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Yonderland S01E01: The Chosen Mum

28 Aug

Written by: Larry Rickard & Ben Willbond

In which the adventure begins…

We open on a long shot of a long, lush, wildly oversaturated valley, sun gleaming off the golden spires of the… teapot-y sort of structure… in the distance and the Horns of Self-Conscious Whimsy faintly swelling over all. Clearly, this crew was not kidding about their affinity for kiddie fantasy-film nostalgia. Which still seems like a slightly odd thing for them to have an affinity for (try picturing Willbond eagerly  plonking down on the couch for Return to Oz and see how far you get), but the speed with which they’ve hauled my inner 80’s preteen aboard is impressive nevertheless.

Smash cut to a theoretically ominous closeup of equally lush Jim, presumably sitting in the dim, austere confines of what I will henceforth be referring to as Teatime Towers, and wearing what appears to be Disney’s rough sketches for a live-action Treasure Planet. “The end… I fear this could be the end,” he intones as ominously as he can, but because it’s Jim, this means everybody including the camera assumes he’s talking about his favourite Happy Meal toy being discontinued and immediately gets distracted by long-haired hippie Simon next in line.

Said unexpected apparition duly picks up the ‘ominous’ ball, wide-eyeing on about how “other lands have fallen” and thus “surely ours must be next”, while the panning shot lengthens to make absolutely sure we’re all onboard the whackiness train that is Disney pirate meets Tolkien meets Woodstock, up to and including bare chest, crystal pendant and cloth headband. Despite all of which, I don’t think I’m being amazed and amused nearly as thoroughly as intended. Sure, it’s a nice chest and everything, but in the end, this is still Simon we’re talking about. OTT flower child schtick? Yeah, whatever, last time I saw it it was wearing an actual pirate costume.

Next up is equally long-haired Larry, whose robes are by contrast accessorized with nothing but that exaggeratedly demure solemnity that always heralded some particularly good bit of business on HH. And sure enough, right in the middle of his extended exposition on their hard-won peace being threatened–because of course it is–he suddenly notices that the camera is moving on, and without missing a beat (or moving a facial muscle) leans over to stay in shot. Then Mat in about ten pounds of Magnificent White Whiskers swoops in ahead of his turn to keep the yadda-yadda-Looming Forces of Darkness-cakes moving along, and frankly the visuals are noticeably starting to outpace the storyline, here.

As the Ominous Music of This is Totally Ominous You Guys swells to a crescendo we reach Ben… snoozing quietly. Because of course. As a much-needed sop to my low slapstick tolerance levels, he’s also wearing the most darling satin mandarin-esque getup with long lace sleeves, a neck ruff and absurdly ornate little sparkly hat, set atop greying curls. Oh, and–although it’s not obvious here–a single pearl earring (On the left side, albeit I’m holding off the cleverness points until I’m sure that has the same connotation in the UK). This is a side of Willbond that definitely did not get much play in his previous children’s-comedy life, and the most evident sign yet that his current children’s comedy will be even less reverential towards the youthful psyche.

(I got pretty thoroughly schooled re: the UK’s much tougher take on ‘child-friendly’  over the course of reviewing HH, so will mostly spare you my N.American-style shock and awe in these recaps. Just… don’t giggle at anything you don’t plan on explaining later, parents, is all I’m saying.)

Welcome instead to our first–but definitely not the last–reminder that, at some point, mocking genre cliches becomes so fish-in-a-barrel-esque it’s indistinguishable from playing them straight. In the case of 80’s fantasy movies, this possibility is further complicated by the extremely fine line between ‘whimsically eccentric detail’ and ‘really, really punchable’. While it may seem a bit nitpicky to be worried about any of this in re: a silly children’s comedy… it’s also the debut of, theoretically, one of the most exciting new comedy troupes to come along in awhile, whose stated goal is and has always been to ‘just make a comedy series’, heedless of demographic bounds. So the fact that it even came to mind during the first few moments of said debut is a tad worrying.

Even the subsequent revelation that the final guy in line is (quite literally) a bright blue translucent blob doesn’t really help… well, OK, it doesn’t hurt. But the cheezy on-off light that accompanies his speech is pushing it, especially as an introduction to that wonderfully intricate world of Hensonian-esque puppetry the same exciting new troupe kept going on about in the pre-show publicity.

Luckily for everyone concerned, Blob Guy’s only line turns out to be “Unless…”  and the camera abruptly widens out to reveal that the Ominous Chorus is perched  above a huge empty arena-type space. An indistinct figure runs into it, breathless with excitement, and we get the following exchange between it and Mat’s Bewhiskered Elder:

“Oh Wise Ones! I-”
“Feet?!”
“…Oh yeah.” *runs away, sound of scraping, runs back into shot* “But, Wise Ones, I think I’ve found her!”

Cue much shocked “watermelon, watermelon”-ing among the OC, either at the dramatic revelation of a possible saviour from the evil forces currently menacing their world, or the realisation that Mat is suddenly talking to himself. Either way, very decent  recovery, guys. And just in time for credits, too.

These happen largely over a cut to a nice little mock-Tudor house in (I’m assuming, from the pre-show PR) a nice little suburb in the British equivalent of the American Midwest. Inside we find Martha, in civilian dress, vainly trying to control a couple of tiny twin blurs long enough to get a shot of them in their ‘uniforms’. Further hapless  flutterings reveal she’s the British equivalent of a Midwestern soccer mom (football mum?) and the blurs are her offspring, heading out to their first day of school.

And right out of the gate, I must give ex-Cleopatra here all the props, as despite not having had a lot of practice with projecting any kind of vulnerability over the last five years her maternal earnestness throughout all this is not only completely recognizable but appealing.

“Pete!” she finally yells, “Counting to five’s stopped working!”

…I hilight this line only to add: huh? Here in N.America we traditionally stop at three. And I think we’re supposed to be the wildly permissive culture in this scenario, no?

Pete–played by a rather disconcertingly funny-costume-free Dan Renton Skinner–turns out to be her husband. Specifically, he’s a sitcom husband, the kind that, rather than, say, grabbing his offspring by the uniform collars and forcibly holding them in place, merely hugs his wife and suggests she try bribery. Then he cheerily jokes that the blurry pic she did get reminds him of their Christmas ditto, hardy-har-har.

Amazingly, Martha doesn’t automatically clock him upside the ear for any of this–somewhere in HH Character Heaven, Boudicca is shaking her head sadly–but they do end up with a nice neat little scene that sets out some key character arcs (Martha = capable, just needs confidence; Pete = loving and supportive but sorta clueless) with impressively economic speed, precision and more than enough genuine couple chemistry to save both from their individual wussiness. There are big-budget superhero movies that don’t get that much done in ninety minutes.

