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Time-warps and Transparency

Philip Levene turns in his third script in a row with Escape in Time, which is possibly the most peculiar one yet. I remember being quite baffled by it the first time I saw it – not because the plot is particularly difficult to follow, but because it is just so preposterously far-fetched. It opens in the time-honoured style with one of Steed’s colleagues finding his way into a rather grandly appointed house. Poking around, he tumbles through a door and finds himself in a room appointed in the style of the 17th century, where he encounters Peter Bowles (his third Avengers-baddie engagement) in a spaniel wig, who shoots him with a flintlock pistol.

At least this time Steed knows what his colleague (whose corpse is fished out of the Thames a short while later) was working on – miscreants and evil-doers have been dropping out of sight, never to be seen again. Clearly some kind of escape route is in operation, but what? Luckily, someone else is on the case, gets himself mortally stabbed (Bowles again, in a different wig and facial hair), and staggers off to Steed’s new flat (he’s moved again since series 4), where he flops carefully onto his mark and gasps a few key expositional phrases to get Steed and Mrs Peel on the right track.

A fairly witty and deftly directed sequence follows, as Steed and Emma trail a fugitive South American dictator around a warren of jokily-named shops (the barber appears to be called Todd Sweeney, for instance). The man is replaced by a double while he’s out of their sight, while Mrs Peel’s attempt to follow one of the people he meets just leads to one of several filler action sequences, where she’s menaced by a guy on a scooter in hunting pink. Naturally, Steed decides to follow the escape route himself, and meets Waldo Thyssen (Bowles again, in modern dress), who claims to have invented a time machine which he’s using to allow wealthy fugitives to elude their pursuers…

As I say, even on first viewing I was saying to my fellow watcher (this was at my Avengers viewing party, as mentioned previously), ‘It can’t really be a time machine, can it?’ (This is the point at which one inevitably says: but it’s a Philip Levene script, so you never can tell.) Well, it’s not. The plot is basically this: Bowles is playing a lunatic who likes dressing up as his ancestors. He has somehow hit upon a way of convincing wealthy criminals that they are in the past, by putting smoke and lights in their faces and then wearing a selection of wigs. They then cough up their money, at which point he kills them and disposes of the bodies so they are never found (on the face of it, it looks like he just sticks the stiffs in boxes around his house). Why doesn’t he use his infallible disappearing-corpse technique on Steed’s associate from the start, rather than dumping him in a busy river like the Thames? Why are such financially-successful crooks so gullible? How is this operation remotely profitable? (There seem to be an awful lot of people on Thyssen’s payroll, to say nothing of all the properties he seems to have a stake in.)

Oh well. Fridge logic is the enemy of a lot of these episodes, and this one at least has a few funny moments and a nice set of performances from Bowles as Thyssen’s various personae. The general surrealness of the episode and its obsession with garish dressing up (various costume changes for all the characters) means that, for me, it is the first Avengers episode which seems to anticipate the style of The Prisoner (one of that series’ more whimsical episodes, anyway). The two series were obviously in production at the same time, although this episode was broadcast in early 1967, a good eight months or so before Patrick McGoohan’s magnum opus premiered. I expect it’s a general cultural trend from around this time, which we shall see more of as we progress through the colour episodes.

Yet another Levene script follows, in the form of The See-Through Man. This is that rarest of beasts, a near-sequel to a previous Avengers episode – or at least one featuring a returning guest-star, which is nearly as unusual. Rather like Escape in Time, it’s constructed around a very peculiar piece of narrative legerdemaine, which we shall come to in a moment.

An unseen individual breaks into a Ministry of Defence facility and steals some apparently trivial documents – not just unseen, but apparently unseeable (invisible, if you prefer), as Steed and Mrs Peel arrive mid-break-in and can’t see in anyone. It turns out that the missing papers were a proposal from a mad scientist named Quilby (Roy Kinnear, in the third of his four Avengers guest spots), concerning his new invisibility formula. Quilby admits selling the formula to a company which is a front for the Other Side for an eye-watering sum.

It turns out that a couple of top agents for the Other Side (literally: they are married) are in the country and making Ambassador Brodsky (Warren Mitchell reprising his role from Two’s a Crowd, in the last of his four guest spots) rather nervous. Could it be that the opposition have actually got their hands on the secret of invisibility and are using it to ensure the British authorities can’t get Quilby to replicate his discovery for them?

The tipping point that The Avengers seems to have passed during its transition to colour is this: in one of Levene’s scripts for the previous season, the twist would be that the opposition were aliens or psychics or killer robots. In these two scripts, the twist is that they’re not – the time machine was a hoax in Escape in Time, and the invisible man in this one is a fake too. (Though quite how they manage it is utterly perplexing – I am reminded of the Douglas Adams quote about actual invisibility, specifically that ‘the technology involved in making anything invisible is so infinitely complex that nine hundred and ninety-nine billion, nine hundred and ninety-nine million, nine hundred and ninety-nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine times out of a trillion it is much simpler and more effective just to take the thing away and do without it’. It would almost seem to be easier to actually create an invisible agent than to attempt the kind of hoax depicted here (and, if one were to be awkward, one might point out the Other Side do just that in one of the Tara King episodes, which features killers who are genuinely invisible – from some angles anyway).

Apart from this much of the episode is broad farce written around big comic turns from Roy Kinnear and especially Warren Mitchell. I don’t find these to be quite as wearisome as some commentators do, but it does seem like Diana Rigg in particular gets a bit sidelined as a result – though she does get a good scene where she reveals that she’s rumbled the Other Side’s nefarious plan to bankrupt the UK by tricking it into investing millions in researching an impossible weapon (shades of the story about how Robert Heinlein and some American SF writers came up with the notion of ‘Star Wars’ weapon satellites in the 1980s after Reagan asked them to win the Cold War for him). Possibly also notable for an odd reference to the Beatles – Brodsky claims to have concert tickets, which is rather unlikely given they’d stopped gigging by the time this episode was made. But these two episodes and the previous pair are odd in all kinds of ways; a return to something closer to normality would almost be welcome at this point.

The Mnemonic Man

Time runs in reverse, characters’ relationships remain clouded, the viewer’s brain ends up in a knot – are we talking about Tenet or Christopher Nolan’s 2000 movie Memento? The director’s work seems to be suffering from a case of deja vu, or perhaps it is stuck in a time loop. This was Nolan’s first ‘proper’ movie – his actual debut, Following, was made in black and white on a punitively low budget, resulting in a concomitantly brief running time. Nevertheless, it was successful enough to get him his foot in the door with Hollywood, and this is the result. No-one was yet likening Nolan to Stanley Kubrick at the time, but what is striking is the extent to which this film resonates with the much bigger-budget films he has essentially moved on to since.

Guy Pearce plays Leonard Shelby, a former insurance investigator with a curious affliction: he cannot form new memories. He forgets everything that happens to him unless he makes a point of physically writing it down – otherwise it just slips away in a matter of minutes. Vital information is tattooed about his person so he sees it whenever he goes to the bathroom. His pockets are stuffed with notes-to-self and polaroid photos (one of the things which slightly dates it – and may have made it seem a little odd even when it was new) is that it seems to hail from an era before the invention of the cellphone, let alone the smartphone, a device which – one imagines – might have a fairly dramatic impact upon the plot.

