Saturday, 15 April 2017

Star Trek - Assignment Earth (1968)

There are a number of Star Trek episodes (I’m naturally talking about the original series here) in which Captain Kirk and his crew find themselves not only back on Earth, but on Earth in the 20th century. The methods by which this happens vary. The odd thing is that these episodes usually turn out to be quite entertaining, and often quite clever. The final episode of the second season, Assignment Earth, is a good example. It first went to air on 29th March 1968.

Art Wallace’s screenplay (the story is credited to Wallace and to Gene Roddenberry) has some playful moments and some high suspense. In fact it’s a sort of spy thriller.

It all starts when Gary Seven (Robert Lansing), in the process of being beamed by transporter beam over an unimaginable distance, gets caught in the Enterprise’s transporter beam. Gary Seven appears to be a perfectly ordinary twentieth century human, but if that’s what he is how could he have been transported across a distance of thousands of light years? He claims to be what he appears to be but explains that he’s been living for some time on a much more advanced planet, a planet the existence of which is totally unknown to the Federation. He also claims to be on a vital mission to Earth, The fate of civilisation might well hang in the balance.

His story, however outlandish, might be true. Or he might be some kind of alien in human form. Kirk has no way of knowing but he must decide whether he should be helping Gary Seven or stopping from doing whatever he plans to do.

Robert Lansing’s performance works very well. It’s very low-key but he conveys a strange kind of detachment which could indicate that his story is true and that he is a kind of interstellar secret agent engaged on a mission to save the Earth, or it could indicate that he’s totally non-human in which case his motives are anyone’s guess, or it could indicate that he’s just some poor paranoid deluded slob.

There’s some nice interplay between Gary Seven and his super-computer and there are nicely amusing exchanges with secretary Roberta Lincoln (Teri Garr) who has apparently been working for two of Gary Seven’s agents without having the slightest idea that she was working for secret agents from another planet. 

There is a bit of a political sub-text but it’s not too intrusive and the main focus is on Kirk’s dilemma. Should he trust Gary Seven or not? If Kirk makes the wrong choice the consequences will be unthinkably horrific. The loneliness of command and the pressures of having to make decisions that could mean life or death for thousands or even in this case millions are recurring themes in Star Trek and these themes propel some of the very best episodes.

This episode works so well because the audience is kept as much in the dark as Kirk - we really don’t know which way he should jump.

There’s a nice mix of humour, mystery and suspense. It all adds up to a very good episode.

Thursday, 6 April 2017

The Plane Makers, season 1 (1963)

Aviation, big business and politics are the ingredients that make ATV’s The Plane Makers heady viewing. This British TV series ran for three seasons from 1963 to 1965. Of the first season only the first episode survives. The whole of seasons two and three survives. It was followed by a series called The Power Game which was a sequel of sorts. 

The setting of The Plane Makers is the fictional Scott Furlong aircraft factory. The series deals with the various power struggles in the boardroom and between the management and the trades unions as the company tries to launch its new Sovereign medium-range jetliner onto the international market.

The Plane Makers could have been a tedious exercise in political television but it isn’t. Yes it focuses on the double-dealing and chicanery of top executives, bureaucrats and politicians, but the workers are no better - they’re trying to feather their own nests or they’re lazy and dishonest. The Plane Makers doesn’t focus on the corruption of the ruling class (although the British ruling class is certainly portrayed as being vicious and corrupt) - it focuses on the corruption of Britain as a whole in the early 60s. It does not however descend to nihilism or despair. 

While it’s often critical it also celebrates the efforts of those who are honestly trying their absolute best to make the Sovereign a success for both the company and the country. Even the ruthless chief executive John Wilder, for all his faults, has to be reluctantly admired as a man who has the drive and ambition to succeed. We might not like men like Wilder very much but we do need them.

There’s also a certain sense of guarded optimism about the future. Technology is exciting and aviation is exciting and in 1963 it was still possible to believe that British industry had a future.

Unusually for a British series of this vintage The Plane Makers doesn’t feel studio-bound. There’s quite a bit of outdoor shooting and it has a reasonably expansive feel to it.

Network have released the second season in two boxed sets and it’s the first of these, containing the initial thirteen episodes of the season, that we’re concerned with here.

Don't Worry About Me kicks off season one and it has to be said it’s a slightly odd way to begin a series dealing with an aircraft factory. We don’t really see any aircraft and it could be any sort of factory. It’s actually not that bad a story, just a strange choice as the series opener. It’s a shop floor drama involving one of the company’s best craftsmen who has as reputation for making short cuts and taking risks. The apprentice assigned to him is a very promising lad but he’s starting to pick up bad habits and these bad habits lead to potentially tragic results. It’s the kind of gritty (and usually tedious) social realist drama that British television churned out in immense quantity during the 60s, although this one is reasonably well done if you like that sort of thing. It’s unfortunate that it’s the only surviving first season episode since it doesn’t really give much of a feel of what the series is about, and it doesn’t offer any background on the characters who will dominate the series.

On the other hand the second season opener, “Too Much To Lose,” is an object lesson in how to start a new season with maximum effectiveness. In the space of 50 minutes it gives us all the background information we need on the key characters and on the Scott Furlong aircraft company and also tells an exciting and very tense story. 

The company’s newest aircraft, the Sovereign airliner, is almost ready for its first test flight. Exhaustive ground testing has been carried out. Everything seems to be working perfectly. The company’s chief test pilot, Henry Forbes (Robert Urquhart), is reasonably happy but he is determined that the Sovereign will not leave the ground until every possible test has been made and the results checked and rechecked and then rechecked again. Forbes is a very very cautious test pilot. That’s why he’s still alive. The Sovereign’s first flight is now three weeks away but the hard-driving ruthless chief executive of Scott Furlong, John Wilder (Patrick Wymark) has other ideas. Their main competition is a new French airliner that will make its first flight in ten days’ time. The Sovereign must beat its French competitor into the air. The first flight must take place in two days’ time.

