Tuesday, 3 December 2019

The Avengers - 5 episodes, 5 Avengers Girls

It’s fascinating to see the way The Avengers reinvented itself so completely so many times. It’s not just the succession of different Avengers Girls. The one constant element in the series was Steed but he wasn’t constant at all. He evolved in most intriguing ways. In fact there were five subtly different Steeds. Each of these Steed variants has a quite different relationship with his female partner. What I’m planning to do here is to look at five episode, one featuring each of the five Avengers Girls.

The first version was the season one Steed. It’s difficult to make judgments on that first season since only one complete episode survives but it’s obvious that Steed was a rather hardboiled and very cynical character with a streak of genuine nastiness. That original version of The Avengers was intended as a gritty, realistic and hard-edged spy series.

The second version is the Steed of the Cathy Gale era. He has now acquired definite charm but it’s a sly sort of charm that he turns on and off when it’s useful to him. He is still cynical and calculating, and at times breathtakingly ruthless. Cathy Gale is clearly, especially in the 1962 season, a part-time operative whom Steed has recruited and he tells her as little as he can get away with. Which she resents. He lies to her and he uses her. She’s not exactly an innocent victim though. She’s well aware of Steed’s deficiencies of character and she’s well aware that espionage is not a game for children. Being a part-time spy can be fun, but she has no illusions about it.

Propellant 23 is a remarkably fine example of the Steed-Cathy Gale dynamic. She agrees to help him on the case but she is plainly irritated, she is plainly annoyed because she feels he is concealing vital information from her and using her. It’s also clear that there are times when Steed’s combination of cynicism and ruthlessness repels her. So why does she bother getting mixed up in his cases? The best guess is that it amuses and excites her.

There’s a faint suggestion that Steed exerts a kind of psychological dominance over Cathy (and that this is probably true of his relationships with women in general). There’s also a faint suggestion that this might be something that excites Mrs Gale, that she might be the kind of woman who would be attracted to such a man. There’s that subtle hint of mild perversity in The Avengers of the Cathy Gale years that interestingly enough is largely absent from the Emma Peel and Tara King eras. That touch of perversity was certainly noticed at the time. Given Mrs Gale’s penchant for leather and boots and her skills in unarmed combat most people have assumed that if Steed and Cathy had had such tastes that she would have been the dominant party. In fact when you watch the series it seems more likely that it’s Steed who would have been the dominant partner.

Box of Tricks was the third Venus Smith episode of The Avengers and when it went to air in January 1963 it marked the debut of Venus Smith Mark II. Venus started life as  a sultry torch singer but when John Bryce took over from Leonard White as producer he decided to re-invent the character - to make her younger and more bubbly. So Julie Stevens found herself having to change her whole approach to the rôle.

Steed gets Venus a job singing at a club but he really wants her to keep an eye on the magician whose young lady assistant emerged from the disappearing box quite dead a couple of weeks earlier. We naturally assume this is the box of tricks referred to in the title but actually there’s a different box of tricks which is connected with the other main plot strand, involving a leakage on information from top-secret meetings chaired by General Sutherland.

The plot contains some good ideas but it doesn’t quite hang together. It also features an espionage conspiracy that is a little too dependent on the stupidity of the chosen victim.

On the other hand it is a very amusing episode. Steed’s cynicism is on full display as he gets information out of some of the girls at the club and then brushes them off in breathtakingly casual fashion. He gets some great lines out of it. His undercover stint as an eccentric hypochondriac millionaire is very funny.

Steed’s relationship with Venus is interesting. She is obviously aware that Steed works in counter-intelligence and is willing to help out although there is certainly a touch of manipulation to the arrangement. She needs all the singing work she can get and he gets her gigs in exchange for her help on certain cases. As is the case with Cathy Gale he tells her only what he thinks she needs to know, which is virtually nothing. She simply has to obey instructions. Like Mrs Gale Venus is to a considerable extent manipulated by Steed although in this episode he does seem quite fond of her, in his way. And in his defence one could point out that since she’s a complete amateur she’s probably safer not knowing too much and just obeying orders. On the whole she does a pretty fair job at carrying out his instructions. On the surface she’s an airhead and a chatterbox but she’s actually quite sensible (which of course is why Steed bothers to use her as an agent).

With the arrival of Mrs Peel we get Steed version three. The charm is now genuine. And the partnership with Mrs Peel is a genuine partnership. She’s also an amateur spy and her motivations are much the same as Mrs Gale’s - excitement and amusement. She does however obviously now have official status with the shadowy department that Steed works for. Steed does not attempt to manipulate her the way he manipulated Cathy Gale. There’s definite mutual respect and mutual affection, and while the mutual sexual attraction is obvious it’s more than just sexual attraction.

It has to be admitted that this third incarnation of Steed is quite inconsistent with the earlier versions, although I suppose one could try to argue that he’s a bit older, he may have mellowed a little, he may have been softened slightly by genuine emotional feelings toward Mrs Peel. Maybe he’s grown up.

Death’s Door shows the Steed-Mrs Peel dynamic in operation. They work effectively together because they trust each other. It’s a clever little Brian Clemens-scripted episode. There’s a vital international conference taking place but the British representative gets to the doorway leading to the conference room and refuses to enter. He’s had a dream and is now convinced he will die if he goes through that door. His dream comes true in every respect. And it seems that the same thing is destined to happen to every British representative. Steed and Mrs Peel do everything they can think of to convince Lord Melford that there’s no danger, but to no avail. Obviously someone is trying to wreck the conference but how can dreams be made to come true with such uncanny accuracy? The solution is well thought-out and manages to be both outlandish and convincing.

