Sunday, 26 June 2016

Doctor Who: The War Machines (revisited)

Since the majority of hits to this blog are from places other than the UK perhaps I had better begin this post by apologising for my compatriots. It is #notinmyname that we are leaving Europe, in fact it's nothing but an embarrassment.
Which is almost true of my last post on this First Doctor adventure ( http://culttvblog.blogspot.co.uk/2014/02/doctor-who-war-machines.html ), which I'm slightly ashamed of on re-reading it. I suddenly found a new, sealed, DVD of this show amongst my library (can't think where it came from, obviously by rogue computer technology) and decided to give it another go. Much of what I wrote about it the first time still stands, in terms of the dead sixties fear of encroaching technology. Ironically of course, it is only the connection of computers all over the world which means you are reading this, which would have seemed like an impossible dream of the future at the time.
On rewatching this show I am finding the mixture of technology and non-science quite interesting. I love it that the feared take over by computer is in part achieved by mind control, by a mechanism which isn't explained, but must have been fairly frightening at the time. The sixties were of course a time of explosion of interest in the paranormal, magic and paganism, as part of the larger questioning of received authority and values. The name of the computer of course recalls an ancient European pagan god, and thus the show presses historical buttons for Europeans. In a more sinister vein of course, Wotan, Odin or Woden was in the European pantheon hijacked by the Nazis and hijacked from respectable heathens by neo-Nazis ever since. This leads to a distinctly complicated collection of associations woven for the viewer by this adventure. In an interesting opposition to the contemporary  fear of the computer, it was actually quite usual at the time to give computers names - that is bearing in mind that they would usually take up a whole room at the time. A local example to me was the Wolverhampton Instrument for Teaching Computing from Harwell, whose acronym was WITCH ( https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harwell_computer ). If you happen to be at Bletchley Park you can see that one in operation to this day ( http://www.expressandstar.com/news/2012/11/21/re-boot-for-worlds-oldest-computer/25396935/ ). Of course this personification of the computer is wonderfully parodied in the Avengers episode Who Killed George XR/40? Ironically the Doctor falls into this language as well, when he speaks of paralysing the war machine's 'nervous system'.
I stand by my original criticism that the actual war machines themselves are a let-down because they are nowhere near scary enough. They don't elicit any sumpathy, simply being machines, either. On rewatching this show I feel that its great redeeming feature is the 1960s milieu. The scenes of Swinging London are wonderfully evocative. Unfortunately the actual story hasn't aged well, largely because it is based on a contemporary imagination of impossibly futuristic technology, always a risky thing. Another difficult thing to pull off is that the adventure is set in our own world yet the technology is not real, so that it creates an unfortunate dissonance in the mind of the viewer. Of course it was probably not be anticipated that this show would be subjected to my cynicism fifty years later.
I suspect that probably the idea that the war machines attack failed because of incomplete programing would have been seen at the time as the merciful intervention of the still-necessary agency of the human. Of course that scene sounds differently to our ears now, where we are used to software conflicts and the everyday ridiculousness which is living with IT.
My conclusion on this one on a second viewing, is that it is an atmospheric first Doctor adventure. Its best asset and also worst failing is the contemporary setting of it. I feel this one may be best watched with at least a sympathetic eye to how people saw technology in the 1960s, or at best a view to reminiscing about the London of the time. The plot is a straightforward conflict and resolution one. The print is very well restored both vision and audio-wise. The adventure is also exactly right at four episodes long. I would certainly not say not to watch this, but you will have to suspend disbelief when you do.
Image credit: http://www.expressandstar.com/news/2012/11/21/re-boot-for-worlds-oldest-computer/25396935/

