Thursday, 9 August 2018

Time Travelers (TV pilot, 1976)

Time Travelers is more than a little unusual in being a collaboration between Irwin Allen and Rod Serling. It’s a TV-movie that was actually made in 1976 as a pilot for a TV series that never eventuated. Irwin Allen had had some success with his 1960s series The Time Tunnel. The Time Tunnel achieved very good ratings but was cancelled after a single season due to some rather unfortunate bungling by network executives. Irwin Allen clearly thought (probably correctly) that the time travel idea still had potential.

The script for the pilot was written by Jackson Gillis from a story by Rod Serling but in fact it’s obvious that Irwin Allen had considerable input since the end result clearly bears a fairly close resemblance to The Time Tunnel.

A frightening epidemic has struck the United States. The cause is obscure and the mortality rate is extremely high. It appears to bear an uncanny resemblance to a disastrous mid-19th century epidemic. Scientists like Dr Clint Earnshaw (Sam Groom) are convinced it’s the exact same disease. A Chicago doctor by the name of Joshua Henderson had apparently had some startling successes in treating the illness back in the 1870s. Almost all his patients recovered whereas almost all of every other doctor’s patients died. It seems that despite the primitive state of medical knowledge in the mid-19th century Dr Henderson had somehow stumbled upon the cure.

Sadly all of Dr Henderson’s records were destroyed in the infamous Chicago Fire of 1871, If only it were possible to travel back in time to talk to Dr Henderson! To his considerable surprise Dr Earnshaw is contacted by a man who claims that such a thing is possible. The man, Jeff Adams (Tom Hallick), gives the impression of being more of a cowpoke than a scientist. Jeff invites Dr Earnshaw to fly with him to a secret location where a top-security research establishment is to be found. Of course the man is obviously some kind of lunatic, but lunatics are not usually given access to jets by the White House and they don’t usually work at research institutions run by Nobel Prize winners. Maybe this guy isn’t a lunatic after all.

A few hours later Jeff and Dr Earnshaw are in Chicago, and it’s 1871. The only problem is they were supposed to arrive on October 4 but it’s actually October 7, so in just over 24 hours the whole city will be an inferno and any chance of contacting Dr Henderson or seeing his records will be lost. It’s a race against time!

Irwin Allen’s enthusiasm for science fiction was longstanding but this story taps into his later and even more famous obsession, disasters. In fact it’s as much a disaster movie as a sci-fi movie. The Chicago Fire of 1871 was a very big deal, raging for three days and killing 300 people.

My first impression is that the main set in the time travel complex in The Time Tunnel was much more impressive. The Time Tunnel’s control centre looked expensive and stylish and lavish whereas the equivalent in Time Travelers looks small and cheap.

The period stuff in 1871 Chicago is done reasonably well. As with The Time Tunnel Allen relies heavily on footage from earlier 20th Century-Fox movies, in this instance the footage coming from the 1937 In Old Chicago. The period scenes make very effective use of outdoor sets built for Hello, Dolly!

Sam Groom and Tom Hallick are quite adequate as the two time travelers. They’re totally overshadowed by Richard Basehart’s bravura performance as Dr Henderson. Richard Basehart overacting is always a particular joy to watch.

You’ll come across some people who will try to tell you that everything good about this TV-movie is due to the great Rod Serling, and everything bad must be due to the awful Irwin Allen. That’s plausible if you’re a true believer in the Rod Serling cult, which I most certainly am not. Serling has always struck me as a wildly overrated writer who took himself incredibly seriously and was over-praised by critics. I’m always inclined not to subscribe to the popular view that Irwin Allen was a hack. Most of his TV series actually started very well, with quite good concepts, and then got progressively ruined by ill-judged interference by network suits. Even Lost in Space was genuine science fiction for the first few episodes. The Time Tunnel had been a pretty decent series and Time Travelers is essentially a remake of that series.

Time Travelers deals with time paradoxes exactly the way The Time Tunnel dealt with them. It doesn’t agonise over all the scientific details but it does make it clear that you can’t change the past. Even when you think you can it turns out to be an illusion. History stubbornly refuses to get changed.

Time Travelers deals in greater depth with an issue that The Time Tunnel did touch upon in some episodes, namely the basic overwhelming tragedy of time travel. As a time traveler you’re interacting with people who are in fact already dead. You might grow to like them, you might even fall in love with them, but if history has doomed them there’s nothing you can do about it. You can’t bring them back to the present day, and you can’t elect to stay in the past permanently yourself. It’s not just that the people you’re interacting with are long dead, it’s also that the societies you visit are long dead as well. You might think you’d like to stay in 1871 Chicago forever but you can’t. These things would clearly be a very major emotional issue for any real-life time traveler and Time Travelers deals with them sensitively but without wallowing too much in sentiment.

Time Travelers doesn’t have any actual action sequences but it has effective dramatic tension and it manages to achieve suspense even when you know, as the characters, know, some of what is going to happen. It has at least some emotional depth. It’s reasonably well thought-out science fiction. The premise that a doctor a hundred years ago had somehow stumbled upon a great medical breakthrough might be a little far-fetched but it has to be said that it’s developed fairly logically and sensibly.

In fact I get the feeling that this was the kind of reasonably intelligent TV science fiction that Irwin Allen was always hoping to do. He was destined always to be thwarted, always forced by commercial pressures and network interference to accept a massive dumbing down of his original concepts.

Unfortunately with Time Travelers he found himself thwarted once again with the network declining to pick it up as a series.

