What’s to differentiate between Apple TV+ and other streaming services, other than the content and a lower price? Unfortunately, very little. One of the biggest frustrations I have with all of the current streaming services is the complete lack of additional features and audio commentaries.

Apple had a chance to make their Apple TV+ streaming service truly unique by introducing special features and audio commentaries to their original content, but this just has not happened. Yet. Until they do, Apple TV+ is just another platform offering limited original content.

iTunes Extras has been the only service available to most (dependent on the film studio) film purchases on iTunes to provide special features. It’s the main reason I’ve stuck with iTunes as a purchase platform. It is the closest I can get to physical media features on a digital platform. I can play films on my Apple TV 4K, iPad Pro, iPhone 11 Pro Max or 2018 MacBook Pro. It’s both portable and can be played on the big screen TV. I still prefer physical media for most things, but as I’ve mentioned many times here and elsewhere, it’s a rapidly losing battle.

On the TV programs front, iTunes has been a poor show. None of the titles available are in 4K, and very few carry any extras – mainly because iTunes Extras is a format reserved for films. Breaking Bad is currently the ONLY title I own that has special features and audio commentaries – and I can only play the audio commentaries by disabling Dolby Surround.

Apple TV+ content IS available in 4K. Whether this will push existing TV studios to consider releasing their purchasable content on iTunes in 4K, I just don’t know. I doubt Apple will let you purchase episodes or whole series of Apple TV+ shows since it’s in their interest to keep you as a subscriber. But that then brings me back to the special features and audio commentaries.

Netflix, oddly, puts many special features about their shows on YouTube. Not on their own platform. Amazon is equally rubbish at this, and also put special features on their YouTube channel too. Amazon have been the only streamer to put an audio commentary on their service, but only for one title, and for one season.

No. Unless Disney+ pulls its fingers out and puts special features and audio commentaries on their platform as well as releasing new content and offering their back catalogue, Apple TV+ isn’t going to be unique in the market place at all.

Other problems with Apple TV+ have been the super annoying Up Next bar during end credits. I can’t dismiss it – but it does vanish after a while – but it still obscures credits. And the Apple TV+ user interface doesn’t tell me the frequency of new episodes of a current season. I had to look up when new episodes for For All Mankind came out having watched the first three episodes this weekend.

For All Mankind, BTW, is a decent show but somewhat let down by its visual effects. I’ve seen Method Studios and Pixomondo do better. But the storytelling is compelling enough to stick around for now. Other titles have received very mixed reviews. I have a free year’s trial with Apple TV+ thanks to upgrading to the iPhone 11 Pro Max, so only time will tell if I’ll be paying for it next year (even if it’s £4.99/month).

In other news, I cannot tell you how much frustration MacOS Catalina and iOS 13 have caused me over the past few weeks. This is some seriously buggy piece of crap from Apple, and by far the worst quality releases that have come from them in years. If Apple doesn’t buck their ideas up, I’ll be moving back to Dell and Windows late next year.

Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens is undoubtedly one of the best TV shows released this year. But despite the promise of a physical media release filled with extras and audio commentaries, I will not be buying it.

Over the past few years, 4K UHD televisions have been slowly invading people’s homes. And streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime Video have been upping the ante over traditional broadcasters and releasing shows in 4K. But, as I’ve mentioned on this blog before, Amazon makes it unnecessarily bloody difficult to watch 4K content on their service.

And now they’re releasing a DVD and Blu-Ray of Good Omens. Which was shot in 4K UHD. But they’re NOT releasing a 4K UHD Blu-Ray because heaven forbid, it might cost them a lot more money to produce a 4K UHD Blu-Ray master and duplication. No wonder post-production companies such as Deluxe are in trouble. Will Technicolor be next?

The Blu-ray and DVDs may well have lots of extra features such as audio commentaries and featurettes, but you’ll also be paying for a lower resolution version of the content that you already have access to (providing you pay your subscription).

So. Why the bloody hell do streaming companies such as Netflix and Amazon Prime Video not do away with physical distribution of their content completely and offer extras such as audio commentaries and featurettes within their service? Punters would have to keep paying access to it, thus generating near-guaranteed returning subscribers and thus revenue, plus you get it in the highest resolution possible. Additional content can be updated as and when too.

Amazon HAS released audio commentaries online. For season one of Transparent. But nothing else has ever been released. Was it a failed experiment? Difficult to know. Only Amazon has the answer to that.

Netflix has stuffed extra content in the Trailer section their titles. For example, the Star Trek Discovery Shorts were hidden away – no announcements made – in the show’s Trailer section where most people wouldn’t think to look.

