Tuesday 2 July 2024

Cyber City Oedo 808 (1990)

Cyber City Oedo 808 is a 1990 Japanese anime OVA (original video animation). These were a bit like mini-series but intended for direct-to-video or later direct-to-DVD release. Cyber City Oedo 808 comprised three 45-minute episodes.

It was directed by Yoshiaki Kawajiri, one of the great anime directors who was responsible for such crucial anime movies as Wicked City, Ninja Scroll, and Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust.

Cyber City Oedo 808 deals with three cyber cops in the year 2808. At the start of the first episode they are criminals, serving 300-year sentences in an orbital prison. A very unpleasant place to be. They are offered a way out, of a sort. If they change sides and join the Cyber Police they can gradually get their sentences reduced. There are a few catches. The big one is that they will be fitted with explosive collars. If they disobey orders their heads will be blown off.

It’s not an overly enticing prospect but it’s better than rotting in an orbital prison. Sengoku, Goggles, and Benten agree to the terms.

This is very much in the cyberpunk mould. As you would accept for an anime made in 1990 there are obvious influences from William Gibson’s Sprawl novels and the movie Blade Runner.

The setting is a vast city controlled entirely by computers. The nerve centre of the city is the Space Scraper. It’s like a skyscraper but it’s so tall the upper stories are almost outside the Earth’s atmosphere.

There’s a healthy dose of cyberpunk paranoia. The Cyber Police might be the good guys but their chief Hasegawa is a somewhat nasty piece of work who relies on manipulation and fear. He isn’t interested in winning the loyalty of the trio. They do what they’re told or he’ll kill them. But he’s still one of the good guys - good guys don’t have to be nice guys. I think that’s a nice touch.

The military is not to be trusted. Government is to be regarded with a degree of cynicism.

Some of the themes hinted at here, such as the absolute dependence on technology and the effects of technology on our humanity, would surface in later cyberpunk animes like Ghost in the Shell (1995) and the excellent 2002 TV series Ghost in the Shell Stand Alone Complex.

Cyber City Oedo 808 was made at a time when anime dealing with dark grown-up subjects was still a fairly new thing and Yoshiaki Kawajiri was one of the pioneers of this more ambitious approach. It was also a time when anime was just starting to gain a major following in English-speaking markets.

There’s plenty of action and with only 45 minutes to tell each story the pacing is pleasingly brisk. There are almost none of the erotic elements that you find in Yoshiaki Kawajiri’s later films. There is however some moderately graphic violence.

The visuals are very impressive (as they are in all of Yoshiaki Kawajiri’s work).

Interestingly there are hints of the paranormal and even perhaps the supernatural.

Each story focuses on one of the three main characters. They’re all criminals and outsiders and misfits but they are rather different. Sengoku is more of a classic rebel. Goggles is the tough guy but he has emotional depths. Benten is more of a dreamy mystical romantic although he can be pretty dangerous as well. He does cute things with piano wire.

Since the three characters are quite different each of the three segments has a different flavour. The three segments were originally released separately on video in Japan. English-speaking audiences got to see them with crude English dubs that had almost no connection with the original dialogue and which removed all the essential atmosphere of mystery and tragedy. If you’ve only seen Cyber City Oedo 808 in the English-dubbed version then you haven’t seen it at all.

Memories of the Past

The first episode is Memories of the Past (AKA Virtual Death AKA Time Bomb). In this story the focus is on Sengoku. A hacker has taken control of all the Space Scraper’s security systems and he has fifteen hostages trapped in an external elevator. The hacker’s identity is unknown but he is clearly after revenge. The three reluctant cyber cops have to stop him before he kills the hostages and destroys the Space Scraper, and without the Space Scraper the city cannot survive.

Sengoku manages to find a way into the Space Scraper but he soon finds himself unsure of the identity of the real villain. There may be more than one.

This episode has a decent plot with the sorts of twists that you want to see in a cyberpunk story. 

This is a straight-out action story.

The Decoy Program

The Decoy Program (AKA Psychic Trooper AKA The Decoy) begins with separate cases being investigated by the individual members of the team but there seems to be a common link and it points to the involvement of Special Forces.

Goggles becomes the central character in this segment. He finds himself pitted against a secret weapon intended to be the ultimate killing machine. Lots of mayhem and spectacular fight scenes in this instalment but there’s paranoia and betrayal as well, and possibly forgiveness. Maybe even a hint of love. There’s certainly a theme of lost love and being haunted by the past.

