Tuesday 30 October 2018

Columbo season 5 Identity Crisis / A Matter of Honor (1975-76)

Two more episodes from the fifth season of Columbo which went to air in late 1975 and early 1976.

Identity Crisis
Identity Crisis is another odd season five episode of Columbo. The previous episode, A Case of Immunity, dealt with international politics. Identity Crisis plunges Columbo into the worlds of espionage and counter-espionage. A man is found dead on the beach, apparently the victim of a mugger. In fact the guy was an intelligence operative and he was murdered by another intelligence operative. Nelson Brenner, the murderer, is a very well-connected operator. We’re talking very serious CIA connections.

Columbo doesn’t know any of this at first although he does have a slight suspicion that there is something odd going on when he realises he’s being followed.

Columbo is used to having suspects who try to intimidate him and claim that they have all sorts of important friends who can put pressure on the police commissioner but in this case he’s dealing with a guy who really does have some very very powerful friends that you just don’t want to get on the wrong side of.

Patrick McGoohan plays Brenner and it’s a typical McGoohan performance with all sorts of paranoias and obsessions and weirdnesses bubbling away under a super-confident exterior.

Leslie Nielsen plays the spy who ends up dead on the beach. This was before Nielsen reinvented himself as a comic actor and he plays this rôle very straight indeed, and plays it pretty well too.

McGoohan also directed this episode (it’s one of several Columbo episodes he directed) and he does so with considerable style. Fans of The Prisoner will be in bliss - McGoohan throws in lots of subtle references to his classic spy series and yes, he says "Be Seeing You" on multiple occasions.

William Driskill’s script has a few weaknesses, the biggest one being that while Columbo successfully demolishes the killer’s alibi he really didn’t have anywhere near enough evidence to justify an arrest.

The motive is crucial and it’s only mentioned once in passing but it is mentioned and it’s more than sufficient motive for murder.

A Matter of Honor
A Matter of Honor shows just how dangerous it is for detectives to take vacations. If you’re a famous detective your vacations are destined to be blood-drenched. Columbo should have learnt his lesson after his murder-plagued ocean cruise in season four. In this case it all starts with a minor car accident in Mexico. Commandante Sanchez (Pedro Armendáriz Jr.) then invites Columbo to join him on a very routine investigation. A tragic accident has occurred at the ranch of Luis Montoya (Ricardo Montalban). Montoya’s old friend and right-hand man Hector Rangel has been gored to death by a bull. Columbo of course can’t help himself. He starts to poke around and he starts to notice things. Things that worry him. Maybe this wasn’t an accident after all.

Commandante Sanchez now finds himself with a big problem on his hands. He agrees with Columbo that there are certain details that are suspicious and that further investigation is warranted. But Sanchez does not want to do the investigating. It’s not that he doesn’t consider himself competent. He has no doubts about his own abilities. It’s not that he would ever turn a blind eye to murder. He is much too good a policeman to do that. But Luis Montoya is a living legend, a national hero. If he is seen to be suspecting Montoya or murder and if he than fails to come up with the necessary evidence then Commandante Sanchez is going to be the most unpopular policeman in Mexico. On the other hand if a nosy gringo cop is seen to be the one doing the investigating then Sanchez can stay in the background.

As it happens Columbo likes Sanchez and is amused by the way he’s been manoeuvred  into the case. And the case intrigues him, so he’s happy enough to take it on. It’s a neat way of explaining how Columbo gets to take the lead on a case in a foreign country.

There are some neat clues in this one. What I particularly like is that the unravelling of the clues requires Columbo (and the viewer) to learn some odd facets of bullfighting lore. The motive is crucial, and it’s a motive that is entirely appropriate to the nature of the case. It’s the motive that makes this a memorable episode.

The one major weakness is that while everything is for the most part fairly clued it’s not clear exactly how Columbo figured out the motive.

Ricardo Montalban is excellent (as always). He plays Luis Montoya as a man of considerable charm but also as an extraordinarily vain man who is prone to losing his temper if he thinks his honour is in any way at stake. Unlike most of the suspects in Columbo stories Montoya does not enjoy the battle of wits with the detective. He is angry and resentful right from the start.

This episode is another example of season five trying to be a bit different. Previous episodes have involved international incidents and espionage and then this one takes place entirely in Mexico. The desire to experiment just a little with the details of the Columbo formula is understandable enough after five seasons. And so far I’d have to say that attempts at adding a bit of variety have worked pretty well.

