Friday, 14 December 2018

McCloud season 1 (1970)

The 1970s was a real golden age for American TV mystery/detective series. There were good 70s cop shows and good 70s private eye shows but the most enjoyable and most characteristic American 70s crime shows were the puzzle-plot murder mysteries in which a brilliant detective matches wits with a brilliant criminal. Columbo was the most famous of these series but Ellery Queen and Banacek were every bit as good, and McMillan and Wife had its moments.

And there was also McCloud. It ran for seven years on NBC so it was one of the most successful of the genre.

What all these series had in common, apart from obvious structural similarities, was that they had colourful and charismatic detective heroes. McCloud certainly qualifies on both counts. Sam McCloud is a Deputy Marshal from a one-horse town in New Mexico. An important case takes him to New York City and for reasons which never really make sense he ends up being on more or less permanent loan to the NYPD. The NYPD isn’t quite sure what to do with him, he can be a bit of an embarrassment but on the other hand he does keep on solving major cases for them.

Dennis Weaver had had a long career already by this time but in McCloud he demonstrates considerable and hitherto unsuspected star quality. When you take Weaver’s performance, combine it with the fish-out-of-water country hick teaching the city slickers a thing or two theme and some fairly solid scripts you have the ingredients for a pretty entertaining series.

Portrait of a Dead Girl was the pilot episode. Deputy Marshal Sam McCloud has to track down a witness who has ignored a subpoena. He finds him in the wilds of New Mexico. McCloud is not altogether thrilled at the idea of having to escort the prisoner all the way to New York, but McCloud always does his duty.

The witness, James Waldron (Shelley Novack), may be able to give evidence that would overturn the conviction of Luis Ramos for the murder of a beauty queen. Or his evidence may have an entirely different effect. No-one knows but clearly someone does not want Waldron to testify since he is kidnapped as soon as he arrives in New York. This is pretty embarrassing for McCloud and he intends to find the kidnapped witness and those responsible for snatching him.

McCloud’s presence in New York is unwelcome to chief of detectives Peter Clifford (Peter Mark Richman). Ramos’s defence attorney Del Whitman (Craig Stevens) also seems disturbed by McCloud’s presence. The one person who is delighted by McCloud is journalist Chris Coughlin (Diana Muldaur). She’s written a book on the beauty queen murder but she doesn’t seem to care if McCloud finds evidence to discredit her book. She finds him fascinating and she’s a good enough reporter to know that Sam McCloud is good copy and hanging around with him will undoubtedly be useful to her career-wise.

The plot is pretty far-fetched. It also has some political overtones and that’s something that American television invariably did poorly.

Dennis Weaver was already well known to viewers from his rôle in the long-running Gunsmoke series. McCloud made him a bona fide star. He’s perfect as the Deputy Marshal from New Mexico. He doesn’t overdo the wide-eyed innocence and he doesn’t overdo the dumb hick thing. Sam McCloud finds New York to be a very strange place but he’s a smart cop and he learns quickly and he’s nobody’s fool. To some extent he uses the Columbo technique of persuading suspects to underestimate him.

Diana Muldaur is a semi-regular character in the series and provides a love interest for Sam McCloud as well as managing to get him lots of publicity which gets him into constant trouble. She’s pretty good. Terry Carter as Sergeant Joe Broadhurst plays the sidekick rôle and does it fairly effectively.

Portrait of a Dead Girl doesn’t quite gel for me, partly because I just didn’t but the central plot idea as being plausible. But it does introduce Sam McCloud effectively enough.

The first episode of the first season proper is Who Says You Can't Make Friends in New York City? McCloud has been posted to Peter Clifford’s precinct in New York to learn about big city policing. I have no idea why a Deputy Marshal from New Mexico would need to learn such things but the premise of the whole series is that it’s about a hick cop in the big city so some justification for his continued presence had to be cooked up. McCloud proves to be a bit of an embarrassment to Clifford who is overjoyed when he finds an excuse to ship McCloud back to New Mexico. The only problem is that McCloud refuses to go until he’s cleared up the case he’s stumbled into.

Horse Stealing on Fifth Avenue is about actual horse stealing on Fifth Avenue, and it’s about a gunman who won’t kill. It’s an offbeat tale and it plays to the strengths of McCloud as a character - he gets to crack a few down-home jokes, he gets to demonstrate his gift for understanding and empathising with people and he gets to approach a case in his own inimitable and unconventional way. And he gets to play the climactic action scene on horseback!

The rodeo comes to New York in The Concrete Corral and McCloud is assigned to keep an eye on the cowboys. He’s pretty annoyed by this since he’d rather be chasing actual criminals but he’ll find plenty to keep him occupied with those cowboys, especially when their dramas lead to murder. And McCloud finds that when you have to track down a country boy it’s a definite advantage to be able to think like a country boy yourself. A decent episode.

The Stage Is All the World plunges McCloud into the world of the theatre where a megalomaniac producer is receiving death threats but he has a track record of publicity stunts so the threats may or may not be bogus. The threats still have to be taken seriously, and McCloud is inclined to think there really is a tragedy brewing. A pretty solid episode.

In Walk in the Dark McCloud gets assigned to an all-female squad for training. As you might expect there’s a fair bit of politically incorrect humour (in fact there’s quite a bit of political incorrectness in this episode, this being 1970 when it wasn’t necessary to tread so carefully). McCloud fears he’s going to be stuck investigating shoplifting incidents but in fact he finds himself in the middle of a multiple murder case, with one of the victims being a policewoman. He’s not supposed to be on the murder case but when Sam McCloud is given an instruction he tends to interpret it rather loosely. He also finds time for some romantic dalliance with a pretty young policewoman (played by Susan Saint James). There are some interesting moral subtexts to this story, subtexts you would never get away with today, wth McCloud being less than happy about young women being used as bait for a murderer. It’s a good story with a solution that is a bit far-fetched but still quite clever.

Our Man in Paris is a change of pace. What could possibly be more fun than having a Deputy Marshal from Taos, New Mexico running loose in New York City? That’s easy. Having a Deputy Marshal from Taos, New Mexico running loose in Paris. Chief Clifford is held hostage and McCloud is forced to fly to Paris with a briefcase full of money, very hot money. It’s not all bad though, since McCloud strikes up a friendship with a pretty French stewardess. One thing they do appreciate in Taos, New Mexico is a pretty girl, and McCloud appreciates them more than most (and it has to be said that the ladies seem to find him irresistible). This is a fine thriller episode to close out the first season.

A word of warning in regard to the DVD releases of McCloud. After their original broadcast the six first season episodes were clumsily edited together into three feature-length episodes. The editing was done so badly that some of the original writers and directors subsequently had their names removed from the credits in disgust. The original hour-long episodes were later lost. When McCloud was released on DVD in the U.S. only the butchered movie-length versions were available and and so those were the ones issued on DVD. Then Madman Entertainment in Australia located the original hour-long versions, which fortunately were in excellent condition. Madman’s Australian DVD release of the first season includes both the original hour-long versions and the edited feature-length versions. So if you’re going to buy the first season on DVD the Madman release (which is in print and easily obtainable in the U.S.) is the only one to consider buying. Of course you’ll need to remember that the Madman release is Region 4.

McCloud isn’t quite in the same league as Columbo or Banacek but it’s still very enjoyable viewing and it’s recommended. There you go.

Friday, 7 December 2018

The F.B.I., season one part one (1965)

The F.B.I. was one of the many hit TV series in the action/adventure genre made by Quinn Martin Productions in the 1960s. In fact it was the most successful of all Quinn Martin’s productions, running for nine seasons from 1965 to 1974. The F.B.I. has been released on DVD in half-season sets and it's the first part of season one with which this review is concerned.

In this series we always know the identity of the perpetrator right from the start, so these are inverted crime stories. This is also very much in the police procedural mould, with the interest lying in the methods used by the F.B.I. to hunt down wrongdoers.

The two lead characters are Inspector Lewis Erskine (Efrem Zimbalist Jr) and Special Agent Jim Rhodes (Stephen Brooks). Erskine is the old hand and he’s a complex character with some personal tragedies that he’s still working through. Rhodes is a young hotshot but he’s a decent guy and the two agents have a very amicable relationship.

You have to remember that this series originated in 1965 and in 1965 the idea of a series that painted the F.B.I. in an entirely heroic light seemed pretty reasonable. And this series really does present a very very favourable view of the Bureau. It was made with the blessing of J. Edgar Hoover (who was still F.B.I. Director at the time).

The fact that the series began its run in 1965 really is quite important. The F.B.I. deals with all sorts of crimes and this includes political crimes. In 1965 it could be assumed that any political crime would almost certainly be the work of communist agents working for Moscow. And it could be assumed that these communist agents would be working class. This is 1965, just before the social revolution of the 60s. Within a couple of years the F.B.I. would be looking for subversives at university campuses rather than among dock workers.

