TV Review – Fearless Season 1 – everything Paranoid wasn’t

This six-part 2017 British TV series is everything a good conspiracy thriller should be. And it’s everything 2016’s Paranoid was not.


Paranoid felt like it was written by a five-year-old with a big book of conspiracy clichés close at hand. Risible characters, panto performances, juvenile—sometimes nonsensical—dialogue, and a plot that was as original as a bar of soap, and as subtle as a hammer to the face.

Fearless is light years ahead in every respect. Brilliantly written by Patrick Harbinson of 24 and Homeland fame, it’s the epitome of what I look for in a conspiracy thriller. A gripping mystery, full of shady characters with hazy motives colluding to bury the truth while our protagonist seeks desperately to uncover it. In this case, our protagonist is a lawyer, Emma Banville, defending a guy, Kevin Russell, who went down for murder 14 years ago but has always maintained that he didn’t do it. Helen McCrory, playing her, is wonderful. Her performance is nuanced, convincing and profoundly affecting in a way Indira Varma as lead character Nina Suresh in Paranoid painfully wasn’t.

The premise is hardly new to the conspiracy genre—lawyer discovers that her client accused of murder is being set up by powerful forces seeking to hide something bigger—but it doesn’t have to be. It’s what you do with it that matters. The plot you build out of it. And Fearless’s plot is relentlessly compelling. Conspiracy thrillers are typically a lot more complicated that your basic whodunit. They have to be. Because lots-of-people-dunit. Their mysteries have to be multi-layered, each layer thicker than the one before. Fearless’s mystery is just that. At multiple points during the six episodes I found myself shouting at the TV, “What the hell is going on?!” Paranoid, on the other hand, wanted to be complicated, but was a baby pretending to be a grown-up. Every plot development was so obvious that it made Nina Suresh and her buddies look like the stupidest cops on the planet.

The first episode of Fearless spends its time building the characters and making us wonder about the guilt of Kevin Russell, accused of murdering a teenager called Linda Simms in 2003. As to whether Russell is guilty, involved somehow with Simms’ death but not guilty of murder, or wholly innocent of it, the show doesn’t tell us right away. However, by the end of the first episode, we know that there are some unseen cogs in this machine. There’s a telephone call between a mysterious old man played by Michael Gambon and an equally mysterious American woman played by Robin Weigert, strongly hinting at a cover-up to do with the Russell case.

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TV Review: Designated Survivor — Season 1

It’s been a while since I’ve seen a TV series so gripping that I just couldn’t turn it off. The sort of series that, when you start catching up, you panic that you’re going to run out of episodes, and you’re not entirely sure what you’re going to do with your life after you do. (Wait, is it just me? Do I need to get out more?)

Enter Season 1 of Designated Survivor, the new conspiracy thriller from ABC. It’s not perfect. The writing’s a little up and down. Some of it is a bit silly/overblown/disjointed. Nobody swears (a failing of all American network television). But its chief strength is clear: it’s bloody riveting.


It begins with a massive explosion at the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. that kills the president, the vice-president and virtually all of the government, apart from the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Tom Kirkman (Kiefer Sutherland). He’s the ‘designated survivor’ (a real thing in the States — means you’re the last resort if the rest of the government is killed).

Kirkman is suddenly sworn in as president and he and his family are moved into the White House, two things they never thought would happen since Kirkman was only twelfth in the presidential line of succession.

The show then focuses on two main storylines: the Capitol bombing and those behind it, and Kirkman and his family and advisers adjusting to life in America’s highest office. What we have here is half a conspiracy thriller, half a political drama.

For the vast majority of the season, the two genres marry together well. At the forefront of the conspiracy thriller storyline is FBI agent Hannah Wells (Maggie Q), who is investigating the Capitol bombing. In a show that has definite parallels with 24 (political conspiracies, terrorists, high-stakes action, Kiefer Sutherland), Hannah Wells is the Jack Bauer of Designated Survivor. She tends to dominate the action and suspense elements of the show and the epic cliffhangers that leave you hankering to watch the next one. Meanwhile, Kiefer Sutherland plays a very different, action-less role as Kirkman. (However, the similarities with 24 mean that he sometimes strays awkwardly into Jack Bauer mode, a much more gung-ho character than the more reflective, more reasonable Kirkman.)

