Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Columbo season 3 (1973)

I’m now working my way through the third season of Columbo. I probably saw them all many years ago but the great thing is it was so long ago I’ve totally forgotten them so now they all seem new to me!

Lovely But Lethal kicks off the season and it’s worth it for Vincent Price’s performance. It’s an engagingly outrageous story centring on a miracle cosmetic formula.

Next up is Any Old Port in a Storm. This is a great episode with Donald Pleasence as a boutique winery owner. I love the clue relating to the sports car. The fencing between Donald Pleasence and Peter Falk is superb. Falk’s great strength as an actor was his ability to play off other actors and the better the guest star the better Falk’s performances were. It has a terrific (and oddly poignant) ending as Columbo shows off his newly acquired knowledge of fine wines. 

Candidate for Crime is also excellent. It’s politics mixes with murder. Great stuff with a clever (if unavailing) attempt at an absolutely unbreakable alibi.

Double Exposure guest stars Robert Culp as an advertising and motivational guru who sets up not one but two unbreakable alibis. The golf course scene as Columbo wears the murderer down by ruining his golf game while simultaneously beginning to tighten the noose is classic Columbo. Usually in a Columbo story the murderer remains fairly cool but in this one it’s fun to watch Robert Culp getting closer and closer to exploding in rage and frustration.

The stuff about subliminal advertising (which had been the subject of some controversy back in the 60s) adds to the fun.

In Publish or Perish a publisher murders a writer about to desert him for another publisher. The writer is played by Mickey Spillane, the real-life author of the MIke Hammer novels. This is another episode where the murderer really start to lose his cool under Columbo’s constant pressure. It’s typical Columbo. It’s a case that seems straightforward except for a couple of very minor details that don’t quite fit.

In Mind Over Mayhem Columbo investigates a murder at a high-tech research institute. The work of the institute includes computer modeling of nuclear war and it also includes robots. The robot in this case looks like a robot straight out of a 1950s sci-fi movie (mostly because it is a robot straight out of a 1950s sci-fi movie) but since Columbo is a series that   never bothers much with tawdry realism it doesn’t matter and it adds some fun. 

Swan Song features country music legend Johnny Cash as the murderer. It does help if you’re a fan of the Man in Black since you get to hear him singing rather a lot. It also boasts the great Ida Lupino as his wife. She has a hold over her husband and is able to divert most of the money the successful singer makes into building a $5 million tabernacle. He’s less than happy about this, and he’s also less than happy that she also stops him chasing his young female backup singers. As an actor Johnny Cash is a great singer but he does have the right presence for the role.

Columbo has to enlist the help of an air crash investigator to unravel this puzzle. The murder method is far-fetched but it’s fun.

A Friend in Deed has a wonderfully elaborate plot which owes a very great deal indeed to a certain very well-known Hitchcock movie. A series of burglaries is being carried out by a professional and very skillful burglar who has now turned to murder. Of course we know that the burglar didn’t actually commit the murder. The murderer turns to an old friend for help but he finds himself mixed up in a whole lot more trouble that he hadn’t anticipated. To solve the case Columbo will have to match wits with the Police Commissioner himself. It all hinges, as usual, on a couple of puzzling clues. In this case it’s not fingerprints that bother Columbo, it’s the lack of fingerprints. It’s a delightfully far-fetched but very cleverly worked out plot.

Columbo was unusual for a 70s cop show in being so strongly plot-focused, and even more unusual in that so many of the plots work so well. At a time when crime fiction and crime movies were starting to focus to an excessive degree (in my opinion) on psychology, action and sordid realism it was like a throwback to the golden age of crime fiction when a detective story was intended to be entertainment. Entertainment of a somewhat intellectual  kind with its emphasis on puzzle-solving but still entertainment.

Columbo is squarely in the tradition of the detective fiction of the interwar years, the so-called golden age, in that it quite deliberately does not attempt to mirror reality. This is a kind of parallel universe in which rich successful famous people murder each other constantly. A real-life homicide cop would mostly deal with open-and-shut cases in which depressingly ordinary people murder each other for depressingly ordinary reasons, or obscure losers kill other obscure losers for five dollars in loose change. However every case that Lieutenant Columbo investigates deals with very smart people committing complex and ingenious murders for often incredibly esoteric motives. 

