Thursday, 13 October 2011

A Very Rocky Sister Act

Quantum Leap
The Right Hand Of God
Season One, Episode Three

In most TV shows there are some episodes you love, some episodes you hate, and a whole wodge of stuff in between that summons up little more than a ‘meh’.

The Right Hand Of God is Quantum Leap’s first meh.  Like an episode of The A-Team featuring a plucky family business, an evil gang of hillbillies, a sinister businessman and a montage, this one is strictly by the numbers.

Sam leaps into a boxer, Kid Cody, who’s hoping to raise enough money to build a chapel for some nuns.  Unfortunately, like 75% of all fictional boxers, Cody takes dives.  Sam tries to reverse his fortunes, coaxing a stubborn ex-trainer out of retirement and montage-ing his way to victory.

‘Seen it all before’ is an understatement; this plot’s so old it’s eligible for a bus pass.  There’s very little threat involved, as the shady businessman who orders Cody’s dives hardly seems bothered when Sam crosses him.  It’s quite fun that even after a couple of training montages Sam still has to cheat to win the day, and then has to play by the rules anyway after his opponent gets back up.  (Strictly speaking, he still cheats, with Al offering hologram-themed help.  But we like this, as it means Al gets to offer more than just moral support.)

Cheating.  Or something.
There are some nice touches.  We laughed when God, or whoever is leaping Sam around, deliberately leapt him into the path of a knockout punch for what he did in Star-Crossed.  (Comeuppance at last!)  We like Cody’s girlfriend Dixie’s dream of retiring the stripper business to open a doughnut shop.  And Al’s subplot involving a noisy neighbour is a good source of laughs, although it goes absolutely nowhere. 

Sadly we rolled our eyes when Al boasted of his youthful boxing career; call us picky, but if someone’s going to suddenly come up with a hitherto unmentioned talent just when it’s needed, we’d rather it was the guy with amnesia.  And giving a nun back her faith?  Seriously?  Could you get any sappier?  In an episode about boxers taking dives and disillusioned trainers hoping to find a champ, it’s like a cliché explosion.

But, if there’s one thing this episode teaches us, it’s that even if something is clichéd and dumb, just add Scott Bakula and wham: watchable telly.  That’ll do, for now.

The Albert Calavicci Sleazy Files
  • Cheating on Tina with Denise.  (Al's 'biographer', whom he met at a party.)

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

The Sleazy Professor

Quantum Leap
Season One, Episode Two

Star-Crossed is the first regular episode of Quantum Leap, and so we are treated to the first proper use of the delightful themetune (after a rather lift-musicky arrangement in the end credits of Genesis).  We love this themetune.  Unfortunately this week the clips are so few that quite a lot of the title sequence is filled with ghastly eighties-oh-we-mean-futuristic strobe lines, but even this cannot diminish our love for a themetune that means Quantum Leap is on and everything is going to be okay.  Doo, doo-dee-doo-doo, doo, doo, dee-doo!

So it’s a pity this episode isn’t actually that great.  Sam leaps into a sleazy English Lit professor (and Sam hates English Lit).  According to Al and Ziggy he’s here to stop the sleazy professor and his young female student from a shotgun wedding that ruins both their lives.  But Sam’s more interested in another student, Donna, the woman who jilted Sam twelve years in her future.  (Yes, one episode after establishing Sam’s amnesia he remembers tons of stuff about his life with Donna, apart from who jilted who.  That’s Swiss cheese for you, apparently.)

And here’s the problem.  Sam gets headstrong; all he’s interested in is Donna and fixing her problems so she won’t jilt him in the future, which seems awfully out of step with the compassionate guy we met in the previous episode.  He also completely forgets that he is not Sam but a sleazy old guy.  All those scenes of Donna building a relationship with Sam work less well when you remember the creepy old pervert she’s actually looking at.

Sam is completely selfish here.  He’s not that bothered by Donna’s feelings: his plan is to reunite her with her father, thus instantly curing her relationship-ruining fear of abandonment (as Al reminds him, Sam is not a psychiatrist, but then whaddya know, he’s right anyway), but only because it suits him.  And here the episode feels like it’s missing something.  Sam uses time travel for personal gain, we spend the whole thing waiting for some comeuppance, and there isn’t any.  Why set this up as Rule Number One if it doesn’t actually matter?

