Friday, 26 February 2010

Well, we did invent the damn thing...

Some time ago, shocked by the realisation that all my favourite shows seemed to be American, I promised a blog in honour of quality British TV. And us Brits do make good TV. Cheaper and shorter than the Yanks, yes, and we have the noteable disadvantage of Tamzin Outhwaite, but good nonetheless. Especially at comedy. For those who lament the diminishing quality of post-Monty Python/Fawlty Towers/Only Fools and Horses/Blackadder British comedy, I draw your attention to the following: Gavin and Stacey, Pulling, Peep Show and The Inbetweeners. Yep, we still know our funny.

But the one thing I did moan about with British TV was the lack of decent sci-fi and fantasy. If I wanted to see someone battle the forces of evil, America was my only port of call. Which was frustrating, because we should do great sci-fi (or lo-fi, at least. Budgets aren't up to much these days). When Doctor Who returned to our screens, the UK was pretty much a fantasy-free zone. It was a huge hit, of course, but it still took a while for the success to be picked up by adult shows.

Torchwood obviously came out shortly after Doctor Who, but I reckon the faith in grown-up sci-fi actually came from the brilliant Life on Mars. It wasn't showily sci-fi/fantasy, and was more Sweeney than X-Files, but it showed commissioners that so long as the series is good, viewers will not be scared off by a sci-fi concept. Thank you, Matthew Graham et al.

After that, British sci-fi/fantasy began to enter something of a golden age. There were plenty of mis-steps (Demons, Survivors, Paradox), but the fun and under-rated Merlin continued Doctor Who's good work in the family market. Torchwood, after two series of being entertaining, occassionally promising but mostly one giant missed opportunity, got Russel T Davies back at the helm and did the shockingly brilliant Children of Earth, posing devestating moral dilemmas alongside aardvark slime monsters and showing us and the Americans what modern, adult sci-fi should be all about.

Then, of course, we have the frankly sublime Being Human and Misfits. Two shows that took "why hasn't this been done before?" concepts and created the two best programmes of 2009. Toby Whithouse's brilliant vampire-werewolf-ghost houseshare comedy-drama nearly didn't make it, but its ace pilot created such an online fanbase that the BBC were forced to back-track and commission it for a series. They lost two cast members in the process, but managed to cling onto Russel Tovey - who was probably the only one the show couldn't have managed without - and pick up Aiden Turner in the process, whose sexy Mitchell is probably responsible for about quarter of the viewing figures. Series two experienced some problems, with many fans complaining that it had lost much of its comedy and charm, but the fact is that series two is just in a different genre to series one. Whithouse pulled a James Cameron on his series. The knock-about, occassionally dark comedy drama of the first series has morphed into a grown-up drama and thriller, which was necessary if the show was going to evolve.

Howard Overman's Misfits was a revelation. Everyone was expecting Skins-meets-Heroes, and that's exactly what it was. Only better. Funny and witty, with humour derived from character rather than wacky situations, as well as horifically dark. Come the finale, one character is having lunch with a dead body in a freezer, for God's sake. I'd like to see Heroes try that. The cast were magnificent, with at least three surely destined for stardom. Nathan, Simon and Kelly are spot-on marriages of writing and acting, creating three rounded people, all charismatic, irritating, loveable, scary and unpredictable all at once. The show even tackled that most tricky sci-fi subject, time travel, and pulled it off with aplomb, even adding a great, unexpected consequence on right at the end.

Being Human is now plowing towards its grand finale (will Mitchell survive? It's looking a wee bit unlikely, isn't it?) and Misfits is returning later in the year. But Torchwood, despite it's first-class series three, is showing no sign of getting a series four. The BBC doesn't have the money, especially with Stephen Moffat apparently going wildly over-budget on his new Doctor Who. In fact, RTD has left these shores for LA, and it is now being reported that if Torchwood does continue it will be as an American show. Damn, just as the UK was looking to be getting a hang on this sci-fi malarkey the recession comes along and wrecks it all. But then, if the Americans are starting to pick up our shows (a US remake of Being Human is on the cards), then maybe we finally are showing them how it's done.

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