Friday, 14 September 2018

Thriller - Won't Write Home Mom, I'm Dead / The Crazy Kill (1975)

Won't Write Home Mom, I'm Dead was the third episode of season five of ITC’s extremely successful psychological horror anthology series Thriller. Dennis Spooner wrote the script from a Brian Clemens story. In the US it was given the very dull title Terror from Within.

The story takes place in a village in the English countryside that has been taken over by hippies, mostly American hippies. The hippies are all wealthy, living on generous allowances from their families. Being rich they despise materialism. They have turned their backs on the empty values of their parents, and have broken off all contact with their families (except of course for collecting their monthly allowances).

Abby Stevens (Pamela Franklin) isn’t like that. She’s a rich kid but she’s old-fashioned and family-oriented and has the quaint idea that if your parents are supporting you financially then perhaps you owe them some debt of gratitude. She has arrived for a brief visit to look up her half-cousin Alan Smerdon (Oliver Tobias). There are some amusing exchanges between the two half-cousins. It’s clear that Spooner and Clemens regard these hippies with derision and dislike and who can blame them?

Maybe it’s a personal flaw in my makeup but I immediately found myself looking forward to the prospect of seeing these hippies meet some kind of very unpleasant (and hopefully painful) fate.

Abby’s real purpose in arriving at the commune is to find her boyfriend Doug. He set out for Britain two months earlier and hasn’t been heard from since but Abby knows he came to the hippie village because she and Doug have a psychic link. Oddly enough the hippies vehemently deny having ever seen Doug.

The most overtly disturbing of the hippies is Frank (Ian Bannen). He isn’t American and he isn’t rich and he has a violent temper. He scares Abby right from the start.

There are other things disturbing Abby. The psychic messages from Doug were very confusing. She’s also worried about the red Rolls-Royce. The hippies all assure her there is no red Rolls-Royce, but she’s sure it exists and she’s seen it. There’s also the problem of the elm trees. There are five elms but there should be six.

Pamela Franklin appeared in a couple of episodes of Thriller. This was during her scream queen phase in the 70s. She’s largely forgotten now (she retired from acting in the early 80s) which is perhaps a little unfair. She was not a bad actress and she does a fine job here. Ian Bannen is pretty good as well. He overacts but I think he’s justified in doing so. Oliver Tobias is certainly convincing as the kind of guy who might well be running some weird hippie cult.

This is an odd episode. Thriller did occasionally venture into the field of supernatural horror but usually in a tentative manner, with the supernatural elements sometimes turning out not to be supernatural after all. This is an episode in which the viewer definitely cannot be sure whether or not there’s going to be anything genuinely supernatural. I quite like that kind of ambiguity.

The best thing about this story is the atmosphere. The village is creepy and the hippies are creepy. They might pretend to be into peace and love but the overwhelming feeling that Abby gets (and I think most viewers will agree with her) is that this is a bad scary place in which evil things might well have happened, and the hippies might well have been the ones perpetrating the evil.

Won't Write Home Mom, I'm Dead is better than its reputation would suggest. It’s not a complete success and it’s not one of the great Thriller episodes but it has its moments of creepy weirdness and it’s worth a look.

The Crazy Kill is another Thriller episode written by Dennis Spooner from a Brian Clemens story. In the US it was given the dismal title Fear Is Spreading.

It’s a setup that has been used countless times. Two criminals have escaped from prison and now they’re holed up in a very comfortable country house and they’re terrorising the owners, heart surgeon Dr Henson (Denholm Elliott) and his wife. The criminals are hoping to evade detection while a huge police manhunt is underway.

The convicts are Garard (Anthony Valentine) and Filton (John Moreno). Filton is nasty but he’s small time and a coward and not overly dangerous. Garard is a very different matter. He’s a psychopath and a killer. He’s also intelligent and charming. He’s about as dangerous as they come. Oh and by the way, he also has a shotgun.

Superintendent Brook (Alan Browning) knows just how dangerous the situation is. The chances of recapturing Garard peacefully are zero. It’s going to be a tense cat-and-mouse game between the police and the convicts and an even more tense time for the unfortunate doctor and his wife whose chances of coming out of this alive are not all that promising.

So as I said it’s a story that has been done many many times, except that that is not the real story. The real story is a quite different one and we’ve had a few tantalising hints early on as to what it might be. The viewer is not the only one who is going to be surprised by the way the ending plays out.