Social and sexual mores were also about to change radically. In the first season Erskine’s daughter Barbara and Special Agent Rhodes have fallen in love and want to get married. Erskine wants her to wait until she finishes college. Barbara and Rhodes want to get married straight away. Within a few years a senior F.B.I. officer like Inspector Erskine would be delighted by anything that would get his daughter away from the subversive atmosphere of university.

The Episode Guide
The Monster was a rather bizarre opening episode for any series. A con-man named Francis Jerome (Jeffrey Hunter) has escaped from a federal prison. Jerome preys on women. What the F.B.I. don’t know is that he also kills women. Jerome is a seriously weird guy with a weird history.

Erskine is convinced that Jerome will return to his home town. He also suspects that he will try to make contact with one of his previous victims, Jean Davis. There’s some rather odd flirtatious stuff going on between Jean Davis and Erskine. In fact Jean Davis is pretty seriously weird as well. This is just a weird episode.

Image in a Cracked Mirror is a lot better. Erskine and Rhodes are hunting an embezzler. Charles Gates (Jack Klugman) has covered his tracks well. He has managed to destroy every photograph that has ever been taken of him. No-one really seems to know what he looks like. He’s now on the run with his 13-year-old son and that could be his weakness. It’s a weakness that Erskine is prepared to exploit with a ruthlessness that shocks Rhodes. Erskine has an odd personal stake in this case because Gates reminds him of himself. A very good episode.

A Mouthful of Dust is like a flashback to the Wild West, with Erskine and Rhodes saddling up (with six-guns in their gun belts) to join a posse tracking down an Indian. Joe Cloud (Alejandro Rey) is accused of killing a man who raped his wife. Erskine had been Cloud’s commanding officer in Korea and Cloud turns to Erskine for help. Erskine doesn’t want to let Joe down, but he does. Can he then put things right? Can Cloud be persuaded to save himself? Rey’s performance is OK but the Argentina-born actor’s very strong accent is rather wrong and jarring. Italian-American Robert Blake is no more Native American than Rey but he pulls off the important rôle of Joe’s brother Pete Cloud much more successfully. An offbeat episode that works, up to a point.

Slow March Up a Steep Hill is a case of history repeating itself, or at least it seems like it. A bank in Exeter Maryland is robbed and the same bank is robbed again three days later. Everything about these robberies seems to parallel a similar case in 1938. And the 1938 bank robber has just been released from prison. Erskine trusts his instincts on this one. Everyone thinks he’s on the wrong track but he won’t compromise. An excellent episode.

The Insolents involves a very rich young man accused of murder. Special Agent Rhodes seems to have a personal stake in this case. It’s a mystery that appears to have only one solution but what if that solution is the wrong one? This time around it’s Rhodes who has to trust his instincts. Not a bad episode.

In To Free My Enemy Erskine has been trying to find evidence to convict pornographer Bert Anslem. Now his suspect has been kidnapped by a trio of cheap punks and Erskine has to save him. By saving him he may also be helping him to escape justice. But Erskine has no choice. He has to do his best to save Anslem. A good episode with with some cool police procedural stuff.

Given the priorities of the F.B.I. in the sixties it’s perhaps surprising that it’s not until the seventh episode, The Problem of the Honorable Wife, that the evil commies make their first appearance. They’re planing to sabotage the U.S. war effort in Vietnam by planting bombs on the San Francisco dockside. One of the saboteurs is married to a Japanese woman and she unwittingly puts the Feds on her husband’s trail. This is an episode in which Special Agent Rhodes, who is basically a decent young guy, feels just a little uncomfortable about working for the F.B.I. This is quite an interesting episode.

In Courage of a Conviction Lew Erskine should be a very happy man. He’s just caught up with a master forger who has eluded all law enforcement agencies for years. He’s a forger on the grand scale and it’s quite a feather in Erskine’s cap. But he’s not happy. It’s all because of a girl he saw in Ray Lang’s office. The girl is a junkie and Ray is a lawyer who has been supplying the F.B.I. with quality information for years. Ray and Lew are also old buddies. But what is Ray Lang doing with a junkie? As he connects the dots Lew realises  that the unshakeable case he had against that forgery suspect isn’t so unshakeable after all. This is one of a number of episodes that emphasises two key things about Lew Erskine. Firstly, he trusts his instincts no matter what. And secondly, he will risk his own career rather than see a man convicted if he becomes convinced that the man is innocent. Of course it not emphasises Erskine’s high moral standards but also those of the Bureau (and emphasising the honesty and probity of the F.B.I. was a pretty good idea for a series that relied heavily on the coöperation and goodwill of J. Edgar Hoover).

The Exiles would appear to be inspired by the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Exiles from a certain Latin American nation are planning to launch an invasion to overthrow the ruling dictator. The F.B.I. have to persuade the leader of the exiles, General Rafael Romero, not to go ahead with the invasion. It’s not that the U.S. government doesn’t want the dictator overthrown but the F.B.I. has intelligence that indicates that the invasion is guaranteed to be a messy and expensive failure and therefore very embarrassing to the U.S., especially given that the invasion is planned to be launched from Florida.

This is an intriguing one. General Romero and his private army (and his rich backer Maria Blanca) are not portrayed as being the bad guys, in fact they’re portrayed as heroes,  and yet they have to be stopped at all costs. And Erskine has to infiltrate Romero’s group and betray them. This is a surprisingly ethically complex tale and it’s also surprisingly realistic in depicting international relations as a frustrating quagmire. A very fine episode.

The Giant Killer is a total hoot. A fanatic is trying to sabotage a U.S. ballistic missile being transported by road to an Air Force base. This is not just a regular nuclear missile. This is a brand new design and it’s immensely important. If this missile is sabotaged the whole free world will be endangered and world communism will triumph. The paranoia is approaching Dr Strangelove levels in this episode. On the other hand it’s certainly exciting and the idea that a lone fanatic with a rifle can destroy a ballistic missile is intriguing. Robert Duvall is at his crazed best as the lone fanatic. The epilog to this episode is absolutely beyond belief. Dr Strangelove himself would have been embarrassed. A bizarre but weirdly and morbidly fascinating episode.

In All the Streets Are Silent automatic weapons are stolen from the U.S. Marine Corps. Erskine persuades cab driver Frankie Metro to turn informant but informing on the Murtaugh brothers is dangerous work. This one includes a fairly spectacular shoot-out. A pretty good episode.

An Elephant Is Like a Rope presents Erskine and Rhodes with an odd problem. They have a young man with a bullet wound in the head. He’s going to make a full recovery but is suffering from compete amnesia. So he can’t tell the G-Men where the half million dollars in his possession came from. There’s no actual evidence that he has committed any crime. The half million dollars seems to be clean. A strange little offbeat story but it works.

How to Murder an Iron Horse is somewhat silly but very enjoyable. It taps into 1950s obsessions that bad child-rearing practices were going to turn kids into juvenile delinquents. And this is really a typical 50s B-movie juvenile delinquent story with some bizarre diabolical criminal mastermind flourishes thrown in. A young man whose father was more interested in his model trains than his son now wants to blow up trains. Not model trains, real trains. And he demonstrates that he can indeed blow up a freight train. If he isn’t paid $100,000 he threatens to blow up a passenger train. It’s all quite crazy but if you like trains and explosions you’ll enjoy it.

Pound of Flesh is one of the few episodes in which we’re not sure of the identity of the criminal. The chaplain’s wife at an army base is murdered. Private First Class Byron Landy is the obvious suspect and there really isn’t much doubt of his guilt. In fact Erskine and Rhodes wouldn’t have any doubts about the case themselves if only Landy hadn’t confessed. But the confession really seemed bogus and now the two F.B.I. men are more or less convinced of his innocence. Unfortunately the media, the civilian authorities in the nearby town, the base commander and the top brass in the Pentagon just want a quick arrest and Erskine and Rhodes are put under extreme pressure. Of course if you try to put Lew Erskine under pressure like that he just gets really really stubborn. A very good episode with a good performance by Leslie Nielsen as the chaplain blinded by hatred.

The Hijackers is a rather light-hearted episode involving a truck hijacking which is actually a practical joke gone wrong. This one tries to combine whimsicality with sentimentality. The results are not as bad as you might anticipate.

The Forests of the Night deals with a fundamentalist Christian sect victimised by an extortionist on top of having to deal with less than sympathetic neighbours. When you’re dealing with such subject matter there’s always the risk of becoming preachy and that’s what happens here. This is crude hate-filled propaganda that portrays rural people as knuckle-dragging redneck bigots. A shockingly bad episode.

