Game Of Thrones Season Five - Episodes Three and FourBookmark and Share

Sunday, 31 May 2015 - Reviewed by Martin Hudecek
Game of Thrones3) High Sparrow 4) Sons Of The Harpy HBO/ Sky Atlantic - 2015.
Note - Again, this review contains spoilers for the episodes, and some brief discussion of the source book material.

Season 5 progresses steadily enough with this next batch of Westeros Wonder. However some uncertainty is perhaps generated as the pace continues to be slower than the previous two years, and there is a firm choice by the producers over not being as faithful to the source material as they once were. An added problem also exists in that presently books six and seven are only available as speculation, and not as anything corporal. Some big decisions have been made therefore over quite how to achieve foreshadowing and keep the present story lively in its own right.

Arya having had a kind farewell from the ship's captain who she met at the end of last season is now trying to forge a new life in the markedly different city of Braavos. At first her entrance to the House of Black and White looked helpless, but come the third episode she is now getting somewhere in her quest to complete her 'hit' list of those who betrayed her family and friends. It certainly appears that Jaqen H'ghar is indeed back after a long break from the show. Of course it needs to be stressed that the actual person who had that name and face is almost certainly long dead. But for simplicity's sake I will henceforth name him Jaqen until any changes to suggest otherwise are implemented by the show. The chemistry between Tom Wlaschiha and Maisie Williams is as strong as ever. However the most memorable scene involves Arya on her lonesome, as she is parted from Needle for the short term; wordlessly hiding amongst some rocks.

Having hailed Williams forthcoming turn in the second Peter Capaldi series of Doctor Who, there is a further link between the two iconic shows with the presence of Faye Marsay, as the sullen 'Waif'. This actress impressed as Shona in the most recent Who TV story we have to date - 'Last Christmas' - and is given some excellent dialogue. She also tests the resolve of neophyte Arya to the limit. 

Having said all this, I do wonder just how much traction this Braavos section of the show has. In the books it worked well as a series of developments which made the reader do some of the guesswork as to how much time has passed. In a show like this, the 'knitting together process' a viewer is obliged with in order to comprehend the array of locations may lead to some weaknesses in terms of overall impact. However I must praise the sets, lighting and music, which all conjure a strong and brooding atmosphere.

Returning yet again to King's Landing, it appears that there is some potential for excitement after all, as most have come to hope for by now. The Tommen and Margaery storyline is very well done in this pair of episodes. Clearly the Boy King was feeling euphoria upon consummating the marriage, and  finally resolving the lust he had for his far more mature partner. She had stoked his fires initially when he was lined up to replace his murdered brother, visiting his bed and talking of their likely future together in 'Oathkeeper'. The brutal reality though, is that Cersei's one remaining son is little more than a pawn in others' games now grandfather Tywin is deceased.

Tommen is acted increasingly well by relative newcomer Dean-Charles Chapman. Also credible is his remorse over Joffrey's death, as clearly there were a few shreds of love that the 'mad idiot' had for his nearest and dearest. Margaery clearly likes her latest husband to a certain degree, but also knows just how to wrap him round her little finger and use him as a way to undermine Cersei.

Except.... that the Queen Mother does not take long to get her own 'back' on opposition, especially on someone like the Highgarden girl; believing the witch's gloomy prophecy. In order to set the record straight, Cersei accosts a very shabby looking individual who has the satirical title of 'High Sparrow'. This man is both very mysterious, owing to the lack of an official name, and yet very clear in his prerogative as he serves the Faith of The Seven. Jonathan Pryce is another newcomer in this episode and what a big asset the show has gained. I have always enjoyed his work, as he is always strong even when given some shaky material. His subtle style in 'Thrones' is most welcome when some veer near overacting, if remaining very watchable. This collaboration with Cersei is wonderfully portrayed in both episodes and it is crystal clear to the audience, if not the 'Queen Mother', that the High Sparrow will be quite a tricky customer, and more than able to wriggle his way round the powder keg that is Capital Politics. 

So, just as the new Queen feels she has the Court pandering to her whims, she finds out that brother Loras was arrested for being an affront to the 'Seven Pointed Star' with his 'deviant' sexuality. This then sees Tommen utterly powerless to reverse this development. He is not informed about events like he would have been with a proper Small Council and Tywin still around as his Hand. The King's attempt to get Loras out also sees him confronted with verbal abuse from the poorer citizens of King's Landing. The 'terrible twincest' of Cersei and Jaime is now seemingly common knowledge.

Meanwhile, in case some were wondering, Qyburn is still involved in some skulduggery. He seems to be attempting his own 'Doctor Frankenstein' project. The body lying in his laboratory is so large that is more than likely meant to be the grievously wounded Mountain. While just another instance of set up, the viewer will no doubt recall this brief moment later on when events become more explosive.   

