28 February 2015

App / Streaming Service Review | The WWE Network in the UK

After a controversial delay and an even more contentious false start, the WWE Network quietly launched in the UK on 13th January. Being amongst the first to sign up on its release date, despite the surprising lack of promotion (in January, at least), I’ve now had nearly seven weeks to enjoy the streaming service without paying a penny for  it. This extended free trial has given me ample opportunity to attest to the network’s incredible, game-changing potential, as well as its unprecedented value for money (particularly here in the formerly Sky-headlocked England), but I’m afraid that it hasn’t made a paying subscriber out of me - yet.

For die-hard WWE fans in the UK and Republic of Ireland, the question of whether to subscribe to the service is almost a no-brainer. Even at £9.99 / €12.99 (as opposed to the rest of the world’s $9.99), it’s significantly cheaper than a monthly pay-per-view on Sky, which in of itself should justify a subscription. However, not everyone’s primary focus is cost, and whilst my eyes can’t easily see a difference between the network’s native 720p and Sky’s sharper 1080p, those will larger televisions might. Those unlucky enough to still be in areas with poor broadband speeds might also suffer from buffering issues, or perhaps even find the streaming unviable completely. There were even early reports of the stream failing at the WWE end during live streams in the US when the network was first rolled out last February, though this is less likely to be an issue over here as fewer viewers stay up until the early hours to watch a pay-per-view live; I haven’t done so since WrestleMania XIX in 2003, though as a casual viewer, perhaps I’m not the best example.

Indeed, not being all that passionate about the product these days (I didn’t watch it all between 2004 and 2011, when the Rock returned, and the peerless CM Punk rose to prominence), I generally just buy the odd big event (or individual match) via iTunes and rent the Blu-rays through LOVEFiLM. As such, £9.99 per month for me is a huge increase in what I’ve spent on WWE programming each month over the last few years. My existing £7.99 LOVEFiLM subscription covers most pay-per-views and Beyond the Ring documentaries, and the odd £2.49 - £17.99 to iTunes over the year doesn’t even come close to the £119.88 WWE are asking for their subscription. Admittedly, being a few months behind in the so-called “Reality Era” isn’t ideal – were I to ever venture into the world of social media, or even Google something WWE-related, then I’d instantly be bombarded with spoilers. Hell, most main event results are given away by WWE home media covers (see above right for a criminal example from a couple of years ago!) Nonetheless, for me, the pay-per-views alone don’t sell the WWE Network.

What really makes the network appeal to me are three key things: being able to revisit Attitude-Era RAWs and SmackDown!s (so good it had an exclamation mark back then); enjoy The Monday Night Wars and other WWE Network original series and specials; and, most importantly, being able to watch relatively recent (and until now, always Sky-exclusive) RAW and SmackDown episodes in date order amongst the relevant pay-per-views. For instance, I’ve just watched the Royal Rumble and its subsequent RAW this week, when the latter was finally added, some four weeks after its broadcast on Sky. Effectively opening up the whole world of WWE programming without the need for a Sky dish or Sky Sports subscription – something people don’t often consider when thinking about the subscription’s value for money; the real cost of following WWE on Sky is far more than just the cost of monthly pay-per-view – should, in theory, easily justify my £9.99.

In theory.

My first, and perhaps biggest, disappointment with WWE Network is the dearth of exclusive in-ring content from the eras that I’m interested in (mainly Attitude and early Ruthless Aggression). I can happily fill my boots with whole seasons of Prime Time Wrestling from the cheesy 1980s, and even RAW from the shockingly-poor early to mid-1990s, but 1999 - the then-WWF’s finest year, in my view - has only eight of its fifty-two RAWs available currently. More will be added over time, of course, probably to discourage “hit and run” subscribers, but I’m unlikely to come back until at least November 1997 – August 2002 has its full complement of RAWs and SmackDown!s available to stream.

As to the RAW and SmackDown replays, these are great - except that there is no sodding rhyme or reason that I can see to their release schedule. A Thursday-night SmackDown might appear before that Monday night’s RAW; three RAWs might then pop up all at once. It’s infuriating - if WWE can’t settle on a weekly release date for their replays (which are generally added four to six weeks after broadcast), then they at least could give subscribers a “Notify Me” option so that they can opt for an e-mail alert whenever an episode is added to one of their favourite series. Every so often I get an e-mail from iTunes reminding me to download the latest episode of Star Wars Rebels or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (yeah, I basically just watch cartoons) and it really takes the sting out of their haphazard arrivals.

