Tuesday 20 August 2019

Danger Man season two (1965-66)

Danger Man had a reasonably successful run as a half-hour spy drama series in 1960-61 and was revived, even more successfully, as a one-hour series which ran from 1964 to 1967. The title was unchanged in Britain but for some obscure reason it was given the incredibly dull title Secret Agent in the United States. Danger Man remains one of the most influential of all television spy series, and certainly one of the most interesting.

The reason it’s so interesting is that almost everything about this series is slightly ambiguous. The first layer of ambiguity of course is the matter of whether it’s actually the same series as the 1960 version and whether the hero is the same man. As with almost everything to do with Danger Man the ambiguities can never be entirely resolved. In the 1960 incarnation John Drake is an agent for an unnamed (and mythical) NATO intelligence  agency. In the 1964 version he works for an equally mythical British intelligence agency (M9). It is of course quite possible that he always was a British agent but that he had formerly been seconded to NATO.

The second layer of ambiguity is John Drake’s nationality. In the 1960 version his nationality is never explicitly stated but he seems most likely to be American. In the 1964 version he must presumably be a British subject since he’s working for British intelligence.  Again this does not necessarily mean he’s not the same man. He could easily be an Englishman who lived for many years in America, or he could be American-born but with British citizenship. The ambiguity is enhanced by Patrick McGoohan’s own ambiguous nationality - he was an American-born Irishman who was raised mostly in Ireland but spent his early career in Britain and he had a genuine transatlantic accent which he could tweak slightly to sound vaguely English, vaguely American or vaguely Irish.

There’s also a certain class ambiguity. John Drake is educated and cultured but somehow he is not quite a gentleman. There is a suggestion that he is a bit of a class outsider. His superiors (in the 1964 Danger Man) are mostly upper-class Englishmen but we get a definite sense that neither they nor Drake himself consider him to be a gentleman. On the other hand he is clearly not working class.

The series itself is slightly ambiguous. On the whole it belongs to the realist school of spy fiction. It has the touches of cynicism and moral ambiguity common to that school, and Drake is the kind of hero usually associated with that school - he has definite moral qualms about many of the things he has to do. On the other hand it avoids the full-blown cynicism and nihilism generally associated with realist spy fiction (writers like Greene, Ambler, le Carre and Deighton) and realist TV spy dramas like Callan and the very underrated Man in a Suitcase. It has touches of humour (for all its many virtues there are no laughs in Callan) and even on occasion touches of whimsy. The storylines are mostly of the realist type but occasionally the series ventures into more fantastic plots. Overall it’s a serious spy drama but it avoids wallowing in existential despair or bleakness.

While there are plenty of Cold War-themed episodes the Cold War is not the sole focus (perhaps not even the main focus). M9 seems to be equally concerned with trying to preserve the tattered remnants of British prestige and influence. In fact this is the dominant theme in a great deal of postwar British spy fiction, especially le Carre and Ian Fleming’s Bond novels - an attempt to deal with the appalling shock of realisation that Britain was no longer a major power. Many of Drake’s missions are attempts to keep pro-British regimes in power in the Third World or to protect Britain’s rapidly declining economic influence, or to prevent the process of abandoning the empire from degenerating into a complete shambles. Mostly it’s not the fate of the Free World that is at stake.

There are many interesting things about this series but the most interesting of all is the character of John Drake (and Patrick McGoohan’s portrayal of Drake). John Drake is the anti-Bond. He hates using guns. And when it comes to women he’s an old-fashioned gentleman. There’s no sex and no graphic violence, largely due to McGoohan’s religious beliefs (he was a devout Catholic). Drake is a moral spy. Which is of course an impossibility - being a spy is all about lying, cheating and manipulating people. Drake is no fool. He understands this. But he still tries his best to be a moral spy.

That doesn’t mean that there’s any lack of action. There are very few gunfights but lots of fistfights. It’s an exciting action series, but compared to other spy series there are comparatively few fatalities. Which actually makes Danger Man more realistic than most spy dramas - in real life spies very rarely kill each other (or at least they very rarely killed each other during the Cold War).

So how does the 1964 reinvention of Danger Man stack up against the 1960 original? There are the slight differences alluded to earlier but on the whole both the formula and the feel remain unchanged. The hour-long format offered writers more scope but on the other hand the half-hour format tended to produce fast-paced punchy television. Production values are high in both series. McGoohan’s performance is pretty much identical in both series. Both versions have their virtues and I personally wouldn’t care to express a preference for one over the other.

Season Highlights

The whole season is extremely good but there are a few definite highlights.

