TV

TV Review: BBC’s Wonders of the Universe (2011)

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Wonders of the Universe is a four-part television miniseries produced in 2011 by BBC, Discovery Channel and Science Channel and hosted by physicist Professor Brian Cox. It followed on from the successful series, Wonders of the Solar System, which aired in 2010.

WOTU has four episodes, each one hour long, with a cool name and a focus on a particular aspect of the universe.

The first episode, Destiny, talks about the time course of our universe: its origins, and its ultimate fate, and compels us to try to compare the eye-blink of a human lifespan to the epic timescale of cosmic events.

In Stardust, the second episode, Professor Cox discusses the elements of the universe and how they are formed through nuclear fusion in stars. This one’s more of a high-school chemistry lesson.

The third episode, Falling, is a contemplation of the effects of gravity across the universe.

The last episode, Messengers, addresses how the speed of light allows us to get information about the universe past and present, but also the limits to that information.

 

You’re probably thinking that, at one hour each, these episodes are lo-o-ong. And they are. They felt long, to me, and I often had to break my viewing up into twenty or thirty minute blocks, simply because I would become distracted or sleepy. The visuals/animations are quite breathtaking and beautiful, but the pacing is definitely a bit on the slower side. Cox as host is impassioned and excited, but the delivery of information is slow, in bite-sized morsels, and made to be quite easily accessible to the layperson.

If you remember most of high school chemistry/physics, and have a passing interest in astronomy, you’ll probably know most of the content of the documentary already. There was definitely some old material in there that had me yawning, but there were also a lot of facts that I didn’t know, which made it worth watching. I found episodes 3 and 4 most interesting.

The strategy of Wonders is to take the viewer to various exotic and obscure locations around Earth and draw analogies to phenomena in space, which is a pleasant journey. You get to tour Earth and space, all from the lazy comfort of your couch!

I’ve not seen Brian Cox host a show before, and I can’t decide whether I liked him or not. It took me a while to get used to his permanently smiling face, but his boyish delight in science definitely added to the appeal of the show.

Recommended if you want an aesthetically-appealing, not overly complex introduction to some of the major scientific concepts of our universe.

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Sleepy Hollow – The Beginning

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Towards the end of last year I found my mum watching a new show on TV. I caught a glimpse of a headless dude in period costume rising out of dark waters, and a white gangly monster somewhat reminiscent of the eyeless child-eating freak from Pan’s Labyrinth.

I asked her, “What show is this?”

And she said, “Sleepy Hollow.”

And I made a mental note to check it out.

Since then I’ve watched episodes 1-9…there are four more to go to complete the first season. The start-up has been a general success, and the show has been renewed by Fox for a second season.

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Sleepy Hollow is supernatural but not particularly scary. It’s a modern-day reimagining of the 1820 short story, ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,’ by Washington Irving, which tells of a Headless Horseman spiriting away a man from a settlement in the glen of Sleepy Hollow. The TV show takes place in twenty-first century Sleepy Hollow, with an expanded plot and mythos. Ichabod Crane, our long-haired revolutionary hero, and his archenemy, the Headless Horseman, awaken in the present day after 200 years of bespelled sleep. The Horseman goes on a rampage of decapitation whilst trying to recover his lost head. Ichabod, meanwhile, falls in with our other protagonist, Abbie Mills, a smart police officer who has had her own past encounters with the supernatural. Abbie and Crane set about trying to thwart the supernatural evils that plague their town.

Ichabod soon discovers that his life is linked with the Horseman’s because of their blood mingling and other magicky stuff, so when Ichabod’s witchy wife Katrina put him under a spell to keep him alive, the Horseman also went into suspended animation.

I very much enjoy the gothic feel of the whole show–a haunted town, old churches and buildings, ancient dusty books, tattoos and sects, wailing ghosts and ephemeral monsters, shadows and storms, spells of binding. The opening montage and theme music, with simple shots of the main characters interspersed with spooky shots of Sleepy Hollow transforming throughout the years, is refreshingly straightforward and atmospheric.

