Sunday 22 April 2018

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea season 3 (1966-67) - part 2

I posted on the subject of the first half of season three of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea in January. This current post is basically just an episode guide for the second half of the season.

The Brand of the Beast is the kind of episode that, for better or worse, gained season three its reputation for fairly silly monster stories. The Seaview is racing to save a group of scientists on a sinking ship. The reactor overheats and Admiral Nelson has to risk radiation poisoning to fix it. Now of course the great fear that haunts everyone who works with nuclear energy is that if they get a heavy dose of radiation they’ll turn into a werewolf. In fact of course this can only happen if you’ve already been exposed to the werewolf virus. On the other hand on a vessel the size of Seaview it’s pretty much a certainty that there will be at least one crew member who carries the werewolf virus, and of course in this case that person is Admiral Nelson.

So we get the admiral running amok and smashing all kinds of vital equipment and almost sinking the Seaview. Which is fun even if it’s kind of silly. What makes this episode more interesting than you might think is that both Captain Crane and Chief Sharkey are put in positions where their loyalties conflict with their duties and they have to make agonising decisions. And the actors really do try their best to carry it off. The ending is ludicrous but it’s ludicrous in a fun way.

The Creature is typical season three stuff. A somewhat unhinged scientist has created an artificial life form and (perhaps unwisely) released it into the sea. Now this seaweed monster has grown huge and it’s decidedly unfriendly. Admiral Nelson wants to destroy it but that’s not easy as the monster starts taking over the minds of the Seaview’s crew. This is all pretty much stuff that has been done before. A very weak episode.

In Death from the Past the Seaview finds a strange structure on the sea floor. Inside this structure Captain Crane and his men find - Nazis! Live Nazis, who think World War 2 is still raging. The structure is a weapons lab, full of secret weapons. The Nazis, who don’t seem to be aware that 35 years have passed (and who haven’t aged since 1944), want to take over the Seaview for the Führer. Not a very impressive episode.

The Heat Monster is not entirely a bad idea. A foolish Norwegian scientist guides an alien entity to Earth. The alien is a heat creature and it’s obviously not friendly. The script is fairly pedestrian which is a pity since the special effects are reasonably good and the Arctic setting is terrific (and is used to good effect).

The Fossil Men is another monster story. The monsters are rock men, as in men made of rocks. Naturally they have evil designs on the Seaview and its crew. This is one of a number of season three episodes in which Richard Basehart and David Hedison give the impression of playing things, part of the time at least, with tongue planted firmly in cheek. Amusingly the episode starts with Nelson reading sailors’ tales from the 17th century about  horrific events after ships are destroyed in a maelstrom. The Seaview is about to encounter exactly the same fate. The rock men look pretty good, even if they are guys in rubber suits. This is a thoroughly enjoyable episode and even its weaknesses have the effect of adding to the fun.

In The Mermaid a secret mission has to be delayed because Captain Crane is off chasing a mermaid. This is the kind of story that all too often brings a science fiction series to shipwreck. It’s extremely difficult to get the tone just right. It has to be a bit whimsical but kept within limits, there has to be a touch of humour but it can’t be played for broad comedy and it has to have a slight suggestion of a dream-like atmosphere but without going too far. They almost pull it off. The first half of the episode works perfectly. Then it disappointingly turns into another guy-in-a-rubber-suit monster episode. On the plus side Diane Webber makes an adorable mermaid, John Lamb’s underwater photography (including footage from his odd but interesting feature film The Mermaids of Tiburon) is gorgeous and David Hedison’s performance is excellent. This should have been a terrific if  offbeat episode. Despite its flaws there’s still a lot to like about it. I don’t think writer William Welch can be blamed for the way the episode loses its way - by this time the network had made it pretty clear that they wanted monsters and that’s all they wanted so he probably didn’t have much choice about throwing in the monster stuff.

The Mummy starts intriguingly enough. The Seaview sneaks into the port of New York, Nelson and Crane use the Flying Sub to steal ashore incognito and they return with a 3,000-year-old mummy in a case. Even before the opening credits we have reason to believe that the mummy may not be quite dead, and something odd is happening to Captain Crane.