Garard is the kind of rôle that Anthony Valentine did supremely well. In fact I don’t think anyone has ever played such rôles with quite the same effortless and chilling menace. Denholm Elliott is almost as good as the very nervous surgeon. They’re the stars and they have the meaty parts and they give it their all. The game played out between them is a joy to behold.

The supporting players are solid. Alan Browning adds a bit of depth to Superintendent Brook, a man under enormous pressure. He knows that if that if he makes a mistake with a man like Garard then people will die.

The studio-bound feel doesn’t matter in this one. Only a few sets are needed. The writing and the acting are the only things that count in this episode and they’re both top-notch.

The Crazy Kill is a great Thriller episode.

I reviewed the first two episodes in this season in an earlier post.

After seeing the first four episodes I have to say that season five is turning out to be very very impressive.

Friday, 7 September 2018

three Ellery Queens

For this post I’m going to take a look at a couple of episodes of the excellent 1975-76 Ellery Queen television series which starred Jim Hutton as Ellery and David Wayne as his father Inspector Richard Queen of the NYPD.

The Adventure of the 12th Floor Express is a episode that seems to be generally highly thought of, and with good reason. It features an impossible crime and as a bonus for hardcore Ellery Queen fans it also includes a dying clue.

Newspaper publisher Henry Manners takes the private elevator to his 12th floor office. The elevator opens, it’s empty, it opens again on another floor and there is Henry Manners’ body. The difficulty is that no-one could have gained access to the elevator therefore he must have been shot by somebody in the elevator but there was nobody else in the elevator.

There are plenty of suspects. As Manners’ editor remarks you can judge the worth of a newspaperman by how many enemies he made and Henry Manners was one hell of a newspaperman. A lot of those enemies were in the Daily Examiner office at the time of the murder and none of them have much in the way of alibis.

The bitchiness, the backbiting, the ruthlessness and the amorality of the newspaper world give a nicely cynical background. Just about everybody connected with the Daily Examiner would cheerfully commit a dozen murders if it would further their interests. And they’re all very willing to spill the dirt on each other.

The trouble with impossible crimes is that the solutions do often tend to be just a bit on the far-fetched side. That is definitely not a problem here. The solution is clever but it’s very simple. And it’s very plausible. Ellery’s solving of the case is also entirely plausible - the clues to the killer’s identity are there and puzzling out the mechanism of the murder is just a matter of eliminating fanciful theories and concentrating on explanations that might have actually worked in the real world.

Overall the decision to set the series in the late 1940s works very well. I’m a particular fan of the early Ellery Queens so I guess I’d have preferred a 1930s setting but the important thing is that they realised that a period setting was essential. Setting it in the mid-70s would have been a disastrous mistake. In this particular case the period setting works wonderfully for a story with a newspaper background. A superb episode.

Murder mysteries involving archaeology and ancient civilisation, and especially ancient Egypt, are something I’m inordinately fond of so The Adventure of the Pharaoh's Curse sounded pretty promising.

Wealthy businessman Norris Wentworth has managed to track down and buy a very important Egyptian sarcophagus for a major museum. Naturally he is warned about the curse attached to the mummy, a curse that has already claimed the lives of six men. Sure enough Norris Wentworth becomes the seventh victim. But is it death from natural causes, is it the revenge of the mummy or is it murder? Ellery is inclined to suspect murder but if that’s the case the murder method is puzzling indeed.

This is one of several cases in which Ellery is in competition with radio detective how host  Simon Brimmer but of course we know that Simon will almost certainly come up with a plausible solution which is totally wrong. Which adds some humour. It also adds a bit of interest to a plot which is not, to be brutally honest, one of the more ingenious plots of the series. That’s not to say that it’s a poor episode. It’s just perhaps not quite up to the very high standards of the series as a whole.

It does have its cute moments though with some ingenious clues.

Cult TV fans will be excited by the presence of Ross Martin (from The Wild Wild West) and June Lockhart (from Lost In Space).

The Adventure of the Chinese Dog is an attempt to capture the rustic appeal of the Ellery Queen Wrightsville novels. Ellery and his father head off to Wrightsville on a fishing trip. There’s a surprising amount of drama in the usually sleepy town. There’s a fiercely contested election for Sheriff, and there’s a murder (an event almost unheard of in these parts).

The murder weapon is a gold Chinese temple dog worth a cool half million dollars.

