Monday 21 September 2020

Mannix season 3 (1969)

Mannix boasts one of the best opening credits sequences in television history and one of the best theme tunes (written by Lalo Schifrin who also did the theme to Mission: Impossible). That opening credits sequence sets the tone - there’s going to be a tough handsome hero, lots of action, lots of violence and lots of beautiful women. Glamour, action, excitement.

And that’s exactly what Mannix delivers. In its day it was just about the most violent and action-packed series on American network TV.

The third season aired on CBS in 1968-69.

Like the character he plays Mike Connors was Armenian and, unusually for the time, his ethnic origins are emphasised in the series. He gets regular opportunities to demonstrate that he speaks fluent Armenian. The cultural stresses involved in making a life in a new land are also emphasised, particularly in relation to Mannix’s dad. Mannix is in most ways a red-blooded all-American hero, but he’s a red-blooded all-Armenian-American hero as well.

When it comes to onscreen cool few people could touch Mike Connors. Joe Mannix gets beaten up regularly but although he’s often bruised and battered he never loses that cool.

Joe Mannix also has few peers as an action hero - he drives racing cars, he’s a pilot, he’s proficient in just about every sport, he was a high school football star, he had a distinguished war record in Korea and he has a black belt in karate. Mannix has testosterone coming out of his ears. Being hyper-masculine he has no qualms at all about showing his sensitive side. You might think a guy like this would be beating women off with a stick and you’d be right. Mannix might be a male wish-fulfilment fantasy but it’s a positive wish-fulfilment fantasy. As a hero he’s the real deal. And it’s done with style and frenetic energy.

One of the enduring clichés of the private eye genre is the antagonistic relationship between the PI hero and the cops. Mannix is a bit of an exception to this rule. Mannix is on quite friendly terms with the police. He gets on pretty well with Lieutenant George Kramer (Larry Linville) who appears in several early episodes and he gets on very well with Lieutenant Adam Tobias (Robert Reed) who becomes a semi-regular character. Mannix doesn’t let anyone walk all over him but he doesn’t have the chip on his shoulder that many fictional PIs have. He’s a relatively up-market private eye and he knows it’s in his best interests to work with the cops rather than against them. His relationship with the cops is also a reflection of his boundless self-confidence, his charm and his general likeability.

One of the most appealing things about this series is that it’s so wildly out of sync with modern sensibilities. I’m not talking about political incorrectness here. What makes Mannix likely to shock contemporary viewers is its optimism and its belief that uncomplicated old-fashioned heroes are not only real but are to be admired. Mostly though contemporary viewers will be struck by the fact that there was a time when good television programs didn’t have to be ironic.

Mannix is representative of the best of American network TV of its era - high production values, a charismatic star (with good support from Gail Fisher as his patient secretary Peggy), great guest stars and remarkably consistent scripts. Everything about the series is slick and professional. Mannix gets to drive some wonderful classic American convertibles (in this season a Dodge Dart GTS 340). He has a car phone - very unusual for the late 60s and something that makes it clear that Mannix is at the rich and glamorous end of the private eye spectrum. Even his office is classy and stylish. His job brings him into contact with an enormous number of women, all of them beautiful (even the ones with homicidal tendencies).

The whole package is glossy, polished and ultra-cool.

Everything about the series is just right. This is perfect television entertainment.

Episode Guide

Eagles Sometimes Can't Fly is overly earnest with a contrived ending. A young black guy and his Indian friend are causing trouble in a liquor store but they’re really just having a bit of harmless drunken fun. Then two other guys and a girl arrive and they’re after more than harmless fun. It ends with two people dead. The setup, which makes it difficult for the first two guys to prove they weren’t involved in the robbery, is quite clever. But really just a bit too earnest.

In Color Her Missing a PI is thrown to his death from the window of an apartment belonging to attorney Charles Egan. The dead PI and Mannix were old buddies. Egan has an alibi of sorts, a girl who saw him when he was out driving in the country a the time of the murder, or so he claims. The police cannot find any trace of the girl. Mannix doesn’t like Egan one little bit but he also doesn’t like the idea of an innocent man going to the gas chamber so he agrees to try to find the witness. And then things get really complicated. And of course Mannix gets beaten up, but then Mannix always gets beaten up. It’s a pretty decent episode.

Return to Summer Grove takes Joe back to his home town. An old college buddy is facing a murder charge and that’s just the start of his problems. And Joe has some issues from the past that he needs to deal with, mainly his uneasy relationship with his father. It’s a solid enough episode.