This is of course precisely the appeal of golden age detective fiction and it’s precisely the appeal of Columbo. Who wants to watch a TV show about boringly everyday crimes? Viewers want killers who are glamorous and also clever enough to provide Columbo with a real challenge in every episode. A battle of wits is no fun unless the combatants are evenly matched. Of course we know that Columbo will win the battle of wits but that’s no reflection on the intelligence of the murderers. The odds are stacked against murderers - they only have to make one tiny mistake and they’re undone - but the audience wants to feel that Columbo really has to use every ounce of his experience and his skill if he’s going to solve the case.

There’s nothing wrong with cop shows that aim at realism, but there’s also absolutely nothing wrong with mystery series like Columbo that ignore reality and concentrate on enjoyable intellectual puzzles that take place in a fantasy world of glamour and glitz. Personally my preference is for the approach taken by Columbo.

The series relied heavily on the quality of the guest stars and on the whole the producers were remarkably successful in finding just the right guest stars.

The third season maintains the very high standard set by the earlier seasons. Highly recommended.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Mission: Impossible, season 4 (1969)

Season 4 saw Mission: Impossible undergo some major shakeups both behind and in front of the camera. The most obvious change is the departure of Martin Landau and Barbara Bain. In fact the loss of Landau is no problem at all. Leonard Nimoy takes over, playing exactly the same sort of role (professional magician, master of disguise, etc). And Nimoy is actually more fun than Landau.

The departure of Barbara Bain is however a very big problem. Without Cinnamon Carter to add her glamour the IMF team seems unbalanced. For some odd reason the producers decided not to replace Bain, instead using a series of female guest stars. This was a serious error of judgment. Given that Cinnamon was mostly used as the bait for honey traps (which is exactly the way a female agent would have been used in real life) she was more often than not in even more danger than the other members of the team. In these circumstances it is essential that  the female member of the team should be a regular cast member - we have to get to know her so that we worry when she’s in danger. And the female guest stars just aren’t very impressive (with the glorious exception for the wonderful Anne Francis). Lee Meriwether was brought into the series on a semi-regular basis for a while but she just isn’t a satisfactory substitute for Barbara Bain - she doesn’t have the class or the style and her performances are just a little flat.

In season four I’m again struck by the ruthlessness of the IMF. They don’t actually carry out assassinations but in episode after episode they set people up to be killed by others. They’re basically indirect assassinations. Rather startling for a spy series set during peace time! It’s also amusing if a bit frightening to contrast the psychological traumas suffered by British assassin David Callan in the directly contemporary Callan series to the casual cold-bloodedness of Jim Phelps and his team. Mind you Callan’s boss Hunter is every bit as cold-blooded as Jim Phelps - maybe assassinations really aren’t a big deal if you don’t actually pull the trigger yourself. I must confess that I really don’t know if the producers of Mission: Impossible were actually aware of the fact that this aspect of the series might one day raise eyebrows.

Of course in most spy series enemy spies get killed but usually the victims are actual professional spies and they get killed in gun fights rather than being set up for murder in a premeditated way.

Mission: Impossible is very much a spy series in which there are no moral dilemmas. There are good guys (who are always US allies) and bad guys (who are always anti-US) and it’s all very clear-cut. When the series started in 1966 this was pretty much the norm in American television spy dramas, while British series like Danger Man were already starting to introduce at least some shades of grey. By 1969 when the fourth season of Mission: Impossible was made the British TV spy drama was starting to become much more morally complex (not just Callan but also series like the very underrated Man in a Suitcase). I guess it’s not really a fair comparison since Mission: Impossible never had any pretensions towards realism. That’s why the IMF’s fondness for arranging to have bad guys rubbed out is slightly disturbing.

The opening episode of season four, The Code, is typical Mission: Impossible territory - the IMF must foil an attempted invasion in Latin America and in order to do so they must break an unbreakable code. The coding method is clever and intricate. The IMF team must also totally disrupt the invasion plans which they do in their customary way, spreading disinformation and suspicion. Leonard Nimoy makes a rather spectacular debut, sporting an impressive Fidel Castro-type beard and playing a Che Guevera-type professional revolutionary. Nimoy really has some fun with this part.