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TV Review: Paranoid – a terrific example of how NOT to do a conspiracy thriller


In an extra blog for this week, I’m reviewing the first three episodes of new ITV conspiracy thriller Paranoid. Why I’m choosing to review the series at this point will become clear. Spoilers ahead.

I’m not going to mince words. Britain’s televisual output is pants. Apart from some comedy gems and one decent sci-fi series, Doctor Who (which was only decent until Matt Smith bowed out), our unimaginative schedules are saturated with the same old cop shows, medical dramas and soaps.

But even though the central characters of new TV series Paranoid are cops investigating a murder, it was being touted as a “conspiracy thriller”, not a cop show. Most of our whodunits follow a conventional path from the discovery of a body to the revelation of a killer, but Paranoid was promising something more complicated than that.

Unfortunately, Paranoid, co-funded by ITV and Netflix, is a terrific example of how NOT to do a conspiracy thriller. Where did it all go wrong? First and foremost, it’s the writing. Instead of coming up with an interesting and inventive story, it’s as if writer Bill Gallagher has researched the big book of conspiracy clichés and thrown them all in. Everything here is been-there-done-that.

There’s a mystery observer watching the police as they investigate the murder of Angela Benton, punctuated by breathy POV shots and lines like “There’s someone out there, watching us.” CLICHÉ. The police are receiving notes from this observer with derivative messages like Look into Angela’s past and You have no idea what you’re up against. CLICHÉ. Angela’s presumed killer is a “psychopathic schizophrenic with OCD” who falls from a bridge to his death before the police can question him—or was he pushed? CLICHÉ.

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10 Great Conspiracy Movies and TV Series

Being a fan of conspiracy theories also makes me a fan of conspiracy movies and TV shows. Those which dramatise famous theories, or centre on government agencies and fictional organisations trying to screw with people’s lives or cover up heinous crimes. Here’s a list of ten conspiracy movies and TV series that are totally worth a watch. Moderate spoilers ahead!

10. Prison Break

The cast of 'Prison Break'

The cast of ‘Prison Break’

The first two seasons of Prison Break are excellent. While half the focus is on Michael Schofield trying to break his brother Lincoln out of jail, the other half is on the conspiracy that landed Lincoln there in the first place. As the series goes on, you learn more and more about how high-up this conspiracy goes. Early scenes show an unknown blonde woman cutting vegetables, her face partly hidden, pulling the strings of two evil Secret Service agents going around killing people. In a stunning cliff-hanger halfway through the season, it’s revealed that this woman is the Vice President. After that, we begin to learn that a clandestine organisation called ‘The Company’ is actually pulling her strings, and this powerful, government-manipulating group becomes the series’ driving force. Meanwhile the protagonists are struggling to piece together who’s behind Lincoln being set up for murder and why. Classic conspiracy thriller stuff.

This would’ve appeared higher in the list had it not gone spinning off the rails at the end of Season 2. This was due to the producers having no clear agenda for continuing the series, and their failure to secure Sarah Wayne Callies as fan favourite Sara Tancredi for Season 3. The latter problem led to some horrifically awkward scenes with stand-in actresses, some very ill-thought-out plot developments and one of the worst pieces of retconning ever committed to film.

9. Star Trek: The Next Generation – Conspiracy (Season 1, Episode 25)

From TNG's 'Conspiracy' - the gory scene that was censored

From TNG’s ‘Conspiracy’ – the gory scene that was censored

In one of the best episodes from TNG’s somewhat shaky first season, Picard and crew uncover a conspiracy at the heart of Starfleet. The episode has all the tropes of a good conspiracy story. Mystery, paranoia, suspicion, and a whistleblower who reveals all to Picard and ends up dead shortly afterwards, his ship inexplicably destroyed. Eventually the conspirators are revealed: a race of alien parasites (very similar to the Hive creatures in UFO series Dark Skies) that have infiltrated Starfleet Command’s highest levels. After some (admittedly dated) fight scenes, the aliens are dispatched in a surprisingly gory scene that was censored when it aired on TV. It involves a Starfleet officer’s head exploding and a hideous alien mother creature emerging from his remains.