This is by far the most violent segment. It’s a real grudge fight to the death. And when Goggles gets mad he gets real mad.

Crimson Media

Crimson Media (AKA Blood Lust AKA The Vampire) centres on Benten. He’s had an encounter with an entrancing and mysterious woman.

A series of murders has been blamed by the media on vampires. The corpses were drained of blood. Perhaps there are vampires, of a sort. And perhaps the worst vampires do more than feast on blood.

The murder victims were carrying out illegal research.

Again the past figures in the story. This story actually began three hundred years earlier.

Science fictional treatments of vampirism have been attempted a number of times although in 1990 it was still a fairly fresh idea. This is a story about vampires but it also becomes a kind of love story. This segment has much more of an atmosphere of mystery, weirdness and melancholy. It’s my favourite of the three.

Final Thoughts

It’s worth pointing out that Japanese OVAs were not low-budget schlock. They were less expensive to make than feature films but much more expensive than TV series. They were ideal for telling stories that might be too risky as feature films but were much too grown-up and edgy for TV. There was nothing cheap and nasty about them and directors like Yoshiaki Kawajiri did not see them as lesser productions.

Cyber City Oedo 808 offers plenty of style and plenty of action. The first episode is OK, the second and third are excellent. Overall this is top-tier cyberpunk. Highly recommended.

Happily the Blu-Ray (which looks terrific) includes the Japanese-language version with English subtitles which is the only way to see this release.

Sunday 26 May 2024

The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. - The Cornish Pixie Affair

Peter Leslie’s The Cornish Pixie Affair, published in 1967, was the fifth of the original novels based on the TV spy series The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. (although only the first two were published in the United States).

I’m rather fond of TV tie-in novels, especially the ones that are original stories rather than novelisations of TV episodes. They often have a subtly different tone compared to the TV series. They’re often darker and more violent, and sometimes sexier. The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. novels are definitely slightly more serious than the TV series. In fact the first of the novels, Michael Avallone’s The Birds of a Feather Affair, is very dark indeed.

Another fascinating feature of TV tie-in novels is that they often make explicit things that are only implied in the series. In some cases these are things that would not have been acceptable to the TV networks. In the case of The Cornish Pixie Affair we’re explicitly told that U.N.C.L.E. is politically strictly neutral, favouring neither the western powers nor the eastern bloc. That’s implied at times in the TV show but never explicitly stated.

Peter Leslie (1922-2007) was a reasonably prolific author who wrote quite a few TV tie-in novels based on various TV series including several The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Danger Man, The Invaders and The Avengers.

The Cornish Pixie Affair starts with a murder in a circus, always a good way to start a mystery or thriller story. The murder takes place in rural Cornwall. Sheila Duncan ran a concession stand in a travelling circus. She sold souvenirs. The murder might have been the result of a complicated romantic entanglement but what worries Mark Slate is that Sheila may have been murdered because she was a secret agent. She was in fact an U.N.C.L.E. agent and she was working on a case.

Ace U.N.C.L.E. agent April Dancer is sent to Cornwall to take charge. She talks her way into a job in the circus, taking over Sheila Duncan’s concession stall. There are clues but they seem to make things less clear. Why do so many people want to buy cheap black porphyry statuettes of Cornish pixies? Such statuettes don’t appear to exist, but people keep asking for them. And why are the little souvenir lighthouses made in such an odd way?

And what could possibly be the motive for the second murder?

April decides that engaging in some flirtation with one of the suspects might pay dividends, but she finds out that harmless flirtation can get a girl into a lot of trouble. A girl can end up chained in a dank cellar.

This is a perfectly competent spy thriller. The plot is not exactly dazzling but it’s serviceable.

April and Mark behave in ways that are generally consistent with what we know about them from the TV series (which is essential if you’re going to write a TV tie-in novel) although the novel would have benefited from a bit more witty banter between them.

April gets to make use of plenty of gadgets. It’s amazing what can be done with the things women carry around in their handbags. Or at least the the things April carries around in her handbag.

It’s all fairly straightforward with very little in the way of outlandishness. That’s a good thing and a bad thing. The books lacks the silliness that marred so many of the TV episodes but it lacks the subtle touches of the outrageous that made the good episodes so enjoyable. The circus setting is used quite well.

