Saturday 20 March 2021

Star Trek - The City on the Edge of Forever (1967)

The City on the Edge of Forever is perhaps the most admired of all episodes of the original Star Trek series. It was episode 28 of the first season, was directed by Joseph Pevney and written by Harlan Ellison (although several other writers including Gene Roddenberry worked on the script). It first aired in the U.S. in April 1967.

The Enterprise has encountered a mysterious time displacement field and in a moment of confusion on the bridge Dr McCoy injects himself with a massive dose of a drug known to have drastic side-effects. And the side-effects are drastic indeed - he goes completely and homicidally crazy.

McCoy beams himself down onto the surface of a nearby planet. Kirk and Spock follow, and they find the source of the time displacement field - a time portal. MCoy hurls himself through the portal. Kirk and Spock again follow and find themselves on Earth, in the United States, in the midst of the Great Depression.

They need to get themselves some high technology to deal with their situation, which means Spock will have to build a computer from scratch using vacuum tubes and radio components.

They meet a girl. Not just any girl. This one is special. She’s special to Jim Kirk anyway. She is Edith Keeler (played by Joan Collins). Kirk is in love. Edith Keeler seems to have some mysterious connection to the time displacement field. She may in fact be the key to it. Which will live Kirk with a terrible choice to make.

This is such a well-known episode that you probably already know what happens but I’m not going to spoil it.

This is a story that grapples with the inherent problems of time travel such as time paradoxes and the possibility or impossibility of changing history. But there are moral complications, and emotional complications as well. The nature of these complications is revealed early because what matters is the way in which Kirk and Spock will respond to the dilemmas involved. The ideas would not have been startling to readers of science fiction in 1967 but they are more complex than you would generally expect in television science fiction of the era.

The moral and emotional quandaries involving love, death and duty are dealt with reasonably intelligenty. What I really liked is the avoidance of cheap sentimentality. That means that when the emotional punch comes it actually has more impact.

Harlan Ellison wrote the original script but major changes were made. Gene L. Coon and D.C. Fontana worked on it as did Roddenberry. Ellison wasn’t happy but it’s the sort of thing that happens in series television. Ideas that a writer thinks are great (and they may really be great ideas) are not necessarily going to work in the context of the series as a whole. Coon and Fontana were very good writers and they understood the Star Trek universe and they understood the characters. They retained Ellison’s core ideas but produced a script that worked as a Star Trek episode. The really surprising thing is that the end result is so very coherent and tightly structured.

One of the reasons it works is Joan Collins. Apart from being stunning she gives a nuanced performance. Edith is a likeable sympathetic character but she’s not perfect. She’s not quite a starry-eyed idealist but she makes decisions emotionally. Kirk is inclined to be driven by emotion as well but in his case it’s combined with a high sense of duty and an acceptance (albeit sometimes an unwilling acceptance) of reality.

Joan Collins and William Shatner make a wonderful romantic pairing. You know they’re made for each other.

For a casual Star Trek viewer the big surprise will be Shatner’s performance - it’s so controlled. Shatner is notorious for his overacting but when Shatner overacted he did so because he wanted to and he felt that the script called for it. When he felt that subtlety was required, as it is here, he would give a subtle performance.

This is a powerful moving story with some cool ideas. Is The City on the Edge of Forever really the best ever Star Trek episode? If it isn’t, it has to be damned close.

Some minor nitpicks. It’s supposed to be 1930. McCoy tells Edith he’s senior medical officer on the USS Enterprise. She naturally thinks he means the aircraft carrier. But the aircraft carrier Enterprise was not launched until 1936. Kirk is supposed to take Edith to see a Clark Gable movie, but in 1930 Clark Gable was a complete unknown.

The City on the Edge of Forever really is a must-see. If you've only ever seen the occasional Star Trek episode and you've never understood why it has such a cult following this episode just might convert you to the faith.