Thursday, 16 June 2016

The Avengers Series 1: Brought to Book

This is, of course, one of the series 1 Avengers episodes which have been recorded in audio form by Big Finish. SInce I bought that first release I do have that audio version to listen to as well as the synopsis in The Strange Case of The Missing Episodes. Let my initial criticisms of the Big Finish versions be considered as read at the start of this - I maintain that the TV scripts needed more adaptation to audio form - since I want to concentrate on the actual show in this series of posts. Suffice to say that I am finding the Big Finish audio much more understandable combined with the descriptions of events and scenes in the book.
This episode, only the second in the first series, brings to the fore Dr Keel's pain and feeling of mission to be an avenger after the murder of his fiancee. In a very real sense, the rest of The Avengers makes no sense without the events of these first two episodes, even if the series progressed beyond Dr Keel's very personal trauma. In Brought to Book we see the demimondaine London I posted about in my last post, and also how this relates to Keel's personal interest, which is surely a very small part of the jigsaw. I feel that this is an element which is genuinely different from later series of The Avengers, where the matter to be avenged became subsumed into a world of English eccentrics but within a Cold War context.
There is no hiding the simple fact that in this episode Steed once again uses Keel, pressing his buttons as it were, to involve him in this gang warfare. Naturally there are always risks involved in Steed's line of work, and no doubt Steed's superiors would have been in a position to pull strings if anything had gone wrong for Keel, but nonetheless it seems to me that Keel has a lot more to lose than Steed. Naturally this reflection merely serves to highlight that Keel probably felt he had already lost just about everything that mattered and had to focus on the one thing necessary to avenge the situation. Nonetheless this seems an extraordinarily insensitive time to make use of Keel; tactically it also feel like it wouldn't be a good idea to make use of someone with such a personal involvement in the matter at hand. Not only was the 1960s still the age of the amateur, but it seems to me that it was the age of the over-involved amateur!
Once again I love the impression of Steed as dirty old man, appreciatively eyeing up Carol the receptionist and making a lascivious comment on how he can now see she is not plain because his eyesight is improved! My own feeling is that he continues to give this impression through series 2 at times, but probably the closest he gets to Steed as dirty old man in the later series is when he smacks a nurse's bottom in Split! Naturally as he moved into the more fatherly figure to Tara King it would have been incongruous. Nonethless in contrast to the focussed figure of Keel, I feel there are intimations of the later Steed in the lightness of his tone and the way he is almost flippant.
I have been rewatching (for the first time in many years) the Charlie Chan movies, and while they were considered a counterblast to the 'yellow peril' thinking of the time, nowadays listening to them in Chinatown seems like an incredible faux pas, as does the phone call in this piece from the very obviously 'Oliental' woman. Still, O tempora, o mores. This is, however, probably the thing which most gives an old-fashioned impression about this episode; the rest of the episode is probably easily translatable into the present day.
My conclusion about this series 1 Avengers episode is that it is certainly not a dud, as rumour had it for many years the series 1 episodes were. It develops much of the point for the original Avengers, in Dr Keel's personal bereavement and subsequent need to be avenged. It also shows Steed in his earliest form. It therefore provides a good grounding in the origins of the series and the direction it was originally intended to take.
Image credit (which see for more information on Chinese nightclubs): http://www.gastronomica.org/late-night-lions-den-chinese-restaurant-nightclubs-1940s-san-francisco/

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

The Avengers Series 1: Please Don't Feed the Animals

I go rushing back to the early sixties with a series 1 episode of The Avengers, of which fortunately more survives than does of the last one I posted about. That said, the synopsis I am basing this post on is based on surviving camera script according to the book and has some patches of dialogue too. I believe this is available in reconstructed form from Big Finish, if you like that sort of thing, but I haven't heard that myself.
My overall impression of this episode as I read the synopsis is the likelihood that this would have been exactly the sort of television that would have given Mary Whitehouse the screaming abjabs at the time. On the surface it is essentially a straightforward spy story (with a remarkably Avengers touch in the fact that information is transmitted at the zoo using a monkey) with much of its setting being in the underworld of a strip club. Thinking back to the Britain of the time, this was probably far more risque fifty years ago than it would be today, since a major concern was corruption in high places. The sexual revolution probably wasn't in full swing for most people yet, and no doubt Steed encouraging Keel to enjoy the sight of the girls at the club would have been very shocking to many people, symbolising the corruption of a worthy calling. Of course their attempt to blackmail Steed means that we would have seen him canoodling (apparently they go as far as kissing) with one of the girls, which was recorded as evidence. Of course his 'wife' would not have been concerned at all about this dalliance! All of this would probably have been considered very racy at the time.
I think what I like best about this episode is actually the juxtaposition of the strip club, with its underworld associations, with the setting of the zoo, which can only be intended to bring up images of family days out and childhood. This is an excellent contrast to make and must have been incredibly effective: for the first time I'm actually finding a real sense of regret that I will never see these Avengers episodes I am posting about here.
A further very sixties element is the influence of the spy genre: at least this is very sixties to my mind. I am still pondering to what extent the Bond books could have been influential on The Avengers, and while obviously Steed is here a much more workaday spy than James Bond, I feel that the spy genre was much more influential in the early days of The Avengers. I love that Steed is set up with a cover job in Whitehall and yet his bosses seem to have no objection to him roping in a complete amateur. This is perhaps one of the things which makes the early days of The Avengers more dated than the unreality-oriented episodes of the later series, that this was the age of the amateur, and it is surely inconceivable now that amateurs would be drafted in in the way they are in The Avengers. Another example of this is the owner of Brinkley House Zoo; apart from the ethical concerns about zoos nowadays, he is also an amateur in the sense that it is something he started up after he left the army and they have never really had as much money for animals as they would like.
That said, Renton-Stephens, the owner of the zoo, is exactly the kind of enthusiast who populates the later series of The Avengers in such abundance. Another stereotyped character is Kollakis the indisputably foreign, and therefore dodgy, owner of the strip club, who is behind the blackmail. These two characters, in addition to the eccentric zoo setting for the passing of messages, give a touch of the later Avengers to this show, in addition to the series 1 grittiness of the strip club/spying/blackmailing routine.
In conclusion, a gritty, demi-mondaine series 1 episode, which nonetheless shows signs of The Avengers to come in future series.
Image credit: http://deadline.theavengers.tv/images/keel11.jpg