Cut to a mysterious eye watching all of this through a keyhole. Yes, for those of you who’ve just emerged from twenty years under a rock with lousy cable reception, Martha is “her”, the Chosen Mum. And yes, this is a rather lovely satirical inspiration. The more so because the show–perhaps in keeping with its source material, whose leads were just as likely to be female as not–never makes a really big deal about it. You know, the kind with sociopolitical labels and stuff.

It just so very naturally fits into the scheme of the whole, that a smaller-scale fantasy should have a more everyday hero. Not so much smaller as in less physically epic; more as in the fact that its creators themselves are basically no more than gentle, unpretentious people. And as they’ve demonstrated for the last five years, that’s enough to achieve a kind of awesomeness all by itself. Thus it only follows that, instead of creating hobbits battling a world almost too awesome for them to navigate, they should create a normal human coping with a world too silly to live. (Rather like L. Frank Baum, a similarly unassuming type who originally merely wanted to provide a more wholesome  alternative to the grotesqueries of Grimm et al.)

Particularly does it all seem logical given Martha’s involved, since–as per most of her HH characters, and sharply unlike most of the more usual callow brats–the very human relateability that needs to underpin the badassery for both to work properly already comes fully matured and ready to reach out to the audience. She may be a blubbering mess now, but it’s easy to believe she’ll find her inner hero in the end.

The other characters, however… well, let’s just say the kiddies are probably better-prepared to spend more quality time with the Ominous Chorus than I am right now. This is the ‘Convincing the Wise Elders to take on the unpromising newbie’ scene, and it actually works decently on most of the comic levels that don’t have pantomime whiskers, as Mat’s Other Voice–still seen only from the back–now debuts an intriguing line in underplaying. He coolly argues that Martha is ‘pretty good with a blade’ (cut to Martha  nicking herself while chopping carrots for supper) and knows ‘some basic magic’ (ie. using a remote control to turn on a crappy afternoon game show). Frankly, Mat’s OV is stealing the show right out from under his visible edition, here.

Also, there is Solemn Elder Larry, who in the midst of all this has a subtly brilliant little bit with his uber-chic hair getting in his face that I’m pretty sure was improvised. Also also, the whole thing is capped off with what’s possibly the best exchange in the whole series:

Bright Blue Elder: …She doesn”t sound very impressive.
Elder Ben: Trevor, you’re a blob.

…OK, you kind of have to be there. But trust me, Willbond is living up to the earring in a big way.

Anyhoo, Simon’s Hippie Elder kindly suggests (albeit in exactly the same tone he uses for world-shattering calamity) that ‘maybe she has hidden talents’, and MOV hems non-committally over an endless loop of Debbie making beds and zipping jackets and failing at aerobics classes and becoming addicted to the mindless game show and yes, guys, thank you, we get it already. Whereupon Jim’s Elder Who Has an Interesting Relationship With the Fourth Wall says it all “sounds like a very dull sequence… Of events!” You’re not getting out of it that easily, but points for the attempt anyway.

The whole thing concludes with Elder Ben, who’s suddenly got a huge scroll to refer to, announcing that regardless, “it all fits!” Oh, great. You couldn’t have mentioned that before the third repetition of the game show theme?

Nevertheless, the Elders are all instantly impressed, and this whole setup is now giving off more than a little whiff of that one Star Trek episode with the impossibly complex civilization being run by idiot alien women. Except these are definitely not women, unless Elder Lacy-Sleeves here has something he’d like to share. Luckily for us cranks who insist on plot movement, “Then… it is time!” Elder Mat responds instead, lifting his chin to the heavens in that move he’s perfected via all that heroic facial hair on HH, as the Portentous Music swells again and celestial light bathes his determined countenance…

…Then they all start meta-congratulating each other on their performance, and no seriously, Exciting New Comedy Troupe, you can be knocking that off anytime now.

So, to recap: Martha is increasingly bored and frustrated with her suburban-housewifely existence (and the unseen Pete evidently continues clueless, assuming she hasn’t already snapped and mounted his chipper face above the TV); Larry and Ben’s Elders are awesome; Jim’s Elder is at least trying; and Elders Simon and Mat are for some reason merely phoning it in and it’s getting a little annoying. Oh, and there’s MOV, who’s either about to dramatically reveal himself as Martha’s guide and mentor or fall victim to a really bad Carry On-style peeping-Tom gag. Everybody still with me so far?

Cut back to quietly desperate Martha, by now reduced to listlessly mouthing the game show’s catchphrases whilst chopping… something… in a frankly tragic floral print blouse. Speaking of which, I’ve not commented on the decor up to now because I have no way of knowing what a typical middle-class British home looks like and don’t want to mortally offend anybody only a third of the way in, but… well, let’s just say that it’s doing a really splendid job of conveying the sheer stifling mundanity of suburban existence. Feel free to assume it’s the lighting if you need to.

She goes to put the something away in the pantry, without noticing–surprise!–a little elfin creature noshing on her biscuits. Yes, it’s MOV, and they couldn’t resist yet another of those cliches I mentioned, but at least this one gets cuteness points. Martha does a double-take, yadda-yadda-this-can’t-be-happening-cakes, and speaking of cuteness, we make the interesting discovery that that thing where both startled parties run around screaming is also about 10x more entertaining when it involves a big-eyed puppet.

Oh, and we finally get a name for Our Heroine, when MOV rather creepily reveals he already knows her as ‘Debbie’. A little odd that they didn’t have Pete mention this earlier, but worth it. Debbie’s understandably frantic response is to lock herself behind the rippled-glass doors of her… parlour? Or do living rooms in the UK routinely have rippled glass doors, and, um, fuschia paisley wallpaper? If the idea was to deliberately heighten the surreal confusion whilst simoultaneously deepening the relief that we won’t be seeing much more of Debbie’s home life, then all I can say is, mission most definitely accomplished.

So we proceed with rest of the convince-the-freaked-out-newbie sequence, and it’s easily the best and most original take on the formula thus far, as Debbie gradually realises that her desperate attempts to hang on to ‘reality’ mean being trapped with the endlessly crappy game show. Besides which, fantasy is currently being represented via Mat at his most irresistibly appealing, not to mention adorably calm in the face of “magical” human gadgetry. Frankly, Debbie holds out a lot longer than I would have.

Eventually she does cautiously peer around the door, and–as if to seal what I was saying above about Martha’s particular strengths–is somehow making holding couch cushions at the ready look like a comedic choice rather than a stereotypically sexist one, although I can just about guarantee that room contains some tchotchkes that would’ve been a much more logical choice. She finds the standard glowing blue (and why is it always blue?) portal thingy waiting for her. MOV, now in Dramatic Silhouette, intones “STEP INTO THE LIIIIIIGHT!”

…then, when Debbie clearly doesn’t buy it, makes with another meta-anticlimactic-riff, except, once again, when the puppet does it it’s actually kinda funny. So is his equally matter-of-fact response when Debbie wonders if she’s really gone mad. I don’t know whether Mat’s doing it intentionally, but MOV is the only part of the production thus far to adopt Horrible Histories’ signature snarky deadpan. Given he’s about to become our guide to an entire world for which the Ominous Chorus are our sole other referents, this can only be called extremely encouraging.

