Saturday 29 December 2018

highlights of my cult TV viewing of 2018

These were the highlights of my cult TV viewing in 2018. Not necessarily the best cult TV I watched, but the most rewarding in terms of exiting new discoveries, and some rediscoveries of forgotten old favourites.

The most exciting new discovery was Airwolf, which I think may well have been the best action adventure series of the 80s. With the 1984 first season being outstanding.

A fun rediscovery was Land of the Giants (1968) which turned out to be quite a bit better than my hazy memories initially suggested. Maybe not great TV science fiction but very enjoyable and with mostly fairly impressive special effects.

The Guardians (1971) is a British dystopian political thriller with some very unexpected subtleties and complexities.

There was also The F.B.I., an uneven, occasionally odd but interesting crime series.

As far as individual episodes are concerned the Danger Man episode Colony Three (1965) was the best of the year. The 1975 The Crazy Kill from Brian Clemens’ Thriller series was also exceptionally good with a great performance from Anthony Valentine.

Saturday 22 December 2018

Adventure and Comic Strip: Exploring Tara King’s The Avengers (book review)

There have been quite a few non-fiction books on The Avengers, but not too many dealing specifically with the Tara King era. So that in itself is a strong recommendation for Rodney Marshall’s 2013 tome Adventure and Comic Strip: Exploring Tara King’s The Avengers. An even better recommendation is that Marshall takes a very favourable view of this period of the show’s history.

Having said all this I’m not entirely sure I can recommend this book. The big problem is that it’s kind of thin. There’s really not much to it. Basically it’s just an episode guide, and not a very detailed one. On the plus side he doesn’t give us just a synopsis of each episode. There is a bit of analysis. It’s not too in-depth but it’s a bit more than just fanboy gushing. On the whole he avoids pretentious academic jargon and he generally doesn’t try to ram his political views down the reader’s throat (which is a very unusual thing for a book published in our modern age).

The episode guides are reasonably stimulating and he shows a real understanding of the appeal of the series.

The biggest plus is that Marshall doesn’t start out with the prejudice that of course the Tara King era was inferior to the Emma Peel era and that of course Linda Thorson was a poor replacement for Diana Rigg. Marshall approaches the series with an open mind and finds a great deal to like about the Tara King episodes. Since I happen to be a very big Tara fan this naturally inclines me to approve of the book.

You just can’t get away from the fact that there’s not a great deal of text here. And there are no illustrations.

Marshall is incidentally the son of Roger Marshall, one of the great British television writers of the 60s and 70s.

Adventure and Comic Strip is a welcome reassessment of a much maligned period of the history of one of the great television series so I’m inclined to recommend it in spite of its thinness.

Friday 14 December 2018

McCloud season 1 (1970)

The 1970s was a real golden age for American TV mystery/detective series. There were good 70s cop shows and good 70s private eye shows but the most enjoyable and most characteristic American 70s crime shows were the puzzle-plot murder mysteries in which a brilliant detective matches wits with a brilliant criminal. Columbo was the most famous of these series but Ellery Queen and Banacek were every bit as good, and McMillan and Wife had its moments.

And there was also McCloud. It ran for seven years on NBC so it was one of the most successful of the genre.

What all these series had in common, apart from obvious structural similarities, was that they had colourful and charismatic detective heroes. McCloud certainly qualifies on both counts. Sam McCloud is a Deputy Marshal from a one-horse town in New Mexico. An important case takes him to New York City and for reasons which never really make sense he ends up being on more or less permanent loan to the NYPD. The NYPD isn’t quite sure what to do with him, he can be a bit of an embarrassment but on the other hand he does keep on solving major cases for them.

Dennis Weaver had had a long career already by this time but in McCloud he demonstrates considerable and hitherto unsuspected star quality. When you take Weaver’s performance, combine it with the fish-out-of-water country hick teaching the city slickers a thing or two theme and some fairly solid scripts you have the ingredients for a pretty entertaining series.

Portrait of a Dead Girl was the pilot episode. Deputy Marshal Sam McCloud has to track down a witness who has ignored a subpoena. He finds him in the wilds of New Mexico. McCloud is not altogether thrilled at the idea of having to escort the prisoner all the way to New York, but McCloud always does his duty.

