Friday, 16 March 2018

The Prisoner (1967-68)

There’s probably no British television series of the 60s more highly regarded than The Prisoner, at least among fans of action/adventure/spy/science fiction series. Certainly no British series has ever engendered such fierce debates about its meaning.

A British spy resigns, for reasons that he refuses to reveal. Upon arriving home he is drugged. He wakes up in The Village. The Village is remarkably picturesque and could be regarded as a perfectly charming place in which to live, apart from one thing - it is a prison. There are no walls or fences surrounding The Village and nobody is locked in a cell and life is extremely comfortable and even pleasant but it is still a prison.

The problem for the British spy (whose name is never revealed), or at least the most perplexing problem, is that he has no idea whose prisoner he is. It might be the Soviets. It might be another foreign power. It might even be the British Secret Service. He has no idea where The Village is.

He does know what is wanted of him. Information is wanted, and more specifically his captors want to know the reasons for his resignation. Partly because he doesn’t know the identity of his captors, and partly out of sheer stubbornness, he has no intention of telling them. It quickly becomes apparent that he is a man who does not deal well with authority figures and who does not like having his rights or his privacy infringed (which is rather ironic given that he is a spy and spies are not renowned for respecting other people’s privacy).

All the residents of The Village are spies. No names are used. Everyone has a number. The new arrival is informed that he is Number Six. This is exactly the sort of thing that makes him even more stubborn. He does not like being a mere number.

The first episode, Arrival, sets up the basic premise (and does it very well). It also introduces Number Two. There must logically be a Number One but this mysterious personage is not in evidence. Number Two has the task of getting the vital information out of Number Six.

In fact there will be numerous different Number Twos over the course of the series. Number Twos who fail to persuade Number Six to talk get replaced and it seems quite possible that the fate of an ex-Number Two is not a happy one.

The Chimes of Big Ben introduces the most celebrated Number Two of them all, the great Leo McKern. McKern will be seen again later in the series. Number Six has planned an elaborate escape attempt with another resident.

In A. B. and C. Number Two has formed the strong suspicion that the reason for Number Six’s resignation was that he was intending to turn traitor. But to whom was he going to sell out? Number Two has narrowed it down to three possibilities. The interactive dream idea is quite cool.

Free for All was written and directed by Patrick McGoohan. An election is to be held for the position of Number Two and Number Six decides to run. He discovers that democracy in The Village does not quite live up to the propaganda. Of course that may well be true of democracy in general (which may have been McGoohan’s point).

The idea of the double, having the spy hero encounter a perfect doppelganger, was perhaps the most over-used cliché in 1960s spy television. The Schizoid Man is one of the better examples. In fact it may be the cleverest ever use of the double idea. There are now two Number Sixes but even Number Six doesn’t know if he’s the real Number Six or not. An excellent episode.

The General is one of the weaker episodes. Speed Learn is the latest craze sweeping The Village. It offers a three-year course in modern history in just three minutes. Unfortunately the two surprise twists at the end are much too predictable.

I must confess that I have no idea what the point was of Many Happy Returns although It’s clever enough in its own way. Number Six wakes up one morning to find The Village deserted. Now surely nothing can prevent his escape but of course it’s not going to be quite so simple.

Dance of the Dead involves a dead body washed ashore that may give Number Six a chance of escape. He also encounters an old intelligence agency colleague who is not coping well with life in The Village. Like other episodes written by Anthony Skene (such as A. B. and C. and Many Happy Returns) it has good ideas but doesn’t make much sense. Of course The Prisoner is supposed to be a series that is puzzling and ambiguous but it works best when the stories at least have some internal logic.

Checkmate sees Number Six trying to escape again. The escape method is a bit too reminiscent of the methods he used unsuccessfully in an earlier episode. This one has the feel of more or less a straight spy thriller and it has a nice twist at the end.

In my personal opinion the episodes that focus on the battle of wills between Number Six and Number 2 (and the unseen forces that are really controlling things) are far more interesting than the episodes that focus on Number Six’s escape attempts. An excellent example of the former is Hammer Into Anvil. This is more than just the usual battle of wills. It’s a duel and it might well be a duel to the death. Number Six blames the new Number Two for the death of a prisoner and this time he is determined to strike back. One of the strengths of this series is that the ongoing battle of wills and wits between Number Six and the various incarnations of Number Two is fairly evenly balanced. Sometimes Number Six loses, but sometimes he wins. Patrick Cargill gets to demonstrate his acting chops as a nasty but perhaps slightly unhinged Number Two and Patrick McGoohan gets the chance to show us a side to Number Six that we haven’t seen before. A superb episode.

It's Your Funeral involves an assassination which Number Six has to prevent although he’s not really sure if he believes it’s a real plan or another elaborate mind game cooked up by Number Two.

In A Change of Mind it’s Number Six’s mind that is going to be changed, permanently. He has been declared unmutual and disharmonious. Fortunately there’s a cure for these faults but the cure is rather drastic.

Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling is unusual in that it’s pure science fiction - transferring personalities from one body to another. It’s not exactly an original science fiction idea but it has a nice twist at the end. Since identity and individuality are major themes of the series as a whole it’s an idea that was worth exploring but this episode is less than a complete success.

In Living in Harmony Number Six finds himself in the Wild West, and Harmony is a violent town and he’s the sheriff. Of course it’s not hard to figure out what is really going on. This episode is an interesting anticipation of what would later become a standard science fiction trope. This one is a lot of fun.

It was probably a mistake scheduling The Girl Who Was Death straight after Living in Harmony. It’s a bit too similar in the basic premise. This episode tries to be a light-hearted spoof combined with a surrealist dreamscape feel. It’s visually quite impressive and inventive and Kenneth Griffith is a delight as Napoleon (!) but it doesn’t quite work and the ending is infuriating. Despite some amusing moments I’d pick this as the weakest episode of the entire series. It’s the sort of thing The Avengers could  get away with (Patrick Macnee would have had a wonderful time with this script) but it seems out of place here.

This series reaches an emotional crescendo with Once Upon a Time. Leo McKern returns to the role of Number Two and this time he’s decided that extreme measures are called for. His plan is exceptionally risky. Using drugs and hypnosis he will regress Number Six to childhood. He will act as father figure and psychoanalyst. It will be a psychological roller-coaster ride for both men with the probability that only one of them will survive.