A Matter of Honor is perhaps not one of the very best Columbo episodes but it’s still very good and very enjoyable and definitely recommended.

Wednesday 24 October 2018

The Time Tunnel (1966-67), part two

The first part of this post appeared back in April.

The Time Tunnel was released on DVD in two half-series sets (and later as a complete series set). The second half-season set opens with The Revenge of Robin Hood pitching Doug and Tony into the middle of the tumultuous quarrel between King John and his barons in 1215, and Doug and Tony will have to help in an attempt to free Robin Hood from the clutches of the king. This one is kind of fun.

Visitors from Beyond the Stars propels Doug and Tony into the past but with a futuristic touch. They’re caught up in an attempted alien invasion of a small town in Arizona in 1885. The silver-skinned aliens with their robotic speech patterns might seem silly but they’re really mean. They want protein. Lots of protein. In fact they want all of the Earth’s protein. They intend to leave nothing living behind them.

Meanwhile General Kirk, back at the time tunnel control centre, is getting very excited by UFOs. This was 1967 and the UFO craze was still a huge thing.

And just to make sure there’s sufficient mayhem, the local Apaches are about to launch a large-scale raid on the town.

The goofy silver makeup and the kitschy spaceship are major highlights. I couldn’t help liking this one despite its very high silliness content.

Kill Two by Two drops Doug and Tony onto a tiny Pacific atoll, which is not very far from a slightly larger atoll called Iwo Jima. It’s February 1945 and things are about to get rather hot and our time travellers are going to be in the middle of an extremely fierce battle. But they have more immediate problems to worry about - they have to fight their own private little war with two Japanese soldiers who are the only troops left on their tiny island.

This is a tense episode but it also has some emotional depth. There are questions of honour and it turns out that there are worse things than death, like forgetting who you are. One of the best episodes of the series.

The Ghost of Nero is an oddity. Our time travellers have landed in the middle of the First World War, on the Italian Front in 1915. They’re in a villa belonging to an Italian nobleman who claims to be a descendant of Galba, emperor of Rome (very briefly) after the overthrow and death of Nero. The Germans are planning to use the villa as an artillery observation post. The German officer in charge is played as a typical cruel sadistic thug and things are looking grim for Doug and Tony and for Count Galba.

This is all rather strange. In 1915 Italy was not even at war with Germany (although the Italians were at war with Germany’s Austro-Hungarian allies). I get the impression that the scriptwriter also assumed that the Germans in the First World War were pretty much the same as the Nazis.

But that’s not the end of the strangeness, since Nero’s ghost is stalking the villa, in fulfilment of Nero’s dying curse. His ghost is there since Nero’s tomb is in the basement of the villa. The fact that the historical bits about Nero (and all the historical bits in this episode) are not exactly historical and are in fact pretty much fantasy is a bit of a worry since The Time Tunnel is a series that usually tries not to depart too outrageously from history. And it’s also a series that at least pretends to be true science fiction with no fantasy or supernatural elements. The appearance of a ghost is therefore very disconcerting.

And there’s also a guest appearance by Mussolini! This episode is totally insane. Is it insane in a good way or a bad way? I’m still not really sure. All I can say for certain is that scriptwriter Leonard Stadd really really hates Germans.

The Walls of Jericho is, as the title suggests, a Bible story. Giving a science fictional treatment to Scripture was perhaps a little risky back in 1967 but it manages to be quite respectful without being too stridently preachy. It’s an episode that couldn’t be done at all today since it comes down firmly on the side of faith. It’s quite cleverly done, with Doug and Tony finding themselves cast as the two spies sent by Joshua to infiltrate Jericho. This is one episode where the sudden appearance of oddly dressed strangers who claim to be from another time doesn’t actually surprise anybody. The Israelites assume they’re messengers of the Lord while in Jericho it’s assumed that they’re sorcerers.

It’s a story that could easily have come to grief but it’s more successful than you might anticipate. Full credit must go to James Darren and Robert Colbert, and also to Whit Bissell, who express a quite sense of belief without making an embarrassing song and dance about it. Myrna Fahey is good as the harlot Rahab who shelters the two presumed spies and Australian actor Michael Pate has fun as the hardbitten lecherous captain of the guard in Jericho.

