Thursday 29 October 2020

Halloween Knight (Knight Rider, 1984)

With Halloween almost upon us I thought I should watch some Halloween-themed cult TV. As it happens all I could come up on the spur of the moment was Halloween Knight, the fifth episode of the third season of Knight Rider. But it is an actual Halloween-themed episode so that’s something.

Halloween Knight, written by Bill Nuss and directed by Winrich Kolbe, originally went to air on 28th October 1984.

With Patricia McPherson returning to the series after being absent during season two it made sense to include at least one episode in the third season centred on her character, computer whizz-kid and genius engineer Bonnie Barstow. And this episode puts her right at the centre of the action.

Bonnie has just moved into a new apartment. It is two days before Halloween and she’s been kept awake by a noisy Halloween party in Apartment 302. From her apartment she can see straight into Apartment 302 across the courtyard and she sees something very disturbing - a woman being strangled by a guy in a gorilla suit. At least that’s what it looked like, but she’s been suffering from a fever so maybe she was hallucinating. Michael takes her story seriously anyway and decides to investigate. Especially when Bonnie sees a dead girl in her bathtub, and then the dead girl vanishes.

Michael gets cursed by a witch (admittedly a very pretty witch) and then someone tries to kill him. And then a gorilla tries to run him down in a car. Maybe Bonnie could have been hallucinating but Michael knows that someone really did try to kill him so he’s convinced that something sinister is going on.

The investigation leads Michael and Bonnie to a creepy old house which looks just like the Bates house from Psycho. Because it is the Bates house from Psycho, which was still there on the Universal backlot in the 80s (and as far as I know is still there today). Since Knight Rider was a Universal Television release and they had access to the Universal backlot it was a pretty obviously cool idea to use the famous house for a Halloween episode.

When you see that house you’re expecting some further Psycho references, and there are a couple. In fact given that one of the chief suspects has some movie industry connections the whole story is a bit of a movie/pop culture in-joke exercise, although it’s a thoroughly enjoyable one.

There are two spectacularly destructive KITT stunts and there’s an action finale in a drive-in theatre.

And the movie being screened is Creature from the Black Lagoon, which just happens to be (by an amazing coincidence) a Universal release. And it's being screened in 3D!

Patricia McPherson gets a rare chance to do at least a little bit of real acting.

This being Knight Rider there are of course glamorous women (not all of them witches).

All in all Halloween Knight is a great deal of fun and turned out to be a pretty good pre-Halloween viewing choice.

Tuesday 27 October 2020

The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. - The Golden Boats of Taradata Affair (TV tie-in novel)

The Girl from U.N.C.L.E., a 1966-67 spin-off from The Man from U.N.C.L.E., was not a huge commercial success but it did spawn five TV tie-in novels including The Golden Boats of Taradata Affair by Simon Latter.

Simon Latter was one of the many pseudonyms used by prolific English author Reginald Alec Martin (1908-1971).

The novel has a neat setup. Two hundred years ago a pirate named Manuel Palanga established his lair on a small island which became known as Palaga. It’s now a haven for pirates of a more modern kind. Palaga is a peaceful and prosperous island paradise but its prosperity is based on activities that are not quite legal. The incredibly prolific Palaga family runs the island and does so smoothly and efficiently. And, it has to be said, very much for the benefits of the islanders.

Recently Palaga has attracted the attention of U.N.C.L.E., the international intelligence and law enforcement agency. One of U.N.C.L.E.’s top agents (and one of its most glamorous), April Dancer, has been sent to Palaga. It goes without saying that U.N.C.L.E. agent Mark Slate (who invariably partners April on assignments) is in Palaga as well, posing as a deckhand on a yacht. April is posing as one of the many rich beautiful tourists attracted to Palaga (Palaga strongly discourages non-wealthy tourists).

April’s boss Mr Waverley is particularly curious about the coracles. One of Palaga’s main exports is coracles (tiny boats). Thousands have been exported to the U.S. where they have become something of a craze. Coracle clubs have spring up across the country. What really interests Mr Waverley is that these clubs appear to be run by agents of the sinister international criminal organisation THRUSH.

The tricky part of this assignment is that there are quite a few characters who are very shady indeed but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re THRUSH agents. The Palaga family members are often quite shady (they are the descendants of pirates and piracy is an honoured family tradition) but that doesn’t mean they have the slightest desire to see THRUSH take over their island. That could interfere with their own very benign but technically criminal activities. Of course that doesn’t mean that the Palagas are any more fond of U.N.C.L.E. than they are of THRUSH.

The plot is the sort of thing you’d expect from a typical Girl from U.N.C.L.E. episode, with a sinister conspiracy for world domination and a genius scientist who might be an evil mad scientist or just naïve and easily exploited. There are lots of gadgets and even a mini-submarine.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. had started life as a James Bond-style spy thriller series - slightly tongue-in-cheek but not an out-and-out spy spoof and with genuine spy thriller plots. Unfortunately by the time The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. went into production the network had decided that it wanted both series to be turned into Batman-style zany campfests (with disastrous results). The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. novels are much more serious (and sometimes even quite dark) and much closer in tone to the first season of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and that’s a very good thing. They definitely have a much harder edge than the Girl from U.N.C.L.E. TV series. The good guys triumph but there’s often a price to be paid and people get killed, even people who don’t deserve such a fate.

