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Thursday 30 July 2009

Rockford Redux

So here I am, midway through my boxed set of The Rockford Files season two, when I see the news today that David Shore, creator and showrunner of House, is lining up a revival of the show.

It's a task both enviable and unenviable - Rockford is probably the best show of its kind, but it'll be a tough challenge to match it. Jim Rockford was a Philip Marlowe who'd survived the Summer of Love with his old-fashioned principles intact. The format was deceptively simple. Tone was everything, and the show was one of those where its magic was an alchemical product of stylish, witty screenwriting and charismatic lead.

One of the things I've come to realise is there's an underlying principle common to many a long-running show, which is "the world is scary but your dad's here."

I noticed it first in The Equaliser, because I couldn't make out why the show worked; the hero wasn't dashing, nor was he intimidating, but when he showed up you knew everything was going to be OK. Then I started noticing how many shows depended on the dad principle, or variants of it. Grissom's a dad figure, Mac of CSI: NY is a dad figure. All the way back to James Arness in Gunsmoke and Lorne Green in Bonanza (literally), Mark Harmon in NCIS. Our own Doctor Hood.

Jim Rockford was more your big brother, but same principle... with him on the case, you could have faith in the outcome. Columbo and The Mentalist are your funny uncles. It seems to be the key to a strong format that never burns out whereas a heavily-engineered, Pushing Daisies kind of format... doesn't matter how much you love it at first, after a while you're going to tire.

Tuesday 28 July 2009

You Don't Say...

"But as he came to the door of the salubrious squat close to Guildford dressed as Delores in a blonde wig, sheer black tights, a leopard skin skirt and a cropped top with prosthetic breasts, before explaining that the world as it is known will end on 23 December 2012, it is perhaps clear why some of his former friends are concerned that he has suffered some form of mental collapse."

David Shayler, MI5 whistleblower, is now Jesus in a frock. Read all about it here!

Sunday 26 July 2009

Travelling in Time

I'm seeing trailers for the new movie The Time Traveller's Wife (as we'd spell it in the UK), and they've reminded me that a while back I did some thinking around the uses of time travel in fiction and on the screen. And what's a blog for, if not to share?

The most obvious form is the 'paradox romp' like Back to the Future, where something in the past gets changed, and repairs have to be made to safeguard the present as we know it. There's a '70s Czech comedy called Tomorrow I shall Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea that involves defeated Nazis trying to go back and give the H-bomb to Hitler. The Terminator is one of these, inverting the concept so that the aim is to prevent an unpleasant future rather than preserve the timeline. NBC's Journeyman featured the same kind of action on a weekly basis, with Kevin McKidd going back to change individual lives for the better. Which is laudable but not half as much fun as killer robots. In Harlan Ellison's Star Trek episode City on the Edge of Forever, Kirk has to watch Joan Collins get hit by a car knowing that if he saves her, Hitler gets atomic weapons (again).

After that comes the 'story of ironic fulfilment', where someone travels back in time and becomes an essential part of history, for example by unintentionally starting the Great Fire of London. An extreme case here would be Michael Moorcock's Behold the Man, where the time traveller goes back to AD 28 hoping to meet the historical Jesus, only to end up taking on the role and being crucified. (In Garry Kilworth's Let's Go to Golgotha, time-tourists at the crucifixion are instructed not to change history and to join in the call for the release of Barrabas instead of Jesus; the protagonist realises that the baying crowd is comprised entirely of time tourists, and no-one from the actual era.)

Perhaps the most subtle riff on this theme is Chris Marker’s La Jetee, a French arthouse short told entirely in still images, in which a man is sent back from the future using his most powerful childhood memory as the means of focusing for his journey. The memory is that of seeing a man shot and killed at Orly airport moments after parting from his lover. Without realising it, he was witnessing his own death. The short was the basis for Terry Gilliam's Twelve Monkeys. Often the most memorable thing about these tales is the resonance of their conclusions.

The simplest form of time travel narrative is the 'fish out of water' story where paradox and consequentiality don't much matter, and the pleasure is in a) having a present-day protagonist experiencing a past or future landscape, or b) seeing someone from another era experiencing ours. Life on Mars and Somewhere in Time fall into this category but the granddaddy would probably be A Connecticut Yankee at the Court of King Arthur. Karl Alexander's Time After Time has H G Wells pursuing Jack the Ripper through present-day San Francisco.

