forever – with an exciting, if rather empty-headed, storyline for Josh (Jordan Belfi) and Beth (Sophia Myles).

District Attorney Josh has been working for the past 2 years on a case to imprison notorious gang leader Chemma Tejada (Emilio Rivera), but is put into a quandary when Tejada has some thugs assault him, before making it clear his girlfriend is now a "marked woman" unless he drop his investigation. Concerned for Beth's safety, Josh considers backing off from the case, but principled Beth is adamant he should continue his work. Someone has to make a stand against Tejada, who will inevitably continue to hurt and kill people if they let him go free.

Mick (Alex O'Loughlin) soon hears about the threat to Beth's life and offers to help protect her, which Josh gratefully accepts. Unfortunately, Tejada makes bail and dispatches two goons, led by Bustos (Maurice Compte), to kidnap Josh as punishment for all the trouble he's caused. With Mick and a police protection unit keeping focused on Beth, Josh is easy pickings for Tejada's men – who jump him outside his house, bundle him into the trunk of their car, and drive off. Mick and Beth follow in hot pursuit, using Josh's cell phone to triangulate his position.

Josh Pate's script forms the leanest, most frenetic episode of Moonlight yet. It's quite a departure from the usual style and plays more like an episode of 24, clearly having fun with a stream of exciting sequences: an assault on Josh by biker thugs, a sniper's attempt to assassinate Beth, a breathless car chase through L.A, etc. Everything comes to a heart-wrenching climax as Josh is rescued, only to be shot multiple times through the back of the trunk by a semi-conscious thug, leaving him fighting for his life on the ground!

Mick's medical training as a soldier in WWII comes in handy, and there follows a genuinely tense and rather icky scene with Mick improvising emergency treatment for Josh's wounds: cauterizing a neck wound with a car's cigarette lighter and tying off an artery using a necklace! I squirmed a lot, but was also rather taken by the scene's realism and surprised by how effectively it was pulled off. Sadly, Josh doesn't survive the ordeal, and Mick refuses to save his life by turning him into a vampire, despite Beth pleading with him.

Josh's death sends Mick into a rampaging mood, as his ordinarily secretive stance regarding his vampirism takes a backseat to vengeance. After scaring Bustos in an interrogation room (simply by revealing his white, dilated eyes and fangs), Mick gets the location of Tejada and arrives at the Latino's bar looking for revenge. As a force of nature, Mick tears up the place, doing nothing to hide his monstrous side, before coming face-to-face with Tejada and biting down on his neck.

Of course, even with Josh avenged, nothing can bring Beth's boyfriend back. Beth is seen grieving for the loss alone, as Mick arrives to try and make her understand why he couldn't turn Josh into a vampire as some kind of "miracle cure". Beth doesn't understand – asking him what he'd have done if she was the one dying. Mick says he'd do the exact same thing, but his voice-over admits he's not sure...

Love Lasts Forever is undeniably very exciting in places and one of the few Moonlight episodes that captured my attention and refused to let go. Director Paul Holahan's handling of the action was impressive and the actors did a fine job, particularly during Josh's protracted death scene. As I've mentioned before, one thing I've enjoyed about Moonlight is how Josh/Beth weren't written as doomed to failure with Mick on the scene. They made a nice couple, too – and Josh wasn't the domineering, dislikeable creep he could have been.

However, where this episode falls down is in the details. Tejada and his gang were gross stereotypes, written as simple boo-hiss Latino villains without any texture. They were evil for the sake of being evil, and many of their actions weren't very plausible. The whole episode seemed like it was the world of writer letting off steam, with everything cranked up to the max at the expense of intelligent plotting. Fortunately, the action was engaging and the actors really sold the emotional scenes. It was great fun to watch, but it was also disappointingly thin on story and characterisation.

A tiny subplot existed for Mick and Beth, who go to a laboratory to test the blood Mick took from Coraline last week. The doctor there can't find any abnormalities (with Mick hoping it could explain how Coraline has turned from a vampire back into a human). However, she does mention two interesting things: the blood is so pure she assumes it has come from a child, and the blood type is the incredibly rare AO-negative – the same group as Beth.

Is that why Coraline kidnapped Beth as a child – she needs to feed on that blood type? Or, in my own outlandish theory, is Beth actually Coraline's daughter? We've never seen Beth's family, have we. Feel free to pick that one apart, but it just occurred to me. Or, how about this: the blood is childlike in its purity because Coraline's actually a brand new clone? Just putting it out there.

Overall, this is an essential episode in terms of Moonlight's mythology, and certainly one of its most entertaining and intense stories. It's a shame the Latino gang were underwritten and the plot so wafer-thin, but if you've been disappointed by the lack of thrills, action and super-powered fights in a show about a vampire detective, Love Lasts Forever more than delivers.

29 April 2008
LivingTV, 10.00 pm

Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Dirt digs for viewers...

The new season of Dirt got a measly 89,000 viewers last night on Fiver (the cheap and nasty new name for Five Life.) Clearly, that's absolutely terrible. But, speaking as someone who watched Dirt last year, and had every intention of watching season 2, here's what went wrong Five bosses:

1. Advertise the fact Dirt is coming back! Granted I don't spend a lot of time watching Five, Five US or Fiver, but I'm not alone in that fact. I'd have watched Dirt last night if I'd known it was on! Pure and simple. Try advertising on other digital channels, not just your own. Even a small advert in a Monday tabloid would have worked for me!

2. Fiver? Wasn't Dirt on FiveUS last year? Yes, it was. So you've confused people. Consequently, I don't have Fiver (formerly Five Life) favourited on my EPG. So I couldn't accidentally stumble upon it while surfing channels, either. And, with the absence of ITV1's The Fixer in the same timeslot now, Dirt would have filled a gap very nicely. So you missed out there.

Oh well. I now know that Dirt is on Mondays at 9pm because of this marketing mess-up. Fiver has been added to my "favourites" list, so I'll set an alert. I'd love to catch a repeat of Dirt this week, but the online Radio Times only finds "Dirty Sexy Money" when I do a search for "Dirt", and the terrible Fiver website is no help whatsoever.

So, guess what Five: you have a (probably) quite expensive US television show, and now everyone's going to download episode 1 from the internet this week. And I'd intentionally "been a good boy" and tried to avoid doing that. But crap like this is why people are disenchanted with TV channels and are turning to downloads more and more...

Dirt, season 2
Fiver, Mondays @ 9pm (repeated Saturdays @ 8pm)*

* yes, I found out when it was repeated, no thanks to the channel that broadcasts it. But I'm going to download it just to "make a point" this week.

THE PRISONER 1.6 – "The General"

Writer: Joshua Adam
Director: Peter Graham Scott

Cast: Patrick McGoohan (Number Six), Colin Gordon (Number Two), John Castle (Number Twelve), Angelo Muscat (The Butler), Peter Swanwick (Supervisor), Peter Howell (The Professor), Betty McDowall (Professor's Wife), Conrad Phillips (Doctor), Michael Miller (Man In Buggy), Keith Pyott (Waiter), Norman Mitchell (Mechanic), Peter Bourne (Projection Operator), George Leech (First Corridor Guard) & Jackie Cooper (Second Corridor Guard)

Number Six tries to stop a subliminal teaching device that could be used to brainwash people...

"Speedlearn is an abomination! It is slavery! If you
wish to be free, there is only one way: destroy the General!"
-- Number Six (Patrick McGoohan)

The General is the mysterious threat occupying Number Six (Patrick McGoohan) this week, as the Village is suddenly put under the spell of a miraculous new teaching tool called "Speedlearn", created by an ageing academic known only as The Professor (Peter Howell), which demonstrably imparts knowledge to users subliminally...

