Friday, 26 December 2008

Resident Alien's Boxing Day, Back in England

I don't think there is any such thing as Boxing Day in America. Shame. It's a fantastic tradition. Basically, Boxing Day is the same as Christmas day but without the presents. So just as much eating, drinking and enjoying yourself, but no presents to go with it. We had a bit of a lie in (= "sleep in" in American, in the unlikely event that any Americans are reading) and we needed it because once again the jet lag had kicked in big time last night, and I couldn't get to sleep until 4. I spent some of the extra time reading, some of it blogging, and most of rest of it lying awake thinking about the dating of Mark's Gospel and the evening's Doctor Who special.

At midday, my sister, my brother-in-law and I went for a four mile run. It incorporated Hartshorne (see pic.) and Manchester Lane, and I was well and truly knackered by the end of it, and still couldn't keep up with my sister. Still, I made a better show of it than when I last ran with her, and was pleased to have made the effort. When we got back the modern-day re-working of The Railway Children was on the telly on one side, and South Pacific on the other, but I didn't get the chance to watch either and instead helped with the preparation of a fantastic lunch which we ate quite late, more turkey and stuffing, beef (freshly roasted), nut cutlets (freshly made) and jacket potatoes and the like. Fullers London Pride to begin with, then another nice red, and liqueurs to finish (Tia Maria this time for me).

In our family, Boxing Day is the day for the slide show. This year, for the first time, it has gone digital and we have all provided photographs and videos and he has provided the digital projector. It was an excellent show, with bits of America as well as bits of England, Austria, France, Italy, and various members of the family in each place. The North Carolina contingent all looked very brown, I thought, and it was lovely seeing shots of summer and the swimming pool -- brought home just how much I hanker for it until May each year.

We ate pretty late, 8.30, 9ish, I think, and I helped my mum prepare it. We just drank beers or ciders, and watched an evening of telly about Bill Cotton, head of light entertainment at the BBC for years, who died this year. After the documentary, there was an episode of Morecambe and Wise, the Christmas Special of 1971, which featured two of the all-time classic bits, André Previn and the Grieg piano concerto (". . . not necessarily in the right order") and Shirley Bassey and the boot. I don't think I had ever seen them in situ in the actual programme before, and most of the rest of it was pretty ordinary. Next up was an episode of Bruce Forsyth and the Generation Game from 1973, which took me right back to my childhood. It was actually quite funny.

Several of us stayed up late, taking in some more port and channel-surfing. It's an enjoyable treat to be able to channel-surf British TV. And we went to be late deliberately, what with the jet lag still affecting us in strange ways.

And that's it for this year's Christmas day and Boxing day narrative. I won't bore myself with any more of this diary keeping for now, though it's a tradition I am tempted to try again at some future point. In the mean time, I will add my comments on the Doctor Who Christmas special and will then rest the Resident Alien blog for a bit.

Resident Alien's Christmas Day Evening -- back in England

In yesterday's narrative, we had reached the most important part of the day, for me, the Doctor Who Christmas Special, at 6pm on BBC1. This has become something of a Christmas tradition in the UK in recent years. The revival of the series from 2005 onwards was so successful that a Christmas Special was commissioned. The first, back in Christmas 2005, was the best, David Tennant's first outing as the doctor, but the others have all been fine, and this year's was the fourth. Since I do have a nerdy, Doctor Who streak, I may blog my thoughts about this episode separately, but at this point I'll just say that it was an enjoyable hour, the pleasure increased by the fact that my nieces were watching Doctor Who for the first time. My dad, my brother and my brother-in-law all fell asleep, and missed my favourite bit from the episode, but I obliged by narrating it for them afterwards.

Having said yesterday that a British Christmas, or our British Christmas, is all about telly, I am interested to find that in fact this is not really the case any more for us. So far, apart from Gavin and Stacey and Doctor Who, I have been able to take or leave the rest. And there is the far more important business of catching up with family over food and drinks.

We had turkey sandwiches for supper, latish, with another nice red, and about eight different cheeses brought over by my sister and brother-in-law. Several of us stayed up after having cleared to watch a nice documentary about Blackadder, and we then channel-hopped different bits of rubbish until bed.

Thursday, 25 December 2008

Resident Alien's Christmas Day -- back in England

It occurred to me this morning that one of the problems with family memories of Christmases is that they are all so recent. At best they span a generation or two. When my Grandad, who died earlier this year, was interviewed last year for the local paper, he was able to share his memories of Christmas from the 1920s, with cockerel for Christmas day and more. Perhaps one day there will be interest in memories of Christmas 2008, long after we are gone. Perhaps, just as I enjoyed hearing my Grandad's memories, my grandchildren and great grandchildren will enjoy hearing mine. Or perhaps not. But either way, I like the idea of writing to them, further in the future than my future self, to whom I was writing yesterday.

I have no idea how traditional our Christmas is, but not a lot has changed since we were celebrating it in the same house when we were kids. And I still love it.

This was the third night since arriving, and the one when the jet lag set in. I felt like I was wide awake all night. Perhaps I was just reliving childhood Christmas eve excitement, and I could hear the sounds of nieces' footsteps on the landing while I lay awake. When we were kids, we used to open presents in our pyjamas, very excited, as soon as we woke up. Our nieces did that today, and loved their new bikes and mp3 players.

Most of us walked to church this morning (Blackfordby, above), nieces on their new bikes. It's a mile or so and a lovely walk, taking one across the Derbyshire / Leicestershire border, and passed the house where we lived when I was born. The service was a traditional Christmas eucharist and I enjoyed it immensely, even if the church was more than half empty. There were thirty-three people there, including the vicar, the organist and the choirgirl, and ten of those were our family. My mum stayed at home to get ahead with the Christmas dinner. My dad was the least well-behaved in the group, and his musical tie went off during the Gospel reading, John 1.1-18. It was just going into a second verse of "We wish you a merry Christmas" as "the Word became flesh".

My mum is an amazing cook and our Christmas lunch was fantastic, turkey, roast potatoes, roast parsnips, sausage meat stuffing, chestnut stuffing, brussel sprouts, sausages in bacon, bread sauce, lots of gravy. I take up residence by the sink for a couple of hours either side of lunch and get the washing up done. My brother-in-law provides the wine, always something special, and we finish the meal with liqueurs, mine a Cointreau. I think we must have sat down to eat after 2 because I was in the kitchen again, washing up, when the Queen's speech came on at 3. I'm not much of a monarchist, so I can take it or leave it, but I enjoy the sound of the Queen's voice as something of a Christmas tradition.

Present opening comes next, about 4pm or so. I remember the time clearly because I was relieved to see that we definitely had enough time to open presents before Doctor Who at 6. Our present opening session, going round in a circle, one at a time, resembles the way it was done in last night's Gavin and Stacey, so it looks like we may not be all that unusual. I had lots of fantastic presents, Kim Newman's "critical appreciation" of Doctor Who, Dave Simpson's The Fallen, all about his search for ex-members of The Fall, The Wedding Present Radio 1 sessions (complete), three Dad's Army DVDs, a book about Abba and Mamma Mia, and a Doctor Who DVD, "The War Machines". And other stuff like clothes and chocolates.

Happily, we were all done in time to get a cup of tea before Doctor Who began at 6.

But as I write, time is getting on, so I will pause there and complete the story tomorrow.

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Resident Alien's Christmas Eve -- back in England

This will be our fourth Christmas since moving to the United States from the UK. But on all four occasions we have been back in the UK to celebrate. Perhaps one day we will experience a truly American Christmas, but it's difficult to imagine, at least at this point. Christmas is such a family occasion, and our family is all here in England. And other than the summer, it is the only time that we can get enough time all at once to travel as a family. The girls have two weeks off school; I have two weeks with no teaching at Duke; and Viola travels with her work and manages to find the time to mix work and pleasure.

Although Viola has blogged Christmases past (Christmas 2007, Christmas 2006), I have not done so myself here, other than to talk about the Doctor Who Christmas special, of course. But digging out some old diaries of mine has made me a little nostalgic for Christmases past and it makes me think that one day I may be nostalgic for Christmas 2008 and curious about what we were doing. I stopped keeping a diary some time ago, and blogging partly takes its place. So this is a little self-indulgent and likely to be of interest to the future me, so the rest of you feel free to tune out at this point.