8. Enemy of the State

Will Smith and Gene Hackman

Will Smith and Gene Hackman

This 1998 movie takes a standard conspiracy plotline and spruces it up with some great dialogue, a wonderfully played central character and a clever trick at the end. The story’s about the government’s mass surveillance of individuals, which feels familiar, but is realistic and relevant. More so today, in light of Edward Snowden’s 2013 global surveillance disclosures. A congressman is assassinated by NSA agents for refusing to support a law that will radically expand the government’s surveillance powers, and a nature photographer inadvertently video-records the killing. The photographer passes the tape to lawyer Robert Clayton Dean (Will Smith), whose life is turned upside down when NSA agents are on his tail, trying to get the tape back.

It’s fast-paced, action-oriented stuff in the vein of government conspiracy thrillers like 24. But it’s the snappy dialogue and Will Smith’s awesome performance as Dean that set this movie apart. Smith provides some very welcome laughs along the way – unusual in this kind of movie.

7. The Whistleblower

Amanda Burton

Amanda Burton

No, I’m not talking about the Rachel Weisz movie (though that’s also good). I’m talking about a 2001 BBC drama starring Amanda Burton and Penelope Wilton. Despite how good it was, it appears to have been erased from the BBC’s history and is virtually impossible to find on DVD. (If anyone has it, please let me know!)

Burton plays a clerk at a London bank called Laura, who’s discovered that her employers are involved in drug trafficking and money laundering. She photocopies key documents for the authorities and her involvement lands her and her family in witness protection. There are some tense action scenes as they become the targets of assassins. As the story develops, we learn more about Laura’s motives for exposing the conspiracy, which leads to some surprising revelations. The character of Laura, plus Burton’s subtle performance, is what makes The Whistleblower. Despite being the protagonist, she’s not entirely likeable. She’s complex, cold, even towards her family, and harbours a ton of secrets. That’s what makes her interesting. What also makes The Whistleblower is the truly startling ending, which is partly the reason the drama has stayed with me all these years.

6. The Adjustment Bureau

Matt Damon with the Men in, urm, Grey

Matt Damon with the Men in, urm, Grey

This great film blends romance, action and fantasy/sci-fi in an original way by pitting would-be lovers Matt Damon and Emily Blunt against a secret organisation of ‘Adjusters’ who are determined to keep them apart. The Adjusters are clearly inspired by the Men in Black conspiracy theories (though their suits and hats are actually grey in this movie). The concept is that all of us are being secretly controlled and manipulated by the Adjustment Bureau. The Bureau has all kinds of supernatural powers, including the power to travel across great distances via magic doorways, freeze us in time and make us spill coffee on ourselves. It’s all to make sure our lives follow ‘The Plan’, a document composed by the Adjusters’ leader, the ‘Chairman’ (i.e. God).

Fascinating concept, very entertainingly played. Matt Damon isn’t one of my favourite actors, but he’s good here, and Emily Blunt is better. Romance in movies can be cheesily written, unsubtly acted schmaltz, but the blossoming romance between these two is well-written, never forced and never sentimental. The film also has some interesting things to say about free will, and I found the Bureau’s reasons for suspending free will very interesting.

5. Damages

Glenn Close as Patty Hewes

Glenn Close as Patty Hewes

This fabulous five-season-long TV series never found a big audience. However, the critics loved it and it consistently attracted big-name film actors, from Glenn Close and Ted Danson to John Goodman and Ryan Phillippe. It follows Glenn Close’s multi-faceted Patty Hewes, a tough-as-nails lawyer who sets out to expose conspiracy and corruption in major corporations. In the first season, she tries to bring down Ted Danson’s Arthur Frobisher by exposing his fraudulent practices and insider trading. In later seasons, she deals with an energy corporation that’s poisoning people and fiddling the stock market, a family of fraudsters allegedly hiding money, and a corrupt private military contractor conducting illegal missions.