Game of Thrones The Nights' Watch and Wall sections continue to ring true and    showcase excellent characterisations. Most dramatically,      Janos Slynt finally gets his comeuppance, after years of    scurrying away and favouring who had the greater money and    riches. Although Jon Snow does not yet know how Eddard  placed his trust in Slynt, it still feels like a major moment  forward for our favourite illegitimate son. He is now the Lord  Commander through and through, and people can't mock  flippantly and expect to get away with it. Stannis' approval of  Jon is also true to the books, and yet another moment where  silence in a scene is able to generate  considerable  impact.

 Also engaging is  the dynamic between  Stannis, his stern wife  Selyse, his sweet only child Shireen and the  unsettling presence that is Red Woman Melisandre. I do like  the slow burn pace that features, as it really seems as major  developments in both plot and character decisions' will unfold as the season comes to it's climax. The Jon and Sam relationship is still there too, and remains very entertaining. These two men are bound by being the outcast child. Jon struggled with 'stepmother' Catelyn and Sam was demeaned by his own father (who has never been directly featured on the show). A lot of changes have taken place that have nullified the opening season's relationships permanently, but these two kind-hearted men remain friends for life it would appear.

The definite highlight of episode four in terms of character development is when Shireen is reassured by monarch and father Stannis that he truly loves her, and explains exactly how he managed to spare her a terrible fate with greyscale. Both the old hand actor in Stephen Dillane and virtual newcomer Kerry Ingram absolutely convince the viewer of the complexity and depth that lies in that relationship. A bit more disappointing however is the throwaway scene where the Red Woman attempts to seduce Jon. It just comes off as sensationalism, and adds nothing to the scene where they were conveyed to the top of the Wall in the first episode. 'You Know Nothing Jon Snow' is uttered at the end, and it just feels pretentious. The showrunners seem obsessed with one significant character needing to show her bare bosom before long...just because. I give 'Thrones' more leeway than some other programs, as it never was meant to represent the underlying morality and societal standards of our world . Yet some artistic choices should be made with integrity at the same time.

There is no nudity to be found in Winterfell in this crop of episodes though. Not unless one counts a flayed corpse anyway. The Boltons have truly made this place 'home' now, and they are joined by Sansa Stark and Littlefinger. Yet another scheme is being implemented by the reigning Lord of the Vale. Although straining credulity a touch, there is some real conviction in the various scenes that culminate in Sansa meeting Roose Bolton, and her new intended husband Ramsey. One should remember that she never officially divorced Tyrion, but this is glossed over as she now encounters someone potentially even more dangerous and twisted than the late Joffrey.

The recently empowered bastard son of the treacherous Bolton lord makes a hollow promise to be kind and devoted, almost at the same moment as his 'partner in crime' Myranda gazes on with seething jealousy. If this were not bad enough, the audience also is seriously questioning what Littlefinger's plans are in all this. "Avenge [your family]" he tells his ward just before they get to Winterfell, but surely that will be a lot easier said than done...  Before he does abandon her though, there is a very well cinematographed sequence set in the lower depths of Winterfell as Baelish ruminates on the past and then the future he hopes to achieve. He kisses Sansa on the lips once again, and she even appears to enjoy it. But will she remain fond of him once events progress without him around to intervene at Winterfell?

Brienne and Pod are on the periphery as they still continue to fret over what will happen to this Stark girl they are tracking for now. Some exposition features as the statuesque woman explains just how she came to be indebted to the (late) Renly Baratheon, and was thereafter looking to serve him till the end of her days. This is a bit of an odd scene, as it seems to clash with the striking debut of Brienne in Season Two when she revealed just who she was to Renly in her victory over a male knight. I do appreciate however the intrigue over her wish to avenge the most charismatic of the three Baratheon brothers, and perhaps Stannis had better watch his back if he were to go and attack the Boltons in the North. 

In a Volantis brothel, much further south, a certain erudite Imp utters "I need to speak some one with hair". And this latest come-back actually signals the 'Varys and Tyrion' show coming to an end. The exiled Jorah Mormont unceremoniously kidnaps Tyrion, just as he finishes urinating from a balcony, and bundles him from a beautiful city into a decidedly modest-looking boat heading somewhere perhaps less glamorous. Just before this downturn in fortune for Tyrion, his self pity is something to behold as he admits to a forlorn prostitute that he no longer has the same set of desires that he once had for women of her trade.

It really is quite a shame the show only has a few fleeting moments in Volantis; a by-product of the show's big budget and the enforced ten episodes a season. The sets and models for this city certainly stand out on any half-decent modern TV and show just how many talented people work behind the camera. Also, we get to witness the sermon of another 'Red Woman' - one who in our world is of Japanese ethnicity. The manner in which she stares back at the refugee Lannister is a terrific moment, and one that featured in early photo previews of the season for good reason.

