Dominic West as Hector Madden, The Hour's presenter. Photograph: BBC
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The Hour: series 2, episode 1

The BBC drama about a BBC news programme is back, and it's never felt more relevant.

WARNING: This blog is for people watching "The Hour" on Wednesday nights on BBC2. Don't read ahead if you haven't watched it yet - contains spoilers!

Not far into this, the first episode of The Hour’s second series, slimy political aide Angus McCain declares that “A lie has no legs. A scandal - now, that has wings.” All slicked-back ginger hair and hinted-at homosexuality, actor Julian Rhind-Tutt imbues the lines with the malice and seediness that those who followed drama’s first series so avidly - mainly me, it’s true - have come to expect from him. His beloved Prime Minister Eden might be gone, but McCain wants to show from the outset that he still wields power in the shadowy world of Westminster. And in uttering these words, he’s also setting up a series’ worth of plot points, and reassured us that writer Abi Morgan has chosen not to mess with a successful formula.

The Hour has never bothered with loud showy cliffhangers or even let its characters raise their voices that often. No - The Hour specialises in creeping realisations and barely-seen glances that flick to and fro, while the discussion of important social issues gets scribbled in the margins of a densley-written script. Just like in the last series, when a high-up BBC executive was eventually found to have turned traitor and started recruiting for the Soviets, McCain has promised us from the outset a scandal so big and juicy that almost everyone will pretend it never happened at all.

Morgan could never have known when putting together The Hour’s second series that it would air in a week when the real-life BBC has been engulfed in scandal that hinged on investigative journalism gone awry and management failures. The Jimmy Savile affair and the Lord McAlpine debacle are hardly equivalent to having Soviet spies wandering around the corporation's canteen drinking tea, but it still feels more topical than a drama should to be watching Romola Garai’s producer character wrestling with issues of sourcing and news management, and fretting that ITV’s competitor programme, Uncovered, has stolen her idea for a hard-hitting investigative news show and is delivering it better than she is.

If the last series was all about espionage, this one appears to be all about vice - specifically, Soho gangland vice. Dominic West’s Hector Madden has got rather too big for his boots since his eventual success as The Hour’s presenter, and has started frequenting West End clubs where extremely deferential tabloid paparazzos take his picture and callgirls encased in cream satin corsets do their level best to entice him away to hotel suites (he doesn't resist very hard).

Meanwhile, the crime rate is through the roof and the government is spending vast sums on nuclear weapons rather than policemen. In an example of the kind of scene The Hour has always excelled at, one of Madden’s girls sits on the edge of the bath inspecting her battered face and bruised body - the result of a morning-after visit from a mysterious man. Next evening, she’s sweeping her fringe over her split eyebrow, powdering her cut lip and singing in a cabaret while powerful men smirk at her over their champagne saucers.

Hector gets cosy with a Soho "actress" when he ought to be out doing journalism or at home with his wife. Photograph: BBC

Peter Capaldi has joined the cast this series as the new head of news (replacing the one who is now in prison for being a Soviet agent) and proves in his first few scenes that even without the swearing and with the addition of a severe side parting, he knows how to steal a scene. The slight frisson between him and Anna Chancellor (playing the maverick foreign desk editor, Lix Storm) has promise that hopefully will be explored in future episodes. We might mourn the ending of the The Thick Of It, but all is not lost - Malcolm Tucker never got to say lines like “I grieve for the croissant” while mournfully holding a plate of burnt toast.

For me, at least, there was an alarming lack of Ben Whishaw in this episode’s first half, but once he made his grand entrance - stubbing a cigarette out on a BBC noticeboard and being late for his first news conference since being fired, all the while sporting a rather ragged beard - he more than made up for it. Freddie dashed about the place, pounding out the scoops, accusing ministers of not caring about murder victims, providing a refuge for a colleague’s persecuted Nigerian boyfriend, and even revealing that while the show has been off air, he's acquired an unexpected new French wife, who appeared wearing just a jumper and wielding a kitchen knife. He still calls Romola Garai's character "Moneypenny", though - a running joke that's even better now that we know that Ben Whishaw is also Q in the new James Bond film.