The plots are just as outlandish but there’s less overt silliness and no campiness.

The original idea for The Man from U.N.C.L.E. came from Ian Fleming. His idea was that the series would follow the adventures of two secret agents, a man (Napoleon Solo) and a woman (April Dancer). Fleming had a knack for coming up with cool character names! After Fleming lost interest in the series it was decided to drop the idea of a male-female pairing of super-spies but the April Dancer character was revived for the second season episode The Moonglow Affair. The character seemed to have potential and the result was the spin-off series The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. which went to air in 1966.

American television in the 1960s was very strait-laced. Books were less constrained and as a result TV tie-in books at that period often contained a lot more sex and violence than the series on which they were based. That’s true to a very limited extent of this novel. It’s certainly much more obvious in the novel that Mark Slate is not unaware of April’s feminine charms. Particularly her bottom. And there is a bit more violence compared to the TV version (although April still dislikes the idea of having to kill people).

I’ve reviewed two other Girl from U.N.C.L.E. novels, The Birds of a Feather Affair and The Global Globules Affair.

The Golden Boats of Taradata Affair isn’t quite as good but it’s still a pretty entertaining spy thriller. Recommended, and if you’re a fan of the TV series, highly recommended.

Monday 19 October 2020

Return of the Saint (1978-79), part two

Return of the Saint was a bold and surprisingly successful attempt by ITC to revive the Saint TV franchise. It was hated by critics and extremely popular with viewers but alas by this time Lew Grade was obsessed with the idea of making movies and he saw this series as an obstacle to that ambition. It was certainly a costly series to make, with quite a bit of location shooting. It was in fact a good example of the strength of the approach that Grade had adopted right from the beginning - if you want to have a chance of cracking the US market you have to make series that are every bit as polished and visually exciting as the best American series and Return of the Saint was very polished indeed.

But Lew Grade wasn’t interested and the series, despite its success (it was sold to 73 countries), was cancelled after a single season. It became the last in a long line of ITC series with great potential (such as Department S and The Champions) to suffer undeserved premature cancellation. It was a victim of Grade’s ill-advised obsession with the idea of becoming a movie mogul. Return of the Saint was an expensive series and Grade by that time resented spending money on a TV series.

It was always obvious that Return of the Saint was going to have to offer more action and more violence than the original Saint series. British television had changed dramatically in the mid-70s, that change being spearheaded by The Sweeney. It was the same challenge that faced Albert Fennell and Brian Clemens when they revived The Avengers - how to up the ante in action and violence without losing the essential flavour of the original series. Surprisingly both The New Avengers and Return of the Saint managed to do this reasonably successfully. 

It is however always obvious that a precarious balancing act was going on and this was complicated by pressure from the US to keep the violence to a minimum. Compared to other contemporary British series Return of the Saint is just a little tame. On the other hand that may have contributed to its popularity - it may have appealed to viewers nostalgic for a slightly more innocent era of British television. When viewed today it comes across as an intriguing mix of 1960s and 1970s sensibilities.

At the time it seemed like a good idea to mix in a few harder-edged topical stories dealing with subjects like terrorism. Personally I think the more old-fashioned episodes in the style of the original series have aged better, but in commercial terms it undoubtedly was a good idea to try to give the series something of an up-to-date flavour.

With Return of the Saint ITC faced one incredibly daunting problem - finding someone capable of playing the rôle. Simon Templar is no ordinary hero, and he cannot under any circumstances be played that way. He has to have charm and wit, he has to have massive quantities of self-confidence, he has to have boyish enthusiasm. He has to be a man of action, but with a subtle and devious mind. He has to have a sense of fun and a sense of humour. He must be irresistible to the female of the species, but with a genuine affection for, and respect for, women. He has to be reckless. He has to be whimsical. Simon Templar is a man of the world, with the soul of an overgrown schoolboy.

Roger Moore qualified on all counts but where on earth were they going to find a younger actor with all those qualities, and with the necessary charisma? Amazingly enough, in Ian Ogilvy, they found that actor. Not quite as overflowing with charisma, but the first time you see him you have the same reaction that Roger Moore provoked - you think yes, that’s Simon Templar.

If you’re going to bring the Saint to the screen (whether it’s the big screen or the small screen) it has to be done with style. Everything Simon Templar does he does with style and a TV adaptation has to reflect this. This series does pretty well on that count. One slight problem is that this version of the Saint goes perilously close to being a 70s fashion victim. Ian Ogilvy felt, quite correctly, that a more conservative classic look would have worked better. Up-to-date fashions tend to date a series very quickly.

Curiously enough the series was originally planned as The Son of the Saint, with Ogilvy playing Simon Templar Jr.

This series differs from its predecessor in one very obvious way - it features a good deal of location shooting in some of the more glamorous parts of Europe.