The witness, James Waldron (Shelley Novack), may be able to give evidence that would overturn the conviction of Luis Ramos for the murder of a beauty queen. Or his evidence may have an entirely different effect. No-one knows but clearly someone does not want Waldron to testify since he is kidnapped as soon as he arrives in New York. This is pretty embarrassing for McCloud and he intends to find the kidnapped witness and those responsible for snatching him.

McCloud’s presence in New York is unwelcome to chief of detectives Peter Clifford (Peter Mark Richman). Ramos’s defence attorney Del Whitman (Craig Stevens) also seems disturbed by McCloud’s presence. The one person who is delighted by McCloud is journalist Chris Coughlin (Diana Muldaur). She’s written a book on the beauty queen murder but she doesn’t seem to care if McCloud finds evidence to discredit her book. She finds him fascinating and she’s a good enough reporter to know that Sam McCloud is good copy and hanging around with him will undoubtedly be useful to her career-wise.

The plot is pretty far-fetched. It also has some political overtones and that’s something that American television invariably did poorly.

Dennis Weaver was already well known to viewers from his rôle in the long-running Gunsmoke series. McCloud made him a bona fide star. He’s perfect as the Deputy Marshal from New Mexico. He doesn’t overdo the wide-eyed innocence and he doesn’t overdo the dumb hick thing. Sam McCloud finds New York to be a very strange place but he’s a smart cop and he learns quickly and he’s nobody’s fool. To some extent he uses the Columbo technique of persuading suspects to underestimate him.

Diana Muldaur is a semi-regular character in the series and provides a love interest for Sam McCloud as well as managing to get him lots of publicity which gets him into constant trouble. She’s pretty good. Terry Carter as Sergeant Joe Broadhurst plays the sidekick rôle and does it fairly effectively.

Portrait of a Dead Girl doesn’t quite gel for me, partly because I just didn’t but the central plot idea as being plausible. But it does introduce Sam McCloud effectively enough.

The first episode of the first season proper is Who Says You Can't Make Friends in New York City? McCloud has been posted to Peter Clifford’s precinct in New York to learn about big city policing. I have no idea why a Deputy Marshal from New Mexico would need to learn such things but the premise of the whole series is that it’s about a hick cop in the big city so some justification for his continued presence had to be cooked up. McCloud proves to be a bit of an embarrassment to Clifford who is overjoyed when he finds an excuse to ship McCloud back to New Mexico. The only problem is that McCloud refuses to go until he’s cleared up the case he’s stumbled into.

Horse Stealing on Fifth Avenue is about actual horse stealing on Fifth Avenue, and it’s about a gunman who won’t kill. It’s an offbeat tale and it plays to the strengths of McCloud as a character - he gets to crack a few down-home jokes, he gets to demonstrate his gift for understanding and empathising with people and he gets to approach a case in his own inimitable and unconventional way. And he gets to play the climactic action scene on horseback!

The rodeo comes to New York in The Concrete Corral and McCloud is assigned to keep an eye on the cowboys. He’s pretty annoyed by this since he’d rather be chasing actual criminals but he’ll find plenty to keep him occupied with those cowboys, especially when their dramas lead to murder. And McCloud finds that when you have to track down a country boy it’s a definite advantage to be able to think like a country boy yourself. A decent episode.

The Stage Is All the World plunges McCloud into the world of the theatre where a megalomaniac producer is receiving death threats but he has a track record of publicity stunts so the threats may or may not be bogus. The threats still have to be taken seriously, and McCloud is inclined to think there really is a tragedy brewing. A pretty solid episode.

In Walk in the Dark McCloud gets assigned to an all-female squad for training. As you might expect there’s a fair bit of politically incorrect humour (in fact there’s quite a bit of political incorrectness in this episode, this being 1970 when it wasn’t necessary to tread so carefully). McCloud fears he’s going to be stuck investigating shoplifting incidents but in fact he finds himself in the middle of a multiple murder case, with one of the victims being a policewoman. He’s not supposed to be on the murder case but when Sam McCloud is given an instruction he tends to interpret it rather loosely. He also finds time for some romantic dalliance with a pretty young policewoman (played by Susan Saint James). There are some interesting moral subtexts to this story, subtexts you would never get away with today, wth McCloud being less than happy about young women being used as bait for a murderer. It’s a good story with a solution that is a bit far-fetched but still quite clever.