I got on much better with The Monday Night War series, which finally delivers the detailed, blow-by-blow and fairly impartial account of the WWF vs WCW battle that I’ve craved since the DVD of the same name was released in 2004. My only possible criticism of it is that if you watch all twenty hour-long episodes in just seven weeks, you notice a lot of key sequences, and even anecdotes, being repeated or recycled. I was similarly impressed with the Daniel Bryan and Shield “Journey to…” documentaries, though the (so far only) episode of WWE 24 was less interesting than I’d hoped. The most revealing part is shown in the opening teaser and isn’t really expounded upon later in the programme. Furthermore, the Stone Cold podcasts, whilst superb, are available to listen to for free on iTunes, and with extra content there to boot.

A lot of viewers in the same boat as me, who care far more about yesterday than they do today, are signing up on the strength of the WWE Network’s vast pay-per-view library, which boasts every single pay-per-view in the history of WWF/E, WCW and ECW, not to mention countless hours’ worth of vintage programming from all the companies and territories whose video libraries have been usurped by WWE. However, as I’ve long since been a hoarder of home media, everything that I’d be likely to watch again I already own. The only notable exception is the infamous 1999 pay-per-view, Over the Edge, which has been made commercially available for the first time on the network, albeit with its terrible tragedy tactfully edited out, and a fitting in memoriam dedication to Owen Hart inserted at the programme’s start.

I did think that the convenience of being able to stream retro pay-per-views might see the network commandeer the place of my vast video library, and perhaps even raise a few months’ subscription funds in a lucrative eBay sale, but, whilst the network’s standard-definition video quality is very good indeed, the video itself has been heavily edited. I’m pleased to see that the World Wildlife Fund has apparently relented in its mission to make WWE “keep the F out” of its retro programming, which marred countless home media releases between 2002 and 2013, but many Superstars’ memorable entrance themes – the biker-gimmick Undertaker being a prime example – have been removed, utterly killing the feel of many shows (the end of Judgment Day 2000 is butchered beyond belief, sans Kid Rock), and a few Attitude Era-defining moments, like the Kat’s cheeky flash of her “puppies” at Armageddon 1999, are also gone. Most annoyingly of all though, if I’m watching an old 4:3 programme (and WWE was a good decade or so behind the rest of the world when it came to adapting a 16:9 picture format) on my iPad or iPhone, whenever I press the apparent “zoom in” button (highlighted above), the video just stops. I have to then start it again, and again endure the annoying certification sequence that precedes every single programme, for which there appears to be no “I’m over 18 – always skip!” feature. I’m therefore stuck being bombarded with certifications that are irrelevant in the UK (TV 14 D L V?) and only able to watch a tiny square picture in the middle of my phone or tablet.

The interface is lacking in many other key areas too. As demonstrated by the screengrabs (above), even the most general of search terms yield no or few results, and those that do return results that are usually spoiler-laden as they often give away a match’s finish. Moreover, whilst on my PC – which is by far the least likely device that I’d ever stream the network on! – most programmes have chapter markers, on Apple phones and tablets you are only able to skip forwards or backwards thirty seconds at a time. Most pay-per-views are three hours long, so if you just want to watch a main event, that’s a lot of skipping you’ve got to do to get there. More annoyingly still, certain programmes – last year’s TLCS, this year’s Royal Rumble, the first episode of WWE 24, and probably many, many more – aren’t ever marked as “Watched” once you’ve finished them (see below) as the WWE app thinks that they’re longer than they actually are. Once you’ve started watching them, then, you’re forever reminded that you need to continue watching them, even if you don’t. It’s schoolboy stuff to get fixed, but nobody bothers.

One feature I’d also need to see to get my money’s worth is a temporary download option, similar to that featured with the BBC’s iPlayer app, whereby you can download a programme to watch on your phone or tablet whilst you’re out and about, which then expires after a set amount of days (to protect the Beeb against piracy). Being able to do this would make a programme like the Legends of Wrestling roundtable, for instance, that I’d probably never sit down and watch, an added attraction for me, as it’d be perfecting listening material for a commute.