McGoohan wrote and directed this episode and he achieves an extraordinary dreamlike intensity. It’s quite disturbing at times. McGoohan and McKern pull out all the stops and give superb performances (which apparently took their toll on the actors). Getting into the realms of psychoanalysis in movies and TV can be risky. The results can easily turn out to be embarrassing but McGoohan knows what he’s doing and it’s a great episode.

Then we get to the final episode, Fall Out, also written and directed by McGoohan. Don’t worry, I’m not going to offer any hints at all as to what actually happens. It was always going to be a tricky series to write an ending for and it’s probably fair to say that no ending would have satisfied everyone. I’m not overly fond of Fall Out, partly because stylistically it’s everything I like least about the 60s.

The Prisoner is unique in television history. It was entirely Patrick McGoohan’s baby. He came up with the original idea. No-one, no star and no producer, has ever had the degree of creative control that McGoohan had over The Prisoner. In fact he had too much control and in some ways the series was an act of self-destruction. The series was a huge hit but he burned himself out and gained a reputation for being impossible to work with, and his career never recovered.

So what is The Prisoner actually about? What does it all mean? The good thing about this question is that you can discuss it quite openly without spoiling the series since no two viewers have ever agreed on the matter. It was always McGoohan’s intention to make the series open to multiple interpretations.
It could be a political allegory. Interesting enough it can be interpreted equally convincingly from either a liberal or a conservative perspective. Or a left-wing or a right-wing, a libertarian or an authoritarian, or a democratic or anti-democratic perspective. McGoohan seems to have regarded all political ideologies and systems with a certain scepticism, and to have both the loss of freedom and the consequences of too much freedom. Most of all he was profoundly suspicious of the 60s and the simplistic utopian visions that were so popular at the time.

It could also of course have a purely psychological meaning. The Village could be his own mind.

It’s also worth keeping in mind that McGoohan was a devout Catholic, and presumably viewed questions of freedom through the lens of Catholic doctrines on free will. Most critics  seem to overlook the possibility of religious meanings in the series, which may be a mistake.

I suspect that the key is that Number Six is a spy. His whole life has been based on deception, on living a lie. The perfect spy is a man with no identity. Number Six famously declaims that, “I am not a number, I am a free man.” The irony is that being a spy he has always been a number, he has never been an individual, he has never been a free man. In a way, he has always lived in The Village, and always will live in The Village. Even if he escapes he can’t really escape. We never do learn his real name, because he’s a spy and a spy doesn’t have a real name. He is trying to discover his own identity only to find that he doesn’t have one.

Which of course could apply to all of us, not just to spies. We’re told we’re free but are we really? Is The Village a vision of a nightmare totalitarian future or is it just the world we already live in?

But that’s just my theory, there are countless others!

And is Number Six really John Drake, the spy from Danger Man? Again it hardly matters. After all, John Drake is a spy and his real name is probably not John Drake anyway. There are a couple of Danger Man episodes that do anticipate some of the themes of The PrisonerThe Ubiquitous Mr Lovegrove and even more especially the superb Colony Three.

The Prisoner is exasperating, often incoherent, wildly uneven, always fascinating and despite its flaws undeniably brilliant.

Monday, 12 March 2018

The Ubiquitous Mr Lovegrove (Danger Man, 1965)

A commenter recently suggested that The Ubiquitous Mr Lovegrove, a 1965 Danger Man episode, could be seen as another precursor to Patrick McGoohan’s celebrated series The Prisoner.

Having just watched this episode I think it is a valid point. Certainly the tone is reminiscent of The Prisoner, and the blurring of reality and illusion, and the very subtle hints of surrealism, all do tend to confirm the point. There’s even an odd hand signal, rather like the one in The Prisoner.

John Drake finds himself in trouble with his boss, Mr Lovegrove, for owing a large amount of money to a gambling club. Gambling is a weakness that cannot be tolerated in an agent, making him far too vulnerable to blackmail. The only problem is that Drake has never even been inside the gambling club in question.

Drake decides it might be a very good idea to pay a visit to this club. It’s obvious that something is going on there - it’s certainly no innocent gambling den. Drake is puzzled, and he’s even more puzzled when he sees Mr Lovegrove there. In fact Mr Lovegrove seems to be everywhere.

Drake seems to be getting further and further into Mr Lovegrove’s bad books plus he finds himself being blackmailed and to cap it all off he’s getting drawn into the web of a somewhat annoying predatory (if good-natured) widow.

The ending will annoy some viewers while others will be infuriated (which is of course the effect that the final episode of The Prisoner had). To be fair though the ending should not come as a surprise - it is pretty thoroughly foreshadowed.

Another link to The Prisoner is that this story also deals with identity.

Along with Colony Three (a brilliant episode) The Ubiquitous Mr Lovegrove does seem to suggest that in some ways The Prisoner was a logical offshoot of Danger Man. Both episodes are just a little on the experimental side and both have a disturbing quality to them. They give the impression of being attempts to push the edge of the envelope as far as television spy fiction was concerned.

The Ubiquitous Mr Lovegrove is quite amusing with McGoohan’s oddly detached  performance working rather well. Worth a look.

Thursday, 1 March 2018

Maverick season 2 (1958)

The late 1950s was the beginning of the brief golden age of the American television western. One of the most admired, and quirky, of these westerns was Maverick which debuted in 1957. It’s blend of good-natured humour and action made it a major hit and it made James Garner a star.

Despite its success Maverick was a rather troubled production. The production schedule was so grueling that it was necessary to split the series between two lead actors. James Garner (as Bret Maverick) and Jack Kelly (as his brother Bart Maverick) starred in alternate episodes. This caused some tension, especially given that Garner was by far the more popular star. In later seasons Roger Moore was introduced to the cast as a third brother, the English-educated Beau Maverick. Garner was unhappy with various aspects of the series and departed while Moore, feeling that the quality of the scripts was declining precipitately, later became equally anxious to leave. 

In spite of these problems Maverick in its prime was great television. The second season is usually regarded as the high point of the series.

The various Maverick brothers were all professional gamblers. They were basically honest and decent even if they were prepared to do just about anything that was within the law to make a fast buck.

