Radiation by Fiona Rae

1

Views of the Week

SUNDAY MAY 24

The Luminaries (TVNZ 1, 8.30pm). There are an awful lot of indeterminate accents in The Luminaries; even lead Eve Hewson seems undecided about being Irish, and she is Irish. Fair play, accents can go badly wrong, so perhaps not over-egging was a consideration. Marton Csokas, always impeccable, and Himesh Patel are easily the best. The first episode was a bit of a chore – too many characters – but it’s always fun to play spot the New Zealand actor (yes, that was Paolo Rotondo underneath that 19th-century face hair) and good to know that the show has followed New Zealand production rules with a role for Mark Mitchinson. It is the law, after all. It’s episode two tonight; although you can binge the lot on TVNZ OnDemand. 

MONDAY MAY 25

One Lane Bridge (TVNZ 1, 8.30pm). It’s meandered up hill and down dale – and that gay bashing seemed like it came from another era – but Ariki (Dominic Ona-Ariki) finally tunes in to his sixth sense and solves the case in tonight’s finale. Apparently, gecko tartare gives your third eye a real boost. The denouement involves everyone arming up for a rabbit hunt, which seems like a particularly New Zild way to go.

THURSDAY MAY 28

Mystery Road (SoHo, Sky 010, 9.30pm). Season two of Australian series Mystery Road is directed by heavy-hitters Warwick Thornton (Samson and Delilah and Sweet Country) and Wayne Blair (The Sapphires). This season, Aaron Pedersen’s detective Jay Swan is paired with a new local cop, played by Indigenous Australian actor Jada Alberts. It begins with fishermen netting a headless corpse in the mangroves. And the aforementioned law that all local productions must include a role for Mark Mitchinson has been extended across the trans Tasman bubble: he’s a snitty senior cop in conflict with Swan. The series has also netted Swedish acting royalty Sofia Helin, from The Bridge, who plays an archaeologist.

FRIDAY MAY 29

China on Film (Sky Arts, Sky 020, 7.00pm). Renowned cinematographer Christopher Doyle, who is known for his long-running collaboration with Wong Kar-Wai, narrates a two-part documentary depicting the history of China through film. The doco has accessed the British Film Institute China collection and spans from the first Chinese film during the Qing dynasty to the communist era. Here’s a BFI interview from last year in which Doyle discusses restoring Chungking Express, Wong’s international breakthrough hit.

STREAMING

Little Fires Everywhere (Amazon Prime Video). Reese Witherspoon must surely be on her way to becoming a Hollywood power player, if she isn’t already. It was Witherspoon and co-star Kerry Washington who developed Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere with Liz Tigelaar, who has been involved in RevengeBates Motel and Casual, among others, and both serve as executive producers. Four episodes, including the first and last ones, are directed by indie goddess Lynn Shelton (Your Sister’s Sister and Touchy Feely), who sadly passed away on May 16. Film-maker Nzingha Stewart (For Colored Girls) also directs two episodes. 

Ragnarok (Netflix). There are an awful lot of teen shows on Netflix, most involving nascent superpowers, but at least in Ragnarok, actual Scandinavians are interpreting their own mythology. David Stakston is a terrifically good gormless teenager who discovers that he’s … well, one of the more well-known Norse gods. There’s an overt environmental message, especially about industrial pollution, and the series is filmed in one of those stunning, remote glacial landscapes. Wired reckoned Ragnarok infantalises Nordic mythology, so I presume they’ve never seen the Marvel movies.

VF48HOURS: Lockdown Film Competition (TVNZ OnDemand). The 48Hours film competition went ahead anyway – of course it did – and the results have been compiled into an easy 43 minutes presented by Madeleine Sami. All the deets are also available at 48hours.co.nz, of course.

Snort: Live (TVNZ OnDemand). It’s been a bit of a golden age for Kiwi comedy; Auckland improv comedy troupe Snort used to sell out the Basement Theatre on Friday nights until this stupid pandemic ruined everything. No matter, they’re now on the telly. If you have the TVNZ app, that is. There are eight episodes of off-the-cuff hilarity starring Alice Snedden, Chris Parker, Brynley Stent, Kura Forrester, Nic Sampson, Rhiannon McCall, Tom Sainsbury and more. 