There’s a reasonable amount of action and suspense. It picks up steam in a major way towards the end with quite a bit of mayhem and some tense race-against-time stuff.

Overall it’s a book that fans of the series should enjoy. Recommended.

I’ve reviewed three of the other Girl from U.N.C.L.E. novels - Michael Avallone’s The Birds of a Feather Affair, Simon Latter’s The Global Globules Affair (which is great fun) and The Golden Boats of Taradata Affair (also by Simon Latter).

Friday 26 April 2024

Lexx season 2 (1998)

Lexx is of course the greatest sci-fi TV series ever made. The first season (which I’ve also reviewed) comprised four TV-movies. It then switched to a more straightforward episodic format for seasons two, three and four. It’s the second season with which I’m concerned in this review. This is a series that completely ignores all the established conventions of TV science fiction. Or rather it takes those conventions and stomps them.

One of the reasons it’s so good is that it wasn’t British or American. It was a Canadian-German co-production. The Canadians and Germans were simply not constrained by conventional ideas about how to do sci-fi TV. If you’ve ever seen the 1976 Anglo-German series Star Maidens (which in its own way is almost as crazy and inspired as Lexx) you know that the Germans have their own ideas about how to do sci-fi.

There are three things that stand out about Lexx. Firstly, the stunning visuals. The visuals are not just spectacular - they display genuine imagination, style and wit. Lexx just doesn’t look like other sci-fi TV series.

Secondly there’s the outrageousness. This is wild crazy stuff. At times Lexx veers perilously close to being a spoof or a satire on TV sci-fi but it never totally crosses that line. There’s plenty of comedy but this is not a comedy series. This is not Red Dwarf. Just when Lexx seems to descending into goofiness it will take a dark turn. And the humour is very black.

And thirdly there’s the sexiness. Prior to this the only people who had ever thought of combining science fiction with serious sleaze were the Japanese (if you’ve seen Wicked City you know what I’m talking about). British and American sci-fi would never dare to venture into outright sleaze territory. Lexx is unapologetically sexy, sleazy and scuzzy. Lexx gets down and dirty. Lexx is totally unconstrained by conventional notions of good taste.

It’s fascinating to compare Lexx to Farscape which entered production a couple of years later (and shamelessly stole the living starship idea). Farscape is also visually impressive and also tries to be grown-up sci-fi but by comparison it’s very conventional, very tame and very safe.

What makes Lexx fascinating is that it takes a very conventional basic premise - four misfits adventuring through space in a stolen starship - and does insane things with it.

Lexx is also not afraid to be nasty. In one episode three human astronauts on board the Lexx get eaten by a monster and the crew of the Lexx are totally unconcerned. They don’t know these people so they don’t care. Insofar as they have any loyalties those loyalties are to each other. There is nothing touchy-feely about Lexx.

There’s also perhaps a slight existentialist vibe.

The background to the first season is that many many centuries ago there was an epic war between humans and space insects. As an indirect result an evil genius, His Divine Shadow, ended up in control of a vast galactic empire. This was definitely a dystopian society, a species of theocratic/bureaucratic totalitarianism. Don’t get alarmed. Lexx has no political axes to grind.

A very low-level security guard named Stanley Tweedle ends up in possession of the Lexx along with his three companions. 790 is a robot, or was a robot. Now he’s just a robot head. Kai is the last of the Brunnen-G. He has been dead for two thousand years. He then served as an assassin for His Divine Shadow. Now he’s given up killing. Well, mostly. Kai is dead but he’s quite lively for a dead man. He’s undead rather than dead. And lastly there’s Zev Bellringer. She was turned into a love slave but something went wrong and so she’s also part cluster lizard. What’s a cluster lizard? You don’t want to know. Let’s just say that you don’t want to make Zev angry. Mostly she’s a sweet girl who just wants love but when the cluster lizard part of her is awakened she’s a killing machine.

The Lexx is like a gigantic living space crustacean. It’s also the most powerful weapon of destruction in the two universes.

There’s an ongoing story arc in season two, just as there was in season one. This time the crew of Lexx face an evil of a different type, an evil of total chaos rather an evil of total control.The evil is Mantrid. Who or what Mantrid is is uncertain. There’s also arguably a second minor story arc but to say more would risk spoilers.