Strange things start to happen. Things like sabotage, and crewmen getting attacked. It’s as if someone or something is determined to prevent the mission from being accomplished. Mind you, the mission itself sounds rather unlikely anyway.

The mummy itself is pretty dismal but the story is fun if you don’t try to make sense of it. In fact you can’t make sense of it - most of the questions you want answered don’t get answered. And at the end Admiral Nelson tells Crane that some things are best left unexplained, which pretty much sums up this episode. For all its faults I enjoyed this one.

Seaview is on a mission to exercise control over the launch of an interstellar space probe when the submarine is engulfed by what appears to be a black void and one by one the crew gets taken over by an alien entity in Shadowman. It’s an idea that had already been used once too often. This episode is drearily unimaginative and is made worse by its all-too-evident cheapness. It’s not that the special effects are poor. They’re non-existent and it’s an episode that desperately needed special effects.

Is No Escape from Death the worst-ever episode of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea? It certainly has to be a contender for that title. The Seaview sinks (which is no big deal since it sinks in nearly every episode of the third season) but this time it sinks really badly. This episode is mostly a succession of clips from earlier episodes, many of them in black-and-white just to make it more insultingly obvious what has been done. It was a way to keep the budget at absolute rock bottom, and by this stage that was obviously all that mattered.

The best thing that can be said about Doomsday Island is that it doesn’t look as cheap as the episodes that preceded it. In fact there are things about it that look quite impressive. Unfortunately the aliens themselves are very poor guys-in-rubber-suits monsters. This is your standard space aliens taking over the world story, with the first step naturally being to take over Seaview. One or two good ideas in this story, and an enormous amount of silliness.

After a succession of disappointing episodes things get back on track with The Wax Men. The Seaview takes on a strange cargo - crates filled with wax statues reputedly from the Lost Continent of Atlantis. Only that’s not what’s in the crates. They actually contain robotic wax dummies of every member of the Seaview’s crew, plus one small but very malevolent clown. The clown is actually a diabolical criminal mastermind and the robotic wax dummies take over from the crew and allow him to gain control of the submarine. The clown has made one miscalculation - the real Captain Crane is still at large and he wants his submarine back.

This one has a genuinely creepy atmosphere. The wax robot crew members are wonderfully but subtly sinister. There’s also terrific paranoia - Crane is entirely alone and has no way to fight back. He’s just waiting until he gets hunted down. The effects are very good. David Hedison does well as Crane starts to crack under the pressure. Michael Dunn (best remembered perhaps as the evil megalomaniac Dr Loveless in The Wild Wild West) makes the clown convincingly deranged and menacing. And there’s a nicely surreal feel to proceedings. This is enhanced by the wise decision not to over-explain things (and not offering an explanation adds to the terror and mystery). One of the best episodes of the season.

Deadly Cloud is another alien invasion story that utilises too many tired ideas that the series had used too many times before. The aliens have the ability to take control of members of the crew and turn them into obedient robotic zombies. Even with the threat of the world ending in 20 minutes’ time this story can’t work up any real suspense or excitement.

Destroy Seaview! again relies on plot devices that were becoming all too familiar but at least there are no monsters. We also find out how to deal with a nuclear reactor that is about to go critical - you just shoot it, with lasers. An OK episode.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about season three is that Richard Basehart and David Hedison continue to put real effort into their performances. With the increasing silliness of the stories there must have been a temptation either to lose interest or start hamming things up but by and large they resist those temptations, although Basehart does occasionally succumb. Basehart took himself quite seriously as an actor and wasn’t especially happy making the series, and was also drinking rather heavily. David Hedison seems to have taken a more realistic and more philosophical view - the series was fun to do and it paid well.

The real problem with season three is not that it had become locked into a Monster of the Week formula, but the fact that the budget was woefully inadequate for following such a formula successfully. Some of the monster stories (such as The Mummy) might have worked quite well with a bit more money spent on them. I also get the impression that the writers were starting to accept that no-one really cared about the series any more and as a result they were not exactly motivated to produce dazzling scripts.

Season three does have its moments but it’s heartbreaking to see the sad decline of what had been the best American sci-fi series of the 60s.

