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Saturday, 12 March 2016

Matt on the Box: The Aliens, Doctor Thorne, Call the Midwife and Stop/Start

Welcome back friends as we see the end of another week which had an interesting batch of TV highlights.


These days E4 mainly relies on US imports to garner success with the likes of The 100 and The Big Bang Theory being some of their big hitters. So it was a surprise when they began giving a large amount of promotion to their latest original UK show The Aliens. From first viewing, The Aliens is E4's most ambitious programme since Misfits due to its intriguing concept and energetic central cast. Fintan Ryan's drama is set in a UK where aliens crash-landed forty years prior and have since been segregated into their own city called Troy. These aliens are allowed to cross over to the human side of the wall as long as they go through border control where they are tagged and sprayed. The other big concept running throughout The Aliens is that alien hair when set alight becomes a rather potent drug and therefore it is sold on the black market. It's this idea that totally freaks out border guard Lewis (Michael Socha) who, in an early exposition-filled speech, outlines why he hates the aliens or 'Morks' as they are offensively called. Outside of his work Lewis lives a rather lonely existence, sharing a home with his father (Neil Fitzmaurice) and regularly having to bail out his ditzy sister Holly (Holli Dempsey) and her partner Ivan (Alex Beckett). Lewis' only solace comes via the online chats he has with the exotic Lilyhot (Michaela Coel) who unbeknownst to him is actually an alien gangster. Lilyhot's story is the other one that unfolds throughout the first episode as we see her engage in illegal activity with her partner Christophe (Ashley Walters) as they rob and pillage their way through Troy. Lilyhot and Lewis' worlds are slowly intertwined after Christophe kidnaps Holly and our hero must go behind enemy lines to save her. However the twist in the tale is that Lewis himself his half alien, a product of an affair between his mother and an unknown father, which changes his world view on everything. But by the end of the episode the only two people who know are kindly alien cleaner Dominic (Jim Howick) and Lilyhot the latter of whom uses the information to blackmail Lewis.


I admire any TV show that is willing to take risks and stand out from the crowd with The Aliens sort of succeeding on both fronts. What I liked about The Aliens is that, even though it has an outlandish concept, the reason it works is due to its central characters. Lewis is certainly a well-drawn character initially presented as a dull everyman he quickly becomes an unwitting hero and learns of his true parentage in the course of a couple of days. It's because Allen makes the audience care about Lewis that it's easier to take some of the weaker parts of the story which feature Christophe and Lilyhot's crime spree. That being said I found Lilyhot herself to be a fantastic and unique character, a sort of extra-terrestrial femme fatale who has one over on all of the male characters in the show. When I first saw the trailers for The Aliens I thought it would primarily be providing a commentary on illegal immigration and while that's certainly one of the drama's themes it doesn't feel like any sort of message is being rammed down our throats. Furthermore I enjoyed the styling of The Aliens especially when it comes to the design of the city of Troy which we first saw through the eyes of Lewis. Troy is presented as a lawless world full of darkness and I feel the production team has done an excellent job bringing it to life. Of the cast, I thought it was great to see Michael Socha take centre stage after years of being part of ensemble in the likes of This is England and Being Human. Socha brings an easy charm to the role of Lewis and I feel he really excelled in the scenes where he learned of his true parentage. Jim Howick provided some great light relief as Lewis' ally Dominic whilst Ashley Walters perfectly utilised his gangster persona to play Christophe. However it was Michaela Coel who stole the show in my opinion as she poured tons of life into the complex character of Lilyhot. After seeing her for the first time last year in Chewing Gum, it's great to Coel live up to her early promise in a role in which she's asked to convey most of her feelings through facial expressions rather than dialogue. It's thanks to Coel and Socha that The Aliens works as well as it does and I have to applaud Ryan for creating a TV show that offers something a little different to the usual dramas we seem to be offered up on a weekly basis.