I am blogging late on Christmas eve. We are at my parents' place in South Derbyshire. It is the same house I was brought up in. Almost all of my memories of Christmas are in this house. Now it is a bit more full of people, but not a lot has changed. My mum still works too hard; we all try to help as much as we can; we all eat a lot, laugh a lot and enjoy the Christmas telly. The telly is absolutely central to a good British Christmas, and it is a major difference from the US, which does not appear to have any new programming over the Christmas period at all. In Britain, it's the best time of the year for telly.

There was a lovely piece in today's Guardian by Lucy Mangan, Tinsel and Telly, which gets it exactly right:

Some families, of course, push their chairs back from a table strewn with turkey wishbones and cracker trimmings, and head off for a restorative walk. Off they go, breathing deep lungfuls of crystalline, wintry air before returning home for a quick game of charades and a snifter of brandy before bed.

It must be awful. In the Mangan household, the countdown to Christmas never begins with the first day of advent, but with the advent of the two-week edition of the Radio Times . . . .
That was the same in our house too. No publication could ever be so thrilling as the Christmas Radio Times and TV Times (you had to buy both back in the day), and my brother and I used to create our own Christmas TV times, with little "breaks" or "rests" occasionally written in to a day full of wall to wall entertainment. I have grown up a little bit since then, but I still got the same thrill today, working through The Guardian's highlights for the next few days.

In fact, the great TV already begun for us tonight, with the Gavin and Stacey Christmas Special. We are recent converts to Gavin and Stacey and watched both series back to back on BBC America, so this was our first chance to see a new episode, and it was as good as we had hoped. But Christmas Eve is less about telly than tomorrow or Boxing Day will be. We drove up from Peterborough earlier today, and our major outing of the evening was to see the Christmas lights in a local neighbourhood. Several houses in a particular cul-de-sac have joined forces to create a fantastic exhibition of how to decorate your houses. Several people were out viewing the scene, and those who had put up the lights were collecting money for charity, air ambulance.

We had game pie and mulled wine when we got back. Much of the rest of the evening was low-key. Several people still had lots of presents to wrap. I am lucky in that the kids actually enjoy wrapping presents so the amount of wrapping I need to do is pretty minimal. Nevertheless, I quite sympathize with Clive James's delightful article, also available as a podcast, It's a wrap. But I think the best tip came from Smithy in tonight's Gavin and Stacey, who wrapped his presents in tin foil -- no need for scissors and sellotape, and they are still wrapped and shiny.

In other news, we couldn't help being surprised to see the Queen's Speech reported, with footage on tonight's news. What's up with that? It's not that interesting when you watch it on Christmas day, even if it is something of a tradition in our house to watch it, but how much less interesting is it if you have already got the gist of it the night before? Seems a bit spoil-sportish to me.

My sister's kids, down the corridor from us, are doing Christmas properly. I have just spotted Santa arriving up the stairs with two enormous sacks of presents which appear to have been delivered to their bedrooms. It's not quite so old-fashioned or romantic for ours. Resident aliens end up having Christmas present opening in a variety of different places, first back in America before we leave, and then in different places as we tour around here.

It's gone past midnight while I have been typing, so merry Christmas to you all.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Fifth Annual Ralphies (2008 Best ofs)

The bibliobloggers are offering their best ofs for 2008, known as "Ralphies" (Ralph the Sacred River), a tradition now five years old. One of the ideas here is that we are busy blogging boring old Biblical Studies related items all year, and this is the one chance to indulge ourselves and to talk about the stuff we avoid talking about for the rest of the year. In the past, I have done this on the NT Gateway blog (2007, 2006, 2005, 2004) but since The Resident Alien now provides me with the opportunity to blog about any old rubbish anyway, this seems the appropriate forum now for my own best ofs.

Film of the year: Last year I realized that I had not been to many films and resolved to put that right. This year has been much better. The kids are getting older and so we go to see more with them, and not just kids' films, and we seem to have found a bit more time to see things. I didn't like The Dark Knight as much as everyone else, though I could see why others admired it. Quantum of Solace was also, of course, a disappointment. I quite liked Cloverfield, though it made Viola sick; I quite enjoyed watching the film our Emily really loves, Twilight. I didn't mind Iron Man or the Incredible Hulk. Wall E was nothing like as good as everyone said it would be. I quite enjoyed Forgetting Sarah Marshall (especially seeing Russell Brand). My favourite film was probably Mamma Mia (comments) even if it is not that great a film. You have to have seen it to understand what I mean. Best film review of the year is undoubtedly Mark Kermode on Mamma Mia -- almost as much fun as the film itself:

TV Programme of the year: I am of course going to say Doctor Who. The fourth series of new Who may be my favourite since the revival. Catherine Tate as Donna was superb. There were fewer lows than in previous series -- no dud episodes at all. And if there were no single episodes to rival "Blink" or "Human Nature" / "Family of Blood" from the last series, there were still some gems, "Planet of the Ood", "Silence in the Library", "Midnight" and "Turn Left". The only disappointment was the last episode, with its absurd non-regeneration and odd job junior doctor (my comments) -- it's taken me a long time to come to terms with that.

Honourable mentions: Torchwood -- pretty good second series; Spooks -- best series for a while; Little Dorrit-- fantastic; Cranford - almost as good; Tess of the D'Urbervilles -- v. good; Lost in Austen -- sublime; Ashes to Ashes -- thoroughly enjoyable (and we loved Keeley Hawes). The best children's programme was Sarah Jane Adventures -- a super second series, especially "The Temptation of Sarah Jane Smith", as good as most Doctor Who. The best comedy was Gavin and Stacey. Viola and I only discovered it this year, and so caught up with the entire run on BBC America and adored it. BBC4 continues to show some wonderful documentaries, and they are part of my staple diet. I especially loved their railway series this autumn. And of course the best BBC mini-series featuring Jesus in which I was involved was The Passion, and one of the most memorable things in my career -- such a privilege and I realize how lucky I am.

Come to think of it, all those are all British. I do enjoy American TV too, especially Desperate Housewives, Chuck and Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles. Like many others, we have given up on Heroes and we have pretty much given up on The Office too. The American Life on Mars is hanging by a narrow thread. It's a shame that the push to make massive 20+ episode runs continues to affect the quality of so much American TV.

Radio Programme of the year: Russell Brand's Radio 2 show, now sadly missed. I listened to every one this year before a spot of bother brought an end to all that happiness.

Honourable mentions: tons of stuff on Radio 4, still my major staple. I particularly enjoyed the latest series of Jon Ronson on and laughed out loud for Count Arthur Strong and Bleak Expectations. On Five Live, I listen to a lot of Simon Mayo.

Podcast of the year: Most of the podcasts I listen to are simply BBC Radio programmes, the Daily Mayo, Mark Kermode's Film Reviews, Weekly Political Review and so on. So I should pick a favourite podcast from "true", non-radio ones, so I might go for The Guardian's Media Talk, closely followed by The Guardian's weekly political blog. And all the Doctor Who podcasts brighten up my commute to work, Podshock, the Whocast and Tindog.

Song of the year: I am tempted to say Human by The Killers, but I've only been listening to that non-stop for about two or three weeks, since the new album arrived. The one I have been listening to since the summer is Coldplay, "Viva La Vida":

Hmm; still think it might be the Killers actually. Can't get enough of it at the moment. Ask me again in six months. Honourable mention: Morrissey, That's how people grow up.

Album of the year: there was a Fall album this year, Imperial Wax Solvent, so of course it is that. I quite liked the album by Elbow, though, and the Killers album is growing on me. There was a new Wedding Present album too, but I haven't had the chance to spend much time with it yet, and I was really disappointed to miss them in Chapel Hill in October.

Gig of the year: Maroon 5 at Walnut Creek in Raleigh -- fantastic.

Sporting Event of the year: the Olympics, of course. Watched it in three different locations, and had the pleasure of catching it with different sets of enthusiasts, which adds to the fun, in England while visiting family, in France (Brittany) while on holiday, and back in America. Great to see Team GB doing so well this time. Looking forward to London 2012.

Most missed: Humphrey Lyttleton. Life without I'm Sorry I haven't a clue will not be the same.

As usual, I have not read any fiction, I ashamed to say, so pass on that one.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Dimbleby vs. Gore Vidal

As predicted, David Dimbleby's extraordinary interview with Gore Vidal is already available on Youtube, courtesy of twittervlog:

Highlight: Dimbers at the end, "Well, that was fun"!

Expat Election Junkie X

Midnight: Obama's victory speech. I can still not quite believe it when I hear Dimbers speak about him as "the president elect". I'll be expecting a lot of staring into the distance, but I also have my handkerchief ready. Just how many people are at this rally? It looks like thousands.