Thursday 12 April 2018

The Time Tunnel (1966-67), part one

The Time Tunnel was less successful than Irwin Allen’s other 1960s TV sci-fi series, running for a single season on the American ABC network from 1966 to 1967.

I wrote about The Time Tunnel a few years back but I’ve now had the opportunity to watch a lot more episodes and my views on this series have changed somewhat so I think it’s appropriate to take another look at it, and in a bit more depth.

The premise is a good one - a top-secret U.S. government time-travel project. Although the technology is very advanced in theory in practice it doesn’t work so well and our two unfortunate time-travellers are hopelessly lost in time, shuffled from one historical era to another but with no way of returning to the present. So it’s a bit like Irwin Allen’s Lost in Space but with the heroes lost in time. It is however notably lacking in the high camp excesses of Lost in Space. In fact as time-travel series go it takes its subject more seriously than you might expect. There is for example a much greater awareness of time paradoxes and the inherent limitations of time travel that you don’t find in Doctor Who.

One of the things for which The Time Tunnel is sometimes criticised is the very extensive use of footage from various 20th Century-Fox historical movies. I don’t really see this as too much of a problem. It’s done quite skilfully and in any case a series in which every episode takes place in a different historical period and always at a time when major historical events are unfolding would have been astronomically expensive to make without the use of existing footage.

Of course this technique means that the series is limited to dealing with historical events for which 20th Century-Fox had suitable colour footage from their movies but since the studio had made a lot of movies by 1966 this was not a major constraint.

All American science fiction television programs of the 50s, 60s and 70s had budgetary problems. Science fiction television is expensive to make and there’s really no way to avoid spending a lot of money if you want decent results. This tended to make the networks very nervous, and tended to make them fairly hostile to science fiction. Network execs figured that if cop shows and westerns could be made dirt cheap then why risk big money on science fiction shows? Most American TV sci-fi series in this era had limited runs, not necessarily because of poor ratings but simply because the bean-counters were unwilling to continue spending money on series they considered to be risky to begin with.

The usual pattern was for the first one or two seasons to be fairly visually impressive and then the producers would find themselves having to deal with sharply reduced budgets in later seasons. The most successful of all Irwin Allen’s series, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, suffered rather grievously in this respect in its third and fourth seasons. The use of existing footage helped to keep The Time Tunnel’s budget within reasonable limits but it was still inevitably a lot more costly to make than a cop show. It’s therefore not entirely surprising that the series was cancelled after a single season despite very good ratings.

Doug and Tony, the two heroes of the series, always seem to arrive at a particular time and place in which something incredibly historic is about to happen. It’s a bit unrealistic but after all the aim is to provide entertainment so it’s forgivable.

Science fiction writers tend to agonise over the dangers of time paradoxes and to take two different approaches to the question. One approach stress that time travellers would have to be very careful not to change history as this could have disastrous consequences in the present. The alternative point of view is that even if you tried to change history the Universe would not allow it to happen and history would stubbornly follow its allotted course. The Time Tunnel seems mostly to adopt the latter approach. Doug and Tony do on many occasions try to change history but they seem doomed always to fail. In some episodes they seem oblivious to the problem while in others they seem to be very aware indeed of the impossibility of changing history.

There is one curious unexplained aspect of this series. What exactly is the purpose of the Time Tunnel? Obviously it’s time travel, but for what purpose? It’s established very early on that any attempt to change the course of history is doomed to fail. So why is the U.S. government spending billions on the project? We do get a tantalising hint in the episode Secret Weapon that the CIA might have an interest in the project.

It’s also interesting to compare this series with another Irwin Allen series, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, which began its run two years earlier in 1964. Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea is a celebration of American scientific and technological prowess, with the Seaview being a shining achievement. The technology in The Time Tunnel on the other hand is ambitious but it’s a fiasco. The tunnel is supposed to be able to send people to a specified time period but it doesn’t work properly and can send them anywhere. It’s supposed to be able to bring them back again but it can’t. There’s supposed to be a mechanism that will allow the controllers to contact the time travellers but it doesn’t work. The controllers are supposed to be able to pinpoint the time travellers’ exact position in time and space but it only works intermittently. This is a seriously unsuccessful piece of technology!

Rendezvous with Yesterday was the pilot episode. The DVD release of the series includes the unaired extended version of this episode. Irwin Allen himself directed it and shares the writing credit as well.

