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.