Overall Return of the Saint is not quite as perfect as its predecessor. Its biggest fault is that it makes Simon Templar much too law-abiding and much too friendly with the police. This was a flaw with the original series but it’s even more evident in Return of the Saint. The essence of the character is that for all the good deeds he performs he is still a rogue and a thief and quite ruthless and he does not like policemen. If you try to make him too virtuous he becomes just another generic hero. The series also makes him just a bit too much of an Establishment figure. Not enough of an outsider. And Simon Templar should be an outsider. He’s not supposed to be a gentleman, even if he can easily pass as one.

On the plus side there are some very good scripts, including no less than eight by John Kruse. Kruse was a great TV writer, he’d written several episodes of the original Saint series (including the wonderful The Ex-King of Diamonds) and even the notoriously hard-to-please Leslie Charteris liked Kruse’s scripts.

Despite some problems Return of the Saint is still a very entertaining series.

Network’s complete series DVD set includes a number of audio commentaries featuring Ian Ogilvy and others associated with the series.

Episode Guide

The Armageddon Alternative is pretty outrageous. Terrorism was a big deal in the 70s so it was inevitable that this series would deal with the subject. A crazed scientist has built his own atom bomb and he’s going to use it to blow London off the map if his demands are not met. And what are his demands? He wants the government to publicly execute a young lady. Not just any young lady, but a beautiful young sculptress. And he doesn’t just want her executed - he wants her to be publicly guillotined! Like I said, it’s pretty outrageous. Simon Templar has been used by the terrorist to convey his demands to the government. Simon of course has no intention of allowing anyone to be executed, and certainly not someone as gorgeous as Lynn Jackson (played by Anouska Hempel). A good tense race-against-time plot although if you’re paying close attention the ending won’t surprise you. Still lots of fun.

The Imprudent Professor starts in interesting fashion. A maverick scientist is announcing a major scientific breakthrough when Simon Templar leaps up claiming to be one of the professor’s students from whom the professor stole his new theory. Simon is obviously up to something but what on earth is it? Simon has to deal with two formidable women, the professor’s daughter (played by Susan Penhaligon) and the glamorous but clearly dangerous Samantha (Catherine Schell), who runs Genius Inc. Lots of location shooting in France, plus a car chase, a boat chase and a helicopter chase and some decent fight scenes. An extremely good action-packed episode with some decent plot twists.

Signal Stop is a much more characteristically Saintly episode, written by John Kruse. Kruse was an excellent writer who also contributed episodes to the original Saint series so he knew what was required. Simon is on a train when a young woman named Janie pulls the emergency stop cord. From the train she has seen a man killed by being hurled through a window of a building. When the police arrive there is no trace of any crime and no broken window. And Janie has a psychiatric history. It’s clear to the police that it’s just a crazy woman seeing things. It’s not so clear to Simon Templar. He knows that crime has a habit of following him around, and besides that Janie doesn’t seem crazy. So he starts poking about and discovers some interesting things. Some very interesting things, which involve motorcycles, a god of lust and a wrecking yard. Of course the police make it clear that they don’t want Simon’s help but when has Simon ever taken any notice of policemen?

A very good episode that takes the established Saint formula and adds a few edgy touches to make it more suitable for the tastes of the late 70s.

The Roman Touch is another episode with an authentically Saintly flavour. In Rome Simon runs into an old friend, a pop singer who’s just had a string of hit records and is on top of the world. At least she should be, but she isn’t. She’s in debt up to her eyeballs and she’s taking way too many pills. She’s stuck in a contract that is bleeding her dry and there’s no escape. But of course the Saint does not accept this. Finding a way to get people (especially pretty girls) out of impossible predicaments is what he does. Some good location shooting in this one and a guest starring turn by Linda Thorson. Yes, Tara King, but this time she’s not Tara King but a ruthless tough as nails manager. One interesting thing about this episode is that we see the Saint doing actual criminal things, for a good cause naturally, but intending to profit personally as well. Which is the sort of thing that the Saint does in Leslie Charteris’s story but the 1960s series was always careful to obscure such disreputable details. A good episode.

Tower Bridge Is Falling Down is an excellent story of conning a con man, which is the sort of thing the Saint loves to do. And it is a deliciously neat if rather outrageous con. An excellent episode.

The Debt Collectors begins when Simon saves a damsel in distress - her horse has  bolted. This draws Simon into a strange family drama involving two sisters and it turns out to be a spy drama. With some very neat twists. This episode is also interesting in that Simon gets mixed up with MI5 and he doesn’t like them at all - it’s a welcome touch of authentic Saintly dislike of authority. A very good episode.

Collision Course is a two-parter (the first part is The Brave Goose and the second is The Sixth Man) written by John Kruse. Simon is participating in a power boat race. One of the other competitors, Oscar West, is killed. Simon knows it was no accident but he has his reasons for wanting to keep that information to himself. Oscar’s widow Annabelle disliked her husband but at least she will get his money. Except that he apparently had none, despite his lavish lifestyle. All she gets is a yacht that she didn’t even know he owned. And she’s now in a lot of trouble with some very unpleasant people who have reasons of their own for not believing that Oscar died penniless. The Saint is very interested in all of this and wants to help her, and perhaps help himself.

Some interesting guest stars in this one - Stratford Johns as a too-friendly French gentleman farmer and a disturbingly stout Derren Nesbitt as a French policeman, both doing outrageous French accents.