An ultra-secret US government project is getting very close to unlocking the secrets of time itself and making time travel possible, but when the pesky Senator Leroy Clark (played by Gary Merrill)  turns up to find out exactly how the many billions of dollars poured into the vast project have been spent they have to admit that they haven’t done any actual time travel yet. They’re sent mice back in time, or at least they think they have but they can’t be sure because they’ve never been able to get the mice back to the present. Senators being annoying creatures Clark wants to close the whole project down unless they can demonstrate some real results right now. As in today.

Horrified by the thought of seeing the project shut down the young and headstrong Dr Tony Newman (James Darren) volunteers to be the guinea pig. He is told that such a thing is out of the question. It is much too dangerous. He goes into the time tunnel anyway.

He ends up in 1912. That’s not so bad, especially when he meets a charming and friendly young Englishwoman, Althea Hall (Susan Hampshire). And he’s on a passenger liner and it’s a sunny day and the sea is calm. This is not bad at all. He doesn’t start to worry until he sees the name of the ship. It’s the Titanic.

The project is supposed to have a way of keeping track of time travellers but despite ten years of work and billions of dollars the whole time tunnel thing still has a lot of bugs in it. They do locate Tony but his buddy and close associate on the project Dr Doug Philips (Robert Colbert) realises that the only way to rescue him is to go into the time tunnel itself to bring him back.

So we now have two scientists hopelessly lost in time.

In One Way to the Moon Doug and Tony are transported ten years into the future, onto a spaceship bound for Mars. The difficulty is that with two extra passengers the spaceship is now dangerously overloaded. There’s plenty of action and excitement and there’s the neat twist of an important character in 1968 watching his future self in 1978.

End of the World is a clever idea. Doug and Tony are in the middle of a mine disaster in 1910 but no-one wants to help rescue the trapped miners because there’s no point - Halley’s Comet is about to hit the Earth and everyone is doomed anyway. Doug and Tony have to find a way to convince the townspeople the world isn’t going to end, which means they have to convince the great Professor Ainsley that his prediction is wrong and that the comet is not going to hit.

Crack of Doom takes our intrepid time travellers to the year 1883, to a little island named Krakatoa where a volcano is about to erupt. In fact the whole island will blow up, the explosion making the most powerful H-bomb seem like a toy. The explosion was heard 3,000 miles away. And the Time Tunnel has dropped Doug and Tony onto the island the day before the eruption. Apart from trying to save themselves they also hope to save a curmudgeonly vulcanologist and his daughter.

In Massacre the two time travellers find themselves at the Little Big Horn just in time to see Custer lead his men to disaster. This episode gets a bit heavy handed at times.

Devil's Island takes Doug and Tony to the infamous French penal colony in French Guiana. Naturally they arrive right at the time that the prison’s most famous prisoner, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, arrives. Doug and Tony are mistaken for prisoners and have to endure various horrors at the hands of the sadistic French commandant and the brutal French sergeant of the guards. There is an escape plan afoot but could it be a ploy by the evil French government to kill Dreyfus? The writers of this episode seem to have a few issues with the French! Not a great episode.

In Reign of Terror those dastardly French are up to evilness again! This time it’s the French Revolution and Marie Antoinette is about to have her head chopped off and Doug and Tony are drawn into a plan to save her (which of course they know is impossible). In any case they have enough trouble trying to keep their own heads on their shoulders. Quite a good episode.

Secret Weapon is a spy thriller episode set in eastern Europe in 1956 and Doug and Tony find out that the time tunnel is not as unique as they’d thought. This is the first episode that really plays around with the time travel concept in a creative way rather than just as an excuse for adventures in other historical period. It’s also the first episode that gives us a hint as the actual purpose of the Time Tunnel. It’s intended as a weapon. It’s a weapon that both sides in the Cold War are trying to develop. This is the best and most interesting episode so far.

The Death Trap has quite an amusing setup. There’s a plot to assassinate Lincoln, in 1861, and the would-be assassins are Abolitionists!

As far as The Alamo is concerned the title pretty much explains it. The trick for Doug and Tony is to get out of the Alamo alive. A reasonably good episode.

