Saturday 30 June 2018

Space 1999: Alien Seed (novel)

Space: 1999 spawned a very extensive series of spin-off novels which, remarkably, have continued to appear well into the 21st century. Most of the 1970s novels were novelisations, usually combining three or four episodes of the TV series into a single narrative. There were however several original novels published in the 70s, including E.C. Tubb’s Alien Seed which came out in 1976.

Given that the two seasons of Space: 1999 were rather different in format and tone (with Year Two being almost universally regarded as very much inferior to the first season) it’s important to note that this is a Year One story.

The author assumes, doubtless correctly, that if you’re reading a Space: 1999 novel then it’s virtually a certainty that you’re familiar with the TV series and that you know the basic setup - a gigantic nuclear explosion has knocked the Moon out of Earth’s orbit and turned it into a huge spaceship hurtling uncontrolled through the galaxy. The crew of Moonbase Alpha, several hundred people, survived the blast and now they’re hoping to find a planet they can colonise.

It starts as a fairly typical Space: 1999 story. An unidentified object is heading towards the Moon. It’s on a collision course and the impact could destroy Moonbase Alpha. Commander John Koenig has to take prompt action to save Moonbase Alpha, and his scientific adviser Victor Bergman tries to persuade him to find a way to save the base without destroying the object. The object is rather curious. There are no signs of life and it seems to be basically just a very large rock but it looks odd enough to raise doubts as to whether it is a natural formation, and then there are the membranous wings.

Perhaps it would have been better to have destroyed the object. As the title of the book suggests the object is a seed pod but it contains more than seeds. What it contains is very frightening indeed.

This is a story of an encounter with something very alien indeed but there’s more to it than that. There’s also the telepathy angle. At the time that the object was first sighted Dr Helena Russell just happened to be carrying out an experiment on extra-sensory perception on a very promising young female subject. This turns out to have very significant ramifications.

The ESP angle might raise eyebrows but back in 1976 the idea of ESP as a reality did not seem as crazy as it doers today and fairly respectable scientists were still inclined to keep an open mind on the subject. ESP apparently is a subject in which the author of this novel has a certain interest and he manages to introduce it into his story without too much silliness.

In fact there’s really not a great deal of silliness at all in this novel. I’m not sure that I’d go so far as to describe it as hard science fiction but it’s certainly closer to hard SF than you expect from a TV tie-in novel. There’s at least some effort to keep things vaguely convincing. Of course it’s worth remarking that the reputation of the Space: 1999 TV series for silliness is largely due to the lamentable second season while the first season was reasonably serious, quite ambitious and often surprisingly intelligent.

The characters generally behave in ways that are consistent with the characterisations in the TV series. This is crucially important in a TV tie-in novel - if you fail to achieve this consistency then you end up with just a generic science fiction novel.

The setting is used skilfully, with constant reminders that the crew of Moonbase Alpha have no-one but themselves to rely upon and have to deal constantly with the psychological dangers of loneliness and despair. John Koenig is a man who can never forget even for a moment that he bears a heavy burden of responsibility - one mistake could mean the end of the line for Moonbase Alpha and everyone in it.

The relationship between Koenig and Victor Bergman is handled well also. Bergman is brilliant but he is sometimes blinded by his scientific ardour. Koenig clearly is the man who has what it takes to be a leader, even when that means taking difficult or unpopular decisions. He feels the burden of leadership but he accepts it. That burden is something that the other characters don’t always understand and than sometimes leads to tensions.

Tubb is not a dazzling literary stylist but he’s a competent writer and he knows how to structure a story and how to keep the pacing nicely taut.

Alien Seed is one of the more successful TV tie-in novels that I’ve read. It has a slightly more serious tone than the TV series but it still feels like a Space: 1999 story. If you’re a fan of the series you’ll enjoy this book. Even if you’re not a particular fan of Space: 1999 this is still a decent science fiction novel. Highly recommended.

Sunday 24 June 2018

Land of the Giants, season 1 (1968)

Land of the Giants was the fourth of Irwin Allen’s 1960s science fiction TV series. It aired on the US ABC network between 1968 and 1970.

The suborbital spaceliner Spindrift on a routine flight from Los Angeles to London encounters a strange cloud and loses control. The crew eventually regains control and lands successfully but pretty soon it becomes obvious they wherever they have landed it certainly isn’t London. Somehow they have ended up on a planet inhabited by what appear to be normal humans except they they’re enormous. And everything else is enormous, and potentially dangerous simply because of the scale.

