The Monday meme: Robo-Apocalypse

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It never fails that when I see various scientific experiments being done, especially ones that are close to the plots of science fiction films, something lingering in the back of my mind wants to yell out “NO!!!! Haven’t you seen X”. This is of course with “X” being a stand in for things like 28 days later, Planet of the Apes, Threads, Terminator etc. I know it’s illogical, but I don’t want to be the guy reminding everyone that the giant “hellmouth” opening in  New York could have been avoided if these guys ever played Doom 2.

 

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Dirk Gently (2012) Season 1, Episode 2

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Dirk Gently and Richard MacDuff, of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, may be the definite B-list (maybe even C-list) detective duo at the BBC, but I’m always excited to read or watch one of their few adventures. Way back in 2010, The BBC commissioned a one-off “pilot” episode of a show starring Stephen Mangan and Darren Boyd based on the popular Douglas Adams story. It was successful, and a three episode series was later commissioned in 2012. I’m sad that there will only ever be FOUR TOTAL episodes of this show, and it was seemingly canceled last year. I guess that’s how it goes for experimental shows on BBC4, don’t get too attached, I suppose.

As you may or may not be aware, Dirk is on a quest to understand the “fundamental interconnectedness of all things”, a philosophy that has crept into his job as a private detective of sorts. He basically thinks that EVERYTHING is connected, no matter how tenuous the bond, and no matter how preposterous it all seems. This has lead to stories involving outlandish things like time traveling cats! Dirk comes across as either completely insane or some kind of sociopathic con-man when he is out “detecting”, but he always comes through with a solved case, no matter how preposterous the whole ordeal is. It seems there really is a method to his madness.

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People like to compare this show to Steven Moffat‘s Sherlock, and in many ways I see the coincidental similarities, but see the show as totally different. Stephen Mangan as Dirk Gently might be zany, but he never comes across as a candidate for a future serial killer like the Benedict Cumberbatch version of Mr. Holmes. He’s not a know-it-all, smarter than everyone else character, he’s a spinning ball of random ideas that seem to click into place when one least expects it. In this way, he more resembles The Doctor, from Doctor Who of course, a character I could definitely see Mangan doing a good job with someday if BBC comes knocking on his door. When I mentioned this show’s cancellation, it sort of bugs me that many did in fact see this as a “rip-off” of sorts to Sherlock, and I wonder if that lead to the early demise.

In this second of three episodes (aside from the pilot), Dirk and MacDuff are called back to Dirk’s old University – St. Cedd’s Institute of Science and Technology, Cambridge (fans of the “lost” Doctor Who serial “Shada” might recognize this fictional school!). They have been summoned by a man named Professor Jericho to provide specialist security detail for his new creation. It seems Jericho has created a VERY sophisticated new artificial intelligence and autonomous robot named Elaine, and Jericho is paranoid about someone stealing Elaine or the A.I. program. When this happens almost immediately (both are stolen!), Dirk investigates the crime seeing Jericho’s colleague Emelda as the prime suspect. MacDuff meanwhile is tempted to leave Dirk’s agency as his girlfriend, Susan, has applied for a job in Cambridge.

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The best thing about this episode is that it really starts to peel back the goofy layers of Dirk’s character and reveal who he truly is. I loved how they even introduced a love interest for our would-be Sherlock of the holistic variety. While Dirk’s back-story isn’t exactly hidden (we’ve seen bits of it referenced in each episode now), finding out about little gems such as his relationship to Professor Jericho (his mentor essentially) and what led to his expulsion from St. Cedd’s is great and really allows for one to understand his bizarre way of looking at the world.

Unfortunately, Richard MacDuff seems slightly under-utilized in this adventure, and really takes a back-seat in the overall narrative. It’s not like he disappears or anything, he is just dealing with his possible life changing situation with his significant other, Susan. The prospect of possibly being forced to move, and leave the agency, has “bummed him out” and left him with little to do while Dirk runs around like a crazy man.

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Unlike what we saw in the last episode, the mystery at hand was actually a lot more fleshed out this time around. There was a stolen robot, a dead body, and even some decent red herrings put there to confuse us. Then again, that isn’t hard in this show, as the answer to the “puzzle” is always something totally crazy that comes out of left field. So far, this may be the best episode of the three I’ve seen so far writing-wise, although the pilot was so wacky that it has a permanent residence on my list of awesome TV episodes.