Sunday, 12 June 2016

Thriller: First Impressions

I have a policy for this blog of not posting about TV shows which I consider complete duds: naturally that means more frequently that if you don't find a show written about here it means that I've never seen it, which applies more to the American shows you will find talked about on the cult TV blogosphere. That said, I am writing about this show to try to clarify my own thoughts about it: the fact that it appears here means that I don't think it is no good, but I have decidedly mixed emotions about it.
Firstly is the fact that somehow I had managed never to hear of it. I see that it was broadcast from1973 to 1976 and so I would have been in no position to see it when it was first broadcast. It has all the hallmarks of quality, because it was created by Brian Clemens ( a name which should require no introduction to readers of this blog) who scripted the majority of the episodes. I see from the wikipedia page that some of them were based on Avengers scripts (including Take Over, Don't Look Behind You, and The Joker) and were re-used subsequently to become New Avengers episodes (Medium Rare and The Colour of Blood). The original music was composed by Laurie Johnson, another name who should be familiar to us all, and it becomes apparent that Thriller is, in a sense, what came between The Avengers and The New Avengers. I haven't watched the whole series at this point, but it has already become apparent to me that wikipedia is right to state that many of the episodes are set in the English home counties/stockbroker belt. Of course we cult TV aficionados would perhaps be slightly quicker to call the setting Avengerland. The wikipedia page goes into further details of how the different episodes step into different genres, including detection and the supernatural. This strikes a chord with me because I have been reflecting recently on how The Avengers parodies different genres of screen writing; for example the series 6 episode Wish You Were Here is an Avengers-style reworking of many a Golden Age detective story. All of the elements of the story - the conspiracy to take over the firm, the country house hotel, the 'locked room' plot device of keeping certain people prisoner in an otherwise innocent hotel - all could well come from Agatha Christie.
The respectable antecedents of Thriller gather together to make the show look and feel exactly like The Avengers. Thriller uses the same visual language of traditional settings and ordinary respectable situations to create the Avengers atmosphere of a respectable, comforting world gone awry; in fact compared to other 1970s series Thriller must have looked somewhat old-fashioned because of its use of a more colourful palette than the predominant browns fashionable at the time. The visual setting of Avengersland further reinforces the Avengers feel of the series.
But there's something not quite right, which detracts from my enjoyment of this series which ought to be bang up my street. In trying to put my finger on it, I have thought about how I approach The New Avengers: I have written before her about my humble opinion that to enjoy The New Avengers it is important not to approach it as if it is The Avengers but as if it is a completely different 1970s series and approach it as if it were, say, The Sweeney or The Professionals. How then should I approach Thriller, bearing in mind that it comes from the same stable as The Avengers and yet is not The Avengers? This is the difficulty I am having in deciding how best to approach it. I feel that Thriller in a sense is short-served in comparison to The New Avengers because in addition to being closer in time to the original Avengers it is also closer in development. It has so many Avengers overtones that it is impossible to overlook them and yet bearing in mind the Avengers overtones leads to automatic disappointment because some classic Avengers elements are completely missing.
What is missing may be summed up by saying that Thriller lacks the conscious unreality of The Avengers. While the setting is apparently very similar, there are none of the caricatures and ridiculous situations which are a staple of The Avengers. This is not a criticism: Thriller is definitely not in the same weird stable as The Avengers, and it is necessary in a series called Thriller to make the viewer build up an expectation that what is happening could happen in real life. I have a feeling that this uneasy relationship to The Avengers will make or break this show for me, that I will either manage to forget the Avengers link and love it, or will forever be dissatisfied.
My personal ambivalence aside, the show is one which I would very much recommend to anyone who likes Our Sort of Television. The writing is naturally excellent. It varies a little since the episodes are aiming for a number of different genres, including horror and detection. The plots are naturally of a pace which would fit in in the 1970s: once again if you want slow suspense rather than short attention-span television, this is for you. The sets are fairly obviously mainly studio-based, perhaps overly-so to my mind, but this isn't really a criticism I suppose. I have kept an eye open and failed to see familiar items from ITC shows or The Avengers, and failed, so they must have used a different prop supplier. There are occasions when I feel that the show would benefit from a larger cast - even in pieces set in public, such as a library, it is obvious that the same few souls are reappearing over and over again. My one criticism of this show, which some will consider entirely a personal preference, is that it uses far too many familiar actors of the time. I much prefer the ones where I don't know the actors, since even though the big names are not playing characters for which they are famous, it still makes me recognise the actors rather than the characters. My only criticism of the Network boxed set I have is that it seems to play rather unpredictably: I have often got to the end of a disc only to find it replaying a scene I have alreadt seen once.
If you like anthology series, and want to experience one written by a major contributor to The Avengers and so with many Avengers echoes, I would recommend Thriller highly. As for whether I will be able to take to it, long term, we shall have to see.