And yet the kidnap by Jorah is a great development, featuring a wonderful cliffhanger generating confusion over whether it is Cersei or Daenerys who will receive Tyrion. Once Tyrion has a chance to speak, after being bound on the boat for an extended period of time, there is a lovely exchange as he realises why Jorah is doing all this. The only responses he gets are constant aloof glances away. At least until he makes one provocation too many, and gets a full-on strike of Mormont's fist to his bearded head. 

The Jaime and Bronn scenes in 'Sons of the Harpy' are very enjoyable if a bit thin on anything truly memorable or thematic when considering what the show is capable of. A link to Tarth features, as their incognito passage over sea to Dorne features a view of a neighbouring isle. Tarth was referred to by Jaime and Brienne during their excellent story arc together in Season Three, most memorably during the saving of the 'Maiden Fair' from the bear pit in Harrenhal. Another subtle link features in the accidental saving of Jaime's life with the golden hand. It works as a funny moment, with Bronn forced to fight the majority of the four Dorne warriors who realise that the newcomers' story is bogus. It also functions as a subtle way of showing how the late Locke - lackey to the Boltons - was not as smart as he thought he was when deriding the Kingslayer over what options he had left with a prosthetic right hand.

Less successful, and for sure the clumsiest scene thus far in the new season, is the introduction of the 'Sand Snakes'. To be fair to the producers of this show, they had a rather weak platform to work with in the first place as the books did not break much new ground with these cliched personalities. This still does not excuse the weak dialogue, delivery and production values - all of which  stick out badly for a series of this calibre. It also is underwhelming given the amount of hype that was generated in the build up promotions and featurettes that came out during this year.

Thankfully the Daenerys storyline continues to work more than well enough and culminates in a 'shock cliffhanger' with Barristan Selmy and Grey Worm victorious in battle but also seriously wounded. As preceding events unfolded, the Queen of Meereen seemed to be getting complacent, and perhaps being too 'pally' with Hizdahr zo Loraq - a man many viewers would suspect as knowing a lot more about the Harpy attacks than he would ever admit. There is a fine scene between Selmy and his Queen where he shows his gentler side, and she wishes him farewell, asking him to 'go and sing a song'. When things are this warm and fuzzy, it usually bodes very ominously. Overall this whole section of the show is at least a level up from last year's counterpart, and also happens to be less tedious than the books (to my mind). 

So we are four episodes in, and wondering just what will be the dominant story arcs of the latest season. Some weaknesses are certainly on display, but a lot of work has been put into making the adaptation of GRR Martin's broad vision work properly for TV. Perhaps the steady pace that is opted for presently will have bigger dividends later on. Time and Winter alike will tell.

FILTER: - Game of Thrones

Blake's 7 - Devil's Advocate/Truth and LiesBookmark and Share

Thursday, 28 May 2015 - Reviewed by Damian Christie
Blake's 7 - Devil's Advocate (Credit: Big Finish) Written By: Steve Lyons and Justin Richards Directed By: Lisa Bowerman
Stars: Paul Darrow (Kerr Avon), Michael Keating (Vila Restal), Jan Chappell (Cally),Steven Pacey (Del Tarrant), Tom Chadbon (Del Grant), Alistair Lock (Zen/Orac), Hugh Fraser (The President), Simone Lahbib (Pelora), Nigel Carrington (Kramer), Beverly Hill (Karine Mellanby)
"A case of better the devil you know?"

Avon, Blake's 7: Devil's Advocate

In a behind the scenes interview for one of the latest Blake's 7 audio releases Devil's Advocate, Big Finish producer Cavan Scott remarks that there has been a conscious effort to steer away from plotlines this year that feature Federation-type politics. The thinking was that BF had already done numerous storylines of that ilk and the politics of the period in which this micro-season of B7 adventures is set (the third season of the original TV series) had itself moved on, following the events of the Intergalactic War at the end of series two.

Of course, what Scott forgets is that it was Federation machinations that made B7 such a memorable, provocative TV program in the first place. Unlike other TV series of its era, B7 was not afraid to tell hardcore SF/realpolitik morality tales which explored the main characters' heroism and flaws and the impact their exploits would have on the political system they were trying to overturn. Indeed, the TV series illustrated time and again that Blake's rebellion was not without real consequences. Not only did members of the Seven die throughout the life of the series, so did a number of other good people encountered along the way. And unlike many other SF and fantasy sagas since (which are notorious for resurrecting characters), there was no way back. B7 was almost the Game of Thrones of its time!

Therefore, the return to Federation-style machinations and politics in the final two instalments of this micro-season is a welcome development. Devil's Advocate and Truth and Lies round out and (for the most part) satisfactorily tie up the loose "Search for Dayna" story arc with antagonists and scenarios that encapsulate Federation politics. They are certainly an improvement on the more fantasy-driven middle chapters Mindset and Ghost Ship.

Devil's Advocate marks the return of the Federation's enigmatic yet debonair President (Hugh Fraser), who was last seen in the concluding two-parter to the preceding micro-season of B7 plays. Fraser's character was the stand-out adversary of those instalments, providing a calculating, composed counterpoint to B7's regular baddies in the ruthless yet impatient Servalan and the reckless, obtuse Travis. I expressed at the time my hope that the character would return for future instalments.

