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.

Wednesday, 2 October 2019

three more TV Ellery Queens

Some remarks on a further three episodes of the 1975-76 Ellery Queen TV series.

The Adventure of the Blunt Instrument is interesting for its subject matter. Ellery Queen is a series about a writer of murder mysteries who enjoys success as an amateur detective. in this episode a popular writer of detective stories is murdered (having just been awarded the coveted Blunt Instrument Award). So we not only have a mystery writer as hero, but a mystery writer as victim as well. And one of the suspects is a rival mystery writer! It’s like an extended mystery fiction in-joke.

This is a story in which the decision of the producers to set the series in 1947 becomes somewhat significant. At this time the traditional puzzle-plot detective novel was falling out of favour with critics and publishers who were increasingly enthusiastic about suspense stories and hardboiled crime thrillers (although it’s worth pointing out that the reading public did not necessarily go along with this change in tastes). In the story the murder victim, Edgar Manning, is a writer of traditional puzzle-plot mystery novels. His rival, Nick McVey, is a writer of hardboiled crime fiction - a genre that Manning considers to be no better than thinly disguised pornography. In fact 1947 was the year that Mickey Spillane’s first novel I, the Jury was published. And many writers and fans of traditional mysteries certainly considered Spillane’s books to be pretty much thinly disguised pornography.

And while Ellery (the Ellery Queen of the TV series that is) does not give an explicit opinion on the matter from everything we know about him as a character it’s fair to assume that he’s likely to be more sympathetic to Manning’s traditionalist view of the genre.

None of this really has any relevance to the plot but it does add an interesting extra layer to the story.

The Adventure of the Blunt Instrument deals not just with mystery writers but with their publishers as well. If the rivalries between writers are fierce the rivalries between publishers are positively brutal.

The two rival publishers both have motives for murdering Edgar Manning. His secretary, his mistress and his research assistant all have motives as well. That rival author, Nick McVey, has a motive too. And most of the motives have something to do with the fact that Manning was a mystery writer, which is another fun touch.

The clues are certainly there and in this case I actually spotted the clue that mattered, although to be honest I think it was just a little bit obvious.

As usual with this series the guest cast is very strong.

A very strong episode.

The Adventure of the Lover's Leap is another episode in which the fact that Ellery is a writer of mysteries is important, indeed vital. A woman dies after apparently jumping from a balcony. She has been reading one of Ellery Queen’s novels. And there is reason to suppose that in some way she was reliving a crucial scene from the novel.

The guest cast is extremely impressive, with Ida Lupino as the murdered woman, Susan Strasberg as her stepdaughter, Craig Stevens as her failed actor husband, Don Ameche as her psychiatrist, Jack Kelly as her lawyer and the wonderful Anne Francis as her nurse.

The rivalry between Ellery and Simon Brimmer becomes a kind of running gag in the series. Brimmer (John Hillerman) is a radio personality who hosts a murder mystery radio series (so we have yet another character who could be considered to be in the detective fiction business). Brimmer is always trying to beat Ellery and his father Inspector Richard Queen to the solution of murder cases. If he could actually solve such a case it would of course be fantastic publicity for his radio show. Unfortunately while Simon tries very hard his solutions always turn out to be wrong. That’s not to say that his solutions are foolish. They’re often very clever and very well thought out. They’re just wrong, because there is always some detail he has overlooked and much to Simon’s chagrin Ellery always spots that missing detail. In this instance Simon Brimmer’s solution is extremely clever indeed and it’s tantalisingly close to the truth, but once again it’s wrong.

Ellery Queen is a series that aims to adhere to the conventions of the puzzle-plot mysteries of the golden age of detective fiction and one of those conventions is that the mystery must be fairly clued so that the reader (or in this case the viewer) has a genuine chance of finding the solution. In this episode the vital clue is certainly there in plain view.

The Adventure of the Lover's Leap is another strong episode.

The Adventure of Veronica's Veils is a theatrical murder mystery. Theatrical impresario Sam Packer’s new burlesque show is about to open when Sam (played by George Burns) dies suddenly of a heart attack. At his funeral he springs a surprise - a film made before his death in which he claims that someone was going to murder him. He goes on to name four suspects - his wife Jennifer, his financial backer Gregory Layton, comic Risky Ross and burlesque dancer Veronica Vale (Barbara Rhoades). He also leaves instructions for Simon Brimmer to investigate his murder.

It’s all very embarrassing for the police since the autopsy indicated that Sam’s death was due to natural causes.However a second more thorough autopsy reveals that Sam Packer died of cyanide poisoning.

There is a slight problem, since for various reasons there doesn’t seem to be any way the poison could have been administered. In this story the howdunit is as important as the whodunit. It is in fact a simple but clever murder method. And the script plays pretty fair with the audience.

One of the strong points of this series is the settings which always turn out to be ideally suited to murder. That was also a definite strength of the early Ellery Queen novels back in the 1930s.

The Adventure of Veronica's Veils works very satisfactorily.

So three episodes and they’re all good. This was an extraordinarily consistent series. I don’t think there’s a single episode that could be described as a dud.

Wednesday, 25 September 2019

The F.B.I. season 1 part 2

The F.B.I. was one of the most successful American series of its era, running from 1965 to 1974. The F.B.I. has been released on DVD in half-season boxed sets. I’ve already reviewed season one part one, so now it’s on to part two.

