Sunday, 20 March 2016

Railways on TV: 'The Railway Station/Assignment Two (Sapphire and Steel)

I have posted about this Sapphire and Steel assignment here before, episode -by-episode, and I have made a conscious decision not to re-read those posts before writing this one.
There is a sense in which all the locations of Sapphire and Steel adventures play at least one role which railway stations or trains often play, that of a contained environment in which the action can take place. This pertains for the house, the block of flats, the garage, and so on. But this function is extended in Sapphire and Steel to become a plot device where this contained environment can be attacked by forces outside it, usually time. This is a very imaginative way to capitalise on a relatively cheap setting to produce, and its low cost is documented as being one of the things which made Sapphire and Steel attractive to start off with. It is also what makes this show so different from a straightforward detective -type use of the train to create a closed environment. Unbeknown to me, there is a term for this used in TV: tvtropes refers to it as a 'bottle episode ' and comments on these episodes' difficulty, surely a tribute to the excellence of Sapphire and Steel:
' Bottle episodes are known as a challenge and/or a chore, depending on the writer. Since most/all of the episode is set in a single location (sometimes even entirely in one room) with a smaller than usual cast, the dialogue (regarded as one of the harder things to write) needs to be better and tighter than in other episodes since the writer can't really do anything else with the cast. Depending on the writer and how well the premise works out, bottle episodes can range from terrible, to some of the best episodes of their shows and even their franchises.' ( http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/BottleEpisode and I love the list of general tropes used in the series at http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Series/SapphireAndSteel )
Sapphire and Steel also uses the bottle episode idea differently from many other programmes, since the whole series consists only of bottle episodes and so they are not used purely for character development. Rather the bottle provides the setting into which some anomaly has intruded and Sapphire and Steel also enter the bottle to put the anomaly right. They constitute a surprisingly conservative force, who in this assignment are juxtaposed against the apparently conservative figure of the 'old' ghost hunter. This one is all about age in many ways.
The assignment also repeatedly references a world outside the 'bottle' setting, in the shape of the darkness, the order restored by Sapphire and Steel, and in the disordered time. The enclosed setting of the railway station is therefore invaded by multiple competing forces from outside.
Speaking of time and tropes, I see both that a major trope used in the audio productions of Sapphire and Steel is called 'humans are morons ', and also that Sapphire and Steel is set for a remake. Yes, I am connecting these two things, because without a modest approach to special effects, Joanna Lumley and the slow seventies pace, the things which make Sapphire and Steel will be missing. Nonetheless I'm intrigued to see what will be done to it!
Image credit: http://andydrewz64.blogspot.com/2015/06/the-original-dalek-death-ray-ice-lolly.html