There’s murder on the ski slopes in Hot Run. Simon is always interested in the subject of murder and he’s especially interested when the victim has a very cute sister. When he discovers that there’s a heist involved and it’s being organised by another glamorous female his interest is even more intense. Tony Williamson was one of the best TV writers of that era and he provides a fairly clever plot. The heist includes some quite ingenious elements. Peter Sasdy directed and there’s some very good stunt work. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable episode.

Murder Cartel deals, as the title suggests, with an international organisation specialising in assassinations. The CIA needs Simon’s help since they have a massive security leak within the agency so Simon goes undercover as a cold-blooded hitman. Some interesting guest stars in this one - Helmut Berger (a very very big star in Europe at the time) and the rather underrated Britt Ekland. These types of episodes were hampered a little by the American insistence on minimising the violence levels so it doesn’t have quite the impact it should but it’s a pretty good story and the location shooting (in Rome) is a bonus.

In The Obono Affair Simon, very reluctantly, agrees to help an African dictator named Obono. Obono as been the target of many assassination attempts and now his son has been kidnapped. This is one of the episodes shot entirely in Britain. It’s also one of the episodes that might have benefited from being given a slightly harder edge, and would certainly have been improved had Simon been allowed to be less of a Boy Scout. Still, there are some decent plot twists.

Vicious Circle
begins with the murder of Simon’s old friend Roberto Lucci, an ex-racing car driver. Roberto’s widow Renata (Elsa Martinelli) is a rich fashion designer and a possible suspect. This is a classic murder mystery plot with some genuine surprises and some good misdirection plus nice location shooting in Italy and it has a nice atmosphere of glamour with a touch of decadence. A very good episode.

Simon’s bad luck with friends continues in Dragonseed, another instalment filmed in Italy. This time it’s Leo, the son and heir of billionaire industrialist Domenico Cavalcanti. Leo is in a helicopter which gets blown up. There’s some doubt as to whether Domenico or Leo was the intended target. Domenico is a pretty shady businessman so there are plenty of people who might want him dead. The plot of this one isn’t too difficult to figure out but it has plenty of action, it looks great and it’s executed with style.

In Appointment in Florence Simon loses yet another friend. I’m surprised anyone wants to be Simon’s friend - it’s pretty much a death sentence. This is another terrorism story and I have mixed feelings about these episodes. They’re a bit too serious to feel like authentic Saint adventures. This one does however boast a script by Philip Broadley who was a pretty decent writer. Simon is hunting a a Red Brigades splinter group and the trail takes him from a ski resort to Florence. A decent enough episode.

You’ll be amazed to hear that The Diplomat's Daughter begins with Simon meeting a beautiful woman. She’s Marie de la Garde and she’s the daughter of an ambassador. And of course someone is trying to kill her. It seems her irresponsible brother has landed himself in very deep trouble and that could put her in real danger. Michael Pertwee’s well-constructed script makes good use of Simon’s reputation (you’ll find out what I mean when you watch it). A very good episode to close out the series.

Final Thoughts

This was the end of the line for ITC’s action-adventure series (and in fact the end of the line for the classic British action-adventure series. British television had decided that the public no longer wanted such programs. They were probably wrong about this. Return of the Saint did pretty well and there was really no valid reason for cancelling it. At least it allowed that wonderful genre to go out on a fairly high note. This is a lightweight fun series with glamour and class. It doesn’t try to do anything else, but what it does try to do it does very well. Highly recommended.

I covered the earlier episodes in a review a few years ago - here's the link.

Saturday 10 October 2020

The Plane Makers season 3 (1964-65)

The third season of ATV’s The Plane Makers went to air in late 1964. The opening credit sequence immediately alerts us to the fact that something has changed. Instead of seeing  a Sovereign airliner being prepared for flight testing we see what is very obviously a military aircraft undergoing the same process. But Scott-Furlong, the mythical aircraft manufacturer that is the subject of the series, only makes civil aircraft. What has John Wilder been up to?

John Wilder (played by Patrick Wymark) is the hard-driving charismatic managing director of Scott-Furlong. There are a number of things that make The Plane Makers one of the best British TV series of the 1960s but the chief among them is John Wilder. Wilder could easily have been a mere caricature of the ambitious ruthless businessman who crushes anyone who gets in his way. Wilder is however much more than a caricature. His ambition and his ruthlessness are certainly monstrous but he is a man of vision and he has courage. He has made Scott-Furlong a success by taking risks. Carefully calculated risks. It’s all very well being ethical and honourable but those things don’t do you much good if your company goes broke. John Wilder does not intend for any company he controls to go broke. He believes in winning. He believes in winning for himself but he has made his company a winner as well. The people who work for Scott-Furlong are very much aware that the reason they have their jobs is that Wilder has made the company a success in a difficult and competitive field. Wilder’s methods are not always pleasant but they work.

All of which suggests that this is a series with a bit of subtlety, rather than being merely about the evils of capitalism. It certainly takes a jaundiced view of the world of big business, and the unsavoury links between big business and politics, but there is some nuance. John Wilder takes the world as he finds it. He did not invent the game but he knows how it’s played. If he didn’t take the opportunities that were offered somebody else would. And although Wilder is entirely selfish and consumed by the desire for power but it’s not as if he’s ever pretended otherwise. He can be accused of many things but hypocrisy is not one of them.