How has Leonard ended up in this rather unfortunate state? The last thing he remembers is a brutal attack on his wife and himself, in the course of which he suffered brain damage (hence his problems in the recollection department). Now he has a tattoo across his chest telling him the first name and initial of the man who apparently raped and murdered his wife (Jorja Fox). His overriding obsession is to find this man and kill him, even though – and this is pointed out to him, though of course he can’t retain the idea for very long – any satisfaction he gains from succeeding in his quest will necessarily be short-lived (he’ll soon forget he ever did it).

The movie follows Leonard over three quite eventful days in the pursuit of his quarry, in which he has various encounters with mysterious figures (to be fair, everyone seems like a mysterious figure when all you can ever know about them is what can be written on the back of a polaroid), including a barmaid (Carrie-Anne Moss) and a man claiming to be a cop (Joe Pantoliano).

What follows is essentially Christopher Nolan doing his usual thing of taking the tropes of a genre movie and putting a soaringly high-concept spin on them, usually involving the way the narrative is presented to the audience. There is a sort of faint and possibly misleading resemblance to the kind of Tarantino pastiche that everyone seemed to be making in the late nineties and early years of the new century: it’s a twisty-turny LA-set crime thriller, with an innovatively non-linear narrative structure. However, what Tarantino appears to have been doing as a gimmick is at the heart of how Memento functions as a film.

How do you put the audience in the position of someone with no-short term memory? Nolan’s solution is simple: most of the narrative of Memento is shown backwards – not actually backwards, a la Tenet, but divided into chunks which are then shown in reverse order: Leonard repeatedly finds himself in situations with no recollection of how he got there, which is a sensation the audience obviously shares in the circumstances. Obviously this presents enormous potential for plot twists and reversals, as Leonard is told one thing only for it to be revealed in a later (i.e., earlier) sequence that what really happened was quite different.

He is, as you might expect, an easy target for manipulation and deceit, and it’s a wonder he’s not more paranoid than appears to be the case. Nevertheless, he does come across as a lonely and rather tragic figure, obsessed with his meaningless crusade. At several points he even sets out to mislead and manipulate his future self into certain courses of action, indicating a degree of psychological instability which is actually rather concerning. Needless to say this is a movie which is heavy on the existential trauma, consistently returning to questions of identity and motivation. Without memories, how do you know what you want to do? How do you even know who you are? Leonard keeps referring back to his past life as an insurance assessor, but the implication is that the things he has done since the incident which damaged his brain are the acts of a very different man.

Nolan is therefore obviously hitting the viewer with a mighty double whammy of a film which is both structurally and thematically intensely complex – a friend said after watching Tenet that ‘it put a knot in my brain’ and I felt the same while viewing Memento. What is likely to make things even more of a challenge for the viewer is that in addition to the reverse-chronology element of the film (shown in colour) there is also a normal-chronology element (shown in black and white), interwoven with it. The relationship between the two is not immediately apparent, which just adds to the general sense of Nolan trying to drive the viewer nuts, but this does lead up to the bravura moment when the black and white image slowly bleeds into colour and everything suddenly becomes, if not clear, then certainly clearer. I don’t think this is quite one of those films demanding a second viewing in order for them to become totally comprehensible – but the facility to string the whole narrative together in conventional chronological order would certainly be a bonus, and I am amused to see that several of the movie’s DVD releases do present this as an option.

Your attention in this movie is invariably on the storytelling and direction, but it works as well as it does because of solid performances from the three leads, especially Pearce, who’s in virtually every scene. It’s obviously a challenging role, but he finds the pathos in it, and the humour, and an unsettling note of detached ruthlessness that sets up a memorably vicious ending. Or beginning. Or middle. It’s that kind of story.

What’s striking is how much this film anticipates the concerns which have driven virtually all of Christopher Nolan’s work since: his films seem to be obsessed with how we perceive time, and the interface and relationship between reality and our memories of it. You could even argue that Leonard’s pathological quest for justice anticipates that of Bruce Wayne in the Batman movies. Nolan has, obviously, moved on to much greater things in the two decades since this film was released, but the raw material remains the same, as does – on the whole – the quality of the results. This is one of those films which feels like a young director laying down a marker – in this case, a director who more than made good on the promise he showed here. An essential movie for Christopher Nolan fans and a great, intelligent thriller in its own right.

Rues Vicieux

A boy (Issa Percia) wrapped in the French tricolor flag emerges from an apartment block in present-day Paris. There is a sense of great anticipation in the air as he joins his friends and they excitedly discuss the prospects for the football match they are eagerly anticipating – France is in the world cup final! They travel to the centre of the city and join with huge crowds also following the game and enjoying the occasion. (As ever at these moments, you can’t help but envy the French their national anthem: the UK’s is such an antediluvian dirge.) No spoilers, but France win and the celebrations are unrestrained and wholly joyful, flags and banners waving. It is therefore unsettling and ironic as the title card for Les Miserables, directed by Ladj Ly, appears over these images.

Soon we find ourselves in the company of Stephane Ruiz (Damien Bonnard), a policeman newly transferred to Paris from the provinces. Ruiz has been assigned to the Street Crime Unit, a special group concerned with monitoring activity in the underprivileged district of Montfermeil (where Victor Hugo wrote and partly set his famous novel, many years ago). He gets a stern lecture from a senior officer about the importance of teamwork and backing up his immediate superior, Chris (Alexis Mamenti) – also known as Pink Pig – before hitting the streets with him and another colleague, Gwada (Djebril Zonga).

It soon becomes apparent that their patch is a tinder-box just waiting for the spark that will cause a major explosion: the mostly immigrant population are living in poverty, and there are constant tensions between the different ethnic crime gangs and the Muslim brotherhood, who also maintain a significant presence in the area (the film makes it clear without labouring the issue that the cops are more comfortable dealing with the crooks than the brotherhood). Ruiz has clearly not received a plum assignment.

Things get even more awkward: there is an abrasive edge to Ruiz’s relationship with Pink Pig practically from the moment they meet – partly due to Pink Pig bestowing the unwelcome nickname ‘Greaser’ on his new colleague – and this only becomes more pronounced when Ruiz is forced to back his colleague up when he attempts to illegally search a group of teenage girls. One of them attempts to film him as he does so: Pink Pig smashes her phone. He makes his position clear to Ruiz: when it comes to his interactions with the inhabitants of his patch, he is never wrong, and never sorry.

Already the film is immensely resonant with issues that have exercised the world this year, about the intersection of race, social opportunity and police power, and this continues as the plot develops. The team are called in to deal with a petty theft that threatens to flare up into a major clash between two of the local gangs. Whatever else they are, Pink Pig and his team are competent cops and locate the guilty party – the boy from the start of the film. But they find themselves under attack by a gang of children, nerves are stretched too far, and an innocent is badly injured. Rather than helping the wounded party, it’s clear that Pink Pig’s priority is covering up the whole incident. Is Ruiz going to support his superior or do his job?