If physical media is to retire gracefully, we need the streaming services (and especially Apple who, along with their TV studio partners, STILL have not released any purchasable TV show content in 4K UHD or provided any extras with it) to up the ante. That means original content gets audio commentaries, featurettes, etc. as physical media releases would – and in the highest available quality and resolution possible.

Releasing 4K UHD TV content on DVD (standard definition) or Blu-Ray (high definition) is being cheap, miserly, and uncaring. It serves little benefit to the consumer, and even less so to the TV studio that makes it. Why even bother?

One of television’s most ambitious & successful productions to date

Back in 1982, Jim Henson & Frank Oz set out to create a fantasy world full of strange wondrous creatures – some good, others evil. After a great war between the evil Skeksis and the peaceful Gelflings – virtually eliminating the Gelfling civilization in the process – two Gelfling survivors team up to solve the riddle of the Dark Crystal.

The film itself was a masterpiece of fantasy filmmaking, utilising puppetry for the denizens of Thra. Jim Henson and his Creature Shop threw every technique they had at the film to realise the designs of Brian Froud. Hand puppets, animatronics, full-size costumes, marionettes, you name it – they used it. And with some decent matte paintings, optical effects and elaborate sets, the world of Thra was a wonderful, but somewhat limiting place.

Much has been discussed regarding the sequel to The Dark Crystal: The Power of the Dark Crystal, but ultimately a decision was made to tell a story prior to the events of the 1982 film.

What’s even more extraordinary is that Netflix was able to commission a major special and visual effects spectacular which spans nearly 10 hours of television. HBO and Game of Thrones – eat your heart out. This piece of work is the very best that Jim Henson’s Creature Shop has ever produced. It’s certainly their biggest. More so than Labyrinth. And it also marks an (albeit temporary) welcome return for the JHCS to London – they left back in 2003 after we at MPC had finished on Tomb Raider 2: The Cradle of Life.

That said, Netflix has not spared the pennies making this show. The sets are extraordinary. The vistas of Thra are enthralling. The camera work is now decidedly less static – with sweeping movements and handheld close-ups. We have more inserts of character legs running, jumping and picking up/dropping things which gives the characters a more organic feel. Some characters have a bit of digital augmentation to provide more expression, though the Gelflings still feel as if they’ve been Botoxed up to the hilt:

Guess the mood: happy, sad, angry or as high as a skunk?

But it’s the extremely talented puppeteers’ skill that brings through the physical emotion of the characters, backed up by the excellent voice actors – many of whom are big-name stars. Much praise goes to Mark “Luke Skywalker” Hamil as the voice of The Scientist Skeksis and Simon Pegg as The Chamberlain. And Awkwafina as the hideous Collector (so much mucus for a single Skeksis). There are far too many names to mention here (both voice actor and puppeteer, and sometimes both) as they are so good – all bloody wonderful. The casting people deserve an Emmy.

The story is a slow burner. But that’s absolutely fine. It provides a wonderful orientation to the world of Thra and its inhabitants – considerably more so than the movie which had 1 and a half hours to cram in a beginning, middle and an end. Sometimes the level of detail is so good – especially when watching in UHD/4K, that you could just reach out and grab what’s on the screen. Excellent cinematography and production design (by Jane Goldman/Matthew Vaughn’s Stardust‘s Gavin Bocquet) make everything just pop.

Stand out moments include the Podling bathing scene – in which a bare bummed Podling escapes from Gelflings charged in overseeing their annual bathtime. A Podling named Hup – a paladin with a wooden spoon for a sword – starting a “bar” fight. The Skeksis bathtime. The Heretic and his other-self (especially the opera (a bit of Tuvan throat singing, anybody?) and puppet show). And anything featuring The Hunter. You’ll never see any other Skeksis move so fast.

Having read the earlier graphic novels – The Dark Crystal: Creation Myths (as opposed to Creation Meths) – I was a bit disappointed that they hadn’t included Aughura’s son, Raunip. But having read an interview with co-creators Jeff Addiss and Will Matthews, and co-executive producer Javier Grillo-Marxuach, there wasn’t any space for him in this story. But there is hope he may be present in a future series. Yay!

The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance is a beautiful, beautiful tribute to Jim Henson for whom I am certain would have loved every single minute of this. I was blown away at the level of detail and care that’s gone into the making of the show. From the scripts through to the puppets, puppet special effects, sets, special effects, visual effects, cinematography, direction – and not forgetting Daniel Pemberton and Samuel Sim’s wonderful score.