Saturday, 19 March 2016

They Came from Somewhere Else

The remaining episodes of Doomwatch are being released as a boxed set at the beginning of April. I’ve hummed and ha’ed, pre-ordered it, cancelled it, and at the time of writing still have it on order. Anyway, I read around what was being said about Doomwatch on t’internet, and found that there is a hope expressed (sorry, in my excitement I have lost the particular blog where I found this) that this will lead to the release of other little-known shows, and examples of those shows were named. And that was how I found it. I have been trying to find what this show was for literally thirty years. I remember watching it the first time round, and it being incredibly formative on me. I was the only one of my circle who watched it, and I didn’t half get teased at school for watching it, but on rewatching it for the first time all these years later, I remain convinced that it is quality television which has stood the test of time much better than most 1980s TV. The show is It Came From Somewhere Else. The six episodes, which are all there ever were, are available to watch on YouTube, in authentic 1980s videoed off the telly quality. In fact, the only disturbing thing about reading around the subject – particularly the reviews usually based on memory alone on IMDB – is that the reviewers are more or less of the same age as me. They have the same memories, list the same programmes. Oh dear, I’m getting old.
One of the reasons this show is so much of its time is that it came out of the alternative comedy circuit of the time, and in fact was performed in pubs and at the Edinburgh Fringe before becoming a TV show. I have heard it likened to the humour of The Comic Strip Presents… and The Young Ones, both things I love dearly and so therefore They Came from Somewhere Else is clearly out of a stable I like enormously, in fact the same stable that the two parodies of the Famous Five I posted about in my last post came from.
I also remember at some point watching the film called It Came From Somewhere Else. I genuinely remembered this as a 1950s-style sci-fi invasion series, and really thought it came before this show so must have been a parody, or at least borrowing the title. I was surprised to find that the TV show came first. Nonetheless the point of reference is the same, namely all those 1950s invasion shows – I have always had a particularly soft spot for Invasion of the Body Snatchers – which I think had a vogue at the time. I see from the show’s Wikipedia page that amongst other horror films parodied by the show are Dawn of the Dead, Don’t Look Now, and Carrie. You don’t have to be intimately acquainted with the horror genre to enjoy this show though: the references are often things which have entered into our collective consciousness as referencing horror films. Of course the point is that the whole story is based on a horror story which is invented for the show itself.
At this point I would be very tempted to give a summary of the plot, but I’ve decided that it spoils things for first-time viewers if they know the ending. If you really want a plot summary with spoilers I would recommend the one on Wikipedia. Obviously not referencing the plot at all can make it very difficult to blog about a show, but I’ll try to kick off my appreciation by saying that in terms of surrealism, They Came From Somewhere Else knocks every other TV programme into a cocked hat. Gurney Slade is positively vanilla in comparison to this show. Highlights for me personally are the person-swallowing sofa, the old lady who pops out for an ice pick, the table tennis game, the huge prawn in the sewer, and the fact that the protagonist is dressed in his morris dancing gear for much of the show.
In fact, I really think it would be impossible to list all of the media and cultural references of this show. It picks up on the ambivalent attitude towards technology which I often note in 1960s TV, melds it with the horror and sci-fi genres, adds the end of the world and globalisation fears of the 1980s, and turns them into…well, it does this show a disservice to call it a sitcom. Watching this as an adolescent in the 1980s, it pressed so many buttons in the concern of the time that it could only be seminal. If this show has one weakness, though, it is I think that it will no longer press those buttons in viewers of today. It still works as a parody of the horror genre, but that is to miss a layer of meaning, which is about the nature of reality and naturally that is always a major subject of interest to the adolescent in his struggle for identity. I have to confess that I cannot identify any other weaknesses in this show, and have had none of the disappointment you often get when viewing once-favourite shows for the first time many years afterwards. To me, that is enough indication on its own of this show’s quality. I would not call the poor quality of the recording on youtube a weakness, even though I have had to find the image which illustrates this post on the internet since I can’t get a good enough quality screencap, since without that one recording the programme would remain unavailable. I would recommend viewing this show to, well, anyone, but particularly anyone who likes some of the odder shows of the 1960s, anything sci-fi, or horror films. Surely that is the majority of the audience of this blog?