The Playground sees Mannix trying to stop a movie star from getting killed. Mitch Cantrell (Robert Conrad) is a particularly arrogant obnoxious star and he likes to maintain his reputation for not scaring and he doesn’t want a bodyguard. Mannix detests Cantrell but he has a job to do. Whether Cantrell wants his life saved or not Mannix intends to save it. But first he has to figure out exactly what is going on. The movie studio setting is used very effectively. A good episode.

A Question of Midnight takes Joe Mannix to Pleasant Valley California, only it isn’t so pleasant. Two years earlier Dr Ben Holland had his licence withdrawn after a patient died at the Pleasant Valley Hospital and now he’s in trouble for practising medicine without a licence. His girlfriend thinks there was something suspicious about the way Dr Holland lost his licence. She hires Mannix to find out what really happened. And Mannix finds out plenty. A very sound episode.

A Penny for the Peep Show has some interesting twists and turns. There are three desperate convicts on the run, and there’s an attache case containing $312,000 but that’s the least valuable item in the case. A very good episode.

In A Sleep in the Deep Mannix is hired by Ellen Stone to find out if the scuba diving accident in which her husband Roger was killed was really an accident. Mannix finds that Roger had some secrets. Pretty young Barbara Stoner is one of those secrets. Barbara’s father has some secrets too. As does shipping tycoon Andre Korvak. There’s also lawyer Tom Hewitt, who’s in love with Ellen Stone. And there’s Korvak’s glamorous European actress girlfriend. Not to mention the guy who’s been shadowing Mannix from the beginning. Not one of them is telling the truth. The solution to the puzzle is a bit unexpected for a Mannix story but it’s a very good episode.

In Memory: Zero a private eye named Benson, a man of whom Mannix had a rather low opinion, has been murdered. Now someone is also trying to murder Benson’s secretary Maggie Wells. Maggie wants Mannix to find out who’s trying to kill her, but she has absolutely no idea why someone would want her dead so Mannix doesn’t have much to go on. Luckily he finds out about the parking ticket and then everything becomes clear. Another solid episode.

The Nowhere Victim begins with an old man hit by a car but when the driver goes back to find the man he’s vanished. The driver’s wife, worried that they may have killed somebody, hires Mannix to find out what happened. And Mannix finds himself in the middle of a Mob war. A very good episode.

In The Sound of Darkness Mannix suffers temporary blindness which is a problem since he’s being stalked by a killer. He will have to learn to defend himself without his eyes. An idea that has been done quite a few times. It’s done reasonably well here.

In Who Killed Me? Mannix is hired to solve a murder, but he’s hired by the victim. This one has a pretty clever plot. Great stuff.

Missing: Sun and Sky is a kidnapping story, but the kidnap victim is a horse. A very valuable racehorse. The horse was onboard a cargo plane and the circumstances of the disappearance are very puzzling. It seems like an impossible crime, but Mannix has been hired by the insurance company and he’s going to have to find the answer. A solid mystery episode with several likely suspects. And of course Mannix gets beaten up. It’s not a proper Mannix episode unless he gets beaten up.

Tooth of the Serpent involves yet another friend of Peggy’s who’s in trouble. Eve Chancellor’s husband is a tough police detective, maybe too tough. And her rebellious son Cap has managed to get mixed up in something that is likely to turn out to be both dangerous and illegal. Mannix has to sort it out. Mannix doesn’t actually get beaten up this time but he does get thrown down a lift shaft so he still ends up battered and unconscious. This one has quite an ingenious plot. Unfortunately director Paul Krasny goes way overboard with the tilted camera angles which get distracting. It’s still a clever episode.

In Medal for a Hero evidence is found suggesting that Peggy’s deceased husband was a crooked cop. Mannix of course doesn’t believe it. It’s an OK episode.

Walk with a Dead Man is nicely devious. Mannix is on his way to meet a client when he gets warned off and then shot at. It’s a blackmail case and maybe Mannix should have realised that if someone is prepared to shoot him to stop him seeing the client then it’s likely the case has more to it than meets the eye. Someone is playing games with him. A very good episode with some nice twists.

The case Mannix takes on in A Chance at the Roses is one he really knows he shouldn’t waste his time on. There’s an eyewitness that says the guy shot a pharmacist during a robbery and the assailant ran out the door straight into the waiting arms of the police. But the guy’s wife wants him to take the case and Peggy wants him to take the case and faced with a united front from two women Mannix just doesn’t have a chance. He takes the case. There are some very good twists in this “nothing is as it seems to be” story.

Harlequin's Gold sees Mannix pitted against pirates! Not just pirates, but Australian pirates. It has a nice opening sequence in which a shambling bum wanders into a bar and asks some strange rambling questions about a ship. The shambling bum is none other than Joe Mannix. The pirates come later, and Mannix will also have to look out for sharks. This is an enjoyable episode.