The dream sequences are quite impressive with an atmosphere that is surreal without resorting to silliness and genuinely unsettling. We also get to see how a man can be shot without a gun in a nicely executed little action set-piece.

The fourth Steed, the one of the Tara King era, is a subtle and perfectly plausible evolution from the previous version. The main difference is that his relationship with Tara is rather different. There’s a faint suggestion that she sees him as just a bit of a father figure, and that he sees himself in this light. Given that Tara is a professional spy and Steed trained her this of course makes perfect sense. There’s also definite sexual flirtation (if not more) between them.

Bizarre is one of the more notorious Tara King episodes. It was the very last episode of The Avengers (if you don’t count The New Avengers) which may be one of the reasons it has such a poor reputation. It seems to bring out all the bitterness of fans with the ending of the series.

Bizarre starts with a young woman discovered lying unconscious in a field, in her night dress. It doesn’t take long to figure out that she must have fallen from (or been pushed from) the night express which passed by about an hour before she was found. But how to explain her strange story about the dead man in the coffin who wasn’t dead?

There was a coffin on the train, bound for Happy Meadows. So Steed heads for the Happy Meadows cemetery to have a talk with Mr Happychap (Roy Kinnear), the man who runs the place and who believes that death can be fun. The case seems to involve a number of dead people but it is not clear exactly how dead they are, or how permanently dead they are. They are obviously very dead and very genuinely dead but they don’t stay that way. There’s also a travel agency that can arrange holidays in paradise, an agency run by the self-proclaimed charlatan the Master (Futon Mackay).

Mother gets quite a bit to do in this episode, which is fun by me since I always enjoy Patrick Newell’s performances. Roy Kinnear and Fulton Mackay dominate proceedings which is what you expect when you have two such fine comic actors and you let them loose. While the other supporting players naturally get overshadowed they’re actually uniformly good.

The final Steed, in The New Avengers, is a middle-aged version of the fourth Steed. The slight father-daughter vibe that existed with Tara is certainly there with Purdey. Most of the flirting is between Purdey and Gambit although the very strong emotional bond between Steed and Purdey suggests a past romantic involvement.

The Midas Touch is from the first season of The New Avengers and it’s top-notch stuff. For starters there’s a clever script from Brian Clemens. There’s a mad scientist, a Dr Turner, but instead of the usual mad scientist motivations this one is driven purely by a lust for gold. It’s a nicely bizarre slightly perverse touch. His brainchild is Midas, a young man who is a carrier of every disease known to science but he is immune to them all. He is in perfect health. Anyone he touches dies an agonising death. The mad scientist offers the services of Midas to a crazed power-hungry foreign politician.

The mad scientist is genuinely creepy and is played with gusto by David Swift. He’s a classic Avengers diabolical criminal mastermind. Ed Devereaux chews every piece of scenery he can get his hands on as the evil politician. His performance is a major highlight and again it’s classic Avengers stuff. Dr Turner’s gold collection, including plenty of naked golden ladies, provides the necessary  weird setting.

But this is The New Avengers so that means lots of action and violence doesn’t it? It certainly does. The violence is actually quite restrained but it has plenty of macabre and perverse overtones. The action sequences are not only terrific, they’re done with style and wit. Purdey and Gambit arguing over who directed The Treasure of the Sierra Madre in the middle of a thrilling high-octane car chase is a lovely touch. Purdey gets to demonstrate her prowess with the high kicks in a fine fight scene and it makes sense since it’s the only way she can fight this particular opponent.

There’s plenty of amusing dialogue with Purdey and Gambit indulging in some good-natured banter. Gambit is a character who has slowly grown on me. He’s more likeable than usual in this episode and he gets some good lines which Gareth Hunt delivers pretty effectively.

The New Avengers established Joanna Lumley as a major sex symbol and this episode shows why. And of course the sexiness is combined with definite hints of perversity - Purdey tied up and drooled over one of the mad scientist’s flunkeys being a case in point. And of course there’s Purdey climbing the gate and managing to give the audience a good long look at her panties. Very un-PC and I’m surprised they got away with it but I doubt that any male viewer would have been complaining. Joanna Lumley is in fine form in The Midas Touch. She gets lots to do and does it all well.

This is an episode that has enough of the flavour and stylistic dash and quirkiness of the original series combined with excellent 70s action sequences, and that’s the right combination for The New Avengers.

Sunday, 24 November 2019

Naked City season 3 (1961-62)

I’ve posted before about Naked City, not just one of the classic American cop shows but one that can truly be described as ground-breaking. It’s not just that it took advantage of the one-hour format (still fairly unusual at the beginning of the 60s) to feature complex plots, it also used the format to add considerably psychological complexity. And it was not afraid to be slightly unconventional or even just the tiniest bit experimental.

I’m going to talk about a few third season Naked City episodes that demonstrate this show’s strengths.

The Hot Minerva is definitely an offbeat episode. An extremely valuable classical Greek statue has been stolen from a museum. The thieves and the museum’s curator are all slightly odd, not quite the sorts of thieves that the detectives of the 65th Precinct usually deal with. This story is slightly tongue-in-cheek and slightly whimsical. It’s a quirky episode but it works for me.