And there are time travel stories that don’t involve actual time travel but achieve man-out-of-time scenarios by other means. In the Sixties the BBC made Adam Adamant Lives! In which an Edwardian adventurer frozen in 1902 was thawed out in Sixties swinging London. While being dismayed by just about every modern advance he encountered, he was also a walking 60s style icon. It was cheaply and sometimes quite shabbily made (an hour of TV, rehearsed for a week and then shot in 2 hours of studio time), but could be tremendous fun. It inspired/was ripped off liberally by Austin Powers to an extent that’s probably nuked its chances of ever being revived or remade. In Richard Ben Sapir's The Far Arena, a Roman gladiator is thawed out of a glacier and struggles to adapt to the modern world. It's a long novel with a promising concept in which not very much happens. The focus is on the detailed procedure of discovery, revival and adjustment. Very short on mayhem. The TV series New Amsterdam had its main character travel in time by living for 400 years, as in Highlander.

Probably the most robust way of doing a weekly time travel series for TV is to have a big machine, a team, and an agenda. Or a fault in the machine that repeatedly drops the main cast into new and dangerous situations. Time Tunnel immediately springs to mind, where the two leads bounce around time like a pinball table, every week showing up on the eve of some well-known historical event, while the 'control team' anchored in the present day mostly watch helplessly and occasionally manage to supply a warning or some vital information. In the UK we have our own Doctor Who, where the hero makes random jumps through time and space and happens upon a local adventure wherever he shows up. Originally this was because his time machine was busted and he’s hopping around trying to get home. In his current incarnation he’s the ultimate tourist, so far from his home that his home’s no longer there. Doctor Who mixes sf and historical episodes; my memory from when I worked on it is that the historical episodes were fewest in number but always drew the higher ratings. Quantum Leap, slated for a remake, had an everyman hero, again with no control over where he'd show up next. Sliders involved parallel worlds rather than time travel but it was pretty much the same kind of thing.

I understand that the late Michael Crichton's Timeline pretty much follows the machine/team/agenda model, although I haven't read the book or seen the movie. In series terms I can't help feeling that the Stargate franchise may have colonised the setup.

If the big machine isn't broken, then the key lies in the agenda. Jack Finney's Time and Again sends the hero back with a mystery to solve. But a weekly non-mythology series needs a weekly mystery. I've heard of – but never seen – a UPN show called Seven Days in which, after any national disaster, an agent is sent back in time (using Roswell technology) and has seven days to avert it. It's a neat idea.

My own modest contribution to the genre is the short story My Repeater (F&SF, Jan 2001), set in a near-future where time travel is available to all but used only by an obsessive few who waste their entire lives returning to the same moment in repeated attempts to perfect it.

Thursday 16 July 2009

At Home on the Range

'Tis truly weird. I've been here about three weeks now and it feels like longer... kind of like on a ship when home drops below the horizon and you can't see it anymore, you have to imagine it instead. Which is dumb, I know, after only three weeks... but in my defence, it has been a pretty intense three weeks. I had to hit the ground running in the job, get oriented, and look for somewhere to live in a place where I knew zilch about the areas, the roads, distances, the neighbourhoods...

I did a lot of online research in the evenings (Craigslist and different rental agencies) and then at the weekend did a big Satnav-guided drive-around, setting out from the studio gates and making the journey out to a few places that had caught my eye. Most sank my spirits. There was one Hollywood Hills place that looked great in description and pictures but which, when I got there, was right next to the bins for the car park of the Hollywood Bowl. I had to email the owner and graciously extricate myself from a viewing.

But the next day I got a response from an ad for a 'guest house' in Beverly Glen, Bel Air, actually a suite of rooms comprising the entire lower floor of a canyon home. The owners had just bought the place and hadn't even moved in themselves yet, and in two days were going off to Italy. So for the past fortnight I've had the place to myself. I won't get any internet or cable TV until they get back, so I've bought myself a small TV and a boxed set of The Rockford Files to watch.

(Season Two. For some reason it includes the feature-length pilot, which the Season One set doesn't. And if the Amazon reviews are any guide, the Season One set also has technical issues)

Here's something else that felt weird...today's walk across the lot took me past the frontage of the movie theatre where they shot the ending of Subway. It's a set but it's also a usable cinema for screenings and stuff. On the marquee it said WARNER BROS WELCOMES BACK TY HARDIN, BRONCO 1958-62.

I have no idea where on the lot Hardin was or whether he was working or visiting or what, but... I can remember the theme song for that show from when I was about five years old. And my office is pretty much on the spot where they made it. And Maverick, and Cheyenne, and...

I need to get more professional. This geeky wonder stuff's supposed to have worn off years ago, I'm sure.

Wednesday 1 July 2009

Family Ties (2)

Well, there was an upside to the delay in getting my visa.

It meant that I was in London for long enough to catch my daughter's grad show at the Shepherd's Bush Empire - and on Father's Day, too.

It was a great gig with lots of talent all round, and seriously well-attended. I stood behind Hank Marvin in the line outside. Here's a shot of Ellen in an Aerosmith medley. Clearly not enjoying herself at all.

It was loud and full of energy and it got the balcony on their feet. The debris on the stage is the remains of a ukelele, smashed a few seconds before by the guitarist.

Now that's Rock and Roll.