The Martians and Us

Here is everything that’s wrong with Radio Times:

The Martians and Us: From Apes to Aliens

The first of a brainy three-part history of British science fiction looks at the preoccupation of genre writers with evolution. The programme explores the progress-v-decay debate through the work of professors of the prescient from HG Wells to Arthur C Clarke. It uses psychedelic visualisations and book extracts read with sonorous gravity by Peter Capaldi, while well-chosen clips from Doctor Who, Things to Come and 2001: a Space Odyssey distract from periods of excessive chin-stroking.

— Mark Braxton

Because heaven forbid a television documentary take science fiction seriously.

Did anyone else watch this? I have to say I was impressed, and there isn’t even an implied “for tv” in that statement. The Martians and Us is one of the flagship programmes in the “Science Fiction Britannia” season that BBC Four is running at the moment. It looks like a pretty good season in general, to the point where, if I’m not careful, I can see myself doing nothing but watching BBC Four for the next three weeks. For example, tonight at 10.55 there’s an extended interview with Iain Banks ; and on Monday 27th there’s what looks like an interesting drama based on a Wyndham short. I’m not sure when whatever programme is going to use the footage filmed at last month’s ton is going to air, but I’ll be keeping an eye out for it.

It’s tempting to wonder whether the season got commissioned, in whole or in part, off the back of the success of Russell T. Davies’ Doctor Who, not least because damn near the only present-tense moment in the first episode of this series is a clip from Rob Shearman’s first-season episode “Dalek” — specifically, the death of the last Dalek — complete with narration that assumes familiarity with, say, Rose in a way that familiarity is clearly not assumed when talking about even H.G. Wells. That aside, though, whoever’s behind it all has indeed taken science fiction seriously, lining up an impressive array of talking heads, giving them enough space to say useful things, and structuring the episodes (or at least episode one) around reasonably sensible arguments. If I have a reservation about the series, it’s that it looks like it’s going to cut off at about 1980; rather than being a linear history, the three episodes seem to describe three strands of british sf. Episodes two and three are “dystopias” and “the end of the world“, respectively — for which read “Orwell” and “Wyndham”, I assume — and episode one, which took as its theme “evolution”, didn’t get past 1968.

But that’s ok, because it allowed the episode to deal with its touchstones — Wells; Stapledon; Quatermass; The Midwich Cuckoos; and Arthur C. Clarke — in some depth, with sidebar trips into Doctor Who, Buck Rogers and others. The use of evolution as an organising principle puts the focus squarely on the scientific romance tradition, and mostly works well, as in the moment when, after a long discussion of The Time Machine, the focus switches to Doctor Who, and a shot of the first Doctor meeting primitive savages. They’re in the deep past, not the deep future, but after the preceding discussion about how evolution does not guarantee progress, the narrator’s comparison — “meet the Morlocks” — still feels apt. Similarly, The War of the Worlds is linked to the we-are-the-Martians ending of Quatermass and the Pit, and both are used to develop, in combination with the “education turns you into an alien” theme identified in The Midwich Cuckoos, a more general theme of alien intervention in human development, most particularly as explored in Clarke’s work.

This is a series, then, focused on the literary history of British sf, with media (by and large, rightly) seen as responding to or adapting earlier work, and it’s a focus that’s also evident in the featured commentators. There are critics (Roger Luckhurst, Patrick Parrinder), writer-critics (Brian Aldiss, Brian Stableford, Kim Newman), and writers (Doris Lessing, Stephen Baxter, China Mieville, and from tv-land, the late Nigel Kneale), with a relative (Mary Shenai, daughter of Olaf Stapledon) and a biologist (the eminently reliable Steve Jones) rounding things out. There are, in other words, a bunch of people who really like science fiction, and really get science fiction — the whole awe and wonder and majesty bit — and whatever Mark Braxton may say about chin-stroking, for me that shone through. So Kim Newman gets to be Kim Newman, throwing off irreverent but somehow telling trivia; Brian Aldiss reads the famous opening of The War of the Worlds, and can’t quite stifle a little yelp of glee when he’s done; China Mieville talks about H.G. Wells’s love of the weird; and Doris Lessing and Stephen Baxter wax lyrical about the mind-expanding effects of Starmaker. The narration is mostly good, too, striking just the right balance between witty and informed. On Stapeldon, for instance: “By night he taught philosophy; by day he thought up plans for the future of mankind.” On the arrival of American sf in Britain after World War Two: “Overcoloured, overblown, and over here.” And on the world before Darwin and deep time, before The Time Machine: “There was time, but not much of it.”