Ann Firbank plays Wilder’s wife Pamela (a rôle played in earlier seasons by Barbara Murray). Their marriage is not exactly a close one but it’s useful to both of them. Being married goes him respectability, and it gives her a very comfortable lifestyle. They both take it for granted that the other has affairs which are of no great concern as long as they’re kept discreet, although human nature being what it is there are tensions and there are jealousies.

The first two seasons concentrated on intrigues within the business world. Now that Wilder is involved in the production of military aircraft the focus has shifted. Military aircraft production is all about politics. It makes no difference how good your aircraft is, success depends on political decisions. If you are to have a chance it is useful to own a few politicians. Fortunately politicians are not all that expensive to buy (they cost a good deal less than a VTOL fighter). The problem is that since politicians are available on the open market one’s rivals may own some of their own. And politicians require delicate handling since they’re of little use if they’re openly corrupt. One has to own a politician who can be relied upon to be discreetly corrupt.

While the business world as depicted as being characterised by back-stabbing and dubious ethics the series is especially scathing when it comes to bureaucrats and even more scathing when it comes to politicians. Even John Wilder, who is almost unshockable, is at times shocked by the cravenness and lack of ethics of the politicians. 

When politics comes into the picture journalism inevitably follows. Journalists of course are cheaper to buy than politicians, but are even trickier to handle. When the journalist is young, female and beautiful the difficulties are increased. Especially if there’s some personal involvement, which has been known to happen between rich powerful men and ambitious beautiful women.

This was the final season of The Plane Makers but it was not the end. The story continues in the equally acclaimed follow-up series The Power Game which began airing at the end of 1965.

Episode Guide

Empires Have to Start Somewhere explains the new opening credits. Some of the production of Scott-Furlong’s successful Sovereign airliner is sub-contracted to the Ryan aircraft company but Ryan’s has been falling behind in deliveries. Since both Scott-Furlong and Ryan belong to the same group of companies it is of course unthinkable that the penalty clause in the sub-contract could be invoke but that’s exactly what John Wilder intends to do. He has his reasons. Ryan Airframes has been developing a new VTOL fighter for the R.A.F., the company’s managing director is old and ailing and the joint managing director, David Corbett, is a whizz-kid aircraft designer who knows nothing about business. It’s obvious to Wilder that the Ryan company needs to be run by someone who understands the business side of aviation. Someone like John Wilder. And that government contract for the VTOL fighter could be worth a lot of money.

Wilder has his plans to take control of Ryan Airframes and he puts them into operation with his usual shrewdness and ruthlessness.

John Wilder already has power within the aviation industry but he has larger ambitions, including political ambitions. Absorbing Ryan Airframes is the first step in the creation of a business empire.

Other People Own Our Jungles Now introduces Wilder to James Cameron-Grant MP (Peter Jeffrey), a man who actually has fewer ethics than Wilder himself. Wilder wants to put the government in a position which will force them to give him that government contract for the VTOL fighter. But could Cameron-Grant be a man who can out-manoeuvre Wilder in both the political and sexual spheres? Both men have an interest in a certain Laura Challis, a journalist now employed by the bank that controls both Scott-Furlong and Ryan. Laura is young and pretty and she has a taste for powerful men.

A Lesson for Corbett sees David Corbett trying to flex his muscles. He’s still managing director of Ryan Airframes but John Wilder is now overall managing director of both companies. Corbett wants to assert his independence. Corbett wants another year of testing before the VTOL fighter goes into production and he doesn’t want Wilder to get the glory of obtaining a production contract. Corbett is trying to play the sort of political power game that Wilder plays so well but does he have the ability to play in John Wilder’s league?

Both national and international politics start to intrude more openly in The Golden Silence. The French have obtained, from perhaps slightly irregular sources, some interesting information on the British VTOL fighter. And they have come up with a startling proposal, which has been leaked to the Press. The difficulty for the British politicians is that they now have to be seen to be acting in the national interest while of course their only concerns are party politics and their own personal interests. Sir Gordon Revidge, chairman of the bank which controls both Scott-Furlong and Ryan, is playing a political game as well but his objective, as always, is to destroy John Wilder (Wilder being from his point of view a most dangerous rival). And Laura Challis, ostensibly working for Sir Gordon, is playing her own games as well.

In The Island Game the feud between John Wilder and David Corbett is hotting up. There’s a problem with the VTOL fighter which may be trivial but that won’t stop Corbett from using it. By now Corbett seems more obsessed with his power struggle with Wilder than with anything else. Chief test pilot Henry Forbes (Robert Urquhart), works manager Arthur Sugden (Reginald Marsh) and sales manager Don Henderson (Jack Watling) are having to learn to play the political game as well.

Laura Challis doesn’t need any lessons in such games and she’s in her element.

In It's a Free Country: Isn't It? Wilder comes up against the Security services and discovers that as soon as they are involved it is definitely not a free country. Even more disheartening, he discovers that when the secret police become involved almost everybody becomes a coward. An exceptionally good episode.