Obama promises the kids a new puppy. Reminds me of promising the kids two cats when we came to America.

00.19: Very statesman-like speech from Obama. Something about his coolness alongside the crowd's emotion made this a wonderful sight. Great money-shot of Barack and Michelle's embrace and a lip-read "I love you".

00.22: So how come I managed to time my first American election (well, first when I am present here) as this one?

00:49: looks like I might be able to get a reasonably early night. Who'd have thought that we would be past even the endgame by this stage? Ten minutes time and the Today programme (on Radio 4, not the American TV one) will get underway with the serious analysis. Might take that to bed with me. Goodnight on this historic night.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Expat Election Junkie IX

11.34pm: McCain's concession speech was absolutely spot on, spoilt only by some of the boos in the crowd when Obama was mentioned. Looking forward to Obama next.

11.39pm: Over on BBC1, Dimbers points out that we have missed the fact over the last 40 minutes that Obama has been running away with it. Currently Obama 338 / McCain 155. A whopping mandate. Still no news on North Carolina.

11.42pm: Burkeman writes: "Everybody's crying: Rep John Lewis is crying; Jesse Jackson is crying; some of the TV anchors seem close; there's an enormous amount of crying in Grant Park." But it's all stiff upper lip at the BBC.

11.48pm: On BBC1, Dimbers is interviewing Gore Vidal who appears to be drunk or senile, or both. This is probably going to be one of those Youtube moments. Heck, it's embarrassing.

Expat Election Junkie VIII

10.47pm: Long pause to make sure that the kids are getting ready for bed and to do housework; more still to do, of course. My first memory of an American election is 1976, Ford / Carter. I remember coming down for breakfast and my dad having it on the TV; it was interesting to a child because in those days there was no breakfast TV, so having BBC1 on in the morning was something of a novelty. I am pretty sure that our kids will always remember this election.

The story is now clear. It is just a case of waiting for the inevitable. Still Burkeman is the place to go. Obama is at 207, McCain 147. Fox calls Virginia for Obama.

10.51pm: Dimbers on BBC1 says that he thinks we are within 10 minutes of the declaration for Obama. Clips of people being interviewed by John Timpson already celebrating the presumed results. The party is about to begin.

11pm: CNN Projection says "Barack Obama Elected President". Pause while we all get choked up.

11.06pm: the TV pictures are now all about the celebrations. What a wonderful night. CNN: "Transformation in how the world sees us."

11.08pm: delightful moment as one of CNN's analysts (forget his name, but the largish, goaty bearded black guy) gets a bit tearful.

Expat Election Junkie VII

9.34pm: CNN tell us that Obama is out-performing Kerry everywhere. And then they call what Fox has been calling and uncalling of the last twenty minutes -- Ohio. Burkeman says that this is it -- this is the moment:

Unless they've made a bad, bad error, this will almost certainly be the moment the election was decided: McCain would have to flip a solid Kerry state over to the Republicans in order to win now. ...Wow, so apparently what happened is that Fox called Ohio, un-called it, and called it again. They are certainly calling it now. NBC calls Ohio for Obama, too.
9.53pm: CNN note that the popular vote is 49% / 50% in favour of Obama, much closer than the current electoral college count-up, where Obama is up to 200 and racing towards the 270 needed.

9.56pm: Jeremy Vine on BBC1 has at last got some decent graphics going, though somewhat too smart-board like.

10pm: Burkeman continues to report on the Republican denial.

Expat Election Junkie VI

9.20pm: Can't help thinking that it's as good as over for McCain. Is that just because I don't understand these things? How can McCain win from here? Great piece in Oliver Burkeman's live blog:

In Phoenix, Dan Glaister tells me, the big screen broadcasting the results to the McCainites suddenly cut out when the Pennsylvania calls started coming in; instead, they were treated to a Hall & Oates song, and now they're listening to Kool and the Gang. Two different realities...

9.23pm: Ridiculous argument on BBC1 between an American with a moustache who refused to understand the nice British reporter's point, that Sarah Palin did not manage to attract independent voters. The moustached American keeps repeating that Palin energized the base of the Republican Party, which the nice British reporter was not disputing.

9.28pm: How come BBC America, CNN and MSNBC all have adverts at the same time? Surely I am not going to have to go to Fox, am I?

Expat Election Junkie V

8.54pm: Of real local interest, Kay Hagan defeats Elizabth Dole in North Carolina. This is the one that we have heard a lot about down our way; some grim adverts have been on TV, including the notorious "Godless" one.

8.56pm: Back to BBC America: at last Jeremy Vine is on, but his graphics are really disappointing -- worse than CNN. I am afraid the BBCTV coverage is lagging behind tonight. Not the same energy, not sufficiently up to speed. Mind you, three cheers for Dimbers who is talking now about how brilliant the British voting system is, and how rubbish the American system is. I couldn't agree more. "Recipe for chaos", Dimbers says, in an enjoyable rant in which he comments on the lawyers circling to check that the voting machines are in order. Up pencils and paper! Up the UK system and common sense!

9pm: Republicans are still holding out for the possibility of a McCain victory but I can't see it happening. BBC has it at Obama 171 / McCain 49 at the moment. Obama half-way there.

Expat Election Junkie IV

8pm: back from swimming a mile. The NPR coverage on the radio on the way back is still at the filling in stage, talking about turn out and the like; no major news yet. I love that about election nights, both here and back in the UK -- there is that period of phony war in the early stages and then the sudden rush of energy as the results come piling in.

Back at home, Viola has got the toasted sandwiches going, and I grab my first beer from the fridge. We go straight to the BBC America coverage and enjoy that for a bit; the girls enjoy the fact that they are wearing poppies -- nobody wears poppies here. But the BBC America coverage feels a little bit slow and it is time for a bit more energy. We have switched over to CNN and will probably stay with them for much of the evening.

8.11pm: It is already looking like Obama's night. Is it going to be a landslide?

Expat Election Junkie III

6.13pm: The BBC America coverage began at 6, with David Dimbleby in the chair; hearing his voice makes the night feel like election night; he has been at the helm of election coverage for as long as I can remember. I will probably switch around a bit tonight to CNN and MSNBC too, but the BBC coverage, which is currently also on BBC1 in the UK, will be the main channel for us, not least because it gives a nice link with home. Oh, and because Jeremy Vine's graphics look like they are going to be about ten times better than the CNN equivalents, which are distinctly lacklustre.

All day, the BBC News website has been running a live text update service, which has been fun. And over at The Guardian, Oliver Burkeman's Campaign Diary is going to be live blogging. That will certainly be worth watching.

At the moment, the main news revolves around the enormous queues (in America called "lines") at the polling stations. This seems quite remarkable to me, never having had to queue to vote in my life. Why don't they plan ahead and organize things a bit better and open some more polling stations?

6.20pm: Dimbers is getting excited on BBC1; interesting to hear him say "black" lots of times. I have got used to hearing the American media always using the term "African American". But I have to head out for a bit now. Back for the serious action later.

Expat Election Junkie update

11.34am: I am not surprised that there are queues at the polls. Before leaving home this morning, I watched Obama casting his vote live on CNN and it appeared to take a good fifteen or twenty minutes. Surely he wasn't spending all that time making up his mind on who to vote for? Without wanting to sound like a Luddite, and with memories of 2000, I can't help thinking that the British method of a black pencil cross on a piece of paper remains the most efficient and reliable way of voting.

One of my students was wearing a big Obama t-shirt in class. There is no voting at Duke, as far as I can see, the "one stop voting" of the last couple of weeks apparently now over. Some of the schools are closed, including the one that our girls go to. Others begun with a two-hour delay in order to allow people to vote, or to help ease traffic congestion.

Expat Election Junkie

Resident Aliens do not get a vote (I believe it is called "taxation without representation") but that does not mean that they are uninterested in this election. I am something of an election junkie. I have put in all-nighters for British General Elections since 1987, and in 2000 I decided that the American Presidential election was interesting enough that it needed the all-nighter treatment too. Likewise 2004. In the UK, where we are five hours behind Eastern Time in the US, the serious coverage begins at about 11pm, so following the American Presidential election live is for hardened election junkies only. It's pretty exciting for me, then, to be able to follow this one, for the first time, as it happens. In fact, I'll still be out swimming as the coverage proper starts.