Episode Guide

In the first episode, Mantrid, Kai isn’t quite himself. He isn’t himself at all. For a dead man he’s suddenly highly motivated. He insists on a return to the Light Universe. He wants to find Mantrid, a scientific genius who also happens to be evil, perverted and insane. But Kai needs his help. It’s all about a giant bug. Given that humans once fought an epic galactic war against insects giant insects should be approached with caution. This episode features two of the creepiest villains of all time.

In Terminal Kai accidentally pulverises Stanley’s heart. The only hope of saving Stanley is an orbiting hospital. Unfortunately the administrators of the hospital are crooks and the doctors are both evil and insane. They have plans for Kai and for Zev, and for the Lexx. The doctors do make one mistake. They forget to check if Zev is entirely human before they start experimenting on her. Of course she is not entirely human and that has consequences. There are serious consequences for Zev as well but I won’t reveal them for fear of revealing a spoiler.

In Lyekka Stanley meets the girl of his dreams. Literally. He dreams about her, and then there she is. She’s cute, bubbly and friendly. She’s really sweet. Her name is Lyekka. The perfect woman. Well, almost. She’s missing something vital. And she might be more of a plant than a woman. There are other strangers to deal with - a spacecraft from the planet Potatoho. A planet famous for, well actually potatoes are what it’s famous for. They’re not hostile. They get to meet Lyekka as well. Perhaps they would have been better off not meeting her.  We will see more of Lyekka in later episodes.

In this episode the writers had to come up with a way of dealing with a major potential problem. Eva Habermann was leaving the series, to be replaced by Xenia Seeberg. Writing Zev out of the series was unthinkable so a way had to be found to explain why Zev now looks different, and why she is now Xev. In fact the writers found a rather clever way to deal with this but naturally I’m not going to spoil things by telling you any more.

In Luvliner Stanley and Xev both have a problem. They both desperately need to get laid. They can’t do it with each other because Xev just doesn’t go for Stanley. When they make contact with the orbiting brothel Luvliner (that caters to ladies as well as gentlemen) it seems like a godsend. Stanley and Xev head over to Luvliner for some serious bedroom action. Sadly the Luvliner is the crummiest most down-market most scuzzy brothel in the two universes. And there’s another problem - two very nasty sleazebags who want to steal the Lexx.

Lafftrak is typical Lexx with a totally off-the-wall opening sequence about a war between two planets over TV ratings. The Lexx encounters a strange object which is a kind of mini-planet. Stanley and Zev decide to investigate and find themselves cast as characters in TV series. They find that TV stardom is not all it’s cracked up to be and it has unexpected hazards. There’s some merciless mockery of television and the desire for celebrity status. in this episode. It’s totally insane and outrageous but this is Lexx so you expect that.

The whimsical oddball craziness of Lafftrak is followed by a very much darker episode, Stan’s Trial. Stan has been accused of horrific crimes that took place ten years earlier and has to stand trial after being captured on board a high-class orbiting brothel. In any other TV sci-fi series we would be relieved to find out at the end that Stanley is totally innocent but characteristically Lexx throws some curve balls at us. In fact Stan may be guilty, in a way. In another way, perhaps not guilty of horrible crimes but guilty of cowardice and dereliction of duty. This episode displays the interest that the show’s writers had in the ambiguous nature of justice and guilt and in the temptations that power brings. It’s also an intriguing and complex study of evil.

In Love Grows the sexual desperation of both Stanley and Xev leads to disaster and the Lexx and its crew are infected with a virus that has very disturbing results.

In White Trash the crew of the Lexx find themselves reluctant hosts to a family of space hillbillies. They’re not overly thrilled although Stanley starts coming around to the idea when the daughter indicates that she’d be a very willing bed partner. Xev thinks she might get lucky as well. The son is a long way short of her ideal of the perfect man but he is at least a man and if he wants to do the humpy-jumpy with her she might consider it. Of course it doesn’t end well.

Wake the Dead is Lexx spoofing slasher movies. Lexx picks up five annoying teenage delinquents on their way to summer camp on a summer camp planet. They accidentally put themselves into cryo-sleep for 287 years. Now they’re aboard the Lexx and they find themselves stalked by a psycho killer. In fact the psycho killer intends to kill everybody. These kinds of whimsical spoof episodes were sometimes done in sci-fi series but this being Lexx it’s done with real edge and nastiness. It also has the juvenile humour, the crassness and the obligatory nudity of a slasher film.

