Thursday, 15 February 2018

The Quatermass Experiment

This is probably the oldest television programme I shall ever watch. Broadcast live in 1953, only the first two episodes of the six part series survive, although the same story was made into a film version by Hammer two years later and that does still exist to be watched so I know how it ends from that.

The TV version differs from the film in many of the same ways that the Doctor Who TV stories The Daleks and The Dalek Invasion of Earth differ from their film versions. Most notably, from the two parts that we can see, they differ in where the rocket crashes - in the film it crashes in the countryside, an isolated location, but on TV it crashes in the middle of London city, leading to scenes consciously reminiscent of the Blitz (which was only 10 years past at the time this was made). It seems that a rocket crashed into a crowded city street was easier to create in a TV studio, while a rocket crashed in a wide open but empty field was easier to create on location.

On the subject of Doctor Who, it seems The Quatermass Experiment's writer Nigel Kneale didn't like Doctor Who and thought it stole all his ideas. While it is hard to ignore that some stories from Doctor Who have elements that resemble those of The Quatermass Experiment - the disappearing astronauts in The Ambassadors of Death, the monster from The Seeds of Doom, and The Lazarus Experiment was not even trying to hide its influence when setting its own climax inside a big church - they are only a few out of many different story archetypes done over the years, and I think it would be tough to detect much resemblance between Quatermass and the serials from the early William Hartnell years of the show.

Four years before doggys first went into space, and eight years before mannys followed them, The Quatermass Experiment showed a British space programme being the ones to put the first mannys into space. This optimistic view of the UK's technological reach and associated status in the world would perhaps be the most lasting influence on Doctor Who, in which the Doctor would normally visit Earth by way of England, where the BBC studios were helpfully located.

The technical limitations of the time this dates from are obvious and inescapable, and the absence of parts three to six is tragic in a way, but this is nevertheless a fascinating look back to the dawn of television science fiction.

Thursday, 8 February 2018

The Guardians

The Guardians is a LWT TV series from 1971 with an interesting premise. In the near future of the 1980s, England (and, as it turns out if you pay attention to a single line of dialogue in episode seven, the rest of the United Kingdom) has been taken over by a private army called "The Guardians" to stop it falling to the Communists. Democratic elections, free speech and trade unions have been banned, and a puppet government has been installed with the Guardians acting as their secret police force, a sort of cross between the Nazi SS and the Nazi Gestapo.

I have to assume that all this makes Ed Straker's job of defending the 1980s from alien invasion even more difficult.

Over the course of the first few episodes we find out about this world and are introduced to the main characters, all of whom know at least one other main character but none of whom meet all of the others even by the end of the series. We get to see the perspectives of both the government and the resistance movement "Quarmby", the former through the eyes of the Puppet Prime Minister Sir Timothy Hobson (Cyril "White Guardian" Luckham - do you think that was deliberate?) and his Puppetmaster Cabinet Secretary Norman (Derek "Largo from Shadow" Smith).

The resistance are at first represented by Secret Communist Tom Weston (John Collin) until he supposedly gets killed off in part two - although in part six it turns out he's not actually dead - after which the focus turns to Eccentric Psychiatrist
Dr Benedict (David "not as good a Watson as Edward Hardwicke" Burke), who is secretly recruiting his promising patients for Quarmby.

The series stays strong through its middle episodes largely thanks to the contributions from several dependable character actors making one-off guest appearances. These include Dinsdale "Matthew Earp" Landen as a Mad Scientist - if the Guardians are Nazis then he is their Mengele, with as little regard for mannys as for his animal test subjects.

Richard Vernon plays the former head of SIS (called upon for advice when the Guardians prove unable to cope with the growing menace of Quarmby), a very similar character to C from The Sandbaggers, whom he would not play until seven years later.

Anthony "Oliver Lacon" Bate is not quite as good as either of those two when he appears as a Surprisingly Middle Class Communist, but he still has some good moments. As does Peter "Kenneth Bligh" Barkworth, playing a Carefully Calculating Assassin whose plan gets undone by chance.