The plotting here is intricate and ingenious, with clues that are obvious enough except that they don’t mean what you expect them to mean.

While the murder is unusual the solution is plausible and it is the only solution that can explain the major oddities of the murder method.

While the murder investigation proceeds Inspector Richard Queen is pursuing a vendetta with an old enemy. The enemy in question is a big old fish in the local river and it’s become Inspector Queen’s White Whale. As is usually the case in the Ellery Queen series the comic relief is handled with discretion and is never allowed to become intrusive or irritating. It’s gently amusing and it serves its purpose.

So overall, out of the three episodes, two turned out to be exceptionally good and the other is still pretty solid. Two of the three incorporate one of the major trademarks of the Ellery Queen novels - the dying clue.

All three episodes involve rather unsympathetic murder victims.

Ellery Queen was one of the most thoroughly enjoyable of all American whodunit TV series  and it was remarkably consistent. Great stuff.

You might also like to check out my reviews of some of the classic Ellery Queen novels such as The French Powder Mystery and The  Chinese Orange Mystery.

Saturday, 1 September 2018

Columbo, Forgotten Lady / A Case of Immunity

The fifth season of Columbo went to air in late 1975 and early 1976.

Forgotten Lady kicks off season five and it does so in a slightly surprising way. Normally there is no need to worry about spoilers when discussing Columbo since the killer’s identity is always known right from the start. Forgotten Lady is one of the rare exceptions - there is a vital aspect to the case that is only revealed gradually and there is a crucial late twist and to reveal these things really would lessen their impact and spoil the episode.

What’s important is that these are things that Columbo is not initially aware of and it’s important that the viewer, like Columbo, should not learn them too early.

This is also a rare Columbo episode with a surprise ending, and it is very surprising - it’s not at all what we expect from Lieutenant Columbo. It could have been gimmicky but it works due to the great performances by Peter Falk and by the two guest stars, Janet Leigh and John Payne.

Janet Leigh is Grace Wheeler, a forgotten star from the great era of Hollywood musicals. She intends to make a comeback and has persuaded her old co-star, Ned Diamond (John Payne), to help her. But first she will need to get rid of her husband.

A major bonus for classic movie fans is that Grace Wheeler spends much of her time watching her old movies which means we get to see Janet Leigh watching footage of herself in classic musical roles.

This is an episode that could have been shipwrecked by sentimentality but that peril is avoided, largely by Leigh’s intense and sometimes prickly performance. The last thing Grace Wheeler wants is pity and Leigh manages to give a very moving performance without any self-pity. In fact the character, as played by Leigh, simply does not have the capacity for self-pity. John Payne is every bit as good.

Judging by the first two episodes there does seem to have been an attempt to do something just a little different in season five. Forgotten Lady had unexpected plot twists while A Case of Immunity has an unusual setting. The murder takes place within the legation of the Kingdom of Suari. Which of course means that technically the murder did not take place on U.S. soil. A further complication is that Columbo knows from the start that the murderer must have been a member of the legation and would therefore have diplomatic immunity. Columbo will have to tread very very carefully.

It’s not that Hassan Salah (Hector Elizondo) is necessarily any cleverer than the average murderer. His plan is ingenious but flawed. He is however very much aware that he has diplomatic immunity so he is very confident indeed that even the annoyingly persistent Lieutenant Columbo poses no threat to him.

It really looks like this case might be a failure for Columbo, that he may solve the puzzle but be unable to make an arrest.

Friday, 24 August 2018

Knight Rider, season one (1982)

As I’ve mentioned before the 80s is a television decade that I more or less missed out on. Most of the classic 80s action adventure shows were until recently just names to me. All I really knew about such series was that that they had a reputation for being unbelievably cheesy and trashy. Knight Rider had a reputation for being particularly cheesy.

In fact it really is very cheesy. But, mostly, it’s cheesy in a good way. It’s cheesy in a good-natured way. It doesn’t take itself seriously and it doesn’t expect the viewer to take it seriously. It has a comic-book sensibility but with some humour..

The two-part pilot episode Knight of the Phoenix gives up the setup. Michael Long is an undercover cop and he’s on a big job involving very rich very powerful people sand the job all goes horribly wrong. Michael’s partner is killed and Michael is grievously wounded and very very close to death. He would certainly have died in a very short time but instead of ending up in a hospital he ends up in the hands of an eccentric billionaire. Wilton Knight (Richard Basehart) has plans for Michael Long. Michael is patched up, which is quite a job since his whole face had been blown off. Now he looks quite different, in fact now he looks like David Hasselhoff. Wilton Knight’s plan is that Michael, now renamed Michael Knight, will be a crime-fighter for the Foundation for Law and Government, a kind of private vigilante justice outfit but with Wilton Knight’s considerable wealth behind it. Michael has been given a second chance at life and the idea is that he’ll be sufficiently grateful to accept this deal.