They jump into the portal, and a quick point is made of the pantry returning to normal behind them. (If you have to ask why the portal’s in a cupboard in the first place, you’re clearly watching the wrong show.) This is the one major CGI effect in the series, and as such probably commanded a nice bit of the f/x time and expense, which it doesn’t waste. Although at this point failure to pull off a glowing blue portal thingy would indicate a complete lack of familiarity with CGI period.

Cut to our first up-close (and impressively not-precious) look at that lush greenery from the teaser, and not incidentally our first chance to make up our minds re: the heavy use of practical effects in a computer-driven entertainment universe. Personally, I’m still enthusiastically onboard; as far as my inner twelve-year-old is concerned, it all manages to match its inspirations to a really pleasing degree. Although it must be conceded I may not have exactly the right inspiration in mind here. Shortly after this episode debuted I actually got into an argument on this subject with a TV critic on Twitter, who correctly pointed out that the original movies were all much more lavishly appointed. Apparently my nostalgia circuits were responding more to the Isle of Sodor than Oz.

At any rate, I still like the effect very much, the more so that it currently contains a most excellently proper little Victorian puppet couple having a picnic. It’s quite possible this was inspired by a similarly-staged HH skit on Victorian etiquette, except that here they actually get the etiquette right, as “Ooh, Mr. Havelock!” stammers that he’s brought “Miss Fanshawe–Rachel…” out here to ask her a Very Important Question. Sure. Anybody over five who hasn’t figured out exactly where the portal is about to dump Debbie and MOV, please raise your hands. Didn’t think so.

Not at all complaining, though, because–in a great Baum-ian touch–as the blue glow engulfs them Mr. Havelock immediately gets blown right into a puppet-eating flower. Debbie is far too intent on keeping her footing, and MOV is busy with something else, so the hell with Miss Fanshawe and True Love, I guess.

Cue rather depressingly standard stuff re: Debbie convinced she’s dreaming–“wait, did I take Night Nurse?” MOV’s relentlessly noncommittal efforts to reassure her somehow don’t help, although they’re still cheering up at least one recapper no end.

Neither are they at all impressing MOV’s walking stick, which–whoops!–it turns out is not only the sentient portal keeper but has been given a wonderful curmudgeonly personality, by Willbond of all people. Apparently Jim wasn’t the only one secretly dying to break out of his HH image. While Debbie freaks out all over again, MOV and stick argue over who’s freaking her out more, a discussion which includes the line “I’m a talking stick. Get over it.” In related news, right around here is where I decided to stay around for the duration, on first viewing.

Anyway, enough happy woodland banter, it’s past time to get the Chosen One to Teatime Towers. (As if to cement my undying love, when Debbie asks “What Elders?” the stick grunts “Heh, that’s the question.”) Why MOV didn’t just materialize them there in the first place isn’t explained; my hope is that the stick’s on a personal mission to destroy hack sentimentality wherever he finds it. More likely, it has to do with MOV thus getting the chance to soliloquise dramatically about the “ten-days’ journey” across the vast, pitiless, lava-scored landscape that abruptly spreads out below them, as the Ominous Music swells and flames belch in the foreground…

…before he adds brightly “Until they built the railway. Been an absolute godsend.” Wow, way to handle an entire sub-genre of turgid cliches really neatly and cleverly, for a change. Even if we do literally never see this Ominous Wasteland again, meaning they’ve just blown what had to have been a fairly decent chunk of the F/X budget on the one gag, never mind also putting the first serious chink in my fond hopes for intricate, subtly satirical plotting. Still, A+ for audacity, Exciting New Comedy Troupe.

Debbie pauses uncertainly, for some reason still unsure whether to trust the elf and his talking stick making light of the massive hellscape, and despite my ongoing impatience with the ham-handed disbelief stuff I don’t blame her a bit. Luckily for at least one of us, the next cut is over to three absolutely adorable tiny winged demons spying on her in some long grass.

Quick digression re: the huge felt elephant in the room: As noted, much was made of the almost-Muppetry in the pre-show publicity, and it remains the most impressively novel thing about the production, even eclipsing the unconventional lead character.  Thus it’s a pleasure to report that, like the scenery, it scales down to TV very acceptably. True Muppetry would certainly be much more elaborate, intricate and innovative; but there’s still plenty of room–thanks at least partially, I’d assume, to costs following the sharp decline in demand–to play with the basic combination of fuzzily outre whimsy and solid humanity that remains one of the most engaging forms of popular media ever devised.

(Unless of course you have pupaphobia, which I only discovered was a thing when Yonderland was announced. Having been a devoted fan of the Muppet Show from a very small sneaker I won’t be able to provide much sympathy in recap form, I’m afraid.)

It also enables our aforementioned gentle, unpretentious troupe to interact meaningfully with them, instead of being overwhelmed, as would speedily have been the case with even a minor Hensonian extravaganza. The resulting lower-key effect plays sort of like running The Dark Crystal through Sesame Street, and the three little demons–remember them?–are Exhibit A. D’awww, wookit their wittle batty ears!

Ahem. They stick around just long enough to establish that they’re the Eeeevil little minions of ‘His Darkship’, in much the same predictable manner that Debbie just established her disbelief. So it should come as no surprise that one’s the smart guy, one’s the dumb guy, and one’s the chick. Oh, and somehow they already know that Debbie’s “going before the Elders”, which fondly hopeful first-viewing me assumed was an Ominous Indication of telepathic power, but on rewatch I think it’s just the editing making it unclear that they overhead MOV earlier.

MOV finally just grabs the stunned Chosen One and hustles her off, randomly tossing off a line about not picking the flowers because “…you won’t win” that, as ever, makes me feel much better about having to accompany them further into Idiotville. Even if it is followed up by a closeup that revealing the extremely polyester nature of the flower spitting Havelock back out. Kind of a sweet touch for the kiddies (especially since it’s the first one for awhile) making sure the little couple’s OK.

…Or not. Over Havelock’s increasingly frantic whimpers for “Rachel?” we rather unnecessarily transition back to the oversaturated valley in which Teatime Towers is nestled, serene and un-lava-scored as ever. And I’d love to know whether this  confirmation that MOV dumped them by the hellscape just for the sadistic giggles was intentional.

Instead, we’re treated to a panning shot down Teatime Towers’ high-domed interior, gorgeously authentic, all finely-wrought mullioned windows and grim stone walls and a frickle-fracking functional moat separating the OC from the arena. It would seem to be another waste of precious F/X poundage, until you realise that it was in fact filmed in the UK, meaning this is probably just the local post office or something in real life.

At any rate, it’s reassuring to learn that the OC is at least functional enough not to drown themselves… often, anyway. That this gorgeous palace even exists is even more worryingly suggestive evidence of a sort of PG version of Idiocracy, where everyone just keeps getting stupider through the generations… or, given what we know about royal inbreeding in our own universe, maybe not so PG after all. Either that, or the hellscape’s been spewing lead into that moat.