Of course, such a tool might also be used for malicious purposes – such as the mass brainwashing of a population via television. Number Six is quick to realize how Speedlearn could be used as a weapon by Number Two (a returning Colin Gordon), and becomes convinced the will be exploited when The Professor attempts to escape from the Village. It transpires that he's merely the figurehead of the scheme, and the real brains behind Speedlearn is someone known only as "The General"...

For once, Number Six manages to secure legitimate insider help, in the shape of an administrator called Number Twelve (John Castle), who enables him to infiltrate the "education board members" by disguising himself in hat, tuxedo and dark glasses, carrying some secret token coins Twelve has passed him. Inside, Six's plan is to get to the projection room and change the planned history lesson into a lesson on democracy, with the hope that it'll encourage the Villagers to revolt against the regime.

The plan is foiled however, when Six manages to get inside the projection room and replace one of the technicians, only for Number Two to notice Six's presence on a viewscreen. Six is arrested and Number Two reveals the true identity of The General – a supercomputer that The Professor created, which Number Two insists in infallible. To test his theory, Six enquires about asking it a simple question. Number Two accepts, but after Six inserts a question into the machine, The General very quickly starts hissing steam before finally exploding – killing Number Twelve and The Professor. An outraged Number Two demands to know what question Number Six asked. The answer is a simple epistemological puzzle: "Why?" Simple, but insoluble...

The General is quite an interesting slice of sci-fi, although the idea at its core have been better explored in other works. The Professor and The General are clear symbols for education and militarism, respectively – and the danger comes from when those two branches collude for the detriment of mankind. Back in the 60s, the idea of computers was very different from what it is today. These days, computers are everywhere (in your home, in your car, in your washing machine, in your mobile phone), but the home computer boom was still about 15 years away in 1967. The notion of supercomputers was quite a scary thing (and it still is today, in some ways), but I think we've become accustomed to their ubiquity and see them as more beneficial than people did during the Cold War.

When watching The General today, the silliness of the supercomputer dates this episode more than any other, but the underlying message remains quite potent. This episode was particularly good with the background elements, such as the rather helpful Number Twelve and "normal" residents like The Professor and his wife (Betty McDowall) – as I do find The Prisoner's usually-mute, oddly-dressed populous a bit tiring. Also great to see Colin Gordon back as Number Two, as he's one of the better actors to take on the role – indeed, he's one of the few who play Number Two more than once.

Overall, this is a decent episode but nothing special. Age hasn't been too kind on the aesthetics and wobbly science, but its central idea is still relevant -- and the brainwashing aspect still fuels a great deal of sci-fi stories some 40 years later.


-- This episode places the location of the Village as possibly being an island in the Mediterranean, as shown in the map scene.

-- Number Six does not visit Number Two's office in this episode.

-- The Council Chamber is a redress of the Number Two's office set.

-- Along with It's Your Funeral, this is one of only two episodes to feature two related inhabitants of the Village: the Professor and his wife.

-- The exterior of the Professor's house was also used as the exterior of Madame Engadine's in A. B. and C. It was also seen, in archive footage from that episode, in Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling.

First Aired: 5 November 1967

CHUCK 1.4 – "Chuck Versus The Wookie"

Writer: Allison Adler
Director: Allan Kroeker

Cast: Zachary Levi (Chuck Bartowski), Adam Baldwin (Major John Casey), Joshua Gomez (Morgan Grimes), Yvonne Strahovski (Sarah Walker), Sarah Lancaster (Ellie Bartowski), Bonita Friedericy (General Beckman), Tony Todd (CIA Director Graham), Ryan McPartlin (Captain Awesome), Scott Krinsky (Jeff), Vik Sahay (Lester), Don Abernathy (Traveler), Iqbal Theba (Peyman Alahi), Chris Dotson (Scooter) & Mini Anden (Carina)

Chuck has to help raid a Malibu mansion to steal an expensive diamond being used to fund terrorism, at the behest of Sarah and an untrustworthy DEA agent...

"Chuck, I know what a third wheel is. I know it's me. Give, give me a
chance here, man. Let, let me be a fourth wheel for once.
Or maybe I can be any other even number."
-- Morgan (Joshua Gomez)

Well, that was better. I still can't remember a single joke, or anything that made me properly laugh, but the storyline justified its runtime (just about) and Allison Adler's script was more entertaining and watchable than the previous three episodes combined. And not only because lovely Yvonne Strahovski had to compete with Mini Anden's tendency to strip down to her undergarments...

The show is currently more successful at the personal drama than the espionage stuff, as Chuck (Zachary Levi) and Sarah (Yvonne Strahovski) exhibit a great deal of charm and chemistry together. The episode opens with Chuck and Sarah faking their way through a social gathering with Chuck's sister Ellie (Sarah Lancaster) and best-friend Morgan (Joshua Gomez) with an evening of party-games. The simple dynamic of Chuck having to lie to his friends about his (faked) relationship with Sarah, while secretly enjoying pretending to be Sarah's boyfriend, is by far the most engaging aspect of the show. Unrequited love; always good drama.

This episode pleasantly complicates the Chuck/Sarah "relationship" with the arrival of sassy DEA agent Carina (Mini Anden), who needs Sarah's help in stealing a diamond owned by Peyman Alahi (Iqbal Theba) before it's used to fund terrorism. Carina and Sarah have a troubled working history together, as does John Casey (Adam Baldwin), which gives the agent-triangle some added spark. It's not long before Carina demands her own undercover identity, so Sarah advises she becomes Morgan's girlfriend – a role she accepts and approaches with cheeky enthusiasm, to Chuck's dismay and Morgan's delight.

As I said, whenever Chuck deals with the duality of Sarah, Chuck, Casey (and now Carina's) lives, it really knows what it's doing. The comedy is commendably restrained and it was nice to see Carina enjoy giving Morgan a little thrill. It would have been easy and cliched to have her cringe whenever he turned his back, but the show writes Chuck and Morgan as genuinely pleasant and normal guys. Compare and contrast this pair to The Big Bang Theory's stereotyped, exaggerated oddballs.

It was also very interesting to see Carina secretly despair at how her Sarah can put up with the boring lifestyles enjoyed by Chuck and Morgan. It's the first time we get a sense that Sarah's actually "slumming it" with this mission, and Carina is presented as the type of agent Sarah would ordinarily be: forthright, fiercely independent and a bit of a mischief-maker.

Once the diamond storyline kicks in proper, it's actually quite entertaining -- despite being simplistic. It all boils down to Chuck (in a Miami Vice-style white suit), Sarah (in a little black dress) and Carina infiltrating the Miami mansion owned by bad guy Alahi (the titular "wookie", because of his body hair) to steal his prized diamond. Casey takes a backseat throughout this episode, only providing backup as a fake chauffeur for the team's getaway.

But their planned getaway doesn't go according to plan – as Carina doublecrosses Sarah and escapes with the fist-sized diamond herself, after a sequence of her running (Baywatch-style) across a beach to a remote-controlled jet-ski. The slow-motion was totally unnecessary, but if James Bond is the male fantasy brought to life, Chuck is trying to filter it down further for the geeks amongst men. It's even amassing its own "Bond Girls" now. Or should that be Chuck's Chicks? A strong echo from Charlie's Angels 2 also arrives after the doublecross; with brunette Carina very much the naughty Demi Moore to blonde Sarah's beatific Cameron Diaz. Not that the Charlie's Angels movies are a particularly good cultural touchstone to have, but it's probably an indication of the viewership Chuck's after: youngster who like sexy, vibrant silliness.