They have also fixed his car for him. Actually they’ve done a little more than fix it. Michael’s Trans-Am is now the K.I.T.T. 2000, a computerised supercar. The car is practically indestructible and it has an artificial intelligence that makes it crash-proof and capable of doing everything except fly. And the car, or at least its artificial intelligence, can talk. And it can think. OK, this concept might not seem so startling today in an age of self-driving cars but in 1982 it was pretty darned exciting.

There are those who have been unkind enough to suggest that K.I.T.T. has more personality than Michael Knight. It’s certainly true that David Hasselhoff is a bad actor. But he’s a fun bad actor, and his acting is bad and fun in just the way the series needs. Edward Mulhare plays Michael’s boss, Devon Miles, as a prissy and disapproving comic relief character. The other regular character is Bonnie Barstow (Patricia McPherson) who is the engineer who keeps K.I.T.T. going and naturally has to be a beautiful woman.

Knight Rider is comic-book stuff in both style and content. That’s something you either accept about this show or you don’t. Knight Rider doesn’t have the edginess or the touch of cynicism that you’ll find in a series like Airwolf. Or at least it doesn’t have the same degree of cynicism. Not quite, but it’s still cynical enough in a low-key way. In all the episodes I’ve seen so far it never for one moment occurs to Michael or to his boss Devon that the police or other legal authorities might be trusted to deal with serious crimes. It’s simply taken for granted that the legitimate authorities are entirely useless. So I guess you could say there’s the same passive cynicism about authority that you get in The A-Team where anyone who has serious problems with criminals doesn’t bother with the police - they call in totally illegal private mercenary vigilantes who, unlike the police, will actually get the job done. And in Knight Rider the police aren’t always just useless. Sometimes they’re crooked. Judges are sometimes incompetent but sometimes dishonest. FBI agents are sometimes just over-zealous but sometimes they’re unethical.

We’re not quite in full-blown Fox Mulder paranoia territory in series like Knight Rider, The A-Team and Airwolf but the idea that the government is not your friend is always there as a subtext.

Glen A. Larson created Knight Rider and it follows the same basic formula as all his successful series - it has humour, it has lots of action but no graphic violence, it has likeable sympathetic characters, it’s generally upbeat and it qualifies as what used to be known as family entertainment. Larson’s 70s science fiction series Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century achieved decent ratings but were cancelled mostly because they were just so expensive to make. Knight Rider has the science fiction elements and the gadgetry but because it’s about a car rather than spaceships it was presumably not quite so expensive.

The one thing that all Glen A. Larson’s shows have in common is that critics hated them, which worried Larson not at all.

Episode Guide
Deadly Maneuvers is outrageously silly, but that’s not a problem for a Knight Rider story. There are shady goings-on at an army base. Shady is perhaps an understatement since there’s been at least one murder. The daughter of the murdered officer, who is a junior officer herself, persuades Michael to help her to find out the supposed accident that killed her father. They uncover a tangled web of corruption. This is an episode that has a bit more cynicism than you expect from Knight Rider. It also has a spectacularly crazy, ludicrous but thoroughly enjoyable action climax with Michael and his car up against half the U.S. Army!

In Good Day at White Rock Michael decides he needs a holiday and some rock-climbing is what appeals to him. The little town of White Rock is pleasant enough except for the sheriff. The sheriff wants to avoid trouble at all costs, in any situation that arises, and while that is often a wise approach in this case it seems to be a symptom of weakness rather than good judgment. And now the town is about to become a battlefield for a war between two rival biker gangs. The sheriff as usual thinks he can evade trouble but it’s clear to Michael that trouble is coming whether the sheriff likes it or not.

Of course the entire premise of Knight Rider is that the legitimate law enforcement authorities are not always adequate (and perhaps not always reliable) so sometimes Michael and K.I.T.T. are needed as a private vigilante force. In this case it’s obvious that the sheriff is incapable of dealing with the situation. Calling in the state police doesn’t seem like a viable option - at this stage the bikers haven’t actually broken any laws. The advantage of a vigilante force like the Foundation for Law and Government is that it can take pre-emptive action.