Forbes is very uneasy about this. In fact there’s a general air of uneasiness within the company which is exacerbated by Wilder’s decision to break with long-standing company tradition. When a new Scott Furlong aircraft makes its first flight the company’s chief executive is always aboard, but Wilder announces he will not be making the first flight. This does not make the best of impressions. Wilder is under pressure from his board of directors as well. His control of the company is not as total as he would like. And there are tensions surfacing in his marriage as well. All these stresses on all the key characters keep building as the first flight approaches. Will the flight end in triumph, or in disaster and tragedy? This is superb television.

In No Man’s Land the company is in turmoil. The possibility of a fault in the Sovereign is enough to threaten the company’s survival and Wilder is determined to make sure the person responsible is found and fired. It turns out not to be so simple. There’s the danger of upsetting the union. Even trickier is deciding just where responsibility might lie. Might it not lie with the person who insisted on rushing the flight testing - that person being Wilder himself. For works manager Arthur Sugden it’s a question of where his loyalties lie and that’s a tricky question indeed. Sugden came up through the ranks so to speak - does he identify with the workers or the management?

In A Question of Sources Wilder finds out that there is one thing worse than a possible fault in a new aeroplane, and that’s the press getting wind of it.

All Part of the Job deals with the sort of low-level corruption that is endemic in any organisation. While executives are awarding contracts to outside firms on the basis of favours owed to them the ordinary workers are ripping off the company in countless small ways. No-one sees this as real corruption- it’s just taking advantages of the perks of the job.

John Wilder takes Arthur Sugden, now promoted to works general manager, along with him on a sales trip to Italy in “Don't Stick Your Head Out" and Sugden learns that there’s more to selling aeroplanes than he’d thought. Sometimes selling aeroplanes is all about not selling aeroplane. Sugden finds it difficult to cope with such subtleties and perhaps that’s why Wilder brought him along - if you want to be an executive you have to learn to embrace such subtleties.

"The Old Boy Network" raises the old question - is there one rule for the ordinary workers and another for the executives? Does being a gentleman mean you get a second chance when you make a bad mistake, a second chance that the ordinary worker would not get? In this case Ernie Wainwright, a very lowly employee, has made a serious mistake but up-and-coming sales executive Nigel Carr’s mistake is arguably just as serious. Will Nigel be looked after by the Old Boy Network? As usual with this series the issue is dealt with without resorting to mere clich├ęs.

Any More for the Skylark? is a real change of pace, being not merely light-hearted but verging on out-and-out comedy. It is a tradition of the firm that when a new aircraft makes its first long-distance flight the seats are allocated to random employees. In this case that means a free trip to the Mediterranean. This causes nothing but headaches for the two unfortunates in the PR department who find themselves saddled with the job of allocating the seats. There are sixty seats and hundreds of employees who think they should be on the flight. It’s a gently amusing episode and it comes just at the right time, midway through the second season, when a touch of light-heartedness is rather welcome.

A Matter of Self Respect is more in the style of the British kitchen sink dramas of the day. Tim Carter used to be a high-flyer in the design department, until he spent a year-and-half in prison. Now he’s back at Scott Furlong, on the shop floor, and it’s a difficult adjustment. And that’s the least of his problems. His private life is a shambles. He’s trying to put himself back together piece by piece but at any moment it could all come crashing down again. It’s a reasonably well done episode but kitchen sink dramas are not really my thing.

"Costigan's Rocket" is pure whimsy. Harry Costigan works in the stores department at Scott Furlong. Harry is renowned as a man who is always in a rush and gets his jobs done quickly but he has never been known to do overtime. That is, until his daughter gets engaged. Weddings are expensive things and Harry is determined that his daughter will be married in style. Even with overtime it’s going to be a struggle to pay for it. Then, quite out of the blue, the answer to Harry’s problems drops into his lap. The answer is Costigan’s Rocket. Costigan’s Rocket is a greyhound. Not just a greyhound however - the Rocket is the fastest thing on four legs. Owning this dog is like having a licence to print money. It’s actually a small syndicate of Scott Furlong employees who own the dog but there’s no doubt that this animal will guarantee them all a very tidy profit on their modest investment.

You might wonder why the man at the very top of the company, John Wilder himself, would be concerning himself with this dog racing scheme but there are reasons why it becomes absolutely essential that the Rocket should win his first race. Given that this dog is an absolute dead certainty nothing could go wrong. Could it?

This is actually quite a delightful little story, warmhearted without being sentimental and genuinely amusing. It is however the third consecutive episode that has nothing whatever to do with aviation. Of course the idea behind this series was to focus not just on the boardroom struggles and flying dramas but also on the ordinary employees without whom the Sovereign could never have been built and flown. That’s a perfectly valid approach for such a series to take (and it’s certainly in tune with the zeitgeist of the 60s) but I can’t help thinking it might have been wiser to make the ordinary worker-related stories have at least something to do with aircraft manufacture. Still, the series ran for three seasons which suggests that the producers knew what they were doing.

Things get back on track with "The Thing About Auntie" - now we’re back to boardroom infighting and political intrigues and these are the subjects that this series does well and that give it its punch. The death of the Chairman is likely to lead to a three-way power struggle. John Wilder wants the position but his candidacy will be complicated by certain rumours that have been circulating about his wife. Of course a really skilled and devious intriguer might be able to find a way to turn potentially damaging rumours to his own advantage. Someone as skilled and devious as John Wilder for example.