We still seem to be at a point where the big distributors are being very wary about releasing big films into the multiplexes – at the moment the only major ‘new’ films are Tenet and The New Mutants, with the rest of the screens just showing kids’ movies and the odd oldie, though I note that the third Bill and Ted film is due to come out in the next week or so. If nothing else, one might hope this would create an opening for a film like Les Miserables, which might usually struggle to find an audience. (Although one must accept the possibility that all films are struggling to find an audience at the moment.) This is, regrettably, mainly because it is subtitled, although the general tone and subject matter are also likely to put some people off.

By this I mean that Les Miserables, while functioning superbly as a gripping thriller – something like a Francophone version of Training Day – is also clearly motivated by other concerns than the desire to entertain. If it had been made by certain American studios we’d probably discussing it as what they call ‘social entertainment’ – underpinning a solid narrative is the desire to engage with serious issues.

Initially it seems like this is going to primarily be a film about the abuse of police powers, framed as a conflict between Chris and Ruiz. Both actors give terrific performances, especially Mamenti (who also co-wrote the film) – Pink Pig initially seems like a joker with a slightly nasty edge to him, before he is revealed to be a dangerously arrogant and self-interested loose cannon. But the film is not totally simplistic – we see glimpses of a more rounded character, a capable police officer and family man. It’s suggested the job itself has worn these men down and brutalised them. Bonnard, for his part, puts across his character’s awkwardness and increasing concern extremely well, building up to the inevitable confrontations with his colleagues.

However, as the story develops it becomes clear that there is a wider issue being explored here: the extent to which the young people of Montfermeil have been failed and abandoned by adult authority figures. They are at best ignored by the authorities, allowed to slip through the cracks – at worst, they are exploited and treated as a resource by criminals and the police. Only the Muslim brotherhood genuinely appear to have their best interests at heart (which obviously opens up a whole new can of worms about the nature of multi-culturalism in western society). The climax, when it comes, is explicitly framed as a clash between youth in revolt and the men who have failed them, ending on a finely-achieved moment of ambiguity: a horrendously tense moment is left unresolved, as a quote from Hugo suggests that men are not born bad, but raised badly. It’s an entirely persuasive and affecting conclusion to a film which often feels like an roar of anger, but one which never loses focus or control. This is an excellent piece of cinema.

Now, here’s a genuinely odd thing: having been watching an average of four or five episodes of The Avengers a week since April, I figured a little mini-break between series 4 and 5, coinciding with some time with my family, might not be a bad idea. So away I went, leaving all my DVDs at home. And it was all very relaxing, thanks, I have nothing at all to complain about. But, as I say, one genuinely weird thing did happen – at one point I stepped out of the room for a few moments, leaving my parents in command of the TV remote, and when I returned what should I find them watching? The first episode of series 5, which one of the high-numbers TV channel had decided to rerun with near-perfect timing. As I say, very strange.

The first episodes of series 5 were the ones I initially watched as a swivel-eyed devotee, anyway, so I know them quite well. The year was 1991 and a rerun of The New Avengers had recently concluded – this had woken up all my memories of the repeats of the original show I’d seen in the late 80s. I happened to know that the man who advised my parents on their insurance was into classic cult TV (it’s better not to ask, honestly), and on his next visit he lent me his tape of the first three episodes, which I duly had a friend copy for me. I was possibly the only teenager of my generation to organise an Avengers viewing party – one friend came along, mainly because he’d enjoyed the New Avengers repeats, I think. (Looking back on my youth sometimes, I’m almost astonished that I’m able to function in society as well as I am, these days.)

Anyway, series 5 begins with Philip Levene’s From Venus with Love, a script which was rejected for the previous year because it was ‘too bizarre’ (what, and Man-Eater of Surrey Green wasn’t?). An astronomer about his viewing is stricken by a sudden heatwave that causes his lucozade to erupt into froth. Moments later he falls dead, his hair bleached white, as a strange noise echoes about the place. The same thing happens again to another astromomer, which gives Steed and Mrs Peel something to do other than just discuss the state of the corpses – a pattern is emerging.

Yes, someone is killing off stargazers, a group who seem to get more and more eccentric as the episode goes on: there’s an aristocratic chimney-sweep, and an old soldier intent on recording his memoirs on tape, complete with sound effects. (This character, the Brigadier, is played by Jon Pertwee, a fact which invariably causes clanging cognitive dissonance in members of my former tribe. Pertwee is routinely described as the main guest star despite only being in the episode for a few minutes.) It all seems to revolve around the British Venusian Society, a club planning on launching a private space probe to the second planet – but have they inadvertently provoked the secretive Venusians into a pre-emptive strike against them?

This being a Levene script, you wouldn’t rule it out, but the actual revelation, when it comes, is possibly even weirder and certainly more convoluted: a disgruntled opthalmologist (Philip Locke, in the last of three appearances as an Avengers baddie), annoyed at the way funding for medical research has been redirected to pay for the BVS’s project, has bolted a laser gun onto the front of a sports car and is using this to kill off the society’s membership (everyone assumes the vehicle is a UFO, for some reason).

On the other hand, the credibility of the script is certainly matched by its scientific accuracy and its general coherence: at one point, Mrs Peel is telling Steed about the BVS for the first time, at which point the chimney-sweep is killed by the ‘UFO’. She promptly jumps into her Lotus and gives chase (apparently not giving much thought to why the UFO is using the public highway). We then have a series of scenes in which Steed locates, visits, and talks to members of the BVS (Barbara Shelley and Derek Newark turn up in decent roles). Then the action cuts back to Mrs Peel, who is still chasing the UFO. How long has she been doing this for? Common sense suggests it must have been hours.

Of course, we have departed the realm of common sense now: The Avengers, which was once a fairly straight detective show, and then became an off-beat adventure series, has now entered the realms of total fantasy, where the simple fact that things happen is much more important than how or why they happen. This is reflected in the increasingly formalistic and stylised nature of the show, with the ‘we’re needed’ and tag scenes bookending each story (Channel 4 cut these for the 1980s repeat run). One wonders how much of this was a natural development from the previous season, and how much a deliberate choice to court the American market which the producers now had half an eye on (the attentive viewer will note the opening title card announces ‘The Avengers in Color‘ – note the spelling).

Speaking of which, the switch to colour does encourage some spectacular, if not downright garish, decisions from the costuming and art departments: at one point we see Steed lounging about in what appears to be a maroon silk tuxedo with a mauve shirt, while a purple jumpsuit seems to have become Emma’s outfit of choice. (It’s not just them: in the next episode one of the villains is wearing magenta socks.) One is almost inclined to feel sorry for the retinas of our American cousins, given that this show wasn’t broadcast in colour on its original UK showing (colour TV didn’t start here until the end of the decade, and remained something of a minority pursuit until the mid-1970s).

