The first series of Being Human (BBC 3) made the same mistake in every episode. The tale of a ghost, vampire and werewolf sharing a house began each episode in the manner of the trite sitcom that brief description suggests. Oh, the wacky adventures they must have! But as each hour-long story progressed, it became darker and darker, finishing with a dramatic cliffhanger that ensured you’d watch the next. And yet somehow by the next week it would have reset back to its kooky sitcom cheeriness, constantly betraying its own potential.
The final episode was different. (Spoilers follow.) Enough threads needed to be brought together that writer/creator Toby Whithouse was forced to begin with drama and stay there, and it was a dramatically better programme. Optimistically, the first episode of the second series managed the same.
The one thing Russell T Davies can write is sentimentality. And that’s no small compliment. The word is more often used detrimentally, a way to dismiss something: oh, it was too sentimental. But done well, and consistently when he wrote it was, it can carry an episode just above the mire. There’s a reason why just seeing Rose is a big deal – he wrote his heart out on the Rose storyline, and it still carries an impact now. And while Catherine Tate’s success in Doctor Who was to somehow not be hateful (which offered her a surprising amount of grace), it was only in Wilf that RTD managed to repeat the success of Rose as completely. So despite a story that went beyond all known limits of bullshit, Davies’ final episode managed not to be that bad.
And thank goodness there was the sentimentality, because good grief it didn’t have a plot to carry it. While it at least made coherent sense (in the same way a ball rolling down a hill makes coherent sense – it’s going to keep rolling then eventually stop) it didn’t make any narrative sense. So the Master turned the whole world into himself, but then that’s undone with the magic time gauntlet, never mind eh? In fact, the Master’s attack of all humanity wasn’t to make any clever changes to humans, but simply to illustrate that the Deus Ex Machina Gate works. Donna had her memories come back and was immune to the Master so she could, um, stumble about a bit and then forget? The Timelords are back, but oh, no they’re not. And so on.
Well, I can’t tell you how honoured I am that people ask me to say how unutterably shit each episode of Doctor Who proves to be. So here goes:
Wow, how unutterably shit. Russell T Davies is now only one episode away from his oh-so necessary death, before he gloriously regenerates into Steven Moffat this Spring. It seems he intends to go out in a giant celebration of everything that has made him one of the most tiresome and incapable writers. The End Of Time Part 1 was bad in ways previously unexplored by science.
Interestingly though, this penultimate RTD episode isn’t bad in the ways his smug ghastliness normally manifests. Instead he even seems to be bad at being bad. We can normally rely on Davies for some vile preachy speeches, a sanctimonious scene that comments on the errs of our ways, and of course a loud-speaker-bellowed declaration of quite how relaxed and nonchalant everyone is about someone being gay. But in this episode he manages to be terrible at even these.
It seems like good form to sum up the plot at this point in the piece. I’m not sure that this is possible. It appeared to be the work of a seven-year-old. But here goes: “So the Doctor is being naughty right but he visits the Ood in this giant white castle place and they tell him that the Master is coming back and that Bernard Cribbins is sad and so he flies back to Earth but the Master comes back because his wife hasn’t washed her mouth for three years but then she throws this potion right and then the Master goes mad but he gets magic powers and can shoot electricity from his hands what turns into explosions and he can FLY and everything and then there’s these old people who sexually assault the Doctor and there’s burgers cos I like burgers and then the Doctor tells him off but there’s this cross black man and his girlfriend daughter who has this gate from outer space and there’s these green aliens in disguise as humans and then the Master and the gate do this thing and then everyone in the whole world apart from Catherine Tate and the Doctor and Bernard Cribbins turn into the Master and then it ends.”
Question Time this evening will be receiving a slight boost in ratings. With the appearance of the leader of the openly racist British National Party, Nick Griffin, it’s clearly going to be the largest audience the political debate programme will have seen in a long time. What’s not known at this point is what the consequences will be.
Many are arguing that giving the BNP a voice on a respected BBC programme legitimises them, and will increase their popularity. Others counter this by saying his views will be exposed and people will become more aware of the party’s racist and fascist nature. Each likes to accuse the other of patronising the population. But the point where everyone gets caught up is in the figure of 900,000 people who democratically voted for them.
