Case Study 43: Invasion: Earth, Episode 1–“The Last War”

Original Airdate: May 8th, 1998 on BBC

Tonight’s offering is a six-episode miniseries about an alien invasion. It was a co-production between BBC Scotland and the network now regrettably rebranded as Syfy. Let’s see if you can predict how this is going to go—it’s the late 90s, you’re a producer at BBC, it’s been nearly a decade since there’s been any new Doctor Who outside of a terrible made-for-TV movie, and you’re making a sci-fi miniseries about alien invasion. Is it any surprise when it centers around two government employees, one of whom is a headstrong man determined to Believe and the other is a more circumspect lady scientist? Will you be surprised when there turns out to be smoldering sexual tension? Or when the lady gets abducted by aliens and interfered with in possibly compromising ways? Will you be surprised when it turns out that it’s not nearly as good as The X-Files? I submit that you will not, in fact, be surprised by any of this.

Strengths

  • An intrinsically interesting premise. Anyone with any inclination towards science fiction or astronomy has surely had their own fantasy about what it would look like if aliens made contact. People have been writing fiction about alien encounters since at least the 2nd century and even when we’re rehashing X-Files it’s still just as fun now as it was then. What will be the first sign? Will we know it when we see it? How will we respond? What will the aliens be like? How will they treat us? How will we treat them? Over the course of six episodes, Invasion proceeds to offer its own answer to each of these questions in a reasonably satisfying way, so that already checks a lot of boxes for any sci-fi fan tuning in.
  • Consistent thematics. One advantage a six episode miniseries has over a sprawling 208-episode-and-counting-with-no-resolution-or-ending-in-sight affair like X-Files is that you can have neatly planned and executed thematics that extend over the entire run of the show. The end result is something well-drawn if not particularly deep. The theme on offer here is in the same family as the one developed in Gundam: while Gundam explored the dangerous intersection of war and public science, Invasion deals with the dangerous intersection of the military and the cutting edge of science, or at least those sciences that pertain to First Contact, anyway. Invasion makes a pretty persuasive argument that if we put the armed forces in charge of dealing with any aliens we happen to meet it’s not going to end well for anyone involved. It also makes a persuasive case for the fact that it’s entirely likely and realistic that the responsibility will fall to the army nevertheless. After all, if a UFO enters the atmosphere, who’s going to be the first to notice? The people with radar, of course, and that’s exactly what happens here. Later episodes in the series explore this theme in more depth, but there’s plenty of groundwork being laid here. Most of the episode takes place in the present day, but we learn from the first scene that the aliens first made contact in 1944 during the Blitz, where a soldier with a quick trigger finger promptly guns one of them down. The fate of the second alien will be detailed later in the series, so we quickly move to the scenes of the episode that portray the radar discovery and introduce us to our hero, Flight Lt. Chris Drake (Vincent Regan, 300.) Drake and his navigator, Flight Lt. Gerry Llewelyn (Stuart McQuarrie, 28 Days Later) proceed to investigate the unknown craft from several miles up. Through means unknown, the alien craft disables the instruments in Drake’s plane, and despite orders to the contrary he shoots it down in retaliation. The blowback damages Drake’s own plane. He and Llewelyn have to eject. Llewelyn dies and the entire miserable chain of events the show chronicles begin to spiral out of control. This episode and the next involve the requisite tug of war between Drake and his superiors over whether or not this encounter was in fact unearthly, and of course the chain of command isn’t particularly inclined to listen. Eventually, the army tracks down the occupant of the downed craft and shoots him as well. Miraculously, they haven’t killed Earth’s third alien* visitor, but they have wounded him sufficiently so that he’s ripe for the picking when the other, evil alien race abducts him. Even the most relaxed alien race would probably be reaching for the gigantic ray gun about now, but the series ultimately adopts a less direct route. Explaining that, however, would push me outside of my jurisdiction, which leads me to my major complaint…