And there’s Arthur C. Clarke, who provides what is probably the episode’s most powerful moment. Towards the end of the episode, the discussion shifts to how the reality of space travel overtook science fiction; and having just been talking about Childhood’s End and 2001, the director goes back to Clarke for a comment. And he says, slowly, something like, “I really thought there would be much more space travel than there has been.” Pause. “That’s a failure of imagination, I suppose.” There was for me something tremendously sad about that pause, but tremendously dignified, too. It’s a moment that would have made the episode worth watching even if I’d been gritting my teeth the rest of the way through, because it says that science fiction should be about possibilities, not dreams. And that (it says, and I agree) is an important distinction.

One More Quote

Saxon Bullock on Torchwood, Russell T. Davies and sf:

It may say science fiction on the tin, but Torchwood so far has only been as much sci-fi as the new relaunch of Doctor Who has been — i.e., not very much. RTD may love the paraphenalia of sci-fi, but he’s got absolutely no interest in it as a mode of storytelling, and most of the sci-fi devices in Torchwood could be shifted into the realm of ‘magic’ with very little effort. More than anything else, this mode of storytelling is all about avoiding the kind of dislocation that’s at the heart of normal sci-fi — instead, it’s all about emotionalism, wish-fulfilment, and confronting the issue-of-the-week. This has manifested itself in a number of dodgy ways (the supposedly hilarious sequence where the character Owen uses an alien spray that essentially magnifies the ‘Lynx Effect’ up to levels where the phrase ‘date rape’ wouldn’t be completely inappropriate), but it’s also showing up that, at heart, there’s not very much so far that seperates out Torchwood from its influences. With Doctor Who, RTD was performing a relaunch — and as a result he had a history he could play with, things he could react against, and a whole public perception that he could manipulate to his own ends. Now, whether or not I agree with what he did, I think the main trouble with Torchwood is that he’s starting from scratch, and his magpie habits are showing through too strongly.

In Brief

Here’s the terrible secret about this blog: the posts don’t just happen. They are planned. I don’t usually read a story, or a book, or watch a film or a tv show, and think, “hey, I want to write about this”. Sometimes that happens — it did with Children of Men, for instance — but those are the exceptions. More often, I’m on the lookout for things I want to write about. Recently, though, my plans have all come to nothing, or at least not very much. What follows are some fragments of aborted posts on some not-as-interesting-as-I’d-hoped failures: some stories, a film, and a tv show. (I’m really selling this, aren’t I?)

“Chu and the Nants” and “Postsingular” by Rudy Rucker

Inspiration is a tricky thing, especially when publicly acknowledged. When, a few years ago, Paul di Filippo wrote Fuzzy Dice, a novel inspired by and intended as a tribute to Rudy Rucker’s tremdous, barmy, transreal exploration of transfinite mathematics, White Light, it seemed somewhat miraculous that he pulled it off: his novel was just as tremendous as, and arguably even barmier than, Rucker’s. More recently, Rucker has in turn been inspired, as he acknowledges in the headnotes to the Asimov’s appearances of these two stories, and in a more-or-less loveletter to the book in question published in the November 2005 NYRSF. But while you can see how di Filippo got from White Light to Fuzzy Dice, if I didn’t know Rucker’s inspiration was Charles Stross’s Accelerando, I don’t think I’d have guessed the lineage. The two writers tell their stories in very different ways.

So far, whatever it is that Rucker’s up to is not very exciting. “Chu and the Nants” and “Postsingular” (note that both links are to excerpts, not complete stories) are set in the same future history. The former is backstory to a forthcoming novel, Postsingular, and explains how a nanotech singularity gets reversed by a clumsy plot gimmmick; the latter is part of the novel, and dramatises a rather more novel singularity, involving the overlay of a digital realm onto the physical, thanks to what amount to smart nanotech tags, which are the sort of thing I’m sure I’ve read Bruce Sterling enthusing about at some time or other.

