Best Podcast episodes of 2019 (part 2)

Having yesterday considered the best episodes of Reply All, today I’m moving on to the crème of the other podcasts out there:

5) Can My Stutter Be Cured? [Crowd Science]

A touching look at a group of patients struggling to overcome stammering.

4) The Fictional Presidencies of Hilary Clinton [Primetime]

Emily VanDerWerff uses popular TV shows to analyse America’s strange relationship with Hilary Clinton. Could the same women really inspire both Lesley Knope and Claire Underwood?

3) Mrs Sherlock Holmes [Criminal]

Criminal specialises in true crime stories that avoid straightforward mystery tales. Nonetheless, episode does raise the question why no one has made a TV series based on the life of Grace Humiston, a New York heiress born in 1869, who, despite her gender, became not only a crusading lawyer but also a famed criminal investigator?

2) Don’t Accentuate the Positive [Happiness Lab]

Anyone who finds the Onion headline “Perky Optimist Brings Joy Wherever She Leaves” as funny as I do, is sure to find validation in this episode. Yale psychologist, Dr Laurie Santos uses research and anecdotes to make the simple, but somehow still counterintuitive point, that only imaging success leaves us unprepared for failure and ultimately makes us more miserable.

1) The Missing Crypto Queen and the Dropout

I’m going to mess about with the format of this list in two ways for this one. Firstly, I am choosing two podcasts not one. I’m also choosing whole series rather than individual episodes. However, these two podcasts are both compelling and make a fascinating pairing.

They both centre on the women behind multi-billion dollar scams. Elizabeth Holmes won plaudits as “the new Steve Jobs” and persuaded some of the richest and most famous people in America to put their names and money behind a plan to revolutionise blood testing, which rested on devices that did not work and were probably physically incapable of ever doing what Holmes claimed they could. Ruja Ignatova sold an imaginary crypto currency to thousands of people around the world.

Ignatova was likely a con artist from the start and very possibly working in league with organised criminals throughout. Holmes appears to have been more a narcist, who genuinely convinced herself she could fake it until she made it. What unites them was their ability to harness the mythos and tropes of Silicon Valley to prevent their victims properly scrutinising the product they were selling.

Going out with a misfire

Sherlock’s final episode was by far its worse

 

Author’s note: I meant to publish this close to the time Sherlock‘s finale was broadcast but was travelling and I got distracted. Hope at least some of you are still interested in reading it.

<Spoilers>

I was six when my Dad started reading me Conan Doyle as bedtime stories. So if I describe myself as a lifelong Sherlockian that is only a very mild exaggeration. As nerds tend to be, I am extremely exacting when it comes to adaptations of my obsession and I was sceptical of the whole notion of a modern update of the character. Despite that I almost immediately came to adore Sherlock.  It was clearly made by people who knew the source material and had captured its spirit. At one point I wrote that:

The idea that we are living in a golden age of telly is now commonplace. The programs used as evidence of this are typically American cable shows like Breaking Bad and Mad Men. But given Sherlock’s fantastic writing, acting and plotting it deserves to be up there too.

I kept faith with it when it began taking a lot of flak. The quality undeniably dropped in the third season but it could only be realistically deemed as bad if judged by its own stellar standards. The mysteries were definitely less exquisitely crafted than before and indeed seemed mostly to function as playground for the characters but as those characters were still a riot to watch that was hardly a fatal flaw. Sherlock was still soaring, just at a lower altitude than before.

Therefore, I am rather disappointed to report that its final episode is genuinely poor. Not less good, not worse but actually bad.

It was not totally without merit. As has often been the case, even when the  narrative failed the actors still delivered. It was genuinely sad to see Molly being humiliated again, Mycroft trying to sacrifice himself and Moriarty being theatrically reptilian as per usual. But these character moments didn’t really lead anywhere. Indeed, Molly’s appearance felt less like a fitting send off than a final insult and Moriarty seemed to be there mostly as a form of fan service.