4

7 Minutes with Miss Fisher

Like everyone, the film and television industry is facing unprecedented impacts from the pandemic, with hundreds of productions suspended and thousands of workers unemployed. But I wonder if, for some of the big names, it’s a sneaky holiday, a time away from the relentless publicity hustle. 

Over the years doing entertainment interviews for the NZ Listener, time allowed with subjects became shorter and there was, invariably, a PR person policing the conversation. You might be one of 10 journos in a queue or required to take part in a shared interview; I was once on the line with David Attenborough and five other reporters from the Asia-Pacific region.

I was promised 10 minutes with Australian actor Essie Davis, who plays glamorous 1920s detective Phryne Fisher, and got seven. She was promoting Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears, a film spin-off from the TV series that never made it into theatres here, but is now available to rent on streaming platforms. She has an accent like an NRL player and she was, briefly, lovely.

The TV series finished in 2015, so did you ever expect to be stepping back into Miss Fisher’s immaculate shoes?

We had been talking about making a film, or film-length episode for a long time and when [writer and producer] Deb [Cox] eventually came up with a story that we thought was cinema-worthy, we went for it. It’s quite delightful to step back into her shoes, but in an altogether bigger adventure and to take Phryne into the world, because she is such an international woman. You don’t have to have seen the series, the film in itself is a complete story. It continues on from where the series left off, but no-one is missing out. 

Was it quite different from making the TV series?

Absolutely. Everyone had to raise their game, and raise the bar and everything had to be on a grander scale; there had to be action, intrigue and not only wonderful period houses and cars and immaculate costumes and amazing scenery, but to have a really powerful adventure to go on. Shooting in Morocco was amazing and being in the Sahara Desert and creating the kind of action sequences that we could never have done for television.

Did you do the stunts yourself and did you ride the camel?

I did ride the camel, and I did lots of stunts. A lot of the CGI in the film is rubbing out my harnesses, trying to get those harness lines out of my red-patterned top.

You’ve had some pretty great roles, but Phryne looks like the most fun one to play and not just because of the wonderful costumes – is she a highlight for you?

She is a highlight, because she’s such a buoyant and joyful character and there is something that gives you energy in that joy and her naughtiness and her incredible wit and intelligence. She is delightful to play and to get to wear beautiful costumes and to still be essentially an independent and amazing and iconic feminist as well as loving men and all humanity, she’s a real fighter for social justice.

A female James Bond with better clothes and fewer gadgets, according to [Phryne Fisher writer] Kerry Greenwood. 

Absolutely, and a big smile and a naughty streak.

MISS FISHER AND THE CRYPT OF TEARS is available to rent on Apple TV and Lightbox and all three seasons of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries are available on Netflix.

14

The immortals

During the plague, I’ve been amusing myself by watching a show about immortality. In the world of Ad Vitam, a French series on Netflix, Covid-19 wouldn’t exist; disease apparently doesn’t and death hardly at all.

The reason for this is “regeneration”, a process finagled from jellyfish that allows humans to renew themselves. As the series begins, billions of people have just celebrated the birth of the world’s oldest woman, who is 169, but doesn’t look a day over 45.

The lead character, detective Darius Asram (Yvan Attal) is 119, his wife, who is newly pregnant, is 84.

Ah, but imagine what that does to the world. Young people are forced into an extended adolescence, minors until they are 30 while their entitled boomer parents zap themselves youthful. Overpopulation has led to a proposed ban on new births, although Benidorm, where the series was mostly filmed, doesn’t look that crowded.

With such long lives, citizens must retrain after 33 years and are only allowed three terms in one job. Darius has been a cop for nearly 99 years.

The French do love a careworn police officer – think of Julien Baptiste – and Darius, despite regeneration, looks older than everyone else, which is something of a relief. He is haunted by the loss of his son and at 119, he’s the definition of ennui, especially when he starts investigating seven murders that are connected to a youth suicide cult from 10 years before.

Ad Vitam is not big-budget sci-fi such as, say, Westworld. Technology doesn’t seem to have advanced that much; the phones are a bit fancier and the cars are electric. It’s a world that has given itself over to the idea of perpetual youth. It looks boring.