Nook is a planet that is all ocean, with one small island. It is inhabited by monks living a very simple life. The monks find the arrival of Stanley, Xev and Kai very disturbing. They have never seen a man like Xev before. Explaining to them that Xev is a woman does no good. They have no knowledge of the existence of women. Some of the brothers do however notice that this strange man is oddly attractive. Stanley gets accused of murder. Xev finally gets to do it - yes, after so much frustration she finally has sex with a man. In fact with several men. Quite a few times. She’s now a very happy Xev. It’s a typical Lexx story with some weirdness, some creepiness and a sting in the tail.

Norb is a young boy marooned in space, or at least that’s how it seems. Appearances can be deceptive. The crew of the Lexx are about to be engaged in a deadly battle with an old enemy.

In Twilight Stanley becomes very ill. A nearby planet appears to offer some hope of medical help. The only human in habitats of this world are the last surviving member of the Divine Order, his wife and their daughter. This is a spectacularly awful dysfunctional family and they’re not to be trusted. Especially the daughter who is giving Xev some rather lustful glances. There are also plenty of non-human inhabitants here. They combine the most unpleasant features of zombies and ghouls. And Kai is behaving very strangely.

Patches in the Sky
presents the Lexx’s crew with a serious problem - the stars are going out one by one. Meanwhile Stanley is sampling the delights of the NarcoLounge which allows a person to control his own dreams. Unfortunately Stanley gets trapped in a very very bad dream.

In Woz Xev has a problem and may have only a few days to live. The only technology that could save her is on the planet Woz. There are two bitterly opposed factions on Woz and initially it’s by no means clear which faction represents the good guys. There’s what appears to be a religious cult but intriguingly (and daringly) the writers have chosen to make it more an ideological cult than a religious one. And it’s another episode that demonstrates Lexx’s willingness to get pretty dark.

In The Web the Lexx is caught in, you guessed it, a kind of web in outer space.

Brigadoom is the all-singing episode of Lexx. It’s a riff on the Lerner and Loewe musical Brigadoon. The Lexx discovers a theatre floating space. It only comes into existence at lengthy intervals. Otherwise it exists in a kind of non-existence outside time and space. The theatre company always performs the same play, a musical version of the story of the Brunnen-G. It’s an original offbeat way to give us Kai’s backstory and the history of the Brunnen-G. This episode is even more clever - Kai, Xev and Stanley all learn about themselves and how to face their fears. This is the kind of off-the-wall episode that makes me love Lexx so much.

In Brizom the Mantrid story arc kicks into high gear. Brizom is a bio-engineer. He’s a deeply unpleasant man but he has his good points - he hates Mantrid and he may the knowledge needed to stop him.

The End of the Universe may actually mean the end of the universe, unless the crew of the Lexx can find a way to defeat Mantrid.

Final Thoughts

In this second season all the main characters either have to confront their pasts or learn to come to terms with their true natures. Even 790 discovers that he’s not quite what he thought he was. They also learn that their only hope of survival is absolute in-group loyalty. They don’t owe anything to anybody else but by the end of the season they do owe a lot to each other. They have all perhaps grown up a little.

It’s a very strong season and it’s very highly recommended.

I reviewed Lexx season one not too long ago.

Friday 29 March 2024

Thriller - Late Date (1961 episode)

Late Date is episode 27 of the first season of the 1960-62 Boris Karloff-hosted Thriller TV anthology series. It first went to air in April 1961. I love all the American anthology series of that era. Thriller is uneven, but that’s part of the appeal an an anthology series - you never know whether you’re going to get a clunker or an absolute gem of an episode.

Thriller started out very much in the mould of the very popular Alfred Hitchcock Presents series, focusing on twisted crime stories with nasty stings in the tail. Initially audiences were a little underwhelmed by Thriller but as the series began to focus on supernatural horror audience enthusiasm started to build. There’s a noticeable and dramatic difference between the crime episodes and the supernatural horror episodes. Most fans prefer the horror stories and it’s arguable that the crime episodes are a little underrated.

Late Date is very much a crime story. It’s a suspense thriller story with a bit of a Hitchcock vibe and some definite film noir flavouring. It’s based on a Cornell Woolrich story so you expect some darkness.

It opens with a woman’s dead body on a bed, and a distraught man on the stairs. The man is Jim Weeks (Edward Platt) and the woman was his wife. His much younger brother Larry (Larry Pennell) assures him that the woman had it coming to her, and that everything will be OK. Larry has a plan to get his brother off the hook.