Anyway, the script department was probably right: From Venus with Love is just too weird to work as a coherent episode. Nevertheless, Levene has another go with The Fear Merchants. This opens with a man in his pyjamas waking up in a sports stadium and promptly having a fit of the ab-dabs. It seems he is a leading figure in the UK ceramics industry, a number of whom have recently had complete psychological breakdowns in equally odd circumstances: turning up on mountain tops, in canoes out at sea, and so on. Evidence points towards one Jeremy Raven, an ambitious young businessman who seems intent on cornering the market by any means necessary…

Watching the episode again now, one’s first reaction is that something very odd seems to have been going on in the casting department: solid character actors like Andrew Keir, Bernard Horsfall and Edward Burnham are cast in one-scene parts (Burnham and Horsfall barely get any dialogue), while as the ambitious and ruthless young Raven they have secured the services of Brian Wilde (then 40), best known for playing the timorous screw Barraclough in Porridge and ex-army bore Foggy in Last of the Summer Wine. On the other hand, Patrick Cargill plays the villain (again) with his usual aplomb, while there’s a nicely underplayed turn as his henchman from Garfield Morgan (resembling a young Eric Morecambe somewhat).

In the end the plot makes a bit more sense than the previous week’s, but it’s a near thing. Cargill and his cronies have set up a management consultancy firm (the ‘Business Efficiency Bureau’) which functions by eradicating their client’s competitors. How do they do this? Psychological analysis identifies their underlying phobias, which are then ruthlessly exploited. Fair enough, it is a reasonable basis for the episode (much of it is a series of set-piece ‘phobia’ sequences) – but if you have hit upon a method of giving anyone a nervous breakdown, isn’t there an easier way of monetising this than going through all these shenanigans with management consultancy? The Business Efficiency Bureau is not, itself, the most efficient of cover operations: one wonders just how many small businessmen they have to drive into a stupor to pay for their office space. Still, Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg are clearly not taking it too seriously, which is sensible, and as a result it stays watchable and fun. One does sense that the edge of the best series 4 episodes has been dulled, though, perhaps permanently.

*

Anyone who’s been reading along with this cruise through The Avengers – an attempt to find some positivity in fairly dismal times – may recall that I started shortly after the death of Honor Blackman back in April. Since I wrote the above the news has broken of the passing of Dame Diana Rigg, giving these current pieces a resonance I could frankly have happily lived without. While it was The Avengers that brought Rigg to fame, it was really only a relatively small part of a tremendously distinguished and successful career, ranging from doing Chekhov on stage to being (briefly) the first Mrs James Bond. There was also a terrific performance in Theatre of Blood, and an award-winning one in the 1989 BBC drama Mother Love. However, one way or another I think it is for Emma Peel and The Avengers that Diana Rigg will be remembered, and remembered for a long time. An exceptional talent. RIP.

Not Really Very Super Power

Just the other week I was observing with a degree of sadness that Joseph Gordon-Levitt seemed to have rather dropped off the radar in recent years: this was, of course, the cue for him to reappear in what I suppose must qualify as a fairly high-profile movie (it’s a streamer, but conventional releases still seem to be on pause while the accountants see how well Tenet and The New Mutants do in the new climate). It seems, by the way, that Gordon-Levitt took a couple of years off to concentrate on raising his family – which is highly laudable, of course, even if the fact he has this option just drives home how extravagant the salaries of Hollywood performers often are. There’s a trade-off, he suggests, saying that the professional options open to him have narrowed compared to what they were before his break.

I wonder if this could be construed as why an actor sometimes to be found in rather prestigious studio productions now finds himself in an original superhero movie made by Netflix? Perhaps I am letting my prejudices show, for I am still wary of anything which seems to undermine the theatrical experience in the way that Netflix’s business model does, while it’s hard to think of an own-brand superhero movie (by which I mean, not based on a pre-existing comic book character) with any real merit. (I suppose some people would argue for Darkman.)

The movie in question is Project Power, directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman. The setting is the city of New Orleans, still depicting as struggling many years after the impact of Hurricane Katrina. But now the citizens of the Big Easy have something new making their lives more difficult: a designer drug is being sold on the streets. Known as ‘Power’, the one and only effect of it is to give the taker superpowers. There are some arbitrary genre movie rules attached to this, of course: the powers only last for exactly five minutes, and it’s not like you get a random new power every time – it’s more as if the drug activates whatever potential you have.

(Shame they can’t organise posters like this so everyone stands under their own name. Hey ho.)

So far, so preposterous but at the same time fairly generative as far as story ideas go – but, possibly to try and make it all sound a bit more credible, the writer (Mattson Tomlin) attempts to put some kind of quasi-scientific gloss on this by indicating the drug gives people powers derived from the natural abilities of various animals. Nothing too objectionable about this, I suppose, but the movie rather blows a hole in its own credibility by introducing a character whose power, when activated, is so terrifyingly destructive even he is frightened of it. And what animal has he apparently gained this from? A shrimp. You can’t beat a bit of bathos.

Anyway, the actual plot concerns a trio of characters: maverick cop Frank (Gordon-Levitt), who has taken to using Power in order to allow him to stand a chance against criminals who are using the drug; teenage drug-dealer and aspiring rapper Robin (Dominique Fishback), who is his supplier; and the Major (Jamie Foxx), an ex-military drifter who has blown into town and is determined to find the source of the drug for reasons of his own. Can they sort out their various differences and work together to get the drug off the streets?

It’s almost inherent in the superhero genre that the premise of a story is going to be fairly unlikely, and once you factor this in the premise of Project Power does not look entirely un-promising. There is the potential here for all the requisite action and crash-bang-wallopery, but in a slightly more gritty context than usual – it’s clear from the script that the writer intended to make points about the various injustices of US society and engage in other bits of social commentary too.

Well, I suppose in the end the movie’s higher aspirations are all still present, but you have to look quite hard for them as they sort of vanish into the background. I do wonder if I am unfairly prejudiced against some of these streaming movies – it’s possible that if I’d seen a movie like Project Power on the big screen, I might have been more impressed by the fact it is trying to be a bit more intelligent and thoughtful and engage with social issues as well as being a special-effects action movie. The film’s advantage in that setting would have been the faculty-numbing effect of a giant screen and huge sound system (this is all part and parcel of the theatrical experience I mentioned earlier). Watching it on a small-ish TV or laptop, it just doesn’t have the effect the makers are presumably hoping for.

In the end you are left with a movie built around lavish special effects action sequences, and while they look pretty good they are an essentially superficial pleasure. The very nature of these set-pieces and the way they are presented is really at odds with all the other things the script is trying to do: if you’re trying to make a film which has serious points about America’s drugs problem and its underprivileged citizens, you surely want to make something which is fairly gritty and naturalistic, not just another slick and glossy Marvel-style entertainment. That really would have been something new and interesting in this genre. As it is, the film’s noble intentions just seem like a fig-leaf to justify CGI overload and a lurid, colour-drenched visual style.

I could gripe about a few other things – the film can’t seem to resist beating the viewer over the head with pop-culture references, for example – but that is its main problem. That said, as this kind of film goes, I’ve seen much worse, and it has some visually impressive fights and chases (I should mention there are some rather grisly moments along the way). The presence of charismatic leads like Foxx and Gordon-Levitt is also, obviously, a plus, while everyone seems to agree that this film features a potentially career-launching turn from Dominique Fishback – I can’t argue with this, though I wonder if that career will be as an actress or a rapper (let’s face it, in today’s media landscape, probably both). In the end, though, this feels like another piece of slickly assembled and packaged Netflix product rather than anything genuinely interesting or exciting.