He isn’t even that bothered by what he’s actually here to do.  He is repeatedly surprised and grossed out that young women are attracted to his host, but not really concerned about it.  (And he does nothing to change it.)  In the end, the sleazy old guy gets no comeuppance either.  He comes off as a benevolent uncle figure in order to take advantage of his impressionable students.  As soon as Sam leaves, he’ll go straight back to his kinky ways.  Great.

The fun bits are Sam’s efforts to get the innocent student and her brute boyfriend back together, and these scenes really are a hoot, but there aren't enough of them and it all gets resolved practically instantly.  (Just saying ‘breathless’ instead of ‘horny’ does the trick.  And just reuniting girls with their long-last dads means bingo, no more runaway brides.  Good thing Sam's got six doctorates, this stuff is hard.)

Al’s half of the episode is very interesting.  The ‘committee’ are angry with Sam for breaking time travel rule one: Don’t change history for your personal gain, and they want to fire Al and close down the project (although what that actually means, what with Sam being lost in time and all, is unclear).  Al’s attempts to thwart them are enjoyable and there’s a brilliant scene in which the entire committee are in the imaging chamber with him, but Sam can’t see or hear them and they can’t see or hear Sam, so we get a game of charades and then Al being hoisted out by invisible beings.  This bit’s in the title sequence, and it looks great.

Despite Sam being a bit annoying this week, Scott Bakula is still amazing.  (Just wait for his puppy look.)  Teri Hatcher on the other hand, who we generally love, has very little to do other than get teary.  She does it well of course, but Donna is hardly the most riveting character to watch, and there’s no evidence of her and Sam’s apparent love, and nowhere in the episode for it to go.  It’s an interesting time travel idea, meeting your intended in the wrong order, but there isn’t any way for the episode to exploit it.  (And after three years of River Song, we don't really want to.)

Overall, we’re not sure that episode two is the place to explore your protagonist’s weaknesses.  How about some actual helping-people-out stories before you start on the personal gain corruption?  Or at least, if you have to do it so early, maybe deal with this problem instead of just throwing it in there for a laugh.  Speaking of which, Star-Crossed also includes the Watergate scandal as a comic footnote.

All things considered, it doesn't really tackle any of its ideas properly, but a bad episode of Quantum Leap is generally still a rollicking 45 minutes.

The Sam Beckett Genius Tally
  • Has a doctorate in Ancient Languages, and can read hieroglyphics.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Pilot Episode

Quantum Leap

Season One, Episode One

They don’t make ’em like this any more.

Quantum Leap is one of those shows where almost anything can happen every week.  We’ll let the main character, Sam Beckett, explain the premise:

‘Getting a second chance to put things right, to make the world a better place.’

Because shear away the time-travel, and that’s it.  He is a time-traveller, but unlike Doctor Who he’s not contractually obligated to meet monsters everywhere he goes (and really, what are the odds of that?).  Sam bounces around in time solving problems, some huge, some not.  He’s limited by his lifetime, so anywhere between the 50s and the 80s is fine, although rules including this one would wobble in the show’s later years.  And he can never be himself: he trades places with someone new each week, and it’s only us that sees him as he really is.  Besides these restrictions (and the general A-Team/Knight Rider structure of rolling into town and solving somebody’s problems), the writers have at it.  Quantum Leap managed to be at the same time reassuringly easy to follow and refreshingly brand new every week.  We love it.

Sam (Scott Bakula) wakes up in Texas in 1956.  He has amnesia.  The guy in the mirror has a different face, and everyone keeps calling him Tom.  To make matters worse, Tom’s a daring test pilot scheduled to make a record-breaking flight in a few days.  Oh, and there’s a weird guy in a suit and tie that seemingly only Sam/Tom can see.

We love the What The Hell Is Going On-ness of all of this, so it’s a shame there’s a pre-credits scene that gives it away to some extent.  Some time in the future, Al (Dean Stockwell), a snappy-dresser/ladies’ man, finds out that Sam has prematurely entered the Quantum Leap Accelerator.  That chucks quite a bit of the suspense out of the window right away.  How much more exciting and intriguing would this be if the episode opened when Sam woke up?  We wouldn’t know for sure if it was a dream, or if Sam had gone crazy, or what.  (Kind of reminds us of another show about a guy called Sam.)

Also, probably one of the least successful aspects of Quantum Leap is the show’s vision of the future.  Apparently, everything comes with flashing neon lights, people dress like idiots, and did we mention neon?

Predicting the future is virtually impossible, especially on a TV budget, we understand that.  (And we don’t even mind.  Back To The Future Part II had hovercars predicted for 2015.  Four years to go – we can still make it, guys!)  But it is a recurring nuisance that this show, which began in 1989, predicted by the 90s mankind would have time travel sorted and fashion would look like the 80s had hulked out.

