Tuesday 25 October 2016

Moonbase 3 (1973)

In 1973, at the time they were enjoying great success with Doctor Who, producer Barry Letts and script editor Terrance Dick decided they wanted to do a totally different kind of science fiction television series. They persuaded the BBC to give them the go-ahead. The result was Moonbase 3.

Moonbase 3 was conceived as a kind of anti-Doctor Who series. Doctor Who was aimed mostly at kids, scientific accuracy was never a consideration and there were lots of monsters. Moonbase 3 would be aimed at an adult audience, it would aim for scientific plausibility and it would steer clear of the guy-in-a-rubber-suit kind of monster. In fact it would aim at a degree of gritty realism and would focus on psychological drama.

It ran for only six episodes and failed to ignite any real audience interest. Terrance Dicks later felt they’d overdone the gritty realism aspect.

The opening episode sets the tone. Moonbase 3 is the European lunar base. There are also US, Russian and Chinese bases. The atmosphere at Moonbase 3 is a little tense and it’s about to get considerably more tense. Space exploration is inherently dangerous and accidents will occur but when they do they have to be thoroughly investigated. In this case an accident investigation puts the personnel at Moonbase 3 under a great deal of stress. There is a suspicion that a number of key personnel may have made errors of judgment that may have contributed to the accident. The errors of judgment, if they occurred, were rather minor in themselves but a succession of minor mistakes can have catastrophic consequences. In this instance the difficulty for a board of enquiry is that nothing about the accident is clear-cut. Perhaps there weren’t any actual mistakes made at all. Perhaps it was simply that decisions were made that were perfectly sound in the light of the information available at the time but that, with the benefit of hindsight, proved to be the wrong decisions.

The arrival of a new director for the base creates even more tension, especially given that Dr David Caulder (Donald Houston) has a very different style of leadership compared to his predecessor.

The second episode, Behemoth, brings more trouble for Moonbase 3. There’s a series of serious accidents but the worrying thing this time is that they are quite inexplicable. In fact the circumstances are positively mysterious. Astronauts being killed in accidents is one thing but when they disappear without trace that’s another matter. A sudden catastrophic depressurisation of a laboratory might have a rational explanation but when the wall of laboratory has been smashed and a scientist ripped apart that’s a mystery that is worrying indeed. And there are tracks leading to the laboratory where there could not be any tracks. It’s absolutely impossible. After all there’s nothing living on the Moon. Or is there?

In episode three, Achilles Heel, Moonbase 3 personnel seem to be making costly and very uncharacteristic mistakes. Nobody has been hurt but these mistakes have cost the European space program a lot of money and the lunar base is already facing severe budgetary squeezes. Deputy director Dr Michel Lebrun (Ralph Bates) believes the answer is to tighten up discipline, but then Lebrun always believes discipline should be tightened up. 

The fourth episode, Outsiders, was a remarkably bold story for a science fiction TV series. Written by John Brason, it’s quite cerebral and deals with metaphysical and even religious themes. Two scientists at Moonbase 3 are on the verge of major scientific breakthroughs but is scientific progress enough to make life worthwhile and how great is the price to be paid? It’s a clever and original story but it’s hardly the sort of thing that would be likely to have mass audience appeal.

If the whole series had been as good as the fifth episode, Castor and Pollux, then Moonbase 3 might well have been a major success. This episode provides some real excitement and some real suspense. A routine repair job on a satellite goes wrong and one of Moonbase 3’s shuttle spacecraft is not only in dire peril but seems to be doomed, with the astronaut facing certain death. A rescue in space in this instance seems quite impossible. There’s just one very slim chance but even that appears to be hopeless since there’s no way permission would be granted for such an attempt. 

This story is not just exciting but is also a study in the pressures of command. Both David Caulder and Michel Lebrun will be tested to the limit as risks have to be balanced and terrifyingly difficult decisions taken. This is the first episode that really gives Ralph Bates as Lebrun a chance to demonstrate his acting chops and he does so quite impressively. There’s some actual character development here. Lebrun has always had very strong views on the subject of command but he’s always had the luxury of being second-in-command and therefore of not having to take ultimate responsibility. Now he has to make a crucial decision which will not only mean life or death for the astronauts but could end his career if his decision turns out badly, and the responsibility is his and his alone.