And much of the narrative depended on undermining the coherence of the characters. You or I might not notice that we are repressing memories or looking at an optical illusion simulating glass rather than real glass, but the preceding four series have made it clear that Sherlock would have. However, his unexplained intellectual dive was nothing compared with his brother’s, who goes from being established as the smartest character in this universe to being so dumb that he lets his evil genius sister meet Moriarty without supervision!

A bigger problem, however, was that the proceedings seemed to be in the wrong genre. It appeared to be set in a Bond villain’s lair run by a opponent nearer in conception to something from a horror movie and in execution to something from Doctor Who. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with genre shifts – executed well they can make a show – but a finale is an odd place for one and the effect was jerky and discordant. The whole episode felt contrived and overwrought.

The whole episode felt contrived and overwrought. The first half was rushed and marked by abrupt shifts in location and tone. And once we got to the meat of the story it hardly felt worth it: facing off against Euros felt less like the organic end to Sherlock’s journey than a contrivance to drag him there. It all seemed rather daft. At one point an exploding drone forces the heroes to leap from the windows of Baker Street accompanied by terrible CGI flames. In another, the villain appears to possess the power of mind control. And as already mentioned the Holmes brother’s intellects take a dive for no reason. That such a smart and entertaining show has apparently ended with a collage of dumb, unsatisfying moments is a grave disappointment.

Put the Now Show out of its mediocrity

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The show was great but is now banal and complacent. It’s time for Radio 4 to ditch it.

I can understand why the commissioners at Radio 4 want to keep the Now Show going. It’s an institution. It began airing when Clinton was in the White House and has clocked up a remarkable 44 series since. It is one of the channels most recognisable programs and the live recordings are very popular. And most of all it has produced some phenomenal comedy.

Take this wonderfully vitriolic skit about BT by Marcus Brigstocke:

Or John Finnemore cutting to the core of the Eurozone crisis in the funniest way possible:

Or loads of stuff from Mitch Benn:

Nonetheless, the show’s existence should not be dragged out into a second Clinton presidency. When I listen to new episodes my main impression is how stale it’s become. After two decades, Punt and Dennis seem to be on autopilot and lacking in new ideas. A joke whose punchline can’t be guessed by the halfway point is a rarity indeed.

I meant to write this piece a week ago. However, last week’s episode made so little impact that by the time I began drafting, I’d forgotten what was in it. So this week I made a particular effort to remember what I heard. And you know what? I still can’t find much to say about it. It keeps going for half an hour because it needs to not because it wants to. The best part was Mitch Benn returning for a song about the recent spate of celebrity deaths but it felt like something produced by a Mitch Benn tribute act rather than the man himself. In recent years the best parts of episodes have often been the guest comedians. This week Jessica Ransom had some good material about Sam Smith incorrectly claiming to be the first LGBTQ person to win an Oscar and she was the only person to bring any sense of freshness (or indeed diversity to the proceedings). But she meandered and was undermined by her doubts about whether or not to skewer her subject. For the remaining twenty or so minutes Punt and Dennis just seemed to be avoiding dead air. They seemed out of their depth trying to do a Stewart/Colbert style interview with an academic expert on AI. Overall, it just reinforced my impression that the show now aims for polite chuckles rather than proper laughs, and can only get those with jokes that are apparently delivered by rote.

Despite this the Now Show remains one of the greatest shows in Radio 4’s history. Nonetheless, if something has ‘Now’ in the title, it can’t seem stuck in the past. If Punt and Dennis have mentally checked out, they should be encouraged to actually do so. The Now Show might seem like a dependable staple but these days its achieving consistency mostly in mediocrity. It’s time for the BBC to go on the hunt for a new format with some new talent and a renewed edge.

A Eulogy for Moffat’s Dr Who

Dr Who has never been better than it is now.