Final Thoughts
It’s easy to mock this series. There’s plenty of full-on hysteria about evil commies and the whole country seems to be overflowing with fifth columnists and foreign agents. But this is how reality looked to most people in 1965. There’s a sincerity about the series that tends to win you over. Erskine and Rhodes and their colleagues at the Bureau are brave dedicated men and they’re thorough professionals. This is basically a police procedural. We pretty much always know who the bad guys are right from the start so the interest lies in the methods used to track down the criminals. There’s some high-tech stuff but mostly Erskine and Rhodes rely on hard work and patient methodical routine investigative procedures. These guys do not give up. One of the things I really love is seeing the technical side of law enforcement in 1965 - it’s all still delightfully analog! To find a fingerprint match you go through thousands of fingerprints on file, and you go through them with a magnifying glass!

The series is a fascinating time capsule with a slightly melancholy edge - the American  society depicted in the first season in 1965 had to a large extent ceased to exist by the time the series ended its run in 1974.

The F.B.I. is a slightly odd series.  The tone is sometimes very serious, occasionally quite dark, and at other times light-hearted and even whimsical. The scripts are however mostly clever and well-constructed and often quite original and the execution is always top-notch. There are unfortunately occasional signs of the preachiness that was already starting to infect American television (signs that are also all too apparent in another contemporary Quinn Martin production, The Fugitive). Production values are high. Efrem Zimbalist Jr has real star quality. This was, like most Quinn Martin productions, very well-made television.

Recommended.

Tuesday, 27 November 2018

Naked City, season two (1960-61)

Naked City takes its name from the 1948 film The Naked City. The Naked City was a police procedural with a documentary feel. The TV series does owe something to the movie structurally and thematically. The TV series is also much much better than the movie.

The Naked City was a bad movie but a very influential one. Naked City was a good TV series and a very influential one. Naked City started out in 1958 with the half-hour format that was still more or less standard at that time. It did not do particularly well and was actually cancelled. It was then re-engineered and relaunched in 1960. The change to hour-long episodes was crucial. This is a series that takes a leisurely approach to is subject matter. It’s a world away from the frenetic excitement and urgency of a series like M Squad (made at almost exactly the same time). Naked City is a character-driven police procedural series. It takes the time to let us get to know the characters.

Naked City is also notable for featuring a substantial amount of location shooting. One thing it does share with M Squad is a gritty realistic feel. This is a serious attempt to show us life on the streets of New York - the sleaze as well as the glamour.

There’s also an emphasis on what today we would call adult themes. This is not cops and robbers with the cops being straightforward good guys and the robbers being straightforward bad guys. This is a show that deals with complicated people who are sometimes neither heroes not villains.

It should be emphasised that this was not all that startling in 1950s American television. American cop shows like the aforementioned M Squad and Dragnet (this is the 50s Dragnet I’m talking about, not the woefully inferior revamped 1967 version) could be surprisingly hard-hitting and intelligent. Both cop shows and private eye shows (such as Johnny Staccato and Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer) of that vintage were still heavily influenced by the dark-themed crime movies of the 40s and early 50s that we now label as film noir. There was a lot more to 1950s American television than Ozzie and Harriet and Leave It To Beaver. The difference with Naked City was mostly one of degree - it used the hour-long format to delve more deeply into the private lives of not just the cops but also the criminals and the victims and the innocent bystanders.

Madacy  released a 10-DVD boxed set that includes 40 of the 99 hour-long episodes of Naked City (it doesn’t include any of the 39 half-hour episodes from the first season). It’s enough to give a pretty good impression of the excellent series. The boxed set includes nine episodes from the second season which aired from 1960 to 1961 and it’s season two we’re concerned with at the moment. Horace McMahon as Lieutenant Mike Parker and Harry Bellaver as Sergeant Frank Arcaro were joined by Paul Burke as Detective Adam Flint for the revamped hour-long second season that went to air for the first time in October 1960.

A Death of Princes demonstrates the willingness of this series to tackle dark themes of a type that would have been likely to provoke extremely hostile responses from the police at that time. It deals not just with a corrupt cop, but a corrupt out-of-control killer cop.

The hero of the series, Detective Adam Flint (Paul Burke), sees his partner Detective Peter Bane (Eli Wallach) gun down an unarmed suspect. The problem is that while he can bring departmental charges against Bane there’s no way he can make them stick. He knows that, and his boss Lieutenant Mike Parker (Horace McMahon) knows it too. The only thing to do is to keep an eye on Bane. Sooner or later he’ll make a wrong move.

Flint doesn’t have long to wait. Bane is mixed up in an an extraordinarily complex conspiracy. It’s the sort of thing that only an incredibly arrogant man could think he could get away with.

Debt of Honor begins with a very high stakes card game, which is interrupted by three punks with masks and guns. One of the card players gets shot dead. One of the other card players is Nick Mori (Steve Cochran). The punks might have had second thoughts about their plan to rob these high rollers if they had known that Mori was a gangster.

Mori has other things to worry about. His wife has just arrived from Italy. He has never met her. It’s a complicated story. Mori owed a debt of honour to a very important man in the old country. When that man was dying he told Nick that he would have to discharge his debt by looking after the old man’s daughter. The best way to do that would be to marry her and bring her to the United States. Now he was to explain to her that he doesn’t want it to be a real marriage, which is a problem since she is filled with determination to be a wonderful wife.

To make things more interesting Nick isn’t actually a gangster as such. Not quite. He clearly has Mob connections. He movies in those circles. He’s no Boy Scout. But he isn’t an actual gangster and he’s really not a bad guy. He has no idea what to do with this wife he has suddenly acquired but one thing is certain. He doesn’t want to make her unhappy. He doesn’t want to hurt her. She’s an embarrassment to him but she is his wife.

Steve Cochran was a fine actor who never achieved real stardom but appeared in several bona fide film noir classics in the 50s including Private Hell 36 and the superb Highway 301.

The Man Who Bit a Diamond in Half is a heist story and a delightfully complicated one. The police have no idea that the heist is being planned. All they have is some events that don’t make sense. A museum security guard shot but all that is stolen is a replica of a valuable diamond, and it was clearly marked a being a replica and being worthless. And there’s a wealthy Greek who wife’s valuable bracelet appears to have been stolen but it wasn’t stolen. There are other little things but they make even less sense. Detective Adam Flint doesn’t like it. He has this feeling that there is a connection, if only he could see it. Some nice twists in this one. Very entertaining.

Murder Is a Face I Know is about Nick Ross, an immigrant who is the American Dream personified. A hard worker, a loving husband, a devoted father, a solid citizen. The kind of man you’d be proud to know. Except for one minor detail. He’s also a contract killer for the Mob. His son Joey (Keir Dullea) is not surprisingly having trouble accepting all this. The police are having troubles of their own with the case, with Ross refusing to say anything at all. A good episode.

A Hole in the City starts out with a series of spectacular chases and shootouts and then becomes a hostage drama. But mostly it’s a psychological drama about a very strange young man. Lewis Nunda (Robert Duvall) has masterminded an armoured car robbery that has left a trail of corpses. It all started in his childhood.  He has a lot of childhood grudges and he’s never forgotten them and they’re all based on his total inability to understand the world. An episode that is very ambitious and very pretentious but mostly it works. And it ends with another very impressive action set-piece.

Button in the Haystack presents Adam with a real headache. A man was murdered in a service station and thee is very strong, almost overwhelming, evidence against the guy who runs the service station, an ex-con named Brewer. But Adam thinks he’s innocent. To prove it he has to find Brewer’s gun and that turns out to be an almost impossible task. This story is enlivened by a bit of humour and it works very well.

Shoes for Vinnie Winford is the story of a rich little boy who grows up to inherit his father’s vast business empire. Only Vinnie Winford never does grow up. He now has immense wealth and power but he’s still a little boy. A spoilt over-indulged little boy. A little boy with severe mommy issues. A little boy with a violent temper. Although he owns a huge business empire the one business that really matters to him is his dance hall, a sleazy business to be sure but it’s the only thing he has ever actually built up by his own efforts. And it’s the dance hall that will get him into trouble. One of his hostesses has disappeared. Vinnie has taken steps to make it seem like Judy Hill never existed but Adam Flint believes the story that Judy’s friend Ruby tells him. Nailing Vinnie will however be quite a challenge.

The best thing and the worst thing about this episode is Dennis Hopper’s performance as Vinnie. It’s certainly memorable. It may be the hammiest performance in the history of American acting. It’s like Hopper is channeling James Dean in Rebel Without a Clause (which also deals with the 50s fear that bad mothering was the cause of all social ills) but Hopper is even more ludicrously over-the-top than Dean. If you happen to get a kick out of  unbelievably excessive Method acting you’ll find Hopper’s turn in this episode to be bizarrely fascinating.

On the plus side there are some great shots of 1960s New York street scenes and the bridge climax is pretty impressive.