Events begin to coalesce with Carina offloading the diamond into Morgan's bag when Casey tracks her down, while Alahi's and his men try to recover the stolen diamond. Unsuspecting Morgan is trapped in the middle of the situation, puzzled as to why Carina dumps him, as Chuck finds the missing diamond and has to persuade Carina to help rescue Sarah after she's captured and held hostage by Alahi's men.

Overall, it's great to see Chuck improving after a limp start. I have a sneaking suspicion it's never going to tickle the funnybone as much as it should, but Chuck Versus The Wookie proved it can at least be entertaining, and the performances are the show's saving grace. I just wish these actors had funny material to really sink their teeth into, and the fight sequences weren't so damned repetitive.

Still, Levi and Strahovski work well as a duo (loved their tender scene at the end, with Chuck wanting to know more about the real Sarah), Baldwin's lizard-eyed glowering makes me grin, and Gomez was better utilized in this episode -- thanks to Carina, who was a memorable, manipulative "villain" thanks to guest star Anden's avoidance of caricature. It still didn't elicit many belly-laughs (and will Tony Todd be stuck on a viewscreen forever?), but everything else was a notable step in the right direction, and the Yvonne Strahovski fanclub got their fill with that pre-shower scene...

28 April 2008
Virgin1, 10.00 pm

IT update continues...

I have a lovely 17" HP flat-screen monitor. Unfortunately, it's just laying on the floor covered in plastic, waiting to be plugged into the not-yet-ready PC base unit. But, the IT upgrade is progressing well at work. I have server access from the old PC right now, so I'm chancing this update.

Proper updates to DMD will arrive in the early evening, with last night's Chuck and The Prisoner review I missed doing last week. Oh, and if you haven't done so already, please vote in this week's poll (right). Who do you think will win The Apprentice this year? Michael was narrowly in the lead last time I looked. If you don't agree, make your voice heard!

Umm, nothing much to add. It's the last Bionic Woman tonight on ITV2 (hurrah for all the wrong reasons), the brilliant Peep Show begins its fifth series (CH4, 2 May), and mindbender Derren Brown's back with a new series of Trick Or Treat, too (CH4, 2 May).

Monday, 28 April 2008

MAD MEN 1.9 - "Shoot"

Writers: Chris Provenzano & Matthew Weiner
Director: Paul Feig

Cast: Vincent Kartheiser (Pete), Jon Hamm (Don), Christina Hendricks (Joan), Elisabeth Moss (Peggy), January Jones (Betty), John Slattery (Roger), Rich Sommer (Harry), Bryan Batt (Salvatore), Talia Balsam (Mona Sterling), Robert Morse (Bertram Cooper), Kate Norby (Carol McCardy), Elizabeth Rice (Margaret Sterling), Megan Stier (Eleanor Ames), Alexis Stier (Mirabelle Ames), John Walcutt (Franklin Newcomb), Scott Michael Morgan (Ralph Stubbs), Ryan Cutrona (Gene Driscoll) & Allan Miller (Abraham Menken)

A rival agency try to lure Don away from Sterling Cooper, in a scheme that involves his wife. At the office, the team try to come up with a way to counter Kennedy's latest advertisements...

"Peggy, this isn't China – there's no money in virginity."
-- Joan (Christina Hendricks)

Mad Men has me under its spell. Unlike so many dramas these days, it doesn't have a particular "hook" that demands you seek it out, so you have to sample its quality to become smitten. I keep hearing people say it's too slow, but that's unfair. All too often I find myself surprised an episode is over, as it's one of those rare shows that draws you in with nothing but understated acting, meticulous writing and a simmering undercurrent to that on-the-surface bliss of 60s America...

In Shoot, Don (Jon Hamm) finds himself being courted by Jim Hobart, the head of a rival agency, who compliments Don for his Athletic Club campaigns after bumping into him at the theatre. Jim's wife Adele leads Don away for drinks at the bar, leaving Jim free to schmooze with Don's wife Betty (January Jones). He flatters her by noting her resemblance to Grace Kelly, before giving him his business card and the offer of modelling work for Coca-Cola.

The next day, Don receives a package from Jim (membership to the Athletic Club) and continues to be courted by Jim on the telephone, with the promise of a bigger salary and international clients like Pan-Am. Don remains ambivalent, but soon gets a visit from his boss Roger Sterling (John Slattery), who has heard about Jim Hobart's attempts to steal his top employee. Roger tries to persuade Don that staying with Sterling Cooper is the best decision to make, as big companies like Hobart's don't let their employees be as hands-on in their work. Don stays tight-lipped.

Housewife Betty is already beginning to fantasize about becoming the glamorous face of Coca-Cola, regaling her friend Francine about her past life as a young muse to Italian fashionista Gianni, before excitedly trying on a variety of dresses in her bedroom. Later, during one of her sessions with psychiatrist Dr Wayne, it's revealed how Betty first met Don: modelling a beautiful coat for a fur company that Don (then a lowly copywriter) saw she didn't like giving back afterwards, so he bought it for her and delivered it as a token of his affection. The rest is history.

Throughout the season, the presidential race between Nixon and Kennedy has been omnipresent, and now the ad men find themselves in a tight spot. As representatives of Nixon's campaign, a new TV ad featuring Kennedy's wife Jackie speaking Spanish, has them worried about how best to counter it.

Betty decides to accept Jim's offer of a photoshoot, although Don doesn't seem too keen on the idea. Regardless, she arrives at McCann Erickson along with other young models. Jim and his colleague Ronnie Gittridge, the art director for Coca-Cola, arrive and show her through to the audition. Afterwards, Betty received a phone call at home telling her she's been accepted for the job, and bubbling with pride she shares her good news with Don (who seems happier now), and seduces him in her bright red dress in the front room.

Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) accidentally rips her skirt during office hours and has to borrow one of Joan's (Christina Hendricks), although the men quickly notice Peggy's sexy but badly-fitting new outfit. In fact, the visual change in Peggy seems to match the change in her attitude following her success writing copy for Belle Jolie lipstick, and the men comment on her big-headedness. A little later, Pete (Vincent Karthesier) is present as his colleagues make fun of Peggy's new dress (calling her a lobster, because "all the meat's in the tail") and Pete's affection for Peggy gets the better of him – and he turns on Ken and begins a fight in the office.

The Coca-Cola photoshoot goes well for Betty, but at home her children (being babysat by Ethel) are frightened by their next-door neighbour Mr Beresford, who releases some pigeons into the air, only for one to be caught in the jaws of the Draper's dog Polly. Angry at the mishap, Mr Beresford yells at the kids about shooting their dog if it ever comes into their yard. That night, Don and Betty's daughter Sally takes refuge in their bed after having a nightmare about Mr Beresford and his threat.

Harry (Rich Sommer) and Pete stumble onto the best idea to combat Kennedy's TV adverts, by buying up all the TV advertising space and filling it with laxative commercials. Roger and Cooper (Robert Morse) interrupt a meeting to congratulate Pete and Harry on their brainwave, and the pair are amazed to receive congratulations – particularly from Don.

Later, Don gets more mail from Jim – this time the finished, beautiful photos of his wife Betty for her Coca-Cola adverts. He visits Roger and tells him he'll stay if he gets a pay rise, which Roger agrees to. Don then calls Jim to formally decline his invitation to defect to his company. "It's a pity to lose both of you" says Jim, as Betty's dreams are shattered at the photoshoot, when she's told by Ronnie that the company have decided to go for someone with an Audrey Hepburn vibe. At home, Betty lies to Don about deciding to decline Jim Hobart's offer (not realizing he knows it was all a silly manipulation by Jim to begin with), before breaking her routine the next morning by taking her kid's BB gun into the yard and shooting at Mr Beresford's pigeons.