The original series soundtrack, now available on Apple Music
Vol. 2 of the soundtrack – even more Gelfling goodness

Netflix MUST renew the show. It took years to get to this point, so renewing now means that the next trip to Thra wouldn’t be for at least another 2 years (2021/2022 at the latest). I’d say that both this and Amazon’s Good Omens have been the TV highlights of this year. Expect the awards season to reflect this – I see many wins for both shows.

11/10 – An absolute blast – best thing on TV for *ages*

In the I.T. world, the acronym “SSL” means “Secure Sockets Layer” which refers to a protocol that’s used to encrypt content between two endpoints (typically a web browser and a server).

Along comes Amazon Prime Video and this appears (along with many other warnings) relating to their superheroes-gone-bad series, The Boys (which is really rather good, though the critics aren’t as keen as regular folk):

As the Internet has progressed, we now tend to refer to SSL as TLS (“Transport Layer Security”). I reckon it’s only a matter of time before Amazon comes up with their own acronym to describe their content:

TLS – Tender Loving Sex

First, it was Good Omens. Now it’s The Boys. Amazon Prime Video has been available on Apple TV devices for a while now. Not long, but long enough. I bought the 4K version of the Apple TV because I have a 4K TV.

I have the Amazon Prime Video app on my LG 4K TV, but I don’t tend to use the built-in apps for the TV because the TV is getting old now and the app and WebOS updates are few and far between. An Apple TV device should continue to receive OS and app updates regularly for many years to come – and one only has to replace one component when Apple stops supporting that device, rather than having to replace an otherwise good working TV. This is why I despise the “smart” in Smart TV.

Amazon’s 21st century equivalent of adjusting a TV aerial

Amazon, like Netflix, has been commissioning original TV shows in UHD (4K). With Netflix and the right subscription, you’ll get the highest resolution out the box without any fuss. If it’s 4K, you’ll get 4K. If it’s HD only, you’ll get HD only. With Amazon, you’re relying on them to put the 4K version of the title on the home page. Except they rarely do. No, with Amazon, you have to dig deep to find the bugger and then add it to your wishlist so that you don’t lose it again.

I had tremendous difficulties playing Good Omens in 4K when it was first released. Error galore. And I had even more difficulty trying to find the link to get help with Amazon (though it turns out when you do find the help page, the contact us section is bottom left-hand side – it’s not as obvious as you think it is when you’re trying to look for it). We then spent about an hour going through a scripted support process before the case was escalated to Amazon Prime Video’s specialist support team.

The thing is, the LG TV could play the 4K version of Good Omens just fine. Yet the newer Apple TV running Amazon’ s own app couldn’t. Eventually, Amazon managed to fix it, but it left a bit of a bad taste.

And now we have a new Amazon series called The Boys. It’s a very good black comedy about a world where superheroes are vile and managed by a massive agency who look after their PR, which comes in handy whenever collateral damage from a superhero rescue comes into play. It’s an exceptional series, but again, I can’t play it in 4K on the Apple TV.

Here are things I’ve tried:

  • Signed out of Amazon, then signed back in again
  • Restarted the Apple TV
  • Signed out of Amazon, deleted the Amazon Prime Video app, restarted the Apple TV, downloaded the Amazon Prime Video app, and then signed in again
  • Sacrificed a small goat to the tech god, “Sodslaw”
  • Admired the extremely impressive Apple TV 4K screensavers when attempting to escalate the issue with Amazon

The reason I got angry about this in the first place was that the TV app on Apple TV made it clear it was a 4K show. But when you clicked on the link to open it, an error from Amazon’s Prime Video app popped up.

I tried to search for The Boys within the app. No joy. And I tried on the web site – again no joy – until today (one day after the release). I added it to the Watchlist so that I wouldn’t lose it again.

I’ve been in touch with Amazon, and I think they’re escalating this – but they also wanted me to restart my router. I said that I didn’t think that was going to be necessary, but they insisted. And that’s when I lost my temper and left the chat.

Some thoughts:

  • Apple and Amazon need to work more closely together
  • Amazon needs to put more developers onto the tvOS app
  • Amazon needs better QA testers for the tvOS app

If these so-called “cord-cutting” services are to succeed, they need to work flawlessly across the many platforms that they’re on. And support for these services needs to be beefed up. Streaming is only going to get more complex – especially if 8K is around the corner (my prediction: won’t see anything serious for the next 2-3 years and even then we’ll still be struggling with 4K like we are right now).