By Paul Mount

What? going on?? For the last few years the British TV schedules have been full of gibberish like CELEBRITY DOG-BOTHERING and I? A CELEBRITY ?GIVE ME A RECORDING CONTRACT with the odd dose of vote-vote-vote POP IDOL nonsense thrown in for bad measure. I turn my back for one minute ?well, I didn? actually turn my back, but you know where I? going with this ?and suddenly things are a bit different. Suddenly it? all time travellers and paranormal investigators and worried-looking scientists investigating mysterious conspiracies. Sadly, the drooling British popular press still seems to think we?e all obsessed with singing/skating/dancing former soap stars and disgraced comedians sitting about doing nothing for a month (despite the fact that the official ratings insist that even the chavs these shows are aimed at are getting restless) but at least those of us with a brain and a bit of imagination are being catered for at last.

We can blame DOCTOR WHO for this timely renaissance, of course. The show? heady resurrection (and impressive viewing figures) in 2005, made a few weary celebrity-bookers sit up and take notice. The bods over at ITV and Channel 4 clearly decided they wouldn? mind a bit of that sci-fi credibility and, whilst they couldn? really be arsed to make much of an effort with creating their own genre shows, at least they showed a bit more attention towards the US fantasy series they traditionally bought in and shoved into Sunday afternoon slots to keep their kids happy while their parents enjoyed an afternoon?r?nooze. Channel 4, still basking in the glow of their success with DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES and LOST (two shows which could probably have doubled their viewing figure if C4 had screened them at 9pm instead of wasting a prime-time slot on reality shows about horrible people swapping their partners or smug women showing idiots how to bring up their own kids) quickly picked up INVASION and gave it a halfway decent Sunday night slot where it serves as an agreeable alternative to ITV? sleepy schedule of period drama. INVASION is a slow burner, a show which looks as if it? easily-missable. But give it two or three episodes and, despite the fact that two of the main characters have the unfortunate surname ?nderlay?(I?l be carpetted for pointing that out ?ha haUNo?? Oh ,suit yourselves!), and it starts to get interesting and quite compelling. Set in the aftermath of a hurricane which causes chaos in the Everglades area of Florida, something strange is happening to the locals and there? a weird light drifting through the water. INVASION, like LOST, is probably going to offer up its secrets slowly. As it? been a substantial hit in the US, it? likely to be around for a few seasons. INVASION won? change your world but it? an intriguing show to watch and at least it serves to liven up Sunday nights.

Speaking of LOST, the first season of this TV phenomenon recently came to a close on C4 and my opinion of it hasn? really changed since I reviewed the first three episodes. Like the music of Eminem (spit!) it? very much a case of the Emperor? New Clothes. LOST has none of the slick, fast writing of many of the best modern American shows and the cast, whilst largely easy on the eyes, haven? been given much of interest to work with from a character point of view. The show tries to be moody and mysterious but, after nine years of THE X FILES where the creators didn? really have a clue what their conspiracy theory was all about, I? not keen to be taken in by LOST, likely to run a good six or seven years before the audience finds out the secrets of the island. I suspect the larger audience will have escaped long before any of the cast.

ITV? been doing its bit too ?although there are a couple of scheduling oddities going on here. SURFACE briefly?r?urfaced on ITV1 in a peculiar Saturday afternoon scheduling following its debut on ITV2. After two weeks it was gone and it? yet to?r?esurface on terrestrial. This is a shame as it? probably got more going for it than INVASION in that it? a bit more in-yer-face about its intentions with a new aquatic alien lifeform coming to the attentions of a suspicious Mankind. The end of the globe-trotting first episode, with the sky suddenly alight with shooting stars, was particularly memorable ?it? just a shame the show looks like being under-appreciated by its new home. SUPERNATURAL has turned up on the ITV Network too. Terrestrially, it? been scheduled for 11pm on Mondays; it? madness, really, as this could do with being screened at 9 or 10pm on a Friday or a Saturday for maximum impact. SUPERNATURAL has a lot of promise, with some genuine potential as the natural successor to BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, in concept if not in execution. Two sassy young brothers travel across America slaying monsters and demons and confounding vengeful spirits as they battle to track down the creature which killed their mother when they were nippers. Hip ,funny and rather spooky, SUPERNATURAL needs to be on your radar.