Y for Yevgeny

In terms of premises for apocalyptic fiction, nuclear holocausts seem to have gone out of fashion in recent years, replaced (perhaps understandably) by climate change, pandemic, and zombie uprisings (now more than ever, an interestingly flexible metaphor). Given there are still the best part of 4,000 active nuclear weapons in the world, we could argue about whether the fact we seem less worried about all going up a mushroom cloud is sensible or not, but one way or another the idea just doesn’t seem to interest creative people any more. Unless they’re working on something which had its origins in the age of atomic angst, such as Craig Zobel’s 2015 film Z for Zachariah. (Zobel isn’t a particularly well-known director; his most recent film, The Hunt, was one of those that had its release clobbered when lockdown closed all the cinemas.)

The film is based on Robert C O’Brien’s posthumous and, it seems to me, quite well-known novel. Margot Robbie plays Anne, a young woman living alone in an isolated valley somewhere in the midwest of America (although the film is an international co-production and was filmed in New Zealand). There has been some kind of nuclear war and the world outside the valley is now irradiated and uninhabitable (quite a few books from years gone by have curious ideas about the spread and effects of nuclear fall-out: see, for instance, Nevil Shute’s On the Beach and its film adaptation). Her family have one-by-one all departed the family farm to go in search of help or other survivors, and – unsurprisingly – not returned.

There are a few scenes of Anne’s solitary and perhaps lonely life in the valley; she is a devout young woman and this seems to be something of a consolation to her. Soon enough, though – perhaps too soon for the success of the film – she finds a stranger has made his way into her world: a man in a radiation suit, named Loomis (Chiwetel Ejiofor). However, Loomis makes the mistake of swimming in a contaminated pool and falls gravely ill with radiation poisoning. Being a kindly sort, Anne takes him in and nurses him back to health.

Loomis recovers and confirms that the world outside the valley is essentially dead, and that their only hope for the future is to stay where they are and make the best of what resources they have. Things are a little awkward between them, however: Anne is young and not especially well-educated, while the more mature Loomis is a scientist and engineer with a different perspective on the world. When he proposes tearing down the chapel built by Anne’s father to provide raw materials for a building project, this is a source of tension between them. But there are other realities of the two of them living together long-term which he seems, perhaps, a little quicker to grasp than she is…

So far the film has stayed relatively close to O’Brien’s story, although the whole issue of why it’s called Z for Zachariah is skipped over somewhat (Anne’s reading of the Bible has led her to conclude that as the first man in the world was named Adam, so the last man must be called Zachariah): the book revolves around the disintegration of the relationship between Anne and Loomis as his true nature becomes apparent. The pace of the movie has been a little stately and the feel of it slightly theatrical (the actors are given plenty of space and time for their performances, especially Robbie), but this isn’t really a problem.

What is a problem is what comes next… or at least, it seems like a problem to me, for (as long-term readers will know) I am of that breed of weird eccentric who turns up for an adaptation of a book expecting it to have essentially the same story as that book. I know, stupid and unreasonable, but there you go. What happens next in the film of Z for Zachariah is that a third character turns up: Caleb, played by Chris Pine (I’m not going to have another go at Chris Pine at this point; his performance here is perfectly acceptable). Caleb is a former coal-miner and comes from a background much more like Anne’s than Loomis does. The two of them have a chemistry perhaps missing between Anne and the older man. Can the three of them find a way of living together amicably…?

Well, look, not to put too fine a point on it, but this is such a fundamental change to the story that it sends the whole thing off into the realms of being an adaptation in name only (adding a third character to a story the sine qua non of which is that it only features two characters will have that effect). You can’t really do a story about a young woman’s relationship with the last man on Earth if there are two last men in it (I was wondering what a better and more accurate name for this might be, which has led me to realise how very few traditional western first names start with a Y). Whatever the merits of this story – and it does hang together as a story solidly enough – it’s not O’Brien’s story. This bears as much resemblance (if not more) to other stories of tricky post-apocalyptic relationships, such as The Quiet Earth and The World, the Flesh and the Devil, as it does to the novel of Z for Zachariah.

(I was so annoyed by this that I tried to track down a copy of a genuine adaptation of the novel, the BBC version from 1984. This relocates the story to Wales but retains the actual narrative. Obviously a product of the same era of nuclear anxiety as films like Threads, what I saw of it seemed bleak and dour, with an equally slow start – although Anne’s family do appear in flashbacks. However, this was a two-hour film and I could only find the first hour online, so I can’t really comment on it any further.)

As a tale of obsession and controlling relationships in a post-apocalyptic setting, the movie is pretty reasonably done, although I did find the studied ambiguity of the conclusion to be a little bit irritating. What keeps it watchable despite the stately pace and the vague sense that you’ve seen similar stories told in fairly similar ways many times before are the performances: Ejiofor is always good, but here he’s in very much a secondary role. The movie is essentially a vehicle for Margot Robbie to show her range and perhaps be a bit less obviously blonde than usual (by which I mean this is a role where she de-glams herself, does a regional accent, and so on).

This isn’t a terrible movie if you like your slow-burning post-apocalyptic melodramas, especially if you like one or more of the actors involved. However, I do think the title is badly misleading and maybe even just there to lure in people familiar with the book. Z for Zachariah is not in any meaningful sense an adaptation of Z for Zachariah, and the fact it’s trying to pass itself off as one just makes me less inclined to recommend it.

PAs and Bees

The penultimate episode of The Avengers‘ fourth season is How to Succeed… At Murder, written by Brian Clemens. This is the fourth episode out of the last five to be written by Clemens; given how strongly he started this run he could be forgiven for flagging a little bit by this point, and a totally impartial observer might suggest this is indeed the case.

The story opens with a typical office scene: a hard-working businessman giving instructions over the intercom to his long-suffering secretary. She clearly feels she has suffered quite long enough as she proceeds to don a tin hat and blast him out of the window with high explosives! Very quickly it becomes clear that a secret society of murderous secretaries has been formed and is doing its best to advance the interests of the people who really do all the work in big business…

Of course, the deaths of eleven top businessmen by foul play is likely to be noticed and Steed and Mrs Peel are soon on the case, with Steed doing his best to come up with a motive for the string of deaths – nothing seems to connect them, nor those benefitting from them – while the whiff of a clue – the faintest trace of a perfume, left at the scene of one of the killings and captured in a tyre pump – sends Emma to the offices of the owner of the greatest nose in London, Mr J.J. Hooter (Christopher Benjamin).

