Monday, 29 June 2009

DVD Review: Fireball XL5 - Special Edition boxset (out now)

DVD's strip-mining of the UK TV archives continues with much stirling work done by the folks at Network DVD who have, over the years, unearthed a veritable treasure trove of classic TV material, some of it at best barely remembered, and reintroduced it to an intrigued public who must almost inevitably watch in awe whilst muttering "They just don't make 'em like that any more..." And they really don't. Much of the time I'm convinced today's British TV execs wouldn't even know how to try to make some of the shows which are making their way onto DVD these days. They've shown, fairly recently, that they've no idea how to handle and market the work of the great TV pioneer Gerry Anderson (witness the witless, disgraceful way ITV treated Anderson's recent CGI reboot of Captain Scarlet which, due to ITV idiocy, sank without trace a few years back). Fortunately people like Network DVD are rather more clued-up and can appreciate the value of good classic TV and, when the show deserves it, pull out all the stops to give a cult classic the lavish treatment its audience demand and deserve. Kudos then to Network for this brilliant new 6-disc edition of one of Anderson's early work, Fireball XL5, available from today (29th June). Originally released in a bare-bones set some years ago, this new set and its generous and fascianting extras - more of which later - is pretty much an essential purchase for Anderson fans and anyone with a hankering for a bit of good old TV from the inncoent black-and-white days.

You know Fireball XL5, of course. Following on from Anderson's earlier puppet-show successes Four Feather Falls and Supercar (both also available on DVD), Fireball XL5 saw Anderson pick up on the increasing interest being shown in the notion of space travel in the early '60s (the time of the space race) and in many ways created a template for future series which he revisited time and again throughout the decade and beyond. Here a fleet of sleek, sophisticated and, let's face it, iconic space rockets called Fireballs, patrol the space lanes from their base at Space City, defending Earth from any number of outlandish alien aggressors and cosmic threats. Pilotting Fireball XL5 is square-jawed blond-haired hunk Steve Zodiac along with fellow crew-members Dr Venus (space doctor), bumbling scientist Matt Matic and the ship's co-pilot Robert the (transparent) Robot (voiced by Anderson himself). All 39 episodes of the series are contained in this colourful box set and, even if you've never seen the show before and are of the opinion that creaky kid's puppet shows from the early 1960s are best left in the memories of those who saw them at the time, you really need to think again. This is gorgeous, insane, delightful stuff, a boxset to savour, and, once you've attuned yourself to the style of production and the basic, innocent level of story-telling, you'll find yourself flying through the episodes at a rate of knots and probably falling in love with these fibre-glass characters, every supporting wire visible on the screen in an image far more detailed than the show's makers would ever have intended.

These are fast and furious little sci-fi stories, Anderson and his team clearly relishing the opportunity to explore space and all its mysteries - from magnetic planets, hypnotic planets, deadly missiles, plant men, weird aliens with big eyebrows. Each episode sees Fireball blast off - and what a blast-off! - from Space City to combat some new alien threat and it's all such fun because it's so naive and yet, for its 1962 audience, probably all very new indeed (remember this is three of four years before Gene Roddenberry created Star Trek, a series which could almost be seen as a live-action verison of Fireball). There's some rudimentary characterisation here too; Professor Matic is your archetypal bumbling absent-minded scientist, Venus has a crush on Steve even though he's unaware of it, and the controllers of Space City develop a comedic love/hate relationship. But don't expect great story arcs here - this isn't Babylon 5 or Battlestar Galactica. Each twenty-five minute episode bounds along, punctuated by Derek Meddings' then-state-of-the-art special effects (most of which still stand up to inspection today), Barry Gray's strident theme and incidental scores and it's all wrapped up nicely at the end with no-one killed or injured and everything back to normal and as it should be in the Universe. Lovely.

All 39 episodes have been remastered to the point of looking brand new. The images and clear and pinpoint sharp (those wires!!) and it's hard to believe these shows were made nearly fifty years ago. Good grief, I feel old...

