...a blog by Richard Flowers

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Day 2781: Bottomkickers – less of a review; more of a burial

Tuesday (again):

You just KNOW that something has gone horribly HORRIBLY wrong when the Metro's sixty second interview is asking questions like:

"Are you worried about how the programme will be received? Recent BBC 'drama' Bottomkickers is a national laughing stock."

Which is exactly what they DID ask… on the very day of the series finale.

So, only a brand-new, giant-sized, high-definition, Freesat-ready, flat-screen tellybox could have induced my Daddies to watch the last ludicrous episode of Life-on-Mars-creators Matthew Graham and Ashley Pharoah's unintentionally appalling, reputation-wrecking "Bottomkickers" this week.

Tragically, that is exactly what arrived in the post that morning…

The series was billed as "Indiana Jones meets CSI", which was always GOING to be a big ask, but it turned out to be rather more "The Antiques Roadshow meets Wallace and Gromit".

You just KNOW that "Indiana Jones meets CSI" was the pitch when they sold the show to the BBC. (And allegedly "Make us 'Ashes to Ashes' and we'll grudgingly let you" was the reply). But you also might want to ask if "Indiana Jones meets CSI" is ACTUALLY the sort of thing that it is possible to DO.

The thing about Indiana Jones is that first it is displaced in GEOGRAPHY to "exotic" locations like lost temples in the middle of the jungle or cities swallowed by the desert. In these sorts of places it seems ALMOST reasonable that someone might have built a ludicrous, sand and clockwork powered death-trap-cum-treasure-chamber. Not that it's REALLY reasonable, but that generations of Hollywood EPICS have prepared us for that sort of imagery.

And second it is displaced in TIME, to circa nineteen-thirty-swashbuckle so that it is superficially reasonable to have Nazis running around with Lugers shooting up the place 'cos they're like so evil. With a big enough budget you can crank out enough chases, shoot-outs and perils that no one's brain has time to stop and go, ooh hang on a tick.

And third, the big big thing about Indiana Jones is that however ludicrous the plot McGuffin appears to be, however magical and completely unbelievable, whether it is a telephone for talking to Mr God, or fist-sized glowy rocks that make the crops work, whether it is a cup of water that cures everything up to and including death (though probably not being-a-glamorous-but-treacherous-lady-Nazi) to aliens having parked a big shiny flying saucer under the conclusion of the Mummy Returns, at the end of the movie it turns out to be COMPLETELY TRUE. The supernatural powers get released at the end of the movie, conveniently sorting out the obviously evil bad guys and leaving Doctor Jones (who is obviously good-hearted even if he like the baddies shoots people, steals things and tells fibs) and his lady-friend of choice not dead. (Subject to her not being a glamorous-but-treacherous-lady-Nazi).

Television simply does not HAVE that sort of budget. Not to do the locations; not to do the non-stop chase, fight, perils; not to do the super-special effects climax. Certainly not to do all of them at once. They may do SOME of these things, but not all of them and never ever ever on the sheer SCALE of a Spielberg popcorn-flick.

Where CSI (and indeed Spooks and Hustle) get away with this is by focusing intensely on minutiae and dazzling you with loads of seemingly-realistic technical guffery so that you don't notice that it is PADDING. Essentially, they are trying to sell you the idea that what you see is really, really real, as though the makers have done proper research and not just made up something based on a DNA test that they Googled.

So Dr Jones's "magic works, gasp!" conclusions are never going to fit with these sort of shows.

They may use a "heightened reality" – or Hustle's justifiably stylish "Jedi powers" moments – but you would never see Mr Dr Grissom save the girl from the serial killer by suddenly blurting "expelliarmus".

This leaves "Bottomkickers" STUFFED from the word go. Promising both popcorn levels of rollicking adventure AND intense realistic seeming archaeology, which particular stool do you choose to topple off?

And they never quite knew how to treat their artefacts – whether they were supposed to be genuine historical objects to be examined scientifically, or genuine quasi-mystical objects with fully operational magical powers.