Rod Serling’s strength was his attempt to add psychological complexity to genre television but his big weaknesses were his tendencies towards manipulative sentimentality and preachiness. Fortunately Jackson Gillis’s screenplay mostly avoids excessive sentimentality and entirely avoids preachiness.

Time Travelers is offered as an extra on the Time Tunnel DVD set (at least it’s included in the complete series set although I’m not sure about the half-season sets). The transfer is not fantastic but it's perfectly watchable and since it's a free bonus feature I guess we shouldn't complain.

Time Travelers is on the whole surprisingly satisfactory. Recommended.

Thursday, 2 August 2018

1990 season 1 (1977)

1990 is a dystopian drama series made by the BBC. The first season went to air in 1977 with a second season following in 1978. The series was created by Wilfred Greatorex who had a notable career as a writer and producer on British television from the 60s to the early 80s.

The first episode, Creed of Slaves, doesn’t give us too much information. It’s obvious that Britain has an increasingly totalitarian government and that the main agent of repression is the Public Control Department (PCD), operating as part of the Home Office.

Most of the media is controlled by the government but there are still a few independent newspapers and there are still a few journalists willing to criticise the government. The most notorious such journalist is Jim Kyle (Edward Woodward). Kyle is clever and cautious, he’s very tech-savvy (he has some useful little devices that make it more difficult for the PCD to keep track of him) and he has a highly placed source within the government. Kyle is a thorn in the side of PCD director Herbert Skardon (Robert Lang). At this stage Skardon is using one of his deputies, the glamorous Delly Lomas (Barbara Kellermann), to try to manage Kyle. The idea is for Delly to use her feminine wiles to persuade Kyle to moderate his criticisms of the government.

This is a Britain sliding towards totalitarianism but not yet there. It’s at the point where dissidents are subject to serious harassment and the freedom of the press has been somewhat curtailed.

Kyle is involved with a group that is trying to get people out of the country. Emigration from Britain is pretty much banned. Rather oddly the series chooses to focus quite a bit on this subject of illegal emigrants, but most of them appear to be middle-class people who simply want to leave Britain because they could earn more money in the U.S. and it’s hard to feel much sympathy for them. The idea of smuggling people out of the country does lend itself to some suspenseful situations which are handled quite effectively in episodes like Decoy.

The main interest is the series of overlapping power struggles. Delly Lomas wants Herbert Skardon’s job as Controller and she wants it now. The other deputy controller, Tasker, wants Skardon’s job as well.

Kyle is mixed up in these power struggles because he has very ambiguous but definite PCD connections. He has helped them in the past. In fact they’ve never been quite sure if he’s an ally, a potential ally, or an enemy.

And then there’s his ambiguous relationship with Delly Lomas. Not a romance, but perhaps with that potential. Not quite a professional relationship. Essentially they’re both trying to use the other without getting used themselves and without getting emotionally entangled. It’s a dangerous game and we wonder which of them is going to turn out to be the better player.

Delly is clever, ruthless and entirely lacking in any kind of moral sense. She is driven purely by ambition. Skardon isn’t much better but he does seem to have some vague belief in the necessity of the repressive system he serves. The only thing Delly believes in is Delly’s career. Or at least that’s what she had always thought but now there’s the troubling possibility that she may be getting emotionally involved with Kyle.

The acting is the greatest strength of this series. Edward Woodward is excellent. Kyle is an interesting mix of cockiness and extreme caution and he’s a decidedly ambiguous character. Is he a brave and dedicated fighter for freedom? We know he’s a journalist so we’re inclined to suspect that he has no actual morals, that it’s all a game to him. Woodward shows great skill in maintaining that edge of ambiguity.

Barbara Kellermann is extremely good also. Delly is more clearcut. Her motivation is ambition and she’s untroubled by moral considerations. She’s clever but the question is whether she has the experience to beat an old hand like Skardon.

Robert Lang always did sinister characters well and he does a fine job as Skardon.

One thing that is interesting is that this series makes no attempt to disguise the nature of the government. This is clearly a Labour Government. The vicious Home Secretary is a former trade unionist, obviously working class. This is quite explicitly a leftist totalitarianism. It is mostly an old-fashioned leftist totalitarianism, obviously modelled on the old Soviet Union. The series has quite an old-fashioned feel to it.

This is the grey depressing world of Orwell’s 1984. but without most of the really interesting insights included in Orwell’s novel. The repressive measures enacted by the government in 1990 seem crude and amateurish and unimaginative. The idea of using psychiatry for social control was topical in the 70s, being a method favoured by the old Soviet Union, but 1990 does nothing interesting with the idea. The third episode, Health Farm, deals with mind control verging on mind destruction but in a superficial kind of way without any of the refinements of evil that Orwell gives us in 1984. The final episode of the first season is pure Orwell.

The problem is that this is a future society that was very plausible in the 1940s when Orwell wrote 1984. It was perhaps still plausible, but only just, in 1977 when this series was made. To a viewer today however it seems very 1940s.

The fact that 1990 deals with a totalitarianism not yet firmly established does add some dramatic possibilities. The danger with dystopian dramas is that everything seems too hopeless, there’s too much wallowing in despair. But in this case the struggle is not entirely unequal. The PCD has wide powers, but they’re not unlimited. Skardon does have to be careful not to overreach himself. The press has been mostly muzzled, but not totally. Kyle does have the ability to make life miserable for the PCD and for the Home Secretary.

It’s also quite strong on the psychology of repression. The types of people who end up joining the secret police are always the same and in an episode like Whatever Happened to Cardinal Wolsey? we get an extraordinarily chilling example in the person of Inspector Jones (Frank Mills).