Who Is Sylvia? is another very solid episode. His old Korean War buddy Phil invites Joe to a party, only Joe finds out that it wasn’t Phil who invited him, it was Phil’s wife Kathy. Kathy thinks someone is trying to kill her. In fact she’s sure of it and Mannix is convinced as well. There are some nice twists and while they might not be entirely original they’re handled skilfully. The key to the case is Sylvia, but exactly who is Sylvia? This episode does suffer just a little from having to be very coy about sex but other than that it’s exceptionally well done, with a great performance by Jessica Walters as Kathy. Good stuff.

In Only One Death to a Customer someone is hunting Mannix but he doesn’t know why. He just knows they want him dead. He figures out who it is pretty quickly, and you will too. It’s telegraphed just a bit too obviously. Not a terrible episode but everything is just a bit too obvious.

In Fly, Little One Mannix has to solve a case involving pirates and buried treasure. Well actually it’s just a regular robbery but the mentally disturbed nine-year-old girl who is the key witness thinks it’s about pirates and somehow Mannix has to separate truth from fantasy in her story. Mannix gets to show his gentle side, and since he’s so sublimely confident in his masculinity showing gentleness is never a problem for him. Not a great episode - it relies a bit too much on people doing the obvious. But still reasonably enjoyable.

In The Search for Darrell Andrews another private eye has a fatal accident but he’s earlier told Mannix that he thought he might be in line for such an accident. So Mannix has no doubt that this was murder, and obviously he intends to find the killer. But can he do so without risking Peggy’s life? As usual Mannix gets himself into a dangerous situation and the way he gets out of it is much too contrived. In fact the whole episode suffers from lazy writing. The various plot strands just don’t come together. This is one of the rare Mannix episodes that is pretty much a washout.

Murder Revisited presents us with an intricate mystery after a political fixer is murdered. There are two million witnesses - at the time he was murdered he was talking on-air to a sensationalist TV interviewer. You expect Mannix to run into cute blondes but this time there are two of them - twins. Two cute blondes (both potential murderesses) means double the trouble but double the fun. This one has quite a clever plot. A very good episode.

War of Nerves starts with a girl and a horse both disappearing. It seems like it’s going to be a typical rural paranoia story, with a city slicker (in this case Mannix) running afoul of crooked small town types. There is however a major twist and it becomes a paranoia story of an entirely different stripe. Far-fetched perhaps but very entertaining.

In Once Upon a Saturday Mannix spends the day at the carnival run by his old friend Bev. Carnivals are fun, as long as you don’t get killed, and this is the kind of carnival where you could very easily get killed. The big problem with this story is the implausible motive. The carny setting however is great and is used cleverly, so it ends up being an OK episode to finish the season.

Final Thoughts

Despite a couple of weak episodes towards the end the third season of Mannix is great well-crafted stylish entertainment. Highly recommended.

I've also reviewed Mannix season one and season two.

Friday 11 September 2020

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea season 4 (1967-68)

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea got off to a great start. The first season is about as good as American TV science fiction gets. It has a perfect blend of espionage, political intrigue and not too outlandish science fiction elements. The second season is almost as good, albeit with some slightly more outrageous elements. Things really started to fall apart in the third season. The budget was cut and it shows, the series degenerated into endless Monster of the Week stories, the monsters were often lame, the scripts were weak and there’s too much out-and-out silliness. There are some good episodes but the series was clearly in trouble. Season four, which went to air in late 1967 and early 1968 was a bold attempt to get the series back on its feet.

There was a move away from Monster of the Week stories, there was at least a partial return to the very successful season one formula, there was some investment in new props (such as the full-size rear section of the Flying Sub) and gadgets, an effort was made to improve the special effects and the scripts were stronger. There was a focus on keeping the action happening. There were some good sets. Everyone seemed to be making a bit more of an effort. Even the opening credits got jazzed up a little.

With many science fiction TV series there’s a problem with networks getting more penny-pinching thus leading to declines in production values. There’s no real sign of that here.

The cast remained unchanged but there are signs that most of the regulars are trying a bit harder. Richard Basehart tries to vary his performances, sometimes adding amusing touches of irascibility and sometimes mixing them with an appealing hint of whimsicality. On occasions both David Hedison and Bob Dowdell (as Chip Morton) get to stretch their acting talents just a little.

Part of the problem with the third season was that Irwin Allen was trying to make three science fiction series all at the same time - Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Lost in Space and The Time Tunnel. It was not surprising that some of the focus was lost. When The Time Tunnel was (very unfortunately and very undeservedly) cancelled it allowed more attention to be given to the final seasons of the two surviving series both of which represented marked improvements on the previous year.