Unfortunately, Hooter’s own secretary is part of the plot and bumps him off, which at least gives our heroes the inkling of a clue as to what’s going on: all the secretaries are introducing such fiendishly byzantine office management systems that, when the ostensible boss dies, the only person capable of taking over is them (diabolical scheme or not, I must confess that this was part of my own sacking-avoidance strategy in my last substantial office job). Soon enough Steed is advertising for his own secretarial assistance, while Emma is working hard to position herself as a potential recruit for the scheme…

It sounds like a set-up with potential, and there are some typical Avengers touches going on – the diabolical mastermind delivers their instructions to the group via a remote-controlled ventriloquist’s dummy, while Christopher Benjamin – a character actor quite at home giving a very big performance, given the right script – has fun with his small role as Hooter. But the villain’s real motivation, when it comes to light, drags the episode off into the realm of melodrama, which isn’t a place where the series feels particularly comfortable, and in places it all feels a little bit strained – trying too hard to be whimsical.

There’s also something not-quite-right about the whole main thrust of the episode, which concerns put-upon secretaries rising up in an act of rebellion. You could argue that this is Clemens actually being a bit prescient about the rise of the women’s liberation movement, given that some accounts indicate it didn’t really establish itself in the UK until 1968 (this episode was first shown in 1966), but – quite apart from the fact that the feminists are the bad guys – it doesn’t really present the women killers as particularly bright or effective: they are basically stooges for someone whose motivation isn’t as it first appears, and haven’t been bright enough to figure this out for themselves. When Steed finds himself attacked by two of them, he ends up sitting on the first, with the second over his knee as he tickles the information he needs out of her. Other than (as ever) Mrs Peel, this is hardly the most stirring depiction of emancipated womanhood. I mean, it’s not awful, but there are other much better episodes this season.

(Also perhaps worthy of mention is a prop noticeboard which bears a curious resemblance to one from Quick-Quick Slow Death: at least some of the names – the non-plot-relevant ones – are the same. Whether this is just an example of the producers being thrifty (some other props get re-used across the series) or if there’s an in-joke going on here I don’t know.)

Yet another Clemens script closes out the season – which, for anyone keeping score, means that practically the last fifth of it is all the work of the same writer (which to me suggests at least a minor crisis in the script department). This final episode is entitled Honey for the Prince and opens with Clemens deploying a device he would later work practically to death on The New Avengers.

Two agents enter a room filled with cod-Arabian decor and objects; there is inevitably a small oil lamp, which one of them rubs. Poof! An assassin with a submachinegun appears in a cloud of smoke and opens up at them both. After the title card we are into a charming scene (virtually the only one on location in the episode) with Steed and Mrs Peel practically skipping home together from a party, clearly having a wonderful time in each other’s company. This changes when they get to Steed’s flat, of course, where they find an about-to-expire agent waiting for them. Naturally he can only utter a couple of suggestive words – ‘genie’ and ‘honey’ – before pegging out.

A quick trip to the apartment of the other dead agent – he is the kind of man who keeps a framed photo of himself on his desk, just so the audience know whose room this is – reveals about forty jars of honey in the cupboard, and all this after a suspicious character is stumbled upon burning key papers (he gets away). The honey is from the shop of the first of this episode’s eccentrics, a Mr B. Bumble, while a fortuitous phone-call to one of the dead men, intercepted by Steed, suggests a connection to a company called QQF.

It seems that QQF – run by another eccentric, this one played by Ron Moody – specialises in making people’s fantasies a reality (being a cowboy, winning the battle of Waterloo, and so on). The owner’s suggestion to Steed is that he leaves reality behind by trying the life of a glamorous secret agent for a bit, which Steed treats with a straight bat. It turns out that someone has been using QQF’s services to live out their fantasy of ‘assassinating the Prince of Barabia’ (one of those obscure but important countries that often turn up in these episodes), which is of course a wonderful way of planning to do it for real.

Not-bad stuff so far, but the episode takes a bit of a left turn in the closing stages, most of which take place within the Barabian Embassy. The Prince himself is played by Zia Mohyeddin, and is a cricket-loving Anglophile, who can’t stand honey but whose wives – of which there are a very great number – love the stuff, forcing him to buy it in bulk. As the assassination is set to be carried out within the Prince’s harem, this presents Steed with a bit of an issue, as only eunuchs and the Prince himself are allowed inside…

Cue what I believe the kids call ‘fan service’, as Mrs Peel is pressed into service as a belly dancer to grab the Prince’s attention and join his collection of wives. It’s fairly amusing stuff, though I kept finding myself thinking of Carry On Up the Khyber – not that there’s anything wrong with this classic film, of course, but it’s a very different viewing experience from the traditional Avengers episode. Probably there are a few too many traditional Arabian stereotypes on display for comfort, too, although the script isn’t afraid to be inappropriate in other ways too. ‘I counted only six veils,’ says a slightly disappointed Prince following Emma’s dance routine. ‘Very poorly educated,’ replies Steed – but the gag is then soured when (to try and dissuade the amorous nobleman) he suggests that Mrs Peel is also ‘retarded’, which any way you slice it is a bum note by modern standards. Not the best way of ending a run which has, by any rational standard, been a slice of TV heaven, but back before the advent of the ‘season finale’ this sort of thing used to happen fairly regularly, and it’s only because the series at its best has been so exceptional that the occasional slightly wobbly instalment stands out.

Stoned Killers

There was a time when I prided myself on seeing pretty much every interesting-looking film that came out. Nima Nourizadeh’s American Ultra, released in 2015, didn’t make the cut: I wish I could remember why. Certainly, as a slightly batty-looking genre movie, it’s the sort of thing I would usually take an interest in. But there you go.¬† Finally seeing it now, do I regret not catching it on the big screen? (Bear in mind I have often knowingly turned up to see the most outrageous tripe at the cinema.)

The protagonist of the movie is Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg), a twitchy stoner and general loser who at the start of the film is being questioned for his part in a series of spectacularly violent events in a small West Virginia town: most of the film is thus a flashback. It transpires that Mike has been living a quiet and unambitious life here with his girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart – and yes, you might be forgiven for thinking that Eisenberg is once again punching above his weight a bit) for as long as he can remember, although this is not entirely of his own choosing. Every time he tries to leave the area he suffers a crippling panic attack, which is a real deal-breaker when it comes to his desire to fly Phoebe to Hawaii so he can propose to her.

Unfortunately, Mike’s failed attempt to leave town still attracts the attention of elements within the CIA led by a man named Adrian Yates (Topher Grace), who decrees that he is in danger of breaching their security and orders that he be liquidated immediately. This goes against the grain as far as senior agent Lasseter (Connie Britton, in a role which feels like it was written for a bigger-name actor) is concerned: she gets to Mike first and gives him a code-phrase which just seems to him to be gibberish. Until two of Yates’ assassins appear and try to kill him, at which point his conditioning kicks in and he rapidly and spectacularly executes them both.

Yes, it transpires that Howell is a former subject of one of the government’s mind-control and conditioning programmes (the title of the movie alludes to MKUltra, a project along vaguely similar lines which ran for a couple of decades from the early 1950s): he has been trained as a covert operative and assassin, but has no memory of how or why this happened. Will he figure out who he is and how he got this way? And, more importantly, will he be able to manage this before Yates’ men kill Phoebe and him?