What’s interesting about the show, apart from Glenn Close’s mesmerizing anti-hero, Patty Hewes, is its non-linear structure. Flashforwards depict major events due to happen near the end of each season, and each season becomes a jigsaw puzzle for the viewer. With each episode, you get a few more pieces of the puzzle, and a better idea of the picture at the end of the season. This allows the show to do something unique and reveal the murder of a main character in the pilot episode; this character appears all the way through the first season, and you get to piece together who perpetrated the crime and why. Damages’ structure is one of the inspirations for the Million Eyes trilogy.

Admittedly, the quality of the show declines as it goes on. The first two seasons are the best, but after that, the flashforwards and plot twists are never quite as effective. That being said, while Season 5 as a whole is a bit slow, its final plot twist is – I think – one of the cleverest of the lot.

4. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

This was always my favourite of the movies featuring the cast of Star Trek: The Original Series. The Undiscovered Country is a conspiracy movie with a more complex, more intriguing storyline than the previous films. After the Federation and the Klingons begin a peace process, the Enterprise appears to fire inadvertently on a Klingon ship. In some gripping scenes, two mysterious intruders beam aboard the Klingon ship and assassinate the Klingon Chancellor, while the Enterprise crew are still working out what’s going on. Kirk and McCoy are put on trial for the Chancellor’s assassination, and Spock plays detective aboard the Enterprise, searching for the truth. Players in a conspiracy to thwart the peace process are revealed, leading to some nice twists and a riveting climax, featuring a space battle and an assassination attempt on the Federation president.

Oh, and did I mention that this movie has Kim Cattrall – yes, Kim Cattrall – playing a Vulcan called Valeris? It’s a role that could not be further from Sex and the City’s Samantha if it tried!

It's Samantha Jones - as a Vulcan!

It’s Samantha Jones – as a Vulcan!

3. The Truman Show

This is less a ‘thriller’ than the other entries in this list, more a satire of reality television. It features the most devastating conspiracy imaginable – that nothing about your life is real, and every single person you know is co-conspiring to keep up the illusion. Truman Burbank (Jim Carey) lives his life on the set of an elaborate reality TV show, and everyone he knows, including his wife, is an actor.

The edge of the world...

The edge of the world…

As the film progresses, Truman starts to suspect that he is at the heart of a huge conspiracy, thanks to a series of inadvertent ‘clues’. A studio light accidentally falls out of the ‘sky’, his radio picks up crew members talking about his movements, and he starts noticing how his wife has a tendency to advertise products mid-conversation. When he tries to escape the town in his car, he encounters traffic and emergency situations in every direction, blocking him. My favourite scene is at the end, when Truman escapes in a boat and finds the edge of the TV set: a great wall with a painted sky, where the ‘sea’ just stops. Great concept, great imagery and a very thought-provoking story.

2. 24

The cast of '24 - Live Another Day'

The cast of ’24 – Live Another Day’

24 has enjoyed nine seasons of action, conspiracy drama and political intrigue and scandal. When it began in 2001, it was one of the most original things on TV, and it ushered in a new era of serialised rather than episodic TV shows. Before 24, TV bosses feared losing their audience if episodes were not self-contained. But a whole slew of popular serialised TV shows followed in the wake of 24, including Prison Break, Lost, Damages and Breaking Bad.