Sadly it all falls apart badly in the sixth and final episode. Up to this point they’d avoided the preachiness that afflicted so much 1970s BBC TV sci-fi (including at times Doctor Who). In this episode the preachiness is all too apparent but it’s not the only problem. I don’t want to reveal spoilers but this story incorporates plot devices that always exasperate me.

This series has an interesting cast. Donald Houston had had quite a successful career in film. Ralph Bates, who plays deputy director Dr Michel Lebrun, is best remembered for starring roles in a number of Hammer horror movies. The third major character is psychologist Dr Helen Smith (Fiona Gaunt). Fiona Gaunt had a fairly busy career in British television in the 70s before disappearing without trace. All three leads are fairly effective and the characters are reasonably well developed and, more importantly, they’re all fallible. That’s true of the minor characters as well. Astronauts might be carefully selected but they still have human weaknesses. In fact this group of space explorers has lots of human weaknesses!

The chief difficulty this series faced is a tough one. If you’re going to do a science fiction series without aliens and monsters how do you provide the action and the suspense that science fiction fans are going to be looking for? The writers manage to meet this challenge with reasonable success although one can’t help wondering how long they could have continued to do so had the series enjoyed a longer run.

If there’s one major criticism that can be levelled at Moonbase 3 it’s that for a serious science fiction program it doesn’t have much in the way of really meaty science fiction content. The focus is almost entirely on the psychological dramas that arise among the crew. It’s no coincidence that one of the three main characters is the base’s resident psychologist, Dr Helen Smith. The psychological dramas are quite interesting though and the emphasis on the peculiar kinds of stresses that arise among a group of people isolated in a hostile environment is quite effective and it does take full advantage of the setting. Of course they could have achieved the same results by setting the series in a remote part of the Earth (such as the Antarctic) but at least by setting it on the Moon they can throw in a few spaceships. On the other hand what science there is is much more realistic than one expects in TV sci-fi.

The production values are what you expect from the notoriously penny-pinching BBC in 1973. In other words they’re pretty awful. The sets and the special effects look very very cheap indeed when compared to something like Gerry Anderson’s Space: 1999.

Moonbase 3 was for quite a few years believed to have been another victim of the BBC’s insane policy of destroying practically every archived series they could get their hands on. Fortunately a copy was not only eventually found, it was in pretty good condition and even more fortunately it was a colour copy. The complete series of six episodes has been released on DVD by Second Sight (and I believe it’s an all-region DVD set). There are no extras but image quality is quite good.

Moonbase 3 had potential and even if that potential was not fully realised it has some good moments. It’s intriguingly and daringly different in tone from most television science fiction. It doesn’t always quite succeed but it’s a brave attempt. I think it’s definitely worth a look. Recommended.

Tuesday 18 October 2016

Callan - The Richmond File (1972)

Multi-episode story arcs were relatively unusual in television series in the 1960s and 70s but they were certainly not unknown. Callan (1967-72) featured several, including The Richmond File which occupied the final three episodes of the fourth season.

In the first installment of the Richmond File, Call Me Enemy (written by George Markstein), Callan has to debrief a Soviet defector at a safe house out in the countryside. The defector is Richmond, a colonel in the KGB. Rather unusually Callan is assigned to the job on a completely solo basis. He has no other agents to back him up. It’s just the two of them. Considering that Richmond’s KGB career includes a number of killings it seems like a very risky procedure but Callan’s boss Hunter has his reasons for doing it this way.

Partly the idea is that Callan and Richmond are in a way equals. Callan is the top operative for the ultra-secret British counter-intelligence agency known as the Section and he has more than a few killings to his credit. He’s a very experienced and very senior operative. Richmond is equally experienced and equally senior. There are even some uncanny similarities in their backgrounds. With someone as experienced and as tough as Richmond  a conventional interrogation might succeed. If Dr Snell (the Section’s specialist in such things) were put in charge of the interrogation it would certainly succeed but Snell’s methods have an unfortunate tendency to leave the subject permanently damaged. Callan on his own might well have a better chance of finding out what Richmond is really up to.