There are only four passengers on board the Spindrift. Why anyone would build a spaceliner for scheduled services that can only carry four passengers is a valid question but from Irwin Allen’s point of view it made sense. With the pilot and co-pilot and one stewardess that made for a regular cast of seven which was ideal for this sort of series.

The basic setup is certainly reminiscent of Allen’s earlier Lost in Space series. It has a small group of people stranded on an alien hostile planet. It even has a character roughly equivalent to Lost in Space’s Dr Smith in the person of Commander Fitzhugh (Kurt Kasznar), who is cowardly and conniving but manages to strike up a kind of friendship with the young Barry Lockridge who is just a little older than Will Robinson. Fitzhugh though is less of a purely comic figure than Dr Smith and he has considerably more complexity.

Although Land of the Giants obviously had the potential to be even sillier and more high camp than Lost in Space the admittedly slightly far-fetched subject matter is approached reasonably seriously (and if you rewatch the the first few episodes of Lost in Space you can see that Irwin Allen originally intended it to be at least a semi-serious sci-fi series). And while the setup is remarkably similar to that of Lost in Space it’s still a very good setup. The really major difference between the two series is the genuine ever-present sense of danger and struggle in Land of the Giants. When you’re effectively only six inches tall then absolutely everything is dangerous and everything is a challenge.

The really interesting, and courageous, decision by Irwin Allen was to dispense with monsters. The giants are terrifying but they are not monsters. The giants’ world seems to be identical in almost every way with 1960s America. The giants are just regular folks. They are to be feared mostly because the giants’ government wants to capture every “little person” on the planet (and there are quite a few of them from previous space missions that had suffered the fate of the Spindrift). What the government intends to do with them is an unanswered question but it’s a fair assumption that the best they can hope for is to be kept in captivity and used pretty much as lab animals. A reward has been offered to anyone who finds little people and hands them over to the government, and human nature being what it is there are plenty of people willing to take the money. So the giants are a very real threat, but they’re not evil and they’re not monstrous.

As the first season progresses Inspector Kobick of the Special Investigation Department emerges as the principal villain but even he is not a monster - he’s doing his job and while he might be over-zealous and ruthless he’s not actually evil.

This posed a challenge to the writers who had to maintain a constant feeling of danger without being able to resort to evil monsters. On the whole I think they managed quite well. The humanness of the giants also adds a subtle touch of paranoia - some giants really are friendly and trustworthy but you can never be sure.

Land of the Giants was an incredibly expensive series. On the whole the money was well spent. The special effects mostly work quite well. The massively oversized props (matchsticks several feet long, a cotton reel the size of a 44-gallon drum, etc) look good. The Spindrift itself manages to look kind of bizarre, kind of goofy but kind of cool all at the same time. Some of the techniques used are pretty simple - using lots of low-angle shots to make the giants look huge and menacing and lots of high-angle shot to make the castaways look more vulnerable. Simple, but effective.

The US broadcast order bore no relationship whatever to the production order. I think it’s highly desirable to watch the series in production order. While there are no actual multi-episode story arcs the growing menace of the Special Investigation Department emerges more effectively if you watch it that way.

The way the giants are handled in the early episodes is very interesting. They’re menacing but in a subtle and indirect way. They look like very ordinary humans but they seem to be oddly lacking in emotion. At this stage we don’t know if they really are emotionless or whether they simply don’t see the tiny humans as actual people - whether they regard these miniature people as alien animals of some kind, worth studying but not worth treating with respect. But it’s all kept very ambiguous which is very intriguing.

The Episode Guide
The opening episode, The Crash, sets things up efficiently enough. The Spindrift is stuck on a planet of giants and her power cells are exhausted. The nature of the giants is kept cleverly ambiguous. We have no idea at this stage if they’re actively hostile or not. There are a couple of terrifying encounters with domestic animals - on a planet of giants dogs and cats are very scary creatures indeed.

It’s obvious that the Spindrift’s crew members -  Captain Steve Burton (Gary Conway), his co-pilot Dan Erickson (Don Marshall) and stewardess Betty Hamilton (Heather Young) - are resourceful and are determined to do what’s necessary to survive. It’s also obvious that some of the passengers are likely to cause problems.