The major change from the early part of season one is the departure of Lynn Loring who played Inspector Erskine’s daughter Barbara who was engaged to marry Erskine’s protégé Special Agent Jim Rhodes. She just suddenly disappears. The other change in the second half of the season is that espionage stories are given greater prominence. The F.B.I. was one of the most successful American series of its era, running from 1965 to 1974. The early seasons have been released in half-season DVD sets. There were 32 episodes in the first season. I reviewed the first half-season set a while back. The second set, containing another sixteen episodes, is just as good and just as interesting.

The major change from the early part of season one is the departure of Lynn Loring who played Inspector Erskine’s daughter Barbara who was engaged to marry Erskine’s protégé Special Agent Jim Rhodes. She just suddenly disappears. The other change in the second half of the season is that espionage stories are given greater prominence.

The great thing about a series like The F.B.I. is that the Bureau investigates so many different kinds of cases that the sheer variety of stories that can be encompassed is immense. Not just a variety of crime stories but espionage stories as well. And the series takes full advantage of this.

This was the height of the Cold War and the F.B.I. was checking under every bed for communists. What makes the espionage stories so interesting is that they’re totally unlike the spy stories in most TV series and movies. These are not spies with a licence to kill who spend their time romancing beautiful but deadly women and gambling for high stakes at Monte Carlo. These are ordinary spies, just everyday people, they’re not glamorous, they’re often rather tawdry. OK, for commercial reasons a certain unrealistic amount of action has been added to these stories but they’re still a lot more realistic than anything you’ll see in any other American spy series of that era.

The other thing that’s interesting is that when they’re tracking down spies they rely mostly on routine investigative procedures - lots of boring legwork, lots of boring sifting through personnel files. The series tries quite hard to emphasise that the work of the Bureau isn’t especially glamorous - mainly it’s a matter of taking infinite pains, following up every lead, .

The first season went to air in 1965 at a time when the F.B.I. had an almost godlike status in the eyes of most Americans. It’s difficult today to imagine a time when people actually trusted the F.B.I. but in 1965 people really did. In many episodes you’ll see portraits of J. Edgar Hoover on the walls of F.B.I. offices and that’s not an ironic touch. Hoover was regarded as a heroic figure who was all that stood between the American people and the chaos and evil of crime and communist subversion. It’s important always to keep in mind that this series is absolutely and totally sincere. While many American television series at this time were succumbing to the temptation to indulge in social criticism and indulging in highly critical political agendas that certainly cannot be said of this series.

Episode Guide

The Chameleon is a con man but he’s more than that. He’s a murderer as well. His schemes are incredibly elaborate. Most recently he’s managed to take control over a bank and the bank has made a lot of loans but the loans are secured by binds that are forged. That’s how Erskine and Rhodes get involved. A bank vice-president got suspicious and sent one of the bonds to the Bureau. The problem is that this con man is a man who doesn’t exist. There’s not even a single photograph of him. Having pulled off his latest coup he has vanished without trace. His wife has also vanished.

But at the F.B.I. they know that nobody can disappear without leaving traces. Con men have certain individual signatures. Their cons follow a pattern and the pattern repeats, and the F.B.I. has an immense archive of bits and pieces of evidence collected over the years and those patterns can be traced. This is a classic episode demonstrating all the strengths of this series.

The Sacrifice is an espionage story and it’s very much typical of this series. On the one hand it’s a realistic spy story, with seedy non-glamorous spies and with Erskine and Rhodes solving the case by patient routines investigative methods but on the other hand this is network TV and it has to be entertaining so there’s a shootout which maybe doesn’t quite ring true but hey shootouts are always fun. A Russian defects tips off the F.B.I. to a major security leak at a defence contractor. The spies know the Bureau is onto them, and the Bureau knows the the spies know this. Enjoyable stuff.

In Special Delivery a bank robber named Porter is on the run and the Bureau believes that he’s going to use the services of a gang who specialise in getting wanted criminals out of the country. The only way to break that gang is for an agent to go undercover, posing as a   fugitive. Erskine volunteers himself for the job. The gang is going to transport Erskine, Porter and Porter’s girlfriend Linda Rodriguez to Rio. If Porter lives that long - he has a bullet in him. A fairly exciting episode with Erskine in real trouble when his cover starts to get rather shaky. Some nice human drama as well. An excellent episode.

Quantico is an interesting attempt to deal with the rise of the counterculture. Someone has tried to blow up a government building and it’s considered certain that he’ll try again. A couple of years later the bomber would have been a hippie type, but this was January 1966 so he’s a young jazz trumpeter named Willard Smith. He’s a sort of beatnik. He looks like a beatnik. The counterculture existed and its existence was recognised but people were not quite sure exactly what it meant. They thought (correctly) that it was dangerous but they weren’t quite sure exactly how it was dangerous.

Willard Smith grew up in a bad neighbourhood. So did his cousin Charlie. Willard has been as big shot as a teenager. Now Charlie is a star trainee at the F.B.I. Academy and Willard is just another loser. But can Willard drag Charlie down with him?