In the wake of the Intergalactic War, the still anonymous President (we still don't know his full identity) is now as much an outlaw as the Liberator crew members, but still retains hope that he will eventually re-seize power from Servalan. With the help of his assistant Pelora (Simone Lahbib), he reaches out to none other than Tarrant (Steven Pacey) for help in his quest to restore his power. So prompts a debate amongst the Liberator crew that can be traced back to the events of the previous micro-series finale Caged -  would Blake really have precipitated the collapse of the Federation if he had assassinated the President, or would he simply have opened the door for another tyrant to assume control (as Servalan inevitably did)? And should the Liberator crew under Avon's (Paul Darrow) leadership now entertain the moral dilemma of aligning themselves with one of the most abhorrent figures in the Federation in a bid to topple Servalan?

With the exception of Avon, whose mystique has gone largely untouched, this micro-series of B7 tales has focused on specific members of the crew, notably Cally (Jan Chappell) and Vila (Michael Keating). Devil's Advocate puts Tarrant in the limelight, providing us with a back story that was never hinted at on television.

When we first met Tarrant in the B7 episodes Aftermath and Powerplay in 1980, he was revealed to be a Federation space pilot who had turned to smuggling and was on the Federation's "most wanted" list. Devil's Advocate suggests an entirely different back story for Tarrant, which while not specifically contradictory or implausible, does seem somewhat contrived for the purpose of Steve Lyons' plot. As if Tarrant's former lover Pelora tracking him down on the Nebula Interplanetary Way Station isn't coincidence enough ...

Nevertheless, whether it's coincidence or contrivance, Steven Pacey delivers one of his finest performances as Tarrant as he takes on the "devil's advocate" role of the story, asserting that the Liberator crew has lost sight of its long term objective and should now embrace the chance "to build something rather than just tearing it down". Tarrant is at his most persuasive and idealistic but his flaws are all too evident - as Avon alludes, he is a romantic at heart, keen to play the hero and behave impulsively, particularly (as Vila points out) when a woman figures in the picture!

Pacey's performance is virtually rivalled by Tom Chadbon as Del Grant. While Tarrant argues the merits of aligning with the President, Chadbon delivers an impassioned, fanatical portrayal of Grant that is an impressive reversal on the character's more laidback, reasonable demeanour. Of course, just as Tarrant has his flaws, Grant's almost prove fatal, thanks to his over-zealous pursuit for justice and the grief and betrayal he harbours for the death of his sister (and Avon's lover) Anna. Grant has been underused in this micro-series to date and Chadbon, like Pacey, finally gets the opportunity to stand out.

Hugh Fraser, of course, again upstages all of the regular characters with an almost warm, amiable, charismatic and composed performance that hides the President's calculating, ruthless and paranoid side. Despite being deposed by Servalan, the character has lost none of his arrogance and ambition, and it is implied heavily by the conclusion of the story that his hubris may in fact lead to his downfall. Certainly, the character does not seem as omnipresent as hinted in last year's finale Caged (when it was revealed the President engaged clones to, as Cally alleges, do his dirty work). Of course, I suspect the President's fate is not that clear-cut and that we haven't seen the last of him ... And given how impressive Fraser has been in this part over the last two years, it would be a shame not to keep the character around.  

Blake's 7 - Truth and Lies (Credit: Big Finish)
Hubris is also the key tenet of the villain in the finale Truth and Lies. Nigel Carrington's Kramer is revealed to be one of the Federation's psychostrategists, modelled on a similar character played by Scott Fredericks in the 1979 B7 episode Weapon. Carrington also puts in a competent performance as the baddie, although the character is hardly as memorable as the President, Frederick's character Carnell or even Adrian Lukas' performance as another psychostrategist Bracheeni in the B7 Liberator Chronicle Incentive. Nevertheless, the reason for Kramer's failure is without doubt the highlight of the play and even if it doesn't have you laughing out loud (which can be rather embarrassing if you're listening to these audios in public!), it will certainly have you smiling or may be even wincing. At any rate, you won't be disappointed.

Kramer's incompetence, though, is unfortunately the only twist in a serial that provides a rather flat, predictable conclusion to the "Search for Dayna" storyline. Perhaps this is partly because the reason for Dayna Mellanby jumping ship and striking out on her own was hinted at as early as this micro-series' third instalment Mindset - that Dayna's mother Karine Melanby (Beverly Hill) had survived the massacre of her father's resistance movement. The President mischievously drops further hints in Devil's Advocate that he also knew Karine, implying that she is a Federation agent, but in the final wash-up, Karine's true nature proves to be a damp squib. Beverly Hill tries her best as Dayna's mother, delivering a compassionate, poignant portrayal, but ultimately her presence in the serial fails to give this second micro-series the memorable send-off that it needs. Indeed, Avon and Vila's closing remarks truly illustrate just how run of the mill Truth and Lies is as an episode.