And Hunter strongly suspects that Richmond is up to something. The possibility that his defection is genuine cannot be ignored but Hunter is inclined to think it’s a setup. 

The stage is set for a battle of wills between two men who are both hardened professionals and both exceptionally strong and devious personalities. Callan’s task is to find a weakness or spot some tiny error that will tell him whether or not Richmond is a genuine defector; Richmond for his part is equally keen to break down Callan’s resistance, either to persuade the Section that he should be given political asylum or to achieve some unknown objective for his KGB masters.

While other series regulars make brief appearances this story is mostly played out by Callan and Richmond. This puts considerable pressure on the two actors involved. Fortunately both Edward Woodward and T.P. McKenna (as Richmond) are equal to the task.

Do You Recognise the Woman? (scripted by Bill Craig) forms the second part of this story arc. Hunter has come up with a typically devious plan to use a Soviet agent currently serving a long sentence in a British prison as a means of trapping Richmond. Since there in no chance that the agent in question, Flo Mayhew (Sarah Lawson), will co-operate voluntarily she will have to be tricked into doing so. Callan always gets the dirtiest jobs so it’s not surprising that he lands this one. He has a bit of a personal interest this time - Flo Mayhew was captured while carrying out an operation for the KGB, the purpose of the operation being to kill Callan.

Despite this he discovers that spies have quite a lot in common. There’s a certain strange camaraderie. He also discovers that even KGB killers have human weaknesses and emotional lives. Even KGB killers as ruthless as Richmond.

In the third installment, A Man Like Me (written by James Mitchell), the net is closing on Richmond but that merely makes him more dangerous. 

The Section is so determined to get him that Hunter is even prepared to resort to using a computer. The computer does provide some leads but Callan’s much more old-fashioned methods provide the vital break.

Of course the climax is going to be a final duel between Callan and Richmond but it manages to provide an ending that is both slightly unexpected and totally satisfying, both dramatically and emotionally.

In The Richmond File Callan finds himself having to confront several Soviet spies as individuals rather than as mere enemies. It’s a somewhat uncomfortable experience. Callan is always uncomfortable when he may have to kill someone after getting to know them (that’s part of the business of counter-espionage) but he’s never had to confront the problem with actual KGB officers before. It’s particularly disturbing when he finds himself not only understanding them but liking them.

T.P. McKenna was a very fine character actor and he does a superb job as Richmond. He makes him believable and sympathetic without sentimentalising him. We never forget that while Richmond is intelligent and charming he is also a killer. Just as Callan is a killer. McKenna and Edward Woodward really do work together magnificently in these three episodes. With two actors so perfectly cast and with such very strong scripts you really can’t go wrong.

The Richmond File provided a top-notch finale for the fourth season, which turned out to be the finale for the series as a whole. Callan certainly went out on a very high note indeed. Essential viewing. 

Monday 10 October 2016

The Owl Service (1969)

The Owl Service is a 1969 mini-series from Britain’s Granada Television. It’s a children’s program although it’s obviously aimed at what would probably today be described as the young adult market. In fact it deals with a few concepts that very definitely qualify as adult themes. It’s a fantasy series in a contemporary setting although the supernatural elements are subtle and ambiguous. 

Alan Garner wrote all eight half-hour episodes. He adapted the series from his own novel.

Clive (Edwin Richfield )and his new wife Margaret are holidaying in a remote very rural Welsh valley. Both had been married before. Clive has a teenage son, Roger (Francis Wallis), from his previous marriage while Margaret also has a teenager, Alison (Gillian Hills), from her previous marriage.  Their housekeeper Nancy (Dorothy Edwards) and Nancy’s son Gwyn (Michael Holden) complete the household, apart from a gardener named Huw (Raymond Llewellyn), a strange character who may be a bit touched in the head.

Investigating odd scratching noises coming from the attic Alison and Gwyn discover an old dinner service (this is the owl service of the title). The pattern on the plates is a little puzzling but after tracing the design Alison finds that it comprises flowers and that when put together the flowers make an owl. She starts, rather obsessively, to make paper owls from the tracings. The paper owl models seem to have a rather disturbing effect on Alison.

