Case Study 78: Shaun the Sheep, Episode 143–“Wanted”

Original Airdate: November 9th, 2016 on CBBC

Aardman Animations had been cranking out stop-motion claymation cartoons since the 1970s—you may recognize their work with Peter Gabriel—but they only really hit the big time when director Nick Park’s short film Creature Comforts won an Oscar. That same year saw the debut of A Grand Day Out with Wallace and Gromit at the Bristol Animation Festival. This was the beginning of a franchise of lucrative and beloved Wallace and Gromit cartoons, including a feature-length film in 2005. Aardman also brought us the classic kids movie Chicken Run, and, yes, a movie based on Shaun the Sheep. Shaun first appeared in A Close Shave, a Wallace and Gromit adventure that won an Oscar of its own in 1996. Aardman is like the Pixar of Plasticine, except they’ve been out in these streets for a hell of a lot longer than John Lasseter and company. Since 2007, Aardman’s been cranking out scads of 7-minute cartoons about Shaun for the BBC’s children’s programming channel. How does it compare to other animated short subjects?

Strengths

  • Animation style. Okay, the aesthetics haven’t changed much since Comforts, but the animation looks better than ever. One of these shorts entails more than 10,000 individual frames, which means hours and hours of painstaking work, and the folks at Aardman didn’t skimp on the details. You can never see the strings here and it’s surprisingly easy to disappear into the pastoral world of Shaun despite the admittedly distinctive array of bulbous heads, thick brows, gapped teeth and ridiculously huge noses on dogs.
  • Cute. So anything with dogs and other domestic animals gets brownie points from me right out of the gate, but this is one of those purportedly comic affairs where the comedy comes from the most gentle of observations and decidedly sedate hijinks. This short involves an escaped convict posing as a sheep to avoid scrutiny from the police. He walks on all fours and uses pilfered socks to imitate the black ears of a sheep and it looks pretty silly. A small child might find the whole enterprise intrinsically amusing for this reason.
  • Dialogue-free. It’s an interesting move by the people at Aardman to have each episode of Shaun offer a soundtrack with music, sound effects and absolutely no talking. Sure, there’s baa-ing, and barking, and grunting, all of which makes perfect sense if the protagonists are sheep and dogs. Strangely, even the humans don’t speak, though they emote in a kind of nonsense language akin to the dialogue voiced by the characters in The Sims. This makes the show more accessible for international audiences or for pre-verbal children, and it’s a welcome change of pace from the hackneyed or too-clever-by-half dialogue that pours out of lesser children’s fare. Of course, there are trade-offs…

Weaknesses

  • Insubstantial, even for something seven minutes long. There’s not a lot happening here in terms of story. A jailbird escapes to the farm, poses as a sheep and gives himself up when he realizes that the nameless farmer might eventually kill him for food. Of course, the farmer isn’t going to kill anyone—I feel fairly confident that this is the kind of farm where sheep are only used for wool—but the convict doesn’t know that. You could get a lot of comedy and story out in seven minutes, but it looks like Shaun doesn’t have that kind of stamina 143 episodes in, if it ever did.

Final Episode Judgment: 7/10. It’s light-hearted, sweet and very hard to dislike, but it’s also not very memorable and it doesn’t have much of the distinctive wit that made Comforts and Wallace & Gromit so successful.

NEXT TIME: Did you know that The Mary Tyler Moore Show had three separate spin-offs? Did you know that these include a wildly successful drama starring Ed Asner, pictured here trapped deep inside the uncanny valley? That’s right, baby—come back later for Lou Grant! It won 13 Emmys!

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Case Study 78: Shaun the Sheep, Episode 143–“Wanted”

Case Study 77: Torchwood, Episode 30–“Children of Earth: Day Four”

Original Airdate: July 9th, 2009 on BBC One

Back in 2005, Russell T. Davies helped revive the hibernating Doctor Who franchise with a reboot that made many common-sense changes, like switching to film over videotape and increasing episode length to the 50 minutes that are standard for a TV drama. He also added story structures and a sense of humor that revealed he had been closely studying Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Nearly 11 million people watched the debut, and now Doctor fans have taken over every last nook and cranny of the internet. Davies is a man so smutty that he named a trio of miniseries after the gradations on a penile hardness scale, so of course he jumped at the chance to make an adults only Doctor spinoff.* Some letters were rearranged and some clues were dropped in episodes of Doctor and Torchwood was born. For its third season, Torchwood was a five-episode series called “Children of Earth.” I rewatched all five for this review, as well as a few extra episodes of Torchwood and Doctor for good measure.