Director Stuart Hagmann is almost in danger of going overboard with the crazy tilted camera angles but since this is a spy series (and it’s an episode dealing with revolutionaries) the resulting feeling of disorientation is appropriate and it works. 

The Controllers is a two-part story in which the IMF has to discredit a scientist who has almost perfected a mind-control gas. 

 In The Numbers Game Mr Phelps and his team come up with an extraordinarily elaborate scheme to con a former dictator out of his wealth which is hidden away in a Zurich bank. The dictator had had plans to return to power in his country, plans which the American government is determined to thwart. While the con is so grandiose in conception that it well and truly stretches credibility that’s really a plus rather than a minus - this is Mission: Impossible after all and plausibility is not a major concern.

Fool's Gold deals with a plot to destabilise a friendly nation through the use of counterfeit money. The plot is a bit too reminiscent of other Mission: Impossible episodes. Perhaps the formula was starting to become just a little stale.

Commandante is better, with a few nice twists. There’s a revolutionary movement in a Latin American nation, only there are no less than three revolutionary factions. The US government is backing one faction. The IMF has to secure the release of an imprisoned priest (a member of one of the revolutionary factions) while discrediting and neutralising the other factions and at the same time leaving the way clear for the US-backed faction. The trick with the helicopter is rather cute.

The Double Circle requires the IMF to retrieve a stolen rocket fuel formula with a typically Mission: Impossible plot involving an elaborate deception to enable the theft of the formula. In this episode they finally solve the problem of filling Cinnamon Carter’s shoes. Anne Francis is absolutely delightful. She is so obviously the perfect replacement for Barbara Bain. The great mystery is why on earth she wasn’t made a permanent cast member. The deception plan in this episode really is intricate and ingenious. This is classic Mission: Impossible.

Neo-Nazis were a favourite theme in 60s action adventure television. Submarine, written by Englishman Donald James, is one of the most deliriously silly but inspired examples of the genre. A former SS officer is about to be released from prison is an Eastern Bloc country. He knows the location of one of those hoards of Nazi gold that were so popular with thriller writers of the time. American intelligence wants that gold so the IMF cooks up an insane plan to kidnap the SS officer and convince him he is aboard a WW2-vintage German submarine on its way to the secret Neo-Nazi headquarters where the gold will be used to re-establish the Third Reich. It’s an absurd idea but it’s executed with panache and imagination, and with a truly wonderful fake submarine set. Peter Graves and Leonard Nimoy get to practise their best phony German accents. It’s all fabulous fun.

Robot is one of the many episodes in which a dastardly plot is turned against the plotters, in this case the conspiracy being part of a power struggle in an eastern European country. Paris again gets to do his master of disguise thing but this time not just impersonating a secret policeman but also impersonating a robot! Good silly far-fetched fun with a fine supporting turn from Malachi Throne (well-known to cult television fans from his role as the spymaster in In Takes a Thief).

Mastermind is one of the organised crime stories that became increasingly common as the show’s run continued. The basic plot could have been just a tired old retread but they added a couple of delightfully bizarre elements - ESP and telepathy! So it ends up being very enjoyable.

In The Brothers Jim Phelps and his team have to risk the king of a Middle Eastern country but the difficulty is that they have no idea where he is being held. Their plan is to trick those who are holding the king to produce him. Standard Mission: impossible fare but well executed. This time the female IMF member guest star is Michelle Carey, sadly a very very poor substitute for Barbara Bain.

Time Bomb is one of the few episodes that does have some moral complexity, with an oddly sympathetic and sensitive villain (albeit one who intends to blow a entire city sky-high). It’s also a story in which Phelps’ ruthlessness takes on a slightly cruel tinge.

The Falcon is a three-part story and it has a definite Ruritanian flavour to it. This is the world of The Prisoner of Zenda, and it’s carried off with considerable style. There’s an imprisoned prince, a plot to force a beautiful princess to marry against her will, an eccentric and slightly simple-minded reigning prince and an elaborate conspiracy to seize the throne.