Rucker’s plainspoken, laid-back style is almost the polar opposite of Stross’s data-dense lingo; if anything, these stories feel more like the work of Cory Doctorow, or like descendants of Vinge’s “True Names”. Which is fine, except when plainspoken becomes simply flat, and it too often does: the explanatory digressions are thinly veiled, and most of the characters are just thin. Ond, the (anti)-hero engineer at the centre of both stories, has motivations that are simplistic at best, and simply embarrassing at worst (his big realisation that bringing on the singularity might not have been a great idea comes when his wife starts electronically cheating on him); and most of the female characters are shrill, except when they’re being stupid. Neither story has the energy or the charm of White Light, and the ideas in them feel tame and familiar, even when they’re not. Probably the most interesting thing about the stories (aside from the use, or possibly invention of, increasingly improbable SI prefixes) is their embrace of the “postsingularity = magic” idea: in “Chu” a computer program is described, with very little irony, as a magic spell, while “Postsingular” features more spells, heaven, and some angels. But the whole enterprise has the sort of curiously weightless feeling that Accelerando was (mostly) notable for avoiding, and doesn’t inspire great confidence in the novel.

Death of a President

Death of a President is the second speculative docudrama about the US that I’ve seen this year, the first being the lower-budget, but more ambitious and more successful, C.S.A.. Writer-director Gabriel Range spins a tale that does exactly what it says on the tin: relates the circumstances surrounding, and the fallout from, the assassination of President George W. Bush in Chicago (which city is lovingly captured in a series of sweeping establishing shots) on October 19, 2007.

The first part of the film, which portrays a Presidential visit that meets with widespread protest, is good. It perhaps tends somewhat towards the hysterical, but arguably that’s necessary to set up a situation in which it’s plausible that the secret service would lose control. The second part of the film, which focuses on the fallout, is much less good, because the only part of the fallout it focuses on is the investigation into whodunit, and because that investigation is about the most predictable and politically heavy-handed you can imagine. A series of archetypal suspects — in particular, the shifty, pasty white man; the black man who may or may not have just been in the wrong place at the wrong time; and, of course, the Syrian — are wheeled out in turn, and I suspect it’s not spoiling anything if I tell you that the last of those three is subjected to a hasty, shoddy trial and a conviction that subsequently turns out to be a mistake. (The identity of the actual assassin is about as big a cop-out as I can imagine.) In the background, Cheney ascends to the Presidency, rattles some sabres, and gets PATRIOT 3 passed, but otherwise seems to do remarkably little. Range is entitled to tell the story he wants to tell, of course, but I can’t help thinking that a slightly broader perspective would have made for a much more interesting film.


What struck me most about Torchwood was how normal the normal bits are. For all the fuss made about the incorporation of Rose’s family into the Russell T. Davies incarnation of Doctor Who, the Tylers and their friends always felt to me like a tv family. By contrast, Gwen, her colleagues and her boyfriend seemed a bit more grounded. Admittedly, part of this perception is probably due to the fact that some of Gwen’s mannerisms and dialogue reminded me alarmingly of someone I knew at university; but even allowing for that, the scene (for example) where Captain Jack takes Gwen for a drink had a sort of incongruous meeting-of-worlds feel to it that recent Who only managed once or twice in two seasons.

As I’m sure most people reading this are more than well aware by now, I haven’t been overly impressed by new Who. It’s had its moments — mostly involving scripts by Steven Moffatt — but not many of them, and they’ve been almost lost in the general mediocrity and occasional outright amateurishness. But I’ve liked much of RTD’s other work (particularly The Second Coming), and wondered whether he might do better starting a show off from scratch. The other notable thing about Torchwood, though, is how much it doesn’t start from scratch. Its genetic makeup seems to be (even leaving aside the elements taken from a certain well-known show) about 10% Doctor Who, 5% Spooks (mostly the soundtrack), 30% Men in Black, 10% Generic British Drama, 5% Buffy, and 40% Angel.

The second episode (the Chris Chibnall-scripted “Day One”), in particular, had an Angel vibe about it — not, as some have said, for the loose similarities the plot bore to “Lonely Hearts” (the similarities were there, but they were very loose), and not particularly in the tone, but rather in the general structure of the show, and the sense of what it was trying to do. Captain Jack has been reinvented, consciously or not, as a more Angel-esque figure: invulnerable, somewhat more brooding, prone to standing on high buildings staring out over “his” city, and power-walking through the opening credits in a long flowing coat. The story took a fantastic element and used it as a metaphor for an aspect of human experience (Modern Life Is Sex); and Jack’s sidekick Gwen, while more of a viewpoint character than Cordelia ever was, offers the same sort of connection-with-common-humanity that the Queen of Sunnydale High provided for Angel. At one point in “Day One”, Jack asks Gwen to tell him “what it means to be human in the 21st century”, which as mission statements for tv shows go is surely ambitious enough for anyone.