While not the best episode, primarily because nothing of too much consequence happened, this was still an engaging story that grew into itself. January Jones is such a joy as Betty, and seeing her eyes light up at the prospect of reliving her modelling days, unaware she's merely a pawn in the cut-and-thrust world of her husband, was beautifully handled by the actress and the writing.

But it did leave everything else a little undernourished, as Don's own story was conjoined to Betty's – so only two small moments in the subplots were worthy of comment: Pete's temper flaring as his colleagues poked fun at Peggy (more evidence that he does like her, but I'm still not sure it's love), and the amusing way Pete and Harry played dirty against Kennedy's campaign. It was also fun to see Peggy continue to blossom – making a point to shake off her "new girl" label and stand up to jealous Joan more easily. Or is Joan genuinely trying to help Peggy? Mad Men crackles with ambiguous motives.

The pigeon incidents seemed to be symbolic, but I'm not sure exactly how to translate them. Or am I just over-thinking things? My first thought was that Mr Beresford's pigeons represented imprisoned beauty (Betty), being allowed to fly free from tedious suburbia (to a life of modelling), while Polly the dog's attack perhaps symbolized the threat to that freedom lurking at home (Don).

If that's anywhere near the truth, Betty's final scene – where she shoots at the pigeons, a cigarette dangling between her teeth – isn't a good omen. Was she just venting her anger and teaching her neighbour a lesson, because he threatened her children's pet, or was it symbolic that she feels jealous of the birds who can be free?

26 April 2008
BBC Four, 10.00 pm

LOST 4.9 – "The Shape Of Things To Come"

Writers: Brian K. Vaughan & Drew Goddard
Director: Jack Bender

Cast: Michael Emerson (Ben), Terry O'Quinn (Locke), Naveen Andrews (Sayid), Matthew Fox (Jack), Jeremy Davies (Faraday), Rebecca Mader (Charlotte), Elizabeth Mitchell (Juliet), Ken Leung (Miles), Evangeline Lilly (Kate), Jorge Garcia (Hurley), Josh Holloway (Sawyer), Sam Anderson (Bernard), Kevin Durand (Keamy), Alan Dale (Charles Widmore), Tania Raymonde (Alex), Faran Tahir (Ishmael Bakir), Kaveh Kardan (Merchant), Yetide Badaki (Desk Clerk), Marc Vann (Doctor) & Sean Douglas Hoban (Doug)

The barracks are attacked by adversaries from the freighter after Ben. Meanwhile, Jack tries to discover the identity of a dead body washed ashore...

"He changed the rules..."
-- Ben (Michael Emerson)

A little early for UK fans, as Sky One will be showing this episode on 4 May.
So, tread carefully -- major spoilers ahead....

After a short hiatus, Lost resumes for the last 7 episodes of its fourth season, focusing here on the show's most enigmatic and joyously manipulative character: Ben Linus (Michael Emerson). In The Shape Of Things To Come, writers Brian K. Vaughan and Drew Goddard craft a gripping siege, mixed with compelling flashforwards and lots of mythology-deepening intrigue...

Alex (Tania Raymonde) has been captured by Keamy (Kevin Durand) and his mercenaries from the freighter, who force her to turn off the sonic fence that protects the Barracks where Locke's anti-rescuers team are living. Fortunately, the fence deactivation sends a coded phone call to Locke's house, which interrupts a game of Risk being played by Locke (Terry O'Quinn), Sawyer (Josh Holloway) and Hurley (Jorge Garcia). The call's recorded voice informs them of a "Code 14", which sends Ben into a panic when he hears about it later. Ben quickly advised they all move to his house, which offers a better vantage point on the tree line Keamy's men will appear from, and they prepare to stave off attack...

The flashforwards this week focus on Ben, who we first see lying in the middle of the Sahara Desert, wearing a parka with a bloody gash on his forearm. It seems likely that he's transported himself there from the island and, after dispatching two Bedouins on horseback armed with AK-47s, he travels by horse to a hotel in Tozeur, Tunisia -- using his alias of Dean Moriarty to get a room as a "preferred guest". He also fishes for the exact date from the hotel clerk, who tells him it's 24 October 2005 – which places these events 13 months since Flight 815 crashed. Ben then notices a television, where Oceanic Six member Sayid (Naveen Andrews) is being swamped by paparazzi.

On the island, Keamy's men launch their "shock and awe" attack – rather humorously killing three superfluous members of Locke's group, as Sawyer dodges bullets to try and get to Claire (Emilie de Ravin), whose house is blown to smithereens by a RPG. Claire miraculously survives the attack(!), and Sawyer carries her back to Ben's house – where Hurley has her baby Aaron.

As all this life-threatening danger is going on, things are more tranquil back at the beach with Jack's pro-rescuers group. That is, until Bernard (Sam Anderson) notices a dead body washed ashore. Jack (Matthew Fox) and Kate (Evangeline Lilley) help drag the dead man onto the beach, where freighter crewmen Faraday (Jeremy Davies) and Charlotte (Rebecca Mader) identify the throat-slashed body as that of the ship's doctor. Who killed him?

In another flashforward, Ben is now dressed as a cameraman in Tikrit, Iraq, looking down from a building rooftop on a funeral processing heading through the city. One of the men carrying the coffin is Sayid, who notices Ben watching from above, misidentifies him as paparazzi, and assaults him as he leaves for his car. Sayid is stunned to find it was Ben snooping on him, and even more shocked when Ben tells him that the man who murdered his wife is one of Charles Widmore's men. Ben has speed-camera evidence that Ishmael Bakir (Faran Tahir), was fleeing the scene of Nadia's murder in Los Angeles, but doesn't know why Widmore would want to kill Nadia.

In the barracks, Miles (Ken Leung) arrives with a walkie-talkie so Ben can speak to Keamy – who reveals to Ben that he has his daughter Alex held hostage. Ben speaks to Keamy, who promises not to hurt anyone if Ben gives himself up, but Ben doesn't accept that proposal. Seeing Keamy outside, Ben holds firm as Keamy brings out Alex and threatens to shoot her dead unless he gives himself up. Even in the face of a very real threat to his daughter's life, with Alex pleading for help at gunpoint, Ben steels himself and tries to act as if Alex means nothing to him. Keamy calmly shoots Alex in the head, leaving Ben numbed and speechless.

On the beach, Jack wants answers about what happened to the doctor. Juliet (Elizabeth Mitchell) asks if Faraday could fix the smashed sat-phone to ask the freighter's crew, but the microphone is apparently broken beyond repair. But they might be able to send tones, as Morse Code. A little later, Farady fixes the phone and taps out a message ("what happened to the doctor?"), and when the reply comes back he claims it says their friends are okay and the helicopter is coming back in the morning.

However, Bernard also knows Morse Code and reveals that the freighter's message actually said: "What are you talking about? The doctor is fine.". Angry at all the deception, Jack reaches boiling point and forces Farady to admit that it was never their intention to rescue the survivors of Flight 815.

Keamy's men have vanished into the jungle again to rethink their plan. Ben mumbles that "he changed the rules" and surprises everyone by entering his secret room, and then disappearing into another secret area covered in runic symbols. After some minutes locked inside, Ben steps out and tells everyone they're going to have to run when he gives the signal.

An earthshaking roar thunders outside, as the Smoke Monster pours into the barracks and heads into the jungle after Keamy's team. Ben and the others run for the jungle, as the enormous monster pulsates inside the jungle, tearing up Keamy's men as they scream in agony. And, as Locke leads everyone away to safety, Ben takes a moment to say goodbye to his daughter...