The deal-breaker for me though is that WWE explicitly advertise Apple TV as being a platform on which the WWE Network can be viewed. Yet, just like the two missed UK release dates, both of which insultingly passed without any sort of reasonable explanation, the WWE Network app remains absent from UK Apple TVs, and we’ve no indication of when – or even if – this will appear. Now as most WWE Network Apple TV subscribers will know, you can get round this if you change your iTunes Store setting from the UK to the US on your Apple TV, but of course then you have to go through the rigmarole of switching it back to the UK every time you want to buy something or stream some iTunes Extras for a film you own. WWE’s superlatively annoying Apple TV apathy also means that you can’t purchase the subscription through iTunes either, which is a big factor for me as I buy all my store credit at 75% of its worth whenever a retailer has the vouchers marked down (which is about half the year!), and so could potentially pay a fairer price for the network that’s closer to what everyone else in the world pays outside these ill-treated isles.

More positively, I haven’t experienced any major issues streaming content. If your broadband connection wanes for a few minutes, as mine seems to for about half an hour every night around 10pm, then like Netflix and other reputable streaming services, the network adjusts the quality of the streamed content accordingly to minimise any buffering. I can even maintain a good HD stream in my garage on my 2.4GHz network (but not my 5GHz), which is some distance and several thick brick walls away from my router. I’ve also had few interruptions from ads – all I’ve experienced is the thirty-second WWE Immortals ad, and even this has only been three or four times over nearly seven weeks.

Overall then, the potential is there to revolutionise the consumption of sports entertainment, and create a powerhouse of a service that would truly make the “Immortal” Hulk Hogan and his peers exactly that. But there’s a long, long way to go before I’ll be spending any of my money on it, and if WWE wants to attract subscribers from outside its die-hard fanbase and start turning a good profit on the WWE Network, then it’ll need to address the technical points that I’ve raised here at the very least, and perhaps adjust its attitude towards Attitude too.

To subscribe to the WWE Network, visit WWE.com. It’s $15.42!

15 February 2015

The First Great Time War | 1987 vs 2012: A Battle of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

An appalling, Thatcher-led act of censorship has unwittingly provided me with a handy means of disambiguation here - one that, in of itself, seems to encapsulate my feelings about the earliest and most recent Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles television series. Whilst Fred Wolf Films’ 1987 cartoon and Nickelodeon’s ongoing CG series are far from being the total sum of the franchise, for me they are the two finest representations of it, and so inevitably this “shellabration” will dwell on them at the expense of the movies, other TV shows and even the Eastman and Laird-inked comic books from which they first emerged.

What was known in the UK as “Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles”, is a lightweight and bodaciously colourful kids’ cartoon that bears only the most obvious of resemblances to the Mirage Studios comic books that gave life to it. Its mutant turtles and resident rat are heroes in the traditional sense of the word, prone to the occasional “cool but crude” quip and anchovy ice cream-topped pizza, but otherwise painted in as bright a white as one could imagine, and pitted against two-dimensional adversaries whose cartoon evil is eclipsed only by incompetence that would (and in my case did) beggar even a child’s belief. Yet for several years, for me it represented the pinnacle of television excellence, and even when I’ve revisited it in adulthood - and by “revisit”, naturally I mean obsess over it all, even the final five seasons that I missed out on the first time around, thanks to puberty - I’ve found it embarrassingly compelling, forcing my long-suffering wife through seemingly never-ending marathons of Region 1 imports teeming with fourth wall-breaking asides and fights set to scores that have never been bettered in a children’s show.

The continuing Nickelodeon animated series, by contrast, is defined by its ubiquitous (and appropriate) darkness and more adult characterisation; not to forget its inspired, comic book panel stills and slow-mo sequences. Ninjutsu is placed right at the heart of the series, not merely as a combat style to be practised, but as a state of mind. Yet the show does not eschew the wacky, outer-space sci-fi that set the original series apart from the first few films. Indeed, it could be argued that the Kraang are in fact the show’s main antagonists, particularly in the first season, most of which shrouds the seldom-seen (and thus much, much, much, more menacing) Shredder in mystery. Most importantly of all though, the show’s turtles live up to every word of their “Teenage Mutant Ninja” billing as the series’ creators take the characters’ comic book cores and cartoon selves and fuse them into something clearly greater than the sum of their parts. 