Image credit: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Dvd-Thriller-Complete-Disc-Box-Set/dp/B0009P7VWG

Monday, 6 June 2016

The Avengers Series 1: Crescent Moon

I am back after a small natural pause: with a fortnight's annual leave and nothing much except for watching cult TV planned, I will certainly be able to get back into the swing of blogging! Since the last post was decidedly frivolous, I am making a complete change by returning to a randomly-chosen episode in the first series of The Avengers, Crescent Moon. And I'm afraid I must start by confessing that I am finding it rather unsatisfying, not simply because there is virtually nothing that remains of it.
Once again we require a little rethinking of our assumptions to get into how these shows would have been understood at the time they were broadcast. The very fact that this show opens on a Caribbean isandn would have spelt an incredible aura of luxury for the majority of UK viewers in the early 1960s. I suppose strangely it can best be compared to the aura of luxurious sophistication emitted by the James Bond books, their subsequent film adaptations, and indeed of their author, Ian Fleming, himself.
That said, it is possible to overdo the luxurious Hispanic references, and I find the names of the characters particularly unsatisfying. I suppose they would have fulfilled their function of spelling out foreign insurrection at the time.
I think my dissactisfaction more stems from the fact that this is basically not The Avengers as we know it. Of course I shouldn't be surprised at that idea, since we all know that series 1 and even series 2 were to some extent feeling their way to an identity for the show, but I personally feel the plot of this Avengers could really belong to any of the ITC shows of the sixties. 
Of course I immediately feel guilty for writing that and am reflexively thinking that on the other hand this episode doesn't do nothing to show us the origins and development of The Avengers. The characteristic position of Steed as the employee of a vaguely-defined government agency is very clear, as his usual ability at turning up in all sorts of strange parts of the the world on information received. SImilarly, the subordinate position of Dr Keel is maintained in this. At the risk of coming across as a conspiracy theorist, it is very plain to me that Dr Keel, having once been of use to the government, will continue to be used and has, as it were, signed up for life. The rather emotional and unstable roots of his commitment to 'avenging' would seem to make him a rather surprising choice, but then I'm not running a secret governmental agency.
My conclusion on this rather wispy Avengers episode is that it has fuelled my frustration at the lack of information about first-series episodes. I think I would personally prefer there to be absolutely nothing in this case than merely the synopsis which begs for so many holes to be filled from the fertile imaginations of Avengersistas. This is therefore an episode which gives me conflicting emotions, but which since I will never get to see it, these emotions will have to remain unresolved. My fear of course is that this episode would just turn out to be a sui generis 1960s espionage story, so it is perhaps as well that fear will never be fulfilled.

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

The Man from UNCLE: Parodies

I only just discovered that these parodies existed, and of course they may only be peripheral to the subject of this blog, but they're so funny that I think they fit.
Incidentally they probably speak of the zeitgeist of the time, since I've been watching Confessions of a Window Cleaner, the highest grossing film of 1974, which is very much out of the same stable.