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This is my second post this week about Steven Moffat’s tenure as Dr Who showrunner and the controversy that surrounds it. The first dealt with the charge of sexism both in his writing and in his public comments and mounted a defence of him that conceded his critics were mostly correct.

Today I’m moving from this moral argument to discussing the merits of his run on Doctor Who as art and entertainment. Here I feel able to offer a far more fulsome defence.

I realise that puts me in a minority and the weight of opinion among viewers is that the show got worse when Moffat replaced Russell T. Davies. Before I unfurl my argument against that position, please allow me to acknowledge it has points in its favour.

The Davies era has a lot to commend it. For starters, it brought the Dr Who back. It has some indisputably great episodes like Blink and Midnight. It also had a vibrancy that the show’s struggled to regain since. And Tennant’s charisma allowed the show to blast past points where the writing and directing were rather weak.*

Conversely, what has come since has had its flaws. Moffat’s difficulty writing convincing female characters is lamentable not only in and of itself but because it prevented him nailing certain arcs, in particular River Song’s. And while Smith is an impressive actor and a capable Doctor, he wasn’t the right muse for Moffat. This may be why the show felt very tired by the time Smith’s final series ended. Fortunately, the 50th anniversary and Capaldi’s arrival rejuvenated it.

Nonetheless, for my money Moffat’s tenure – and especially the two series with Capaldi in the lead – are Who at its best. They represent the show rising to the challenge of existing during ‘the golden age of television’. It became bolder, darker and more ambitious. That arguably made it a worse fit for casual family viewing on a Saturday evening – which may partially explain falling domestic audiences. But the swing to that roundabout was that it became a true global hit. And the two most recent series are the first time one could objectively argue the show matched up to the best Sci-fi and fantasy TV produced in the US.

The most obvious sign of this was Moffat allowing story arcs to become more complicated. Indeed, it’s arguable that the Davies era series did not have proper plot arcs at all. Character arcs yes; the Doctor and the companions evolve in ways that can only be fully perceived when one views a series as a whole. But there’s little sense of a plot growing across multiple episodes. True there would often be some hint as to the two-part finale written into earlier episodes. But oblique mentions of ‘Torchwood’ or ‘Harold Saxon’ are foreshadowing rather than narrative developments for the simple reason that they don’t actually develop.

Moffat’s decision to move away from that approach and embrace more densely textured arcs is the most frequently criticised aspect of his work. It is probably true that it alienates occasional viewers. But if a writer assumes that their viewers are invested in the show – watching it regularly and paying attention – then they can repay that investment. The arcs allowed for mysteries that had time to mature and could be mulled over between episodes. There’s also the gratifying moment when – like a gymnast landing gracefully after an impossible pirouette – Moffat ties what look like a mess of random threads into a convincing and surprisingly neat bow. That was true even of the otherwise disappointing series 7. The finale on Trenzalore brought together the ‘impossible girl’, ‘great intelligence’ and ‘name of the Doctor’ storylines in a surprisingly natural, economic and affecting way. And then on top of all of it provided a cliffhanger to lure us into the 50th anniversary.

That hints at another strength of the Moffat era: reliability. While Smith was the Doctor there were a fair number of bad episodes – indeed the one with the pirates is arguably the worst of all – but when it really counted the episodes would be good. The first one would start as you hoped it would go on, mid-season cliffhangers left you intrigued, and finales ended on a high note. Contrast that with, say, a muddled load of nonsense about the Daleks dragging planets through space in order to power a bomb that destroys the universe. And in the Capaldi era things have gotten better still: they’ve stopped making bad episodes. Sure there are mediocre ones like Kill the Moon but they all have something to like about them.

And that’s not the only way the show has improved recently. It’s become more experimental, trying out everything from one handers to episodes that play in cinemas. Not only is this ability to regenerate itself – geddit! – essential for a show going into its tenth season but these high concept episodes are often the most impressive. OK, Sleep No More didn’t really work but look back to Blink or Midnight, or more recently Heaven Sent. I look forward to seeing how the status quo is upended in Moffat’s final series.

