Sunday, 14 May 2017

Mission: Impossible, season 4 (1969)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 6 May 2017

Special Branch, season 4 (1974)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes - the Martin Hewitt episodes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 15 April 2017

Star Trek - Assignment Earth (1968)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 6 April 2017

The Plane Makers, season 1 (1963)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Plane Makers is fine television drama. Highly recommended.

Thursday, 30 March 2017

Dallas, seasons 1 to 3 (1978-80)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 20 March 2017

Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Fireball XL5 (1962-3)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 3 March 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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