In You're Not in Any Trouble, Are You? Drake is up against an organisation of professional killers. He gets some help from a girl named Lena. He doesn’t need her help and he doesn’t want it but she’s determined to help him anyway and she’s a terribly nice girl and he can’t bring himself to hurt her feelings. The always delightful Susan Hampshire guest stars as Lena (and she pops up another episode later in the season).

Sting in the Tail also benefits from a great guest starring performance. This time it’s Derren Nesbitt as a very charming but very deadly Middle Eastern assassin named Noureddine. The battle of wits, and wills, between Drake and Noureddine is the highlight.

To Our Best Friend is one of a number of episodes in Which Drake really hates having to do his job. He has to investigate a suspected double agent who happens to be one of his oldest friends. There are several layers of divided loyalties and betrayals in this excellent story.

I Can Only Offer You Sherry is an investigation of a security leak. The case seems straightforward but turns out not to be, or at least it turns out not to be morally straightforward. A very good performance by Wendy Craig in this one.

In The Hunting Party Drake goes undercover as a butler. It’s another possible security leak but this one is almost inexplicable. The only clue is that a wealthy English couple living in France, Basil and Claudia Jordan, seem to be a common factor in a number of leaks. It’s a clever if slightly far-fetched plot of a type that was very popular at the time but the main attractions is the deadly battle of wits between Basil (played with great style by Denholm Elliott) and Drake. And it’s the sort of scenario that McGoohan really relished as an actor. The toy car race is a superb touch.

Two Birds with One Bullet is a good but not a great episode but it’s notable for the murkiness of the politics, with British Intelligence trying to save the leader of a moderate revolutionary party because the party’s existence provides a useful outlet for opposition that might otherwise be directed in more dangerous directions.

I Am Afraid You Have the Wrong Number is another perhaps not outstanding but very solid episode that is noteworthy for the number of gadgets Drake uses, and for Drake behaving like a bit of a one-man army. He is investigating the death of a British agent in Geneva but is the agent really dead? he agent is named Standfast, a nice nod to John Buchan's classic spy thriller Mr Standfast.

The Man with the Foot starts with an operation that goes wrong in the course of which  Drake’s cover is blown. He is sent on leave and decides that Spain might be nice at this time of year. An odd decision since it’s the middle of winter. He stays in a small hotel in the Pyrenees. He is the only guest, until Monckton turns up. It doesn’t take Monckton long to conclude that Drake is a spy. It doesn’t take Drake long to reach the same conclusion about Monckton. They’re both right. They are both spies. But what on earth is it that Drake is up to? His behaviour is such that any self-respecting spy observing him would be justified in thinking that he was up to something incredibly important and incredibly secret and the viewer will be thinking the same thing. But there’s an odd clever little twist to this one.

Robert Urquhart is great fun as Monckton plus we get Bernard Lee as well in the guest cast. It’s an offbeat slightly quirky episode but it’s surprisingly successful.

In The Paper Chase the First Secretary at the British Embassy in Rome has had some papers stolen from his car. Since the papers were top-secret and he was not even supposed to take them out of the Embassy he’s going to be in big trouble. So he asks his old friend John Drake for help. It’s Saturday. Drake’s task is to retrieve those papers and he has to do it before Monday morning. Unfortunately the chase for those papers turns out to be remarkably complicated since they have already changed hands several times. It’s a tense and moody episode and then right at the end - well let’s just say the ending is somewhat bizarre and unexpected. An enjoyable episode just the same.

Pirate radio stations were a big thing in the 60s and in Not So Jolly Roger Drake goes undercover as a DJ on Radio Jolly Roger, broadcasting from what looks like an oil rig just outside the three-mile limit. In fact it’s apparently some kind of wartime maritime fort - in any case it’s a fantastic location. He’s taking over from the previous DJ who met with a very unfortunate accident. It seems that Radio Jolly Roger isn’t just broadcasting the lates pop hits, it’s also broadcasting signals to enemy submarines. The setting gives this highly entertaining and stylish story a slight hint of the surreal.

Final Thoughts

At the time it seemed like a bold move for Patrick McGoohan to leave Danger Man to make his ground-breaking very ambitious very experimental series The Prisoner. In retrospect The Prisoner has not dated all that well. It’s still interesting but its flaws (particularly its self-indulgence) are all too evident. Danger Man by contrast now seems like much the more successful series.

Danger Man is one of the great TV spy series. Very highly recommended.

Monday 12 August 2019

a third season Star Trek miscellany

Star Trek is far from being my favourite 1960s science fiction TV series. It had its great moments but it had some excruciating moments as well. For me the problem was never the occasional campiness. That doesn’t bother me. My problem was with the heavy-handed messaging in so many of the scripts. At times it was even more heavy-handed than The Twilight Zone which is saying something. There was also often a bit too much obviousness in the scripts. In season three the great moments were becoming progressively rarer.