New York to L.A. starts off with lots of frustrating inaction. Detective Flint and Lieutenant Busti are in L.A. to take custody of two punks accused of armed robbery and murder but the extradition hearing looks like it’s going to drag on forever. Then suddenly all hell breaks loose. This is one of those episodes that taps into 1950s obsessions with child-rearing and psychology. The two punks were raised in an orphanage and the script goes perilously close to casting a couple of vicious hoodlums as victims although it’s not clear what they are victims of. This sort of thing can be a bit cringe-inducing. Despite some exciting action scenes this one is a bit of a failure.

Vengeance Is a Wheel deals with a gang that has staged a series of daring waterfront warehouse robberies. A night watchman is killed during one of the robberies. He was an Italian and his family decide that they will not coöperate with the police. They will deal with the matter themselves. It is to be a vendetta. Not just a vendetta as a figure of speech but the genuine article, just like in the old country. This is awkward for Adam as he knows and likes the murdered man’s family. Ethnic violence was a fairly daring theme for television to tackle in 1960. The Untouchables had tried hinting that maybe there were Italians involved in organised crime in the days of Prohibition and that had unleashed a storm of protest. Vengeance Is a Wheel is a fine episode.

But this is fairly typical of Naked City’s willingness to deal with serious subject matter in a grown-up way. Naked City has a good deal of the gritty flavour of the classic American crime B-movies of the 40s and 50s and there’s certainly a film noir tinge to a number of episodes. What makes Naked City so good is that it has that seriousness of intent and that slightly dark and troubled atmosphere but without the nihilism that we see in so many more recent series. This is very much grown-up television that is prepared to face sometimes unpleasant realities but it doesn’t wallow needlessly in misery or sleaze. In fact the tone of this series is close to perfect.

It also has a wonderful style, very much influenced by film noir but with a kind of tough urban visual poetry to it.

This brief sampling of the second season is enough to make it clear that Naked City is one of the great American cop shows. Very highly recommended.

Tuesday, 20 November 2018

The Time Tunnel (2002 pilot episode)

In 2002 somebody at Fox decided it would be cool to reboot Irwin Allen’s 1966 series The Time Tunnel. A pilot was made but never made it to air and that was the end of that idea. In 2006 this pilot was included as an extra in the DVD release of the 1966 Time Tunnel series.

Quite a few changes were made to the original series concept, some of the changes being positive and some being disastrous. Most of the changes were predictable. In 2002 you could not possibly have two male heroes, so Dr Tony Newman becomes female scientist Dr Toni Newman.

Another predictable change is that the reboot takes itself very very seriously. All races of fun have been banished.

The acting is a major problem. If the series takes itself very seriously these actors take themselves even more seriously. They have that amazing ability that modern actors have to be both intense and dull at the same time. The biggest problem is Andrea Roth as Dr Toni Newman. She’s so irritating that her performance on its own would have been enough to persuade me not to watch any further episodes. And she’s by no means the least obnoxious of the characters. In fact within ten minutes I decided that I hated all these people and wanted them all to die.

The one positive change is that the reboot does have a slightly more serious science fictional concept at its core, which is that an attempt to develop atomic fusion has unleashed a time storm that is changing both the past and the present. Only the personnel at the time tunnel complex know what the world was like before the changes occurred. It’s not an original idea and it’s not all that interesting but it is at least an idea.

In actual fact I preferred the approach of Irwin Allen’s original series, in which no matter how hard you tried you could not change history - somehow any attempt to do so would always end in failure.

Doug Phillips (David Conrad) is an ex-Marine who works for some security outfit. Now he finds himself forcibly recruited by the government for a mysterious mission. For some reason the fact that he’s a bit of an expert of the 1944 Battle of Huertgen Forest is important. He discovers that whether he likes it or not he’s now part of a team that is going to travel back to 1944 through the time tunnel to try to repair the damage done by an interloper from the year 1546.

It’s now that one of the worst features of the reboot becomes apparent. The time travellers are going to disguise themselves as 1944 American soldiers. The problem is that two members of the team are female. It’s been made clear that the number one priority is not to change anything or interact with anyone unnecessarily. It’s vital not to attract attention. Having two women dressed up as  soldiers is obviously going to make it absolutely impossible to blend in. Trying to shoehorn political correctness into the world of 1944 effectively destroys any semblance of believability.

The basic concept is not dissimilar to that of Sapphire and Steel - trying to prevent any tampering with the established timeline. The difference is that Sapphire and Steel dealt with the subject in a much more intelligent and much more interesting manner and with some actual subtlety.

There is one single solitary attempt at humour and it’s feeble and it’s out of place.

Visually it’s very disappointing. It looks like a bad video game. The special effects look more modern than those in the 1966 series but that doesn’t mean they look better. In fact the effects are very unimaginative and uninteresting. The time tunnel complex is boring and looks cheap and shoddy compared to that in the Irwin Allen series. There’s no real sense of style. Whatever else you may say of Irwin Allen his series always had style.

This is a reboot that was doomed from the start. A series needs characters that the audience can care about. Nobody is going to care about these walking clichés. A science fiction series needs to have some kind of visual signature. This pilot looks like a TV car commercial. There is an idea here with some potential but time travel is a concept has been pretty much done to death.

The one good thing about the 2002 version of The Time Tunnel is that it’s included as an extra in the Irwin Allen Time Tunnel DVD boxed set so I didn’t have to pay money for it. And it is an extra that I guess is worthwhile if only because it makes Irwin Allen’s 1966 series look so much better. It’s one of several interesting extras in this DVD set, the other notable one being the 1976 pilot Time Travelers which was an earlier attempt (by Irwin Allen) at a reboot. And a much more successful attempt than the 2002 effort.

Tuesday, 13 November 2018

McMillan and Wife, season 3 (1973), part one

The third season of McMillan and Wife is basically the formula as before, but with perhaps a slightly more outrageous tinge.

The format is still the same, which each season comprising a handful of feature-length episodes.

It still relies a good deal on the superb chemistry between Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James. Mrs McMillan is still managing to get herself quite innocently mixed up with just about every major crime in San Francisco. And somehow Stewart McMillan, the Police Commissioner, is still managing to find excuses to take personal charge of investigations in a way that no actual police commissioner ever would. The fact that these two elements in the formula stretch credibility to breaking point is no problem at all. McMillan and Wife does not pretend even for a moment to be a realistic cop series. It’s a series that follows the conventions of the puzzle-plot mysteries of the golden age of detective fiction in which the detective hero is always conveniently on the spot whenever a murder occurs, and always seems by an uncanny coincidence to have some link to either the victim or the killer. It was a type of fiction that actively rejected realism, and McMillan and Wife rejects realism in an exceptionally thorough way.

It’s also a series that to some extent traces its ancestry back to the 1934 hit movie The Thin Man, which established the husband-and-wife crime-solving team as guaranteed box-office gold.

The season opener is Death of a Monster... Birth of a Legend and it takes Commissioner McMillan and his wife Sally to Scotland for a vacation. They’ll be staying in the McMillan castle, owned by the laird who happens to be McMillan’s uncle. And while it might seem very strange that Sergeant Enright should suddenly show up at the castle that’s exactly what happens.

The very first thing that happens after the Commissioner and his wife arrive is that the old laird shoots himself. In fact McMilan doesn’t even get to see his uncle alive. It’s obviously suicide.

McMillan however seems rather unconvinced by the suicide explanation. The viewer of course knows it can’t be suicide because then we wouldn’t have a story.

There's a certain “it was a dark and stormy night” ambience to this story. The family solicitor tells ghost stories, in this case about a ghost who would have a very good reason to be ill-disposed to the Laird McMillan.

If you’re going to have dark and stormy nights and ghosts and castles you might as well go for broke and have all the gothic trimmings including secret passageways. Which is exactly  what we get.

Apart from the gothic angle this is also an attempt at a locked-room mystery and while there’s an obvious explanation that explanation is not necessarily the correct one.

Now at this point you might be thinking that this is all a little bit far-fetched if not silly. If you are thinking that you should just stop. This is McMillan and Wife and McMillan and Wife was never intended to be taken very seriously. It’s lightweight and it’s meant to be lightweight. The idea is to have a mystery, a few thrills, a few laughs and some romantic moments. Some episodes do contain fairly decent mystery plots but they’re still essentially supposed to be harmless fun.

I should also point out that there’s still a lot more silliness to come. There’s still the matter of the monster.

There’s an obvious motive in the old laird’s unwillingness to sell the castle (a hotel consortium wants to buy it) but that motive could point to more than one suspect. And there are other plausible motives.

The guest cast is headed up by the always delightful Roddy McDowell. He’s the laird’s grandson Jamie and he’s not exactly the black sheep of the family but he’s also not quite the grandson the old boy would have wished for. Jamie is rather hard-up for money and he also has a very expensive fiancée who is likely to develop into an even more expensive wife.

The solution is far-fetched but it’s clever enough and it is fairly clued and it is just about plausible.

Death of a Monster... Birth of a Legend offers plenty of fun.

