“The Trip”, and its sequel “The Trip to Italy”, is almost certainly a very Marmite-y TV series, in that you either loved it or it just left you cold. I have to admit to loving it, but I suspect that’s more to do with the fact that I’m in my early 40s and recognise the bitter-sweet nature of both series.
The concept is simple, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, playing fictionalised versions of themselves, are commissioned to travel for a week through rural northern England visiting high class restaurants for The Observer. Along the way there is much room for celebrity impressions (their Michael Caine face-off is magnificent), banter, arguments and ruminations on two men realising they’re not young anymore. The sequel involves them doing the same in Italy.
The dialogue is both funny and melancholic, with both bringing their very considerable mimicry powers to the table, and willing to challenge public perceptions of themselves, and the scenery is beautiful. The food looks gorgeous.
The following is the transcript of a meeting held in Geneva, Switzerland, by the Grand Council of the SPecial Executive for Counterintelligence, Terror, Revenge and Extortion.
Chairperson: …and with that in regard, let us turn to the December Proposal, prepared by our good friend Tony. We’ve all had time to digest it, and discuss it before this gathering. It is a radical departure from this organisation’s existing objectives. Yet I cannot deny that our friend has made a very cogent argument. Perhaps a short summary?
Tony: Thank you Ernst, and thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for inviting me today. To make a long story short, as my Irish friends would say, SPECTRE is about making money. The manipulation of power, law, politics and other extra-ordinary means to generate profit for this organisation and our shareholders. Now, what does an organisation need when it has all this money?
Mr. Stromberg: Henchmen? Underwater bases? Sharks?
Tony: Stability. The days of storing one’s wealth in gold or diamonds…
Mr. Goldfinger: (mutters)
Tony: …the days of storing one’s wealth in physical commodities or in cash or art are over. The sums of money are so vast as to make it an unviable proposition. Wealth is stored electronically, which makes it both safer but also more vulnerable. And not just hacking, but from terrorist threats to infrastructure too. After all, the Al Quaeda attack on our buildings in Manhattan seriously hurt our asset base.
Table: murmurs of approval.
Tony: The reality is that SPECTRE is now in the stability business. Our legitimate businesses generate more money than our off-the-book activities. Our late comrade Steve made us more money in five years than we had made in fifty. We need order. But what sort of order? The order that Putin brings in Russia, where your wealth can be confiscated by the whim of the FSB? China, where factions ignore the rule of law and confiscate private property? Then there is the threat of radical Islamic revolt, and the real threat of climate change which is endangering many of our prize real estate assets.
Dr. No: Please Tony, get to the point.
Tony: The point, my dear Dr. No, is that western democracy is the greatest defence available to us. You all saw what happened when we tried to rig the Russian elections. Putin rigged it better and confiscated every cent belonging to our allies. Xi is moving against our friends in Beijing. Only in the west…
Mr. Goldfinger: They’re trying to tax us!
Tony: Better taxes than dead, Auric. It’s an ugly world out there, and the west is our safe haven. That’s why I’m proposing that SPECTRE change its key objective from world domination to…
Mr. Stromberg: to what?
Tony: to defending western democracy. By improving our capacity to destroy the enemies of the west. The west’s enemies are now our enemies. We’ve started this already by taking over some key intelligence agencies.
Mr. Goldfinger: You’re not suggesting…
Mr. Stromberg: What are you talking about?
Tony: Your chairman Herr Blofeld knows that SPECTRE has been running British Intelligence since the late 1980s. Never you never wondered why MI6 hasn’t pursued SPECTRE since then?
Mr. Goldfinger: But that means..
Tony: Yes. Commander James Bond has been working for the people who murdered his wife Tracey for some years now, destroying our enemies, without ever knowing. James Bond is SPECTRE’s single greatest weapon.
Federal agents raiding a chocolate factory have uncovered evidence of the massive psychological torturing and poisoning of a small group of children at the direction of confectionary billionaire William Wonka. The world-famous candy manufacturer, who recently donated millions to the Republican party in opposition to “over-regulation in the workplace” was found to have drugged a number of children with experimental poisons. One child was transformed into a state of obesity and also suffered extreme skin pigmentation changes. One small boy was bombarded with radiation, and later died of cancer.
Files also revealed a shockingly casual approach to workplace safety, with one German national falling into an unguarded liquid chocolate manufacturing process and being sucked through industrial vacuum tubes. The child in question is still in residence in a leading German psychological facility. Two other individuals narrowly avoided being cut to pieces by a high speed fan. Another fell into a nut de-shelling device.