This whole panning extravaganza, incidentally, also reveals that there are several more OC members than we’ve met thus far, including another tiny puppet, a woman in rather blowzy Victorian dress and a slightly more foppish take on the First Doctor. Not that any of this will ever become important in a half-hour sitcom that already has more than enough, ah, “whacky” main characters, but still. Sign of decent attempt at world-building noted and appreciated.

MOV now bustles Debbie into the arena, all adorably proud and excited to introduce her to what he inexplicably persists in addressing as the “Wise Ones”, and there’s a great quick shot here of Mat’s Bewhiskered Elder clearly on the verge of corpsing, like even he can’t believe someone would call them that. Editing team, I salute you.

He also has the big scroll, so I guess he’s (*sigh*) meant to be the ruling Earl Grey of this decidedly loose-leaved assembly. This is the cue to kick off the “Wise [sic] Elders convince the newbie she’s their only hope” stuff, which gets off to a rather rocky–also, for the first time outside MOV’s precinct, noticeably and hilariously HH-ian–start when it turns out the scroll’s accidentally(?) put an ‘of’ between ‘Debbie’ and ‘Maddox’, her last name I guess. Then their Big Damn Introduction as “The Council of the Twelve” gets stymied when Debbie automatically points out that there’s only eleven of them.

While they’re momentarily absorbed in counting heads, we learn that she’s (*sigh*) still convinced she’s dreaming, despite what had to have been at least a couple hours’ train ride through fantasyland with an elf. Either Debbie never learned to avoid the brown acid in college, or we weren’t supposed to notice that little travel discrepancy. As a corollary, we also probably aren’t supposed to ask why MOV decided to wait till now to pinch her out of it–on the butt, natch, demurely insisting that he couldn’t reach any higher. It’s a decent enough double-sided demographic gag, but it’s also very hard not to believe the stick hadn’t already clocked her itself approximately ten seconds into the trip.

Anyway, back to trying to get the main plot underway. There’s one more bureaucratic hiccup when Ben’s Lacy-Sleeved Elder mispronounces it as “Deb-beh”, which makes no real sense, but everything Willbond says automatically became giggle-worthy the instant he put on that hat. As he proves a moment later when the entire OC interrupts his first solemn effort to explain that she’s… “THE CHOSEN ONE!”  “…Oookay, can we not do that?”

We eventually do get the gist, which is that the scroll contains a prophecy of a cross-dimensional saviour called “Debbie of Maddox” who will arrive via cupboard. Debbie–thankfully–interrupts before they can get too far into the actual cupboard measurements (down, Overenthusiastic New Comedy Troupe! Sit!) for her big “I’m not the saviour you’re looking for” speech. She’s “just a mum from Selly Oak,” which I gather is Martha’s real-life hometown. Seems like an odd place to throw in the shoutout, but better here than during the fuchsia-paisley-containing sequence, I guess.

She’s about to fall back on the the hallucination thing again, but it seems even this lot have limits on how far they can stretch pure idiocy, since she very quickly realizes instead that they’re all looking at the wall behind her. To the accompaniment of a loud sting of Heroic Music, No Really, This Time We’re Not Kidding, she turns to gape awestruck at a life-sized, irrefutably detailed frieze of The Chosen Mum…

…except that the head’s been chipped away. Oops. Not to worry, though, there’s another, identical frieze nearby–covered by an extra musical sting, which you can readily imagine the Elders keeping around just for emergencies like this–and time it’s definitely Deb-beh, complete right down to the unfortunate blouse. It’s such a wonderfully conceived and executed gag that questioning the logic would be the critical equivalent of kicking a puppy. (Albeit clever swots may want to keep it in mind for extra credit later.)

As Our Heroine turns back–in precisely the same hands-outstretched pose as the frieze, nicely done–the Bewhiskered Elder intones the rest of the prophecy. And you can tell stuff just got real, because Mat has finally found a halfway-convincing “portentous” voice. “For only the Chosen One can align the Fates and save the Twelve Lands from the Forces of Darkness!”

So there you are, then. As pseudo-Tolkien gibberish goes, not bad, although a bit odd that he missed out referencing the Power of Light somewhere in there. Maybe it’s copyrighted.

It also noticeably leaves out how exactly the Chosen One is supposed to accomplish all this aligning. Given the ‘genuinely ordinary mum saves the day’ premise it would probs be awkward to fill in by giving her the traditional cool new powers or her father’s laser sword or whatever, but I’m pretty sure they could’ve come up with something more entertainingly proactive than the next scene, which is Debbie finding the entire OC staring at her expectantly, waiting for her “teachings”. Eventually, it emerges that the CO’s further instructions are on a second scroll. Which–well, suffice it to say this is Lush Elder Jim’s big raison d’etre moment: “For the last time, I – was – DRUNK!

Sheeze. Are we sure the Twelve Lands didn’t set this whole thing up as roleplaying therapy for the local dementia patients?

Return from commercial break, and somehow things have managed to get even stupider, because it now emerges that, evidently, none of the OC have ever even read the second scroll. Not even Jim (leading inevitably to some uneasy speculations on precisely what else he was doing with it in that tavern, thank you so much, guys). I hereby take back everything I said about their even marginal functionality above. Heck, at this point I’m willing to believe that the hellscape’s the result of a weenie roast getting out of hand.

Despite which, the ongoing hemming and hawing is beginning to sound fairly logical, not to say interesting–“The scroll reveals her  fate!” “Then perhaps it is her fate to find the scroll!”– so obviously it’s time for Hippie Elder Simon to unleash his catchphrase.

“Perhaps if we cast off these cumbersome robes…?”

At which prospect Debbie is finally, finally pushed over the edge and into accessing her inner Badass Mum, not only shutting the entire Council down with a single bellowed “Shut up!” but forcing them to keep their fingers to their lips (and, it cannot be a coincidence, well away from their robes) until she says so. See, it’s just like her opening scene, only here in Yonderland they actually listen to her!

And lo, she achieves the holy grail of Mum-hood: a moment of sustained silence. At least from an adult viewer’s POV–especially one beginning to be seriously fascinated with UK parenting techniques–this is equal parts strangely hilarious and frankly exhilarating. Both Martha and her writers have thus far absolutely nailed their Chosen One’s self-discovery arc, giving it all the external and internal logic really good satire demands. It’s just kind of a shame they had to make everybody else basically mentally handicapped to do it.

(Or, in the case of the little puppet Elder who now whines “no fingers!”, blatantly phallic. Are you trying not to be syndicated to America, Exciting New Comedy Troupe?)

Anyway. Newly-empowered Deb-beh now sternly informs them all that she has kids to pick up in three short hours (allowing Helpful Exposition Elder Larry to let us know that  time moves differently in this world) and demands that before then they explain  “why my picture is on that wall!” This is greeted with the sort of plot-stalling shrugs that again suggest giving the Chosen One a dragon to ride or something in the meantime wouldn’t have come amiss.