One thing that stuck out to me in this episode was the director’s use of random horror trappings to set the mood of the episode. At one point, we are almost led to believe that the robot herself may be the murderer, thus preparing the viewer for an apocalyptic fight between man and machine that never happens. There are also weird camera angles, mysterious shadows, and even a hidden child’s room – all things that one might recognize from horror cinema.

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This episode had an amazing guest cast, and I was particularly fond of Lydia Wilson as Jane, the aforementioned love interest. She comes across as just about the only person even weirder than Dirk with her crutches, obsession with sea salt flavored chips, and Scandinavian accent. She is VERY smart, but somehow not exactly all there. A tip of my hat also goes to a character named David Cho (as played by Will Sharpe). Cho starts out as the most likely perpetrator of the entire case, a link to a Chinese plot to steal jericho’s work. Little do we know, Cho is actually a lovesick World of Warcraft enthusiast who’s “lost his heart to an Elf and his man to a Gnome.” totally weird stuff here guys!

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This second episode is definitely the best one so far, and really makes me want to quickly finish the series up as quick as I can. I enjoyed just about everything in here, minus MacDuff basically being a glorified prop for Mangan to interact with. The regular cast are great as always, the guest cast is superb, and the plop is totally bonkers and yet makes perfect sense. Sadly, after this there is only one more episode of Dirk Gently left to consume.

 

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Dirk Gently (2012) Season 1, Episode 1

While everyone may be enjoying the infrequent adventures of a certain pair of detectives from 221b Baker Street, there is another duo of private eyes on the loose at the BBC. What? You have no idea who I’m talking about! Does Douglas Adams ring a bell? How about an unreliable brown British Leyland Princess? Of course, I’m talking about Dirk Gently and MacDuff of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, and their quest to understand the “fundamental interconnectedness of all things”. As with the pilot episode, in which I did a write up for a while ago (HERE), Dirk Gently isn’t mainly a science fiction show, and teeters closer to being a straight comedy show. The source material was written by Douglas Adams and has some sci-fi elements like robots, time travel and such; this keeps it on topic enough for me.

I’m glad that the BBC decided to pick the series up for some further adventures after 2010’s pilot episode, as I felt that the show had a ton of potential, despite a miniscule budget. The three part nature of this series makes me hope there is more after these initial stories. I guess the Sherlock similarities continue in that regard; just when you want more of the show, you realize that there is a miniscule amount of episodes available with a long space in between seasons.

This new series has the same cast from the pilot episode including Stephen Mangan as the titular holistic detective and Darren Boyd as Richard Macduff (Watson to Gently’s Sherlock as it were). For those totally new to the character, one can imagine Gently as the complete antithesis to Sherlock Holmes. While Holmes is amazingly clever, makes light of every miniscule detail that mere mortals would never pay attention to, and makes everyone look foolish just by his sheer presence, Gently does none of these. He makes ridiculous leaps of logic, mutters about an esoteric philosophy that only he subscribes to, comes to the wrong conclusions, ends at a result that makes absolutely no sense whatsoever, and yet is somehow correct every time. His randomness and eagerness to make a quick buck makes him look like a total con-man in just about every way, and everyone hates him for his incompetent manner in which he works.

This episode contains two seemingly separate storylines that, as anyone who has seen the pilot or read the books, will come together in the end. Dirk’s whole theory is that everything in the entire world is somehow intertwined, so things that seem totally unrelated end up being just the opposite. One of these plotlines involves the death of a conspiracy theorist that believes the Pentagon is out to get him; the other is a man that takes horoscopes far too seriously. In fact, all of the supposed red herrings that we see in the show coalesce into one large and absurdly convoluted mystery.

Sadly, while I loved the pilot, and felt that it came together very well, I felt that this episode fell a tiny bit short. There were some hilarious gags, great dialog, and enough of a mystery to keep one guessing the whole way through, but something was off. I think it just seemed rushed or something, like they tried to put way too much into one story and ended up with something incomplete as a whole. This isn’t to say that it’s a bad episode; it’s just the weaker of the two that I’ve seen. Hopefully the next two pick it up for me.