A Case Study of Two Savages is about a nice young couple of newlyweds from Arkansas. Ansel Boake (Rip Torn) and his teenage bride Ora Mae are very much in love. Ansel wants to give Ora Mae lots of nice things. The only way he can get these nice things for her is to steal them. And that often involves killing people. In fact Ansel has to kill people for a lot of reasons. Which is OK, because he doesn't mind killing people. And Ora Mae knows that Ansel only kills people because he loves her. A great episode with a terrific performance by Tuesday Weld as Ora Mae.

The Face of the Enemy is a spree killer story, fairly unusual subject matter for 1962. Cornelius Daggett is a war hero. He killed 126 people in 1942 and the Army gave him a medal for it. Unfortunately the only thing that Cornelius Daggett has ever been any good at is killing people. And now the Army doesn’t need him to kill any more people. Nobody needs him to kill any more people. So what the hell does he do now? What he does do is drink and feel sorry for himself. His family doesn't want to know him any more. It was so much easier back on Guadalcanal. Those were good times. He killed people and everybody admired him for it. If only he were back on Guadalcanal. Pretty soon Cornelius Daggett is back on Guadalcanal, in his mind. You know this is not going to end well.

An intriguing episode because on the one hand there’s the temptation to make it a Social Problem Story and make Daggett a victim (and Detective Adam Flint’s social worker instincts are in full cry in this episode) but on the other hand the man is a drunken self-pitying loser and a psychotic killer. The episode veers between these two tendencies, which is sort of interesting.

Portrait of a Painter is (naturally) about a painter but it’s really more about evidence, particularly psychiatric evidence, and about preconceived notions affecting an investigation. The case seems open-and-shut. Roger Barmer is an artist with a history of psychiatric problems, including hostility to women, so when his wife is found stabbed to death he’s obviously the prime suspect. Barmer claims to have been out cold and to have found his wife’s body after regaining consciousness. He immediately goes to see his psychiatrist and makes a confession. At least it’s a sort of confession. Detective Flint is not happy about it at all - he feels that the psychiatrist bullied Barmer into the confession and given that Barmer has no memory of having committed the murder he thinks this confession is very very dubious. So he decides to press ahead with the investigation with an open mind. It’s an interesting and rather thought-provoking story, plus William Shatner plays the crazy artist and you just know how much fun that performance is going to be. An extremely good episode.

Let Me Die Before I Wake is quite offbeat. Joe Calageras (Jack Klugman) runs a successful trucking business with his brother Vito (Michael Constantine). The Calageras brothers are Sicilian and they have a pretty conservative outlook on life. They’re popular and well-respected. Then somebody tries to run Joe down in a truck. The truck misses Joe but hits a little girl. All the eyewitnesses are adamant that it was attempted murder but Joe insists it was an accident.

There are a lot of things that Joe doesn’t want to talk about. Like the reason he can’t leave the block. He gets as far as the corner and then he starts to sweat, his vision starts to blur, he gets dizzy. Joe also doesn’t want to talk about his wife Rosie. Unless someone will talk about these things Detectives Adam Flint and Frank Arcaro don’t see how they are going to find out the truth about that hit-run incident.

Maybe some things should get talked about. And maybe some things shouldn’t. Maybe talking about things can make things worse. Maybe it’s best not to know certain things. When there’s a powder keg of emotion ready to blow talking about it can set off the explosion. Is anybody better off then? This is an interesting performance by Klugman - he really keeps a lid on it which is not exactly his usual style. It’s another slightly unconventional but extremely interesting episode.

American television in the early 60s started to get rather keen on attempting to address social problems (much as Hollywood had had a minor obsession with Social Problem movies in the 50s). Most of these attempts were pretty cringe-inducing but Naked City was an exception. At times they did this sort of thing remarkably well. The One Marked Hot Gives Cold is an intriguing example. L. Francis Childe (the L stands for Love - yes the poor guy was named Love Childe by his parents) is thirty-one years old and he has a record of occasional outbursts of extreme violence. During his navy service he killed a fellow sailor and served a prison term. Now he’s trying to find his father. He had been left in an orphanage as a boy and had been told his parents were dead but he has reason to believe that his father is alive. He breaks into the orphanage and steals his records.

Childe has befriended a 12-year-old girl named Aggie. He has (or had) a girlfriend, a married woman. Now she has accused him of molesting Aggie. In fact we know that the relationship between Childe and Aggie, although odd, is completely innocent. They’re both lonely and craving someone to talk to. Detectives Flint and Arcaro, and Lieutenant Parker, suspect the the charges are malicious and that the relationship is innocent but when accusations like that are made they obviously have to investigate.

The treatment of the relationship between Childe and his father (when he finds him) is all very much what you expect at this period, rather Freudian and obsessed with the dangers of weak fathers. The Childe-Aggie relationship is quite touching - Aggie is probably the first human being that Childe has felt any liking for and Childe is probably the first person who has ever given Aggie the attention she craves. And he’s probably the first person who has ever taken her problems (the perfectly normal problems of a perfectly normal 12-year-old girl) seriously. This episode carefully avoids sensationalism or crassness. A grown man and a 12-year-old girl riding a merry-go-round and visiting the Children’s Zoo together could have been creepy but it isn’t really - Childe is at about the same level of emotional development as the girl. He just wants a friend.

It’s an example of this sort of thing done sensitively and perceptively. The ending is genuinely moving. It’s a very good episode.