Night of the Long Knives takes Doug and Tony to India, to the North West Frontier, in 1886. Naturally they run into Kipling, and they get mixed up in a planned rebellion. Lots of stock footage in this episode (from King of the Khyber Rifles) but there’s also plenty of action and excitement even if the plot is totally unoriginal. I happen to be fascinated by this area of history so I loved this story.

It’s rather surprising that we get to episode fifteen, Invasion, before we get our first conformed Nazi sighting. Nazis were everywhere in 1960s action adventure TV series. In this story Doug and Tony are in Cherbourg, two days before D-Day, and the Gestapo is convinced they are spies. Doug gets brainwashed into believing he’s a Nazi. This is an OK episode.

That takes us up to the halfway point in the series. There’ll be another post at a later date covering the rest of the episodes.

Wednesday 4 April 2018

Thunderbirds (1965-66)

It’s a bit of a challenge trying to find anything new to say about Thunderbirds. It’s one of the truly iconic 60s TV shows, has maintained a loyal cult following for half a century and has been endlessly written about. All I can do is offer a few personal impressions, plus I’m going to talk about a few episodes that I’ve watched recently that have some interesting aspects to them.

One of the secrets to the success of the Gerry Anderson series of the 60s was that both Gerry and Sylvia Anderson had major input into the formats. Gerry knew all the stuff that boys were going to like (gadgets and action) and Sylvia knew what girls would like (a beautiful glamorous female secret agent). They had all bases covered.

And with Thunderbirds they really went all out to make sure they had all those bases thoroughly covered. It truly was a remarkably clever idea. The exploits of a rescue organisation had obvious potential for proving action and suspense. But this was to be an ultra-secret rescue organisation, so immediately you have the potential for some spy series-type intrigue. Add the aforementioned lady secret agent and you have even more excitement plus some glamour. To make this ingenious formula work they needed scripts that would provide the right mix of science fiction, spy thriller and crime thriller elements (with occasional dashes of humour and romance) and that’s what the writers came up with.

There was also Gerry Anderson’s determination to make each new series look more impressive than the preceding one. Thunderbirds is definitely a major step forward from Stingray. It’s visually more ambitious and it has a much more lavish and at the same time more realistic look. The action sequences are bigger and better. The miniatures are better. The puppets have been improved.

Compared to Stingray Thunderbirds definitely has more of an epic big-budget feel, it’s more cinematic. The hour-long format also of course lends itself to a more expansive and complex approach to plotting.

Stingray could be very exciting but there were many episodes that had a very whimsical feel. Which is fine, since it was essentially a kids’ show. Thunderbirds still has moments of whimsicality but overall it has a more sophisticated more grown-up tone. The whimsicality is kept strictly within limits.

While it was the spectacular rescues that were the series’ main selling point the spy/crime/ international intrigue angles actually dominate quite a few of the stories. In Brink of Disaster Lady Penelope, while out driving in her Rolls-Royce (unusually she is driving herself and is alone) is menaced by a couple of hoods. They take a few shots at her car with a submachine gun. At this point she decides the two men are a problem that needs to be disposed. So she kills them, ruthlessly and efficiently and without fuss. There’s no moral problem here. She is clearly acting in self-defence. It is however quite clear that Lady Penelope accepts that her job as a secret agent will sometimes require her to kill people, and it is clear that she has absolutely no problem with this. It’s a slightly surprising attitude to find in a kids’ show. What’s even more noteworthy is that in this case the violence is fairly realistic and not cartoonish.

There’s a definite attempt to avoid giving Jeff Tracy and his sons too much of a bleeding heart vibe. Obviously they are dedicated to saving lives and to doing good but they’re hard-headed and realistic about it. It’s also interesting that a rescue organisation employs a secret agent (Lady Penelope) and that it’s taken for granted that her duties will from time to time involve killing people. Jeff Tracy clearly understands how the real world works and that an overly sentimental or naïve approach won’t get you very far. It’s a remarkably clear-sighted and realistic view to come across in a children’s television program.