The Cat's Away nicely combines tensions on the shop floor with tensions among management. Efficiency experts have everybody worried, including Arthur Sugden. With the pressure on to move delivery dates forward the company cannot afford any hint of a strike but that’s exactly what they might be facing. A fine episode.

Strings in Whitehall very much takes place in the rarefied but rather corrupt world in which business and politics intersect. Wilder sees a chance of making a sale to a South American airline but he’ll need government support in financing the deal and the government may not be prepared to risk public money, given that the airline in question is at best marginally solvent. John Wilder is not a man to take no for an answer and he’ll pull every string that he can but how much is he willing to risk? This is the type of story that shows this series at its best.

Scott Furlong’s chief test pilot may have a problem on his hands with his first officer in The Best of Friends. Pilots tend to be loyal to one another, but is this always a good idea? And there are other kinds of loyalty that raise questions as well in this fine episode. 

The Plane Makers is fine television drama. Highly recommended.

Thursday, 30 March 2017

Dallas, seasons 1 to 3 (1978-80)

Having been a real pop culture snob in my younger days I missed out on a lot of terrific trash television. I’m now trying to rectify this omission and two of the shows I’ve been catching up on are Dallas and Dynasty.

They’re both big-budget prime-time soap operas and they have an enormous amount in common - they’re both focused on family and business dramas among the rich and powerful, in both cases families that have made fortunes in the oil business, and both feature larger-than-life characters and deliciously outlandish plot lines. Both Dallas and Dynasty glory in their trashiness without the slightest sense of embarrassment.

The differences between the two series are subtle but definite. Dallas features characters who are essentially real-life characters, albeit somewhat exaggerated, while the characters in Dynasty are perhaps just a bit too over-the-top to believable. The story lines in Dallas, in true melodrama style, make considerable use of coincidence but they remain at least vaguely plausible while Dynasty often crosses the line into pure fantasy (which is not a criticism since that’s just the type of show it is).

Dallas also features characters who are slightly easier to like. Jock Ewing, the family patriarch, is a tough old buzzard who had been a very unscrupulous operator in his youth. With age he’s mellowed a bit and even regrets some of his past actions, and he is genine and passionately devoted to his family. His wife, always known as Miss Ellie (Barbara bel Geddes), is a warm and sympathetic personality. Their youngest son, Bobby, is a bit of Goody Two Shoes although as the series progresses he develops a bit more grit. Bobby’s wife Pamela (Victoria Principal) is probably the most straightforwardly sympathetic character in the series. The grand-daughter Lucy (Charlene Tilton) is a bit of a Wild Thing and a bit of a spoilt brat although she becomes progressively more stable and less selfish. 

These are all people who are fairly normal and likeable. But don’t panic - there are other characters who are anything but normal and anything but likeable. Most of all of course there’s the older son J. R. Ewing (Larry Hagman). J. R. is one of television’s most memorable villains. He has the business ethics of a cobra and in his personal life he’s a magnificent blend of arrogance, cowardice, hypocrisy, duplicity and all-round nastiness. In spite of all this he can’t quite be described as a mere melodrama villain. In his own way he’s devoted to his family and at times he displays an odd sort of vulnerability, as if all his scheming and determination to win at all costs is an over-compensation for a sense of self-doubt. Even when he’s at his most conniving I can’t help hoping he succeeds at whatever his latest scheme happens to be!

There’s also the deliciously oily Cliff Barnes. The Barnes and Ewing families have been feuding for decades. Cliff is a slimy political operator who lives for one just thing - he wants to destroy the Ewing family. Most of all he wants to destroy J. R. Ewing. He’s sneaky and vicious but his plans are usually so obvious that he’s unlikely ever to succeed. With J. R. set up as a melodrama villain it was a sound idea to avoid the temptation to make his nemesis heroic. Cliff is much more contemptible than J. R. - J. R. at least has some kind of vision even if it’s a self-aggrandising kind of vision while Cliff’s jealousy makes him merely petty. It might be difficult to admire J. R. but he’s a big man while Cliff Barnes is a little man, psychologically and spiritually.

The contrast between Jock Ewing and his old rival Digger Barnes is rather similar. For all his ruthlessness and lack of moral scruples Jock actually built something. Digger might be in some ways a nicer guy but he’s not a man who could ever build anything. We can grudgingly respect Jock and J. R. while it’s hard not to despise Digger and Cliff.

And then there’s J. R.’s wife Sue-Ellen. Their marriage is not exactly a successful one. In fact it’s a disaster. Sue-Ellen can barely stand to have J. R. touch her. J. R. is always chasing other women. And Sue-Ellen is slowly getting crazier and crazier.

The idea of making the Ewings not just oil tycoons but cattle ranchers as well is a good one. You get two different worlds of wealth and power both offering their own opportunities for intrigue and drama.  

Dallas takes political corruption for granted. Politicians are either up for sale to the highest bidder or they’re scheming selfish power-crazed sociopaths, or more usually they fall into both categories. The series also takes it for granted that the world of big business is a world of merciless sharks, with J.R. Ewing being even more shark-like than most. On the other hand J.R. isn’t pretending to be a philanthropist or a saint so really it’s the politicians who are the more contemptible.

The series strikes the right balance between the business activities of the Ewings and their personal lives.

When judging the acting you have to remember that this is a soap opera and the acting is supposed to be somewhat on the melodramatic side. Bearing that in mind most of the performances work pretty well. Jim Davis does the crusty old family patriarch thing to perfection but with a strong dash of ruthlessness and bloody-mindedness as well. Victoria Principal makes Pamela Ewing warm and sympathetic without being bland. Linda Gray as Sue Ellen is totally over-the-top but it’s hard to see how else she could have played it and she is fun. 

Of course it’s Larry Hagman as J.R. who is the star. What’s most impressive is that at times he really can make us feel sorry for J.R. despite his awfulness. J.R. is in many ways like a little boy desperately trying to prove himself. Hagman’s performance really is a joy.