Thursday, 17 March 2016

The Comic Strip Presents: Five Go Mad in Dorset/on Mescalin

I’ve been watching one of the Children’s Film Foundation’s series of a Famous Five adventure, Five on a Treasure Island, which is the first one of the two films they did. I have posted before here about the 1970s redaction of the Famous Five, but hadn’t seen the 1950s CFF version before. It is played completely straight, and so to modern ears is absolutely hilarious. The bit where Uncle Quentin told George that she was quite as good as any boy had me rolling around laughing.
Anyway, it has turned my mind to these two parodies by The Comic Strip Presents, which because of the embargo on Enid Blyton in my school actually formed my introduction to the Famous Five. I must have been a revolting child, because I was almost certainly too young to see Five Go Mad in Dorset or Five Go Mad on Mescalin, and can’t for the life of me think how I persuaded my mother to let me, but I remember them as hugely enjoyable and very formative. As a child I think I would probably have identified most with their ridiculing of the children who are good, even though I was very good myself, although continually bursting to revolt. As an adult I identify most with the simple fact that the ‘baddies’ plainly have the most fun, the most sex, the most drugs, although of course they keep on ending up in prison, multiple times.
I suspect that in the 1980s these two parodies probably also picked up on something in the air at the time, since I remember Denise Dugan’s play Daisy Pulls It Off being hugely popular at the time. I wonder whether there was a nostalgia fashionable at the time for the gung-ho, empire-building genre of school literature current in a previous age. Strangely I feel Blyton herself probably came at the absolutely dying end of that age, and just as strangely remains popular to this day. I was very surprised in reading round the subject, to find a woman whose blog is all about living, dressing, eating, etc, in the style of the Famous Five!
The Comic Strip’s version of the Famous Five succeeds by uniting this nostalgia with a consciousness where the adult awareness of subtexts missed in Blyton’s original texts, is definitely present yet ignored to hilarious effect. Never in Blyton’s books does George actually get called a dyke, yet that is clearly the implication when you analyse George’s desire to be a boy. Of course I’m out of date and nowadays she is probably seen as a possible transsexual, although I haven’t actually seen this mentioned on t’internet. ‘I want to sleep with Dick,’ is a statement which can only bring a smile to anyone with a sexual understanding, and this parody brings the sexual tension and jealousy of the group to the surface. ‘I don’t mind being dominated, ‘ says Anne. Of course we all know that Anne likes to be the submissive little wifey, who is almost completely excluded from the Five’s adventures, but this makes it apparent in a way that we normally only experience as a subtext.
Would the Famous Five have irritated me intensely if I had had them as friends as a child? Probably. But only because of their complete innocence and presumption of correctness in all aspects of human life. Certainly the Comic Strip portray them as absolute prigs, and manages to make them even more annoying. Grammar school oiks, foreigners, homosexuals, Catholics, gypsies, single mothers, are all objects of their dislike. I feel one of the things the Comic Strip does here, which takes this show beyond the realm of mere entertainment, is to hold up a mirror to many of the attitudes which have actually formed our society. These attitudes were probably more prevalent in the age of Blyton, and certainly these are attitudes you can hear in all sorts of places if people think they’re not overheard. This must therefore make this uncomfortable viewing for those formed in these attitudes by literature such as, well, the children’s novels of Enid Blyton, and these parodies therefore parody our society as much as childrens’ books.
Of course the function of prejudice and discrimination is to place the object of hatred outside of ‘us’, however we define us. The Comic Strip turns this round marvellously by placing the ‘other’ actually inside the Famous Five’s family, in the shape of Uncle Quentin. ‘It’s no good, Uncle Quentin, you’re a queer and that’s the end of it.’ I love that Aunt Fanny is an unrelenting nymphomaniac and Uncle Quentin is a screaming homosexual. The Famous Five stick by their principles and happily shop Uncle Quentin to the police who congratulate them.
Five Go Mad on Mescalin advances this somewhat by making the Five more sex-aware than they are in the earlier one. ’Oh Timmy, you’re even more licky than last time,’ is probably the filthiest thing I have heard in my life when said by Dawn French. After being kidnapped and drugged, Dick is never quite the same again and has obviously been initiated into an adult world of…well, it isn’t quite stated what has happened to him but I think we can guess. Five Go Mad on Mescalin further undermines the Famous Five’s security in their world view by introducing an element of doubt into the Five themselves. It also brings out something which I’ve only realised after watching it in close succession to a ‘straight’ Famous Five depiction: the five have the world to themselves. Granted that the only other people they meet either in the canonical stories or in these parodies are either of criminal intent or just revolting, but the five don’t like anyone. Lucky the American boy has the sense to call the police when Uncle Quentin locks them up on Love Island, and they actually speak almost appreciatively of him.
My favourite thing about these two parodies? The fact that Uncle Quentin wears a cravat, the sign of a bounder if there ever was one.

