Sunday 31 December 2023

E.C. Tubb’s Space: 1999 Rogue Planet (TV tie-in novel)

E.C. Tubb’s Rogue Planet, published in 1977, was the ninth of the Space: 1999 TV tie-in novels. It is an original novel, not a novelisation of episodes from the TV series. It’s based on Year One of the TV series.

E.C. Tubb was a prolific British science fiction writer. He wrote several Space: 1999 novels.

It’s relaxation time for the crew of Moonbase Alpha. They’re enjoying an amateur performance of Hamlet, but when the ghost of Hamlet’s father appears they see and hear something strange, something Shakespeare certainly did not write. It’s a warning that Moonbase Alpha is heading for danger. But every member of the audience saw and heard something different. And every member of the audience agrees that what they saw and heard was terrifying.

Was it some kind of mass delusion? Was it some mysterious message beamed from somewhere in space? Not long afterwards some kind of temporary collective madness afflicts the Alphans. It passes, but again it was terrifying and inexplicable.

Moonbase Alpha’s commander, John Koenig, wants answers. The base’s chief scientist Victor Bergman and chief medical officer Dr Helena Russell cannot provide answers, only speculation. Alpha’s instruments can detect nothing threatening.

Then the brain appears. It can’t be a brain of course, but it looks like one. An enormous brain the size of a planet. And Moonbase Alpha is trapped in a separate miniature universe. There appears to be no escape but some means of escape must be found. One crew member has already died of old age and he was only thirty-two. The same fate may await all of the inhabitants of Moonbase Alpha.

Space: 1999 was a great series (or at least Year One was great) but you do have to accept the outrageous premise of the series - the Moon being thrown out of orbit and hurtling through space at an absurd speed like a gigantic spaceship. You also have to accept the idea that in the almost unimaginable vastness and emptiness of space they keep encountering countless planets and alien spacecraft. But then the science fiction genre as a whole requires a huge suspension of disbelief. If you love science fiction you learn to accept some wacky science.

The novel captures the feel of the series extremely well. The principal characters - Commander Koenig, Dr Russell, Professor Bergman, chief Eagle pilot Alan Carter etc - behave the way they behave in the TV series. There’s the same mix of space adventure and reasonably cool science fiction concepts.

There’s a reasonable amount of emphasis on Koenig’s responsibilities as commander and the need to be strong and decisive while always bearing in mind that he’s dealing with people not machines. Similarly with Dr Russell there’s emphasis on the awesome responsibilities she has to shoulder alone.

Tubb’s prose is straightforward but pleasing enough.

It’s a very entertaining story with a few serious touches. The crew of Moonbase Alpha have to confront the imminent threats of death (death from accelerated ageing which is certainly a very frightening prospect) and madness. Death is ever-present in this story, in varying forms.

Space: 1999 was not a series that offered spectacular space battles. It offered action, but the action was more likely to be battles against strange unseen alien forces rather than hostile star fleets. This novel follows the same sort of formula. There are narrow escapes from mortal danger but the dangers in this case come from strange force fields and from being trapped in caverns and suchlike things.

This novel also offers us an alien life form that is genuinely alien.

Rogue Planet is a very decent science fiction novel. If you’re a fan of the TV series you’ll enjoy and even if you’ve never seen the series you’ll probably find it entertaining. Highly recommended.

I’ve reviewed one of Tubb’s other Space: 1999 novels, Alien Seed (which is excellent). I’ve also reviewed another Space: 1999 novel, John Rankine’s Android Planet (which is quite good).

Sunday 3 December 2023

The Saint in colour, part 2

A few selected episodes from the colour era of The Saint. I slightly prefer the black-and-white episodes but there was plenty of fun to be had in the colour seasons as well.

Locate and Destroy

Locate and Destroy (scripted by John Stanton and directed by Leslie Norman) went to air in December 1966.

Locate and Destroy begins with what seems to be an attempted hold-up in an art dealer’s shop in Lima, Peru. Simon Templar naturally just happens to be on hand and foils the robbery. Except that it wasn’t a robbery. This much is obvious to the Saint. He decides that he’d like to find out what was really going on. The fact that it’s none of his business is merely an added attraction. In fact what is really going on is a bit too obvious from the start, and the story relies on too many clumsy clichéd narrow escapes.

This one is a bit disappointing. It’s not terrible, it’s just very average.

The Better Mouse Trap

The Better Mouse Trap (scripted by Leigh Vance and directed by Gordon Flemyng) screened in November 1966.

The Saint is in Cannes and of course crime has followed him there, in the shape of a series of daring jewel robberies. Naturally the police assume Simon is the thief. They always do. 

And naturally this adventure involves a woman, a Canadian. The thieves are trying to cover their tracks by framing Simon.

As often happens in Simon’s adventures the woman is somewhat ambiguous. The viewer certainly has plenty of reason to suspect that she’s mixed up in the robberies.

This is very much a stock-standard Saint episode, enlivened by a comic turn by Ronnie Barker as a bumbling French policeman. There’s the usual stock footage to convince us we’re in the south of France.

Nothing special, but it’s executed competently.

Little Girl Lost

Little Girl Lost (scripted by Leigh Vance and directed by Roy Ward Baker) went to air in December 1966.

Simon is in Ireland where he rescues a young woman from a couple of thugs. The woman claims to be Hitler’s daughter! Simon is sure she’s either mad or lying but he likes a good story and she is pretty and it all sounds like it could be an amusing adventure.

There’s a millionaire mixed up in it and a couple of crooked private detectives, Simon and the girl get chased through the countryside and there’s young love thwarted and a matter of a hundred thousand pounds. And quite a bit of fisticuffs. 

Oh, and there’s a castle and a dungeon as well.

All in all this is a delightful light-hearted romp.

Paper Chase

Paper Chase (directed by Leslie Norman and written by Harry W. Junkin and Michael Cramoy) went to air in December 1966.

A chap named Redmond from the Foreign Office has defected to East Germany taking with him a vital file. Simon gets inveigled into working temporarily for British intelligence since he can identify the defector. But it’s not as simple as that. The East German spy who was Redmond’s contact wasn’t what he seemed to be. And Redmond finds he’s been conned.

There’s also a pretty girl (naturally). She’d like to go to London with Redmond. Or with Simon. Or with anybody who’ll take her.

This story gives Roger Moore a chance to do the James Bond thing which of course he does pretty well. There’s a lot more action than usual and some decent suspense.

All in all this is a pretty good spy thriller episode.

Flight Plan

Flight Plan (directed by Roy Ward Baker and scripted by Alfred Shaughnessy) went to air in December 1966.

Diana Gregory (Fiona Lewis) arrives in London to meet her brother Mike but a phoney nun tries to kidnap her. Luckily when a damsel is in distress you can be sure that Simon Templar will be at hand to rescue her. But then there’s another mystery - her brother, an R.A.F. pilot, is nowhere to be found.

Mike had been one of the pilots testing the new top-secret British fighter the Osprey (which appears to be the supersonic version of the Harrier that was planned at one stage) and it doesn’t take Simon long to figure out that there’s some kind of plot afoot involving that aircraft. Mike turns out to be a bit of a loose cannon, being a drunkard who passes bad cheques. Just the sort of person who get mixed up in an espionage plot.

This is a decent spy thriller episode with the added bonus of aerial adventure (although the aerial stuff is of course almost entirely stock footage). William Gaunt (from The Champions) plays Mike.