This is serious stuff; I'll have the beers in the fridge, the toasted sandwich maker out, and I will be ready to be up as late as necessary. As for coverage, I am delighted to see that BBC America are carrying the full BBC News coverage, with David Dimbleby, from 6pm. So we will naturally have the BBC coverage on much of the time. I'll probably channel hop a bit, though, from time to time. I watch a lot of CNN and some MSNBC and I'll take both of those in on the night, and will have the laptop handy to check out the websites regularly, I hope too to IM a few friends who are in the know about these things.

This election does feel, of course, like it has gone on for ever. One notices the length of the campaign far more being present here in the USA without the distractions of the all important British stories like the Daily Mail orchestrated baying for BBC blood last week. The election is simply not off the news at any point. Every time I go to the local bank, the TV is on broadcasting one of the candidates compaigning. There are things to admire here, not least the fact of live TV debates, which we still do not have in England, even if it is somewhat infuriating to see the lack of debate in those debates. I still think that the sometimes bland campaign would become much more spicey with the injection of some serious grilling of the candidates from the likes of a Paxman or Humphrys (The American Presidential Debates: Time to Let the British in).

The election is all the more interesting for us here locally because North Carolina is one of the battleground states. Down our way, McCain / Palin are winning that battle. The vast majority of houses in our neighbourhood have no signs outside, but those that do generally favour McCain / Palin over Obama / Biden by about three to one. And when Viola and I went out for a sandwich the other day, the lady in the shop told us that she would be "voting for Sarah Palin. I like her". It is something of a contrast with DC, which we visited a couple of weeks ago, and everywhere we looked we saw Obama hats and stickers. A lady on the open-top bus there had a word with my mother-in-law to try to persuade her to vote Obama and was a bit disappointed to hear that we did not have the vote. There is a contrast again with Durham, where Duke is located and where I work, and where one sees a far great proportion of Obama-Biden signs.

And it is signs in people's gardens ("yards") that are the sign of which way that they are voting. It would be pointless to do the British thing and put a poster in your window -- no one would see it. Nor are lamposts taken over by candidates' posters as in England, though at intersections of roads, there are more of the signs clustered together, the same kind that you see in people's gardens. I am tempted to take a couple of photographs tomorrow to show you what I mean.

One big contrast with the UK is that apparently people often have to queue here for ages in order to vote. I have never had to do that in England. In fact, I feel like I am often the only person there when I wander into the school building to put my black cross down next to the Labour candidate. I am not sure why it is the case here that people have to queue. Perhaps there are fewer polling stations than in England. Certainly lots of schools appear to be open, which suggests that they are not being used as polling stations. Then again, there has been something called "One stop voting" for the last couple of weeks, including at Duke, from which people come away with a sticker saying "I have voted". The "one stop" element makes me smile since it would never occur to me that one would have two or three stop voting.

These are my thoughts on the eve of a historic day. CNN has already begun its coverage, with its count-down showing 16 hours to go, and counting, until the first polls close.

Friday, 10 October 2008

Life on Mars American Style: Actually not that bad

After the qualms expressed here several months ago (Life on Mars American Style), after looking at the earlier (dreadful) trailer, my hopes were not high when the first episode of the new, American version of Life on Mars aired on the ABC network last night. That earlier trailer looked like a joke, a "Comic Strip Presents" style parody of an attempt to Americanize a superb British series. I was ready to watch the total fiasco of a series that that trailer suggested would be on offer. And yet the reports were already coming in, before the first episode aired last night, that they might have been able to pull off the impossible, and turn it into something decent. Ten minutes in, and most of my worries were laid to rest. As the American Sam Tyler got hit by a car in 2008, waking up in the New York of 1973, it was already clear that the programme itself was not going to be a car crash that had earlier been threatened. It looked like it might actually be quite good.

The move from LA of 1972 (original pilot) to New York of 1973 (the episode that aired last night) was a masterstroke, not least because of the powerful moment when Sam Tyler gets up to see the twin towers still standing in all their glory. For those who loved the British original, moments like that punctuated a script that otherwise was pretty similar to the original; and sometimes individual shots were identical, and beautifully recreated.

One warms straight away to the new Sam Tyler, and to the new blond Annie, even if the latter's hair cut looks just as ridiculous as the British Annie's, perhaps more so. The big question at this stage is whether Harvey Keitel is going to work as Gene Hunt. Certainly he already seems to be an improvement on the Colm Meaney casting of the earlier pilot, but there are still a few worrying signs. He is much older than Philip Glenister, the British Gene Hunt, and he is smaller in stature, not the kind of imposing figure that Glenister still cuts, now in the Life on Mars sequel Ashes to Ashes. Glenister's performance was the key to the success of the original. He is a bully, a rogue, a bigot and yet still lovable, funny and sometimes right. Keitel is playing the bully and the rogue in such a way that it is difficult to imagine how we are ever going to grow to like him, still less to laugh at his absurdly brilliant quips. Keitel's Hunt had one such line, something about sperm dancing towards some eggs, but it was hastily delivered and unfunny.

On the whole, though, it was not at all bad. I doubt it will be as successful as the American Office, the first really successful adaptation of a British original, but you never know. Given the clear progress that they have made since the original disastrous pilot, perhaps this can continue to improve. It will be interesting to find out.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

The American Presidential Debates: Time to Let the British in

BBC America is running an advertising campaign at the moment in which it characterizes itself as The Birthplace of American TV, citing great British programmes like Life on Mars, which are now being remade for an American audience. Britain's most successful imports, though, often carry over key personnel to make sure that they survive the transition. American Idol, the hugely popular American TV series, is a version of the British Pop Idol, and carried with it Simon Cowell. I have just finished watching the second of the presidential debates between candidates Barack Obama and John McCain, styled as a "town hall" debate, and I think the time is ripe for the injection of some British television expertise to refresh what has become a tired, over-rehearsed, over-polished and frankly tedious format.

The fact is that candidates for the presidency do not at any point face a decent public grilling. They are not held to account or pressed on issues of importance. They are allowed at these debates to give a series of mini-presentations, the over-rehearsed nature of which only presents itself when the candidates trip over a phrase, or introduce the second half of their response too early. Each debate has a "moderator" but this figure is essentially a facilitator, a coordinator who provides invitations for the candidates to begin each of their mini-presentations. There are rarely serious follow-up questions and rarely the encouragement to get the candidates actually debating with one another. On one occasion tonight, the moderator, Tim Brokaw, acted to close down debate at a moment when there was a flicker of interest, as Obama asked to respond to McCain and Brokaw pleaded time constraints.

It is time, then, for the injection of some British expertise and experience. At British General Elections, all candidates, and especially potential prime ministers, will expect to be get some serious grilling from the masters of the art. Let's bring Jeremy Paxman over for several weeks before each presidential election, and let's test each candidate's mettle. Let's find out what they really think about the key issues, with every dodge exposed, every evasive manoeuvre challenged, every question repeated until we get either an honest answer or an embarrassed candidate. Just as Simon Cowell was imported to give wannabee American idols a hard time, let's import Jeremy Paxman to give the presidential wannabees an even harder time.

Jeremy Paxman: the new Simon Cowell?

The success of this move will reignite interest in the presidential debates and will encourage more of the same. Once Americans have got used to Paxman, we can introduce them to John Humphrys. British politicians are afraid of Humphrys. They would rather do anything than be interviewed by him, and yet they know that they cannot duck their responsibility to the British public to be held to account by him. Give the candidates an hour with Humphrys and then we will have a serious test of character and a genuine series of searching, rigorous questioning.

John Humphrys: how would McCain and Obama cope?

The injection of this kind British expertise into the the race for the White House would serve to knock the candidates off the stride of their prepared answers, allowing the voters to understand what makes their potential presidents tick. And having strong British interviewers could add some extra distance from the all too easy clichés of the candidates' appeals to the American "middle class" (everyone in America is apparently middle class). Presidential candidates talk over and over again about "Americans"; a non-American interviewer could press them on international issues in a way that could dismantle these easy appeals.

Tonight's debate was billed as a "town hall" debate. This means that there is some input from members of the public. But the handful of questions that come from the audience, like the moderator's questions, act only as prompts for the candidates to give mini-presentations on the broad subject. The lack of applause or broader audience participation leads to an eerie, unreal kind of stage-managed experience that cannot engage the viewer. The audience are waxworks, everything is restrained. Sometimes politics needs passion. If new voters and apathetic voters are to get energized, the current format is missing the mark. If there is going to be an audience in a "town hall" format, let's bring on David Dimbleby and let's have a full Question Time style programme, with a large, intelligent, passionate audience, allowed to speak, allowed to ask follow-up questions, with strong chairing and holding to account from Dimbleby.