Idol of Death lands Doug and Tony in Mexico in 1519 where the conquistador Cortes is searching for a golden mask sacred to the local Indians. Possession of the mask will make his conquest that much easier. Doug and Tony however team up with a young Indian chief to thwart the wicked Spaniards. Fairly entertaining.

Billy the Kid obviously lands Doug and Tony in New Mexico during Billy the KId’s short but busy career as an outlaw. This is one of those episodes that centres around the central truth of time travel (as far as The Time Tunnel is concerned) that history cannot be altered. So Doug cannot kill Billy the Kid, even though that’s what he has just done. On the other hand Billy the Kid can certainly kill Doug or Tony without altering history.

In Pirates of Deadman's Island Doug and Tony fall into the hands of pirates in 1805, just as a United States Navy squadron under Stephen Decatur is about to attack the Barbary pirates. The pirates also have in their hands the nephew of the King of Spain. The Barbary Wars represent a colourful and somewhat neglected episode in American history, which happens to make a pretty good basis for a Time Tunnel adventure. The episode is a bit corny and contrived but it’s a pirate tale so that just adds to the fun.

Chase Through Time is one of the episodes in which the time travellers travel forward rather than backward in time. In fact they land a million years in the future, in a human society modelled on bees. There’s also the added difficulty that a spy in the present day has planted a nuclear bomb in the time tunnel complex and has escaped into the future as well. Doug and Tony have to chase him across a million years of time to force him to reveal the location of the bomb. If the bomb goes off they will never get back to their own time. This story tries hard for breathless excitement and it succeeds reasonably well.

The Death Merchant is an attempt to get clever, with an extra unauthorised time traveller tagging along. A kind of stowaway in time. The stowaway is Niccòlo Machiavelli. The evilest man who ever lived! Which is of course grossly unfair to poor old Machiavelli. In any case somehow or other the Time Tunnel has accidentally plucked Machiavelli from sixteenth century Italy and dropped him onto the battlefield of Gettysburg in 1863. Where he proceeds to wreak havoc, and it’s not easy for Doug and Tony to stop him since Tony got a blow on the head and now he thinks he’s a Confederate officer and he thinks Doug is a damned Yankee. Machiavelli’s presence has also overloaded the Time Tunnel. So this is an episode with a lot going on and it actually doesn’t work too badly. It’s actually thoroughly enjoyable.

Attack of the Barbarians lands Doug and Tony in another fine mess, right in the middle of Genghiz Khan’s Mongol hordes. Well actually Genghiz Khan is now dead which sort of makes things worse since there’s now a war between his successor, Kublai Khan, and his grandson Batu. Doug and Tony throw in their lot with Kublai Khan’s great general Marco Polo. Tony also finds time to fall in love with Kublai Khan’s daughter. This episode is notable for Dr Ann MacGregor (Lee Meriwether) losing her grip completely and deciding that Tony should be left in the thirteenth century because he had found True Love. John Saxon gets a more straightforwardly heroic role than usual as Marco Polo. Marco Polo’s forces are heavily outnumbered. If only they had some gunpowder! It’s a reasonably fun episode.

In Merlin the Magician Doug and Tony help to launch the career of a young English king named Arthur Pendragon. They fight Vikings on his behalf and they play a part in introducing him to a young lady named Guinevere. The main problem here is that the guest stars don’t quite have the stature or the presence to convince as larger-than-life characters like King Arthur or Merlin.

In The Kidnappers a time traveller from the future kidnaps one of the Time Tunnel’s key personnel - Dr Ann MacGregor. General Kirk takes a gamble, sending Doug and Tony to the same future time to which Dr MacGregor has been taken. They find a highly advanced civilisation several thousands years in the future. A highly advanced civilisation, but perhaps not a very humane one.

Raiders from Outer Space is very silly. Doug and Tony find themselves in the middle of a war between the British and the followers of the Mahdi in the Sudan in 1883 but there is a third party involved as well - aliens who are trying to destroy the Earth as part of a game. There’s some outrageous hammy acting from the guest cast, and some truly atrocious alien make-up effects. On the other hand there’s lots of action and it has a certain 1950s Z-grade sci-fi movie charm.