Probably the best guest actor is Graham "Lord Nimon, it is I, Soldeed!" Crowden as The Dirtiest Man in the World. Although seemingly beginning as a comic relief character, a tramp used as a disposable pawn by both Quarmby and the Guardians, he turns out to be quite a bit cleverer than either side realise and ends up outwitting them both.

Not all uses of comedy characters work so well, sadly. What should have been a turning point for the character of Dr Benedict - the first time he is called upon to have to kill to protect his Quarmby identity - is utterly undermined by the manny he kills being a bumbling, sub-Clouseau incompetent private detective, who only uncovered his resistance activities by mistaik.

Despite having some excellent individual episodes, the series as a whole suffers by not having one strong central character, and from the decision to present neither Guardians nor Rebels as sympathetic. While it is understandable that they did not want to make terrorists likable given real world contemporary events (though this did not of course stop Blakes 7, which had the advantage of being set in a far future Federation not a near future Britain, or Secret Army, which had the much more black-and-white setting of WW2 Belgium under the Actual Nazis), this has the effect of lessening the horrors of the Guardians' police state - we hear about some of their atrocities but we cannot, due to the nature of light entertainment television drama, see them.

Sadly, the concluding episodes cannot do justice to the setting that had been created and built up over the preceding installments. Narrowing the focus in on the main characters as their own individual stories reach their respective crisis points, the series loses sight of what made it so interesting to begin with - the world, the alternative reality it had created. Also, I have a sneaking suspicion that it may have run out of money because the final two parts are set almost entirely in studio sets we had already seen, and feature hardly any actors beyond the regular cast.

Thursday, 1 February 2018

Fall Out At Fifty

It is 50 years ago today since Fall Out, the final episode of The Prisoner, was first broadcast on TV.

Love it or hate it, I doubt The Prisoner would be as memorable if it had not ended the way it did in Fall Out. Tying everything up by revealing the identity of Number One and the allegiance of the Village (the way Script Editor George Markstein had originally intended to) might have been neater in its way, but the almost infuriating intangibility of Fall Out's ending forces you to think about and interpret the series for yourself in a way that getting a neat sense of closure would not.

Fall Out is remarkable in other ways too, seeing, as it does, our hero Number Six resort to violent revolution in order to eventually overthrow and escape from the Village. And we know as we watch him that he is right to do so, having seen along with him in the preceding weeks how every other method of resistance has not been enough. We have seen the eventual fate of individuals like Number Six, such as Dutton from Dance of the Dead, and Number Six got a taste of what lies in store for him in Living in Harmony when he was shot by the Judge/Number Two. The Village cannot be reformed from within since, as we saw in Free For All, it only pretends to democratic elections and a free press. And Many Happy Returns showed that Number Six can never truly escape its reach so long as it exists. The only remaining response is to fight back, "'til death do us part" as Number Two so aptly put it in Once Upon A Time.

What is it that puts him over the edge here? It looks like the tipping point comes when his speech is drowned out by the shouting of the Village Assembly members. After that moment Number Six says nothing at all for the rest of the episode, his only dialogue coming from a playback of the line
"I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, or numbered."
from all the way back in Arrival. It seems he has decided that, if he cannot make himself heard, then actions speak louder than mews.

The sight of Number Six wielding a machine gun is pretty shocking (with All You Need is Love playing over it for an extra level of irony) considering how rarely he has used a gun in the series until this point (and, if you're one of those who believes Number Six is John Drake, even longer when counting the Danger Man series on top), but let's remember that he was driven to it in Living in Harmony as well. "Each man has his breaking point," said Number Two in Hammer Into Anvil. Now Number Six joins Roj Blake and Luke Skywalker as a heroic rebel.

The machine gun is only part of it - Number Six also fires the Village's rocket, although precisely how it being launched helps him and the others escape, and how much damage it does to the Village and to Rover (the Village's ultimate form of defence against escape... that we've seen) is one of the most unclear elements of this most opaque finale. One interpretation is that the launch, which causes a mass evacuation, destroys the Village entirely, and the rebels themselves escape in their truck only in the nick of time.

Rockets would have been on the minds of many viewers in 1968, as that was still in the middle of the space race between the USA and the USSR, with the Americans achieving the first mannyd orbit of the moon by the end of the year.