The Spy-Master is a tense spy thriller episode. Erskine goes undercover as an American diplomat named Rogers working for a Red Chinese spy ring. Patrick O’Neal is nicely sinister as spy-master Victor Allen and he is genuinely smart - he out-thinks Erskine who is lucky to get out of this one in one piece. Allen is under pressure to achieve results and he puts Rogers/Erskine under pressure. There’s also a beautiful blonde lady spy, and an action climax in which Erskine again gets lucky. It’s all tense and very effective.

The Baby Sitter is the story of a crazy woman who kidnaps a baby. But what are her intentions? There are some ominous indications. This is an intriguingly poignant episode.

In Flight to Harbin an airliner is hijacked en route to Seattle. The hijacker wants the plane flown to Harbin, in Manchuria. Nobody knows who the man is or exactly what it is that has motivated him. That’s something the F.B.I. are going to have to find out, fast. In the meantime one of the passengers has decided to play at being an amateur hero. It’s all pretty tense and it works well. One thing that is a bit startling is the idea that in 1966 passengers could legally carry guns on to civilian airliners as long as they got permission first.

The Man Who Went Mad by Mistake sees Inspector Erskine committed to a mental hospital. Actually of course he’s undercover. He’s there to try to prove that Mark Tabor isn't really mad. Mark Tabor was supposed to testify in a big court case and his Mob associates were worried that his testimony might cause them some embarrassment. So they decided it would be better if Tabor wasn’t alive any more. Tabor fled, but he chose an interesting place to hide - he got himself committed to a mental hospital. He has a psychiatric history so that wasn’t too hard.

The problem is that while he’s in the hospital he cannot testify. And the Feds really want him to testify. Hence Erskine’s presence in the asylum. It’s an interesting and clever story idea. A good episode.

In The Divided Man a bomb sets off a fire that decoys a petro-chemical plant making rocket fuel for American missile. Inspector Erskine’s boss suspects the commies are behind the sabotage. In fact it’s a research chemist who has gone seriously crazy. He makes further attempts at sabotage and he’s obviously going to keep on serving bombs so it’s a race against time to catch him before he does even more damage. And he’s getting crazier by the minute. The bomber seems to want help. He makes appointments with a psychiatrist but he walks out on the appointments. There’s a reasonable amount of excitement and catching a suspect in a chemical plant isn’t easy - if the F.B.I. agents use guys they could blow the whole plant.

The Defector is a two-parter and it’s a Cold War spy saga. A chess champion from an eastern bloc country is in the U.S. for a major international chess tournament. Holman is however more than just a chess player and he’s believed to be ready to defect. Then he gets blown to pieces by a bomb. The trouble is that this story just doesn’t satisfy  Inspector Erskine. There’s the fact that Special Agent Rhodes who was tailing Holman lost sight of the chess champion for a moment. There’s the fact that Holman’s body was burnt beyond recognition. Most puzzling of all is Holman’s last chess game. It was a good game. The puzzle is that it was a good game the first time it was played, back in 1834. It was the exact same game, which means it was rigged. But why? What exactly was Holman playing at? For Erskine an added complication is that Holman’s unfortunate accidents may have implications for a vital international conference and he’s getting pressure from the State Department.

This is classic spy thriller stuff with lots of spy tradecraft on display and a delightfully devious plot. There’s code-breaking and lots of double-crosses and a fine action climax. It’s an elaborate game of chess, played for the highest stakes, and although Erskine claims to be a lousy chess player it turns out that he’s pretty good. Excellent stuff.

The Tormentors is a kidnapping story, complicated by the fact that the kidnapped boy’s father is most uncoöperative and his foolishness seems likely to cost his son his life. The highlight of this otherwise fairly routine episode is the F.B.I.’s use of an Air Force RF-101 Voodoo supersonic high-altitude photo-reconnaissance aircraft to try to locate the kidnappers’ car. The ending is reasonably exciting as well. Not a great episode but it’s OK.

In The Animal a murderer named Earl Clayton (played by Charles Bronson) breaks out of prison with four others. Given that the escaped convicts are now armed to the teeth and that Clayton’s record suggests he’s spectacularly violent, and given the Clayton is already facing execution for murder, the chances of retaking them peacefully seem remote. Clayton and one of the other escapees take refuge in a mountain lodge and they have four hostages. This episode is an interesting example of changing times. Today the lodge would be surrounded by dozens of heavily armed F.B.I. agents and cops but this is 1966 so four F.B.I. agents are considered to be an ample force to deal with the situation. A very good episode with Bronson in fine form.

The Plunderers is about an odd bank job. The vault was wide open but nothing was taken, even though the robbery seemed to have been very well planned. And a guard was killed during the robbery. Erskine and Rhodes don’t have much to go on - a red button and a few fibres plus a nagging feeling on the part of Erskine that he’s seen this M.O. before. It’s a fine police procedural tale in which the Bureau makes good use of its natural advantages - unlimited resources, modern laboratories - plus lots of legwork and a thoroughly methodical approach.