American Ultra didn’t make much of an impression on its release, and only barely recouped its budget – the dark arts of Hollywood accounting mean that as a result it actually lost the studio money – despite headlining two bright young things like Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart. This occasioned another notable person involved with the production, screenwriter Max Landis, to take to social media and publicly wonder whether it was possible for a movie which wasn’t a sequel, remake, spin-off, or adaptation to succeed in the summer marketplace – and given that some of the duffers outperforming American Ultra at the box office that year were films like The Man from UNCLE, Fifty Shades of Grey, and Terminator Genisys, one might concede he had a point.

It is a good question: only a tiny number of directors have sufficient clout to get original scripts made for a mainstream summer audience these days. What’s more debatable is whether Landis is the right person to be making this point, and American Ultra the right film to be making it on behalf of. Now, leaving the murky issue of Landis’ personal life to one side (google, if you really must), it’s not as if he’s been turning out great, underappreciated gems in the course of his career: he wrote Chronicle, which was very good, and was apparently involved with Power Rangers at some point (not enough to get a credit, though) – but since then, the movies with his name on them have been Bright (significantly flawed, at best), Victor Frankenstein (terrible), and this one. Which is…

Well, as you may have noticed, I don’t normally go in for the lazy ‘this film is like X meets Y’ formulation, but American Ultra almost demands it – the basic premise is The Bourne Identity meets Clerks, the central gag the image of a slacker played by Jesse Eisenberg gorily disposing of large numbers of big tough enemies. It also almost feels like an Edgar Wright pastiche – it seems to be aspiring towards the same kind of twitchy energy and breezy cool, underpinned by genuine heart.

The problem is that however you slice it, at its heart it’s a comedy, and that as a comedy it just isn’t funny enough. The premise is sort of vaguely amusing, but it needs to be shored up with better gags than we get here. Instead of genuine wit and snappy dialogue we end up with a sort of splatstick, by I mean very graphic violence apparently played for laughs, some of it extremely cartoony (at one point Eisenberg throws a frying pan in the air and ricochets a bullet off it to dispose of a bad guy). For the most part, though, the action is just not expansive or inventive enough to make the film distinctive or enjoyable as a piece of kinetic art, and the characters aren’t well-drawn enough for even charismatic performers like Eisenberg or Stewart to do much with (and Eisenberg doesn’t quite have Stewart’s gift of coming across well even in a bad movie).

In the end it passes the time reasonably pleasantly, provided you can deal with the fact the story mainly progresses through outbursts of rather bloody violence. It’s not completely without laughs, nor is it without ideas, and there are touches of cleverness here and there in the script. Not enough, though: it doesn’t come close to the level of the films which appear to have inspired it. Given the actors involved, at least, one would have been forgiven for hoping for something a bit better.

A cynical person, and perhaps even a not-especially-cynical person, could be forgiven for their lack of surprise that one of the first studio movies released now cinemas are reopening is a Marvel superhero film, as it sometimes feels like one of them comes out every few weeks anyway. In the case of Josh Boone’s The New Mutants, however, this cynicism would likely be misplaced. This isn’t Marvel Studios reclaiming their position of box-office supremacy with a confident resumption of business-as-usual. This is one of Marvel’s former licensees basically dumping a film which no-one seems to have a great deal of confidence in.

Initially it’s quite easy to see why. It opens with Native American teenager Dani (Blu Hunt) fleeing a mysterious disaster engulfing her home and killing her family and friends. She finds herself in a remote and slightly decrepit facility, a cross between a reform school and a mental hospital, apparently run by the enigmatic Dr Reyes (Alice Braga). Reyes wastes no time in expositing at her: this is a place where young mutants who are just manifesting their powers are brought, for treatment and evaluation, until they are no longer a risk to themselves or others – at this point they move elsewhere, to another site run by Reyes’ mysterious superior. Also currently banged up in this fairly unpleasant spot are Rahne (Maisie Williams doing a hoots-mon accent), who can turn into a wolf, Roberto (Henry Zaga), whose main power seems to be setting fire to himself, Sam (Charlie Heaton), who can blast himself through the air, and Ilyana (Anya Taylor-Joy doing a moose-and-squirrel accent), whose mutant power is that she has magic powers (er, what…?). There is much sparring and bonding between the quintet, but strange events keep happening: some ominous force is at work in their midst, and none of them may get out of the facility alive..

How’s this for a tale of woe? The New Mutants was filmed in 2017, initially for a release in April 2018. As this would have clashed with Deadpool 2, however, it got pushed back to February 2019. And then August 2019. And then Fox, the producers of the film, were bought by Disney, owners of Marvel Studios, which paradoxically made everything even more complicated: Disney apparently didn’t like it, cancelled the extensive reshoots which had been planned, but still considered retooling it as the film which would introduce mutants and the core X-Men concepts into their own shared meta-franchise. In the end they didn’t bother, though. (The whole thing is so mangled that Stan Lee is credited as an executive producer, despite the marque at the front being that of 20th Century Studios, an entity which didn’t even exist until over a year after his death.)

As a result it’s quite hard to assess The New Mutants fairly, as apparently it didn’t even get the usual pick-up reshoots most movies now get, let alone the major surgery it was in line for at one point. This is almost a first draft or rough-cut of what the finished product should have been, put out into cinemas as a contractual obligation to amortise at least part of the expense of making the thing.

Let’s be clear: this is, on some level, an X-Men film, although links to that franchise have been pared back to pretty much the minimum possible. It’s based on a comic spun-off from the core X-Men title in its imperial 80s phase, which blatantly took the concept back to basics – a soap-opera about a group of teenagers with uncanny powers (the New Mutants title itself has the ring of a placeholder about it). Perhaps quite wisely, the film version feels the need to do something a bit different, and the director and the publicity material are very open about what: this is supposedly a horror film set in the X-Men universe.

Except it isn’t, really – that may have been the director’s original vision, but this isn’t really a horror film. Or at least it isn’t a successful one, by which I mean it isn’t actually scary or creepy or unsettling. Your youth-wing X-Men for the proceedings are Psyche, Wolfsbane, Magik, Cannonball and Sunspot (although Sunspot’s powers seem to be different from the comics), and if those names mean nothing to you then you may well struggle to get especially invested in these characters, as they are quite drably presented. If you do know the characters, on the other hand… well, the script has to do some awkward jigging about, as Dani is taken to a hospital for mutants despite it not being at all clear what her mutant power is. The revelation of what it is she can do is therefore obviously of great significance to the plot… which means that if you’ve read the comic and already know, you’re way ahead of the characters in the movie and the big twist will be a damp squib for you.

Quite apart from making an unscary horror movie, Boone also seems to be trying to do a gritty psychological drama about troubled teens – something quite downbeat and introspective. Here again the nature of the form seems to be fighting him: you expect a big villain, you expect major set pieces. A movie with only six characters almost entirely set in a single location is… well, going against expectations is one way of putting it. But it still has all the slickness and superficiality of a studio movie aimed at a youth audience: Boone has said he felt creatively neutered while making the film, and this does have the feel of a project where key people involved in production had very different ideas about what the end product should be. It ends up feeling inert: the narrative moves in fits and starts, rather than organically developing.

In the end there are some half-decent performances (Taylor-Joy in particular is working hard to make the best of some fairly ripe material), and the climax, in which the characters finally come together to do battle with a common enemy, is effective on a purely functional level. But this is the point at which it feels least like a horror film and most like another slightly anonymous CGI-slathered superhero movie.

