Hugo Blogging: Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form

Or “Which episode of Doctor Who by Steven Moffat will win this year?”

Of the six nominees in this category, four are Doctor Who or Doctor Who-related. This is simply ridiculous. Even as a Doctor Who fan (albeit not much of a fan of the post-2005 series) the way it dominates the discourse around SF TV makes me feel a little queasy. Surely — surely — there must be other good SF TV?

However, this also means that, despite not having a TV and not really being at all interested in TV made after about 1992 (with the exception of Hannibal, which is wonderful), I’ve seen the majority of the candidates for this because I spent much of last year writing a book about Doctor Who. I won’t be trying to watch the episode of Game of Thrones, not having watched the previous twelve million episodes and thus having no idea what was going on.

Incidentally, trying to get to watch Orphan Black just shows how ridiculous DRM, regional restrictions, and platform-exclusivity actually are for users. I’m a subscriber to Netflix, but it’s not on Netflix, because it’s Amazon-exclusive. Fine, I’m also signed up (without asking) to Amazon Prime Video, since I’m on Amazon Prime and they “upgraded” me without any option. So I check there — it’s watchable on Prime Video in the US, but not in the UK.

However, it is watchable on Amazon Instant Video in the UK, but that costs £1.89 to “buy” a DRM-encumbered version I can only watch on Amazon’s site. Annoying, since I have two separate video streaming services I’m paying for (one of which I don’t even use) but OK. I pay the £1.89. The video won’t play on GNU/Linux (and of course I don’t have a machine with any other OS). However, I do have WiNE set up in the tweaked way you need in order to watch Netflix on this machine, so I try it with Amazon. No luck — it just hangs.

So I end up torrenting a copy. It takes three minutes including time to search for it. The torrent is from a site that is supposedly “blocked” by my ISP, but it was still much, much easier to do than watching a legal copy.

(Note that I did in fact *pay* for a legal copy, before torrenting).

Ranked from top to bottom:

The Five(ish) Doctors Rebooted — Peter Davison’s lovely comedy about the efforts of the surviving actors who played the Doctor in the 1963-89 Doctor Who is the single best thing to have come out of the fiftieth anniversary celebrations. It’s packed full of fannish in-jokes, but accessible enough that my wife, who is someone who quite likes some of the Big Finish audios and a couple of the stories she’s seen on DVD, but certainly wouldn’t know, say, The Seeds of Doom from The Seeds of Death, watched it multiple times. It’s genuinely funny, and suggests that the next Doctor Who spin-off should be Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy starring in a rebooted Last of the Summer Wine.

The Day of the Doctor — This had almost all Steven Moffat’s usual faults, and is in a genre I dislike — the “turn your brain off and look at the pretty explosions” action movie — but thanks largely to the cast (David Tennant did a far better job here than in any episode during his time on the show, and Hurt was as good as one would imagine) managed to just about do the series justice. The fact that this was just voted Best Episode EVAH! in Doctor Who Magazine‘s readers’ poll ranking every episode is an utter joke, of course — it’s a light piece of froth with less actual substance even than the other anniversary specials — but it was fun, and it will win.


No Award

Orphan Black episode 6 — this is a perfectly decent programme, as far as I can tell. It’s a series about a group of women who’ve discovered they’re clones of each other (probably connected in some way to a character who appears in this one who is Definitely Not Ray Kurzweil Honest). This episode is a mistaken-identity farce, involving one (with an accent that I think was meant to be English, though it kept going into New Zealand or somewhere) desperately having to cover for another (Generic Midwestern US), along with a subplot involving a third (in Minnesota but sounding just like the other generic midwesterner) meeting NotKurzweil. A perfectly reasonable way to spend forty-five minutes, I suppose, but certainly not deserving of a major award.

An Adventure In Space And Time — this was Mark Gatiss’ attempt at telling the story of the first few years of Doctor Who. Leaving aside the historical inaccuracies, both about Who itself and in general (the dialogue was tin-eared — nobody in the 60s spoke anything like the way these characters did), which are fair enough in something not billing itself as actual fact, the fact remains that this just takes a bunch of situations from the first few years of the show and then sticks them into the exact same template we’ve seen a million times before for this kind of “docu-drama”. It’s a perfectly competent representation of its type, but that’s all it is, no better or worse than all the other BBC3 filler punched out of the same mould, and not deserving of any kind of award.