One side likes to argue that these 900,000 people are confused about who the BNP really are, and would not vote for them if they really knew their bigoted values and opinions. Another side likes to argue these 900,000 people want a party who’s willing to stand up for Britain against Europe, or bring in real change, and they’re resorting to the BNP in desperation. What almost no one seems to suggest is the possibility that there are 900,000 hateful racist bigots who voted for a hateful racist party.
Derren Brown’s The Events comes to an end, and without the much-predicted redaction of his stupid and ignorance-promoting claims in previous episodes. There’s thoughts on the series over all below.
But first Friday’s idiocyfest. Derren Brown was going to beat a roulette wheel. Well, let’s just point out a few things before we get started:
- Any casino in the world would be delighted to be identified and filmed because the publicity and advertising would be superb.
- You can’t make a man give you money and then make him forget he did.
- You can’t guess the speed for a roulette ball and predict where it will fall more accurately than a computer.
- You can’t predict where a ball will land after bouncing off many walls in the first seconds of its being thrown.
- You can’t use triangulation of three fixed objects to calculate the speed of a car.
- You can’t guarantee that a man will not notice that he’s £5,000 short in the bank, and therefore you couldn’t set the trick up the way he claimed to.
So Derren claims that he stole £5,000 from an unwitting stranger, on a programme that begins saying there’s no actors or stooges used. (Which rather raises the question: what is a stooge? As Brown said when he met dear Ben last week on film, he volunteered to be on the show. Are volunteers stooges?) He did this by somehow hypnotising him in about three seconds and then instructing him to visit his bank, withdraw the money, then hand it over. Then erases this from the man’s brain. Because apparently Derren Brown is an evil wizard from space, and we’re supposed to just accept this – surely the most extraordinary feat in the whole episode – as something that just happens every day. He’ll now gamble that money “live” (for some reason he can’t talk directly to Ben when he’s in the casino – which seems strange since it would go some way to proving it wasn’t pre-recorded footage and somewhat undermining the purpose of a live event), and potentially win Ben £180,000.
Once again the episode was a mixture of various nice-enough tricks that had nothing whatsoever to do with the final effect, and Brown bullshitting his face off. Oh, apart from one trick – the ball in the squash court. Where he achieved something equally as impressive as the roulette trick – somehow predicting the path of a spherical object being thrown by someone else by making impossible calculations in split seconds and knowing where on the floor it will come to rest – and threw this away midway through the show as a minor step on the way to his final plan. Which was an odd choice.
But of course he doesn’t manage the final trick! What a way to end the series, eh? The man doesn’t win £180,000, and Brown ends his series on a fail. Except of course nothing of the sort happens.
Okay, it’s time. Enough new shows for a rundown. First up, sitcoms:
Community – NBC
I didn’t know what to expect from this. I love Joel McHale on The Soup, but he does seem to struggle with the autocue. It didn’t bode well for proper acting. The pilot was the funniest sitcom I’ve seen in years.
The premise: McHale is a lawyer who has been caught practising without a license. (“I thought you had a degree from Columbia?” “I do, and now I need one from America. And not as an email attachment.”) He’s forced to go to community college. Er, just go with it. Once there he employs his skills at lying and bullshitting people to attempt to breeze through the course, along the way accidentally creating a study group of mismatched students.
It works by a combination of a superb mix of people (including Chevy Chase, oddly), a potential romance, lots of fast-talking cleverness, and an awesome relationship with one of the members of staff played by John Oliver. This last part provides the very best jokes in the pilot episode, which makes it something of a shame he’s then gone from the show by episode two, and absent from the titles. The following episodes have still been funnier than anything else on TV at the moment – it’s testament to quite how stunning the pilot was that it can drop in quality and still be so damned strong. But the pilot – the moment it finished I started it again and laughed as hard the second time. Oh, and it gets even more kudos for having scored its first two episodes with Matt & Kim songs.
I realise I’m wasting energy dissecting the third episode of Derren Brown’s The Events to any great depth.
They show a close up of this woman’s eyes and ask people to draw a shape, and then the letter “O” draw itself on the screen as a slowly appearing circle, etc etc. And then, astonishingly, Brown even instructs people who drew concentric circles to text in, as if after doing this people texting this is some sort of useful evidence.