The problem for me is not so much that Torchwood‘s influences are so obvious, but that they have been followed in their flaws as well as their virtues, without any real thinking-through. For one thing, the writers seem to be of the “sf doesn’t need consistent plotting” school; and to continue with the theme, Joss Whedon isn’t the strongest plotter in the world, either, but he tends to be much, much better at papering over his holes than RTD or most of his team. Nor do these writers have Whedon’s skill at fleshing out secondary characters: Toshiko and Owen remain cutouts. And the whole of the UK seems to indulge in the sort of mass-denial of alien existence that would put Sunnydale to shame — and as Martin Wisse notes, that kind of denial doesn’t really play in a science-fiction world, particularly on the sort of scale it’s used here. Torchwood may yet develop its own identity — it took Angel almost a season, after all — but at the moment it’s not even close to being a must-watch.

EDIT: Discussion of this post seems to be happening on the lj feed. Which, of course, means it’ll vanish into the ether in about three weeks. Sigh.


Rarely have I approached a new tv show with as much goodwill as I approached Heroes. My desire to see it succeed can basically be attributed to one thing: the sense that most of the recent glut of superhero films, and in particular the Bryan Singer (and, latterly, Brett Ratner) X-Men films, good as they have often been, are still irretrievably hobbled by their medium. Superhero stories, especially superteam stories, as told in comics, do not fit neatly into 90- or 120-minute installments arriving once every two or three years. They are serials. They sprawl. They should be a natural fit for tv, yet in recent years we’ve had to make do with shows like the fits-and-starts Smallville, or the frankly dire Mutant X. It has been frustrating, to say the least: a good superhero epic reaches parts that other stories just don’t.

So it is with a certain caution, and the knowledge that my glasses may be somewhat tinted, that I say that on the basis of the first two episodes, Heroes, which I heard about a couple of months ago and have been looking forward to ever since, seems to actually be what I want it to be: a naturalistic ensemble show about the first people to develop superpowers. Like all superhero stories, it begins with a Beginning. The first episode (or the first chapter, “Genesis”, as it is inevitably labeled) is essentially a collection of origin stories, set mostly in America, but with occasional visits to other continents to convince us we’re watching a global event.

Admittedly, the beginning of the beginning is not terribly auspicious. Series creator Tim Kring seems to be trying just a little too hard. Not only do we get a poorly-written opening crawl (“In recent days, a seemingly random group of individuals has emerged with what can only be described as “special” abilities … Volume One of their epic tale begins here”), immediately afterwards we get an almost-as-poorly-written voiceover (“Where does it come from, this quest, this need to solve life’s mysteries? … perhaps we would be better off not looking at all, but that’s not human nature. Not the human heart”), to one of the great visual cliches of superhero stories: someone stepping off the edge of a building. And it turns out to be a dream sequence.

The rest of the episode is not without its limitations, either. There is some cringeworthy dialogue, notably from Professor Mohinder Suresh (Sendhil Ramamurthy, trying his best), as he enthuses to his class about the potential “next step” in human evolution, and between the dreamer, Peter Petrelli (Milo Ventimiglia), and his pragmatic, running-for-office-and-proud-of-it older brother Nathan (Adrian Pasdar). Some of the characters seem to be low-watt bulbs, or at least have their motivations unfortunately shorthanded: mother-turned-stripper Niki Sanders (Ali Larter), for instance, has borrowed a large sum of money from the mafia to pay for her genius son Micah (Noah Gray-Cabey)’s education, with (a) no apparent means or plan to pay it back, and (b) predictable consequences, at least until her superpower, which appears to take the form of a death-dealing mirror twin, asserts itself. The web of connections between the cast is at times, inevitably, somewhat contrived, and the convenient solar eclipse that looms over all the threads of the story is a rather heavy-handed way of giving them unity.

