September 19, 2014

ER: 20 years on

It's quite difficult to get nostalgic about ER. This enormously popular and commercial successful NBC drama may be celebrating its 20th anniversary today, but it ran for 331 episodes over 15 seasons and only ended in April 2009. There simply hasn't been enough time to indulge in nostalgia.

It's still one of my favourite TV dramas. It was originally written in the 1970s as a feature film script by novelist and screenwriter Michael Crichton, who was a doctor before he turned to full-time writing. The script lay fallow for almost 20 years before Steven Spielberg showed interest in it. While developing the ER film, Crichton told Spielberg about the novel he was currently writing - a sci-fi thriller involving cloning dinosaurs. The notoriously fickle Spielberg jumped ship and bought the rights to Jurassic Park, but he didn't entirely abandon ER - he had his production company Amblin Entertainment turn it into a weekly drama instead.

ER certainly hit the ground running. It debuted one day after a rival medical drama, Chicago Hope (happy birthday, by the way), but despite critical expectations that ER would run second it instead completely dominated the 1994 television landscape. More than 19 million people watched the first season across America. The second and third seasons got 21 million viewers and the fourth an astounding 30 million. The most popular episode of all, Season 2's "Hell and High Water" - in which Dr Doug Ross saves a boy from drowning in a storm drain, was seen by more than 48 million people. It was the highest-rated TV episode since Dallas.

Why was this show so successful? Who do I continue to love it so much? There are a few reasons why.

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "The Enemy"

While Lt La Forge is trapped on a stormy planet below, Captain Picard must face up against a Romulan warbird when it becomes clear the Romulan Empire has breached the Neutral Zone.

"The Enemy" is quite exciting on first inspection, since it's pretty much the first proper face-to-face encounter between the Federation and the Romulan Empire that The Next Generation has presented. Sure they made a little cameo at the end of "The Neutral Zone" in Season 1, but since then there has been nothing. They were a source of great drama back in the original Star Trek so it stands to reason they could inspire some great storytelling here as well.

And, in time, they shall. They just don't provide it here. "The Enemy" is a perfunctory episode that doesn't put a foot wrong, but at the same time it does nothing to stick in the mind or particularly impress the viewer. It just sort of sits there, jumping through enough narrative hoops to justify its existence without demonstrating a single piece of ambition anywhere in its 42 minutes.

September 18, 2014

Alien Nation: 25 years on

When Alien Nation was released in cinemas in 1988, it was a fairly ordinary near future sci-fi thriller with decent performances by James Caan and Mandy Patinkin but saddled with a by-the-numbers script and a lot of police action movie cliches. It sort of came and went: people watched it, some enjoyed it, nobody really cared.

For some reason 20th Century Fox did, because the following year they launched Alien Nation as a weekly TV drama. The cast changed, replacing Caan with Gary Graham and Patinkin with Eric Pierpoint, but the basic premise remained the same: an massive alien spacecraft crashed into California's Mojave Desert and it's population, spotty-headed extraterrestrials who were being transported as slaves, go on to become a large refugee population in the Los Angeles area. The series is set some years into a long process of integration, and follows two police detectives - one human, one alien - as they investigate crimes in a racially charged urban environment.

Thanks to writer/producer Kenneth Johnson, who re-developed the movie concept for television, Alien Nation remains one of the best US science fiction TV dramas of all time. The day-to-day plots might have been a bit hackneyed and stereotyped, but no one before or since has developed an alien race and culture in such an interesting fashion.

Doctor Who: "The Singing Sands"

Marco Polo had confiscated the Doctor's TARDIS, forcing him and his companions to accompany him on his journey to Cathay. The first step? A potentially deadly crossing of the Gobi Desert - and there is a traitor in their midst.

As I mentioned in my previous "Marco Polo" review, all seven episodes of this serial were destroyed by the BBC in the 1970s, and no exported film prints have ever been returned. As a result we can only really appreciate these episodes by viewing a handful of screenshots made by television photographer John Cura and by listening to the audio soundtracks. Thanks to enterprising young fans in the 1960s we actually have a complete copy of Doctor Who's early years in audio form. The advantage of listening to these episodes rather than watching is that you're able to focus much more on the dialogue and, from time to time, the sound design.