Fall Out was prescient regarding other events of 1968, with mass demonstrations and riots in American and European cities making the governments fear that revolution could have been imminent, even forcing the President of France to call an election to halt the violence. And the Soviet Union ruthlessly crushed attempts at democratic reform in Czechoslovakia using troops and tanks - the so-called "Brezhnev Doctrine."

The mere existence of Fall Out reminds us that morally justified violent revolution is a possibility, if our own societies ever fall into the sort of despotism seen in the Village... or the Soviet Union. If the powers-that-be are prepared to be violent against those they are ruling over, then they would be very happy if they thought those they were oppressing had ruled out the option of rising against them.

The democracies of the UK and USA have taken their knocks in recent years, with electoral systems (such as the UK's "first past the post") producing questionably legitimate governments, to say nothing of polarising referendums, but I would not advocate taking up arms in order to bring them down yet. Not when they seem to be in the middle of doing such a good job of that themselves, lol. And, of course, the USSR was not brought down by violent revolution in the end. Merely the threat, the possibility of an uprising turned out to be enough to force changes.

The British media, meanwhile, more and more comes to resemble the Village's Tally Ho - with newspapers that openly smear politicians they don't agree with and call judges "Enemies of the People" when they make a decision they don't like. Attempts to reform them are resisted under the cry of "freedom of the press" despite the fact that they exist to push the agendas of their shadowy billionaire owners - who resemble, if anything, the robed and masked members of the Assembly who seem to control the Village from behind the scenes and to whom even Number Two is answerable. They have the loudest voices, and when they shout they can prevent anyone else from being heard.

When put like that, what is it that we poor, lone cats can do versus those who wield such power? Maybe not much, but we can start by asking pertinent questions, and who knows where it will go from there?

Try not to break too many saucers along the way.

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes: The Secret of the Fox Hunter

An episode from towards the end of the second season of this early '70s anthology show about Victorian and Edwardian-era detectives. The format was never very tight, but this is more of an espionage tale than a typical TV detective murder mystery - sort of an Edwardian Sandbaggers, if you like. In fact put that way, the scene where main character Mr Drew (Derek "Shakespeare Denier" Jacobi, in a pre-Claudius role), the nearest thing 1900s Britain had to a Neil Burnside, has to persuade his superior of the vital importance of opening and reading a lady's letter to her fiancé takes on a new level of absurdity... now they've started down that slippery slope, less than 80 years later Drew's spiritual descendant will [insert Sandbaggers spoilers here].

While Jacobi is good as Drew, the real star of the story is Denise "Look & Read" Coffey as Drew's agent Miss Baines, who uses her cover as a gossipy governess to find out secrets for him. Her character quirk of spelling out unusual words is hilarious and she has great chemistry with Jacobi.

As is often the case with the Rivals of Sherlock Holmes series, save for a few of the very best, the plot seems of secondary importance to showing off the setting and characters - this is understandable considering that, as an anthology series, it has to establish each set of main characters anew and this reduces the time that can be spent on a convoluted mystery plot. As a result it feels quite straightforward compared to a lot of other TV spy stories, although it is perhaps unfair to compare this to something like Smiley's People or, for that matter, much of The Sandbaggers.

That is until the final part of the episode (Good Old Network leaving the ad break bumpers in on the DVDs as usual) when there is a twist every bit worthy of The Sandbaggers, and - in what may be a unique instance for The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes - a main character is killed off before the end credits roll.

Friday, 19 January 2018

Big Gay Longcat reviews Doctor Who: Silver Nemesis Part Three

Cyberleaders in 1980s Doctor Who have a reputation of over-using the word "Excellent!" but I think this mainly comes from 1982's Earthshock when it is said by the Cyberleader 13 times.

In contrast, he says it only twice in Silver Nemesis, and both uses occur early on in part three, when things seem to be going well for the cybermannys and he has a chance to enjoy himself. They are the last two examples in this video:

Karl pretends to betray De Flores so he can join the cybermannys and this makes the Cyberleader decide to make both Nazis into cybermannys instead of killing them. The Cyberleader is confident that they will soon get the silver bow, to which De Flores replies:
"From the Doctor? Don't delude yourself. He is no common adversary. Do you think he'll simply walk in here and hand it over?"

