Weaver's Week 2009-02-15

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Who Wants to be a Superhero?

NBC Universal for Sci-Fi, UK broadcast on Sci-Fi May 2007 – September 2008

NBC Universal / CBBC, BBC2 from 3 January 2009

It's been argued that the comic is the oldest recorded form of entertainment. What else were the neolithic cave paintings, other than a stylised representation of Mammoth Boy against Sabre Tooth and his pet tiger? In the UK, comics have generally been associated with strip cartoons for the very young, such larger-than-life heroes as Dennis the Menace and Desperate Dan. Comics have also become associated with high-concept literature; the dystopia of the Judge Dredd strips has consistently reflected contemporary society.

In between these extremes are comics aimed at children aged between ten and fifteen. The acknowledge master of this sector is Stan Lee, a writer and (latterly) publisher for Marvel Comics.

Who Wants to be a Superhero? was devised by Mr. Lee, working with reality show producer Bruce Nash. The basic idea is that members of the public create their own superhero characters, able to save the world at one bound, albeit with some human qualities. The contestants are tested on their ability to behave in heroic ways: to be a leader by example, to overcome their own fears, to inspire others to work for the greater good.

We caught some episodes of the first series, when it aired on Sci-Fi in May 2007; and the second series, in August 2008. Just as we were getting into the latter run, the channel moved it from a nice friendly 8pm slot to a hostile position at 12.35am. We didn't bother setting the video, and caught up with the results in text from the interwebs. It was an entertaining show, if a little superficial, and we didn't really feel that annoyed for missing the concluding episodes of both series.

The British version differs from the original in one significant manner. While the original asked grown-ups to audition, the UK edition involves children aged around ten. Instantly, that's changed the whole dynamic of the show. Rather than battling against a subtle enemy, the opponent for the youngsters has to be very clearly defined, almost a pantomime villain in their meanness.

The opening episode was also a deviation from the US show, exploring the world of comic books and explaining why Stan Lee is a legend in the world of comic books. Hosts Sam Nixon and Mark Rhodes visited Mr. Lee in his California home, and did other stunts, including falling off a garage roof into cardboard boxes. Don't try this at home, kids. The opening episode also included footage from the regional and national auditions.

When the programme finally got under way, the thirteen heroes were kitted out in shiny new costumes, and given challenges to test their superhero mettle. While racing across the finish line, could they help the old lady and the lost tourist? Would they be able to conquer their fear of heights, their fear of snakes, their lust for fortune and fame? Would they be able to work in a team or always put themselves first?

Many of the challenges were recycled from the earlier series: the race challenge in episode 2 was a direct copy, as was the rescue in episode 4, and a task to find information from a superfan (Tracy Beaker star Dani Harmer) was similar to one we'd seen before. For 99% of the viewers, and seemingly for all the contestants, these would have been novel missions.

Image:Forsyth bruce square.jpg

The tasks are introduced by Mr. Lee, appearing on a video link from his California home. Each show ends with a "power-down", in which one (or more) of the contestants is stripped of their powers and sent home. We're never great fans of seeing people cry on national television, especially not children, and this elimination part tends to bring out the blubbering. Of course, if this series were really faithful to Mr. Lee's comics, it would be won by someone who appeared to leave the contest many years ago, but didn't actually leave and won a place back via a contest hidden on the red button. Mercifully, the triple-crossing of Marvel's print comics isn't reflected on screen.

The UK show runs for 55 minutes, and in spite of Sam and Mark's entertaining banter, each show contains some fairly obvious filler elements. It feels as though the hour-long shows have been made by splicing together two half-hour episodes, and the show would not have suffered from shorter programmes.

For reasons that evade us, the BBC decided to show grown men batting innocent tennis balls around a blue square. This led to the 24 January episode being pulled from the BBC2 transmission schedule. Would the Beeb be sensible enough to postpone the episode for a week? Er, no: it shifted the show to the digital-only CBBC channel, and picked up on BBC2 the following week with only the usual recap. That was a bad choice, not only because it completely excludes the relatively small number of analogue-only viewers, but because such drop-of-the-hat changes tend to break automatic recording devices, including ours. Digital channels may just about be regarded as being available to most viewers; until broadband approaches 90% coverage, television over the interwebs cannot be regarded as a universal catch-up.