The DVD release also includes the original unaired pilot version of The Crash. A number of changes were made in the broadcast version which went to air in September 1968. A couple of very poorly executed action scenes were added, and a lot of the scenes filling in the backgrounds of the characters were eliminated. That’s unfortunate because those scenes make spoilt rich girl Valerie (Deanna Lund) and arrogant engineer/tycoon Mark Wilson (Don Matheson) much more understandable. On the whole I think the unaired version is the better version but by 1968 Irwin Allen had become painfully aware that what the networks wanted were monsters so in the broadcast version he gave them monsters.

The second episode to be filmed was The Weird World, in which the castaways discover that they are not the first humans to find themselves on this strange world. Even more importantly, there may be a fully functional spaceship they can use to effect their escape from the planet.

In The Trap Betty and Valerie are caught by giants and an ambitious and dangerous  rescue mission has to be mounted to save them. There are lots of tensions among the party over this.

The Bounty Hunter presents new dangers for our space travellers - the giants are now actively searching for them and rewards have been offered to anyone who finds them or their spaceship. We also get a bit more insight into what the giants are really like.

In The Golden Cage another human is discovered on the planet. A beautiful girl, in a specimen bottle left out in the woods. To Steve this is an obvious trap. Mark however doesn’t see it this way - he is determined to rescue the girl. The girl, Marna, had been a passenger on a spacecraft that disappeared fifteen years earlier. She seems like a nice girl but she’s convinced that the giants are her friends and mean no harm. To Steve this is more evidence that Marna is part of an elaborate trap laid by the giants. This is an excellent episode.

The Lost Ones are a bunch of juvenile delinquents who are also marooned on the planet of the giants. They’re almost as much of a menace as the giants. This is one of those 60s TV episodes that tries to be hip and happening and in touch with youth culture. Such attempts never end well and this is an irritating episode.

The worst disaster that could befall our space castaways strikes them in Manhunt. A giant finds the Spindrift. The giant in question is an escapee from prison and he may be hoping to using the Spindrift as a bargaining counter to get his sentence reduced. The escapee then manages to get himself into real trouble and is facing certain death until Captain Burton decides the castaways have to save him. The question is, will the giant show gratitude or will he betray them?

Framed is a very convoluted and rather far-fetched tale but it is ingenious and it’s another episode in which the interactions with the giants are not necessarily always hostile. The giants are just like anyone else. Some are evil, some are good, most are in-between. And Captain Burton again decides to help out a giant who’s in trouble - he’s been framed for a murder but the castaways know he’s innocent because they witnessed the murder. The way in which they try to prove the man’s innocence is quite clever.

The Creed forces the castaways to make a very hard choice. Young Barry is desperately ill and needs medical help. But can they afford to trust a giant to provide that help?

The Flight Plan is an interesting idea but it does include a plot device that really stretches credibility. OK, I know the whole series stretches credibility but this idea just stretches it too far for my liking and undermines the necessary suspension of disbelief. The castaways encounter another castaway but there is something about this guy that makes Steve Burton just a little suspicious. The guy does however claim to be able to find a supply of the special fuel that the Spindrift requires so there’s a definite incentive to trust him.

Underground seems to confirm something that has been vaguely hinted at in other episodes - that the land of the giants has a government with certain totalitarian tendencies.

Double-Cross sees the castaways involved in a jewellery heist planned by a couple of ruthless but not overly bright giant crooks. It’s not a bad story but it’s the visuals that make this a really fine episode. The special effects are extremely good, the low-angle shots emphasising the size of the giants are particularly effective and the boy-in-the-lock sequences are very clever.

In On a Clear Night You Can See Earth the castaways try to steal a lens (which they need to recharge the solar batteries) from a giant but the giant turns out to be a mad scientist. In fact he’s totally insane and severely paranoid but he has come up with an invention that poses a serious threat to the castaways. Somehow that threat has to be neutralised, by whatever means may be necessary. Not a bad episode but the seeing Earth in the binoculars thing is a pretty silly.

Ghost Town is clever, scary and creepy. Crossing a force field brings our travellers into what appears to be a perfectly ordinary, normal-sized small town. It seems like they have somehow made it back to Earth. In fact they’re in a model village full of toy houses and toy cars, a village constructed by a giant, albeit a giant who is a kindly eccentric old man. He clearly intends to keep these little people as pets. That’s a bit disturbing but there is worse news to come out. The old man’s grand-daughter looks like a sweet little girl but she’s a psychopathic demon child from Hell and her intention is to torture the castaways to death.