The sixth disc is where classic TV fans will find the real magic in the form of as comprehensive a bunch of special features as I've seen on any classic TV boxset outside Dr Who. Here we have a glorious and absorbing seventy-odd minute behind-the-scenes documentary narrated by Shane Rimmer chronicling the genesis and the making of the series with contributions from practically everyone still alive involved in the show's production. Comic strips fans will revel in the wonderfully engrossing thirty-plus minute documentary chronicling the history of Fireball in comic strips form, from the days of TV Comic, the legendary TV21 and on into Countdown and TV Action in the 1970s. Ah, such memories... Then we have some home movie footage filmed on set by comic strip artist Bill Mevin and a beautiful colourised version of one episode from the series. It looks astonishing - so how about a fully-colourised boxset, Network? Or am I just being greedy? There's also a chunky 60 page booklet by TV historian Andrew Pixley for you to devour if you need to know more...

My shelves are groaning under the weight of dozens and dozens of TV series boxsets. Few of them scream 'labour of love' the way this Fireball XL5 set does, from its design, the menus, the look of the episodes and the special features. It's a brilliant, enchanting set and it really couldn't come much more highly recommended. Just buy it!

Fireball XL5 Special edition is released on 29th June 2009 in the UK. Many thanks to Network DVD for providing Stuff's review copy.

Saturday, 27 June 2009

DVD Preview: The International (released on 6th July in the UK)

Filmed in 2007 and finally getting a theatrical release early in 2009, The International seems like a remarkably prescient sort of film with its central premise that the world's banks might not always be working in our best interests. There's no credit crunch recession here, though, just the notion of a massive multi-national banking corporation, The International Bank of Business and Credit (derived from the now-defunct real world BCCI) lining its pockets by providing weapons and small arms to third world countries and terrorist interests. Shambolic Interpol agent Louis Salinger (Clive Owen) and Assistant DA Eleanor Whitman (Naomi watts) are on the case, determined to bring the dodgy banking cartel to its knees. Cue much frantic rushing around some of the world's most photogenic cities as the pair follow up a series of increasingly-fanciful leads which move them closer and closer to the heart of the conspiracy.

In many ways The International reminded me of a modern Bond adventure. With the days of the world-threatening Bond super-baddies apparently consigned to the dustbin of camp '60s cliches it's not hard to imagine a grim-faced Daniel Craig rushing from city to city, Walther PPK in hand, icily determined to bump off a bland banker in a suit. Instead we have the reliable, if fairly unremarkable, Clive Owen in another of his trademark scruffy bugger roles, scowling for Britain and sorely in need of a good wash and brush up as he charges about Europe and New York in pursuit of an assassin who is the key to reaching the bank's Mr Big. It's an entertaining enough yarn but it's clear that director Tom Tykwer is much more interested in his cinematography than his story or his characters. The International looks wonderful, with locations ranging from Berlin, Milan, New York and Turkey - and Tykwer brings out the best in all of them. His shots are beautifully-framed, highlighting the stunning architecture of each of his locations, never afraid of long shots and high shots to showcase the majesty and stateliness of each of the cities. But at times I was so busy gawping at the scenery I was forgetting to pay attention to the plot.

At first The International plays out like some Cold War thriller with secret poisonings, conspiracies, an assassination, rain-lashed Berlin streets. For the first act the movie rarely breaks into a sweat but when the action moves to New York so does the adrenalin level in a stunningly-realistic gun battle in the Guggenheim Museum. It's here that the story finally starts to engage and pick up enough momentum to carry the audience towards a rather anti-climactic 'What just happened...?' conclusion. The film's not best served by a dry and humourless script and a fairly uninteresting cast of characters who tend to behave a bit like cyphers and don't seem to offer the promise of any real life outside the confines of this particular story (although, interestingly, one long deleted scene gives Salinger some much-needed backstory and the hint of an attraction between him and Whitman - probably excised from the final cut because it's not alluded to anywhere else in the movie). Naomi Watts does her best in an underwritten role but the writers seem to give up the ghost towards the end as she disappears from the narrative atogether for the last half-hour.

Despite being a bit bland and soulless The International is worth a look for its production design (the reconstruction of the Guggenheim in an old warehouse is astonishing) and Tykwer's camera love affair with his locations. As a thriller it rarely thrills but it's a brisk and efficient little movie which, if nothing else, will make you feel like you've been on several short-break holidays without ever leaving the comfort of your armchair.

The DVD: The film looks breath-taking enough on standard DVD so the Blu Ray edition must be a thing of beauty. Special features are pretty standard; a decent 30 minute 'making of', some featurettes on the location filming and that Guggenheim facsimile as well as a deleted scene and commentary.

