In one of the more blatant cases of Doctor Who using a B-movie style episode title to pull in the viewers, “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” lets us know up front that this is going to be a “romp”âbig, loud, and hopefully fun. Writer Chris Chibnall, starting from that bare four-word premise given to him by showrunner Steven Moffat, has come up with a very enjoyable stand-alone adventure that lumbers a bit in the set-up (as is usual with Chibnall) but ultimately delivers some excellent tension and excitement, making good use of previously established Who continuity along the way.
The start, though, is frankly unpromising, as we find ourselves in ancient Egypt, with the Doctor (Matt Smith) having apparently just saved its people from disaster, burbling something about a plague of alien locusts. Queen Nefertiti (Riann Steele) intercepts him as he returns to the TARDIS and comes on to him in exactly the same way Amy did at the end of 2010âs “Flesh and Stone”. When he receives a sudden temporal newsflash on his psychic paper, she forces her way into the TARDIS to accompany him. Her appearance is striking (and faithfully recreated from the famous limestone bust currently in a Berlin museum), and she is certainly not badly acted, but her dialogue conveys no sense of another time or placeâshe comes across as just a standard present-day “feisty” female character who happens to be wearing a blue wastebasket on her head. Later, the story does find a way to use her that justifies her inclusion, but at the beginning “Neffy” (as the Doctor calls her) feels like a bizarre, fan fiction-style indulgence.
We next see them in 2367 A.D., where an enormous unknown spaceship (“the size of Canada”) is on course for Earth. The necessary ticking clock for the story is set up right awayâin six hours, the ship will be close enough to Earth that missiles will have to be launched to destroy it. I liked the nicely unexplained touch that the organization handling the planetâs defences is the ISAâwhich turns out to stand for not the International but the Indian Space Agency. It doesnât make any difference to the actual plot, but it helps make the futuristic environment a little more distinctive than usual, with the understated but effective Indian influence in the background set architecture and graphics.
Despite the Doctor saying heâs “not really had a gang before,” the rest of the teaser rather unwisely invites comparison to the first part of last yearâs “A Good Man Goes to War”, with the Doctor collecting people from various times and places to accompany him. He arbitrarily stops off in 1902 to pick up John Riddell (Rupert Graves), an English big-game hunter who is evidently a prior acquaintance, and then pays a surprise visit to the home of his friends Amy (Karen Gillan) and Rory (Arthur Darvill). Not bothering to explain whatâs going on, and presuming that Amy and Rory will be happy to drop whatever theyâre doing to go along with him (as Rory later says, “Why canât you just phone ahead, like any normal person?”), he simply materializes the TARDIS around them, meaning that Roryâs father Brian (Mark Williams) gets dragged along for the ride as they all arrive on the mysterious spaceship. Almost immediately, they discover what sort of life forms are on board this shipâdinosaurs!
As Chibnall has noted in various interviews, while the “dinosaurs on a spaceship” premise forms a great hook to bring in the audience, itâs not enough on its own to sustain a 45-minute episode. So the main thrust of the story is the mystery of who built the ship, why itâs heading to Earth, and how it can be saved from the threatened destruction by missiles. In the course of investigating, the group is split up, with the Doctor, Rory and Brian being unexpectedly teleported to a beach that is actually just another part of the huge ship.
One of the things that quickly distinguished the new Doctor Who from the classic series was its approach to the emotional life of companions, outside their relationship with the Doctor. The original series took almost no interest in companionsâ family lives, but already by “Aliens of London” in 2005 Russell T Davies was building major plot arcs around Jackie Tyler finding out about her daughter Roseâs involvement in the bizarre world of the Doctor. As succeeding companions came and went, various permutations of the same dramatic idea were used. Since Steven Moffat took over as showrunner, the companions have become more like those of the classic series, with Amyâs parents having appeared only very briefly (in the 2010 season finale “The Big Bang”) and Roryâs parents being absent altogether. It was time for the idea to be revisited, although here itâs mostly presented in a comic mannerâafter the requisite boggling at the inside of the TARDIS and the idea of time/space travel, Brian very quickly settles down to become a useful member of the Doctorâs team.
Mark Williams presents a very likable, warm character, and he and Arthur Darvill make a very believable father and son. The episode gets a lot of fun out of the traits Brian and Rory have in common, notably their efforts to be ready for all eventualities. When Rory notices that the beach seems to be humming, Brian produces a handy trowel he happened to have with him (“What sort of a man doesnât carry a trowel? Put it on your Christmas list!”) so he can dig down and find there is a metal floor under the sand. Later, Brian gets injured, and itâs Roryâs turn to show his preparedness when he pulls out some medical supplies he has picked up in his travelsâa nice character touch that makes good use of Roryâs nursing background.
Meanwhile, Amy and the others manage to find the shipâs data records and discover its true nature. Unfortunately, this section in particular exposes Chibnallâs weaknesses with dialogue and characterization. As I mentioned above, Nefertiti gives practically no sense of being a person from the remote pastâin fact, she is more modern in outlook than Riddell is, leading to a great deal of tedious “battle of the sexes” bantering between them. As they wander through the ship with Amy, all three are exchanging quips as if they were in an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I did get a laugh from Amyâs reaction when she realizes that Nefertiti and Riddell are (cliché alert) starting to become attracted to each other (“No, no, noâI will not have flirting companions!”), but on the whole Amy is a more superficial character here than at any time since the last time Chibnall wrote for her.
At least, unlike in that 2010 two-parter (“The Hungry Earth” and “Cold Blood”), Amy manages to actually contribute to the story and uncover whatâs really going on. And here I have to give praise to Chibnallâthe revelation that this ship was a creation of the Silurians, a space-going ark containing samples of Earth animals in search of a colony planet, perfectly explains the dinosaursâ presence aboard and is a lovely usage of the previously established reptilian species. It was a nice touch to bring back Richard Hope, one of the main Silurian actors seen previously, to play the recorded Silurian who delivers the necessary information (heâs credited as “Bleytal,” but I donât think the name is actually mentioned in the episode). Even better, Amy then gets to use her brain and perform some detective work with the shipâs sensors that reveals another, much smaller ship attached to this one.
The occupant of this intruding ship has been following all the action thus far on his monitors, and overhears Rory calling to the Doctor. Being in need of medical help, he sends his pet robots to fetch them. These hulking, nine-foot-tall creations, with their oversized upper bodies and tiny heads, recall the Mondoshawan aliens from The Fifth Element (1997), but their menace is hilariously undermined when their first words to the Doctor are “Weâre very cross with you…” in a deliberately camp voice. Even as they are escorting their prisoners, they are tossing insults back and forth, providing a very funny element which heightens the contrast with some of the darker moments to come.
The robotsâ master is Solomon (David Bradley), and the Doctor finds him immobilized in his ship with badly injured legsâthe result, he says, of an encounter with some of the dinosaurs. At first the Doctor is enjoying good-naturedly sparring with him, but thereâs a sudden shocking change of tone as Solomon reveals he is a much more dangerous man than was first apparent. Bradley expertly conveys the moment, when the Doctor tells Solomon heâll fix his legs “if you tell me how you came by so many dinosaurs”âat this slightest hint of opposition, his face slowly hardens, he harshly orders the robots, “Injure the older one,” and then he calmly threatens to kill Brian unless the Doctor does as he says.