The second episode is The Devil You Say and it continues the gothic theme, and also the outrageousness, of the first episode. This time Sally’s life is in danger from devil-worshippers. She gets a call from Dr Comsack at the children’s hospital where she does volunteer work with deaf kids. It’s not quite clear if it’s Sally who’s in danger or Dr Comsack. Mildred might be in danger as well, after witnessing a murder that didn’t happen. There’s also the matter of the film of the Satanic ritual that someone sent Sally. The same person also sent her some other curious items. Those items are obviously significant, but significant of what? If that’s not enough craziness for you there’s Dr Comsack’s totally insane and creepy wife and there’s Professor Zagmeyer who is an expert in hypnotism, reincarnation and Satanism.

So this episode has pretty much the entire quota of the lunacy that was so characteristic of the 70s.

Once again there are some deliriously over-the-top performances from the guest stars, especially Keenan Wynn as Professor Zagmeyer, Werner Klemperer as Dr Bleeker (best-selling author of a diet book but we get the strong impression he’s probably into some seriously weird stuff as well) plus a truly bizarre performance by Barbara Colby as the loopy Mrs Comsack.

And once again it always seems to be a dark and stormy night. The masks are however a very effective sinister touch. This one overall is even nuttier than the previous episode. The plot hangs together well enough. You don’t have to believe all the crazy stuff, as long as you’re willing to believe that the characters themselves do believe every word of it.

Back in the early 1970s Dennis Wheatley’s occult thrillers were immensely popular and I think it’s possible to discern a definite Dennis Wheatley influence in this episode. That’s OK by me since I happen to love Wheatley’s occult thrillers.

The Devil You Say is highly enjoyable nonsense.

These two episodes get season three off to a most entertaining start. I’ll be reviewing the other four episodes in the season in the near future.

You might also be interested in my reviews of McMillan and Wife season one and season two.

Tuesday, 6 November 2018

Special Branch, season 2 (1970)

Special Branch was a police drama series produced by Britain’s Thames TV from 1969 to 1974. It dealt with Special Branch officers, policemen whose duties included arresting spies, protecting VIPs, border security, conducting background checks on people in about to be appointed to sensitive jobs and collecting intelligence on subversive organisations. They were not spy-hunters as such, that was the job of the Security Service (MI5), but they acted as the enforcement arm of that service.

Special Branch had a difficult job. They had to respect the rights of citizens in a free country while protecting those citizens from very real threats, and while dealing with interference by politicians and bureaucrats.

The Special Branch officers in the TV series have a very uneasy relationship indeed with the Security Service, in the person of Charles Moxon (Morris Perry), a man who raises cynicism, ruthlessness and deception to new heights.

The first season (which I reviewed here) was successful enough to justify a second season.

The third and fourth seasons which followed were effectively a brand new series which had its merits but personally I think the first two seasons are more interesting and more subtle. Plus those first two seas\ons have Derren Nesbitt who is an absolute joy as the sartorially outrageous but actually rather serious-minded Chief Inspector Jordan. The chemistry between Nesbitt and Fulton Mackay (who plays Jordan’s boss Chief Superintendent Inman) is superb.

The second season, like the first, is pleasingly varied. It’s not all action stuff. Some cases are dangerous and exciting, some are frustrating, some are breathtaking exercises in governmental cynicism and incompetence.

While it’s poles apart stylistically from the violence and paranoia of a series like Callan Special Branch does have some similarities when it comes to tone. Espionage and counter-espionage are vicious grubby games whichever side is playing them. In Special Branch, as in Callan, both sides are as bad as each other. There is no room for good guys.

There is a kind of long-running story arc in the first two seasons, involving Christine Morris (Sandra Bryant). Christine Morris is a KGB officer and a dedicated and intelligent Soviet spy. Somehow she and Jordan just seem to keep encountering each other and there’s clearly a very strong sexual and emotional attraction on both sides. If you’re a Special Branch officer it’s obviously not very good for your career prospects to have a special lady friend who’s a captain in the KGB. Jordan does everything he can to avoid getting involved, but their paths just keep crossing. Christine Morris appears in half a dozen episodes and it’s obvious that she’s going to cause continuing complications for Jordan.

There’s also a certain degree of character development, certainly to a greater extent than you expect in a TV series in 1970. Chief Inspector Jordan is a keen, dedicated and ambitious Special Branch officer. He’s realistic enough to accept that his work can involve some ethical balancing acts. He believes he can deal with this. He’s certainly not naïve to start with but as the series progresses he becomes just a bit more cynical, and perhaps just the tiniest bit disillusioned. It’s not enough to make him consider resigning, but his enthusiasm takes a bit of a beating. As the second season progresses even Chief Superintendent Inman, a hard-headed and very unsentimental Scot, seems to be getting tired of dealing with the duplicity of the Security Service.

There’s definite character development in the case of Christine Morris, and the relationship   between Christine and Jordan certainly develops.

By the standards of television of its era Special Branch was very heavily character-driven, morally complex and ambiguous and remarkably intelligent.

The Episode Guide
The first episode of season 2, Inside, sees Chief Inspector Jordan in prison. He is working undercover hoping to extract some information from a convicted spy. He needs to find out the name of the spy’s controller but this spy is as psychologically tough as they come.

Dinner Date takes Chief Inspector Jordan and Detective Constable Morrissey to Frankfurt. A British national has escaped from East Germany and their job is to bring him back to Britain. A relatively simple job, but it turns out to be anything but simple, especially when Jordan has a rather close and somewhat romantic encounter with a glamorous female KGB agent.

Miss International presents Jordan with what should be a rather pleasant assignment - keeping watch over a beauty contest, or more specifically keeping watch over a girl from a Middle Eastern country who is one of the contestants. The girl is the daughter of the most powerful man in that particular country. Threats have been against the daughter, apparently from conservative religious groups. That might seem plausible enough but it soon becomes evident that there is much more to it than that. Some shady politics is involved so it’s no surprise that Moxon takes a hand in the case and Chief Superintendent Inman and Chief Inspector Jordan find themselves having to dance to Moxon’s tune. The episode is typical of the cynical approach of this series, focusing on byzantine political scheming at high levels with Special Branch officers being not much more than pawns.

In Warrant for a Phoenix Jordan has to arrest a Greek historian, Emil Kazakos, for the theft from a Greek museum of a bronze phoenix dating from the 8th century BC. Both Jordan and Chief Superintendent Inman find the whole case to be somewhat puzzling and suspect that politics may be involved. Detective Constable Jane Simpson, assigned to look after the historian’s wife while he awaits an extradition hearing, has her own theory. As a woman she feels there is something not quite right about the Kazakos’s marriage and she thinks it has a bearing on the case.

An examination of the bronze just makes things more puzzling. Warrant for a Phoenix is a good episode with some effective misdirection.

The Pleasure of Your Company is the sort of spy thriller the British always do so well. No action but plenty of suspense, some very nasty twists and an atmosphere of betrayal and duplicity. The new CIA station chief in London is causing headaches for everyone, including the CIA. Chief Inspector Jordan is caught in the middle, but even more embarrassingly he’s once again thrown together with glamorous (and extremely amorous) KGB agent Christine Morris. He had an affair with her in the past, which was not on the whole a very good career move. Now he has to find a way to keep out of her bed whilst also following his orders which almost seem to be forcing him into her arms.

George Markstein’s script is delightfully clever and devious. A superb episode.

Not to Be Trusted deals with a British scientist who is under suspicion. There is reason to believe that the Russians will make an attempt to recruit him as an agent. The question  is whether Dr Clifford is likely to react favourably to such an approach. His chaotic personal life, his drinking and his affair with a young Swedish girl with dubious political leanings are further causes for concern.

Borderline Case is one of the weaker episodes. A revolutionary group is stirring up trouble on the docks and the Special Branch officer, Detective Sergeant Sherman, keeping an eye on the ringleader gets a bit too personally involved. It’s all a bit contrived and it’s let down by an overly obvious performance by Davyd Harries as Sherman.

Love from Doris concerns a pen pal racket aimed at servicemen, a matter that raises some serious security worries. Some of the lonely servicemen have revealed a bit too much in the way of professional secrets.

Sorry Is Just a Word is an episode that reminds me why I like this earlier 1969-70 version of Special Branch so much more than the more action-oriented 1973-74 version. It’s a very low-key story, with zero action, but it’s all about the characters and their motivations. A young Czech girl goes missing in London. The Czech Embassy seems remarkably worried, much more upset than you would expect if she was just an ordinary Czech girl. In fact she’s not just an ordinary girl, not as far as the Czech government and the British Foreign Office are concerned, and yet in other ways she’s a very very ordinary normal girl. She just wants the things that normal teenage girls want. In theory it’s a very routine case but no case is routine if you happen to be caught up in the middle of it and you have ordinary human emotions. Chief Superintendent Inman and Chief Inspector Jordan understand this. They have their job to do but they never forget that they’re dealing with actual people. Moxon represents a government functionary of a different sort, one to whom human emotions are an irritating irrelevance. A low-key story perhaps, but still an excellent episode.