Final Thoughts

Five episodes, two of them a bit on the routine side but three of them very good.

Tuesday 31 October 2023

Callan Uncovered

Callan Uncovered is a collection of the Callan short stories written by James Mitchell. Mitchell was the creator and main scriptwriter for Callan, probably the most acclaimed TV spy series of all time. The book also includes a complete script for an episode that was never made plus a treatment for another unmade episode.

The first of the stories (a Christmas assassination tale) was written for TV Times in 1967, shortly after David Callan made his screen debut in A Magnum for Schneider and at about the time that the first season of Callan started airing. The other twenty-four short stories appeared in the Sunday Express over the next few years.

Callan was a spy series that was character rather than plot-driven. The focus was on the psychology of British government assassin David Callan, a killer who no longer enjoyed killing. There’s also an emphasis on the fact that Callan’s victims are not just targets. They are real people. They have wives, and daughters. They have the normal human hopes and fears. In order to carry out his assignments Callan has to get close to his victims which makes it impossible not to see them as real people.

The problem with these stories is that they were written for newspaper publication and they therefore are fairly short short stories with not a lot of scope for characterisation. In fact some of the stories are really just vignettes. They’re mood pieces. They do however manage to capture the cynical seedy paranoid atmosphere of the series.

I’m assuming that these stories are reprinted in roughly the order in which they were written. I suspect that this is so because the quality of the stories gradually improves. It seems as if Mitchell took a while to get a handle on the very short story format. The first half dozen stories are pretty then but after that Mitchell really hits his stride and gives us some very punchy, twisted, dark and cynical tales.

In fact the mood is more cynical than the TV series. The whole point of the TV series is that in the Cold War the good guys weren’t much better than the bad guys. In these stories it’s hard not to see the British intelligence services as out-and-out bad guys. This is the British government not just assassinating foreign agents but brutally murdering British citizens who are often quite innocent merely because their existence is potentially inconvenient to the government. It’s pretty chilling stuff. Hunter is sinister and creepy enough in the TV series but in some of these stories he is clearly evil, and it’s the worst sort of evil, the evil that cloaks itself in high principles which in reality are nothing more than expediency.

Mitchell takes the opportunity to do the occasional quirky story which would not have worked on TV. A story like File on a Careful Cowboy would have come across as slightly surreal on TV and that’s not consistent with the overall tone of the series.

The Stories

In File on a Deadly Deadshot six men enjoying a weekend of shooting. One is the intended target of an assassin. One of the others is the assassin, and Callan has to find out which one. There’s a bit of an attempt in this story to flesh out the Callan-Hunter relationship.

In File on an Angry Artist Callan gets a surveillance job. A struggling artist with a major anger problem may be in possession of top-secret documents.

In File on a Reckless Rider it seems like members of a fox hunt are being targeted but maybe there’s more to it.

File on a Weeping Widow is better developed than most of these stories. The widow of a racing car driver is suspected of espionage but the suspicions are very vague. It’s enough to get her a Red File, but Hunter is prepared to be convinced that she’s clean. Callan’s job is to find evidence to clear her. Callan gets personally involved, in fact he falls in love with the woman. Hunter isn’t totally heartless. If she turns out to be a spy he won’t ask Callan to kill her. He’ll get Meres to do it instead.

File on an Angry Actor presents Callan with a rather unusual assignment. It’s not often that the Section’s target for assassination is a famous movie star. Callan gets a job working on the star’s latest movie and Lonely gets work as an extra.

File on a Lucky Lady is the most successful of the stories so far. Callan has to keep a rich girl alive and unharmed. Hunter fears she may be kidnapped in order to put pressure on here fabulously wealthy father. There’s a bit more action and excitement in this story.

File on a Dancing Decoy introduces Callan to the world of ballet. A Russian ballerina defected a while back but why was it so easy for her? Is she being used?

The diary concerned in File on a Deadly Diary was kept by the late husband of Lady Black. Diaries of important people are always likely to prove embarrassing to someone. In this case there are lots of nasty people who want the diary. Some want to publish it. Some want to suppress it. Including some unexpected interested groups.

File on a Classy Club. The club is a gambling club. Very exclusive. Callan finds he is now a member. His assignment is to lose money. Lots of money. He assumes Hunter has some good reason wanting this to happen but in this case there are several important things that Hunter does not know. And if there’s one thing that upsets Hunter it’s things happening that he doesn’t know about.

Callan finds himself at a health farm in File on a Fearsome Farm, which isn’t much fun except for the dishy Natasha Biscayne.

File on a Careful Cowboy takes Callan to the Wild West. Well actually it’s a dude ranch in the south of France. A senior Mafiosi likes to live out gunslinger fantasies. Callan and Meres find themselves having to enact a classic western showdown scene.

Sometimes Callan’s job involves killing people but sometimes it requires him to keep someone alive, and sometimes that’s even more unpleasant. That’s the case in File on a Doomed Defector, the defector being someone who richly deserves killing.

In File on a Pining Poet Callan discovers that even economists can fall in love, but sometimes important economists fall in love with KGB agents.

File on a Powerful Picador gets Callan mixed up with matadors and picadors and dangerous women.

File on a Difficult Don takes Callan to Oxford. A brilliant young don who breaks codes for the Section is causing Hunter a good deal of concern. The East Germans might be about to snatch him. Callan has to pose as a military historian, which he does quite successfully. But he may have misread the situation pertaining to that troublesome don.

File on a Darling Daughter involves a general and his junkie daughter and a drug-pusher who is mixed up in espionage. Meres gets the opportunity to indulge his tastes for sadism and torture.

Callan hates working with amateurs and in File on an Awesome Amateur that’s just what he has to do. He’s also not sure why a poet should be so important. Nice to see the CIA as the bad guys in this one.

File on a Joyous Juliet deals with a pretty young actress who is having an affair with an older married man. That older man just happens to have developed a horrifying new nerve gas. And he has a possessive wife. All of which makes Hunter very nervous.

File on a Mourning Mother involves a young man, now deceased, who had a secret. In fat several secrets. What matters to Hunter is how many other people shared these little secrets. A very dark cynical story.

Dealing with the KGB is hard enough but in File on an Angry American Hunter has the CIA to deal with and that’s much trickier. And Hunter doesn’t like the idea of the CIA killing people in Britain. There’s another reason that Hunter is very unhappy about this case, as Callan will find out.

In File on a Deadly Don Callan has to kill a mafiosi on his home turf. It’s a job he’d rather not take on but Hunter has private reasons for wanting this kill.

In File on a Tired Traitor Hunter wants Callan to bring in Alfred Dawes, accused of treason twenty-seven years earlier. It seems that for a lot of people the past cannot stay buried.

File on a Harassed Hunter takes Hunter out of the office, in fact for this case he plays the part of Callan’s sidekick. And he hasn’t forgotten how to use a gun. This is one of several stories which give us tantalising glimpses into Hunter’s personal life.

File on a Beautiful Boxer concerns rich playboy Rod Mercer who designs marine engines. The Israelis bought some and decided they were faulty, so they’re going to kill him. The Admiralty likes the engines and wants Mercer kept alive, so it’s Callan’s job to make sure he stays alive. A nice little story.