Season four might be a little uneven but the best episodes compare very favourably to the best stories of the first two seasons. The series was showing definite signs of getting back on its feet. Its cancellation at the end of this season must have been quite a disappointment to everyone involved.

Episode Guide

In Man of Many Faces Admiral Nelson assassinates rival scientist Dr Randolph Mason. Of course we know that can’t be true, and Captain Crane knows that can’t be true, but can he prove it? Admiral Nelson and the slain scientist were bitter rivals. Nelson is convinced that Dr Mason’s latest project is not merely dangerous, it could destroy the world. But that doesn’t mean that he shot Dr Mason.

The Seaview somehow has to reach Dr Mason’s secret installation within 24 hours or the Moon will crash into the Earth. That’s not the only problem for Seaview and its crew. Thee’s a killer on board, and he can take on the appearance of any crew member.

The plot might sound hokey but it works quite well in practice. This is a well-executed episode which doesn’t look as cheap as many later season episodes. The best thing though is that it’s a return to the formula that made the first season so terrific - a combination of thriller and science fiction elements with no monsters in sight. An extremely good episode.

In Time Lock Nelson is kidnapped by Alpha, a collector of military memorabilia in the distant future. What Alpha actually collects are generals. Famous generals of history. Then he turns them into mindless automatons. This collector’s agents have taken over the Seaview’s lab. There are various attempts by Seaview’s crew to recapture the lab, while Nelson makes various attempts to escape his obviously crazy captor.

Time Lock actually has a few interesting ideas but they’re not fully developed. You might think collecting historical generals and turning them into zombies is pointless but there is a reason behind it. Nelson’s growing suspicion that what Alpha is doing might be illegal in his future society and that this might be used against him is potentially interesting but not quite enough is made of it. Budgets were very low in the fourth season and that’s a problem in a time travel episode that really needed its future society to be fleshed out a bit. Time Lock is a missed opportunity but it’s not a total failure.

The Deadly Dolls are puppets belonging to puppeteer Professor Multiple. He has been entertaining the crew. He was supposed to have gone ashore after the show but he’s still aboard and now his dolls are taking over the ship. The idea of having the crew replaced by exact doubles is one of more overused tropes in 60s science fiction television but in this case it’s done with style and wit, and a certain amount of intelligence. Plus the episode features Vincent Price as Professor Multiple. There’s obviously the potential for a great deal of silliness in a story such as this but in fact it mostly succeeds in being clever and slightly sinister rather than silly. And there are some actual science fiction concepts as well. Overall a very good episode.

Fires of Death plunges us straight into the action in spectacular fashion, with a volcano erupting and the Seaview being tossed about like a toy in a bathtub. What they’re trying to do is to stop the volcano from erupting since it’s going to destroy half the southern hemisphere. Scientist Dr Turner aims to be able to stop it. It soon transpires that Dr Turner is no vulcanologist - he’s a 500-year-old alchemist mining the volcano for elixir stones to prolong his life. To assist him he has a century-old golden man. The whole thing is completely nuts but the action is non-stop, the effects are remarkably good and somehow it all works. It’s great stuff.

In Cave of the Dead Commander Van Wyck (guest star Warren Stevens) and Admiral Nelson are aboard the Flying Sub investigating the disappearance of four Navy ships. They find something very strange indeed. After flying through a storm that wasn’t there the Flying Sub is forced down by gunfire from a square-rigged sailing ship and they find an island, where there is no island. In a cave they discover skeletons, an old dagger and a curse. Is it the curse of the Flying Dutchman? Now this is an episode that in season three would have been nothing but full-on silliness with pirates with outrageous accents but in fact Cave of the Dead tries to be a bit cleverer than that. It actually tries to rely on building an atmosphere of subtle unease. Admiral Nelson has seen all these strange things but no-one else can see them. He starts to think that he knows what’s going on but there’s no way he’s going to be able to make anyone believe it.

William Welch isn’t one of the more high regarded television writers of the era. The word hack has been applied to him. In this story however he does a pretty decent job.

There are no goofy social effects or silly monsters and there’s some real creepiness and some real suspense. Even when Nelson figures out what has to be done it seems impossible that he’ll be able to it. A very fine episode.

In Sealed Orders the Seaview has to deliver a neutron warhead to Cook Atoll for testing. There’s a radiation leak and then the crew starts to vanish. Other strange things happen as well. It’s another attempt to get away from the Monster of the Week formula and to create an atmosphere of weirdness and unease. Some very simple social effects are used quite cleverly. Even the revelation at the end is reasonably plausible. A good episode.

