Thursday 26 March 2015

UFO (1969)

All of Gerry Anderson’s 1960s puppet science fiction series were great fun and were notable for a level of style and visual sophistication that was quite unexpected in what were after all puppet series aimed mainly at children. The odd man out among these shows was Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons. For a puppet series it was extraordinarily bleak and downbeat. It was a superb series that still holds up incredibly well today. In fact it was so bleak and downbeat that in retrospect it should have been done as a live action series aimed at an adult audience, which was of course exactly what Gerry Anderson had wanted to do right from the beginning. In 1969 Anderson finally got to do UFO, a science fiction series with live actors aimed at an adult audience, and it’s perhaps not surprising that UFO is very similar thematically to Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons.

In both cases Earth faces a menace that threatens its very survival and the menace is all the more terrifying in that the danger comes from an unknown enemy whose motivations are obscure. And in both cases there is no way of striking back at the enemy. All humanity can do is try to defend itself and success seems very uncertain indeed.

Stylistically UFO owes a lot to Gerry Anderson’s excellent and very underrated 1969 science fiction feature film Journey to the Far Side of the Sun (also known as Doppelgänger).

UFO kicks off with the episode Identified which gives us the backstory we need to understand the series. The episode begins with a kind of prologue set in 1969. There’s been a series of incidents involving UFOs going back for quite a few years and various governments, particularly the US and British governments, have now decided that action needs to be taken. It is no longer possible to ignore the evidence. A high-level meeting is to take place between the British Prime Minister and a senior American general. The evidence is contained in a file in the keeping of an American officer, Colonel Straker (Ed Bishop). There is another UFO attack which Straker narrowly survives. 

We then jump forward to 1980. Straker is now in command of an international military organisation, SHADO (Supreme Headquarters Alien Defence Organisation). And SHADO may be on the verge of achieving one of its chief goals - the capture of an alien, still alive. The episode fills in the backstory neatly and economically, it includes some action, gives us a glimpse of some of SHADO’s high-tech weaponry, and most importantly it establishes the tone of the series - dark and brooding, intelligent and complex, with an emphasis on the human cost of the struggle. Anderson insisted, in the face of considerable misgivings on the part of ITC, on ending the first episode on a very downbeat note. It was a courageous move but it works. 

It also had the advantage of making it clear that UFO was not going to be a kids’ adventure series. It was going to be grown-up science fiction dealing with serious and sometimes tragic themes and it was going to be an intriguing mix of glamour and grittiness. In fact the mood of the series is almost identical to that of Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons but with the advantages of an hour-long format allowing greater story complexity and character development.

UFO would turn out to be bleak and uncompromising at times but it never succumbs to the temptation of fashionable cynicism or nihilism. SHADO’s struggle is a difficult one, there will be defeats and even when victories are won the price is sometimes high but it is an absolutely necessary war and SHADO’s personnel are motivated and determined. 

Straker himself is very much aware of the costs but he is unshakeable in his resolve. In fact at times he becomes (despite being an American) a rather Churchillian figure. 

If there’s one theme that dominates this series it’s the responsibility, and the loneliness, of command. There are times when Straker has to make decisions that are necessary but that can cost people their lives. He has to balance individual lives against the greater good. He is also keenly aware that an incorrect decision can cause valuable opportunities to go to waste and these opportunities may not recur. He has to make the right decision. Straker is not the sort of man to shirk his responsibilities. He enjoys the challenge of command but there is a personal cost, sometimes a very high one. A private life is a luxury he cannot afford. Throughout the series the issue of command is stressed and it’s dealt with in an intelligent and complex manner.

Computer Affair is an episode that is very typical of this series’ approach. Gerry Anderson was always keen to have female characters in responsible positions and one of the most important commands in SHADO is held by a woman, Lt. Ellis (Gabrielle Drake), commander of Moonbase. At the same time this episode is prepared to deal directly with the potential problems of having men and women fighting side by side - emotional entanglements are inevitable and can cause serious difficulties and can cost lives. The episode deals with these issues intelligently and unflinchingly. 