Goodbye Mary Lee is the unmade script. It would be interesting to know when it was written. Hunter is several times referred to as Colonel Hunter, which only happens in the early episodes which suggests it’s an early script. Callan appears to have left the Section. Meres is mentioned, but doesn’t appear in the story. It’s hard to guess just where this episode was intended to be slotted in.

Callan has fallen in love with an American senator’s daughter who just happens to be mixed up in every fashionable radical cause going. And she may have involved herself in espionage.

The CIA wants Hunter to get the girl, Mary Lee, out of the way (not killed, you can’t go around killing senators’ daughters). Hunter has no idea that Mary Lee has a boyfriend, and his name is David Callan.

There are lots of double-crosses in this episode as Callan tries desperately to keep his new lady love out of trouble. He’s hoping he won’t have to kill anybody. It’s a typically cynical Callan episode content-wise.

Final Thoughts

There was a Callan movie, a somewhat later TV-movie, several novels and these short stories but Callan always worked best as a TV series. TV in the late 60s/early 70s was the perfect medium for creating the enclosed paranoid seedy atmosphere that the series required.

But having said that the short stories are enjoyable and interesting in being even more cynical than the series. Highly recommended.

I've also reviewed the Callan novel Russian Roulette.

Monday 25 September 2023

The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. (1966-67), part two

Of all the girl spies of 1960s television I think April Dancer may well be the one with the coolest name ever (which is not surprising since it was Ian Fleming who came up with the name at the time when he was involved in the initial planning for The Man From U.N.C.L.E.). April Dancer was of course The Girl from U.N.C.L.E., which was a spin-off from the highly successful series The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Unfortunately by the time it went into production the decision (a very bad decision) had been made to turn The Man from U.N.C.L.E. into pretty much a pure parody camp-fest and The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. got the same treatment. So April Dancer never really had much of a chance.

I watched a handful of episodes of The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. a few years back (and I’d seen quite a few episodes years ago) and I wrote about the series here but was inclined to be a bit dismissive. Having just watched the episode of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. that introduced the character I thought I should at least briefly revisit The Girl from U.N.C.L.E.

One of the odder thing about this series (and this applies to a considerable extent to The Man from U.N.C.L.E. also) is that many of the stories are set in tiny feudal European statelets ruled by princes and grand dukes that seem straight out of The Prisoner of Zenda or the adventure stories of Dornford Yates. It’s a world that had ceased to exist long before the 1960s but it does give the series an intriguingly old-fashioned flavour.

Stefanie Powers took over the title rôle for the series. One thing that soon becomes evident is that April Dancer is not really a kickass action heroine. That may have been a major factor in the failure of the series. Personally I like the fact that April is a fairly realistic female spy - she relies on her wits and her feminine wiles rather than her martial arts skills (of which she has very few).

The series had some very good moments and some very bad moments. It might be best to dispose of some of those bad moments first.

The Paradise Lost Affair is an outstanding example of the series at its absolute worst. For most of the episode the spy thriller plot is totally forgotten in favour of a mixture of slapstick and bedroom farce in the South Seas. But if you’re going to aim for out-and-out comedy you need actual gags. Having people in silly costumes running about and shouting isn’t enough. And the actual gags just aren’t there. And since there’s virtually no spy thriller story here the unfortunate result is that there’s just no entertainment value whatsoever.

The Faustus Affair
and The Drublegratz Affair both illustrate the pernicious influence of Batman and the network’s incredibly ill-advised decision to try to make the series more like Batman. The episodes with the strongest Batman influence are the worst episodes by far. Fortunately not every episode was afflicted by the Batman curse.

There are other episodes that are basically good but with a few weaknesses, such as The Garden of Evil Affair. An ancient evil cult has devised a means of restoring to life the founder of their cult, but they need a direct descendant of the founder and they believe that such a descendant, a young woman, is to be found in Berlin. The cult has been working with THRUSH but now they’re planning a double-cross - they want all the power for themselves.

This story suffers a little from the unfortunate tendency of the series often to try too hard to be zany and campy, especially in the middle with the rather pointless sub-plot about filming a western in Berlin and the rather silly slapstick chase sequence. Aside from this the story isn’t too bad, the THRUSH agents are a pack of delightful villains, the sets are good and there’s plenty of action.

Luckily there are those good moments, and when this series was good it was very good. And the good episodes do outnumber the bad ones by a very hefty margin.

The Atlantis Affair was written by Richard Matheson, one of the great television writers, so it’s no surprise that it’s a very strong episode. It has lots of fun ingredients. There’s a crazy professor searching for the entrance to the lost continent of Atlantis, there are crystals that could destroy the world, there’s an eccentric Frenchman who has recreated the aristocratic lifestyle of the 17th century on a Caribbean island, and there are the usual THRUSH goons. There’s some nice location shooting and some decent sets. It works because it goes for a subtly surreal feel rather than high camp, and the action scenes are played for thrills rather than slapstick. It works because it feels inspired rather than contrived. It’s far-fetched but it never descends into mere silliness.

This is also a story that gives April Dancer a decent fight scene. She might not have the usual martial arts skills but it turns out she’s a pretty good fencer, which is handy when you’re up against a 17th century villain.

If only the entire series had been as good as The Atlantis Affair then NBC might have had a hit on their hands rather than a flop.

The Lethal Eagle Affair is very nearly as good. It’s outlandish but it does have an actual spy thriller plot. Gita Volander is a senior THRUSH agent who has forcibly retired but now she’s come up with a scheme to put herself back into THRUSH’s good books. She has found a scientist who has devised a machine that can transport living things instantaneously by dematerialising them at one point and rematerialising them somewhere else. April and Mark Slate have infiltrated her operation. The Viennese setting provides some nice period charm. There are some effective moments - April tied to the top of a car and being attacked by an eagle is certainly an opening scene that is guaranteed to get the audience’s attention. It’s fast-paced, fairly exciting, it has some witty moments and the action finale is amusingly over-the-top.

In The Romany Lie Affair April has to infiltrate a circus and arouses the enmity of a gypsy girl which gives April one of her better fight scenes. The episode overall shows that given a good script Stefanie Powers was a decent actress. This is one of the best episodes of the entire series.

The Little John Doe Affair gets April mixed up with a mobster and a wonderfully creepy assassin. The easy assassination scene is superbly done. This is the series at its best - slightly strange and surreal but without degenerating into camp or silliness. A great episode.

The Furnace Flats Affair takes April and Mark to the Wild West. April has to compete in a bizarre race against two other girls, each of whom has to cross Death Valley with a horse, a canteen of water and a bottle of whiskey. One of the other competitors is a murderous psychopath. It’s a very amusing romp with Ruth Roman chewing the scenery to great effect.

The Low Blue C Affair has a bit of a Ruritanian flavour to it. A gangster is trying to murder his way to the throne of a tiny principality which happens to have one major asset - an extremely profitable casino. The only way to stop him is to persuade his cousin, a female major in a religious charity that bears an extraordinary resemblance to the Salvation Army, to exercise her right to the throne. Of course the gangster will try to kill her to close off this threat. Broderick Crawford has a lot of fun as the strangely likeable gangster. It’s quite a good episode, with the campiness kept under strict control.