The Fingers of Henri Tourelle is a whodunit episode and a very good one. Fashion house owner Henri Tourelle is murdered. The murder weapon, a gun, cannot be found. Between the time Tourelle died and the time the police arrived it would have been impossible for anyone to have left the building. The murderer therefore must be one of half a dozen people, the inner circle of Tourelle’s fashion empire. Each of them tells his or her story in a flashback. The solution to the puzzle is clever and the means by which Detective Adam Flint finds the solution is equally clever. Great stuff.

The central character of Goodbye Mama, Hello Auntie Maud is a house. It’s a very grand old house and Ellen Annis loves it dearly. Unfortunately her mother, a rich cantankerous old lady who is slowly dying, hates the house and wants to sell it. When Mama dies it comes as no great surprise and really it’s a good thing for everybody. Ellen will get to keep her house. The staff will get to keep their jobs (something both the butler and the chauffeur were rather worried about). And Ellen has told Auntie Maud she can live in the houses as long as she wants to. The police were a little concerned about an odd ’phone call at the time of Mama’s death but since the autopsy showed natural causes the case is soon closed.

The second corpse is more difficult to dismiss so lightly.

There’s some fine acting here from Salome Jens as Ellen, Carroll O’Connor as the butler and James Coburn as the chauffeur. Equally impressive is the subtle but oppressive atmosphere of the house. It’s a lovely old house but it seems to do things to people. An excellent episode, typical of the slightly offbeat nature of this series.

Which Is Joseph Creeley? is another demonstration of the willingness of this series to take major risks. The ending was very daringly unconventional for 1961 network TV. Joseph Creeley is convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to the electric chair. Then it is discovered that he has a brain tumour. An operation is carried out, successfully, and a startling discovery is made - the post-operation Joseph Creeley is an entire different person to the pre-operation version. He has gone from being a crazed killer to being a quiet gentle man. And he has no memory of the murder. In fact he cannot remember anything of the ten years that preceded the murder.

A retrial is ordered and the jury must decide if he can be convicted of a murder that was in effect carried out by a different man. Detective Adam Flint was the arresting officer but now he’s a witness for the defence.

Typically for this series the idea is a good one and it’s developed intelligently and provocatively, without sentimentality and without trying to treat a complex dilemma in simplistic terms. This is an excellent episode.

Ooftus Goofus is the story of George Bick, a little man who is slowly coming to realise that his life amounts to nothing and that nobody will ever take him seriously. He decides to make people listen to him. He starts out with harmless but rather clever pranks, such as switching all the prices at the local supermarket thereby creating pandemonium. The pranks gradually become more dangerous. This is a fine example of Naked City’s willingness to take risks. This story mixes whimsicality with pathos and tragedy. It has to tread a very fine line between sentimentality and black humour and between inspired whimsy and mere silliness. Somehow it succeeds and it’s genuinely moving. Mickey Rooney as George and Maureen Stapleton as his wife give bravura performances that still manage to feel real. A very fine episode.

Final Thoughts

One of the great cop shows and one that took TV police drama in risky but rewarding new directions.

Very highly recommended.

Saturday, 16 November 2019

Then Came Bronson (1969 pilot)

Then Came Bronson is a 1969 TV-movie which served as the pilot for a TV series of the same name. The pilot was given a theatrical release in Europe. The series was not particularly successful, lasting just one season on NBC, but it developed quite a cult following.

For many years the series has been little seen and has never been released on DVD. As a result it has gradually subsided into almost total obscurity. The pilot was released on DVD in the Warner Archive series a few years back but apparently sales were not healthy enough to warrant the release of the series.

Then Came Bronson was basically conceived as Route 66 but with a motorcycle (a 1969 XLH Harley-Davidson Sportster) instead of a Chevy Corvette and with a single protagonist rather than the buddy formula of Route 66. Since Route 66 had been a substantial hit it must have seemed like a good idea at the time.

Michael Parks stars as reporter Jim Bronson. After his best buddy’s suicide and after yet another argument with his editor Jim decides to walk out on his job, hop on his motorcycle (inherited from his dead buddy) and set off to, you know, discover stuff. To find himself. And maybe find America as well. Or something like that.

In fact, reading between the lines, Bronson is a second-rate reporter who is too undisciplined and self-indulgent to be a success but of course he doesn’t see it that way. He feels oppressed by his boss. He needs freedom man.

First he decides to take a ride along a beach and he encounters a bride. She then takes her clothes off and runs away. Because it was 1969 so there has to be some gratuitous nudity. Then he encounters some girl in a convertible (she looks like the girl on the beach and maybe she really is the girl on the beach) and after a stormy beginning they hook up together. It seems that the convertible wasn’t actually technically hers and the police seemed like they were going to be tiresome about that so she figures she’ll tag along with Bronson.

So they ride around on Bronson’s motorcycle and have adventures. Only they don’t actually have any adventures. They visit one of Bronson’s buddies, an old Mexican artist (at least he thinks he’s an artist but his art is rubbish).

Bronson and the girl fall in love, well sort of. She falls in love. Bronson isn’t ready for commitment. A committed relationship with his motorcycle is about all he’s capable of. He takes the girl shopping and she displays an intense interest in baby clothes, and Bronson definitely isn’t ready for that.

Then they ride around on Bronson’s motorcycle some more.