It’s intriguing to compare this series with the other notable 1970s British dystopian television series, The Guardians, made a few years earlier. The Guardians seems much less dated, much more complex and subtle and much more relevant to today’s world.

1990 has been released on DVD in Region 2. It's a series with some definite flaws but the acting is excellent and it's worth a look if dystopian thrillers are your thing.

Wednesday, 25 July 2018

MacGyver season 2 (1986)

The 80s have always been a kind of television blank spot for me. For various reasons I managed to miss just about all the iconic 80s TV series. Now I’m starting to fill in some of those blanks. Including MacGyver.  Given the fact that I’m a fan of science fiction, spy stories and adventure tales it may seem incredible but I have never seen a single episode of MacGyver.

Since I haven’t been able to get hold of the first season I’ve had to start with season two which is available for rental here.

MacGyver is perhaps not quite as trashy as some 80s American TV shows but it makes up for that with extra helpings of corniness. And absolutely enormous dollops of sentimentality. It’s very hit-and-miss but at its best it’s kind of clever and rather appealing. At its worst it can be schmaltzy and embarrassing.

What made the series famous was of course MacGyver’s ability to take a handful of everyday objects and use them to construct whatever device happened to be needed in any situation. Not only can he always do this, he manages always to make it look vaguely plausible.

MacGyver works for the Phoenix Foundation. He describes it as a research foundation, and at other times as a think tank. It’s obviously a lot more than that. It’s fair to conclude that it has major connections with the intelligence community and that it’s involved in overseas operations of a military nature. A cynic might suspect that it’s basically a CIA front. In any case it gives the writers plenty of latitude - they can plausibly get MacGyver mixed up in just about any imaginable secret agent-type adventure.

His buddy Pete Thornton seems to be the head honcho of the Phoenix Foundation. He obviously has a military/intelligence background.

MacGyver has some very amusing ethical issues. There’s lots of violence in the series but only the bad guys carry guns. MacGyver doesn’t approve of guns. On the other hand he seems to be quite fond of bombs, as long as they’re homemade ones. And homemade howitzers, mortars, rocket launchers, all that sort of stuff he thoroughly approves of. Guns are bad but blowing stuff up is good clean fun. It’s as if they wanted to make a non-violent action series but realised that nobody would watch it so they added lots of violence but tried to do it in a way that people who disapproved of violence would approve of.

American action adventure TV series of the 80s all seem to have this weird problem with wanting to maximise the amount of violence but at the same time wanting to look non- violent. I assume the networks must have been going through a phase of being very nervous about TV violence. The A-Team solved the problem by featuring truly enormous quantities of violence but making sure that even when thousands of rounds of small arms ammunition are expended nobody actually gets killed or badly hurt. All the thousands of bullets that are fired apparently miss. Airwolf is another series that has an uncomfortable relationship with violence. It’s more openly violent than MacGyver or The A-Team but it still pulls its punches and the hero feels really bad about killing people.

Not only does MacGyver dislike guns, he also doesn’t drink or smoke and appears to be a vegetarian so there was a very real danger that he would come across as a Boy Scout. In fact he does come across as a Boy Scout. He’s much too perfect and he has no vices at all. He wants to help people. Whether they want to be helped or not. If you imagine what John-Boy Walton would have been like if he’d become a secret agent you have a pretty good idea of MacGyver’s personality.

It’s to Richard Dean Anderson’s credit that somehow he makes this character vaguely likeable.

The Human Factor is the season opener and it’s  man vs computer story. MacGyver is hired to try to break into a top-secret military research establishment in order to determine whether the new security system really is foolproof or not. The security system depends entirely on a computer, automated weapon systems and armed robots. It was developed by Dr Jill Ludlum (June Chadwick). MacGyver gets more than he bargained for when the system goes all Colossus: The Forbin Project on them and decides that MacGyver and Dr Ludlum are security threats that must be eliminated.

MacGyver of course comes up with lots of improvised tricks to circumvent the computer’s security procedures and in this episode MacGyver’s improvisations are particularly effective in a dramatic sense since the whole point of the story is remorseless machine logic pitted against human ingenuity and unpredictability. This is an exciting and generally excellent episode.

In The Eraser MacGyver is on the trail of Michael Simmons, who’s been selling high-tech secrets to the East Germans. The guy’s father is also trying to find him, or at least MacGyver thinks it’s the guy’s father. Actually it’s a hitman known as The Eraser. Simmons has been double-crossing some people who don’t like being double-crossed. MacGyver is pretty upset when he figures out he’s been taken in by a hitman. He likes to think he’s pretty good at judging people, so how could he have been so wrong? But was he really so wrong? Some neat twists in this one. A good episode.

Twice Stung is one of those conmen getting conned stories, and it’s OK.

The Wish Child is strange and interesting. There’s this Chinese legend about a magical boy, the Wish Child, and now some wealthy people in Chinatown are convinced that the kid brother of a Chinese friend of MacGyver’s is this magical boy. It’s obviously has to be a scam but the powers attributed to the Wish Child are pretty awesome and if it’s a scam it’s a high stakes scam.  I have no wonder if there really is a Chinese legend about the Wish Child but if there isn’t there should be because it’s kind of cool. And it’s an offbeat but effective episode. I liked it.

Back in the 1950s when juvenile delinquents started to become a thing in America movie and TV people got the idea that this social problem would provide great material for hard-hitting drama. They were wrong. At best the results were amusingly campy. Mostly they were just cringe-inducing. Final Approach belongs to the latter category. There’s one of those well-meaning programs to take gang kids out into the wilderness where the exposure to nature will magically transform them into decent law-abiding human beings. MacGyver is a sucker for this sort of thing so he’s involved in this program, only the plane taking them all back to civilisation crashes and now MacGyver has to figure out a way to stop these kids from murdering each other, keep them alive in a wilderness where there’s a rattlesnake under every blanket and a cougar around every corner, and get them back to civilisation.