The Name of the Doctor — Lawrence Miles’ review of this, which consisted of a photo of a naked bottom (presumably his own) was, if anything, a little kind. An incoherent mess.



The only one of the long-form dramas on the ballot that I’ve seen is Gravity, which I thought was pretty good, so that will be the only one I rank.

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12 Responses to Hugo Blogging: Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form

  1. prankster36 says:

    Hey Andrew, good to see you back at blogging…

    This is pretty tangental and I really don’t intend to be one of those people who tries to push stuff on people that they wouldn’t like, but I’m sort of an evangelist by nature so I just thought I’d throw this out there: I really think, of any medium, TV has reached a startling high point in the last 15 years or so. At least, American TV, which is the kind I watch mostly, being in NA and Canadian TV being pretty middling stuff…though the aforementioned Orphan Black is actually a Canadian-produced show (I believe the clone you’ve described as “midwestern” is actually supposed to be from Toronto, but I haven’t seen the episode in question, I just know that one of the major clones is from there). (For what it’s worth, I saw the first 4 episodes and thought it was quite good, though a lot of it comes down to Tatiana Maslany being *incredible*)

    Anyway, there really is an embarrassment of riches out there when it comes to TV produced in the last decade and a half, or even before, but I suppose it needs to be said that SF TV has been rather in decline for a while now; the last notable American SF show (actual SF, as opposed to fantasy and superhero stuff) was the remade Battlestar Galactica, which had some very high high points and some very low low points. The other main SF shows since are Lost and Fringe, neither of which I can really recommend, and both of which seem to have been written by people who weren’t really science fiction fans, though they occasionally stumble into some interesting ideas. They have their small pleasures but they certainly don’t make a strong case for SF TV shows since the turn of the millennium. Going back a bit, Firefly is of course controversial due mainly to its obnoxious fanbase, and it suffers from being an action/adventure oriented series that was gearing up to deal with some substantial themes but got cancelled before it could really do so. I have absolutely no idea if its your kind of thing, and I’m aware that even recommending that show gets you sidewise looks in some quarters, but I think it’s an enjoyable series, if a bit fluffy.

    However, your 1992 cutoff date suggests you’re neither a fan of The X-Files or Star Trek: Deep Space Nine? While obviously those shows had their serious flaws (DS9 is a goofy, stagey show from this remove, and the X-Files was all over the place, with an “ongoing” storyline that was mostly just stringing along the fanbase) they have some really remarkable episodes and ideas. I’ve just been rewatching DS9 recently and was rather amazed at how complex and original the ideas were, even as the human drama sometimes falls flat. And some episodes of The X-Files rank among the best hours of SF TV ever produced, particularly the episodes written by Darin Morgan. I also recall you stating a while back you were tackling Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which I have to admit I was curious to hear your thoughts about, since it seems so far out of your wheelhouse…I personally love that show, but it’s a pretty, um, acquired taste.

    Outside of the SF arena things have been pretty incredible–you mention Hannibal, which makes me think there are probably quite a few shows on the air or recently off it that you might enjoy. I’m sure I’m not saying anything you haven’t heard before, but Breaking Bad is a pretty incredible series–it’s even “science fiction” of a sort in that the story revolves around science. Honestly, if there was one show I could recommend you try, it’s that one. Deadwood is also extremely good, though I suppose it depends on your feelings for westerns, and it does feature HBO’s trademarked brand of sex and violence (though perhaps less gratuitously than their later, modern shows). I haven’t seen enough of The Wire to really say for sure, but everyone seems to feel it’s The Greatest Show Ever (Alan Moore included!) and what I’ve seen is very good…sure, it’s a police procedural (of sorts) but it seems to be overtly about systems and how they impact society, which might be of interest to a cyberneticist like yourself?

    Anyway, I could go on all day but I am pretty interested in hearing your thoughts in this area…again, don’t want to come off as confrontational or the kind of guy who screams “YOU MUST SEE AND LOVE THIS” but there’s really an awful lot of good stuff out there in the area you’re excluding.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      The problem is, I’m not really very good at taking in information visually — I’m a hugely verbal person — and I’ve simply not got the eye for modern single-camera TV drama. It takes me a *huge* amount of cognitive effort to follow, because I mostly stopped watching TV out of boredom in about 1998 (though I had a TV again in 2001 for six months when I was in a shared student house), before British TV switched over to that model (which has, of course, been the US model for much longer). Much like manga, I simply don’t have the visual vocabulary for it.