It’s interesting to compare Garner’s performance here with his rather similar performance some years later in the equally successful and equally celebrated The Rockford Files. It’s a valid comparison since both series were created by Roy Huggins. Both series combined action with style and wit. Bret Maverick and Jim Rockford have a lot in common. They’re likeable and charming, they have perennial troubles with the law despite being basically honest and they rely more on their wits than on their fists or their guns. There are a few differences. Maverick is actually pretty good with a gun while Rockford is terrified of firearms, and while Rockford is not quite a coward he’s much less willing to risk his neck than Bret Maverick. The differences really say a lot about the differences between 1950s and 1970s TV and, arguably, the differences between America in the 50s and America in the 70s. Rockford is a nice guy but he’s almost an anti-hero. America in the 50s wasn’t yet cynical enough to embrace anti-heroes. Rockford is a slightly more complex character but both Bret Maverick and Rockford have more depth than you expect in a character in a TV series.

Season two kicks off with The Day They Hanged Bret Maverick, and sure enough Bret does get hanged. Well, sort of. A bank robber and murderer is on the run. His escape is successful because Maverick is mistakenly identified as the bandit. Bret finds himself tried and convicted and is due to be hanged. The sheriff is anxious to persuade him to reveal the location of the stolen money. Bret of course has no idea where the money is but his one chance of staying alive is to convince the none-too-honest sheriff that he does know where it is. The sheriff cooks up a clever scheme to get his hands on the money and Bret plays along but he still has that appointment with the hangman. A further complication is the arrival of Bret’s grieving widow, her existence coming as a complete surprise to Bret. It’s a very convoluted but very clever story and it has all the hallmarks of the series at its best, with wit and style and genuinely unexpected plot twists.

Next up is The Lonesome Reunion and Bret is in gaol once again, and again the charge is murder. This time he’s on the trail of $120,000 in stolen money. He has no intention of keeping the money but he does have hopes of getting his hands on the very tempting reward being offered. There are three ruthless outlaws also after the money but an even bigger problem is a hardbitten lady deputy sheriff who is not only an expert shot but can also trade wisecracks with Maverick on even terms. Once again the script is inventive and original.

The main problem with the series becomes immediately apparent in the third episode, Alias Bart Maverick. That problem is Jack Kelly. It’s not that Kelly is a terrible actor. He’s reasonably competent. But he’s not James Garner. He doesn’t have Garner’s effortless charm, he doesn’t have Garner’s charisma and he doesn’t have Garner’s ability to make the dialogue sparkle. People watched the series for James Garner so there’s a real danger the Jack Kelly episodes are going to come across as filler. To make matters worse there’s Richard Long’s performance as charming swindler and card sharp Gentleman Jack Darby. Long overshadows Kelly completely. In fact Long does the Maverick thing far better than Kelly does in this instalment. 

The script, by Douglas Heyes (who also directs and whose television work was always impressive), is quite good. Gentleman Jack swindles everybody he encounters, including Maverick, and to add insult to injury he causes Bart to be arrested. Bart is determined to get his money back but he doesn’t want revenge. Gentleman Jack is an incorrigible crook but he’s just so darned charming. It’s a problem for the series that Gentleman Jack is a much more entertaining character than Bart Maverick but Long’s delightful performance makes Alias Bart Maverick worth watching. 

The Belcastle Brand opens with Bret Maverick lost in the desert. He is rescued by an eccentric family of English aristocrats. He finds himself leading a safari (in Wyoming!) and he ends up lost in the desert again, with the aforesaid English aristocrats in tow. Not just lost, but facing death unless they can reclaim their stolen gear from a large gang of very well-armed bandits. The script makes the Marquis of Belcastle and his family the butt of many jokes but we discover that the courage and fighting spirit that the Belcastles were displaying back in the days before the Norman Conquest are still present in the current generation. 

High Card Hangs is the fifth episode of the season and it’s the third time we’ve seen one of the Mavericks about to be hanged for murder. This idea is getting real old real fast. It’s lazy writing and this script has other problems as well - a contrived cringe-inducing ending in which the audience gets a little lecture on what to think. This is a tiresome episode and it’s a Jack Kelly episode as well. Garner can just about carry a weak episode but Kelly can’t.

Escape to Tampico gets things back on track with Bret Maverick playing bounty hunter, but then he decides he isn’t sure if he wants to bring this particular killer to justice. This is one of the more serious episodes with complications involving friendship and loyalty. And it’s a great story.

The Judas Mask benefits from its colourful Mexican setting and it’s one of the better Bart Maverick stories. Bart is robbed but is assured by a nice young lady that it’s for his own good.

The Jail at Junction Flats is pure whimsy and delightfully done, with Bret having to match wits with Dandy Jim Buckley (Efrem Zimbalist Jr). Bart and Dandy Jim are in and out of the Junction Flats Jail, which is more of a fortress than a jail.

The Thirty-Ninth Star sees Bart Maverick involved in a chase for something extremely valuable that was carried in a certain suitcase. Nobody seems to know what the item was but there are several groups of people who want it badly enough to go to very extreme lengths. A reasonably well scripted episode.

Shady Deal at Sunny Acres features both Maverick brothers. Bret has been defrauded of a very large amount of money by a crooked banker. There seems to be no way he can get his money back but Bret is not leaving the town of Sunny Acres without it. This is a sort of all-star episode with not just both Garner and Kelly but also both Efrem Zimbalist Jr as Dandy Jim Buckley and Richard Long as Gentleman Jack Darby plus a number of other great character actors including John Dehner and Regis Toomey. This is an outstanding episode. The story is a very elaborate long con which is even more enjoyable since the victim is a crook. You can’t cheat an honest man but you can certainly cheat a cheat.

Island in the Swamp has the virtue of being fairy original and it’s also quite charming. Bret is held prisoner on an island in the swamp in the bayou country. The inhabitants of the island have a secret that they are obsessively determined to keep from the outside world, and if they have to keep Bret there indefinitely they’re prepared to do so. It’s not that the islanders are particularly vicious, in fact they’re most quite affable, they just really want to keep that secret.