Thursday 11 March 2021

Thriller - Nightmare for a Nightingale, Dial a Deadly Number, Kill Two Birds (1976)

Brian Clemens’ celebrated Thriller anthology series ran from 1973 to 1976. 

The general consensus is that Thriller was starting to run out of steam by the sixth season. I thought the first couple of sixth season episodes, Sleepwalker and The Next Victim (which I reviewed here) were actually not too bad.

Here are three more season six episodes, which went to air in Britain in April and May of 1976.

Nightmare for a Nightingale

Nightmare for a Nightingale concerns opera singer Anna Cartell (Susan Flannery) who has a problem with her husband. He died eleven years earlier but now he’s back and he has blackmail on his mind. Tony Risanti (Keith Baxter) was a failed singer and a failed gambler and also a failed husband and his failure to stay dead is very awkward since Anna is about to remarry. She’s going to marry a fast-rising American politician, Hal Bridie (Stuart Damon from The Champions). The scandal that Tony threatens to cause could destroy Hal’s career.

What’s really annoying about Tony is that killing him never seems to do any good. He keeps dying and he keeps coming back. Anna is starting to go to pieces because she may have been responsible for one of his deaths. Her crackup is a problem for her devoted agent Sam (Sydney Tafler) and her publicist Giles (Ronald Leigh-Hunt), especially because she won’t tell anyone why she is cracking up.

The carnations are the last straw. Tony always sent her carnations. He’s still sending them.

Anna has no idea what is going on and the script does a reasonably good job of keeping the audience guessing as well. There are several plausible possibilities. We’re also not quite sure just how serious Anna’s mental state is.

Susan Flannery is quite adequate as Anna.

Stuart Damon (always an underrated actor) is very good as Hal, who really seems like the sort of guy Anna needs. And maybe he is. Being an American means Damon doesn’t have to bother with a fake American accent or exaggerated American mannerisms. Damon was quite capable of flamboyant acting if that’s what a particular rôle called for but here he goes for an effectively low-key performance. We’re pretty sure Hal is a nice guy but this is Thriller so of course we can’t be sure - we can’t be sure about any of the characters.

Sydney Tafler is excellent. Tafler was another underrated actor who could handle serious or comic rôles with equal facility. He plays Sam as a bit of a protective father figure. Ronald Leigh-Hunt does a good job as the cynical GiIes, a man who sees Anna as nothing more than a source of money.

Keith Baxter tries a bit too hard as Tony. Tony certainly comes across as sleazy and malevolent but a bit too much like a cheap hood from a gangster movie.

There’s plenty of paranoia, there are hints of madness and there’s some genuine menace.

It’s not one of the great Thriller episodes but it’s acceptable entertainment.

Dial a Deadly Number

Dave Adams (Gary Collins) is an out-of-work flat broke American actor who just cannot admit that his career is going nowhere. He is running out of people from whom to borrow money. Then fate intervenes. He gets a telephone call. It’s a wrong number but it could be his lucky break. The caller is a woman who was trying to reach a psychiatrist. Helen Curry (Gemma Jones) is having terrifying dreams and thinks she’s losing her mind.

Dave decides to take a chance. He pretends to be the psychiatrist and he goes to see the woman. She is obviously rich. To Dave it is obvious that she’s just spoilt and a bit neurotic. Posing as the psychiatrist (and telling her that she’s going to need lots of consultations) means he could be on to a goldmine. And since she’s obviously just spoilt and neurotic it’s not like he’s going to be doing any real harm.

And posing as a psychiatrist is kind of fun. It’s like an acting job.

What could possibly go wrong? Plenty, as it turns out.

Initially everything goes smoothly. Dave does some quick reading up on the subject and figures there’s nothing to this psychiatry lark. It’s just so easy. And Helen actually seems to grow a bit calmer. As a bonus there’s Helen’s sister Ann who lives with her and Dave takes the opportunity to do some romancing of Ann.

Then Dave notices the hat. And starts to wonder. But he’s grown over-confident and there’s so much money to be made from fleecing Helen. He can’t just walk away from a goldmine.