I queried at the start of this micro-series how the writers were going to skirt around Dayna's absence, given the original actor Josette Simon is not interested in reprising the character. To his credit, Truth and Lies author Justin Richards provides a plausible enough scenario to set up Dayna's reunion with the Liberator crew but given this micro-series contains subtle hints for storylines that are likely to be explored in a third full cast audio series, it would seem to me inevitable that Dayna will have to be in that series and the character will have to be recast (on the strength of her performance as Dayna's mother, perhaps Hill deserves to play Karine's daughter!).

I must admit to also being disappointed with the under-utilisation of Tom Chadbon as Del Grant throughout this micro-series. With the exceptions of Truth and Lies and Fortuitas (which are very good ensemble pieces for the whole cast) and Devil's Advocate (where Chadbon gives his character some teeth), Grant has for the most part played second fiddle to the other TV series regulars. No doubt there are still further stories to be told about Grant's exploits on the Liberator before (in continuity with the TV series) the writers send him off to pasture. It can only be hoped the character is done some justice before that inevitable send-off occurs.

As all regular BF listeners would expect, the sound quality of these audios continues to be exceptional, feeding the imagination and provoking a larger than life visualisation of each serial, despite the relatively small ensemble cast (usually the seven regular characters plus two or three more guest stars). A special mention also goes to the director in BF regular Lisa Bowerman whose performance as the tannoy announcer on the Nebula transit station adds some black humour to some quite tense moments in the first half of Devil's Advocate. "In the event that weapons are discharged, please lie flat on the ground to ensure your personal safety!" Bowerman's tannoy announcer says when Federation troopers start indiscriminately firing on passengers!

Devil's Advocate is by far the best of the last two instalments and certainly the pick of this second micro-series of B7 plays. While this series as a whole has been enjoyable in parts, the first full cast audio series still remains the superior of the two. Despite Cavan Scott's reluctance to focus on Federation politics and hi-jinks, it is clear that the superior serials, in line with the original TV series that inspired them, are the ones steeped in space opera, not fantasy. The audio serials should stay true to their roots and it can be but hoped that in the next micro-series, we see not only more Federation machinations but also Jacqueline Pearce's triumphant return as Servalan as well. 

FILTER: - Blake's 7

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell: Episode Two - How is Lady Pole?Bookmark and Share

Tuesday, 26 May 2015 - Reviewed by Martin Ruddock
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (ep 2) (Credit: BBC)
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell Episode Two
Written by Peter Harness
Directed by Toby Haynes
First transmitted 24th May 2015, BBC One
Following on from last week's impressive debut, the plot thickens in episode two of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, and the threads dangled in the first episode begin to entwine. This series continues to impress, with the strong leading performances of Bertie Carvel, Eddie Marsan, and Marc Warren right to the fore. Peter Harness's script and Toby Haynes' direction are both hugely compelling. This is a class act

Anyway, back to the story....

Set several months after Mr Norrell's arrival in London and the resurrection of Lady Pole by the Gentleman, Norrell - at first knocked back by the government, is enjoying himself in the corridors of power, and quite literally making waves against Napoleon's troops. The episode opens with the first of several jaw-wobbling set-pieces, as the spooked French row out towards an armada made entirely from rain - Norrell's handiwork. 

At the same time, Mr Segundus, having talent-spotted Norrell in episode one, is at it again - this time he accidentally finds Jonathan Strange, who has come on somewhat as a magician, but isn't really quite in control yet.

Strange and Norrell finally come face to face. Their dynamic is interesting. Norrell is clearly impressed with the younger, far more deferential Strange, but is also extremely worried about being outstripped by the competition. Strange is a raw talent, but capable of incredible things, like the horses that rise from the sand in a spectacular beach sequence. Norrell is keen to teach him, but is protective over his territory, and his precious library of books. When Strange is selected to go to war, Norrell's greatest discomfort is at Strange ransacking his library to take to the 'dirty' front line.

It seems that as soon as they meet, various outside forces are trying to pull them apart. Mr Drawlight is unimpressed by the newcomer, and sows seeds of dischord with his co-conspirator, Lascelles by suggesting that the magical library contents of the late Duke of Roxburgh could be bid for by Strange at auction. Meanwhile, Arabella Strange soon has reason to distrust Norrell after speaking with Lady Pole, whose disintegration is a large part of the episode. 

Plagued by strange nightmares and feelings of dread, the recently resurrected Lady Pole is the subject of the machinations of the Gentleman, who makes his presence further felt in this episode. He also begins to pull the strings of servant Stephen Black, who is shown a vision of the Gentleman's spooky ball and the plans he has for Lady Pole. He also has an eye for the ladies, setting his sights on Arabella.

