Buckle up (or should that be beam me up?), we’re having a sci-fi week here on TV Viewpoint. Two new programmes premiered this week, capitalising on the ongoing appetite for glossy sci-fi with a nostalgic edge, although each couldn’t be more different.
There was a time in the early 90s when you couldn’t find a child in a schoolyard running around without a hairband over their eyes in homage to Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Geordi La Forge, or stealing their older sisters’ Max Factor pan-stick to look like the android Data. The Next Generation was exciting, a bit camp (all that spandex!) and a vehicle for teaching tolerance and encouraging acceptance for all.
Continuing the current trend for gritty re-boots, sequels and prequels comes Star Trek: Picard. While I, for one am more partial to the quirkier escapist episodes involving time-loops and being trapped on the holo-deck, this promises the darker angle that Star Trek: Discovery has started. It opens with the retired captain of the star ship Enterprise dreaming about his former friend and colleague Commander Data. Data, for those who need reminding, sacrificed himself for the greater good, events that took place in the last movie which was released in 2002.
Luckily for those who haven’t seen it there’s plenty of exposition to explain it all. The suicide mission was intended to release millions of Romulans from slavery, which it exceeded in, but also led to Mars going on fire (!), remaining burning ever since (!!) and the total ban of AI robots due to fears over their potentially murderess intentions. Almost twenty year later order has been restored, Picard has retired to a vineyard and while not entirely content is plodding along in his twilight years.
That is until his quiet life is interrupted by a young woman in need of his help. Assassins have targeted her, killed her boyfriend and she doesn’t know why. It appears that something strange is afoot with her, and investigations by a reinvigorated Picard lead to the conclusion that she’s Data’s ‘daughter’, an android unknowingly disguised as a human. It’s also revealed that androids come in pairs, so she has a long lost twin sister somewhere out there, and so the story begins.
Impressive production values predict futuristic high-rise buildings peppered around Paris; with any luck Parisian officials will take note and deny any such planning applications. The first episode is an example of a really good pilot; it establishes the background, sets up the over-arching main storyline while delivering twists and shocks aplenty and presents a well-thought-out universe. The series preview suggests lots of daring-do, and Patrick Stewart as Picard looks reliably comfortable in his starring role. Star Trek: Picard can be watched each Friday on Amazon Prime.
If you prefer your sci-fi a little lighter to the point of pastiche, there’s also Avenue 5, another new television show set in space, on Sky One on Wednesdays. The titular spaceship is basically a giant cruise ship in the sky, captained by an affable and charming Hugh Laurie and over-run with, well, the type of people you might find swanning around on an all-expenses-included eight-week sojourn among the stars.
There’s the crew, bending over forewards, rather than backwards, to assist the passengers after a gravity malfunction sets the ship on an irreversible three year course rather than the two months they expected, and holographic billboards pointing out highlights like the all-you-can-eat buffet, “If you’re not completely satisfied – you’re wrong”. An I’d-like-to-talk-to-the-manager woman and her timid husband, a tediously bickering couple on the brink of divorce. There are hapless engineers and a boorish boss. Although it isn’t quite The Thick of It in space, it tries damn hard to be.
Created by Armando Iannucci, of the aforementioned British political satire, its American counterpoint, Veep and Alan Partridge, Avenue 5’s aimless plot and chaotic setting doesn’t exactly hit the same spot as its predecessors. One thing that I couldn’t get past were the dodgy mid-Atlantic accents some of the British actors adopted, the type of generic American twang you’d hear your tween daughters put on while playing make-believe. Because of the ensemble cast set-up, boasting notable comic actors, much of the dialogue is gag-heavy. Very hit and miss, some one-liners are best left hanging, while some others are nailed with aplomb. Frequent Iannucci collaborator Zach Woods, as the head of passenger communications, gets the best lines and delivers them well, and many of the characters have potential to become the type of horrifying classic Alan Partridge became. But it remains to be seen whether the stellar cast has what it takes to reach beyond the stars, or at least as far as a second season.
- First published in The Tuam Herald on January 29th, 2020