Another original element of 24 was its real-time nature, which caused the show some credibility problems (it apparently takes ten minutes to get anywhere in Los Angeles). But as long as you learned to ignore the occasional believability-stretching, 24 was one hell of a good ride. Each season followed a bunch of terrorists plotting to attack the US, with government agent Jack Bauer going to any and all lengths to stop them. Some of the conspiracies and cover ups, particularly in Seasons 2, 5 and 7, involved conspirators from inside the US government. For me, this was when the show was at its most intriguing and compelling. Over time, the plot twists, shock deaths of main characters and revelations of secret moles duping the protagonists started to become a little repetitive. This was most obvious in Season 6, which was just a re-tread of the previous seasons. Having said that, it wasn’t bad enough to make me stop watching, and Seasons 7 and 8 (well, the second half of Season 8 anyway) were particularly strong.

For my review of 24’s latest season, Live Another Day, click here.

1. The Da Vinci Code

Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) and Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou)

Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) and Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou)

For me, this has to sit at Number 1. Bizarrely, critics savaged this movie and people are always making disparaging comments about Dan Brown’s writing. While I never read The Da Vinci Code, the story is great, and I’m reading an earlier Dan Brown novel at the moment – Deception Point. So far I’ve got no issues with his writing. Like The Da Vinci Code, Deception Point is proving to be a pretty gripping conspiracy thriller.

The Da Vinci Code is 100% my favourite conspiracy movie. Tom Hanks’ Robert Langdon is not the most compelling character I’ve ever encountered, but the story more than makes up for that. What could be more fascinating than the idea that the Catholic Church, one of the powerful institutions in history, is founded on a lie? Hunted by a frightening assassin in the form of Paul Bettany, Langdon and French cryptologist Sophie Neveu set out to uncover the truth about the Church’s biggest secret: did Jesus have a baby with Mary Magdalene? One of the best scenes in the film has Ian McKellen explaining it all to Langdon and Neveu, and we get to see Leonardo da Vinci’s famous Last Supper painting – is that actually a woman sitting next to Jesus at the table?

The film is a great blend of mystery, history and suspense, with a few neat plot twists at the end. I genuinely have no idea what the critics are talking about. (Having said that, critics positively reviewed the worst film I have ever, ever seen – Bug with Ashley Judd – so perhaps they’re all insane.)

Next week: I’m taking a look at controversial 2011 documentary Unlawful Killing, which is all about the Princess Diana conspiracy theories…

Merry Christmas to all!

TV Review – 24: Live Another Day


In an extra blog for this week, I’m reviewing the latest series of action-oriented conspiracy thriller 24, which aired earlier this year. Spoilers for 24: Live Another Day and 24: Day 5 ahead.

For those who enjoy conspiracy thrillers, 24 is a must. All nine seasons have been pretty consistent in entertainment value, and Day 5/Season 5 is a particular highlight. That’s when they bravely killed off four main characters and one recurring character, two of those in the first episode (I’m counting Tony in that – even though his ‘death’ was retconned two seasons later). Season 5 also featured a conspiracy storyline that went all the way to the top, revealing the primary orchestrator to be none other than the President of the United States himself.

24 hasn’t been quite as strong since, but it generally doesn’t disappoint (though Season 6 was a bit of a lowlight). Live Another Day is one I did expect more from, though. Given that it came after a four year gap. (The original plan was to make a movie after Season 8 ended, but that got scrapped.)

The big changes in Live Another Day were the setting (London), no CTU (again) and some new cast members, but plot-wise it was business as usual. It could have done with something really unique for the terrorist plot. I’m not sure what, but Muslim extremists conspiring to kill the President and attack high-profile targets are things we’ve seen many times before. The terrorists were a family unit again, like the Araz family in Season 4. Characters who initially appeared innocuous were revealed as terrorists or moles. And most frustratingly, no one was listening to Jack Bauer again – even though, as usual, he turned out to be right.

Even the change of setting didn’t have much impact. There were no Brits in the main cast, and the Prime Minister, played by Stephen Fry, could have been given a much bigger role. And why a CIA branch in London? Why not MI5 itself? I know it’s an American show but I know of an MI5 agent who’s pretty big in the US. He’s called James Bond.

There were certainly plenty of highlights. While not particularly inventive, the revelation of Simone as a terrorist and CIA leader Steve Navarro as the one selling intel to China were unexpected. And given the show’s willingness to kill off its characters, I really thought President Heller had died in Wembley Stadium. The video recording trick was a great twist. These sequences showed that 24 still has moments of unpredictability.