The International is released on DVD and Blu Ray in the UK on 6th July 2009

Torchwood photo special

July 6th, BBC1, 9pm is now confirmed as the slot for the first in the five-episode run of Torchwood series 3, "Children of Earth". The first trailer has now started running on BBC1 and it is a thing of great joy. Here's a few just-released promo images...nothing huge revealing in terms of the story as they're just posed action shots but they're pretty damned cool...

You gotta be ready...

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

UK TV Chart - w/e 7th June 2009

Here's the rundown of the Top 20 most popular UK TV programmes or series for the week ending Sunday 7th June 2009 collated from information compiled and presented by BARB. Note that figures for multi-episode TV broadcasts (ie soaps or other shows with more than one episode per week) are rounded up into an average figure for the series and are denoted in the chart by * News broadcasts are excluded from the figures.

1) The Apprentice (BBC1)...................9.54 *
2) Coronation Street (ITV1)................8.39 *
3) EastEnders (BBC1).......................7.81 *
4) Ashes To Ashes (BBC1)...................6.41
5) Hope Springs (BBC1).....................6.25
6) Casualty (BBC1).........................5.91
7) Emmerdale (ITV1)........................5.89 *
8) Michael Macintyre's Comedy Roadshow
9) Have I Got News For You (BBC1)..........5.40
10) Holby City (BBC1).......................5.36
11) Kingdom (ITV1)..........................5.32
12) The Apprentice: The Final Five (BBC1)...5.06
13) National Lottery Saturday Draws (BBC1)..5.05
14) Primeval (ITV1).........................4.95
15) Heartbeat (ITV1)........................4.90
16) Countryfile (BBC1)......................4.77
17) The Bill (ITV1).........................4.76 *
18) Crimewatch UK (BBC1)....................4.49
19) (Totally Saturday (BBC1).................4.37
19) (The Apprentice - You're Fired! (BBC2)...4.37

Chart commentary: A convincing BBC win this week with 14 titles in the chart - incredibly, three of them are variations of one show with The Apprentice taking the top spot for its Sunday night final and the normal Wednesday episode and then showings for a lead-in show and the usual BBC2 spin-off. A prime example of how to milk a cash cow to maximum effect but, I'd have thought, little lasting interesting. Can you remember who won it now? BBC1's new Sunday night drama, Hope Springs, makes a promising start (and, from the one episode I've seen so far seems a decent enough weffort, if not exactly earth-shatteringly original)...but don't get too attached to it, ratings have halved in two weeks and we're not likely to see it sticking aorund in the Top 20 for long. Odd how new dramas can't seem to hold their audiences any more - it's either TV fatigue brought on the endless barrage of reality shows or just that new dramas aren't exciting the audience enough to stay with them. Ashes To Ashes bucks this trend, though, with another solid figure and an even better one due for the final episode next week. Shouty odd-voiced comedian Michael Macintyre scores a surprise hit with his Saturday night comedy, Live at the Apollo by any other name and the disappointing figures for the Primeval finale are the numbers that probably finished off any chance of a fourth series. BBC1's latest attempt to make Graham Norton a big Saturday night star falters on its firt showing, barely scraping into the Top 20 (figures have been falling ever since) and the appeal of Stephen Fry's sleepy Sunday night show Kingdom seems to be on the wane. Another drama for ITV to bring the axe to, I wonder?

Coming soon:: Massive reviews update....Transformers at the movies, Ghostbusters on Blu-Ray, The International on DVD, the new Paolo Nutini CD, Dr Who and the War Games on DVD, the new novel by (Colin) Bateman, Fireball XL5 on DVD and a slew of new/recent Network DVD releases and much, much more....

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Torchwood - BBC TV week commencing 4th July...hold on tight...

Stuff...back in the UK!! And the news is that Torchwood's coming-of-age mini-series 'Children on Earth' is now officialy scheduled to be screened across five nights week commencing 4th July. Final times to be announced shortly. Here's a new series trailer which debuted recently over on Australian TV (some UK trailers would be nice now, eh, Auntie?) If this one doesn't get your spine a'shivering you may have cirulation problems...

Oh, and Barcelona was great, thanks...

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

A short break in transmission...

