Saturday, October 10, 2009

Rough Justice

Amongst all the new dramas beginning this week past on the various terrestrial, cable and satellite channels, there were a few I was interested, if not exactly eager, to see. As things turned out, having gotten so utterly engrossed in the second of Peter Moffat’s five-part Criminal Justice, stripped in across BBC1’s post-watershed schedule this past week, I held everything else back until this weekend simply because, by comparison, it was quite obvious that in most instances they would fall tragically short.

I hadn’t seen all of the first series of Criminal Justice when it was broadcast last year, and hadn’t exactly paid attention when the few episodes I caught were on, simply because I planned to watch the whole run on iPlayer. For reasons that are beyond me now, I missed that window of opportunity. This time I was glued to the box. Having gone out with a couple of lawyers in the past, by midweek I emailed The Blonde with the Butterfly Tattoo to ask whether the overt sexism, bordering on outright misogyny, on display was representative of life in chambers. She replied that sadly it was a pretty good depiction of the law.

Throughout the week Moffat’s script, in tandem with the perfectly judged direction had presented the experiences of Maxine Peake’s emotionally and physically abused housewife as an almost out of body experience. Rather than delivering some gormless polemic at any point, tossing out easy answers, the rhythms of the scenes always left it to the audience to pass their own judgement on the characters motives. After a succession of utterly harrowing episodes, the finale was simply devastating as the trial reached its conclusion.

From a production point of view, the drama benefited by a quite remarkable sound design that helped evoke the central character’s of mind. Perhaps even more remarkable was the subtle use of music, which was especially welcome after having to suffer through the amped up cacophony regularly bashed out by Murray Gold, or that stupid exorcism drama starring Martin Shaw whose score sounded like the whole percussion section had gotten into a massive knock down, drag out throughout its recording.

One evening during the week I caught a trailer for Holby City that featured a clip of two surgeons having a lifeless argument in an operating room. After one told the other to get out, the indignant rebuttal was along the lines of: “You can’t tell me to leave, I’ve just joined this patient’s spine back together!” Faced with that kind of useless drivel, the arrival of Criminal Justice was a reminder of just how brilliant UK drama used to be, and on those rare occasions can still be.

Recovering from Moffat’s gut-wrenching drama, waiting for me on the weekend was Stargate Universe. Oddly enough, the original Stargate movie was on one or other of the channels not that long ago and I caught a few minutes of it. Of course to call it “original” would be a misnomer because at best the film was the end product of blitzing familiar ingredients like Star Wars, Chariots of the Gods and the “Star Gate” sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Although looking back at it now, the production seemed remarkably restrained compared to all the exaggerated disaster porn that the idiot German director has since inflicted upon cinema audiences.

Developed for television as Stargate SG-1, the series very rarely amounted to much and always looked like what would happen if UNIT had taken command of the TARDIS, with all the inevitable predictability that would entail. Back in the 1970s, the BBC or possibly ITV imported short-lived science fiction series like The Fantastic Journey and Logan’s Run, which would follow a motley collection of characters through different environments each week. When Stargate SG-1 first appeared it was quite evident that some writers who worked on those older shows had simply recycled their earlier scripts for this new one.

Because these off-world adventures rarely broke new ground, naturally the series was embraced by the hordes of sci-fi geeks that gladly embrace this sort of fantasy whiz-bang, with all its shiny-shiny bells and whistles, in preference to real human drama. As the years go on and these sorts of shows begin to construct an ongoing, and usually over-complicated, mythology to distract from the inherent emptiness that lies at the heart of this spectacle, the only saving grace usually comes from developing an interesting byplay between characters.

If they could subvert the clichéd archetypes, so much the better, so that rather than using the traditional heroes, who in these shows are always puffing out their chests and striding forward into battle with a look of grim determination, the stories put the onus on someone whose first instinct in a crisis was to run and hide in the nearest broom cupboard. Previously that kind of character would take a backseat to begin with as one of the supporting players, gradually coming to the fore based on how the actor took to the part and, to some degree, audience feedback. Watching Stargate Universe it was immediately obvious who had been lined up for that particular role.

I suppose the one reason for watching the show was simply to see how this next instalment in the franchise had been developed in the wake of Battlestar Galactica, which had shown that television science fiction could push beyond the accepted wisdom of clearly defined heroes going about their daring do-does against villains weighed down under piles of latex. Yes, Stargate Universe was certainly darker in tone than any of the episodes I had caught from the previous incarnations, and one of the military men was introduced banging a subordinate in what looked like a supply cupboard.

But once I pressed play my eyes were taken off the screen as I finished reading an article in The Times’ Saturday Review section and listening to the first couple of bars of the opening music made me think I had put on some original Star Trek by mistake. Perhaps it was meant to be a playful nod to Alexander Courage’s distinctive theme tune, but as the story progressed and the survivors of a surprise alien attack find themselves stranded on a rickety old spaceship billions of light years from home, I suddenly realized I was watching a dull retread of Star Trek Voyager.

I shouldn’t have been surprised because it made perfect sense given that the previous Stargate Atlantis was obviously the franchise’s version of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. With that in mind it kept making me ask why I was inflicting this nonsense upon myself. It looked likely that Battlestar Galactica had influenced the change in style if not the storytelling, but that simply made the show appear at odds with its earlier shows.

Suddenly trying to act all grown up was one thing but it left the characters looking like a bunch of dour-faced kiddies who had been reprimanded for messing about on a bouncy castle. Seeing it through to the end, this was a case of curiosity sending the cat into a vegetative state, and in the end it was criminal to think that was two hours of my life I will never get back.


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