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

The Adventurer: First Impressions

Yesterday I bought the boxed set of a series I had heard of but never seen, The Adventurer starring Gene Barry. These are merely my first impressions, since I am watching my way through the set at the moment, but I want to rush my humble opinions into print because it seems to me that this series gets an unfair thrashing on t’internet. In fact, while I’m not slow to express my dislike for a TV programme (although when I think a programme is such a dud that it isn’t even worthy of thinking about, I won’t tend to blog about it here), I’m slightly surprised at the sheer extent of the venom this show has attracted. You will read that it is the worst ITC show ever – granted, there always has to be a worst, but the venom with which this is expressed surprises me – and that Barry plays the least likeable action hero ever.
Let’s get the main problems with the show out of the way to start off with. It didn’t work out as it was supposed to, largely because Barry took a dislike to most of the other people who acted on the show, frequently for no better reason than that they were taller than him, and got them sacked. A bit short-sighted, this, since a box would have solved this problem once and for all. It suffers from having a short time-slot, so that there is an almost complete lack of explanation of what is going on and who everyone is. You pick it up as you go along, but this is a genuine weakness: the very first episode doesn’t actually have any explanation of who the protagonist is before lurching into his first adventure, which results in the viewer being forced to draw conclusions on the basis of what usually happens in other TV shows.
And here is where it goes wrong: a show with no explanation of its premise is only ever going to be understood in comparison to other shows of the same type. This one is out of the ITC stable so unfortunately it tends to invite comparison with ITC shows, and the one it seems to be most often compared to is The Saint, attempting to put both shows into the gentleman-adventurer genre of spy show. The Adventurer doesn’t actually bear comparison to The Saint, in my humble opinion, because Bradley isn’t actually a gentleman adventurer, and if the show had bothered to make that more clear than it does, nobody would compare it to The Saint. Templar doesn’t really seem to do anything all day except find adventures which he doesn’t have to do at all. The whole point of The Adventurer is that Bradley is actually a spy who moonlights (what a mixed metaphor that is) as an actor.
Another unfavourable comparison made with The Saint is that Simon Templar embodies an earlier, more opulent, age than the 1970s, and that the apparent prosperous leisure enjoyed by Bradley (which didn’t happen, remember, it’s just for time constraints the programme never actually gets around to explaining what he does in his cover job) is less appropriate in the cash-strapped 1970s. I don’t find that this is a criticism made of Jason King, whose way of life was immensely opulent, just with the difference that he is shown nominally making a living from writing books. I find it interesting that Jason King at one point makes an advertisement, and is also shown having tax problems at another point, so it is plain that while he lives luxuriously his life is not actually completely without the real question of finance. Perhaps those who feel able to criticise The Adventurer find themselves more nonplussed when faced with the oddity which is Jason King! Anyway, my point is that pampered heroes who live in luxury were not missing from 1970s television – while the decade is perhaps best known for its gritty realism in such series as The Sweeney, simply a glance at my shelves of DVDs brings up The Persuaders as another series portraying leisured playboys of the time.
I know I keep banging on that analysing these old TV shows, while sometimes they are not built to withstand such close scrutiny because of having been intended for one ephemeral viewing and then junked, is remarkably helpful in understanding the age they were made. Having done a whole series of posts on 1970s shows the year before last, I feel that there is probably a misunderstanding of the time going on. The reason that pampered playboys are not inappropriate to the 1970s is precisely because on the one hand it was such a dreadful time of oil crisis, conflict and strikes, while on the other hand it was actually the 1960s for many people (if you see what I mean). In the 1970s many people had luxuries that they would never have had before, and such things as affordable foreign holidays became possible. That this was in a background of deprivation and conflict only goes to explain the portrayal of opulence on TV as escapism, because who the hell wants to go home from the pit to watch a TV show about a coal mine closing? I should perhaps also declare a certain defensiveness about this show because it is almost exactly the same age as me and some good things did come out of the 1970s!
The Adventurer, therefore, I feel is much better compared to a show such as Jason King. Certainly The Adventurer has its oddities – what made me really start to feel sympathetic to it was the sauna scene which illustrates this post – but I feel it is in an escapist genre of TV where the point is more the luxurious settings and what have you than the admittedly weak plots. Apart from the obvious weaknesses with which I began this post, Barry is obviously miscast as Bradley – he is not suave enough. I think now he would probably be seen as too old and not toned enough, but I think that would be to project the mores of today onto the 1970s. At the time the fashion was not for six-pack abs and no body hair that you get now – in fact a sexy man was quite the opposite. I think he is miscast because he isn’t suave enough – his character isn’t strong enough, established enough, or charismatic enough to carry the series on its own. But then he was intended to go with a partner played by Stuart Damon, to whom Barry took a dislike because he was 6’3” tall!
In fact, I would go so far with The Adventurer as to say that it is a mistake to compare it to any of the ITC stable of shows. When I think what it reminds me of, it reminds me most of the James Bond films of the 1970s. It has the same smooth sophisticated feel, and I find the plots of the Bond films of the time merge into each other as the plots of this show do. People sneer at the 1970s, but if you want the authentic feel of what the decade was like, then obviously the TV of the time is an obvious way to get it. If you want to feel what the 1970s were, get in some prawn cocktail, chicken in a basket and black forest gateau, put on The Adventurer, and suspend disbelief…

