Thursday 31 December 2020

Cult TV highlights of 2020

Looking back over the past year I’d have to say that it hasn’t been a bad one for me in terms of cult television. I’ve made a couple of notable discoveries - series I’d either vaguely heard of but never seen or eve series that I hadn’t even heard of. These were my most interesting discoveries:

Orson Welles Great Mysteries (1973), a British mystery/horror anthology series which turned out to be surprisingly very good indeed and at times nicely creepy.

Harry O (1974), a delightfully quirky series which quickly established itself as one of my all-time favourite private eye series.

Voyagers! (1982), an American kids’ time travel science fiction series which is much more fun than I expected.

The Human Jungle (1963), an all-but-forgotten British series about a psychiatrist. Insanely melodramatic and often ludicrously far-fetched (and not a crime series as one might have expected) but it does star Herbert Lom which is always a bonus.

I’ve also revisited some old favourites, such as The Invaders (which made me realise that I’d never actually seen the second season).

And Return of the Saint (1978-79), which I think is one of the more successful attempts to revive a classic series, keeping a surprising amount of the feel of the original.

The most popular posts of 2020 with readers of this blog have been:

Sheena Queen of the Jungle (1955), a very lightweight good-natured jungle girl adventure series.

The Saint in Europe, and on TV, a review of both the Leslie Charteris collection of short stories and the 1960s TV episodes adapted from those stories.

The Green Hornet (1966-67), somewhat in the Batman mode but less zany and much darker.

Wednesday 23 December 2020

Lost in Space season 3

The first season of Lost in Space had been a ratings bonanza. Ratings dropped disastrously in the second season. The third season which began airing in late 1967 was an attempt to repair the damage by changing direction. It worked up to a point. The ratings improved substantially but not enough to prevent cancellation.

Lost in Space had painted itself into a corner early on. Dr Smith, the robot and Will Robinson had established themselves in the first season as the most popular characters and that pretty much locked the series into a comedic kids’ show formula. Those three characters came to completely dominate proceedings and the other characters were left with very little to do. The problem was that the comic team of Dr Smith and the robot proved to be much too much of a good thing. Their repartee became predictable and repetitious.

The decision early on in season one to maroon the party on a single planet also turned out to be a major weakness. It became boring and the constant procession of alien visitors to this obscure planet seemed far-fetched. It encouraged storylines that were rather silly and it encouraged a Monster of the Week approach.

Season three’s solution was to get the Jupiter 2 operational again and get the Robinsons back into space. That offered opportunities for a lot more excitement and for stories that are more varied and felt a bit more genuinely science fictional. There was also an attempt to give the series a marginally more serious tone. Not consistently but at least some episodes were less overtly silly. The scripts were also generally better.

There was still the problem that too many episodes were built almost exclusively around the Dr Smith-robot-Will trio. That problem was never solved. One obvious solution would have been a romance between Major West and Judy Robinson but Irwin Allen refused to consider this, feeling it was inappropriate in a kids’ show. Which is odd since it always seemed fairly obvious that Judy was included in the crew for that very purpose and in very early first season episodes there are certainly hints of such a romance. And if you watch the original pilot, No Place to Hide, there is no question that there’s a budding romance between these two characters. It’s fairly clear that Irwin Allen’s original conception for the series was that it would be a science fiction series aimed at a broad audience rather than just children and that it would include a romance angle. It seems to be another case of the series getting painted into a corner. Its initial success with younger viewers made Allen less and less willing to risk a slightly more grown-up tone.

It’s a definite weakness is that the two younger female characters are pushed too much into the background. Penny is arguably the most likeable single character in the show and the few episodes in which she gets to take centre stage are usually pretty good. And in Marta Kristen (who plays Judy) they had a genuine blonde bombshell on their hands who could have been one of the great TV science fiction sex symbols. There’s really only one episode in this third season in which she gets to do the sex kitten thing, and she does it pretty memorably.

The third season is marginally more interesting visually simply because it gets the Robinsons off that wretched planet. We do at least see the Jupiter 2 traveling through space. Most of the new planets they find look just like the old one but at least some stories take place on alien spacecraft or space stations which adds a bit of variety.

When judging Lost in Space you do have to remember that it was targeted at a young audience so while the humour can be a bit cringe-inducing it’s the sort of thing that kids love.

There are some terrible episodes and there are some very good episodes and some of the good episodes are extremely interesting and provide tantalising glimpses of what might have been. Flight Into the Future shows what Marta Kristen could have done had she been given the chance to actually do something.

And there are even more tantalising hints that perhaps at least some of the writers hoped to make Dr Smith a slightly more rounded and much more interesting character. There’s an episode in which Dr Smith, as usual, is in a total panic to save himself. But oddly enough he wastes valuable time (which could have been employed in running away) trying to save Penny. The only plausible explanation is a momentary flash of chivalry. He intends to save his own skin but he can’t just leave a thirteen-year-old girl to her fate. And in Time Merchant we see very definite signs of honourable behaviour by Dr Smith. In this case he is actually willing to sacrifice his own interests for the sake of the rest of the crew. And, intriguingly, once again the motivating factor seems to be chivalry. He would cheerfully sacrifice the lives of Professor Robinson or Major West, but he can’t stand the thought of being cold-bloodedly responsible for sacrificing Penny and Judy. In his own mind Dr Smith is a hero, and heroes don’t betray the trust of innocent girls.

