Catch up TV reviews: Doctor Thorne, The Aliens, Penn and Teller
Ivan Radford | On 13, Mar 2016
The Aliens (All 4)
No sooner than you can say “I miss Humans”, Channel 4 has served up another allegorical sci-fi series for your entertainment. This one, though, has a style all its own; broadcast on E4, rather than Channel 4, this is very much BBC Three to Humans’ BBC One, more concerned with being entertaining than being thought-provoking.
If that sounds like a criticism, it’s also The Aliens’ greatest strength: the show lands us in the middle of a dystopian near-future, set 40 years after a UFO crashed off the coast of Britain. The ETs, it turned out, were much like us, except for the fact that they have sensitive hearing and body that can be smoked by humans – to delirious, druggy effect.
Lewis (Michael Socha) is a border control officer designed to keep the barrier between aliens (“morks”) and humans in tact – but, inevitably, he discovers that the boundary between the two isn’t so clear-cut. For one, he’s got a thing for alien criminal Lilyhot (Michaela Coel) – whose gang is owed money by his sister – his coworker (Jim Howick) has a thing for him, and he’s weirdly susceptible to the anti-alien tech the authorities use to subdue them.
There’s a topicality to the whole thing, not least because Donald Drumpf is running around talking about erecting a wall to keep foreigners out of America. But while that metaphor could be laboured and forced, The Aliens prefers to spend its time dropping silly laughs (mostly courtesy of Howick) and dashing about the superbly built world, as violence, drugs and parents all combine to drive the plot forward. The same can’t always be said of the dialogue – “I don’t make mistakes, I make on-purposes,” declares wannabe gangster Christophe (Ashley Walters) – but there’s an enjoyable manic energy to the whole thing. Throughout, This Is England’s Socha does a good job of looking bewildered, while the script doesn’t shy away from good old puns to offset the kind of sarcastic banter you expect from E4. “Silence Crew?” one punter questions Christophe’s gang, after they reveal its name. “Sounds like silent screw.” If that balance can be kept up, The Aliens is worth making contact with.
Photo: HAL SHINNIE / Channel 4 Television
Penn and Teller: Fool Us in Vegas (My5)
You may recall this hugely entertaining show from a few years back, when it made its debut on ITV. It was eventually scrapped by the broadcaster, but US network The CW wanted more, ordering the programme to hop over to Las Vegas for a second run. Channel 5 has promptly snapped up the UK rights – and ITV’s loss is very much Channel 5’s gain.
Magic has always been something of a challenge for TV, with most illusionists either resorting to stunts, such as Derren Brown, to attract viewers, or going out on the street for overly familiar one-on-one tricks. Penn and Teller’s Fool Us, though, is a smart combination of gameshow, talent showcase and that old 1990s series, Breaking the Magician’s Code. The premise is simple: if a magician can perform something without Penn and Teller guessing how they did it, they win a chance to perform with the duo in Las Vegas. The result is a parade of versatile acts, all stitched together by Jonathan Ross. Ross’ patter isn’t all that spellbinding, but the chance to see magicians talk in code with each other – not to mention the bonus of a top-notch trick from Penn and Teller at the end of each episode – is a televisual treat, while every now and then, someone comes along and blows your puny, muggle mind. In the first episode, that’s Simon Pierro, a digital magician who uses an iPad as a surrogate wand. Making things go in and out of his tablet’s screen, he’s a genuinely refreshing spectacle – and in an age of tired old shows such as The X-Factor, that really is magic.
Photo: Jacob Kepler / The CW
Doctor Thorne (ITV Hub)
Downton Abbey may be over, but Julian Fellowes is still dominating Sunday night TV schedules this new ITV period show, an adaptation of Anthony Trollope’s novel of the same name. The story follows the titular Doctor (Tom Hollander), who has been looking his niece, Mary (Stefanie Martini). The problem? She’s rather fond of her old friend, Frank Gresham (Harry Richardson), who has just come of age and inherited a wealthy estate – but, naturally, his mother (Rebecca Front) is not keen on them hooking up, due to their differences in class. People sit around talking about “lovemaking of the most advanced kind” and the drawbacks and privileges of rank, while Front and Hollander are more than adept at being cruel and unwavering kind respectively, but it’s hard to feel involved or interested in any of it. Amid the familiar societal dilemmas and fancy houses, the only thing fresh about Doctor Thorne is the casting of two relative newcomers in the charming Richardson and Martini. Otherwise, it’s solely Ian McShane as Mary’s uncle, Roger Scatcherd, who brings any real drama (in the form of a boozy family secret) to events. “You must do without the stimulant of drink,” the doctor advises his patient. We’re as appalled by the idea of that as he is. Downton, this ain’t.
Photo: ITV / Hat Trick Limited