But on balance, within the constraints of a plot that’s darting back and forth between various locations (which looks likely to be a temporary constraint, since most of the characters are rapidly gravitating towards New York), it’s nowhere near as incoherent as might be expected. Particularly enjoyable are the introductions of invulnerable Texan cheerleader Claire Bennet (Hayden Panettiere) and teleporting Tokyo salaryman Hiro Nakamura (Masi Oka). Bennet we meet through camcorder footage filmed by her friend, as she climbs up on top of some abandoned mining machinery, and throws herself off to land with an all-too-convincing thud. After standing up and wrenching her dislocated shoulder back into place, she looks into the camera and says, with a cool detachment that seems inappropriate to her years, “This is Claire Bennet, and that was attempt number six.” Not test: attempt. The irony is clear and black: she found about her invulnerability because she was trying to kill herself. She wants to self-destruct, but can’t, which is not exactly your stereotypical cheerleader character arc. By contrast, Hiro is endearingly excitable, and the comics geek of the bunch to boot (even if it’s a little improbable that he’s a fan of Western comics, rather than the home-grown variety). It’s Hiro who makes the obligatory X-Men reference, Hiro who babbles about “breaking the space-time continuum”, Hiro who is eager to grow into his powers. He’s the opposite end of the spectrum to Claire. “You don’t understand,” he tells his colleague, “I want to be special.” (“We are not special,” his colleague retorts, “We are Japanese!”)

Moreover, the show looks the part. We’re not talking Unbreakable levels of moodiness here, but the aesthetic is pleasantly subdued. You sense that costumes are and will remain off-limits, that being able to teleport won’t also miraculously make these characters olympic athletes, and if they get hurt, they will bleed. Dave Semel’s direction is good; the camerawork, particularly in its framing of New York City, is stylish without being obtrusive. And if the powers are somewhat off-the-shelf, the depiction of them isn’t always, and mostly knows when to nudge the viewer: the futures that Isaac Mendez (Santiago Cabrera) finds himself painting while high, for instance, are the scenes of death and destruction that might be expected, including an apocalyptic conflagration that looks like being the Heroes’ first job to prevent … and are captured in the bold strokes of comic-book panels.

The cliffhanger that ends episode one is another example. Peter stands on top of a building, recapitulating the dream sequence we saw fifty minutes earlier. Everything we’ve seen throughout the episode leads us to believe that he’s going to step off the building and soar — one of Isaac’s paintings seemed to capture Peter in mid-flight — but when he does, it’s Nathan, the one who doesn’t care, doesn’t believe — the one who already has everything — who catches him. It works because it seems so wonderfully, tremendously unfair, which should (I think) be one of the show’s key messages: life ain’t fair. So it’s a bit of a disappointment when, half-way through episode two, the show goes back on what it seemed to tell us. It turns out that Peter flew as well. I suppose it would be genetic.

Actually, the end of the beginning (“Don’t Let Go”; the best that can be said for the titles is the way they’re plastered on bits of scenery) is a bit of a mess all around. This is not unexpected, given its genesis — by all accounts, the pilot was originally 75 minutes long, a third of which was later chopped off and shunted into what was episode two — but it’s hard not to feel it should have been better than it ended up. Between repeating material from the pilot to reintroduce the existing characters and introducing two new ones (Matt Parkman, a genial, telepathic cop, based in LA; and Mohinder’s father’s perky neighbour), the episode’s actual plot development is pretty vestigal.

Claire’s adoptive father — who at the very least has been keeping an eye on Mohinder and his father, and may have had something to do with the latter’s death — gets his hands on the tape she’s been making of her suicide attempts. Niki’s mysterious twin provides her with an escape route from Vegas in the form of a car, a map, and a mutilated corpse. Various characters stumble on references to “Sylar”, who appears to be a mutant serial killer with a taste for brains: Mohinder discovers a voicemail suggesting that his father somehow ‘activated’ Sylar; Parkman overhears a detective speculating that a gruesome crime was Sylar’s work. As for Hiro, on arrival in New York he is, predictably, deliriously happy, at least until he discovers a comic book that tells exactly the story he’s just lived (no prizes for guessing the artist), stumbles into another crime scene with Sylar’s apparent MO, idiotically picks up the gun lying nearby on the floor, and promptly gets himself arrested by roughly half the local police force. Despite the contrivance involved, it’s Hiro story that saves the episode, just about, by providing a second killer ending.

And this time it’s not a cliffhanger. It’s impossible to know, of course, but it feels like the natural end of the pilot, and you get the sense that everyone would have been better off if they’d stuck with the original 75-minute version and not tried to chop it and stretch it into two unequally weighted but more-or-less equally long parts. So I’ll be watching on, probably at least up until Christmas, because a lot of what’s bad about Heroes feels like teething troubles, and what’s good about it — some of the characters, some of the acting, the general premise — could be enough to make something special. It hasn’t used up my goodwill yet.