If you’ve been watching the series so far you’ll be wondering - where are the neo-nazis? There are always neo-Nazis in a 60s TV series. Well they finally make their appearance in The Bomb That Walked Like a Man. They’re an outfit called the Marshals of Freedom but they’re clearly full-on neo-Nazis plotting to overthrow the government. But the F.B.I.’s interest is in this organisation’s latest recruit, a suspect in a kidnapping-murder. And he’s a real crazy. Someone will have to go undercover to get the necessary evidence and of course the someone will be Erskine. This gives Efrem Zimbalist Jr a chance to do his cool guy under pressure thing, which he does very well. The added complication is the local police chief. His daughter was the murder victim and he may be planning to take the law into his own hands. It’s a good episode.

The Hiding Place is an all-Japanese town in Oregon and fingerprints taken near the scene of a hit-run incident suggest that one of the townspeople is a Japanese war criminal named Fujita. Fujita never renounced his American citizenship so technically he was guilty of treason. The case threatens to tear the town apart. Even if the plot is a bit contrived the episode is interesting as an example of the way the format of the series allowed it to deal with subjects that would have been right outside the orbit of a conventional cop show.

Final Thoughts

The F.B.I. is a fascinating blend of spy thriller and cop show. It succeeds for the same reason that the wonderful British series Special Branch succeeds - the format allows it to  approach spy stories in a slightly unusual and original way. The F.B.I. has the added advantage of being able to take a slightly different approach to crime stories as well.

The F.B.I. is a superbly made and very entertaining series. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, 17 September 2019

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. - Solo (1963)

Solo is the original feature-length pilot for The Man from U.N.C.L.E., shot in colour in 1963. The head of U.N.C.L.E. is Mr Allison, played by Will Kuluva. It was later edited down to 50 minutes with some reshoots (and with Leo G. Carroll as Mr Waverley replacing Will Kuluva) and screened in black-and-white as the opening episode of the series, The Vulcan Affair.

It has a fairly straightforward spy story plot. U.N.C.L.E. has discovered that wealthy industrialist Andrew Vulcan is a THRUSH agent. Vulcan intents to assassinate the president of a new independent African nation, THRUSH having decided that having their very own country would be very useful - for one thing their agents could claim diplomatic immunity.

Solo makes use of a device that the series would use again and again - an innocent bystander gets caught up in the world of espionage. In this case it’s Elaine May Donaldson, an ordinary housewife who just happened to have been Vulcan’s girlfriend years earlier when they were both at college. U.N.C.L.E. persuades her to help them foil Vulcan’s scheme.

When it was picked up as a series by NBC it was retitled The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and you might wonder why it was not called The Men from U.N.C.L.E. The answer is obvious when you watch Solo. The focus is entirely on Napoleon Solo. Illya Kuryakin is a minor character, in fact very minor, and was intended to be at best a minor character in the series. Illya was however so immediately and insanely popular that that idea was hurriedly revised and so there ended up being two men from U.N.C.L.E. but it was too late to change the title. It was pure accident that David McCallum lasted long enough for any of this to happen since the network wanted to fire him after the pilot, another example of the reliable stupidity of network executives.

On the subject of titles it’s worth mentioning that the original working title was Ian Fleming’s Solo, later shortened to Solo. Solo was however the name of a Bond movie minor character and MGM discovered they weren’t allowed to use it as the series title but oddly (and luckily) they were still allowed to use it as a character name.

Ian Fleming had been involved in the early planing stages of the series. He had at first intended it to feature two U.N.C.L.E. agents, Napoleon Solo and glamorous girl spy April Dancer (Fleming was always amazingly good at character names). Fleming’s involvement was short-lived but the pilot episode still has a very Ian Fleming feel to it. Napoleon Solo is an American James Bond - suave, cultured, charming, educated, upper class and with a taste for the good things in life. Including women. Especially women. There’s a touch of refined arrogance and there’s supreme self-assurance.

Like Bond Napoleon Solo is a very 1950s kind of hero. He’s dapper but his suits are both well-tailored and very conservative. And like Bond he’s a touch old-fashioned even by 1950s hero standards. He could be the hero in a Hitchcock spy movie. That’s why it turned out to be very fortunate that David McCallum wasn’t fired - lllya Kuryakin is a much more 1960s hero. Even though Robert Vaughn and David McCallum were almost exactly the same age Solo and Kuryakin seem to belong to different eras. Which is why they made such a great team.

The whole thing has that characteristic Ian Fleming feel to it. This is espionage with glamour, excitement and wealth. The plot is not too outlandish. THRUSH is a totally Ian Fleming concept - it’s just SPECTRE with a different name, an international criminal organisation aiming for power and wealth but with no ideological overtones whatsoever. The villain, Andrew Vulcan, could have stepped straight out of one of the 1950s Bond novels - a smooth very upper-class megalomaniacal industrialist.

It’s very stylish and very classy. It was made by MGM Television and some of the old MGM gloss is still in evidence. It looks expensive. It probably was expensive by television standards. There’s an ambience of money and glamour. The chemical plant sets are pretty good.

The tone is fairly serious. There’s the occasional witty moment but on the whole it’s played very straight. Even Robert Vaughn plays it pretty straight (well plays it straight by Robert Vaughn standards. anyway).

Will Kuluva is quite adequate as Mr Allison but of course Leo G. Carroll proved to be a better choice for the series. The guest cast, as was the case throughout the run of the series, is very strong with Patricia Crowley playing the innocent rôle to perfection. Fritz Weaver as Vulcan is a good villain but he’s much less colourful than later Man from U.N.C.L.E. bad guys.