Slammin' Sammy's Stunt Show Spectacular is a family-run stunt driving show under threat from a crooked businessman. Michael has to save the show by taking over as the star driver. The bad guys are of course trying to kill Michael and sabotage K.I.T.T. and mostly the episode is an excuse for some cool stunt driving. It’s quite entertaining though.

Just My Bill has Michael acting as bodyguard to a crusading (and annoyingly self-righteous) state senator. This is a very poor episode, clumsy and uninteresting.

Not a Drop to Drink pits evil big rancher Herb Bremen against a bunch of virtuous little guy ranchers, the issue at stake being control of water rights. Bremen is prepared to take drastic, and violent, measures to break the good small ranchers. The Foundation is acting for the small ranchers. Michael’s job is to keep Herb Bremen at bay until legal measures can be instituted. This entails K.I.T.T. having to teach himself bull-fighting and fight several battles against heavy earth-moving machinery. They’re the fun parts of the episode. Otherwise it’s a standard western plot that threatens to become rather soppy but it’s OK.

No Big Thing is yet another example of one of the most tedious American TV tropes of all time - a city person ventures into the country only to discover that every single person in rural American is a knuckle-drugging redneck and every small-town sheriff is a vicious corrupt monster preying on innocent city folks. This time Devon Miles is the city person victim. A very poor episode.

Trust Doesn't Rust introduces K.I.T.T.’s evil twin, K.A.R.R., the original prototype on which K.I.T.T. was based. The big difference is that K.I.T.T. is programmed to serve and protect humans. K.A.R.R. is programmed merely for self-preservation. K.A.R.R. teams up with a couple of small-time hoods who then go on a crime rampage. Only Michael and K.I.T.T. can stop them. Fortunately Michael has learnt a thing or two about robot psychology. A good episode.

Inside Out is a heist story and it’s a good one. A crazy pensioned off U.S. Army colonel has assembled a crack team to pull off a huge robbery. Michael has infiltrated himself into the colonel’s organisation. The heist itself is clever and exciting and it’s the element that makes one of the best episodes of season one.

In The Final Verdict Michael has to find a witness who can provide an alibi for a girl charged with murder but the witness (a harmless inoffensive guy) has managed to get himself mixed up with all sorts of legal difficulties. It has a reasonable car chase but otherwise it’s fairly routine.

A Plush Ride has Michael infiltrating a school for bodyguards. One of the bodyguards is actually a terrorist planning to assassinate Third World leaders at a summit meeting but which one is the terrorist? The bodyguards school has a whole fleet of heavily armoured limousines so you’d expect lots of spectacular stunt driving in this episode. There is some, but it’s not as impressive as might have been hoped. A routine episode.

Michael has to prevent the assassination of a South American political leader in Forget Me Not. His best lead is a ditzy blonde who has the vital information he needs but after falling off a cliff she can’t remember it. It’s not brilliant but this is another competent and reasonably enjoyable episode.

Hearts of Stone puts Michael in the middle of a war between rival gun-running gangs and then he kind of loses $240,000 of the Foundation’s money so he’s in a pretty stock situation. An average episode, and enjoyable enough.

Give Me Liberty... or Give Me Death involves deadly shenanigans behind the scenes at an alternative energy car race. An OK episode.

The Topaz Connection is an attempt by a girlie magazine publisher to re-establish himself as a serious investigative journalist but the big story he’s working on, which he’s code-named Topaz, is a potentially deadly story. Another decent enough episode.

A Nice, Indecent Little Town is one of the better first season episodes. Alpine Crest is the most perfect town in America. It has virtually no crime. It’s so wholesome it’s scary. So what is a notorious criminal like Ron Austin doing there? And why is the CIA interested in Alpine Crest? The actual plot is not dazzlingly original but the subtle slightly odd atmosphere in the town is interesting. It’s also about the only episode in which someone gets the better of K.I.T.T.

Chariot of Gold involves the Helios Society, which is kind of like Mensa on steroids except with a whole lot of added creepiness and geekiness. Devon has applied for membership but much to his chagrin they accepted Bonnie instead. One of the Helios Society members involved in an archaeological dig has died in very suspicious circumstances. There’s also Aztec gold and nuclear war survivalism involved, as well as brainwashing. And we find out that a car is like a dog. It only has one master. This episode works by going over the-top, and Knight Rider is always at its best when it goes over-the-top.