And of course one of the kids is injured and if they can’t get him to a hospital within hours he’ll die. Add a teen romance sub-plot and you have a recipe for some truly awful television, and Final Approach really is dire.

MacGyver’s old buddy Jack Dalton has never ever told the truth about anything so chances are that the whole story he’s told MacGyver to inveigle him into a crazy adventure in Central America probably doesn’t contain a word of truth. But maybe, just maybe, this time Jack’s story might not be entirely lies. Maybe Jack really was mixed up in orchid-smuggling and maybe there really are kidnapped botanists needing to be rescued. Jack of Lies has some aviation adventure which is always a bonus, and this time MacGyver constructs a wonderfully inventive infernal machine for dealing with corrupt cops.  This episode is a fair amount of fun.

The Road Not Taken has MacGyver rescuing nuns and refugee children in Southeast Asia, and he meets up with an old flame who walked out on him eight years earlier. He still thinks she’s terrific but personally I think that the day she walked out on him was the luckiest day of his life. I’m sure that most of the key plot elements in this one have been borrowed from a very good first season episode of The A-Team. Unfortunately this is not a great MacGyver episode.

Eagles is MacGyver at its most cringe-inducing. MacGyver is communing with nature in this one. He tries to rescue some eagles that have been injured by very very bad men. He  also finds time to try to help a mom and her son who are having problems. The very very bad men naturally cause more problems.

The problem here is that there’s a message and it’s delivered in a very heavy-handed and clumsy manner and there’s a lot of sermonising.

Silent World has some intriguing ideas in it but unfortunately they make no sense at all. The Phoenix Foundation is involved in developing a new highly advanced missile that is voice-activated, and this technology can also be used to help deaf people to hear. MacGyver is involved in both the missile and hearing projects. A ring of spies wants to steal the missile and they hit on the idea of stealing it a piece at a time, since the component parts are basically harmless and won’t be protected by high security. So this idea I don’t buy - I just don’t think that’s how advanced missile systems work and I don’t think the US military would simply not bother with security to protect things like missile guidance systems!

This ingenious plan coked by the bad guys would have worked except for Carrie’s dreams. Carrie is a deaf girl in the hearing project and her dreams somehow anticipate the spies’ plans. We’re never given the slightest attempt at a plausible explanation for this. With a plausible explanation it could have been a very cool idea but with no explanation at all it’s just silly.

This episode also takes us deep deep deep into heart-warming territory. If you have a low tolerance for that sort of thing you might want to steer clear of this one.

MacGyver gets back on track with Three for the Road. This is the kind of MacGyver episode that works. MacGyver is in some remote desert town where he’s supposed to meet a Mob guy who has turned informant. The Mob guy wants to give MacGyver some very important evidence, but that evidence ends up in the ’59 Cadillac convertible belonging to has-been Hollywood swashbuckling star Guy Roberts (Edward Mulhare). Guy and his wife and MacGyver end up in the Cadillac being pursued by three Mob gunmen. This is a classic chase story that then the scene switches to a ghost town and it becomes a classic siege story. In fact, with a change of period, it would have made a great plot for one of Guy’s movies.

The mobsters have lots of guns. Guy and his wife and MacGyver don’t have any weapons of any kind. But they do have MacGyver. And he has lots of car parts and lots of junk with which to make an assortment of defensive and offensive weaponry.

This episode works because the tone is just right. It’s slightly whimsical, but without becoming silly. There’s a certain emotional resonance. Guy is a has-been trying desperately hard not to become a pathetic loser and trying even harder to retain his self-respect. He lives in a fantasy world but there’s no self-pity and most importantly there’s no manipulative sentimentality (which can be a problem in other MacGyver episodes). And it’s a genuinely exciting episode with cool action scenes.

Phoenix Under Siege is almost a great episode. Terrorists are trying to blow up the Phoenix Foundation headquarters building and MacGyver and his grandfather are inside it. There’s a fine battle of wits between MacGyver and the psychopathic female terrorist leader and MacGyver has to improvise all kinds of gadgets to defeat the building’s security measures. Everything you could hope for in a MacGyver episode, but the bad news is that there’s also lots of the stuff you dread in a MacGyver episode - lots of schmaltzy sentimentality. But if you can ignore the saccharine touches it’s a tense and exciting story.

In Family Matter somebody is trying to get revenge on Pete Thornton through his family. The guy is holding the family hostage in the middle of a swamp. MacGyver launches a one-man rescue operation. There’s some good action stuff in the bayous and as usual there’s too much emphasis on feel-good emotional stuff which slows down the action. But it’s still an entertaining episode.

After twelve episodes I have very mixed feeling about this series. MacGyver’s homemade gadgetry is always great fun. When the series concentrates on action it’s enjoyable but all too often it gets bogged down in touchy-feely stuff that seems wildly out of place. When MacGyver is good it’s pretty good but when it’s bad it’s really bad. It’s a series you’d definitely want to rent before buying.

Saturday, 21 July 2018

The Avengers #6 The Drowned Queen (novel)

Like most successful television series of its era The Avengers gave rise to a number of tie-in novels. These seem to have all been original novels rather than novelisations of episodes. The cover of The Drowned Queen indicates that it was the sixth Avengers novel but in fact there had been eight previous novels, not all of them from the same publisher. And some of the Avengers novels seem to have been published only in the US while others were only available in the UK so it does get a mite confusing. The Drowned Queen was the first of the Avengers novels to feature Tara King.