The plates have some kind of connection to a local legend involving a romantic triangle that ended in a strange double murder, one of the murders being committed by a dead man. There’s also a mysterious stone near the house with a hole through it, allegedly made by a spear cast and also connected with the legend. This legend also tells of a woman made from flowers who turns into an owl.

The plates have a surprising property. After Alison copies the design on one of the plates the design disappears from the plate.

There’s a good deal of tension between the various characters, at least some of this tension being emotional or sexual in nature. There’s an obvious attraction between Alison and Gwyn while the relationships between Alison and some of the other characters are slightly unsettling (I did say this series touched on some adult themes).

There are other complications with roots in both the distant and the recent past.

The pacing is leisurely, which is a polite way of saying that it’s slow. I’m inclined to think this story might have worked better as a six-part rather than an eight-part series. There’s not quite enough plot to sustain eight episodes and while it’s useful to develop the characters and the atmosphere of unease at a deliberate pace it really is unnecessarily slow.

Of course a potential problem with a series in which the key characters are children or teenagers is that it makes heavy demands on inexperienced actors. The big problem here is Francis Wallis who fails completely to get a handle on his performance as Roger. Roger ends up being not only a character the viewer doesn’t care about - we also can’t imagine any of the other characters caring about him or even bothering to notice his existence. Michael Holden gets the brooding intensity right as Gwyn. Gillian Hills (who at 25 should have been much too old to be playing a teenager) does pretty well in what is a formidably demanding role.

In some ways The Owl Service strikes me as the kind of series that adults would imagine that teenagers would like. I suspect that actual teenagers might have preferred a bit more spookiness or a bit more excitement, and possibly just a touch of humour. As it stands the series has at times a bit of a dour kitchen-sink drama feel to it. There’s a teen romance angle that would obviously appeal to girls but I can’t imagine most teenage boys lasting beyond the first couple of episodes. That’s not to say that this is a bad series. It’s just terribly serious and intense, and slow.

At the time there were those who felt that the series was quite unsuitable for children and I have to say I agree with them. It’s wildly unsuitable material. Alan Garner’s original novel was apparently not actually intended as a children’s novel although it ended up being labelled as such. It’s probably better (and less disturbing) not to regard The Owl Service as a children’s series at all.

It also has a feature that is, alas, rather common in British television of its era - it pits cruel snobby wicked upper-class people against a noble long-suffering working-class hero. This is always tiresome and in this case it also seems like an unnecessary distraction from the main story.

The inspiration for both the novel and the TV series was a Welsh legend from The Mabinogion. A wizard creates a woman named Blodeuwedd out of flowers, and as a punishment for betraying her husband (and causing two murders) she is turned into an owl. The central premise of The Owl Service is that the tragic romantic triangle of the legend is destined to repeat itself over and over again.

Rather surprisingly for the period this series was shot mostly on location in Wales. It was also shot in colour at a time when this was still unusual for British television. Unfortunately it went to air in December 1969 in black-and-white and was not seen in colour until 1978.

Network’s DVD release contains all eight episodes and image quality is pretty good. There are some worthwhile extras as well. There’s a documentary film on Alan Garner which left me determined not to read any of his books. More interestingly is the accompanying booklet which includes an incredibly detailed essay on the production of the series, interviews with Gillian Hills and Raymond Llewellyn and a brief but enthusiastic appreciation by Kim Newman.

The Owl Service was a wildly ambitious project. Not surprisingly it’s not always a complete success. Producer-director Peter Plummer approaches the series more in the spirit of an art film than a popular television series and on occasion he gets a little carried away (the surreal touches in the final episode seem out of place). At times it’s heavy going and it has severe pacing problems but it’s still a fascinating if somewhat pretentious attempt to do something different in the field of television fantasy. If you have a higher tolerance than I have for artiness and you can overlook some clumsy “social commentary” then it’s worth a look.

Sunday 2 October 2016

Dangerous Knowledge (1976)

Dangerous Knowledge is a fairly gritty six-part mystery thriller serial made by Britain’s Southern Television and originally broadcast in 1976.