White Bird is about a woman who has been set up by the crooked lawyer she works for and now the Feds are railroading her. The complication for Michael is that the girl in question is the girl to whom he was engaged to be married just before he got his face blown off. Now he has a new face and a new identity so naturally she doesn’t recognise him. But he hasn’t forgotten her. This is actually a very good episode. There’s a nice mix of action, suspense and romance and the romance angle is handled with surprising subtlety.

Knight Moves is a trucking saga. Independent truckers in New Mexico are being driven out of business by hijackings but it’s obvious there’s something more behind the hijackings. This is one of those episodes (you see a lot of similar episodes in The A-Team) about the little guy, the honest working-class guy, getting a rough deal from the big guy with the money. Lots of 80s CB radio nostalgia in this one! A fairly good episode.

Nobody Does It Better really lays on the 80s nostalgia extra thick. It’s all about video games! Somebody is stealing video game software. Unfortunately there’s a lady private eye involved in the case and while she can’t be faulted for her enthusiasm her competence is another matter. She thinks it’s just another divorce case. The plot isn’t very challenging but anyone with fond memories of 80s video games is going to be in seventh heaven. And it’s typical Knight Rider - it has enough energy and glitz to make up for any deficiencies in the script.

In the final episode of the first season, Short Notice, Michael gets mixed up with a woman who is mixed up with a biker gang and she has a kid and it’s the sort of situation that he should just stay right away from but of course he doesn’t and he thinks he can rescue her and even K.I.T.T. knows he’s crazy but he’s going to do it anyway, and since this is a TV show then maybe he really will be able to save her even though she would cheerfully have sacrificed him for her own ends.

Summing Up
Knight Rider is corny and it’s formulaic and it’s often predictable but it’s executed with enthusiasm and it’s unfailingly entertaining. The special effects may not entirely convince but they’re enjoyably outrageous. K.I.T.T. and Michael are a likeable team. It’s a formula that works. It doesn’t matter that you can’t take it seriously because you’re not supposed to.

For all its faults Knight Rider is thoroughly enjoyable television. It’s cheesy and trashy but in a totally good way. Highly recommended.

Thursday, 16 August 2018

Airwolf season 1 (1984)

Airwolf sounds on the surface like a typical 1980s American action adventure series, with lots of explosions and a gleefully trashy vibe. Which is sort of what it is, except for the lead performance by Jan-Michael Vincent which makes it something else again, and some interestingly ambiguous political elements. This is the thinking person’s trashy cheesy action adventure series.

The setup would suggest that this is going to be Knight Rider but with an attack helicopter instead of a high-tech super-car. The helicopter is the Airwolf. It was designed by Dr Charles Henry Moffet (David Hemmings) and it was financed by the Firm. The Firm is clearly the CIA (popularly known as the Company) and the whole project has all the hallmarks of a CIA project. The Firm hasn’t bothered to let anyone else in the U.S. Government know anything about their new toy. They were kind of hoping to keep it to themselves but now they’re trying to come to some sort of arrangement with some Washington political deal-makers. The Airwolf is going to be put through its paces for the benefit of these political bigwigs, and Dr Moffet is going to act as test pilot.

The Airwolf is quite a toy. It’s a supersonic(!) armour-plated practically invulnerable attack helicopter and it’s armed to the teeth. It’s like a small air force in one package.

There is a slight problem with doing things in ultra-secretive and somewhat illegal ways. You often end up dealing with people who are not entirely honest and not entirely stable. Dr Moffet is not merely unstable. He’s a raving lunatic. In the pilot episode, Shadow of the Hawke, Moffet steals the Airwolf and takes it to Libya for Colonel Gaddafi to play with.

Now the Firm has to figure out away to get their toy back. There’s only one other man who can fly the Airwolf, and that’s Stringfellow Hawke. And that’s a problem. To say that Hawke is a difficult man to deal with is putting it mildly. Nonetheless Michael Coldsmith Briggs III, code-named Archangel and one of the Firm’s senior people (Alex Cord), sets off for Hawke’s remote cabin to try to convince him to help. He brings with him Gabrielle (Belinda Bauer) on the assumption that her feminine charms might do the trick.

Obviously the story is going to provide lots of opportunities for aerial action, explosions and general mayhem. And in fact it delivers these things in impressive quantity.