Sunday, 22 May 2016

The Avengers Series 1: The Radioactive Man

This is a very interesting Avengers episode, because on the one hand it deals with so many perennial human concerns: rules, identity, conformity, suspicion and trust, and yet it is also very much of its time, and forms as it were a time-bound expression of the more permanent subjects its raises.
I think it is probably important for this one not to forget that whether or not Eastern Europeans were illegal immigrants at the time, they were always the inhabitants of the mysterious land behind the Iron Curtain. We are therefore talking about people who would always be aliens of one sort or another here, and who in addition to the traumas of their own countries and stories of immigration to Britain, would be forced into an identification with their own people, and always looked on with suspicion by the natives. This is far different from the very nuanced, yet more integrated multicultural population we have nowadays, despite a current wave of feeling against Europe. This therefore places the eternal question of identity in a specifically Cold War framework.
The other main issue dealt with here is rather secondary to identity and it is about conformity, nonconformity and people’s attitude to external rules and pressures. What really kicks off the action in this one is a scientist (yes, that’s right, one of those intelligent types who in 1960s TV are notorious for going off the rails with disastrous consequences) who casually breaks a major security rule in his research establishment, resulting in radioactive material being stolen by a man who is in a rather ambivalent position, not least because of being an illegal immigrant. That people’s attitude to authority and external pressures is the real subject of this piece is shown by the fact that the ongoing action depends on people further ignoring rules, going their own way, and generally making life or death decisions, with conflicting pressures from groups they belong to or their own values.
Some time ago I posted about a DVD of British safety films from the 1970s, and it was in the decade after this show was made that safety in industry became a great legal concern in Britain, culminating in the rationalisation of many industry-specific laws into the formation of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. I remember commenting that you would think from that DVD that Britain was a country in which people customarily played in quarries, went swimming in canals, crossed railway lines, and fished around overhead lines, and of course that is true. The legal side apart, the perennial question is here is how dangerously can you expect humans to behave? The doctor who caused the security breach in the first place was clearly under stress as his wife was expecting a baby, but it is clear that the security of the research establishment was wholly dependent on fallible humans respecting rules made for safety, with nothing to stop them breaking the rules. The question naturally arises as to whether this situation could arise again today. I suspect that it would be much more difficult to bring a dangerous substance out of an institution nowadays, but you always get some jack the lad who manages to find a way. The most depressing thing about this episode is actually this aspect of it, that it shows up human behaviour and attitude to danger specifically, in a very bad light indeed.
Into the middle of this human drama, of course Keel steps in as the man most likely to sort this mess out. In epic terms, I suppose you would see him as the hero who happens to be in the right place and time and also have the wit to sort this. Once again, though, it shows a different time in that the situation is saved by a talented amateur, despite the involvement of the police. I have a feeling that nowadays this incident would result in large-scale evacuation of the area and the total exclusion of non-officials.
I find Steed’s role in this interesting, since it personifies his series 1 character as a person who just appears and disappears and it is never very clear where he comes from or who he is. Yet it is clear that he is involved in intelligence here: that can be his only possible role. I also like that his flippant personality is already developing, seen in his comment to Keel that he always finds a visit to Keel’s surgery ‘always seems to affect my health’, and Keel replies by thanking Steed and telling him that he always tries to do his best. A further Avengers theme which appears early on here, is that while there are issues around the immigrants’ political sympathies and the legality of Milan’s immigration, these things are trumped in jolly old Blighty for a humane concern for his health. Despite not being One of Us, we wouldn’t like to be like Them, and so Milan is not treated as the dodgy character he may well be. Perhaps he is intended to elicit sympathy or be shown as someone who needs to be cared for, despite being Foreign, although personally at times I felt like shouting ‘Don’t be such an idiot’ at him as I was reading through the synopsis of the show.
Obviously I haven’t seen this show and don’t believe I ever will, but it is clearly very much of its time. The very fact that much of it takes place in a radio shop is immediately reminiscent of a past age. It is also reminiscent of an age of lodgings, bed-sitters, cafes run by the proprietors, and in short, a world quite different from today. I would genuinely love to see this episode if it was ever recovered. I am not really in a position to criticise it and wouldn’t dare, since it is clearly a well-written play capable of standing on its own, and is also an episode of The Avengers whose like we will not see again.