The Drowned Queen is certainly very ambitious. Steed and Tara King have gone undercover as crew members on the Atlantic Queen which is making its maiden voyage across the Atlantic.  The Atlantic Queen is not however a conventional ocean liner. It is a submarine ocean liner! It carries two thousand passengers and will make the entire voyage submerged. Trouble has been threatened, hence the presence of Steed and Tara on board.

It soon becomes evident that there is indeed a plot to sabotage the vessel. In fact there may be multiple conspiracies. When Steed engages the chief engineer in conversation he discovers that there may also be real questions about the submarine liner’s safety, even in the absence of sabotage.

There’s dirty work at the crossroads and the bad guys are prepared to go as far as murder. In fact they’re prepared to go much further than that.

There’s a reasonable amount of action and there is some genuine excitement. There’s also the kind of high-tech stuff and gadgetry that you normally get in a Bond movie but that was beyond the budget of a TV series in the late 60s. There is actually a bit of a Bond movie flavour to this tale.

Steed will have to learn to pilot a midget submarine and to deal with Hindu magicians, boa constrictors, pet sharks, predatory widows, card tricks, dangerous blondes and mermen. Steed is very much the hero here with Tara unfortunately playing a somewhat secondary rôle.

I’ve read a number of TV tie-in novels from the 60s recently and I’m starting to realise that writing an original novel based on a TV series was actually a lot trickier than you might think. It’s not that easy for a writer to take characters developed by another writer and keep the characterisations consistent and it’s even more difficult when the characters were originally created in a different medium. A related challenge is to capture the tone of the TV series.

The Drowned Queen doesn’t quite succeed in these two respects although it’s a brave attempt. The author, Keith Laumer, was an American and that might have been the problem. Although it achieved some popularity in the United States The Avengers was one of the most quintessentially English TV shows of the 60s (in fact that was probably a large part of its appeal to American audiences). To get the authentic feel of Steed and Tara as characters probably was something that required an English writer.

On the other hand Laumer does get the right mix of action, adventure and humour. And he is fairly careful not to descend to slapstick, which would have been quite wrong for an Avengers story, and he does try to avoid taking an overtly American approach to the humour.

One of the interesting challenges of a tie-in novel like this is that there is the opportunity to go beyond what could be done on television at the time. That’s both an opportunity and a danger if you take it too far or start moving in a direction that conflicts with the essential character of the TV series. In this case we have an author who was a reasonably successful science fiction writer so it’s no real surprise that he gives us a story that pushes things more overtly in a science fictional direction compared to the series (although the series most certainly dabbled in science fiction). He also takes the opportunity of giving us a story on a larger scale than would have been possible on 1960s television. The Drowned Queen would have required special effects that would have been out of the question on TV. So it is intriguing to see a story that explores possibilities that the TV series could not have explored.

The question is, does Laumer go too far? Has he created a novel that is just too science fictional to be an Avengers story? I don’t really think so. While he was certainly writing a science fiction novel he was aware that it was supposed to be an Avengers novel so he’s careful not to get bogged down on technical stuff and he (quite rightly) isn’t the slightest bit interested in making the story scientifically plausible.

The Avengers could be outrageous but it always managed to avoid descending into mere silliness. Laumer mostly tries to avoid mere silliness as well, and mostly he succeeds. He doesn’t quite manage the wit of the TV series but the book is fairly amusing. It’s also fast-paced and it’s definitely fun. If you’re a fan of the series it’s recommended.

Monday, 16 July 2018

The Guardians (1971)

The Guardians is a dystopian political thriller series made by London Weekend Television which went to air in Britain in 1971. It has never been screened since. It was also screened in Australia but as far as I know has never been seen in the U.S.

Back in the 60s neo-nazis and fascists were immensely popular as villains in action adventure television series in both Britain and the U.S.  - television writers seemed to be convinced that there was a neo-nazi under every bed. They were usually presented as ridiculous cartoonish villains and the subject was mostly treated in a mocking way.

The Guardians was quite different. This series took itself very seriously indeed. It also refused to trivialise the subject by creating cartoonish villains. It dealt with the subject in a relatively subtle and even nuanced way. This is rather sophisticated political television.

The first episode, The State of England, raises more questions than it answers. That’s not a criticism. The intention (I assume) is to show us firstly the surface appearances of Britain as it is being transformed into a police state. We see the Guardians in action. They are obviously some kind of paramilitary political police, although whether they are actually under the effective control of the government remains doubtful. We are introduced to the Prime Minister Sir Timothy Hobson (Cyril Luckham). He seems to be well-meaning but ineffectual. He’s the sort of man who likes to think he is willing to stand up for principles, as long as he doesn’t actually have to do so. We discover that real power is in the hands of a shadowy figure known as The General. We have no idea as to his identity or the means by which he has come to wield power over the government. Norman (Derek Smith) appears to be the man who transmits The General’s orders to the Cabinet. We see news broadcasts running in the background and it is obvious that there has been a lengthy period of strikes and civil unrest. We already have reason to be suspicious of this - is this genuine civil unrest or is it manufactured by the government or by The General?

We also meet a number of other characters. Tom Weston (John Collin) is a keen and ambitious member of the Guardians. While he’s happy to kick heads in the line of duty he’s actually a jovial sort of fellow and seems devoted to his wife Clare (Gwyneth Powell). Clare has been suffering from headaches and has been seeing a top government psychiatrist, Dr Benedict (David Burke). There’s some interesting sparring between these two - Dr Benedict thinks Clare may be spying on him, Clare thinks Dr Benedict may be spying on her, Dr Benedict speculates that he has been called in because someone is taking an interest in Tom Weston.

