Tuesday, 21 February 2017

The Avengers Series 1: The Yellow Needle

Back to series 1 of The Avengers today. I think I'm going to have to accept that even though I may plan series of posts in an orderly line on an orderly theme, I don't think like that and thus my blog is always going to be more of a mishmash of posts on different themes which come and go as they enter and leave my head.
Anyway this Avengers is a classic series 1 Avengers, in that it completely lacks the weirdness of the later series. There is sex, or rather sexual tension in it, but it also lacks the sheer sexiness found in the later Avengers. I don't really have an overview of the series in my head, but I suspect that Steed plays a larger role in this one than he may have done in a lot of series 1 episodes.
The differences from the later Avengers aside, this is one that is very much of its time and perhaps is now seen at a disadvantage, since we can only see it with the benefit of hindsight. The specific time in which it is set is that when Britain's former colonies in Africa were seeking independence and making their first steps as new states. The fact that this transition was frequently accompanied by a bloodbath is a fact which can be explained in any number of ways and tends to draw out the prejudices of the commentator. To declare my own bias: it is what you can expect when we (the British) create a country to our own design, pillaging it of natural resources, ignoring existing tribal tensions and boundaries, treating the indigenous population as backward idiots who should be grateful to us…and then leave them to it, with no possibility of a return to their previous forms of government and high expectations of future prosperity and so on.
The assumptions of the Avengers episode are completely different and surprisingly characteristic of The Avengers when they are examined. For a start, the depiction of Tenebra, the African state which is on the verge of independence, is breath-takingly politically incorrect by today's standards. Even the name indicates that this is a country in the darkness which is incapable of taking its own steps to independence without descending into anarchy.
The answer to this is of course the intervention of the British government in the form of John Steed, and this is what I mean about the Avengers-ness of this story. It is very much one where our hero races to the rescue of whatever institution is at risk from some diabolical mastermind, and the peace and security of Blighty and our way of life is assured. In this case the life of the president of Tenebras is assured so that the country can't be taken over by the opposition who are obviously dirty tricks merchants. Thus the president of Tenebras, who is obviously thoroughly Westernised, remains Our Sort of Chap.
If I seem to be a little waspish over this, it is interesting that the president is here placed in opposition to people who clearly have African (I think I would probably have to place the country in West Africa in one of the parts which are semi-Christian and semi-Islamic) names and interests, and one of them has an Islamic name. These people are depicted as not learning our gentle Western ways from the years of colonialism and will clearly stop at nothing to get their own way.
The colonialism/independence conflict apart, this is additionally a fairly straightforward political story of intrigue, and it falls down because it is very obvious that Jacquetta Brown is going to be on the side of the enemy. It's a classic of detective fiction – the person administering the life-saving injections has the access to administer life-finishing injections. Obvious really. The story further falls down because it is inconceivable that nobody would notice in the five years she has worked for Sir Wilberforce, that she has a K branded on her forehead. A whole five years of a fringe which has remained solidly in place and never betrayed her secret? Impossible.
What this Avengers does for we fans who will never now see it, it illustrate marvelously the thing I have noted so often about Steed before: he uses his associates and exposes them to danger. In this case Keel only gets drugged, but since the person who did it is obviously a killer, he could quite easily have ended up dead. There is an irony in this, because it seems like the exposure to danger theme comes from above in the form of the British government, since Steed goes off to Tenebras alone posing as a reporter and is in probably even more danger, with no hope of support at all. So while Britain will interfere in other countries' plans for independence, it yet will not look after its own subjects. This Avengers manages to leave a very nasty taste in the mouth if one is British.
Image credit: dissolute.com.au

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Doctor Who: Planet of Giants