Prey of the Cat isn’t a terrible story but it’s not really a Maverick story. It has none of the wit and quirkiness that a good Maverick story should have. It’s a routine western tale with Bart   getting tangled up in a domestic intrigue that leads to murder, with Bart seemingly trapped by a woman’s machinations. Jack Kelly plays it very straight, as he usually did, and the result is a bit on the dull side.

The Spanish Dancer has one rather clever idea and it has a terrific guest starring appearance by Slim Pickens, and it has Richard Long once again as Gentleman Jack Darby. Unfortunately Jack Kelly is particularly dull in this episode and it just doesn’t have the sparkle it should have.

Holiday at Hollow Rock is a decent Bret Maverick story about crooked gamblers, corrupt sheriffs and a horse race which may or may not be honestly run but the happiness of two young people depends on the outcome.

Game of Chance features a priceless string of pearls that might be fake, and a fake countess who might be real. Both Maverick brothers get conned by the countess, and they’re out to return the favour. The plot twists are predictable but it’s reasonably well executed.

Gun-Shy, scripted by Marion Hargrove, is a very clever parody of what was at the time the most famous of all TV westerns, Gunsmoke. It works because as well as the very funny parody aspect the episode also has a fine classic Maverick plot with an assortment of shady characters (including a certain Bret Maverick) trying to find a buried hoard of Confederate gold. Absolutely superb performances by the entire cast which also helps. There are those who consider this to be the greatest Maverick episode of all. Maybe they’re right but what is certain is that Gun-Shy is one the two best episodes of the second season, the other being Shady Deal at Sunny Acres.

Two Beggars on Horseback is quite enjoyable. For complicated reasons Bart and Bret have to get Deadwood before the riverboat gets there, or they’ll be down $10,000 each. But getting there isn’t easy - they have to face hostile Indians, crooked traders, crazy retired Confederate generals and worst of all the beautiful, clever but not very trustworthy Jessamy Longacre.

The Rivals is another Marion Hargrove script that is not what you expect in a western. The story is lifted from Sheridan’s 1775 play of the same name. The play is one of the most celebrated examples in the English language of the comedy of manners. Adapting a comedy of manners would be a ludicrous move for the average western but as a Maverick episode it works just fine. In fact it’s a delight, even with guest star Roger Moore attempting a Texan accent.

Duel at Sundown is notable for a guest starring appearance by a pre-stardom Clint Eastwood. He plays Red Hartigan, the best gunslinger in the territory but at heart a coward and a bully. Red is hoping to marry Carrie, the daughter of Bret Maverick’s old friend Jed Christianson. Jed has a plan to use Maverick to prevent the marriage from taking place but Jed’s plan could just get Bret killed. A solid episode.

Yellow River is another routine Bart Maverick story. Bart ends up being trail boss on a cattle drive and it’s a fatal cattle drive for some. Unfortunately I thought the twist ending was much too obvious.

The second season is usually considered to be Maverick at its creative peak. Producer Roy Huggins understood exactly how to make the show work and writers like Marion Hargrove provided the witty and adventurous scripts that made the show at its best so unconventional and so charming. Combine that with James Garner and you have television magic.

Thursday, 22 February 2018

Columbo season 4 (part two)

This is a follow-on from my earlier post dealing with the first part of the fourth season of Columbo.

Playback, written by David P. Lewis and Booker Bradshaw,  is notable for being an early disappearance of what would become a popular trope in both mysteries and spy thrillers - the use of videotape to create a false alibi. There’s also lots of fun mid-70s high-tech stuff. The perpetrator is a genius inventor and he’s used the family mansion as a kind of showcase for his security and surveillance gadgetry.

Oskar Werner makes a fun villain, a basically nice enough guy who has been pushed around by his family. Now he’s to be eased out of his position as head of the family’s electronics company and he’s had enough. Murder seems to be the only solution to his problems.

He’s a convincing and gently amusing tech geek type who loves his gadgets more than he loves anything else.

The vital clue in this case is very ingenious.

Watched today this episode loses a little of its impact since the central idea has been used in other movies and TV shows but it’s still pretty solid.

A Deadly State of Mind, written by Peter S. Fischer, deals with one of my favourite subjects - evil psychiatrists. In this case the psychiatrist is Dr Mark Collier (George Hamilton) and he’s having an affair with a female patient, Nadina Donner (Lesley Ann Warren). Naturally she’s married and her husband Carl finds out. The husband threatens to ruin Dr Collier and it’s no idle threat - Carl Donner not only knows about the affair (and of course having sex with a patient is highly unethical) he also knows about Dr Collier’s treatment methods (which are even more unethical). Not altogether surprisingly Carl Donner ends up dead.

Speaking of unethical, Columbo sails a bit close to the wind in his final confrontation with the suspect. It’s just as well that suspects on television shows are usually too cocky to have a lawyer present when being questioned by the police.

In this episode the usual battle of wills between Columbo and his chief suspect is a little different, being conducted somewhat indirectly.

To my way of thinking there’s only one thing better than an evil psychiatrist story and that’s an evil psychiatrist story that involves hypnosis so this episode ticks all the right boxes for me.

One odd thing is that this is one of the very few episodes in which we don’t see Columbo’s Peugeot 403, even though the fact that he drives a Peugeot turns out to be important.

A Deadly State of Mind is another good episode.

So overall the fourth season of Columbo is pretty satisfying. Definitely recommended.

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Francis Durbridge Presents - The Passenger (1971)

The Passenger is a British crime/mystery thriller serial written by Francis Durbridge and originally screened in 1971. It was one of the many serials that were broadcast by the BBC under the umbrella title Francis Durbridge Presents.

David Walker (David Knight) is a partner in a toy company about to be taken over by a larger competitor. David is not terribly happy about this but he soon has other much more urgent matters to worry about. He discovers his wife Evelyn (Melissa Stribling) has been having an affair with smooth-talking driving instructor Roy Norton (James Kerry). David decides to spend some time in the country to think things through and while en route to his uncle’s house in Cumberland he picks up hitch-hiker Judy Clayton (Beth Morris). Judy is young and pretty but gives the impression of being perhaps a little flighty. Not that it matters since it all amounts to nothing anyway. David’s car runs out of petrol, he sets off on foot to get some petrol from a garage a couple of miles away and when he returns to the car Judy has gone. A very trivial incident and soon forgotten.