In Error of Judgement Special Branch are investigating a radical environmental group but it’s strictly routine. The Guardians seem very earnest but pretty harmless. On the other hand Moxon seems very interested indeed in this organisation and if the Security Service is interested there may be more to it. There may be a lot more to it. By a very curious coincidence Chief Inspector Jordan has a minor traffic accident and the other driver involved just happens to be a member of the inner circle of the Guardians. An excellent episode with Jordan having a mixture of good luck and bad luck.

Reported Missing is a tale of two defectors. Both have chosen an inconvenient time, the visit of the Russian Ballet to London. The British Government wants the visit to go smoothly but a Russian ballerina has absconded and the press is going ballistic and Chief Superintendent Inman and Chief Inspector Jordan have enough on their plate without a second defector to worry about. And there’s another problem - there are defectors and there are defectors. Some have legitimate claims to political asylum, others not so much. Having a strong case helps, but being young and pretty helps even more. Knowing how to manipulate the media is even more useful. Even Moxon has to admit that it’s a grubby business. Another fine episode.

Fool's Mate provides Jordan with a lesson in chess and other more serious games. Once again his opponent is Christine Morris. This time it’s even less clear which side she’s on. The problem is that this is a game that Chief Inspector Jordan cannot decline to play. He discovers that participation is compulsory. An excellent episode.

Summing Up
Special Branch, in its original 1969-1970 incarnation, is one of the most intelligent and provocative series of its time. It still stands up today as a series characterised by subtlety and ambiguity. It manages to combine all this with very high entertainment value.

Certainly one of the great British TV drama series. Very highly recommended.

Tuesday, 30 October 2018

Columbo season 5 Identity Crisis / A Matter of Honor (1975-76)

Two more episodes from the fifth season of Columbo which went to air in late 1975 and early 1976.

Identity Crisis
Identity Crisis is another odd season five episode of Columbo. The previous episode, A Case of Immunity, dealt with international politics. Identity Crisis plunges Columbo into the worlds of espionage and counter-espionage. A man is found dead on the beach, apparently the victim of a mugger. In fact the guy was an intelligence operative and he was murdered by another intelligence operative. Nelson Brenner, the murderer, is a very well-connected operator. We’re talking very serious CIA connections.

Columbo doesn’t know any of this at first although he does have a slight suspicion that there is something odd going on when he realises he’s being followed.

Columbo is used to having suspects who try to intimidate him and claim that they have all sorts of important friends who can put pressure on the police commissioner but in this case he’s dealing with a guy who really does have some very very powerful friends that you just don’t want to get on the wrong side of.

Patrick McGoohan plays Brenner and it’s a typical McGoohan performance with all sorts of paranoias and obsessions and weirdnesses bubbling away under a super-confident exterior.

Leslie Nielsen plays the spy who ends up dead on the beach. This was before Nielsen reinvented himself as a comic actor and he plays this rôle very straight indeed, and plays it pretty well too.

McGoohan also directed this episode (it’s one of several Columbo episodes he directed) and he does so with considerable style. Fans of The Prisoner will be in bliss - McGoohan throws in lots of subtle references to his classic spy series and yes, he says "Be Seeing You" on multiple occasions.

William Driskill’s script has a few weaknesses, the biggest one being that while Columbo successfully demolishes the killer’s alibi he really didn’t have anywhere near enough evidence to justify an arrest.

The motive is crucial and it’s only mentioned once in passing but it is mentioned and it’s more than sufficient motive for murder.

A Matter of Honor
A Matter of Honor shows just how dangerous it is for detectives to take vacations. If you’re a famous detective your vacations are destined to be blood-drenched. Columbo should have learnt his lesson after his murder-plagued ocean cruise in season four. In this case it all starts with a minor car accident in Mexico. Commandante Sanchez (Pedro Armendáriz Jr.) then invites Columbo to join him on a very routine investigation. A tragic accident has occurred at the ranch of Luis Montoya (Ricardo Montalban). Montoya’s old friend and right-hand man Hector Rangel has been gored to death by a bull. Columbo of course can’t help himself. He starts to poke around and he starts to notice things. Things that worry him. Maybe this wasn’t an accident after all.

Commandante Sanchez now finds himself with a big problem on his hands. He agrees with Columbo that there are certain details that are suspicious and that further investigation is warranted. But Sanchez does not want to do the investigating. It’s not that he doesn’t consider himself competent. He has no doubts about his own abilities. It’s not that he would ever turn a blind eye to murder. He is much too good a policeman to do that. But Luis Montoya is a living legend, a national hero. If he is seen to be suspecting Montoya or murder and if he than fails to come up with the necessary evidence then Commandante Sanchez is going to be the most unpopular policeman in Mexico. On the other hand if a nosy gringo cop is seen to be the one doing the investigating then Sanchez can stay in the background.

As it happens Columbo likes Sanchez and is amused by the way he’s been manoeuvred  into the case. And the case intrigues him, so he’s happy enough to take it on. It’s a neat way of explaining how Columbo gets to take the lead on a case in a foreign country.

There are some neat clues in this one. What I particularly like is that the unravelling of the clues requires Columbo (and the viewer) to learn some odd facets of bullfighting lore. The motive is crucial, and it’s a motive that is entirely appropriate to the nature of the case. It’s the motive that makes this a memorable episode.

The one major weakness is that while everything is for the most part fairly clued it’s not clear exactly how Columbo figured out the motive.

Ricardo Montalban is excellent (as always). He plays Luis Montoya as a man of considerable charm but also as an extraordinarily vain man who is prone to losing his temper if he thinks his honour is in any way at stake. Unlike most of the suspects in Columbo stories Montoya does not enjoy the battle of wits with the detective. He is angry and resentful right from the start.

This episode is another example of season five trying to be a bit different. Previous episodes have involved international incidents and espionage and then this one takes place entirely in Mexico. The desire to experiment just a little with the details of the Columbo formula is understandable enough after five seasons. And so far I’d have to say that attempts at adding a bit of variety have worked pretty well.

A Matter of Honor is perhaps not one of the very best Columbo episodes but it’s still very good and very enjoyable and definitely recommended.

Wednesday, 24 October 2018

The Time Tunnel (1966-67), part two

The first part of this post appeared back in April.

The Time Tunnel was released on DVD in two half-series sets (and later as a complete series set). The second half-season set opens with The Revenge of Robin Hood pitching Doug and Tony into the middle of the tumultuous quarrel between King John and his barons in 1215, and Doug and Tony will have to help in an attempt to free Robin Hood from the clutches of the king. This one is kind of fun.

Visitors from Beyond the Stars propels Doug and Tony into the past but with a futuristic touch. They’re caught up in an attempted alien invasion of a small town in Arizona in 1885. The silver-skinned aliens with their robotic speech patterns might seem silly but they’re really mean. They want protein. Lots of protein. In fact they want all of the Earth’s protein. They intend to leave nothing living behind them.

Meanwhile General Kirk, back at the time tunnel control centre, is getting very excited by UFOs. This was 1967 and the UFO craze was still a huge thing.

And just to make sure there’s sufficient mayhem, the local Apaches are about to launch a large-scale raid on the town.

The goofy silver makeup and the kitschy spaceship are major highlights. I couldn’t help liking this one despite its very high silliness content.

Kill Two by Two drops Doug and Tony onto a tiny Pacific atoll, which is not very far from a slightly larger atoll called Iwo Jima. It’s February 1945 and things are about to get rather hot and our time travellers are going to be in the middle of an extremely fierce battle. But they have more immediate problems to worry about - they have to fight their own private little war with two Japanese soldiers who are the only troops left on their tiny island.

This is a tense episode but it also has some emotional depth. There are questions of honour and it turns out that there are worse things than death, like forgetting who you are. One of the best episodes of the series.

The Ghost of Nero is an oddity. Our time travellers have landed in the middle of the First World War, on the Italian Front in 1915. They’re in a villa belonging to an Italian nobleman who claims to be a descendant of Galba, emperor of Rome (very briefly) after the overthrow and death of Nero. The Germans are planning to use the villa as an artillery observation post. The German officer in charge is played as a typical cruel sadistic thug and things are looking grim for Doug and Tony and for Count Galba.

This is all rather strange. In 1915 Italy was not even at war with Germany (although the Italians were at war with Germany’s Austro-Hungarian allies). I get the impression that the scriptwriter also assumed that the Germans in the First World War were pretty much the same as the Nazis.

But that’s not the end of the strangeness, since Nero’s ghost is stalking the villa, in fulfilment of Nero’s dying curse. His ghost is there since Nero’s tomb is in the basement of the villa. The fact that the historical bits about Nero (and all the historical bits in this episode) are not exactly historical and are in fact pretty much fantasy is a bit of a worry since The Time Tunnel is a series that usually tries not to depart too outrageously from history. And it’s also a series that at least pretends to be true science fiction with no fantasy or supernatural elements. The appearance of a ghost is therefore very disconcerting.