While we like the concept behind Who Wants to be a Superhero, the execution – both here and in the US – has tended to lack something. The BBC's version is entirely watchable, is reasonably entertaining, but once we'd missed one episode, we found ourselves wondering if we should bother to catch up and carry on. Maybe we just prefer proper comics, where the anti-heroes wear red and black.

Children's Television

The BBC Trust picked this week to release a report into the subject of children's television. Their main points were that the strategy of "fewer, bigger, better" was resulting in some excellent programmes. We entirely agree, and will honestly say that some of the best shows we see are funded from the children's department. MI High, for instance, knocks spots off Spooks, precisely because it knows it's a live-action cartoon.

We mentioned a moment ago that ...Superhero was moved at very little notice from BBC2 to CBBC. This goes against the BBC's pledge in 2006 to keep children's programming on terrestrial television, against the rationale to move the shows to BBC2 so they wouldn't be interrupted by special programming, and goes against the finding of the Trust's report. Shows on the traditional networks – BBC1 and BBC2 – are more popular than those on the digital channels CBBC and Cbeebies.

In amongst the technical gubbins about the BBC meeting its various charter pledges, there's a point even we can understand. Last year, The Weakest Link moved from BBC2 to BBC1, displacing an Australian soap. As a result, CBBC's flagship shows (The Sarah Jane Adventures, Election, Blue Peter) were shuffled back to 4.35. Inevitably, this has resulted in fewer viewers, rather wasting the investment in high-quality programmes.

Even though we love game shows, we must honestly say that The Weakest Link isn't exactly the stuff of public-service broadcasting. Indeed, it's hard to see how a diet of meanness, nastiness, and rudeness obviously ticks any of the boxes on the charter pledge form. Which is more valuable: the trivial facts tested on Link, or Joel Defries's surprisingly thoughtful investigation into his family's religion?

Would the public be better served by having family programmes running right up to 6pm? Could Adrian Chiles bring The One Show forward to 5.30? Should BBC Switch fill the gap? Is it time to end Link after nine years? Whatever the solution, we don't think Anne Robinson will remain on BBC1 for that much longer.

University Challenge

Semi-final 1: Manchester v Lincoln Oxford

Manchester can almost be seeded into the semi-final – it feels like the ten millionth year the home side has progressed this far, and this year they've eliminated the LSE in a cracking quarter-final. Lincoln Oxford was all over Queens' Cambridge in their quarter-final, a match that was the most one-sided in a decade for a whole one week.

The Lincoln side viewed from the side: Roberto Rossi, James Cranley, Ashley Walters, Andrew Mendelblat

We'll begin with Surname of the Week, "Ackroyd"; Thumper only gets to give two parts of the clue and doesn't give a plug to the CALENDAR presenter Christina. Carol Vorderman and Desmond Tutu pop up in a starter on degree classifications (third class and second class second division, respectively). We're back with words formed from postcode districts (Portsmouth + Nottingham = PONG, that sort of thing). Viewers to BATTLE OF THE BRAINS will have caught mention of Boyle's law this evening, but only on UNIVERSITY CHALLENGE are contestants expected to know it. The first visual round is on a particular city and its boroughs, and it doesn't detain Manchester for more than a moment – the side has a 75-20 lead.

Manchester are detained by the next starter, but the guess of "plankton" is correct, and it's beginning to look like their game to lose. We'll take Luvvie Interruption of the Week

Q: The stage satires of Henry Fielding are believed by some to have given rise to the law – enforced from 1737 to 1968 -
Manchester, Matthew Yeo: Lord Chamberlain.