So what was on the "Bottomkickers" conveyor belt this time?
  • The Cross of Jesus (brought to England by the Knights of Ni who, coincidentally, were lugging Excalibur around with them);
  • The remains of the black man who fought alongside George Washington (who, as it happens, happened to be wielding Excalibur on behalf of the American Revolution);
  • The secret grave of Boudicca and evidence of her Roman boyfriend (who, would you believe, brought Excalibur to England – or rather Britannica – from the Middle East where he picked it up from Gordium… as in Knot, Cutting Of);
  • The prophecy that would reunite Iraq (written by some blokes wot also, get this, made Excalibur out of magic meteorite iron);
  • The bones of St Joan of Arc (that was no letter opener she was waving around);
  • And, in a shock twist, Excalibur.
The power of these objects – with one obvious exception – lies in their MAGIC. This is where Indiana Jones does not disappoint: if HE were to find Excalibur it really would be a magical object that both inspires and makes the bearer invincible.

Now, the exception is the black escaped slave who fought with Washington, a plausible-seeming story that requires no supernatural element to give it mythic power. That is probably why the second episode was both interesting and timely and probably worked best, being troubled only by the intrusive plot-arc and one whacked-out conspiracy-theory. (Seriously, if the black candidate for the Presidency is going to get shot, it's going to be because HE'S THE BLACK CANDIDATE FOR THE PRESIDENCY, and not because he might reveal some slightly interesting historical nugget.)

The Boudicca story was mainly a gratuitous excuse for unrequited SQUISHINESS between hero-figure Dr Gillian “drives you” Magwilde and Mickey Bricks from 'Hustle'. And rather tasteless if you are at all familiar with WHY the lady of the Iceni went on her famous berserk killing-Romans-and-raising-Londinium-to-the-ground spree. And it's really very very very difficult to credit that the Romans might have invented the land mine and then NOT mass-produced it. Mass producing weapons (and using them on anyone and everyone) is what Ancient Rome DID!

The suggestion that modern Muslim Iraq might be saved by the intervention of Babylonian gods – apparently with fully-functional Tiamat – might also be in questionable taste. This was the one that featured the most "archaeology is like solving the cryptic crossword" guff. Though you hardly needed to puzzle out the Da Vinci Cod to guess that the saviour was going to be the little girl and not the heroic-but-troubled Silas Carson (he's Ki-Adi-Mundi – among several others – in Star Wars, you know).

The World War part One meets Joan of Arc story was in some ways the most sympathetically directed, and the use of flashbacks to Torchwood's "Weevil Boy" Mr Burn Gorman and his doomed attempt to end the War was pretty well done. In spite of all the episodes opening with a "what REALLY happened all them years ago" flashback, this was the only one where that worked. This one (apparently the only one NOT penned by Graham or Pharaoh) was written by Mr Tom McRae, which is another Doctor Who connection, since his name is on the credits of that Cybermen disaster from the 2006 season. Most of the best jokes were nicked from Doctor Who too, but none the worse for that. And there WAS something interesting to say about the English still not having got over the fact that today's Germans did NOT fight in the War. Having said that, the "nice man from the MoD" might as well have turned up waving a flag that said "I'm going to cover this up if it kills you!" And you definitely got the feeling that St Joan was only in there 'cos there had to be SOMETHING. She was certainly more important to the 1914 archaeologists than she was to the present-day plot. And surely even daytime soaps have given up using "I'm the sister you never knew you had!" as a plot device.

But where they really REALLY blew it, whether through over-ambition or some idea to give the audience a really BIG opening, was in the blindingly potty utterly wanton STUPIDITY of the opening episode.

Never mind the real life Knights of Ni wandering around with big shiny swords and dirty great tabards on. Mental illness fitted as standard. Never mind the completely gratuitous horror-shot of Mr Nice Muslim getting decapitated – like we don't all know what THAT is really about. Never mind the ultra-slimy evangelical televangelist with his TV show "I'm Evil For Christ… ask me How!" Never mind all that, we're going to go for yer very actually CROSS of Mr JESUS CHRIST himself, large as life and yer Mr God's honest truth, true as my name is Mr Phineas T. Barnum Esquire. Which it isn’t because it's Millennium Elephant.

This wasn't just jumping in at the deep end, this was Saint Marks and Spencer jumping in at the deep end, this was Tombstoning off the Rock of Gibraltar jumping-the-shark in at the deep end.

There are, rather famously, more than enough "splinters of the true Cross" in the world to make a full sized matchstick cathedral. Edmund, the Black Adder, while temporarily the Archbishop of Canterbury, discovered that Baldrick was working a lucrative sideline in such relics (along with St Paul's fingers, St Peter's noses and Mary Magdalene's… altogether in a box set if you wanted). Relics of the Cross are by now a positive byword for GULLIBILITY.