And there is a third episode, The Space Primevals, in which Dr Smith behaves with a considerable degree of decency and courage. There does seem to have been a slowly dawning realisation that Dr Smith needed to be made a bit more three-dimensional.

Episode Guide

Condemned of Space kicks off the third season and it’s an immediate sign of a change of direction for the series. A comet is on a collision course for the planet but that’s no problem since the Jupiter 2 is fully operational. They take off but they still have to dodge the comet and a passing supernova, and rescue the robot who is floating in space. And then they find an alien spaceship. It’s a prison ship, filled with deep-frozen prisoners, but they’re not deep-frozen for long once Dr Smith gets up to his usual bungling. There’s plenty of excitement and there’s a much more science fiction feel to this story compared to earlier seasons. There’s also a guest appearance by the robot from Forbidden Planet, as a prison guard. It’s all fast-paced fun. A very fine episode.

Visit to a Hostile Planet is another promising indication of the show’s change in direction. For starters there’s once again an actual science fiction concept - the Jupiter 2 goes out of control and approaches the speed of light. They get back to Earth but they discover it’s Earth in 1947. And the locals think they’re alien invaders and start shooting at them. Dr Smith makes matters worse by deciding that he can use his more advanced scientific knowledge to make himself supreme ruler of the 1947 inhabitants of Earth. There’s some of the campy tongue-in-cheek flavour of earlier seasons but there’s reasonable plot and we see a new side of John Robinson - when Judy is captured by the locals he threatens to blow their entire town into oblivion.

It’s nice to see Marta Kristen actually getting something to do. Another clever touch is the choice of 1947. That was about the time the flying saucer craze started up and since the Jupiter 2 looks exactly like a flying saucer we now know that it was responsible for the craze. All in all it’s a very decent episode.

In Kidnapped in Space Dr Smith rashly answers a distress call from an alien spaceship and gets captured, and gets everybody else captured as well. The aliens want him to do brain surgery on their leader (he even more rashly assured them he was a medical doctor). It’s not a bad episode, with the giant clock alien being an amusing touch.

Hunter's Moon is one of the countless TV and movie scripts to be inspired by Richard Connell's 1924 story The Most Dangerous Game about a hunter who finds hunting people to be more satisfying than hunting animals. In this instance John Robinson finds himself as the hunted after a crash landing on an unknown planet. It’s a reasonably entertaining story.

The Space Primevals is a goofy kind of story about a prehistoric tribe that is being subjected to artificial evolution by a super-computer. And a volcano is about to blow the tribe, and the Jupiter 2 and the planet to oblivion. Despite the campy nonsense this episode does do a couple of extremely interesting things. Firstly it separates Dr Smith from the robot. Instead Dr Smith and Major West spend the entire episode off on their own doing things like getting imprisoned and facing certain death. Having Dr Smith doing all his interacting with someone other than the robot or Will is a very refreshing change. The second interesting thing it does is to put Dr Smith in a situation where he has to be heroic. Not voluntarily of course but if he wants to survive he’ll have to do some hero things. As a result of these two very sound plot devices the episode has an intriguingly different feel to it. Dr Smith becomes a bit more believable and a bit more complex. And Don West becomes a bit more human. It’s enough to make this a successful episode despite its other flaws. And it’s a sign of the third season’s willingness to take a few chances.

Space Destructors is a return to the fairly tired formula of the previous season. Dr Smith finds a machine that makes cyborgs. And the cyborgs will serve him. He gets carried away with dreams of power but of course there’s a catch. The cyborgs that all look like slightly distorted versions of Dr Smith are a nice touch. Guy Williams gets to do an extended sword-fighting scene which must have brought back memories for the former Zorro star. A routine episode.

The Haunted Lighthouse is a lighthouse in space. It’s commanded by a doddery colonel who strangely enough seems to understand very little about the sorts of things you would need to know about to do such a job. The Robinsons end up there through the machinations of a strange alien boy whom Penny has befriended. It’s a lighthearted episode that manages not to be too silly and at least it gives Penny an all-too-rare important rôle. It’s OK.

Flight Into the Future is an attempt to deal with cool science fictional themes. Dr. Smith, Will and the robot land on an unknown planet and there they find the wreck of the Jupiter 2, abandoned centuries before. They have travelled into the future, or at least that’s what appears to have happened. There’s some good creepy atmosphere in this story. The ending is a bit of a letdown although it could have been worse. It’s good to see Marta Kristen given something to do in this episode, playing a space babe from the future who happens to look uncannily like Judy Robinson. This episode at least tries to be a bit ambitious and it works reasonably well.