The model village works really well. It looks normal but somehow not quite right. It’s just a bit too perfect. And the fact that the village looks so cute and innocuous makes the whole story quite unsettling. A very good episode.

Brainwash further develops the conspiracy theory thing involving the giants and their intentions towards the little people. Unfortunately the brainwashing technique that drives the plot is very silly - it’s like magic shaving foam! An episode with good bits and bad bits. The device of having a member of the Spindrift’s crew captured by the giants and needing to be rescued is starting to get a bit old.

Terror-Go-Round is yet another episode in which the castaways get captured by giants. At least this time they get captured by a circus and circuses do have the potential for fun. There’s also the added danger of being eaten by a giant bear. I must admit that this time the method of escape is pretty ingenious.

Sabotage pits the castaways against their most dangerous and ruthless enemy yet, the corrupt and fanatical security chief Bolgar (played by Robert Colbert who of course starred in Irwin Allen’s The Time Tunnel). If Bolgar’s scheme works there will be nation-wide panic and all the little people will be hunted down and killed. But Steve thinks he can come up with a plan to thwart Bolgar. It’s a bit contrived but it works and this episode does have a genuine sense of menace.

In Genius at Work a 12-year-old giant boy scientific genius has invented a formula for making small animals very large, which of course means that it can turn little people into giants. My own view is that in a science fiction series you can get away with one outrageous assumption, such as astronauts marooned on a planet of giants. But when you start adding further outrageous assumptions, such as a special formula that can turn a little person into a giant, you’re basically resorting to magic. It’s lazy writing, and it also destroys the suspension of disbelief. It’s basically cheating.

In Deadly Lodestone the implacable and malevolent Inspector Kobick of the security police has come up with what he believes is a fool-proof gadget that will allow him to track down and capture the Earth people. The totalitarian nature of the giants’ society is becoming ever more obvious, although the surprising thing is that that society is presented as an odd mixture of Cold War stereotypes about eastern bloc countries and all-American elements.

Night of Thrombeldinbar represents a definite turn towards whimsy. Mr Fitzhugh is mistaken by a couple of giant orphan boys for Thrombeldinbar, who is a magical folkloric figure who can grant wishes. Fitzhugh has his faults but he likes kids and feels sorry for the boys and sees a chance to cheer them up. Unfortunately he doesn’t know about the fate that awaits Thrombeldinbar according to time-honoured custom. While there’s some definite sentimentality neither this nor the the whimsy is pushed too far and this episode is at least an interesting change of pace.

In Seven Little Indians the castaways find themselves on the run in the zoo as Inspector Kobick comes up with another plan to capture them.

Target: Earth seems to promise a chance to return to Earth, but it will involve putting a great deal of trust in a giant scientist. The scientist has designed a guidance system to take a rocket to Earth but he needs help to make it work and only the castaways can provide that help.

Rescue is interesting since for once the castaways are being a bit pro-active, putting themselves forward in an attempt to rescue two trapped giant children.

Return of Inidu is a change of pace with an illusionist on the run and a haunted house. It’s not a bad idea and it’s amusing and different but the illusions are a bit unconvincing and it therefore stretches credibility fairly thin.

In Shell Game the castaways have to convince a giant woman that they can make her deaf son hear in exchange for their freedom. This one perhaps veers a bit too much into heart-warming territory.

The Chase provides a pretty decent season finale with some suspense and with Captain Burton having to make a tough decision - can he trust Inspector Kobick enough to make a deal with him? And maybe Kobick is not the only giant willing to make deals.

Series Overview
Land of the Giants suffers from some of the same self-inflicted weaknesses as Lost in Space. The fact that the adventurers’ spaceship is disabled means they’re stuck in the same place episode after episode. That’s good news for the producers since it keeps production costs down but it does get rather tedious. It also tends to impose certain limits on the stories, which almost invariably involve one or more of the party getting captured by giants and needing to be rescued by the others.

Land of the Giants is also limited by the decision to make the giants the only alien species (with absolutely no monsters), and to make them completely human-like and their planet completely Earth-like. Overall that was a good decision but it means the writers needed to show some imagination and cleverness, and unfortunately in practice there isn’t always quite enough of that imagination and cleverness.