It's a sure fire way to flag up your top team of tomb-raiders as SUCKERS.

Even so, there is just possibly a way to do this, which is to make sure that the audience AND THE CHARACTERS know up front what the team are looking for. Remember, Indiana Jones knows he's after the Ark of the Covenent/Sankara Stone/Holy Grail/Von Däniken Memorial Lecture Circuit right from the word go.

But here is where the CSI/Spooks/Hustle format completely (if you'll forgive me) crucifies the plot. Because the format foisted on them by THAT PITCH demands that the team has to FIGURE OUT that this week's quest-object is THE Cross, a plot development thoroughly spelled out in the thirty-second trailers that the BBC had been showing for a month and, even if you'd managed to miss every single one of them, by the numbingly crass direction that shows the archaeologists' dig from above where the cross-trench turns the site into… gasp… a cross! The audience is so far ahead of the team that they are BORED by the time that anyone suggests that suggesting that it's the Cross they've discovered would be dumb. Even Colombo couldn't circumlocute long enough to not have solved this one by now!

So you've got a team who are TOO STUPID to work out that they're digging up something that they'd be STUPID to believe is real even if they worked out what it was.

Meanwhile, Joe from EastEnders is wandering around in a daze chopping people's heads off like they're responsible for casting him in that weary medical soap on ITV.

(And that's without mentioning the sort of dialogue that would have made even Sir Brian Blessed blush. "We're archaeologists… we DIG!" being merely the example that scars the memory first.)

And then the concluding episode was just about as bad. How you could possibly have got through the series WITHOUT expecting Ex-flaming-calibur to be in the last episode I do not know. How many swords ARE there, for fluffy's sake?

(Well, loads and loads probably, but can you NAME five?)

So how did the team manage to go so long without mentioning what Gillian's potty mum was driven round the twist by obsessing about? Or what all those pointy drawings on Dr Magwilde's wall were about?

And then, when they finally fish the thing out of its hidey-hole (and it has to be said Ms Sophie Aldred's lady-of-the-lake in 1989's Doctor Who story Battlefield is BETTER), they only go and break it!

Plus, the mysterious figure behind the conspiracy-of-the-week turned out to be… just a mysterious figure. The complete lack of a big reveal – either that he was, as thunderingly heavily hinted, Magwilde's academic nemesis, the ridiculously named Professor Mastiff OR in some kind of attempt at a dramatic twist, Doctor "Dolly" Parton (hence his "Well, I'll be off then" early in the episode, before his unconvincingly convenient "This is me turning up just in the nick" moment later) – left you wondering whether these people had ANY idea about how drama works at all! "Life on Mars" looks ever more a lucky FLUKE!

So, HURRAY for the BBC for bravely trying something NEW.

I do hope they try something new again next year… and not more of THIS total hokum!

…and we only kept watching after episode one because we thought that the photo of Dr Magwilde’s mad and wild mum was of Ms Susan Engel aka Vivian “isn’t she” Fay of Rose Cottage, Boscawen and “The Stone of Blood”. Only in the end she wasn’t. What a SWIZZ!


Andy said...

Skip's Acorn Treasury has been good on Bonekickers, too:
"Sweetly, the two Knights Templar are both pretty boys who share a bedroom, but spend a lot of time in frustrated weeping. "Keep drinking till it gets better" one tells the other. I took this as an instruction. Both end fairly unhappily, and on balance, it would have been better if they'd just shagged."

We watched the first episode, 'cos we've both had some archaeological training and took part in digs.

We didn't watch any more, 'cos we like our brains un-melted and not dribbling out of our nostrils.

I really don't know where to start with it... except maybe to point out in a pained voice that archaeologists don't dig up everything in sight (or on site) but leave as much in situ as possible for future archaeologists with better techniques. And in the UK, generally all you find when you dig are some potsherds, patches of different-coloured earth that represent filled-in ditches or post holes, and (depending on the age of the site) either Roman oyster shells or mediaeval clay pipes.

I know I shouldn't take it so literally... but it actually *hurt* to watch it.

Alix said...

I've been a bit off the telebox lately and wasn't even aware that this travesty was about to overtake us, but I've probably just derived more amusement from this review than I would from the whole series of the actual show, so thank you!

Ahh, the postholes, I remember them well. Thousands of them. Thousands. As far as the trowel can...can... NYYAAAAARGH...