But this new age of TV fantasy isn? all slick American imports ?a few of our own efforts have slipped into the schedule too. Stephen Gallagher? much-anticipated enviro-thriller series ELEVENTH HOUR (ITV? answer to DOCTOR WHO, screamed the tabloids a few months ago!) sees Patrick Stewart as Professor Ian Hood, a Government scientific adviser investigating potentially-dangerous scientific developments. Some of these are torn screaming from the headlines ?clones, deadly viruses, climate changes ?but the problem with ELEVENTH HOUR is that that scripts are a bit clunky and there? not enough story to fill out ninety minutes. Oddly enough, there? no pilot or origin story here either. Stewart is teamed up with Rachel Young, a ballsy police officer (of course!) played by Ashley (EXTRAS) Jensen but there? no explanation of how they came together or why they stick together. Some of the dialogue is a bit cringey (?rozen water doesn? lie!? and while the four-film series is at least a break from the norm (two mis-matched coppers investigate grisly murder for two hours) it? in some ways dazzlingly traditional and, sadly, a bit of a disappointment.

ELEVENTH HOUR isn? the only disappointment. BBC2? new sci-fi sitcom HYPERDRIVE?ow can I put this delicately? I don? think I can?t stinks. HYPERDRIVE wants to be RED DWARF so much the characters might as well wander around calling themselves ?megheads?and spouting ?pace corps directives? At least they? get laughs. It? a tiresomely unimaginative premise. A giant spaceship called HMS Camden Lock is travelling through space ?elling?Great Britain to alien cultures. Sadly, much of this involves tired-out old space-fiction clich?like death rays and silly aliens. HYPERDRIVE is a waste of a good cast ?Kevin Eldon and Nick Frost have been favourites of mine for ages ?but the show is far too derivative and, relying on smirks and asides rather than jokes, it just ain? funny. It? also tanked in the ratings, which is rather odd for this sort of cult show on BBC2.

BBC1? SEA OF SOULS is back for its third season of six episodes and there? been some tweaking. Tweaking can be a good thing and tweaking can be a bad thing. SEA OF SOULS gets away with its tweaking ?but it? a close-run thing. Where the previous two seasons told three stories over two episodes each, this third series has told six individual stories. This has certainly tightened-up the storytelling ?some of the earlier stories were a bit too flabby for two episodes ?but a bit of the atmosphere has gone in the rush to tell a rattling, scary, Saturday night yarn. Because that? SEA OF SOULS?remit now ?to frighten the pants of its audience. The element of doubt has now gone from the show ?ghosts and spirits and scary things are out there, the series is now telling us ?and look what they can do! This leave our trio of paranormal investigators ?Douglas Monaghan (Bill Paterson), Craig Stevenson (Iain Robertson) and Justine McManus (Dawn Steele) ?with less paranormal investigating to do as they come into contact ?quite physically in some cases ?with any number of ghosts, spirits and succubuses. It? still entertaining stuff and a welcome addition to the Saturday night line-up, but there? an increased reliance on special effects this time around and a lot less moody gazing into dark corners. ITV? excellent AFTERLIFE (recently commissioned for an eight-part second series) now ploughs SEA OF SOULS?old patch but hey, there? room for them both!

Time travel! This is what we want, apparently. JOHNNY AND THE BOMB pitched up for three weeks in BBC1? occasional Sunday teatime serial slot. Based on the novel by Terry Pratchett, this was a classic time-travel paradox story where a group of modern kids travel back to World War Two Britain and inadvertently change history. Naturally they have to go back and put it all right again. Despite some good effects, an atmospheric recreation of 1940s Wartime England and an impressive adult cast ?Keith Barron, Zoe Wannamaker, Frank Finlay, Jon Henshaw, Felicity Montague ?JOHNNY AND THE BOMB was torpedoed by some universally-dreadful performances by its cast of children. Without exception they acted as if they? wandered onto the set on their way to their induction day at RADA. A good production but fatally flawed where it needed some real dramatic conviction.