No new updates or postings here at Stuff for the next few days as I'm taking myself off on a bit of a jolly with a few other reprobates to celebrate my latest birthday - numbers aren't important, let's just say it involves 0 and 5, not necessarily in that order. I'm off to Barcelona and will be back in the UK late Saturday. Normal service here will be resumed around Sunday with a new Top 20 chart and in the next week or so there'll be reviews of the new Transformers movie, the new Fireball XL5 DVD box set (It's a tooty!!), Ghostbusters on DVD, a raft of new DVD releases from thoise nice people at Network, book reviews and the usual random bits and bobs which I hope might be of interest to you.

Don't go away now...

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Torchwood: Still coming.../Primeval cancelled

Torchwood: Children of Earth is still on its way - a broadcast date in the UK has been decided upon but not yet released to the Press and the public (although BBC America, where the show is a huge hit, debuts it on July 20th so I'd expect a UK broadcast at aorund the same time). The first episode was premiered at a Q&A at the NFT on Friday and the word is that this is Torchwood getting it right at last, the proper adult sci-fi show we were promised three years ago with all the silly sniggering and nudge-nudge taken out. Russell T Davies, executive producer and writer of, I believe, three of the five episodes, says he's as proud of the new series as anything he's ever made - and, as we all know, Russell is a painfully-shy sort of chap and he never hard-sells his work. I'd expect trailers to start appearing on the BBC in the next couple of weeks but, for now, here's a new promotional image just leaked out by t'BBC...

They. Are. Coming.

Also: Sad news - well, disappointing rather than sad - reaches me this morning that ITV have, as expected,cancelled their Saturday night adventure fantasy Primeval. Nothing official yet but star Ben Miller has "twittered" (as you do) that the show has gone. It's a shame if not hugely surprising. The third series, the best of the three, saw a dip in its rating and while it was averaging around 5 million final figures the last episode, last weekend, pulled in only 4 million (only overnights available so far) and thus would have sealed its fate. ITV have no interest in replacing the show with anything in a similar vein - they feel this sort of TV is best left to the BBC (which it probably is, but that's no reason not to try). With its almost-constant barrage of pricey CGI, Primeval was obviously an expensive show to produce and in the end ITV's bean-counters have clearly decided that one Primeval episode = five C*w*ll talent circuses so, as they say across the Pond, you do the math.

ITV - can the last one watching please turn out the lights?

Update: The cancellation of Primeval has today (15th June) been confirmed by various sources and is now widely reported by media sites and publications. ITV say they are concentrating on "post-watershed dramas"; interesting, seeing as the Network's highest-rating post-watershed drama in years, 'Whitechapel', has a second series written and ready to go but ITV are dithering because they reckon they can't afford its production costs. ITV have also given Cheryl Cole a salary of £1.2m for the next series of The X Factor which has itself been awarded a budget increase of £6m. I think we can all see where ITV's priorities will be lying for the foreseeable...

Friday, 12 June 2009

UK TV Chart - w/e 31st May 2009

Here's the rundown of the Top 20 most popular UK TV programmes or series for the week ending Sunday 31st May 2009 collated from information compiled and presented by BARB. Note that figures for multi-episode TV broadcasts (ie soaps or other shows with more than one episode per week) are rounded up into an average figure for the series and are denoted in the chart by * News broadcasts are excluded from the figures.

1) Britian's Got Talent Final Result(ITV1).......18.29
2) Britain's Got Talent (ITV1)...................14.30 *
3) Coronation Street (ITV1).......................8.43 *
4) UEFA Champions League (ITV, Wednes)............8.31
5) All Star Mr & Mrs (ITV1).......................7.56
6) EastEnders (BBC1)..............................7.02 *
7) Emmerdale (ITV1)...............................5.71 *
8) (Mumbai Calling (ITV1)..........................5.23
8) (Benidorm Special (ITV1)........................5.23
10) Ashes To Ashes (BBC1)..........................5.15
11) Casualty (BBC1)................................5.11
12) Funniest Ever You've Been Framed (ITV1)........5.03
13) Heartbeat (ITV1)...............................4.90
14) Inspector George Gently (BBC1).................4.78
15) Countryfile (BBC1).............................4.70
16) Holby City (BBC1)..............................4.14
17) Soaps Uncut (ITV1).............................4.13
18) Have I Got News For You (BBC1).................3.97
19) Beat the Star (ITV1)...........................3.87
20) The One Show (BBC1)............................3.79 *