In A Question of Supply there are problems with the VTOL’s radar. And David Corbett comes face to face with the cowardice of civil servants and the moral corruption of politicians. Even John Wilder is easier to deal with than these people. In fact the cheerfully and shamelessly amoral Wilder is a paragon of moral virtue by comparison. Another good episode.

In The Flying Frigates it seems that John Wilder has finally gone too far. His enemies are closing in on him and they now have the means of destroying him. Or at least that’s what his enemies think. Perhaps they should be worried by the fact that he isn’t the least bit concerned. An excellent episode.

Cost overruns are causing problems in Only a Few Millions. Scott-Furlong will have to find a great deal of money very quickly but what matters is who finds the money. If Wilder finds it it strengthens his position, if Corbett and Sir Gordon Revidge find it it weakens Wilder’s position. The money matters, but prestige matters more since prestige means power. Another good episode.

In The Salesmen bureaucratic and political manoeuvring is pushing John Wilder into a corner, but that’s when he’s most dangerous. His attempt to sell the VTOL to the Australians is ruffling feathers and hose feathers are likely to be even more ruffled when Wilder is through. A good episode.

Appointment in Brussels is an odd episode, at times almost whimsical. Wilder plans to take his wife to Brussels where he has a meeting arranged. He never ever takes his wife on business trips. Sir Gordon Revidge insists that Laura Challis should go along, and Wilder thereupon decides not to take his wife after all. It sounds like a setup for a dirty weekend but although there’s plenty of sexual and even romantic tension what transpires is rather different. Laura certainly sees a different side of John Wilder, one she’d never suspected. While Laura is enjoying herself flirting she’s also trying to find out what that meeting in Brussels is all about, and that’s another of this episode’s surprises. A very untypical but very good episode.

A Hoopla of Haloes sees Corbett once again plotting while Wilder is away. The crucial question is where Wilder is and why he has suddenly dropped out of sight. Corbett has his theories and senses an opportunity. Another episode that reveals hitherto unsuspected sides of John Wilder’s personality, and another fine episode.

The Firing Line provides an unexpected but fitting ending to the series and one that neatly sets up the successor series The Power Game. John Wilder really is full of surprises, as we will see when he and Corbett have their final showdown.

Final Thoughts

The Plane Makers tackles political, sociological and psychological themes with a high degree of subtlety. The characters are complex are fascinating. The obvious comparison is to another of the great British TV series of the 60s, The Troubleshooters (which started life in 1965 as Mogul).

The Plane Makers is intelligent television and it’s also very entertaining. The third season is highly recommended (and if this series sounds like your thing then grab the complete series boxed set). 

Thursday 1 October 2020

Voyagers! (1982)

Voyagers! Is a children’s science fiction adventure series that premiered on NBC in 1982. At the time the networks were being forced to make a token number of educational shows and NBC figured that a time-travel series would qualify. In fact Voyagers! cheerfully plays fast and loose with history and is nothing more than a light-hearted adventure series. 

The problem for Voyagers! is that it was screened in the timeslot as CBS’s 60 Minutes and in 1982 that meant it was guaranteed to get hammered in the ratings. Voyagers! lasted just twenty episodes. Which is kind of a pity because it’s goofy energetic fun.

Time-travel series are expensive to make, unless you happen to have access to a practically unlimited supply of footage from historical movies and the producers of Voyagers! Just happened to have access to Universal’s back catalogue (just as Irwin Allen had access to 20th Century-Fox’s back catalogue when making The Time Tunnel back in the 60s). So that was no problem.

Since it was going to be, in theory, an educational children’s series one of the two leads was going to have to be a kid. Meeno Peluce was therefore cast as the eleven-year-old Jeffrey Jones. The other lead would be Jon-Erik Hexum as time traveller Phineas Bogg, the young good-looking Hexum being presumably chosen to provide some eye candy for female viewers.

Being aimed at kids it’s not a series that takes itself too seriously. There’s quite a bit of humour which Jon-Erik Hexum in particular handles adroitly. Obviously there’s an attempt to provide some excitement while keeping the violence level low. And Bogg’s energetic and determined pursuit of the ladies is kept fairly innocent - care is taken to make sure he doesn’t have the opportunity to get up to any actual hanky-panky.

While most such series take their time-travellers to one time zone per episode in Voyagers! our temporal adventurers get dropped into multiple time zones in each story. A fairly standard formula is to drop Bogg and Jeffrey into one historical period and then have them discover that to repair the rift in time they will have to bounce back even further in time.

Voyagers! doesn’t bother itself with technical details. Bogg has a device called the Omni which looks like a pocket watch but it’s a time machine. We don’t need to know how it works, we just need to know that it does work. It shows a green light when everything is fine, and a red light when something has gone wrong with history. One weakness is that it’s never explained why history keeps going wrong so often but if it didn’t there wouldn’t be a story and there wouldn’t be a series, and it is a kids’ show and kids are unlikely to worry about asking awkward questions like that.

All the technical details of time travel are covered in Bogg’s guide book, or they were until it got eaten. Which is convenient (and quite clever) because it means the writers can just ignore those details.