So far I’m up to the halfway point of season three and I’m thoroughly enjoying myself.

Monday, 20 March 2017

Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased)

Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), which went to air from 1969 to 1970, has never been one of my favourite ITC series but I have to admit it has a certain odd charm.

Jeff Randall (Mike Pratt) and Marty Hopkirk (Kenneth Cope) are partners in a private detective agency in London. When Marty is killed Jeff thinks he’ll be running the business alone but while Marty is certainly dead he is far from ready to retire. He might be a ghost now but he’s still a very useful partner. Marty is very limited in his ability to interact with the world of the living. He can’t touch objects or people but being invisible to everyone apart from Jeff makes him almost the ideal private eye - he can keep people under surveillance without ever having to worry about being spotted.

The film of Randall and Hopkirk still exists in another sense as well - Marty’s widow Jeannie (Annette Andre) is Jeff’s secretary and assistant. Jeff Randall is the only one who can see the ghostly Marty. Marty is keen to help his old partner but he’s equally keen to keep an eye (at times a rather jealous eye) on his pretty young widow.

The tone of this series varies from fairly serious to quite whimsical. Some of the stories are reasonably realistic (apart from the presence of Marty) while others veer wildly in the direction of the fantastic and even the farcical. 

Randall and Hopkirk are not exactly at the glamorous end of the spectrum as far as private detectives go. In fact they’re very down-market, frequently broke and generally rather shabby and seedy. They make most of their money from divorce work and other slightly sleazy investigative jobs. And that’s the major problem with this series. Combining the supernatural and private eye genres might have worked if the private eyes in question had been glamorous and up-market, or perhaps better still amateur crime-fighters in the style of The Saint. It doesn’t always quite work. Jeff Randall is very much a private eye in the down-at-heel gritty realist style of Public Eye. The supernatural elements lend themselves to light-hearted banter and the kinds of misunderstandings and confusions that can be very amusing if handled with the required lightness of touch but that necessary lightness of touch is totally at odds with the rather hard-boiled Jeff Randall desperately trying to make ends meet by taking any job that’s offered no matter how unsavoury it might be.

It’s not that there’s anything terribly wrong with the scripts in general. Tony Williamson and Donald James wrote the majority of the scripts and both were fine television writers. The plots are often inventive and at times make very clever use of the supernatural element. The problem is that the tensions between the light and breezy supernatural comedy elements and the gritty realist tough guy private eye elements are never resolved satisfactorily because they’re inherently incompatible.

There were disagreements behind the scenes among the production team which doubtless explains why the tone of this series is somewhat inconsistent. 

Cyril Frankel acted as creative consultant (and directed many of the episodes) and aimed to give the series a certain distinctive look with lots of greens and browns, which works quite well. It also has to be said that production values are in general quite high. Frankel also very much wanted the series to have a very Raymond Chandleresque feel to it

When you’re making a series that features a gimmick (such as a ghost) the trick is to find ways to use the gimmick advantageously without the results seeming too contrived. The episode That's How Murder Snowballs (written by Ray Austin) is a good example of the right way to do this. Randall is investigating a theatrical murder - a mind-reading act that went fatally wrong. Randall needs to go undercover which means he needs to land a job in the theatre - rather difficult for someone with no theatrical talents or reputation. Luckily he does have a partner who is a ghost and it’s very easy to do a great mind-reading act if you have a ghost to help you out.

The reason this episode works so well is that Austin eliminates the tough guy angle altogether. Virtually all the action takes place in the theatre, with Randall undercover as a show-business type. Mike Pratt softens his performance here, to good effect. Since the entire story inhabits the make-believe world of the theatre the supernatural elements work delightfully. A ghost may be out of place in the world of hard-boiled private detectives but he seems right at home in the theatre. Having exactly the right mix of suspense, action and comedy also helps.

Just for the Record is nicely whimsical. Randall and Jeannie are employed to keep an eye on contestants in a beauty contest while Marty stumbles onto an incredible robbery at the Public Records Office. Not the sort of place most people would think of robbing but there are ultra secret documents stored there that could be sold for millions to foreign newspapers. In this case the thieves are after something much much bigger than mere money. 

In Murder Ain't What It Used to Be! Marty encounters a fellow ghost and it’s not a happy meeting. This particular ghost was a Chicago gangster who has been waiting thirty-five years for revenge and now thinks his chance has come, but he’ll need the help of the living. Which means he wants Jeff Randall to carry out his vengeance for him. While things get rather farcical at times Tony Williamson’s script is actually quite clever and the resolution is very neat and impressive. 

Whoever Heard of a Ghost Dying? pits Marty and Jeff against a very formidable adversary - an expert in occult phenomena who knows how to handle ghosts, and even knows how to exorcise them. A very good episode.

In The House on Haunted Hill Jeff takes a case that is oddly appropriate - he has to investigate a haunted house. He has another case going at the same time, looking into the theft of a consignment of diamonds, so he assigns Marty to the haunted house case - who better than a ghost to investigate a haunting? It’s not a bad episode - fairly lighthearted without being silly.

In When Did You Start to Stop Seeing Things? Marty is understandably worried when he realises that Jeff can no longer see him or hear him. He’s even more worried when it appears that Jeff is behaving very strangely and seems to be involved in some very shady goings-on. Marty realises that Jeff needs to consult a psychiatrist but how can he convince him of this if Jeff can no longer see or hear him? It’s an episode that illustrates the major problem of this series, the odd mixture of whimsicality with much darker themes, but this particular story resolves that conflict with reasonable success.