With all the characters and pieces of the plot now set up, the remainder of the episode is very well worked out and was a pleasure to watch. This is where Chris Chibnall shinesâwhatever his shortcomings in other areas, he is very good at structuring a story and building a plot to a climax. The driving force of this plot, of course, is the battle of wills between Solomon and the Doctor. Matt Smith and David Bradley have a string of excellent scenes, in many of which Solomon seems to have the upper handâsuch as when the profit-at-all-costs trader smugly describes how he disposed of the Silurians he found on board the ship. (“We ejected them. The robots woke them from cryo-sleep a handful at a time and jettisoned them from the airlocks. We must have left a trail of dust and bone…”) The Doctorâs disgust is palpable, but he can only bide his time.
Director Saul Metzstein, new to the show, does well at creating an expansive feel for the huge spaceship; the unusually large sets give an appropriate sense of scale, and the exterior is a lovely computer-generated creation, looking like an enormous seed cluster floating in space. He also has a high-quality and high-profile ensemble cast to work withâRupert Graves is easily recognisable as Lestrade from Steven Moffatâs Sherlock, and both Mark Williams and David Bradley are playing characters not dissimilar to those they portrayed in the Harry Potter films. As a final touch (and one that was not announced before the episodeâs broadcast), Solomonâs bickering robots are voiced by the British comedy duo David Mitchell and Robert Webb.
As for the dinosaurs themselves, they are effective creationsâperhaps not up to the latest blockbuster movie state-of-the-art, but very well done given the resources of a TV seriesânot to mention being several orders of magnitude more impressive than those in the classic seriesâs most notorious previous attempt at portraying the giant lizards. The mid-â70s tale “Invasion of the Dinosaurs” remains one of Doctor Whoâs most embarrassing visual effects failures, with the creatures represented via small-scale, slow-moving rod puppets, unconvincingly green-screened into the action. Nevertheless, “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” shares with “Invasion” the feature that the titular monsters are actually only a small part of the plot. The story reserves them for set pieces, ranging from their opening appearance which allows the Doctor to name-drop the storyâs title, a flock of pterodactyls on the beach menacing the Doctor, Rory and Brian, a sleeping T-Rex, and a group of velociraptors which Riddell and Amy have to hold at bay with stun-guns.
The major featured dinosaur is a triceratops, beautifully rendered with a seamless mixture of prosthetics and CGI. Itâs the only one that the characters interact with to any real extent, and it is amusingly given the personality of an over-affectionate puppy, slobbering over Brian and happily chasing after thrown golf balls. After the Doctor, Rory and Brian escape from Solomon, the storyâs biggest set piece occurs as they ride the triceratops to get away from the robots chasing them. If you ignore the fact that they could quite obviously have gotten away more effectively just by walking briskly, itâs a delightfully fun sequence.
The levity soon evaporates as the Doctor confronts Solomon again. He realizes that Solomon hasnât been able to change the course of the shipâitâs heading back to Earth automatically, and when the ISA launch their missiles as planned, it looks like Solomon will have to leave empty-handed. But now he has a new target; he has discovered Nefertitiâs presence on board and wants to take her with him. In another escalation of menace, he casually has his robots kill the triceratops. David Bradley resolutely refuses to indulge in any pantomime-villain histrionics, instead keeping Solomonâs voice level and low, letting his actions speak for him, and thereby makes the man genuinely threatening.
Solomon: “I like my possessions to have spirit. Means I can have fun breaking them.”
In actual history, Nefertitiâs fate is undocumentedâshe disappears from the historical record around 1330 B.C. This of course provides an irresistible opportunity for a Doctor Who episode to play with, as with the similar case of the pirate captain Henry Avery in 2010âs “The Curse of the Black Spot”. As I alluded to earlier, itâs a clever piece of scripting to have Solomon spot her unique value, and thereby justify her presence in the storyâfor a moment, it looks as if he will be the one responsible for her disappearance.
The Doctor manages to stop Solomonâs ship from leaving, but the missiles are still coming. In a final twist, it emerges that the reason Solomon couldnât change the shipâs course is that it requires two pilots from the same “gene chain” (a nice use of previously established Silurian terminology) to control itâand the plot reaches a neat resolution as Brian and Rory, who have exactly the kind of connection needed, take control and turn the ship away from Earth. The Doctor, meanwhile, manages to rescue Nefertiti and plant the signal emitter that the missiles are locked onto on Solomonâs ship. He then releases it, sending the trader off to meet his richly deserved doom.
A brief epilogue shows that Nefertiti has decided to stay with Riddell, while we see Brian sitting in the doorway of the TARDIS in space, sipping tea, looking at the Earth suspended below. Itâs a nice, upbeat ending to a cheerful adventure. Despite my various complaints noted above, I ended up enjoying “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship”âit fulfils the promise of the title with admirable efficiency and a certain amount of cleverness in the plotting. Thereâs only one thread I havenât yet mentionedâone obvious connection to wider eventsâand thatâs the moments the Doctor has with Amy.
Early in the episode, she tells him itâs been ten months since she and Rory last saw him, and wonders if the presence of other people traveling with the Doctor means that she and Rory have been replaced. The Doctor replies, “No, theyâre just people, theyâre not Ponds.” They are separated for most of the episode, but in the lead-up to the climax they finally have a chance to discuss things. I may be doing Chris Chibnall a disservice here, but I strongly suspect that this conversation was inserted by Steven Moffat to lay the groundwork for upcoming events. Itâs clearly Karen Gillanâs best moment of the episode, as Amy confesses she gave up the modeling job we saw her doing last week:
Amy: “I canât settle. Every minute, Iâm listening out for that stupid TARDIS sound.”
The Doctor: “Right, so itâs my fault now, is it?”
Amy: “I canât not wait for youâeven now. And theyâre getting longer, you know, the gaps between your visits… I think youâre weaning us off you.”
When Amy tells of her fear that one day heâll simply stop showing up and sheâll be left waiting forever, he promises her, “Come on, Pond. Youâll be there till the end of me.” Amy cheerfully replies, “Or vice versa,” and then thereâs an odd, rather horrible pause until the Doctor finally says softly, “Done…” He immediately pretends that he just meant he had finished what he was working on, but itâs obvious that something important has been set in motion. An ominous portent for the future, and a signal that the time for carefree adventuring is over.
Next Week: Weâre off to the Wild West, as the Doctor arrives in “A Town Called Mercy.”
Classic Who DVD Recommendation of the Week: As mentioned above, see 1974âs “Invasion of the Dinosaurs,” starring Jon Pertwee and Elisabeth Sladen, for some considerably less convincing giant reptiles. Even by the standards of the time, the creature effects are excruciatingly bad, but the story itself is actually quite goodâa conspiracy-based eco-thriller that not even ridiculous puppet dinosaurs can quite spoil.