In Collision of Planets the planet on which the Jupiter 2 is currently temporarily stranded is scheduled for demolition - by a bunch of juvenile delinquent hippie space bikers. And Dr Smith gains green hair and super strength. It’s just as silly as it sounds. A truly awful episode.

The Jupiter 2 is back on the move in Space Creature. An encounter with a strange gas cloud proves to be a terrifying experience. Members of the Robinson expedition disappear one by one. And it’s the fear that proves to be the key. We also get to see a set that I’ve not seen before - the power centre of the Jupiter 2. A fairly decent story.

In Deadliest of the Species the crew of the Jupiter 2 find themselves in trouble with the galactic cops and the robot think he’s found love. The robot romance is of course played for some obvious laughs. A routine episode.

A Day at the Zoo is a bit too much like too many earlier Lost in Space episodes, with a galactic showman wanting to collect our space adventurers as exhibits for his travelling zoo. The best thing about this episode is that the two girls actually get something to do, and in particular Angela Cartwright as Penny gets to do some acting. The under-utilisation of Judy and Penny (both rather likeable characters) is one of the major weaknesses of Lost in Space.

Two Weeks in Space is a pure comedy episode, with Dr Smith tricked by aliens into turning the Jupiter 2 into a resort hotel. The aliens have taken humans form, with two of them being blonde party girl types. Dr Smith falls for one of the blondes, with predictable results. It’s all very thin but it has its amusing moments.

In Castles in Space the space castaways discover a frozen ice princess. Dr Smith accidentally thaws her out. The problem is the Mexican space bandit who is searching for her. It seems a reasonable supposition that he intends to hold her for ransom. Lots of rather uninspired silliness in this one, especially when the bandit gets the robot drunk.

The Anti-Matter Man is one of the more ambitious third season efforts. The Robinson expedition comes into contact with the anti-matter world, in which everything is the exact opposite of what it is in our world. So they have to deal with an evil Dr John Robinson and an evil Major West. This story has some actual science fictional elements and more surprisingly it even has an actual sense of menace. It’s even visually more interesting than most Lost in Space episodes. Guy Williams and Mark Goddard get to be really nasty bad guys. Even Will and the robot are much more interesting than usual. It’s the sort of thing they should have attempted more often. This is getting close to actual science fiction. A very very good episode.

Target: Earth has goofy aliens and a mixture of good and bad science fictional ideas. The bad is the hopelessly overused idea of exact duplicates. The good is the idea of an alien civilisation that is decaying because it’s too conformist and too afraid of challenges.

In Princess of Space Penny is daydreaming about princesses and fairytale adventures when suddenly space pirates show up and inform her that she really is a princess. The danger in telling a thirteen-year-old girl that she’s a princess is that she’s likely to believe you. The princess is needed to keep the rogue machines of the planet Beta under control. There are bit and pieces of good ideas in this story but they’re overwhelmed by incredibly silly ideas and the execution is pretty embarrassing. It’s always nice seeing Angela Cartwright get a chance to be at the centre of things and she does her best but she deserved better. Just too much silliness in this one.

Time Merchant is one of the most fascinating season three episodes. There are genuine science fictional elements involving not just time travel but the buying and selling of time. And Dr Smith gets to be genuinely heroic.

In The Promised Planet the Jupiter 2 finally reaches its destination, Alpha Centauri. But it’s not what they expected. They find a planet ruled by kids. It’s a pretty disturbing place. We get to see Penny go-go dancing, which is fine. We also get to see Dr Smith go-go dancing, which is not so fine. This one tries to satirise 60s youth culture, with at least some success. It does perfectly capture the combination of shallowness and spitefulness of the Flower Children. This episode is possibly Angela Cartwright’s finest moment in the series. Apart from the go-go dancing she is given the opportunity to give a subtle and sensitive performance as Penny is trapped between the seductive pleasures of  a world of carefree fun and her attachment to her family. Underneath the surface camp it’s actually not a bad episode.

Fugitives in Space sees Major West and Dr Smith convicted by an inter-galactic court for helping a prisoner to escape from a prison planet. Now that same prisoner wants to help them escape but Major West has a feeling this might be a bad idea. Some quite good alien makeup effects in this one but otherwise it’s pretty routine.

In Space Beauty that unscrupulous entrepreneur and showman Farnum B. Returns and he’s trying to persuade Judy to enter a galactic beauty pageant. The question is whether winning the contest would really be a good idea. And maybe she should have read the contract before signing it. A fairly silly episode but at least it’s one of the rare episodes in which Judy Robinson gets something to do.

The Flaming Planet is almost a great episode. Dr Smith’s tomato plant causes the spacecraft to crash on a planet which was once the centre of a mighty empire. Now there’s one warrior left but he still dreams of further military glory. It’s a good plot and it’s reasonably well developed but it’s let down by the excruciatingly awful and irritating plant creatures.