Now on the one paw, how does De Flores know this, or indeed anything at all, about the Doctor when he only met him once back at the end of part one? On the other paw, the Doctor is obviously an adversary beyond the wit of the Nazis to defeat, seeing as how he stole the silver bow out of their special case without them noticing. So maybe De Flores is basing his assessment entirely on this?

Anyway the very next thing that happens is that the Doctor walks into the room holding the bow. This moment of comic timing is followed by a bit of business where the Doctor and Ace evade the cybermannys' clumsy attempts to take the bow from them until the Doctor can give it to the statue momentarily, then he takes it away again and they both run away back to the TARDIS while the cybermannys are confused and, as a result, completely fail to capture or kill them.

The Nemesis wakes up, and screams...

... and then a model somebody made of Lady Peinforte's tomb explodes!

Lady Peinforte hears the scream and says
"Fear not, Richard. It is the Nemesis come alive."
Then we see that maybe the cybermannys' plan from part two did work after all, it just took a while to become obvious, as Lady Peinforte goes mad and says
"All power... all power past, present and future shall be mine. Why, I shall be mistress of all of that is, all that shall be, all that ever was... yes all! All!"

The Doctor and Ace go back to 1638 again for yet another scene that really shouldn't be here. There is no need for the Doctor and Ace to have gone back to Lady Peinforte's house on three separate occasions when they could have done everything on the first visit - no new clues are picked up by the Doctor and nothing happens there to move the story forward. The Doctor plays chess against someone who makes their moves in between the scenes, but this bit makes no sense.

On this last visit Ace takes the gold coins that were the fee to Lady Peinforte's murdered henchmanny, and which she will shortly make use of, but there is no reason she could not have done that earlier except that the viewers would have had to remember about it for longer.

Richard tries hitch-hiking back to Windsor, unsuccessfully, until Lady Peinforte stops a car by standing in front of it.

Karl frees De Flores from the cybermannys, thereby demonstrating the most cunning either of these characters have shown in the whole story.

Now back in 1988, the Doctor leads the Nemesis to a great big room where he properly gives it the silver bow at last. Meanwhile there is some comic relief from Richard when he gets confused by the American in the car that they got a lift from.

"I am beautiful, am I not?"

The Nemesis speaks to Ace in a haunting, ethereal voice that adds to its mystique even more than its pure white-silver appearance with empty black eyes. It doesn't have a lot of dialogue, but what it does say hints at its origins so as to complement the suggested backstory of Lady Peinforte and the Doctor. In particular
"It is only my present form. I have had others which would horrify you. I shall have those again."

The cybermannys come in and Ace fights them with the gold coins that she fires from a catapult, and which their pewpewpew guns are no match for. This cleverly foreshadows their eventual defeat by the Doctor, with the inert metal gold of the coins that are launched from a primitive weapon symbolically reflecting the high-technology living silver of the Nemesis that will be their final undoing.

Or maybe it is that the cybermannys are just a bit rubbish?

"We ride to destiny!"
"We surely do, honey. We surely do."

Meanwhile there is some more comedy from Lady Peinforte and the American in the car, and while this is pure padding, as the earlier scene with Richards was too, they both manage to reveal more of Lady Peinforte and Richard's personalities by showing their reactions to a character who comes from completely beyond their frame of reference.

As well as her lethal gold coins, Ace tricks two of the cybermannys into shooting each other. Because she is busy fighting the cybermannys, Ace misses the Doctor's conversation with the Nemesis. It wants freedom, but the Doctor says "not yet," which is an unexpected response coming from him and hints at a darker side to his involvement in this story.

The Doctor destroys two cybermannys with the rockets from the Nemesis's comet spaceship, leaving only the Cyberleader. De Flores and Karl come in and take the silver bow but then the Cyberleader comes in and kills them. So much for the Nazis. I suppose Donald Trump can console himself with the fact that they went out in a marginally more dignified manner than their counterparts in The Blues Brothers.

Lady Peinforte and Richard come in. The Doctor holds the bow and both Lady Peinforte and the Cyberleader want it, with the idea being established that whoever the Doctor gives the bow to will control the Nemesis.