Equally important has been the shift in tone. For all their success, Davies’s series often mistook goofiness for charm, and melodrama for emotion. Moffat’s Who has a more otherwordly feel: more like rich, resonant and dark fairytales than anything else. Sadder and scarier, with a more elusive appeal that was all the greater when you found it.  Which, if you ask me, is what the tales of travellers through space and time should be like.

 

*It’s not really a point that needs making for the argument I’m making here but Davies was commendably committed to equal on-screen representation. The show has become lamentably whiter, straighter and more male since Moffat took over.

Just how did the BBC’s popularity become an argument against it?

The BBC’s popularity, both in the UK and abroad, should be welcomed not disparaged.

The political soundtrack surrounding the BBC has once again turned ominous. John Whittingdale. The Culture Secretary has implied that the Corporation has become too large and has strayed from its core mission. He’s even discussed moving from the licence fee to a subscription model.

Responding to this torrent of depreciation in an article for Den of Geek, Simon Brew skewers the most counter-intuitive argument that’s made against the Corportation:

Yet it seems the popularity of the BBC – certainly in the current political climate – may yet be its Kryptonite. There appears to be a growing feeling amongst the current government that the BBC should be using its substantive receipts from the licence fee to fund more niche programming, rather than chasing ratings. In the last month, we’ve learned that over £600m from the BBC’s coffers is set to fund the licence fee for over 75s, at a time when job cuts at the corporation are already being announced. Yet that’s just the beginning of what most concede to be times of real change for the organisation.

Ultimately, on the surface at least, it’s the high ratings that continue to paint a target on the BBC’s back. The argument runs that the BBC should use the bulk of its money – as it actually does, but let’s go with it for a second – on more niche programming. Why spend the money on shows like Doctor Who and EastEnders, when there’s no commercial organisation that wouldn’t? (overlooking, of course, the fact that the BBC took a gamble on both to start with. And that through its most popular show, EastEnders, it’s given a voice to issues that struggle otherwise to get an airing).

It’s not tricky to see the road ahead with the argument here, and it doesn’t point to a happy future for the corporation. Let’s say the BBC stops mixing in populist output amongst its content. It would be fair to assume that its ratings would drop. When said ratings drop, in comes the next argument: why should everyone have to pay a licence fee, when the programmes just aren’t as popular any more?

I not only wholeheartedly agree with this argument but actually think it can also take on a global dimension. I’ve already blogged this week about how the BBC helps to raise the UK’s prestige and status around the world. We tend to think of this as being about news but it’s much wider than that. Top Gear has/had (?) a larger audience than the entire World Service. Budget cuts may already have forced the BBC to stop broadcasting in Mandarin (because Mandarin speaking people aren’t an important audience right?) and the Communist Party may block its website but there’s still a Sherlock themed café in Shanghai. So even if you think ITV can pick up the slack at home, you should still want the BBC to flex those mass appeal muscles so it can remain popular abroad.

Indeed, this is part of the reason why a subscription model misses the point. Whether or not you watch the programs the BBC makes, you are still benefiting from the work it does as an ambassador for our country.

5 reasons why this season of Dr Who was the best so far

Season 8 of Dr Who recently finished. It saw the show rejuvenate itself and reach new heights.

A month or so before Dr Who returned this summer, I opined to a friend that I wasn’t really a Dr Who fan anymore. It was just the methadone for my Sherlock addiction. I suspect what drove this feeling was the fact (and it pretty much was a fact) that by the end of its seventh season it had come to feel rather tired. It felt like it was not only running out of ideas but also of ways to repackage old ones.

What a change the past 12 episodes have been. A new Doctor, a new Clara and a fresh approach made it unmissable telly. Here are some of the ways it topped all its predecessors.