The Great Vegetable Rebellion is generally regarded as being the worst ever Lost in Space episode, although it has to be admitted that it has some stuff competition. This is the notorious talking carrot episode. Dr Smith pays an unauthorised visit to a planet that contains only vegetable life. Unfortunately for him these are intelligent vegetables. Even more unfortunately for him he is soon going to become an intelligent celery. This is all too typical of this series. The basic idea, of a planet on which plants have evolved intelligence, had potential but the treatment of the idea is irredeemably silly.

Junkyard in Space presents our intrepid spacefarers with a crisis. They are trapped on a junkyard planet and they have no food. The robotic junkman in charge of the planet makes a deal with Dr Smith but the price he demands is very high and can he be trusted? There’s really not much to say in favour of this uninspired episode. A disappointing end for both the season and the series.

Final Thoughts

The third season is the story of missed opportunities. Some good episodes, and some promising indications of a bit more character complexity, but too many episodes that are too silly and too campy. Still, it’s not an entirely bad season. Recommended for fans of the series.

Monday 14 December 2020

some Alfred Hitchcock Presents from season one

I finally got around to watching the last few episodes of the first season of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (originally screened in 1955-56), possibly my all-time favourite anthology series.

Yes, like any anthology series it’s uneven but even the stores that don’t quite make it are usually interesting failures. And the episodes that do work (and that’s the majority of them) are some of the best television ever made.

While Hitchcock seems to have exercised some vague oversight of the program the producing duties were left to Joan Harrison. She had worked with Hitch for many years. She knew his methods, she knew how his mind worked and she knew the kinds of stories he liked. She could be relied upon to make sure that the series would have a thoroughly Hitchcockian flavour. Which it does.

The series is an object lesson in how to pack just enough plot into a half-hour format.

Episode Guide

The Belfry is a bit of a misfire although it’s certainly different and it’s always nice to see a TV episode that takes a few risks. It all takes place in a one-horse country town. Clint Ringle (Jack Mullaney) can’t wait to show Ellie Marsh (played by Hitchcock’s daughter Pat) the house he is building for them, for when they get married. The problem is that Clint is a bit unstable and he’s not too bright and he’s living in a dream world. Ellie does not have the slightest interest in marrying him. In fact she’s just become engaged to Walt Norton. Poor Clint really flips out when he hears this piece of news and unfortunately he happens to be holding an axe at the time. So that’s the end of Miss Ellie’s fiancé and her marriage plans.

That’s the beginning of the story. The rest of the episode is the manhunt for Clint Ringle. Clint isn’t smart but he does come up with a rather unusual idea for a hiding place. He hides in the bell tower of the town’s one-room schoolhouse. It’s a very clever ideas in some ways, but in other ways maybe it's not quite so clever. The big question is, how long can he hold out in such a tiny cramped hiding place and will anyone ever thinking of looking in such an unlikely place?

Mostly the episode is taken up by Clint’s inner thoughts (conveyed to us in a voiceover narration). Clint really doesn’t understand what he’s done or what the consequences will be and the more he thinks about things the more he figures that it wasn’t just Walt Norton who was to blame, it was Ellie as well. He broods about this a lot, and decides he should do something about it.

The suspense comes from our uncertainty as to exactly what Clint is likely to do. Is he going to go after Miss Ellie? And of course there’s the suspense provided by the fact that Clint is still being hunted.

The Hidden Thing is a somewhat controversial episode. Almost everybody seems to hate the ending. Of course I’m not going to give any hints as to what that ending is.

It all starts with Dana Edwards' and his fiancée Laura stopping to get a hamburger. Laura leaves her bag in the car and goes back to get it. Crossing the street to the car she is run down and killed by a hit-and-run driver. Dana witnessed the accident. He was the only witness. Without his evidence the police have no chance of catching the killer. But the one thing he cannot remember is the one thing that matters - the licence number of the car that hit Laura.

Then John Hurley shows up on his doorstep. He lost his son to a hit-and-run driver. He tells Dana that he has a technique for total recall that will allow Dana to remember that licence plate number. Of course there’s a price to be paid - remembering that vital detail will require Dana to relive the accident and see Laura die again.

So it’s a story about the past and about how it’s sometimes a very good thing that we don’t remember things. You find yourself wondering, if Dana does remember that licence plate, will it actually help him? Should we forget the past? Or should we pay any price to avenge a wrong?

Then there’s the ending which so many people hate because it’s not the ending they wanted. I think that to some extent that’s the key to the success of Alfred Hitchcock Presents - it was a series that was prepared to take the risk of giving us endings that are not the endings we expected or hoped for. So for me this episode works and works quite neatly.

The Legacy takes place among the international set (in 1956 they weren’t yet known as the jet set). Oil tycoon Howard Cole and his even richer wife Irene have a happy marriage. Howard has his hobby to keep him amused. His hobby is collecting blondes (his latest blonde is a Hollywood starlet), and it’s a hobby that Irene regards with amused toleration. But now Irene is getting unexpected attention from the opposite sex, in the person of the fabulously wealthy and glamorous Indian prince Burhan. Since Irene is neither glamorous not beautiful (nor particularly young) this relationship is regarded with amazement by all.