Federal agents expressed shock at the number and conditions of over one thousand pygmies, natives of a small African state, being held as an unpaid workforce. The pygmies had become discoloured by exposure to chemicals in the workplace, and had been turned a “grotesque” orange hue through daily exposure. Translators revealed that the pygmies had been told by Wonka that their homeland had been eaten by a giant monster. The state department is making arrangements for their return.
Wonka is believed to have perished later when he escaped in a glass sided rocket powered aircraft of his own design which, after failing to comply with instructions to land by federal authorities, was shot down by scrambled air force jets.
The American chatshow host Conan O’Brien remarked last year that he had noticed a significant change in audiences who attended the recording of his show on TBS. He pointed out that in the 1990s a guest who was the star of a successful show could assume that the great majority of the studio audience not only knew who he/she actually was, but would get references to their character and the plotline of their show. Everybody knew who Ross and Rachel were.
O’Brien pointed out that now, going by audience reaction, it is now possible to be the star of what is deemed a successful show and yet still have a large proportion of the audience have only a vague if any knowledge of the actor or their show.
Consider two numbers: “Game of Thrones”, arguably the most popular TV show on the planet, gets around 7m viewers in the US for new episodes. Now consider that “Only Fools and Horses” used to get up to 14m viewers in the UK alone. Sure, don’t go all mad: I know, I’m not comparing like-with-like. GoT appears on a cable network, OFaH was free to view. But the fact is, the huge choice we have now has completely fragmented TV viewing. There are exceptions: in the US the Superbowl gets over 100m viewers, but even that has to be taken in the context of the time. Why? Well, here’s another wild figure. The finale of “MASH” in 1983 got nearly 106m viewers, in a country with nearly 100m less people than the Superbowl broadcasts to now.
The media lock onto shows like “The West Wing” or “The Sopranos” or “Madmen” or “The Wire” but the reality is that relatively small numbers of people actually watch these shows, in whatever format they watch (Cable, download, etc). The finale of “Friends” 10 years ago got stateside 52m viewers. Seinfeld got 76m. Today, the biggest drama show on American TV (both cable and terrestrial) is “NCIS”, which gets, in a country of 320m people, an audience of between 16 and 20 million. True, they were finale shows, with huge amounts of publicity surrounding them, but the figures are still stark.
So what’s my point? I suppose it’s that we now live in a “television” (I use the word loosely, given the impact of Netflix and downloads) age where a huge increase in quality and choice has almost shattered the shared experience. It’s true that people now watch “Doctor Who” or “Downton Abbey” with one eye on Twitter, and that is a shared community, but the reality is that most people are not watching the show you are watching. Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily. But we all (of a certain vintage) remember Ross and Rachel’s first kiss. On the other hand, I’m afraid to write about Ned Stark out of fear that some of my readers don’t know who he is, or his destiny, because they haven’t experienced it yet.
If you like spy shows, politically incorrect humour and sexual vulgarity, Fox’s cartoon show “Archer” is for you.
It’s based around brilliant but incredibly self-centred and over-sexed agent Sterling Archer, operative of ISIS, and his battles against the KGB, terrorists, his domineering nymphomaniac mother/boss, his fellow agent/ex-lover Lana Kane, and people who stole his Black Turtleneck Is Cool look.
Try it. But be warned. This is not one for the kiddies or the faint hearted. Think “The Man from UNCLE” but with a lot of dick jokes.
“The Lives of Others” is a 2006 German film about the Stasi secret police in East Germany, and it is excellent. The star of it, the late Ulrich Muhe, had actually been an East German border guard before becoming an actor and opponent of the regime in the DDR.
When I first heard about it, I thought it would be a dour and depressing movie, but it is actually fascinating in its portrayal of life in a police state, especially one that pretends that it isn’t. It is a curious aspect of Communism that even its highest officials knew it wasn’t working, yet the system deemed the first person to criticise it a traitor, making it a self perpetuating failure. Curiously, the language used by the Communist officials in the film about loyalty is not a million miles from that used by Fox News. When watching it, if you replace the word “socialism” with “freedom” you’ll see what I mean. These bastards wear jackets in all sorts of colours.
The movie centres around an idealistic but lonely Stasi agent who becomes engrossed in the lives of a playwright and his actress girlfriend. It is also about how people try to live a normal life, indeed to get on, under the paranoid eyes of a monstrous regime. I won’t ruin the ending other than to say it delivers for the viewer, and is one of the more thoughtful yet accessible movies I have ever seen that seriously examines what it means to be free.