David Dimbleby: could he show them a passionate "town hall" debate?

Good politicians have nothing to fear from robust interviewing and thorough grilling by professionals who represent the public's interest. In a world where politics is becoming ever more glitzy, ever more stage-managed, thorough and rigorous debate is more important than ever. Strong, honest, passionate debate should be at the heart of our politics. If we are committed to democracy, it is too important to neglect.

Monday, 6 October 2008

Portmeirion vs. Swakopmund

(Portmeirion, location for The Prisoner, 1967)

(Swakopmund, location for The Prisoner, 2009)

The remake of the Prisoner continues apace out in Namibia (see also The Unmutual for news; my take here), It is headed for ITV next year, with Ian McKellen as Number 2 and Jim Caviezel as Number 6. One of the things that differentiates the remake from the 1967 original is that we already know where it is being filmed, in Swakopmund, Namibia. This is something of a contrast with the original series. It was apparently something of a mystery to many, when The Prisoner first aired, where on earth they could have filmed the action. When the final episode, "Fall Out", aired in 1968, it began with the on-screen announcement that the series had been filmed on location in Portmeirion, North Wales, by permission of Mr (later Sir) Clough Williams-Ellis. Indeed, the hasty resolution of that mystery lead many to think that the rest of the episode would unravel other mysteries, an expectation that some felt was unfulfilled.

One of the obvious charms of the original series is Portmeirion, as well as the Portmeirion-inspired enhancements to the village that they recreated in the studio, so it will be interesting to see whether the new location, Swakopmund, can live up to its predecessor. Portmeirion is one of my favourite places, and we were going on family holidays there before I had even seen The Prisoner (I first caught it on the 1984 Channel 4 repeats), so it is unlikely that Swakopmund will ever rival Portmeirion in my affections. Nevertheless, to go to google images on Swakopmund reveals an amazing architecture that does have some echoes of the magic of Portmeirion, and it is easy to see why it was chosen for the location filming. I must admit that I am intrigued. AMC's website on the remake offers some tantalizing insights into the new series, video diaries, blogs and the like, but they are being careful to point the camera away from what we will see on screen.

Now in the original, Number 6 is imprisoned in "the village", of course, and not in Portmeirion, but the other major location is London, seen at the beginning of almost every episode and again at more length in other episodes like "Many Happy Returns" and "Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling". There is no word yet on whether Caviezel's Prisoner will begin in London. Caviezel himself is American, so perhaps not. I would love to see London retained as the Prisoner's home, though.

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Lewis Carroll Society of North America Spring Meeting

In April this year, I spoke at the Lewis Carroll Society of North American's Spring Meeting. My topic was "Charles Dodgson and the Conventions of Victorian Piety". It was a most enjoyable weekend, all the more so as I was able to travel up with the family, and also to meet my Mum and Dad up there. I enjoyed getting the chance to speak about something different from the New Testament, for once, and everyone was very encouraging and friendly. One of the attendees put together this nice little video diary of the event, which even includes a few seconds of me waving my arms around in my talk:

The main website also has a report and a nice photo montage. Don't miss the picture of our Lauren helping out with the audition, about two-thirds of the way down.

Monday, 8 September 2008

A Brit in the Final of the US Open!

This is such a rare event that it demands to be blogged -- a Brit has made it to the final of a Grand Slam!

Murray Stuns Nadal to Reach Final

I didn't remember there having been a Brit in the final of any Grand Slam tournament for an age, so I looked it up AFP tells us:

Murray became only the third British man to reach a Slam final in the 40-year Open era, after Greg Rusedski in the 1997 US Open and John Lloyd at the 1977 Australian Open, and would be the first to win a title by beating Federer.
All I can say is "Come on, Andy!"

Oddly, it is not at all easy to find out the when and where of the US TV coverage on this one. None of the online TV Guides have been updated to reflect the fact that the US Open has gone on to an extra day. I had to go to the BBC Five Live website to find out when it was on, though it then occurred to me that there is probably an official site with details, and I am right -- US Open 2008, which confirms that it is on CBS, like the rest of the US Open, and it begins at 5pm ET (10pm BST).  It is remarkably low profile, though, for CBS and the American TV schedules -- CBS have not even updated their website with news of the rescheduled final. Mind you, if you are in the UK, it's not on network TV, I am sorry to see, but on Sky Sports 1, and at least we can view it on network TV here.

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Gavin and Stacey on BBC America

Much of the time, BBC America is a very annoying channel for British expats. Endless repeats of the same handful of programmes that we did not want to watch the first time round and badly edited versions of the ones we did. But sometimes a gem comes along. When we were back in England in April, we caught a couple of episodes of Gavin and Stacey, then towards the end of its second series, and we quite liked it. Now the first series has arrived on BBC America and we are getting the chance to catch it from the beginning. Two episodes in and we are loving it -- I had no idea it was so funny. The two biggest belly laughs so far are Alison Steadman as Gavin's mum going on the Adkin's diet and serving herself three steaks instead of steak and chips and peas, and Rob Brydon as Uncle Brian explaining the joys of route planner to Gavin:

Comedy gold.

Saturday, 2 August 2008

New Prisoner TV series teaser site

Just how exciting is this? The team behind the remake of The Prisoner (my coverage here) is already providing some fantastic pre-series viral stuff, including this great teaser website:

Seek the Six

(H.T.: TV Spy and The Unmutual). The gist is that you go looking for pictures related to "six" and "six of one". There is one in each of the six groups. When you have clicked all six, Jim Caviezel (Number 6) appears, with "I am not a number" written above his picture. And then the picture of Ian McKellen (Number 2) appears, and you are assigned a number. Mine is Number 260,163. Not quite as memorable as 6, perhaps. Several things are encouraging here. One is the sheer effort that is going into making this reimagination a success. Another is the clear sense already of their capturing the feeling of the original series. Those shots of McKellen and Caviezel look Prisoner-esque. Only think of the head shot of McGoohan that begins and ends every episode. And the pithy sentences that keep appearing on the site when you correctly find a 6 are sometimes from the original series, but sometimes are new phrases that capture its style, "I don't think you want freedom", "Help me to conform, submit" and so on. And it may be my imagination, but lots of those pictures do evoke memories of The Prisoner, not least those of filing cabinets.

Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Maroon 5 and Counting Crows at Walnut Creek

One of the great things about your kids getting older is that they stop being the reason that you don't go to concerts any more and they become the reason that you start going to concerts again. It is great to be living in this transition at the moment. The first gig we went to with Emily and Lauren since coming to America was Hannah Montana (Miley Cyrus) and the Jonas Brothers in Greensboro last November, an expensive but enjoyable evening, and a family atmosphere, with thousands of kids there to see Miley Cyrus. But now, as the girls' musical tastes develop, they are pressing us to go to see bands that are not quite so children-orientated, and we are able to take advantage of being in a fantastic location for getting to good concerts.

Last night, Maroon 5 came to Raleigh, to a giant outdoor amphitheatre called Walnut Creek Pavilion. We went for the cheap tickets, on the lawn behind all the seating, but we still had an excellent view. And being on the grass on a balmy summer evening made the whole evening feel like one of the summer festivals I used to like going to in England in my youth. There were three acts. The first, Sarah Bareilles, came on at seven, and she was pretty good, though it had the feeling of background music where we were located, with punters coming and going around us the whole time, putting down their travelling rugs and deck chairs, meeting their friends and chatting. Counting Crows then played for over an hour, beginning at sunset and continuing until it was dark. I can't say that I am a big fan of them, though I enjoyed their hit "Mr Jones" and so, apparently, did everyone else. It was the one track that everyone stood up for. Overall, though, they didn't really catch the excitement of the audience and it was clear that most people had turned up to see the headline act.

Emily introduced me to Maroon 5 and because she plays their most recent CD a lot, I found that I knew most of the tracks. They were a superb live act, one of the best live sets I have seen, not too much messing about ("Everybody say yeah, yeah"; "Yeah Yeah" etc.), and really polished. The lead singer's vocals were pitch perfect -- all very impressive. And they played all their hits. Not much up on Youtube yet, but I'll keep an eye out and add a link if anyone adds anything decent from last night.