Oh and be warned:

 

 

1. The Best Doctor

Ecclestone, Tenant and Smith played the Doctor; Capaldi is now (for me at least) the Doctor. He inhabited the character and his millennium of flaws, hopes, contradictions, wisdom, insecurities and memories. Previous Doctors oscillated between light and shade. Capaldi didn’t need to because he could be both at once. We should not have expected no less from the man who brought us Malcolm Tucker: an awful blend of hilarity and hate. Capaldi’s Doctor is essentially the inverse still: still a figure of both tragedy and farce but this time amounting to a mighty angel not a nasty little demon. He’s a creature so lofty that his at once absurd, intimidating and inspiring. That’s a lot for an actor to convey but Capaldi did it faultlessly.

2. The Best Companion

Now here’s something I didn’t expect to be writing. Last season’s Clara was the worst companion new Who had given us. This time round she was the best. She was no longer a puzzle to be solved masquerading as a manic pixie dream girl. Rather she a fully developed character. And quite a character at that!

Gone was any sense that the companion was the Doctor’s human pet.  Clara came to as to being the Doctor’s equal that any human is ever going to get. She was even able to pass for him when necessary and to put him in his place if that was likewise required. At one point she remarked “you’re not my boss, you’re my hobby”, at another warned him that “if you speak for me again, I will detach something from you” and most pointedly condemned his decisions during “kill the moon”. She was not angry with him prior to show how things really were. He took one view, she found that morally repulsive. And the show never did anything to undermine the validity of her viewpoint.

The character and Jenna Coleman’s superb acting (where was that last season!?) were sufficiently strong that they overcame this run’s main weakness: Danny Pink. He seemed intriguing at the start and he was noble at the end. However, in between he was bland at best and dislikeable at worst.

3. The best/worst monsters

Since Dr Who has returned its best monsters have been those built around a single idea: the Weeping Angels (‘don’t blink’) and the Silence (‘you can’t remember’). By contrast, many of the weakest episodes are those which have tried to restore classic monsters like the Sontarans and Cybermen to their past glories.

The writers seem to have noticed this and we had a slew of successful conceptual monsters: robots you have to hold your breath to escape, a Mommy which kills you after 90 seconds, fear itself and most chillingly creatures which exist only in two dimensions.

4. The Best Big Bad

What do you get when you cross Heath Ledger’s Joker with Mary Poppins? Michelle Gomez’s version of the Master it turns out.

I think comparing Missy to the Dark Knight’s villain makes sense because the secret to both is that they are so unhinged that we’re denied the comfort of being able to guess what they might do next. Rather than maniacally pursuing plans to conquer the universe like Simm’s Master did, Gomez has the more alarmingly personal mission of fucking the Doctor up. Witness, for example, her cruel lie about knowing the location of Gallifrey

And the scene where Missy kills Osgood (*sob,sob*) had the same gasp inducing nastiness as the Joker making a pencil disappear. It was probably the darkest moment the show has given us so far.

 5. More consistency

Dr Who has always been a difficult show to be a fan of.  Giving up 45 minutes of your life to watch an episode has always been a gamble.  You might get pure genius like Blink or Midnight but you were equally likely to have to watch excruciating flops like the Curse of the Black Spot or Love & Monsters.

Season 8 broke this pattern. Sure there were weak episodes but they at least had redeeming features. Kill the Moon was the bottom of the barrel. It was spoilt by unnecessary lunar spiders and an unwanted terrestrial teen. But it did set up the important and effective moral clash between the Doctor and Clara which I mentioned earlier.

And more importantly such quality control failures were rarer than they had been in the past.

Conclusion

Dear Stephen Moffat and BBC Wales,

More of this kind of thing please! 🙂

Love,
Mark

Some questions about series 4 of Sherlock

*Warning – what follows contains spoilers not only for Sherlock but also a number of the original stories: namely the Empty House, His Last Bow, Wysteria Lodge and the Dying Detective*

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When will it be on?