It’s a very elaborate plan. Maybe too elaborate for a plan that will have to be improvised. Right from the start everything that could go wrong does go wrong. In fact so many things go wrong that the story veers in the direction of black comedy, and black comedy in the Hitchcock manner. But it never quite becomes a black comedy. The emphasis remains on the suspense.

And there’s plenty of nail-biting suspense. Larry is quick-thinking and resourceful but he’s always just a millimetre ahead of disaster.

Of course there’s going to be a sting in the tail.

There’s some fascinating moral ambiguity here. We know Jim is a murderer but we see everything from Larry’s point of view and we like Larry and we admire his resourcefulness. We also admire his loyalty to his brother. We really want Larry’s scheme to work. We feel he deserves to get away with it - he’s tried so hard and he’s been through so much.

I haven’t read the original Cornell Woolrich story but Donald S. Sanford’s script feels very Woolrichian (within the limitations of what you could get away with on network television in 1961).

Herschel Daugherty directs with plenty of style and energy. Daugherty and cinematography Ray Rennahan achieve a very film noir atmosphere and a surprisingly cinematic look. Lots of shadows. This is a story that really benefits from being shot in black-and-white. There are some beautifully composed shots. This episode was made by people who cared about what they were doing.

Jody Fair is very good as Jim’s stepdaughter Helen. Edward Platt is fine. However this episode belongs to Larry Pennell and he’s excellent and very sympathetic and very human.

I love the inexorability of fate in this tale. You can see the things that are going to go wrong before they happen and that adds to the tension. As soon as you see Larry take the spare tyre out of the boot of his car (so there’ll be room for the body) you just know he’s going to get a flat tyre. The audience knows it, but Larry doesn’t know it. And there’s nothing he could do about it anyway.

Late Date is definitely worth seeing. Highly recommended.

I’ve reviewed lots of other episodes of Thriller - here, here, here and here.

Saturday 16 March 2024

The Outer Limits - three season 2 episodes

I love horror/thriller/science fiction anthology TV series and The Outer Limits which aired on the American ABC network from 1963 to 1965 is one of my favourites. It certainly plays fast and loose with science but it was consistently inventive and original. It was created by Leslie Stevens.

I’m just starting to delve in the second (and final) season so I thought I’d review a couple of episodes.

Producer Joseph Stefano (who also wrote many of the scripts) had been the main guiding force but left the series after the first season. There was a slight change of emphasis in the second season, with fewer monsters.

Some of the stories were crazy but they were almost always at least interesting.

We do have to confront the special effects issue. This series has gained a reputation for the extreme cheesiness of many of the special effects. And yes, they are cheesy. Often very much so. The problem wasn’t really the technology of the time. The problem was that The Outer Limits was trying to do ambitious science fiction stories on a 1963 TV budget. It couldn’t be done. They went ahead and did it anyway. Younger viewers today may have real problems getting past the cheesy effects. You just have to accept them and concentrate on the stories.

The Invisible Enemy

The Invisible Enemy was written by Jerry Sohl and directed by Byron Haskin. It aired in October 1964. It concerns the first manned mission to Mars. It ends disastrously, with Mission Control hearing the screams of the astronauts before contact is lost.

The second mission is supposed to be better prepared. They have a super-computer at Mission Control. And the four astronauts are under strict instructions never to get out of sight of one another. They also have a bazooka that fires nuclear-tipped projectiles.

Predictably the first thing that happens is that one of them does get out of sight of the others and he is never seen again.

The audience knows from the start what’s going on. The sandy plain where they landed isn’t a plain, it’s a sand sea. And there are sand shark monsters lurking in that sea. The astronauts take a long while to figure this out. In the meantime another member of the crew vanishes.

Mission Control is really annoyed. They’re inclined to blame the spacecraft commander, Major Merritt (Adam West, yes Batman). They want the mission completed. They want the bad guys destroyed. They want to open up Mars for colonisation.

It becomes a test of survival, with a race-against-time factor.

This episode reflects ideas about Mars that would soon become untenable when unmanned space probes reached the Red Planet. The assumption here is that Mars has a breathable atmosphere. This was presumably so the actors wouldn’t have to wear helmets the whole time. The low gravity on Mars is ignored.

It has to be admitted that the sand sharks are incredibly cheesy.