The Ghost Who Saved the Bank at Monte Carlo is a delight. Marty’s eccentric Aunt Clara has come up with a fool-proof system for breaking the bank at Monte Carlo and it appears that three separate gangs of crooks want to get hold of that system. This one is played purely for fun (and succeeds admirably) with a wonderful array of ruthless but not very efficient criminals spending as much time double-crossing each other as conspiring against poor Aunt Clara. The terrific supporting cast includes John Sharp, Roger Delgado, Nicholas Courtney (yes, the Brig from Doctor Who) and best of all the great Brian Blessed!

Most of these early episodes were penned by Tony Williamson and his approach to the series is spot-on - plenty of fun and clever use of Marty’s ghostly capabilities.

Who Killed Cock Robin? is rather enjoyably lighthearted and is typical of Williamson’s approach. Jeff’s latest case is a bit out of his usual line. He has to act as bodyguard for a bunch of birds, of the feathered variety. The birds were the main beneficiaries under the will of an eccentric old lady but her other heirs would be quite happy to see those birds out of the way. They’d also be quite happy to see each other out of the way.

When the Spirit Moves You is another Tony Williamson episode and it’s pure delight, with con-man Calvin P. Bream (Anton Rodgers) who can see ghosts but only when he is drunk. And it so happens that Marty needs Calvin to see him, so he has to keep getting him drunk.

The later episodes were mostly written by Donald James and generally speaking they emphasise the hardboiled private eye stuff rather than the whimsical fantasy angle. He was a fine writer but perhaps his style was not as well suited to this series as Williamson’s.

For the Girl Who Has Everything is a very good Donald James episode. A wealthy and much-married American woman is being troubled by a ghost. This is more of a classic murder mystery story with ghosts as a bonus.

In The Man from Nowhere a man shows up claiming to be none other than Marty Hopkirk, in a new body. Jeannie seems at least halfway convinced by his story. Jeff of course knows the man is a fake but he can’t very well tell Jeannie about Marty’s ghostly existence. The real puzzle is - what does the fake Marty want? This is a pretty solid story and it has the added bonus of the always wonderful Patrick Newell as a guest star.

Somebody Just Walked Over My Grave is a pretty good episode about 18th century grave-robbers, a phony aristocrat, a feckless heir with agoraphobia and a burning desire to be a painter (despite a total lack of talent) and a kidnapping that seems rather suspicious.

Could You Recognise the Man Again? is one of the episodes that is more or less a standard private eye story with Marty’s ghostly appearances almost tacked on as an afterthought. Jeff and Jeannie are key witnesses in a murder case against a gangster but will they live to testify? Vendetta for a Dead Man is another routine private eye tale that fails to take much advantage of Marty’s ghostly presence, although it’s still extremely well executed and highly entertaining. Marty is completely superfluous in It's Supposed to Be Thicker Than Water, a routine story about beneficiaries to a large estate being killed off one by one. The Trouble with Women is another episode with a hardboiled tinge to it. Randall finds that a routine job investigating a philandering husband has lead him into a very awkward situation. You Can Always Find a Fall Guy is also a hard-boiled PI story, in which Jeff is employed by a nun although perhaps he should have realised that it’s an odd sort of nun who wears eye make-up. He also should have realised that maybe he was being set up. It’s a fairly good episode of its type, with good guest appearances by Juliet Harmer (known to cult TV fans for Adam Adamant Lives!) and the always delightfully nasty Garfield Morgan.

The Ghost Talks is interesting. Mike Pratt had managed to break both his legs which presented rather a problem. The solution was to have him play his scenes from a hospital bed, with Marty recounting his adventures on an early case when he was still alive. This offered the opportunity for the audience to see a live Marty which provided a change of pace. The story itself is a decent spy thriller tale with Marty conned into stealing state secrets.

Phony psychics are naturally going to pop up frequently in a series dealing with a ghost. Ralph Smart’s But What a Sweet Little Room is a fairly routine but well-executed example of such stories.

As the series progresses it becomes noticeably more hardboiled and realistic in flavour while also taking less and less advantage of the ghostly angle. Personally I prefer the more light-hearted episodes and they’re also the ones that tend to make the most of the supernatural element.

All three regular cast members - Mike Pratt as Randall, Kenneth Cope as Marty and Annette Andre as Jean Hopkirk - are excellent. Mike Pratt really does make a terrific seedy private eye.

Despite its flaws Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) is actually pretty entertaining, more so than I’d remembered. The earlier episodes (mostly written by Tony Williamson) are better than the later ones but they’re all enjoyable. Recommended.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Fireball XL5 (1962-3)

Gerry Anderson had made several puppet series in the late 1950s but it was his Supermarionation series, starting with Supercar in 1961, which brought him fame and success. Supercar was followed by Fireball XL5 which ran for 39 half-hour episodes from 1962 to 1963.

While the most notable thing about Gerry Anderson’s 1960s Supermarionation series was the extraordinarily rapid technical progress made in short a short period. Supercar back in 1961 was great fun but fairly crude. By 1967, with Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, Anderson’s series had become technically rather sophisticated and the special effects were often quite impressive.

There was another feature of these series that is worth noting. It’s almost as if Anderson was following the same cohort of kids as they gradually grew a bit older. Supercar and Fireball XL5 which followed a year later were very much children’s series. Stingray in 1964 gave the impression of being aimed at slightly older kids. By the time we reach Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons in 1967 we’re dealing with more what could be described as a young adult series rather a children’s series. The kids who watched Supercar six years earlier would now be a least approaching the young adult bracket. The much darker themes, the more realistic feel, the more life-like puppets, all these things make sense if we assume that all these series were watched by essentially the same group of kids.

The puppets in Fireball XL5 still have the exaggerated overtly puppet-like facial features that they had in Supercar. This would be toned down somewhat in Stingray and Thunderbirds. Opinions vary on the merits of the “big-headed” puppets used in all the series up to Thunderbirds compared to the naturally-proportioned puppets of the later Captain Scarlet and Joe 90. The earlier puppets do have a bit more personality.