These plot elements build up to the climactic auction, where Arabella bids against Norrell for the Duke's library, and the Gentleman is sat next to her, giving Norrell a knowing smile. A storm, in every sense, is coming.

FILTER: - Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell: Episode One - The Friends of English MagicBookmark and Share

Tuesday, 26 May 2015 - Reviewed by Martin Ruddock
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (ep 1) (Credit: BBC)
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell Episode One
Written by Peter Harness
Directed by Toby Haynes
First transmitted 17th May 2015, BBC One
The BBC, it must be said, really ‘gets’ period drama. It’s always been a cornerstone of Auntie’s output, and intrinsic to her DNA.  In recent years there have been a fair number of stabs at a ‘modern’ take on history-set adventure series, sometimes with a SF or sword and sorcery twist. Some of them designed to fill Doctor Who’s slot when it’s off the air. Some have been a Sunday evening affair. These shows have had varied fortunes, the more adult grit and faint steampunk flavour of The Musketeers works in its favour, but an earnest Robin Hood talking about Ethnic Cleansing? Not so much. Sometimes, the fantastical elements have been jarring. Sometimes they haven’t caught the public’s imagination, like the recently cancelled Atlantis, which tried to marry the same formula to myth and legend like the more successful Merlin.

All of these series have succeeded on some levels, but floundered on others. Robin Hood sagged because it was trying too hard to hammer home social relevance, when it was set in the Twelfth Century and people simply didn't talk that way. The Musketeers does well at the swashbuckling action and stylised depiction of the period, but doesn’t have an SF or magical angle. Merlin mixed various tones but didn’t really hit stride until several series in, when Arthur went from Prince to King and the tone darkened. Atlantis just didn’t catch on.

Based on its first episode, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell might just have finally got it right. It’s early days, and there’s six more episodes to go, but everything seems to be in the right place.

Adapted from Susanna Clarke’s epic novel by recent Doctor Who scribe Peter Harness (the man who gave the Moon a yolk), and helmed by by one of its finest directors, Toby Haynes - this is ambitious stuff. Set against the background of the Napoleonic Wars, it’s the story of a meeting of two very different magicians in an alternative Britain where magic has returned after several hundred years of absence.

Opening up North with a magic circle entirely comprised of people who don’t practice magic, the curious Mr Segundus meets dour, fearful magician Mr Norrell (Eddie Marsan) and his manservant Childermass (Enzo Cilenti), and leads his circle (“The most magical men in Yorkshire”) to a spectacular demonstration by Norrell which not only scares them rigid, but contractually obliges them not to practice magic. 

Having eliminated any possible competition, Norrell then relocates to London to offer his services in the war effort, but is quicky knocked back. He soon meets a vivid and scene-stealing cast of characters, menacing street magician Vinculus (Paul Kaye), preening would-be impresario Mr Drawlight (Vincent Franklin), and most fatefully – The Gentleman with the Thistle-Down Hair (A sinister and impressive-haired Marc Warren, possibly channelling David Bowie's Goblin King from Labyrinth). The Gentleman offers Norrell a bargain, a bargain that will doubtless lead only to bad things. Eddie Marsan gives an excellent, layered performance as Norrell - a gifted user of magic, and a man of some principle, but scared and flawed at the same time.

Meanwhile, likeable fop Jonathan Strange (Bertie Carvel) seeks a purpose in life whilst pining for his best friend’s sister, and is unexpectedly given it when he finds Vinculus under a hedge. The street magician recognises him (and also Norrell, who he's already scared half-witless in London) as one of two magicians named in a prophecy, and sells him some spells. It turns out Jonathan’s a natural. Carvel is great fun as Jonathan, a sort of cross between Withnail and Bertie Wooster. He gets far less screen time than Norrell, and the titular duo don't meet in this first episode, so it remains to be seen whether they have chemistry or not. I have a feeling from preview clips released so far that they'll complement each other nicely.

This is by turns witty, creepy, and visually stunning stuff. The pace is luxurious, and the script crackles with well-observed dialogue from Harness. The supporting cast is superb, with particular props to Cilenti's Childermass, (who looks wearily on the verge of hitting people throughout), Warren's lithe, whispering, malevolent Gentleman, and perhaps most of all - Kaye, who walks a line between sinister and cartoonish, but unsettles through his manic energy, and rants obliquely about a Raven King whilst still sounding believable. 

Haynes was always one of Who's more filmic directors, and he impresses throughout - good with a camera, and with some impressive set pieces up his sleeve - like the creepy arrival of the Gentleman, Vinculus's unsettling tarot card trick, and Norrell's animation of the stone figures that sends a whole magic circle of scared Yorkshiremen packing.

So far so good. Will it catch on with the public? Who knows? Ratings do the talking, but, based on this first episode, this is going to be seven Sunday evenings well-spent.