The first season was considerably more serious than even the second season and the pilot is more serious still. Solo is however definitely worth seeing.

Sunday, 8 September 2019

Mission: Impossible (the 1996 movie)

Movies based on popular 1960s TV series are usually pretty dire but the 1996 Mission: Impossible movies is an interesting exception.

At this stage of his career Tom Cruise had reached the very reasonable conclusion that the best way to ensure that he got rôles that appealed to him was to produce the movies himself. As a kid he’d been a huge fan of the 1960s Mission: Impossible TV series and making a movie version sounded like a tempting idea. The fact that Cruise was a sincere and enthusiastic fan of the TV series is significant. He didn’t want to do a deconstruction of the TV series or a parody. He wanted to make a movie capturing as much of the spirit of the TV version as possible.

This was actually quite a challenge because Mission: Impossible was a very unusual TV series. Bruce Geller, the creator and executive producer of the TV series, not only had some highly idiosyncratic ideas as to the form it would take he actually managed to persuade the production company and the network to allow him to do it his way. His first and most notable idea was that the characters would have no personality whatsoever. The focus would be entirely on plot. And, after all, spies don’t have personalities - their whole lives and their very survival are based on being able to pretend to be something other than what they are. By the time you get to the end of the 171 episodes of the series you know no more about any of the characters than you knew at the beginning. You know pretty much nothing important about their backgrounds and absolutely zero about their personal lives. Does Barney have kids? Is Cinnamon married? Does Mr Phelps play golf on the weekends? Was Willy in the army? We have no idea. Having characters with zero personality was going to be tricky for a 1990s feature film.

The TV series also has no humour at all. Humour might have humanised the characters, which was not what Geller wanted. That was also going to be tricky for the movie version.

The series also had a very distinctive structure. These were very specialised spies. They conducted not just covert operations but what would later be known as black ops, totally illegal. Almost every mission was an elaborate con game, a tortuous exercise in deception and misdirection. The Impossible Mission Force did not shoot people but it did very often manoeuvre them into a position where their own side would shoot them. Any attempt to transfer the series to the big screen would have to at least partially incorporate this idea.

The movie nails its colours to the mast right at the start. We get a pre-credits scene that is classic Mission: Impossible deception stuff and then we get the opening credits, done very much in Mission: Impossible style. And we get the theme music, and yes it’s Lalo Schifrin’s original theme music for the TV series. After which we get Mr Phelps (yes, Mr Phelps) receiving his instructions complete with the “this tape will self-destruct in five seconds” thing. He chooses his IMF team and explains his plan.

The key member of the team is Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and he’s rather in the same mould as Rollin Hand from the TV series although considerably more athletic. He is a master of disguise (just like Rollin) and he even does magic tricks (just like Rollin). There’s also hacker Jack Harmon who performs pretty much the same function as Barney in the TV series. He even has to climb up inside an elevator shaft, just as Barney did in at least one TV series episode. Instead of Cinnamon Carter the team includes three glamorous females.

Up to this point the movie is practically an episode of the TV series. It then departs from the original formula in some respects button entirely. The film’s most spectacular action sequence could have been taken straight from the TV series, albeit it’s done on a much more lavish scale. There is a major action set-piece at the end of the movie that is very Bond movie, but commercial realities being what they are there’s no way they could have avoided including such a sequence.

The famous lines from the TV series about the Secretary disavowing all knowledge of the IMF if they got themselves killed or captured also become painfully relevant.

It’s also interesting that despite a few Bondian moments this is definitely not a Bond movie clone. And Ethan Hunt is most definitely not a James Bond clone. In this movie he does carry a gun but it’s noteworthy that he doesn’t shoot anybody. He also doesn’t rely on his fists or martial arts skills. He does make use of his superb physical fitness and his nerves of steel but mostly he relies on out-thinking his opponents and on the classic Mission: Impossible TV series methods of deception and of setting elaborate traps. As the CIA agent tasked with catching him says at one point the difficult part of hunting someone like Hunt is that he’s so pro-active. And that describes him perfectly. He’s constantly devising plans. When you thinking you’re hunting him he’s probably actually hunting you. His mind never stops working (there’s one superb scene in which you see him talking to a key character and all the while Hunt is analysing the data available to him and fitting the pieces of the jigsaw together). As action heroes go Ethan Hunt is pretty cerebral. His methods are more like George Smiley’s than Bond’s. And the plot is the kind of classic mole-hunt that Smiley would have relished.

What’s most notable is just how closely this movie adheres to the formula and the structure of the TV series. Ethan Hunt is a more well-rounded character than any in the series but when you think about it how much do we actually learn about him? Was he ever married? Is he married now? Does he have children? Is he ex-military? How was he recruited to the IMF? What does he do on his days off? What are his tastes in music and books? The very very few facts that we learn about him are those essential to the plot.

The movie’s plot is a series of complex snares relying on deception and misdirection. Some of the traps are laid by Mr Phelps, some by Hunt’s enemies and some are improvised by Hunt himself.  Any of these traps could have made a fine episode of the TV series.

The only departures from the formula are those that were unavoidable given the commercial realties of the film marketplace. Tom Cruise had to be permitted the occasional (actually very occasional) wry wisecrack. Ethan Hunt had to be marginally more human than the TV characters. There had to be more action. There had to be a Bond movie-type action finale.