Our Man in Paris is a change of pace. What could possibly be more fun than having a Deputy Marshal from Taos, New Mexico running loose in New York City? That’s easy. Having a Deputy Marshal from Taos, New Mexico running loose in Paris. Chief Clifford is held hostage and McCloud is forced to fly to Paris with a briefcase full of money, very hot money. It’s not all bad though, since McCloud strikes up a friendship with a pretty French stewardess. One thing they do appreciate in Taos, New Mexico is a pretty girl, and McCloud appreciates them more than most (and it has to be said that the ladies seem to find him irresistible). This is a fine thriller episode to close out the first season.

A word of warning in regard to the DVD releases of McCloud. After their original broadcast the six first season episodes were clumsily edited together into three feature-length episodes. The editing was done so badly that some of the original writers and directors subsequently had their names removed from the credits in disgust. The original hour-long episodes were later lost. When McCloud was released on DVD in the U.S. only the butchered movie-length versions were available and and so those were the ones issued on DVD. Then Madman Entertainment in Australia located the original hour-long versions, which fortunately were in excellent condition. Madman’s Australian DVD release of the first season includes both the original hour-long versions and the edited feature-length versions. So if you’re going to buy the first season on DVD the Madman release (which is in print and easily obtainable in the U.S.) is the only one to consider buying. Of course you’ll need to remember that the Madman release is Region 4.

McCloud isn’t quite in the same league as Columbo or Banacek but it’s still very enjoyable viewing and it’s recommended. There you go.

Friday 7 December 2018

The F.B.I., season one part one (1965)

The F.B.I. was one of the many hit TV series in the action/adventure genre made by Quinn Martin Productions in the 1960s. In fact it was the most successful of all Quinn Martin’s productions, running for nine seasons from 1965 to 1974. The F.B.I. has been released on DVD in half-season sets and it's the first part of season one with which this review is concerned.

In this series we always know the identity of the perpetrator right from the start, so these are inverted crime stories. This is also very much in the police procedural mould, with the interest lying in the methods used by the F.B.I. to hunt down wrongdoers.

The two lead characters are Inspector Lewis Erskine (Efrem Zimbalist Jr) and Special Agent Jim Rhodes (Stephen Brooks). Erskine is the old hand and he’s a complex character with some personal tragedies that he’s still working through. Rhodes is a young hotshot but he’s a decent guy and the two agents have a very amicable relationship.

You have to remember that this series originated in 1965 and in 1965 the idea of a series that painted the F.B.I. in an entirely heroic light seemed pretty reasonable. And this series really does present a very very favourable view of the Bureau. It was made with the blessing of J. Edgar Hoover (who was still F.B.I. Director at the time).

The fact that the series began its run in 1965 really is quite important. The F.B.I. deals with all sorts of crimes and this includes political crimes. In 1965 it could be assumed that any political crime would almost certainly be the work of communist agents working for Moscow. And it could be assumed that these communist agents would be working class. This is 1965, just before the social revolution of the 60s. Within a couple of years the F.B.I. would be looking for subversives at university campuses rather than among dock workers.

Social and sexual mores were also about to change radically. In the first season Erskine’s daughter Barbara and Special Agent Rhodes have fallen in love and want to get married. Erskine wants her to wait until she finishes college. Barbara and Rhodes want to get married straight away. Within a few years a senior F.B.I. officer like Inspector Erskine would be delighted by anything that would get his daughter away from the subversive atmosphere of university.

The Episode Guide
The Monster was a rather bizarre opening episode for any series. A con-man named Francis Jerome (Jeffrey Hunter) has escaped from a federal prison. Jerome preys on women. What the F.B.I. don’t know is that he also kills women. Jerome is a seriously weird guy with a weird history.

Erskine is convinced that Jerome will return to his home town. He also suspects that he will try to make contact with one of his previous victims, Jean Davis. There’s some rather odd flirtatious stuff going on between Jean Davis and Erskine. In fact Jean Davis is pretty seriously weird as well. This is just a weird episode.

Image in a Cracked Mirror is a lot better. Erskine and Rhodes are hunting an embezzler. Charles Gates (Jack Klugman) has covered his tracks well. He has managed to destroy every photograph that has ever been taken of him. No-one really seems to know what he looks like. He’s now on the run with his 13-year-old son and that could be his weakness. It’s a weakness that Erskine is prepared to exploit with a ruthlessness that shocks Rhodes. Erskine has an odd personal stake in this case because Gates reminds him of himself. A very good episode.