FILTER: - Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

Game Of Thrones Season Five - Episodes One and TwoBookmark and Share

Monday, 4 May 2015 - Reviewed by Martin Hudecek
1) The Wars to Come  2) The House Of Black And White HBO/ Sky Atlantic - 2015
Note - This review does contain spoilers, and some discussion of the books' storylines.

"I will bury him. I will mourn for him... [but we will not go to war]"

"The Sand Snakes.. will avenge their father [unlike you].... [let me send Myrcella to Cersei] one finger at a time.."

"I loved my brother and you made him very happy. For that you will always have a place in my heart. But we do not mutilate little girls... Not while I rule"

- Prince Doran Martell arguing with Ellaria Sand.

There has been a lot of talk of Dorne in preceding seasons of the global hit fantasy serial; most notably when a select number of their people showed up led by Oberyn Martell. With the headstrong but charismatic Viper slain so memorably in last season's trial-by-combat, there are some immediate consequences that will shape ensuing events in this new season of the show.

Yet it may surprise many that this entire section of the Westeros map and wider society was at one point considered for the chop. That fate has befallen the potential developments that involved Balon Greyjoy's wider family from the Iron Islands. And other intriguing storylines from the fourth and fifth books in the 'Song of Ice and Fire' series also have been omitted or reshaped into pre-existing characters' arcs.

This is still thoroughly entertaining and engaging TV though. At some point the books were getting so elaborate in scope that even attempting two-thirds of all the storylines and subplots would be impossible. This show must concede that it has certain confines. Just ten episodes fill a season, running at fifty minutes; give or take a slither more, depending on what needs to be achieved on the weekly basis.

'Thrones' has reached a peak thus far in terms of audience reaction and following, with the premiere episode gaining around eight million viewers watching live transmissions in the U.S. But those viewers must have been somewhat surprised by the choice of flashback in the very first scene.

Rumoured flashbacks have persisted for a while now, with Ned Stark being amongst those that most tantalised. Charles Dance is named in the premiere's credits, and hoped to see the child version of Cersei interact with her authoritative father. No such luck as Dance is only required to lie in a state of 'rigor mortis', his eyes covered with painted stones. The past memory we do get is still important though, and gives some real context to the Queen's politicking thus far. More specifically it builds on the cat-and-mouse game of wits and plotting between her and Margaery, who has been looking to supplant Cersei as monarch ever since the finale of season two.

As for the man who played his part in King Robert's demise, a lot has changed since he last crept off-screen during the sublime 'Blackwater' episode. Cousin Lancel is now no longer easily cowed by harsh words and dismissive looks, and has a new direction in his life - religion and prudence. His hair is short, and he seems to have a focus and sobriety that would deter even the most powerful of harpies (should such creatures exist in this fantasy realm).  Uncle Kevan is also back, albeit only briefly. He now seems to recognise that he has the power in Casterly Rock, and rightly see's his niece's authority in Small Council meetings as losing solidity. A very good performance from returning Ian Gelder, but one that is brief for plot reasons that make perfect sense, 

And in general King's Landing feels an oddly sterile and empty place nowadays. Even with Tyrion in chains for  much of last year, he still made a massive contribution to proceedings. Now he is missed. King Tommen may  be a likeable lad but he quite frankly lacks either his uncle's or his grandfather's charisma. The absence of  Lady Olenna is somewhat noticeable too, as she was played so well by Diana Rigg. I still can hope that she will  be called in by one of her grandchildren to dispense more brilliant and forthright advice. And of course now  Jaime and Bron have left the city as well, in order to try and rescue Myrcella. As the quoted dialogue shows,  she is far from being safe nowadays.  

However Qyburn (Anton Lesser) has seemingly graduated from a minor character to one having  notable influence. He takes advantage of the latest bungled attempt to return Tyrion's head to Cersei, and there  are some strong indications that someone assumed dead not so long ago, may be under the care of this very  strange 'maester'.  He also now has a seat at the Small Council and that will infuriate Pycelle (Julian Glover  - brilliant in this role). Despite putting on a front of frailty the old Grand Maester is still relatively spry, but he may  have to readjust his game plan if he wants to make a mark in any seasons that follow this one.

So what can we say that is new concerning Tyrion (once again played by top-billed Peter Dinklage)? His departure from the capital in the preceding finale saw him return to being a traveller who must decide which people he meets will aid him and not betray his confidence. For now he must rely on the supremely wily Varys. Their interactions play out almost like a buddy movie; another sign of 'Thrones' transcending its dungeons-and-dragons stereotype label. Both men can produce come-backs without barely mustering any visible effort and the result is TV gold. It also helps that they are both in a beautifully sunny part of Pentos, and free to drink wine and gaze at the Narrow thanks to the hospitality of Varys' associate Illyrio Mopatis. There is also a terrific establishing 'point of view' sequence as Tyrion's tiny box/home is carried around shakily from the ship he escaped on. Lovely direction from Michael Slovis and his team.