In Tikrit, Ben is keeping an eye on Bakir inside a café, but loses him in a crowd outside. Bakir gets the jump on Ben, forcing him down an alley, where Ben asks him to deliver a message to Widmore. As Bakir listens, he's shot dead by Sayid from behind. Sayid enters his clip into Bakir's dead body, before Ben tells him to go home because this is his war, not Sayid's. However, Sayid says he's spent 8 years searching for Nadia and Widmore's men took that away from him, so it's his war too. He asks who's next, and Ben says he'll be in touch.

In the jungle, joined by Ben, Sawyer decides he's heading back to the beach with Claire, Aaron and Hurley, rather than follow Locke and Ben's plan of finding the mysterious Jacob. Locke can't let Hurley go, as he's the only person who knows where Jacob's Cabin is located, and Hurley agrees to stay.

In the last flashforward, Ben has arrived in London and gains access to a penthouse, where he finds Charles Widmore (Alan Dale) asleep in his bed. Widmore wakes up and doesn’t look surprised to see Ben standing there. Ben says he's comes because Widmore killed Alex, but Widmore refuses to accept responsibility. Despite that, Ben says he's going to kill Widmore's daughter (Penny) so he can understand how he feels, and wish he hadn't "changed the rules". Widmore is angry, yelling to Ben that it's his island – it always was, and it will be again. Ben is certain he'll never find the island, leading Widmore to comment that the hunt is on for both of them.

The Shape Of Things To Come is another knockout instalment for fans, like myself, who lap up episodes that take great joy in nudging the mythology along. Sure, it's packed full of more questions, but it's tempered with moments of understanding: we now know when and how Ben recruited Sayid to become his hitman (see: The Economist), and who he's targeting (Widmore employees), and the connection between Ben and Widmore definitely runs deep. Did the island really belong to Widmore once? If so, how or why did he give it up, or lose it?

We already know that Ben was a little kid when he arrived on the island, as part of DHARMA, before growing up and "purging" DHARMA with a gas attack, and there was no sign of Widmore back then. So Widmore's claim for ownership must pre-date even DHARMA? But then, why would he need the Black Rock ledger (which it's widely assumed gave him directions to the island in 1996)?

Michael Emerson gives another bravura performance, and it’s now impossible to imagine the show without him. How strange to think he was only written into season 2 for a few episodes, but has now evolved to become its linchpin in many ways. He certainly seems to be the character with all the answers, yet it's testament to the writing that he plausibly refuses to give many answers, or lies.

Indeed, awhile back Locke asked him (amusingly) what the Smoke Monster was, and Ben claimed not to know. But he must have done something in that secret-secret room to summon smoky, which arrived to thunderous effect, misty tendrils grabbing hold of soldiers, as its enormous black mass pulsated above the jungle treetops, lightning flickering deep inside. It really is a thing of majesty, and one of Lost's most compelling mysteries.

There are a few nitpicks and problems that deflated some of the drama, of course. The opening attack on the barracks came across as funny instead of tense, with Sawyer dodging bullets as three inconsequential islanders were killed – fortuitously meaning Locke's big group were cut down to regular cast members. How neat.

Oh well. It's an unfortunate problem Lost has had since season 1 – trying to convince us that 40+ people survived the plane crash, but we only ever focus on a dozen or so cast members. I can let it slide, as they already tried to rectify this "fault" with the poorly-received Paulo and Nikki characters last season.

But I really am disappointed by how the writers have handled the Rousseau/Alex/Ben storyline. We're still not 100% certain Rousseau died in the last episode, but Alex is definitely a goner now, and it all stinks of missed opportunities for those characters. We'd better get that long-awaited Rousseau flashback one day, as that's been on the back-burner since season 2!

But overall, what a fantastic episode. It was a great idea to base the island storyline around a siege, the fan-pleasing return of the Smoke Monster, and some exciting flashforwards that coloured in the Sayid/Ben storyline from The Economist, whilst making it abundantly clear that Ben can somehow travel in Space and Time via the island. And the icy confrontation between of Lost's mysterious puppetmasters (Ben and Widmore) was the icing on the cake.

Burning Questions

-- How did Ben travel to the Sahara Desert, why was his arm cut, and what DHARMA station does the logo on his parka belong to?

-- Why can't Ben kill Widmore, and what exactly are the agreed "rules" between them?

-- What did Ben do in his secret room, and why is its door covered in strange symbols? It seems likely that he summoned the smoke monster to attack Keamy's men – but how, and why was he covered in soot when he came back?

-- Why do the freighter crew say the doctor is fine? Is it another time-travel phenomena, so he is actually still alive on the freighter and the islanders are seeing physical evidence of his future murder/suicide?

24 April 2008
ABC, 10.00 pm

We apologize for the delay...

I usually publish pre-written reviews during working hours (sssh, don't tell my boss), but we're having a big IT update over the next 3 days that's knocked out the server. Consequently, updates will have to wait until after 5pm -- until my PC is upgraded, anyway. How did I manage to blog this message, I hear you ask. Ways and means, my friend. Ways and means...

Check back later for reviews of yesterday's Mad Men and last week's Lost (ahead of its UK premiere this Sunday.)

Sunday, 27 April 2008

Introducing: TV Week @

As if one blog wasn't enough to vent my TV-related anger and fawn over TV treats, the kind folks over at have invited me to contribute a weekly column for them. Woohoo!

The first article of TV Week went up today, so please give it a read. It's a brief review of 3 television shows chosen from the previous week, published every Sunday. This week I look at the return of Heroes to the BBC, ITVs US import Pushing Daisies and spy-comedy Chuck.

While you're there, check out the rest of -- a resource of quirky, off-beat news stories gathered from around the world.

PUSHING DAISIES 1.4 – "Pigeon"

Writer: Rina Mimoun
Director: Adam Kane

Cast: Chi McBride (Emerson Cod), Ellen Greene (Vivian), Swoosie Kurtz (Lily), Kristin Chenoweth (Olive), Lee Pace (Ned), Anna Friel (Chuck), Jim Dale (Narrator), Sy Richardson (Coroner), Field Cate (Young Ned), Raf Mauro (Old Dead Guy), Vince Cefalu (Bradan), Jayma Mays (Elsa/Elsita), Dash Mihok (Lemuel "Lefty Lem" Weinger), Karly Rothenberg (Becky Caden), E.J. Callahan (Jackson Lucas), Pamela Kosh (The Curator), Victor Z. Isaac (Delivery Boy), Dan Glenn (Young Jackson) & Michael Oosterom (Pigeon Puppeteer)

After a crop-duster crashes into the side of a building, Emerson, Ned and Chuck try to prove that the pilot didn't commit suicide, leading them into a case involving stolen jewellery and an escaped prisoner...

Lefty: I'm sorry, was that guy your boyfriend?
The guy who took a step back and let you fall?

Chuck: It was actually a really affectionate gesture. In context.

I was initially worried that Pushing Daisies wouldn't be able to keep up its production values, but it's the fourth episode and there's no sign of the vibrant aesthetic going rusty. Even if you're not particularly charmed by the show's retina-burning visuals, you have to admit it's impressive work from the production team – who are essentially cranking out film-quality fantasies on a comparative shoestring every week.

