26 November, 2009

What the Papers Say: "Paradox"

Phil Hogan, The Observer

The clue was probably in the title, but even by the yardstick of plausibility cheerfully ignored by most popular TV sci-fi, the BBC's new five-part series Paradox hit new heights of trying one's patience. Still, I suppose we all love a mystery, and when rugged, unsmiling space scientist Dr Christian King suddenly started getting disturbing images streaming live on to the conveniently huge screens in his office, well, who wouldn't call the police? Look, a dead girl! And what was this – some sort of explosion, and a discarded mobile phone with this afternoon's time on it alongside close-ups of familiar but maddeningly not quite identifiable objects? Why, it almost seemed that someone was trying to tell us that something awful was going to happen in 10 hours, and that all we had to do was rearrange the above jpegs into a feasible local calamity!

Enter high-heeled, mini-skirted Detective Inspector Rebecca Flint (Tamzin Outhwaite), who after some preliminary dithering and obligatory sexual chemistry decided she could either dismiss Dr King as a scheming nutter ("Perhaps you have been overworking, Dr King… ") or accept that these visual fragments had somehow been blown from the near future into the present by last night's unusually blustery geomagnetic solar storms.

I don't know the current science on this, but as a chance natural phenomenon it did seem awfully selective in its choice of shots and narrative-friendly cropping of pictures. I mean, wouldn't you be more likely to get a dozen snaps of someone putting the bins out?

But DI Flint didn't have time to think. With the clock ticking down (and I'm afraid it was more Anneka Rice than Jack Bauer), she was busy charging around, trying to see which bit of the puzzle went where, though by the time she'd worked out that it was a petrol tanker hitting a railway bridge it was too late to save the day. Here was the dead girl after the explosion (excellent fireball effects), the mobile phone and the other clues. But what do you expect? Everybody knows you can't change the future once you've been given photographs of its contents. That would be just nonsense."


Lucy Mangan, The Guardian

"In the first episode of FlashForward, the US series about an unexplained phenomenon that causes everyone in the world to black out for 137 seconds and receive visions of their future lives, CGI waste was laid to Los Angeles, London and several points in between. FBI agent Joseph Fiennes clambered among the burning wreckage of cars on the ruptured freeway and got busy launching a website that would unite everyone's visions. He soon had leads assembled that took in mysterious men in black in Detroit, incarcerated Nazis in Germany, mass crow deaths in Africa and conspiracy theories up the wazoo.

In the first episode of Paradox, BBC1's new series about an unexplained phenomenon that causes an astrophysicist's computer to receive images from space of events 18 hours in the future, the action centres around a forthcoming traffic accident at 8.33pm on the B204 between Tedsford and Marlingham. At first, I couldn't decide whether this made my heart fill with an unreasoning love or bitter, bitter hatred of Great Britain. As the programme unfolded, I settled, with regret, on the latter.

Detective Inspector Rebecca Flint (played by Tamzin Outhwaite) has 18 hours to piece together the computer's fragmentary images. It is a task that, to the viewer, seems to unfold in real time. Sometimes it is hard to believe that time is not actually going backwards, as exchanges such as this unfold: "You're a distinguished scientist, Dr King – it must be hard to admit you need help." "That's all you've got? You mouth platitudes and I'm supposed to confess?"

The future vision is of a fuel tanker hitting a bridge as a delayed train crosses it. That this is apparent to the viewer long before the investigators further aggravates the sensation that time and narrative are not running quite as they ought. Perhaps Paradox is the first meta- titled show. Or perhaps it is just not very good. Tune in last week to find out."


Tom Sutcliffe, The Independent

"Sometimes you can predict déjà vu. The moment that Life on Mars became a big hit, for example, it was a pretty solid bet that within a couple of gestational cycles we'd be looking at another time-anomaly cop show, and sure enough here comes Paradox. You can't always predict how déjà vu will operate, though. The odds against Paradox getting commissioned would have been a lot stiffer if Life on Mars hadn't paved the way, but what you find yourself thinking of most frequently here is not that series but Minority Report, the Spielberg adaptation of Philip K Dick's story about policemen who solve crimes before they happen. Paradox begins in a futuristic research lab with a saturnine young man staring at a bank of television monitors. He looks curious... then quizzical... then mildly apprehensive... as something called the Prometheus Innovation Satellite Downlink spontaneously downloads a series of photographs of what looks like a civic disaster. It may occur to you at this point that the Prometheus Innovation Satellite Downlink offers a perfect acronym for the state you'd have to be in to take this kind of thing seriously. But ignore that thought. It isn't helpful.

The saturnine young man is called Christian King, a name that may or may not turn out to be theologically significant but in the meantime will give the chatroom theorists an appealing chew-toy. He is what you might call a geekopath, clearly brilliant, but adopting a Hannibal Lecterish air of lethal indifference to human concerns. If you were any ordinary detective inspector, called out to hear his veiled threats that something terrible was going to happen in just a few hours, you'd have him in a straitjacket before you could say "Unabomber". But Rebecca Flint (flinty, in a hot sort of way) isn't any ordinary DI. She decides to follow up the fragmentary clues PISD has supplied and decides that something awful is about to happen. Has King prearranged it all, as part of some murderous power game, or is something uncanny going on?