Luckily we don’t have to spend any time there.  We are with Sam and it’s Howdy Doody Time on TV.  As all good time travel stories tell us, that means we’re in the 50s.

Sam narrates, or rather, we hear his thoughts, and for once this technique isn’t just there to paper over script holes.  Sam’s as lost as we are, and having him try to figure it out in his head is both succinct (‘We did it!    Did what?’)  and funny.  (‘Whoever she is, she’s certainly pregnant.  Very pregnant.’)  His inner monologue also happens to sound like a cute five-year-old, due to a mixture of his amnesiac confusion and fear of what the hell is going on; it all helps cement Dr Sam Beckett as the world’s nicest man, but he's also enormously mysterious.  In just a couple of minutes, we’re ready to watch a series about this guy.

Scott Bakula is super likeable, extremely sweet and very sympathetic.  He’s also convincing as a genius with amnesia.  This is one fairly rounded (if improbable) character right off the bat, with tons of room to grow.  He has emotional depths that’ll bring a tear to the eye, thanks largely to Bakula’s forlorn face; he’s quick-witted, funny and possesses the best withering glare of the decade.  (See beginning of review.)

Al fares less well.  Where Sam has emotional depth, Al has wacky costumes.  Where Sam is instantly endearing, Al is sleazy.  Kids might enjoy him on the level of a funny sidekick, but when they get older and actually understand what the stuff he’s saying means… euw.  Al is clearly written as the opposite of Sam.  While Sam is the wholesome hero, there has to be the grimy naughty one so the audience don’t get bored.  But we don’t find Dr Sam Beckett boring and for us Al is just a little bit too far down the gross path.  Al is here to fill in Sam’s missing memory, but can we really imagine that back in the future, these two could ever have been friends?  And while we can believe Sam is a mega genius farm boy, because we like Scott Bakula and he can’t remember it, Al’s admission that ‘I’m also an ex-astronaut’ just sounds like nonsense.  Two characters pulling talents out of nowhere is possibly pushing it.

Still, the contrast is funny, and it gives Sam something to rage about when Al is either late or otherwise useless.  And, spoiler: Sam rages often.

This is a great pilot.  The premise is colourfully explained, and he leaps twice (thrice if you include the soon-to-be-regular cliffhanger lead-in to next week) in the space of one (feature-length) episode, opening up the possibilities to pretty much anything.  (And when those possibilities include baseball, something neither of us knows or cares anything about, and we like it, we know we’re watching a great show.)

The guest cast walk a fine line between suspecting Tom of winding them up, and thinking he’s genuinely lost it, which gives them all a different way to react that tests the format’s waters, especially when Sam comes up with life-saving medical knowledge from the future.  There’s also the beginning of a few running jokes where Sam A) talks to Al a little too loudly and attracts attention, and B) lets slip about something from the future.  Not to mention the iconic different-face-in-the-mirror shot.

The special effects (though meagre) do the job splendidly.  The episode is also very well directed: the title sequence, which so far consists of the camera racing through the clouds, pivots and pirouettes and ultimately zooms straight into Tom’s bedroom, making it part of the actual story.  How neat is that?  (We wonder if the opening shot of Russell T Davies’ Doctor Who took inspiration from it.)

The only thing bugging us is the opening scene, but hey, all you have to do is skip forwards slightly on your DVD.  Problem solved!

The best stories are the ones with something for everyone.  We both love Back To The Future because it uses science fiction as a way into a funny, exciting, romantic story – so, something for everyone.  Quantum Leap is a similar concept, expanded to an entire series.  Sam flies a jet and plays baseball this week, but he also has to stop a pregnant woman going into labour nine weeks prematurely and the climax of the episode is Sam having a touching phone call with his dead father.  And all that in one episode.  Oh boy.  Imagine what he’ll accomplish before he’s done?

(Just for fun, we'll try to keep track of Sam's and Al's various accolades.  So far...)

The Sam Beckett Genius Tally
  • Has six doctorates, one in medicine, one in quantum physics.
  • Invented the super computer, Ziggy.
  • Discovered time travel.
  • Dubbed "the next Einstein."

The Albert Calavicci Sleazy Files

  • Unwary lady by the side of the road.
  • A little Lithuanian girl named Danesa.  (Back at MIT.)
  • Tina.
  • Martha.  (Met at a playoff after-party.)
  • Brenda.  (The cute little redhead in coding.)