Talking of Heller, very good choice to bring him back. William Devane is an excellent actor and always captivating in the role. Giving Heller Alzheimer’s was also an interesting development. Great to have Chloe back, too, even though very little work was done to advance her character. I appreciate that 24 is a plot-driven, not character-driven show, and I like that about it. But the main development with her – the heartbreaking death of Morris and her child – should have been given more airtime.

Freshest thing for me was finally having a female ‘big bad’. Terrorist leader Margot Al-Harazi was the first female big bad in nine seasons of 24. We had a few female villains – Nina Myers, Mandy, Dana Walsh, Sherry Palmer – but they all worked for someone else. All the principal monsters and string-pullers were men. In Live Another Day, evil Margot was at the top of the food chain, and Game of Thrones’ Michelle Fairley played her fantastically. She also got my favourite type of death for a villain – defenestration!

I did think bringing back Cheng for the season’s ‘second act’ was a bit tired. At least Jack chopped his head off so he can’t come back again. I was surprised that the 12-hour jump literally had no impact on the plot whatsoever, and was just an afterthought. They should have done the jump half-way through and had us all guessing as to what was going on. Also, while Audrey’s death was sad, killing off at least one main character a season – particularly Jack’s lovers/former lovers – is becoming a bit of a cliché on 24 in itself.

This Wednesday: A time travelling fraudster?

Are we being tricked and deceived by The X Factor?

A popular TV conspiracy theory that pops up every year is that ITV’s The X Factor is fake, fixed and staged. Are we all being manipulated?

For those who don’t know (and if you don’t, you must’ve been living in a box underground with no access to the Internet, TV, newspapers or human interaction since 2004), The X Factor is a televised singing contest masterminded and controlled by Simon Cowell. It’s been going since 2004 and shows no signs of leaving UK screens despite the bad press and conspiracy theories that accompany the show.

Literally every year people accuse The X Factor of being a fix. They claim that comments made by the judges are staged and scripted. That loads of the ‘tough choices’ made by the judges have already been made by the producers; in other words, the judges are told to save novelty acts like Jedward, Wagner and Rylan Clark for entertainment value. And that certain contestants, the ones the show wants us to like, are deliberately elevated above others because Simon Cowell – frequently misguidedly – sees pound signs in their eyes. This year, for example, Andrea Faustini was given an inordinately disproportionate amount of screen time and now he’s the audience favourite – funny, that.

Are the judge’s choices staged?

This year X Factor’s been in the tabloids again. In August it was reported that the bootcamp audience was outraged by Cheryl Cole and Louis Walsh changing their minds about their acts following unheard conversations with the producers. One audience member tweeted:

“The X Factor is a total fix. Both Cheryl and Louis have now ‘changed their minds’ (been told) and let a novelty act replace a genuine act.”

According to the reports, X Factor sources said that the judges don’t wear earpieces and needed to let the producers know that they were changing their minds. That’s baloney if you ask me. Why would they need to do that?

Interestingly, when the bootcamp episodes were aired, we were shown clips of the judges being spoken to by producers, and we could ‘hear what was being said’. Now I’m using speech marks sarcastically because it was obviously a voiceover recorded later. I highly doubt these producers were given microphones (and judging by the audience outrage that ended up in the papers, they clearly weren’t). According to the voiceover, they were reminding the judges about the ‘no swapping’ policy for under-16s. I doubt the judges would need reminding of that in the middle of the process.

I reckon this voiceover was completely manufactured to ‘explain’ the producers’ mysterious interventions that were reported in August. It’s also at odds with the explanation that was given to the papers.

Fix? Rylan Clark versus Carolynne Poole

Fix? Rylan Clark versus Carolynne Poole

A similar thing happened in 2012 during the judges’ vote on the first live show. Louis Walsh was seen speaking to the show’s executive producer during Carolynne Poole’s final showdown performance. After this he declared he was going to save her instead of Rylan Clark, then changed his mind a second later and took it to deadlock, eliminating Poole. 2011 contestant Frankie Cocozza tweeted:

“The X Factor just showed the whole country how set up it is, not that we didn’t know that anyway.”