Chart commentary: A real chart of shame this week as ITV1's quick-fix shock troop talent farrago blasts everything else out of the water, flattens the ratings of all oppositon, drags up some guff which would normally be struggling (All Star Mr and Mrs rating higher than EastEnders??? What sort of parallel world is this I find myself in?) and allows some filler called 'Soaps Uncut' to land a no 17 slot!!! British TV eh, aintcha proud?? But I daresay the champagne corks have stopped poppin' now at ITV Network Centre as the following week - next week's chart which, incidentally, won't be posted here until next weekend at the earliest as your Stuffmeister is off abroad on a jolly for a few days - sees a massive collapse for ITV; their hopes that their audience may have flocked back permanently after BGT dashed as people either turned off their TVs or went back to the marginally-better fare served up by the BBC. In fact, ITV's figures for next week are even more dismal than normal...not that I'm smug or gloating, oh no...

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Coming soon...Iron Man 2

One of the best action movies of recent years was undoubtedly Jon Favreau's labour-of-love production of the second-tier Marvel superhero 'Iron Man', starring Robert Downey Jnr as Tony Stark, debonair millionaire weapons manufacturer turned reluctant hero courtesy of a gleaming mechanical suit of armour. Unlike yer Batman movies which I find a bit laboured and heavy-going and yer Fantastic Fours which were probably a bit too lightweight, 'Iron Man' got the balance right with some fantastic action set pieces and a rich vein of humour courtesy of Downey Jnr's twinkling performance.

Work is well on the way on the sequel - 'Iron Man 2', anyone? - due for release next summer. The first publicity pictures are starting appear and the most interesting is this shot of Mickey Rourke, his own career blossoming again after his turn in the wonderful 'The Wrestler' earlier this year (why no Oscar, Mr Academy??), portraying bad guy Whiplash who, it seems, has his own supersuit which seems to bear a bit of a resemblance to Iron Man's. Now I'm very much a lapsed Marvel comics guy and the name Whiplash rings only the vaguest of bells so I've no idea if this visualisation of the character is true to its four-colour origins or whether it's been refashioned and remodelled for a cinema audience - and I don't really give much of a damn about that sort of stuff anyway. But it's a jolly nice picture and if nothing else it should serve to whet your appetite for what promises to be one of the big tent-pole summer blockbusters for 2010...and it's gotta be better than 'Terminator Salvation', right?

Friday, 5 June 2009

UK TV Chart - w/e 24th May 2009

Here's the rundown of the Top 20 most popular UK TV programmes or series for the week ending Sunday 24th May 2009 collated from information compiled and presented by BARB. Note that figures for multi-episode TV broadcasts (ie soaps or other shows with more than one episode per week) are rounded up into an average figure for the series and are denoted in the chart by * News broadcasts are excluded from the figures.

1) Britain's Got Talent (ITV1).................12.77 *
2) Coronation Street (ITV1).....................9.16 *
3) The Apprentice (BBC1)........................8.90
4) EastEnders (BBC1)............................7.81 *
5) Emmerdale (ITV1).............................6.53 *
6) Ashes To Ashes (BBC1)........................6.32
7) Have I Got news For You (BBC1)...............6.25
8) Holby City (BBC1)............................5.50
9) Inspector George Gently (BBC1)...............5.17
10) The Bill (ITV1)..............................4.98
11) (Tears, Lies and Videotape (ITV1).............4.97
11) (Primeval (ITV1)..............................4.97
13) Waterloo Road (BBC1).........................4.94
14) Heartbeat (ITV1).............................4.81
15) Casualty (BBC1)..............................4.65
16) The Apprentice - You're Fired! (BBC2)........4.49
17) New Tricks (BBC1)............................4.39
18) All Star Mr & Mrs (ITV1).....................4.30
19) Reggie Perrin (BBC1).........................4.16
20) Tonight's The Night (BBC1)...................4.08

Chart commentary: A pretty dismal and stagnant chart this week which sums up how moribund and predictable our TV schedules have become. reality shows - BT and The Apprentice - are the current obsessions and the soaps are suffering badly from viewer disinterest now and their days of lording it over the chart look gone forever. Only 'Ashes to Ashes' flies the flag for good quality prime time drama and will BBC1 be considering axing 'Casualty' now its ratings worse than 'Heartbeat' which ITV has now pulled the plug on? I've long felt that 'Casualty' should be pruned back...2 thirteen-part series a year would refresh the show and free up some funds for the BBC to try a few new shows in the vacant slots. Elsewhere 'Primeval' is holding its own week after week now with just under 5 million viewers...we should know in a week or so if the series has any future. Good to see the excellent 'Reggie Perrin' remake elbow its way back into the Top 20 and depressing to see a cheap 'Apprentice' BBC2 spin-off not only becoming BBC2's highest-rated show of the week but also climbing into the Top 20. When will this madness end???