Very good, dahlink, getting the office that did the censorship. Manchester later picks up a set of bonuses on metanalysis, the process by which letters shift across word boundaries, such as "a nadder" becoming a type of snake. The atheist bus advertising campaign brings Lincoln back in the game, it's their first starter since the opening moments of the game. The audio round is from an opera that no-one can identify, and Manchester leads 125-35.

Already, Manchester's players have answered at least one starter correctly, and that's more than Lincoln's players combined. The Oxford side has a hair-raising struggle to remember the inventor of the Van de Graaf Generator, an invention that took its name from a device to make electricity, a "generator". Manchester, meanwhile, are remembering the ablative absolute, a device that had us making an umbra traiecta from our Latin lessons in sheer terror. Advenit murali, as Fulvus Wintus would put it.

You wouldn't catch Anne Robinson doing this

By the second visual round, Lincoln's hopes of victory have been swept away by their opponent, Manchester take the bonuses on artists in their studios (and no snaps of Tony Hart, for shame), and lead 225-40. Manchester knows precisely one recent philosopher, and that Kant extend their lead by much. Like Exeter a few weeks ago, Lincoln are trying to buzz in, but – again – many of their buzzes are in error, allowing Manchester to pick up starters testing their German geography. There's only five minutes left when Manchester extend their lead past 200, and surely – surely! – Corpus Christi's record from two weeks ago is safe.

Or maybe not! More missignals from Lincoln, lots of bonuses from Manchester – we know they're good at them – and the lead is exploding like something Richard Hammond would be pleased with. It reaches a 300-point lead with just a few seconds on the clock, and – at the gong – Manchester has run away with it, winning 345-30. Lincoln's is the second-lowest score in the sixteen years of the BBC revival. To set this in context, Lincoln's points difference in their last two games is a very respectable -30.

For Manchester, it's the fourth-largest winning margin of the Paxman era, behind Open 97, Corpus Christi Oxford 09, and Manchester 97's first-round win by 320. Manchester's score is the joint-10th largest of the revival, but the joint-second greatest since 2000, tying with Corpus Christi Oxford 05's 345 against Lancaster, and St John's Cambridge's mark against King's Cambridge in the repechage final. (Reports are in the Weeks of 27 March 2005 and 30 November 2008.)

We expected a high-scoring game, we expected Manchester to shade it, but not such a one-sided match as this. Unlike a certain other side we'll be seeing next week, Manchester split their starters – Reuben Roy and Matthew Yeo both had five right, and no missignals. Andrew Mendelblat got two starters, but Lincoln had four missignals, and 4/9 on their bonuses. Manchester had two missignals, and went 35/54 on their bonus questions.

Next match: Corpus Christi Oxford v St John's Cambridge


Heat 17

Another week, another show. Adrian Corbett kicks off tonight, he's taking the band Marillion. The group is perhaps the biggest to come from Oxfordshire, and have such loyal fans that they can ask them to fund an album, and they'll do it. It's almost a perfect round, ending on 14 (1).

John Sandalls will discuss the Life and Career of Klaus Fuchs. The subject was a spy for the USSR at the Manhattan Project to build an atomic bomb. Mr. Sandalls spends quite some time giving alternative answers to what he appears to believe are badly-phrased questions. The round is of high quality, and the score is 11 (1).

Shrirang Raddi tells us about the First Kashmir War, 1947-8. Following the partition, India and Pakistan couldn't agree on who should have control of the Kashmir region in the Himalayas. Mr. Raddi knows a lot about his subject. He knows an awful lot, and turns in a perfect 16 (0).

Sue Read has been reading the Life and Poetry of Alexander Pushkin. The Russian poet of the early 19th century found himself writing an awful lot while confined to his home by a cholera outbreak, we find out. It's another good round, ending on 11 (2).

Mr. Sandalls offers his opinion on nuclear energy, and the host does not challenge it. Instead, we'll remember that the SAS motto is also the game show Who Dares Wins, and the motto of the Special Boat Service is elsewhere on the site. The contender takes a long time to consider one answer, and has to record a pass. His final score is 18 (4).