Monday, 3 October 2011


Doctor Who
The Wedding Of River Song
Series Six, Episode Thirteen

This year, for the first time ever, we weren’t terribly fussed about the Doctor Who finale.  This is possibly because Series Six hasn’t so much gripped us as pinched us in passing.  Where’s it all going?  Is it going anywhere, or will Steven Moffat just keep raising questions ad infinitum?

After twelve episodes of infuriatingly vague allusions and questions, we were wondering how he’d fit it all into one episode.  Silly us.  In a display of blatant anti-climax, Moffat ducks the Great! Big! Finale! and does something smaller instead.  Which might be fine if he hadn’t done exactly the same thing last year (right down to the weird muddled-up Earth history), and if this series wasn’t the worst one yet for unanswered questions.  Moffat lives to surprise us, but in this instance all that involves is serving up a disappointingly flippant finale instead of a satisfying one.  Wow.  You had us going there, Moff.

Contrary to what we were all expecting, The Wedding Of River Song is about what happens when the Doctor doesn’t die.  This creates a whole alternate universe where time stands still, but all happens at the same time, but doesn’t move, but also does.  (Don’t even bother trying to make sense of it, because he certainly hasn’t.)  The Doctor must die to put it right.

This is all (arguably) quite interesting (although we guessed immediately from the trailer that the Dalek and pterodactyls would be pointless cameos), but what’s it got to do with the finale?  We want to know if the Doctor dies; we want to know how he’ll escape his fate; we want to know the answers to all the questions Moffat’s left hanging over the past few months.

And, surprise!  Approximately five minutes of this episode is devoted to answering those questions.  As much fun as the previous forty minutes is, it’s all just an elaborate distraction from what little effort has gone into the finale.  Twelve episodes, an entire infuriating year, for five minutes.

Series Six has been so ambivalent on what’s an actual mystery and what’s just unclear (the ‘in the flesh’ line in Night Terrors, for instance, is just an editing mistake, and the Doctor’s bizarre costume change in Let’s Kill Hitler apparently happened for no reason whatsoever) that we don’t even know if it’s worth paying attention any more.  That trail through time the Doctor was doing at the start of the year, pointless.  Everything in The Impossible Astronaut was irrelevant, including Canton, the fourth most important person in the Doctor’s life because he has a can of petrol.  The way several parentally-themed episodes were stacked next to each other, coincidence.  The only thing that came back was that stupid robot, which is one of those ideas we immediately noticed and threw out because that would be a terrible solution.

And sure enough, it drains the entire dramatic core of the episode.  It’s supposed to be about the Doctor choosing to die, and River accepting that she must kill him.  Potent stuff.  Except, surprise!  Neither of them has to bother!  This is sledgehammeringly obvious just looking at the Previously clip, not to mention how the Tesselecta marches into the episode for no better reason than delivering the Doctor’s mail, and anyway, even before we’d ever heard of the Tesselecta, we all assumed the Doctor was faking his death.  To wait a year and get to the last couple of minutes and get, Guess What?  He FAKED his death…  Isn’t the episode supposed to be ahead of us?  Why didn’t the Doctor mention this to Amy and Rory at any point?  He’s got a perfect opportunity on top of the pyramid*, and all three of them find out later anyway. 

Better still, why didn’t he tell River the first time round on the beach, instead of being pointlessly evil and making her think she was murdering him?  But then, maybe he just doesn’t want her to know her life sentence is really a total waste of time.  As we knew it would be.

(And what’s all this faking-his-death stuff actually in aid of?  Steven Moffat supposedly wants the Doctor to be less well-known, and we get a throwaway line at the end about the Doctor getting ‘too big’, but how’s that possibly going to work?  Isn’t a member of the Silence going to notice that he’s still zipping about righting wrongs?  Because, call us psychic, we think he might keep doing that, it being the premise of Doctor Who.  Talk about shortsighted.)

The sad thing is, for all his efforts to surprise us, Moffat’s just not that good at it.  Who’s in the spacesuit?  Exactly who you thought it would be.  Who’s the Good Man that dies?  Exactly who you thought it would be.  Who is River?  Exactly who she tells you she is every week.  What is the Oldest Question In The Universe?  Exactly what you were absolutely terrified it might be but prayed it wasn’t.  (Dear God.)  If these revelations aren’t revealing anything new to anyone, as few of Moffat’s revelations ever are, why drag them out?  It just increases the disappointment.