The incident doesn’t seem quite so trivial to Detective Inspector Martin Denson (Peter Barkworth) when he is assigned to investigate the murder of Judy Clayton. Her body was found not far from the point at which David’s car ran out of petrol. She had been strangled. David Walker now seems like an obvious suspect but Inspector Denson soon finds himself with several more suspects who seem every bit as promising. Oddly enough they all seem to be connected with each other.

There are several women mixed up in the case as well and they’re all part of the same interconnected web. Even Inspector Denson’s estranged wife Sue (Joanna Dunham) seems to be linked to this strange assortment of people.

One thing that seems clear to Inspector Denson is that most if not all of these people are lying to him. Unfortunately that’s the only thing that is clear. They could be lying because they were involved in Judy Clayton’s murder but they seem to have other equally plausible reasons for being less than frank with the police.

The physical evidence is just as puzzling. There’s a note that is important but the authorship of this missive is uncertain. There’s a camera and some photos but they don’t help much as there is no way of knowing who was in possession of the camera at the time the snapshots were taken.

The more Denson investigates the more evidence he finds and it all points in one direction, but he has a strong feeling it’s the wrong direction. Meanwhile the web of unlikely people who were all involved in each other’s lives just keeps getting more complex and more difficult to make sense of.

This is a BBC production and it has that characteristic BBC made-on-the-cheap look to it.

Peter Barkworth was a fine actor and gives a nicely understated performance as a man who likes to keep his feelings to himself but finds it increasingly difficult to keep those feelings under control. Joanna Dunham is quite adequate as Sue Denson. Some of the supporting players are very good but some are not quite so good and are just a little stiff. This is pretty unusual for British television of that era which always seemed to have a limitless pool of acting talent on which to draw.

Michael Ferguson is perhaps not the world’s most inspired director. It does have to be remembered that 1971 was still the era of British television shot on videotape in the studio with very limited location work and with the BBC not being known for being over-generous with budgets he was working under definite constraints. And he handles the action climax quite competently (it’s quite possible that most of the budget was actually spent on this climax).

What this serial does have that really matters is a script by Francis Durbridge and that’s more than enough to compensate for a few minor weaknesses in other areas. This time Durbridge has come up with a gloriously elaborate plot that throws so many clues at us that we remain as mystified as poor Inspector Denson.

I think it’s fair to say that Durbridge plays fair with us. There’s one clue that is the absolute clincher but with so many clues to keep track of Durbridge could feel fairly confident that its significance would not be noticed.

There's also a romance sub-plot as Martin Denson tries desperately to resurrect his failed marriage.

The Passenger is included in the excellent Region 4 Francis Durbridge Presents Volume 2 DVD boxed set released in Australia by Madman. The set contains no less than five complete Francis Durbridge serials, including Bat Out of Hell and The Doll (which are both definitely worth watching). The only extra is an episode of the (extremely good) Paul Temple TV series. The transfers are very good and the set represents outstanding value.

The Passenger is a delightfully convoluted murder mystery. Very entertaining and highly recommended.

Saturday, 3 February 2018

Star Blazers, The Quest for Iscandar (1979)

Star Blazers was a 1979 American adaptation of the 1974 Japanese anime television series Space Battleship Yamato. There were three seasons and they were followed by various movies, sequels and remakes. The first season was The Quest for Iscandar.

Apart from being dubbed in English the original Japanese series was edited somewhat, with the violence toned down and sexual references and content that could be construed as anti-American being removed.

Space Battleship Yamato can be regarded as an interesting transitional stage in the history of anime. It was clearly aimed at an older audience than earlier anime TV series like Astroboy and Prince Planet. It has a more grownup tone and it has more of a genuine science fictional feel. Not only are there girls, there is also obvious sexual interest between male and female characters (even in the censored US version).

It was also the first anime series with an overarching story arc to achieve success in western markets.

It has a more sophisticated look than earlier anime series although it’s still a lot less ambitious than the anime that came out later in the wake of the international success of Akira and Neon Genesis Evangelion in the late 80s.

In the year 2199 the Earth is doomed. The war against the invading Gamillon race has not gone well and the planet is pretty much a radioactive wasteland with the population forced to take shelter in underground cities. Within a year even the underground cities will be uninhabitable.

Then the human race is given one last hope of survival when a message is received from a distant planet. This alien race can offer the technology needed to save Earth but first Earth must build a new highly advanced engine in order to cover the incredible distance to the alien world of Iscandar.

For some curious reason the new engine has to be installed in the hulk of the ancient battleship Yamato. The real Yamato was a super-battleship sunk by the Americans in 1945. The story of the historical Yamato is one of the elements that is largely edited out the US version but happily Madman’s Region 4 DVD release includes the cut footage as an extra.

In the US version the Yamato gets renamed the Argo after its conversion to a spaceship. The US networks must really have been hyper-sensitive to any references to World War 2!

The science is delightfully silly with some great technobabble. Of course it’s possible that the science makes slightly more sense in the Japanese version but goofy technobabble is always fun anyway. The scientific goofiness is reminiscent of 1960s Japanese anime kids’ series but it’s combined with some reasonably in-depth characterisation and some good interaction between key characters (the distrust of the hero for the Yamato’s captain being a case in point).

There are of course lots of super-weapons, such as the dreaded wave-motion gun.

What’s interesting is that the Gamillons don’t really have superior technology. They have some immensely powerful technology but so does the Argo and the two sides are fairly evenly balanced which makes the many battles a lot more interesting.

There's plenty of action as the Yamato comes under attack even before it can be relaunched as a space battleship, and the action just keeps on coming. The Argo has to make the immensely long voyage to Iscandar and return, all within a single year. And the Gamillons will be doing everything they can to stop the Argo.

One amusing aspect is that much of the action is basically World War 2 naval warfare in space, with aircraft carrier battles and even submarine warfare. The echoes of naval warfare are appropriate given that the Argo is in fact a converted World War 2 battleship. The Argo does look pretty cool especially when it’s firing its main guns just like an actual battleship.

There’s not as much emotional complexity as you find in more recent anime but there is at least some attempt to give the characters a little depth. There’s also an interesting relationship between the main hero, Derek Wildstar, and the Argo’s Captain Avatar. Derek thinks the captain may have been at least partly responsible for his brother Alex’s death. Derek is also not entirely sure he’s up to the responsibilities that are suddenly forced upon him.