Weaknesses

  • Wasting time on paper-thin characters. The first episode of this show put me in the shoes of Milhouse van Houten, and that’s never a good thing. Usually when I summarize part of the plot of an episode in the service of making a point, I’m only scratching the surface. Well, that last paragraph is pretty much all the meat hanging off this particular bone. Sure, some other stuff happens. We’re introduced to other main characters. But the show is terrible at characterization. There’s nothing remotely interesting or three-dimensional about any of them. Now, I love a well-developed character study. I also think the stereotype about sci-fi/fantasy being all about plot and ideas with no time for well-drawn characters is a bunch of crap. Sadly, Invasion fits this stereotype to a tee. The Scully to Drake’s Mulder is Dr. Amanda Tucker (Maggie O’Neill, Shameless), who is technically an applied mathematics professor but who is for all intents and purposes a Swiss Army Scientist who can handle any problem that arises when presented with invading aliens using inconceivably advanced technology. (Mercifully, they have someone else on hand for biology-based problems.) Tucker’s chunk of this episode involves her discovering anomalous signals, going to Scotland to investigate, stumbling upon the military base, meeting Drake and showing up at the alien’s hospital room just in time for him to be abducted by the other aliens. I’ll grudgingly accept that Invasion as a whole is not too concerned with well-developed characters and that it can only excel in story and theme. I am not pleased about the fact that we get short-changed on story and theme in this hour so we can get introduced to Tucker and a handful of other supporting players. If you’re going to give character development short shrift, you might as well commit to it and truly play to your strengths.

*Despite having recently stumbled out of a UFO, the guy isn’t actually an alien, but we don’t learn this until later.

Motivation: What could be more tantalizing than the knowledge of a forthcoming alien invasion? Of course, pretty soon everyone’s priorities shift to survival.

Final Episode Judgment: 5/10. Part of the problem here is pilot syndrome: the show’s still getting its feet under it and it has to lay groundwork to a certain extent. But it’s nearly 20% of the show’s entire runtime, so any amount of wasted time is going to put Invasion at a disadvantage.

Final Series Judgment: 6/10. The story does get deeper and more satisfying as things develop, but the characters don’t. There’s also the matter of an undercooked romantic subplot between Drake and Tucker. But if you want aliens and you’ve already seen every episode of X-Files and Who twice, you could do worse.

NEXT TIME: I continue my ongoing investigation on the theme of How Campy Is Too Campy by reviewing Manimal!

Case Study 43: Invasion: Earth, Episode 1–“The Last War”

Case Study 27: The Politician’s Husband–“Episode Two”

Original Airdate: May 2nd, 2013 on BBC Two

David Tennant has traded a helmet-esque ginger wig for cheesy blonde highlights as we go from talking about Gracepoint to The Politician’s Husband. It’s a three-episode miniseries and a spiritual successor to writer Paula Milne’s award-winning 1995 effort, The Politician’s Wife. Husband didn’t win as much acclaim, but it’s still well worth a watch. Why, you ask? Let me count the ways!

Strengths

  • Political sausage-making. This may just be an Oryx thing, but I’m an absolute sucker for anything that takes the lid off a seething hotbed of institutional backbiting. Big social organizations seem opaque and abstract to an outsider. What really goes on in schools, hospitals, churches and police stations? Entertainment that promises an authentic glimpse into the greasy guts of a social system tantalizes us with answers to these questions, and Husband is no slouch in this respect. When scandals, showdowns and speeches from the world of politics make the headlines in Husband, there’s layers of incident behind what comes out in the public eye, though most of it boils down to power struggles of one kind or another. Which leads me to…
  • Scheming. Nothing raises the dramatic stakes like a group of people secretly conspiring to undermine and usurp one another. No one’s trying to kill each other here, but the stakes are entire careers and the leadership of the UK. Husband has the action play out at home and in the office. Aiden Hoynes (Tennant) is the former Secretary of State for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and after a failed attempt at a power grab, he sees his wife Freya (Emily Watson, Corpse Bride) get promoted to the Secretary of Work and Pensions position. Later in the series, the cliche “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” is invoked in an unrelated situation, and it’s meant to underscore the plot. But for Aiden it’s in reverse–first he tries to make Freya an accomplice to his schemes to get back at rival Bruce Babbish (Ed Stoppard, The Pianist) and then when she proves less than pliable he sets out to destroy her as well.
  • Aiden Hoynes. The series is strong on plot, but it’s truly a character study. It’s interesting to consider how Hoynes compares to Frank Underwood, Kevin Spacey’s monstrously amoral power-hungry politician in House of Cards. Both are willing to go to more or less any lengths to seize the reins of power, but Aiden seems much more human and real. Hoynes’ son Noah (Oscar Kennedy) has a serious case of Asperger’s and we get several glimpses of Hoynes’ sadness for his son’s travails and Hoynes’ compassionate management of Noah’s outbursts. He has a strong relationship with his father (Jack Shepherd, Wycliffe) and often turns to him for counsel and companionship. Despite his efforts to sabotage and undermine Freya, he genuinely loves her and when the Hoynes’ au pair Dita (Anamaria Marinca, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) makes a pass at Aiden he rejects her without batting an eye. He’s not a cartoon devil, unlike some other protagonists I could name.
  • Beautiful direction. There’s so many great shots in this show, and this is only buttressed by the very dramatic looking interiors and exteriors of buildings like the Palace of Westminster. The shots are elegantly and lovingly framed, but the direction remains unobtrusive and accessible. It’s a pleasure to watch.