Rina Mimoun's script is another confection of high imagination, as Ned (Lee Pace), Chuck (Anna Friel) and Emerson (Chi McBride) investigate the circumstances surrounding a crop-duster flying into the side of a building. At first it seems like a suicide, but Ned and Emerson are recruited by the pilot's widow to prove otherwise (as she can't collect his life insurance if he killed himself). Meanwhile, Chuck gets to know the handsome sole survivor of the crash, Lemuel "Lefty Lem" Weinger (Dash Mihok), who lived in the apartment the plane flew into. But Ned soon deduces that Lefty might actually be an imposter, when they discover the real apartment owner dead and stuffed into a trunk...

The storyline with Olive (Kristin Chenoweth) continues, as she's spending more time with Chuck's aunts, Lily (Swoosie Kurtz) and Vivian (Ellen Greene), who are still unaware their niece Chuck has been brought back to life by Ned. Olive herself doesn't know why Chuck has decided to keep herself a secret from her family, just believing she's faked her own death for some nefarious purpose. And, of course, she wants Chuck out of the picture so she can have Ned all to herself...

In typical fashion for Pushing Daisies, events soon branch off into unexpected territory – as Lefty is revealed to have been a prisoner cellmate of Jackson Lucas (E.J. Callahan), a long-dead thief who told Lefty where he'd hidden his stash of diamonds. And , of course, the location of the buried treasure just has to be the most eccentric place possible: a windmill in the middle of the N.A.R.M (National Area of Retired Windmills). Of course! And I haven't even mentioned the titular pigeon, which dies after flying into the Pie Hole's front window, is accidentally resurrected by Ned, before Oliver takes it to have its broken wing replaced by Chuck's aunts – who have a fondness for avian taxidermy, it seems...

Phew! It's quite a whirlwind of activity, although some of it does seem to be distracting you from relatively straightforward plots. But it's so thick with incidents, peculiar events, zany imagery and syrupy flashbacks, it's like being immersed in brain treacle for an hour. It’s still an enjoyable experience watching this show, even if it's lacking in subtleties and seems to throw everything at the screen in a maelstrom of primary-coloured, goofy excess.

I think Lee Pace is settling into the role now, although it's still true that he's basically an instrument for detective Emerson to use. Anna Friel is fantastic as Chuck, getting around Ned's problem with pure enthusiasm and the desire to help deliver justice and get to the bottom of a good mystery. Kristen Chenoweth is practically a special-effect herself, with her diminutive dippy blonde routine and Betty Boop-esque voice as Olive. And any show that finds the time to have Jayma Mays appear as a red-haired windmiller is fine by me, as she's another actress who fits the show's vibe perfectly.

Overall, if you're still watching Pushing Daisies, you're clearly someone who appreciates something different on TV. It's a bit turbulent and ladles on the syrup too much at times, but the imagination, cheeky fun, and beautiful imagery is enough to see me through. The performances are also perfect for the material, and it's nice to see every episode since the Pie-lette stay as fresh and elaborately produced.

It could certainly become tedious if the recurring plots don't move on (and I already think it's a mistake to have Chuck and Ned resume their childhood romance so quickly), but things certainly take a step forward between Olive and Chuck here, and Pigeon held my attention very well.

26 April 2008
ITV1, 9.00 pm


Models turned actresses. The first thing that pops into your head is vacuous catwalk supermodels trying their best to string a sentence together in front of a camera. Witness the failure of Cindy Crawford in Fair Game. But there are exceptions to every rule, and it's easy to see why film bosses want models up on the silver screen: they look fantastic. In the right roles, they can do a competent enough job, too. And even if they're as wooden as a pirate's leg, you can still be charmed by their beauty. I mean, Marilyn Monroe was hardly Academy Award material, was she?

Jessica Biel is one such model-turned-actress, although she started out as a vocalist in musicals before becoming a child fashion model. She was just 14 when she made the switch from modelling to starring in the TV series 7th Heaven in 1996. Her saintly role as Mary Camden immediately began limiting her acting career, as she lost out to Thora Birch for a role in American Beauty ('99). In a calculated move to get out of her 7th Heaven contract, Biel posed topless for Gear magazine at the age of 17 (although it wasn't a full frontal), and she was indeed dropped from the show. She did return to 7th Heaven shortly after, for one last season, before quitting to concentrate on her film career...

In 2002, she appeared in The Rules Of Attraction, which was a definite move away from her family-friendly TV role, but she didn't make her breakthrough until 2003 -- by starring in the Michael Bay-produced remake of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, as the token plucky heroine with heaving bosoms, toned stomach, bee-stung lips and a scream that could smash windows. The film wasn't received very well critically, but it cost $9 million and made $80 million in the US alone, so Biel was suddenly in hot demand as the latest sexy tough-girl on the block – getting a role as a crossbow-wielding babe in Blade: Trinity ('04), before crashing down to earth with box-office dud Stealth ('05). I'm not sure what was harder to believe: a sentient stealth bomber, or Jessica Biel as a pilot.

Biel turned down an offer to star in another horror remake (The Fog), and surprised many of her fans by returning to 7th Heaven for the show's series finale in May '06. The death of the TV series that had pigeon-holed her for so long seemed to be the turning point, as Biel finally got a chance to stretch herself alongside Edward Norton in 2006's The Illusionist (in which she's actually pretty good) and Iraq drama Home Of The Brave.

Just recently, she tried her hand at low-brow comedy by appearing in I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry ('07), which wasn't received very well and it was a role that required her to be gawped at by Adam Sandler while wearing underwear and a cat-suit. Hubba-hubba. The same year, she starred alongside another Hollywood leading man, Nicolas Cage, for sci-fi thriller Next -- which was another damp squib on her filmography.

This year, she's appearing in Powder Blue alongside Forest Whitaker and is currently filming Nailed, for director David O. Russell, and sci-fi animated comedy Planet 51 -- after turning down an offer to appear as Wonder Woman in the proposed Justice League movie (which seems to be slowly dying now anyway.) That was a wise move, although Jessica Biel would certainly make a physically-strong choice for Wonder Woman if the Amazonian super-heroine was ever given her own movie. She gets my vote, anyway.

So, while not really much of an acting talent to fuss over, I think Jessica Biel has a good attitude and might surprise people in the future. I really liked her in The Illusionist, and she was the best thing about Texas Chain Saw '03 and Blade 3, while her extraordinary beauty (of mixed Choctaw, English, German, French lineage) certainly makes her very easy on the eye. And you know, even if her film career never really takes off, her male fans will always have sizzling photoshoots like this one to ogle.

Name: Jessica Clara Biel
Birthdate: 3 March 1982
Birthplace: Ely, Minnesota, USA

Saturday, 26 April 2008

DOCTOR WHO 4.4 – "The Sontaran Stratagem" (Part 1 of 2)

Writer: Helen Raynor
Director: Douglas Mackinnon

Cast: David Tennant (The Doctor), Catherine Tate (Donna), Freema Agyeman (Martha), Christopher Ryan (General Staal), Rupert Holiday Evans (Colonel Mace), Dan Starkey (Commander Skorr), Bernard Cribbins (Wilfred Mott), Jacqueline King (Sylvia Noble), Elenor Matsuura (Jo Nakashima), Ryan Sampson (Luke Rattigan), Christian Cooke (Ross Jenkins), Clive Standen (Prvt. Harris), Wesley Theobald (Prvt. Gray), Rad Kaim (Worker) & Elizabeth Ryder (ATMOS Voice)

The Doctor is urgently called back to Earth by Martha Jones, as the warmongering Sontarans prepare to attack the planet...

"Is that what you did to her; turn her into a soldier?"
-- Donna to The Doctor, on Martha

After last year's disappointing Daleks In Manhattan/Evolution Of The Daleks two-parter (good ideas, weak execution) writer Helen Raynor tries her luck again in another epic two-part story; this one contemporised and involving lesser-known classic Who villains The Sontarans, first seen in 1973s The Time Warrior...