Reports are that the BBC wants it ready for Christmas this year. Which, if true would be quite a change from the two year wait we endured for this series.

Moriarty WTF?

Is he actually alive? If so how? Why has he decided to ask the whole nation if they missed him?

Who will the villain be?

Kind of conditional on the answer to the last question. Could be Moriarty himself obviously. I strongly suspect Moriarty’s henchman Sebastian Moran will appear as the dragon if not the big bad. One could imagine a story arch where he tries to take revenge on Holmes for killing Moriarty.

Conan Doyle’s novels and short stories furnish plenty of other options. For example:

  • Don Juan Murillo – deposed dictator now hiding in the English countryside
  • Von Bork – a German spymaster working in Britain on the eve of WWI
  • Culverton Smith – an expert on tropical diseases who uses them as a murder weapon. Chance for a topical story about bioterrorism anyone?

Oh and we’ve already met an ethically dubious character who can match wits with Sherlock: Mycroft!

Will Irene Adler reappear?

She’s popping up a lot in Sherlock’s thoughts for someone who’s not going to.

What part will Mary play?

Surely Sherlock will find it helpful to have his own version of Jason Bourne to hand?

She might even be Moffat’s chance to show he can write strong female character who aren’t fantasies.

But of course as Watson threw the USB stick with details of her past onto the fire, we can safely say that it won’t come back to haunt her! ß sarcasm

Oh and the precedent for her character is not very happy 😦

What stories will they take inspiration from this time?

Sherlock has now done its own very loose adaptation of three out of the four Holmes novels but only a handful of the short stories. That still leaves them an awful lot of material.

Will it be good?

Duh!!!

The Nolanisation of Sherlock

Yesterday’s dark, mind screwing finale makes me suspect that Gatiss and Moffat are taking inspiration from the master of dark, mind screwing cinema – Christopher Nolan

A dark knight of a slightly different sort

Another dark knight

*Warning – what follows contains an abundance of spoilers. Don’t read if you are not caught up on Sherlock*

Before, I move onto the meat of the post, let me offer a short review of last night’s finale: whoa!!!

After a series that – while still brilliant – often felt unassured and unbalanced, this episode was a return to the show’s own high standards. There were moments of exquisite comedy (Sherlock having a girlfriend!) and character development (the reveal of Mary’s past). However, these did not overwhelm the deliciously complex plot as they had done in the Empty Hearse and the Sign of the Three. Oh and Mikkelson landed the role of Magnusson: he was gloriously repellent.

Now onto business. There has been a small moment from the beginning of the Sign of the Three that’s been bugging me since I saw it. In it Lestrade (almost) apprehends a group robbing banks while wearing clown masks. Why I wondered would anyone so conspicuously (and jarringly) rip-off the iconic opening of the Dark Knight for the sake of a single shot lasting a few seconds? After seeing the Last Vow, I suspect it was there as an acknowledgement of an artistic debt.

Nolan has directed a number of excellent and influential films: Inception, Insomnia, the Prestige and most famously the Dark Knight trilogy. His page on TV tropes says “his films tend to emphasize themes of obsession, deception, guilt, and order versus chaos.” That doesn’t sound a million miles away from the themes of Sherlock.

As this post at Sherlockology notes the Holmes and Batman have something of a shared history. Batman and his supporting characters were partially inspired by the inhabitants of Holmes’ universe. Conversely, a poster for a 60s Sherlock Holmes film branded him the ‘original caped crusader’ and Holmes features in a number of comics. So someone rebooting Holmes in the wake of Nolan’s gargantuanly successful rebooting of Batman was going to be influenced by them.

Perhaps the most obvious example of this, is the similarity of Andrew Scott’s Moriarty to Heath Ledger’s Joker. Both depict their villain as flamboyantly unhinged, reptilian exhibitionists who produce enormous schemes so they can “watch the world burn.”