Ben Whishaw as Freddie Lyon, the hard-hitting journalist who returned to The Hour as co-host in the first episode. Photograph: BBC

Last series, much of the criticism of The Hour complained that it didn't seem to know what kind of programme it was - newsroom drama or political thriller. I never understood why it had to be either/or, since Morgan's scripts seemed to weave the two together quite deftly. This second series opener has demonstrated that once again it's going to try and blend the two genres, but with a domestic political plot rather than a foreign one. A promising start.

Still, more Ben and less beard would be nice next week.

I'll be blogging "The Hour" each week - check back next Thursday morning for the next installment, or bookmark this page

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

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Defining The Defenders: the long history of the superhero team-up

Netflix's new show draws on an established traditon of bringing together disparate characters.

Today Marvel’s The Defenders dropped worldwide. It’s the culmination of Marvel Studios’ interlinked series for Netflix, and all episodes will be available simultaneously as is the streaming services’ wont.

The Defenders, and the Netflix series that have preceded it, seem modelled on how the Marvel Cinematic Universe films have worked in multiplexes. At least superficially. Characters get their own solo films/series, which become increasingly interlinked over time, before all featuring together in an onscreen ‘team up’. Here, they combine against a threat greater than any they could plausibly win against on their own, sparring and generating alliances, friendships and even enmities in the process.

This structure, of course, is Marvel’s film and TV projects aping their source material. Marvel’s comics, and superhero comics more generally, have long relished the "team up" and the "super team". The use of this approach by Marvel’s other media ventures is intuitively right, allowing the mass audience for film and television to experience one of the specific pleasures of how superhero comics work in the characters’ new medium.

The concept of the super team goes back a long way. The Justice Society of America, from Marvel’s Distinguished Competition, is usually considered the first. They debuted in All-Star Comics #3 (1940) and the team consisted of the Flash (the Jay Garrick version, Flash TV fans), Green Lantern, Hawkman, and now lesser known characters like Hour-Man, the Sandman (not the Neil Gaiman one), the Atom, The Spectre and Doctor Fate. Within a few issues Wonder Woman would join: as secretary. Because it was the 1940s.

What’s interesting about this initial super team is that half of these characters were published by All-American Comics (who actually published All-Star) and half by DC Comics themselves, making this an inter-company crossover. (The companies would later merge). It also used to be claimed as the first example of characters created separately, and with no intention of them being connected, interacting. It isn’t. There are countless examples in the pulp fictions of the late nineteenth century, but the claim stood for so long because it felt right that the original super team should be the source of such meta-fictional innovation.

The Defenders were created much later in comics history and first appeared in 1971’s Marvel Feature #1. The team, though, had its origins in the "Titans Three" an informal grouping of heroes who appeared in a three part story serialised across Doctor Strange #183 (November 1969), Sub-Mariner #22 (February 1970), and The Incredible Hulk #126 (April 1970).

All three of those comics were written by Roy Thomas. Caught on the hop by the sudden cancellation of Doctor Strange (#183 was the final issue), he wrapped up ongoing plotlines from the cancelled comic in other series he scripted, bringing the now title-less Strange into those other series in the process. A couple more appearances of the group together followed, before the team was formally named in the aforementioned Marvel Feature #1.

Dr Strange. The Sub-Mariner. The Incredible Hulk. It’s quite likely that anyone reading this who is only familiar with the publicity for Netflix’s The Defenders would be surprised by that roster of headline characters. (And that’s assuming they’re even familiar with Namor the Sub-Mariner, a character of 1939 vintage who has not yet reached the MCU.) This is a radically different group to Daredevil, Jessica Jones (a character not even created until the 21st century), Luke Cage and Iron Fist, the stars of the current TV series. None of the telly team are characters a Marvel zombie would associate with The Defenders, although Iron Fist has been a very occasional member of the team’s roster, as has Luke Cage. (In which context, it’s unfortunate that Iron Fist has been the least liked of Netflix’s series, with a mere 17 per cent approval on Rotten Tomatoes.)