This is not quite a plotless movie but it’s pretty close to being one. Apart from the love story nothing very much happens. And since this is a pilot for a series about a guy riding around on a motorcycle on his own we can be forgiven for being just a tad sceptical as to how the great romance is going to pan out. And it was the 60s, freedom and finding yourself and all that, and marriage and children wasn’t part of that. It does however give us the protagonist’s backstory which does the necessary job of setting things up for the series.

Of course the girl (who doesn’t reveal that her name is Temple Brooks until the end) is trying to find herself as well. Girls did that as well in the 60s but it didn’t necessarily mean spending your whole life on the back of a motorcycle.

The performance of Michael Parks as Bronson is interesting. I guess we’re supposed to see the character as a romantic rebel, but he givers the impression that he’s rebelling against oppressive stuff like taking responsibility and growing up. He’s thirty years old, going on sixteen. Apart from the selfishness there’s a fascinating hint of darkness beneath the surface. Bronson thought he was too sensitive and caring to be a reporter but there’s a fair amount of anger there as well.

Bonnie Bedelia is pretty good as Temple, and at least she doesn't look like a 60s casualty. She makes the character’s transition from spoilt brat to grown-up woman fairly convincing and she makes Temple oddly likeable - in some ways we’d like to see her and Bronson get together but we suspect that he’d probably wreck her life. Maybe it would be best for her in the long run if riding around on a Harley with a brooding self-absorbed rebel without a clue turned out to be just a stage she had to work through.

Akim Tamiroff overdoes it a bit as the old Mexican artist.

Apart from its obvious affinities with Route 66 it’s also worth comparing this TV pilot to series like the much more interesting Coronet Blue and also to The Fugitive. In both Coronet Blue and The Fugitive the hero is searching for something tangible (his identity and the identity of his wife’s killer respectively). The pilot of Then Came Bronson gives no indication that Bronson has any idea what he is looking for.

On the plus side there’s some nice location shooting and both Bronson and Temple do have some depth. And they do have character arcs of a sort - Temple wants to grow up and Bronson wants to run further and further away from adult responsibilities.

One thing that’s intriguing is that the pilot seems slightly dated for its era. This is 1969 but there’s no sign of the drug culture, and no hippies. Bronson might be an overgrown teenager but he’s not a criminal or a drug dealer (this is a long long way from Easy Rider which came out in the same year). His bike is not a chopper. He’s no outlaw biker. He’s pretty law-abiding. And while the girl may have “borrowed” that convertible without letting the owner know she’s not really a car thief and she’s not really a good girl gone bad. She’s just a bit confused because she’s young (probably around 20) and she’s scared of taking the step into adulthood, which is pretty scary for most of us. Then Came Bronson could be taking place in 1964. It’s an America that was already vanishing by 1969.

Sadly we don’t get to hear Long Lonesome Highway which Michael Parks sings at the end of each episode of the series itself. That song is my most vivid memory from seeing the series many many years ago.

The Warner Archive DVD offers a pretty good transfer which is important because it all takes place outdoors (for a 1969 TV pilot is has a very expansive look).

Is Then Came Bronson worth watching? If you love motorcycles and road movies and you have a high tolerance for the finding yourself thing then you’ll probably enjoy it. If you don’t have much tolerance for those things you might find it heavy going although it’s an interesting social docukment.

Friday, 8 November 2019

A for Andromeda (novelisation of TV series)

A for Andromeda is a novelisation of one of the most famous science fiction television series of all time, screened on the BBC in 1961. Only one of the seven episodes has survived. The television series was co-written by astronomer and science fiction author Sir Fred Hoyle and John Elliot. A novelisation was commissioned in 1961.

Although a reconstruction of the television series, using the surviving audio and production stills, was attempted the novelisation (which is actually extremely good) is now really the only way for us to appreciate what a tragedy the loss of the series was.

Here’s the link to my review of the novelisation.

Friday, 1 November 2019

Coronet Blue (1967)

Coronet Blue is a short-lived offbeat series that aired on CBS in 1967. It was created by Larry Cohen. Cohen also created The Invaders with which Coronet Blue has some slight affinities.

A young man is mixed up in something big. It’s something dangerous and possibly illegal. Whatever it is the people behind it decide the young man has to die. Before killing him they remove all traces of identification, even the labels on his clothes. Then they dump him into the harbour. But the young man doesn’t die. He is fished out of the water, but now he doesn’t remember anything and he doesn’t know who he is or what his name is.

He is taken to the hospital where a psychiatrist tries to put him back together again but he still can’t remember anything but the words Coronet Blue. He decides he can’t stay in the hospital but before he leaves he needs a name. His psychiatrists name is Michael and the hospital is Alden General Hospital so he becomes Michael Alden.

Now he has to find out who he is. He also has to bear in mind that somebody is still trying to kill him. Neither Michael nor the audience has any idea initially as to his identity or to the part he played in whatever it was that got him dropped into the harbour. He may be a criminal. He may be an undercover cop. Or a spy. Or even an innocent bystander.

Coronet Blue is a thriller but it’s an attempt to add a few psychological and philosophical dimensions to the genre. The hero grapples with the problem of either rediscovering his identity or constructing a new life while the thriller plot bubbles away in the background, occasionally coming to the forefront suddenly and unexpectedly.

Coronet Blue belongs to an odd genre very characteristic of the 60s in which a man is both running from something and searching for something. What they are searching for varies. Sometimes it’s a meaning to the puzzle of life but often it’s the answer to a question. The Fugitive and Run for Your Life are obvious examples of this genre. The Invaders is a variation on the theme.

