Friday, 28 September 2007

Death of the TV Title Sequence

Den of Geek counted down their Top 10 TV Title Sequences of All Time (Part Two; the winner) this week and mostly got it right, e.g. The Prisoner and Doctor Who are both in the top five, which has to be right. I like the inclusion of The Tomorrow People in the top ten too -- watching that YouTube clip still makes me tingle with a kind of anxious nostalgia.

These days, the art of the great title sequence is dying a death, especially in the USA, and it's a development I am not keen on. I think it goes back to the first season of Lost, which made do with a three-four second mood-graphic instead of a proper title sequence, and the programme is poorer for it. I find myself not wanting to give it the benefit of the doubt. And then Heroes came along last year and tried to do the same thing. If any programme needs a good, old fashioned title sequence to pull you into the excitement of the subject matter, it's Heroes, and imagine how good it could have been, with all those drawings of key characters, and clips of actions of them doing their thing. Now, this year, with several new programmes airing, they are all following Lost's lead, with no decent title sequence. Bionic Woman, Chuck, Journeyman, all of these, this week airing their first episodes, failed to capture the viewers attention with an exciting title sequence. A shame.

Thursday, 27 September 2007

New Bionic Woman

On Exploring our Matrix, James McGrath reckons that the new, reimagination of The Bionic Woman, which premiered on NBC in the USA last night, is "off to a decent start, with characters that have the potential to enchant us and draw us into their stories, and keep us glued to the TV night after night". We thought so too -- a very promising start. Jamie Sommers's reaction when she first wakes up, about half-way through the episode, was a great moment. Sommers is played by British actor Michelle Ryan who is doing a Hugh Laurie and using a very convincing (to me, at least) American accent. She was most recently seen on the short British series Jekyll, written by Doctor Who writer Stephen Moffatt. (It only took me a couple of links to get it back to Doctor Who). Ryan was excellent; I am looking forward to more. One disappointing element: they have pitched the series at an adult audience where the original was a family show. The reason that 30 and 40 somethings are tuning in to watch this new version is that they watched the original in the 1970s and 80s. It would be nice now to watch the new version with our kids, as we now do with the re-imagined Doctor Who.

Tuesday, 25 September 2007

Drought in North Carolina

We are in the middle of a massive drought in North Carolina at the moment. The water restrictions are getting more severe all the time, and every day when I commute to Duke, I see how much more the Falls lake has gone down. At Duke, though, all continues in blissful ignorance of all this. Water squirts everywhere for hours on end to keep the gardens green and sprightly. When I walk from Campus Drive carpark, I often see pools of water on the pathways where the sprinklers have not aimed as well as they might. I was pleased to see an editorial, therefore, in today's Duke Chronicle, encouraging the Duke community to take notice:

Save Water

Unbeknownst to most students, North Carolina is in the midst of one of the worst droughts in its history. Last month, the state had its lowest streamflows in almost 110 years. Farmers and city-dwellers alike are feeling the water crunch.

Here at Duke, however, the lawns are well-watered and a healthy shade of green.

For a university that claims to be "green" and concerned about the surrounding community, Duke and its students should make a better effort to practice conservation during this time of need . . .

Monday, 24 September 2007

Travel diary: Myrtle Beach

This weekend we have been at Myrtle Beach in South Carolina. We are staying in a huge hotel on the sea front, made up of lots of privately owned but centrally rented condos. Ours is very nice and very well equipped. It's high up and has a balcony overlooking the next door hotel, which is also huge. We can just see the sea from our balcony. The hotel has several swimming pools and a "lazy river". The latter is a lot of fun; you sit on a "tube", like a blow-up beach ring, and get carried around a little circuit on a slow water flow. We all went on it last night for a while, then swam and then went into the hot jacuzzi. Today we spent the early afternoon on the beach, where the sea was pleasant, with decent waves, and the sand was hot. The weather was well into the 30s Celsius and we all got pretty hot after a while. It must get very hot down here in July and August. Coming in low season like this is ideal. And it's not too crowded at this time of year.

We've had a few minor incidents along the way. We picked up a flat tyre on the way down; we saw it as we walked out of the Mad Boar restaurant, where we'd had a nice lunch, about 30 miles from Wilmington. There was a big nail in the tyre. Triple A put the temporary tyre on for us while we went back in to the Mad Boar to have some coffee, and we got a new one fixed about 20 minutes away from Myrtle Beach.

I'm writing this in the small hours after the toilet overflowed and poured water all over the bathroom and kitchen. I managed to stop the flow before it reached the carpeted area. A lady came to mop it up for us, but the fire alarm went off in the hotel while she was doing it, about 90 minutes ago, and she never came back. Eventually, I just finished the job myself and will probably give up waiting and go to bed soon. In the mean time, I've got lots of extra work done, with the Today programme on Radio 4 in the background. We'll ask for some money off our bill for the trouble.