"Doctor who?"

All the hinted at backstory of Lady Peinforte, the Nemesis and the Doctor comes to a head, as Lady Peinforte threatens to tell the Doctor's secrets if she does not get the bow. Sophie Aldred is on great form, looking genuinely scared as Ace asks how Lady Peinforte knows the Doctor's secrets in the first place. The answer is as simple as it is evocative:
"The statue told me."

Unfortunately for Lady Peinforte, the only mannys there for her to tell are Ace and the Cyberleader, and he is more concerned with getting the Nemesis, so the Doctor calls her bluff and hands the bow to the Cyberleader, who then tells him to launch the Nemesis into space.

Lady Peinforte does not take losing well, and so she jumps into the statue and is absorbed by it before the spaceship takes off. Using the tape deck they watch the Nemesis go and blow up all the cybermanny spaceships, because the Nemesis obeyed the Doctor's orders, not those of the Cyberleader.

The Cyberleader is about to kill the Doctor and Ace when Richard takes Clarke's Arrow from the TARDIS and stabs the Cyberleader with it. In this way, Richard redeems himself, and so the Doctor and Ace take him back home to 1638 in the TARDIS.

In the last scene the Doctor and Ace recap the story for us.
"So you sent the Nemesis off into space to draw the Cybermen so you could finish them off."
"I suppose I did. How clever of me."
"Just like you nailed the Daleks."
That last line is a bit too close to the truth, isn't it?

Where did it all go wrong?

Silver Nemesis is not the worst Doctor Who story evar, but it is the biggest missed opportunity.

Despite having a plot that possesses a strong resemblance to that of Remembrance of the Daleks - I could sum them both up as 'multiple factions of baddys chasing a MacGuffin that turns out to be a trap set by the Doctor a long time ago' - Silver Nemesis is three-quarters the length and yet appears to have more padding than the longer story. (And it was just two stories earlier, which makes this much less forgivable than if there had been a greater gap between them.)

In part that is because Remembrance of the Daleks is better at disguising its padding, wrapped up in the 1960s setting and the pseudo-UNIT supporting characters of Group Captain Gilmore and his friends. Silver Nemesis, conversely, seems to draw attention to its padding - even when the scenes are enjoyable ("Social workers!") you are always aware that they are not vital to the plot.

Remembrance of the Daleks is also far more successful in its minor characters. Compare Mr Ratcliffe to Herr De Flores - since both serve a similar purpose in their respective narratives - we learn only a little more about Ratcliffe's motivation than we do about De Flores's (they both have exactly one scene each where they give us exposition about their backstory) and yet Ratcliffe easily seems the more rounded character of the two. As far as Silver Nemesis is concerned, De Flores is a baddy because he's a Nazi and a Nazi because he's a baddy, and that's all we know and all we need to know.

Where Silver Nemesis does succeed is in the two vital characters of Lady Peinforte and Richard. Richard goes on a complete journey over the course of the story, from a simple, villainous henchmanny to a bewildered time-traveler (he is essentially Lady Peinforte's Companion), to confronting his own mortality, and finally to an act of redemption.

Lady Peinforte, meanwhile, is one of the most intriguing baddys in all of Doctor Who, simply because her unseen backstory is so mysterious. (Actually that's not quite true... being played magnificently by Fiona Walker helps a lot as well.) However, it is probably for the best that she was killed off at the end of the story and did not become a recurring baddy like Davros or the Master, as it is highly doubtful that the mystery could have been successfully sustained over multiple appearances* - we have recently seen, in Steven Moffat's era of Doctor Who, that not all writers have the skill to pull this off, and that if one continually hints and teases at dramatic secrets and revelations, eventually he has to deliver a payoff worthy of the build-up or else risk looking like the little manny who cried "wolf!"

(On the subject of Steven Moffat, it is clear that the awesome-but-vague powers of the Nemesis as a Time Lord weapon were a big influence on his version of the Time War, in particular "the Moment" as seen in Day of the Doctor.)