The complete absence of all three of the original Defenders from its television incarnation could be seen as an odd decision. Neither Benedict Cumberbatch’s Steven Strange nor Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner are expected to turn up, even for cameos. Marvel Studios has policed a strict division between its Netflix series and its cinematic outings, despite announcing them as being set in the same "continuity". The fourth "classic" Defender is even less likely to turn up. The Silver Surfer (who joined the team in 1972, less than a year after it was formed) is, due to some bad deal making in the 90s, off limits to the MCU. His film rights sit with Fox, who utilised him in the rightly all but forgotten Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007). 

One of the reasonably consistent features of previous incarnations of The Defenders is that the characters have generally faced mystical threats. They first teamed up to fight monsters from HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, and generally their antagonists have operated on that kind of scale. With Stephen Strange in the gang, that makes sense. You don’t need the sorcerer supreme to take out organised crime. But organised crime is largely what you’d expect Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones and Iron Fist to take on, especially based on the Netflix versions of the characters. All four are "street-level" heroes, operating in New York, interacting with characters like murderous vigilante The Punisher and Kingpin of Crime Wilson Fisk. Perhaps splitting the difference, their team up series will see them take on The Hand. This is a ninja organisation, with mystical origins, that is nevertheless involved in organised crime and can be presented, as it has been so far for Netflix, within the context of crime stories.

Marvel’s Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada has defended The Defenders being The Defenders by pointing out that the original team are largely unknown outside comics fandom, and their name means nothing to the public at large. (Although they have, of course, heard of all three of its constituent members.) Of course, for some this might sensible provoke the question "Why use it then?" What is this series called The Defenders at all?

The (original) Defenders were seen as a "non-team", a phrase occasionally used in the pages of their appearances. There was something deconstructive about this kind of team up. It was the pairing of characters who were unsuited to working, even to appearing, together and who would really rather not. (They had, after all, been brought together in the first place simply because Roy Thomas happened to write their separate titles.) The stories told with the group in some ways challenged and confronted the cliches of the decades old form that had begun back in All-Star Comics #3.

The line-up, and tone, of Netflix’s Defenders more resembles that of another, deliberately slightly interrogative non-team, that of the short-lived Marvel Knights book of 2000-2001. This did share The Defenders somewhat abstract definition of "team", featuring characters who didn’t like each other and didn’t want to work together, albeit without any mystical element to how they were brought together. Marvel Knights was also, in theory, the flagship of the line of the same name, at the time edited by... Joe Quesada. Hmm.

In recent years, Marvel have frequently cheerfully remodelled their comics - the original medium for almost all their characters - in order to incorporate changes and innovations pioneered as part of their film and television projects. Remixing their characters and the way they are grouped together in response to the success of their screen empire. The Guardians of the Galaxy, for example, have become more prominent in the comics, while characters whose film rights lie with film companies other than Marvel’s own, such as the aforementioned Fantastic Four, have been pushed to the margins. Accordingly, this August sees the launch of a new The Defenders title, featuring the lineup of characters from the television series.

Some loyal comics readers see this a case of the tail wagging the dog. Others might like to take notice of the metaphor used by comics writer Grant Morrison in his 2011 book SuperGods: Our World In The Age Of The Superhero. There, Morrison argued that comic books, while the medium in which these characters were created, was essentially the discarded booster section of the rocket in which they had been fired into the public consciousness, reaching vastly greater audiences in the process. 

“That’s not The Defenders,” commented a friend of mine on seeing a publicity photograph for the series a few weeks ago. It is now, mate. It is now.