There are, however, a few aspects that Hero Turtles did better than the current series, and to appease my inner child I’ll start this piece by looking at them. One of my favourite things about the original series was the Technodrome - Krang’s mobile technological fortress that looked like the lovechild of a Death Star and a Dalek. At full strength, it would have given Shredder and Krang a decent shot at world domination - but, of course, it was rarely seen in such a state. The show’s finest seasons were driven by the baddies’ schemes to “raise the Technodrome” from the Earth’s core or seabed, or find enough power to open a portal large enough to bring it back from its exile in Dimension X. Even in late ’80s syndication, the baffling nuances of which prohibited the progressive and labyrinthine story arcs of today, the spectre of the unstoppable Technodrome lent each season of Hero Turtles its drive. The Technodrome of the 2012 series, whilst a visual spectacle, lacks the sense of importance and personality that its predecessor had in abundance.

Another big advantage of the original series is its music. Chuck Lorre’s theme song is almost as remarkable an achievement as his superlative geek comedy, The Big Bang Theory. Suitably epic, cool and unforgivably catchy, it has become such a hallmark of the franchise that the 2012 series’ own theme is a modern take on it that shares the signature “der ner ner ner, ner ner”; even the Ninja Turtles’ T-phones ringtones chirp it out in polyphonics. The show’s incidental music is every bit as good, especially in the show’s early years. The baddies / action theme, for instance, whilst no “Imperial March”, is absolutely phenomenal for a kids’ cartoon. If there was a soundtrack album, I’d buy it.

I should also highlight that many of the current show’s strengths have their roots in the Hero Turtles series. From the Turtle Van turned “Shellraiser” to the Ninja Turtles’ differently-coloured bandanas (that have since become entrenched across the media) and Splinter’s former life as Hamato Yoshi (rather than Hamato’s rat), which gives the personal vendetta at the heart of the current show its heat, as well as the Splinter / Shredder / Korai relationship its pathos, many of the 2012 show’s foundations find their roots in 1987.

Yet the Ninja Turtles series is visually, and perhaps even tonally, closer to the original graphic novels, though it doesn’t limit itself to them or Hero Turtles when it comes to plucking stories and characters. The show selectively borrows from almost every iteration of the franchise, even The Secret of the Ooze and, more recently, the highly-rated 1990 movie, while all the time contributing incredible ideas of its own, such as recasting Channel 6’s most famed female reporter as a high-school student who’s unwittingly central to the Kraang plot, and painting dentally-challenged vigilante Casey Jones as a troubled teen too. Even Irma - Aprils habitually lovesick sidekick from days of old - is brought down to school age, albeit with a slow-burning twist that’s impossible to foresee and absolutely mind-bogglingly brilliant. All these elements from all these disparate inspirations are dextrously woven into a logical, linear and frankly spellbinding story that I think could, if the audience is there, run until young April is old enough for that Channel 6 newsroom.

Where the two incarnations meet most closely is in their comedy. Humour is an integral part of both series, though both treat it in very different ways. Hero Turtles’ humour is very much for the mums and dads, most of it delivered in the form of a quick quip directly to the camera, and almost as much again as less-than-subtle self-mockery. Like most kids’ shows of the same ilk, there’s also a generous dose of slapstick and farce, but these elements don’t stand the test of time in the same way that the protagonists’ meta-fictional musings do.

Ninja Turtles takes a very different approach, as its humour works on just one level throughout, though that level is more plainly teenager / nostalgic geek than Hero Turtles’ younger demographic. As the show is generally more mature, its jokes are too, and they come as often from surprising sources, such as Hoon Lee’s decidedly dry Splinter, as they do comic-relief Mikey; loved-up Donnie; or even completely-nuts Casey.

Where Ninja Turtles starts to trounce its ’80s predecessor is in its storytelling, which is as complex and compelling as in any supposedly-adult drama that I watch. The series benefits from being able to spin out its story naturally over many episodes, with its core narrative spanning all three of its seasons to date, rather than having to push the reset button at the end of every twenty minutes. This allows the characters to grow and threads to develop, often leading to shocking scenes with lasting consequences. 

Shredder’s henchmen, for instance, are given time to be developed as human characters before their mutations, and even then they aren’t locked into an eight-season-spanning role, with one of them undergoing a painful secondary metamorphosis early in the second season. Even Shredder’s adopted daughter, Korai, who’s as principal a character as any of the Ninja Turtles, is constantly at risk of death or mutation; the O’Neils, April and her dad, similarly so.