Every Gerry Anderson series had to have a gimmick associated with the headquarters of whichever organisation was featured in the series. In Stingray Marineville can be made to disappear beneath the ground in the event of an attack, International Rescue’s headquarters in Thunderbirds is hidden on a remote island. In Fireball XL5 the main building of Space City rotates. I have no idea why it rotates but it adds the right futuristic touch.

Of course a space adventure series could have had used just an ordinary rocket ship of the type so familiar in 50s sci-fi movie. That would never satisfied Gerry Anderson - he insisted that the models used had to be clever and imaginative. The take-off of Fireball XL5 from its inclined launching track with a rocket sled to provide extra power still looks pretty cool. The little rocket scooters ridden by Steve and Venus are a fun touch as well and they were a neat way to solve one of the big problems with puppets - the difficulty of making them seem to walk convincingly.

Colonel Steve Zodiac is a typical Gerry Anderson square-jawed hero with an American accent (he was voiced by a Canadian actor). The crew of Fireball XL5 also includes the glamorous Frenchwoman Dr Venus (a doctor of space medicine, and voiced by Sylvia Anderson), Professor Matthew Matic (your basic absent-minded genius professor type) and Robert the Robot (voiced by Gerry Anderson, his only acting credit). 

One of the fun things about shows like this is spotting the outlandish scientific errors. In Fireball XL5’s case the most obvious is that the characters can leave their spaceships and zip around in the vacuum of space without space-suits (although they do take oxygen tablets). Equally amusing is the idea (illustrated in Spy in Space) that during weightlessness you rise straight up to the roof of the spaceship cabin and you can’t get down again. Of course no-one would think of putting hand-holds inside a spaceship for such eventualities.

On the other hand the idea that the nose-cone of Fireball XL5 (Fireball Junior) can be detached to make landings on other planets while the rest of the ship remains in orbit is an interesting anticipation of the Apollo program.

The tone of the series varies from moderately serious to totally light-hearted. The lighter episodes are generally OK if you keep in mind that this is after all a kids’ show. Steve Zodiac has to deal with everything from spies to pirates to gangsters to killer plants to beautiful but deadly princesses. 

In Spy in Space a bungling master spy is trying to steal FireballXL5. 

Space Pirates is an enjoyable little romp, with a couple of pirates straight out of Treasure Island, complete with eye-patches, cutlasses and classic pirate talk.

In Space Pen daring thieves make their escape from Space City with top-secret material and they have even burgled Steve Zodiac’s own quarters. Fireball XL5’s pursuit of the thieves leads them to a prison planet where Steve, Venus and Professor Matic pose as gangsters. This is a fine episode.

In Plant Man From Space the Earth is menaced by monstrous plants from another planet. Steve and his crew will have to go to that planet to find a hormone that will prevent these plants from strangling the Earth. In this episode we see Fireball XL5’s predecessor, the Fireball XL1.

In Prisoner on the Lost Planet Fireball responds to a distress signal from uncharted space. It seems that a beautiful Amazon princess, marooned alone on a distant planet, needs to be rescued. Venus soon starts to suspect that Steve Zodiac will have to be rescued from the clutches of the Amazon princess! A fun episode.

1875 is an amusing little time travel story, with Steve Zodiac finding himself sheriff of a one-horse town in the Wild West, while Venus and Commander Zero are daring bank robbers.

These are all mainly comic episodes but there are some slightly more serious stories. 

The Doomed Planet concerns a planet that is about to be destroyed by impact with another planet. Luckily both planets are uninhabited. Or are they? There’s also a hint of romance in this story. There are some interesting camera angles too, not easy to achieve in a puppet series. And the planet surface is rather atmospheric. There’s an audio commentary to this episode, by voice actor David Graham who worked on quite a few of the Gerry Anderson series.

XL5 to H20 is a particularly good episode. It has a well thought-out and fairly exciting storyline, there’s a hint of real danger and we learn something new about Fireball Junior’s capabilities - it can act as a submarine. Steve Zodiac and his crew are on a mission of mercy to rescue the last two survivors of an entire civilisation but they find themselves in danger from a rather nasty alien.

The Last of the Zanadus tells the story of the sole survivor of a civilisation, and his plans for revenge on those who destroyed his people.

In The Sun Temple a missile from Earth aimed at an asteroid belt is mistaken by two crazed priests on the planet Rejusca for an insult to their sun god. Only a human sacrifice can atone for this insult! A reasonably entertaining episode.

In Mystery of the TA2 the crew of Fireball XL5 find the wreckage of a Space Patrol ship that disappeared forty-eight years earlier. The pilot apparently tried to reach a nearby ice planet - could he have survived in such an inhospitable world? Could he have survived there for half a century?

The Triads is a promising story in which Steve Zodiac and his crew are marooned on a planet where everything is three times bigger than on Earth. Unfortunately there’s just not quite enough plot to take advantage of the setup.

Special mention should be made of the delightfully sappy but oddly charming closing theme song, sung by Don Spencer.

Gerry Anderson wanted very much for each of his series to be superior to the one that preceded it and he communicated that determination to the entire production team. The most dramatic leap forward was probably that between Fireball XL5 and Stingray. Stingray wasn’t just technically more polished it was also slightly more sophisticated in its storytelling techniques. Everyone involved intended that Stingray would be a better series than Fireball XL5 and it is. But Fireball XL5 still has a certain charm. Recommended, and if you're a serious fan of Gerry Anderson's TV work you'll certainly want to see it.