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Film Review: Save me from Terminator Salvation...

I was a bit surprised - but not hugely bothered - when stupidly-named film director McG (previously responsible for two exhausting, barking-mad 'Charlie's Angels' films) was announced as the man behind the camera for 'Terminator Salvation', the latest in the long-running and popular movie SF franchise. You see I'm not really precious about the 'Terminator' saga; I was actually a bit of an Arnie-come-lately (arf arf), only catching up with the first two movies on DVD just before the third movie 'Rise of the Machines' came out a few years back. I enjoyed the films - I'm one of the few who really rates T3 - but I wasn't plunged into pits of despair at being informed that one of Hollywood's more lightweight directors was talking the reins on the latest in what seemed, in any event, like a played-out franchise. I also wasn't, as it turns out, expecting a film like 'Terminator Salvation' which bombarded my senses with explosions, fights, stunts, CGI this and CGI that and left me utterly unmoved, largely disinterested and at times actually quite bored. How odd.

Technically, of course, the film looks astonishing. The aforementioned special effects sequences - and God, there are so many of them that the film is practically one big special effect - look incredible. There's an action scene in the first part of the film involving a giant Terminator and some robot bikes which veers on the breath-taking. Elsewhere there are hordes of flying machines, robots, devastated land and cityscapes and even, believe it or believe it not, the odd explosion. But ultimately none of this matters, this is all just window-dressing and it counts for nothing if it's not supporting a decent story and interesting characters. 'Terminator Salvation' really has neither of these. Set in 2015, years after the Skynet machine revolution has flattened Mankind, an adult John Connor (Christian Bale looking dead-eyed and disinterested but at least not using his ridiculous growling Batman voice) is one the leaders of the human resistance fighting back against Skynet. Along comes Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington, the film's only shining light) who's a bit fuzzy about his past and who harbours some terrible secrets of his own. When the Skynet machines capture hordes of humans (including young Kyle Reese who, for reasons too arcane for me to remember here, is actually John Connor's father...somehow) Connor tries to head off a planned mass assult on Skynet's San Francisco base so the humans can be rescued. And that's more or less your lot...

'Terminator Salvation', despite its big noisy visuals, rarely even threatens to take flight. It's humourless (fatal in SF, a genre which has a tendency to be far too po-faced), the dialogue is perfunctory and forgettable, the characterisation back-of-a-fag-packet stuff. The film looks gunmetal grey and dreary, its colour palette pretty much non-existent; the trouble is we've seen this sort of post-apocalypse wilderness thing once too often, from Mad Max all those years ago down to gubbins like Babylon AD and The Mutant Chronicles and even our own risible Doomsday from last year -it's all unshaven blokes in leather bouncing around in jeeps brandishing big guns. And for a series which started out by giving a big, important role to a female - Linda Hamilton's Sarah Connor - the women here get short shrift indeed (Bryce Dallas Howard is criminally wasted) and there's even a sequence where one female character trips and falls during an escape scene and has to be rescued by big butch Marcus. Elsewhere the film evokes Spielberg's 'War of the Worlds', with human being scooped up like dolls and thrown into cages in the backs of Skynet machines and worst of all once or twice I was even reminded of the two best-forgotten 'Matrix' sequels.

'Terminator Salvation' torpedoes itself even more by referencing the series' past - "I'll be back" makes an appearance (the only time the audience reacts to anything on screen) and we get a snatch of Guns'n'Roses' 'You Could Be Mine' from T2 and, of course, Arnie appears courtesy of CGI magic for one fight scene. Unfortunately these little kisses to the past only serve to remind us how much better the old films were and really makes us want to walk out of the theatre and go home and watch one of the originals again.