The Petit Prix Affair is rather confusing to say the least. April and Mark are in a small French village where a go-kart race is about to take place, but the race is being used as a cover for a plan to snatch a million dollars from an armoured car. The plan is to be carried out by students at a school for commandos and the money is to be returned afterwards. The mastermind of the plan, Professor Plato Pamplempousse, also intends to explode a bomb, but the bomb in question dates from the Franco-Prussian War so it’s almost a hundred years old. The Professor also hopes to run away with Desiree, a former Resistance heroine who like the rest of the school seems to be still living in the past.

Mostly it’s an excuse for outrageous and wildly exaggerated phoney French accents, and for generally indulging in mocking every stereotype of the French. Even including, rather daringly, making fun of the Resistance. It’s an episode that tries very hard to be zany, and succeeds at least moderately well. And it’s all quite good-natured.

The Phi Beta Killer Affair actually deals with a poker game. The richest poker game in history, with the stakes in the billions. The real problem is that the players’ bodyguards, all trained at the same bodyguard school, have been programmed for assassination. Mark and April have to infiltrate the bodyguard school and then infiltrate the poker game. The opening scene is an amusing version of the assassination of Julius Caesar but with gangsters. The episode features a couple of over-the-top villains. It’s all comic book stuff but enjoyable.

The Double-O-Nothing Affair uses a device that was used a lot in the first season of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. - a well-meaning innocent bystander who gets caught in the middle of some nefarious THRUSH plot. In this case it’s a nerdy accountant who comes into possession of a tape that holds the secret to the location of THRUSH’s New York headquarters. In this one the camp and spoof elements are kept within bounds. Not a bad episode.

The U.N.C.L.E. Samurai Affair takes Mark and April to Honolulu, their mission being to track down a Japanese war criminal. His sister is heading up some mysterious THRUSH operation in Hawaii. Mark poses as a surfer, the fact that he appears not to be able to surf being apparently not considered to be a potential problem. This is one of the episodes that strikes the right balance, being just outrageous enough to be amusing without veering too far into parody. Signe Hasso was Swedish so naturally she was an obvious choice to play a Japanese super-criminal. Quite entertaining.

In The High and the Deadly Affair THRUSH scientist Dr Merek has developed a deadly new chemical for which he has sinister plans. His first step is likely to be the assassination of the scientist who has developed the antidote. This may take place on a flight from London to Ankara so April goes undercover as a Mesopotamian Airlines stewardess, while Mark poses as a blustering big game hunter. The plot revolves around the problem with the two U.N.C.L.E. agents not only do not know which passenger is the evil mad scientist, they also don’t know which passenger is his intended victim. And it’s all rather fun. A very good episode.

In The Kooky Spook Affair an assassin is gunning for April while Mark discovers he is now the 14th Earl of Maddington. His newly inherited country house seems like a good place for April to hide out. But there isn’t just one dastardly plot afoot - there are no less than three and everyone at Maddington Manor seems to have murder in mind. A fun episode.

Final Thoughts

The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. had a lot of potential. Stefanie Powers and Noel Harrison were a slightly quirky pairing that worked rather well. They have very good chemistry - there’s some romantic chemistry but there’s also an affectionate playfulness between the two characters. They’re both adept at light comedy. They both have charm and they’re both likeable. Noel Harrison is particularly good - he’s a very unconventional TV spy but in an interesting way.

If only this series had appeared a year earlier and had been done completely in the style of the first season of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. it might well have been a success. The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. went to air about six months after The Avengers made its American TV debut. It does have the occasional clever and surreal moments but it never quite achieves the consistent wit and style of The Avengers.

The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. does have an odd flavour of its own, it has likeable leads and it has plenty of genuinely very good moments. Despite its faults I just can’t bring myself to dislike this series and I’m going to recommend it. In fact I’m going to highly recommend it.

Only 29 episodes were made but it did spawn a series of original spin-off novels several of which I’ve reviewed, including The Global Globules Affair, The Golden Boats of Taradata Affair and The Birds of a Feather Affair.

I’ve reviewed The Man from U.N.C.L.E. episode which introduced April Dancer, The Moonglow Affair.

Friday 1 September 2023

Dick Tracy TV series (1950-51)

The VCI boxed set containing all three Republic Dick Tracy serials (and I’m a huge fan of movie serials) which I bought recently includes as a bonus an episode of the 1950-51 Dick Tracy TV series which aired on the ABC network. It's a series I had never seen.

The episode in question is Hi-Jack, episode 16 of season one.

I don’t consider myself a huge Dick Tracy fan but I love the Republic serials and the 1940s RKO Dick Tracy movies so I guess maybe I am a bit of a Dick Tracy fan after all.

The episode was a disappointment, but it is an interesting example of some of the problems of very very early TV crime drama series. American television was developing rapidly and by 1955 was starting to become reasonably sophisticated, but series from the early 50s do tend to be clunky.

There were reasons for this. The half-hour TV drama is a distinctive format of its own, quite different from one-hour dramas and feature films. There was a real art to writing a successful half-hour drama. You really had to plunge the viewer straight into the action and you had to get on with it. It was essential not to waste time on sub-plots or irrelevant scenes that failed to advance the action. You would probably only have time for one major plot twist so it had to be a good one.

It’s hardly surprising that in 1950 these rules were not yet fully understood. Hi-Jack wastes a lot of time early on with a long boring completely irrelevant dialogue scene with no connection at all to the story. Once we get into the action there’s just not quite enough plot and there are no major twists. Even at a half hour it drags a bit.

The plot, such as it is, concerns a car-stealing racket. Which is a rather mundane case for someone like Dick Tracy (at least it would be a very mundane case for the Dick Tracy of the serials and the RKO movies). The bad guys are switching the engine and chassis numbers on stolen cars and they’re also planning to double-cross each other.

The villain is unfortunately rather colourless.

Another problem with early 50s U.S. TV is that it looks stodgy. This was possibly due more than anything else to the limitations of the medium at that time. TV sets had very small screens and picture quality was not good. There was little point in trying for artistic lighting effects or imaginative framing (even if there had been time for such luxuries which there wasn’t). Sets were very basic. These early TV shows looked cheap.

Of course it’s possible that this just happens to be a dud episode.

It doesn’t help that image quality is atrocious.

What seeing this episode has done for me is to increase my admiration for the achievements of American television in the late 50s. The improvement was staggering. Series like Decoy (1957), M Squad (1957) and Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer (1958) were to demonstrate just how good half-hour episodic television could be.

Dick Tracy was possibly just made too soon. Six or seven years later it might have been possible to make a truly excellent Dick Tracy TV series.

On the plus side the series does have Ralph Byrd, the definitive screen Dick Tracy. And that’s a major plus.

So overall more of a curiosity than anything else.

I’ve also reviewed a couple of the RKO movies - Dick Tracy, Detective (1945) and Dick Tracy vs Cueball (1946).

Wednesday 2 August 2023

Man from Atlantis (TV-movie, 1977)

Man from Atlantis started life as a series of four made-for-TV movies in 1977. They were quite successful and NBC gave the go-ahead for a weekly series which lasted just 13 episodes. I haven’t seen the series but the consensus seems to be that it was nowhere near as good as the TV-movies.

Patrick Duffy starred. He would soon go on to major stardom in Dallas.

The premise is rather silly, but then if you start worrying about the silliness of the premises of science fiction movies and TV series you’ll pretty much have to give up on the genre altogether. I figures that if I can accept impossibilities like faster-than-light travel then I can accept a water-breathing man.