Immortality is the theme of Altered Carbon, also on Netflix, except it’s a straight-out actioner. Joel Kinnaman was in the first series and Anthony Mackie in the second, although they are the same person, Takeshi Kovacs (Will Yun Lee), downloaded via a “cortical stack” into different bodies. 

Altered Carbon is based on a book by Richard K Morgan, which perhaps you need to read, because the show is often confusing. The best character is Edgar Poe (Chris Conner), a digital construct who helps Kovacs and displays more real emotion than the rest of the cast combined.

Immortality is a sub-plot in Westworld, on Sky’s SoHo channel, although for a while I thought that was where the show was heading, a world where the rich could download themselves into new bodies.

However, Delos founder James Delos, played with fury by Scottish actor Peter Mullan, tried and failed. “The project doesn’t work, at least not yet,” Anthony Hopkins’ cryptic Ford told the perpetually confused Bernard (Jeffrey Wright). Bernard is suffering his own case of ennui after learning he is a host, based on Ford’s creative partner Arnold Weber.

After a circular and frustrating second season, Westworld’s overriding preoccupation in season three is predetermination. In the real world in 2058, a quantum artificial intelligence system called Rehoboam knows more about us than we do ourselves and is not just using the information to sell us homewares or presidents. The system has been locking everyone into a predetermined life course and escaped Westworld host Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), who understandably has a thing about being locked into a life loop, has hacked Rehoboam and released everyone’s files. Weirdly, this seems to have caused civil unrest rather than universal concern about the unbridled power of a private technology company.

There’s another quantum computer in Devs, also on SoHo and available on Neon. It’s an elegant device housed in a floating box in a concrete bunker in the middle of a forest. Devs, created by Alex Garland, goes the whole hog on determinism; anything anyone does and has ever done is cause and effect, which has led the show’s two leading geniuses, played by Nick Offerman and Alison Pill, to just lie back and let it all happen, confident that the universe is unfolding exactly as it should. Offerman’s character is called Forest, in case you didn’t get the allusion.

The show is slow and quiet, except for the amazing avant-garde music, so to liven things up, there’s quite a bit of murdering, mostly by Zach Grenier’s security chief Kenton. Will computer engineer Lily (Sonoya Mizuno) somehow defy logic? Arguably, anything she does is predetermined, but perhaps, this once, in the finale, the machine will be wrong.

These high-concept sci-fi shows, which are wrestling with unsolvable problems or thought experiments, risk being unable to come to a resolution, and TV really relies on the big finale.

In season three, Westworld has introduced a new villain in Vincent Cassel’s Serac and mounted some terrifically exciting action sequences featuring Dolores as a kind-of Terminator T-X 3.0, but so often, the show gets lost in its own loop and I hope it can deliver.

Sometimes I long for the simpler days of the best sci-fi show of all time, Battlestar Galactica, in which the Cylons cut to the chase and tried to kill everyone. That’s a real human story.

7

Spencer Stoner: going with the flow of slow TV

The beauty of slow TV, says Spencer Stoner, is that it’s different things to different people – a travelogue, an immersive experience, an awesome screensaver. After the success of last year’s Go South, Stoner has spent a month at sea filming Go Further South, a 12-hour journey from Bluff to Antarctica.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but Go Further South is perfect for self-isolation.

It’s kind-of an unhappy accident. I’ve been in the final stage of editing and every day I feel like I’m sailing through the Ross Sea in Antarctica and it’s cool to think that people will find an opportunity to relax and feel that they’re able to step outside a bit and travel with this programme.

Do you know how long viewers watched the first journey, Go South?

It’s a bit hard to even provide those kinds of stats, because the nature of how you watch slow TV is so different from the way that you watch normal TV – it’s not like bingeing 12 hours on Netflix. It’s really something that has this place in your house for a while and you might be going about your daily routine, making a cup of tea or reading a book, and you check in and out. It’s the sort of thing where when you start paying attention to it, you notice all these elements. I’ve watched it probably 100 times now and I’m constantly finding new things – a penguin that falls off an iceberg and takes an awkward hit into the water that I’ve never noticed before. It does reward that kind of close watching, but at the same time you can watch it for the relaxing flow of it all.

Can you tell us about where you go?