The problem with this episode is that what’s really going on is very obvious. Brian Clemens wrote some great TV scripts but he wrote some lazy scripts as well, scripts that are just recyclings of old ideas without any flashes of originality. This is one of his weakest efforts.

On the plus side it’s very well executed. Even though we know what’s coming director Ian Fordyce still builds the suspense quite effectively. The secret to effective suspense is that it doesn’t matter if the audience knows exactly what’s coming next - that can even enhance the suspense if the director knows what he’s doing. Of course it helps if there are a few surprises along the way and sadly that isn’t the case here.

Thriller was made for ITC and Lew Grade was obsessed by the idea that every series had to have American actors. In this case it works satisfactorily since Gary Collins is absolutely perfect as the charming conman Dave. Gemma Jones gives off all the right crazy person vibes.

And there’s plenty of creepiness.

So overall it’s a lame screenplay that is to some extent redeemed by a good director and good acting. It is however a sign that Brian Clemens was starting to run seriously short on ideas.

Kill Two Birds

Charlie Draper has just been released from prison and he’s pretty happy since he has the proceeds of his last robbery safely stashed away. He’s now a rich man. His happiness is however short-lived. A particularly vicious gangster named Gadder wants that money. Gadder has already killed one of Charlie’s old buddies and he doesn’t care how many more people he has to kill to get that money. Gadder likes hurting people and he likes killing people and his goons like hurting people as well.

Charlie is on the run from Gadder and the only place he can think of where he might be safe is with his brother Sammy. Sammy runs a gas station and diner in Dorset. This is where two passing American tourists, Sally and Tracy, get mixed up in the story. Along with Sammy and his wife and a drifter named Farrow they’re held hostage by Gadder and his goons who are waiting for Charlie to show up.

The police have a pretty fair idea that someone is after Charlie and they have a few leads but the question is whether Gadder will get to Charlie before the police can.

The most noteworthy thing about this episode is the cast. There’s a pre-stardom Bob Hoskins as Sammy. There’s Susan Hampshire as Sally. She was a very very big star on British television at the time and while she’s best known for costume dramas she appeared in a number of productions of interest to cult TV fans such as the very good 1962 science fiction series The Andromeda Breakthrough and the science fiction TV movie Baffled (in which she co-starred with Leonard Nimoy). There’s Dudley Sutton as Gadder. Sutton made quite a career at this time playing memorable psychopathic heavies. And there’s Gabrielle Drake from UFO as Tracy. David Daker is very good as Charlie but it’s the performance of Dudley Sutton that really stands out.

As I mentioned earlier it was customary for Thriller episodes to have at least one American star. For this episode there must have been no Americans available so somebody came up with the bright idea of having Susan Hampshire and Gabrielle Drake play Americans! Miss Hampshire keeps her American accent low-key but Miss Drake goes totally over-the-top. There is absolutely zero reason for them to be playing Americans and both actresses would have been a lot more relaxed and a lot more effective just playing Englishwomen from London taking a holiday in the country.

This is a straightforward crime thriller, with some touches of the violence and sadism that was starting to become a feature of British cop shows at this time (this episode went to air in 1976). The tone of this episode is rather reminiscent of The Sweeney, but with slower pacing, less action and a lot more suspense. The twist at the end is clever and it’s also the sort of thing that you’d expect in The Sweeney.

It’s not at all a typical Thriller episode (this is a series that very rarely dealt with professional criminals) but with a very good Brian Clemens script this time and fine direction from Robert Tronson Kill Two Birds surprisingly works very well indeed. It’s hard-edged and very suspenseful and has a nice sting in the tail.

Final Thoughts

Season six is obviously turning out to be wildly uneven. Nightmare for a Nightingale is pretty good, Dial a Deadly Number is a misfire and Kill Two Birds is excellent.

Monday 1 March 2021

The Halo Highway (The Invaders TV tie-in novel)

Rafe Bernard’s The Halo Highway is a 1967 TV tie-in novel based on the classic 1967-68 science fiction TV series The Invaders. The Halo Highway was the British title - the novel was also published in the US under the title Army of the Undead. It was one of eight novels based on this superb TV series.