Sue Read tells us how Russian society was terribly class-conscious at the time, and her thoughts are subject to some of the least subtle editing we've ever seen on this show. She doesn't remember that Gary Lineker spent his final playing years with Grampus 8. Even Mr. Lineker doesn't remember his Wednesday night football show on Radio 5 during autumn 1992. It was bad. Unlike this round: 22 (5).

The host has nothing interesting to say about the band, not even the time Fish lost his voice so had to mime to the words while pulling them off a flipchart. It's on the interwebs somewhere.. ah, here. Readers are warned that that link contains gratuitous pictures of Mike Smith. Mr. Corbett is quizzed about the lack of practice that new drivers get, correctly recalls the captain of the Black Pig (Pugwash!), and finishes on 21 (4).

Seven for Mr. Raddi to win, and he's played on the Indian version of Mastermind in the past. Their version is a lot more competitive, and features many more contenders. "Venomous snakes of India" was a poisonous topic, we're told. It's a less whizz-bang round than his first time in the chair, but he only needs seven to win, and we suspect he may be at a disadvantage from not having lived in the UK for most of his life. Little cultural points that the natives absorb through osmosis need to be learned by immigrants. Anyway, he passes the mark with a little time to spare, concluding with 24 (4).

This Week And Next

The Krypton Factor watch, and this week's winner Aaron Bell has explained why there's only ever one female contestant, and why they're always in seat three. It makes it very much easier to have reserve contestants – just make sure the opposition on the assault course is never clearly in shot, and insert the replacement to the studio rounds. Our thoughts to the standby contestants who didn't make it to air this series, and we rather hope they're allowed onto a next run. Mr. Bell also points out that about one applicant in five was female, so the split we see on screen roughly reflect the balance of applications.

People are watching The Krypton Factor, if only to criticise the assumption that contestants will know which of two old ladies is Miss Marple. They're not watching West London regional channel SKY One, even when Noel Edmonds gives a rabble-rousing polemic against the concept of a planning system, ratified and implemented by democratically-elected councillors. If the people of Wealden feel strongly about their council's decisions, they have the right to vote with their votes. If enough people vote with their votes, the councillors will leave, and the policy can change. That's democracy, British style.

If the viewers of Staines, Kingston, Yeading, and places between are unhappy with the presenters on their local channel, tough, they're lumbered with it. That's democracy, Noel Edmonds style. Indeed, so sure is he that he's The Man of The People that Mr. Edmonds is claimed to have threatened to shout "No show!" at SKY's in-house producer, after some of his venomous tirade was cut from the many repeats of the programme.

Moving to actually popular people, and there were reports this week that Antan Dec might move away from ITV. It's been, what, seven years as the two-headed face of the channel, and that's about right. Move on, do something different.

Battle of the Brains returned this week. They've gained a studio audience, but lost Paddy O'Connell. Nicky Campbell wasted no time in stepping into his shoes. We were rather narked on one episode when it was clear that a player had been disadvantaged by the poor acoustics in the studio, and the standard of play is clearly lower than last year's shows.

Ratings for the last week of January are out, and 10 million people shouted "Jesus H. Christ" as Tucker Jenkins did his thing for Dancing on Ice, whatever it was. In It to Win It had 7.5m viewers, Total Wipeout did well against the football, finishing on 6.35m, and Your Country Needs You had 6m when including HD viewers. Masterchef's weekly final was seen by 4.15m, University Challenge by 3.4m, and both Deal or No Deal and Come Dine With Me recorded 2.65m.

On the digital channels, Come Dine With Me continues to dominate, with 945,000, plus 75,000 on the timeshift More4+1. Pop Idle US and Gladiators recorded around 650,000, and QI, Kerwhizz on Cbeebies, and Paris Hilton's British Best Friend were seen by slightly fewer than half-a-million viewers. We're not entirely sure which of those three requires the least brainpower.

Coming up is another primetime run of Come Dine with Me (C4, 8pm tonight) featuring celebrities and Edwina Currie. ITV brings The Colour of Money to Saturday evenings (6pm), and BBC1 proposes Let's Dance for Comic Relief (6.40).

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