We in Ireland, as one of the few European countries to have never known fascism or communism, need to remember how lucky we are.
One of the curiosities about recent TV and movie drama set in tyrannical futures is that they tend to be set in an overhyped right-wing future, dominated by fascism, the religious right, or big business. It’s quite rare that, with the exception of Orwell’s 1984, which could just as easily be about fascism, you come across a fictional portrayal of a recognisable left wing tyranny dominated by, say, the unions and an overbearing state. In today’s climate, the idea of union leaders actively dominating a country’s political system is pretty far fetched, but in the 1970s in Britain, it wasn’t that radical an idea to extrapolate past the industrial chaos of the 1970s into a Socialist dominated Britain.
Ironically, it was that bastion of liberalism, the BBC, which produced the concept. “1990″, starring Edward Woodward as a rebellious journalist facing down the government’s menacing Public Control Department, ran for two seasons in 1977/78. Like most drama produced in the 1970s, it’s studio bound talkiness can be quite irritating to a modern TV audience used to speedy plot progress, save maybe for “Mad Men” fans, of course. I can’t say that I really recommend it as entertaining (You can find most episodes on Youtube and make your own judgement) but as a political concept piece it’s quite interesting for its novelty.
The show is set in a fictional 1990, seven years after the economic collapse of Britain leads to the coming to power of a hard left union dominated government in a general election where only 20% bother to vote. The government implements all the classics: nationalises nearly all business, introduces penal taxation, taxes imports and luxury goods and bans overtime (to create job sharing). It deals with the “rich fleeing high taxes” problem by introducing an East German exit visa system. You simply can’t leave, and a lot of the show is about Edward Woodward’s resistance leader Jim Kyle trying to help mostly talented people, or political dissidents, get over the English channel.
What’s interesting about “1990″ is the subtlety. The country is still nominally a democracy with a parliament (although fresh elections are indefinitely postponed), and there’s still a few non-state owned newspapers, but try to print anything overly critical of the state and the union shop stewards basically refuse to operate the printing presses. It’s an very right wing dramatic viewpoint that is hard to imagine on television today. The Home Office’s Public Control Department (PCD) basically operate as a relatively non-violent Stasi, sending opponents of the regime off to Adult Rehabilitation Centres where they’re electroshocked into being good citizens.
The state doesn’t like open Soviet style violence, because of the poor publicity it causes in the rest of Europe and the US, and so pressures people in more imaginative ways, such as Automatic Systematic Harassment, where an individual is targeted and subjected to every single legal inspection possible. Your car is constantly checked to ensure it’s legally compliant. Your taxes are scrutinised. Every form you have ever signed is gone over to see if you made any errors and therefore possibly broke the law. Your bins are checked to see if you are dumping things you shouldn’t be dumping. All legal, and individually all reasonable actions even in today’s society, but taken together it’s “the slow steamroller of the state”.
The cast isn’t bad, with Woodward (who shared the show’s conservative anti-tax philosophy) beginning to develop that shouty acting style he would later bring to “The Equalizer”. But it is very slow. Apparently, by the way, the concept of the show came to writer Wilfred Greatorex after his house was raided by VAT inspectors!
If you are going to watch the series, don’t read this, because I wanted to comment on how the series concludes.
Right, you’ve been warned. One of the basic premises of the show is that high ranking civil servants, although nominally under political control, are actually in charge. In the final episodes the Home Secretary Kate Smith (played coquettishly by the late Yvonne Mitchell, in her final role, and portrayed as a cross between Barbara Castle and Margaret Thatcher), a supporter of the regime, begins to realise that the public is tiring of the PCD, and betrays the PCD on television, announcing that the cabinet are shocked are the abuse of power by senior PCD officials. She actually leads a mob of angry citizens on a raid on PCD headquarters, but makes sure that they don’t destroy the PCD’s vast computer database because it’ll be allegedly needed for the trials of the PCD officials she’s only been instructing days previously. It’s a wonderfully cynical performance, and although it does herald a return to normal civil liberties and politics, it ends the series ominously.
A time traveller from the 20th Century wouldn’t initially notice it. Arriving on 24th Century Earth, capital of the United Federation of Planets, they’d find a society at peace, where poverty and material want had been banished at least a hundred years ago, and where self improvement would be the stated driving goal of humanity.