After (*sigh*) some more catchphrase-cementing byplay with Suddenly Nudist Simon instead, MOV–in a manner suggesting an attempt to save his heroes’ “wise” rep that he already knows is doomed–suggests a visit to “the Oracle”. Everybody agrees this is a good idea, although subsequent events will indicate that this indeed means everybody doesn’t get out much.

Cut to an establishing shot of a pretty (if obviously miniature) traditionally medieval-style walled village nestled in the lush valley–so tell me why MOV didn’t just port them there, again?–and then to Debbie, MOV and stick entering the gates. MOV is giving Debbie his name–so tell me why he didn’t do that on the hours-long train ride, again?–leading to another genuinely great exchange:

MOV: [rattles off incredibly long, elaborate string of syllables]
Debbie, still in boss mode: Can’t I just call you ‘Elf’? [strides off]
Elf, following rather sulkily: …bit racist.

…y’know, Exciting New Comedy Troupe, it’s moments like this I start to suspect you’re not quite living up to your potential otherwise.

On the other hand, you (or at least the puppeteers and other design teams under your supervision) are really, really, really good at world-building. In one short stroll down the main street the little village explodes into bizarrely chaotic, gorgeously colourful and believably quasi-medieval life, sorta-Muppets and humans seamlessly integrated, every corner of the frame jam-packed with rewarding throwaway  details. I particularly like the bit where they bump into a harlequin juggler (ohai, Return of Pointlessly Skilled Willbond!) and Elf, possibly feeling a little excess sympathy for the oppressed at the moment, takes the time to chat up one of the tiny fuzzies he’s dropped.

Basically, they’re going for the Emerald City recreated in the style of Labyrinth, and somehow it works brilliantly. OK, yeah, pretty obviously on a TV budget, but they’ve done such  good things with it, up to and including the beautifully elaborate costuming on the humans, that only the truly flint-hearted would quibble. Particularly since our Heroes, the creative team responsible for it all, aren’t just making throwaway cameos; they’re playing a really impressive number of fully-realised characters who just happen to only have a few seconds’ worth of screentime. No matter how formulaic their storytelling might be, their dedication to springing it to life is well worth admiring.

But it’s not all fun and games in this strange land–well, it is, but they involve taking distance bets on the criminals shot from catapults (from here on out, assume I’ve added “just go with it” after every sentence, OK?) So yeah, trouble is already emerging from paradise. Either that, of course, or my theory about the hellscape spewing lead into the water supply just got a huge boost.

At any rate, to underscore the childishly heedless depravity of it all, amid all the cheering there’s a quick shot of a teeny-tiny wannabe-Muppet (Wuppet?) muttering despondently that “…I’ve lost everything.” And such is the power even of Wuppets to tear at my heartstrings that I spent the entire rest of the series hoping they’d go back and give him a happy ending.

For the moment, we’re forced to make do with a couple of Musketeers(!) doing that classic Looney Tunes bit that I’m reasonably certain no-one has ever done in real life, where they bang into one another as they head through a doorway, then start up the “After you! “No, no, I insist…!” schtick. But I am totally OK with this, because, whoops, Mat and Larry in velvet and feathered hats! Thanks, guys, I needed that. In fact, I think I’m just gonna pause the recap here and replay that scene a few times, for… um… research. Yep.

Killjoy Elf, on the other hand, hustles Debbie right on past, whispering that “…this won’t end well.” Yeah, Pete’s cute and all, but he’s frankly not coming off very well in comparison… oh sure, and the politeness duel is starting to get a bit heated, that, too.

Ahem. So they eventually arrive at a hidden doorway (which Elf knocks on with the not-sentient end of the stick, and where exactly has it got to, anyway?)  and here we get our first look at the man, the legend, the if-he-based-that-off-his-Gran-I-bet-family-reunions-are-really-awkward-lately: Jim as the Old Crone! Who’s initially revealed, as the door sloooowly opens, to be making the loud creaking sound herself. Yeah, they tell me when you keep that cross-dressing desire bottled up too long things can get a little weird.

Or, y’know, a lot weird. The Crone ushers them into Standard Cluttery Old Fantasy Cottage #4 (hovel subsection) and launches into the full-on ‘Visitors!…it’s been so long…” schtick familiar to most readers of classic children’s literature. Except that Jim, true to form, is channeling a rather more authentic and much less cuddly Eccentric Old Granny type than traditionally appears in E. Nesbit et al. Even Roald Dahl never came up with this particular variant on the theme, although he probably would’ve been wishing he had right about now.

Except except, because it’s Jim, somehow she still is that cuddly, not to mention absolutely freakin’ hysterical, even though she’s using that same horribly creaky voice throughout. And even though she promptly grabs Debbie by the chin and proceeds to smoosh with an enthusiasm that should probably come with trigger warnings. “So pretty! …I, too, know the burden of Beauty!” This is followed by another great bit where she doesn’t have any tea and biscuits but offers them anyway, like she’s been alone so long she’s lost every marble but the determination to do the proper thing regardless. Brilliantly observed stuff, all the way around.

Elf tells her that they’d “love to spend the day going through the contents of your fictional cupboard”–have I mentioned how much I love Deadpan Mode Elf, yet?–but they’ve come on business. Debbie recaps their dilemma (blink and you’ll miss an oddly-poignant callback to the ‘racist’ gag), ending with “…if you are what everyone says you are…?”

“A slapper?” the Crone suggests, winking saucily. Oh god, we’ve found Elder Simon’s people. Debbie, wearing the pricelessly exact gobsmacked expression of someone who’s been offered geriatric nudity twice in one fantasy quest, all but hollers “No!”

It emerges–strictly verbally, thank you so much Sky censors–the Crone is only the keeper of the Oracle, charged with “ensuring his continued good health.” “So, can we see him?” Wait for it… “He’s dead.”

She leads them over to a far corner of the room, still yakking on about how the Oracle has never awakened in her lifetime, or her mother’s lifetime, or… Apparently the editor was as freaked out as I am by the prospect of contemplating Crone conception any further, as there’s a really awkward hard cut here to Debbie suddenly fascinated by and reaching for a large dark rounded thing that I guess is the Oracle itself, though it wasn’t shown up to now. Also not shown: why Elf and the OC seem not only to be familiar with but have perfect faith in the oracular powers of an oversized egg that hasn’t stirred in generations.