Friday, 3 March 2017

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, season 2 (1965-66)

The first season of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea was a major success in 1964 and established this series as an excellent and fairly intelligent blending of science fiction and espionage adventure. The ABC network clearly had a winning formula on its hands. So naturally studio executives decided to start making changes. They wanted a less serious tone. The result was that the second season featured more monsters and more outlandish story lines.

It would be an exaggeration to claim that the studio executives ruined the second season. It’s not quite as good as season one (but then season one had been very very good indeed). It does however have its charms. Even when it gets a little silly it’s still fun and interspersed with the monster stories are more straightforward spy stories that revert to the tone of the first season. The best season two episodes compare quite favourably with the best of the earlier episodes but the quality is just not quite as consistently high.

There were also major changes to the look of the show. It was now shot in colour. The trouble with the interior of a submarine is that it’s not very colourful but that problem is solved by giving the crew outrageous coloured uniforms.

This season also marked the debut of the Flying Sub. The Flying Sub might be a slightly dubious technological concept but it’s certainly great fun and it looks cool. It also adds a certain flexibility to the story lines, allowing Admiral Nelson to jet about all over the globe while still being able to return ton the Seaview whenever he wanted to.

Overall the visuals were spruced up in this second season and they give it a more futuristic science fictional feel.

The cast remains mostly unchanged. Richard Basehart and David Hedison play things fairly straight and it works. 

The Left-Handed Man is in some ways more like a first season episode. There are no monsters and no real science fictional elements; it’s essentially a tale of political intrigue. And a good one. The Deadliest Game is another political intrigue episode although this one does have some mild science fiction content. A power-crazed American general plots to kill the President in his new battle headquarters deep beneath the sea. Admiral Nelson musty try to avert a nuclear war as a consequence.

The Peacemaker is in more or less the same vein. An idealistic scientist wants world peace and he’s prepared to kill everyone on the planet to bring it about.

The Cyborg is fairly typical second season stuff with some fine science fictional silliness. A evil mastermind has a crazy plan to force world government on the nations of the world. This will usher in an era of world peace. He hates war and violence. Of course in order to end war and violence he will have to kill millions of people. The world government will be run by his army of invincible super-intelligent cyborgs. To make his plan work he creates a cyborg duplicate of Admiral Nelson. There’s nothing startling in the plot but it’s executed with a great deal of style. There are some rather good special effects. The cyborg costume s would have cost almost nothing but they look reasonably creepy and effective. Victor Buono is delightfully over-the-top as the insane mastermind. The real highlight though is the set design - again probably quite inexpensive but the secret cyborg headquarters in Switzerland manages to look rather cool and slightly goofy at the same time. This episode is a triumph of style over substance but luckily the style is very impressive indeed.

Leviathan is very typical indeed of season two. This is Monster of the Week television at its goofiest. A scientist working in a deep sea lab discovers a fissure in the Earth’s crust that goes all the way down to the core. Could this have something to do with the gigantic fish that the Seaview keeps encountering in the vicinity of the lab? If so, why do the monstrous fish keep disappearing? Has the whole crew gone crazy? 

Monster from Outer Space is even goofier. A space probe has returned from Saturn, with a creature of some kind attached to it. Of course the creature, a sort of inflatable plant-monster blob thing, naturally wants to take over the Seaview. And then the world! The Monster's Web is, obviously, another monster story - this time it’s a giant undersea spider. At least this episode has an interesting variation on the mad scientist theme - Captain Gantt might be a bit mad but he isn’t evil.

The Silent Saboteurs is another non-monster story, this time a spy story with science fictional elements (spacecraft, force fields and super-computers). US space probes are being destroyed on re-entry and the destruction is carried out from a base in an unnamed Asian country. Captain Crane has to make contact with an agent but there are two people both claiming to be the contact. One is obviously a traitor. The Machines Strike Back follows a similar pattern, espionage blended with science fiction elements. The US has built a fleet of missile-armed drone submarines but now they’re started to go rogue and launch their missiles at the US. These two episodes keep the science fictional content fairly plausible - in fact they deal with technologies that were already on the horizon at the time.

The X Factor is a spy story with a few touches of the fantastic. A toy company is being used as a front for a spy ring and a top scientist working on the ultimate weapon has been kidnapped. This is a fast-paced episode with plenty of action. What really makes it stand out is the inspired job done by director Leonard Horn. There are lots of interesting camera angles, some well-considered high-angle shots and even a brief use of a hand-held camera. It all contributes to the excitement. It was exactly the right approach, given that this episode has a very James Bond feel to it. One of the best episodes of the second season, in fact one of the best episodes of the entire series.

Dead Men’s Doubloons is typical of the slightly more lighthearted approach of season two but it’s thoroughly enjoyable and it’s clever even when it’s just a little silly. The Seaview is a routine mission, inspecting undersea launch sites for intercontinental missiles, when something goes terribly wrong with one of the launch sites. It could be a simple malfunction but Captain Brent, seconded to the Seaview from Allied High Command, has another theory - it’s an ancient pirate curse! 

The Death Ship opens with an exciting submarine vs submarine battle, something of a rarity (surprisingly) in this series. This occurs just before a trial of a new automation system. During the trial the Seaview will be crewed only by Admiral Nelson, Captain Crane and eight civilian scientists. This episode is actually like a country-house murder mystery in which the guests are murdered one by one and they know one of them has to be the murderer.

A wrecked World War 2 submarine and five survivors who don’t know the war is over living in a cave on a deserted island provide the subject matter for ...And Five of Us Are Left. To add some extra interest four of the survivors are Americans and one is Japanese.

At times the silliness rises to potentially dangerous levels. There are no prizes for guessing that happens in Jonah and the Whale, although this episode is still thoroughly enjoyable. The Menfish on the other hand it’s just a bit too silly and isn’t helped by unconvincing special effects. A mad scientist (played with enthusiasm by John Dehner) is creating human-fish hybrids. The idea isn’t terrible but it’s not developed in an interesting way and the execution is poor. 