Doctor Who has a long history of finding ways to turn innocent-looking people or innocuous items into deadly weapons and enemies, and that's exactly what The Sontaran Stratagem counts on with its ATMOS device. These "Atmospheric Omissions Systems" are now attached to the world's 800 million vehicles, but their environmentally-friendly appearance (and helpful in-built sat-navs) are actually miniature Trojan Horses for a devastating alien attack...

The Doctor (David Tennant) has to cut short a TARDIS-driving less with Donna (Catherine Tate), after receiving a phone call from former-companion Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman), who's now a qualified doctor, engaged to Tom Millington (the handsome soldier seen in Last Of The Time Lords) and working for UNIT. She's calling because she needs The Doctor's help in identifying the origin of the ATMOS devices, after 52 people simultaneously died worldwide from some kind of poisoning whilst driving ATMOS-equipped vehicles.

The Sontaran Stratagem works on a number of levels for fans of the show:

1 -- it's obviously great to see Martha Jones back (her character so badly fudged after a great introduction last year), although her interim appearances on Torchwood means her reappearance isn't as exciting as it could have been.

2 -- the prospect of seeing two companions together is interesting to see play out, but the script is quick to shoot down any antagonism between Donna and Martha. I suppose that's fair, as both women are adults, Donna's yet to stamp her authority as a companion, and Martha's moved on from The Doctor -- but it still seemed like a missed opportunity in some ways. I actually think the writers shied away from having two companions bickering (thus fuelling anti-Donna sentiment from Martha fans), which is fair enough.

3 -- the return of a popular Who villain like the Sontarans is bound to get old-school fans salivating at how modern techniques can breathe life into these potato-headed, cloned super-soldiers... who were always hamstrung by low-budget effects in the 70s/80s.

After a muted performance last week, The Doctor is back on top form as he's brought up to speed on events from Martha and UNITs Colonel Mace (Rupert Holliday-Evans), who has just led an assault on an ATMOS manufacturing plant looking for answers. Yes, there's a sinister underbelly to the ATMOS factory, but it's not quite as clichéd as usual – although it does once again involve a secret room. Inside, two UNIT soldiers find a faceless, naked human submerged in a tub of green, stinking goo. Curious.

Martha imparts some advice to Donna about ensuring her family know about her adventures, so Donna decides to head home to catch up with her family. With Martha engaged with UNIT-related matters elsewhere, The Doctor actually spends a large chunk of the episode with a new "companion", in the shape of UNIT grunt Ross (Christian Cooke). Together, they investigate Rattigan Academy, the abode of young genius Luke Rattigan (Ryan Sampson), the teenage creator of ATMOS who's in cahoots with the orbiting Sontarans, led by General Staal (Christopher Ryan).

The performances are all very good here. As I mentioned, David Tennant is really back on form after a slight dip last week, as Helen Raynor's script gives him more opportunities for inventive wordplay, jokes, and fuel for the impish glee Tennant excels at. Without a decent script, Tennant always brings enthusiasm and playfulness to things, but he's at his best when the strength of the dialogue matches his performance.

A scene where he mistakenly thinks Donna has decided to leave him for good, after such a short time, before it dawns on him she just nipping home for a few hours, was beautifully done. And only Tennant could get away with puns like "intruder-window" after teleporting aboard the Sontaran ship, which would only cause eye rolls in lesser hands, but got a big smile from me.

Catherine Tate is pushed into the background rather a lot, as she's not that instrumental to the Sontaran-focused plot. Her trip back home to Chiswick, to see her Gramps (Bernard Cribbins) and mother Sylvia (Jacqueline King), wasn't particularly interesting, although it was amusing when Donna realized her Gramps has already met The Doctor (during Voyage Of The Damned) and her mother remembers him from her wedding reception (in The Runaway Bride). If there's one thing Donna's elevation to companion status has achieved as an added bonus, it's the loss of wearisome introductions between the Time Lord and his companion's extended family.

Freema Agyeman can be slightly limp and occasionally wooden (was that really the best line deliver of "Doctor, I'm bringing you home" the director could choose from?), but she has a strange habit of getting better as you watch. It helps that the adjustment of her character (all done off-screen, but seen in Torchwood this year) has certainly helped, but I don't Martha will return to the TARDIS as a regular ever again – not if she's found her place in life and has a fiancé now. Martha's more proactive and in-charge than we've seen her before here, and it works well – even when she's captured and reverts to being a damsel in distress again. But as a result, Freema's fans get to see a naked clone-Martha covered in slime -- so I doubt there'll be any complaints!

Guest star Christopher Ryan (The Young Ones) is excellent as General Staal – with his voice particularly perfect as a dictatorial "little man", while the make-up for all the Sontarans finally do justice to the idea (which 70s/80s make-up couldn't achieve.) They've always been the silliest-looking Who aliens (with their bullet-shaped heads), but the revamp here works extremely well. And it's nice to have an iconic villain that The Doctor can properly act opposite – as the Daleks and Cybermen (while both great for other reasons) are faceless automatons.

Overall, The Sontaran Stratagem is a strong episode, packed with entertaining moments and lots of Who mythology for older fans to savour. It worked brilliantly as a set-up for next week's The Poison Sky, although plot specifics were slightly too routine and clichéd to fire my imagination. A brilliant Tennant, likeable Agyeman, the presence of UNIT and the wonderful Sontarans ensure there's never a dull moment, but I'm hoping The Poison Sky gets Donna more actively involved and manages to explain Stratagem's less successful elements; like Rattigan's role, the cloning pool, and the Sontarans' ultimate aim...

Whatever next week brings, this is definitely the best opening run of episodes for any new Who season, suggesting the production has found its groove...

26 April 2008
BBC1, 6.20 pm

Friday, 25 April 2008

THE GRAHAM NORTON SHOW 3.2: Martin Sheen & Ed Byrne

Martin Sheen (a.k.a Ramon Estevez!) can be added to the list of ageing American stars who get Graham Norton. Either that, or he's an even better actor than I thought. For me, Norton's appeal in "chat-show mode" is how he can humanize big celebrities (particularly American ones used to their restrictive chat-show formats back home) by engaging them in cheeky, adult banter. It's also fun if they become eager to entertain the crowd; spurred on to become naughty schoolboys.

I'm not sure if all of Sheen's reactions were genuine, or just polite, but he seemed to enjoy himself. It was particular interesting to hear his political thoughts (he's an Obama supporter) and the story about his decision to study at an Irish college for a semester last year was news to me!

A comedy "walk and talk" scene (poking fun at that Sorkin staple from The West Wing) was amusing but contrived -- so it was great to see genuine spontaneity from Sheen (instigated by co-guest Ed Byrne), as he volunteered to replace a cardboard cut-out of himself, to be saved from thrown paint-bombs by Byrne – catapulting himself into harm's way using a trampette. Actually, thinking about it now, was that all planned too? Norton did look genuinely surprised when Byrne and Sheen disappeared to improve the existing game, but what a disaster it would have been had they not!

The one failing with Graham Norton's show (too short at 30-minutes, with 10 minutes more on Sunday – don't ask me why) is the way he has two guests appear together. I think the idea is to create three-way banter (the next step from the way Jonathan Ross peeks backstage to his "green room" to get guest's reactions mid-interview with someone else), but it never works when the guests are at at opposite ends of the fame spectrum. It's rare to find good chemistry between two unrelated guests, so you might as well just stick to the host/guest set-up. Or introduce one later for brief interjections, Paul O'Grady style.