But the instant the Chosen One touches it now, of course, it flares into glowing blue life (again with the blue!) Ecstatic, the Crone drops–sort of–to her knees to plead before it, while the Stealth Editing Gnomes return to capture Jim himself, sotto voce: “Oof, that was a mistake…”

In response Mat’s bug-eyed face abruptly slurps out of an… orifice on the side of the glowing egg thing, slathered in Vaseline and having real trouble controlling the rate of slurpage. All of which is clearly intended to add up to a Random Pointlessly Creepy Thing, in much the manner of the source material, which was infamous for thus suddenly dropping innocent minds down nightmare-shaped potholes. Unfortunately the budget here doesn’t really stretch to that kind of surprise, at least not for the over-eight demographic, so the pretty obviously rubbery nature of the effect ends up not provoking quite the kind of squirm-inducing wonder you want your audience feeling during your big mystical showpiece.

Then again, maybe the chintziness is the point (it occurs to me that the rubber might be too, but I am not exploring that). Certainly parody is, as–in response to an amusing query in which Debbie references “these weird guys” and poor delusional little Elf insists on “Elders!”–the Ancient All-Knowing Oracle, making a terrific use of the sincere smarminess Mat’s perfected over innumerable HH reality-host parodies, starts spouting off like a particularly low-rent daytime talk-show psychic.

“I’m sensing that the path to your future begins with… Know anyone named John? No? How about Robert? Steven maybe–Steve? Oh, and there’s a black dog… well, it could be black-and-white–Ooh, no, ginger! A cat, could be?”

Oh yes, and somewhere in the middle of all this a second Vaseline-smeared face pops out: Willbond’s. Coyly nagging “Nigel darling” to come help clean up “a spillage”. And y’know, it’s a tossup whether this or the hellscape represents more work for less plot payoff, but I still have to award them all the rest of the audacity points for the sheer scope of people made uncomfortable by a single gag. There’s the simply–and probably happily–grossed-out kids, their stunned parents trying to figure out what the hell... and a small-but-significant chunk of the young females who know precisely what’s going on: they’re currently watching all their favourite fanfic come true, except all slimy and happening next to Jim in breasts.* Nicely played, guys, nicely played.

*Sorry, Jim. For what it’s worth, I always thought Baywick was a whole lot more appealing anyway.

And now, back to our significantly more disturbing cold reading. The little spillage interlude has clearly already done bad things to Debbie’s faith in Yonderland’s bizarre brand of mysticism, and when Nigel now adds something about “a tall, dark stranger,” she loses it altogether, grabbing the stick–waking it in the process, thanks for clearing that up however implausibly–and charging out the door.

An appalled Elf finds her banging the stick into the ground–um, she does remember it’s alive, yes?–trying to summon up the portal. And I think we’ve finally figured out what Elf and Debbie talked about on that train ride, because there’s absolutely no way she could’ve known it was responsible for the portal otherwise, let alone how it’s done. Come to that, we the audience haven’t even been shown how it’s done, yet. I suppose it could be retconned as another subtle indication of the Chosen One’s mystic insight, but I’m in no mood to give them even that much credit just now, because on being told that only Elf can make it work Debbie all but tosses the stick at him and hissyfits that she wants to go home now. Furthermore, “stay out of my cupboard!”

No. Sorry, children, I’ve been conscientiously thinking of you up to now, but this is just so not how logical storytelling works. Yes, the goofy Oracle is justifiably the last straw for Debbie, but not to the extent that she can–or  would–possibly ignore the larger issue of this live-action fever dream somehow not only existing but keeping her freakin’ picture on the castle wall. The hell with going home, she should be using her leverage as his putative saviour to refuse to go a step further until Elf either starts spilling answers himself or promises to take her to someone who will. The only possible reason for this character to even think about backing out entirely at this juncture is that it’s in the script, and more to the point, in a hundred hack scripts prior to this.

And yet… Even here, they temper the purely mechanical plotting with the minor miracle of wit that is (we learn somewhere in mid-assault) Nick the Stick. “Ow–owww!–and, at the risk of repeating myself, OWWWWW!”

*Sigh*. Yep, our Exciting New Comedy Troupe is currently doing that thing they routinely did on HH, where I’d get all mad at them for being better than this only to have them pull the rug straight out from under me with some irresistibly winsome bit of business. They’re basically a sentient version of a kitten playing amid the toilet paper roll it’s just destroyed. Besides Willbond’s ever-more-amazing turn as–this cannot be stressed enough–a talking oak knot, there’s a nifty little moment where Debbie calls the Oracle a ‘fraud, a snake-oil salesman!” and Simon as an actual snake-oil salesman behind her scowls and shuts his booth.

Let’s just put it this way, guys: if Debbie’s rant had been cut short by anything less than the return of Musketeers Mat and Larry, you’d be in so much trouble right now. As it stands, well…

We now see that Elf was correct, and the politeness duel is not only still ongoing but has escalated all the way up to exquisitely phrased death threats. Meaning several thousand preschoolers now get to enjoy lines like “I will cleave your muscular arms from your well-toned torso and use them to beat you to death!” before the little Wuppet judge from the catapult scene–who, incidentally, suggests rather pleasingly that Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and Waldorf shared a common ancestor–gets in-between the combatants.

As it turns out, though, he’s not there to break them up, but to act as referee for their bloody deathmatch! Hardy-har-har… no, really. Yes, still a “family” show. According to Elf’s commentary as a horrified Debbie watches from behind a nearby pillar, this is in fact standard Gallant procedure. Which might well explain why we’ll only ever see these two.

“Ha-ha!“s are exclaimed and swords are drawn, while the locals instantly start up the excited crowd-forming and bet-taking and whatnot again, because apparently some of the six-year-olds in the back haven’t quite got the “world already descending into Evil” thing down cold yet. And it’s pretty clear that the hellscape ate the budget for the fencing lessons, so Debbie interrupts before they can really start embarrassing the costumes.

Far from being intimidated, she’s evidently found a fresh and much more rewarding outlet for her Yonderland-induced exasperation, calling out their immaturity and reminding them of how petty the original quarrel was… whereupon, in the episode’s final comic hilight, they instantly start the whole routine afresh around who started it.

And here’s where we totally get the scene we should have a few minutes ago, as Sudden Return of Boss-Mum Debbie swats at Gallant Mat’s sword to prevent him drawing it again, and no that is absolutely not a euphemism. (In fact, the editing suggests Martha was genuinely lucky the swords are such obviously blunt props.) She’s had a long day and it’s not going to end with idiots killing each other, thankyouverymuch. Not quite “I’ve come here to get freaked out and take down Musketeers, and I am aaaaalllllllll done getting freaked out”, but that’s OK, I fixed it for you.

The viewing audience’s exhilaration returns just as rapidly as Debbie’s confidence, which is pretty damn rapidly. The Chosen Mum’s characterization here hits every single natural and believable bullseye her earlier tantrum didn’t, with the added bonus of definitively demonstrating that adult common sense can more than stand, awesomeness-wise, with the traditional teenage action hero’s fireballs. And no… uh, you know what, that one actually might be a euphemism. Let’s just move on, shall we?