By the halfway stage you’re probably going to be a bit disappointed because the explanation is so obvious and so straightforward. But this is Alfred Hitchcock Presents and the twist at the end is not the kind of twist that you’re probably expecting.

This is a series that made its reputation by not giving the audience what it expected and this episode is no exception.

is a very slight story and it’s totally lacking in any kind of gruesomeness. Mrs Hudson takes her new mink stole to a furrier to have it valued. The furrier recognises it as one that was stolen two weeks earlier. The police are called. Mrs Hudson has a plausible explanation but the two witnesses who could confirm her story don’t back her up. Now she could be facing prison.

The explanation is just too simple and obvious. There is a kind of twist at the end but it’s subtle and may not satisfy some viewers. I like the fact that the series was prepared to get right away from murder in episodes like this but in this case it doesn’t quite work. The setup is good, with Mrs Hudson becoming more and more flustered and confused and terrified of going to prison and with a bit of feel of paranoia to it - the paranoia of finding that nobody will believe her. It’s just a bit too slight and the payoff just isn’t quite there.

In Decoy accompanist Gil Larkin has fallen for singer Mona Cameron. When he finds out that her husband (big time theatrical agent Ben Cameron) has been beating her up he is outraged and goes to Cameron’s office to confront him. And Gil steps into a nightmare world in which he’s the chief suspect in a murder. There are two possible witnesses, of a sort.

The plot is solid but not overly hard to predict. It’s the stylish execution of the idea that’s interesting. There’s the film noir style voiceover narration. The two people whose evidence could clear him are a Japanese dancer and a crazy DJ. The police also play a more interesting rôle than usual. Overall a good episode.

The Creeper deals with Ellen Grant, a housewife whose husband works the night shift and now she’s really scared because a serial killer known as The Creeper has been targeting women home alone at night in her neighbourhood. She’s scared and her fears just keep growing. Anyone could be the killer. Anyone at all.

This episode has both great atmosphere and nerve-wracking suspense. The viewer will have some pretty strong suspicions about what’s going to happen but that just makes the suspense more intense. That’s what makes for effective suspense - the viewer knows (or thinks he knows) where the danger lies but the protagonist doesn’t. And there’s just enough misdirection to keep us from being quite sure. We share Ellen’s fears.

A fine performance by Constance Ford as Ellen certainly helps. This is the kind of darkly ironic episode that earned this series its high reputation. Great stuff.

In Momentum Richard Paine is down on his luck. He and his wife have both been sick, he can’t find a job and they’re broke. There is a way out however. His old boss, a man named Burroughs, owes him a lot of money. All Paine has to do is to keep his head when he confronts Burroughs. But Richard Paine is one of nature’s born losers. He makes a really dumb mistake and then he just keeps on making mistakes. His mistakes develop a momentum of their own.

This one is based on a Cornell Woolrich story which explains why it has a particularly nasty ironic ending. An excellent film noirish episode.

I reviewed some of the earlier episodes in season one of Alfred Hitchcock Presents a few years back and I reviewed the episode And So Died Riabouchinska.

I’ve also reviewed a few episodes from season three.

Sunday 6 December 2020

The Streets of San Francisco, season 1 (1972-73)

After a shaky start with very poor ratings early on The Streets of San Francisco became a solid success for producer Quinn Martin, running for five seasons on ABC from 1972 to 1977.

The formula was not exactly earth-shakingly original. It’s a cop show featuring a veteran old school cop (Lieutenant Mike Stone, played by Karl Malden) and a young college grad rookie detective (Inspector Steve Keller, played by Michael Douglas). To make such a hackneyed formula work you need the right actors with the right chemistry between them. Fortunately this series does have the right actors and they do have that chemistry.

I’m not at all a fan of Michael Douglas and I was prepared to dislike him here but I have to admit that he’s actually very good.

The success of the series was also partly due to some great San Francisco location shooting, partly due to a reasonable effort to get a feel of authenticity, and partly due to the fact that it is a Quinn Martin production so it’s extremely well made.

American cop shows at this time were moving tentatively towards a slightly grittier slightly more hard-edged streetwise feel. 

At this time the networks were however still pretty nervous about downbeat endings. They really didn’t think the viewers would accept anything other than an ending that tied things up neatly with the good guys winning and justice being done. The Streets of San Francisco does occasionally risk downbeat endings, or endings in which justice is done but maybe the price was too high. It doesn’t do this too often, but just often enough that you have to be prepared for the possibility of an ending that might be a bit on the darker side. There are also occasional episodes that have a bit of a film noir feel, with criminals who are not entirely evil but they’ve made one big mistake that they’re going to pay heavily for.

