Monday, 30 June 2008

The Prisoner Remake: It's Official

More today on the remake of The Prisoner, which will star James Caviezel (Passion of the Christ) and Sir Ian McKellen (Lord of the Rings), and will be broadcast on ITV in six hour-long episodes in 2009. The news is covered widely, including here in The Guardian:

Ian McKellen to lead in ITV's The Prisoner remake
Ben Dowell

TV today said the remake, which has been written by Bill Gallagher, "will reflect 21st century concerns and anxieties, such as liberty, security and surveillance, yet also showcase the same key elements of paranoia, tense action and socio-political commentary seen in McGoohan's enigmatic original".

Gallagher, who scripted BBC1's Lark Rise to Candleford, said: "I was haunted by The Prisoner when I saw it as a boy on its first broadcast. Here was something that was more than television, something I couldn't quite grasp but couldn't let go of. It's a unique opportunity for a writer to be able to go back to The Village and tell some new stories about that strange place and its surreal menace.

"We have a terrific cast and a wonderful director, so we hope to serve up something as beguiling and disturbing as the original was."
It's great that the new version will be on ITV, like the original, in prime time, free to view for all. The new series was earlier set to go to Sky where it would only have received a fraction of the ITV audience.

I first saw the news today on SFX, where I was of course keeping an eye open for the latest on Doctor Who. We are still absolutely buzzing in our house from The Stolen Earth on Saturday, which we re-watched last night. What a fantastic episode. Still, more on that anon. Back to The Prisoner news, it was also up on The Prisoner Online pretty speedily, and The Unmutual link to the full press release at The Futon Critic.

Several quick comments. The team looks excellent and inspires some confidence. I rate Caviezel highly, and McKellen is of course brilliant. But the casting of each raises questions. Is Caviezel going to be an American secret agent? If so, that will be a serious difference from the original, and not entirely welcome. Imagine if one remade Doctor Who with an American as the doctor, or imagine rebooting the James Bond franchise and making him American. McGoohan himself is Irish, and the series was British through-and-through, from the shots of Big Ben, the house of commons and the Mall through to all the actors playing Number 2. In a re-imagination, there are of course certain things that will change, but the London-based beginning, and the returns to London throughout ("Chimes of Big Ben", "Many Happy Returns", "Do Not Forsake Me" and "Fall Out") -- these are some of the basics that give it its charm.

I commented previously (More on The Prisoner Remake) on the apparent departure from the original in having a constant Number 2 present. In the original, we had a different guest star playing Number 2 each week, sometimes even in the same episode, and again this was one of those things that made it so fascinating. So while the casting of McKellen is welcome, I am a little disappointed that we won't have "the new Number 2" appearing each week.

And, of course, what about Portmeirion? It seems certain that they are not going to film there, the original filming location in 1966-7, and one of my favourite places in the world. I think that that was probably inevitable -- it is difficult to know quite how you could shoot in Portmeirion in 2008 and make it work (though I'd love to see them try). But I hope that they have found some location that at least attempts to echo some of the magic of the original.

TV remakes and re-imaginations have had mixed success. The Bionic Woman was promising but was not given enough time. Battlestar Galactica is pretty good, if a bit too intense. Doctor Who is the example par excellence of how to do it brilliantly, even to improve on the original while remaining faithful to its basics and its spirit. So much of that is down to one man, Russell T. Davies. If there is anything to learn about how to re-imagine a classic series, he is surely the man to talk to.

Sunday, 22 June 2008

Doctor Who, Series 4, Episode 9: Forest of the Dead

It looks like I have fallen behind in my inane ramblings about the current series of Doctor Who. I'm not quite sure why I started writing these little pieces; I think I blame Loren Rosson who suggested it to me. One of the fun things is contrasting my views with his, and I have started so I'll finish. As I write, we have just had episode 11, "Turn Left", so I have a couple more episodes to catch up on before being up to date.