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However, with this series it’s felt like more has been going on than just osmosis from one reboot to the other. The last two episodes have played around with chronology, a Nolan trademark. And now that we are getting to see inside Sherlock’s mind palace – it is looking an awful lot like a dream sequence out of Inception. Witness, for example, Holmes falling backwards in slow motion while his thoughts rage on at normal speed. A bit like this:

The BBC4 documentary that aired after last night’s episode featured Jeremy Brett – who played Holmes in Grenada’s adaptation of the stories – explaining that you can only see Holmes’ thoughts through “cracks in the façade.” By utilising Nolan’s technique for depicting someone’s mental ‘architecture’ on screen, Moffat and Gatiss can do something different. We plunge into Sherlock’s mind and that allows us to see that it’s a different place from what the surface might suggest. We know he’s extraordinarily rational but I’d always imagined that to be the result of him thinking without emotion in the manner of a computer. Actually what we saw in the sequences inside Sherlock’s mind was that it was a place overran by disturbing thoughts and emotions. It is only by controlling these that Sherlock can achieve his extraordinary mental feats.

It also showed us a lot about the darker side of the Sherlock-Mycroft relationship. In Sherlock’s head his elder brother seems to be the manifestation of his doubts, constantly rebuking Sherlock for his stupidity. While it seems Sherlock inherited his genius from his mother, his cold and domineering elder sibling appears to be the source of his darkness and peculiarity. Sherlock says later in the episode that Mycroft was “a rubbish older brother” that seems like an understatement.

It is of course quite possible that I’m reading too much into all of this and that Nolan’s work isn’t an influence on the show. It is perhaps a notion I have a weakness for as I’m a huge fan of both. However, I am right then that would be relevant to a debate that I’ll let the Guardian’s Sherlock blog explain:

a piece in the Independent saying you shouldn’t have to concentrate too hard to enjoy Sherlock (as if the past two decades of outstanding television, from The Wire to EastEnders, haven’t repaid viewers for taking more than a passing interest), as well as a more reasoned suggestion by Mark Lawson that shows such as Sherlock and Doctor Who should always be seeking to reach new fans and not just pleasing their online hardcore.

However, as the blog’s author Sam Wolfson later suggests

I think we’ve tired of the traditional detective format, well trodden by Poirot/Morse/Creek/CSI, where a single case is wrapped up with a few clues within one episode. Sherlock fiddling with that format is part of the reason for its success, and I’m fully on board with it continuing in ever-more brash ways.

And a success it has been. There isn’t a trade-off between demanding more of an audience and broadening it. Viewers for this series of Sherlock are actually up.

To see why I am mentioning this in relation to Nolan consider the following from Guardian film critic Mark Kermode:

Is Christopher Nolan the saviour of spectacularly intelligent cinema? On the evidence of his most recent work, the answer is an unequivocal “yes”. Having used a bestselling comic-book franchise to create a pair of movies (Batman Begins and The Dark Knight) that are perhaps best described as art-house flicks posing as blockbuster fare, Nolan cashed in his hard-earned artistic and financial freedom with Inception (2010, Warner, 12), the $160m auteur vehicle that proves really expensive movies don’t have to be stupid to be successful.

Likewise Sherlock is ‘spectacularly intelligent’ TV and it’s doing exceedingly well. And if smart TV is drawing on ideas from one of the smartest guys in cinema then that’s a cause for further celebration.

 

 

 

Some Thoughts on Sherlock’s Return

*Spoilers, spoilers, spoilers, spoilers, spoilers, spoilers, spoilers, spoilers, spoilers, spoilers, spoilers, spoilers, spoilers*

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1. They got me

I doubly fell for the fake solution in the first scene. I was feeling very smug when it came up because my theory had been that it was Moriarty’s body that fell from the roof.

2. Gatiss and Moffat were even more cheeky than you thought

Not only did they provide us with a fake solution but made it a surprise even though pictures of it had actually appeared in the paper. Oh and in a Guardian interview they along with Andrew Scott basically gave away that the solution would be disappointingly simple but the way they embedded it into the story would make it seem like a bigger surprise.