Viola has taken several photos, and I hope to add some when we get back later today.

Thursday, 20 September 2007

Two Years in America

It was two years ago today that we left Birmingham to begin our new life in the USA. We stayed in a travelodge at Gatwick airport that night, and arrived in North Carolina; my travel diary continued with Waking up in America, finding my office and Supersize Me! I found it enjoyable reviewing those travel diaries and a lot of those first impressions have stayed with me. I still find it amazing to have the warmth of a British summer in late September. In fact, the climate here in the autumn is lovely, and I often sit outside to work. Although I can now find my way to work without trouble, I still get lost if I am on an unfamiliar journey. Groceries are, on the whole, a little cheaper than in the UK, though you have to invest a bit of time to get all the best prices. Eating out is much more common for us here than it was in the UK; it is often as much as once a week. And I still love my job.

The second year here has been much easier than the first. There were moments in the first few months when we really struggled, and we were on the verge of leaving. But the only really draining thing in the last year has been the application for the Green Card, which went off in January. That was a massive amount of work, and all a bit soul destroying, but fantastic once we had it over and done with. Viola received her work permit not long after that and now enjoys working for a computer company, from home.

I don't know how Americanized we are becoming. I can say American words now without feeling self-conscious, though asking for "water" in restaurants is still a challenge and sometimes we have to use a cod American accent. Lauren does a really convincing North Carolinian accent when she is with American kids. Our lives are a mix of Americana and British stuff. The kids watch a lot of American TV and Viola and I watch some of the big American series, but we all still watch quite a lot of British TV, and I listen mainly to British radio.

One thing we'd like to do is to explore more of America as a family. So far we have explored the mountains in North Carolina (twice) and the coast. We have driven the 620 miles to and from Orlando, Florida, and we have flown to Seattle. We have more trips planned over the coming months, and I hope to blog my travel diaries here.

Monday, 17 September 2007

Sarah Jane Adventures

Well, we might have a long time to wait before the Doctor Who Christmas special, but there's plenty to keep us going in the interim. We are enjoying series three on SciFi in the US at the moment, and last Friday we had "Blink", one of my favourite episodes ever. Meanwhile on Saturdays on BBC America we have Torchwood, the superb Doctor Who spin-off, episode 2 of which aired on Saturday. That's one we can't watch with the kids. But one we can begins next Monday, on BBC1 in the UK, the first series of Sarah Jane Adventures. It will be nice to be able to watch a character from my childhood (she was the third and fourth doctors' companion) with my own children. There's a nice new website, and the first 19 second trailer has been uploaded to Youtube:

Twenty20 Cricket Bowlout

I am finding the first ever World Twenty20 Cricket tournament enormously enjoyable, and very refreshing after the tedious seven-week Cricket World Cup earlier in the year (the one-day, 50 over a side form of the game). Twenty20 is a relatively new form of cricket, a fast-paced, fun-for-all-the-family, throw the bat spectacular. If test matches are the seven course gourmet dinner of cricket, Twenty20 is the burger and chips. And sometimes you fancy burger and chips. It's already very popular in the UK, and it's likely to become more popular internationally as a result of this World Cup, which lasts for just two weeks, finishing next Monday.

There have already been all sorts of interesting moments, but one of the oddest sights was the first ever "bowl out" last Friday in the match between India and Pakistan. It was a remarkable match, with a late surge that saw Pakistan catch up with India's total of 141, but unable to surpass it off the last couple of balls. Then, instead of awarding the sides one point each, it emerged that there would be a "bowl out" to decide the winner. This is like a penalty shoot out in football; a best of five bowling at the stumps. Although they have been used in British county cricket, this was the first time I'd ever seen one, and I watched in disbelief as all three Pakistani bowlers failed to hit the stumps. India, who hit the stumps with each of their first three balls, won the bowl out. Here it is on Youtube (after 20-30 seconds of guff):

It's difficult to know whether to be amused or baffled by the sight of international bowlers unable to hit the stumps with no batsman there. Even I can do that and I am absolutely crap at cricket.

Thursday, 13 September 2007

The End of Summer

It was easy to know when summer had ended when we lived in England. It ended when the cricket season was over, and you felt that cool September breeze and had to return to school. It's more difficult in North Carolina to work out when the end of summer comes. The schools start earlier than in the UK -- they go back at the end of August, when it is Bank Holiday Monday in England. And the weather still seems to be roasting hot even now in mid September.

But the moment when the whistle blew on our summer was at 5.50pm on Sunday evening when our neighbourhood pool closed. It's open every year from mid May to early September and it is one of the big bonuses of living here, and one of the reasons we chose this neighbourhood. Over the summer, we have made as many visits to the pool as possible. On school days, we have tried to get down there as soon as the kids are home. Last weekend, we spent as much time as we could there, and on Saturday evening we ate there and stayed until the sun had set, and we "made a memory". On Sunday evening, when the lifeguard blew her whistle for the last time this summer, everyone in and around the pool gave a jokey "boo", sighed and went home. I'm already hankering for next May.