Flight Path is another fine episode focusing on the human costs of the struggle against the alien invaders and on the conflicts between duty, loyalty and emotion.

The Square Triangle demonstrates the moral difficulties that can confront a secret organisation. A crime may have been committed but any investigation of the crime could threaten SHADO’s security.

The emphasis is always on the human dimension. The action scenes are well-executed but they’re used to advance the story and to make a point. If a particular story doesn’t require action scenes then they’re kept to a minimum. The production team was confident enough in the ability of the writers (and the actors) to engage the viewer’s attention without non-stop action. Despite its very strong character-driven focus the series is never in danger of becoming dull. The characters are sufficiently real to make us care about them and the situations they find themselves in are sufficiently interesting to keep us involved.

There’s also a heavy reliance on suspense rather than continual action.

Ed Bishop’s performance as Straker is extraordinary. Straker is not an obviously sympathetic character but we grow to respect him and Bishop is able to give just a touch of wry humour to humanise him. The acting in general is exceptionally good, with the actors appreciating the opportunity to do a science fiction series and still be able to do some real acting.

Other major characters, such as Straker’s second-in-command Colonel Alec Freeman (George Sewell), Colonel Paul Foster (Michael Billington) and Moonbase commander Lt Ellis (Gabrielle Drake), are also more complex than was usual in sci-fi series. The relationship Straker and Colonel Freeman is particularly interesting - they’re friends and they have great respect for each other’s abilities but their approaches and their philosophies are very different, leading to a certain amount of tension. Straker is able to subordinate everything to the number one priority, combating the aliens. Freeman struggles with this concept. He knows Straker is right but he still has difficulty reconciling some of the decisions that have to be taken with his own moral code.

Unfortunately (according to Sylvia Anderson) George Sewell was deemed to be not sexy enough for US audiences and was replaced by Wanda Ventham, playing Colonel Virginia Lake. Ventham is quite a good actress but this was definitely a bad move, removing one of the series’ more interesting characters.

UFO is about a war and victory involves paying a price. It involves moral compromises. Very few science fiction TV series, before or since, have been prepared to confront such subject matter as boldly and as uncompromisingly as UFO. It’s not only by far the best of all Anderson’s series, it’s one of the very best science fiction series ever made. Superb television.

Tuesday 17 March 2015

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, season 1 (1964)

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, which aired on the US ABC network from 1964 to 1968, remains one of the iconic science fiction TV series of its era. The series was based on the successful 1961 movie of the same name. Producer Irwin Allen was able to re-use sets and models from the movie thus keeping production costs within reasonable limits.

In common with so many TV adventure series of the 60s Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea changed direction during the course of its run. The first season dealt with Cold War and international intrigue themes as well as science fiction themes. The second season, the first to be shot in colour, began the move towards more of a “monster of the week” theme, a process that became even more marked during the final two seasons. Many fans prefer the more realistic flavour of the first season although personally I find all four seasons to be thoroughly enjoyable.

Admiral Nelson is an intriguing hero. He’s a scientist who has designed his own super-submarine, the Seaview, for research purposes. The Seaview is however also a serving missile-armed US naval vessel. Nelson is an admiral in the US Navy although he seems to be pretty much given free rein to use the Seaview in any way he pleases. It’s a rather unlikely scenario but the series was a product of an era that saw the scientist as hero and saw no problem with allowing a scientist to use a missile-armed nuclear submarine as a private toy. In fact the exact status of the Seaview is slightly ambiguous. In the episode Hail to the Chief Captain Crane describes it as a civilian vessel and a crew member states that he’s not actually in the navy. The idea of a nuclear-armed civilian submarine is certainly interesting.