It’s the introduction of Stringfellow Hawke that marks this as an unexpectedly offbeat series. He doesn’t fit any of the accepted action hero stereotypes. He’s not a larger-than-life hero. He’s not an eccentric. He’s not possessed of boyish charm. He’s not a rebel with a taste for adventure. Stringfellow Hawke is a totally messed up human being. He’s moody, he’s taciturn, he’s morose, he’s chronically depressed, he’s anti-social, he’s rude, he’s just not fit for civilised society. He just wants to be left alone in his cabin in the woods where he can play his ’cello and try to make friends with the local sea eagle.

He’s obviously an unusual character but it’s Jan-Michael Vincent’s bizarre performance that makes him really fascinating. It’s a curiously detached and mechanical performance and it works perfectly. This is a man who has pretty much shut down emotionally. It’s not that he’s unemotional, it’s more that he has simply decided that he cannot deal with emotions any longer. Jan-Michael Vincent was probably already struggling with his own inner demons at this time, a struggle he was destined to lose, and perhaps that’s what gives his performance a particularly edgy feel. He was an actor with plenty of charisma but it’s an odd kind of low-key charisma that combines machismo with more than a hint of inner turmoil.

The obsessive, brooding and melancholy personality of Stringfellow Hawke is one of the key things that sets Airwolf apart from superficially similar 80s action shows like Knight Rider and The A-Team. There are other differences as well. Airwolf might seem like a show aimed at 12-year-old boys but it isn’t. It’s actually quite dark, with a pervasive sense of loss. Hawke has lost everybody he ever cared about. It’s not entirely clear what keeps him going, apart from a stubborn determination not to surrender. In The A-Team thousands of rounds of small arms ammunition get fired off in every episode but nobody ever seems to get killed. In Airwolf bad things happen to people. Bad things happen to good people. And there are seriously bad people who are more than just comic-book villains. There’s real evil in the world.

One of the things that keeps Stringfellow going is the hope of finding his brother St. John. The brother was shot down over Vietnam fourteen years earlier and is almost certainly dead but Stringfellow clings to the faint hope that he may have somehow survived. Vietnam was still a painful memory in the 80s and the issue of the possible survival of American prisoners-of-war was quite a big deal at the time. It’s a rather dark theme for an action adventure series but it’s typical of Airwolf.

And while Airwolf has a generally patriotic and occasionally embarrassingly gung ho tone it’s not entirely simplistic. While the Firm is a sanitised version of the CIA it’s still clearly an organisation that considers itself to be above the law. And the Firm’s operations are sometimes badly conceived and badly executed (such as their brilliant idea of infiltrating female agents into Libya in the pilot episode). The series, on the surface at least, goes along with the idea that it’s OK for the Firm to lie and cheat and kill ’cause they’re the good guys. Of course viewers of a more sceptical turn of mind might have had a few doubts.

Unquestionably the key to the success of Airwolf was the action, and the action sequences are impressive. They’re very impressive. The aerial shots are terrific.

Ernest Borgnine might seem like an odd choice to play veteran helicopter pilot and Stringfellow’s offsider Dominic Santini but it turns out to be successful casting. The voluble wildly extroverted Santini and the taciturn and painfully introverted Hawke make an interesting and effective combination.

Alex Cord is smooth and perhaps just the tiniest bit sinister as Archangel. The relationship between Stringfellow Hawke and Archangel is rather complex and it’s one of the elements that makes this series a cut above the average. There’s a degree of mutual respect, but Archangel sees Hawke as naïve while Hawke thinks Archangel is cynical and less than honest. They use each other, but they don’t trust each other too far. It’s not exactly a friendship but there’s some loyalty.

The Episode Guide
In Daddy's Gone a Hunt’n the KGB has come up with a plan to get hold of an example of the latest US fighter jet and the Firm wants Hawke to foil this scheme. Hawke doesn’t care much whether the Russians get the fighter or not but he does care about the fate of one small boy who is being used as a pawn in this dangerous game.

Bite of the Jackal adds some paranoia and treachery to the mix. One of Archangel’s underlings, Mitchell Bruck, has gone rogue and has cooked up a scheme to get hold of the Airwolf. This would be a bad thing for all sorts of reasons, but mostly it would be very bad for Archangel’s future career prospects. Archangel and Hawke are going to have to prevent Bruck from carrying out his plan and they’re going to have to rescue Santini and a stowaway he picked up. This is one of those stories in which the bad guys and the good guys are hard to tell apart.