And there’s also a guest appearance by Mussolini! This episode is totally insane. Is it insane in a good way or a bad way? I’m still not really sure. All I can say for certain is that scriptwriter Leonard Stadd really really hates Germans.

The Walls of Jericho is, as the title suggests, a Bible story. Giving a science fictional treatment to Scripture was perhaps a little risky back in 1967 but it manages to be quite respectful without being too stridently preachy. It’s an episode that couldn’t be done at all today since it comes down firmly on the side of faith. It’s quite cleverly done, with Doug and Tony finding themselves cast as the two spies sent by Joshua to infiltrate Jericho. This is one episode where the sudden appearance of oddly dressed strangers who claim to be from another time doesn’t actually surprise anybody. The Israelites assume they’re messengers of the Lord while in Jericho it’s assumed that they’re sorcerers.

It’s a story that could easily have come to grief but it’s more successful than you might anticipate. Full credit must go to James Darren and Robert Colbert, and also to Whit Bissell, who express a quite sense of belief without making an embarrassing song and dance about it. Myrna Fahey is good as the harlot Rahab who shelters the two presumed spies and Australian actor Michael Pate has fun as the hardbitten lecherous captain of the guard in Jericho.

Idol of Death lands Doug and Tony in Mexico in 1519 where the conquistador Cortes is searching for a golden mask sacred to the local Indians. Possession of the mask will make his conquest that much easier. Doug and Tony however team up with a young Indian chief to thwart the wicked Spaniards. Fairly entertaining.

Billy the Kid obviously lands Doug and Tony in New Mexico during Billy the KId’s short but busy career as an outlaw. This is one of those episodes that centres around the central truth of time travel (as far as The Time Tunnel is concerned) that history cannot be altered. So Doug cannot kill Billy the Kid, even though that’s what he has just done. On the other hand Billy the Kid can certainly kill Doug or Tony without altering history.

In Pirates of Deadman's Island Doug and Tony fall into the hands of pirates in 1805, just as a United States Navy squadron under Stephen Decatur is about to attack the Barbary pirates. The pirates also have in their hands the nephew of the King of Spain. The Barbary Wars represent a colourful and somewhat neglected episode in American history, which happens to make a pretty good basis for a Time Tunnel adventure. The episode is a bit corny and contrived but it’s a pirate tale so that just adds to the fun.

Chase Through Time is one of the episodes in which the time travellers travel forward rather than backward in time. In fact they land a million years in the future, in a human society modelled on bees. There’s also the added difficulty that a spy in the present day has planted a nuclear bomb in the time tunnel complex and has escaped into the future as well. Doug and Tony have to chase him across a million years of time to force him to reveal the location of the bomb. If the bomb goes off they will never get back to their own time. This story tries hard for breathless excitement and it succeeds reasonably well.

The Death Merchant is an attempt to get clever, with an extra unauthorised time traveller tagging along. A kind of stowaway in time. The stowaway is Niccòlo Machiavelli. The evilest man who ever lived! Which is of course grossly unfair to poor old Machiavelli. In any case somehow or other the Time Tunnel has accidentally plucked Machiavelli from sixteenth century Italy and dropped him onto the battlefield of Gettysburg in 1863. Where he proceeds to wreak havoc, and it’s not easy for Doug and Tony to stop him since Tony got a blow on the head and now he thinks he’s a Confederate officer and he thinks Doug is a damned Yankee. Machiavelli’s presence has also overloaded the Time Tunnel. So this is an episode with a lot going on and it actually doesn’t work too badly. It’s actually thoroughly enjoyable.

Attack of the Barbarians lands Doug and Tony in another fine mess, right in the middle of Genghiz Khan’s Mongol hordes. Well actually Genghiz Khan is now dead which sort of makes things worse since there’s now a war between his successor, Kublai Khan, and his grandson Batu. Doug and Tony throw in their lot with Kublai Khan’s great general Marco Polo. Tony also finds time to fall in love with Kublai Khan’s daughter. This episode is notable for Dr Ann MacGregor (Lee Meriwether) losing her grip completely and deciding that Tony should be left in the thirteenth century because he had found True Love. John Saxon gets a more straightforwardly heroic role than usual as Marco Polo. Marco Polo’s forces are heavily outnumbered. If only they had some gunpowder! It’s a reasonably fun episode.

In Merlin the Magician Doug and Tony help to launch the career of a young English king named Arthur Pendragon. They fight Vikings on his behalf and they play a part in introducing him to a young lady named Guinevere. The main problem here is that the guest stars don’t quite have the stature or the presence to convince as larger-than-life characters like King Arthur or Merlin.

In The Kidnappers a time traveller from the future kidnaps one of the Time Tunnel’s key personnel - Dr Ann MacGregor. General Kirk takes a gamble, sending Doug and Tony to the same future time to which Dr MacGregor has been taken. They find a highly advanced civilisation several thousands years in the future. A highly advanced civilisation, but perhaps not a very humane one.

Raiders from Outer Space is very silly. Doug and Tony find themselves in the middle of a war between the British and the followers of the Mahdi in the Sudan in 1883 but there is a third party involved as well - aliens who are trying to destroy the Earth as part of a game. There’s some outrageous hammy acting from the guest cast, and some truly atrocious alien make-up effects. On the other hand there’s lots of action and it has a certain 1950s Z-grade sci-fi movie charm.

In Town of Terror it is 1978 in Cliffport Maine and alien invaders are about to steal all the Earth’s oxygen. This is another episode weakened by very poor makeup effects. The liens have also taken over the townspeople, which could have given the story an Invasion of the Body Snatchers vibe. Unfortunately it doesn’t quite work since that would require some uncertainty about who is an alien and who isn’t, and that’s all too obvious. Not a really successful episode.

Overall The Time Tunnel is a rather underrated series. It’s no sillier than the average television science fiction series and it at least handles time travel in a slightly more sophisticated manner than Doctor Who. It’s an uneven series and it seemed to go into a bit of a decline towards the end but there are some very decent and very entertaining stories and it has its moments of cleverness.

Irwin Allen often gets unfairly blamed for the problems that afflicted his sci-fi series when in fact the problems were mostly caused by the insistence of the networks on dumbing down science fiction series at every opportunity.

And while Irwin Allen’s series do have their problems they do at least mostly avoid the preachiness that makes so many episodes of other series such as Star Trek and The Twilight Zone such heavy going.

The complete series DVD boxed set includes some fairly interesting extras so it’s well worth getting.

The Time Tunnel is silly at times but it’s fine entertainment. Recommended.

Thursday, 18 October 2018

The Champions (1968)

The Champions is one of my favourite 60s action-adventure series so I think it’s worth a two-part post.

The Champions was perhaps the most ill-fated of all the ITC action adventure series. Timing is everything, and timing proved to be against this series.

The first problem was that the series went into production in early 1967 but after completing 30 episodes it was left on the shelf pending the introduction of colour television in the UK. This was understandable enough. It was a show that needed to be seen in colour. Unfortunately though this meant that by the time The Champions went to air it had already ceased production and ITC had moved on to other projects. No matter how successful the series was there was never going to be a second season. It was in fact reasonably successful, being sold to 60 countries worldwide, but it failed to crack the US market which was what Lew Grade cared about. Holding the series back had other consequences. By the time it hit the airwaves British commercial television had gone through one of its periodic reorganisations and The Champions did not get a co-ordinated national release.

The second timing problem concerned the nature of the program itself. It was in many ways ahead of its time. It was the first British superhero TV series, and in Britain in 1968 a show about three superheroes seemed very strange and very American. British television critics (who were not very fond of ITC’s output in general) were venomous in their condemnation of The Champions. Combining the spy thriller and science fiction genres was just not done.

So The Champions never really had a chance in 1968. Which is a pity since it’s a vastly entertaining series.

The biggest potential weakness of this series was that the superpowers possessed by Sharron, Richard and Craig would make things too easy for them. The trick was to put them in situations where their superpowers will help them but where the audience still feels they are in actual danger. So in The Mission for example Richard is confined underground so his telepathic powers are blocked while Sharron has to submit voluntarily to an operation so she’s unconscious and temporarily out of action.

One clever move by Monty Berman and Dennis Spooner (who created the series) was the visual style. The three leads do not look like 60s fashion victims. Having your stars wearing the very latest fashions is a guarantee what within a decade the series will look seriously dated. Oddly enough this is exactly the mistake Berman and Spooner made with the otherwise superb Department S a year or two later. The Champions however hasn’t really dated much at all in this respect. Craig and Richards usually wear suits which are sharp but basically conservative and they still look good. Sharron’s clothing style is similar - classy but not ultra-fashionable. It’s also noticeable that Sharron invariably wears her hair up, and she seems like the kind of girl who would do that.