The man (later given the name Mark Harris) is found washed up on a beach. He is taken to hospital but all attempts to resuscitate him seem doomed to failure. Then Dr Elizabeth Merrill figures out the problem. This man breathes water! She insists that he should be thrown back in the ocean, whereupon he immediately revives.

But where does a water-breathing man come from? The Navy’s super-computer has the answer. He must be from Atlantis.

The Navy sees possibilities in this young man, as a weapon. Dr Merrill doesn’t want him used in that way. Mark is also not interested in being used in this way. Mark is eventually persuaded to carry out one mission. The Navy has lost a super-secret deep-sea research submarine. It’s lying at the bottom of the sea, 35,000 feet down. That’s no problem for Mark.

What Mark finds at the bottom of the sea is not what he expected. He finds himself a prisoner of sorts. And mixed up in a terrifying plan for world domination.

It was clearly intended from the start to make this a series of TV-movies so, quite sensibly, lots of questions are left unanswered. They did after all want people to watch the next movie in the hope of getting those answers.

Mark, very conveniently, has amnesia. He has no idea of his own origins. All he knows is that the sea is his home and that he understands the language of whales. Maybe he is an Altantean. If so, does Atlantis still exist? Is he the last surviving Atlantean? Where was Atlantis? Was it really a fabulously ancient highly advanced civilisation? We don’t know and Mark doesn’t know.

He is suspicious of the US Government (this was 1977 so it’s the era of 70s paranoia) but we’re left unsure what plans the Government has for Mark. Those plans might well be somewhat sinister.

His relationship with Dr Merrill remains unclear. She has obviously developed an emotional attachment to him but whether it’s a kind of displaced maternal affection or whether there’s a romantic elements to it, and possibly a physical attraction, is uncertain. Mark may have developed an attachment to her but that is less clear.

All of this offers potential for further development, which is a sound storytelling strategy in this context.

There’s an over-the-top mad scientist/diabolical criminal mastermind involved, which is always a good thing.

Visually it’s reasonably impressive for a TV production.

There’s some action but it probably needed a bit more and it definitely needed a bit more zing.

The biggest weakness is that there are not enough exciting underwater action scenes. Such scenes are pretty much an essential ingredient for such a series. What they really needed to do was to get hold of someone like John Lamb, the man who did the underwater photography for Sea Hunt and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. Lamb knew how to do that sort of stuff and make it look good on a tight television budget. As it stands the underwater sequences are OK but just a little disappointing.

The action climax also needed to be a bit more spectacular but there was of course a limit to what you could do on a 1970s TV budget.

Patrick Duffy is OK. He’s supposed to be a kind of alien so his slightly detached performance works well enough. Belinda J. Montgomery as Dr Merrill is an adequate female lead and does the idealistic doctor thing convincingly. Victor Buono makes a fine mad scientist.

The four original TV-movies have been released on DVD in the Warner Archive series and they look quite acceptable. The TV series has also had a DVD release. I believe the first TV-movie is also available on Blu-Ray.

Man from Atlantis isn’t great but it’s fairly entertaining and just interesting enough that I’ll probably watch the second TV-movie.

Thursday 6 July 2023

The Avengers - The Interrogators

The Interrogators is a very fine Tara King episode of The Avengers, written by Richard Harris and Brian Clemens and directed by Charles Crichton. It went to air in January 1969.

I’ve always been a fan of the Tara King era and I’ve always enjoyed Linda Thorson’s performances.

This one has a very solid plot with some nice misdirection. At first we think we know what is going on. A British agent is being mercilessly interrogated by the bad guys. The chief villain is a British officer named Colonel Mannering (Christopher Lee) but we’re pretty sure he’s really a traitor working for a foreign government.

And then comes the first twist and we question everything we think we know. There will be more twists which will keep us wondering just how much we really know.

The British agent doesn’t break under torture, but one of his contacts gets assassinated. We’re not really sure how the bad guys got the information.

Mother is perplexed. Nothing seems to add up. There has to be a leak somewhere.

Tara thinks she’s found a vital clue. It’s a cigarette stub, with a very unusual tobacco blend.

Tara will end up being interrogated as well, but whether the interrogation is carried out by the good guys or the bad guys is still open to question. Tara certainly doesn’t know at this stage.

There’s a reasonable amount of action with Tara having some decent fight scenes. Steed gets to use his armoured bowler hat.

There are plenty of surreal touches. The music guy and the balloon seller are highlights. We get to see a lot of Mother in this story and Patrick Newell is in sparkling form. As usual the meetings with Mother take place in bizarre settings.

Christopher Lee provides some real menace but some nice ambiguity as well. It’s a vintage Christopher Lee performance. The acting overall is excellent and the sheer hopelessness and foolishness of the British agents under interrogation, determined to follow orders without exercising the slightest degree of intelligence, adds some amusement.

Charles Crichton directs with energy and style.

Mostly this episode works because it strikes the perfect balance. The script works as a clever spy thriller story, there is genuine suspense and mystery, and just enough outlandishness and lightheartedness. It’s a Tara King episode that stacks up quite favourably against the best of the Emma Peel episodes.

The Interrogators is highly recommended.

Friday 9 June 2023

Lost in Space (TV tie-in novel)

Lost in Space by Dave van Arnam and Ron Archer is as its name suggests a TV tie-in novel inspired by the classic TV series.

One intriguing thing about TV tie-in novels is that some are very close in spirit to the TV series while others are quite different. Some were commissioned at a time when only one or two episodes had gone to air. The novels sometimes reflected the original concept for the series, rather than the way the series actually turned out.

In this case the series premiered in 1965 and the novel was published in 1967 so I can only assume that the reason it differs so radically from the series is that it was a conscious decision on the part of the writers.

It is however worth observing at this point that Lost in Space was not conceived of as a silly goofy kids’ show. If you watch the pilot episode (No Place to Hide) or, even more to the point, the first few episodes of season one then it is plausible that the authors of the novel decided to make that very early version of the series the basis for their novel.

It’s obvious that the authors were attempting to write not just serious science fiction, but Big Ideas science fiction.

Some of the characters also differ markedly from their television counterparts. Especially Dr Smith. The Dr Smith of the novel is a serious scientist and he’s not the least bit lazy. He’s also not especially treacherous. He’s not even all that cowardly. He does have some megalomaniacal tendencies, which the TV version of the character doesn’t really have, at least not to anywhere near the same extent.

The authors also decided that the Robot would be groping towards acquiring independent decision-making abilities, which is certainly not the case in the TV version.

It’s also obvious that the only characters in whom the authors are interested are Dr Smith and Professor Robinson, and to a much lesser extent Don West and the Robot. Maureen Robinson becomes a very minor character. Will, Penny and Judy are even more minor characters. I suspect that the authors marginalised Will and Penny because they didn’t want to be seen as writing a science fiction novel for kids.

There is some of the familiar verbal sparing between Dr Smith and the Robot but the relationship between the two is overall quite different. In the novel the Robot’s function is not to provide comic relief. The relationship between Professor Robinson and Dr Smith is very different.

One positive thing about the novel is that it takes advantage of a huge advantage that novels have over TV series - the ability to operate on a truly epic scale. The novel takes the form of a series of three linked short stories and not one of those stories could have been attempted with a 1960s television budget.

