How To Watch British Television in America

An easy guide on how to watch all this stuff I keep yammering on about!

We live in a very interesting time for entertainment consumers. Gone are the days of only having a small selection of television channels to watch on any given day. First, the home video and DVD markets opened the floodgates on older and far more obscure programming to watch. This was followed by internet streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu, and those dreaded Peer to Peer and bittorrent clients. No longer is the consumer shackled to the whims of a TV executive or commercial entity. For the most part, barriers are falling and e can watch what we want, when we want,how we want.

This blog covers one particular type of media – UK science fiction and other “genre” programming. A lot of the stuff I cover is readily available to Americans on pay services or home video releases, but what I want to do is give a general overview on how I watch all this stuff. Don’t fret if you are a reader that doesn’t live in the U.S., most of these tips can help you out as well no matter what country you live in.

dvd_region_codes2
Look for one of these on the back of your DVDs

Region Codes, and how to bypass them.

As many science fiction fans may have noticed – shows licensed from UK companies such as Doctor Who cost about twice or even three times more than most U.S. television shows. This can be particularly bad if you are on a budget and don’t want to break the bank. Yes, a few of these shows are available on Netflix (e.g.Red Dwarf, Doctor Who, and Day of the Triffids) but some shows that I plan on eventually getting such as the Tripods or Blakes 7 will probably never come out here or be released on a streaming device. You can obviously download things and burn them, or watch programs on your computer, but if you are like me, this choice is never as good as watching a good quality image whilst sitting in a comfy chair. This is where region-free DVD players some in.

stupid
this is what happens when you try to play a disk on the wrong player (Photo credit: williac)

So what are DVD regions? They are an archaic policy adopted by home media companies decades ago to promote policies such as price discrimination, disallow reverse importation, and control costs with staggered release dates. For example, in America a company can get away with selling a seven year old season of Doctor Who for around $79.99 due to the niche market and limited exposure. In the United Kingdom this would be ludicrous, and as such, it is much cheaper. Anyone in their right mind, when confronted with such a price difference, would just order these DVDs from England. This is what they are trying to stop. America is called “region 1” and the UK is “region 2” so neither can easily watch each others home media very easily. If you pop a foreign DVD into your personal DVD player it will have an error message, this is the same with personal computers,game systems and just about everything else that would make you happy. Here are maps of the DVD regions and Blu-Ray regions. 

DVD-Regions-map
DVD Regions
Blu-Ray Regions
Blu-Ray Regions

My recommendation to anyone that may decide to watch some harder to find UK shows is to do one of the following two things:

Region-Free DVD Players
Region-Free DVD Players are big business in some countries(Photo credit: Hikosaemon)

1) Cheap Method: It’s a little known secret that most, if not all cheap Chinese-made DVD players are actually region-free, and have their region locks installed via software within the factory. In the past I used to get DVD players from Digix or Coby for around 20-30 dollars. These players were pretty crappy for the most part, and honestly aren’t worth it unless you can’t swing what I will post on option 2. I remember having this one particular model of Coby DVD player that would work fine until around the six month mark, *boom* – broken. The trick to using one of these is to do a little research. Websites like DVD Help have listings of DVD players and whether they can be region hacked or not. Most of these are simple to hack, as a numerical code on the DVD remote usually does the trick.

2) Best Method – depending on how much one wants to spend, visiting a site like Region Free DVD is the best option. Tired of dealing with cheap players, I plunked down 100 dollars for a Toshiba regionless HDMI up-scaling DVD player, and will never look back. Not only is the picture better in just about every way, but the player itself is tailored for wide screen TVs and widescreen media, like most UK TV.

The reason I recommend getting one of these players is pretty self explanatory with the numbers. Here are the prices and availability of one show Life on Mars, and its spin-off/sequel Ashes to Ashes.

Amazon.com

LOM Season 1: $49.99-$79.00

LOM Season 2: $49.99-$79.00

A2A S1: Not released

A2A S2: Not released

A2A S3:Nor released

Total $100.00+ for 2 seasons, Ashes to Ashes not even announced for release as far as I know.

Ashes to Ashes (TV series)
Ashes to Ashes (TV series) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Amazon.co.uk

(as of today’s exchange rates)

LOM Season 1: $15.00

LOM Season 2: $15.00

A2A S1: $15.00

A2A S2: $15.00

A2A S3: $20.00

Total $80.00 for 5 seasons, all episodes complete, there are also combo packs of all three Ashes to Ashes seasons, and both Life on Mars seasons that could bring the price down even more. 