Weaknesses

  • No political substance. Look, I get that part of the point of political dramas like this, Cards and The Thick of It is that politicians spend the bulk of their time and energy on strategies and plots and very little on actually thinking about policy solutions or their constituents. At one point, the show lampshades this by having the House of Commons Whip Marcus Brock (Roger Allam, Endeavour) point out to Babbish that “If we devoted the same amount of time and energy to solving unemployment or child poverty as we do our Westminster power games, we might have solved them by now.” This may be well observed, for all I know, but it’s narratively unsatisfying. There’s no stakes for the viewer in a race between Hoynes and Babbish for control of the Prime Minister’s office if both of them are essentially apolitical assholes who just want power. Every time the characters take a political stand, there’s always an ulterior motive and there’s never any deeply felt principles or beliefs behind their positions. I get that this is part of the point, but it’s still alienating and unsatisfying. Fans of The West Wing will have twigged to the fact that Milne is paying tribute to that show by naming her characters Hoynes and Babbish. While I’m by no means a West Wing superfan, at least the characters on that show were engaged with actual political issues.

Motivation: Again, it’s not shocking, but this show about fiendish politicians is driven entirely by their lust for power.

Final Episode Judgment: 9/10. I recommend the entire series, but the first two episodes are particularly strong. The third one’s not so bad, but it does bring the overall rating for the show itself down to 8/10, mostly due to a ludicrous plot development in the third act.

NEXT TIME: I review Agent X in an attempt to find a show that is the complete opposite of Husband in every way while still being a political drama!

 

Case Study 27: The Politician’s Husband–“Episode Two”

Case Study 26: Gracepoint–“Episode One”

Original Airdate: October 2nd, 2014 on FOX

Adaptations are a tricky business. On the one hand, directors and writers need to honor the source text and thereby please the fans that were a built-in audience from day one. On the other hand, the creators have to reckon with the fact that they’re making something new. Often they’re telling the story in an entirely different medium with its own uniques strengths and demands. In this case the medium stays the same but the audience is different. Gracepoint is the American adaptation of a successful British crime drama by the name of Broadchurch. Technically, Gracepoint is only intended to be an adaptation of Broadchurch’s first season and was promoted by the network as a “limited series,” which I guess is a fancier way of saying “miniseries?” So what works about Gracepoint and what doesn’t? I’m so glad you asked.