While the second season is much less consistent than the superb first season (which I reviewed here) it’s still fine television entertainment. Highly recommended. 

Thursday, 23 February 2017

Mogul, AKA The Troubleshooters (1965)

The Troubleshooters was one of the BBC’s more successful drama series, running from 1965 to 1972. The first season was in fact entitled Mogul. It was moderately successful but it was decided to make some drastic changes for the second season which was also given the slightly more exciting title The Troubleshooters.

The series deals with the Mogul oil company, a large concern with international interests. The oil business is not for the faint-hearted and Mogul conducts its business efficiently but rather ruthlessly. Managing director Brian Stead (Geoffrey Keen) is determined and very competent, with somewhat flexible ethics.

There is virtually no limit to the number of things that can go wrong in this business and it’s up to troubleshooters like Peter Thornton (Ray Barrett) to sort out these problems, wherever in the world they may occur.

Only five of the thirteen first season episodes survive.

The very first episode, Kelly’s Eye, does survive. Information has leaked to the press about the progress being made at one of Mogul’s exploration platforms in the North Sea. The company regards this very seriously indeed. Any information gained in the process of oil exploration has been gained at considerable expense to the company and even information of a negative nature could give Mogul an advantage over its rivals. As a result the company goes to great lengths to ensure that leaks of information from drilling crews just don’t happen. Every member of every drilling crew has to sign a confidentiality agreement before being employed. But now a leak has occurred and it’s up to the company’s top troubleshooter, Peter Thornton (Ray Barrett), to find out how this information got out.

It’s almost like a private eye story, as Thornton not only has to interview every member of the crew he has to do quite a lot of detective work as well. An excellent episode.

Young Turk takes place in a small sheikhdom in the Middle East where Mogul are seeking oil exploration rights. Things haven’t gone too well. In fact a Mogul employee has been killed. Young Bob Driscoll (Barry Foster) is sent out to take charge of the negotiating team. The negotiations will be delicate and Driscoll is not the most subtle man in the world. Have Mogul made an error of judgment here? Another fine episode.

Tosh and Nora is an odd episode, more a kitchen sink drama kind of story, about an ageing seamen on one of Mogul’s oil tankers. Tosh Brinkwater has never been much of a seaman and he’s never been much of a husband to Nora. I suppose we’re expected to regard him as a loveable rogue but he’s actually a rather unpleasant old fool, the sort of person who is too stupid and too stubborn to realise that people are trying to do him a favour. The only positive thing about his episode is that we get to see another, slightly more human, side to Brian Stead. This is really a very dull episode.

Out of Range involves a geological survey in the Sahara. This is the first time in the desert for young geologist David Izard, the son of company secretary Willy Izard (Philip Latham). The head of the survey team, Chris Darnley (Percy Herbert), goes to extraordinary lengths to explain the hazards of the desert, and the rules that have to be followed if you wish to stay alive in such an environment. Of course trying to persuade a young Oxford graduate to listen to good advice was always likely to be a futile task. Meanwhile Peter Thornton has decided the whole survey is a waste of time anyway and the party is called back. They’ll be back at the coast in a day - surely nothing can go wrong now? This is a truly excellent story.

Stoneface takes place in the icy wastes of northern Canada. Bob Driscoll has been despatched to interview Mojida, an Iroquois working for Mogulo as an oil exploration rig boss. Mogul has been considering promoting him to the ranks of their troubleshooters and Driscoll’s job is to make sure he’d be capable of handling the pressures of the job. As it happens disaster is threatening to strike the oil exploration rig and there are serious tensions between Mojida and his French-Canadian number two man Godin. They’re both very competent but Godin believes in taking risks while Mojida believes in playing it safe. It’s a good episode with a dramatic action finale.

This series doesn’t quite fit into conventional genre categories. It borrows from the action adventure genre but there are boardroom struggles, there’s international intrigue, and there’s human drama. In this first season it’s obvious that the intention was to focus not just on the glamour and excitement of the oil industry but to show the human faces of some of the ordinary Mogul employees as well. It’s years since I’ve seen any of the episodes from the later seasons so I can’t really comment on the extent of the format change after season one, although I suspect that it was probably felt that a greater focus on the glamour and excitement would be desirable.

Unusually for a BBC series Mogul isn’t overly heavy-handed in its treatment of the political aspects of the oil business. Mogul is a company competing in a cut-throat business and they play the game hard but they’re not depicted as being evil incarnate. Brian Stead’s ethics may be somewhat flexible but he’s not a crook and although he can be a hard man he’s no monster. Willy Izard is a company man who has devoted his life to Mogul but while he’s paid a price for this he’s not portrayed as being stupid or wrong. He’s made his choices and he’s prepared to live with them.

Peter Thornton’s job sometimes involves stepping on people’s toes and he accepts that but he isn’t a man to throw his weight around just for the sake of it. He can be tough but he can be conciliatory as well. At times Bob Driscoll’s job can involve deception and while he is prepared to do what is necessary he doesn’t always enjoy it (just as Peter Thornton doesn’t always enjoy having to make tough decisions). In other words all the characters have some depth and nuance to them. They’re not heroes but they’re not evil capitalist lackeys, they’re just realists who accept the world as it is.

It’s tragic that only five episodes of this first season survive - it’s not quite enough to get more than a vague impression of what the series set out to achieve. It’s to be hoped that this DVD release will be successful enough to lead to a DVD release for the fifteen surviving episodes of season two. Danann’s Region 2 release of the first season boasts transfers that are quite acceptable. Some episodes are in better shape than others but we’re lucky that any of them survive in any form.

Mogul is fine television. Highly recommended.