In the first story the crew of the Jupiter II find a city that seems to have been home to an advanced civilisation but the planet is now deserted. Deserted, apart from a large number of robots and a central computer, all of which are dedicated to maintaining the city for the benefit of its non-existent inhabitants. The first mystery to be solve is obviously the lack of living inhabitants. There’s a second mystery - the central computer is hiding something very important and appears to be hopelessly conflicted over its own deceptions. It is now neurotic and guilt-ridden.

In the second story our spacefarers find a planet which is home to intelligent life, but it seems to take the form of a kind of hive mind.

The third story is even more ambitious. Our space adventurers find a vast city which turns out to be rather old. Billions of years old. And the history of this planet is somehow intertwined with Earth’s history and its destiny may be linked to Earth’s as well.

And Dr Smith believes he has finally gained what he aways wanted - the power to be a galactic emperor. Of course he’ll need an empress, and he feels that Judy Robinson would be an ideal choice. The prospect of marriage between Dr Smith and Judy is certainly something you wouldn’t have seen in the TV series,

If you’re looking for a novel that captures the feel of the TV series then you’re going to be pretty disappointed. About the only things it really has in common with the series are the names of the characters and the name of the spaceship. If that bothers you then you definitely should avoid the novel.

If you approach it merely as a science fiction novel then it’s not too bad. It grapples with big ideas with reasonable success. If you’re content with that then it’s not a bad read.

So I can’t really say whether I recommend it or not - it depends so much on what you’re looking for.

I’ve mentioned the origins of the series. I’ve reviewed the pilot episode Lost in Space - No Place to Hide and the first few episodes of the first season and they’re very much worth seeing as a glimpse of what the TV series could have been like.

Thursday 25 May 2023

The Professionals season 3 (1979)

The mid-70s witnessed a revolution in British television. It started with seasons three and four of Special Branch but the series most associated with this revolution was The Sweeney. Shooting on video in the studio was out. Everything had to be shot on location, on 35mm film. The emphasis henceforward was on action, which usually meant violent action. Brian Clemens was not unaware of this trend and had taken his first tentative steps in this new direction with The New Avengers. For his next project Clemens decided to go all-out. He would out-Sweeney The Sweeney. That new project would become The Professionals.

The Professionals certainly attracted attention. And outrage. It wasn’t just the violence. It’s a series about a British counter-terrorist counter-espionage squad, CI5, that quite openly flouts the law.

The Professionals was made in five separate production blocks between 1977 and 1983 and screened as five seasons over the same period, but the production blocks and the seasons do not coincide at all. There was no attempt to screen the episodes in the order in which they were made. The 1979 third season is a mixture of episodes from the second and third production blocks.

The cast remained unchanged from season two - Gordon Jackson as CIA chief George Cowley with Lewis Collins and Martin Shaw as Bodie and Doyle, his two top agents. The characterisations haven’t changed either. Cowley is as ruthless as ever with a fine disregard for everything except getting the job done. Ex-mercenary Bodie is pretty much an ice-cold killer, although with a sense of humour. Doyle is equally tough but more sensitive, and is the only one of the trio with what you might call a fully developed conscience.

The stories haven’t changed a great deal either. CI5 battles spies and international criminals but their main focus is combating terrorism.

There’s enough action and mayhem to ensure that the viewer will overlook any deficiencies in the scripts. And for the most part the scripts are solid and tight.

The Professionals
was intended as pure high-octane entertainment so don’t expect any philosophical musing or too much in the way of subtlety. On occasions the series does confront ethical issues but this is not Callan, or even Danger Man. If you’re looking for a series that offers provocative intellectual insights into the morality of espionage this is not that series. The Professionals offers car chases, gun battles and explosions.

But the action is handled with style and energy.

Episode Guide

The Purging of CI5 was a logical enough choice for a season opener, with lots of action, lots of explosions and lots of excitement. Someone is trying to destroy CI5. Their plan seems to be to kill every last CI5 agent, including Cowley. And they seem quite capable of doing so.

This episode is quite reminiscent of the excellent 1969 Callan episode Let's Kill Everybody. In fact the premise is more or less identical. It’s not a bad episode.

In Backtrack CI5 have to stop an arms smuggling operation. They have a witness who might be useful, if they can keep him alive. They have to follow the trail of evidence back to a burglary. That burglar found something crucial. Bodie and Dole have to try out their own skills as burglars.

A typical but very entertaining episode with Cowley being particularly ruthless.

starts with a British agent who has just escaped from the Khmer Rough. He has some interesting information about a high-level defector. Of course there are twists. A solid enough plot.

In this episode there’s plenty of focus on the tense relationship between Cowley on the one hand and Bodie and Doyle on the other. They feel that Cowley is concealing vital information from them, forcing them to work in the dark. And they’re right. And they resent it, understandably. One of the best episodes of the season.

Dead Reckoning starts with an exchange of agents by the British and the Bulgarians. The British got double-agent Stefan Batak as their part of the deal. The arrangement was that the deal was to be kept secret. There is a complication - Batak’s daughter Anna who lives in London. She was all set to go to Bulgaria to visit her father in prison.

There are the usual betrayals and counter-betrayals and complex plot twists. Cowley is getting plenty of information out of Batak. He thinks the information is accurate, but he still isn’t certain. And then disaster strikes. Could Anna be an assassin? Or is she an innocent pawn?

Doyle takes some film and somebody is very keen to take it away from him. The trouble is that the film doesn’t show anything that could possibly be useful.

A nicely cynical twisted spy thriller plot. A very good episode.

The Madness of Mickey Hamilton starts with an attempted political assassination but the viewer already has reason to suspect that something else is going on. CI5 however are sure it was an attempt to kill an African diplomat. If they’d realised earlier that were barking up the wrong tree disaster might have been averted, but that the theme of this episode - by the time anyone realises there’s a problem it’s too late.

A good episode with Doyle showing an unexpected touch of compassion. To everybody else the villain in this story is just a villain, but to Doyle’s he’s a victim.

A Hiding to Nothing involves the possibility of an assassination attempt on an Arab leader. And CI5 has a leak. There are lots of twists to come.

Again we see a subtle difference between Bodie and Doyle, with Doyle being just as tough but with more of a human side. Excellent episode.

In Runner a gun shop is robbed. Robbed of a variety of very nasty weaponry. CI5 assume it’s the prelude to a major campaign of violence, a campaign of political violence by an outfit referred to as the Organisation (presumably some offshoot of the IRA).

CI5 are being manipulated and Doyle is being manipulated. The Organisation is being manipulated. There’s a dangerous game being played, and the motivations are not clear. CI5 have to find out what those motivations are. They have a number of sources of possible information but those sources are not exactly friendly. A solid episode with a fiendishly complicated plot. Maybe too complicated. You’ll have to concentrate.

In the season finale Servant of Two Masters Bodie and Doyle have to investigate a possible traitor - George Cowley. This is by far the weakest episode of the season. You have to take seriously the idea that Cowley might be corrupt, and I don’t believe that a single viewer would have bought that for a second. If you don’t buy it the story becomes boringly predictable.

Final Thoughts

Overall a strong season with the season finale being the only dud episode. Other than that there’s plenty of excitement and mindless violence. Highly recommended.

Sunday 30 April 2023

Thriller - three 1973 epidodes

A look at three episodes from Brian Clemens’ horror anthology series Thriller, one of the finest series of its type ever made. All three episodes originally aired in 1973.