And now you can see why I do this, and shipping isn’t bad either – maybe 8 bucks for most DVD orders to reach the U.S. If you don’t care to get a new DVD or Blu-Ray player, there are also computer programs that disable region codes on PCs. Technically you can watch foreign DVDs on there as it does allow for a VERY limited amount of region swaps, but be careful. If you keep switching regions, it will eventually permanently lock into one. Most computers can be toggled around six times before this happens. 

But lets say you don’t care about actually owning these shows, is there a way to watch these on TV or on your computer? Why yes there is!

Cable TV Alternatives

Image representing Netflix as depicted in Crun...
Image via CrunchBase

There are three major streaming services in the U.S.: Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime. These three companies have become my lifeline lately, as I decided to “cut the cord” a few years back, and drop my cable subscription. Needless extra channels and ever-increasing prices were getting to be a headache,and I’m glad there was an alternative to cable and satellite. While there is a bit of cross-over, all three companies have their strengths and weaknesses in price and availability. In a general sense, Netflix is better for movies, Hulu is better for TV, and Amazon Prime is like a weird cousin of both – having VERY popular TV shows and movies, but less of them.

Hulu
Hulu (Photo credit: Evan Hamilton)

Netflix gets big props for having licenses for some of the bigger shows like Doctor Who and Top gear. With the latter, they even have all of the 20+ seasons (minus the first) all ready to marathon. Hulu has been bringing quite a few UK comedies and dramas over as “Hulu Exclusives” such as Rev. and Whites as of late. Other shows like Moone Boy, Misfits, and Pramface have been getting quite a bit of traction on there as well, bringing what could be considered “more obscure” shows to a new audience. Amazon Prime is the oddity here. They have some huge shows like Downton Abbey and things like Sarah Jane Adventures as well as next day purchase options for the NEW episodes of big shows. This year, I spent 2 bucks a pop for Doctor Who series 7, something that I could have pirated, but chose not to.

amazon-prime

Considering that my monthly cable bill used to run some $120, these companies are awesome. Hulu is $7.99 per month, as is Netflix, and Amazon Prime is $79.99 yearly. There are other perks for the Amazon subscription including free two day shipping on everything, so if you are a heavy Amazon user, I don’t know why you wouldn’t use this service.

Public Broadcasting Service
Public Broadcasting Service (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Kickin’ it Oldschool

For our penultimate section I decided to bring up regular old TV, whether it be network, cable, or satellite. This is not my preferred method of watching UK TV, but it will definitely do in a pinch. For years, the Public Broadcasting Service has helped many an Anglophile get their fix. I grew up watching comedies like Keeping Up Appearances, Mr. Bean, and Monty Python just to name a few. My local PBS station still runs a Saturday block of UK TV all sponsored by some very passionate fans. Some of the videotapes they use look pretty bad now, but if you haven’t seen the show digitally remastered you will be none-the-wiser. Some PBS stations even run shows like Doctor Who and Red Dwarf, so keep an eye on the schedule. Outside of that, cable providers have a decent amount of UK TV, especially if you have BBC America on your cable plan. The problem with “regular TV” is that most US TV execs love to remake everything that is popular rather than airing the original.

bittorrent

“By other means”

I won’t lie, I sometimes obtain TV episodes from the internet. Whether it be a bit-torrent client or YouTube,if one is internet savvy enough pretty much anything is obtainable online. For older shows that are out of print on DVD and impossible to legally obtain over here, I have ventured onto torrent sites quite often. be warned, this is NOT legal at worst and kind of a  gray area at best, and could land you in trouble. I would never download a Hollywood film or adult film using these sorts of programs, as shady litigation “honey pots” are out there to tempt people into breaking the law. Another option is using proxy servers or streaming sites to access UK-only TV providers. I haven’t really dabbled with this, and have no real opinion on the use of these programs or the results.

So there you go fellow anglophiles, I hope this helps you navigate the wondrous world of British television much easier, and gives you some new stuff to watch. If you have any questions on show availability, or tips on how to watch something, please feel free to ask, as I may be able to help.

The Tripods (1984) – A village in England: July, 2089 AD

The Tripods first came to my attention a few years ago when I stumbled upon a picture of one of the titular crafts in some sort of memorabilia magazine full of garage model kits. As I recall, I had no idea that there was some sort of “sequel” to H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, and wondered why I had never heard of it. I was, of course, mistaken as the concept of these three-legged walking crafts is merely inspired by those similar Martian crafts, and have no relation otherwise. The Tripods was actually a series of “young reader” novels penned by John Christopher in the late 1960’s to the early 1980’s. The series was a success and was eventually adapted into the very television show that we’re talking about today. The production was a joint venture between the BBC and the Australian Seven network, and lasted two seasons. Sadly a third season died before it went into production.