The series’ big strength is that the group dynamic is quite interesting. As the commander of the Spindrift Captain Burton more or less inevitably assumes the leadership of the group. And it’s just as well that he does. The other crew members and passengers are well-meaning but they’re just not the stuff that heroes are made of, and not only do they need leadership, they need very strong leadership. They are inclined to be impulsive and impatient and reckless and short-sighted. The biggest problem is Mark Wilson. He’s a brilliant engineer and he’s brave and resourceful, but he’s also arrogant, pig-headed and impetuous and his judgment is simply atrocious. He always thinks he’s right, and he’s almost always wrong. Steve Burton is basically the only grown-up in the group and leading the group is like leading a group of small children who are enthusiastic but disobedient. Gary Conway handles this very well, making the character a generally easy-going guy but you can see the steel underneath. He really does have what it takes to be a leader and he’s quite prepared to make unpopular decisions and stick with them. Steve Burton is a likeable guy but he’s the boss.

It also has to be said that a certain amount of genuine thought has been put into the disadvantages, and the advantages, of being very very small in a world of giants. And visually the series is generally very well executed.

Despite the very similar format Land of the Giants is definitely much less campy than Lost in Space. Apart from a few blemishes it’s surprisingly successful in avoiding outright silliness. It was a bold move to approach this kind of material in a straightforward non-campy way but it works.

The DVDs
The first season looks extremely good on DVD. There’s not much in the way of extras but there is a very good interview with star Gary Conway. Conway comes across as an actor who gives his job a certain amount of thought and he’s still very enthusiastic about this series. He makes one extremely interesting point. At the time they were making the series the actors wanted it to be more character-driven which is something Irwin Allen strongly resisted. Conway now believes that Allen was right (and I agree with him). Getting sidetracked by the characters’ emotional dramas would actually have weakened the series, just as it has weakened so many series over the past thirty years or so. It’s unusual to come across an actor who can see this so clearly.

Summing Up
Land of the Giants is much better than it has any right to be. It’s far-fetched but it’s skilfully executed, the effects are mostly exceptionally well done (certainly by the standards of 60s network television) and it’s entertaining. Highly recommended.

Tuesday 19 June 2018

The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. - The Birds of a Feather Affair (novel)

The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. only lasted for one season (from late 1966 to early 1967) but it did spawn a series of tie-in novels. There were five original novels, although oddly enough three of them were published in the UK only.

The Birds of a Feather Affair by Michael Avallone was published in both Britain and the United States in 1966. What’s immediately obvious is that the tone is rather more serious compared to the TV series. The TV series is wildly uneven in both quality and tone but generally speaking it adopts a very light-hearted spy spoof approach, and in fact at times  it degenerates into out-and-out farce.

The Birds of a Feather Affair is much closer in feel to the first season of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. which combined solid exciting spy thriller plots with a mildly tongue-in-cheek approach.

The novel does have its outlandish elements but it also has some surprisingly dark moments.

The story begins with U.N.C.L.E. agent April Dancer arriving at fellow-agent Mark Slate’s apartment to find that he’s disappeared. What she does find there is a glamorous redhead and a deadly snake. She suspects that Mark has been kidnapped by THRUSH. And then a multi-national delegation arrives and kidnaps her.

Mr Waverley has no doubts as to what is going on. U.N.C.L.E. has captured one of THRUSH’s most important agents, a man named Zorki, and THRUSH are obviously hoping to trade Mark and April for Zorki. Zorki however holds the key to a discovery so astounding and so dangerous that Mr Waverley is not willing to give him up under any circumstances. He does however have a plan to hoodwink THRUSH over the affair.

In this adventure April Dancer and Mark Slate are up against THRUSH agents who are outstanding not just for their cunning but for their deviousness and cruelty. There’s the sadistic Arnolda Van Atta and the creepy and mysterious Mr Riddle, not to mention Fried Rice and Pig Alley. Even worse, there may be treachery within U.N.C.L.E. headquarters.

The action is fairly relentless. Avallone’s style is not always polished but his pacing can’t be faulted. The action climax is effective enough.

Apart from being much darker in tone than the TV series the violence is also slightly more graphic and there are some faint hints of sexual perversity that you weren’t going to see on prime-time TV in 1966.

A successful TV tie-in novel has to get the characters right. They have to be recognisably the characters from the TV series. The difficulty with this book is that the darker tone means that some of the good-natured banter between the two lead characters is missing. April is reasonably convincing. Mark Slate perhaps does not quite have the boyish charm that he should have and he's just a tiny bit too overtly macho but overall the novel succeeds at least reasonably well on this level.