Tom Weston is in charge of recruiting and training and he finds himself forced to accept a very upper-class recruit named Peter Lee (Robin Ellis). Tom Weston thinks that Peter Lee may not be at all what he seems to be and we’re inclined to agree with him. Is Lee a communist subversive? An agent of The General? An agent placed in the Guardians by some other group?

So all in all the opening episode establishes a definite mood of paranoia and conspiracy. It’s a promising opening.

As the series progresses some weaknesses do start to appear. The great danger facing a program dealing with politics is that it will succumb to the temptations of preachiness and speechifying. At times The Guardians succumbs to those temptations in a truly disastrous manner. The worst example is probably when the prime minister is dining with his old friend Sir Francis Wainwright who is now the head of the EBC (obviously a thinly disguised version of the BBC). The speeches start immediately and they go and on and on. The prime minister puts the case for the government’s increasingly authoritarian rule while the EBC chief puts forward the liberal argument for no censorship. The problem is that it’s all done in such an unbelievably clumsy manner. It’s two characters sitting in a London club and talking and talking and talking.

Just as it seems that the series has self-destructed with excessive talkiness it suddenly comes to life again and becomes truly fascinating with some wonderfully devious power plays for the highest stakes of all.

One aspect of this series that does seem dated is that the imposition of a police state is seen as being a response to a crisis caused to a large extent by waves of strikes. Of course back in the early 70s strikes really were perceived as a major threat to the social order.

There is of course a resistance movement. The series focuses partly on this resistance movement and partly on the power struggles within the government. There’s also of course a focus on certain individuals. Some of the characters are, like the prime minister, obviously important. Others seem completely unimportant but as the various plot strands come together they play increasingly key rôles.

One strength of The Guardians is that it tries to avoid painting any of the characters as either entirely heroic or entirely villainous. They’re complex people who often do not entirely understand their own motivations. They are also not entirely in control of their own destinies (although some of them think that they are).

Cyril Luckham is a good choice for the rôle of the prime minister. He can be pompous and ineffectual and he can be devious and sly and Sir Timothy Hobson is all of those things. Derek Smith is delightfully slimy as the Cabinet Secretary Norman. John Collin is excellent as the rather ambiguous Tom Weston. David Burke is equally good as the very ambiguous Dr Benedict.

I was less impressed by a couple of the other cast members. Edward Petherbridge as the prime minister’s son Christopher was a bit on the irritating side. Gwyneth Powell’s performance as Clare Weston is disturbingly strange, but not in a good way. Or perhaps there’s just something about her that rubbed me up the wrong way.

There are guest appearances by some terrific character actors including two of my favourites, Graham Crowden and Peter Barkworth.

One problem this series faced was that in 1971 Dixon of Dock Green was still on television. The idea of British policemen behaving like uniformed thugs seemed too silly even to contemplate. The idea of a British government setting up a paramilitary political police force and suspending long-cherished legal rights seemed like a joke. In 1971 it sounded a bit far-fetched.

There’s some stuff about brainwashing, this being another major obsession of that time period. And there’s a considerable emphasis on the problems of crime, both ordinary crime and political crimes, and on effective and ineffective methods of dealing with these problems. This of course was a major obsession at that time - 1971 was also the year in which Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange was released.

The Guardians has some very real strengths. It doesn’t rely on characters who are simplistic heroes or villains.

The weaknesses are perhaps not entirely avoidable if you’re going to try to address serious political issues - there are a lot of speeches. This means that we do at least know exactly what the various characters stand for but it can make for some very stodgy television.

The Guardians is one of the more fascinating attempts at making a dystopian political thriller. It has its flaws and it can get very talky but it’s intelligent and thought-provoking and  exceptionally complex. It’s an exploration of the conflicts between freedom and stability, authority and chaos, obedience and responsibility, duty and loyalty, liberty and order. It does not try to persuade us that there are easy answers.

The Guardians has been released on DVD in the UK by Network. It is well worth a look.

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

Out of the Unknown, season 4 (1971)

Out of the Unknown was a science fiction anthology series which was produced by the BBC from 1965 to 1971. Four seasons were produced altogether. Out of the Unknown was reasonably successful with both critics and the public but this didn’t stop the BBC from junking most of the series in the early 70s. Only twenty episodes survive.

The original idea had been to do adaptations of stories by distinguished science fiction writers. By the fourth season that idea had largely been abandoned, and in fact the series seemed to be moving away from actual science fiction altogether and becoming more thriller-orientated. Irene Shubik, who had conceived the series back in 1965, had long since departed.

Five episodes from the fourth season still exist.

This was still the shot-on-videotape-in-the-studio era of British television, and although the BBC seems to have been prepared to spend some real money on the earlier seasons this fourth season is starting to get a very low-budget feel to it.

Whether To Lay a Ghost even qualifies as science fiction is very dubious. As the title suggests it’s a ghost story. This was 1971, so naturally it had to be a ghost story about sex.

Eric Carver (Iain Gregory) is a very wealthy and very trendy young photographer. He and his beautiful wife Diana (Lesley-Anne Down) have just moved into a rather nice old country house which they’re restoring. Eric and Diana are very much in love and have a perfect marriage, except that they don’t have sex. Diana was raped some years earlier and she doesn’t do sex.

It now appears that their house has acquired a ghost. The ghost is only visible in photographs. Eric is not happy about the ghost, and you can’t really blame him since it keeps trying to kill him. Diana on the other hand is rather excited about the ghost.