Railways on TV: The Web of Fear (Doctor Who)

This one has, of course, been chewed over at length on the Internet after the discovery of more fortuitously -preserved episodes in Nigeria in 2013.
Since this is a series of posts on railways as portrayed in cult TV, I feel it is easy to stretch the definition of rails to include the London underground, the location for much of this story. In fact I find the whole set-up of this adventure very interesting. London is apparently completely deserted apart from the characters necessary to the story. This is an interesting echo of the 'unreal' England depicted in later series of The Avengers, to the extent that I'm wondering whether this Who was partly an inspiration for the approach. In fact this Who almost exactly embodies the look, the feel, the characterisation of The Avengers; of course unless the BBC had actually discovered time travel at this point it is likely Doctor Who receiving the influence, unless both shows picked up on something in the zeitgeist of the time. The characters in this Who are no more real than John Steed - in fact they are colourful caricatures just as Steed is - and this Who uses the same successful technique that The Avengers used of never risking putting them next to real people and so having them exposed for what they are. The show uses another Avengers technique, of placing the action in the heart of real life in the UK,  in this case the London Underground, to provide a completely real context for the story. There are also echoes of Thingumajig, if I had to commit to only one Avengers this Who reminds me of. Ironically the reality/unreality dynamic of this show has rather been blown out of the water by the conclusion of scientific investigation (see below for the full irony of this) that the yeti is real and is nothing more nor less than a bear ( http://www.bbc.co.uk/earth/story/20150630-is-there-such-a-thing-as-a-yeti).
Apart from the Avengers-esque overtones of this adventure, there are lesser reflections of the sort of set-up found in Sapphire and Steel - perhaps the railways thing has prompted me to think that, since I've also been thinking about the Sapphire and Steel set in a railway station. Web of Fear makes an interesting comparison - the set for Web of Fear is notoriously small, so while Sapphire and Steel has fewer speaking parts, it is as if its enclosed environment is much more luxurious than that in Web of Fear. It embarrasses me to say it, but Web of Fear is definitely the better story over my beloved Sapphire and Steel adventure, which in comparison moves like an elderly debilitated snail.
Other than echoes of some of the odder Tv shows popular in the 1960s and 1970s Web of Fear perfectly embodies the reverent attitude to science which I see over and over in TV of the time. 'Science' is in many ways the be-all and end-all of the time (a consistent attitude in comparison to the attitudes towards religion I described in my last post about another Doctor Who adventure). Here 'doctor' is a title of esteem and automatically makes its holder a figure of authority. Science is depicted as the pursuit of truth par excellence - which of course is exactly what the pure pursuit of the empirical method is - even contrasted with the truth-twisting of the press. The fear of the dangers inherent in scientific experimentation, usually found mixed with the reverence to make an ambivalent feel, is here placed firmly into the fearful yeti. Of course the reason this power is at large is human error in failing to prevent the events of this episode happening, but that element is downplayed and the scientists remain figures of trust and authority.
The railway location highlights another function of railways which I foolishly overlooked when I considered the various functions of railways in stories, which is that the railways are the natural location to take over if you want to spread something. Tactically, the London Underground would be a natural place to take,  since you would control the capital in a matter of hours. I realise that up until now I have rather discounted the railways as a means of invasion, since I was paying more attention to them as a means of legitimate transport.
I like the Underground set used in this adventure enormously. I see that this is quite often characterised as the best Doctor Who adventure ever, and I think the effective use of relatively small sets, shot in creative ways, contributes to a great feeling of spaciousness. The danger of these sci-fi shows cast on small sets is that they can feel too much like plays, by which I mean the viewer gets the unavoidable impression of watching a performance. The Web of Fear feels much more as if it is a documentary, and certainly when I felt the need to venture out of bed just now I found I had to wait until the episode I was on had finished.
This adventure is open to criticism, however. I feel the multiple bloopers -reflections of the cameras and shadow of the boom, and so on - which you can find documented in detail elsewhere, remain natural in a medium still considered transitory and intended for viewing once. This release of course features the missing third episode with its surviving audio supported by screen caps. It is completely personal but I think I probably prefer the reconstruction to be by means of animation. That said, I prefer the screen caps approach to the way missing Avengers episodes are reconstructed on the DVDs, where a summary is voiced over surviving screen caps. Since the scripts survive for The Avengers I would still like to see the missing episodes reconstructed using the scripts and animation. I imagine that that approach would be prohibitively expensive though.
This is not a criticism really, but the effectiveness of the yeti falls flat on its face to eyes used to modern effects. O tempora, o mores, viewing vintage television necessarily involves a suspension of disbelief. This adventure also isn't spoiled (in my opinion) by the use of familiar faces who keep reappearing in different shows, since the only familiar face to me, is Jon Rollason, who is actually a welcome appearance here. All in all,  this Doctor Who has made me keen to see The Enemy of the World, the other second doctor adventure found in Nigeria.