Journey with Fear is the Chip Morton in Space episode. The Seaview is tasked with launching a manned outer space mission but ends up on Venus and is captured by aliens from another planet. It’s an ambitious episode that works reasonably successfully.

Terror is another alien invasion story, but this time it’s plants from another planet. The good news is that there are no guys in rubber suits masquerading as killer plants. The only plant we see is an orchid in a pot. Which means no goofy special effects. The plants just take over people’s minds. There’s nothing startling or wildly original here but at least it’s not cheesy. An OK episode.

With Fatal Cargo we’re back to guy-in-a-rubber-suit monster stuff, with a white gorilla running loose on Seaview. But this is a kind of unstoppable super-gorilla, controlled by a mad scientist. This one is definitely cheesy. Not one of the better episodes.

Rescue is very much a return to the spirit of the first season. No monsters here, just a taut  multi-stranded thriller story. Seaview is searching for a secret hostile underwater submarine base. Seaview gets disabled and is lying helpless on the sea floor. The Flying Sub gets sunk. It’s a race against time to rescue Captain Crane in the Flying Sub plus there’s an enemy submarine lurking about plus there’s a saboteur aboard. This episode is notable for Admiral Nelson being continuously irritable and exasperated although to be fair he can hardly be blamed given that everything that can go wrong has gone wrong. It’s an adrenaline-rush episode and it’s excellent.

The Death Clock plunges us straight into the action. There’s an accident in the reactor room. Captain Crane gets a hefty dose of radiation and is left in a coma. While in the coma in sick bay he shoots Admiral Nelson. He never left the sick bay, and yet he did. But did he shoot the admiral today or tomorrow? And is it now tomorrow, or maybe it’s yesterday? Captain Crane is going to have to do something about tomorrow but a very dangerous man will try to stop him and that dangerous man is Captain Crane.

So obviously this is a time-travel episode and it’s a pretty good one. No monsters in this one but some puzzles, some paradoxes, some chilling moments and quite a bit of cleverness. David Hedison gets to do his cold-blooded psycho killer thing which he does to very good effect. This really is a top-notch fourth season episode.

Secret of the Deep is a monster episode but not a bad one, and not too silly. A senior Allied intelligence officer joins the Seaview to track down a secret underwater base run by renegade scientists. The scientists have created giant mutant sea creatures capable of destroying all American shipping, the aim being to blackmail the government. The monster stuff isn’t overdone, there’s a fine villain and that villain’s ultimate fate is a very nice touch. Overall not outstanding but an acceptably enjoyable episode.

Blow Up begins, as the title suggests, with an explosion aboard the submarine. Admiral Nelson miraculously survives thanks to a new emergency breathing device but he seems changed, and not in a good way. He’s paranoid and unstable and he makes decisions that could be leading to disaster. This is a psychological drama episode and it’s quite good but perhaps stretches credibility a bit. Richard Basehart gets to do some serious scenery-chewing. At least there are no monsters.

With Deadly Amphibians we’re back to guys in rubber suits. The amphibians are an advanced race living beneath the sea and they want to take over the world, using Seaview’s nuclear power. Naturally the Seaview gets sunk (yet again) and for good measure the Flying Sub gets sunk as well. And the amphibians have some nasty powers that make things look pretty grim for Admiral Nelson and his men. As guys in rubber suits episodes go this one is not too bad. And at least it’s fast-moving. Kind of fun.

The Abominable Snowman is, yes you guessed it, a guy-in-a-rubber-suit monster episode. The Seaview is sent to Antarctica to rescue the Paulson Expedition but when they get there they find a tropical paradise. And crewmen start getting brutally killed. And the two survivors of the expedition are unconscious so they can’t answer any questions. Of course the viewer knows that an abominable snowman is loose on the submarine, but where did he come from? There is an explanation, but it’s not very good. This one might have worked better with a less silly monster - there’s no reason why the monster has to look like an abominable snowman. A routine monster episode.

In The Return Of Blackbeard the legendary pirate Blackbeard, dead for two hundred years and more, takes over the Seaview. He intends to blow up the yacht of the Shah (of Iran presumably) and retrieve the priceless golden throne of Solomon. This one relies too much on ideas the series had already used too many times. On the other hand Malachi Throne is insanely outrageous as Blackbeard, Del Monroe has fun playing Kowalski as a pirate after he’s been recruited as Blackbeard’s First Mate and Richard Basehart gives a very amusing tongue-in-cheek performance. Enjoyably goofy.