Coronet Blue is a series that struggles a little to find a consistent tone. It’s very 1960s in being at times quite dark and disturbing and then switching suddenly to slightly zany light comedy. There was clearly an intention to aim at a hip young audience, the sorts of viewers that the networks were desperate to reach at that time. It has that  60s “young people trying to find themselves” vibe that characterised series like Route 66 and Then Came Bronson.

Frank Converse is very good in the lead rôle. He’s sympathetic and his performance mercifully avoids wallowing in self-pity.

Larry Cohen lost control of the series early on and it went in a direction which was not at all what he’d intended. He saw the series as a suspense thriller story but it became a “finding yourself” series. Cohen had a very clear idea where the story was going to end up and the solution to the mystery (which I’m certainly not going to reveal) could have been very satisfying. Cohen’s idea also had the virtue of explaining why Michael had so much trouble discovering his identity.

Had Cohen remained in control it would have been more like The Invaders with the protagonist gradually putting more and more of the pieces together. Neither the production company nor the network seemed to know what to do with this series with the unfortunate result that it lasted only thirteen episodes and so we never do find out the answer to the puzzle. If you buy it on DVD then make sure you watch the series before you watch the interview with Larry Cohen in which he reveals that answer.

Episode Guide

A Time to Be Born sets things up. Michael Alden leaves the hospital intent on finding to exactly what Coronet Blue refers to. His search leads him to a party at which he meets Alix Frame (played by one of my all-time favourite actresses, Susan Hampshire). Alix’s father offers him a job selling boats. Alix is searching for something as well but she doesn't know what it is. They fall in love but Michael still has somebody pursuing him trying to kill him so settling down with Alix is obviously not going to be possible. It’s a fine story that sets the tone for the series.

In The Assassins Michael thinks he’s found his mother but he may have found a whole lot of trouble. There’s also a girl to whom he was apparently engaged. He doesn't remember anything about her. Curiously enough the girl doesn’t seem to remember anything about him either. He also gets introduced to a visiting prince. Michael thinks there’s something strange going on but he can’t figure what it is. This seems to be a typical Coronet Blue episode - Michael finds a possible clue to his identity, he meets a girl and falls in love but sinister forces are at work against him. Another very good episode with the trademarks of this series - a vague feeling of uneasiness, of possible deception and manipulation.


The Rebels takes Michael to college, where he’s employed as a campus security officer but he’s actually being used as an experimental subject by a scientist who thinks he can cure his amnesia. It’s a particularly dire example of American television trying to be socially relevant by confronting the problems facing college kids today. In this case they’re being oppressed by having to attend lectures and do exams. The potential interesting aspects of the story (the experiments with memory) end up being ignored. An atrocious episode.

Another attempt is made on Michael’s life and he ends up taking refuge in a monastery in New York City, in A Dozen Demons. The demons are in a stained glass window. It’s a modern window, painted quite recently, of the Temptation of St Anthony. And the St Anthony in the picture looks exactly like Michael. Michael is convinced that it is him, that he must have been the model. This clue could give him some answers. To help him find the answer he has a crazy artist, the artist’s pretty blonde daughter and a runaway monk who, like Michael, is searching for an identity and a place in the world. This is a much better episode that maintains its focus on Michael’s search for the answer to the Coronet Blue riddle.

In Faces Michael finds a photograph. It was taken at a funeral and he’s in it. The funeral took place in a town called Jennings Grove. A popular local girl had been murdered. Nobody can remember seeing Michael at the funeral and nobody can tell him who he is but he’s sure that if he keeps pushing then somebody must remember something. Meanwhile a young man awaits execution for the murder. It’s a decent mystery story with the twist that Michael can’t be sure that he himself is not the murderer.

In Man Running Michael saves a man from an attempted murder. The man (played with aplomb by Denholm Elliott) is being hunted by agents of a Caribbean military dictatorship. He has come to New York to see his daughter for the first time in ten years. Michael really doesn’t want to get mixed up in this situation but of course he does get involved and the situation gets more complicated. This is an odd episode since mostly the focus is not really on Michael. It’s more a straight thriller story, but enjoyable enough.

Although A Charade for Murder does involve a murder this is an episode that is characterised by extreme quirkiness and a slightly farcical tone. Michael’s ex-monk friend Tony (introduced in A Dozen Demons) is framed for murder but the real intention had been to frame Michael. The conspiracy is totally over-the-top with a bogus Navy intelligence officer and a ditzy actress doing a fortune-teller spiel. And it’s definitely kind of fun.

Saturday tries to combine some psychological drama with the ongoing mystery plot. A guy who claims to be able to tell him the secret of his identity but on the way to meet him Michael runs into a kid whose father has just died. The kid suddenly has to deal with grown-up problems of identity which is pretty much what Michael faces. It works reasonably well.

In The Presence of Evil a stage magician believes he really has supernatural powers and that they come from Satan. The powers work through his young female assistant and allow her to see the future. What interests Michael is that blue coronet the assistant wears during the performance.

Michael is used to people bring to kill him but what he didn’t expect was that someone would want to send him to Mars. Literally. But that’s what happens in Six Months to Mars. It’s a U.S. Government project but the guy in charge of it is definitely in the mad scientist mould. Interesting episode.