In Town of Terror it is 1978 in Cliffport Maine and alien invaders are about to steal all the Earth’s oxygen. This is another episode weakened by very poor makeup effects. The liens have also taken over the townspeople, which could have given the story an Invasion of the Body Snatchers vibe. Unfortunately it doesn’t quite work since that would require some uncertainty about who is an alien and who isn’t, and that’s all too obvious. Not a really successful episode.

Overall The Time Tunnel is a rather underrated series. It’s no sillier than the average television science fiction series and it at least handles time travel in a slightly more sophisticated manner than Doctor Who. It’s an uneven series and it seemed to go into a bit of a decline towards the end but there are some very decent and very entertaining stories and it has its moments of cleverness.

Irwin Allen often gets unfairly blamed for the problems that afflicted his sci-fi series when in fact the problems were mostly caused by the insistence of the networks on dumbing down science fiction series at every opportunity.

And while Irwin Allen’s series do have their problems they do at least mostly avoid the preachiness that makes so many episodes of other series such as Star Trek and The Twilight Zone such heavy going.

The complete series DVD boxed set includes some fairly interesting extras so it’s well worth getting.

The Time Tunnel is silly at times but it’s fine entertainment. Recommended.

Thursday 18 October 2018

The Champions (1968)

The Champions is one of my favourite 60s action-adventure series so I think it’s worth a two-part post.

The Champions was perhaps the most ill-fated of all the ITC action adventure series. Timing is everything, and timing proved to be against this series.

The first problem was that the series went into production in early 1967 but after completing 30 episodes it was left on the shelf pending the introduction of colour television in the UK. This was understandable enough. It was a show that needed to be seen in colour. Unfortunately though this meant that by the time The Champions went to air it had already ceased production and ITC had moved on to other projects. No matter how successful the series was there was never going to be a second season. It was in fact reasonably successful, being sold to 60 countries worldwide, but it failed to crack the US market which was what Lew Grade cared about. Holding the series back had other consequences. By the time it hit the airwaves British commercial television had gone through one of its periodic reorganisations and The Champions did not get a co-ordinated national release.

The second timing problem concerned the nature of the program itself. It was in many ways ahead of its time. It was the first British superhero TV series, and in Britain in 1968 a show about three superheroes seemed very strange and very American. British television critics (who were not very fond of ITC’s output in general) were venomous in their condemnation of The Champions. Combining the spy thriller and science fiction genres was just not done.

So The Champions never really had a chance in 1968. Which is a pity since it’s a vastly entertaining series.

The biggest potential weakness of this series was that the superpowers possessed by Sharron, Richard and Craig would make things too easy for them. The trick was to put them in situations where their superpowers will help them but where the audience still feels they are in actual danger. So in The Mission for example Richard is confined underground so his telepathic powers are blocked while Sharron has to submit voluntarily to an operation so she’s unconscious and temporarily out of action.

One clever move by Monty Berman and Dennis Spooner (who created the series) was the visual style. The three leads do not look like 60s fashion victims. Having your stars wearing the very latest fashions is a guarantee what within a decade the series will look seriously dated. Oddly enough this is exactly the mistake Berman and Spooner made with the otherwise superb Department S a year or two later. The Champions however hasn’t really dated much at all in this respect. Craig and Richards usually wear suits which are sharp but basically conservative and they still look good. Sharron’s clothing style is similar - classy but not ultra-fashionable. It’s also noticeable that Sharron invariably wears her hair up, and she seems like the kind of girl who would do that.

The first episode, The Beginning, gives us the backstory and does so very effectively. Three agents of NEMESIS (an international counter-espionage agency) are rescued after a near-fatal plane crash by members of a lost civilisation. Richard Barrett (William Gaunt), Craig Stirling (Stuart Dasmon) and Sharron Macready (Alexandra Bastedo) are restored to health but with added physical and mental powers that make them almost superhuman.

In The Silent Enemy a US nuclear submarine is found with the entire crew dead - all died simultaneously from heart failure. This is one of quite a few episodes that involve submarines and since I love submarine adventures these episodes tend to be special favourites of mine.

In The Mission a Dr Pederson (Anthony Bate) is providing shelter for alcoholics but we soon discover that he’s not exactly doing this for altruistic reasons. And his medical practice is far from altruistic. He gives new faces to criminals on the run, including war criminals. This allows writer Donald James to bring Nazis into the story, Nazis being an incredibly popular subject in 1960s action adventure TV shows.