The Colour of Blood

The Colour of Blood is the fifth episode of the first season of Thriller. Brian Clemens wrote the script, Robert Tronson directed.

The Carnation Killer, a crazed sex murderer who has killed at least nine women, has been caught. He has been found guilty but insane and he is now on his way to a hospital for the criminally insane. Everyone can breathe a sigh of relief.

Unfortunately Arthur Page (for that is the Carnation Killer’s real name) never reaches the hospital. The prison van crashes and Page escapes.

Page hopes to lose himself in the crowds at Waterloo Station. But first he must have a red carnation for his button hole. He simply doesn’t feel dressed without it.

He is rather surprised when a young blonde woman carrying an attache case suddenly latches onto him. As luck (in this case bad luck) would have it Julie Marsh is waiting to meet a man she has never set eyes on.

A man named Graham has inherited a large sum of money and a house in the country. Julie’s job is to meet Graham at Waterloo Station, hand over the money and then take him by train to Westerling (the house he has inherited). Julie will recognise Graham by the red carnation in his button-hole.

It’s just very bad luck for Julie that the first man she sees with a red carnation is not Mr Graham, it’s Arthur Page the insane sex murderer. Page might be insane but he can also be very charming and appear very normal, and Julie has no idea that she’s chosen the wrong man and that she’s about to take him out into the country to a very isolated house where she’s going to be quite alone with him.

But there are some major plot twists that are about to kick in and take the story in a rather different direction. There are nasty surprises in store for just about everyone.

Norman Eshley’s chilling performance as Page is what stands out most in this episode. It’s a neat little script, which relies a little on coincidence but the coincidences are entirely plausible. There’s some effective suspense and some creepy moments. All in all an excellent episode.

Murder in Mind

Murder in Mind was scripted by Terence Feely from a story by Brian Clemens. It was directed by Alan Gibson and was broadcast in May 1973.

It starts with a murder that isn’t.

Tom Patterson (Donald Gee) has held the very humble rank of Detective-Constable for all of a week. Like any keen young copper he dreams of solving a major case. And then a major case seems to drop into his lap. A woman wanders into the police station in the middle of the night and confesses to a murder. Since he’s the only detective on duty it’s Tom Patterson’s case.

But it ends disappointingly. Betty Drew (Zena Walker) had had a blow on the head and her confession was all nonsense.

There’s something about the case that keeps niggling at Tom Patterson. He’s not sure what it is but he feels that there’s some connection he should have made but he didn’t and nobody else did either. There wasn’t any murder and it was all Betty Drew’s imagination and it would be better for Tom to forget all about it. But Tom still feels that there is a puzzle here somewhere.

Brian Clemens has come up with a very intricate script this time. There’s a perfectly straightforward explanation for what has happened, the straightforward explanation being that Betty was concussed and confused and imagined a murder that never happened. Everybody accepts the straightforward explanation, apart from Tom. And of course the viewer is likely to agree with Tom - that there is an alternative explanation. But it requires the pieces of the jigsaw to be pieced together in a different way. The alternative explanation is convoluted but it’s clever and it’s plausible.

But if Tom is right then there might be a murder after all.

The acting is solid but for me the highlight is Ronald Radd’s performance as Superintendent Terson. Good episode.

A Place to Die

A Place to Die was scripted by Terence Feely from a story by Brian Clemens. It was directed by Peter Jefferies and went to air in May 1973.

It’s a basic story that has been done countless times and i’s an idea that was very popular at the time - a remote community that seems perfectly normal but in fact follows either paganism or satanism. To be fair, in 1973 the idea was still reasonably fresh.

It’s also another story of innocent city folk who foolishly move to a rural area only to find themselves in a nightmare world of primitive superstition and terror.

Dr Bruce Nelson (Bryan Marshall) has just taken over a practice in a small village. He and his American wife Tessa (Alexandra Hay) are looking forward to getting away from the stresses of city life.

The first sign that something odd is going on comes when they meet their seriously weird housekeeper Beth. Beth reacts with wonder when she sees Tessa. She excitedly informs the other villagers that Tessa is moon-pale and moon-gold and limps with her left leg. The villagers know what that means. Tessa is the Expected One. And it’s almost Lady Day, and this year Lady Day coincides with a full moon. The signs are clear.

What is going on is obvious to the viewer very early on, we know what Bruce and Tessa have wandered into, but they have no idea. That of course sets up the suspense very nicely. The viewer doesn’t know how Bruce and Tessa are going to get out of a terrifying situation. Another fine episode.

Final Thoughts

Three more very solid Thriller episodes. All worth watching.

Sunday 9 April 2023

Patrick Macnee's Dead Duck (Avengers tie-in novel)

Dead Duck is an original novel inspired by the TV series The Avengers. It was published in 1966 and written by Patrick Macnee. At least Macnee’s name appears on the cover as the author. Of course he didn’t write it. The book seems to have been written by Peter Leslie who wrote some very decent TV tie-in novels. It is just within the bounds of possibility that Macnee may have had some slight input into the book.

Dead Duck was actually the second Avengers novel credited to Macnee, the first being Deadline in 1965.

Steed takes Mrs Peel to lunch, to a very swish French restaurant. He has told her that the duck is divine. One of the other customers would tend to disagree -he has a couple of bites of his duck and keels over dead.

It seems to have been a heart attack. For some reason Steed is suspicious (he sees a man handing over a package to a girl just after the unfortunate diner’s demise) and does some checking. There have been rather a lot of deaths from heart attacks in this part of East Anglia recently. A lot more than one would normally expect.

The victims all have one thing in common. They have all recently eaten, and all have eaten duck.

The story feels like an Avengers yarn. There’s a poacher. With a beautiful daughter who tends to point guns at people. There are two odd old men conducting research - on birds. There’s an old house surrounded by elaborate but oddly childish booby-traps.

Steed and Mrs Peel go both undercover, Steed as a journalist and Emma as a housemaid.

The story gets more Avengers-like. Steed engages in a life-or-death struggle with a bird. There’s mention of a sinister but mysterious character named Worthington whom nobody sees. There’s a South American connection. And there’s a horrifying conspiracy involving, naturally, birds.

There are two villains and they’re fine Avengers villains.

Steed finds that his gadget-loaded umbrella comes in very handy indeed. Not to mention his armoured bowler hat.

The tone strikes the right mock-serious note. And Steed’s plan to unmask the conspiracy is absurdly far-fetched but amusing.

And there are the right touches of Avengers surrealism.

A good TV tie-in novel has to get the characters right. They have to be convincing as the characters from the TV series. This novel certainly gets Steed right. It gets Mrs Peel right in terms of personality but she’s not quite as much of an action heroine as she is in the TV series. She doesn’t get sufficient opportunities to strut her stuff and demonstrate her prowess in unarmed combat.

There’s some of the witty repartee between Steed and Mrs Peel that you expect, but perhaps not quite enough.

These are minor quibbles. It’s an engagingly offbeat story with a fine crazy finale. Fans of the TV series should enjoy this novel. Recommended.

The only other Avengers novel I’ve read is a later one, Keith Laumer’s The Drowned Queen (which features Tara King), and it was quite good.

Peter Leslie also wrote a couple of the Girl from U.N.C.L.E. novels.