The Flip Side of Timmy Devon presents Michael with another puzzle. Pop star Timmy Devon is dead. The last song he wrote has not yet been released. No-one has heard the song. And yet Michael knows the words. But how does he know them?

Since this series was clearly aimed at a younger demographic a story with a pop music background was an obviously good idea and although the final twist probably won’t come a huge surprise it’s sill pretty well executed. And it has the oddball feel that characterises Coronet Blue at its best. Another good episode.

In Where You from and What You Done? Michel is in a smarten in Virginia called Coronet catching a bus when he meets ditzy blonde singer Ava Lou Springer. Or maybe she’s a writer. Or maybe her identity is as uncertain as Michael’s. Or maybe there’s not a word of truth in anything she tells him. She is pretty though and although the last thing Michael really needs is to hook up with a crazy young woman that’s what he does. Although he is worried about the guy at the bus terminal who seemed to be taking a bit too much interest in him. Another good episode.

In Tomoyo Michael sees a Japanese girl in the street and he’s convinced he knew her. Trying to get to talk to her leads him to Mr Omaki’s dojo and gets him beaten up. He learns something from this. He learns that he knows quite a bit about martial arts. But is this going to help him discover his identity? An interesting episode with some reasonable suspense and mystery elements.

Final Thoughts

In commercial terms Coronet Blue was perhaps a bit too quirky for its own good. I personally like its quirkinesss but structurally it’s a bit too loose. It needed a tighter focus on the ongoing story arc involving Michael’s past. Michael just doesn’t discover enough about his past to keep the mystery and suspense thriller elements interesting. Having said that it’s still an intriguing series that had potential. And the theme song will burrow itself into your brain!

The DVD release offers excellent transfers and a very revealing interview with the show’s creator Larry Cohen. If you like slightly offbeat dramas Coronet Blue is worth a look. Recommended.

Sunday, 20 October 2019

more failed pilots - Planet Earth (1974)

After his 1973 Genesis II pilot failed to be picked up as a series Gene Roddenberry tried again the following year with the same basic concept and surprisingly Warner Brothers Television financed another pilot. This was Planet Earth. This time the screenplay was co-written by Roddenberry and Juanita Bartlett.

Genesis II had not been entirely lacking in potential but suffered from a noticeable lack of action. Planet Earth tries to rectify this by going for a more straightforward adventure formula.

Once again we meet NASA scientist Dylan Hunt (played this time by John Saxon) a century and a half in the future after an experiment in suspended animation goes wrong. This aspect of the story was given a lot of attention in Genesis II but it’s glossed over in a few seconds of exposition in Planet Earth. Which is a pity since it makes the whole premise a bit pointless. We don’t get to see Dylan Hunt trying to making sense of this strange new world in which he finds himself.

The idea presumably is that this is a sequel to Genesis II so we already know the backstory but in fact it’s a sequel that changes things considerably. PAX is now a much more high-tech civilisation.

As in Genesis II the future Earth, having suffered a nuclear war, is home to a variety of competing societies. The most advanced is PAX. They’re the most civilised and enlightened society because they worship science and everyone knows that scientists are always right.

PAX regularly sends out teams to the other societies on the planet to teach them how to be properly civilised. The way to be civilised is of course to be exactly like PAX. On one of these expeditions they encounter a band of violent marauding mutants and their beloved leader is injured. He’s going to need specialised surgery but the only surgeon capable of doing the operation was captured by another barbarian society a year earlier. So Dylan Hunt and his three sidekicks set off to rescue the unfortunate surgeon from the barbarians.

The surgeon, Connor, was captured by a society of amazon women who keep men as slaves. Dylan and his team members all manage to get themselves captured and Harper-Smythe finds herself having to fight the cruel and sinister Marg (Diana Muldaur) for ownership of Dylan. All the women want to buy Dylan because he looks like good breeding stock. They all desperately want babies since babies are in very short supply. Their men are drugged to keep them docile and that seems to reduce their breeding capabilities.

What the women really need is for their men to be real men, especially with mutants running about. The women just need someone like Dylan Hunt to demonstrate how useful a man can be.

It all plays out very much like an extended episode of Star Trek. In fact it’s way too much like a Star Trek episode. And not one of the better ones. The PAX is clearly the Federation. They’re idealistic and progressive and generally virtuous. The mutant bands are the Klingons. The women’s society is the kind of alien society you see in Star Trek, even down to the costumes. The PAX people wear uniforms that look uncannily like Star Trek Federation uniforms.

John Saxon is always a very entertaining actor but he makes Dylan Hunt a bit too much of an obvious James T. Kirk clone. He may have been a safer choice than Alex Cord (who played the rôle in Genesis II) for an action adventure series but I thought Cord’s performance was the more interesting of the two simply because it was less Kirk-like.

Diana Muldaur does the best she can with the script she’s given but Marg was always going to be a rather limited character.

Ted Cassidy plays pretty much the same character he played in Genesis II - he’s an Apache chief but a loyal PAX foot soldier.

Dylan Hunt’s other sidekicks are irritating psychic Baylok and pretty scientist Harper-Smythe (Janet Margolin). Unfortunately she just doesn’t quite convince as an action heroine.

Planet Earth has a bit of a Planet of the Apes vibe to it - both visually and with the idea of a world turned upside down.

The subshuttles are the same as those used in Genesis II, and they’re still a good idea. If you’re going to do a science fiction series you need some cool technology and they make a nice change from starships and robots.