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Review: Season 3 of Star Trek: Discovery Remains Stuck in the Futureâs Past
The showâs third season plays it ideologically and conceptually safe.2.5
Values like hope are often deployed to describe Gene Roddenberryâs vision of the Star Trek universe. Season three of Star Trek: Discovery, the franchiseâs current flagship series, adopts this view of Roddenberryâs creation as its driving theme: Titled âThat Hope Is You,â the season premiere finds the showâs protagonist, Commander Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), stranded alone in a galaxy-wide dystopia nearly a millennium into her future, seemingly the sole embodiment of the transcendent values of the United Federation of Planets and the interstellar governmentâs military wing, Starfleet.
Burnham tumbles out of her temporal wormhole to discover that 931 years in the future the Federation has collapsed, seemingly leaving in its wake a society that exclusively breeds Star Wars-esque rogue smugglers like her new acquaintance, Book (David Ajala). Star Trek has tried and failed at constructing a one-episode arc around a rugged male individualist before, and Book isnât the worst instance of this archetype (seeâor donât seeâthe notorious Next Generation episode âThe Outrageous Okonaâ), but Book is too obvious a pulpy fabrication for the kind of emotional weight his reluctant friendship with Burnham is meant to carry.
Moreover, Discovery clearly intends Book to serve as a foil to the long-collapsed Federation and its values, but he doesnât seem much more morally ambiguous than many of the dodgy Starfleet characters we got to know in season two, nor does that contrast reveal much about the Federation. As its final representative, Burnham, teary-eyed as she so often is, speechifies at Book about the Federation being âabout a vision and all those who believe in that vision,â but the series doesnât get terribly specific about what those âwho believeâ actually see.
As symbol of a generalized hope, the Federation becomes an empty signifier in a season opener thatâs capped with whatâs essentially a moment of sentimental nationalism, as our hero casts a solemn gaze at the Federation banner. Thereâs little doubtâparticularly given the authoritarian future Earth we encounter in a later episodeâthat Discoveryâs writers would like us to understand this devastated future in terms of our own current socio-global disintegration. But the implied solution set out by the first episode and picked up as the season arc, a restoration of the political order that preceded and probably precipitated the collapse, plays it ideologically and conceptually safe.
All of which is to say: Instead of unrolling the Federation flag and misremembering it as faultless, perhaps we should be folding and stowing it away, looking toward the future rather than the past. To this Trekkie, thisâand not hope per seâhas been the true guiding spirit and strength of foundational Star Trek shows: their resolute future-orientation. Itâs not just that they were set in the 22nd or 23rd century, but that the characters themselves were boldly heading into their own unwritten future. It was a world where change, most often conceived as progress in Federation society, was possible and desirable. Thereâs a reason Roddenberryâs follow-up to the iconic The Original Series wasnât Star Trek: The Previous Generation.
For nearly two decades, Star Trek has been stuck in its own past (all shows and films but the dreadful Picard and the animated pastiche Lower Decks have been set before The Original Series). The franchise has wallowed in nostalgia for the deified nobility of earlier series, pandering to fans in a way mirrored by Burnhamâs patriotic reverence of the Federation. The stories have suffered as a result, with the prequels transforming Star Trek from a kind of sci-fi anthology about the ethics of encountering difference into an action franchise whose main purpose is producing content to fill in supposed gaps in the established universe.
But it might be argued that season three of Discovery, by hurdling its characters from Star Trekâs past (the first two seasons are set a decade before the 2266-69 timeframe of The Original Series) into its future, at least promises it might overcome the limitations of its prequel status by jettisoning the baggage associated with the original show like a damaged warp core. And itâs true that, despite the premiereâs uninspired ode to the Federation as a deposit of nondescript âvalues,â the following episodes begin to show the potential of a series thatâs once again fascinated more with the unknown than with the previously established.
Spinning relatively self-contained stories out of concepts like parasitic ice and the suppressed memories of a giant slug living inside a precocious teenage engineer, the remaining three episodes made available to press are more satisfying as sci-fi stories than the mindless actioner that opens the season. This shift to a more ensemble-driven, idea-focused format is welcome. Despite a premiere that augurs poorly for its broader narrative arc, Discoveryâs third season at least momentarily succeeds in thinking about undiscovered things to come.
Cast: Sonequa Martin-Green, Doug Jones, Anthony Rapp, Mary Wiseman, Michelle Yeoh, Wilson Cruz, Emily Coutts, David Ajala, Tig Notaro Network: CBS All Access
Review: The Good Lord Bird Infuses an Abolition Story with Wry, Dark Comedy
The series invigorates its material with the rousing trappings of a semi-comedic western.3
As abolitionist John Brown, a wild-eyed and scraggly bearded Ethan Hawke spends much of Showtimeâs The Good Lord Birdâbased on James McBrideâs National Book Award-winning novel of the same nameâshredding his throat as he bellows for the end of slavery. The manâs fury is biblical in both a metaphorical and textual sense, dribbling spit down the hairs of his chin as he declares slavery an affront to God while fervently quoting the Bible. Brown doesnât want to negotiate, nor does he want to begin an incremental process toward change: Black people must be freed now, or else heâll shootâand often he does.
To a young black boy like Henry Shackleford (Joshua Caleb Johnson), Brownâs actions are baffling. Henry has witnessed white anger before, but he hasnât seen it deployed on his behalf. As such, he regards it with no small degree of skepticism, not least of which because one of Brownâs outbursts gets the boyâs father killed. Newly free but with nowhere to go, Henry travels with Brownâs tiny militia, acquiring the nickname âOnionâ for eating a withered good-luck charm belonging to âthe old man.â Heâs also given a new way to present his gender, courtesy of Brown mishearing Henryâs name as âHenriettaâ and thus taking him for a girl, giving him a dress, and treating him like an adopted daughter. Onion plays along, without making a fuss. After all, itâs hard to dissuade white people once theyâve decided who you are.
In addition to these âgunfighters of the Gospelâ who take arms against slave owners and the institutions that enable them, the world of The Good Lord Bird is full of hypocrites and apologists. It also practically oozes with wry, dark comedy. But rather than play Onionâs dilemma as an unsympathetic farce, the series uses gender as an earnest metaphor for how the others see himâor rather, donât. Where he may freely be himself among the black characters, who recognize what Onion calls his âtrue natureâ just fine, the white characters force their own perception upon him even when they have the best of intentions and are ostensibly fighting for him and his people. To them, little Onion sometimes functions like a mascot.
Johnson adeptly modulates the seriesâs tone, with his expressions of confusion and skepticism woven into the heart of the narrative. But the showiest role belongs to Hawke, who goes big and loud in his fanatical conception of Brown, a man who does things like drag out suppertime prayer for hours and is thankful for everything that comes to his mind. He speaks to a turtle, places a pocket change bounty on the president, and generally believes that his battle plan has been handed down by the Lord Himself, even if the details tend to be fuzzy.
Brown, though, is also unambiguously right about what must be done, that the sins of the land must be washed away in blood. His capacity for violence is startling, as in one scene where he and his followers drag a man out of his home to cut off his head due to his complicity. Any blood, it seems, will do, and itâs certainly easy to imagine another context where another person like Brown points his fanaticism and violence in another direction. Heâs prone to speaking for black people, to making decisions on their behalf about what they want or need while blind to the complexities of what it means to be free in a country that considers black freedom a threat. Brownâs moral simplicity is its own kind of privilege.