Monday, 14 March 2016

Doctor Who: The Face of Evil

True to form for my viewing and blogging, I have managed to get distracted from my planned series of posts on railways. One of the reasons for that is that I don’t want to skimp on the remaining posts I’m planning on that subject, so will hopefully return to it at some unspecified point in the near future.
What has distracted me is this Doctor Who series, which is new to me as of last week. I have realised to my surprise only recently that I tend to take to the Doctor Who adventures taking place on Earth rather than ones taking place anywhere else. This can’t conceivably be an issue of realism, since daleks, androids, and other staples of Whovian adventures on Earth can hardly be described as realistic. I was thinking that some of the Earth-bound Who adventures can feel very much like Sapphire and Steel, another series I greatly admire, since they feature things not being quite ‘right’, only the Doctor is the one who puts it right. I think also the Earth-bound Who adventures feature the concerns I see so often in 1960s television: the role of technology and the destiny of what would have been called at the time, Man.
Nonetheless I have been considerably distracted by this adventure. Let me get the kinky bit out of the way to start off with. This is the adventure which introduces Leela, wearing, well, not very much (and still looking good 40 years later on the extras). I think this fact has tended to distract the overwhelmingly heterosexual and male audience of Doctor Who from the many philosophical (I don’t think that word is too strong to use) strengths of this adventure. Apart from Leela’s distraction, I note that the word on t’internet is that this adventure has tended to be overlooked because of the strength of the adventures which surround it in this series.
What nobody but me seems to think (tell a lie, I have found that John SInnott referred to this in DVD Talk, but I haven’t read his piece) is that this Doctor Who adventure is a parable of modernism against religion. The fact that this is an anti-religion parable is indicated by the fact that the Sevateem are depicted, visually and in their customs, as ‘savages’ or ‘pagans’. Of course I am using these words to refer to the cultural images portrayed here, and specifically the Sevateems' attachment to the past is emphasised by their practice of their religion and sacralisation of what is happening to them. In fact the religion they practice is an interesting mish mash of elements of shamanism and the sort of ritual used in, say, Anglican or Catholic worship. I even recognised a few lines from the bible and a few I suspect owe their origin to Hymns Ancient and Modern. The point is that there is something very wrong in terms of time, and the Sevateems’ theological interpretation of the situation is inadequate.
Further, the anti-religious sentiment of the episode is advanced by the simple fact that the Sevateems’ religion seems to have brought them nothing but trouble, and they are perpetually in conflict with the *other* tribe on the planet. It is very difficult not to see this referring to the religious world on Earth, where of course religion is only ever a source of harmony, joy, peace, and equality. Who am I kidding?
Of course the Sevateems’ god is nothing of the sort. The enduring message for me of this adventure is that religion is a fraud, it brain washes you and deceives you. Religion also means adopting an unreal world view, in this case it is the world view of a very sick computer indeed. The result of the computer’s ‘religion’ is merely hostility and conflict.
The solution to the problematic situation engendered by religion is to see things as they are, and not to be taken in by the lies and pretence of the computers/gods which create religion. Blessed are the outcasts, is the message here, for they shall be free of the lies. They will be blessed when the members of their tribe who still believe in the religion persecute them. The consequences of abandoning the pretence of religion are that you find yourself with difficult moral decisions to make, without necessarily having a source of authority to turn to, so this show isn’t simply an anti-religion diatribe. It also exalts the act of adventure and contravening authority, in the shape of Leela setting off in the TARDIS despite the Doctor not wanting her to.
I find this episode deep with meaning and religious allusions. Nonetheless my favourite line is still, ‘Now drop your weapons, or I’ll kill you with this deadly jelly baby.’