There’s considerable focus on the psychological strains suffered by the Argo’s crew. Some crew members deal with the pressure well, others not so well.

Even the chief villain, Leader Desslok of Gamillon, is not quite a simplistic villain.

I believe the original Japanese version, with subtitles, is available on DVD. This edited English-dubbed version is still great fun. Recommended.

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

The Outer Limits - The Man Who Was Never Born, O.B.I.T. (1963)

Some more episode reviews from the first season of The Outer Limits.

The Man Who Was Never Born was the sixth episode of season one and went to air in the US in October 1963.

An astronaut leaves Earth on a routine mission in 1963 and returns eight months later, only it isn’t eight months later, it’s 185 years later. He has traveled through time but unfortunately he has absolutely no idea how he did it.

Earth in the year 2148 is not a very pleasant place. In fact mankind is facing extinction due to a plague. The last survivors are mutants.

This was the kind of idea that can be found in countless science fiction stories, movies and TV shows of that era (and would continue cropping up in science fiction for decades afterwards). The best thing about The Man Who Was Never Born is that it doesn’t try to bludgeon us with a message about the dangers of nuclear war. In this case humanity cannot be blamed for the disaster that has overtaken it. It was all the work of one man, a man who developed a horrific microbe. Bertram Cabot Jr was that man.

The astronaut refuses to accept mankind’s death sentence. Surely something can be done? In fact he has an idea as to exactly what might be done. He has after all discovered time travel. Perhaps time travel can save the world. All he has to do is to repeat his earlier voyage and he should get back to Earth in 1963. Then he can warn the people of the 20th century, and change history so as to avoid the catastrophe. To make sure that the people of 1963 will listen to his warnings he takes with him one of the last human survivors, the mutant Andro (Martin Landau).

Time travel proves to be more difficult than anticipated. And of course if the only way to prevent disaster is to kill Bertram Cabot Jr before he makes his terrible discovery then time travel paradoxes might be a problem. In fact there are all kinds of other problems as well. Moral dilemmas, and emotional complications.

The premise might not be very original but it’s developed in a manner that is both intelligent and thought-provoking and emotionally complex. It’s a time travel story, a post-apocalyptic story and a love story.

I’ve never been entirely convinced by Martin Landau as an actor. He strikes me as being a bit too theatrical and too mannered but in a story such as this his acting style works quite well. Shirley Knight is also good as the girl who holds the future of the world in her hands. She gives a slightly odd slightly other-worldly performance and it works.

The mutant makeup effects are not too bad. At least they aren’t merely ridiculous. The Outer Limits was a series that depended quite heavily on special effects which was quite a risky strategy for a 1963 television series. Television budgets in those days were not really sufficient for elaborate special effects. The Outer Limits usually overcame this problem by being bold enough to ignore it. They just went ahead and did the stories anyway and relied on the writing and acting being good enough to compensate for occasional wonkiness in the effects department. In this particular episode the effects are quite satisfactory. Even the spaceship looks quite good although it also looks very 1950s sci-fi B-movie.

The Man Who Was Never Born is a very fine piece of television science fiction. hIghly recommended.

O.B.I.T. was the episode seven of the first season, airing in the US in November 1963.

A mysterious murder at a secret US defence facility prompts a Senate investigation. Senator Orville (Peter Breck) suspects that the murder had some connection with the unexplained morale problems at the facility. Those morale problems seem in turn to be connected with a machine known as O.B.I.T. (Outer Band Individuated Teletracer).

O.B.I.T. is the ultimate surveillance device. It can observe anyone anywhere. As you might expect this leads to an increasingly paranoid atmosphere at the base. The staff don’t know about O.B.I.T. but they have figured out that every word they say is somehow being monitored.

There’s more to it than this however. The director of the base saw something on the O.B.I.T. screen and promptly had a complete mental breakdown.

This episode has a bit of an X-Files vibe to it. Senator Orville’s investigation is being obstructed every step of the way, but by whom? Is it the Defense Department? Some intelligence agency? Some other US government agency? Or perhaps someone outside the government?

The special effects are of the kind that would presumably be very inexpensive but they’re effective. There are only a couple of sets and overall this is an example of doing science fiction on a minimal budget. But it works. Director Gerd Oswald does a fine job, using close-ups very cleverly and generally concentrating on creating a claustrophobic atmosphere laced with paranoia and voyeurism.

Jeff Corey is terrific as the sinister Dr Byron Lomax who really can’t see any problem at all with the idea of having people watched every minute of the day. Peter Breck is pretty good also as the stubborn Senator Orville.

There’s certainly a message here about the dangers of excessive surveillance leading to a society in which people are afraid to make jokes or laugh or express an opinion but the viewer isn’t likely to feel bludgeoned by the message and thankfully it isn’t made explicitly political.

O.B.I.T. is an intelligent science fiction story extremely well executed. It’s not quite as good as The Man Who Was Never Born but it can still be warmly recommended.

Monday, 15 January 2018

Danger Man, Colony Three (1965)

I’m about to watch The Prisoner again and before doing so I thought the logical thing would to take another look at Colony Three.

Colony Three is a 1965 episode of Danger Man. This was the later hour-long version of the series which was known in the US as Secret Agent. The episode was written by Donald Jonson.

Colony Three is also a fascinating anticipation of The Prisoner. Many of the themes that ran through The Prisoner can already be found, albeit in a less developed form, in Colony Three. There’s also a remarkable similarity in tone and in the overall approach to the subject matter.

There’s been an extraordinary jump in the numbers of Britons defecting to the Soviet Union. They then disappear completely. British spy John Drake is assigned to take the place of a defector to find out what is going on. What he finds is very odd indeed. After a long journey in a sealed railway carriage he and two other British defectors, Randall (Glyn Owen) and Janet Wells (Katherine Woodville), find themselves in the middle of nowhere. The train is met by a London bus. An actual London double-decker bus. The bus then takes them to a small English village called Hamden. But Hamden is not in England. Hamden is in a very remote part of the Russian countryside.

Hamden is in fact a Soviet spy school. The idea is to allow Soviet spies to immerse themselves completely in English life so that when they are sent on a mission to England they will blend in perfectly.