The absolute triumph of this new season of genre TV has been BBC1? LIFE ON MARS, a ?ust see?Monday night drama which seems to have been making DOCTOR WHO-style waves. Series creators Matthew Graham and Ashley Pharoah have, playing by the convention of modern British television, created what appears to by a run-of-the-mill cop show and then completely subverted the genre by turning into a ?hat if..??time travel show. This allows them to indulge in their SWEENEY/PROFESSIONALS fantasies with a ready-made defence to those self-appointed guardians of our tender morals who wail in despair and start writing ?ear BBC, how dare you? letters if someone so much as scowls at somebody else before the so-called watershed. Anyway. LIFE ON MARS kicks off like every other cop show of recent vintage. DI Sam Tyler (the excellent John Simm) is a modern cop in modern Manchester investigating yet another modern serial killer. He gets run over and when he wakes up ?hey presto! ?it? 1973. Suddenly he? in a world of Ford Cortinas, Watney? Red Barrel, WPCs, boxes in alleys and unrecontructed, sexist, racist, two-fisted beer-swilling coppers who wouldn? know the Bail Act or the provisions of the Police And Criminal Evidence Act if they jumped up and bit them on their well-upholstered backsides. Tyler? naturally baffled by this world where the police caution is different, no-one uses mobiles phones, the only PCs in sight are the plods and the vibrant, modern Manchester he? used to is still a CORONATION STREET rabbit warren of dodgy loan sharks and paunchy drug dealers. The wonderful twist in LIFE ON MARS is its ambiguity; is Sam really back in 1973 or is he just in a coma after his accident, his damaged mind weaving an intricate, realistic fantasy in which his subconscious has to exist as long as it? told to? The clues are there ?but they?e ambiguous too; the voices, calling to him from somewhere, TV test-card girls coming to life and driving him half-insane.

The plots are the stuff of every cop show since time immemorial. Murders, racketeers, drugs?ut they?e done with such beautiful style and gusto, the contrast between Tyler? 21st century copper beautifully played against the no-nonsense, no-rules style of his 1970s colleagues, particular DCI Hunt, superbly played by Philip Glenister, clearly having the time of his acting life. The scripts are uniformly superb, packed with real belly-laughs and yet laced through with moments of genuine poignancy (Sam? craving to ?o home?and his meeting with the 1973 version of his mother). The hit of the season, a second series is already in production and, Simm? itchy feet notwithstanding, LIFE ON MARS could run and run.

And then, of course, there? the Doctor. After a nearly sixteen-year sabbatical the six-month gap between the end of the first new season and the 2005 Christmas special was just a blink of the eye but when ?he Christmas Invasion?came and went ?and pulled in a very impressive 9.8 million viewers in the UK ?fans old and new worried by the premature departure of Christopher Eccleston and the sudden arrival of the relatively-unknown David Tennant could breathe a sigh of relief. ?he Christmas Invasion?itself was a triumph and Tennant himself a glorious success. Easily Russell T Davies?best effort yet for the show, this was INDEPENDENCE DAY on a BBC budget ?and didn? they do well! Big, bold, brash, a bit tongue-in-cheek, this was a show back on screen with all the confidence and swagger of a show which knows it? good and which knows it? popular. Director James Hawes brought out the best in what was sometimes a flippant script and created some startling and memorable images ?the crash-landing TARDIS, the killer Christmas tree, the huge Sycorax battleship looming above familiar London landmarks, blood-controlled humans ready to jump from tall buildings, the roaring Sycorax army? The sheer pace of the thing kept the audience? mind off some plot contrivances and when Tennant, fully recovered from yet another traumatic regeneration, emerged from the TARDIS to save the day, his pulsating bravura performance must have convinced even the nayest of nay-sayers that the controls of the TARDIS are in the safest of hands. As someone once said, fantastic.

So is this new wave of fantasy TV a sign of changing times or just a coincidence of scheduling? It certainly seems as if the high-profile days of reality TV are waning but it? depressing to see derivative fare like DANCING ON ICE pulling in big numbers for ITV on Saturdays and, despite what seemed to be mediocre viewing figures, the latest CELEBRITY BIG BROTHER seems to have engendered a rabid fever of excitement in the Press that can only have been caused by hard drugs in their water supply. Happily the new genre shows are attracting attention and some largely good notices. One or two of them have been a bit iffy but, HYPERDRIVE apart, none of them have been an embarrassment. Let? keep our fingers crossed that this is the beginning of some good times for British TV and if it turns out it isn?, then let? just enjoy it while we can.

What? next on the horizon?? Is that a Police Box I see spinning towards me? Season two of new WHO?? Bring it onU ]]>

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