Perhaps the most unusual thing to me was the make up of the audience. They were pretty young, mainly college age, and there was an even gender mix. They were all very well scrubbed up and turned out; there was hardly a sweaty fat tattooed denim and leathers merchant in sight. But there were also very few children. That will presumably be all different tonight when we return to Walnut Creek to see the latest teen sensation, the Jonas Brothers, headlining along with Avril Lavigne. So that I don't waste quite as much money as last night, this time we will be taking our own drinks and food ($4 for a bottle of coke! $5 for a cup of chips (fries)!).

I am a redneck

I may be a resident alien here in North Carolina, and I may be keeping my English accent, but apparently I am now a redneck! I have been visiting the same barber in Durham for three years and on the most recent visit, on Monday, right at the end of my haircut, he told me that I have become a redneck. Too many visits to the pool, no doubt.

Monday, 21 July 2008

Who before Hollywood

There is surely no question that Steven Moffat has made the right decision in putting Doctor Who before Hollywood, and pulling out of his deal to write the second Tin Tin film; this is from Digital Spy:

Moffat pulled out of "Tin Tin" for "Who"
By Dave West, Media Correspondent

Good for him. And great for us. BBC News clarifies what actually happened, however, in this report:

Dr Who Writer Denies Tintin row

Back on Digital Spy, it is worth taking a look at their very entertaining 'Doctor Who' Season Four: Cult Spy Awards.

Blog name change

I have been experimenting with my Personal Blog for almost a year now, and I have decided to continue the experiment for another year or so. I notice that the posts that get the most interest are those about British expat living in the USA and to a large extent they are the most enjoyable to write. I am adjusting the name of the blog from the riveting and catching "Mark Goodacre's Personal Blog" to "The Resident Alien". I couldn't have called it that a year ago because we didn't yet have our green cards at that point, but now that we have, there is something strangely appropriate about that describing the blog that way. Incidentally, I notice in looking back on my post, "Our Green Cards Have Arrived" that I have never added mention that the kids also received their green cards not long after that post. It turned out that the business of getting a new birth certificate was straightforward and a formality. When we returned to England last time -- in April -- we were all able to walk through with the US citizens and the green card holders. It's nice not to have to fill in those white forms on the way through too.

Saturday, 19 July 2008

Post Mamma Mia: An Abba Fan's Delight

My concerns were groundless. I loved every minute of Mamma Mia. It's delightful. True, there were moments where the big stars were thrashing out Abba songs with great gusto and looking like they might ruin them, Meryl Streep's doing her best with "Winner Takes it All" but leaving you longing for the original with Agnetha's vocals, but those moments were relatively few and far between. The backing track, apparently supplied by Abba's own musicians, was sublime, and there were moments when you almost felt that you could hear Agnetha and Frida on backing vocals if you listened hard enough. And during "Dancing Queen" there was a great little cameo from Benny, playing the piano on the jetty.

I was unfamiliar with the story of the musical and I was pleasantly surprised by how well Abba songs had been woven into its absurd, fluffy, but enjoyable plot. On odd occasions the songs felt more obviously shoe-horned in than they might have been. Brosnan's character singing SOS came from nowhere, Streep's character's "Winner Takes it All" likewise. But the musical avoids doing anything seriously horrible; there are no characters knocking around called "Fernando" or "Nina", thank goodness. And on several of the occasions where the songs are a little forced, the characters themselves appear to realize it. Julie Walters's ridiculous call of "Chiquitita" to Meryl Streep (hiding in the toilet) is hilarious. And sometimes the choice of songs is unpredictable and quite refreshing. I did not immediately think of "Our Last Summer" when Colin Firth's character, a "banker" named "Harry" was introduced at the beginning of the film. And while most of the songs chosen are the "hits", there are other good choices of the lesser known tracks, the kinds the fans like, "Slipping through my fingers", Meryl Streep and her daughter Amanda Seyfried in a tear-jerker, "Lay all your love on me", Amanda Seyfried on the beach on her fiancé's stag night, and "When All is Said and Done", at the wedding at the end.

I found watching this film unbelievably enjoyable, a whole gushing series of emotions, laughing out loud and crying quietly. It is totally unsophisticated; it has the most ridiculous plot imaginable; it ought to be the most terrible film you could think of and yet somehow it works and works brilliantly. A huge part of that is simply that Abba's songs are just so good that it is the musical to trump all musicals. Where sometimes in musicals you sigh when someone begins to sing, in this film every time another song starts, you think, "Great! Another fantastic song." But there is also something about the brainless enjoyment that invites you in to celebrate alongside all the characters so clearly having a party. You want to sing and dance with them. And it might sound daft to say it, but somehow the film looks like Abba songs sound. There is a kind of joyful optimism, a love of life that does make you think of the sunshine, the seaside, laughing, crying and celebrating.

This is just wonderful. While everyone else is raving abut Dark Knight here, and I too will get round to seeing that over the next few days, I can't think about anything other than Mamma Mia and I can't wait for my second viewing, as soon as possible, and then a third and a fourth.

Mark Kermode delivers his best review over -- he is absolutely spot on about this "strangely wonderful" film -- I laughed out loud at his review:

Friday, 18 July 2008

Pre Mamma Mia: An Abba fan's anxieties

Anyone who knows me knows of my love for Abba. And that does not mean that I have a copy of Abba Gold on CD and know all the lyrics to "Dancing Queen". It means that I have a serious past as an Abba fan, a massive record collection, all the 1970s memorabilia including the (now very rare) Abba dolls, an appearance on Radio Derby, circa 1982, as "local Abba superfan", an article about me, with picture, in the Abba Magazine (again circa 1982), and I could go on. I was so serious back in the day that I was there for the first performance of Chess at the London Barbican in October 1984, sitting on the front row, and meeting and getting autographs from Bjorn, Benny and Tim Rice. Well, time, family and other interests have mellowed my obsessive tendencies, especially on the collecting front, but my love for Abba is still the same, and so it is with mixed feelings that I look forward to going to see the new film Mamma Mia, which opens today here in the USA. One one level, it is great to have Abba songs so much in the limelight, to see people appreciating what I always knew, that they were brilliant. On another level, I am not sure how I feel about having the likes of Meryl Streep and Colin Firth singing Abba songs, and a look at the trailer makes me suspect that it is all going to be rather silly:

As an Abba fan, I can't help thinking that I will just want to hear the real Abba songs when I see the actors doing their best with them. One of the things that was so great about Abba was the Abba sound, Benny's piano and the girls' voices; it was not just about those catchy melodies. When Alan Partridge says that he prefers the "Jeff Love Orchestra" version of "Knowing Me, Knowing You" that he uses for his radio show, we all laugh because it is so obviously not true. In fact, many of my records are cover versions of Abba songs, and 95% of them are absolutely terrible. Reproducing the Abba sound is virtually impossible -- it's like trying to reproduce the Beatles. Even the very good tribute bands like Bjorn Again only get a hint of what Abba actually sounded like. Even Abba themselves sometimes struggled to recreate the Abba sound live, especially if you compare the 1979 concert footage with the earlier, sublime 1977 footage in Abba The Movie.

I was encouraged, though, by a documentary we watched last week on ITV about the development of Mamma Mia in which it became clear that Bjorn and Benny, the two Bs in Abba, are closely involved with the production of the film, as they were earlier involved with the stage production. Remarkably, the original musicians who played on all the Abba tracks (sans Agnetha and Frida) have been gathered together for the score of the film. There they all were, looking a bit fatter and older, gathered to recreate the magic. And that should make the music at least worth listening to, even if we do still find ourselves longing for the proper voices over the top of that revised backing track.

We never managed to get to see the stage show of Mamma Mia; it opened when the kids were little and we were poor and we could never swing it to get to London to see it. So I go into the film today with only a vague knowledge of the story, and so some degree of freshness. I will let you know what I thought of it all later.

Thursday, 17 July 2008

Dr Horrible

We are big Joss Whedon fans in our house (Buffy, Firefly, Serenity, looking forward to Dollhouse), so we naturally were ready for "Act 1" of his new web-only project tonight. And it did not disappoint. It is a kind of anti-super-hero nerd's musical, and the first episode was great. Only 13 minutes or so in the first instalment, but a very well spent thirteen minutes, and we will be watching Act II tomorrow, and almost certainly watching Act I again:

Dr Horrible

For those, like me, who loved the musical episode of Buffy, this is what you have been waiting for for the last five years. I would love this to work for Joss Whedon, and for thousands of internet nerds to say, "Yay, more!" and for it to become a cult. In any case, it is free, and only 13 minutes of your time, so what is to lose?