As sporadically-amusing as Byrne is, when you have the star of Apocalypse Now on your show, diverting from his anecdotes to indulge Byrne's stand-up material can only be a bad idea. Better to have given Byrne a 10-minute warm-up slot, and then a sold 20-minutes of uninterrupted Sheen. It may be the old-fashioned way of doing things, but it's tried-and-trusted for a reason.

And what was Cheryl Cole doing at the end? The Black Eyed Peas' Will.I.Am body-popped his way through limp song "Heartbreaker" for a few minutes, before the stick-thin Girls Aloud singer marched onto the stage with a Medusa stare to turn kids to stone, before repeating a lyric dozens of time, then spitting out the word fuck (which she seemed to enjoy doing.) A terrible performance of a bad song by both stars. It was only interesting as the strongest sign yet that Girls Aloud are about ready to call it a day. Cheryl Cole; the new Fergie, or the new Lisa Scott Lee?

24 April 2008
BBC2, 10.00 pm

Box Office Charts: w/e 25 April 2008

In the US: The prospect of seeing Jackie Chan and Jet Li together in martial arts adventure The Forbidden Kingdom secures it a #1 debut, beating off competition from rom-com Forgetting Sarah Marshall, which didn't really do that brilliantly with a $17m gross... crime-drama 88 Minutes, starring Al Pacino, disappoints at #4... and the documentary Expelled, about evolutionary theory, limps in at #10...


(-) 1. The Forbidden Kingdom $21.4m
(-) 2. Forgetting Sarah Marshall $17.7m
(1) 3. Prom Night $8.67m
(-) 4. 88 Minutes $6.96m
(4) 5. Nim's Island $5.69m
(3) 6. 21 $5.52m
(2) 7. Street Kings $4.18m
(6) 8. Horton Hears A Who! $3.51m
(5) 9. Leatherheads $3.05m
(-) 10. Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed $2.97m

In the UK: Fool's Gold can't knock 21 from the top spot, or break the £1m barrier, coming in at #2... Colin Farrell's In Bruges re-enters the chart at #2 (having previously entered the chart a few weeks ago based on its N. Ireland release)... and Mike Leigh's new film Happy-Go-Lucky crawls in at #9...


(1) 1. 21 £1.01m
(-) 2. Fool's Gold £975k
(R) 3. In Bruges £638k
(-) 4. Street Kings £619k
(2) 5. Son Of Rambow £583k
(4) 6. The Spiderwick Chronicles £552k
(5) 7. Step Up 2 The Streets £514k
(3) 8. 27 Dresses £407k
(-) 9. Happy-Go-Lucky £385k
(7) 10. Horton Hears A Who! £344k


An accountant is introduced to a sex club by his lawyer friend, and becomes implicated in a woman's disappearance and a multi-million dollar heist. Thriller starring Ewan McGregor, Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams and Maggie Q.

A blind violinist receives an eye implant that enables her to see into the supernatural world. Horror starring Jessica Alba, Alessandro Nivola and Parker Posey.

A man splits from his girlfriend, then takes a holiday in Hawaii to get over her, only to find his ex is there on holiday with her new rock star boyfriend. Comedy starring Jason Segel, Kristen Bell, Mila Kunis, Russell Brand & Paul Rudd.

An Oxford University professor and a student work together to stop a series of potential murders linked by mathematical symbols. Crime thriller starring Elijah Wood, John Hurt, Burn Gorman, Leonor Watling & Julie Cox.

A coming-of-age story about an outspoken Iranian girl that begins during the Islamic Revolution. French animation.

A veteran soldier returns from a tour of Iraq to find his life turned upside. War dram starring Ryan Phillippe, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Rob Brown, Channing Tatum & Timothy Olyphant.


"What a dreary, forsaken place. Even the fish have left."
-- Malcolm McLaren

Originally intended for primetime ITV last August, reality series The Baron finally arrives on the airwaves 10 months after it was filmed, dumped into a 10:35 timeslot. Since filming ended last July (a TV lifetime ago), former-popstar Suzanne Shaw has won Dancing On Ice, Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren flew out to Australia (but refused to leave his hotel room) for I'm A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here, and EastEnders legend Mike Reid sadly died.

It was Reid's death that put the brakes on The Baron last summer, out of respect for the comic actor's passing -- but now this series, his last TV appearance, is being shown as a tribute with his family's blessing...

The Baron, then. What's it all about? Basically, the parochial fishing village of Gardenstown in north-east Scotland need a new Baron, so 3 celebrities arrive hoping to win the position. Each celeb stays with a family during their stay, while running a political campaign to gather support from the villagers, who will select their Baron in a secret ballot 10 days later.

As you'd expect, there are cultural problems to overcome with the god-fearing villagers. They're an old-fashioned bunch whose religious attitudes cause problems for "godfather of anarchy" Malcolm McLaren – forced to stay with two elderly evangelists who haven’t a clue who he is. The whole experience is something of an ego-crushing experience for Malcolm, really. But it's hard to feel sympathy for a man who admits that St Alban's is as far north as he's ever been. And was it me, or did McLaren wakes up at noon and come downstairs with a face smeared with talcum powder?

Mike Reid is more accepting of the cultural divide and plays his "man of the people" role, in-between cracking jokes that sometimes fall on deaf ears. It helps that he seems genuinely appreciative of the village's rundown, rambling beauty – and people know who he is, which helps him make the biggest impact. And, to be frank (no pun intended), he's more affable and open to the experience than the others. But I'm not sure how much of this is a "likeable everyman" performance he's honed through the years. Are we seeing Frank Butcher or Mike Reid?

Smiley, bubbly Suzanne is certainly a big hit with the kids -- who follow her around rather excitedly for autographs, possibly just amazed to see an adult without a lattice of wrinkles on their face. Gardenstown has an average age of 63 by the looks of it...

In this first episode, which covered the first few days, the celebs basically introduce themselves to the locals. Mike strolls around the village, cracking gags in the local Spa (ooh, the tumbleweeds) and joshing with drinkers in the pub, before unsettling a vicar who overhears his plan to introduce 24-hour drinking if he wins. Suzanne is all teeth as she bounces door-to-door meeting people. Malcolm decides his only chance at victory lies with securing the underclass vote, so he hones in on a leather-clad middle-aged man for a chat.

The main "task" involved giving a speech to the community in the town hall. Mike trots out his catchphrase ("Paaaaat!") and endeared himself with humble, respectful words about the sense of community in Gardenstown. Suzanne speaks honestly about how much she has to learn about village life and being a baron(ess). Malcolm's speech is full of words that go over the heads of most people (English is a second language for some, too), but they certainly understand his worrying claims to be "wicked" and a "bad boy". Eyes roll as they listen to the sinner in their midst. Pitchforks at the ready...

The audience write anonymous comments on slips of paper after the speeches end, for the celebs to read back home. Mike is disappointed to learn a few villagers don't trust him, or believe his commitment to their village after just a few days. Suzanne is angry someone thinks she has "no substance" (and that they spelt substance wrong.) Malcolm is peeved to find someone has labelled him "strange". The very idea!

I'd certainly label this programme "strange", though -- but it was also oddly beguiling in its cheapness and silliness. It's all a rather weak popularity contest (already a two-horse race between Mike and Suzanne), but there's fun to be had in the village's old attitudes, which give everything a whiff of Royston Vasey with religion.

I predict Suzanne will win, for what it's worth. She's got the youth vote sewn up and her cheeriness will endear her to much of the older generation. Mike can probably count on old fans (and there are plenty there), but might find he comes across as a little "fake". As for Malcolm... well, I think I can hear the villagers constructing their Wicker Man already.

24 April 2008
ITV1, 10.35 pm