While Nelson is a good scientist it goes without saying that there are evil scientists as well, and they figure quite prominently as villains in the series. The evil scientists are, not surprisingly, mostly from other countries. While some episodes deal with straight Cold War scenarios the enemies that the Seaview and her crew encounter are often from unnamed Third World nations. These are usually nations with ambitions to advance themselves into the ranks of the super-powers. While today it’s usual to have fairly romantic notions about the Third World this series takes a rather more sceptical view of the matter. In an episode like The Blizzard Makers we’re left in no doubt that allowing small nations to become nuclear powers is not a terribly good idea, and that such nations are likely to become catastrophically dangerous rogue states.

The weather seems to be a major pre-occupation of this series with a number of episodes dealing with calamitous changes to weather patterns brought about either through natural disasters or human malice. The obsession with the weather might suggest that the series was anticipating later environmental concerns, and this is true to some extent. On the other hand it’s amazing how often these environmental threats can be defused by the judicious use of nuclear weapons, a method that would be rather unpopular today.

The science fictional element varies from story to story, being almost completely absent from some episodes and being almost completely dominant in others.

Richard Basehart does a fine job as Admiral Nelson. He’s a dedicated scientist but he’s a man of action as well. Basehart was a little old to be a really effective action hero so that rôle is usually filled, very efficiently, by the Seaview’s younger and much more dashing skipper, Captain Lee Crane (David Hedison).

The potential conflicts of interest caused by Admiral Nelson’s position are not glossed over. The actual commander of the Seaview is Captain Crane and he is quite prepared to assert his authority if he feels the submarine and its crew are being endangered unnecessarily. The responsibilities of command are a recurrent theme, just as they were to be in another US science fiction series of the same era, Star Trek. The divided command structure makes Captain Crane’s position both easier and more difficult than Captain Kirk’s.

The Seaview itself is the same submarine that had appeared in the feature film and the same (very impressive) miniatures are used in the series. It’s a great looking submarine and the fact that unlike actual submarines it has windows is a major plus, and the windows are used to full dramatic advantage. The design of the Seaview was changed slightly for the second season when the hatches for the Flying Sub were added.

The first season tried to retain some degree of plausibility. Nuclear submarines existed in 1965 and the Seaview is simply a bigger more sophisticated nuclear submarine, which is perfectly reasonably given the series was set a few years into the future. The Mini-Sub with features in several season one episodes is just a standard sort of midget submarine. The technology is for the most part extrapolated from existing technologies or at least sounds like the sort of technologies that might have existed within a few years. There are cool gadgets but they’re not overly ridiculous. In The Condemned a scientist devises an ingenious modification that allows the Seaview to dive to the very deepest depths of the ocean. It’s not the sort of thing a conventional submarine could actually do but it’s not outlandish - specially designed research vessels really did reach such depths during the 1960s.

This kind of vague scientific plausibility would gradually give way to out-and-out Buck Rogers-type technologies such as the Flying Sub in the later seasons.

I’m also quite fond of the espionage-themed episodes that were a major feature of season one. Episodes like The Exile, in which the Soviet ex-premier wants to defect to the West, are really pure spy stories without any real science fictional content but they’re well-written and entertaining.

Irwin Allen’s later science TV series would become increasingly far-fetched (although still hugely enjoyable) but season one of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea still stands up as generally intelligent and well-written science fiction. In the very brief interview he contributed to the DVD release David Hedison tells of his extreme reluctance to accept the rôle of Captain Crane and of being pleasantly surprised by how well the first season turned out.

All four seasons are available on DVD in both Regions 1 and 2, while the first season has also been released in Region 4. The series looks great on DVD.

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea is still one of the best-loved science fiction TV series of the 60s and deservedly so. The first season struck an almost perfect balance, taking itself just seriously enough and never descending into self-parody. Superb entertainment.

Monday 9 March 2015

The Mind of Mr J. G. Reeder, season one

The Mind of Mr J. G. Reeder is a 1969 British television series based on the exploits of one of Edgar Wallace’s most interesting heroes. It was made by Thames TV in 1969, with a second season following in 1971.