      Watching TV is, to me, a horribly *inefficient* way of entertaining myself — in the forty-five minutes it takes to watch a single TV episode I could read a (very) short novel while listening to an album, and the kind of TV I like simply isn’t made any more. What I like is the theatrical, dialogue-driven, multi-camera style that was the norm in Britain until around 1992 (or whenever it was that Carlton took over the London ITV franchise from Thames — the round of deregulation that year seemed to destroy the TV I liked, looking back). They don’t make programmes like I, Claudius, Hartnell-era Doctor Who, The Beiderbecke Affair (shot on film, not multi-camera, but still very much driven by the kind of writing and performance I’m talking about), and so on any more — it’s literally a lost art. Even though I’m enjoying Hannibal, for example, I’d gladly take Nigel Kneale’s 1950s adaptation of 1984 starring Peter Cushing over all twenty-six episodes of that so far.

      I’ve watched through about halfway through series four of Buffy, and it’s enjoyable, campy, fun — not the best thing in the world, but I like it enough. I saw two or three episodes of the X Files in the mid-90s and found it dull, and I *did* actually watch all of DS9 (it was repeated every day during the period I had a TV in 2001) but don’t remember anything about it except that it was entertaining enough during a period I couldn’t afford to buy many new books.

      But basically, the visual and dramatic conventions of US TV (which are also the conventions of modern British TV) are so unappealing to me that it’s really not worth my while even bothering to try the good stuff. There are enough good books, comics, records, films, and so on out there that it’s not worth me making the effort.

      Thinking about it, though, there was one other recent TV show I did like a *lot* — The Booth At The End, which is *very* much the kind of TV I like, driven entirely by dialogue and acting.

      • prankster36 says:

        Hmmm, that’s interesting. I remember we did have a bit of a discussion about stageyness vs. cinematic TV, I still hold that most of Star Trek is very stagey, especially in retrospect. DS9 was nudging a little more towards the cinematic style that was becoming popular at the time, but it’s still a lot of people on standing sets discussing philosophical and ethical issues. Between, obviously, the occasional space battle.

        You’ve made it clear the kind of thing you like and I don’t want to come off as forcing anything down your throat, but if you do ever think “what the hell” you may still want to check out a couple of my recommendations. In particular, I can absolutely see your criticism of the X-Files (yes, a lot of it was kind of pointless) but there really were some terrific episodes, and it’s not the kind of show where you have to watch every episode or even most episodes. You could just watch one of the Darin Morgan episodes and it’s completely standalone; I really can’t say enough about Morgan, he was a huge formative influence on me and I’ve always been disappointed that he seems to have basically packed it in after writing for X-Files. If he’d turned his talents to more ambitious things I honestly think we’d be talking about him in the same breath as Charlie Kaufman. X-Files was shot in a very cinematic style (it was actually pretty much the pioneer for moving a cinematic sensibility to SF TV) but for what it’s worth his scripts are pretty dense and dialogue-driven, though when I say “dense” I mean visually as well as storywise. His episodes are called “Humbug”, “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose”, “War of the Coprophages” and “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space”, for what it’s worth.

        Deadwood’s shot in pretty lavish movie style, but it’s centered around creator David Milch’s very very florid and theatrical dialogue and the performances of same. And Breaking Bad, honestly, it’s so good (probably my favourite TV show of all time) that I’d say it IS worth the effort; certainly I’d rank it above almost any movie made in the last ten years. It’s very movie-ish, but for whatever it’s worth, it does rely very heavily on the central performances, which are amazing, and they have done a number of episodes (most notably “Grilled”, “Four Days Out” and “Fly”) that were deliberately written like stage plays, with a small group of characters in a single location for the entire running time.

        Sorry, I’m probably coming off as obnoxious, I just think (American) TV has become one of the more exciting media right now and I really do think you’d find a couple of the above worth your time if you ever do find yourself in the mood. I guess I want to counterbalance your perpetually miserable Who experiences. :) Never heard of The Booth at the End, I’ll have to look for it.

