We live in a truly connected world. A world in which television has been transformed by the internet. Streaming services have been de rigueur for the TV connoisseur looking for the very best in entertainment. Battles between traditional broadcasters and streamers are a regular occurance – often ending in the two working together to create, produce and distribute a series outside of a broadcaster’s home country.

Netflix’s first original TV show was produced in conjunction with Norway’s national broadcaster, NRK1. It was called Lilyhammer and featured The Soprano’s Steven Van Zandt as Frank Tagliano, a former underboss in an American Mafia family who testifies against his former boss who placed a hit on him. Under federal protection, he opts to go and live in Lillehammer, Norway, under a new identity of Giovanni “Johnny” Henriksen.

We had three wonderful seasons of Lilyhammer. It was almost the perfect show – especially after Breaking Bad. It mattered not that Johnny only ever spoke English and everybody else spoke Norwegian (with English subtitles) .- the excuse WAS plausible. This was a true “fish out of water” comedy drama which exuded charm. And it all came to a sudden end at the end of season three – with the only episode directed by Van Zandt himself.

There were rumours that NRK1 did something that Netflix didn’t like. Some said it was the other way around. But in any event, Netflix pulled out of the deal and we were left with a great show that ended suddenly, leaving at least one major plotline unresolved (that of Sigrid, Johnny’s former girlfriend and mother to his children).

Fast forward to 2019. Moria Walley-Beckett, a former actress turned writer-producer and showrunner, who has won more awards and nominations than I can count on my fingers (including three Emmys), announced that season three of “Anne with an E” – her more modern take on Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables – has not been renewed for a fourth season.

Quite frankly, I’m pissed off.

You may think it’s rather odd for a 43-year old straight bloke to enjoy a show whose demographic – well, I’m not and never was going to be the key demographic for this genre am I? But trust me, I do like this show. I really do.

Firstly, Anne (with an E) has such a fine cast and crew for a historical drama that’s as complex and endearing as Upstairs, Downstairs or Downton Abbey, two shows that I never expected to love and enjoy as much as I did (and still do – and I also include The Crown in that bunch – something I wouldn’t normally have ever touched 20-30 years ago).

The show absolutely found its Anne in Amybeth McNulty, its Marilla in Geraldine James, and Matthew in R. H. Thomson. The supporting cast are equally as brilliant – and you really appreciate the work that casting directors do – a very overlooked profession that doesn’t truly get the recognition it deserves.

The crew is equally superb – some of Canada’s finest directors including Anne Wheeler, Ken Girotti, Helen Shaver, Amanda Tapping (of Stargate fame) and Norma Bailey, amongst others. The first episode was directed by none other than New Zealander Niki Caro, whose Whale Rider was a triumph of filmmaking. Anne (with an E) doesn’t feel like regular episodic television – the cinematography, direction, writing, performance and production design makes it feel that you’re watching a cinematic masterpiece each week.

I think Anne (with an E) is an important show as it’s an exceptionally positive adoption story. That and Dreamworks Kung-Fu Panda trilogy. It may seem silly to compare a big live action drama with a family animated film – but having gone through (and unfortunately due to a variety of reasons never completed) the process of (international) adoption some time ago, the meaning of belonging, acceptance, and dealing with things like attachment is important.

I tell you right now – the second episode of the first season of Anne (with an E) had me literally in floods of tears when Matthew, who instantly warmed to Anne’s strong personality and intelligence after meeting her for the first time, managed to find her after running away from Green Gables and exclaimed to everybody in the room that she was his daughter. Anne started crying. I started crying. It was such a bloody lovely moment.

Moria Walley-Beckett’s Anne (with an E) goes beyond the books and introduces themes that simply couldn’t or wouldn’t have been addressed in Victorian Canada at the time. Not just issues surrounding adoption, but other social and personal matters. It’s truly an inclusive drama which I’ve seen critics have a go at the show for – but the beauty of transformative works is that they can be whatever the writers want it to be.

Now while I haven’t yet read the Green Gables books – I’ve bought the whole lot on Kindle as soon as I started watching the show. I know certain key points in Anne’s life, and how the series ends. It would take a considerable number of seasons to cover it all – and you’ll find that previous adaptations (including a version of Studio Ghibli’s Isao Takahata) only go up to a certain point in the book series. But from what I gather of season three (which hasn’t yet aired internationally) it’s a rather bittersweet ending.

My question is – who put the knife in? Netflix? CBC? I doubt it’s CBC – a national broadcaster is unlikely to have killed off a series which is universally liked – especially in its home territory. Did CBC manage to piss off Netflix? Is it Netflix data? Did the computer say no? (I always say, computers are generally good for some things, but without humans behind them, cold facts can get in the way of doing good deeds.)

That there are several petitions (which I’ve signed) with over tens of thousands of signatures each to ask to reinstate a fourth (and maybe fifth) season goes to show that this show has a solid fanbase. It IS a good show. It’s a damn good show. It is one of the best, most lovingly produced shows I’ve ever seen, and everybody involved with it has clearly poured their heart and soul into it.

If Netflix did pull the knife, it has got to be careful about how it does so in the future. I can terminate my Netflix subscription at any point. Anybody can. There are alternatives now. There always will be alternatives. It’s difficult to ask us to invest ourselves in a show, then cancel the bloody thing two or three seasons in. Who are you? The SyFy Channel (or as I like to call it: The Cancellation Channel).

Save Anne (with an E). It makes sense. It keeps people in employment. It’ll continue the excellent storytelling. It’ll make the fans happy.

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*

The Art of The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance Exhibition, BFI Southbank

I’ve had a very pleasant day out in South London along the Southbank visiting the BFI Southbank for the Netflix exhibition of The Art of The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance. It was a chance to get up close and personal with the puppets (or at least sculptures/poseable versions) and learn a bit more about the production.

I’m hoping to attend a screening of the first episode along with a Q&A with Louise Gold on Monday.

It really was quite extraordinary to see the attention to detail that’s gone into these puppets, and as you can see from the many photos, the world of Thra is an incredible place. Even if it has phallic mushrooms/plants. With teeth. Ooer-missus.

Everything above was shot on an iPhone XS Max.