A successful TV tie-in novel normally needs to capture the tone of the TV series as well but in this case the author has obviously deliberately chosen to aim for a quite different feel. Given that the TV series suffers from taking the comic approach way too far I can’t say that I blame Avallone for his decision. He has tried to write a genuine spy thriller. It’s not that the book takes itself overly seriously, but it takes itself seriously enough to work as a piece of spy fiction. If only that more slightly more serious approach had been taken with the TV series it might have been far more successful.

The Birds of a Feather Affair isn’t great spy fiction but it’s fast-moving and exciting and it’s entertaining in a lightweight sort of way. You’re probably not going to read this novel unless you’re a fan of the TV show, but if you are a fan of the series I think it’s worth picking up. It's not quite as successful as the Man from U.N.C.L.E. novel The Dagger Affair but it can still be recommended.

Sunday 17 June 2018

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. - The Dagger Affair (novel)

TV tie-in novels have been around for a very long time and while they have never been a consuming interest for me over the years I have read a number. I’ve never been very interested in the “novelisations” based directly on episodes of the TV series. To me that has always seemed to be a fairly pointless concept. Original novels based on TV series always seemed to be a more interesting idea.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. may well have been the first TV series to spawn a really spectacularly successful and prolific cycle of TV tie-in novels. Twenty-four original novels were published between 1965 and 1968 and they sold in enormous quantities.

The Dagger Affair was the fourth to appear, in 1965. The author, David McDaniel, went on to write half a dozen Man from U.N.C.L.E. novels including some of the biggest sellers in the series. He also wrote a tie-in novel based on The Prisoner. McDaniel’s literary career was cut short by his early death in 1977 at the age of 38.

The Dagger Affair opens with a break-in at Illya Kuryakin’s apartment and with Napoleon Solo having a chance encounter with a girl in a fast car. Whilst racing the girl his own car develops serious engine trouble which oddly enough seems to fix itself in a short time.  Trivial enough events but they occur at the exact moment that Mr Waverley is fretting about the fact that T.H.R.U.S.H. is not up to anything. That worries him because it isn’t natural. T.H.R.U.S.H. is always up to something. If they’re not then they must be planning something big.

Solo and Kuryakin are off to Los Angeles to follow up a very slender lead. They discover that T.H.R.U.S.H. is worried as well. They’re worried about D.A.G.G.E.R. and mostly they’re worried because they don’t know D.A.G.G.E.R. is but they’re sure it’s important.

Mr Solo’s engine trouble was in fact an important clue. A reclusive and eccentric young scientist has built a device called an Energy Damper that has strange and severe effects on electrical devices, and possibly on other things as well. Like people. Eccentric is perhaps the wrong word to describe this young man. Severely paranoid and totally insane might be more accurate.

The Energy Damper has the potential to destroy civilisation. Even T.H.R.U.S.H. are horrified. They’re so horrified they’re offering to work together with U.N.C.L.E. to save civilisation. Even this may not guarantee success - D.A.G.G.E.R. is an organisation run by full-blown fanatics with a super-weapon.

A successful TV tie-in novel needs to capture the flavour of the original TV series. If a Man from U.N.C.L.E. novel ends up being just a generic spy story with characters who happen to be named Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin then (in my view) it’s pretty pointless. The Dagger Affair does a reasonably good job of capturing the necessary flavour. It’s important to note that in this case it’s the flavour of the first season of The Man from U.N.C.L.E., when the tongue-in-cheek elements were definitely present but were kept under control and the plots were at least semi-serious spy stories. They could be somewhat far-fetched but the series had not yet descended into self-parody.

That’s the feel that McDaniel achieves. The central plot device, the Energy Damper, is fanciful but can at least be made to sound vaguely plausible with enough technobabble to back it up. There’s plenty of action and it’s treated more or less the way the action is treated in the TV series, with lots of gunplay but no graphic violence (although there is some gruesome threatened violence during an extended and rather baroque interrogation sequence). Mr Solo takes a keen interest in the female of the species but there’s no actual sex. The story is handled with a moderate attempt at realism but Solo and Kuryakin get to trade wise-cracks and their characterisations are pretty consistent with their TV counterparts.