They’d see passionate political debate on the web, and and would vote in free elections to elect both Earth’s various federal and national governments (Earth still would be nominally divided into nations and regional unions, but really just for local administrative and cultural purposes) and also the President and Council of the United Federation of Planets. They’d also notice the pervasive presence of Starfleet personnel pretty much everywhere, with its nebulous duty of interstellar exploration but also defence of the UFP member states. They’d find it rare to encounter a family that did not have someone serving in “the fleet”, and it would be a source of pride to the family. Then there’s the presence of the great commanders of Starfleet history, from Archer to Kirk to Picard to Janeway, heroes used by the UFP and Earth’s government to unite the people in a multicultural bond of respect and tolerance.
Finally, they’d notice the economy, or rather, the lack of it: The fact that energy supply, which powers the molecule manipulating replicators in every home and workplace that creates everything from starship components to breakfast to new shoes, decides everything, and that energy supply is 100% controlled by the state.
There is no poverty. Everybody gets a comfortable home. Everyone is entitled to a de facto career of their choice. Choose to enroll in Starfleet, or just be a sculptor. Want to try running a restaurant? Sure, just apply at your local council for a space (the state owns all the property) and they’ll find you somewhere to set up, and off you go. It doesn’t have to make any money, obviously, because what would you need money for anyway? The state doesn’t mind what you do, yet this is the open secret that never gets discussed.
What happens to the bums, to the people who don’t want to be Starfleet ensigns or run restaurants or write holodeck dramas? What do they do? The answer is: nothing. They get allocated their home same as everybody else and can while their days away looking at the window if they wish. The state doesn’t care. Who gets the nice apartment overlooking San Francisco Bay? Whomever wins the lottery when an apartment becomes free, that’s who. Want to live on the upper east side of Manhattan? Put your name on the list, and good luck.
But try to become rich, and it’s a different ballgame. First of all, it’s impossible on Earth. How can you be rich if you can’t own anything. That’s not to say that people don’t regard this house or that apartment as “their” homes or businesses, and they are as long as you need them. But you don’t own them, and so you can’t acquire them as an asset. Set up a business? Sure. Just don’t have prices. After all, you don’t have costs. Why would you do it, so? Why do people like being praised for a play they wrote, or a painting they painted, or a fabulous cake they baked. Because of pride, and that is what drives economic activity on post-scarcity Earth. The great inventors, writers, chefs of Earth live in nice homes, but no nicer than anyone else’s. But they are lauded in the media for their efforts, and that’s their reward. Robots can keep the sewers clean.
But try to advocate a return to private property, and watch the walls close in. The United Earth Party, which wins every election on Earth, keeps an eye on these things. Start advocating private property or the accumulation of wealth and find that you’re just not invited onto the major news shows. Remarks will be made about how perhaps you’d be happy with the Ferengis. Indeed, hundreds of thousands of humans in particular live and thrive in that ultra-capitalist society. But don’t think you can push that nonsense here in paradise.
It’s when you look closer at the political structure on Earth you can see the dark corners. The United Earth Party, which seized control of the war scarred Earth after the Third World War, is all about tolerance and benevolence, but only by its definition. It’s the only party permitted, although its primary elections are open to all. Turnout in elections, however, tends to be around the 20% threshold, but it would be inaccurate to call it repression. The truth is, most humans have better things to do with their time. Then there’s the debates. Within the party, debate on the local issues (should we build a new bridge/transporter station/metro?) is vigorously debated. Interstellar policy is also a source of great exchanges. Should Bajor be permitted to join the Federation? Perhaps a defence treaty with the Klingon Empire? Are our defences strong enough facing the Romulans? Should Starfleet be building actually warships? And of course, the ever present threat of the Borg. Primary debates within the UEP will be open and passionate. But do not dare raise the issue of Earth’s economic settlement, because settlement denial is instant political poison. Support private property and wealth acquisition? Do you want another civil war on Earth? Do you like the idea of little children dying from radiation poisoning? Well, do you?
It’s not a secret, but it’s not openly discussed that New Zealand houses Earth’s largest prison. Most of the inmates are violent criminals, but one section holds those citizens who just would not accept the economic settlement. Those convicted of the violent advocacy of Capitalism. It’ll get you 20 years in an admittedly very comfortable prison, but a prison all the same.
Then there’s the class structure on Earth, which does get talked about, but really only in the chattering classes and academic journals. Firstly, bear in mind that classes on Earth are not based on creed or wealth or race. Racism of any form will get you banged up faster than you can say “Vulcans go home!”. The class structure is based on meritocratic ability. Really smart people end up as Federation scientists, or diplomats, or Starfleet officers. Indeed, pretty much every Starfleet officer is an accomplished scientist in their own right. The intellectual cream of Earth rises to the top, and effectively runs human society (and the United Federation of Planets. The human domination of the UFP is a source of muttering in member states off world, although most planets marvel at the human capacity for diplomacy). One former Klingon Ambassador to Earth referred to Starfleet Academy as a “studfarm where Earth’s high achieving cream meet, procreate, and their high achieving genes create the next self-replicating generation of high achievers.” It’s no surprise that the number of Starfleet recruits whose parents were also officers in rising every year.