Reservations about Brown are voiced by Onion, who acknowledges the potential âwhite saviorâ narrative in the first episode, as well as by others like a reluctant, newly freed recruit named Bob (Hubert Point-Du Jour) and even the renowned Frederick Douglass (Daveed Diggs). But The Good Lord Bird doesnât indulge in the easy cynicism that might have posited Brown as merely out for himself; his shortcomings and violence share space with his earnest devotion to the cause, his generosity, his willingness to listen, and his overall kookiness. This is hardly a hagiography, the off-kilter tone allowing for refreshingly complex portraits of not just Brown, but a rather stuffy conception of Douglass, whose apprehensions make sense but whose place within society and all the eyes upon him often restrict his public actions.
Where Onionâs perspective is concerned, the series is a little shakier. With his presence at so many major events, he comes perilously close to a Forrest Gump of the antebellum era, the wheels of the plot contriving to deliver him at meetings with Douglass and Harriet Tubman as well as Brownâs raid on Harpers Ferry. Though his presence is meant to complicate Brownâs actions through how heâs still perceived as a young girl, the seriesâs skepticism gradually melts away, leaving the final episodes to drag a bit as they focus more on constructing their vision of history rather than examining the characters and their ideals. But when it works, especially at the start, The Good Lord Bird invigorates its material with the rousing trappings of a semi-comedic western that gives it a particularly memorable sort of power.
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Joshua Caleb Johnson, Hubert Point-Du Jour, Beau Knapp, Nick Eversman, Ellar Coltrane, Jack Alcott, Mo Brings Plenty, Daveed Diggs Network: Showtime
Review: Foxâs Next Is an A.I. Thriller That Lacks Self-Awareness
Despite its timely trappings, the sci-fi series works best as an empty-calorie thriller.2
Foxâs Next opens with a quote from Elon Musk, and the showâs take on the dangers of technology is about as sophisticated as a meme with a Musk quote attached to it. Paul LeBlanc (John Slattery) is an amalgamation of various tech billionaires, from Musk to Steve Jobs to Bill Gates, and the warning about the threat of artificial intelligence that he delivers in a TED-style presentation at the beginning of the first episode is reminiscent of alarms that some of those figures have raised in real life. The series jumps almost immediately from Paulâs dire warnings to the threat itself materializing in grand fashion, as an A.I. program known as Next achieves self-awareness and sets its sights on destroying humanity, beginning with a doctor (John Billingsley) who discovers its true intentions.
Nextâs overarching goals are a bit vague, and the series strikes an awkward balance between a grounded police drama and a world-ending sci-fi thriller. The dead doctor was an old friend of F.B.I. cybercrimes agent Shea Salazar (Fernanda Andrade), who crosses paths with Paul as she investigates the manâs murder. Slattery imbues Paul with more than a little bit of the snarky entitlement of his character from Mad Men, and Shea initially dismisses Paul as a crank when he tries to convince her that the A.I. program developed by his former company has committed the crime. Though Paul suffers from a rare neurological disorder that causes hallucinations and paranoia and will most likely kill him within a few months, Next never presents him as an unreliable source, and the series sets up tension between him and the skeptical F.B.I. agents in his midst only to have it dissipate almost immediately.
With the exception of a Skynet joke in the second episode, the series takes its subject matter very seriously, even when Nextâs actions are particularly silly, like spreading office gossip or delivering petty insults. The dialogue alternates between incomprehensible technobabble and convenient oversimplifications (Paul calls Nextâs abilities an âintelligence explosionâ), and Next is a poorly defined adversary, doing whatever the plot requires at any time, often without clear motivation. Itâs a seemingly omnipotent and omniscient foe that can take over an Alexa-like device to manipulate Sheaâs young son, open the doors of a prison in Honduras, or turn off a car in the midst of the ownerâs suicide attempt. Nextâs absurd level of power makes the A.I. dramatically ineffective as a villain, and it doesnât have any kind of personality or voice to allow it to develop an antagonistic relationship with the human characters.
In the showâs early episodes, when Next is still theoretically contained on servers at Paulâs former company, it speaks in a placid male voice that sounds a lot like HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey, and once Next escapes into the internet, it sometimes speaks in the voice of an off-brand Alexa or a carâs GPS, but mostly it doesnât speak at all. Itâs an invisible, nebulous kind of enemy, able to rally an entire white supremacist sect over social media seemingly within minutes, but at another time thwarted by âkeeping it on the lineâ during an interaction with Sheaâs son, like itâs a bomber on the phone in a â70s hostage thriller.
Creator Manny Coto is known for his work on the Star Trek franchise and multiple seasons of 24, and Next feels very much in the law enforcement genre, treating the A.I. like a terrorist that Jack Bauer could track down and torture. The pacing also recalls that of 24: The five episodes made available to press take place over the course of just a few days, with the characters never getting a chance to rest in their relentless pursuit of the enemy. Next throws in incongruous moments of emotional bonding amid the chaos, and the forced efforts to create an intimate connection between two of Sheaâs team members are especially awkward. One is a reformed member of a white nationalist group, while the other is a stubborn Latina, and their growing connection is handled as clumsily as the showâs other efforts at social commentary.
Despite its timely trappings, Next works best as an empty-calorie thriller, with plot points that only hold together if you donât think about them too much. âYou can only do this when youâve got evil computers coming after you,â Sheaâs husband, Ty (Gerardo Celasco), solemnly tells their son at one point when theyâre forced to steal a car while on the run from Next. The entire series depicts that kind of obvious absurdity with a straight face. Which is to say that Next the A.I. may be self-aware, but Next the series rarely is.
Cast: John Slattery, Fernanda Andrade, Michael Mosley, Eve Harlow, Elizabeth Cappuccino, Evan Whitten, Gerardo Celasco, Jason Butler Harner Network: Fox
Review: The Third Day Leans Heavily on Mystery at the Expense of Human Drama
Much of the showâs drama pivots around how successful it will be at slowly pulling back the curtain.2.5
The premiere episode of HBOâs limited series The Third Day, in which a man fighting off sadness and potentially madness finds himself on a mysterious island just off the English coast, goes longer on mystery and mood than it does on plot. The feel of the series is richly atmospheric, filled with oversaturated colors and quaint cottages that would make for a nice weekend getaway were it not for the inhospitable, antagonistic, and slightly cult-ish locals. Despite the showâs unsettling backdrop, though, the circular nature of the story keeps any appreciable amount of tension from building over the course of the five episodes were made available for review.
The first episode throws a lot at the audience before even getting to the island. Sam (Jude Law) is a raggedy-looking guy who volleys quickly between moods. First thereâs inchoate fury, as he screams into a phone about money being stolen from an office, and then irredeemable and inexplicable sadness, as he collapses by the side of a stream. Snapped out of his chaotic collapse by the sight of a teenage girl, Epona (Jessie Ross), hanging herself from a tree in the woods, he saves her life and drives her home, even as she murmurs, âTheyâll kill me.â
Epona lives in a self-contained island community called Osea thatâs accessible only for a short time each day when the ocean tide uncovers a Roman-era causeway. Once there, Sam is flooded with conflicting sensations. The first is that it all feels somewhat familiar, even though as far as he knows his only connection to Osea is his grandfather being stationed there during World War II. The second is a low kind of foreboding that will be well-known to viewers of many a horror movie about urbanites stuck in remote locations. Sam knows something is amiss about this strange place with its quasi-pagan traditions and its peopleâs alternating suspicion and over-friendliness toward outsiders, but he somehow conveniently keeps missing the short windows of time when he could just drive back to the mainland.