Two shadows loom over this production, both of which are unnecessary in my opinion. Some fans will be sad that these stories are not literal versions of the original books, yet borrow heavily from the source material. This has caused the whole production to be unfairly “pooped on” by many people, the irony being that Adams hated for his stuff to stay the same whenever he produced it. The Hitchhikers Guide series was originally a radio show, it was re-written as a book, and then further changed to be a 1981 TV series, all under the direct supervision of Adams. He even helped write the script for the 2005 movie, but sadly died before it could be finished. Whining about any changes in plot are silly, and aren’t in the spirit of the material.

Our second shadow happens to be the aforementioned Steven Moffat helmed Sherlock craze. While I agree that Sherlock is a superior show in every way, I don’t feel that people should compare the two as they have little in common. The reason I keep mentioning Holmes and Watson when relating to the show in this review, is that the pairing has basically become a character archetype and anything similar can naturally be elaborated on as such. And while Gently may not be as “cool” as Sherlock, the show still stands as a great piece of light entertainment for weekend viewing.

In conclusion, episode one of this new series of Dirk Gently is pretty decent, if not a bit underwhelming compared to the pilot. The promise of the show and the strong acting keeps me coming back, and makes me love the show even more. If they can capture the magic ratio of mystery to jokes that we’ve seen before, I think this could go down as one of my favorite comedies of the year, if not it could be a huge disappointment. Only time will tell….

TV Review – Dirk Gently

Douglas Adams is one of those writers that never really gets enough credit here in America.  His books are pretty popular, especially in the nerdy science fiction fan sub-culture, yet most here don’t know his name.  I remember partaking in “bring a towel day” or somesuch when we went to see the Hollywood big budget version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and utterly baffled people.  Its commonplace top see kids dressed up as vampires and Jedi out in front of the theater, but towels got us all weird looks and things like “did you guys just come back from the pool?”

Not too long ago, I was browsing around a Douglas Adams entry on Wikipedia, and noticed that BBC4 was going to air a pilot for a proposed TV show called Dirk Gently, obviously based on Adam’s own Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency.  I’ve actually never had a chance to read all of my copy of this book as it is included in a very large leather-bound edition of The Hitchhiker’s Guide that I have.  I do know that they have toned down the zaniness of the book a tad, and re-adapted it for TV.  This is something that I’m fine with, as Adams was always adamant that his stories be changed around whenever they are re-made as TV shows, radio etc…

The story kicks off with an introduction to some of the eccentricities of Dirk Gently.  We find him interviewing an older lady asking questions on a missing person that he will be looking for if he takes the case.  He explains that he believes in the “fundamental interconnectedness of all things”, and that the bill he has footed her for a new refrigerator is definitely pertinent to the case at hand due to this.  This is a great first look into the character as the TV writers have shown just how he operates.  He is not only eccentric, but comes across as some sort of a con-man trying to prey on people that need him the most.  We soon find out that the case is, in fact to find a missing cat rather than a person.  A fitting case for this “poor man’s Sherlock Holmes”.

Bits and pieces of the original plot of the book are here, but a lot of side characters are left out.  The overlying plot of this episode is actually only part of the full story.  I can only hope that this gets picked up for a season and we get to see versions of characters such as “The Electric Monk”.  They did downplay the science fiction elements to a large degree except for one really big thing that exists as the lynchpin of the whole case.  I can’t spoil it too much as it would ruin the story!

The casting and location chosen for this production is very good for the budget at hand.  One can tell with a scarce amount of special effects and long scenes of dialog that this is a very low budget affair, and yet it never really looks “cheap”.  The few scenes we have that involve any CGI at all, namely a warehouse explosion. look pretty good.  I’m really glad they didn’t go too crazy as other shows with a small budget, most notably Hyperdrive, try too hard to look “big budget” and end up looking like a student film because of the terrible CGI.

I can’t wait to see if this gets picked up for a full run, but even if it does not this would be a fitting addition to any Douglas Adams fan’s collection.  Let’s just hope it get put out on DVD here at some point.

My Rating 4 out of 5