The main interest of the story is the tough decisions that may have to be made by Mission Control and by Major Merritt, and the price that may have to be paid for the conquest of space. It’s not a bad story.

Wolf 359

Wolf 359 was written by Richard Landau and Seeleg Lester and directed by Laslo Benedek. It first went to air in November 1964. This one is really wild.

Jonathan Meridith heads a research project out in the desert. He and his team have created a miniature replica of a planet eight light-years away. It’s like a computer model except it’s real. The replica planet has a diameter of a few feet. Time is speeded up several millionfold on the miniature planet. Dr Meridith wants to watch the process of evolution on a distant planet take place before his very eyes in his laboratory. He has a special viewer gizmo that magnifies things a millionfold.

The problem is that something really is going on on that tiny world. Meridith has seen something very weird through that viewer. What he sees loses a bit of its impact because the special effect comes across as a bit too goofy.

The science is of course totally nonsensical and there’s lots of loopy technobabble but it has to be said that it’s a clever and original idea.

I, Robot

I, Robot was written Robert C. Dennis, based on Eando Binder’s robot stories published in the Amazing Stories pulp in the late 30s and early 40s. It was directed by Leon Benson. It first went to air in November 1964.

An eccentric scientist has built an almost-human robot. He has named it Adam. Adam appears to have the ability to think for himself. He also appears to have some capacity for emotion.

The scientist is now dead and the robot is blamed. Cynical but smart newspaper reporter Judson Ellis (Leonard Nimoy) smells a story. Trial lawyer Thurman Cutler (Howard da Silva) is coaxed out of retirement to handle the case. The robot is tried for murder. The events that led up to the scientist’s death unfold in a series of flashbacks.

There is some attempt to grapple with the problems posed by artificial intelligences. Adam appears to be capable of thinking but is he really? He appears to have emotions but are these merely simulated emotions - is he simply copying human behaviour without understanding it?

There’s a bit of speechifying at the end but mercifully it doesn’t get political.

The robot does have that classic Tin Man look but he doesn’t look any sillier than robots from big-budget movies of the time. It’s a reasonably successful episode.

Final Thoughts

These three episodes are typical of the series in combining incredibly cheesy special effects with reasonably good writing. They’re all worth a look. Wolf 359 is the best, with the coolness of its ideas.

Thursday 22 February 2024

The Twilight Zone - The After Hours

Of the many and varied horror, science fiction and mystery anthology series that were such a feature of American television in the late 50s and early 60s The Twilight Zone is probably the one with the most glowing reputation. I have always had slightly mixed feelings about this series. There are many episodes that I love unreservedly and at its best it had a unique atmosphere that was profoundly unsettling rather than overtly scary.

On the other hand it could at times be a bit sentimental, and rather preachy. It’s the episodes written by Rod Serling with which I mostly have issues. Serling was definitely prone to sentimentalism and he could be very preachy. At his worst the preachiness could be clumsy. He did write some great episodes, but he wrote quite a few that I find difficult to enjoy.

Having said all that, my all-time favourite episode was in fact written by Rod Serling - The After Hours.

This is episode 34 of the first season of The Twilight Zone. It originally went to air on June 10, 1960. It was directed by Douglas Heyes (arguably The Twilight Zone’s ace director).

It’s a tricky episode to discuss, because I really don’t want to spoil any of the twists.

It starts innocently enough. Marsha White (Anne Francis) has gone to a department store to buy a gift for her mother. She’s looking for a gold thimble. She is advised to go to the ninth floor. Which she does. That’s something that will later be disturbing and perplexing for both Marsha and the store staff.

She finds the thimble but later finds, to her intense disappointment, that it is damaged. Naturally she complains and for some reason which she cannot fathom this causes great consternation to the staff. Then she has a shock. She is advised to lie down and rest. She has a sleep and when she wakes up things start to get really strange.

Marsha finds herself in a very frightening situation and it’s the kind of situation which would lend itself to a horror plot. But there’s no actual horror here. No gore. No bloodshed. No violence. No monsters. Nothing except a gradually increasing atmosphere of strangeness and disorientation. To the extent that it is horror, it is very subtle existential horror.

This is more akin to the literary genre of weird fiction than to horror. The temptation would have been there to give the story a horror story ending but Serling cleverly resists this temptation. This is The Twilight Zone and Serling here achieves exactly the feel that he had in mind when he created the series.