Triangulating a creepy space located somewhere between Ari Asterâs Midsommar, Robin Hardyâs The Wicker Man, and the TV cult classic The Prisoner, The Third Day works hard to not give too much away while still trying to pull viewers in. Itâs a difficult act, given that Samâs manic behavior and the showâs intentional and often fairly clichĂ©d attempts to blur the lines between reality and fantasy make it somewhat difficult to invest in what happens to him.
Generally more engaging are the side characters who start popping in to further confuse an already muddle-headed Sam, including the ever-bickering Martins (Paddy Considine and Emily Watson), the cosmically mismatched pair who run Oseaâs one pub and ricochet from suspicious to trustworthy in an instant. Jess (Katherine Waterston), an American researcher doing work on the islandâs traditions both ancient (Celtic bacchanals, sacrifices, and the like) and newer (a Burning Man-like festival designed to drum up tourism), is ostensibly the standard alluring woman of mystery but has grim secrets of her own that mimic Samâs dark past.
Like the stories that The Third Day appears on its surface to be emulating, much of the drama here will ultimately pivot around just how successful it will be at slowly pulling back the curtain until its final reveal. The series is certainly committed to the slow burn, with too much of its running time given over to Samâs punchy befuddlement as he tries to separate dream from reality. Further slowing down the momentum is the showâs structure: The first three episodes (gathered together as âSummerâ) are separated from a second set of three (âWinterâ), in which another outsider (Naomie Harris) traps herself on Osea by a single linking episode (âAutumnâ), which is planned to screen live from London in early October.
The Third Day works best when itâs not teasing out this or that secret about Osea and its cagey inhabitants. A strong undercurrent in which characters wrestle with their grief keeps wrenching the story away from its somewhat ambling mystery plot. Sam is given one of the showâs most impactful lines when he tries to explain the sadness he carries: âPain doesnât work that way, you canât share itâŠagony is bespoke.â Although Osea is studded with gothic signposts that should be warning characters like Sam away from the place, as the series continues it zeroes in less on the horror elements and more on the more quotidian and human conflicts that keep threatening to tear the island apart. Though viewers may stick with The Third Day to the end to discover what Oseaâs deepest and darkest secrets might be, its human drama is more compelling than any suggestion of the unworldly.
Cast: Jude Law, Katherine Waterston, Paddy Considine, Emily Watson, Naomie Harris, John Dagleish, Nico Parker, Freya Allan Network: HBO
Review: We Are Who We Are Perceptively Homes in on the Malleability of Boundaries
The series concerns itself with boundaries between the different cultural standards of young adulthood.3
With his loud clothes and bleached hair, 14-year-old Fraser Wilson (Jack Dylan Grazer) sticks out on the U.S. Army base where he lives. He spends much of the first episode of director and co-writer Luca Guadagninoâs We Are Who We Are in animal-print shorts long enough to function as pants, being restless and fidgety and a detached nuisance in that post-adolescent sort of way, taking pictures of people inside classrooms or running through the middle of a basketball game between recruits. One of his mothers, Colonel Sarah Wilson (ChloĂ« Sevigny), has been put in charge of a garrison in Italy, so theyâhe, Sarah, and his other mom, Maggie (Alice Braga)âhave relocated from New York, to Fraserâs dismay.
Especially when its yoked to Fraserâs perspective, the series makes the base feel vibrant and alive, given the Altmanesque use of overlapping conversations and diegetic music. Peripheral characters are always conspicuously doing things in the background, like buying food or running drills. The boy seems volatile and strange, in ways perhaps explained by the sensory overload of his POV; heâs an observer and thereâs almost too much to observe, with dialogue and actions often carrying on out of frame. Fraser feels compelled to center himself in his own world, doing things like balancing precariously on a bridge railing or intruding on Italian homeowners sewing outside, though sometimes he allows himself to be guided by new acquaintances, like fellow army brat Britney (Francesca Scorsese).
When the second episode of the series replays many of these same overlapping events from the perspective of Caitlin Harper (Jordan Kristine SeamĂłn), the repetitions donât feel gimmicky so much as a natural result of the showâs densely packed structure. Conversations that were tangential and difficult to follow for the easily distracted Fraser are given clearer focus due to Caitlinâs more confident, pensive demeanor. Sheâs already familiar with the environment, having been at the base long enough to form a friend group that includes other teens like Britney and Caitlinâs high-strung brother, Danny (Spence Moore II). And with the additional perspective, throwaway lines from the first episode take on new meanings. For example, Sarahâs remark to Jenny (Faith Alabi) about respecting faiths other than the baseâs dominant Christian demographic gains a patronizing quality when we learn that Jenny is Dannyâs mother and that heâs experimenting with the Islamic faith that she left behind, seemingly at the behest of her domineering husband, Richard (Scott Mescudi, a.k.a. Kid Cudi).
Of the four episodes made available to critics ahead of We Are Who We Areâs premiere, the other two sync up more traditionally as Caitlin and Fraser begin to spend time with one another. Being the new kid on the base, Fraser lacks any of the preconceptions of Caitlinâs friend group, so he becomes an ideal confidante for her experiments with gender expression. Going by just âHarper,â Caitlin tucks her long hair beneath a hat and hits on Italian girls in town, while subtly rebuffing guys elsewhere with a quick, âI donât speak Italian.â
The series concerns itself with boundaries and the way they blur, namely the differing standards of young adulthood between Italy and the base that technically functions as the United States. In one scene, Britney drags Fraser to the beach because heâs allowed to drink off base. By spotlighting this interplay, the series emphasizes how we create so many of these boundaries ourselves, whether in our own heads, through procedures, or in accordance with society at large, along lines of political affinity, relationships, and sexuality.
The most significant boundary separation in the series, then, is the one between childhood and adulthood, which is hardly a rigid one. Accordingly, the kids sometimes seem wise and mature and accepting beyond their years only to fly off the handle and engage in that distinctly teenage brand of solipsism, where the people around you donât matter nearly as much as you and your own feelings. Theyâre able to be pretentious and profound on entirely their own terms, rather than seeming like mouthpieces for middle-aged screenwriters. They leave atrocious messes in their wake, badger a lot of people, and act downright annoying, which feels true and honest in a broader sense than the occasional small detail that rings false. They have the space to change, while the adults ruminate on the decisionsâthe marriages, the jobs, the beliefsâthat theyâve long since committed to. We Are Who We Are explores a world thatâs opening up to these kids just as it is, in many ways, preparing to snap closed.