As the film creaks into its final reel and Marcus infiltrates the top security Skynet installation with about as much difficulty as walking into a public library and John Connor also arrives on the scene ready to usher in more explosions and robot mayhem, I was looking at my watch and even grateful for the distraction of the bloke two seats down who seemed to be determined to send a text message every three minutes. But maybe I'm being a bit too unkind; 'Terminator Salvation' really isn't a bad film, it's just that I like a bit of humour and personality in my movies, especially my fantasy flicks. This is just by-the-numbers SF, a Terminator movie for the sake of it, realising on screen sequences and scenarios the fans have drooled about since those tantalising Terminators-and-tanks-crunching-human-skulls scenes in T2. The reality of all that turns out to be just more grizzled people in tattered clothes rushing around the desert firing guns. I've seen it all before and I've sene it done better.

The greatest irony, perhaps, in 'Terminator Salvation' is that, for a film about the human spirit crushed by the tyranny of the machine rising up and fighting back in the name of Mankind, there's precious little humanity on display here. The people are as mechanical and functional as the machines they're fighting against and, asthe remains of Connor's little band of heroes flies off into the sunset, promising that the battle will continue, I could only hope that no-one out there in Hollywood decides we should see that battle enacted on screen in another 'Terminator' movie. I think I'm done with this series now.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Cult TV DVD Review: 'Sky'

Back in the 1970s HTV West, operating out of Bristol, made quite a reputation for themselves as providers of quality children’s drama for the ITV Network at a time when the ITV made children’s drama; days sadly long gone. HTV’s output tended to be a bit more cerebral than the sometimes brash wannabe ‘Dr Who’ shows churned out by the other regions – most of which, I’d add, were hugely enjoyable in their own right. But HTV specialised is more grounded, potentially-disturbing stuff – series like ‘King of the Castle’ and ‘Children of the Stones’ may not have had the sci-fi trappings of ‘The Tomorrow People’ and ‘Timeslip’ (my own particular favourite from the ITV era) but they were often dark, complex and challenging stories, resolutely not written down for their young audience but rather pitching thought-provoking and often quite adult ideas and concepts which demanded a bit more of the kids than just sitting there passively being shouted at and seduced by pretty colours.

Then there was ‘Sky’. ‘Sky’ was an odd one at the time – it was screened across the ITV network in 1976 – and viewed now, over thirty years later – it’s still a strange, rather schizophrenic series. Written by Bob Baker and Dave Martin (Dr Who’s ‘Bristol boys’ back in the 1970s) the six-part serial tells of the titular Sky, a lithe, blonde, unearthly youth who arrives in a forest on Earth in a blaze of light. He doesn’t seem to know quite who he is, where he is or why but he’s quickly befriended by a group of West Country yokel kids who also don’t quite know what he is. But they soon find out he has very strange powers and that he seems to be locked in combat with the forces of Nature herself as the 20th century does its best to repel this intruder, this threat to the biosphere. Whilst the kids – Arby and his sister June and their friend Roy, try to protect Sky and help him in his quest for something called The Juganet, Sky is being shadowed by a mysterious cloaked figure called Goodchild...

‘Sky’ is all over the place. What starts out as an intriguing fairly typical kids thriller about an alien befriended by curious human teenagers slowly starts to lose its focus, introducing random new characters for an episode or two and losing some of those – Roy’s Dad (HTV favourite Jack Watson) and Arby and June’s parents – who feature fairly heavily in the first three or four episodes. It’s almost as if Baker and Martin had a rough idea about a benevolent alien figure (who actually turns out to be from the future) who finds himself in the wrong time at the wrong place ; he seems to come from some terrible post-apocalyse world and starts to warn anyone who will listen about the fate which awaits the human race as it continues to abuse its planet. But it also seems as if the writers didn’t have enough story for seven episodes and felt obliged to wander off down narrative blind alleys with episodes set in a hospital and a peculiar interlude with a couple of hippies. Perhaps the hippies are really the key to the series as the ‘peace and love’ 1960s motif of the hippy period is pretty high profile all the way through ‘Sky’. Sky himself is a pacifist – he has extraordinary mental powers but he only ever uses them to protect himself and never to harm anyone when he’s under attack. And Goodchild (Robert Eddison), who floats about the place like a cross between Dracula and the Master, appears to be a creation of the Earth’s immune system, determined to stop Sky returning to his rightful place in Space and time courtesy of said Juganet, a circular machine in the form of Stonehenge, a cross-over point whose energies Sky can use to get home...