A Time To Die is quite ambitious when it comes to ideas. The Seaview’s clocks start doing strange things. They encounter a giant undersea reptile which proves to be merely inquisitive. They suddenly lose all radio contact - with everybody. Admiral Nelson starts to get really concerned when the submarine surfaces and he takes a look at the night sky. Those constellations are not in the right places. The night sky did look like this once, a very very long time ago. Someone is playing tricks with time. The tricks with time idea is developed reasonably well. Henry Jones is great fun as the mysterious Pem. This otherwise very good episode is let down a little by some very poor special effects but it’s still a fairly strong story.

Edge of Doom presents Admiral Nelson with an unpleasant situation. Seaview has to deliver a vital piece of equipment but Nelson has been informed that there maybe an impostor among the crew and the impostor may be Captain Crane. He will have to lay a trap for the impostor, and hope that the information he has been given is correct. Apart from the exact double angle (which was always a far-fetched and clichéd plot device) this is a reasonably tense spy drama episode with no silly monsters. And David Hedison’s performance is pretty impressive.

Is The Terrible Leprechaun really the worst-ever episode of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea? I’d have to say yes. It’s basically a very routine episode about threats to yet another secret defence installation at the bottom of the sea. But with leprechauns. The leprechauns make a mediocre episode truly awful. Maybe with a whimsical approach it might have worked as a Lost in Space episode but apart from the leprechauns everything is taken dead seriously, which just makes it worse.

Nightmare has a nicely mysterious opening. Captain Crane is test flying the Flying Sub when he receives a radio message from Seaview indicating that they’re in trouble and that he must return to the submarine immediately. This happens moments after Lee sees a UFO. When he gets back to Seaview it appears to be deserted but he can still hear the crew. And them some guy he’s never seen before tries to kill him. And all this is in the first  few minutes! This episode has plenty of tension and lots of paranoia. Excellent stuff.

Savage Jungle is an alien invasion story. Large parts of Italy have suddenly been overrun with tropical jungle. When the Seaview arrives to investigate it gets turned into a jungle as well. The aliens are trying to change the whole planet into a steamy primeval jungle with an atmosphere suitable for their lifeforms, and fatal to humans. The miniaturised jungle fighters are a nice touch. The special effects are pretty good, especially the submarine trapped by underwater vegetation. The interior of the sub totally infested with jungle plants looks terrific. And to top it all off, it has a decent plot and an excellent villain. A very fine episode.

The Lobster Man is a guy-in-a-rubber suit story but with a few interesting elements. A crustacean from outer space has crash landed in the ocean and Seaview has picked him up. He’s not your standard shambling monster. He’s highly intelligent, polite and articulate and everything he does is calm and deliberate. But what is his agenda? Is he friendly or hostile? No-one is sure. A reasonably well thought-out script although it’s just a little bit flat at times. Still a fairly decent episode.

Man-Beast is a monster story but it tries to be an intelligent monster story. Captain Crane is the guinea pig testing a new ultra-deep diving technique but it has one slight side-effect - it turns him into a werewolf! It’s a silly premise but handled reasonably well. It’s kind of fun.

Flaming Ice is an alien invasion story. As usual the aliens went Seaview’s nuclear reactor. To get it they threaten the submarine with death by freezing and death by roasting. While the plot isn’t dazzling this one does have a lot going for it. It has Australian actor Michael Pate (always fun and a favourite of mine) as the alien leader. It has  great makeup effects. The sets are excellent - the ice caves are exceptionally good. It’s a very visually impressive episode. On the whole this one works for me.

Attack is another alien invasion tale. Seaview is searching for a flying saucer that went down in the ocean. Admiral Nelson and Kowalski in the Flying Sub find it, or at least the aliens find then. Aboard the Seaview there are other problems. There’s a stowaway named Robek and he claims to be an alien, but a good alien who wants to save them from bad aliens. Aliens have tried that line before so Captain Crane isn’t exactly convinced that Robek is telling the truth. Maybe this one’s a bit too reminiscent of too many earlier episodes but it’s still decent enough.

No Way Back is the final episode of the season, and of course the last ever episode of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. It was not a bad way for the series to bow out. It certainly starts in spectacular fashion. Seaview is blown to bits and everybody is killed. And this before the opening credits! This can’t be the way things end, can it? Of course things turn out to be more complicated. Mr Pem, the megalomaniacal inventor of a time travel machine (from the earlier episode A Time To Die), has returned and he’s back to his old tricks. Now he persuades the Admiral to let him build a new time travel device, to save Seaview. Admiral Nelson naturally doesn’t trust Pem but he has no choice other than to go along. In the course of which he meets Benedict Arnold, aboard Seaview.

Thee’s not much in the way of special effects in this one but it’s a decent story and it has a bit more emotional punch than most episodes (appropriate given that it was the final episode). And Mr Pem is a delightful villain. On the whole a worthy ending to a great series.