The pleasure for the audience here offers a variation on those teasing bits of Casualty when you see the epileptic crane operator beginning to swing a load of plate glass over a primary school playground. We have the enigmatic fragments of the catastrophe and are waiting to see how they will fit together to make a whole. Oh, no – look! The sweet guy who's been internet dating drives a propane lorry! And he's sleepy because he's been online all night! And his faulty sat-nav has just made him swerve towards the low-headroom railway bridge above which sits the stalled train of the man who was meant to be miles away by now! It's at this point in race-against-the-clock thrillers that disaster is often narrowly averted – major civic catastrophes being something of a strain on the special-effects budget. But I'm glad to say that, as this was a curtain-raiser and as it was important to convince the sceptics, they followed through on this occasion and delivered a really satisfactory train-wrecking explosion. "Is it going to happen again?" the shattered DI Flint asked King in the aftermath. Oh, I rather think so, love – at least four more times in the current run."


Alex Hardy, The Times

"If Cast Offs was meant to be funny but wasn’t really, then Paradox had the opposite problem. In 18 hours something “cataclysmic” is going to happen — so say the Rumpelstiltskin-style riddles being laid by the mad space scientist whose lab has somehow “downlinked” photos from the future. Put opposite him an ambitious copper (Tamzin Outhwaite, below) in earnest overdrive, who needs to figure out, against a flashing red digi-clock and a perma-soundtrack of heavy strings, how to halt impending disaster; if there is one at all; whether he’s the baddie; whether she wants to fight him, or snog the tension out of his clenched jaw.

So pronounced are the eccentricities of his closed world, so stompy her inability to rise to his challenge, that it could have been adapted from a Crystal Maze pastiche. The keep-it-real details add to the air of self-parody — his giant plasma screens, throbbing with oozing suns, are flanked by ... a microwave. Mad scientists need their soup too, you know. But the biggest act of sabotage is in its pace: the clue-reveal-clue-reveal velocity is far too rapid to merit all that red-clock tension.

Perhaps ironically for a time-bending drama, this might have all been OK if not for ... its timing. FlashForward, for all its ridiculous patchiness and Joseph Fiennes’s wooden acting, is currently doing a much better job at such space-time contemplation; while Collision’s recent “working back from an accident” format unfolded much more deliciously."


James Walton, Daily Telegraph

"Here’s a useful tip for you. The next time you have trouble getting the police to come round and investigate a crime, simply ring the station and explain that you’re a top scientist and that you want to see “a clever police officer” at once.

Certainly, this worked a treat for Dr Christian King (Emun Elliott) in the first episode of BBC One’s Paradox. Barely had he put the phone down than DI Rebecca Flint (Tamzin Outhwaite) arrived at his laboratory. She didn’t waste any time, either, demonstrating the requisite cleverness. King showed her several satellite photographs that he’d downloaded of a blown-up railway bridge. “It looks,” she said thoughtfully, “as though there’s been an explosion.”

There was, however, a twist – one that might have been mildly familiar to anybody who’s seen Steven Spielberg’s film Minority Report. According to the time code on the photos, the explosion wouldn’t happen until 8.33pm that evening, 10 hours later. Weirder still, having called in the police so urgently, Dr King now refused to be drawn further, or indeed to help in any way whatsoever. Instead, he just stared moodily into the middle distance, pausing only to sneer at Flint’s admittedly hopeless attempts to understand what was going on. In her defence, mind you, the explanation wasn’t that obvious. A solar storm had caused some sort of slippage in time, enabling King to see (very slightly) into the future.

In short, Paradox entirely failed to solve the problem posed by this kind of high-concept show. On the one hand, Flint had no reason to accept that King’s prediction really would come true – or even that it really was a prediction. On the other, if she didn’t, there’d be no programme. Unwisely, the script opted to thrash about between the two positions – and far too much time passed with her unconvincingly pretending not to believe in the impending catastrophe while also haring about Manchester trying to prevent it.

If this were an American series, my guess is that it would have started by simply taking the premise for granted and getting on with it: Dr King could see (very slightly) into the future and DI Flint’s job was to find the clues and save the day. The “scientific” explanation would then have been filled in several weeks later. As things stood, the biggest mystery last night was how such an opening episode could have gone through all the many meetings required for a prime-time BBC One slot without anybody ever saying, “Hold on a minute, nobody’s behaviour here makes any sense.”

In fact, the climactic scenes were quite exciting – thanks largely to the ever-reliable device of an on-screen clock ticking down to the disaster.Sadly, by then the show’s complete absence of internal logic (or, if you prefer, its overwhelming silliness) meant that it was beyond help.

Of course, now that the premise has been put so laboriously in place, Paradox may perk up a bit in the coming weeks."


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