That Which Survives

That Which Survives is a late season three episode which is a mixture of good and bad. The best news is that it’s entirely free of social messages. The bad news is that the story is not exactly dazzlingly original.

The Enterprise arrives at a planet which is very puzzling indeed. It appears to be only a few thousand years old but there is life on the surface. Complex life could not possibly have evolved in such a short time but there it is. As Kirk and three others are about to be transported to the planet surface a strange woman appears in the transporter room. She touches one of the technicians and he dies instantly.

Then things get really worrying. The Enterprise disappears, having been instantly propelled to a point a thousand light years away. Kirk and the landing party think the ship has been destroyed while on the Enterprise similarly grave fears are held for the safety of the landing party. Both sets of fears are well-founded. The members of the landing party are being stalked by that strange woman while the Enterprise has been sabotaged and may blow up at any moment.

The explanation when it comes might not be very original but there is one interesting twist regarding the woman’s motivations.

Lee Meriwether plays the murderous woman, Losira, and does a decent enough job. Her makeup is rather startling.

William Shatner gets to do some overacting, which is always good. Spock is particularly Spock-like in this episode while engineering officer Mr Scott (James Doohan) is ever more Scottish than usual.

That Which Survives works pretty well. It’s entertaining and it has none of the irritating ingredients that mar so many episodes. I recommend this one.

All Our Yesterdays

All Our Yesterdays was the second last episode of Star Trek, and it proves that even at this very late stage the series could still come up with a truly excellent story. It’s a time travel story with some nice twists. What’s particularly satisfying is that the twists are emotional twists as well as science fictional ones.

The Enterprise arrives just in time to rescue the inhabitants of a planet. Their sun is about to go supernova. Kirk, Spock and McCoy beam down and find to their surprise that everyone has gone, except for the ageing librarian. He is however more than a librarian.

Where have the planet’s inhabitants gone? It ties out that they’ve escaped into the past. Not in their imaginations but in reality. The librarian, Atoz, has invented a machine that can send them back to any period in the planet’s history. There is one little catch, which I’m not going to reveal.

The machine accidentally sends Kirk back to a time roughly similar to Europe in the 17th century. The fact that it looks more like a period in Earth’s history than in an alien planet’s history doesn’t affect the story. Kirk finds himself accused of witchcraft and finds out about the catch I mentioned earlier. Spock and McCoy are accidentally sent back to the Ice Age where they encounter the beautiful Zarabeth (Mariette Hartley). Amusingly, when she takes them back to her cave and removes her furs she’s wearing an incredibly skimpy costume underneath. This doesn’t make much sense except that hey, she’s really hot and she looks good wearing very little clothing and that can’t hurt the ratings.

Spock reacts very strangely to all this. It’s not just that he seems to be falling in love with Zarabeth, which is startling enough, but his behaviour is odd in other ways. What’s really neat is that the plot gives us a plausible and entirely satisfying explanation for his behaviour, an explanation I’m also not going to reveal.

There’s also a race against time element (that sun is going to blow at any minute) which adds some suspense.

Leonard Nimoy gets a chance to do some real acting as well and he’s able to make Spock’s personality aberration seem convincing.

This is a script (by Jean Lisette Aroeste) that ties all its threads, scientific and emotional, together very neatly and very cleverly. OK, by the halfway point you can see how it’s going to end but that’s not a flaw since it increases the emotional impact.

The time travel stuff is naturally pure technobabble but what matters is that at least it sounds like it makes sense (which is more than can be said for a lot of TV sci-fi) and all the implications have been clearly thought out.

All Our Yesterdays manages to be an original and surprisingly coherent time travel story, a story with some emotional depth and fine entertainment. This is the kind of episode that almost persuades me to forgive Star Trek for the disappointments of so many other episodes. It has a very effective ending too. This one is highly recommended.

The Cloud Minders

An episode of Star Trek with a political subtext is no surprise. There are countless such episodes. But The Cloud Minders is something different. The social message here is not a liberal one. This one is pure Marxist class struggle stuff.

The Enterprise has to pick up some ore from the planet Ardana. The ore is desperately needed to fight a botanical plague on another planet. Ardana is a rigidly divided society. On the planet surface (or rather below the surface since their main function is to mine the ore) are the Troglytes. They’re the oppressed workers. The members of the ruling class live in Stratos City, a city that floats in the clouds. They devote their lives to art and intellectual pursuits. They do no actual work. Their idyllic lifestyle is made possible by the labours of the Troglytes. And now the Troglytes are rebelling against their appalling working conditions.

What’s really interesting is that the ruling class are not an old-fashioned aristocracy nor are they quite a capitalist class. They are an intellectual/artistic class. They live lives devoted to art and philosophy. Those lives are of course based on exploitation.