There are two classes of people in Hamden. There are the trainee spies and then there are the residents. The residents are English communists who volunteered for the job in order to serve the Revolution. When they arrive they discover that their residence in Hamden is going to be permanent. Like the village in The Prisoner Hamden has no walls or fences and there are no armed guards in evidence but escape is impossible. Entirely impossible.

Drake, along with Randall and Janet Wells, is to be a resident.

Hamden is a pleasant enough place if you don’t mind not being able to leave, ever. Since escape is impossible the obvious thing to do is to make the most of the situation and adapt to it. Drake of course is confident that if the people he works for in the British intelligence service could get him into Hamden then they can get him out again. For the other residents there seems to be no option but to adapt. But some people cannot adapt.

This story offers some interesting insights into the psychology of British communists and their reaction when they confront the reality of Soviet communism, and it offers some observations of the nature of loyalty and betrayal. And as a straight-out spy thriller it’s excellent.

The chief interest though is the number of parallels with The Prisoner. There are so many such parallels that it is absolutely certain that Colony Three was one of the major inspirations for The Prisoner. There are striking similarities of theme, and of tone.

It doesn’t have the overt surrealism and the visual inventiveness of The Prisoner but it does have some moments of very subtle surrealism. And a London bus trundling across the Russian steppe is a pretty memorable image.

There is a battle of wits between John Drake and Soviet spy John Richardson (Peter Arne) that will to some extent remind fans of the similar struggles between Number 6 and Number 2 in The Prisoner. In fact Peter Arne would have made a splendid Number 2! Interestingly enough though in Colony Three it’s Randall rather than Drake who proves to be the openly rebellious one.

This is one of several episodes of Danger Man in which Drake clashes with his superiors in London. This adds weight to the theory favoured by some fans of The Prisoner that Number 6 is actually John Drake. Certainly Drake is a man who could plausibly decide to resign on what he saw as a matter of principle, he does display signs of rebelliousness in a couple of episodes and he does have the same sort of perverse stubbornness as Number 6.

Colony Three is clearly of enormous interest to fans of The Prisoner. It’s also one of the best Danger Man episodes and it’s superb television in its own right. It really is a must-see.

Monday, 8 January 2018

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea season 3 (1966) - part 1

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea debuted on the American ANC network in September 1964. The first season remains one of the finest moments in the history of American television science fiction (although to be strictly accurate this first season was as much an espionage series as a science fiction series). The network wanted a lighter tone for the second season and thus began the slow tragic decline of a once-great series. The second season is actually still pretty good though. The decline really started to become apparent with the third season in 1966.

Apart from a move towards even more monster-of-the-week stories the third season also suffered from budget cuts, the perennial curse of American TV sci-fi in this period. There just seemed to be no way to convince the American TV networks that sci-fi just cannot be done both cheaply and well.

The third season is by no means a complete washout. The overall trajectory was downhill but there were still very good episodes.

The season opener, Monster from the Inferno, should have been a disaster. It’s pretty much a catalogue of sci-fi clichés. A rock found on the sea floor turns out to be not a rock but an alien brain. Naturally the evil alien brain wants to take over the Seaview and naturally it feeds on nuclear energy. Naturally it sets out to accomplish its aim by taking control firstly of the unfortunate scientist responsible for bringing it aboard, and then Captain Crane. Against the odds it actually works. Director Harry Harris approaches directs this episode with a great deal of gusto. There are some fine underwater miniatures sequences. The special effects work. Most of all it’s fast-paced and exciting and you don’t have time to worry about plot holes.

The Werewolf sounds like it’s going to be a particularly goofy episode, and it is. The Seaview has to prevent a radioactive volcano from destroying the world. Naturally where you have lots of radioactivity you’re going to have werewolves, and so the island on which the volcano is located is home to a werewolf. Things get really worrying when a member of the crew is bitten and turns into a werewolf and worse still Admiral Nelson is bitten as well. Somehow a vaccine must be found in order to save the admiral. Definitely goofy but kind of fun if you’re in the mood.

There are lots of very good ideas in The Day the World Ended. An ambitious Senator is aboard the Seaview to inspect Admiral Nelson’s latest invention, the X4, a device that can track every nuclear submarine in the world. Strange things then start happening. Kowalski shoots a fellow crewman, thinking he’s a monster. The Seaview loses all contact with the outside world. The X4 tells them that every nuclear submarine in existence has suddenly disappeared. Nelson sets off for Washington in the Flying Sub, to find the city completely deserted. There doesn’t seem to be anybody left on the entire planet outside the Seaview.

All excellent ideas, and the good news is that the execution is perfect. William Welch’s script is subtle and clever, Jerry Hopper’s direction is taut, the pacing is good and the atmosphere of confusion and paranoia builds very nicely. Scott Homeier is terrific as the smooth and arrogant Senator. The regular cast members are all in top form. The best news of all is that some real money was spent on this one. There’s effective location shooting and there’s some superb footage of the Flying Sub. Even the monster that Kowalski sees works once you understand what is really going on. A very tense very exciting story. Not just one of the best of season three but one of the best-ever Voyage episodes.

Night of Terror on the other hand is a good example of just how poor the third season could be. Admiral Nelson and two companions are marooned on an island. There’s a strange fog that seems to produce hallucinations. There’s a very lame monster and some silliness about pirate treasure. We know from the start that most of this stuff is just hallucinations so there’s no sense of mystery or unease.

In keeping with the overall tone of the third season there’s a good deal of silliness in The Terrible Toys, with not just an alien spaceship but malevolent clockwork toys. It is at least reasonably well-executed silliness and some of the toys (especially the little guy with the axe) do manage to be at least moderately menacing.

Deadly Waters is a kind of throwback to the first season. There are none of the monsters and general silliness that usually characterise the third season. It’s just a tense and exciting story of survival and it’s a very good one. The Seaview has to rescue a diver trapped on a sunken submarine. The diver turns out to be Kowalski’s brother but the shock of his narrow escape from death has had an unfortunate effect on him. He’s lost his nerve completely. It doesn’t help that due to an extraordinary sequence of bad luck the Seaview itself sinks. Now they’re trapped on the bottom of the sea, they’re below their crush depth so the Seaview is slowly breaking up, and their air is running out. And those are just their initial problems. Things just keep going from bad to worse. In fact every single thing that could go wrong does go wrong.