Bill Kirby (John Gregson) has been in France on business and is returning to England. He wants to leave the car ferry unobtrusively and attaches himself to Laura Marshall (Prunella Ransome). He attaches himself in a rather obvious way but Laura is more amused than concerned.

Kirby is trying to avoid two men. He claims they have been following him. In fact it’s pretty obvious that they are following him. He also claims that they mean to do him harm.

Kirby’s later explanations to Laura, after they reach her luxurious cabin cruiser (although it’s actually Daddy’s cabin cruiser), are evasive to say the least. He tells her that he is an insurance salesman but he was in France for unspecified private business - all he tells her is that there are different kinds of insurance and that he has obtained some information that may be valuable. The viewer is entitled to suspect at this point that Kirby’s business in France may not have been entirely kosher. As Laura remarks, it could be anything from industrial espionage to blackmail. And Bill Kirby might be a crook, or an undercover cop, or a spy or possibly even an insurance salesman who has stumbled across something lucrative but dangerous.

This is a series that takes its time letting us know what is going on. We find out a little bit about Kirby in the second episode. He is divorced, the divorce was amicable, he is staying at his ex-wife’s house and he has money troubles. He also drinks rather a lot. 

Kirby’s problem (or at least one of his several problems) is that he’s short of reliable allies. In fact it looks like Laura Marshall might be the only ally he has but it’s doubtful whether he can trust her either. Laura’s stepfather, Roger Fane (Patrick Allen), is a senior civil servant. It’s not entirely clear what he does but it seems to have something to do with security or counter-espionage. Fane seems to be rather interested in Bill Kirby.

By episode five we’re still not sure what is really going on, who are the good guys and who are the bad guys and what the motivations of the major characters might be. The mystery is maintained without resorting to willful obscurity. We’re not actually misled, we’re merely handed one piece of the jugsaw puzzle at a time. 

The emphasis is on atmosphere and tension, and a considerable degree of 1970s paranoia, rather than action. 

John Gregson had a reasonably successful film career in the 50s. By the 60s he was working mostly in television, with considerable success. He starred in the hit cop show Gideon’s Way. Tragically he died suddenly at 56 shortly after filming Dangerous Knowledge. Gregson was perhaps getting a bit old, and a bit portly, to be starring in thrillers by this time but then that’s really the point of the series - Kirby really is too old to be getting mixed up in these sorts of activities but he needs money badly and he had no idea it would turn out to be this dangerous. Gregson does an effective job. He’s gruff and grizzled and cynical but sympathetic as well. At the same time we’re not entirely confident that he’s an honourable man. We like him but he could be a hero or a rogue, or even an out-and-out villain.

Prunella Ransome is very good as Laura. Laura is a woman who is not sure where her sympathies should lie or where they actually do lie. Ransome doesn’t try to play her as a femme fatale. She’s simply a reasonably intelligent woman thrust into a situation where she’s out of her depth.

Patrick Allen is perfectly cast. He could play smooth villains or trusted authority figures with equal assurance and he’s suitably enigmatic here in his portrayal of Roger Fane.

Ralph Bates (best remembered for his appearances in some extremely interesting early 70s Hammer films) as Sanders makes a surprisingly good heavy. He gets virtually no dialogue. Mostly he just looks menacing but in an ambiguous way, as if he could be a cold-blooded hitman or an equally cold-blooded spy or undercover cop. He does the menacing part extremely well. 

Producer-director Alan Gibson did a great deal of television work but also directed a couple of Hammer horror films - the notorious Dracula A.D. 1972 and the underrated The Satanic Rites of Dracula. He also directed the obscure but interesting Goodbye Gemini.

N.J. Crisp’s career as a television writer was prolific and varied. He wrote all six half-hour episodes and his scripts are literate and cunningly contrived to keep us guessing. What’s particularly impressive is that he does this without over-complicating the plot. The main plot outline is quite straightforward, if only we could be sure who is betraying whom and why.

Simply Home Entertainment’s Region 2 DVD release is a single disc without any extras. The transfers are however very good. There's also a Region 1 DVD, from VCI.

Dangerous Knowledge is typical of the best British television of its type of the 60s and 70s, fairly low-key and slow-burning but tense and absorbing. It’s well-written and extremely well-acted. Highly recommended.