"The Singing Sands" is a case in point. The episode features an enormous sandstorm that sweeps across the desert, encompassing Marco's camp and threatening the lives of Susan and Ping-Cho. Goodness knows what it looked like, but it sounds utterly outstanding. It's slightly abstracted, sounds beautiful, and is a simply gorgeous bit of audio design. It is hands-down the best element of the episode.

September 17, 2014

Goldfinger: 50 years on

The general wisdom is that sequels are never as good as the original film. There's an accepted law of diminishing returns that states that every time you revisit the well there's a little less creativity, a reduction of the originality. A little shine comes off each time.

Then there is the small group of sequels that actually manage to exceed the quality of their predecessors: The Godfather Part 2, The Empire Strikes Back, The Dark Knight, Toy Story 2. Sure, individual people are going to quibble over which ones are superior and which ones aren't, but generally speaking pretty much anybody can identify at least one sequel that was better.

The third film, though? No one says they're the best installment. No one holds Return of the Jedi above Star Wars, or The Godfather Part III over Part I, or Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade over Raiders of the Lost Ark. I think I've identified one, though: Goldfinger, the third EON Productions James Bond adventure, which celebrates its 50th anniversary today.

Three Resurrected Drunkards (1968)

Three young men go swimming at the beach. When they return to their belongings, their clothes have been stolen by Korean refugees. Putting on the clothes left behind, the three men are themselves confused for Korean refugees and go on the run from the police, the Koreans and a creepy pimp with an eye patch. Then it all happens again, Godot-style.

Nagisa Oshima is a pretty legendary filmmaker, primarily for his provocative sexual dramas In the Realm of the Senses and Empire of Passion. They were produced by French distributors in the 1970s, because the Japanese censors refused to allow Oshima to release them locally. He later directed several other widely acclaimed films including Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence and his final film Gohatto, about homosexuality among the samurai.

Three Resurrected Drunkards pre-dates all of those films. It's a 1968 comedy, styled very self-consciously in the vein of absurdist English-language films such as A Hard Day's Night and Head. At times it gets head-scratchingly weird, but it also makes a fairly significant step beyond its influences and presents a pretty confronting indictment of Japanese racism against Koreans.

Ashes of Time: 20 years on

20 years ago today Hong Kong moviegoers were presented with Ashes of Time, a long-gestating martial arts fantasy written and directed by Wong Kar-wai. At the time it was the most expensive Hong Kong film production ever staged. It had taken an inordinately long time to shoot, with Wong as good as holding his high profile cast captive in the Gobi Desert. The shoot was so long that the cast simultaneously used its sets and costumes to make a feature-length parody, The Eagle-Shooting Heroes, with another director, Jeffrey Lau. Post-production was so lengthy and difficult that halfway through Wong wrote, shot, edited and released an entirely unrelated film, Chungking Express.

When it was released 20 years ago, local critics were baffled by its obtuse plot and weird photography. Audiences, who had expected a crowd-pleasing adaptation of wuxia novel The Legend of the Condor Heroes, famously queued around the block demanding refunds. It ultimately lost its distributor HK$30 million dollars.

Ashes of Time almost killed Wong's career just when he was developing serious critical acclaim. Two decades later, however, and partly thanks to a 2006 re-edit by Wong, it is widely regarded as a Hong Kong classic: odd, mournful, near-impenetrable, and for many utterly unforgettable.

September 16, 2014

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Booby Trap"

While investigating a derelict alien spacecraft in the middle of an asteroid field, the USS Enterprise is caught by an ancient booby trap. With hours before the Enterprise's destruction, Lieutenant La Forge (LeVar Burton) utilises a holographic simulation of one of the Enterprise's original designers to find a way to escape.

Alternatively, "Booby Trap" is about how Geordi La Forge doesn't know how to talk to girls, so in the middle of a ship-wide crisis he manufactures one on the holodeck.

I found this episode deeply uncomfortable to watch. I've never been an enormous fan of La Forge's character, but he always seemed a stand-up and likeable guy. Here we see him go on a disastrous date in the episode's teaser, fumble his way through a conversation with Guinan (Whoopi Goldberg) about how he doesn't know how to chat up women, and then create a holodeck simulation of noted physicist and engineer Dr Leah Brahms as some kind of weird half-romantic, half-sexual fantasy love interest. It's a profoundly misguided act of character sabotage, since it takes a character who was previously fairly noble and turns him into a creepy kind of stalker.