Thirty-odd years on ‘Sky’s is very much a product of its time. The special effects range from bright and garish chroma-key and overlay, a few decent physical effects (attacks by thrashing vines and branches) and Sky himself, eerily made-up with his glowing contact-lense eyes and smooth, other-wordly complexion. But it’s a big, expansive series – location filming is pretty extensive (utilising West Country settings such as Glastonbury Tor and the Stonehenge circle) and the many studio sets are detailed, intricate and pretty effective. It’s a shame the same can’t be said for the acting which is stilted at best. Marc Harrison looks the part as ‘Sky’ but, probably by design, he doesn’t display much character beyond his propensity for spouting New Age gobbledegook dialogue. His human sidekicks Arby, June and Roy are a pretty wooden bunch too and good old British character actors like Peter Copley and Bernard Archard are wasted in peculiar cameos in the frankly-bizarre final episode which sees Sky arrive at his intended point in time, Arby in tow, where survivors of the apocalypse worship old NASA technology and relics and offer up Arby as a sacrifice.

‘Sky’ is undoubtedly a brave and interesting series. It’s not as successful as some of its contemporaries in the genre because the scripts seem a bit undisciplined and random and the performances need to be a lot stronger to really draw the viewer into the drama. But ‘Sky’ remains a well-remembered series and, if you saw it at the time or you’re just interested in classic cult TV, it’s a show that’s worth tracking down out of curiosity value even if it’s likely to leave you wishing it could only have been as good as its first couple of episodes suggested it was going to be.

Sky is available on DVD now and can only be obtained direct from Network DVD at

DVD coming soon: Fireball XL5!!!

An interesting new DVD release of a true cult classic, coming your way courtesy of Network DVD on 29th June. Already-released some years back as a bare-bones DVD set, Gerry Anderson's classic puppet sci-fi show 'Fireball XL5' is on its way in a glorious new extras-laden six-disc set complete with, intriguingly, a colourised version of one episode. A clip from this colourised edition appears at the bottom of the following extract from Network's press release for the boxset and Stuff hopes to have a review online in time for the release of the set...

One of Gerry Anderson’s most cherished fantasy series. FIREBALL XL5 SPECIAL EDITION (U) is available to buy on DVD on 29th June 2009, RRP £59.99. This 6 – disc set includes all 39 episodes from the iconic series, complete and uncut plus exclusive extras including a 60-page book and new documentary.

The year is 2062 – 2063, the peace of the universe is maintained by World Space Patrol’s finest rocket ship, the eponymous Fireball XL5. The memorable crew comprises of the glamorous doctor Venus, middle-aged navigator and engineer Professor Matthew Matic and Zodiac’s co-pilot Robert the Robot, whose fantastic characteristic being that he is transparent, and bears the voice of creator Gerry Anderson himself. This brave, gallant crew is led by the heroic Colonel Steve Zodiac. They explore various exotic planets and other life forms and protect the innocent from sinister intergalactic villains such as Mr. and Mrs. Space Spy.

Since the programme’s very first transmission on October 28th 1962, young audiences – not to mention a good number of adults – all over the world were held enthralled by the adventures of Steve Zodiac and his crew. Gerry Anderson’s Supermarionation marionettes were first introduced in Four Feather Falls (1960), and since then a wondrous tradition in entertainment was born. The marionettes were used again and again in immensely popular children’s shows such as Supercar, Thunderbirds. This release will appeal to all who are fans and is also set to convert a good number of new viewers, who have yet to experience its magic.

A Wonderland of Stardust: a brand new documentary about the making of Fireball XL5 featuring contributions from creators Gerry Anderson and Sylvia Anderson, as well as numerous members of the crew including David Elliott, Alan Pattillo and Brian Johnson
Drawn in Supermarionation: This new, exclusive documentary chronicles the comic strip adaptations of the early AP Films series and features contributions from director of merchandising Keith Shackleton and artists Bill Mevin, Mike Noble and Colin Page.
A Day in the Life of a Space General: A brand new, colourised edition of Fireball XL5, taken from a new HD transfer of the original film elements
Bill Mevin’s Supercar Home Movie: Previously unseen footage filmed by TV Comic artist Bill Mevin during production on Supercar
Special limited edition packaging
Zoom ice lolly commercials
Image Galleries
PDF Material
60-page book written by TV historian Andrew Pixley.