In Proof Through the Night Stringfellow Hawke has to extract an American agent from Russia. There’s the usual gung ho action stuff but some serious moments as well, involving divided loyalties and the nature of treachery.

One Way Express sees Santini taking a job as a stunt pilot for a movie, which causes some tensions with Hawke. It causes some anxiety for Archangel as well - the movie’s producer is a guy named Philip Maurice and he has a colourful history which covers pretty much all bases - espionage, treason, sabotage, grand larceny. It’s more than that though - Archangel has a personal grudge to settle as well. Archangel has no idea what Maurice is up to but he is sure it has nothing to do with movie-making.

This is actually a pretty cool heist story with some impressive stunt flying. A fine episode.

Echoes from the Past starts with Hawke being offered information that could allow him to find his long-lost brother. On his way back to the cabin his helicopter crashes. He awakens in hospital to discover that he has missed out on some recent news. In fact he’s missed out on an enormous amount of news. He’s been in a coma for months and dramatic things have happened that change everything about the way he views the world. Hawke will do anything to find his brother. It’s his one weak spot. It’s a gripping episode and Jan-Michael Vincent gets to stretch his acting muscles a little.

In 1960s and 1970s action adventure television Nazis were everywhere. And if the episode Fight Like a Dove is to believed those evil Nazis were still around in the 80s! This episode combines vigilante justice and arms dealing and some CIA duplicity but it’s a fairly mediocre and predictable story.

In Mad Over Miami Dominic has become involved with anti-Castro groups trying to get political prisoners out of Cuba but there are multiple double-crosses and it gets very complicated. It gets even more complicated when Hawke realises that the Firm has spent a great deal of money arming rebels and establishing “Camp Freedom” but the rebels they are arming are nothing more than gangsters. So it’s a typical black op that’s gone bad and meanwhile Dominic and Hawke are caught in the middle. A pretty neat little episode.

And They Are Us takes Stringfellow and Dominic to Africa, to a nasty little war between North Limbawe and South Limbawe, one backed by the Soviets and one backed by the Americans. South Limbawe has the services of an attack helicopter squadron led by mercenary Colonel Vidor, an American renegade who’s been Hawke’s commanding officer in Vietnam. Archangel has talked Hawke into getting involved in this messy situation by suggesting that Vidor might know what happened to Hawke’s brother St John. Vidor was and is a great helicopter pilot but now he’s all messed up with self-contempt and cynicism and alcohol. A good solid episode with a bit of human drama, a bit of political cynicism and lots of aerial action.

In Mind of the Machine Dr Robert Winchester has designed an advanced Airwolf simulator. Winchester had almost been selected as the original Airwolf test pilot but lost out to Stringfellow Hawke and he’s still kind of bitter about this. He wants to settle the question of just how good he is compared to Hawke and he has a way of doing this - a double simulation in which he and Hawke can fight it out in a one-on-one aerial dogfight. While all this is happening there’s a very real and very dangerous plot afoot and Dr Winchester has discovered some secrets about Airwolf that were only ever known to its insane designer, Dr Moffet.

In To Snare a Wolf there’s some vicious infighting going on within the intelligence communities, and the obsessive and crazed D.G. Bogard (Lance LeGault) is out to get Archangel. Bogard is also out to get Airwolf and he has satellite surveillance with which to do it. It seems like there’s going to be no escape for Hawke this time. Bogard is ruthless and insane. What Bogard doesn’t realise is that in Stringfellow Hawke he is up against a man who is just as crazy as he is. Also caught up in the drama is out-of-work pilot Antonia Donatelli who is either a nice Italian girl trying to persuade Dominic to give her a job or she’s a treacherous operative working for D.G. Bogard. A fine episode with a good action finale and some intriguing insights into the backstabbing world of the intelligence communities.

Summing Up
Of the various American action adventure TV series of the 80s Airwolf is by far the most intelligent, complex and interesting. It’s also incredibly entertaining. It’s a truly great TV series and very highly recommended.

Thursday, 9 August 2018

Time Travelers (TV pilot, 1976)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time Travelers is on the whole surprisingly satisfactory. Recommended.

Thursday, 2 August 2018

1990 season 1 (1977)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 25 July 2018

MacGyver season 2 (1986)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 21 July 2018

The Avengers #6 The Drowned Queen (novel)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 16 July 2018

The Guardians (1971)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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