Sunday, 29 September 2013

New season double review

Marvel's Agents of Shield: Pilot
Atlantis: The Earth Bull

It's the new season on US TV, and even the BBC is getting in on the act with their latest Saturday night fantasy offering. So there were two new shows to catch over the weekend, thanks to both the Beeb's new production Atlantis and to Channel 4 managing to get the rights to show Marvel's Agents of SHIELD mere days after its American premiere.

Agents of SHIELD was by far the series I was looking forward to more. As a big fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the classic (which is to say, tinted by nostalgia) Marvel cartoons that used to pepper my Saturday mornings, he prospect of a new Marvel comics based TV series was exciting. With Joss Whedon as showrunner, and fan favourite Clark Gregg back as Agent Phil Coulson, surely this couldn't fail? (Unless you didn't like The Avengers, in which case you would surely run for the hills, or at least the remote.)

The series ties in tightly to the latest movies, particular The Avengers itself, with glimpses of footage and numerous references throughout this first episode. It's a fun game for fans, but not too overbearing for more casual viewers; references to the Extremis plot and the Chitauri are kept to a minimum, just enough to reassure us that this is the same universe, without bogging the story down in unnecessary minutiae. The close links to the movies is as much as a curse as a blessing, however; while it will undoubtedly bring in a sizeable audience, the series is inevitably going to seem small and cheap in comparison.

Certainly, this opening installment seems rather safe and low-key (not Loki). The plot is well-worn, and a trifle cliched, but cliches are cliches because they work. The tried and tested method of bringing a newbie into the fold in order to explain the set-up is given another outing here, as is the downtrodden man who goes off the rails but is decent beneath it all. Those coming to the series with a less-than-encyclopaedic knowledge of the comics (which includes myself) will notice more similarities with other franchises; the whole thing has the vibe of a low budget Men in Black, or a restrained version of Torchwood with added Heroes. That's the problem with using a well-established comics continuity as source material; it's already been mined for all it's worth.

Clark Gregg is as likeable as ever as Coulson, and the ongoing mystery of his reappearance following his apparent death in The Avengers is nicely alluded to, without distracting from the main storyline. He is by far the most engaging member of the cast – although Cobie Smulders remains magnetic as Agent Hill – but whether he has the charisma to carry a whole series remains to be seen. There are appearances by some of Whedon's stalwarts, of course, with more, no doubt to come; Angel's J. August Richards is excellent as Mike Peterson, and there's a pleasing cameo from Firefly's Ron Glass as a SHIELD doctor. As for the rest of the cast, though it's early days yet, it's hard to imagine that we'll come to really give a damn about any of them. It's a roll call of cliched pretties with little else to recommend them, from the chiselled, stoic agent to the dotty British pair. Only newbie Skye stands much chance of becoming a decent character in her own right, but for now she's mostly a Buffy-speak spouting cipher. Still, at least Chloe Bennett is very likeable, and she really is quite gorgeous (although nobody living in a van looks that good).

The BBC's replacement for Merlin takes its place in the Saturday night schedules, set to fill the ever-widening gaps when Doctor Who is off the air. Atlantis, much in the same vain as Merlin, takes a popular set of myths and gives them a modern, family-friendly spin. Unsurprisingly, it has Merlin's creative team involved, but this shouldn't be sniffed at; while I was no big fan of Merlin, Johnny Capps and Julian Murphy's previous collaboration was the incisive Sugar Rush, and with Misfits creator Howard Overman involved too, this is a showrunning team to be excited by.

Again, though, this is pretty safe stuff, exactly the sort of thing we'd expect the BBC to replace Merlin with. While there's a nice twist in that our hero Jason is first introduced in the modern day, before being whisked to Atlantis through some kind of time warp, beyond that events proceed with comfortable predictability. Jack Donnelly is likeable enough as Jason, and yes, there are enough shots of his naked torso to keep me happy. Whether he can sustain the viewership's interest in the quest to find his father over the next twelve episodes remains to be seen. Jason seems altogether too quick to accept his sudden materialisation in Atlantis; it's a difficult balancing act, of course, and it's a risk to get too bogged down in the introductions, but he really does take to Atlantis like a merman to water.

Not that this is really Atlantis; rather, it's a hotch-potch of Greek mythology and history. Robert Emms as Pythagoras lives with Mark Addy's overweight, past-his-prime Hercules (probably the best thing about this show). Alexander Siddig plays King Minos, mysteriously emigrating here from Crete; Siddig is just about the most obvious actor to cast in a series like this, and my, he looks bored. The extremely beautiful Aiysha Hart plays his daughter Ariadne, aiding Jason in defeating the ravenous Minotaur, so at least that much matches the traditional account, but there's little chemistry between the clearly signposted love interests. I do enjoy a good monster though, and while the Minotaur was pretty well realised, next week we have Jemima Rooper as Medusa the Gorgon, and I wonder how long they can string out a Greek-monster-of-the-week structure.

Both Atlantis and Agents of SHIELD are a lot of fun, but are cautiously taking things easy with their first episodes. They both have potential, and either might well develop into something car interesting. So far, I'd say that SHIELD shows the more promise, although, on the other hand, Coulson has a flying and talked down Gunn from Angel; Jason fought the Minotaur. I know which of those I find more appealling (better crack my Monster in My Pocket toys out).

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