Still, for this one story Lady Peinforte is easily the best thing about it. The core of the story is her struggle with the Doctor, with the other two factions of baddys being merely a distraction - the Nazis are shown to be out of their depth as soon as the cybermannys turn up, and even the cybermannys are heading straight into the Doctor's trap all along.

This leads me to a big part of the problem with the story - the different elements do not work together at all well. There are a lot of disparate ideas - not just in the three diffring baddy factions, but in the minor parts such as the jazz musicians, the mannys at Windsor castle, the robbers, or the American in the car - but not enough is done to tie them all together into a single thematic whole.

On top of that, with the Doctor and Ace keeping out of the way for so much of the plot's duration, there is a curious lack of a sense of peril to the story - even when fighting multiple cybermannys at once, there is not the feeling that Ace is in much actual danger. But then the one time there is a sense of threat is when Lady Peinforte confronts the Doctor and threatens to reveal his secrets - a psychological threat, rather than a physical one. The conflict here is on a different level from most Doctor Who stories.

This difference makes Silver Nemesis a very memorable story, but as a celebration of Doctor Who's 25th birthday I am left feeling it ought to have been memorable for better reasons than that.

* In the end Lady Peinforte is killed off without revealing any of her secrets. This should by rights be an anticlimax - we don't even find out why she was a baddy and an enemy of the Doctor's, never mind any of the things she claimed she knew about his past. But there is another TV series that once successfully pulled off the trick of ending without answering any of its own questions, proving that it doesn't always have to matter.

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Raumpatrouille - Die phantastischen Abenteuer des Raumschiffes Orion


German Star Trek.

That is the simplest way to describe Space Patrol - The Fantastic Adventures of the Spaceship Orion, although it doesn't really do it justice. Made in 1966, all seven episodes would have been broadcast before Star Trek's first season had finished airing in America, and before it ever made its way across the Atlantic.

Supposedly cancelled for being "too militaristic" (according to the TV Tropes Wiki article), Space Patrol was about the fantastic adventures of the spaceship Orion, captained by Major McLane. He and his crew fight the mysterious alien Frogs, who are more like the aliens from a Gerry Anderson series than the sort normally encountered by Captain Kirk.

In the first episode they are in trouble for being mavericks, and so Lt Jagellovsk is assigned to the Orion to try and stop them - and especially McLane - from being mavericks by increasing the levels of UST aboard the Orion. It takes until episode five before McLane and Jagellovsk kiff, proving that McLane is nothing like Captain Kirk (as it would have taken him about half an hour).

The aesthetics of Space Patrol are more like old, pre-1960s sci-fi B movies than that of Star Trek, helped a lot by it being in black and white. I was also reminded of Space Year 5000 from The Daleks' Master Plan, and can easily imagine McLane working alongside the likes of Bret Vyon or Sara Kingdom.

As well as the fantastic adventures of the spaceship Orion, there are also a number of scenes showing us the different perspective of McLane and Jagellovsk's superior officers back on Earth. These are interesting and well used in the context of the series, as we see them debate topics that are relevant to the Orion's mission for that episode but that are also allegories of 1960s issues - such as which mannys should be evacuated in the event of the Earth being destroyed (obviously after all cats first), and whether a preemptive strike against another planet is justified, both relating to the real world fear of nuclear war.

Each episode is very tightly plotted, with plenty of tense moments. The last two are particularly good, featuring very clever baddys who stay one step ahead of McLane and his crew up until the very end. One is a mad scientist trying to escape from a prison planet that could have come straight out of a Terry Nation episode of Doctor Who or Blakes 7, and the final episode features an alien invasion by infiltration that has shades of Star One, over 10 years before Chris Boucher thought of it!

I had never heard of this series until recently, probably because it has several strikes against it to prevent it from being as famous as Star Trek. First, it is in black and white. Second, they only made seven episodes of it, less than a tenth of the number of Star Treks even if we don't count the animated series or the films. Finally, and probably most importantly, everybody in it speaks German. Of course none of these are strikes against the quality of the programme itself, but they are all factors practically guaranteed to lessen its fame in English-speaking countries.

Fortunately, a version with English subtitles has been made available on YouTube, and I am very glad I had a chance to see this series because it is an amazing example of the sci-fi genre.

Oh, and it's theme music is amazing as well...