Pavarotti at the Pearly Gates

Received this in an email this morning:

Luciano Pavarotti knocks on the Pearly Gates ...

St Peter opens them and says, 'Oh it's you Luciano, salutations, come on in - squeeze through'.

Pavarotti boomed, 'Hold on, I am carrying an envelope from the Vatican City for you, from Il Papa, the Pope.'

St Peter opens the envelope and reads it...


Jonny Vegas on Evangelical Christianity

I have just finished watching Jonny Vegas' Guide to Evangelical Christianity while doing housework. Like Steven Harris, I was pleasantly surprised. The programme aired on Channel 4 in the UK last night and I was expecting the usual amusing but clichéd American evangelical bashing. Instead, it was a sympathetic portrayal of the better side of evangelical Christianity in America in what was more about Vegas's personal journey than it was about anything else. At points it was quite moving, and without spoiling the ending if you have not seen it yet, I was impressed by Vegas's candour and honesty. I'd love to see him make a follow-up.

Sunday, 9 September 2007

The Adventures of Mini-Doctor

Paul Cornell's House of Awkwardness has an extensive A-Z of its author's recent travels in Japan, and many of these adventures were shared by a small plastic figure of the Doctor in The Adventures of Mini-Doctor. I found this bizarrely enjoyable. Our Lauren received one of those little plastic figures of the Doctor for her ninth birthday last year; a nice idea that he could come on our travels with us and get photographed. Tempting.

No Prisoner Remake but More Doctor Who

When asked to name my favourite TV series, I am often tempted to list the cult 60s classic The Prisoner right at the top. I first watched it in 1984, when it was shown not long after the launch of Channel 4. I even used to go along to the conventions with my brother Jonathan; and for years we had had family holidays to Portmeirion, where the series was filmed. Given the cult status of the original, I have not quite known what to make over the planned remake of The Prisoner over the last year or so. Initially, the news was that Sky One was to remake the show, partnering with AMC in the USA. But it now seems that the plan has been abandoned. A Digital Spy interview with Richard Wolfe (head of Sky One) featured the following comment:

What happened with the planned remake of The Prisoner?
"The Prisoner is not happening. It's a very quintessentially British drama and there were too many creative differences trying to share it with an American partner. I didn't want to be responsible for taking something that is quintessentially British and adapting it in a way that I didn't feel was reflective of the way people would remember it and the way people would want it to be. So we called time on that."
Although some on the web are commenting on this as breaking news, it is worth adding that Sky actually pulled out of this project some months back; the Daily Telegraph reported this in April:

Sky One Pulls Out of Prisoner Remake
Neil Midgley
It was Sky One’s biggest drama commission of 2007 – but now the channel has pulled out of an £8million remake of cult 60s TV drama The Prisoner after an acrimonious row with US cable movie channel AMC, its co-funding partner. “We love the original Prisoner series but on this occasion we have decided not to proceed with our co-production partners,” said a Sky spokesman . . . .
At that point they were still talking about the possibility of finding other funding for the project, but it does not sound like that has come to anything.

Meanwhile, there has been good news this week has been of the continued production of Doctor Who, now confirmed right through to 2010. We already knew of the fourth series next year, currently in production, but the latest official news is that there will be three specials in 2009, written by Russell T. Davies and starring the current doctor David Tennant, and a full length series in 2010. That is excellent news, even if we will be a little short in 2009. It looks like David Tennant really is set to make the role his own, and I am delighted with the news that Russell T. Davies is going to stay with the show for the time being since he is responsible for the brilliant re-invention of the series over the last few years, and he has written some fine episodes.

Monday, 3 September 2007

Labor Day

The first Monday in September is designated "Labor Day" in the USA and it is a bit like the August Bank Holiday Monday in the UK. It provides a chance for a late summer weekend away, or the last chance to get to the neighbourhood pool before it closes, or a chance to refocus for the Fall term ahead. Practically everyone celebrates it except Duke University, where life goes on as normal. I was impressed, though, with the way that the students threw themselves into the day as a normal teaching day; attendance was about the same as usual. But there is a slightly odd feel to campus in that the faculty and the students are not joined by the rest of the staff who are, quite rightly, spending the day at home or off on holiday for the weekend. So the car parks are half empty, the administrative offices are all closed and there is no post. My family and our visitors spent the day at the planetarium while I was teaching, but I am not complaining, especially after having had the luxury of being able to work at home so much this summer. And on Saturday we had a great day out at Old Salem. I hope to blog about that with a couple of pictures in due course.