Final Thoughts

The fourth season turned out to be a very pleasant surprise. A vast improvement on the previous season, and while it’s not consistently up to the standards of the first two seasons the best episodes rank right up there with the best of those seasons.

The final season of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea was certainly nothing to be ashamed of. Highly recommended.

Wednesday 2 September 2020

Public Eye (season 7, 1975)

Public Eye was an unlikely television success story with an even more unlikely star. This series chronicling the career of downmarket private eye Frank Marker was made initially by Britain’s ABC Television and later by Thames Television. Seven seasons were made over a period of ten years from 1965 to 1975.

A few months before the seventh season went to air The Sweeney arrived on British television screens and things were never the same again. The Sweeney was shot on film, mostly on location, and with non-stop action and violence. Public Eye, shot on videotape and possibly the most low-key crime series ever made and with virtually zero action and violence, must have seemed like an anachronism by comparison. Despite this Public Eye continued to be immensely popular. There were plans to make an eighth season, shot on film, but star Alfred Burke felt (almost certainly correctly) that the change to film would destroy the series’ distinctive flavour.

Public Eye in fact had looked even better in its earlier seasons shot in black-and-white. It looked seedy, grimy, claustrophobic and down-at-heel but that’s exactly what Frank Marker’s life is like. He’s a private enquiry agent (the British name for a private detective) and he’s the least glamorous screen private eye in history. He doesn’t handle murders and jewel robberies. His cases are the kinds of routine cases that keep private enquiry agents a step ahead of starvation. He dislikes divorce cases but he does them anyway when he has to. Having served a prison sentence (he was set up as the fall guy) the world is not exactly his oyster. It’s the only job he knows how to do and it’s the only job he can get, and he likes working for himself.

Alfred Burke was in his late forties when the series began. He was the kind of character actor who will never starve, being one of those actors producers like because they can be relied upon to give solid performances, but he was never ever going to be a star. And then along came Public Eye and he found himself the star of a long-running hit series. It was a case of a perfect match between an actor and a series. Ubli Eye is almost aggressively unglamorous. It needed a star who looked very ordinary, a bit homely and decidedly battered. But what it really needed was a star with a unique kind of charismatic anti-charisma. Alfred Burke was the man for the job.

There are two other regular character in the later seasons. The first is Frank’s friend Inspector Percy Firbank (played delightfully by Ray Smith), a cynical but honest and pretty decent copper. The odd friendship between the two men is one of the joys of these later episodes. The second recurring character is ex-cop and private enquiry agent Ron Gash, for whom Marker works for a while. Gash is in some ways a lot more upmarket than Frank and in other ways a lot sleazier, or at least a lot more flexible when it comes to ethics.

Public Eye had already experimented with ongoing story arcs in the Brighton-based fourth season. That experiment is repeated in this final season. It’s almost unique for a private eye series of this vintage for events in one episode to have consequences in later episodes but Public Eye was no conventional private eye series.

This is subtle drama and very character-driven. Some of the plots are extremely clever but it’s the effect that events have on people that is always the main focus. There’s very little action. Frank Marker is not a man of action. From time to time he gets beaten up but that’s just an occupational hazard. He doesn’t believe in fighting back, for the very good reason that he would just get a worse beating. He does however, on occasions, find ways to get his revenge. It can be handy to have friends in the police.

Frank is no crusader for justice. Not that he has anything against justice, but ensuring that justice is done is not part of his job description. He’s been in the game long enough to be content to do what he’s paid to do.

Episode Guide

In Nobody Wants to Know Frank is hired to find a missing witness. Joe Martins is a small-time villain facing a fifteen-year stretch unless his upmarket girlfriend Janet Harper can be found to provide him wth an alibi. Janet has disappeared. It sounds like a routine case so Frank is a bit surprised when some goon tries to warn him off. He’s also curious about the horse doping which has nothing to do with Janet or Joe Martins, or does it? He’s also curious as to why nobody wants to talk or co-operate. Even Frank’s friend Inspector Percy Firbank doesn’t want to know either, and then suddenly he gets interested.

That last case left Frank battered and bruised and suffering from a very uncharacteristic case of self-pity in the next story, How About a Cup of Tea? Percy Firbank tries to help him. Mrs Mortimer, the lady with whom he had a not-quite-but-almost romance in season four (the Brighton season), tries to help him. Maybe she’s still sort of in love with him but she doesn’t know. Frank kicks them both in the teeth. Percy finds a case for him but that makes things worse. He has to persuade a tenant to vacate a house and the woman’s self-pity, ironically, irritates him. A good episode focused mainly on Marker himself rather than the case.