Strengths

  • Compelling plot. Gracepoint is the kind of television mystery that I enjoy the most. Instead of shoehorning the entire thing into 42 minutes, Gracepoint tells the story of a complex, twisting investigation over the course of 10 episodes. This is a great sign for any mystery fan, because it signals a satisfying level of depth you just can’t get in the glut of police procedurals out there. This is why Mystery! has been on the air for 36 years. Well, that and wildly unrestrained Anglophilia. This episode closes with a montage of various Gracepoint residents listening to Det. Emmett Carver (David Tennant, Doctor Who) give a press conference on the status of the case, and in addition to being in various positions of centrality or periphery to the life of the close-knit community, all these citizens are also suspects in the death of 12 year old Danny Solano. Over the course of the season, all their tawdry secrets are brought to the surface–adultery, past crimes, drug addiction, assumed identities, you name it. While watching Broadchurch, I had immense fun guessing at everyone’s role in the story, even up to the last episode.
  • Well-drawn characters. If Gracepoint is anything like Broadchurch–and it’s almost exactly the same–many of those townspeople come into view as fully realized, believable characters. However, the heart of Gracepoint is the relationship between its two main characters, Carver and Det. Ellie Miller (Anna Gunn, Breaking Bad.) Carver has developed an angry, acerbic personality after a major failure on a prior case, but he’s a thoughtful, perceptive man using a standoffish personality as a defense mechanism. Miller had been in line for a promotion that was given to Carver, an outsider to the Gracepoint PD, and she enters the relationship with a pronounced bitterness towards him as a supervisor. She has a deep emotional investment in the welfare of the town and its citizens. What’s more, Danny was her son Tom’s (Jack Irvine) best friend. She’s competent and has a firm handle on the social topography of Gracepoint, but this is her first murder investigation and her close relationships with the suspects prove in some ways to be liabilities. She’s also completely unafraid to call Carver on his bullshit. The interplay between these two is the best part of a great show, and it’s made all the better by the fact that somehow the unlikely pairing makes for an effective crime-solving partnership.
  • Strong setting. This had better be the case in a show where the setting also provides the title, eh? The show does an excellent job of shining a light on the intricate dynamics of a claustrophobic island town and by the end we feel we’ve gleaned some of the same insights and knowledge possessed by a longtime resident like Miller. This feeling is assisted by the gorgeous beach cliffsides of British Columbia, where Gracepoint and practically every other show with outdoor locations on American television was filmed. Director James Strong also does an excellent job establishing the visual feel of the town.
  • Good acting, for the most part. Tennant reprises his role as Carver from Broadchurch, so it’s not surprising that he’s had a chance to get comfortable in the role, though his American accent is a bit risible. He and Gunn manage to recapture the great chemistry that Tennant had with Olivia Colman–it’s hard not to laugh when Miller takes a phone call in the restaurant where the two stopped for lunch only to look out the window to see Carver in the parking lot, holding up his watch and scowling at her. The other plum acting roles in the first episode go to Danny’s grieving parents. Virginia Kull absolutely nails the devastation of Beth Solano. The weak link would be the bafflingly famous Michael Peña (Shooter) who really phones it in as Mark Solano.
  • Establishing season-long thematics. It’s somewhat careworn territory, but Gracepoint/Broadchurch manage to breathe fresh air into the story of a tragedy exposing a million cracks in the facade of bucolic small town life. It underscores the fact that depravity, misery and cruelty aren’t the exclusive province of big cities. When Miller and Carver interview amateur marine biology enthusiast Jack Reinhold (Nick Nolte, The Thin Red Line) and Reinhold proceeds to regale them with facts about whale migration, he’s surprised by Carver’s indifference. Miller apologetically explains that he’s from the city, to which Reinhold replies “Sorry to hear that.” But as Miller and Carver will discover over the course of the investigation, Gracepoint is no safe haven. In Gracepoint, the binding ties are much more intimate than they’d be in a metropolis. We learn halfway through the episode that the local shit-stirring cub reporter Owen (Kevin Zegers, The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones) is also Miller’s nephew, a fact which is thrown in her face when Owen reveals the identity of the deceased before the police get a chance. Laying this groundwork early on is a clear sign that the viewer is in good hands.

Weaknesses

  • Copied and pasted. So the central question when considering any adaptation is to ask what has been gained by the transition. When adapting a book to a movie, there may be scenes that can only be fully realized in a visual medium. When adapting a movie to a musical, there may be aspects that are greatly enhanced by a physical no-holds barred dramatic performance, and the tone of the film might translate into jaunty musical numbers. With international television adaptations, success is often dictated on how the work takes new form and shape in a different culture. Consider how the British and American versions of The Office captured widely different work cultures. Well, it’s hard to argue that Gracepoint addresses anything uniquely American, because it’s nearly exactly the same as Broadchurch. All of those strengths I mentioned above? Not a single one is unique to Gracepoint. Lines of dialogue, entire shots and scenes, very similar looking sets and location shots, even the fucking names–all lifted directly from Broadchurch and slapped down in Northern California. Gracepoint brings absolutely nothing new to the table. It really didn’t need to get made. It’s not like Broadchurch was a remote and inaccessible option for American audiences. Not only is it available on Netflix, but it also aired on BBC America.

Motivation: As with any good mystery, the driving force is knowledge. Who killed Danny Solano!?!?

Final Episode Judgment: 9/10. This is very good. But there’s an important caveat. It’s only very good because Broadchurch was very good and it’s nearly exactly the same. Just watch Broadchurch. For the record, I’d give season one of Broadchurch a 10/10. If for some strange reason you only have access to Gracepoint, it would make a perfectly reasonable substitute.

NEXT TIME: We continue the David Tennant extravaganza with The Politician’s Husband!

Case Study 26: Gracepoint–“Episode One”