The Stratos City dwellers pride themselves on the fact that Stratos City is entirely free from violence, while the Troglytes are violent and dangerous. In fact Kirk, Spock and McCoy (who have beamed down to Stratos City) will soon discover that the city dwellers are quite happy to use torture on Troglytes.

Kirk is naturally determined to end this injustice even if it means violating his orders and interfering with the government of Ardana.

The story develops in a somewhat contrived manner. This is not exactly a subtle story, but Star Trek was never renowned for its subtlety. It’s still a reasonably OK episode.

Sunday 4 August 2019

Lost in Space - No Place to Hide (unaired pilot, 1965)

No Place to Hide is the unaired 1965 pilot episode of Lost in Space and it provides a fascinating look at the original concepts behind the show. It differs from the first episode of season one (The Reluctant Stowaway) in many ways, some obvious and others more subtle but no less important.

The basic premise, that the Robinsons are to be the first family sent into deep space to begin the task of him colonisation, is the same. There is however a voiceover narration in the early part of the episode (it’s actually supposed to be the voice of a controller at Alpha Control) which explains a lot of details that The Reluctant Stowaway glosses over and adds information that gives the mission a slightly different character. The spaceship is named the Gemini 12 rather than the Jupiter 2.

The most obvious difference is that there’s no robot and no Dr Smith. It soon becomes clear why it was so vital to add Dr Smith to the cast. He was so incredibly useful in plot terms - he could always be relied upon to lose or break some piece of vital equipment or cause some other problem that would put everyone in danger and thereby create the necessary dramas. And of course in The Reluctant Stowaway it’s the extra weight he adds to the spaceship by stowing away that causes them to become lost. In No Place to Hide the Gemini 12 runs into a meteor storm that damages the ship and sends them wildly off course.

It’s also interesting that in The Reluctant Stowaway the Robinsons seem to be a typical American family chosen more or less at random, with John Robinson and Don West seeming to be the only qualified members of the crew. In No Place to Hide they’re all incredibly highly qualified experts in a variety of vital fields. Don West is Dr West rather than Major West and he’s a genius scientist. John and Maureen Robinson are also both genius scientists. Even Penny is a zoologist, and Will is a scientific prodigy. The one odd exception is poor Judy - she’s an aspiring musical comedy star!

The Gemini 12 crash lands on an unknown planet. Within six months they have established a base camp and they’re growing food and domesticating animals. Then things start to go wrong and they’re plunged into a series of dangerous adventures. Some of these adventures would be recycled for use in early season one episodes.

Most of the characters are pretty much the same. Despite their impressive scientific qualifications they do not, with the exception of John Robinson and Don West, appear to do anything scientifically impressive (although of course it could be assumed that Maureen and Penny are making their contributions in the areas of food cultivation and animal husbandry).

The overall tone is fairly serious. Of course the tone of the first half dozen or so episodes of the first season is also fairly serious compared to later episodes but without Dr Smith and the robot there are no actual comedy moments at all in No Place to Hide.

There’s at least a token effort to establish a romantic relationship between Don and Judy. Since No Place to Hide takes itself rather seriously it’s likely that the original idea had been to aim at a wider audience rather than specifically a juvenile audience so it’s possible that the intention had been to develop this romance angle a bit more fully. One of the minor problems with the series was that with the lack of focus on this romantic pairing Judy ended up being a character without any really defined rôle.

I don’t recall there being so much emphasis in The Reluctant Stowaway on the idea that if the mission had gone as planned the Robinsons would have spent 98 years in suspended animation before reaching their destination.

The spacecraft-in-flight special effects are a bit iffy, especially during the meteor storm, but they're not noticeably worse than those to be found in other television science fiction series of that era. On the other hand some of the other effects are quite decent and it’s obvious that some serious money was spent here. Overall it’s visually quite impressive by 1960s television standards. The inland sea sequences are thrilling and very well done with some fine miniatures work.

No Place to Hide is most definitely worth watching if you’re a dedicated Lost in Space fan or an Irwin Allen fan. Like the first few first season episodes it offers a tantalising hint of some of the directions in which the series might have gone.  It seems fairly clear that when this pilot was made the intention was that Lost in Space would be a real relatively grown-up science fiction series that would appeal to a wide audience. Watching the pilot you can see why changes had to be made but you can also understood why it was picked up as a series.

No Place to Hide is included as an extra in the season one volume two DVD boxed set (or at least it's included in the Region 4 edition). I have no idea if it's also included in the more recent complete series releases on DVD and Blu-Ray.

I reviewed the early relatively serious season one Lost in Space episodes a few years back. That post can be found here.