I lament that society no longer dictates that men should have long hair.

I lament that society no longer dictates that men should have long hair.

The show is held together by strong performances from the two leads, Tom Mison and Nicole Beharie. There are times when the story could have come off as cheesy or over-the-top, but I felt that their acting kept things authentic. The writers throw in a good mix of jokes, most of which spring from Crane trying to adjust to the twenty-first century. Some of these moments are hilarious–for instance, Crane’s first encounter with the Internet and pop up porn ads. Mison and Beharie have great on-screen chemistry and are likeable and engaging. The supporting characters (Capt. Frank Irving, Jenny Mills, Katrina Crane) are equally interesting, with the potential to have expanded, complex personalities and back stories.

The created mythology of the series is already quite large in scope. We’ve got the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, an evil ringleader, an impending apocalypse, and two “witnesses” who are destined to save the earth. It’s all getting very prophetic and end-of-the-world-y, which I’m not sure I like, but I’m willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. So far, the adventures have been fun and just scary enough to make you keep the night-light on. There are some pretty kick-ass action scenes too, especially the ones involving the Horseman. I’m looking forward to seeing what the season finale has in store. I’m also on the edge of my seat waiting for Ichabod to have a costume change.

Avatar: The Legend of Korra

 

Sequels. We all know the dangers of them.

When done well–rarely–the results can be impressive (The Dark Knight, Two Towers, Empire Strikes Back).

But more often than not, they flop (The Matrix Reloaded, Speed 2, Ocean’s 12, Pirates of the Caribbean 2, Joey, Prison Break 2, and sooo many more). 

So when I first found out that the makers of Avatar had a spin-off series in the works, I had it in my head to stay away. Far, far awaaaaay.

I mean, Avatar: The Last Airbender was this joyride of complicated world-building inspired by Oriental and Aztec themes, with beautiful artwork, brilliant character development, puns, creative fight scenes, gripping plot arcs and slapstick humour…and it’s a children’s cartoon. I started watching ATLA thanks to my habit of peering over my little brother’s shoulder (thanks lad for having cool taste). Like countless others, I quickly became totally immersed in its rich universe and the pilgrimage of Aang and his merry band to master all four elements and defeat the Fire Nation!

Since buying this book…

…I’ve only grown exponentially more impressed by how much work went into the show. It’s an unpretentious masterpiece of storytelling, and it’s created a narrative in my head that I dread to spoil, eg. by an inadequate sequel.

But I knew I didn’t have the willpower to hold out forever. Especially not when Victor downloaded Season One of The Legend of Korra. And watched it. And started raving to me about how I HAD TO WATCH IT COZ IT WAS SUPER EXCITING!

So I did, and I loved it. It’s great fun. There are a bunch of fantastic things about TLOK, but also a lot of things that could have been done better. (WARNING: THE FOLLOWING CONTAINS SPOILERS!!!)

The Good

1. Korra’s character. I think Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko made a great call here in terms of character qualities. Korra, a 17-year-old girl from the Water Tribe, is a very different Avatar from Aang. She’s an absolute gun at bending, mastering 3 of the 4 elements as a tot. She’s impulsive, brash, brave and emotional, but what’s lacking is her connection to the spiritual aspects of being Avatar. Her character works well within this new world, where she has to push the boundaries, and is a refreshing change.

2. The United Republic of Nations. Mike and Bryan didn’t try to recreate the universe of ATLA, and I’m thankful for that. Instead, they used this opportunity to build a whole new world with a different feel–a steampunk feel. How awesome!!! In the 70 years (an incredibly short period, but forgivable) since the war ended, it seems a technological revolution has swept over the Avatar world. There are cars, electricity, radios, TV, stadiums, cities, lamp-posts. And there’s a mega huge statue of Aang standing over it all. This modern spin is a fabulous opportunity to show off the world-building skills of the creative team in a new and exciting way, and yet maintains enough links with the world of ATLA to keep long-term fans happy. I’m glad that they chose a very different atmosphere: it separates Korra’s story from Aang’s story in a definitive, elegant way.