Right, so when last seen, the relentless Power of Mum was compelling the Wuppet judge to concede that not having the deathmatch “would save on the paperwork”. Now it triumphantly forces the still-deeply reluctant Gallants to stand down and say sorry, and heh, I’ve found another reason to appreciate the casting here. Mumitude may be all that and a packet of crisps, but even it’s not gonna keep the Rickardian weird down for long.

Riding the adrenaline high–and/or her writers’ love of broad slapstick–a bit too far, Debbie then orders the ex-combatants to “shake!” Cue both Gallants shrugging, then… Oh, you’ve figured it out already? But it’s still kinda funny, especially as she quickly corrects herself to “Hands!” and they start basically doing the Mashed Potato instead? Yeah, agreed.

New and Improved Debbie grabs them by the gloves and narrows it down to “each others’ hands”, while giving them a smile that clearly had its origins in potty training. Finally if still a bit inexplicably the Gallants get the full idea, and are so thrilled all to not-bits at it that it rapidly spreads through the entire mob. Except of course for–in a wildly predictable bit saved by sheer Howick-ness–the one guy who’d just settled down for the show with a bowl of popcorn.

Seriously, they’re doing a good enough job of the fickle-mob-mentality stuff here that even the now-numerous Wuppets can’t manage to up the charm level past slightly unnerving, especially when Little Judge Wuppet himself proclaims enthusiastically that this new method of solving problems will totally eliminate “their daily bloodbath”. And this, you’ll recall, is the land that hasn’t fallen to the Forces of Darkness. Apparently, the Darkness hasn’t yet thought to let it play with matches, or maybe give it some scissors to run with.

Still, all the childish glee over the discovery of basic decency is pretty cute in the moment, especially the one in which the Gallants themselves are so thrilled to realise that “There will be no killing!” that they spontaneously level up to hugging. One abrupt cut later the glee’s hilariously become a full-bore parade, featuring a flower-bedecked Debbie borne on a cart pulled by the Gallants through streets lined with cheering, rice-throwing crowds… theoretically, anyway. One of the advantages of a cable budget as opposed to public access is that your tricksy crowd-creating camera angles are much better designed, let’s just leave it at that.

To give it all a point, said crowds are excitedly telling each other things like “They say she’s the Chosen One!” Which actually makes perfect sense if you assume ‘they’ is Lush Elder Jim already drowning his humiliation in the tavern again, and I totally recommend you do.

As an odd consequence of the camera trickery, the Chosen One’s reaction to all this adulation consists of an awkwardly tight closeup on a weirdly fierce grimace. Ironically, while she’s now got a perfect excuse to run screaming from the whole thing, ie. fear of tripping any more bizarrely random dangers (“and after the catapult, the Power Tickling!”), after a few viewings I’m pretty sure she’s just supposed to be reacting to the rice-throwing. Unfortunately, the few grains they do manage to get into shot with her are largely invisible among the other hoop-lah, so it’s choose your own caption… whilst trying hard not to realise that Gallant farts would fit the milieu perfectly. Up to and including the expressions Mat and Larry are wearing as they pull her along.

…Oh, and somewhere in here we get the Adorably Evil Henchdemons, back on surveillance duty, standing on each others’ shoulders within a human-sized cloak. I would complain about this final hoary comic cliche, but as I understand based on my exhaustive research consisting of multiple viewings of Shaun the Sheep, if you’re British you’re legally required to find this sort of thing hilarious.

Anyway, eventually they all arrive at the town square, and once again everyone settles in to hear the Chosen One’s teachings. In a genuinely clever riff on the whole Madame Defarge-meets-Sesame Street thing, Debbie patiently insists that “all I did was ask some people not to kill each other,” but can’t get the crowds to see this as anything except the deepest wisdom.

So she tries to pass off to the Gallants. Which is how she finds out that they’re named–now, now, settle down and let the slow class enjoy the surprise–John and Robert. On the off chance the interlude with the glowing blue slurp-a-tron has either slipped or been scrubbed from your brain, not to worry; as the slow realisation dawns on Debbie’s face we get a VO recap courtesy the Oracle’s earlier prophetic words playing in her head.

More dominoes start to fall: The Little Wuppet Judge, we now learn, is called Steven, or ‘Steve’ to his, erm, Hot Young Wuppet Wife. The three henchdemons just happen to collectively be tall, wearing a dark cloak and turning mysteriously away as they catch the Chosen One’s eye. And the black-and-white/ginger interspecies thing turns out to be… oh god, it’s CatDog. So that’s who thought it was funny. I understand the need for a surreally eyecatching bit of imagery to seal the point, Exciting New Comedy Troupe, but did it have to be the one that comes with built-in disturbing questions about its toilet habits? That automatically become exponentially more disturbing in live-action?

Actually I’m kind of peeved at this entire sequence, which instead of taking the golden opportunity to weave any kind of cleverly meaningful hints to Debbie’s mission into these profundities seems content to just be profoundly silly, and thus so renders the ongoing insistence that her entire belief in this “saviour of the magic otherworld” gig hinges around the credibility of a trip to a randomly psychic egg.

Presumably the idea is that the adulation coupled with the fulfilled ‘prophecy’ has unsettled her to the point where she’s willing to consider anything–at least, this is how Martha is playing it, and more power to her–but we’re missing the crucial, well, anything that might believably convince her she’s not still dealing with the same utter idiocy that caused her earlier hissyfit. We just get a final flashback to the Oracle saying “the path to your future begins…” and somehow this means that Debbie’s totally willing to be their Chosen One now.

Aaaaand then the entire crowd echoes her quasi-conviction with a repeat of “THE CHOSEN ONE!” in the best Pythonic manner, and damnit, they’ve done it again. Course, it helps that we’ve finally gotten the last of the purely obligatory plot beats out of the way–

–oops, sorry, except the ‘interrupt the hero’s triumph with a reminder of home’ business. This involves Debbie being reminded of her school pickup by–what, seriously?–a tiny, two-headed, sweater-vest-wearing(!) Wuppet monster in the crowd. OK, I think I know a certain Exciting New Comedy Troupe that was having serious problems with pacing in the first draft.

She races off with Elf at her heels, understandably too ecstatic himself to wonder where exactly she thinks she’s going. We don’t get the followup scene in which Nick refuses to create the portal until she apologises to his satisfaction for all the face-smashing plus one extra for calling his master a “thing” back at the Crone’s place, but I take a certain amount of comfort in the conviction that it had to have happened, anyway.

Anyhow, one (effective, if clearly $$-conscious) portal flare transition later a still-gleeful Elf materialises in the T.Towers arena for a neat  bookend to his first scene, informing the equally excited OC that while it’s early days, “it’s her, alright!”

“The Chosen One!” Elder Ben exclaims jubilantly.
“THE CHOSEN ONE!”
“…Look”–as we swoop back out of the valley–“can we please not do that?!”