Mr J. G. Reeder is a quietly spoken middle-aged man who seems on the surface to be as ineffectual as he is harmless. But appearances can be deceptive. He is in fact a man who strikes terror into the hearts of England’s most dangerous criminals. Mr Reeder likes to say that he has himself a criminal mind, so completely does he understand the psychology of crime.

Mr Reeder works for the Office of the Public Prosecutor. The cases that come to his attention are ones that are beyond the powers of Scotland Yard to solve. These cases are extraordinarily ingenious but that’s by no means the main attraction of this series. The chief interest is the personality of Mr Reeder. Hugh Burden’s performance is superlative. He manages to make Mr Reeder seem both meek and bumbling while at the same time being both brilliant and dangerous. He really is a joy to watch.

Mr Reeder is most certainly not the sort of man to become involved in any dalliances with the fairer sex, or at least that was the case until quite by chance he made the acquaintance of a rather charming young lady, a Miss Bellman. Miss Bellman was involved in one of Mr Reeder’s cases, and indeed would be involved in several more. And, against the odds, it seems that romance may have entered the life of Mr J. G. Reeder. This unexpected romantic entanglement gradually develops over the course of the first series (as it did in the Edgar Wallace short story collection).

Willoughby Goddard hams it up outrageously as Mr Reeder’s bombastic and ridiculously vain and selfish boss, Sir Jason Toovey. 

The 1920s setting of the stories is captured very well even though the series was made in black-and-white. 

The one jarring note is the perfectly dreadful theme music. In fact the incidental music is equally horrible. It sounds like a demented banjo player trying to conjure up a 1920s mood and failing dismally.

The tone of the show is very tongue-in-cheek and very over-the-top. The guest stars ham it up to a quite excessive degree. This was the 1960s and despite the 1920s setting the tone is actually very 60s. This very exaggerated approach could have been irritating but Edgar Wallace’s own style was rather outrageous so in this instance it works surprisingly well.

The eight episodes in the first season are all based on actual stories by Edgar Wallace.

This was one of those series that was a little unlucky in its timing. Although some British series were being shot in colour as early as the mid-60s this was not yet the customary practice. The fact that The Mind of Mr J. G. Reeder is in black-and-white (apart from two episodes of the second season from 1971 which are in colour) has counted against it. TV networks have had zero interest in screening old TV shows made in black-and-white and so series such as this have been entirely forgotten, in many cases (such as this one) most unjustly.

Network DVD have released both seasons (a total of 16 episodes) in one boxed set. The transfers are reasonably good.

The Mind of Mr J. G. Reeder is a deliciously offbeat crime series with a flavour very much its own. For fans of 1960s cult television this really is a must-buy. Very highly recommended.

Sunday 1 March 2015

Space: 1999, season one (1975)

Space: 1999 was the most ambitious of all Gerry Anderson’s science fiction television series, and is in some ways the most controversial. Hardcore Gerry Anderson fans are somewhat divided on its merits and the division is even more marked in relation to the second series. The series, which went to air from 1975 to 1977,  had a troubled and rather unhappy production history and even its most ardent fans accept that it failed to achieve its full potential.

It’s a series that Anderson had never planned to do. He was all set to do a further season of UFO and had exciting plans for the series when Lew Grade dropped the bombshell that he was cancelling the show. Anderson, typically, did some quick thinking and came up with a concept for an all-new show that would utilise some of the ideas he’d been working on for the projected but ultimately abortive new season of UFO which was to have been set largely on the Moon (and was to have been called UFO: 1999). The visual design of Space: 1999 incorporated many of the ideas that had been intended for UFO: 1999.