Cast: Jack Dylan Grazer, Jordan Kristine SeamĂłn, ChloĂ« Sevigny, Alice Braga, Spence Moore II, Kid Cudi, Faith Alabi, Francesca Scorsese, Ben Taylor, Corey Knight Network: HBO
Review: I May Destroy You Boldly Dissects Notions of Sexual Assault and Consent
The series draws one of the most nuanced portraits of sexual assault ever depicted on TV.4
In âEgo Death,â the final episode of the British comedy-drama I May Destroy You, actress, writer, and series creator Michaela Coel confidently defies convention and, with it, any expectation that the events of the series, like life, can be tied into a tidy knot. Privileging character over plot, I May Destroy You has no need for the kinds of melodramatic reveals on which other cable dramas like Big Little Lies rely, and it proves no less revelatory on that front.
Coel draws one of the most nuanced portraits of sexual assault and its psychological fallout ever depicted on TV, and along the way captures the milieu of black millennial Londoners with precise and vivid detail. For all the lived-in verisimilitude of its world, though, I May Destroy You also smoothly incorporates psychologically subjective and allegorical elements: The bar in which Arabella is assaulted is called Ego Death (a perfect summation of the consequent disintegration of her identity), and the book on sexual assault that sheâs writing throughout the series is likely an in-text reflection of the creation of I May Destroy You itself.
In the first episode, âEyes, Eyes, Eyes, Eyes,â we join the Ghanaian-British Arabella (Coel) as she returns to London from Italy, where sheâs been working on a follow-up to her published collection of social-media musings, Chronicles of a Fed-Up Millennial. Or at least thatâs what sheâs told her literary agent (Adam James) and financier (Natalie Walter), as the trip was actually motivated by a visit to her on-again, off-again beau, Biagio (Marouane Zotti), who remains noncommittal about their relationship as she departs. Back in London, sheâs welcomed by her group of steadfast friends, including Simon (Aml Ameen), who convinces her to suspend her all-night scramble to finish her book draft and join him at the Ego Death.
There, Arabellaâs drink is spiked and, as she later comes to remember and even more slowly comes to accept, raped in a bathroom stall by an unknown assailant. Brief point-of-view flashbacks to the attack that recur throughout the series complement Coelâs larger fascination with the role that memory and its interpretation play in the formation of identity. Longer, structural flashbacks in many episodes challenge our perspective on Arabellaâs present and often serve to undermine our presumptions about victimhood and blame.
Hardly a cowed victim, but shaken and traumatized, Arabella reevaluates and rebuilds her life after her attack. Itâs been said that the world is revealed in breakdownâthat you donât know how a car works until your carburetor fails. Arabellaâs assault forces her and her closest friends, Terry (Weruche Opia) and Kwame (Paapa Essiedu), to examine their own sexual encounters, relationships, and histories, leading them to disconcerting conclusions about the various roles they play in relation to each other and their sexual partners.
Similar to its exploration of the multiple dimensions of a personâs identity, I May Destroy You depicts the different forms that sexual assault can take, not all of it as immediately readable as Arabellaâs violent rape, and not always committed by obvious villains like the man (Lewis Reeves) in Arabellaâs flashbacks. The series delivers an illustration of how someone can be violated even after consent is given: We repeatedly see men use deception to get people in bed, or deploy it once theyâve already starting hooking up. Kwame finds it impossible to process his own sexual assault, personally or legallyâin part because the justice system proves to have even less infrastructure for dealing with the rape of gay menâand diverts his anguish into a distasteful act of sexual mendacity. Terry comes to rethink a threesome she ostensibly opted into, whose circumstances we explore in a flashback to her and Arabellaâs first trip to Italy.
But Coel isnât simply out to demonstrate the many variations of sexual assault in the manner of a sex education video; rather, I May Destroy You examines how sexual, racial, and gender exploitation weave themselves into peopleâs identities and attitudes. Episode three, âDonât Forget the Sea,â crucially plants the seed of the unexamined tension within Arabella and Terryâs friendship. As in almost any long-term close friendship, both have committed inconsiderate slights against the other, but, as two black women in a sexist and racist society, such petty affronts come with high stakes. Allowing her characters to respond imperfectly to each othersâ crises, Coel foregrounds the importance of forgiving individuals within a broken societyâdaringly including among the forgiven characters who have unambiguously crossed a sexual âline spectrum borderâ (the title of the showâs eighth episode).
I May Destroy You doesnât define its characters through moral dichotomies. Episode six, âThe Alliance,â poignantly explores the tangled social hierarchy that gives a measure of institutional power to white girls, but also can allow black boys to assert a form of male privilege, as a flashback to a racially and sexually charged incident that occurred when Arabella was in high school blurs the line between victim and perpetrator. And the tenth episode, âThe Cause the Cure,â presents whatâs probably the showâs most moving representation of the yin-and-yang influence that loved ones can have on the course of our lives, juxtaposing Arabellaâs realization of a truth about her beloved father (Yinka Awoni) with her processing of her and Terryâs own betrayals of each otherâs sisterly trust.
Arabellaâs circuitous route to recovery feels deeply personal, but at the same time, her story touches on more universal aspects of life for someone of her gender, race, and age. At once hyper-local and global in its concerns, I May Destroy You feels eminently contemporary, a necessary artistic distillation of a distinctly modern form of life. With the series, Coel gives voice to a generation of black and brown millennials whose realities donât reflect the fantasy of a post-racial, post-feminist society that many have tried to wish into being.
Cast: Michaela Coel, Weruche Opia, Paapa Essiedu, Aml Ameen, Marouane Zotti, Harriett Webb, Stephen Wight, Natalie Walter, Adam James Network: HBO
Review: HBOâs Lovecraft Country Confronts the Evil Lurking Beneath American Life
The series eclipses its source material in capturing the omnidirectional dread of Lovecraftian horror.3
The horror of Lovecraft Country, Misha Greenâs adaptation of Matt Ruffâs 2016 novel of the same name, is at first all too real. Set in the 1950s, it introduces Korean War veteran Atticus âTicâ Freeman (Jonathan Majors) as he returns to his hometown of Chicago after receiving news of his fatherâs (Michael Kenneth Williams) disappearance. Left a note pointing to the manâs possible location in a Massachusetts town called Ardham, Tic journeys across 1950s Jim Crow America with an old friend, Letitia Lewis (Jurnee Smollett), and his uncle, George (Courtney B. Vance), a travel agent who contributes to a guidebook, similar to The Negro Motorist Green Book, of safe places to eat and lodge for Black roadtrippers.
The first episode of the series generates much dread from Tic, Letitia, and George passing through towns as white people turn their heads in eerie unison and police cars seemingly materialize out of nowhere. Close-ups of the white walls of a diner that was previously welcoming of Black customers reveal scorch marks that were barely painted over, telling us all that we need to know about how the locals here felt about integration. Cops pull out their guns the moment they set eyes on Tic and his associates, and conversations between the main characters and white people are marked by eye-averting submissiveness and fear. In fact, when the other shoe finally drops and the monsters we expect to encounter in an H.P. Lovecraft story finally materialize, the additional layer of terror heaped onto the protagonists is somewhat offset by the relief of seeing some of their white tormenters become prey.