They were also trying to engage a bit with the social problems of the time (you can see this tendency even in Hawaii Five-O), with mixed success. The Streets of San Francisco is clearly making an attempt, within the constraints of what the network was prepared to risk at that time, to approach social problems as being not necessarily clearcut cases of right and wrong. Sometimes people do things that are morally questionable, or against the law, but they have what seem to them to be valid reasons. It can makes things difficult for a cop.

In some ways this series is reminiscent of Naked City, made a decade earlier, in being more interested in people’s motivations than in the actual crimes, although it has to be said that Naked City did this sort of thing better, or at least more consistently well. But when The Streets of San Francisco manages to get the focus on character just right it has to be admitted that it can come up with some pretty effective character studies.

This series is also interesting for its willingness, at times at least, to forego clichéd car chase and shootout endings.

One weakness is that friends and family members of Stone and Keller become involved in far too many cases. This is something I regard as a cheap writer’s trick to emotionally manipulate the audience. It’s a common enough device and it gets used in most crime series but in this series it’s used just a little bit too often.

The first season of The Streets of San Francisco gets off to an erratic start but settles down into being a pretty solid cop series.

This series was initially released on DVD in half-season sets but since then there’s been a DVD set of the complete series and another including the first three seasons, both of which offer pretty good value for money. The three-season set is the one I have and the transfers are good, plus it includes the feature-length pilot. 

Episode Guide

The feature-length pilot episode begins with a young woman’s body washed up on a beach. It doesn’t take long to establish that this is a case of homicide. Curiously the girl had her attorney’s business card hung round her neck like a set of dog tags. The attorney is David Farr (Robert Wagner), and he’s a high flying very smooth corporate lawyer. Keller hates him on sight, but Keller is like that.

The pilot is an adaptation of a novel by Carolyn Weston and it’s a story that gets quite bizarre towards the end - not quite what you expect in an early 70s network TV cop show. The ending perhaps ties things together too neatly and in a slightly contrived manner. On the whole though it’s very entertaining. It certainly goes out of its way to let us know we’re in San Francisco!

The Thirty-Year Pin was a very strange and probably rather poor choice to kick off the first season. Strange because we haven’t had a chance to get to know the characters yet and we find Stone acting in a manner which in fact is wildly out of character. And he’s not just behaving out of character, he’s behaving unsympathetically and first time viewers might Ewell have decided at this point that he’s a jerk. On the plus side the action finale in the subway is extremely well done.

The First Day of Forever has a very simple plot. Several prostitutes have been murdered and Bev Landau has a very lucky escape. It becomes obvious that the killer is not killing the girls at random - he is stalking particular girls and he’s going to go after Bev again. Keller is assigned to babysit her. We already know the identity of the killer so the focus is on how the cops are going to catch him, but that part is very straightforward. The real focus is the uneasy relationship between initially disapproving cop Keller and the high-class but somewhat jaded hooker Bev. This episode is a weird mix of moralising and anti-moralising. Bev is a very sympathetic character. She even wins over Keller. But network TV in 1972 could not be seen to be too sympathetic towards prostitution, hence the very awkward ending. This episode is mostly interesting for what it says about American TV at the time - trying to be grown-up but being afraid of offending delicate audience sensibilities.

45 Minutes from Home
begins when middle-aged pharmaceuticals salesman Russ Rankin picks up a girl, or she picks him up. She takes him back to the houseboat where she lives, she tries to seduce him. The upshot is that he flees, and he’s facing the prospect of a murder charge. But there’s a plot twist (not an original one but it’s handled fairly well). More interesting are the psychological twists, including subjects that were quite daring for 1972 TV. A fairly effective episode.

Whose Little Boy Are You? presents Stone and Keller with a puzzling case. It starts with a report of an attempted burglary. A guy got in through a window into a bedroom where a little boy was sleeping. It’s clear that this was no burglary. Stone suspects a case of child molestation but that doesn’t add up either. Maybe a kidnapping? But the parents are nowhere near wealthy enough to make that convincing. Someone wants the boy, but why? It turns out that this is a case of an adoption that has become very messy, and with a troubled Vietnam vet now gone AWOL there’s the potential for real trouble. This is an episode in which almost everybody is a villain, and yet none are really villains. And there’s no easy way out for anybody. The ending is not quite what you expect. Quite a good episode.

Tower Beyond Tragedy starts with a murder. Then we see a wealthy very cultured man named Amory Gilliam meeting an escort, a girl who looks remarkably like the girl we thought we just saw being murdered. Amory is a strange guy. OK, he’s middle-aged but he’s quite good-looking and he’s clearly very wealthy and very charming, and genuinely cultured. He’s a man who should have no problem at all attracting women, even young beautiful women. So why is he hiring an escort? The escort, Kim Ahern (Stefanie Powers) wonders that too. The answer is that Amory does not want just any woman, he wants the perfect woman. He knows exactly what this perfect woman will be like and even knows what she will look like. It’s a sort of Pygmalion thing - he wants to find a woman he can transform into his ideal of perfect womanhood.

