Well guys, we’ve nearly done it. We’ve nearly made it round the sun again. It’s a limited achievement, but damn it, it’s ours. So, as we grind inexorably through Christmas, New Year, and into the January decline, sit back and let your mind gently dissolve in the warming glow of the haunted fishtank.
1. Nightflyers | December 2
The Santa-like figure that is George R.R. Martin is of course best known these days for his book series A Song Of Ice And Fire, and its obscenely popular television adaptation Game Of Thrones – between which, and his Tolkienesque middle initials, you’d probably never guess his first serious writing work was in TV, and, more shockingly, he was almost exclusively writing sci-fi. Or, rather, he was writing sci-fi with heavy horror overtones, purely in order to disprove the notion that the two genres couldn’t be effectively married.
Nightflyers, as a concept, started life all the way back in 1980 as a novella, and saw a low-key movie adaptation seven years later – which, while Uncle George had the writer’s usual qualms about seeing his work moulded into a screen-friendly form, he credits with having kept him afloat until A Song Of Ice And Fire happened along – and, well, you know the rest.
The story follows a mission into the depths of space in search of new forms of life and new civilisations, which sounds quite positive and friendly, except for how everything starts going horribly wrong – in particular, the ship’s hyper-advanced computer, which like all too many pieces of technology doesn’t get along with people. What, so sort of like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Event Horizon? Well, yes, but given the popularity of Alexa and the Amazon Echo, the time’s never been riper for shows about hostile AI.
2. Counterpart | December 9
The second season premiere of one of 2018’s quieter success stories, Counterpart blends espionagey intrigue with dimension-hopping sci-fi – that sort with multiple timelines and multiple realities, the kind of thing that makes the comic-book medium quite so impenetrable. Which perhaps doesn’t seem like the obvious milieu for stories about superpowered men in bright spandex punching people extremely hard, but is perhaps closer to the right speed for murky, le Carre-ish plots about betrayals, double- and triple-agents, and all-round secrecy.
The story so far – two men, both played by J.K. Simmons, have ended up in each others’ worlds, and are doing their best to muddle along through an unfolding cold war. This is very much the potted version. Having established the stakes and general premise with the first season, the second now promises to dig further into the stories of the supporting cast – and, by all accounts, shift up a gear from the slower burn of the first.
3. Watership Down | December 22
A remake is always a risky prospect, and this is very much having a pop at the champ. Play ‘Bright Eyes’ to any British person within a certain age group and they’ll likely start blubbing, and Watership Down is the reason why. It’s the classic tale of a group of adorable rabbits who, their ancestral home destroyed, set out on a pilgrimage to find the promised land, a process which becomes about as heavy a watch as the average Holocaust movie.
The advantage of remaking a work which has such a reputation is that it’ll be quick to attract – well, first and foremost, attention, but moreover a fine calibre of actor. The creators could, presumably, pick and choose, hence a genuinely all-star cast of huge names – relative newcomers like John Boyega, established faces like Olivia Colman, right up to veterans like Sir Ben Kingsley.
Watership Down has always thrown into sharp relief the problem with the fairly binary ratings systems used by film (let alone TV, where all that’s enforcing it is when the kids get carted off to bed) – the 1978 adaptation was notoriously rated a U, that is to say, appropriate for all ages. And, on the face of it, an animated feature with talking rabbits seems to fit the bill. But not quite so much when those same rabbits end up in death-fights with dogs and each other, and the artists don’t even think about holding back on the blood.
4. Black Mirror | December 28
O yes – as a recent mistweet from Netflix revealed, this old friend is back.
I’ve written a fair bit about anthology shows recently, and in particular about how the structure is a fairly natural home for the horror genre. The common thread in Black Mirror is, technically, technology, but you could forgive someone for instinctively describing it as horror – a single episode about adorable lesbians can only do so much to offset all those uncomfortably familiar-seeming dystopias, where people just like you get chewed up and spat out and then spat upon as well.
A lot of people say there was a drop in quality when Black Mirror was picked up by Netflix, and yes, this is the case, but it’s worth remembering what a game-changer it was for its more recent output to be characterised as ‘merely’ good. Plus, those paragonical first episodes were ideas Charlie Brooker had been kicking around and developing for who knows how long – the central concept of ‘The National Anthem’ cropped up in a Screen Burn column he wrote in the early 2000s, and self-evidently dates back to at least before 1997, since originally the princess was Diana (and the hapless pigfucker was Terry Wogan).
5. The Orville | December 30
Despite the fact that the Wayans brothers are probably still churning out Scary Movie sequels somewhere, even if only to keep them off the streets, parody as a genre is dying a slow death, and it’s not hard to see why. As better commentators than me have noted, you simply can’t do parody when supposedly ‘straight’ examples of any given genre are full of nod-and-wink nudges to the audience. And out of this confusing dynamic, somehow the latest Star Trek series, Discovery, ended up taking silver medal to Seth MacFarlane’s plop-and-knob-gag-filled The Orville.
For all MacFarlane’s faults – and believe me, I could go all day – the man’s a committed student of pop culture. And him turning out a Star Trek riff seemed, from the off, like an overdue penance for that time he got the entire cast of TNG to guest on Family Guy, only to just have them ride around in a minivan rather than doing anything funny or charming. Indeed, despite Discovery’s shameless leaning on the franchise’s canon, it is The Orville which has seen Trek veteran Robert Picardo turn up in a recurring role, and is to have Jonathan Frakes and Robert Duncan McNeil directing episodes of the upcoming season.
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