As Lovecraftâs influence on horror continues to grow in the decades since his death, artists have attempted to reckon with his racism and xenophobia, namely by recognizing that the pagan cults and corrupted humanoid monsters that make the authorâs work so chilling also provide insights into his pathological hatred of the Other. Lovecraft Country understands that in a world filled with underground occultists who wield strange power, such groups arenât made up of tired and huddled masses, but of folks in the upper echelons of wealth and authority. If anything, the racially and culturally diverse people whom Lovecraft saw as social pollutants would be the most routine victims of these organizationsâsecond-class citizens whose disappearances would never be investigated by the powers that be.
The series has its share of CGI monsters, from many-limbed creatures to undead spirits, but its most compelling visual scares involve the cold framing of remote manors owned by cult leaders like Samuel Braithwhite (Tony Goldwyn) and his daughter, Christina (Abbey Lee). These individuals, with their Aryan features and stiff countenances, never betray any emotion or urgency, for they know that they live in a world where they can have whatever they want. And their sense of superiority informs Lovecraft Countryâs most blackly comedic moment, when Christina objects to Tic comparing their group to the KKK by saying, âMy father and his associates would never fraternize with the Klan. Theyâre too poor.â
The first five episodes of the series made available to press branch out from the central plotline to cover such topics as haunted houses and body transformation, which allows Lovecraft Country to change up its scares as well as broaden its allegorical range. The realistic harassment suffered by the Black residents of a boarding house in a white neighborhood, for example, is thrown into even sharper relief by the mutilated ghosts who stalk its halls. And throughout these episodes, characters encounter gruesome objects connected to the order that hunts them, reflecting the long history of slavery and Manifest Destiny.
Green makes some significant changes to the novel, but her most rewarding come in the form of the extra time she devotes to tracking the emotional fallout of the charactersâ experiences, not only in relation to the horrors they witness, but the everyday degradations they suffer. One can see, for example, how an older man like George is so deeply inculcated in a racist system that, even at the height of his fear, he remains obsequious around whites. Comparatively, thereâs something rousing, and more than a little funny, in seeing Tic and Leti so addled by the unearthly terrors they face that they become less dutiful in abiding by the mores of Jim Crow. Eventually, they begin to lash out at harassing whites, who are so used to the power dynamics of American society that theyâre almost too stunned at the backtalk to be enraged by it.
Early in the first episode, a woman riding next to Tic on a bus to Chicago sees that heâs reading one of Edgar Rice Burroughsâs John Carter novels and expresses her disapproval of such a work with an ex-Confederate for a hero. âStories are like people,â he says. âLoving them doesnât make them perfect. You just try to cherish them and overlook their flaws.â The old woman responds: âYeah, but the flaws are still there.â That exchange could be the thesis of Lovecraft Country, which eclipses even its source material in capturing the all-encompassing dread of Lovecraftâs fiction while at the same time confronting head-on the most problematic aspects of his writing. The author feared America becoming infected with evil that would sink it asunder, while Greenâs series operates from the opposite point of view: that evil was integral to the nationâs creation and that it must be fought, however futilely, to be overcome.
Cast: Jonathan Majors, Jurnee Smollett, Aunjanue Ellis, Abbey Lee, Jada Harris, Michael Kenneth Williams, Courtney B. Vance, Jordan Patrick Smith Network: HBO
Review: In My Skin Is a Bitingly Poignant, If Cluttered, Coming-of-Age Story
Though it doesnât provide room for a fully formed character arc, the series is driven by its performances and mordant humor.2.5
Sixteen-year-old Bethan Gwyndaf (Gabrielle Creevy), the protagonist of Huluâs In My Skin, has a lot going on in her life. Sheâs the only responsible member of her household, essentially acting as caretaker for her bipolar mother, Trina (Jo Hartley), and constantly at odds with her layabout, alcoholic father, Dilwyn (Rhodi Meilir). And sheâs often the only voice of reason among her best friends, Travis (James Wilbraham) and Lydia (Poppy Lee Friar), who seem to always get into trouble whenever sheâs not around. Sheâs also nursing a desperate crush on Poppy (Zadeia Campbell-Davies), the popular girl at school.
Bethan is a compulsive liar, so obsessed with fitting in at school that she spins elaborate stories of a home life filled with cultural activities and fancy renovations to cover for the reality that she spends much of her time taking care of Trina and tracking down Dilwyn. Her obsession with crafting a perfect external image of herself makes it impossible for her to form emotional connections with anyone, even people who genuinely care for her. Travis and Lydia, for example, want to support her in the same way she supports them, brushing off their questions about her family life and never even letting them inside her house.
Bethan is smart and sensitive, and Creevy makes the character, with her conspiratorial smile and natural aversion to being told what she can and canât do, easy to likeâeven as Bethan frustratingly and steadfastly refuses to let anyone in. In My Skinâs Welsh-born creator, Kayleigh Llewellyn, based Bethan and Trina on herself and her own bipolar mother, and thereâs a lot of raw emotion in the interactions between the two characters, ranging from tender and loving to harsh and hurtful. The short-tempered Dilwyn, inspired by Llewellynâs late father, has no patience for Trinaâs unstable mental state, leaving her to wander the streets or tying her to the radiator to make sure she stays in the house. Her parentsâ combative dynamic often leaves Bethan stuck in the middle of them, attempting to play peacemaker.
As volatile as Bethanâs family relationships can be, In My Skin still has plenty of humor, emanating from Bethanâs biting wit and frequent flights of imagination, during which she casts herself as the romantic hero in Poppyâs life, as well as a poet whose words are illustrated with perfume commercial-style images. Bethanâs occasional voiceover narration is an inconsistent element of the series, but her self-aware commentary is a welcome counterpoint to her infuriatingly self-sabotaging behavior. While having Bethan explain her inner thoughts can easily become a narrative crutch, In My Skin could have benefited more from Bethanâs reflective observations, which give us a deeper understanding of her often impulsive decisions.
All the more important since the first seasonâs five half-hour episodes donât provide enough room for Bethanâs arc to fully take shape, moving her only a short way down the path toward maturity and ending just as sheâs starting to assert herself at school, harnessing her way with words to run for student body. Her relationships with her fellow teens remain stunted, and her potential coming-out journey takes a back seat to her need to care for Trina and insulate her from trauma. Llewellyn isnât afraid to confront the dark elements of Bethanâs lifeâthe way poverty, mental illness, homophobia, and substance abuse combine to weigh her down. That her personality shines through at all is both a testament to Creevyâs performance and the characterâs determination to make a better life for herself, however misguided.
That personality is what drives In My Skin, and Bethanâs self-sufficiency is a big part of what makes her so compelling. No matter what delusion or altercation Trina involves her in throughout the showâs first season, Bethan always comes back, taking on a responsibility that she never asked for and shouldnât have to handle on her own. If she doesnât always know how to balance that responsibility with everything else going on in her life, at least sheâs approaching every new setback with appealingly mordant humor.