Speaking of disappointments, poor Amy and Rory!  The heart of the show, reduced to bystanders by this point.  What a lovely way for them to spend the finale: blank parallel universe copies with sort-of amnesia.  Did he really only invent them in the first place so that River could be born?  Well, this is River Who, after all.

Not that we learn anything new about River.  The Doctor marries her because… why?  No idea.  There’s still no reason for her to be in love with him (she’s a psychopath, oh right, well that explains that), and their relationship continues to be entirely tell rather than show, so it’s impossible to get invested.  (Yet another scene of them flirting while a bystander rolls their eyes does not help in the slightest.)  At least it’s over now, sort of, we think.  We have no idea if this is the last we’ll see of River, or for that matter, Amy and Rory.  Their journeys aren’t over, but they didn’t go anywhere.

Does River’s journey to Lake Silencio make more sense now?  Er, not exactly.  It’s irrelevant that she was trained to kill him, since the suit shoots automatically.  And once again, she is the worst person to pick to assassinate him, because while she might be fresh out of life-giving regenerations, she can now apparently control the suit enough to not kill him if she feels like it, which she obviously will, since she apparently loves him more than anyone**.  Aargh!  The whole thing is pointless.  (And all based on the frankly loony premise that you can just invent a fixed point in time.  Eh?  Since when?  And why didn’t any of this happen in The Waters Of Mars?)

Which reminds us: what, exactly, was the point of Madam Kovarian?  Did the Silence even need a human rep?  What do the Silence actually hope to achieve, and why does their mission statement keep fluctuating?  Why do they even need River/baby Melody if the Doctor can be killed by poison and/or a gun?

Amy’s cold-blooded murder of Madam K is probably meant to be closure of some sort; what a pity that this is the first genuine feeling Amy’s had on the matter since it kicked off.  (And you call this closure?  Most people we’ve spoken to were hoping for something positive, like River rewriting time so that the Doctor didn’t have to die and Amy got to keep the baby, or something at least.  Alas, we get a nasty out of character didn’t-really-happen murder which sends horrendous signals to the kids in the audience.  Don’t like someone?  Kill ’em!  It just goes to show us, never speculate.  Your best theories will never happen, and your worst fears are the cream of Steven Moffat’s wish list.)

It’s the finale’s job to make sense of the series before it, and The Wedding Of River Song just doesn’t try.  Take that blanket explanation for everything, ‘the Doctor lies’, which is swiftly becoming the verbal equivalent of the sonic screwdriver.  Now River’s caught the lying bug, too.  How come she had no idea what was going on in The Impossible Astronaut?  Oh, right, she was pretending.  How tediously disappointing.  (And unconvincing.  Call us pessimists, but we don’t think Alex Kingston brought ‘lying’ across in her acting.  Just look at all those times she had no chemistry with Amy or Rory.)

We’d get all angry about how this was clearly made up on the spot, if it weren’t for the Doctor contradicting this by telling River she won’t remember a thing.  Er, which is it then?  And how are we ever supposed to follow any of this if the characters retroactively turn out to be ‘lying’ whenever it suits the writer?  It’s cheating, and it’s a slap in the face if you’ve bothered to keep up with the series.

If you’re not invested in this at all, maybe it’s not that bad.  Matt Smith’s very good, especially during the phone-call to an old companion (at least one of us had a lump in our throat), and the rest.  Arthur Darvill’s very good, although he’s not playing Rory per se, which is a shame.  The episode has enough budget crammed into it to look good; what a pity all the pretty stuff is totally wasted.  (Air balloon cars?)

But we are invested in it.  Weird and vague as Series Six might have been, we still tried to follow it, and yet it turns out most of it was a mixture of red herrings and muddy writing.  THAT was IT?  We’re guessing it’s a little late to ask what the hell the Series Five finale was about, then, or any of it really, because at this point God only knows.  And now we’ve been given even more portentous nonsense that may or may not actually bother going somewhere.  Next time, we just won’t care.

We don’t want portents.  We don’t want arcs so heavy they ruin stand-alone episodes, and when we pay attention, we want it to count.  We want to enjoy the show.  If only we could tear off our Eye-Drives and go back to the relatively blissful days of Series Five.  Is it just us, or has everything since then felt like a bad dream?

*What are they doing on that pyramid anyway?  Everyone in the universe has come to help you!  Oh well, moving on and ignoring that before it goes anywhere interesting…

**And welcome to Rose Tyler levels of selfishness.  The entire population of the universe suffering and dying is worth it if she gets to hang out with the Doctor.  Don’t marry her, slap her.