Strengths

  • The 456. “Children” is a first contact story, and it’s always fun to see how any given creative team conceptualizes that moment when humans realize they’re not alone in the universe. Of course, that moment had already come and gone for the Whoniverse, but this season chronicles first contact with a different alien species. Except it’s technically the second contact, but most people don’t realize that. Anyway, the litmus test here is whether or not the aliens are cool, original and intimidating, and the 456 are definitely all three. They demand that British civil servants secretly construct a chamber full of various exciting toxic gases, and then they beam down an ambassador that’s really more of a thrashing, tentacled, vomiting monster. It also yells a lot. And then come to find out that they slowly suck minerals and resources out of terrified, living human children to use as recreational drugs. It kinda blows ALF out of the water.
  • Provocative ethical problems. So of course the aliens want more delicious children. But they’re not unreasonable—they only want 10% of all human children. Of course, if they don’t get their fix they’ll use unimaginably powerful alien technology to destroy all life on Earth. This raises several issues. Do you fork over the kids? The British government feel like they have no other options, although of course our hero Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman, Arrow) eventually finds a solution. The show still doesn’t miss the opportunity to ask whether it’s okay to do something unethical even if you have no other option—we watch as Jack lacerates himself over coughing up an orphanage’s worth of podlings to the baddies back in 1965. Even more revealing are the conversations we watch unfold at the top levels of the British government over which kids get selected. They eventually decide on students from the 10% worst performing schools, because if there’s anything Torchwood loves it’s shitting all over the sunny optimism about human nature on display in Doctor. But how would you choose which kids get turned into alien bath salts? At this point I’m required to remind you for self-promotional reasons that if you want additional discussion of BBC miniseries about aliens invading decades after they first appear to a select group of individuals, you can always read my review of Invasion: Earth.
  • Jack & Ianto. Get poised on your fainting couches, because one of the revolutionary, edgy changes brought about by Torchwood is homosexual PDA! Gloriously pansexual Jack has been sniffing around Ianto (Gareth David-Lloyd) since season one, and now they’re finally an adorable couple. Straight-laced nerdy secretary Ianto is a plausible and satisfying partner for a charming, cheeky hero like Jack, and a scene where Ianto angstily confronts Jack about his actions in 1965 adds texture to their relationship. Of course, Davies ruins this like the big drama queen that he is, but I’ll hold off on that for now.
  • Extended families. Over the course of “Children of Earth,” we get to see how the alien invasion impacts Jack’s daughter and grandson as well as Ianto’s working class sister. Lesser shows would have tried to squeeze an hour of drama out of an introduction to the family members of the main cast, but Torchwood manages to handle something as momentous as Ianto coming out to his sister elegantly in a single scene. It’s also clever for narrative purposes to include Jack and Ianto’s families so we can get a perspective on the alien crisis from people that aren’t government officials or rogue secret agents.
  • Peter Capaldi. Hey, look who shows up in “Children” as Home Office Permanent Secretary John Frobisher! Of course, Davies and Steven Moffat have a patently nonsensical explanation for why Capaldi showed up in both Torchwood and Doctor in other roles before he became The Doctor, but it’s always a pleasure to see Capaldi regardless of the circumstances. His performance is the highlight in a season that also features stellar turns from Barrowman and Eve Myles, who plays nominal main character Gwen Cooper.
  • Espionage. In the long run it doesn’t matter whatsoever, but much of the season is taken up by a plot thread involving Frobisher’s secretary, Lois Habiba (Cush Jumbo, The Good Wife). Quick sidebar: Davies explained in an interview that they couldn’t get Freema Agyeman to reprise her character Martha Jones in season 3 of Torchwood and that instead viewers get Lois, “who’s kind of the Martha figure,” which is true in that she is a black woman and in no other way. Good one, Russ! Aaaaaanyway, Lois thinks Frobisher’s skullduggery is weird and becomes a mole for Torchwood, complete with high-tech gadgets and clandestine meetings and pointlessly announcing her secret affiliation at the most dramatic possible moment. This kind of stuff is always thrilling to me, even if it’s completely pointless as far as the main plot is concerned.

Weaknesses

  • Dramatics, your honor.** For some reason, Jack brings Ianto with him to have a violent confrontation with the 456 and it ends exactly how you’d expect when you fight evil aliens with secretaries. Hell, we already established that you can’t even fight evil civil servants with secretaries, although Frobisher’s senior secretary (Susan Brown, The Iron Lady) gets the last laugh in episode five. And it’s not just Ianto who dies pointlessly to lend everything a sense of tragic gravitas: Frobisher kills himself and his entire family in the finale! If Davies and Ryan Murphy should ever find a way to collaborate on a TV show, it would inevitably be the world’s most melodramatic exploration of the identity of cis gay white men.  

*Ironically, the new show’s “after dark” sensibility was thwarted later in its run when BBC blanched at all the gay sex that happened in the fourth and final season. They also edited earlier episodes after popular demand from younger viewers.

**If you recognized that this was a Good Wife reference in honor of Cush Jumbo, you win a fabulous prize to be determined later or possibly never!

Final Episode Judgment: 9/10. Torchwood should please all but the most ardent sci-fi haters. I was astonished to find that I liked every episode I watched of Torchwood more than I enjoyed the one Doctor episode I watched for this review, which was “The Christmas Invasion.” And that’s classic Tennant/Piper-era Doctor! HAS THE WORLD GONE TOPSY-TURVY?!

NEXT TIME: We stay in Britain but go plummeting down a couple of age brackets as I review Shaun the Sheep!

Case Study 77: Torchwood, Episode 30–“Children of Earth: Day Four”