While there are moments that are gently humorous McDaniel is definitely not aiming for comedy and his approach is fairly consistent with that of the first season of the TV show.

McDaniel takes the opportunity of giving us a fascinating glimpse into the history of T.H.R.U.S.H. going back to the 19th century. Of course the novels are presumably not regarded as canon but it’s still an amusing idea that one of the founding fathers of this infamous criminal organisation was none other than Professor Moriarty! It’s a weird but fun touch.

The whole point of a TV tie-in novel is that the target audience is fans who have watched every episode and still want more and The Dagger Affair seems just like the thing to satisfy that craving. It was a huge seller so obviously in this case the strategy worked. The Dagger Affair might not be absolutely top-flight spy fiction but it’s fast-moving and it’s enjoyable in a lightweight way and it does feel like a Man from U.N.C.L.E. adventure.

I was pleasantly surprised by The Dagger Affair, and I’m encouraged enough to be seriously considering sample a few more TV tie-in novels based on 60s and 60s cult TV series.

Tuesday 12 June 2018

Sweeney 2 (1978) - the movie

The Sweeney, possibly the best television cop show ever made, spawned two spin-off movies and both of them are slightly odd. The first of them was Sweeney! and it really bore very little resemblance to the TV series, being pretty much a generic 70s political/action thriller. Sweeney 2, which followed in 1978, is closer to the feel of the series but it has a script that loses its way badly at times.

Which is surprising, since the scriptwriter was Troy Kennedy-Martin who had a pretty good track record in both film and television (and whose brother Ian had created The Sweeney TV series).

While the first film tried to deal with political intrigue Sweeney 2 very sensibly sticks to the kind of subject matter that made the TV series so successful. Regan (John Thaw) and Carter (Dennis Waterman) are on the trail of a gang of blaggers (bank robbers). The gang has a couple of very distinctive and very puzzling trademarks. They always steal almost precisely the same amount of money, equivalent to US$100,000. Any money over and above that amount they leave behind in the getaway car. And one of the blaggers carries a sawn-off shotgun, but it’s not just any sawn-off shotgun, it’s a gold-plated Purdey (the Rolls-Royce of shotguns) worth a small fortune. What kind of person would saw the barrels off such a work of art?

The gang’s methods are particularly ruthless. It’s not that they go around shooting innocent bystanders or anything like that. But they have such an overwhelming determination not to be caught that they take suicidal risks, like driving straight into police cars at a road-block. And if a member of the gang is injured in a robbery they leave him behind, but they first make sure he’s dead (a shotgun blast to the head makes this a certainty).

These are obviously not your usual run of villains. They’re disciplined as well as organised and they appear to be operating to some kind of master plan.

Regan’s old boss Jupp (Denholm Elliott), the former chief of the Flying Squad, is now serving a lengthy term of imprisonment for corruption but he does have an important clue to offer Regan. The clue takes Regan and Carter to Malta. That’s where these blaggers actually live. They have a compound there, which is a kind of hippie commune if you can imagine a hippie commune run on paramilitary lines. This is where the weaknesses in the script start to become apparent. The blaggers claim to have abandoned England because they believe England is finished but we’re never really told exactly what the gang’s motivations are. Are they left-wing political extremists or right-wing political extremists? Are they a kind of religious cult? Are they part of the counter-culture or are they fleeing from the counter-culture? One assumes that Troy Kennedy-Martin had some vaguely coherent idea in mind but it seems to have gotten lost in the final script.

It’s a pity since the basic idea of bank robbers with plans to build their own society is definitely potentially interesting.

Another major problem with the screenplay is the bomb sub-plot. This comes out of nowhere, it goes nowhere, it has no connection with the rest of the movie, it makes no sense and it serves no purpose. It’s unnecessary padding and it’s a problem since this is already a movie with a few pacing problems.

Like the first movie Sweeney 2 tries to take advantage of the less restrictive censorship film censorship environment and as in the first film this backfires. Sweeney 2 has much more graphic violence than the TV series and the extra violence adds nothing of value, there’s some outrageously gratuitous nudity that is totally unnecessary, and worst of all there’s a much more pronounced atmosphere of sleaze. Regan and Carter in the TV series are a long way from being Boy Scouts but in this movie they’re drunken lecherous louts. The sleaze is pushed much too far and the characters become mere caricatures.