This time a spokesperson for The X Factor simply said, “Producers always chat to judges during the show.” Mmmm.

Deceptive editing – Chloe-Jasmine and the reuse of clips

In 2013 it was reported that X Factor had been caught out misleading its viewers. People spotted that the same clip of two audience members looking confused and unimpressed was used during two completely different auditions! I also remember years ago on Charlie Brooker’s Screenwipe, he revealed that the same clip of Danni Minogue voicing approval of a performance had been used for two different contestants!

Chloe 1 and Chloe 2

Chloe 1 and Chloe 2

Then there is the very intriguing deception that is Chloe-Jasmine Whichello in this year’s competition.

Firstly, the show has insisted on not revealing to viewers that Chloe had been in the competition before. She was on the show in 2006, squealing like a cat in front of Simon Cowell, Sharon Osbourne and Louis Walsh.

Secondly, when she was on the show in 2006, she didn’t have her trademark posh accent. Now she’s been voted off, her 2006 audition and different accent have been acknowledged on The Xtra Factor (she said she was ‘hiding’ the posh accent in 2006). But why was it never mentioned on the main show? Why did Simon Cowell and Louis Walsh pretend they’d never seen her before during the room audition?

Thirdly, Chloe-Jasmine completely fluffed her arena audition with a terrible version of Ella Fitzgerald’s Misty, forgetting her words and bursting into tears. Remember that? No – me neither! TV viewers only saw her sing Why Don’t You Do Right (famously sung by Jessica Rabbit in Who Framed Roger Rabbit). This was actually on a subsequent night, after the producers had decided to give her a second chance. But the judges pretended they hadn’t seen her since her room audition!

The auditions we’re not supposed to know about

What I find most bizarre is that the show continues to pretend that everyone who auditions appears before the TV judges. But you only have to go on Wikipedia to find out there’s a whole load of producers’ auditions that happen prior to this. The contestants pretend that their audition in front of the judges is their first audition, and the judges pretend to not know anything about them before they come in. (They must think we’re stupid. The questions are so obviously scripted. We’ve had things like, “So… anything really awful happen to you last year?”)

I also read a very enlightening article from someone who attended these producers’ auditions. She revealed that it was a long, unpleasant process and that the producers were deliberately putting terrible acts through for entertainment value. Her funniest revelation was that the huge ‘hand-made’ posters saying “I have the X Factor!”, “I love you Cheryl!” and “Pick me Simon!” were actually being handed out by producers!

It’s not even live

I actually went with a friend to the live final of the 2012 show, when James Arthur won. There wasn’t too much scandalous fakery, but what I do remember is that the show actually started fifteen minutes before it started ‘live’ on TV. I was texting my Mum and had fifteen minutes of foreknowledge about what was coming!

Until an insider blows the whistle, we’ll probably never truly know the extent of the staging and the fakery (maybe the phone votes are all rigged too!). But there’s certainly no denying that The X Factor is – in a lot of respects – one big lie.

Next week: Was the Gunpowder Plot an inside job?

TV Review – Dark Skies

In an extra blog for this week, I’m reviewing Dark Skies, a conspiracy theory-based sci-fi series from the 90s, which followed in the footsteps of The X Files but was cancelled before its time. Spoilers ahead.

The main cast of Dark Skies

The main cast of Dark Skies

I try to avoid cancelled TV shows unless I know they’ve ended properly, which often means waiting for a show to become really popular. So many shows are cancelled after the end of the season, ending on unsatisfying cliff-hangers. With all these serialized shows around nowadays, it’s like putting on a movie and having it turned off fifteen minutes before the end.

But in 1996, I was – ahem – ten years old. I had no idea Dark Skies was just going to stop before it had really gotten going.