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

How would Journey's End have looked if the tenth doctor had regenerated?

I have continued to think about the last episode of this series of Doctor Who, Journey's End, helped along by the usual dose of podcasts and online reviews. I have to admit that unlike the best episodes of Doctor Who, I mean the really great episodes, it does not bear too much thinking about, and the element that consistently niggles is the extraordinary business with the second doctor, the "Odd Job Junior Doctor" as I called him in my review. It's just such a bizarre idea; why on earth did Russell T. Davies come up with such an extraordinarily weird idea as having a duplicate doctor growing from that hand in a jar? Well, today I caught up with the Tin Dog Podcast, one of my favourites, and its presenter (Michael?) had a theory so good that I think it might be right. Of course I encourage you to go and listen to the podcast, but the gist of it was to imagine that at the beginning of "Journey's End", the tenth doctor had regenerated into the eleventh doctor, and then, later in the episode, that hand generates the tenth doctor clone, as we saw in the episode. We then have a two-doctor episode, tenth and eleventh, with the eleventh the "real" doctor and the tenth doing everything we saw him do, with Donna et al. Now imagine the scene in Bad Wolf Bay at the end. We have the eleventh doctor, a new face, played by who knows? (I like to imagine Richard E. Grant) and he is not quite the real doctor to Rose, not her doctor. And he fudges the crucial moment at which he could say what he had said at the end of series 2. And then the tenth doctor clone, who looks and feels like her doctor, is able to say those crucial three words in her ear, and Rose is happy to go off with him. Just imagine the feel of that -- it would have been perfect: Rose is united with her doctor, while the new doctor, still unfamiliar to us all, goes off in his TARDIS. What a fantastic way of creating a transition between the doctors that would have been! What an end of an era!

Most of the above is from the Tin Dog Podcast, though some is my own riffing on the theme. But I can't help wondering whether Tin Dog is actually onto something here. We know that Russell T. Davies likes those sorts of perfect tie-ups -- we saw it at the end of the second series, with the alternative universe's Pete Tyler joining up with our universe's Jacky. And bear in mind that David Tennant was always rumoured to have been standing down at the end of this series. Catherine Tate leaked this before the series had begun, to the evident annoyance of David Tennant himself, and perhaps that was the original deal. Russell writes the final episode with the regeneration to cap them all, a cliffhanger at the end of the twelfth episode, and a clever means to keep Tennant involved right to the end. I think I could easily have coped with Rose going off with her Tennant doctor at the end of the episode, not quite sure what to make of the new incarnation of the doctor who is now about to begin his new adventures in the four specials.

If this scenario is right, and it has some considerable explanatory power, we will probably never know until Russell writes his memoirs, and even then he might be guarded. Or perhaps one day David Tennant will tell all. Perhaps Tennant could just not resist the temptation to continue doing Doctor Who for a bit longer, to become the definitive doctor, to trump Tom Baker's tenure (three more years will do it). If it is right, I suspect that Russell liked his plot too much, and adapted it so that it would still work with Tennant playing both characters, though I think this may have been a mistake. Perhaps someone should have said, "Come on, Russell, this doesn't quite work" but there was no one to do that. Let's hope Steven Moffat gets a script editor who can say to him, "No, Steven, I don't think so" from time to time.

All the above is probably complete rubbish, but it's great fun to talk rubbish from time to time.

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Doctor Who, Series 4, Episode 13: Journey's End

And so we arrive at the final episode of the current series of Doctor Who, "the finale" as it is now called (a nomenclature I first heard when Buffy was on). As well as the excitement before watching, there is also something of a preparation for disappointment and anti-climax, in part because the hype was so great (Media Round Up) leading up to it, in part because the cliffhanger at the end of "The Stolen Earth" was so good that the resolution could hardly better it, but mainly because of the feeling that this is it. The end of another series. The wait until the Christmas special begins. But worse, this time there is the knowledge that we don't get a complete series next year, just the specials. So everyone wanted to savour Doctor Who while it was still with us.

Given all that hype, this was real "event television". With 9.4 million on the overnights (which will rise by a few when the final figures are in), this was the most watched TV programme of the week, the first time that has ever happened in the history of the series. And it seems that those millions loved it. For a second week running, it had an Audience Appreciation figure of 91, which is remarkable (Source: Outpost Gallifrey). Whatever anyone else says about the series, Russell T. Davies's tenure as show-runner has been a fantastic success, achieving things no doubt beyond his dreams. With the British media continuing to go crazy about this , it was an event in our house too. Given the inevitable time lapse for us in watching, we avoided all contact with the British media, i.e. the internet, from 1.40pm our time onwards (it was on BBC1 at 6.40pm BST, and we are five hours behind). We even went to the pool to make sure we were away from temptation. When it was ready to watch, we locked the door, closed the blinds, switched off the phones and got ready for our 65 minutes of action.

Now I have to admit that I was just a touch disappointed with the resolution of the best cliffhanger of all time. I knew that David Tennant was to stay on, but there was just that niggling thought, that tiny little possibility that this could have been the best kept TV secret ever. And that photograph of David Morrissey looking like he could be the doctor really was intriguing, even if it now seems obvious in retrospect that he is just in Victorian costume, filming the Christmas special. And a week is a long time to be thinking about all the other possibilities that might have included Tennant staying on and yet introducing something else. There was that reference to "the threefold doctor" in "The Stolen Earth". Could it be that we might see, even for a short while, McCann or even McCoy? This all turned out to be utter fanboy nonsense, of course, and it now seems daft that anyone would have thought this way, even if it was fun for a while. One of my favourite reviews of the final episode imagined how things might have been, The Twee Doctors on Behind the Sofa:

Blimey, wasn't David Morrissey fantastic tonight? I mean, WOW! And phew, too! Just imagine how disappointed we'd have been if David Tennant had regenerated into himself or something pathetic like that! That would have been a massive cop-out and they'd have lynched RTD for sure. And top marks for pulling off a Paul McGann Time War flashback so we could watch him regenerate into Eccleston. Brilliant! But killing Rose and Martha - who saw that coming? However, I have to admit that shoehorning Harriet Jones into the Dalek Supreme and McCoy's cheeky cameo as "Dr." Osterhagen did over-egg the pudding a little, even it was cleverly done (I loved the subtle reference to the Kandyman). And while I'm having a hard time swallowing the fact that Donna was actually Romana all along (Temp = Time, Noble = Lord - slaps forehead - of course!) that bit at the end when John Simm unleashed all of those Cybermen into the TARDIS was f**king mental! What? What? WHAT?

Is it Christmas yet?



OK, so that's what might have happened if Russell had turned left (or listened to some of the more insane suggestions on the DW forum over the past couple of months). Unfortunately, what we ended up simply couldn't compete with that level of hype and speculation.
Exactly right. The previous episode, "The Stolen Earth", was simply the best experience I've had while watching Doctor Who. It was that good. And I think that anything would struggle to live up to that. It's often the way with two-parters; I liked "Forest of the Dead" less than "Silence in the Library" and even "Family of Blood" less than "Human Nature", and these were two of the best stories ever. But after the the thrill-a-minute side to "Stolen Earth" is over, "Journey's End" is able to do much more with its characters, and it has some wonderful moments.

There are too many highlights to mention, but a few of the many moments that made this for me include:
  • Julian Bleach's maniacal performance as Davros -- that laugh when you see the inside of his mouth was chilling.
  • Bernard Cribbins as Wilf -- his heartbreak at Donna's fate, and he still has tme to ask the doctor, "What about you?" I am sorry that we may have seen the last of Wilf; he's been great.
  • The German daleks -- Extermenieren! -- enough said.
  • Mickey's meeting again with Captain Jack; in fact, Mickey throughout this episode -- more Mickey please! Delighted that he's back in our universe, and hopefully heading for Torchwood with Martha too.
  • The return to the theme of the doctor's pacifism, and the struggles with blood and violence. In "The Doctor's Daughter", he wants the new planet founded on the idea of avoiding bloodshed; the idea of genocide was "over my dead body", and it is the theme of "Genesis of the Daleks". Now we return again to the doctor's horror at the idea of genocide, even of the daleks.
  • I can't resist saying something about the whole "prophecy" theme. Are Dalek Caan's prophecies directing the action, causing people to behave in a certain way, or are they the mad rantings of someone who has glimpsed the future during the time war?
  • The tragedy of Donna's fate -- one of the most poignant and upsetting moments in Doctor Who.
  • The structure and pacing of the episode was perfect; I loved the multiple endings, layered one after another, like the end of the Lord of the Rings film trilogy, or John's Gospel.
One of the things that initially gave me pause was the "Oddjob Junior" doctor. In Carry on Screaming, they grow a new Oddjob "Junior" out of his finger, and he too goes round in a blue suit like this doctor 2. It took me a lot of time to get used to this bizarre plot development, and I think it affected my initial viewing much too strongly. But on second viewing, I liked this; it was the development of the resolution of the cliffhanger, and so made sense of that initially disappointing moment, and it led to some great comic moments with Catherine Tate, and of course he played a key role in the defeat of the new dalek empire. And although I was not especially keen on revisiting Bad Wolf Bay, and sending off Oddjob Junior Doctor with Rose, it does give us the chance, as Darth Skeptical commented on Podshock, for a naturally aged Tennant recurring in twenty years time -- that will make this ending well worth it.