How About It, Frank? brings Marker some aggravation with an ambitious Detective Chief Inspector and it brings him a possible opportunity. And of course a case. It’s a background check for a computer company on prospective new recruit Brian Hart. Hart is a pretty good guy with a marriage that seems destined for trouble. 

That case from the first episode keeps coming back to haunt Frank. His first instinct was to just forget all about it and maybe he should have gone with that first instinct. The opportunity is a partnership with Ron Gash, an ex-copper who is now doing pretty good business as a private investigator. It’s tempting but Frank is not exactly a team player. A very good episode.

They All Sound Simple at First brings Frank a case that he almost enjoys. He’s now working for Ron Gash and the case is very simple - a Polish cabinet-maker is owed seven hundred quid by his brother-in-law for an antique clock. In fact it’s a complicated family drama and nobody actually cares about the clock. It’s the kind of Public Eye story that could be very downbeat but it’s given a slightly light-hearted and rather amusing treatment. Rather enjoyable.

The Fall Guy presents Frank with a routine divorce case but there are odd things about this case right from the beginning. And things get odder. Nothing is what it seems to be. Is Frank being used? Maybe, but maybe he isn’t the only one. A very good episode.

What's to Become of Us? brings Frank a client who appears to be a wealthy man who wants his wife found. She walked out on him and he just wants to know that she’s OK. The trouble is that everything the client tells him is a lie and when he’s confronted he tells even more lies. Frank could be annoyed but actually he’s amused although also a bit saddened. It’s the combination of slightly whimsical humour with an undercurrent of despair that this series does so well. Frank is also starting to wonder if it was a good idea working for Ron Gash. Frank actually likes Ron but their methods just seem to be incompatible. Another good episode.

In Hard Times Frank has just opened his new office and his first clients are a couple of hoodlums. They want him to find a friend of theirs, although perhaps friend is the wrong word. It’s a case that doesn’t appeal to Frank but he needs the money. He also gets to know the local police and they don’t appeal to him either. It’s all a bit sleazy but that’s the job. A very good episode.

No Orchids for Marker is the name of the episode and by the end of it it’s safe to say that Frank Marker is very very sick of orchids. His job is to babysit some rare and valuable orchids, for an eccentric old lady. He finds it hard to imagine that anyone would seriously wish to steal orchids, or do harm to orchids. He thinks that perhaps there’s something more going on here? Which of course there is. A nice mix of cleverness and whimsicality in this one with a neat twist. A very good episode.

In The Fatted Calf Frank is employed by a wealthy businessman whose spoilt son, currently studying sociology at university, has decided to drop out to join the workers’ struggle against capitalism. He’s become involved with a professional agitator but he may be more involved than he realises. An OK episode.

There’s some real suspense in Lifer. Frank is hired by a middle-aged man, a Mr Biddle. Mr Biddle wants Frank to find his wife who has run off with another man. In fact it’s not his wife Mr Biddle wants to find, it’s the other man, and it has nothing to do with his wife. There’s a score to be settled, a very old score. But some things can never be set right. Some lives can never be put together again. It’s a story that manages to be emotionally powerful without being manipulative or sentimentalised. A very very good episode.

Take No for an Answer brings a young woman to Frank’s office. She’s worried about her Dad. He’s the chief clerk in an engineering firm. She thinks he’s in trouble. And of course she’s right. It’s all to do with those boxes of carbon paper in his sheds. Lots and lots and lots of carbon paper, and how they got there is a sad and embarrassing story. Frank also comes up against a very smooth con-man who likes to fight dirty, but Frank can play dirty too. A reasonably good typically low-key episode.

Fit of Conscience opens with the collapse of a tower block, killing four people. A man employed by the council convinces himself that he is partly responsible and he hires Frank. But what is it he wants Frank to find out, and (more importantly) exactly why does he want to find out such things? Frank is certainly puzzled. This is another fascinating human drama, with people not even sure of their own motivations.

Unlucky for Some presents Marker with a case that is as routine as could imagined. Mrs Waterfield runs a respectable family hotel. She suspects that her daughter-in-law Paula is fooling around behind her son’s back, but she never did like Paula so she realises she may be biased. She wants Marker to find out exactly what, if anything, Paula is up to. What she actually is up to comes as a surprise and that could be good luck or bad luck depending on one’s point of view. A very good episode to close the season.

Final Thoughts

It’s a pity the eighth season didn’t happen but in British television there was a prevalent attitude that it’s better to quit while you’re ahead. In 1975 Public Eye was still extremely popular with both viewers and critics and the seventh season allowed it to go out on a high note, with no signs at all of a falling off in quality. This is truly one of the all-time great private eye series. Very highly recommended.

My reviews of the sixth season can be found here, and my thoughts on the surviving black-and-white episodes can be found here.