The Interrogation is rather intriguing. Craig’s superpowers can’t help him in this story but they are indirectly the catalyst for everything that happens. Craig has been captured and is being interrogated about a recent case. This is basically a straightforward spy thriller script, a battle of wills between an agent and an interrogator. Dennis Spooner adds enough twists to keep it interesting and there’s a surprisingly dark tone to this story. This was Stuart Damon’s favourite episode, hardly surprising since he gets to do some real acting and does a fine job.

Colin Blakely is very good as the interrogator. Since drugs are part of his interrogation technique there are some slightly psychedelic touches as Craig starts to hallucinate and also starts to wonder if he’s losing his mind just a little. No action in this one but plenty of tension. A very very good episode.

Project Zero is a top-secret British government defence project. In fact it’s so top-secret the British government has never heard of it, but some of Britain’s top scientists are now working on it. One of the scientists turns up in Scotland, very dead. This is a typical story for this series but a good one with a solid script by Tony Williamson.

In Desert Journey Craig and Sharron have to undertake a perilous trek across the desert, beset by hostile tribesmen, to restore a deposed Arab princeling to his throne. This episode is notable for guest appearances by Jeremy Brett and Roger Delgado.

Full Circle poses a puzzle for NEMESIS. A spy was caught photographing secret documents in the embassy of a South American country, but the film is nowhere to be found. The ambassador is inclined to blame British Intelligence for the break-in. Now the spy is in a British prison and NEMESIS have to get him out but it seems they’re not the only ones interested in the spy’s freedom. A routine episode.

The Final Countdown is yet another Nazi story. The obsession of 1960s television writers with Nazis was truly embarrrassing. This time the ageing Nazis are trying to find a secret weapon that they misplaced at the end of the war. The secret weapon is an atomic bomb!

Naturally Craig ends up being tortured. If someone was going to be tortured it always seemed to be poor Craig. I guess he seemed more overtly macho than Richard and so we could believe that he could take it, and of course it couldn’t be Sharron getting tortured - not on 60s television. I suppose it’s an entertaining enough story although without any real surprises.

The Gun-Runners is much better, in fact very good indeed. Writer Dennis Spooner unashamedly makes every possible use of the agents’ special powers and after all there’s not much point giving them superpowers if they don’t get to use them. This time they’re investigating gun smuggling in Burma.

The episode Reply Box No. 666 stats promisingly, with a man answering an advertisement seeking a Greek-speaking parrot. Unfortunately parrots, Greek-speaking or otherwise, play no part in the story. Russian agents are searching for something in the Caribbean and whatever it is NEMESIS needs to find it first. A so-so episode.

What if Sharron, Richard and Craig are not the only secret agents out there possessing superpowers? And what if these other agents are not on our side? That’s the situation in The Experiment and it’s a fine exciting story. There are  not only bad guys with superpowers but as a bonus there’s a mad scientist as well.

Richard is right on the spot for a nuclear test in the middle of the Australian desert. In fact he’s too much on the spot. He’s lost his memory, he’s right at Ground Zero, and nobody knows he’s there, and the bomb is about to be detonated. Happening is an episode that shows the advantages, and the limitations, of the three agents’ special powers. Sharron and Craig know that Richard is about to be blown to bits but they can’t convince anybody to believe them without revealing that they have superpowers. An OK episode.

In Ghost Plane an unfriendly nation appears to have a new fighter jet of terrifying capabilities. So formidable is this aircraft that at first the NATO militaries are unwilling even to believe in its existence. But it does exist and NEMESIS has to do something about it. At the moment it’s only as prototype. It’s essential that this fighter should not be allowed to go into production. The plot here seems rather familiar. That’s not all that surprising. There were only a limited number of writers who could be relied upon always to turn in solid usable scripts for this type of program and the demand for scripts was insatiable. Inevitably a good idea was going to be used more than once.

The Iron Man has a surprisingly tongue-in-cheek feel to it. Our three agents have to go undercover to protect deposed South American dictator El Caudillo. Craig is to be the bodyguard, and finds that he spends most of his time dealing with young lades hoping to share El Caudillo’s bed. Richard is to act as chef, a bit tricky since he doesn’t actually know how to cook. Sharron is to be El Caudillo’s secretary. Hers is the most perilous assignment of all - she is in constant danger of having her bottom pinched by El Caudillo. Everyone overacts outrageously. I suspect that writer Philip Broadley thought the basic idea was so hackneyed that the only thing to do was to try to have some fun with it. Or perhaps script editor Dennis Spooner was responsible. Either way it’s definitely a lesser episode but with a few amusing moments.