The Tripods is immediately unsettling based solely on the setting alone. The juxtaposition of the words “A village in England: July, 2089 AD” and the primitive, somewhat pastoral, village setting we see right from the get-go sets up what I will be calling “The Reverse Shyamalan”- we have already seen the twist, let’s find out why it happened. We know that something isn’t right: either these people are some sort of Anabaptist off-shoot that hates technology, or something bad has happened in the past. This is answered almost immediately as we meet the main characters on their way to a village celebration. It seems that a neighborhood boy has reached the age at which everyone is considered an adult, and is to have his “capping ceremony”.

tripods-episode-1-capping-ceremony-tripod

Will and his cousin Henry are disturbed by this practice as everyone that gets “capped” comes back different. Capped individuals seem to lose any sort of creativity, drive, and imagination that made them who they were . “Adults” become bland worker drones that want no other past time than work and singing the praise of their “masters”. These masters are of course gigantic three legged monstrosities called “Tripods” and the Capping Ceremony can be surmised as a way of them controlling humans. At this point we have no idea what these creatures are or what they want with the human race, but one can see that it isn’t good.

Will strikes up a conversation with an eccentric “vagrant” named Ozymandias that talks of a land of free men in the White Mountains, a land outside of the influence of the tripods. Vagrants are those that are seen as harmless by the Tripods and regular capped townspeople, but are not allowed to mingle with everyone else. Usually it is accepted that these people were “driven mad” by the capping process and are better to be not spoken about. Will is amazed by what Ozymandias has to say, and plans to escape to the European mainland to find this utopia of freedom.

tripods-episode-1-will-and-ozymandias

As with many BBC science fiction productions of the time, the special effects are dated to the eighties. The hairstyles, clothes, and even set designs are very much reminiscent of other TV productions I have seen from the time. This show does appear to have a better budget than something like classic Doctor Who, in that there are location shots, outdoor scenes, and other evidence that the whole thing wasn’t just locked into a dark studio in an industrial park somewhere. The tripods themselves are done with miniatures and puppets; these look great to me and would have been poorly done had contemporary computer generated effects come into play. I sometimes look at late eighties Doctor Who and cringe at some of the special effects. For me this eighties vibe adds to the charm, and there really isn’t anything that makes it so dated that it’s hard to watch – something that is hard to say about a handful of older U.S. productions that haven’t held up. I recall renting the TV series to the landmark miniseries V, and barely making it through the season. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that the boys are walking around in a post-apocalyptic world that had a vaguely referenced bad thing happen in the past. If you see them find some blatantly eighties clothes in an abandoned storefront, as we see in a later episode it makes sense because humanity has regressed to something like pre-industrialized England or a reasonable facsimile thereof.

tripods-episode-1-capping-ceremony

One thing that immediately caught me was the musical score as done by Ken Freeman. He is notable for being behind the synthesizer parts of the legendary rock opera version of The War of the Worlds by Jeff Wayne.Freeman did a great job of creating a solid synthesizer-based soundtrack for the series; one that is neither overpowering nor too minimalist. I always had problems with eighties shows being accompanied by either disco music (which immediately dates it) or music that sounds like a cat running across a piano to emphasize action. Here is a video of the opening theme to give you an idea of the kind of music I’m talking about. While the show hasn’t had as much exposure, I liken this to equally catchy and iconic theme songs such as The A-Team, Airworlf, and Doctor Who.

The Tripods is a solid show, and has captivated both my wife and I all this week. Perhaps it is my love for these sort of post-apocalyptic stories that has led me to such enjoyment, but I feel any science fiction fan should enjoy it unless they are adverse to seeing the eighties. The Tripods is one of those shows that keeps you on the edge of your seat; whether it be the unraveling mystery of what happened before 2089, or the constant cliffhanger endings,I was always entertained.

tripods-episode-1-tripod-over-trees

How to watch this at your house:

For whatever reason, The Tripods was never released in the United States or Canada on home media. I assume that this boils down to Disney “squatting” on the rights to making a feature film based on the license. Disney has a habit of blocking DVD releases of things until it suits them monetarily (see Tron on DVD prior to the release of the second film). If they had been released, I could have recommended you guys just ordering this on Amazon, but a tad more creativity is needed if you want to watch this show over here. If you have a region-free DVD player, you could always import the show from the UK; make sure you read my guide to region-free DVD players for more info on importing home media to the U.S. If you’d rather not deal with things like international shipping, I did find a seller with the import in America, but one still needs the special player to run the disks”

The Tripods: Series 1 & 2 [Regions 2 & 4]

Of course there are  also “other means”, but I’ll leave that up to you guys! If books are more your speed, there are four in the Tripods series:

The White Mountains

The City of Gold and Lead

The Pool of Fire

When the Tripods Came