The decision to make PAX more or less pacifists (they only use stun guns) is more dubious - it makes them seem a bit too smug and self-righteous.

When Planet Earth failed to excite network executives Roddenberry (perhaps wisely) gave up on the whole idea. But Warner Brothers (perhaps very unwisely) decided to make a third attempt. By this time they owned the rights to the concept so without Roddenberry’s involvement they came up with yet another pilot, Strange New World. Not so strangely, it was a failure as well.

All three pilots are available on DVD in the Warner Archive series. The first two at least look great but both would have benefited enormously from an audio commentary to give them a bit more context.

I think Genesis II could have worked if only Roddenberry had gone back to it and added a few more action scenes. Planet Earth suffers from being Star Trek without the exciting stuff like starships. Both are worth a look with Genesis II being the more interesting. I haven’t seen Strange New World yet so I cannot comment on that one.

Friday, 11 October 2019

failed pilots - Genesis II (1973)

Gene Roddenberry came up with a pretty good idea when he created Star Trek. The execution of the idea was sometimes brilliant and sometimes terrible but Star Trek still deserves its legendary status among TV sci-fi series.

Naturally enough after Star Trek was canceled Roddenberry tried to come up with another great TV science fiction idea. He tried really really hard but never quite succeeded. Genesis II was one of several failed pilots for which he was responsible in the 70s. Interestingly enough he made no less than three failed pilots at the time all utilising the same basic idea.

The basic idea is in fact a direct rip-off of Buck Rogers. In 1979 scientist Dylan Hunt (Alex Cord)  is experimenting on suspended animation, with himself as the test subject. He expects to be asleep for a few days. What he doesn’t know is that the secret research facility under Carlsbad Mountain is about to be buried by an earthquake. He wakes up in the year 2133.

He is brought back to life by the beautiful Lyra-a (Mariette Hartley), who is half-human and half-Tyranian. She has two hearts which of course means that she has two navels (no I have no idea why that’s supposed to make sense either except that it’s an excuse for her to take most of her clothes off).

There had been a nuclear war many years earlier and now there are a number of competing societies. There’s PAX, apparently descended from the scientists of the 20th century and since they worship Science! they’re naturally the good guys. Then there are the Tyranians. They’re rich and evil and cruel and they keep humans as slaves. They dress like ancient Romans so we know they’re bad guys.

The Tyranians are apparently mutants (or at least I think they're supposed to be mutants although I must admit that I was a little bit confused on this point). Lyra-a is therefore half-human and half-mutant, a very Gene Roddenberry concept.

Some 20th century high technology still survives in the world of 2133. Nuclear power plants are still functioning, as are the ultra high speed underground railways. The trouble is that nobody now knows how the technology works so they can’t fix it if it breaks down.

The really bad news is that some nuclear warheads and some missiles still survive as well.

Lyra-a works for PAX but she’s actually a Tyranian spy. She’s beautiful but because she’s half-Tyranian she’s cruel and emotionless but because she’s half-human she’s not completely cruel and emotionless and of course she’s going to fall in love with Dylan Hunt.

Both PAX and the Tyranians want Dylan Hunt because he actually understands the high-tech stuff. The Tyranians want him to repair their nuclear power plant.

Dylan gets himself mixed up in a PAX conspiracy to start a slave revolt but he doesn’t know what to do about Lyra-a. He knows he shouldn't trust her but she’s really hot so he wants to trust her.

The major weakness is that the PAX people come across as irritating smarmy do-gooders with a passionate devotion to art, science and everything virtuous. They’re socially progressive atheists who know that science is the answer and that if we try we can all learn to get along. They’re a typical Gene Roddenberry idea of a utopia which actually strikes me as being a holier-than-thou nightmare society.

If the PAX people suffer from being too annoyingly virtuous the Tyranians suffer from being too obviously and too completely evil.

Alex Cord makes a decent enough hero but with perhaps not quite enough charisma.

Mariette Hartley is excellent. Ted Cassidy (best known as Lurch in The Addams Family) plays an Apache chief working for PAX. Which kind of works because at least it adds an offbeat touch.

The subterranean shuttles are quite cool although they’re also stolen from Buck Rogers. It’s almost as if all the good ideas here have been borrowed from elsewhere while the bad ideas are Roddenberry’s.

The costumes are as cringe-inducing as those featured in the worst episodes of Star Trek. The sets are not too bad.

It’s easy to see why network executives who saw this pilot had serious misgivings. There’s just not enough action and we have to wait a long time for any action at all. There’s too much talking. The dialogue is awful. It has too much of the feel of a Star Trek episode, but without starships and proton torpedoes and without the excitement that Star Trek provided (at least some of the time).

This might be giving you the impression that I hated Genesis II but I didn’t really. It does have all the faults you’d expect from Gene Roddenberry but it also has some of his strengths - and some of the strengths of Star Trek. This is a future world of many competing societies without any one dominant power so it’s a setup with plenty of potential. The idea of a world with high technology that is slowly failing because nobody knows how it works is extremely good. And it is a lot more interesting than most post-apocalyptic science fiction.

Genesis II has been released on DVD in the Warner Archive series and it looks terrific. The lack of extras is disappointing - it would have been great to get some insights into the directions a series might have taken.

Genesis II was not entirely lacking in promise and despite its flaws it’s worth a look. Star Trek had most of the same flaws but it still worked.