Eric decides to call in professional help. Dr Philimore (Peter Barkworth) is a scientific ghost-hunter and he’s also a psychiatrist. It doesn’t take him too long to realise what is going on, and it won’t take the viewer very long either.

Lesley-Anne Down’s performance is the highlight, absolutely dripping with twisted and unhealthy sexuality. There is no way To Lay a Ghost could get made today. The obsession with sex in so much British TV of that era can be very tiresome but at least they tried to be honest about it and weren’t afraid to follow a story through to its logical conclusions.

To Lay a Ghost isn’t great television but it’s not bad.

This Body Is Mine employs a very timeworn science fiction idea, switching minds and bodies, but it at least puts the idea to reasonably good use.

Mild-mannered research scientist Allen Meredith has invented a mind-swapping machine. He’s been responsible for other brilliant inventions but he never seems to make any real money from his ideas - it’s ruthless businessman Jack Gregory (Jack Hedley) who always seems to make the money. This time Meredith is determined to get the better of Gregory. Meredith and his wife Ann (Alethea Charlton) have cooked up a clever plan. Meredith will exchange bodies with Gregory, then while impersonating Gregory he’ll make out a very large cheque to himself.

It’s a good plan but it goes wrong because Meredith doesn’t understand the sort of man Jack Gregory is and makes some colossal blunders, while Ann starts to think that ruthless hyper-masculine businessmen are a whole lot sexier than mild-mannered research scientists.

John Carson and Jack Hedley both do extremely well in their tricky roles, essentially having to play each other as well as playing themselves.

This is another episode that could not get made today. Like To Lay a Ghost it touches on issues of sexual dominance and submissiveness, in ways that might well trigger apoplexy in modern viewers.

There’s a very cynical feel to this episode, verging on black comedy. This Body Is Mine works reasonably well.

Deathday is a pure psychological thriller, and an extremely bad one. Adam Crosse (Robert Lang) is an inoffensive and rather bumbling local journalist who discovers his wife is having an affair. She taunts him with it. He instantly changes into a cold calculating master criminal planning the perfect murder, then later he changes into a guilt-ridden basket case.

The idea is presumably to make some sort of comment on the blurring of the line between reality and fantasy. Unfortunately it’s done in a very obvious and crude way. The performances are clumsy. The whole thing is utterly unconvincing. It tries to be arty but ends up being muddled and pretentious.

It’s yet another episode that is focused on sex. There’s some gratuitous nudity to make us think it’s all very modern and daring.

Identity seems to be a bit of a theme running through the fourth season. In Welcome Home Dr Frank Bowers (Anthony Ainley) is a psychiatrist who has been recovering in a mental hospital after a car accident. His recovery is now complete and he’s looking forward to seeing his wife again, in the picturesque little country cottage she’s been preparing for his return. The reunion doesn’t go smoothly - his wife claims that she’s never set eyes on him before and there’s another man in the cottage who claims to be Dr Frank Bowers (played by Bernard Brown).

It’s bad enough that someone is trying to steal his identity (and his wife) but it seems that there’s some vast conspiracy. Everyone seems to be involved. Even the police. He suspects it has something to do with an experimental drug he has heard about, DK-5. It’s a kind of brainwashing drug. But what could the purpose of the conspiracy be? Could an intelligence agency be behind it? Or even a foreign power? Uncovering the conspiracy is obviously vital but Frank’s main concern is for his wife. It seems likely she has been forced into playing a role in this nefarious scheme and she could be in real danger.

So we have once again an episode dealing with the mutability and fragmentation of identity. Moris Farhi’s script does some clever things with these ideas. The atmosphere of paranoia is nicely done but most importantly we’re not sure exactly what is going on and we’re not sure how much of what we’re being told can be believed. It’s not just that people might be lying. They might not even know themselves whether they’re telling the truth or not. Welcome Home is clever and disturbing and entertaining.

The Man in My Head is yet another exploration of identity. A team of commandos is about to blow up a power station. They have no idea what country they’re in, or how they got there. They have no idea why they’re meant to blow up the power station, or whether this means they’re actually at war with the country concerned. Consciously the commandos know nothing of their mission. They’ve been programmed by subliminal briefing. They’re little more than automatons.

Things start to go wrong when one of the commandos, Fulman, accidentally breaks the capsule implanted into his teeth. The drug triggers a second set of programming, which is the cover story in case they are captured. Fulman is now operating according to instructions that are totally contrary to the instructions under which everyone else is operating. Other tensions start to build up. Every action has been carefully planned and programmed which causes stress if things don’t go according to plan. And several of the commandos have decided not to obey their programming - but of course they may have been programmed to refuse to follow their programming. They have no way of knowing how much free will they have, if any, and no way of being sure if what appears to be happening is real or simply something they’ve been programmed to believe they are experiencing.

The script, by John Wiles, is complex and twisted. The execution of the story is helped a great deal by the superb set designed by Jeremy Davies. It’s colourful and complicated and looks very industrial and futuristic and rather forbidding but in an interestingly arty and stylish way.

The five surviving episodes of this final season are a mixed bag. Deathday is an embarrassing misfire but the other four are all quite good, and all fairly interesting. What’s particularly impressive is the thematic consistency - questions of identity, illusion and reality figure in all of the stories. The Man in My Head is my personal favourite, being both provocative and remarkably impressive visually. The fourth season has a rather different feel compared to the earlier seasons but in its own way it’s just as interesting.

Out of the Unknown was throughout its run wildly uneven in quality. Some episodes are complete and utter rubbish. Others are simply superb (The Machine Stops from season 2 is outstanding). On the whole the BFI DVD boxed set is worth getting and it includes a host of extras (including audio commentaries for eleven episodes).