There’s also no more sex than there was in the TV series, the violence isn’t graphic and there’s very little bad language.

There’s some definite Cold War atmosphere in the movie and visually there are even a few hints of film noir. And with Brian de Palma directing there are of course lots of references to other movies. In this case de Palma has fun paying homage to the classic heist movies of the ’60s, movies like Topkapi, The Thomas Crown Affair and Gambit.

To be honest I don’t think it’s possible to appreciate this movie fully unless you’re a fan of the original TV series. There are all sorts of little touches that only make sense when you recognise them as homages to the TV series. Ethan Hunt’s disguises and his magic tricks are much more fun when you know they’re nods to the series. The same applies to the gadgets (which are much closer in spirit to the original series than to the gadgets in a Bond movie). The insanely over-complicated plot is more enjoyable when you know that the series was renowned for its insanely over-complicated plots. The lack of a really strong romance angle makes more sense when you know that in the TV series romance was only ever present as a weapon used by the IMF to entrap people. I suspect that a lot of the critics who disliked the movie didn’t notice the extraordinary efforts to capture the feel and the conventions of the series.

Mission: Impossible is surprisingly successful in retaining the feel of the TV series whilst still being an exciting ’90s action movie. It’s enormously enjoyable. Highly recommended.

Sunday, 1 September 2019

Airwolf season 2 (1984-85)

Airwolf was created by Donald P. Bellisario and any series that Bellisario was involved in is  likely to be unexpectedly intelligent and complex. The first season of Airwolf was dark, edgy, cynical, moody and with multiple layers of ambiguity. There was pressure from the network to lighten things up a bit in the second season (which ran from late 1984 to 1985).

Stringfellow Hawke (Jan-Michael Vincent) is still working with Dominic Santini (Ernest Borgnine) flying commercial helicopters doing stunt work and film work, and still carrying out assorted crime-fighting and intelligence missions in his ultra-advanced combat helicopter Airwolf, which he sort of stole from the U.S. Government. He still enjoys unofficial protection from Michael Coldsmith Briggs III (Alex Cord), code-name Archangel, who is very very highly placed in The Firm (which is clearly meant to be the CIA), on the condition that he uses Airwolf for the occasional very secret probably totally illegal covert operation for The Firm.

The season opener introduces Jean Bruce Scott as girl helicopter pilot Caitlin O’Shannessy. She will become a semi-regular character in season two. The series certainly doesn’t need yet another helicopter pilot but I guess they figured that adding a feisty gal pilot would please the network. She’s an unnecessary character but she’s harmless enough and manages not to be irritating. She even becomes vaguely likeable.

Throughout its run the series struggled to find an audience and it became obvious that the network was likely to exert even more pressure to dumb things down. There was also the problem that this was a very expensive series to make. It’s not surprising that Bellisario severed his ties to Airwolf after the end of the second season.

What makes Airwolf really stand out is that it has an absolutely vital extended story arc, a very unusual thing to find in an 80s action series. That story arc concerns the fate of Stringfellow Hawke’s brother St John. It also explains a great deal about String’s character and motivations and how he came to steal an advanced combat helicopter and why he’s prepared to allow The Firm to make use of it. String and St John were ace combat helicopter pilots in Vietnam and they were involved in covert operations. String made it back home after the war but his brother didn’t. String strongly suspects that his brother is still alive and possibly still a prisoner-of-war. He also suspects that there may have been treachery involved in St John’s disappearance and that treachery may have involved U.S. government agencies, and that there may be people within those agencies who know the truth about mission prisoners-of-war.

So this extended story arc adds a hefty dose of paranoia and obsession to the series. And this story arc continues through season two, popping up in several key episodes. String keeps coming across coincidences and hints that suggest that he’s getting close to finding out the truth but it seems that every time he gets close the evidence turns out to be inconclusive, or ambiguous, or it simply vanishes. It’s rather similar to Mulder’s search for evidence of aliens - the evidence that would clinch the case is always just out of reach. And Stringfellow Hawke is every bit as obsessive as Fox Mulder.

Vietnam is the key to the whole series. Stringfellow Hawke learnt his combat helicopter skills there and he certainly had dealings with The Firm (which obviously represents the CIA which was popularly known as The Company). He also learnt not to trust people, especially people from the government, especially people from the intelligence community and most of all he learnt not to trust The Firm. It’s not that The Firm is portrayed as being evil as such. Sometimes The Firm does things that are good and necessary. Sometimes its motives are murkier. But String thinks that The Firm can help him to find his brother, so he’s prepared to be coöperative, up to a point.

String’s attitude towards Archangel is also complicated. String trusts Archangel, within very narrow limits. He doesn’t trust him enough to tell him where he has Airwolf stashed. Archangel is an intriguing character. He’s ruthless and since he’s a  a career intelligence man lying and deception and manipulation come as naturally to him as breathing. But only up to a certain point. Oddly enough Archangel does have some morals. There are some things he won’t do. He really believes he’s one of the good guys and there are things that the good guys don’t do. Archangel’s assistant and confidant Marella (Deborah Pratt) initially seems to be an even more cold-blooded version of Archangel, but there’s more to it than that. Like Archangel she’s in a profession that has no room for ideals or personal loyalty but she’s not quite as cynical as she appears to be.