An amusing performance by Noel Harrison as the hapless and child-like Prince Nikolai certainly helps. There’s a nice combination of old-fashioned gadgets (like Prince Nikolai’s beloved clocks and clockwork toys) and the high-tech gadgetry of the world of Mission: Impossible. Leonard Nimoy as Paris gets to do his magician thing. The method by which the scheming General Sabatini is fooled into thinking he still has the imprisoned prince under lock and key is very clever. Even stretched out as it is over three episodes it’s highly entertaining.

Gitano is another Ruritanian kind of episode, with a young king being kidnapped. This is the central Europe of the pre-First World War era, with grand dukes and bandits and gypsies. The plot line is not overly inspired, although I do have a soft spot for these Ruritanian-flavoured stories.

Phantoms sees the IMF attempting to overthrow a Balkan dictator. The outrageous plot has them trying to send him mad by making him see ghosts! Their mission also includes saving the life of an imprisoned dissident poet. I actually found myself sympathising with the dictator - he was a nice old guy! And the dissident poet was an irritating young punk. When I find myself hoping the IMF will fail I guess you could say that for me that episode is a bit of a failure!

Chico has the IMF trying to retrieve two halves of a microfilm before big-time drug dealers can put the two halves together and discover the names of vital narcotics undercover agents. There are two highlights to this episode - Leonard Nimoy doing the worst Australian accent in television history and ace canine undercover agent Chico. Chico is one smart well-trained dog! This is one of several episodes over the years featuring animal IMF agents and they’re always particularly far-fetched but great fun.

Season four maintains the high standards of the previous seasons pretty well. On occasions the formula shows signs of wearing a bit thin but there are some great episodes and most of the stories are still very entertaining with nicely imaginative and satisfyingly far-fetched touches. Mission: Impossible might not bother itself with moral complexities or irritating details like realism but at its best it was glorious entertainment and the fourth season mostly delivers the goods. And there’s the bonus of Leonard Nimoy in top form. What more could you want?

Saturday, 6 May 2017

Special Branch, season 4 (1974)

Special Branch, produced by Britain’s Thames TV, underwent a very drastic revamp for its third season in 1973. In fact it became almost entirely a different series, with an entirely new cast and a whole new look. Thames TV’s Euston Films division took over the production. The new season would abandon the traditional practice of shooting mainly on videotape with only outdoor scenes shot on film. Everything would now be shot on film and there would be more emphasis on action and gritty realism. 

The only thing that the these two later seasons had in common with the first two seasons was the subject matter - the activities of Special Branch, police officers who were part of the Metropolitan Police but who worked in conjunction with the security and intelligence services. 

The lead character was to be Detective Chief Inspector Alan Craven, played by George Sewell.

Halfway through the initial season of the new-look series it became obvious that it wasn’t quite working. It looked terrific but it just didn’t generate any real excitement. At which point the producers decoded to bring in a new character, Detective Chief Inspector Tom Haggerty, played by Patrick Mower. Mower, having played the neurotic but sinister assassin Cross in Callan, had the right tough guy credentials and he had the youth and energy to be a great action hero type. Equally important he was good at playing prickly characters and the combination of George Sewell’s more laid-back style with Mower’s manic energy promised to work well. The slightly antagonistic relationship between Craven and Haggerty would also add some needed edge to the series.

This proved to be a very good decision, the series became quite successful in Britain and a further season was made in 1974 but it wasn’t enough for the US networks. They wanted even more action. There were plans to try to ramp up the action but eventually Euston Films felt that it would be better to drop Special Branch and develop a whole new series. The result was The Sweeney, which (for good and ill) revolutionised British television.

Special Branch is thus a transitional series, and an important one.

While the Euston Films incarnation of Special Branch is entertaining I find it to be a bit uneven. I generally like George Sewell a great deal as an actor but I have to confess that I really don’t care for Craven as a character. He has a bit of a self-righteous side and his sensitivity comes across as smug and at times irritating. He’s the sort of policeman who wants people to like him and understand how sensitive and caring he is. Perhaps he should have been a social worker. Haggerty on the other hand is a great character - he’s like a bomb ready to go off at any moment.