As for the other 97% of humans, they just get on with their daily lives. Some work, some spend a lifetime studying, some just watch holodeck dramas all day, or just enjoy the view.
The news that Washington DC’s second most powerful couple, Josh and Donna Lyman, have resigned their positions as White House Chief of Staff and First Lady’s Chief of Staff to head up President Santos’s re-election campaign just goes to underline what a serious challenge the president’s reelection will be. Following West Virginia governor Ray Sullivan’s lightning win of the Republican nomination and immediate massive and effective barrage on the administration (he currently has a 14% lead over the president, according to Rasmussen), coupled with the ongoing fiscal and morale sapping drain of fighting a low intensity conflict (“Peace keeping operation”, as White House spokesperson Annabeth Schott never tires of correcting) in Kazakhstan, it would be hard to envy the embattled Democrats.
Critics within the party are quick to point to the inability of the Santos administration to get any traction from day one, starting out with a Congress that was unwilling to move on Santos’s key education and lobbying reforms (before going Republican in the mid-terms, restoring former speaker Haffley). In fact, many would argue that the only tangible (but probably longterm in terms of measure) successes of the administration would be the successful nomination of both former AG Oliver Babbish and former Bartlet White House Counsel Lionel Tribbey to the Supreme Court, joining Bartlet appointees Chief Justice Eleanor Baker Lang and Roberto Mendoza in forming a strong liberal bloc on the court.
In their defence, Team Santos will point to the calming of tensions of Kazakhstan as a major achievement, although many Republicans will claim that is due to the efforts of Secretary of State Vinick who has emerged, along with AG Ainsley Hayes as one of the few successes of the administration. It doesn’t help that both are Republicans, although the administration is happy to use both as an example of its bipartisan credentials. It should also be stressed that both the president and secretary Vinick, despite having fought a gruelling election against each other, have formed a genuinely close friendship, with the president giving serious weight to his former rival’s counsel. Vinick’s Nobel Peace Prize for his work in the region was genuinely welcomed by the president.
With Lyman deputy Sam Seaborn taking up Lyman’s former job, comment has also been made about how Santos has effectively surrounded himself with a “Bartlet mafia”. Seaborn, Lyman and his wife all served in Bartlet’s two campaigns and in his White House, and the news that former White House chief of staff CJ Cregg (wife of CNN’s Danny Concannon of The Concannon/Ziegler Report), another Bartlet inner-circler, is to take leave from the Hollis Foundation to head up communications in the campaign adds to the story. How close are these people? Both Cregg and Lyman have children named after the late Democratic party giant Leo McGarry, Bartlet’s first chief of staff, chairman of Bartlet for America, best friend, and a beloved figure amongst Bartletistas (and across the political aisle, it has to be said). Cregg will be bringing Charlie Young (Aka Mr Zoe Bartlet) and Margaret Hooper (who also has a child named after McGarry) with her from the foundation.
As if there isn’t enough of “the old band getting together”, the latest story is that legendary Democratic strategist Bruno Gianelli, who ran Bartlet’s two campaigns and then stunned liberals by crossing the floor to assist Vinick, has offered to come out of retirement for the Santos campaign, gratis. There’s a lot of anger still in the party towards Gianelli, but Lyman would be loath to turn down an offer from such a master political operator as Gianelli.
As for the former president himself? He seems to have developed a taste for the campaign trail again, having come out of retirement two years ago to campaign for his former spokesperson Will Bailey (husband of Fox News’s foreign policy analyst and former Bartlet Deputy NSA Kate Harper) in the tight Oregon 4th congressional district, a race won by the Dems, some say, in no short measure to Bartlet spending literally weeks in the district gladhandling. He also campaigned for his former Vice President Robert Russell in Russell’s successful Colorado senate bid. Incidentally, Bartlet’s other VP, disgraced former Texas senator John Hoynes, for years the assumed Man Who Will Be President, has apparently found Jesus following his second divorce after his disastrous campaign against Santos. He currently runs a drug rehabilitation and homeless shelter in downtown Dallas. Friends say that he has ruled out ever seeking office again. One remarked that “John has finally found happiness and inner contentment”.