The people from the past seem a bit to much like 1980s Americans but projecting contemporary social attitudes onto the past is something that every historical TV series (and movie) does.

While the tone is generally very light there is one interesting bitter-sweet aspect to it. Bogg gets to meet a lot of charming young ladies and he falls in love with a few but he knows he’s always going to lose them - he can’t take them out of their own time periods so he’s always saying goodbye to them. The series also does confront one issue with time travel - just how hard it is to accept that the proper course of history cannot be tampered with. This is especially the case in the episode involving Spartacus. Bogg and Jeffrey both know there is going to be no happy ending for poor Spartacus. Sometimes being a time traveller can be heart-breaking.

Episode Guide

The pilot episode sets things up and sketches in enough of the two leads’ background stories and it also sets the tone for what is to come. The action is frenetic, the tone is good-natured if a bit silly, Meeno Peluce is annoying but not too annoying and Jon-Erik Hexum is loud, brash and likeable and we learn that Phineas Bogg is more interested in womanising than in time travel.

Jeffrey Jones is a boy whose parents died and now he’s being brought up by his aunt and uncle, to whom he’s something of a nuisance. Then some guy smashes through Jeffrey’s bedroom window and gets attacked by Jeffrey’s dog and in the confusion Jeffrey and the stranger go hurtling through the window to certain death (Jeffrey lives in an apartment in a skyscraper). Only Jeffrey and the guy don’t die, they land safely. But where have they landed? This don’t look like anywhere in the city. The stranger then informs Jeffrey that they must be in Egypt in the year 1450BC. Which, to the history-minded Jeffrey,  means the baby they find floating down the river must be Moses. Then Jeffrey pushes a button on the stranger’s stopwatch and then they’re somewhere else, and then somewhere else again. Now it’s 1918, they’re in France and there’s a war going on. 

The explanation is that the stranger is Phineas Bogg and he’s a Voyager, a kind of time traveller whose job is to fix up historical anomalies and just generally make sure that history turns out the way it’s supposed to. His watch is actually an Omni, a time machine. The problem is that Phineas wasn’t really paying attention in time-traveller school and he knows nothing about history so he’s totally dependent in his guide book  and that’s another problem since Jeffrey’s dog Ralph ate Phineas’s guide book. Fortunately Jeffrey does pay attention in history class at school so he finds himself functioning as a kind of living guide book.

Phineas’s great passion in life is not history or time-travel technology, it’s women. There’s just no way you can expect Phineas to focus on anything else if there’s an attractive female around. And when they arrive in France in 1918 the first thing our two intrepid time travellers encounter is a gorgeous blonde. She’s a Hollywood movie star who’d gone to the Western Front to entertain the troops and raise morale. She’s already raised Phineas’s morale and he has hopes that she’ll be able to entertain him. 

He gets to meet famous American air ace Eddie Rickenbacker, only Rickenbecker isn’t even a pilot because aircraft haven’t even been invented yet, and this is 1918. So what went wrong for the Wright brothers? Bogg and Jeffrey have to find out, and it turns out the problem was a woman. Bogg isn’t too strong on historical problems but sorting out problems with the female of the species is something he really is good at. This pilot episode is non-stop fun 

The second episode, Created Equal, has our two time travellers trying to free slaves in ancient Rome and the American South. A bit too much speechifying in this one and it’s a bit slow.

Have you ever wondered who would win in a gunfight between Teddy Roosevelt and Billy the Kid? No, neither have I. But if you had wondered about it then the next episode, Bully and Billy, provides the answer. Bogg and Jeffrey arrive in Cuba in 1898 and they’re expecting Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders to show up (although Bogg is more interested in a pretty Cuban girl he’s just met), only to learn that Roosevelt was shot dead by Billy the Kid eighteen years earlier. So they have to go back to 1880 to fix that problem, making a brief detour to fly kites with Ben Franklin. Jeffrey idolises Billy the Kid but he discovers that legends aren’t always what they’re cracked up to be. A pretty decent episode.

Agents of Satan takes our two voyagers back to the Salem Witch Trials (where they will have to try to save Benjamin Franklin’s Mom) then forward to 1922 (where they will have to try to persuade Harry Houdini not to believe in ghosts), then to 1814, then back to 1922 and after that back to 1692. The theme of this episode is, obviously, illusions and delusions and the dangers of both. And it’s a pretty decent episode.

In Worlds Apart Jeffrey and Bogg are separated, with Bogg having to try to save Lawrence of Arabia while Jeffrey helps Edison invent the light bulb. A fun episode with a bit of action.

What do Cleopatra and Babe Ruth have in common? Well, not very much, but in Cleo and the Babe they’re both in a lot of trouble. And only Jeffrey and Bogg can can get them out of it. They also have to persuade Cleopatra that being a gangster’s moll is not a good idea. A pretty fun episode.