3. The benders v non-benders plot. When this plotline was introduced early on in the season, I got excited. A compelling and creative idea. It seems a natural sequence of events, almost a century after the war, when the world is peaceful and prosperous, to have the non-benders generate murmurs of discontent. I was initially thrilled at the possibilities of this narrative arc.

4. The animation. Season 3 of ATLA was a wonderful aesthetic experience, but in TLOK you really feel all the visual effects coming together in a very streamlined, enjoyable way.

5. Pro-bending. A bit like Quidditch. A distraction from the main plot, but a very enjoyable sport to watch.

And one final item that I couldn’t leave off the good list…6. Commander Iroh.

The Not So Good

1. The shallow handling of the benders v non-benders conflict. To be honest, I was disappointed with how this major plot device panned out. There was the potential to have a mature consideration of Amon’s motives and the uprising of the non-benders. Throughout the season, we see civilians flock to the Equalist rallies in hordes. That at the very least must be an indicator that something is not right in the governance of the Republic. But the Council’s response to the Equalists was simplistic in the extreme: use bending, use violence, use power to subdue them. There was no examination of why the people were discontented; of whether the non-benders did have any power in the Republic; of whether the law was fair to both benders and non-benders. Because to me it certainly didn’t look fair–there didn’t seem to be anything stopping benders from trampling on non-benders if they wished, and the message of the benders’ response (that is, to automatically regard the benders as ‘rebels’ and discharge forces to squash them) seemed stupid. Of course, the Equalists did take their rebellion a bit too far, but at in the end the conflict came down to who could punch the other up. Also, I was a little deflated by how easily the Equalist members were turned against their leader–a pretty paltry plot device there, in my opinion.

2. Everything resolves way too easily in the Season One finale. Not much to say here (I don’t want to spoil anything for people who’ve read this far and haven’t watched the series, even though I explicitly warned about SPOILERSSS!). Just…too much happens. Too fast. With not enough time to explain, absorb, resolve. I’m not sure if they had to cram everything into one season in case they didn’t get signed for Season 2, but they really didn’t leave anything for next season.

3. Too much crammed into 12 short episodes. This is sort of related to #2. There are only 12 eps in Season One, and each is only 23 minutes. It is really not enough time to fit in so many intertwining narratives: Korra’s development as a person, the treachery of Amon and Sato, the story of Tarrlok, pro-bending, and the romance. And speaking of romance…

4. The love square. Oh so cheesy, but not completely terrible in its own way. But still so cheesy.

5. Bolin, the new Sokka. Clearly, Bolin is meant to be the funny guy with the puns and the quips and the goofiness. He’s no Sokka. Victor disagrees with me–he thinks Bolin is hilarious–but then he thinks most things are hilarious. But in my eyes, no one will ever, EVER REPLACE SOKKA. EVARRRR! Sad face.

Overall consensus

The Legend of Korra certainly has a different feel to The Last Airbender. We won’t really enter Aang’s world again, which is probably a good thing. TLOK is trying to be a more adult show: the kids are older, there’s a ‘darker’ plot, and there’s more romance. I didn’t really feel the adult-ness, and I don’t think it should aim for an older age group. ATLA was aimed at children but it had enough layers to entertain older audiences.

One thing I really enjoyed was the flashbacks where we got to see the old characters–Toph, Sokka, Aang–as grown-up members of society. It offered a sense of continuity and a rush of nostalgia. So my final consensus is this: if you were fan of ATLA, go and watch Korra. It’s a great series with the same talented creators. You’ll really enjoy it. And if you’ve never watched anything Avatar, give Korra a go. I mean, can you get any better than a 9.2 on IMDB? :-P

Random trivia: Dee Bradley Baker, the voice of Appa and Momo, also voices Tarrlok. He’s worked in a gazillion other voice acting roles, including Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Gears of War, Halo, SpongeBob SquarePants, Ben10 and American Dad.