More traditional drama was served up courtesy of ITV who brought us the first part of their three-part adaptation of Anthony Trollope's Doctor Thorne. ITV are hoping for big things from Doctor Thorne primarily as it's been adapted by Julian Fellowes who most famously brought Downton Abbey to our TV screens. At times it's easy to the links with Downton as there are big houses, lovely costumes and some big names among the cast. Those names include Tom Hollander who takes the lead role of sorts as the physician of the title who is surrounded by a world of hierarchy and hypocrisy that he doesn't particularly care for. Oddly the opening episode begins as we see Thorne's brother being killed during an altercation with Sir Roger Scatcherd (Ian McShane) over the honour of the latter's sister. Thorne is seemingly left to pick up the pieces and becomes the guardian of the daughter his brother fathered with Scratcherd's sister. This girl grows up to be the beautiful Mary Thorne (Stefanie Martini) who is the prettiest girl in the area but also one who is looked down upon by the snooty Gresham Family who own the local stately home. The Greshams' son Frank (Harry Richardson) is seemingly enamoured by Mary but her lowly breeding means that his mother Lady Arabella (Rebecca Front) isn't in favour of the match. The twist in the tale is that the Greshams are actually indebted to Scratcherd, who made his money on the railways, and therefore have to act kindly to Thorne who also acts as the accountant to his brother's killer. Just like Downton there are plenty of matches that are made purely for social standing and as well there's the requisite evening ball so all the ladies can show off their finest frocks. Additionally there's also a token American in Doctor Thorne in the form of Community's Alison Brie who plays wealthy heiress Miss Dunstable who Frank is forced to woo despite being desperately in love with Mary. The final revelation that the penniless Mary may in fact inherit Scratcherd's fortune is an interesting one but it really came too late to get me invested in a drama that was fairly inconsistent.


The majority of the publicity surrounding Doctor Thorne has focused on Fellowes' involvement in the project with a popular TV listings magazine dubbing it the new Downton. But at best Doctor Thorne is a Downton Abbey tribute band as it contains all the familiar elements but downgrades them all slightly. The only interesting twist in Doctor Thorne is that the wealthy family are almost the villains of the piece whilst the hero is the only sensible adult in the entire drama. The most intriguing character in the piece is Sir Roger Scatcherd as he's portrayed both as an ogre and as someone who is feeling remorseful over his past actions. Part of the reason Scratcherd is so memorable is due to the scenery-chewing turn from Ian McShane who appears to be loving playing the roguish railway magnate. McShane is ably supported in his scenes by the wonderful Janine Duvetski as his wife with the two forming a rather unbelievable but hilarious couple. Tom Hollander is the grounded centre of the piece and showcases his brilliance by allowing his fellow cast members to take the spotlight whilst he reacts to them brilliantly. Hollander also makes us care about Mary as he makes us believe just how much Thorne bases his life around his niece. Meanwhile Rebecca Front and Phoebe Nichols are excellently cast as the two women eager to get Frank married off to a wealthy American if only to save the family home. I personally found Doctor Thorne to be at its weakest when the younger characters took pride of place with Mary and Frank coming across as quite bland characters. That's nothing against the performances that the youngsters give, especially the spirited Stefani Martini, but I feel that Fellowes hasn't given them as much personality as the more mature characters. Whilst I didn't dislike Doctor Thorne in any way, there was just nothing about it that gripped me or made me feel it deserved my attention. Whilst the performances from Hollander and McShane were great and the production design was predictably fabulous everything about Doctor Thorne was fairly forgettable. Ultimately this felt like the first of many attempts from ITV to replicate the glory of Downton Abbey but unfortunately one that proved to be unsuccessful.