So back to Episode 9, "Forest of the Dead", the second of a two-parter written by Steven Moffat, the first part of which was the superb "Silence in the Library". This second part was also excellent, all the many fascinating threads begun in the first part now carefully worked out in the second, with the identity of River Song the most intriguing. What a fantastic idea to have a companion from the doctor's future now meeting him. This is the kind of playing with time that Steven Moffat is so good at. He understands that Doctor Who is a time travel show and looks for ways of exploring the weirdness of the very idea. Some fans have suggested that this character is even his future wife -- perhaps that is how she knew his name. At this point, I am not so sure. Moffat was still a bit reticent to commit himself on the identity of River Song in the episode commentary (a particularly good one, as it happens, with the dream team of Moffat, Russell T. Davies and David Tennant). He could have told her his name in order to bring about the successful "saving" of River Song in his past -- he needed to find a way to make his past self trust her. His "saving" of River Song at the end of the episode was fantastic -- I love the idea of the future doctor effectively communicating with himself across time.

I hope that we do get to meet River Song again, and I hope that the meetings will be such that they will make us go back and enjoy this story afresh. This story, more than any other written by Moffat, actually felt strangely out of time, a little out of sync with the rest of the current series. That worked because it was giving us a taste of the future in several ways, not just a future character appearing now, but also in the style of story that we will see again in Moffat's reign as the new show runner from 2010.

But that brings me to the thing that troubled me a bit about this episode. It was a bit too convoluted. It tried just a bit too hard. Given that Moffat sees Doctor Who as a children's series, he didn't quite hit the right notes. There was far too much going on for kids to follow the story-line easily. And the scary-factor was pretty near zero. When Moffat gets it right ("Blink"), the story is scary and it is loved by the hard-core fans and the kids too. When he tries a bit too hard, as here, the fans still like it, but the kids turn off and don't find it scary.

A fine episode, but not Moffat's best. I don't think he'll win a Bafta this time round. But he has given us lots to think about and enjoy. 4 1/2 TARDIS groans from me, bringing my ratings for the series so far to the following, with some fresh adjustments, e.g. I rewatched "Unicorn and the Wasp" on SciFi Channel a week ago and I loved every minute of it:

Partners in Crime: 4 1/2 TARDIS groans
Fires of Pompeii: 3 1/2 TARDIS groans
Planet of the Ood: 4 1/2 TARDIS groans.
The Sontaran Stratagem / The Poison Sky: 3 1/2 TARDIS groans.
The Doctor's Daughter: 4 TARDIS groans.
The Unicorn and the Wasp: 4 TARDIS groans.
Silence in the Library: 5 TARDIS groans.
Forest of the Dead: 4 1/2 TARDIS groans.

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

When British stuff breaks into America

As a British expat in America, I am intrigued by the British things that break through in America. There is an unpredictability about the things that make it and the things that don't. Sometimes one forgets which British things Americans like and which they don't, or, more accurately, which they have heard of and which they have not. What is curious is that most Americans are Anglophiles. They love Britain, the British, our history, our castles and especially our accents. Yet when it comes to British imports, it is never that easy to work out what the criteria for admiration are. The really big things -- the Beatles, Monty Python, Tolkien, Harry Potter, James Bond -- are loved with a passion by many Americans. They are all bigger here than they are in the UK. There is no question of Americans having heard of them. Other things attain a kind of cult status here -- British stuff for Americans in the know. One of my favourite TV series, The Prisoner, is like that. I was shopping in Kroger the other day (a supermarket on the scale of smaller Sainsburys and Tescos) and I was stopped by a bloke who was delighted to see my Prisoner t-shirt and wondered where I had bought it from. He gave a kind of knowing chuckle when he heard my English accent .

There are other things that have a kind of cult status, an underground fan base, that encourages the big cheeses to try to turn them into something truly large and American, sometimes with disastrous results. The Office is a superb exception to this rule -- it is remarkable to see how successful the American version of the sublime British original has been. It is never as funny as the original, but it is always worth watching, and after several years it has a life of its own. The attempt a few years ago to transform Steven Moffat's brilliant Coupling into an American sitcom was a disaster, and the forthcoming attempt to Americanize Life on Mars looks so bad that I was really hoping it was a parody. We saw a short trailer for it on the telly just the other day, and there was no improvement on the earlier one.