Tuesday, 3 July 2018

Thriller - If It's a Man, Hang Up/The Double Kill (1975)

Brian Clemens had a major success with his anthology series Thriller, made by ITC and running from 1973 to 1976. The stories were psychological thrillers, very much in the style of the psychological thrillers made by Hammer Films from the early 60s to the early 70s. In fact the immediate inspiration for the series was probably a film Clemens had written in 1970, And Soon the Darkness.

Thriller went into production just before Euston Films revolutionised the look and style of British television with Special Branch and The Sweeney. Thriller belongs very much to the previous era of British television. Its in colour but has a shot-in-the-studio shot-on-videotape feel to it. The production values are not overly high. There is very little location shooting. That particular era of British TV relied very heavily on the quality of the writing, which fortunately tended to be rather high. Clemens certainly had an illustrious track record as both writer and producer thanks to The Avengers. Thriller, perhaps deliberately, has absolutely no resemblance to The Avengers in either content or style.

Clemens wrote most of the forty-three episodes himself.

If It's a Man, Hang Up kicks off the fifth season. It went to air in Britain in early 1975. In common with many of the other episodes it has an imported American star, and one who is very much of the second rank. Carol Lynley is very attractive and that’s about the best thing you can say about her as an actress. Fortunately in this episode she plays a model and we don’t exactly expect sparkling wit and intellectual sparkle from models.

Suzy Martin (Lynley) is not the sharpest knife in the drawer. When she starts getting heavy-breather telephone calls she probably should have taken the matter a bit more seriously. A young pretty woman who is a minor celebrity and lives alone should perhaps be a bit more aware of the importance of taking at least some very basic precautions to protect herself.

Suzy does the sorts of things you’d expect a model to do. She’s having an affair with married middle-aged photographer Greg Miles (Gerald Harper). She’s dumped the photographer who established her reputation, Terry Cleeves (Paul Angelis), because now she’s a big name and she doesn’t need him any more.

She does have the sense to call the police about the phone calls but all she gets out of that is a few visits from a couple of not very bright constables. Being a celebrity she might have been wise to make more of a fuss and demand to talk to an inspector at least.

As you might anticipate the situation starts to escalate, the heavy breather moves on to making vague threats. And then something happens that convinces Suzy that she is in real danger.

There are lots of men around who are anxious to play the white knight and rescue this damsel in distress. There’s Greg Miles, there’s Terry Cleeves, there’s Terry’s Sicilian friend Bruno (Tom Conti), there’s the caretaker who thinks Suzy is a kind of goddess and there are the two young police constables. The problem of course is that one of these would-be white knights is the psycho killer who is stalking her, and Suzy’s judgment when it comes to men is just a little questionable at the best of times. She seems to have a knack for making decisions that she hasn’t really thought through and this is going to place her in very great danger indeed.

Thriller is a series that can be just a little clunky at times, just a little stilted, probably mostly due to the very studio-bound production methods. The acting can also be rather variable.

What matters here though is that Clemens muddies the waters with considerable skill, misdirecting us and encouraging us to go after the red herrings that he has deployed. It’s not an incredibly complex plot but Clemens was a pro and he keeps us guessing. Every single character is a totally plausible suspect.

Carol Lynley might not be a great actress but she does succeed in doing the one thing that she has to do. She manages to make us care about Suzy. She has her flaws and she’s not all that bright but Suzy is basically a sympathetic character and she doesn’t deserve to be terrorised. Tom Conti gives a nicely relaxed performance while Gerald Harper and Paul Angelis manage to make their respective characters just creepy enough to make them plausible suspects.

If It's a Man, Hang Up is a generally very successful episode.

The Double Kill opens with an odd encounter between a home-owner and a burglar. It gives us a hint that some kind of game is being played, possibly a dangerous game, but at this stage we have no idea what the game is.

We’re introduced to married couple Hugh and Clarissa Briant (played by Gary Collins and Penelope Horner). Their relationship is tense to say the least. Clarissa is extremely wealthy. She collects things. She collects paintings, silverware, antiques, jade, pretty much anything that’s expensive. One assumes that her purchases include her husband. They live in a rather palatial home stuffed with treasures and protected by - well actually they’re not protected by anything at all. There is no security. And the fact that the house is filled with outrageously valuable trinkets is no secret. Hugh never stops talking about how worried he is by the lack of security. He talks about it everywhere.

There is another odd encounter with another burglar and we start to see the game that is being played. It’s a nasty clever little game but that’s only the beginning. Other people can play games as well. All sorts of unexpected people play games in this story. You can easily find that the game you’re playing is not the one you thought you were playing.

Gary Collins is another of those second-tier American stars who feature so heavily in Thriller but he’s a pretty good actor and does an effective job. James Villiers (as Hugh’s friend Paul) has long been one of my favourite British actors of this era, always at his best when he’s being a bit morally ambiguous. Peter Bowles is another favourite of mine. He plays Superintendent Lucas, who knows a thing or two about games. Stuart Wilson is nicely ambiguous and unpredictable as Max Burns. This really is a very fine cast.

OK, you can see one of the plot twists coming but in a way that makes it more fun - it adds a delicious touch of anticipation as you can see characters making wrong moves but there’s nothing they can do about it since they don’t know that the rules of the game have changed. And there are plenty of twists that you won’t see coming.

The Double Kill is a superb episode.

Season five certainly gets off to a terrific start with If It's a Man, Hang Up and The Double Kill. Great stuff. Highly recommended.

I've previously reviewed Night Is the Time for Killing and several other season four episodes of Thriller.