Once again Brown muddles half truths and glimmers of things we’ve experienced with ludicrous over-played nonsense. So we’re expected to believe he can make a man fall asleep and then steal a TV by drinking his tea at the same time, while insultingly claiming the remarkable, verified ability of some blind people to use echolocation to be in any way related. Of course, most of it, were it not in a programme in which the presenter psychotically flipflopped back and forth between declaring his disbelief in psychic powers and announcing things are happening because of psychic powers, would have been fantastic magic tricks. Here it all feels like part of the propaganda that contributes to his crazed misinformation campaign.
A number of people suggested to me after the disgraceful embarrassment of Derren Brown’s lottery Event that this may be part of his building up to something. That he may have gone in this direction for a reason, with the intention of a big reveal at the end of the series.
I wasn’t convinced. His act has always consisted of performing regular magic tricks with the current vogue of mentalism patter over the top. His act has always been about the grand misdirection of stating his effects are achieved through suggestion, hypnotism, and other baloney, while quietly palming the card. He has always implied that there’s something scientifically verifiable about all manner of woo-woo bullshit, while proclaiming his wishes to denounce woo-woo bullshit. This hypocrisy just seemed to reach a new, grotesque depth with the lottery episode, promoting utter rubbish like automatic writing, and talking complete and utter nonsense about statistics.
But then this week’s episode, so stark-ravingly stupefying, has gone some way toward convincing me that these optimistic people might be right. Because at one point this evening Brown uttered the words, “the energy”.
I know, I know, I witter on about Derren Brown far too much. And I’m going to repeat myself here. But I feel as though I’m circling around the plughole into which I’ll finally plop down with exactly what I want to say about the man.
I’ve gone on before (but a long time ago) about the difference between a magician tricking you, and lying to you. But to quickly reiterate: Magicians aren’t telling the truth, clearly. If I tell you I’ve written a prediction in an envelope, or that I’m producing a ball from your ear, I’m tricking you. It’s not true. But you know that. You know that I’m not psychic, hopefully you don’t believe that anyone is psychic. In fact, the very worst outcome imaginable would be for my trick to legitimise the conmen and charlatans who will steal your money. So instead we enter into this contract. You know I’m not going to tell you the truth, and you’re going to be okay with that. However, this opens an interesting door. How big a lie can I tell?
Say my trick is to know the word someone in the audience is thinking of. If I tell you that I’m not using a stooge in the audience, and I’m using a stooge in the audience, is that okay? The effect is very impressive if I can appear to somehow know the word an unwitting audience member is thinking of. It’s rather extraordinarily less impressive if I can know the word my friend and I agreed on before the show. So we seem to have a rule in this contract that says that while I’ll deceive you, trick you, I won’t openly lie to you about the conditions of the trick.
Now, clearly magicians do. Lazy, tedious magicians do this all the time. But I think most people agree that if they learn this is how a magician achieves his effects – says he doesn’t use camera tricks but does use camera tricks – they lose all interest in them. So we have this muddled set of rules. They’re impossible to pin down, but crudely it’s, 1) the audience agrees to be deceived, and 2) the magician agrees to not tell specific sorts of lies.
Derren Brown has made his career out of exploiting the ambiguity of this. He spins these patters about influencing people’s minds, conditioning, and suggestion. It’s all patter to disguise doing what I think is a perfectly ordinary magic trick. Which is fine, whatever, who cares? It’s a neat way of achieving a great effect.
I’ve recently seen a few episodes of a BBC quiz show called Eggheads. Not being a watcher of daytime TV, it’s a programme that’s passed me by for the six years it’s been on air. But via the magic of iPlayer I discovered it as one of the suggested alternative programmes after my weekly watching of University Challenge and Only Connect.
Obviously there’s not much to say about University Challenge that hasn’t been said ten thousand times before. Perhaps the most interesting aspect for me has been the change from a programme where I stare in amazement at how much the contestants know, to worrying for the future of our planet by how little they know. I should stress I still know far less than they do, but my expectations for what a university’s four chosen representative students should know has gone up. I also have some quite strict rules I would bring in to prevent 60 year old contestants currently studying for their ninth PhD from appearing. It’s flat-out cheating. Having forty extra years, 200% more life, than most contenders is completely imbalanced. Logic would suggest you just have a team of aged professors currently studying for extra qualifications. So to prevent this, when I’m in charge I’ll either institute an age cap of 30 (thus discriminating against myself as much as anyone else), or a maximum combined age for a team that would force them to have children on the team if they picked an old fogey.