Something is going on on a tiny and remote island but nobody knows what it is. Agents sent to investigate are never heard from again. Reconnaissance aircraft simply vanish. The Dark Island’s secret remains obscure but NATO is in a panic and NEMESIS is given the task of uncovering the truth. The truth is more frightening than anyone could have imagined.

The Fanatics is a pretty solid Terry Nation story about a criminal organisation specialising in political assassinations although their ambitions actually go much further. Richard has to go undercover as one of their assassins. Gerald Harper has great fun as the diabolical criminal mastermind.

Those Nazis are up to their old tricks again in The Search. The 1960s was an unbelievably busy time for Nazis. This time they’ve hijacked a nuclear submarine with ballistic missiles aboard, with nuclear warheads. Dennis Spooner’s script is pretty much by the numbers but I have a weakness for submarine adventures so I enjoyed it. There’s a surprising playfulness between Craig and Sharron in this episode. In fact at one point Sharron gets somewhat flirtatious.

A Case of Lemmings is a case of a coincidence. Three top Interpol agents have suddenly and totally on the spur of the moment committed suicide. That is just too coincidental to be believed and Tremayne doesn’t believe it. It seems they must have been murdered, but how and why? Craig, Richard and Sharron are sent to France to investigate. They finally find a lead and following it up will require getting close to a top mobster and that will require Sharron to do her sex kitten routine, which she does to good effect. Meanwhile Craig will have to put himself on the line as the next victim. A strong episode.

Twelve Hours is another submarine adventure story. A visiting Balkan head of state is being given a cruise in a British nuclear submarine. It’s just a quick couple of hours’ run down the loch but as a special treat the submarine carries out a dive. An explosion then threatens to make the sub’s dive a permanent one. The script by Donald James throws in all the clichés - the air purifying system is inoperable so the trapped crew (including Richard and Sharron who were acting as bodyguards to the Balkan president) has only twelve hours’ worth of air, the president needs an emergency operation which Sharron has to perform, there are mutinous rumblings from the crew. They might be clichés but James manages to make it a tense and exciting story. And I happen to love submarine adventure tales.

The Gilded Cage is a neat little tale of multiple double-crosses. Richard is kidnapped and persuaded, by means of what may or may not be a bluff, to break an elaborate cypher. Quite a few people want to know what’s in that cypher and they appear to be all working against each other. Richard probably could escape easily enough but first he has to find out what this whole puzzle is all about. A very good episode.

Autokill by Brian Clemens doesn’t have too many original ideas but then Clemens was always good at taking old ideas and making them seem fresh. Clemens solves the problem of the superpowers by pitting the heroes against each other. This is by far the most violent episode of the entire series and it has to be said that the lengthy fight scenes are exceptionally well handled by director Roy Ward Baker.

The Night People takes Sharron to Cornwall to pursue her interest in historical buildings but she finds herself having to tangle with witches. Richard and Craig meanwhile take an interest in Cornwall’s mineral wealth, particularly its uranium mines. Witchcraft obviously has no connection with uranium, or does it? It also proves to be fortunate that Richard has remembered some of the things Sharron has told him about the architectural quirks of old buildings. A very entertaining episode.

To Trap a Rat is a crime story involving the drug trade, with Sharron going undercover as an addict. This story has a few neat touches and it’s not too bad.

The Champions is a great series. Highly recommended.

Thursday 11 October 2018

Space 1999: Android Planet (tie-in novel)

Gerry Anderson’s 1970s science fiction TV series Space: 1999 spawned quite a bit of merchandising. This included a whole series of novelisations, but more interestingly it also included five original novels. One of these original novels was John Rankine’s Android Planet which appeared in 1976.

The inhabitants of Moonbase Alpha, hurtling through the galaxy after a catastrophic nuclear explosion threw the Moon out of Earth orbit, need to find a new home. They cannot survive indefinitely on the Moon. They must find a planet on which they can settle. And now they think they may have found a suitable planet. It’s the kind of story that the series dealt with on numerous occasions.