Favourite moment? A lot to choose from, but I adored the revisiting of my favourite piece of music from the series, the Ood Song from Planet of the Ood, now re-arranged in the delightfully absurd flying the earth back into orbit:

Utterly ridiculous. Utterly brilliant.

Rating: 5 TARDIS groans again. The series goes out on a high, with back to back 5s, from Silence of the Library through to the end. Series review to follow.

Saturday, 5 July 2008

Doctor Who, Series 4, Episode 12: The Stolen Earth

"The Stolen Earth" was the best experience I've had while watching Doctor Who. It is not the best episode ever, but it is the most successful in giving the viewer a thrill a minute. It is the kind of episode that could only have been done now, at the end of the fourth series since Doctor Who was revived in 2005. There are tons of references to the programme's recent past, and a smattering of references to its older history too, most obviously in the return of one of the great villains of the past. I was eight when Davros first appeared in Doctor Who, in "Genesis of the Daleks", a story we re-watched this week in order to do a bit of homework ahead of his return in "The Stolen Earth". It stands the test of time remarkably well -- it is still very watchable, and Michael Wisher's Davros is brilliantly menacing. Julian Bleach puts in a fantastic performance as Davros in the new episode, and it is excellent that they kept his look pretty faithful to Davros's look from previous outings, and especially "Genesis of the Daleks".

There was a reward in this episode for those of us who have embraced not only new Who but also the rest of the new Whoniverse, with two series of Torchwood and a series of Sarah Jane Adventures. The fact that Torchwood series 2 went out also in a family-friendly version meant that Torchwood characters like Ianto and Gwen could be introduced here without the kids going, "huh?" And getting Sarah Jane Adventures into the mix too somehow grants that show too that extra bit of legitimacy. I like the fact that Russell T. Davies is proud enough of these new programmes to add them to a Doctor Who episode. There was something quite thrilling about having Gwen and Ianto, Sarah Jane and Luke (but I would have liked to have seen Maria too) in Doctor Who. And how did Russell manage to write a script with so much emotion, and so many characters, and without it feeling convoluted or rushed? It was not a convoluted story; it was easy to follow, and yet it sped along at a frenetic pace. "Oh great, more Wilf, yes! Oh, and Rose! Martha; is she dead? No, she's still alive! And there's Francine! Great! Harriet Jones!" And so on, all the way through.

My favourite review this week was from Behind the Sofa, by Neil:

Talkin' Bout Regeneration

. . . . . How can Russell top this? This isn't his last 'Horray!' by a long chalk - there's still four "specials" before his era truly comes to an end. So what on earth is he going to do for an encore? It's a terrifying prospect. How about the Doctor and Borusa riding in on the back of a Myrka to defeat Morbius, the Master and the Rani as they attempt to destroy ancient Gallifrey with the help of some Quarks? Guest starring Paul McGann and Sylvester McCoy (who has a Metebelis spider on his back) and featuring Simon Cowell as Himself. It's madness! Utter madness!

Good luck to him, I say. The audience is positively lapping it up and a stunning AI score of 91 won't see Russell changing tack as he hits the final stretch. We might as well go with the flow. This series has delivered some wonderful, thought provoking episodes - Midnight, Silence in the Library, The Fires of Pompeii - but we've always known that the finale would be an apocalyptic, loud, proud and utterly mental Russ-fest. Moaning about it now seems a little absurd. We may as well save our outrage for next week's obligatory reset button instead (aka the Haagen-Dazs Key).

Well, even if we get another "reset" or "rewind" in "Journey's End", I think I can cope with it for the joy of "Stolen Earth". I can't wait to find out how that cliffhanger is resolved and frankly, I just know that I can't be disappointed after such a fantastic 45 minutes. Heck, that "TO bam BE bam CONTINUED" was so thrilling that I wanted to watch it again and again. Although I can't wait for the resolution, I want to pause for a moment and enjoy this moment of not knowing, to make a memory here about how well cliffhanger TV works when it works, like it does here, with everyone going into a frenzy of speculation all week about what happens next. And of course that is my favourite clip of the week:

The test of a great episode is whether you want to watch it again, and again. We have already watched "The Stolen Earth" three times and would happily catch it again, except that it is almost time for the finale. Watching this episode was an extended Whogasm! I'd love to have seen those girls' reaction to this episode!

And now, it is media blackout time until we've seen "Journey's End".

Oh, five TARDIS groans, of course. Heck, I'd give it six.

Doctor Who Overdrive!

While we were enjoying the 4th of July, it seems that the UK media went into overdrive on the excitement generated by the last episode of the current series of Doctor Who later today, and not without reason. Last week's episode was such a fabulous, thrill-a-minute ride, especially for long time fans of the show, with the most exciting cliffhanger in the history of the show, that it is difficult not to be very excited indeed about the final episode tomorrow. I was delighted to read this round-up on Outpost Gallifrey:

Media round-up - UK in Doctor Who meltdown

The British media has gone into Doctor Who overdrive in recent days, with a frenzy of comment, speculation and analysis across all kinds of outlets on television, radio, the internet and in print. As the week has gone on the avalanche of coverage ahead of tomorrow's climactic finale to series four has continued to build, and the excitement shows no sign of dying down yet.

This evening, BBC One's main early evening news bulletin, the Six O'Clock News, carried a report from entertainment correspondent Lizo Mzimba, looking at the secrecy surrounding tomorrow night's episode. It featured a short new clip from the episode, as well as comments from Freema Agyeman - who said friends had been texting her about the series, and people on the street had been asking her about the episode all week - and Russell T Davies. Following the showing of the report, the weatherman commented that this Saturday's rainy weather would be suitable for staying indoors and watching Doctor Who! . . . .
Fantastic! I love "event television", telly that gets the nation talking, the family gathered in front of the telly! Bring on the rain! Bring on the finale! (We will be incommunicado to the outside world tomorrow just in case we accidentally catch a spoiler).

Friday, 4 July 2008

Thunder and lightning on the 4th of July

Out here in the US, we have been enjoying the 4th of July. Two years ago, Viola posted on our first Independence Day. Last year, we missed it because we were flying back from the UK, arriving in Washington DC late in the evening, and just in time to see a few fireworks in the sky as we drove home. Unlike that occasion two years ago, we didn't get the chance to go to the pool, but we did drive into Durham, and we spent an enjoyable afternoon with friends over there. We were back before dark, so we repeated our walk around the neighbourhood of two years ago and watched the fireworks which were being let off all over the place. Perhaps one of the first things one notices as a Brit doing this is the odd feeling of fireworks in the warmth of a July evening rather than the freezing cold of a November 5 in England. One also can't help noticing that people, at least round our way, are rather more cavalier on the safety issues than they are in the UK. The fireworks are let off in the middle of the road, and people just balance them on the road and walk right up and light them, and everyone seems to stand, and sit, pretty close. Mind you, didn't hear a single ambulance siren while we were out walking. But this year was dramatic because at about 9.30pm, a film-style thunderstorm began to develop, with forks of lightning, loud thunder and flickering lights in the sky of the kind that I used to think were just a film cliché before we moved here.

With the rain dampening everyone's fireworks, the evening's fun was over, and we returned home to catch the latest Big Brother eviction, a documentary about Abba and Mamma Mia and a discussion about how excited we were about tomorrow's final episode of this series of Doctor Who. On the latter, we have a plan of action to avoid accidentally hearing any possible spoilers between broadcast on BBC1 and our viewing an hour or so later. Oh, and it seems that SciFi Channel have a Twilight Zone marathon. It began very early this morning, and is still going on as I write. Could be a late night.