The supporting cast is interesting, with Denholm Elliott as the corrupt former Flying Squad commander and Nigel Hawthorne as his replacement Dilke. And yes, Dilke does come across as being remarkably like Sir Humphrey Appleby!

There’s some location shooting in Malta which looks nice enough. Although the Malta scenes give us some hints as to the motivations of the villains one can’t help wondering if the expense of sending a film crew there was really justified.

Sweeney 2 is a movie that definitely has its problems. It has its strengths as well. Even if the ideas aren’t fully developed the screenplay does at least try to give us something more than just another series of bank robberies. And it does set up the very violent climax in such a way that it makes sense rather than just being a bloodbath for the sake of having a bloodbath. There are lots of intriguing little touches that aren’t always fully explained but that makes them more intriguing, an example being the woman (whose link to the blaggers is rather peripheral) with the Hitler obsession. Apart from overdoing the sleaze this movie captures the feel of the TV series far more successfully than the first film. There are some fine action scenes.

The Region 4 DVD offers no extras but the transfer is pretty good.

With all its flaws Sweeney 2 is rather entertaining and it’s definitely an improvement on the first movie. Worth seeing if you’re a fan of the series.

Monday 4 June 2018

Eleven Days To Zero, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea pilot (1964)

It’s always interesting to see the subtle changes between the pilot episode of any series and the series proper. As I’m now almost at the third season of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea it’s an interesting time to look back at how it all began.

What makes it especially interesting is that there are several different versions of the Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea pilot to choose from. The Region 2 season four DVD boxed set includes as extras the original unaired version of the pilot, the also unaired recut version and the original broadcast version.

Eleven Days To Zero, the pilot episode of Voyage, was interestingly enough shot in colour although the first season would be shot in black-and-white. That first version of Eleven Days To Zero now seems to exist only in a slightly battered black-and-white print. The episode was subsequently recut and that recut version survives, in colour and in excellent condition.

Eleven Days To Zero was written and directed by Irwin Allen and it gives us a fine taste of what is to come in the first season - plenty of action, big ideas, the fate of the world in the balance, good special effects and extremely good acting.

The world’s leading seismologist has predicted a devastating earthquake in the Arctic (presumably an undersea earthquake) that will unleash tidal waves that will devastate coastal areas throughout the northern hemisphere. Millions of lives are likely to be lost.

Admiral Harriman Nelson (Richard Basehart)  and Dr Fred Wilson (Eddie Albert) however have a plan to save the world. They will detonate a nuclear device in the Arctic which will nullify the effects of the tidal waves. Admiral Nelson’s super-submarine the Seaview (which he designed himself) will carry the device to the Arctic.

It’s a dangerous plan and they only have eleven days in which to accomplish it but there’s another problem - a sinister international force is determined to prevent the Seaview from carrying out its mission. They have already assassinated the Seaview’s former captain and  they narrowly missed killing Nelson as well.

With a new captain, Commander Lee Crane (David Hedison), the Seaview sets off on its mission.

It seems that the odds are stacked against the Seaview. They face a depth charge attack from the air, they’re stalked by a hostile submarine and subjected to drone attacks. And that’s without mentioning the giant squid.

The major change in the recut version is that more focus is put on the Seaview’s new commander. In the original version it is implied that the crew don’t fully accept him at first, until he has proven himself, and that in his early career he had a reputation for being unimaginative. This sub-plot is beefed up considerably in the recut version, with the implication that Crane is a bit of a martinet and that he is initially viewed with definite suspicion by the crew.

The change is a positive one, adding not only more human drama but a bit more depth to Captain Crane.

The recut version also adds the suggestion that even Admiral Nelson is not at first entirely sure he’s made the right decision in accepting Crane as commander of the Seaview.

There’s a definite Fu Manchu vibe to this episode (something I thoroughly approve of) although the chief villain also has, somewhat bizarrely, just a hint of a kind of malevolent Noël Coward about him. Either way he’s a fine super-villain.

Irwin Allen obviously realised he’d need some fairly impressive visual effects in the pilot if the series was going to have any chance of being picked up by the network. And the effects are generally extremely good, especially when you get to see the episode in colour.

Of course when you’re almost at the end of season three watching Eleven Days To Zero serves as a reminder of just how terrific Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea was in its early glory days. The combination of fairly plausible science fiction with spy thriller elements was uniquely effective and made the first season without question the best American sci-fi television of the 60s.

Whichever version you choose Eleven Days To Zero is worth seeing again.