One of the great strengths of this episode is that this time Serling has no real axe to grind. He’s simply trying to make us feel uneasy. And he succeeds admirably.

Douglas Heyes as usual does a fine job as director. The visuals are impressive and a bit creepy. There aren’t any special effects as such. Everything is achieved through fine directing and good production design. 

And some very special props.

Anne Francis is excellent, playing Marsha as a woman who is bewildered and disoriented rather than hysterical. The supporting cast is very good, but this episode belongs to Anne Francis. There are some lovely nuances to her performance. You don’t fully appreciate just how good her acting is until you get to the end of the story, and then you realise what her performance has been leading up to. And according to director Douglas Heyes most of the really clever touches were her own ideas. Anne Francis was a very fine actress but I don’t think she was ever better than this.

The After Hours is a great example of what is now a lost art - short-form television drama. The half-hour television episode or standalone television drama was a very distinctive form and while it has its weaknesses it had very considerable strengths as well. It required discipline, focus and economy. Information that the viewer required (information about what sort of people the characters are, what kind of place it is that forms the setting of the story) had to be conveyed with extreme economy. 

Which meant that the sets, the set dressing, the lighting, the costumes and the makeup had to be carefully thought out because most of that vital information was going to be conveyed through an immediate visual impression. There just wasn’t time for detailed explanations. 

And the actors and actresses had to give the viewer an instantaneous impression of the characters they played, with no time for them to tell their life stories.

In The After Hours Serling and Douglas Heyes give us a master-class in this lost art. There’s not a single wasted shot, or a single unnecessary line of dialogue.

The After Hours is beautifully shot, and by 1960 television standards it’s visually very very impressive.

I’ve seen The After Hours at least three times now and I think I like it even more with each viewing. Very highly recommended.

I've also reviewed some other Twilight Zone episodes here and also here.

Thursday 25 January 2024

The Avengers - Stay Tuned

Stay Tuned is another Tara King episode of The Avengers, and this one is a corker. It was written by Tony Williamson and directed by Don Chaffey and first aired in February 1969.

Steed is getting ready to leave for three weeks holiday. As he’s about to walk out the door Tara arrives and she’s decidedly puzzled. Steed has already had his three-week holiday. Steed assumes that she’s playing a joke on him, until she advises him to check his suitcase. It’s full of dirty laundry and souvenirs he bought on his vacation. She also shows him today’s newspaper, whereupon Steed realises he has lost three weeks of his life.

He must have been somewhere during those three weeks but he has no idea where. He doesn’t remember a thing.

He also tries to crash Tara’s car, but he doesn’t know why.

The forensics people check his car. It has been in France and Italy, and it has recently been sideswiped by another vehicle.
And then Steed finds himself once again getting ready to set off on that very same holiday. Losing his memory is bad enough but he seems to be condemned to keep living the same events over and over again.

To solve the problem he will have to figure out why Tara lied to him. She would never lie to him. It doesn’t make sense.

Even when we start to realise at least some of what is going there’s still plenty of suspense and weirdness. Steed of course fears that he is going mad, and it has to be admitted that the evidence tends to point that way. Tara on the other hand refuses to believe that Steed has gone mad. One way or another she’s going to find the solution to the puzzle, or at least help Steed to do so.

A nice touch is Tara’s very genuine concern for Steed, which is clearly more than just professional concern.

Mother doesn’t appear in the early part of this episode. He’s on leave, so Father has taken over. Father is of course a woman, and both Father and Father’s flat add further surreal touches. And Mother will put in an appearance later - he has an important part to play in the plot.

Both Patrick Macnee and Linda Thorson are in fine acting form. Roger Delgado provides a menacing and sinister presence. 

And it’s always a treat to see Howard Marion-Crawford. He plays Collins, an agent assigned by Father to keep an eye on Steed.

And we get a good fight scene between Linda Thorson and Kate O’Mara. Honestly, what more could you want?

The bizarre psychiatrist’s office set, the mysterious room in the house in Fitzherbert Street and the man following Steed and Steed’s totally unaccountable failure to spot this man even when he’s only a few feet away from him add further bizarre disturbing touches.

The set design is top-notch. There’s a wonderful atmosphere - there’s something very wrong and unsettling about everything but Steed just can’t put the pieces together.

Stay Tuned is yet another Tara King episode that compares more than favourably the best Emma Peel episodes. Highly recommended.