Dark Skies is set in 1960s America and posits that aliens have secretly invaded and are among us, and their presence is being covered up by the government. It features the popular ‘Grey’ aliens that are so often associated with the Roswell UFO Incident and other UFO sightings. But the interesting twist is that the Greys are not the real invaders. They’re being controlled by another alien race called the Hive – parasitic creatures dubbed ‘ganglions’, which live inside hosts and are reminiscent of the facehuggers in the Alien movies. (It’s possible the Hive and the ganglions were also inspired by very similar creatures in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode Conspiracy.)

The other twist is that, unlike The X Files, many of the events in Dark Skies are drawn from real life. Real people are characters in the show, like Carl Sagan, The Beatles and Jesse Marcel (who I talked about in my Roswell article a few weeks ago). Real events like the 1965 Northeast blackout, the assassination of JFK and Roswell are re-explained as being associated with the Hive’s invasion and the conspiracy of silence controlled by Majestic 12. (Again, instead of the purely fictional ‘Syndicate’ that are behind the conspiracy in The X Files, Majestic 12 is based on a real-life alleged division of the government.)

Elements of my own writing owe a lot to Dark Skies. Incorporating real-life events and looking at them through a different lens is exactly what I do in Million Eyes. I have to credit Dark Skies for inspiring the name of this blog too. The tagline for the TV series is “History as we know it is a lie.” But I digress… *

Dark Skies follows John Loengard and Kimberley Sayers, a couple who end up on the run from Majestic 12 and the Hive. They don’t believe that Majestic 12’s conspiracy of silence is the best way of going about fighting the Hive. The third main character is Frank Bach, played brilliantly by the late J. T. Walsh, who runs Majestic. The series follows a half-episodic, half-serialized approach. While you need to watch the first few episodes to understand the set-up, subsequent episodes have their own plots that don’t necessarily continue from one episode to the next. However, if you miss several episodes, you’ll miss learning things about the characters, the Hive and the Greys that become crucial later on, which means it’s not truly a dip-in-dip-out show.

The theory is that during the 90s, when episodic shows were more popular, the partially serialized format of Dark Skies was what killed it. It was also competing with the frankly huge X Files.

The show is not without its problems. It has its share of slightly dodgy acting, weak dialogue, a bit of ham-fisted editing, some shaky special effects (in particular some awful CGI in the pilot) and the odd boring episode. But it’s still better than a lot of first seasons, including that of The X Files.

Jeri Ryan as Juliet

Jeri Ryan as Juliet

Another criticism that was levelled at the show is the blandness of the two leads. In part, I agree. John and Kim are very nice characters, but they’re not hugely compelling. Things change in that department when Jeri Ryan joins the cast as Majestic agent Juliet partway through the season. Juliet is feisty, strong-willed and more complex, and she adds some much-needed drama to the proceedings. Everyone remembers her introduction in superb episode The Warren Omission. When she bursts into the house where John and Kim are staying, beats up several agents, pulls Kim off the stairs and hurls half-naked John against a table (before cheekily stealing his towel). Ryan’s stint in this led her to win the role that made her famous – Seven of Nine in Star Trek Voyager.

Another thing Dark Skies does is it takes one of its leads – Kim – and turns her evil. She ends up joining the Hive several episodes before the end of the season, and Juliet basically becomes her replacement (and ends up in a relationship with John). This hardly ever happens in TV shows, and it’s a brave thing to do. When I was a kid, I didn’t like it because I liked Kim. As an adult, I appreciate it was a good shake-up for the series. I only hate that they never resolved it. Kim’s fate was one of the major storylines left hanging when the series was cancelled. (And it wasn’t only her fate that was left agonisingly unresolved. John and Juliet were left trapped aboard the Hive mothership, and Frank Bach was shot and presumably killed – but we’ll never know.)

It’s a shame. The show was supposed to last five seasons, with the final season taking place during the present day. I continue to hope that one day someone will have the sense to revive it.

This Wednesday: Are time travellers among us?

* UPDATE – This article was written when the blog was called, “Is Our History A Lie?”