Thus we return with Our Heroine to Casa Maddox, where offscreen murmurings indicate that the blurs made it safely home. Debbie herself is back to chopping things again, but–and I really have to give the crew kudos here–it could not be clearer that everything’s changed. The lighting is warm, the food is appealing, and her face is that of a woman secure in the knowledge that an entire alternate universe, however eccentric, thinks she’s a goddess. Even the blouse looks marginally less like it belongs on her grandmother.

Into this haven of bliss abruptly walks Pete–remember him?–affectionately clueless as ever, calling Debbie ‘chu-chi face’ (thus adding Chitty Chitty Bang Bang to my ever-growing list of Stuff I Didn’t Know Was Still a Thing Overseas) and cheerily asking how her day went. Debbie freezes in panic… and I realise afresh that, damn, I promised myself I wasn’t going to say anything more about the decor, but my entire screen is now occupied with pea-soup-coloured ceramic tile and an eggplant-coloured door. This is taking devotion to healthy eating just a tad too far.

So anyway, she screws up her eyes and her courage roughly in that order and–as we watch Pete wander out of shot behind her–blurts out the whole story, winding up with a plea to Pete that he promise “nothing has changed between them” before she turns around. It’s a pretty realistic take on how this sort of revelation really would go, and would overally be a really nice moment, if they hadn’t telegraphed it so blatantly that it becomes a punchline instead.

Failing to hear an inappropriately cheery witticism, she turns anyway… just as he wanders back from putting the drycleaning away or whatever and cheerily asks if she said something, while I begin to seriously ponder the probability of Ozzie & Harriet Nelson having British cousins they never talked about. Debbie, quite understandably, can’t bring herself to pierce his bubble of contentment now that she’s actually looking at him, and instead turns away for the last time with a quite marvellous smile on her face. The inhabitants of Yonderland aren’t the only ones who’ve learned something today…

…Meaning it’s the perfect time to give us a menacing glimpse at The Darkness she’s up against. Cut to a shadowy closeup of (yay!) Simon, all done up properly in Dark helmet and scowl and… OK, I’m going to be charitable and assume that spiked forearm shield is supposed to be rubber.

A quick Google informs me that the Exciting New Comedy Troupe may well have been exposed to Inspector Gadget at some point, so I feel comfortable calling the subsequent pan along his spiked arm to is spiked fist a blatant Dr. Claw homage, except with the henchdemons in place of the cat. And I must just add, the puppeteers have done a really excellent job of translating their one-note characterizations into uniquely expressive styles for each little demon. I particularly like the Hot-Topic-teen-goth look on the Chick.

After some deeply predictable bickering cut short by impatient growling from their boss, they chorus that “She is here!” Don’t get excited, though, true believers, The Darkness hasn’t read the second scroll either. The whole thing is basically just a setup for the the Dumb One to inquire “…uh, who’s here?”

Excellent question, little guy. Excellent question.

*******************************************************************

It’s always a tricky thing to evaluate a pilot episode, especially a children’s fantasy pilot. For all I’ve been ragging on their ubiquitousness, the cliches inherent in those movies became such for solidly logical reasons. Translating sprawling, wildly imaginative worlds is just a whole lot easier when an audience identification character is onboard to navigate, and there aren’t many better ways that character can be integrated into said worlds both quickly and (theoretically) appealingly than by being revealed as its saviour. After that, of course, not only the plot arc but the character development (theoretically) comes built-in!

Besides all of which, the formula fits this crew’s particular requirements perfectly, as outlined in the previous post. And they did an impressively thorough job of fulfilling it, at least technically. Actual budget numbers aside, Yonderland looks and feels exactly like a loving homage to the NeverEnding Story et al. should. The patented combination of whimsy and weirdness gives Our Heroes endless scope to show off their familiar charms, and even sometimes (esp. in the cases of Martha, Elder Ben, Old Crone Jim and Mat as Elf) their serious talents. If the storytelling varies in logical soundness, it at least is decently well-structured and paced. Let no-one suggest Larry Rickard doesn’t have the requirements of television comedy–nor Ben of collaboration–down cold.

The one flaw in this master scheme turns out to be… well, the actual funny. Finding themselves (rather hastily) detached from the cozily familiar satirical haven that was a serious, intellectual subject to bounce off and educational earnestness to subvert, Our Exciting New Comedy Heroes flounder a bit, too often falling back on bog-standard sitcom cliche. Yeah, it’s a children’s show, but as its creators made clear, to them that will never be an excuse.

Mind you, there’s also a decent amount of the old slyly subversive wit remaining (because Larry and Ben, after all) and intriguing hints throughout of the dark satirical possibilities inherent in a fantasy world so foolish it’s under threat from its own failure to grasp right from wrong… but this really isn’t that kind of comedy troupe. This troupe’s creative process was described in interviews as “basically what happens when the six of us are sat together in a room”, and boy does it show, for better or worse. It says quite a lot about the perils of self-indulgence even for the unassuming that–according to the same interviews–gags like Elf pinching Debbie’s butt are intended as wickedly “forbidden laughter”.

However… yeah, see above about charm. Honestly, even by this point the “Horrible Histories guys” had built up so much goodwill they… well, they got an actual cable television channel to take any of Yonderland seriously. Also, despite everything, one recapper. So there’s really nowhere to go but onward, isn’t there?

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4 Comments

Posted by on August 28, 2015 in Yonderland

 

Tags: ,

4 responses to “Yonderland S01E01: The Chosen Mum

  1. Kate

    September 21, 2015 at 3:49 pm

    We are at least in agreement about Debbie’s tragic blouse, actually her entire Series One wardrobe is pretty awful. Series Two is a notable improvement on that score.

     
    • Shoebox

      September 22, 2015 at 7:16 am

      Heh. On reread of the summary I realised I’d come across a bit too harshly than intended–have made a few wording changes to reflect that.

      I think I’ve made it clear that there are a lot of really good things about Yonderland on display in this episode. And it only gets better from here. But also there’s a noticeable… klutziness going on in these early stages that’s pretty typical of a new troupe finding its feet.

       
  2. Traxy

    September 26, 2015 at 8:14 pm

    I can confirm that Casa Maddox is a pretty standard-looking British home. The implied “Midwest” is pretty accurate, it’s set in the Midlands (I think “Selly Oak” is supposed to be Solihull, btw, which is an area on the eastern side of Birmingham). And yes indeed, “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” is most definitely a thing in the UK for some reason!

    I love the absurd silliness of Yonderland, and reading this very in-depth analysis of it has reminded me of all the good bits. Can’t wait to see what you make of the rest of the series. 😀

     
  3. Aidni

    January 18, 2017 at 2:53 pm

    Well yes, ok, I see what you mean but it genuinely is funny. I understand that as an American it might not translate (I have the same difficulty with some American shows!) but to me and many of my friends the Britishness comes through in the sheer lo-fi take the piss way. What you say are clichés are often being subverted. That said, great job, I agree with 95% (and where would the world be with 100% agreement) and yes, I definitely agree with ‘Trevor, you’re a blob.’ Thanks for the read! 🙂

     

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