Friday, 11 March 2016

Railways on TV: 731 (The X-files)

My apologies for being absent from here for some time: my work life has been busy (in addition to continuing mired in conspiracy and controversy worthy of The X-Files), but now I am on annual leave and have the mental and physical space to think about some TV programmes. I am focussing on 731 here because despite being the second of a two-parter, it is the one in which a train features more highly.
I know I keep banging on about how blogging about TV shows helps the viewer to think about them in a different way, but it happens to be true. The X-Files has been something in the way of duvet viewing for me for the twenty years since it was first broadcast here in the UK, and I have probably seen this episode dozens of times, but my reading around the subject has only today made me realise what this episode is based on. I had no idea that the very title of the episode is taken from real experiments carried out by Japanese during and after World Ward 2, which were co-opted by the US government so that they could make use of the knowledge obtained.
' It was officially known as the https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epidemic_Prevention_and_Water_Purification_Department">Epidemic Prevention and Water Purification Department
 of the https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kwantung_Army">Kwantung Army (関東軍防疫給水部本部 Kantōgun Bōeki Kyūsuibu Honbuhttps://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Help:Installing_Japanese_character_sets">?). Originally set up under the https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Military_police">Kempeitaihttps://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Military_police">military police of the https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Empire_of_Japan">Empire of Japan, Unit 731 was taken over and commanded until the end of the war by General https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shiro_Ishii">Shiro Ishii, an officer in the Kwantung Army. The facility itself was built between 1934 and 1939 and officially adopted the name "Unit 731" in 1941.
'Between 3,000 and 250,000 men, women, and children—from which around 600 every year were provided by the Kempeitai—died during the human experimentation conducted by Unit 731 at the camp based in Pingfang alone, which does not include victims from other medical experimentation sites, such as https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unit_100">Unit 100.
'Unit 731 veterans of Japan attest that most of the victims they experimented on were Chinese, Koreans and Mongolians. Almost 70% of the victims who died in the https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pingfang">Pingfang camp were Chinese, including both civilian and military. Close to 30% of the victims were https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russian_Soviet_Federative_Socialist_Republic">Russian. Some others were https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/South_East_Asia">South East Asians and Pacific Islanders, at the time colonies of the https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Empire_of_Japan">Empire of Japan, and a small number of https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allies_of_World_War_II">Allied https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prisoner_of_war">prisoners of war. The unit received generous support from the Japanese government up to the end of the war in 1945.
'Instead of being tried for war crimes, the researchers involved in Unit 731 were given immunity by the U.S. in exchange for their data on human experimentation. Some were arrested by https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_Army">Soviet forces and tried at thehttps://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khabarovsk_War_Crime_Trials">Khabarovsk War Crime Trials in 1949. Americans did not try the researchers so that the information and experience gained in bio-weapons could be co-opted into the https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/U.S._biological_warfare_program">U.S. biological warfare program. On 6 May 1947, https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Douglas_MacArthur">Douglas MacArthur, as https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Supreme_Commander_of_the_Allied_Forces">Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, wrote to Washington that "additional data, possibly some statements from Ishii probably can be obtained by informing Japanese involved that information will be retained in intelligence channels and will not be employed as 'War Crimes' evidence." Victim accounts were then largely ignored or dismissed in the West as Communist propaganda.' ( https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unit_731)
This episode inverts the usual pattern of X-Files mythology episodes (at least this early in the series), since the whole point is that Mulder is being allowed (or not being prevented) from imagining that aliens are the secret here, and this is actually being used to cover up the real secret, which is the shameful one of human experimentation. It is interesting that this fits nicely into the way ‘science’ is talked about in the 1960s shows I talk about here, where it is both the future, and yet something to be very frightened of. The science of The X-Files is shown in this episode as embodying the very real fears of the 1960s:
' Jan Delasara, in her book '"PopLit, PopCult and The X-Files" argues that episodes such as "731" and "Nisei", or the earlier third season episode "https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paper_Clip">Paper Clip", show the public's trust in science "eroding". Delasara proposes that "arrogated" scientists who are "rework[ing] the fabric of life" are causing the public's faith in the scientific method to fade drastically, "a concern ... that is directly addressed by X-Files episodes". Moreover, she notes that almost all of the scientists portrayed in The X-Files are depicted with a "connection to ancient evil," with the lone exception being Agent Scully. In "731," and earlier in "https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nisei_(The_X-Files)">Nisei," the scientists are former Japanese scientists who worked for https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unit_731">Unit 731. In their attempts to create a successful human-alien hybrid, they become the archetypical scientists who "[go] too far," a serious factor that Delasara argues "'alienates [the public] further from science and its practitioners".
'Critical opinion has also noted that both parts of the story arc offer an alternative explanation for the events of the series so far, a "less romantic" outcome that paints the ongoing plot as an elaborate hoax to defer attention from the government's experiments, both military and medical. Reviewer Todd VanDerWerff feels that such an explanation would "speak more to the sadness at the core of the X-Files to have Mulder find his answers and be forced to accept they weren't what he was looking for", comparing such a realization to the hero of https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Don_Quixote">Don Quixote. This "hoax" plot device would later be revisited in both the fourth season finale "https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gethsemane_(The_X-Files)">Gethsemane" and the fifth season's opening two-part episodes "https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Redux_(The_X-Files)">Redux and Redux II", although to a much lesser degree of effectiveness.' ( https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/731_(The_X-Files))
The train is also given an interesting role. It is a tall order for a writer, when using a train as a contained environment, to maintain interest and/or suspense to the end of the piece, but it is managed here. Interestingly, I found I didn’t remember the episode correctly, since in my memory the scene in the quarantine section of the train formed much more of the episode than it does. I hadn’t even remembered the scenes in the leper colony being in this episode at all! I feel that this lengthening of the train scene is an interesting psychological effect, which witnesses to the effectiveness of the writing here. In reality I feel that the scene is exactly the right length to maintain the tension without over-doing it.
I also find that I had essentially misread the meaning of the train in this episode. It is very clear that it fulfils a much bigger role than merely a plot device to contain the action in a small place, which is also the place where the experiment is being transported. They were split up by the Conservative government in the 1980s, but based on the previous national ownership of the trains in the UK I had assumed that the railroads in the US were owned by the government, which would mean the key meaning of the train is to place the responsibility for these experiments firmly in the government’s hands. There is a sense in which we know that anyway: multiple government agencies and the army, as well as the Japanese diplomatic service, all of which indicate that this experimentation can be traced as high as the government. I didn’t realise that the railroads in the US are actually owned by private companies, while the company Amtrak is partially financed by the government. Rather than my straightforward ‘the government are behind it’ understanding, this makes the responsibility for the experimentation in far wider circles, and implicates business and so on. It is also very plain that the priority is not the safety of the passengers on the rest of the train or the ordinary citizen, the priority is preserving the secret.
This X-File should make chilling viewing, since it brings the ‘conspiracy’ into ordinary people’s lives as well as up to government level. It is plain that the alleged alien abductions and experiments are actually some unethical medical experiment, and that the government is at least complicit in it, if not responsible for it. This is another thing that the X-Files does so well, it sows the seeds of doubt everywhere. I remember, well before this X-Files was broadcast hearing someone tell me a tale of a white train which could be seen going through the US in the night. The story I was told was that it was used to transport nuclear waste secretly, but this episode very cleverly picks up on that existing story and weaves it into another true history of Japanese medical experimentation, to weave a story which you can believe could be true. It is made all the more chilling by subsequent revelations of unethical medical experimentation carried out by the US government.
My personal opinion is that humans tend to act on the basis of expediency rather that honesty or morality. It is never a surprise when the law allows release of a previous government’s documents, to find that they have covered things up, and so on. This unchanging element in human behaviour is complemented well in this show by the fact that it is just old enough (considering the subject is public and professional perception of scientific experimentation) for the technology to be outdated. I love the way Mulder orders a video by post which someone has pulled off a satellite at 2am in the morning. Nowadays he would find it on the internet. You are reading this on the internet. My bet is the government is reading this on the internet. Because there is another psychological effect this episode has had on me. I can see that it could be hair-raising viewing if I was an American citizen. Sitting here as a British citizen watching this show in jolly old Blighty leaves me with the unaccustomed involuntary reaction that that couldn’t happen here. Our government would never do unethical experiments on unwilling participants. They’d never cover up these experiments either. Would they?