A Mouthful of Dust is like a flashback to the Wild West, with Erskine and Rhodes saddling up (with six-guns in their gun belts) to join a posse tracking down an Indian. Joe Cloud (Alejandro Rey) is accused of killing a man who raped his wife. Erskine had been Cloud’s commanding officer in Korea and Cloud turns to Erskine for help. Erskine doesn’t want to let Joe down, but he does. Can he then put things right? Can Cloud be persuaded to save himself? Rey’s performance is OK but the Argentina-born actor’s very strong accent is rather wrong and jarring. Italian-American Robert Blake is no more Native American than Rey but he pulls off the important rôle of Joe’s brother Pete Cloud much more successfully. An offbeat episode that works, up to a point.

Slow March Up a Steep Hill is a case of history repeating itself, or at least it seems like it. A bank in Exeter Maryland is robbed and the same bank is robbed again three days later. Everything about these robberies seems to parallel a similar case in 1938. And the 1938 bank robber has just been released from prison. Erskine trusts his instincts on this one. Everyone thinks he’s on the wrong track but he won’t compromise. An excellent episode.

The Insolents involves a very rich young man accused of murder. Special Agent Rhodes seems to have a personal stake in this case. It’s a mystery that appears to have only one solution but what if that solution is the wrong one? This time around it’s Rhodes who has to trust his instincts. Not a bad episode.

In To Free My Enemy Erskine has been trying to find evidence to convict pornographer Bert Anslem. Now his suspect has been kidnapped by a trio of cheap punks and Erskine has to save him. By saving him he may also be helping him to escape justice. But Erskine has no choice. He has to do his best to save Anslem. A good episode with with some cool police procedural stuff.

Given the priorities of the F.B.I. in the sixties it’s perhaps surprising that it’s not until the seventh episode, The Problem of the Honorable Wife, that the evil commies make their first appearance. They’re planing to sabotage the U.S. war effort in Vietnam by planting bombs on the San Francisco dockside. One of the saboteurs is married to a Japanese woman and she unwittingly puts the Feds on her husband’s trail. This is an episode in which Special Agent Rhodes, who is basically a decent young guy, feels just a little uncomfortable about working for the F.B.I. This is quite an interesting episode.

In Courage of a Conviction Lew Erskine should be a very happy man. He’s just caught up with a master forger who has eluded all law enforcement agencies for years. He’s a forger on the grand scale and it’s quite a feather in Erskine’s cap. But he’s not happy. It’s all because of a girl he saw in Ray Lang’s office. The girl is a junkie and Ray is a lawyer who has been supplying the F.B.I. with quality information for years. Ray and Lew are also old buddies. But what is Ray Lang doing with a junkie? As he connects the dots Lew realises  that the unshakeable case he had against that forgery suspect isn’t so unshakeable after all. This is one of a number of episodes that emphasises two key things about Lew Erskine. Firstly, he trusts his instincts no matter what. And secondly, he will risk his own career rather than see a man convicted if he becomes convinced that the man is innocent. Of course it not emphasises Erskine’s high moral standards but also those of the Bureau (and emphasising the honesty and probity of the F.B.I. was a pretty good idea for a series that relied heavily on the coöperation and goodwill of J. Edgar Hoover).

The Exiles would appear to be inspired by the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Exiles from a certain Latin American nation are planning to launch an invasion to overthrow the ruling dictator. The F.B.I. have to persuade the leader of the exiles, General Rafael Romero, not to go ahead with the invasion. It’s not that the U.S. government doesn’t want the dictator overthrown but the F.B.I. has intelligence that indicates that the invasion is guaranteed to be a messy and expensive failure and therefore very embarrassing to the U.S., especially given that the invasion is planned to be launched from Florida.

This is an intriguing one. General Romero and his private army (and his rich backer Maria Blanca) are not portrayed as being the bad guys, in fact they’re portrayed as heroes,  and yet they have to be stopped at all costs. And Erskine has to infiltrate Romero’s group and betray them. This is a surprisingly ethically complex tale and it’s also surprisingly realistic in depicting international relations as a frustrating quagmire. A very fine episode.