The first episode, The Beginning, gives us the backstory and does so very effectively. Three agents of NEMESIS (an international counter-espionage agency) are rescued after a near-fatal plane crash by members of a lost civilisation. Richard Barrett (William Gaunt), Craig Stirling (Stuart Dasmon) and Sharron Macready (Alexandra Bastedo) are restored to health but with added physical and mental powers that make them almost superhuman.

In The Silent Enemy a US nuclear submarine is found with the entire crew dead - all died simultaneously from heart failure. This is one of quite a few episodes that involve submarines and since I love submarine adventures these episodes tend to be special favourites of mine.

In The Mission a Dr Pederson (Anthony Bate) is providing shelter for alcoholics but we soon discover that he’s not exactly doing this for altruistic reasons. And his medical practice is far from altruistic. He gives new faces to criminals on the run, including war criminals. This allows writer Donald James to bring Nazis into the story, Nazis being an incredibly popular subject in 1960s action adventure TV shows.

The Interrogation is rather intriguing. Craig’s superpowers can’t help him in this story but they are indirectly the catalyst for everything that happens. Craig has been captured and is being interrogated about a recent case. This is basically a straightforward spy thriller script, a battle of wills between an agent and an interrogator. Dennis Spooner adds enough twists to keep it interesting and there’s a surprisingly dark tone to this story. This was Stuart Damon’s favourite episode, hardly surprising since he gets to do some real acting and does a fine job.

Colin Blakely is very good as the interrogator. Since drugs are part of his interrogation technique there are some slightly psychedelic touches as Craig starts to hallucinate and also starts to wonder if he’s losing his mind just a little. No action in this one but plenty of tension. A very very good episode.

Project Zero is a top-secret British government defence project. In fact it’s so top-secret the British government has never heard of it, but some of Britain’s top scientists are now working on it. One of the scientists turns up in Scotland, very dead. This is a typical story for this series but a good one with a solid script by Tony Williamson.

In Desert Journey Craig and Sharron have to undertake a perilous trek across the desert, beset by hostile tribesmen, to restore a deposed Arab princeling to his throne. This episode is notable for guest appearances by Jeremy Brett and Roger Delgado.

Full Circle poses a puzzle for NEMESIS. A spy was caught photographing secret documents in the embassy of a South American country, but the film is nowhere to be found. The ambassador is inclined to blame British Intelligence for the break-in. Now the spy is in a British prison and NEMESIS have to get him out but it seems they’re not the only ones interested in the spy’s freedom. A routine episode.

The Final Countdown is yet another Nazi story. The obsession of 1960s television writers with Nazis was truly embarrrassing. This time the ageing Nazis are trying to find a secret weapon that they misplaced at the end of the war. The secret weapon is an atomic bomb!

Naturally Craig ends up being tortured. If someone was going to be tortured it always seemed to be poor Craig. I guess he seemed more overtly macho than Richard and so we could believe that he could take it, and of course it couldn’t be Sharron getting tortured - not on 60s television. I suppose it’s an entertaining enough story although without any real surprises.

The Gun-Runners is much better, in fact very good indeed. Writer Dennis Spooner unashamedly makes every possible use of the agents’ special powers and after all there’s not much point giving them superpowers if they don’t get to use them. This time they’re investigating gun smuggling in Burma.

The episode Reply Box No. 666 stats promisingly, with a man answering an advertisement seeking a Greek-speaking parrot. Unfortunately parrots, Greek-speaking or otherwise, play no part in the story. Russian agents are searching for something in the Caribbean and whatever it is NEMESIS needs to find it first. A so-so episode.

What if Sharron, Richard and Craig are not the only secret agents out there possessing superpowers? And what if these other agents are not on our side? That’s the situation in The Experiment and it’s a fine exciting story. There are  not only bad guys with superpowers but as a bonus there’s a mad scientist as well.

Richard is right on the spot for a nuclear test in the middle of the Australian desert. In fact he’s too much on the spot. He’s lost his memory, he’s right at Ground Zero, and nobody knows he’s there, and the bomb is about to be detonated. Happening is an episode that shows the advantages, and the limitations, of the three agents’ special powers. Sharron and Craig know that Richard is about to be blown to bits but they can’t convince anybody to believe them without revealing that they have superpowers. An OK episode.

In Ghost Plane an unfriendly nation appears to have a new fighter jet of terrifying capabilities. So formidable is this aircraft that at first the NATO militaries are unwilling even to believe in its existence. But it does exist and NEMESIS has to do something about it. At the moment it’s only as prototype. It’s essential that this fighter should not be allowed to go into production. The plot here seems rather familiar. That’s not all that surprising. There were only a limited number of writers who could be relied upon always to turn in solid usable scripts for this type of program and the demand for scripts was insatiable. Inevitably a good idea was going to be used more than once.

The Iron Man has a surprisingly tongue-in-cheek feel to it. Our three agents have to go undercover to protect deposed South American dictator El Caudillo. Craig is to be the bodyguard, and finds that he spends most of his time dealing with young lades hoping to share El Caudillo’s bed. Richard is to act as chef, a bit tricky since he doesn’t actually know how to cook. Sharron is to be El Caudillo’s secretary. Hers is the most perilous assignment of all - she is in constant danger of having her bottom pinched by El Caudillo. Everyone overacts outrageously. I suspect that writer Philip Broadley thought the basic idea was so hackneyed that the only thing to do was to try to have some fun with it. Or perhaps script editor Dennis Spooner was responsible. Either way it’s definitely a lesser episode but with a few amusing moments.

Something is going on on a tiny and remote island but nobody knows what it is. Agents sent to investigate are never heard from again. Reconnaissance aircraft simply vanish. The Dark Island’s secret remains obscure but NATO is in a panic and NEMESIS is given the task of uncovering the truth. The truth is more frightening than anyone could have imagined.

The Fanatics is a pretty solid Terry Nation story about a criminal organisation specialising in political assassinations although their ambitions actually go much further. Richard has to go undercover as one of their assassins. Gerald Harper has great fun as the diabolical criminal mastermind.

Those Nazis are up to their old tricks again in The Search. The 1960s was an unbelievably busy time for Nazis. This time they’ve hijacked a nuclear submarine with ballistic missiles aboard, with nuclear warheads. Dennis Spooner’s script is pretty much by the numbers but I have a weakness for submarine adventures so I enjoyed it. There’s a surprising playfulness between Craig and Sharron in this episode. In fact at one point Sharron gets somewhat flirtatious.

A Case of Lemmings is a case of a coincidence. Three top Interpol agents have suddenly and totally on the spur of the moment committed suicide. That is just too coincidental to be believed and Tremayne doesn’t believe it. It seems they must have been murdered, but how and why? Craig, Richard and Sharron are sent to France to investigate. They finally find a lead and following it up will require getting close to a top mobster and that will require Sharron to do her sex kitten routine, which she does to good effect. Meanwhile Craig will have to put himself on the line as the next victim. A strong episode.

Twelve Hours is another submarine adventure story. A visiting Balkan head of state is being given a cruise in a British nuclear submarine. It’s just a quick couple of hours’ run down the loch but as a special treat the submarine carries out a dive. An explosion then threatens to make the sub’s dive a permanent one. The script by Donald James throws in all the clichés - the air purifying system is inoperable so the trapped crew (including Richard and Sharron who were acting as bodyguards to the Balkan president) has only twelve hours’ worth of air, the president needs an emergency operation which Sharron has to perform, there are mutinous rumblings from the crew. They might be clichés but James manages to make it a tense and exciting story. And I happen to love submarine adventure tales.

The Gilded Cage is a neat little tale of multiple double-crosses. Richard is kidnapped and persuaded, by means of what may or may not be a bluff, to break an elaborate cypher. Quite a few people want to know what’s in that cypher and they appear to be all working against each other. Richard probably could escape easily enough but first he has to find out what this whole puzzle is all about. A very good episode.

Autokill by Brian Clemens doesn’t have too many original ideas but then Clemens was always good at taking old ideas and making them seem fresh. Clemens solves the problem of the superpowers by pitting the heroes against each other. This is by far the most violent episode of the entire series and it has to be said that the lengthy fight scenes are exceptionally well handled by director Roy Ward Baker.

The Night People takes Sharron to Cornwall to pursue her interest in historical buildings but she finds herself having to tangle with witches. Richard and Craig meanwhile take an interest in Cornwall’s mineral wealth, particularly its uranium mines. Witchcraft obviously has no connection with uranium, or does it? It also proves to be fortunate that Richard has remembered some of the things Sharron has told him about the architectural quirks of old buildings. A very entertaining episode.

To Trap a Rat is a crime story involving the drug trade, with Sharron going undercover as an addict. This story has a few neat touches and it’s not too bad.

The Champions is a great series. Highly recommended.