It’s an intriguing and original idea for a TV cop show episode. Once again the series tries to tread carefully, going to great lengths to ensure that we don’t think Kim is a prostitute. If you want to be picky you can point out a few things that stretch credibility, but it’s trying to do something different and ambitious and mostly it works.

In Hall of Mirrors Stone is injured on a case involving a murder at a fruit market. Keller takes over the case, with rookie detective Jim Martin to help him. Martin’s hotheadedness and obvious dislike of Mexicans proves to be a real problem in a case in which all the witnesses are Mexicans. There’s a reason for Martin’s behaviour but it’s not totally convincing. When you watch the episode you’ll realise why David Soul is ludicrously miscast. It’s another episode that tries to deal with people as complicated individuals who are not wholly bad or wholly good but it’s a bit of a misfire.

In Timelock Bobby Jepson gets work release from prison and within hours is charged with murder. Mike Stone used to coach Jepson at football and is convinced he’s innocent. Surprisingly Keller agrees with him - he thinks the evidence against Jepson is pretty thin. Time is of the essence in this story. Jepson has just 32 hours to find a job or he goes back inside and there’ another race against time that Mike Stone doesn’t know about yet. This is another episode focused on characters rather than plot, which is just as well because the plot is very routine. An OK episode.

In the Midst of Strangers
involves a political assassination, or that’s how it looks. Actually the guy fell victim to a clever gang of slick upmarket thieves. They’re very well-dressed thieves, with nice shoes. Those shoes were a big mistake. There are a few nice touches in this story and some lighter moments. A very solid episode.

With The Takers we have a well-constructed mystery plot with multiple suspects, all with convincing motives, and we’re dealing with alibis and keys and witnesses whose testimony is truthful but likely to lead Stone and Keller down the garden path. Two young women living a glamorous swinging lifestyle are murdered - with no less than eighteen shots being fired. A very effective episode.

Stone and Keller tangle with a gypsy family (incongruously named the Fergusons) in The Year of the Locusts. The gypsies are bunco artists, and very clever ones, but they have never been involved in anything violent. Now there’s evidence they were mixed up in an armed robbery that ended with the killing of a security guard. This is yet another episode that focuses on character rather than plot. The patriarch of the family is a crook but he has a code that he lives by - stealing is fine but violence is wrong. He thought he’d taught the family that code but now some of them may have betrayed that code. Mike Stone doesn’t approve of the Fergusons but he has a certain perverse respect for the old man. Mike understands old school criminals who live by an old school code. A good episode.

The Bullet begins with the fatal shooting of blackmailer. There’s a witness but he refuses to co-operate. The plot is not wildly original (in fact the reluctant witness is an old standby  for TV writers) but the grounds on which the witness bases his refusal to offer any help are interesting and there’s some reasonably effective suspense. An OK episode.

A Trout in the Milk is one of those ill-judged attempts American television in this period made to grapple with subcultures. An artist with a seamy reputation falls from a window but maybe he was pushed. Yale Courtland Dancy, a black performance poet, may have been involved but he tells Stone and Keller all sorts of tall stories. A black model named Janaea may also have been involved but there are a couple of other possible suspects as well. It’s unlikely that any of these people are telling the truth. It’s not that bad a story if you can endure the performance poetry.

There’s mayhem on the high seas in Deathwatch. A fishing boat finds itself in the wrong place at the wrong time. A man ends up dead. There’s a people-smuggling racket. There’s a man torn apart by guilt. And there’s a hovercraft chase! A very good episode.

In Act of Duty a stake-out to catch a rapist ends disastrously. The rapist still has to be caught and rookie cop Sheery Reese makes things a lot harder by disobeying orders. Not a very original story but it’s handled well and the ending is effectively tense. An OK episode.

In The Set-Up hitman Nick Carl, who had been assumed dead, is spotted at the San Francisco airport. Since a key witness is about to testify against mobster Johnny Harmon (for whom Nick worked for years) the cops put two and two together. But things are as simple as they seem. The plot has some rather neat and unexpected twists and turns. And, being a Streets of San Francisco episode, there’s a strong focus on character. Nick Carl is a complicated guy. A very fine episode.

A Collection of Eagles is a solid if unspectacular police procedural story. It involves a plan to substitute fake coins for an extremely valuable coin collection. The emphasis on scientific evidence is a plus and the strong supporting cast is headed by Joseph Cotten and John Saxon (at his most sinister and creepy). Overall, fairly entertaining.

A Room with a View seems like a conventional gang war story but it does have some odd twists. Bookmaking kingpin Hoyt Llewellyn instructs his on-payroll hitman Art Styles to take out a guy called Roy Chaffee who is about to squeal to the cops. Only it’s Roy’s brother who is the first target. Styles commandeers an apartment from meek but secretly romantic schoolteacher Mary Rae Dortmunder. From her apartment he can lie in wait for Chaffee. This is where the story gets more interesting, as a weird dynamic develops between the hitman and the mousy schoolteacher. Since Mary Rae is a closet romantic who has never attracted any attention from men before she develops a bit of a  romantic daydream obsession with the hitman. But what about Styles? He’s never had anyone care about him before - is there still a human being inside this killer-for-hire? So while there are a couple of very neat plot twists this is really a story focused on two very unlikely people thrown together. It’s a slightly oddball but very good episode.