Brink of Disaster is an interesting episode not just for its insights into Lady Penelope’s ruthlessness. A major challenge for the writers was that Thunderbirds has a large cast of regular characters. There are ten major characters and a couple of other recurring characters. They all need to be given something useful to do. So in this episode there are two interconnected plot strands, one of which gives Jeff Tracy, Brains and Tin-Tin the rare opportunity to be personally involved in a rescue while the other puts Lady Penelope and Parker at centre stage.

Attack of the Alligators! is another interesting one. While Thunderbirds is science fiction the science fictional elements are generally quite restrained. Most of the technology consists of what would have seemed like fairly conservative extrapolations on the technology of the mid-60s. Space stations, hypersonic aircraft like Thunderbird 1, high-speed monorails, supersonic airliners, advanced cargo ships requiring only a skeleton crew, all these things would have seemed very plausible indeed. Attack of the Alligators! is a rare example of a Thunderbirds episode that involves rather fanciful science fiction elements (alligators grown to several times their normal size by a new miracle drug). In fact this story has the feel of a 1950s monster movie.

We also make a surprising discovery in this episode. International Rescue’s hoverbikes are missile-armed! And Thunderbird 4 carries missiles as well.

Martian Invasion involves not an alien invasion but a movie about an alien invasion. An accident on the set leaves two actors trapped in a cave that is rapidly filling with water. But that’s only part of the story, the real story being that it is all part of a plan by the nefarious super-spy The Hood to steal International Rescue’s secrets. And International Rescue does not take kindly to any threats to its security. It turns out that Thunderbird 1 and Thunderbird 2 are also very well-armed and Scott and Virgil are quite willing to resort to extreme measures to keep the organisation’s secrets. The combination of a race against time to rescue the trapped actors with some remarkably well-filmed action scenes (the chase scene involving Thunderbird 1 is particularly impressive) makes this a very entertaining episode.

The Duchess Assignment is a crime thriller episode with a rescue thrown in at the end. This one could easily have been an episode of The Saint, with Lady Penelope trying to extricate an old friend from the clutches of crooked gamblers and trying to foil art thieves.

The Cham-Cham is a spy thriller, with Lady Penelope and Tin-Tin going undercover to investigate a possible link between a pop group and the mysterious loss of several military transport aircraft. This episode demonstrates the growing confidence of Anderson’s team of puppeteers - we see puppets playing musical instruments, skiing and dancing and doing so fairly convincingly. They even do stunts! So far as puppeteering is concerned this may be the most ambitious episode yet. And with a bit of a Bond movie feel to it (not surprising in 1966) it’s also great fun.

Operation Crash-Dive is a more conventional rescue-oriented episode. The loss of one of the highly advanced Fireflash supersonic jetliners was bad enough but now a second Fireflash has crashed, in almost the same location. International Rescue are on the scene but there seems that there is little they can do until Brains comes to a startling conclusion. The Fireflash may have crashed into the sea and it’s possible that the flight crew could be still alive, trapped deep beneath the sea.

International Rescue do a bit more than just carry out a rescue though. For the next Fireflash test flight they take over the whole process of investigating the cause of the air disasters. There's plenty of excitement to come in this story.

In Edge of Impact that villainous super-spy The Hood is sabotaging the test flights of the advanced new fighter the Red Arrow. There’s also the matter of two men trapped atop a television transmitting tower, and that’s due to The Hood as well. The rescue method is certainly different and it involves a bizarre gadget, so all in all a good episode.

Cry Wolf is an episode that threatens to get a bit too warm-hearted. A couple of boys in the Australian Outback are playing at being International Rescue but their radio message is treated as genuine by the real International Rescue and Scott sets off in Thunderbird 1 to rescue them. When he discovers it was all a game Scott decides to take them back to the secret base on Tracy Island, hoping that this will persuade them not to send out any more fake distress calls. But what happens when soon afterwards the boys really need rescuing?

Dennis Spooner throws in some spy thriller elements, with the boys’ father being involved in an ultra-secret government satellite tracking project and masterspy The Hood determined to steal the project’s secrets. After a slow start things pick up and there’s a double race against time as the climax. It gets a bit whimsical at times and it’s not a classic but it’s an OK episode.

Thunderbirds really is great entertainment. There’s the occasional dud episode but the good episodes (and there are plenty of good ones) are significantly better than anything Anderson had done before. Highly recommended.