The politics of Airwolf is interesting. Mostly it’s sceptical and cynical towards all sides of politics. The message is don’t trust the government but also don’t trust the enemies of the government. It’s not taking a left-wing or a right-wing position. Just don’t trust anyone in any official position. Don’t trust anyone really.

At times the paranoia level reaches X-Files proportions. What saves it from complete nihilism and despair is that String and Dom have been through enough together that they know they can trust each other. So it’s kind of like Stringfellow Hawke against the world, but he knows Dominic Santini will stand by him. And in season two he’s pretty sure Caitlin will stand by him as well. So you can trust friends, if they happen to be people you know real well.

String’s relationship with Archangel is also somewhat similar to Mulder’s relationship with various powerful authority figures who are prepared to help him and protect him but within limits and as long as it serves their agenda. I’m not suggesting that The X-Files was directly influenced by Airwolf, but the similarities of tone suggest that The X-Files was tapping into an already existing reservoir of paranoia that had been growing throughout the 80s.

The Episode Guide

Sweet Britches takes String to a small town in search of a lost friend but the local sheriff is very unfriendly and the whole place turns out to be pretty deadly. It’s an action-filled season opener.

Firestorm is totally over-the-top. Dom’s friend Eddie, a burnt-out pilot who’s crawled inside a bottle and intends to stay there, drives Dom nuts with crazy stories of UFOs and weird lights in the desert. Eddie is obviously hallucinating, except that he isn’t, what he’s seeing isn’t UFOs but it is real and it’s a whole lot more dangerous than UFOs. It’s an outrageous episode but it works.

Moffett’s Ghost is a ghost story of sorts. The crazed and evil Dr Moffett, the man who designed Airwolf, is dead but his ghost lives on. His ghost is a kind of computer virus built into Airwolf. And his ghost is as megalomaniacal and malevolent as the real Dr Moffett. This one is every bit as good as the best of season one. An excellent episode.

In Sins of the Past Dom’s past comes back to haunt him in a major way.

The Fallen Angel of the title of this episode is Archangel and he’s in big trouble. The Firm is in big trouble. It seems that Archangel has kind of gone rogue. He’s set off to rescue a former lover but he’s actually walked into a trap, and a very dangerous one. It’s a great episode and it’s interesting in being a very character-centred episode, with Archangel allowing his emotions to cloud his judgment, and with Marella having to choose between loyalty to the Firm and loyalty to Archangel and displaying an unexpected side to her character. You don’t really expect to see supporting characters in an 80s action-adventure series having to deal with complex conflicting loyalties and emotional crises but this is Airwolf and this is the sort of thing that makes Airwolf such a fascinating series.

Flight #093 Is Missing is a kind of riff on Airport ’77 with a hijacked airliner on the ocean floor but the passengers are still alive, and Caitlin is one of the passengers. It’s perhaps slightly less silly than Airport ’77 but it’s still fairly silly. But kind of fun.

HX-1 is an attack helicopter that may be just as formidable as Airwolf and it’s been stolen.  The way it was stolen worries String. Certain elements of the theft were eerily reminiscent of his brother St John’s style. String becomes more and more convinced that St John was mixed up in it. But he’s going to have to prove it and that could get him killed and it could get St John killed, if he’s actually alive and involved. A good episode.

Once a Hero is another episode in which the Vietnam War plays a part. String hears a rumour that his brother is alive and in a POW camp in Laos. He puts together a team of Vietnam vets to undertake a rescue mission but there are a lot of things that happened in Vietnam that refuse to stay in the past. This is a pretty dark episode by season two standards but it’s pretty good.

In Random Target String and Dom are doing some aerial filming. And it soon becomes evident that someone is prepared to kill to get hold of the film. String and Dom have no idea why. It was a totally routine job, and now a friend of theirs has been murdered because he was believed to be in possession of the film. And the lady cop assigned to the case doesn’t want to listen to the theories that String and Dom have come up with to explain the killing. More trouble follows, while String and Dom desperately try to figure out why it was that they filmed. A very good episode.

Condemned takes place on a remote island on which a deadly bioweapon has gotten totally out of hand. If it spreads to the outside world the prospects are very grim indeed. String and Caitlin have to find out exactly what the situation is but there is also a party of armed Russians on the island and they’re there for the same purpose. The Russians are just as worried about the situation as the Americans. The immediate problem is that String and Caitlin have to find a way to work amicably with the Russians in an atmosphere of quite understandable mutual suspicions (since one side or the other has been doing very silly and very dangerous things with this bioweapon). This is very much a detente-influenced story, the message being that both sides have to learn to work together. It’s also a very tense and suspenseful and generally very effective episode.

The American Dream is another episode with its roots in the Vietnam War. Vietnamese immigrants are still being oppressed by the same warlord who oppressed them in the old country. It’s an OK story.

In Inn at the End of the Road terrorists have stolen a device that can make any aircraft unbeatable in air-to-air combat but now the terrorists are holed up in a remote cabin in the mountains and they’ve taken hostages. A solid episode.