In The Day the Rebs Took Lincoln our time voyagers arrive in Pennsylvania in 1863 to find that the South has the Civil War all but won. If only the Rebels hasn’t captured President Lincoln! In trying to put that right they end up in London in 1832 and a pickpocket steals the Omni. The pickpocket is the Artful Dodger and now Fagin has the Omni. Yes, it turns out that all that stuff that Charles Dickens wrote was based on fact, and Jeffrey and Bogg meet Dickens as well. In fact they break into his house. So this is an interesting episode, with fiction and history getting rather entwined. And Bogg gets to meet a glamorous lady spy, and has to romance her. Not that he’s complaining about that. A fairly enjoyable episode.

Old Hickory and the Pirate takes Jeffrey and Bogg to New Orleans in 1815 here they discover that General Andrew Jackson has just lost the Battle of New Orleans. Since he was supposed to win our time travellers have to find out what went wrong which means going back to 1798 to stop a certain pirate from being hanged. Most of this episode revolves around pirates and you can’t really go wrong with a pirate adventure. And there are two beautiful ladies who are more piratical than any pirate. Plus there’s an all-in sword-fight in which those two ladies demonstrate their ability to out-fence some tough buccaneers. It’s all good fun.

It takes a while to figure out what is going on in The Travels of Marco... and Friends. Jeffrey and Bogg land in New York in 1930, they meet Einstein and they meet a retired Voyager who has decided he doesn't like New York. He wants them to drop him off on an island in the South Seas but instead they end up in France in 1870 in the middle of the Franco-Prussian War. Eventually they end up having to get Marco Polo out of a jam. An OK episode.

In An Arrow Pointing East Charles Lindbergh needs a bit of help getting to Paris, and Robin Hood is in big trouble. This episode is perhaps just a little bit slow but it’s OK.

In Merry Christmas, Bogg it is Christmas Eve for our time travellers - in fact they get two Christmas Eves, one in 1776 and one in 1892. In 1776 they have a run-in with a formidable British naval officer who has successfully crushed the American Revolution - a fellow by the name of Admiral George Washington. In 1892 they have to help Samuel Gompers save a labour union. And Jeffrey is made a tempting offer. An OK episode which is in danger of becoming sentimental but avoids the temptation.

In The Trial of Phineas Bogg our two voyagers are dragged before the Voyager Council and Bogg is put on trial. This episode is almost entirely made up of excerpts from previous episodes, an obvious cost-cutting measure which may be connected with the fact that the decision had already been made to cancel the series. It is unfortunately a lame, boring episode. It does however introduce a character who will later reappear - an evil Voyager by the name of Drake. It’s tempting to think that the intention was that he would serve the same purpose as the Master in Doctor Who, serving as a traitorous villain (and a villain is something the series lacked).

Instead of being cancelled the series gained a brief reprieve and after a brief hiatus resumed with Sneak Attack. Phineas and Jeffrey have to save Macarthur from being killed at Pearl Harbor, where of course he’s not even supposed to be. They get arrested by a lady intelligence officer and they get to find out how the Pony Express really started. A good episode to get the series restarted.

In Voyagers of the Titanic Phineas and Jeffrey are, obviously, on board the Titanic. But there’s something else aboard, something which definitely should not be there and cannot be allowed to go down with the ship. In this episode Phineas and Jeffrey encounter another Voyager, which leads to trouble but makes things interesting. They also make a detour to help the cause of science. Another good fairly well-plotted episode.

In Pursuit Bogg and Jeffrey arrive at Cape Kennedy to watch the first American manned moon mission only to discover that NASA was closed down two years earlier after their rockets kept blowing up. They soon discover the reason - the German scientists who made the US space program possible had fallen into Soviet rather than American hands in 1945. This one is unusual in having only a single plot strand - most episodes have two plot strands. It’s reasonably exciting and works quite well.

Destiny's Choice takes our time travelling duo to Hollywood in 1928, where legendary director Wild Frank Roosevelt is making the first talking picture. That’s obviously all wrong but Bogg’s Omni gets confiscated by a security guard so how are they going to go back further in time to get Roosevelt into politics? They also have to sort out a drama with a pretty starlet, and of course pretty soon Bogg is sweet on her. Not a very exciting episode but OK.

In All Fall Down Bogg and Jeffrey have to restore Joe Louis’s confidence before his big title fight with Max Schmeling, and Jeffrey has to learn to land a 747. This one is a bit heavy-handed.

Barriers of Sound has a typical Voyagers! plot which connects two historical events gone wrong. President Eisenhower is not going to be born and it’s all because the telephone hasn’t been invented, even though it should have been. So Jeffrey and Phineas have to figure out why Alexander Graham Bell somehow failed to invent the telephone. And this time Bogg really falls in love and discovers what it costs to be a Yoyager.

Jack's Back, like the earlier episode involving Dickens, mixes history and fiction. Bogg and Jeffrey are on the trail of Jack the Ripper, helped by Arthur Conan Doyle and a Feisty Girl Reporter from America. This episode sees the return of rogue Voyager Drake, causing even more trouble. Not a bad episode to end the series.

Final Thoughts

It’s easy to nit-pick a series like this but it was after all aimed at kids and as a kids’ show it works. Just don’t think too much about the science, or the history. It’s lightweight fun and Jon-Erik Hexum’s hyperactive performance carries it over the weak spots. I think it deserved a better fate. Definitely worth a look if you enjoy children’s science fiction series.