American television at its best is wonderful. Anyone in the UK who enjoys television also enjoys American television. I love the best American TV. A British channel's success is as much about its ability to find the best American shows to broadcast in primetime as it is about its ability to commission new programmes of its own. But there is an unnecessary reluctance on the part of the big cheeses in the States to do the same, and to buy top British programmes and put them in key slots alongside the homegrown programmes. It wasn't always like this. Back in the late 60s, with more imaginative programme schedulers, The Avengers was broadcast primetime. Not so recently. BBC America gets respectable viewing figures, but it is the tiniest section of the overall audience.

I wonder what the next big British thing here will be? I doubt that it will be Doctor Who but I love to imagine that it could happen. "New Who", i.e. the revival of the series after a sixteen year hiatus, stands up above anything on American TV at the moment, and it is just beginning to impinge on American media consciousness, growing out of the kind of "cult" status it has enjoyed here for years. Each of the four new series of Who (read "seasons" in the US), from 2005 to the present, has been broadcast first on SciFi, then on BBC America, and then on PBS and associated channels in syndication. The current series (the fourth) is almost up to speed on SciFi, lagging behind by less than three weeks. Mind you, it is infuriating to see SciFi still cutting content in order to squeeze the show into an American hour with advertisements.

A sign of the growing awareness of new Who comes in its appearance in a political cartoon recently, This Modern World by Tom Tomorrow (HT: Outpost Gallifrey). And still more importantly, there was a lengthy discussion of Russell T. Davies, the person responsible for the resurrection of Doctor Who, in the New York Times (HT: Loren Rosson), which is unprecedented:

Who Altered British TV? ‘Who’ Indeed

It's a nice piece, if a shame that its author feels obliged to go on and on about Captain Jack's sexuality. There are several perhaps insurmountable problems with the programme becoming anything more than cult viewing here, though:

(1) Many of the episodes are too long. As soon as they push beyond 42 minutes, it doesn't fit into the American TV hour. The Sci-Fi style edits are pretty awful.

(2) These thirteen episode series don't stretch across an American-style 22-24 episode series.

(3) The revival is already so well underway that it seems unlikely that any big channel would be inclined to dip into the series at this stage.

(4) Many Americans can't understand the dialogue. David Tennant speaks very fast and BBC America offers subtitles for those who can't understand British English.

And actually, come to think of it, there is something quite nice about being one of those in the know.

Monday, 9 June 2008

More on The Prisoner remake

Six of One have more on the remake of The Prisoner (previous comments here: No Prisoner Remake, Prisoner Remake Back on the Agenda), which now sounds like it is about to get off the ground, with filming in Namibia and Cape Town to start soon, and Sir Ian McKellen as Number Two and James Caviezel as Number Six. It's a six episode series. Presumably this means that it will leave open the way for a second series if the first is successful. ITV seem to be working in these blocks of six these days -- Primeval has been a good example of a Saturday night six-parter, one each year for the last two years. The casting of James Caviezel is interesting to me because of his role as Jesus in The Passion of the Christ, the Mel Gibson directed 2004 film, about which I have written quite a bit, both in print (book details) and on my academic blog. The one other element of interest in this tidbit of news is that only McKellen is listed as playing Number Two. In the original series, the actor playing Number Two changed each week, and it was one of the most compelling things about the series that each week there would be a new guest actor. Perhaps McKellen is just the first and most famous, or perhaps this is one major element in the "re-imagining"? Whichever one, McKellen could be very interesting indeed in this role.

Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Today a podcast talked back to me

When you inhabit a world of podcasts, you never expect them to talk back to you. I have my MP3 player with me whenever I am out walking, or driving in the car, or doing housework, or any time I am not doing research, watching television or communing with other human beings. I have recently begun subscribing to Jump the Pod, which I found from a podcast I have listened to for a long time, Doctor Who Podshock; the two podcasts share the presenters Louis Trapani and Ken Deep. Jump the Pod (MySpace page here) discusses science fiction more generally, in connection with the Jumpcon series of events. I recently emailed them a couple of lines (following on from a discussion on the podcast that linked The Prisoner through Jim Caviezel to The Passion of the Christ, and which I further wanted to link, through John Debney, to Doctor Who) and I got a mention on the most recent podcast. It was great -- really made my day! A podcast has never talked back to me before.