Small screen smashes…
2018 seemed like a generous year for genre shows, particularly for the Netflix/Marvel TV outings. But some old favourites also came back into the mix making for a busy schedule of shows that caught our eye.
Here’s our roundup of the best shows of the year…
We’ve written previously about the joys (and production troubles) of The Expanse, the show adapted from the best-selling books by James S. A. Corey.
Set 200 years in the future, the plot reveals a troubled political climate affecting the three major factions of the solar system. The appeal of The Expanse comes in several flavours. For a start it looks magnificent. From the set design to the special effects, it breathes big budget movie. The aesthetic is a combination of Alien and Blade Runner, which gives a combination of gritty practical spaceship interiors through to the noir-esque elements of the narrative. The dialogue also comes across as authentic and raw at times, particularly the odd patois used by the Belters.
Season 3 continues to deliver some high-stakes story elements, including a system-wide war which sees the various factions of Earth, Mars and The Belt either firing on one another or conspiring to get the upper hand by other means. As ever, it’s the crew of the Rocinante who are caught in the middle of all this trouble.
The strange story of the protomolecule is expanded with the alien artefact’s construction of a huge ring orbiting beyond Uranus. But while a race is on to uncover its secrets, the villainous UN undersecretary Errinwright (Shawn Doyle) continues his political manoeuvrings. It also means that the wonderfully blunt Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo) gets some superb moments, aided by the equally excellent Bobbie Draper (Frankie Adams) as a Martian marine.
While the show has a plot that masters the art of compelling storytelling in broad strokes, it’s also the smaller character moments that add to the mix. The bonding between Prax and Amos being one example, but also the strange relationship between Belters Drummer and Ashford being another.
It’s not difficult to see why The Expanse is currently the best genre show at present, although the shocking news that it wouldn’t be revived for season 4 was cause for concern (a concern that’s since been rectified with Amazon taking the show up).
Star Trek: Discovery
Initially, the latest outing for the long-running science fiction show started off in an uninspiring place. The two-part opener seemed remarkably un-engaging and the pacing is all over the place. It wasn’t helped by central protagonist Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) having a complicated back story connecting to the original series.
In fact, it’s only when the titular starship rocks up in episode 3 that things start to move at a more even pace. Opting for an ongoing story rather than self-contained episodes (as with Trek of the past) works wonders for the show. It also dispenses with the need to be in lock-step with the visual aesthetics of the original show (Discovery is set roughly ten years before the original Star Trek), which has caused some ire among diehard Trek fans, but which gives the series a necessary contemporary polish.
Much of the heavy lifting in the show comes care of Captain Lorca, Discovery’s commander played with a cryptic quality by Jason Isaacs. It’s Lorca’s antics that have led to the show being labeled as ‘Dark Trek’ with a starship captain prepared to do some dirty deeds in order to come out on top. Although this approach seems to run directly against Star Trek’s vision of a utopian future, there is a resolution as the series begins to pull in some surprising concepts from the original series and ultimately leads to an unexpected ending.
Discovery’s writers have played the long game in plotting out the arc of this series (The chief twist is perhaps one of the best story concepts that Trek has ever delivered). Plus, the characters in the series take time to come into their own but establish themselves as an essential part of Discovery’s crew. Stamets (Anthony Rapp) and Tilly (Mary Wiseman) in particular, but even the initially annoying character of Saru (Doug Jones) gets his moments.
Star Trek: Discovery also manages to avoid tying up every plot that the show delivers – or goes off in strange directions instead (the curious nature of the Spore Drive being one of those elements). It also ends with a surprising final scene which is too much of a spoiler to reveal here that leads directly into the second season.
The rebooting of Doctor Who has, in time-honoured fashion, drawn criticism and debate. Outside of the new show’s choice to cast Jodie Whittaker in the main role, the idea that Bradley Walsh had the chops to carry off a dramatic role seemed challenging.
