Strictly Come Dancing – The Halloween Special

[It’s from last year but what the hell!]

So it is another week when the REF has kept me from more worthwhile pursuits like discussing Tales from the Crypt, or Dead of Night, or the final episode of Dexter, which kept me up half the night – not from fear but from a really heartfelt sense of melancholy. Of course, I won’t say why, and not just because of SPOILERS – when I get the chance, I want to take some time with this series, which has given me so much pleasure over its various seasons. I don’t know about you but, when its on form, I find it really moving…

Okay, moving swiftly on, before someone calls the psych-ward, I thought I would give a moments thought to the fact that it was Halloween this week, and rather than finding myself with Jamie Lee Curtis in the house, a serial killer on the loose outside and a double bill of Forbidden Planet and The Thing from Another World on the TV, there seemed to be very little Halloween related on the box – except for a Strictly Come Dancing Halloween Special.

For those of you who are not privy to the wonders of British Saturday Night Television, Strictly Come Dancing is the show that is called Dancing With the Stars in the US – although the BBC version is the original, which also discovered Len Goodman and Bruno Tonioli, who are judges on the British version, too.

The Special basically involved the same format as usual, but with Halloween-themed costumes, routines and songs, and judges’ paddles that were shaped like ghosts. Not particularly scary, but with a lot to tell us about horror television.

First, one gets an interesting glance into what is imagined to be the popular perception of the key horror monsters and sub-genres, although, second, we also got a very selective tradition that seemed to largely consist of a version of the Gothic that had been filtered through Tim Burton – even when we get a reference to science-fiction-horror, it was less The Thing from Another World or Creature from the Black Lagoon than a case of Mars Attacks!

Then, there is the question of what happens to horror when it becomes something that can be used to ‘theme’ regular programming, like a Christmas Special. Which of course makes me immediately wish that we had a Johnny Cash Horror or Halloween Special, along the lines of the great man’s Christmas Specials from the 1970s. I can see him singing ‘The Man Comes Around’ on it as clear as day – or night!

And of course that raises the question of horror tastes. Loads of people who claim not to like horror wouldn’t have a problem with this kind of show, while lots of horror fans would hate it. I might like both but largely as an exercise in schizophrenia (in the horror sense of the term – split personality – rather than the clinical sense).

But separating this kind of horror material out from ‘real’ horror seems to simple to me. What it shows us is the complex ways in which horror is part of a common cultural language, on television and in other media, which may produce a variety of different kinds of identification. People may claim to hate horror in one context and yet have no objection to the genre in other contexts or at particular times of year.

Hell, Christmas television is full of material that would be dismissed as wildly inappropriate at other times of the year, but which is given a certain license at yuletide – remember the episode of Beverley Hills 90210 where Steve ran into Santa Claus?!?!

Anyhow, I am now taking votes on the scariest thing in the Strictly Come Dancing Halloween Special – there is a lot to choose from!

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Arrow (2012-Present) – It Shouldn’t Work but It Does!

Arrow is a weird one. It is the creation of Greg Berlanti, a specialist in family melodramas such as Everwood and Brothers and Sisters, but it is a superhero story with some really dark, horrorish elements. It also seems to be part of a larger shift for Berlanti, who has  gone into superheroes big time with No Ordinary Family (with which I can see the connection back to his earlier work) but also the Green Lantern film and its follow up, and reports of a new series with DC’s The Flash.

In Arrow, Oliver Queen has been stuck on an island for the last five years, after his ship went down in those uncharted waters in which the super-rich like to hang out. But before his discovery of the island, when he and his father are fighting for existence in their life-raft, the old man has persuaded Oliver to right his wrongs back at home and has then committed suicide. Which all leaves Oliver rather traumatized. Oh, and did I mention that Dad was also a super-rich industrialist who seems to be mixed up in some super conspiracy and has left a list of the people involved in his evil plan… Well, actually, it turns out to be the evil plan of John Barrrowman, but more of that later.

Once back in the bosom of his family, Oliver quickly sets about punishing the evil doers using athletic and archery skills that he has picked up on the island. So what we basically have is a lot of family dynamics and vigilante violence, which makes for a very odd, but hugely enjoyable, series that tries, unconvincingly, for a post credit-crunch social conscience.

In addition, the backstory of Oliver’s hellish time on the island, which is called purgatory or something, is told in flashback, so that the series feel a bit like Lost in reverse – everyday life punctuated by flashbacks to a weird island where God-knows-what is going on.

And then there is the fourth unlikely ingredient – a cast that seems to have been collected from BBC’s early Saturday night schedule. The evil super-villain (and closet archer) is played by John Barrowman, who may have been Captain Jack on Torchwood but also appeared on seemingly endless Saturday night talent shows with Andrew Lloyd Webber and Graham Norton. Also, Oliver’s new Dad, or rather the man who is now married to his mother, is Colin Salmon, who was previously a contestant on Strictly Come Dancing (that’s the original BBC series that Dancing with the Stars was based on).

I know I should think the whole thing doesn’t hang together but I find it strangely compelling and not just because of Willa Holland, who plays Oliver’s teenage sister, Thea – she was also Mini Cooper in The OC a while ago – and she is clearly the most intelligent and perceptive character in the entire series. She has a sharpness and a spikiness that is hugely welcome in the show, and I simply can’t wait for the point at which she gets her own superhero identity. In fact, I am surprised that it is taking them so long, the whole series feels ripe for her to replace Oliver and carry the show on her own!