He sold Lew Grade on his ideas and got the go-ahead to do Space: 1999. It would be a very big-budget production indeed - the most expensive TV series yet made in Britain (in fact the most expensive science fiction made anywhere up to that point). That naturally meant that it absolutely had to do well in the US and as a result Anderson found himself forced to cast Americans in the two lead roles. That proved to be a fateful decision. Martin Landau and Barbara Bain saw the series as a starring vehicle for themselves and the contracts they negotiated guaranteed that they would dominate the series. This meant that the supporting actors were pushed into the background and their characters became mere ciphers. Landau (who had turned down the role of Spock in Star Trek) was a fine actor so the focus on his character wasn’t too much of a problem but Barbara Bain’s slightly lifeless performance was a definite drawback. To be fair Landau and Bain did work extremely hard to promote the series.

Signing Barry Morse to play the show’s resident scientist was another unfortunate decision. Morse hated the series and he particularly hated Gerry and Sylvia Anderson. Morse clearly wanted the series to be more character-driven and he seemed unable to understand that given their track record Gerry and Sylvia Anderson might actually have known more about making a successful science fiction series than he did.

Despite these behind-the-scenes troubles Space: 1999 did have some very strong things going for it. Anderson’s technical people had plenty of experience in TV science fiction and this time they had serious money to play with. The production values are extremely high, the special effects and the miniatures work are superb and the large amount of money spent on the show paid dividends. Forty years later it still looks terrific.

The sets are very impressive, and for a 1970s series the costume design holds up fairly well. Moonbase Alpha looks convincing and the Eagle transporters are very cool.

The opening episode, Breakaway, sets things up very effectively. Moonbase Alpha is to launch the first manned space mission to a distant planet. Planning for the mission has been disrupted by a series of mysterious deaths. Moonbase Alpha’s new commander, John Koenig (Martin Landau), is determined not to give the go-ahead to launch until these deaths can be explained. The base’s chief medical officer Dr Helena Russell (Barbara Bain) is puzzled and worried. Chief scientific officer Victor Bergman (Barry Morse) is equally mystified. The cause is finally determined to be magnetic disturbances caused by radioactive waste dumps, but the big problem is that the entire Moon is now a gigantic bomb. Moonbase Alpha faces destruction but its actual fate turns out to be much stranger as the Moon is hurled out of Earth orbit into space. The tension is built up with great skill and the forceful but charismatic personality of John Koenig is immediately established. He’s the sort of man who will face any crisis without flinching.

In Matter of Life and Death it appears that the crew of Moonbase Alpha may have found  new home, an Earth-like planet on which they can settle. Of course things turn out to be more complicated. The scenes on the planet surface, while obviously filmed on a sound stage, look pretty good by the standards of alien planets in television series.

These two episodes establish the series as a sort of cross between Star Trek, with encounters with strange new worlds and alien life forms, and a more serious version of Lost in Space with its theme of the search for an alternative home. The latter theme seemed to become less prominent in Year 2.

Space: 1999 was certainly prepared to tackle big philosophical questions, with the episode Black Sun being clearly very influenced by Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Death’s Other Dominion is another fine episode that deals with big concepts - immortality for the individual versus survival of the species. Ring Around the Moon, with its ambiguous alien intelligence, was also typical of the bold approach of season one. Aliens were often dangerous not because they were overtly hostile or monstrous but simply because they had their own agenda and were indifferent to humanity’s fate.

There’s also a faint hint that science alone may not the answer to everything and that there may be a purpose to the universe, although a purpose that is mysterious and inscrutable.

Brian Johnson’s special effects quite rightly attracted a lot of praise. Production designer Keith Wilson also did a fine job although his original concepts for Moonbase Alpha (which was to have been called Moon City) were rather more stark and austere than than the final version we saw on screen.

Season one tried very hard not to get locked into a battles in space formula and on the whole it probably deserved to be taken more seriously than it was. It was an odd mix of often very silly pseudoscience and serious philosophical speculation. It stands up surprisingly well today. It’s certainly a must-see for sci-fi fans and if you have fond memories of this show you will find it’s worth taking another look at it. Highly recommended.