One of the all-time great Dr Who adventures, this one, or rather one of the legendary ones because it was intended to be the first ever, before being demoted to first adventure of the second series.
I'm trying to make a connection betweem the original educational intent of Dr Who and the major concern of the time which is the real subject of this adventure. This concern is of course the contemporary ambivalent attitude to technology, where it is both the white hot hope for the future, and also a source of danger if not managed properly. Rachel Carson's book about the supposed dangers of DDT was published the year before Dr Who started, and since her findings - that DDT has effects further down the food chain - while not being completely unchallenged at the time, would have been very much the latest science at the time. Ironically, since I believe Carson's research is now believed not to have been controlled enough, of course this Who's educational intent missed the point.
That is not a criticism, because anyone can be right with the benefit of hindsight. This Who has however been subjected to the sort of attention which any show of this age is particularly unable to withstand, and as a result has tended to get heavily criticised on the internet. Since this blog is my own ramblings on classic TV I will just say that my only real criticism is that the twin strands of dangerous chemical and shrunken TARDIS crew are too easily mixed up. Once again, though, I think the real reason for that is that TV shows of this age require watching with closer attention than many newer ones, so it may just be me.
I notice a tendency to connect the shrinking motif here to the 1950s film The Incredible Shrinking Man, but I think it can be traced much further back in various media - it can be found in Laurel and Hardy, and of course in Lewis Carroll. It is the science fiction thread here, in counterpoint to the real world concern about dangerous chemicals. I would also note that The Avengers picked up on both these themes later in the sixties, in different episodes: the shrinking motif is well suited to The Avengers' unreal world, while the poisonous dust motif is well suited to The Avengers' plotline of attempted world domination by some diabolical mastermind.
One thing I didn't realise as I watched the four episodes on the DVD was that in the extras I would find two additional episodes cut from the show as originally made. In fact they are recreations of those episodes, and I have decided that the way they are done is my favourite way to reconstruct a show. Footage is cleverly taken from elsewhere and the missing soundtrack voiced by actors playing the original actors playing the characters. These actors are superb, and you really do have to look closely in places to see that the action doesn't quite match the dialogue. This way of reconstruction to my mind beats the animation or still photography methods hands down.
The other extras on the DVD are also superb, and give an insight into the making of the series.
This Who adventure will always have to bear a heavy burden in terms of its status as the one which could have been the first but wasn't. Personally I don't think it would have been up to the task of kickinh off an entire new sci-fi series: while of course it does bring the world of the time lords into ours it doesn't manage the atmosphere of strangeness that An Unearthly Child has. That said, it is still a very atmospheric Who, using both a stock science fiction trope and a contemporary concern to weave a competent tale.
My favourite bit: the switchboard operator and her policeman husband using the switchboard to trick the baddies into giving themselves away.

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Why old TV?

Subjects I have mentioned here frequently include a fear that no 'new' old TV will ever come to light again, and the atmosphere of old TV. I have never really posted about what it is about vintage TV that I and others appreciate.
A reasonable assumption would be that it is an exercise in nostalgia, but I think this assumption is flawed, although of course it will be true for some people. Personally I often find that programmes I remember fondly fall flat on their face being watched at this length of time. Obviously I don't mean the ones I write about here! In fact while you do get reviews on Amazon where nostalgia is clearly the point, it is noticeably lacking in the TV blog community, the sort of people who will read this.
It must be that there is something different about old TV from the contemporary version. I don't think it is primarily quality, as I say, I think it is found in the medium rather than the writing. Of course I can't ignore that modern TV is written much differently.
Of course modern TV depicts a different world from, say, that of 1960, but I still don't think that is the thing about old TV. I personally don't tend to take to period dramas of whatever age, and that is what makes me think that the era depicted on the screen is not what makes the difference: I don't think I would like a modern series set in the sixties. In fact I didn't like Mad Men, not least because its depiction of smoking was far too self conscious.
I am reduced to production then, and I think this might be the reason we like old TV. It is perhaps like those people who prefer records to digital audio because the sound's better. When you don't ordinarily watch CGI it is very obvious and apparent. Of course everyone knows it's there, but there is something more real about TV which required the events shown actually to take place and to be filmed. There is a reality about the events depicted which you don't get from computers.
Perhaps this is what it is? Perhaps we who watch old TV want to see things really happening to people who really existed?

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Peaky Blinders: Second Impressions

You will see that I have changed my profile picture: a bare chest made it difficult to comment on other people's blogs and you will see that I have on a Birmingham City Football Club shirt, which reminded me I had series 2 of Peaky Blinders to watch.
First things first, I have to confess to not getting on very well with Peaky Blinders and I can't think why. Naturally it has been watched and talked about at length locally. There has even been a bit of a trend for flat caps.
The elephant in the room with the peaky blinder thing is that it isn't true. The gang the story is based on were around in the 1890s, not the 1920s. It is unlikely they used razor blades at all, as they were luxury items.
Don't get me wrong, there were areas of this city at that time where the police just didn't go. There was also a myriad of geographically-based gangs.
There's also something wrong with the way the show looks. To this day, I can show you real poverty in this city. At the time Peaky Blinders is set people lived in slums. The illustration to this post is one of those slums, as it was before the National Trust opened it as the Back to Backs museum. Peaky Blinders looks too clean, too spacious, too light: all things which come at a premium.
One thing I will say of the second series over the first: they've got the accents better. The predominantly Liverpool accents of series 1 are gone. The local detail is also just right.
If it's any consolation to the die-hard fans, I may seem negative, but a show only gets blogged about here if it isn't a complete dud!