The plan is to send one of their Eagle spacecraft on a reconnaissance mission to the planet’s surface. If everything checks out satisfactorily they will begin transferring all three hundred Moonbase Alpha personnel to their new permanent planetary home.

The problem is that this planet might be inhabited already. In fact it seems very likely that this is the case. It seems even more likely that the present inhabitants are not at all inclined to welcome new settlers. Their lack of good neighbourliness is demonstrated by two fairly serious attempts to wipe out Moonbase Alpha  and all its crew. Nonetheless Commander John Koenig decides to go ahead with the recon mission.

Given the book’s title you won’t be surprised to find that the planet is inhabited by androids. The androids are not the only inhabitants. The idea of robots becoming so intelligent that they no longer have any need for their creators is a well-worn science fiction trope but Rankine does add one twist. The robots and their creators (the Copreons) are both still around, they’re on hostile terms but neither seems able to destroy the other. The question for Commander Koenig is whether the Alphans can trust either the androids or their humanoid creators, and whether a planet that is in a permanent state of semi-warfare is really likely to be a suitable home.

The story combines several popular science fiction tropes. The most interesting aspect of the tale is that the people of Moonbase Alpha certainly did not intend to do any harm to the planet’s inhabitants, either the humans or the androids, but their arrival (and the temporary presence of the Moon’s gravitational field) has created chaos. It also sets up a fascinating dynamic with three civilisations - the Alphans, the Copreons and the androids - all of whom want something out of the others, all of whom feel threatened and all of whom have been perhaps not entirely honest.

It also makes use of one of the clever features of the Space: 1999 format - when Moonbase Alpha encounters a planet that might be a suitable permanent home they have only a few days to make a final decision, before the Moon goes hurtling past the planet. So there’s always a race against time element, and that time element plays an important part in this story.

The most important thing about any TV tie-in novel is that it has to be consistent with the feel of the original TV series and the main characters have to be recognisably the characters from the TV series. In this respect Rankine succeeds extremely well. Space: 1999 Year One was a successful mix of action/adventure elements and reasonably intelligent science fiction concepts (reasonably intelligent by television standards that is). And that’s the feel that Android Planet achieves fairly successfully.

As for the characters, John Koenig has the right mix of charisma, arrogance and serious-mindedness. He’s a man more respected than loved. That’s pretty much exactly the way the character comes across in the TV version as well. His relationship with Dr Helena is more overtly sexual than in the TV series. Rankine seems most interested in the relationship between Koenig and Dr Victor Bergstrom, the base’s resident expert in all matters scientific. Koenig is the man with the leadership ability; Bergstrom provides the brains.

Personally I think E. C. Tubb’s Alien Seed is a better Space: 1999 original novel, being both better written and a better story. Android Planet though is certainly not a complete washout. It’s entertaining enough. It’s perhaps a bit too obsessed with sex for my liking but this was the 70s and every single book published in that decade had to have gratuitous sexual content. At least there’s no actual graphic sex in Android Planet, just a slightly annoying and intrusive sexual subtext. Apart from that Rankine’s prose style is serviceable enough.

Android Planet should certainly be enjoyed by fans of the TV series. It’s a decent enough science fiction story. Recommended.

Thursday 4 October 2018

Knight Rider 2000 (1991)

The 1991 TV-movie Knight Rider 2000 was shot as the pilot for what was hoped would be a new series based (a little loosely) on the 80s hit series. Knight Rider 2000 failed to capture anyone’s imagination, was not picked up as a series and seems to be generally disliked by Knight Rider fans.

It should be pointed out that Glen A. Larson, creator of the original Knight Rider, was not involved with Knight Rider 2000. He has an alibi and cannot be blamed for the disaster.

I do have to give the developers of Knight Rider 2000 for one thing. They did not want their new series to be just a belated fifth season of the original. They wanted it to be new whilst still having definite links to the original. Knight Rider was science fiction but it belonged to that sub-category that takes place entirely in the present day but with one item of science fictional technology, in this case K.I.T.T. the indestructible supercar. Knight Rider 2000 on the other hand has a futuristic setting and is therefore out-and-out science fiction.

Knight Rider 2000 is set ten years in the future which makes it the year 2000. A new enlightened mayor has implemented some daring new crime-fighting initiatives. They have banned capital punishment. Criminals are instead placed in cryogenic suspension. And the city has banned guns. All guns. Even the police are not allowed to carry guns. Instead they carry stun guns.