Deadline is a standard inverted mystery. A woman journalist is killed, we know the identity of the killer but the police are presented with clues that point in the wrong direction. And Mike Stone has personal reasons for being reluctant to admit that the clues might point in a totally different direction. One of the suspects is an actor and he’s rehearsing Othello and that is a vital clue. There are some nicely tangled motivations. A solid episode.

Mike Stone gets taken hostage by a gang of juvenile punks who’ve just killed a cop in Trail of the Serpent. He’s under a lot of pressure but so are the punks. Will they crack before he does? Is there any way he can get through to just one of them? A reasonably tense episode with an effective ending, spoilt slightly by the overly contrived epilogue.

The House on Hyde Street
again puts the focus on character. A group of three boys break into an old house. An eccentric old man lives there and there are rumours that his brother, now dead, killed a child many years earlier. The neighbours are not convinced the brother is dead. And one of the boys does not return from his little adventure. Stone and Keller figure that there are a lot of secrets in that old house, which is filled with an extraordinary collection of junk. The neighbours are angry and hysterical and Stone and Keller will have to come up with some answers quickly. The viewer doesn’t know what really happened in the old house either. So it’s a story about suspicion and hysteria. Sometimes suspicions have a foundation in fact, sometimes they don’t. It’s another very good episode with an excellent ending which is then undermined slightly by the contrived epilogue (which is starting to become a pattern with this series).

In Beyond Vengeance Mike Stone’s daughter is on a bus returning from college in Arizona. She gets off to be met by Mike, her roommate Valerie stays on the bus and gets murdered. Figuring out the identity of the killer is easy, because he wants Mike to know who he is. Mike sent him to San Quentin twelve years ago and the guy wants revenge. But proving that he killed Valerie seems impossible. It’s now a game of psychological warfare between the killer and Mike and Mike is starting to come apart at the seams. If there’s one writer’s trick I dislike it’s bringing a cop’s family into a story. To me it’s cheap emotional manipulation. Having said that this is still a reasonably good cat-and-mouse contest with considerable doubt as to who is the cat and who is the mouse.

The Albatross starts with a child killed during a burglary. The burglar is quickly captured but can’t be brought to trial because of a legal problem with his confession after his arrest - he didn’t hear his rights because he’s deaf. Stone and Keller will have to come up with some convincing new evidence but meanwhile the father of the child decides he’s going to take his own vengeance. It’s a double race against time for Stone and Keller since the evidence they need might not be there much longer. Not a bad story, the legal technicality is quite clever and the portrayal of the would-be vigilante killer is interesting. 

Shattered Image gets Stone and Keller mixed up in politics and they come up against some very powerful people. Fast-rising Commerce Department official Fed Marshall, a man with political ambitions, is killed with a spear gun on board a pleasure cruiser owned by a shipping magnate. A senator who’s been grooming Marshall to take over his senate seat and Marshall’s ambitious personal assistant both want the murder investigation quashed. And the murdered man’s widow is an old friend of Mike’s. This business of having Stone’s friends and family involved in his cases is starting to become a disturbing habit. It’s a solid enough story although you won’t have much trouble figuring out the solution.

The Unicorn presents the cops with a problem. A gunfight on the docks has left two men, including a cop, dead. And what was stolen? Two boxes of cobra venom. A product useful only to a handful of companies involved in esoteric medical research. There is no black market in cobra venom. No-one with any sense would steal such items. Obviously there’s something else going on. Catholic priest Father Joe Scarne, who runs a mission at the docks, has a problem too. He knows where one of the thieves is hiding out but he can’t tell his old buddy Mike Stone. The “Catholic priest torn between his duty to God and his duty to the law” thing has been done many times but at least here it’s done reasonably well. And there’s a complication that Father Scarne doesn’t know about. Apart from that it’s a reasonably tense episode with a desperate man with a gun who may not have enough sense to save himself when he can. Not a bad episode.

Mike goes undercover as a Skid Row bum after three winos are murdered in Legion of the Lost. The murders all follow the same pattern. Stone and Keller suspect that there’s more to it than just winos getting rolled for small change or for kicks. They also suspect that ex-boxer turned bum Jake Wilson (Leslie Nielsen) is involved in some way, as well as a young wino named Paul, who turns out to have an interesting history. A good solid episode to close the season and it’s fun to see Mike Stone cadging quarters from Keller while undercover.

Final Thoughts

The Streets of San Francisco is typical of American crime series of its era - extremely well-crafted but occasionally let down by contrived scripts. It’s the chemistry between Malden and Douglas, and the San Francisco locations, that lifts this series into the above-average bracket. Recommended.