The Giant Killer is a total hoot. A fanatic is trying to sabotage a U.S. ballistic missile being transported by road to an Air Force base. This is not just a regular nuclear missile. This is a brand new design and it’s immensely important. If this missile is sabotaged the whole free world will be endangered and world communism will triumph. The paranoia is approaching Dr Strangelove levels in this episode. On the other hand it’s certainly exciting and the idea that a lone fanatic with a rifle can destroy a ballistic missile is intriguing. Robert Duvall is at his crazed best as the lone fanatic. The epilog to this episode is absolutely beyond belief. Dr Strangelove himself would have been embarrassed. A bizarre but weirdly and morbidly fascinating episode.

In All the Streets Are Silent automatic weapons are stolen from the U.S. Marine Corps. Erskine persuades cab driver Frankie Metro to turn informant but informing on the Murtaugh brothers is dangerous work. This one includes a fairly spectacular shoot-out. A pretty good episode.

An Elephant Is Like a Rope presents Erskine and Rhodes with an odd problem. They have a young man with a bullet wound in the head. He’s going to make a full recovery but is suffering from compete amnesia. So he can’t tell the G-Men where the half million dollars in his possession came from. There’s no actual evidence that he has committed any crime. The half million dollars seems to be clean. A strange little offbeat story but it works.

How to Murder an Iron Horse is somewhat silly but very enjoyable. It taps into 1950s obsessions that bad child-rearing practices were going to turn kids into juvenile delinquents. And this is really a typical 50s B-movie juvenile delinquent story with some bizarre diabolical criminal mastermind flourishes thrown in. A young man whose father was more interested in his model trains than his son now wants to blow up trains. Not model trains, real trains. And he demonstrates that he can indeed blow up a freight train. If he isn’t paid $100,000 he threatens to blow up a passenger train. It’s all quite crazy but if you like trains and explosions you’ll enjoy it.

Pound of Flesh is one of the few episodes in which we’re not sure of the identity of the criminal. The chaplain’s wife at an army base is murdered. Private First Class Byron Landy is the obvious suspect and there really isn’t much doubt of his guilt. In fact Erskine and Rhodes wouldn’t have any doubts about the case themselves if only Landy hadn’t confessed. But the confession really seemed bogus and now the two F.B.I. men are more or less convinced of his innocence. Unfortunately the media, the civilian authorities in the nearby town, the base commander and the top brass in the Pentagon just want a quick arrest and Erskine and Rhodes are put under extreme pressure. Of course if you try to put Lew Erskine under pressure like that he just gets really really stubborn. A very good episode with a good performance by Leslie Nielsen as the chaplain blinded by hatred.

The Hijackers is a rather light-hearted episode involving a truck hijacking which is actually a practical joke gone wrong. This one tries to combine whimsicality with sentimentality. The results are not as bad as you might anticipate.

The Forests of the Night deals with a fundamentalist Christian sect victimised by an extortionist on top of having to deal with less than sympathetic neighbours. When you’re dealing with such subject matter there’s always the risk of becoming preachy and that’s what happens here. This is crude hate-filled propaganda that portrays rural people as knuckle-dragging redneck bigots. A shockingly bad episode.

Final Thoughts
It’s easy to mock this series. There’s plenty of full-on hysteria about evil commies and the whole country seems to be overflowing with fifth columnists and foreign agents. But this is how reality looked to most people in 1965. There’s a sincerity about the series that tends to win you over. Erskine and Rhodes and their colleagues at the Bureau are brave dedicated men and they’re thorough professionals. This is basically a police procedural. We pretty much always know who the bad guys are right from the start so the interest lies in the methods used to track down the criminals. There’s some high-tech stuff but mostly Erskine and Rhodes rely on hard work and patient methodical routine investigative procedures. These guys do not give up. One of the things I really love is seeing the technical side of law enforcement in 1965 - it’s all still delightfully analog! To find a fingerprint match you go through thousands of fingerprints on file, and you go through them with a magnifying glass!

The series is a fascinating time capsule with a slightly melancholy edge - the American  society depicted in the first season in 1965 had to a large extent ceased to exist by the time the series ended its run in 1974.

The F.B.I. is a slightly odd series.  The tone is sometimes very serious, occasionally quite dark, and at other times light-hearted and even whimsical. The scripts are however mostly clever and well-constructed and often quite original and the execution is always top-notch. There are unfortunately occasional signs of the preachiness that was already starting to infect American television (signs that are also all too apparent in another contemporary Quinn Martin production, The Fugitive). Production values are high. Efrem Zimbalist Jr has real star quality. This was, like most Quinn Martin productions, very well-made television.