The scripts are mostly good but occasionally veer into an annoying preachiness (a mistake that the writers for The Sweeney would wisely avoid).

In Double Exposure Haggerty goes undercover to investigate a photographer who makes his living by taking embarrassing photographs of important people. Haggerty has to get very close to the photographer and also finds himself getting very close indeed to the photographer’s female assistant. Haggerty is in serious danger of getting just a bit too personally involved. What really puzzles him is that the investigations seems utterly pointless. There seems to be no security angle at all. Strand (Paul Eddington), the smooth,  somewhat sinister and frighteningly ruthless man from the Security Service (MI5) is however determined that the investigation should continue. Strand always has a reason for doing things but in this case that reason is a complete mystery. This episode is typical of the extremely cynical tone that came to dominate this series more and more.

In Catherine the Great Craven has to find a German assassin, the difficulty being that although Special Branch knows he’s in Britain to carry out an assassination they don’t know who the target is. And how did he get into the country? They know he was on board a freighter but he didn’t get off, and yet he did leave the ship. Craven finds himself working with his old sergeant, Bill North, now an Inspector with the CID. It was Craven who had North kicked out of Special Branch, which adds the potential for a certain amount of tension.

The 70s saw British television moving in a much sleazier direction and this episode has plenty of sleaze. It’s made worthwhile by fine performances by Tony Beckley as the cross-dressing assassin and Jacqueline Pearce as a German stripper.

Stand and Deliver is a good example of the problems afflicting this later incarnation of Special Branch. Michael J. Bird’s script has too much clumsy political messaging and too much cheap cynicism. It’s also wildly far-fetched and stretches credibility to breaking point and beyond. Two losers steal a new high-tech anti-tank gun from the British Army and Craven and Haggerty have to get it back. Somehow we’re meant to believe that two guys in an old beat-up truck can just drive out of an army base with the army’s latest super-weapon and the police can’t find them even though they have a description of both the men and the truck and the anti-tank gun is not exactly easy to conceal. An episode that is preachy, obvious and dull. And silly as well.

Something About a Soldier is a very fine episode with a pretty spectacular action set-piece at the end. Garfield Morgan is wonderful as a disgraced British army officer turned mercenary  who is discovered, by a lucky chance, to be back in England and with quite an armoury with him. He’s clearly up to no good but what exactly is he planning?

Rendezvous, written by the reliable Tony Williamson, is very much a spy thriller with some very nice plot twists and as much action as anyone could possibly wish for. Craven has to babysit a Russian defector at a safe house although in this case safe house is a bit of a misnomer. It’s about as safe as being in the middle of a war zone.

Sounds Sinister is a nice little episode about a pirate radio station broadcasting outrageous allegations about various very prominent people. These allegations could cause a crisis of confidence in the government and in the business and financial worlds. The problem is that the allegations are all true. 

Entente Cordiale finds Haggerty in a spot of bother after an arrest doesn’t go quite as smoothly as might have been hoped while Craven has to deal with his French ex-wife who seems to have gotten herself mixed up with the remnants of the OAS. Not one of the better episodes but it's OK.

Date of Birth is a very fine spy thriller story. A vital piece of microfilm is going to be passed to one of six au pair girls in London, but which of the six is the contact for the KGB spy? Craven and Haggerty have to find out, and fast. An interesting bit of trivia for you. The most famous line from The Sweeney, “Get Yer Trousers On You're Nicked,” is actually spoken by Patrick Mower in this episode of Special Branch, a couple of months before the pilot episode of The Sweeney went to air.

Intercept is a neat little story about a corrupt South American dictator, some morally dubious manoeuvrings by the Foreign Office, diamond smuggling, sleazy show-biz types and a mad bomber. 

Alien on the other hand is a bit of a nothing story about the deportation of a German student revolutionary.

Diversion perhaps tries too hard to be cynical, ironic and convoluted. Craven and Haggerty are asked to investigate Strand, who has been drinking heavily and chasing women. Craven soon comes to suspect that Strand is actually up to something devious (after all Strand is almost always up to something devious) The plot throws in hints of blackmail and treason and personal betrayal but somehow it feels just a bit contrived. Trying to humanise Strand is not a good idea - he’s much more interesting when he’s being his usual inhuman self.