The Invaders was one of the classic alien invasion series. On a lonely road late at night a young architect named David Vincent sees a flying saucer land. He knows that the Earth is being invaded but of course no-one will believe him. He gives up his job and devotes all his time and energy to gathering evidence that will convince the government that aliens have invaded. Just like Fox Mulder in The X-Files many years later Vincent frequently has the evidence he needs but somehow it is snatched away from him or it turns out to be too ambiguous or too fantastic to be believable. In the first season he’s a lone crusader although over the course of time and many battles with the aliens he does acquire an informal network of people who do believe him (in the second season he becomes the leader of a much more organised resistance group). It’s paranoia television at its best.

In this novel the aliens, for complicated reasons, are infiltrating the American automobile industry. They do this by arranging fatal accidents for people and then taking over their bodies. A late night telephone call from a distraught widow alerts David Vincent to the fact that something sinister is happening in Auto City.

Vincent has his usual problem - the aliens have taken on human form and to an ordinary observer they are indistinguishable from normal humans. David Vincent is however not an ordinary observer and long experience has taught him to notice the subtle clues that betray the fact that someone is an alien. The aliens are almost perfect simulacra of humans, but never quite perfect.

He quickly discovers that there are indeed a lot of aliens in the Carasel auto company and there have been an astonishing number of car accidents in the area in the recent past. Accidents which should have been fatal but weren’t. There are very few people in Auto City that Vincent can trust, but there are a few. Or at least there are a few he thinks he can trust. He’s not sure if he can foil the plans of the aliens but he intends to try.

One of the things that makes TV tie-in novels both frustrating and fascinating is that they had to be rushed out in order to be in the bookstores while the TV series on which they were based were still running. This meant that the authors in many cases had not actually had the chance to see a single episode of the series - in some cases they hadn’t even seen a final script. They based the books on what they’d been told about the series. The books often have a different tone compared to the series and there are often other significant differences since they were often based on the original concept of the series rather than on the series as they actually turned out to be when they were actually shot.

This is very evident in the case of The Halo Highway. The tone of paranoia is the same. The David Vincent of the novel is pretty similar to the TV version of David Vincent and he has the same obsessive determination. So far so good. But the way the aliens work in the novel is not at all the way they work in the TV series. It seems clear that Rafe Bernard had been given a very rough outline of the premise of the series and then added lots of ideas of his own. The idea of the aliens taking over dead people is actually more reminiscent of the way the Mysterons operate in Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons (the other great 1960s alien invasion TV series which first went to air at almost the same time as The Invaders.

Bernard has also added other elements of his own and taken ideas which which were perhaps hinted at in the series and developed them in totally different and much more extravagant ways. He’s given the aliens extraordinary powers of mental telepathy and shape-shifting abilities. He’s added a complex array of paranormal and even New Age elements - the aliens feed off mental energies and control other aliens though these mental energies. The aliens have a zombie-like quality to them.

So as a TV tie-in novel this has to be described as a bit of a failure. It has a feel that is very different from that of the TV series. On the other hand Bernard’s original ideas are quite clever and interesting. Judged as a standalone science fiction novel it’s quite intriguing. Fans of the TV series may be bitterly disappointed by the fact that the novel only bears a superficial resemblance to the series but fans may also be fascinated to see the basic framework of the series developed in such radically different ways.

You could almost describe this book as a TV tie-in novel for an alternative version of The Invaders that was never made.

If you’re looking for a novel that sticks faithfully to the premises of the TV series then you’ll want to give this one a miss. On the other hand if you’re intrigued by the idea of an author coming up with his own variation on the theme of the series you might decide it’s worth checking out - Rafe Bernard’s take on The Invaders is in its own way quite interesting.

To sum up, possibly worth a look with some significant caveats.

I’ve reviewed both season one and season two of the TV series.