But Sunday night for me was all about the final episode of this run of Call the Midwife which in my opinion has been its finest series so far. From touching on issues of the time to making sure all of its ensemble cast at least had one major storyline, series five has taken the gang at Nonnatus House into a new direction. This series has dealt with the thaliodmide scandal head-on but has done so by focusing on the mothers who gave birth to babies with deformities as a result of taking the drug. One such mother was Rhoda Mullocks (Liz White) who gave birth to daughter Susan in the series' first episode and returned in the finale to discover the truth alongside the other women of Poplar. The revelation hit the lovely Doctor Turner (Stephen McGann) the most as he and some of the other characters rushed to find the link between the deformed babies and the Distaval which he had prescribed. Ordinarily this story would be the primary tale in any series finale however this episode was dominated by the death of original character Sister Evangelina (Pam Ferris) who suffered a second stroke and passed away. Due to Evangelina's popularity in the local area everybody wanted to view her body one last time and it's a testament to writer Heidi Thomas that the tributes to the brusque nun never turned into mawkish sentiment. Thankfully this episode wasn't all doom and gloom thanks to a comic storyline involving Rosie Cavaliero's busybody Tessie Anselm and her son Mitchell who was about to marry an Australian girl before she gave birth to his baby. This subplot helped to alleviate the tragedy from elsewhere in the episode and was also linked in well to the death of Evangelina. Thomas also managed to wrap up a lot of subplots including Trixie's loneliness and the relationships between Barbara and Tom and Patsy and Deliah. But the episode never felt over-rushed and instead everybody was able to get their moment in the spotlight whilst at the same time contributing to the main plots. Every member of the cast deserves praise but I feel that this week's episode belonged to Stephen McGann who was excellent as the pioneering Doctor Turner who felt responsible for prescribing Distaval despite not knowing its side effects. It's fair to say that I spent the most of the second half of this episode of Call the Midwife with a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes as I, like everybody else, was sad to see Evangelina go and felt her exit was handled superbly. Thankfully a new series of Call the Midwife has already been announced for next year and I can't wait to see what the nuns and nurses have planned when they hit 1962.


Finally we turn to Friday night on BBC One and the post-news slot which, for the past couple of weeks, has been airing three new Comedy Playhouse pilots. The first two offerings, Hospital People and Broken Biscuits, really didn't grab me however I find myself quite enjoying this week's final instalment Stop/Start. The episode was written and stars Jack Doherty who I most remember from his Channel Five chat show but who has recently been very active on radio. In fact Stop/Start is based on Doherty's successful Radio 4 sitcom with cast members Kerry Godliman and John Thomson also accompanying the writer for this small screen adaptation. Joining their number are Sarah Hadland, Nigel Havers and Laura Aikman who take part in what can best be described as rather an old-fashioned relationship comedy. The central couple of the piece are Rob and Cathy (Doherty and Godliman) who are about to celebrate an anniversary with a party where he has to give a speech. At the same time Rob's old work colleague Georgy (Aikman) moves across the road with her much older husband David (Havers) with the pair quickly being invited to the anniversary party. The third couple Evan and Fiona (Hadland and Thomson) are friends of Rob and Cathy's who are basically at each other's throats primarily arguing about yoghurt. The narrative twist that Stop/Start provides is that each of the six characters stops the action to talk directly to the audience often letting us in on how they're feeling during a certain moment. Despite this narrative device feeling a bit gimmicky at times it does provide some good laughs with Doherty's script containing a lot of clever observational humour. Additionally Rob and Cathy felt like a real couple to me and their problems with the monotony of a long marriage rose above the cliché of other romantic comedies. I also warmed to David and Georgy's story too thanks to a scene at the anniversary party where it was established why the couple were together. The one couple who were ill-served by the script were Evan and Fiona whose arguments felt too contrived to the extent that they didn't feel like fully-realised characters. That being said all six cast members gave it their best with Godliman particularly excelling in the role of the put-upon Cathy. Furthermore I didn't think the laughter track added anything and the use of The Ting Tings' 'Shut Up and Let Me Go' made the piece feel dated from the get-go. But that being said, of the three Comedy Playhouse pilots, Stop/Start is the one that I feel could easily get a full series due to its great ensemble cast and interesting central premise.

That's your lot for now, remember to follow me @mattstvbites for more of my views on the week's TV and I'll see you next time.

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