The final episode, Downwind of Angels, is a very strong story to takes the series out. A police shooting is always a nightmare. Even if the officer was justified in shooting it’s bad enough but when it’s an innocent bystander who gets shot things get very nasty indeed. Especially when the officer claims to have fired at a man trying to assassinate a visiting dignitary but all the witnesses deny that any such man existed.

The Euston Films version of Special Branch was genuinely ground-breaking at the time and it stands up pretty well. There’s plenty of action but the graphic violence that would become more and more common in British series of this type is not yet in evidence. Craven can be an irritating character but Patrick Mower as Haggerty is great fun to watch. Paul Eddington as Strand takes cynicism to a whole new level and his performance is a delight. Frederick Jaeger is very good as Commander Fletcher. Season four introduced Susan Jameson as Detective Sergeant Mary Holmes, obviously an attempt to add a bit of glamour and a hint of romance (Craven is clearly interested in her). I still prefer the original 1969-70 shot-on-videotape Special Branch but the later version does have a modern action-oriented feel for those who prefer that approach. It’s on DVD from Network (Region 2) and they offer a boxed set that includes all four seasons. The series is also available on DVD in Region 4. Recommended.

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes - the Martin Hewitt episodes

Of the many late Victorian writers of detective fiction who followed in the footsteps of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle the most consistently brilliant was Arthur Morrison. His main series detective was Martin Hewitt. The first season of Thames TV's  The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes television series in 1971 featured two adaptations of Martin Hewitt stories.

Both episodes feature Peter Barkworth as Martin Hewitt.  Martin Hewitt as portrayed by Barkworth is perhaps a little more colourful and jovial than in the original stories (although Morrison’s Hewitt is amiable enough) but overall his performance is a delight.

The Case of Laker, Absconded is one of the best of Morrison’s detective stories and happily the TV adaptation is every bit as good. Hewitt has just landed a contract with an insurance company to investigate cases of fraud, embezzlement or other crimes and now the insurance company is facing a very large pay-out. A walk clerk employed by a bank, a man by the name of Laker, has absconded with no less than fifteen thousand pounds in cash. A walk clerk’s job is to go around to other banks to change securities into cash. It’s a very responsible job and such employees are usually considered to be extremely trustworthy. Laker has always had a reputation for being honest and reliable but the evidence against him is overwhelming.

What puzzles Hewitt is how such a man could have been so foolish as to make off with such a large sum of the bank’s money and then buy a tourist ticket to France in his own name.

Even more puzzling is the fact that Laker’s fiancĂ©e assures Hewitt that Laker is a clever young man.

This is a fine complex mystery with some very impressive detective work by Martin Hewitt. 

Ronald Hines appears as Hewitt’s likeable junior partner Jonathan Pryde. 

The Affair of the Tortoise involves a tortoise, in fact two tortoises although of very different types, a voodoo curse, a retired sea captain, a troublesome tenant and a beautiful heiress. It also involves a murder although the absence of a body provides something of a puzzle. It’s a delightfully baroque plot and it’s executed with great deal of style and verve.

Dan Meaden’s performance as Inspector Nettings, a bluff jovial extremely confident and entirely incompetent Sotland Yard officer, is a complete joy. 

Peter Barkworth is in fine form. Martin Hewitt makes a wonderful detective hero - he’s clever, resourceful and determined and he’s a decent and thoroughly admirable man. He’s fascinated by murder but he seems to derive as much pleasure from proving a suspect’s innocence as he does from solving a complex puzzle.

The Case of Laker, Absconded and The Affair of the Tortoise are two of the most thoroughly enjoyable episodes in a truly wonderful series. Very highly recommended.

Network have released both seasons of The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes on DVD. They are essential viewing for all fans of classy television crime series, and indeed for fans of Victorian and Edwardian detective fiction.

My review of Arthur Morrison’s Martin Hewitt stories can be found at my Vintage Pop Fictions blog.

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 clichĂ©s.

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.