At one point in the pilot of the Sci-Fi Channel’s newest show, Eureka, our main viewpoint character, US Marshall Jack Carter, wonders whether he’s wandered into the Twilight Zone. It’s exactly what you’d expect an average character in an average show to say, when confronted with what Carter’s been confronted with, but for the average viewer, I suspect the situation will seem a bit more familiar than that. After a car accident while driving his delinquent daughter Zoe home, Carter finds himself in another one of those American small towns. You know the sort: like Eerie, IN, or Twin Peaks, WA. The sort of place The X-Files visited every other week. One of those towns that has more than its share of stories to tell.

Admittedly, unlike the other examples, Eureka is firmly a sci-fi town: no magic or mysticism here. The premise is neatly summed up when Carter calls a smartass kid with a theoretical physics textbook Einstein. Deadpan, the kid replies, “No, I’m an Oppenheimer. The Einsteins live on 4th.” Eureka is a secret town of geniuses, founded after World War II as a haven for intellectual thought and experimentation, and (apparently) the site of most of the inventions and scientific discoveries that have been made in the US since then. It has the best of everything, from healthcare to environmentally-friendly transportation, and is full of gadets and gizmos. It looks like a fun place to live, and more importantly to watch, since you can already see that the daily dilemmas are going to be a bit more out-there than the usual. But if the setup is original, the play is familiar: thoroughly normal outsider comes to a town of weirdos. Weekly wackiness ensues.

There is an interesting twist, but I don’t know whether it was deliberate on the part of the show’s makers or not. As a general rule, in small-town stories we start off on the outsider’s side. We want them to uncover whatever the mystery is, and it’s only gradually, as the series develops, that we start to care about the townsfolk. In Eureka, by contrast, I was rooting for the townsfolk right from the start. Jack Carter is competent, reliable, amiable—some intimacy issues and workaholism, but nothing threateningly serious—and dull. The good people of Eureka, on the other hand … well, let’s face it. It’s a town full of geeks.

Or at least it should be, and that’s what makes the show so frustrating to watch. For a while it looks as if it’s going to be: we meet the guy who cooks up a machine that will undo the fabric of reality in his basement, the car mechanic who used to be a shuttle engineer, the downright odd chief scientist (and if you ever watched any Ally McBeal, however ashamed you might feel of that fact you’ll at least know that Greg Germann gives good odd). But gradually, everything defaults to a more traditional quirkiness. The characters are TV-land geeks and geniuses, not real ones. It doesn’t help that none of the female characters are scientists, and that what we get instead are stock types: the sensual psychotherapist, the stern, lethal deputy sheriff, and the efficient DOD agent. But none of the characters, male or female, act particularly sharp, or feel particularly true, in the way that the cast of The West Wing or Primer are sharp and true. The inhabitants of Eureka are geniuses defined by what they know (most of which we, inevitably, have to take on faith), not by how they think.

Part of the trouble, I think, is that Eureka wants to be one type of show, when it’s really another. I think it wants to be cool, to be a show that (like Galactica) non-geeks can tune into (if for different reasons; none of the cast of Eureka is portrayed with a tenth the depth and dignity of Galactica‘s crew.) Unfortunately, on the evidence of the pilot (which you can watch online, for free, at the Sci-Fi Channel site), Andrew Cosby and Jaime Paglia are never going to be challenging Joss Whedon or Aaron Sorkin in the snappy dialogue stakes, which is a disadvantage from the start. The episode is most entertaining when it’s relaxed, and not trying to be hip; the Twilight Zone reference is forgiveable, but when Deputy Jo dubs Zoe “Felon Spice”, we can only cringe.

But really, Eureka just shouldn’t be cool. It’s probably one of the least cool shows ever devised, not least in its potential for truly heroic amounts of technobabble, and it should let itself revel in that. Carter may be a good hook for the average US TV-watcher, but surely the people who are actually going to be tuning in to this show are going to be watching for the next wonder, and for the geeks. There are signs that the writers know this, as evidenced by the arrival of the Big Bad Military partway through the pilot’s second half, intent on shutting down the town, an event which immediately puts Carter and the town on the same side. And when two soldiers, faced with the end of the world, do the “it’s been a pleasure working with you” thing, it’s a background moment, played as a throwaway—in any other show it would be the focus, but here the focus is on the guy tapping away at a computer terminal, and the kid scribbling equations on the floor. Despite this, the end of the episode brings us firmly back to Jack Carter, and it’s hard not to feel that choice is going to be a handicap.