The journey starts at Bluff and we sail down the Southern Ocean through several of the subantarctic islands. We stop at the Snares, which are full of all these incredible sea birds, then we go down to the Auckland Islands, which have this fabulous history of attempted settlement and shipwrecks, and down to the Campbell Islands, where there are just the most insane amount of albatrosses you’ve ever seen. One of the differences from the first series is that we go ashore and move through the island and investigate the history and wildlife of these places before getting back on the boat.

Then down to the Ross Sea?

Yeah, open water, icebergs, sea ice and then we arrive in the Ross Sea at Cape Adare, that’s roughly half-way, so the second half of the programme is continuing to sail south along the coast of the Ross Sea and we stop off at really important wildlife colonies, historic sites, modern research bases. There’s quite a bit of activity that goes on in the Ross Sea and you see the interplay of the natural world and modern human activity side-by-side.

What was the most extraordinary thing you saw?

One really surreal moment was cruising along the Ross ice shelf and a pod of about four dozen orca came up right in front of the boat, riding the pressure wave as if they were dolphins. Another moment was when we arrived in Cape Adare and it was the middle of the night, but it was summer, so you’ve got this beautiful pastel pink light and everywhere you look you’re surrounded by Adele penguins and they’re running around chasing each other, dolphining through the water and riding icebergs and it’s a bit like showing up in Times Square, but you’ve got these crazy mountains and this pink light. It’s the closest I’ve ever felt to landing on an alien planet.

Are there any people?

Yeah, occasionally you’ll see the other passengers on the boat and we go by several of the research stations. We randomly saw two researchers with Niwa who were down on Ross Island, we spotted them at a distance wearing these bright orange jackets and we have them on camera trying to lasso penguins. There’s icebreakers and helicopters and we saw people doing construction work – you imagine it’s going to be this pristine, white landscape, but there’s a lot of variety to it.

It sounds more action-packed than the last one.

It is more action-packed, because of the wildlife and I think it’s really easy to forget how little wildlife there is in our day-to-day lives. When you go to some of these places not even that far south of New Zealand, there’s so many birds around the boat it’s like you’re surrounded by living clouds. That was a huge takeaway, you realise what our impact has been. At the same time, it’s uplifting to realise that there are still places where that still happens.

Go Further South is now available on Sky Go (free registration required to view). There's also a three-hour highlights reel for those of you with busy lives.

25

Signing off, moving on

Looks like my evil plan to become the world’s worst blogger has come to pass; although it turns out that being the world’s worst blogger just means never writing anything. Consequently, me and the Queen of England are total badasses.

I feel bad about this state of affairs, and friends, it’s time to end the pain. I need to blog or get off the site, so it’s time to retire Radiation. Those heady days when I had a surprising amount to say about television are behind me; some of you will know that all that energy has been used for my day job at the Listener, writing what’s known in the trade as a shitload of copy, as well as overseeing the TV listings. It doesn’t leave much brain-space and I have to say, my blogging mojo has been on the blink. Any left-over energy has been going into my actual real life. You remember, the one that exists outside the internet.

But in cyberspace, no-one can ever really leave. Lately, the stately New Zealand Listener has been coming to grips with this newfangled internet thingy, and I, a late-forties mother of two from Pt Chev, am exactly the right person to lead the charge. There is a new, fancy, 21st-century website, with actual things to read. It’s not out of the question that Radiation could be resurrected in another form (note to self: try not to make promises you may be unable to keep). There are going to be “comments” and “online only” content. Like those cute kittehs, I will be in ur internets, edtng ur webzite.

It’s been about nine years since Russ and I sat in our old kitchen trying to think of names for a website that could house a new version of Hard News. Russ came up with the name although, from memory, publicaddress.com was taken, but not the slightly less cool .net. These days, when IP addresses are running out, it doesn’t matter. I’ve been happy to be part of this community of blogs, and the site has had unexpected spin-offs for a lot of the writers. He likes to pick ’em, does Russ, and he had confidence in me even when I didn’t.

So thanks to all of the bloggers, commenters, Twitterers, clever monkeys and the webheads at Cactuslab who literally make it possible. Thanks to my sweetheart, and the conversation that has been going on since we were at school (true!). See ya over at the Listener.