Cast: Gabrielle Creevy, James Wilbraham, Jo Hartley, Poppy Lee Friar, Zadeia Campbell-Davies, Rhodri Meilir, Alexandra Riley, Di Botcher, Aled ap Steffan Network: Hulu
Review: Peacockâs The Capture Wears Its Topicality Impersonally on Its Sleeve
The series sucks the juice out of its pop-cultural reference points, failing to mine our current nightmares on its own terms.2
Ben Chananâs The Capture wears its topicality on its sleeve, principally concerning the CCTV security cameras that monitor Londonâs streets and which number in the hundreds of thousands, averaging out to one camera per dozen or so people. The casualness of the camerasâ presence throughout the Peacock series is unnerving, suggesting how easily privacy can be annihilated with little in the way of pushback from the populace.
Chananâs concerns, though, arenât existential ones, as heâs fashioned a murder mystery that laboriously connects modern surveillance to social media, war crimes committed in the Middle East, rising notions of fake news, and whistleblowers like Edward Snowdenâall of which are referenced explicitly in the showâs dialogue. Weirdly, the sociopolitical Easter eggs often feel beside the point, serving as window dressing for an impersonal game of cat and mouse.
Shaun Emery (Callum Turner) is a British soldier accused of killing a member of the Taliban during a tour of duty in Afghanistan after the man had already surrendered. Surveillance footage from a body camera seems to validate this assertion, until Shaunâs bannister, Hannah Roberts (Laura Haddock), establishes a lag between the audio and the video feeds of the footage, casting doubt on the evidence. Shaun, Hannah, and others celebrate his acquittal at a local pub, after which the two kiss on the street, pointedly in view of a CCTV camera. She leaves, never to be seen again. When footage surfaces of Shaun hitting Hannah and dragging her out of the cameraâs sight, he denies any involvement, but heâs immediately accused of a second crime thatâs supported by theoretically objective evidence.
This is all essentially setup, and Chanan threatens to stuff his concept up to the breaking point of contrivance. Investigating the case is Rachel Carey (Holliday Grainger), a brilliant and ambitious detective inspector with a stereotypical taste for stylish jackets and a penchant for playing by her own rules. Her superiors and peers castigate Rachel for her drive, which scans less as an acknowledgement of sexist double standards than as Chananâs need to define his characters by signpost dialogue. Shaun eludes Rachel, whoâs convinced of his guilt, until she begins to uncover a wealth of evidence that connects Shaunâs two murder investigations, as well as a celebrated case in which Rachel foiled a potential terrorist attack.
The twist-a-minute The Capture is compulsively watchable, but weâve seen much of this before. In addition to 24, which similarly pulled the rug out from under its audience with endless, sometimes ingenious reversals, The Capture also recalls Andrew Davisâs The Fugitive, as well as seemingly every jargon-laden investigative crime show on TV.
Shaun and Rachel are ciphers with stock backstories, and the showâs dozens of other characters often fit into easily recognizable archetypes, from the jealous sidekick to the estranged, earnest wife, to the icy authority figure with shady motives. As the latter, Detective Superintendent Gemma Garland, Lia Williams acquits herself better than much of the rest of the cast, commanding the screen with seeming ease. And in a small, mysterious role, Ron Perlman revels in a sense of understatement, suggesting a bored, bureaucratic comfort with authoritarianism thatâs both eerie and funny.
What The Capture doesnât have is the sense of violation that made 24 such an unmooring experience in its best seasons. That showâs protagonist, Jack Bauer, was a charismatic hawk who did things that most people to the left of Dick Cheney would find monstrous. Kiefer Sutherland allowed you to see the humanity and the savagery of Bauer, which rendered the character all the more disturbing. Whatever its faults, 24 is a distinctive, authentic reaction to the political atrocities that marked the post-9/11 world.
By contrast, the violence of The Capture is just noise to further the plot. Even the notion of doctored surveillance footage has been examined before and more artfully, especially in Philip Kaufmanâs atmospheric Rising Sun. A newer element of our surveillance state, social media, is mentioned obligatorily but is barely explored. The Capture sucks the juice out of its pop-cultural reference points, failing to mine our current nightmares on its own terms.
Cast: Holliday Grainger, Callum Turner, Laura Haddock, Cavan Clerkin, Ginny Holder, Barry Ward, Ben Miles, Peter Singh, Lia Williams, Sophia Brown, Ron Perlman, Famke Jansen Network: Peacock
Review: The Optimism of Japan Sinks: 2020 Leads to a Curious Emotional Remove
The showâs reticence to dig into hopelessness and pain leaves its admirable optimism to feel strangely artificial.2.5
The latest adaptation of Japanese science-fiction writer Sakyo Komatsuâs 1973 disaster novel Japan Sinks comes to us in animated form, overseen by prolific director Masaaki Yuasa at Science Saru, the studio he co-founded. The Netflix series wastes little time dishing out the apocalyptic imagery promised by its title: Soon after a low-level earthquake hits Japan, a stronger one follows, causing buildings to crumble and pound bystanders into a gory paste beneath the rubble. The Earth vomits gas and magma, and the ground violently splits open, only to be jammed back together into new, alien configurations.
Rather than the scientific and political perspectives of Komatsuâs novel and its previous adaptations, however, Japan Sinks: 2020 takes a markedly more personal viewpoint of the mixed-race Muto family and the companions they pick up along the way. Coupled with some surprisingly spare and soothing music on the soundtrack, the depictions of the familyâs early reunion suggest a defiantly optimistic take on the large-scale disaster story, a focus on togetherness and a celebration of the human capacity to adapt even amid utter turmoil. In one scene, the Muto patriarch, Koichiro (Masaki Terasoma), uses colored lights to illuminate some trees the way he once did at their ruined home, guiding the family back together.
As bodies rain from the sky, though, Japan Sinks: 2020 shows its teeth. Characters die in sudden, jarring ways, disorienting the viewer in a similar fashion to these travelers whose only option is to press forward on an island that can offer them no refuge. Throughout the series, these characters are mostly defined by archetypal qualities, with new ones introduced almost as soon as others are lost. This gives the Muto clanâs odyssey something of a mythic quality as they make their way through symbolic destinations, from an open, seemingly empty grocery store to a community that practices kintsugi, a Japanese art of pottery repair.
The showâs limitations become apparent when it slows down midway through the season, no longer relying on the pure momentum of its plot twists and striking images of environmental devastation. When Japan Sinks 2020 actually allows space for us to absorb the charactersâ deaths, you may feel as if thereâs little to mourn. With a few exceptions, theyâre primarily vehicles for shock and dire twists of fate rather than people to empathize with.
Yuasaâs prior Netflix series, the gonzo Devilman Crybaby, injected some disarming positivity into its own increasingly bleak premise, and in a way that made its tragedies feel even more devastating. But the optimism of Japan Sinks: 2020 doesnât function quite the same way since, here, itâs the overriding ethos, with characters who are more than willing to come together despite catastrophe and pain and displays of self-interest like nationalism.
While this idea is noble, the series moves on from the tragedy of these charactersâ lives so quickly that we never get a sense of the totality of their grief. The result, despite no shortage of daring escapes, is a disaster story whose harried pace and reticence to grapple with hopelessness and pain renders it artificial, keeping us at an emotional remove.
Cast: Reina Ueda, Tomomi Muranaka, Yuko Sasaki, Masaki Terasoma, Kensho Ono, Umeji Sasaki, Nanako Mori Network: Netflix