Indeed, Ninja Turtles really enjoys the luxury of being able to take its time, rather than rush to get the key players in place. Cases in point are Hero Turtles stalwarts Baxter, Bebop and Rocksteady. We’re well into the second season before the mad scientist undergoes his defining B-movie evolution, and the season is nearing its end before we get our first glimpse of everyone’s favourite mutant warthog, pre-mutation, in the guise of a super-slick master thief. The introduction of Rocksteady is even more remarkable, as he’s present from fairly early in the first season, but it’s impossible at that stage to foresee his mutant-rhino fate. We are almost half way through the third season before Bebop and Rocksteady are ready to take their place at Shredder’s heel, and when they do, there is far more to them and their relationship with both Shredder and each other than there ever was back in the classic series.

Turning to the casts, the Hero Turtles of the 1980s were voiced by a veritable who’s who of children’s voice artists, most notably Cam Clarke of Dogtanian fame, and Rob Paulsen who was - and continues to be - in just about everything that I, my teenage nephews and small daughter have ever spent a childhood moment watching. Those four voices - as well as those of Splinter, Shredder and especially “Jewish mother” Krang - are burned into my brain; a childhood soundtrack marred only by the odd annoying episode featuring a stand-in actor. When I started watching the 2012 series, I remember thinking, “They’d never get away with that these days,” blissfully unaware of the acting merry-go-round to come in the last quarter of the second season.

With no disrespect to the ’80s actors, Ninja Turtles intentionally set its stall higher, in profile at least, casting high-profile movie stars and even a former Hero Turtle in its main roles. Prototypical silver-screen teen Jason Biggs was cast as Leo, with ex-Hobbit Sean Astin playing his fiery brother and first-season leadership rival Raph. In an inspired move, Rob Paulsen returns but to play Donnie, who’s pitched closer to Hero Turtles’ fun-loving Raphael than its science-fair Donatello. The technical wizardry is still there in Paulsen’s Donnie of course, and complemented beautifully by a sense of lanky awkwardness that his crush on April can’t help but accentuate, but he’s otherwise the lightest member of the team - with one notable exception. Greg Cipes’ Mikey is loveably bonkers, eschewing the surfer lingo of his ’80s incarnation - “Booyokasha!” has replaced Cowabunga!” as his battle cry of choice - in favour of countless quirks and apparently endless silliness that, incredibly, often contribute to the resolution of a plot. With his big ideas squeezed through the mind of mouth of an buffoon, he’s like a mutant Karl Pilkington; an idiot savant with an amazing knack for lateral thinking and, quite amusingly, naming things. 

The stellar 2012 cast went nova when Biggs departed in 2013, leaving us with a sound-alike Leonardo in place until Season 3, when Seth Green took over the role full-time. In a marked contrast to the classic series unconvincing precession of stand-ins, however, Dominic Catrambone does a great job of imitating Biggs Leonardo, and the dialogue in the second season’s closing, Biggs-less episodes is deliberately Leo-lite so as to mitigate any damage. When Green finally takes over the role in Within the Woods, Leo’s new, heavier and much more seasoned voice is not ignored but opportunely tied into a major plot point - one that looks like it’s going to allow Green to really make the role his own as the Ninja Turtles leader is forced to reinvent himself in the face of injury and invasion.

And so, Hero Turtles and Ninja Turtles are - quite literally - like day and night to one another, yet I still find them both incredibly alluring; something that could not be said of The (irredeemably awful) Next Mutation, TMNT or indeed anything else in between. Ninja Turtles is, however, the better product all-round, particularly if you’re more than a few years old and enjoy the more expansive, modern style of storytelling. With all eyes currently on the home media release of the heroes in the half-shell’s latest movie outing, I’d urge you to throw your coins in the direction of Nickelodeon’s first five volumes of the 2012 series instead, which, for me at least, have become the new yardstick for the TMNT.

The first five volumes of Nickelodeon’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are available from iTunes in 1080p HD for £12.99 - £17.99 each. Each volume comprises approximately half a season (thirteen episodes or thereabouts) together with a “Mutation of Scene” featurette for each episode, and a handful of other extra titbits. Regrettably – and inexplicably – only the first two seasons of Fred Wolf Films’ Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are available in the UK in their entirety, be it digitally from iTunes or on DVD, though a handful of episodes from later seasons are available on various compilation DVDs / download packs. The limited edition complete series box set is available in the UK on Region 1 DVD through Amazon for £87.44 plus £1.26 for delivery, though needless to say this will only work on Region 1 / multi-region DVD players.