3. Are we quite sure we really know what happened?

Are they still screwing with us? I wouldn’t put it past them.

4. It all got rather postmodern

The two fake reveal scenes were based on fan theories. So we had viewers of the show unwittingly writing bits of it!

5. This was one of the less superb episodes

It was still great. All of Sherlock is. And this was undeniably the funniest episode so far and the scene with the bonfire was stunningly tense. However, the foregrounding of the characters did mean that the plot was less dazzlingly than usual.

6. It seems characters are going to be the fore in this series

As next week’s episode resolves around Watson’s wedding that seems to be a given for now.

7. Sherlock is growing

Speaking of characters, the scene where Sherlock discovers that Molly’s fiancé is his doppelganger seemed pretty pivotal. It stood in contrast with the way he’d humiliated her in similar situations before. Could that perhaps suggests he’s gradually softening into something more like the Victorian gentleman of Conan Doyle’s stories.

Given that we have been introduced to Sherlock’s parents, whether we’ll dip into his past. Conan Doyle did in the Adventure of the Gloria Scott and the Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual.

8. Molly seems to have taken on a life of her own

It’s possible that Gatiss and Moffatt always intended to bring Molly into the emotional heart of the story. But it doesn’t seem like it. Louise-Brealey, the actress who plays her, said in an interview after the last series that the “reaction to Molly this series has completely taken me by surprise. I did my day or two filming, like last time. But this year – because of the frankly brilliant writing – I think people have noticed her. Which is amazing.”

Her explanation is that “Molly works because, while Watson is “the audience”, Molly is every woman of a certain age sitting at home on the settee fantasising about running their hands through Benedict Cumberbatch’s hair.” I’d disagree slightly with this. To an extent I think she is the audience – both male and female – in that she is the person who’d love to be part of Sherlock’s adventures but (usually) doesn’t get to be.

9. The roles for women are getting better

Moffat has been criticised for not being able to write women in part because of Sherlock.

Last night’s episode was a step forward in that regard. For starters as we’ve already noted Molly is getting a larger and more complicated role. Watson and Mrs Hudson’s reunion was the first time she seemed like a rounded character rather than a comic relief or a plot contrivance. And we were introduced to Mary Morstan who gets to be rather less drippy than she is in the books.

10. The literal meaning of a phrase trick

An underground network turned out to literally be a network in the Underground. That’s rather reminiscent of how the Doctor having a secret “he would take to his grave” meant he would actually visit his tomb.

11. There’s bound to be a fourth series

Moffat has said ‘we had to inform the BBC that Martin and Benedict had commissioned a new series. They signed themselves up. They both announced that they were carrying on – so that’s good’. Indeed the two leads are apparently already optioned for a fourth series

As last night’s episode got more than 9 million viewers, it’s hard to see the BBC not exercising that option.

12. Is this the best TV drama around now?

The idea that we are living in a golden age of telly is now commonplace. The programs used as evidence of this are typically American cable shows like Breaking Bad and Mad Men. But given Sherlock’s fantastic writing, acting and plotting it deserves to be up there too.

Radio 4 pays homage to Buffy

Over the holiday season, the BBC has been being good to geeks. Alongside the lavish feasts of a Dr Who Christmas special and Sherlock at last returning, they also gave us last night’s Front Row as a little treat.

For me there were two highlights:

  • Head recounting how Giles, Spike and the other British characters were able to swear realistically because the network executives and the FCC had no idea what “bollocks” and “pillock” meant!
  • Whedon laying into Twilight and its imitators. He implied that they represented a backlash against Buffy that sought to inoculate people against its message by offering them “romance, the supernatural and the lure of the vampire” without the feminism. They replace “self-actualised female heroines” with “very passive girls choosing between the cute boys” who instead of “getting it done…stares at stuff.”

N.B Alderman talks about the program here.