        • Andrew Hickey says:

          The Booth At The End is a very, very simple programme, one that Leonard Pierce blogged about a couple of years back, which is how I discovered it. There have been, so far, two six-episode series.
          It all takes place in a single booth in a restaurant (a different restaurant in season two, but that’s all the visual changes that are made). A man sits there, and people come to ask him for favours. Whatever favour they ask for, they will get, if they perform a task he finds for them by opening a notebook. The task is often surprising to him, and he doesn’t personally care if they do it or not, but if they succeed they will get what they want. It can be anything from “talk to a stranger” to “plant a bomb in a coffee shop”. Sometimes the tasks work against each other — in series one he tells one person he has to kill a child, and another he has to protect that same child — and his clients come back each week and tell him how it progressed.
          Other than establishing shots of the restaurant, there are no shots of anything other than the booth, and everything just involves two (or very occasionally, as when the waitress comes over, three) people talking.

        • Tilt Araiza says:

          Another problem is that the changeover to single-camera becoming the dominant form of British TV drama came hand-in-hand with TV becoming more marketing lead, cue lots of “this is the golden age” yap from the marketing and the safer-playing critics who liked to go along with what was popular. I can process the information from a slick, single-camera show but years of being told its superior to the other stuff I like has left unable to enjoy a lot of TV made this century. British TV drama is all just different flavours of stadium rock.

    • Mike Taylor says:

      Prankster wrote: “the last notable American SF show (actual SF, as opposed to fantasy and superhero stuff) was the remade Battlestar Galactica.”

      You wouldn’t consider _Dollhouse_ to be science fiction? I can’t think of any reason why not. It’s certainly extrapolated from an SF premise (and I think that on the whole it’s excellent).

      • prankster36 says:

        Actually yes, I really enjoy Dollhouse–it’s a complete mess in many ways, but it’s also dealing with real, complex ideas (if sometimes in a highly problematic fashion). I don’t think it’s unfair to leave it off the list of “notable” SF shows, though. I mean, there HAVE been SF shows since BSG–“Almost Human”, last season, for instance–and I even mentioned Fringe, which had a higher profile than Dollhouse. But I’m not sure either of those shows will stand any length of time. Fringe has only been off the air for 2 years or so, and when was the last time anyone talked about it? Dollhouse mostly gets brought up because of its connection to Joss Whedon and the fact that the showrunners are now doing Agents of SHIELD. So I guess it depends on your definition of “notable”.

        I admit my subconscious might have assigned it that role, too, based on an observation I made: when it comes to shows about space travel and exploration, a la Star Trek (as opposed to more general science fiction) I don’t think American TV has gone more than a year or two without a series of this nature since the 60s, and probably before that. But other than possibly cartoon shows, there hasn’t been a show set in space that I’m aware of since BSG went off the air.

        • Mike Taylor says:

          Right. Dollhouse doesn’t always succeed, but when it fails it’s nearly always because it’s bitten off more than it can chew rather than because it’s just not trying — and I always find it easier to forgive an error of over-ambition. In particular, I think Epitaph One is among the most stunning things I’ve ever seen on TV, alongside the Buffy Season 5 episode The Body. (Unfortunately neither of those can really be watched as a standalone: much the power comes from having seen what’s gone before.)

          More generally, I do agree with you that American TV is producing some absolute gems. Of course it’s producing some appalling dreck, too, but then we’re under no obligation to watch that, so the gradual spreading of quality is all to my liking. I’ve not been drawn in to exactly the same shows as you, but (in no particular order) I’ve found Firefly, Arrested Development, Freeks and Geeks, Veronica Mars, House, The West Wing and Six Feet Under all delightful and compelling in different ways.

  2. This is just to note that it was indeed Miles’s bottom. I asked him on Twitter and he confirmed. (I should be ashamed of this derisible fannish tendency, but strangely I’m not.)

  3. londonKdS says:

    “Orphan Black” is very good, but it’s so continuous that it’s impossible to expect people to watch a single episode from the season and judge it alone. I’d have thought it would have been a much better contender for long-form, with the whole first season nominated. If people can nominate the entire “Wheel of Time” book series for “best novel”, they can nominate a whole TV season for “long-form drama”.

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