Friday 24 March 2023

Nigel Kneale's Beasts (1976)

Beasts is a six-part 1976 British horror anthology TV series made by ATV and created and written by Nigel Kneale. Kneale is best known for his 1950s Quatermass sci-fi/horror TV serials which were later adapted to film by Hammer, with great success although Kneale wasn’t happy with the Hammer versions. Kneale later wrote some very strange, disturbing but fascinating TV plays such as The Year of the Sex Olympics and The Stone Tape (both of which I highly recommend).

Kneale had a knack for mixing horror with science fiction in a genuinely original and surprising manner.

Beasts is typical of Kneale's work in that you’re never quite sure if there’s a supernatural element of if the stories are science fiction. Or they might possibly be merely the products of overheated imaginations.

The episodes

Baby is an exercise in folk horror. Peter Gilkes (Simon MacCorkindale) and his wife Jo (Jane Wymark) have just moved to the country. Peter was tired of being a city vet. He wanted to be a real country vet. Jo is a country girl but oddly she seems less happy about the movie. Maybe she’ll feel better when their very rundown cottage is fixed up a bit. Jo is pregnant and she’s anxious since she had a miscarriage a year earlier. Jo’s anxiety will play an important part in the story.

While tearing down a wall Peter and Jo find a huge earthenware jar. It contains a mummified - something. Peter is a vet but he has no idea what it is, although he finds it fascinating. Jo is totally creeped out by it.

Jo hears all sorts of tales, some of which may be true and some of which may be folklore. The tales concern the piece of land on which the cottage stands, and the reason nobody farms this land. She also discovers an interesting fact about the previous tenants. They had no children. This seems significant to Jo.

Jo hears strange noises and sees a few things that disturb her. Her anxiety grows. Nobody takes her fears seriously. The viewer will also wonder just how seriously to take her fears. Most of the things she sees and hears could be described as ambiguous. To find out whether Jo’s fears really are justified you’ll have to watch the episode. Good episode.

Buddyboy is wildly original and quirky. Dave (Martin Shaw) is thinking of buying a broken-down dolphinarium. Not for the dolphins. The dolphins are long gone. Dave wants to turn the place into a cinema to show adult films. That’s the business Dave is in. He already owns an adult cinema. Converting this place into a cinema will be easy because a cinema is what it originally was, before it was turned into a dolphinarium.

The guy selling the place, Hubbard (Wolfe Morris), seems extraordinarily jumpy and anxious to sell. He keeps talking about all the trouble he had with Buddyboy, his star dolphin. Buddyboy was a great performer but difficult to handle.

There’s a strange girl, Lucy (Pamela Moiseiwitsch) who is always hanging around the dolphinarium. She’s obsessed with Buddyboy as well. She thought he was the most wonderful animal that ever lived.

Dave is strangely drawn to the odd waif-like Lucy and they gradually become involved. Then there’s the ending (and I have no intention of revealing any spoilers here) which exasperates a lot of people. They feel cheated because there is no obvious supernatural element and they resort to prosaic interpretations which I feel are probably wrong.

My feeling is that Kneale really wants us to think about this one. There are plausible and satisfying explanations but you have to tease them out and you have to think about what you’ve seen and you have to think about both Lucy and Buddyboy. It’s not that there’s no strangeness here, but it’s not the obvious strangeness people expect from straightforward horror. This episode made me think long and hard about what it could mean, and I think that actually makes it great television.

The Dummy is another indication of the unconventionality of Kneale’s approach. Clyde Boyd (Bernard Horsfall) is an actor falling apart. His last chance is to play the monster known as the Dummy in yet another low-budget horror flick. The trouble really starts when he spots Peter Wager (Simon Oates) in the studio. Wager is the man who stole Boyd’s wife. Boyd falls apart completely but this shooting has to go ahead and harassed producer 'Bunny' Nettleton (Clive Swift) manages to convince Boyd to complete the scene. The result is mayhem, the police have to be called, there’s a dead man lying on the studio floor and Wager is running around with a shotgun threatening to shoot Boyd.

The clue to what has happened is provided by journalist Joan Eastgate (Lillias Walker) who is on set hoping to interview Boyd. She talks about tribesmen who wear masks in religious ceremonies and how it’s the mask that ends up wearing the man rather than the other way around. That’s more or less what happens here. Boyd’s whole personality disintegrates and he becomes the monster, the Dummy. It’s not just his money problems and his wife leaving him, he also has to face the failure of his career as an actor. The only successful roles he’s ever had having been playing the Dummy, playing the entire part encased in a rubber suit. The Dummy is more real than he is.

It’s great to see Clive Swift in a complex ambiguous part and doing it extremely well. Thorley Walters adds fun as the pompous but rather ridiculous Shakepearian actor turning up for a day’s work and a pay cheque.

This is a serious and tragic story. Don’t be misled by the silliness of the monster costume. That was probably a swipe by Nigel Kneale at Doctor Who, a TV series he despised.

Special Offer is a horror story set in a small supermarket. Noreen (Pauline Quirke) is a socially awkward clumsy teenager who seems to make a mess of everything she does, whether it’s packing shelves or working the checkouts. Accidents seem to happen around her. The story manager, the slimy Mr Grimley (Geoffrey Bateman), is exasperated with her. Even worse, Noreen has a crush on him, while Grimley is pursuing the other checkout operator, glamorous dolly bird Linda. Noreen claims it’s an animal causing all the trouble. A small furry animal that looks quite a bit like the company’s cartoon mascot, Briteway Billy.

Nobody believes her but then things start happening that can’t be blamed on her, and the other staff members can hear a small animal scuttling about in the store. Mr Grimley is out of his depth and calls on the grocery chain’s personnel manager, Mr Liversedge (Wensley Pithey), for help. Mr Liversedge thinks they’re dealing with something akin to a poltergeist although in this case it’s more a paranormal than a supernatural phenomenon. He thinks Noreen is unconsciously making these things happen.

This episode starts out rather whimsically although with an edge of pathos. Very gradually the mood shifts to become more menacing. The terror when it comes is still mixed with whimsy which gives the story an interesting flavour. I like the idea of a small supermarket as a setting for horror, with tins of baked beans and boxes of cereal used as engines of destruction. And of course Mr Liversedge’s theory is that the terror’s starting point is Noreen’s hopeless love for Mr Grimley. 17-year-old Pauline Quirke’s performance is extraordinarily good, subtle but emotionally powerful. Quite a good episode.

What Big Eyes
begins with a young over-keen RSPCA inspector becoming convinced that an animal trader is up to something shady. He finds it hard to believe that three timber wolves would really have ended up in a tiny pet shop. He discovers that the pet shop’s owner, an elderly eccentric would-be scientist named Leo Raymount (Patrick Magee), really did obtain those wolves. But why? The answer has to do with Raymount’s bizarre theories about lycanthropy. Weird but oddly moving episode.

In During Barty's Party a middle-aged woman is worried that there may be a rat in the cellar. Possibly two rats. Her husband isn’t too worried at first - his wife is rather nervous. Then it becomes obvious that there are more than two rats. A lot more. His wife is even more worried. She thinks these rats are not just ordinary rats. She thinks they have evolved much greater intelligence.

This is a standard “what if nature turned against us” story, although it’s well executed. This is the least weird episode and for that reason I find it the least interesting.

Final Thoughts

Beasts is Kneale pushing the boundaries of the genre and giving us monster stories that defy all our expectations about monster stories. A strange offbeat unsettling series. Highly recommended.

Beasts is available on DVD from Network.