The Foundation for Law and Government is in trouble. They had a freelance crime-fighting contract with the city but the city is threatening to cancel the contract. Apparently private vigilante justice organisations are also out of favour in these enlightened times. The Foundation has a new prototype car almost ready for testing, the Knight 4000 (or K.I.F.T.), which will make K.I.T.T. look like a Model T Ford but they need that contract with the city.

Michael Knight has retired. He spends his days fishing. Devon wants him back working for the Foundation. Michael agrees, on condition that he is reunited with K.I.T.T. but there’s a slight problem there. K.I.T.T. has been disassembled and the parts old off.  Fortunately K.I.T.T.’s artificial intelligence still exists so Michael installs it in his ’57 Chevy, much to K.I.T.T.’s disgust.

The city has a problem too. Criminals have been committing crimes using real guns, even though that’s illegal! If you can’t trust criminals to obey the law who can you trust?

Devon and Michael have a suspicion that there’s more to all this.

Meanwhile cops are getting shot with real guns. Cops including Officer Shawn McCormick (Susan Norman). Her injuries are not necessarily fatal but Police Commissioner Ruth Daniels (who is already establishing herself as a rather nasty piece of work) orders the doctors to pull the plug on the young officer. But Officer McCormick doesn’t die and now she’s pretty annoyed. She also now has one of K.I.T.T.’s chips in her brain.

Shawn McCormick ends up working for the Foundation but she and Michael make a very uneasy team. Making her very difficult to get along with so there’d be lots of tension between the reluctant partners must have seemed like a good idea at the time but it’s overdone. She’s just too obnoxious and it’s hard to care very much about her.

There’s a complicated conspiracy which seems to involve just about everybody who works for the city.

David Hasselhoff is again the star which provides some reassuring continuity. And Edward Mulhare is still there as well, as Devon Miles. Susan Norman as Shawn McCormick was presumably being groomed as a regular for the series if it went ahead although it’s hard to see such an unsympathetic character becoming a favourite with viewers.

As for the guest cast, Mitch Pileggi makes a pretty sinister master villain.

I can understand why the decision was made to tinker with the format. Just continuing where the old series left off would have been awkward. The black Trans Am which had looked so cool in the 80s was not going to look so cool to younger viewers who would expect the hero’s car to be absolutely the very latest thing. The idea of having a new car, the Knight 4000, was quite a reasonable one even if I personally (in common with most fans) preferred that black Trans Am. And the idea of installing K.I.T.T.’s artificial intelligence into a ’57 Chevy wasn’t too bad. It kind of works in a light-hearted way.

The switch from a contemporary to a near-future semi-dystopian setting was not necessarily a terrible idea. The biggest problem with this was that Knight Rider 2000 starts getting entangled in politics in an overt way. If you’re going to try to do a series in which capital punishment, euthanasia and gun laws are key plot elements you’re going to get hopelessly enmeshed in politics which is probably a very very unwise idea. The original Knight Rider took a very sceptical view of government and authority but was (mostly) careful not to get into specific political issues.

The biggest problem of all is that the radical alterations to the format were always going to antagonise fans of the original series and it’s difficult to see how a new series could succeed if the existing fan base hated it right from the get go. In fact there are other events that occur in the movie that seem calculated to maximise the irritation of established fans.

The Knight 4000 (which I believe is a modified Dodge Stealth) looks OK but it doesn’t look as business-like and menacing as that old black Trans Am.

The music was always one of the strengths of the 80s Knight Rider. Sadly that can’t be said for Knight Rider 2000.

Knight Rider 2000 isn’t quite as ghastly as some people would have you believe. It’s moderately entertaining. It just doesn’t seem like a concept that could ever have won over the pre-existing fan base and it doesn’t have enough to offer to grab lots of new fans. The best elements of the original series have either been eliminated, or seem like they’re destined to be eliminated, or they’ve been diluted and the new elements don’t have as much appeal. And the new car somehow isn’t quite right and after all it’s the car that is the real star.

Knight Rider 2000 is included as an extra in the Knight Rider season 1 DVD boxed set (here's the link to my review of season 1). The transfer is reasonably OK. Since you’re getting this one as a freebie it’s probably worth giving it a spin for its curiosity value. Especially if, like me, you have a morbid fascination with failed series pilots.