In Santini's Millions Dom is on a mission of mercy with a heart for a transplant operation when he stops and does a good turn for a stranded billionaire whose plane has been forced down. The billionaire is impressed by Dom’s incorruptibility so he leaves Dom a huge share of his fortune in his will. And then promptly dies, leaving Dom in a difficult situation - he is now rich but that means the has a whole crop of dangerous enemies. A pretty good episode.

Prisoner of Yesterday isn’t a great episode but it’s intriguing for the political ambiguity. A revolutionary leader who became president of his country has been deposed by the military and now, in failing health, languishes in hospital. Or he did, until a revolutionary group led by his daughter snatched him from the military hospital. To care for him they have kidnapped ‘Doc’ Gifford (who appeared in an earlier episode) and String is determined to rescue Doc. But things aren’t so simple. Guzman, the old and ailing ex-president, had been a genuine idealist. Having gained office he either sold out the revolution, or he became a realist and concentrated on doing what was possible, depending on whose story you believe. He’s not a real hero but he doesn’t seem to be a real villain. The young revolutionaries have mixed motivations. Some are moderates, some are extremists who hope to provoke civil war. His daughter and political heir is ambiguous as well. She has to decide whether to choose the path of violence or the path of compromise. It’s not the most exciting of Airwolf episodes but the political and ethical ambiguities are interesting.

Natural Born is the story of a hotshot young helicopter pilot named Kevin with extraordinary flying abilities, and extraordinarily poor judgment. His uncle is murdered by drug dealers and he wants revenge. He’s also penniless and jobless but String and Dom take him on as a kind of odd-job man because they feel sorry for him. He manages to lose them an important job and almost get himself and Caitlin killed but the kid can fly so they are willing to forgive almost anything. An average episode.

In Out of the Sky String, Dom and Caitlin get mixed up in show business when they get a job doing filming and stunts for a concert tour featuring country music star Roxy Marvel. The main stunt involves slowly lowering a huge fake UFO onto the stage from a helicopter. Roxy is a troubled star and there are obviously some strains between her and her ex-husband and manager, the very sleazy and very creepy Nick DeSoto. String starts to fall for Roxy but he doesn’t realise that she could actually be in real danger. A route episode although the fake UFO is quite cool.

In Dambreakers Hawke’s job is to fly a reporter into a remote Christian community that has decided to shun the modern world and all its evils and live the simple life. In three days’ time Hawke will return to pick her up by which time she should have her story.  And it might not be the story she expected since this community might turn out to be not quite what it appears to be. A very good episode.

Severance Pay is one of the Airwolf episodes dealing with the murky world of The Firm. These episodes are very similar in some ways to the conspiracy episodes of The X-Files. Klein and Mason, a couple of analysts retiring from The Firm, believe they’re being cheated out of their retirement bonus. When Klein dies Mason decides to get even. But something much more sinister is happening behind the scenes. Mason had discovered that there was a highly placed mole within The Firm. Mason is releasing material to the press and so is the mole. Mason’s material is embarrassing - the mole’s information is treacherous. It’s a fascinating episode for the casual acceptance of the idea that of course The Firm has all sorts of dirty secrets to hide, secrets relating to all kinds of illegal activities. And the even more casual acceptance of the idea that The Firm doesn’t fire or prosecute unreliable employees, it liquidates them. What makes this episode so good is the combination of extreme cynicism and whimsy.

In Eruption Dom and String are collecting data from a volcano for a university when the volcano decides to erupt. It decides to erupt in a really big way, as in a whole mountain exploding. Dom and String are forced down and find themselves in the town of New Gideon. This episode is basically a western. The town is under the control of the evil Davenport Mining Company. The miners are exploited and their families face near-starvation. And the corrupt sheriff is owned by the mining company. String is the Stranger Who Rides Into Town One Day and sets things right. Instead of the climactic gunfight in the main street we get a helicopter duel but it’s the same principle. It’s still an entertaining episode and the post-eruption post-apocalypse scenes are quite effective.

In Short Walk to Freedom Caitlyn joins an archaeological dig in South America with a bunch of American kids and they manage to get captured by guerillas. String rescues them but then he gets captured and Airwolf is badly damaged. Dragging Airwolf across the desert is a bit silly but it adds some drama. There’s air combat, there’s ground combat, there are daring rescues. It’s the Airwolf formula and it works for me. Good stuff.

Final Thoughts

So Airwolf has lots of cool action scenes, lots of explosions and lots of air combat. It has some reasonably decent scripts. It has a very good cast. It’s an attempt to make a dumb action adventure series that isn’t actually dumb at all. So why wasn’t it a bigger hit? Why did it struggle in the ratings throughout its run?

I really don’t know the answers, but it may be that it was at times a bit too ambitious and also at times a bit dark. Even though the second season was an attempt to make the series a bit more commercial it still has the odd dark and edgy moment. It doesn’t have the pure fun comic-book feel of Knight Rider or The A-Team.

And maybe Jan-Michael Vincent didn’t have the charisma to carry a show like this. A few years earlier he might have but by the time he was cast in Airwolf he was having serious drinking problems. He was just short of 40 when the series began but he looked a rather ravaged 40. I think he gave an extremely good and subtle performance but it may have been a bit too unconventional for the target audience.

Maybe the second season doesn’t quite live up to the promise of season one but it’s still an exceptionally interesting and entertaining series. Highly recommended.