But rather than doing a retread of Who previous, the new outing stripped back the stories to more manageable narratives that (for the most part) steered clear of galactic threats and universal stakes. Intriguingly, it also harkened back to the original concept for the show in educating viewers on historical events. It meant that new viewers could enjoy self-contained stories without being lost by complex continuity. It also delivered a few surprising emotional punches, some of which came via Bradley Walsh’s Graham.
While the change of gear to smaller stories has prompted some critical voices to complain, there’s something charming at times about the new series. It’s also buoyed up by some smart humour, carried off with ease by the excellent Whittaker.
Marvel’s TV outings seem to have lost a little of their magic as new titles launched and older ones entered new seasons. Iron Fist in particular came in for some critical mauling, although for this reviewer it was The Punisher that really dropped the ball. Swapping out the simple concept of a troubled character waging his own war on the underworld and replacing it with a dull 90s-era genre series seemed like a misstep (seriously, where is the series that the opening episode shows the ending to? We want to watch that show).
Jessica Jones rescued this somewhat by building on the foundations of its first season and exploring more of Jones’ past. But the show which really raised the bar was Daredevil, Netflix’s original Marvel outing which started in 2015, now in season 3.
Putting Matt Murdock/Daredevil (Charlie Cox) in a dark hole he has to climb out of gives the series a gritty base to work from. Mentally, Murdock is in perhaps the lowest point he’s been. Worse, his nemesis Wilson Fisk (played with chilling effectiveness By Vincent D’Onofrio) appears to be out of jail and ready to deliver fresh hell on Murdock’s world.
There’s also a ton of captivating subplots that weave in stories for Foggy and Karen. All of this ties in with the bigger picture as the series progresses, taking twists and turns which keep things chugging along at a good pace. The TV show’s take on Daredevil villain Bullseye is particularly effective.
Although the news that Daredevil and the rest of the Netflix shows appear to be at an end, this seems like a good place to draw a conclusion to Matt Murdock’s particular story.
The mystery box of Westworld came to a conclusion of sorts this season. Zipping between several different plots, different sets of characters as well as different time periods has certainly made viewing the show a challenge. But the various threads that look at the stories of Maeve, Dolores and Bernard (as well as the ‘Man In Black’) reached a satisfactory conclusion.
Expanding the world of the show to look at different parks also helped to give the characters a larger canvas to work on. The Shogun World episodes provided an interesting backdrop (while also drawing criticism) as the characters grew into their parts. The evolving nature of AI also introduced a subtle thread into the picture, while demonstrating that even if a character died, they didn’t necessarily exit the show.
By far, however, the standalone episode that focussed on the character of Akecheta from the Ghost Nation was the strongest. For many viewers, it answered questions about the odd behaviour of the Ghost Nation hosts (essentially representing the Native Americans for the park’s western setting) but it also provide a touching love story into the mix.
Lost In Space
The choice of rebooting classic 60s series Lost In Space seems an odd one, particularly as an attempt at a big screen outing in 1998 didn’t quite inspire confidence. The new outing seems, however, to have ticked all the right boxes. It keeps a lot of the core elements that made the original series work (despite its campy nature, Lost In Space – at least in early eps – managed to deliver thrilling cliff-hanger stories) and manages to score spot-on casting (It also has an excellent theme tune that builds on the 60s original).
It’s tough to pull off a convincing family dynamic in a genre outing. But the 21st Century version of the Robinsons works to present a fractured, yet credible, family unit. The banter between Judy and Penny suggests that Taylor Russell and Mina Sundwall could pull off a spin-off series with ease. Also, finding a child actor to deliver a smart, but non-bratty Will Robinson is a bonus. And while the origins of this incarnation of the Robot differ from the original, it seems to effortlessly slot in as part of the family. Switching up Dr Smith as played by Parker Posey also brings in a complicated villain to throw an effective spanner in the works.
Expanding the cast to include other ship crews also helps to give the series a bigger sandbox to play in. There’s plenty of cool set pieces to also give the series some standout moments. Plus, there’s enough mystery revolving around the circumstances of the crew being lost to keep things engaging.