The script is an endless catalogue of disasters and mishaps but it adds up to a terrifically exciting episode.

Thing from Inner Space is a straight by-the-numbers monster story. A television scientist believes he has discovered a sea-monster and persuades Admiral Nelson to help him to capture a specimen. The monster turns out to be real nasty, but luckily Admiral Nelson is a lot smarter than most sea-monsters. This episode really has very little going for it.

In Deadly Invasion what appeared to be a meteor storm turns out to be something very different. These aren’t meteors, they’re tiny spaceships! Tiny, but very dangerous. This is a full-scale invasion. You might expect the tiny spaceships to contain tiny aliens but they don’t. They do contain aliens, of a sort, and like most television sci-fi aliens they want to get their hands on nuclear energy. Lots of it. This episode is a mix of good ideas and bad ideas and doesn’t quite come off but it’s still kind of fun.

The Death Watch is a controversial episode among fans. It’s a pretty decent idea but there are a lot of plot holes. Admiral Nelson boards the Seaview to find it empty. There’s no-one else on board. The Admiral seems to be behaving a little oddly. You could understand that he might be puzzled and annoyed to find that the entire crew has disappeared but he appears suspicious and paranoid, and his paranoia seems to be centred on Captain Crane. He thinks Crane is going to try to kill him. We soon discover that there is someone else on board - Captain Crane. He seems utterly obsessed with the idea of killing the admiral, because if he doesn’t the admiral will kill him. And there’s a third person aboard, Chief Sharkey, but whose side is he on?

And while Nelson and Crane are hunting each other who is controlling the ship? Someone or something certainly is. And where does the sexy female voice come from, that keeps issuing puzzling warnings?

This script definitely needed a bit more work done on it On the other hand the execution can’t be faulted. Leonard Horn directed and he did a splendid job. He keeps the action and the tension ratcheted up and makes great use of the Seaview as an arena for a fight to the death. Special mention should be made of David Hedison’s effectively chilling performance. Despite its flaws this is an exciting episode and it’s a third season story with no silly monsters!

The Plant Man is exactly the sort of episode that gave the later seasons a bad name. Twin brother scientists create giant walking mutant plants. The evil twin dreams of taking over the world with an army of plant men. It’s a guy-in-a-rubber-suit monster of the week episode with no redeeming qualities whatsoever.

The Lost Bomb by contrast has no monsters, but it has a great deal of suspense and excitement. A bomb powerful enough to destroy half the world ends up on the sea floor after the plane carrying it is shot down. The Seaview has to find the bomb and disarm it but they’re being stalked by a hostile submarine. The bad guys (and they’re nicely villainous bad guys) really seem to be on top in this episode and time is running out for the Seaview and for the world. A terrific episode, almost up to season one standards.

The Haunted Submarine was obviously a budget-saving episode. In fact it’s so cheap they didn’t even need to pay a guest star - they just got Richard Basehart to play a dual role. The Seaview encounters a square-rigged sailing ship which tries to sink them. It’s skippered by a long-dead ancestor of the Admiral who has a bargain, possibly an evil bargain, to offer. This one isn’t just cheap, it looks cheap. It’s not much of a story but with a bit of imagination to provide a suitably eerie atmosphere and a bit of a swashbuckling feel it might have worked. Sadly there’s no imagination at all in evidence and it all falls flat.

So the first half of season three is very mixed indeed. A few excellent episodes, a few more that are silly but fun and a few duds. Disappointing after the first two seasons but the good episodes are very good and they’re enough reason to keep watching.

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Star Trek: TOS Spock’s Brain (1968)

I’ve been slowly (very slowly) making my way through the original Star Trek series on Blu-Ray. I’ve approached the third season with some trepidation. It doesn’t have the best of reputations, and the season opener, Spock’s Brain, is widely regarded as one of the worst, if not the worst, Star Trek episode ever.

It originally went to air in the US in September 1968.

We get straight into the action in this one. A beautiful mysterious humanoid female, who looks human enough, transports herself onto the bridge of the Enterprise. The bridge crew are temporarily disabled. After a short interval the woman disappears. No damage appears to have been done, until Dr McCoy gives Captain Kirk the horrible news. Spock’s brain has been stolen!

The mystery female is obviously the brain thief but no-one on board the Enterprise has the slightest idea who she is, where she came from, where she’s gone, or why she wanted Spock’s brain. Kirk however is undaunted. He is going to get Spock’s brain back!

With surprisingly little trouble they find the planet to which Spock’s brain has been taken, and discover that the inhabitants have found a very good use for it. In fact the people of this planet need Spock’s brain as much as Spock does. Restoring the brain poses some real moral dilemmas which are, disappointingly, simply glossed over.

Those who enjoy mocking Star Trek will have a field day with this episode. It has everything that makes mocking Star Trek so much fun.

It also has all the weaknesses we associate with this series (although these very weaknesses are what make the series oddly appealing). We have a highly advanced planet with a monoculture and that seems to have a total population of a few dozen people. We have clichés like a helmet that can impart the sum total of technological knowledge to anyone who wears it. We have remote control devices that can be used to inflict pain. We have a civilisation entirely dependent on a kind of super-computer, although the super-computer is an actual brain. We have a civilisation that was immensely advanced but has degenerated to primitive levels. All pretty standard sci-fi tropes used many times in Star Trek and Lee Cronin’s script really doesn’t do anything interesting with any of them.

On the other hand it isn’t boring. The dialogue is excruciating but wonderfully entertaining. William Shatner and DeForest Kelley get lots of opportunities for outrageous over-acting, which they grab with both hands. Spock gets to be incredibly Spock-like. The aliens are pretty young women in short skirts.

Admirers of this episode (and it has quite a few) see it as a kind of homage to 1950s sci-fi B-movies and there is something to that. It doesn’t take itself at all seriously but it doesn’t make the mistake of trying to be too jokey. It has a certain innocence and even exuberance.

The Star Trek episodes that I have problems with tend to be the ones that take themselves too seriously and that try to beat a message into us with a sledge hammer. Spock’s Brain cannot be accused of those faults. It’s very very silly but it’s fun and I found it impossible to dislike it. It’s certainly not a good episode but it’s enjoyable.