But being free to walk and talk again cannot hide the fact that the former Hand of the King is in a dark place mentally and totally unable to forget the way he murdered treacherous lover Shae and bullying father Tywin. How this impacts on Tyrion's actions in later episodes and events to come will be something to anticipate keenly. My only issue with the subplot is that once episode two checks in on these two in their carriage, there is no energy or revelation. It feels a waste of two first-class actors in Dinklage and Conleth Hill.

One cast member who has really grown on the show and continues to do so is Kit Harrington. His Jon Snow character has gathered considerable momentum for some time now. Admittedly he barely registered with me in the second season (with flame-haired Ygritte stealing the show), and was also somewhat handicapped by the Night's Watch scenes being oddly static for much of the original season. 

Nowadays much enticement is generated by having all of Stannis' court and army, plus the nefarious Red Woman. This section of the show is a real treat. Davos is also still firmly at 'King Stannis' side, and being as measured and wise as ever. Liam Cunningham is such a terrific actor who never makes the audience feel they are watching a performance. Most of us surely want him to be around till the final stages of the entire run. Stannis himself is still brusque, dour and lacking in that intangible that all great rulers have. But Stephen Dillane is very good in developing this role and his acting chops are more than sufficient, as various dynamics play out with the surviving Baratheon's family, advisors and those he aims to rule over.

The striking end of Mance Rayder is a good move arguably for the show, even if he was played by a particularly talented actor from a cast that has few weak links. He may have briefly survived season four's finale with some dignity, but his determination was never going to keep him alive for much longer. His hope for the Wildlings to be living south of the Wall was his prime intent, and without concessions - quite  unacceptable to the unflinching Stannis. Jon's actions in sparing Mance a horribly painful death are a further development of his man of action and add more requisite gravitas.

And Jon's heroism and decisiveness in last season's key set piece battle are now bringing dividends. Stannis knows he needs this man very much on his side. Jon eventually is voted in as Lord Commander proper in a snappy, engaging sequence set in Castle Black. Yet the eldest of Ned's surviving sons knows just what a poisoned chalice leadership and authority can be. His reserved response to the vote's outcome ties in strongly with the show's key themes.

On the opposite side of the map is the storyline concerning Queen Danaerys' court, which of course has banished Jorah Mormont. I was far from overwhelmed with the various political intrigues and soap opera romances set in Meeren last year on the show. But maybe things are picking up quickly now, as 'Khaleesi' must make some difficult decisions and risk alienating her devout citizens. Although the Unsullied are an awesome fighting force on a battlefield proper, they are beginning to look a little restricted in more intimate surroundings. One of their number tries to find a substitute mother figure in the shape of a prostitute, and pays for it with his life. Eventually one of Dany's newly installed council takes the law into his own hands and avenges the murdered warrior, and this boldness is punished by a public beheading.

Rather clear parallels are drawn in showing how Stannis' and Danaerys' courts are both alike and unalike simultaneously. Choosing to end back-to-back episodes in similar fashion is ultimately a smart idea, although the second instalment does have a fine coda in the fleeting return of the renegade Drogo. Dany still loves all of her three dragons - the other two remain imprisoned - despite all the devastation and death Drogo in particular has caused.

Moving onto one of the more unpredictable pairings of the show, I will discuss next Littlefinger and Sansa. Further stark deviation from the source material is notable. Sansa clearly trusts Baelish despite all of his ruthlessness and self-serving plotting. He clearly loved her mother and sees her as another in that mould.

It remains open to interpretation just what Brienne achieves in demanding that the elder Stark girl come home, on the wishes of the late Catelyn. The entire section in the tavern does feels forced and indeed far-fetched. Despite being performed and presented well on-screen it seems to ignore the reality of Westeros' scale as a kingdom. The chance meeting with Hotpie that set Brienne on her way to the Eyrie last season felt rather more natural. Luckily the show turns its fortunes around immediately with the strong set piece in the courtyard and neighbouring woods. Brienne's slaying of Littlefinger's lackeys is exciting and pleasing, as is her timely rescue of ever-faithful squire Pod who had struggled to fend for himself  

For now I will leave a proper exploration of Arya's new storyline for next time, but she certainly makes an arrival in Braavos in style, looking ever more like a fully-fledged (if somewhat diminutive) woman. Her determination to gain entry to the eponymous 'House of Black and White' draws the viewer in, and Maisie Williams has lost none of her poise. A lot of things have gone right in this young lady's career. She has proven her range in several TV shows and even a feature film proper in 'The Falling '. I am also sure that all 'Doctor Who' fans will not miss her two episode debut in Series Nine later this year. 

A lot of characters have now been written out, and only a smaller proportion have been introduced but this epic still demands full attention from viewers.  By the same token it is thoroughly re-watchable and never fails to provide a twist or two. As grim as much of it seems, there is plenty of wit and dark humour to prevent even the slowest episodes from feeling like a drag. Must-watch entertainment.

FILTER: - Game of Thrones