Apparently there were plans for a trilogy, with each film mimicking the style of a different horror subgenre; possibly even appearances from some of the main X-Men characters. But none of that seems likely to happen now, and we are left with a film which doesn’t seem to have had a fair crack of the whip on any level. There seems to have been a concerted effort to keep the director from bringing his vision to the screen from the producers, the initial studio, and now the new owners of the film – although that isn’t to suggest an X-Men horror film is a particularly good idea anyway.

Twenty years is, as they say, a good innings, for a movie franchise at least: thirteen movies in twenty years, many of them decent or better, is an even more impressive achievement. I think The New Mutants isn’t quite as bad as last year’s X-Men: Dark Phoenix, though it’s a tough call (someone at the end of Dark Phoenix shouted ‘That was so bad!’ while the audible cry at the end of this film was ‘Awful! Awful!’) – but either way, this is a rather dismaying end for what was once a genuinely exciting series of movies. Of course, this was never the plan, but it is the reality we’re stuck with. The delay in the release date may have done The New Mutants one favour, in that it does feel very timely – overtaken and undermined by unexpected events far beyond its makers’ control, it does feel so 2020.

History and Cybernetics

Brian Clemens writes his third episode in a row with The House that Jack Built, and the impression one can’t help but have is of someone with enviable versatility: A Touch of Brimstone is a knowing black comedy, What the Butler Saw much more of a knockabout farce, and The House that Jack Built is something else again and much more serious.

It opens with, we are invited to assume, an escaped convict on the run – the man manages to overpower one of his pursuers and take his gun, then breaks into a lonely old country house. The place seems musty and deserted, until he opens a door and finds himself facing a charging lion…

Meanwhile, Steed is developing some holiday snaps when Emma visits him with the news she’s just inherited a house – from an uncle she never even knew existed! (And no alarm bells whatsoever seem to ring…) She’s been posted the key by the solicitor involved and is off to check the place out. It’s only after she’s gone that Steed notices the rather unusual effect the key has had on his photographic plates. He suggests to a colleague that the key has some sort of electronic property, but it looks more like that it’s rather radioactive. But anyway. Smelling a rat, he takes steps to ensure Mrs Peel’s safety before setting off after her.

Pausing only to pick up a rather sinister boy scout, Mrs Peel arrives at her new property (which, hardly surprisingly, is the same old house from the top of the episode). All seems reasonably normal at first, until she finds herself trapped in what seems to be an impossible maze of repeating rooms and corridors. After her explorations indicate she has somehow stumbled into a realm where logic just doesn’t apply, she actually seems on the verge of losing it – but manages to keep things together. In a curious device (well-suited to a rather experimental episode) we are given the privilege of hearing Mrs Peel’s interior monologue as she attempts to figure out just what has happened to her.

I am tempted to say that what has happened is that Patrick Macnee was due a week’s holiday and this is the solo-Emma counterpart to The Girl from Auntie (Steed is absent from much of the episode, and many of Macnee’s contributions are on location). What has happened in terms of the story is that an aggrieved former employee of Knight Industries (a corporation which Emma apparently runs, or used to run before she joined the series) has decided to exact his revenge: the man is, or was, an expert in automation (no doubt he moved in the same circles as Dr Armstrong from The Cybernauts) and has converted the house into a sort of cybernetic death-trap for Emma’s benefit. The nasty twist is that the house doesn’t actually kill you, it just drives you insane, to the point where you make use of the ‘suicide booth’ its creator has thoughtfully provided…

It’s a very different episode from other recent offerings, much less of an obvious comedy, and in parts almost a single-hander for Diana Rigg as she explores the labyrinth inside the house. (Could it be the producers had decided that an episode could include fantastical plot elements, or be made in an off-beat, comic style, but not both at the same time?) The robot house instantly puts one in mind of one of the more overtly science-fictional episodes, but it does seem to me that (if you discard the SF element) this is just as much a remake of Don’t Look Behind You as season five’s The Joker – in all three, Steed’s partner is lured to a remote country house by an obsessive figure from their past; Steed has a much reduced role and – apart from a few peripheral eccentrics – the female lead basically carries the episode.

Possibly it’s also worth noting that, for all his obvious versatility, Clemens seems to have handled these ‘solo’ episodes very differently depending on who’s the lead. Steed gets put into spoof-Christie scenarios, with large groups of eccentric strangers being picked off one-by-one (I’m thinking of Dressed to Kill and The Superlative Seven) – Cathy and Emma are lured off to old dark houses for a spot of implied fem jeop. (See also some of the exploitation movie scripts written by Clemens.) Oh well – the characters are emancipated even if the scripts sometimes aren’t. This episode is a bit of a curiosity, let down by a weak climax, but a good showcase for Diana Rigg’s monumental talent.

I’m the not the greatest scholar when it come to the production of The Avengers (not compared to some other shows, anyway), but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Martin Woodhouse’s A Sense of History was an unproduced script from season three (maybe even season two) given a light polish and then pressed into service to fill a gap in the schedule here (even Brian Clemens may have demurred at writing four scripts in a row, although the annals of TV history do record heroic figures who have achieved far greater feats – Terry Nation wrote the first fourteen Blake’s 7s, while Joe Straczynski wrote fifty-seven episodes of Babylon 5 in a row (and seventy of the last seventy-one). It certainly feels like a video-taped episode in some ways: limited in scope, with subplots amongst the guest characters, while Steed seems to have reverted to being a much harder and more ruthless man than he’s been in a while (cheerfully talking about breaking someone’s arm to make a point) – Emma is written much ‘straighter’ than usual, too.

The episode opens with a distinguished economist, noted for his plan to create a modern-day utopia by combining all the economies of Europe for the good of all (strange to realise it was once possible to suggest such notions in the UK without being denounced as a traitor or a fantasist), being ambushed by a group of students apparently intent on a rag week prank – but the prank turns deadly and the man is left with an arrow in him.

Steed and Mrs Peel are soon on the case, accompanied by the victim’s assistant, Richard Carlyon (the name is a fairly obvious pun, tying in with the episode’s Robin Hood motif) – Carlyon is played by Nigel Stock, a capable character actor perhaps best known for his association with various Sherlock Holmes adaptations, but also the gentleman recruited to fill in as protagonist of The Prisoner when Patrick McGoohan was unavailable for one episode. The only clue is that the dead man was on his way to one of the grand old universities, where he was due to meet with someone holding entirely different opinions, who had good reason not to wish him well.

So it’s off to St. Stock Footage University for most of the rest of the episode (the name of the institution differs depends on whether it’s written or spoken, presumably because after they filmed the episode they found out there really was a St Bede’s, forcing a hasty overdub as St. Bode’s in post-production). Emma is a visiting lecturer, Steed is a former graduate doing some research into newts (naturally), the faculty are musty and eccentric and the students are revolting (most prominent amongst them are Patrick Mower – latterly an Emmerdale stalwart, but previously a decent juvenile lead and purveyor of various hard-man types in shows like Target – and Jacqueline Pearce, still playing the kind of fragile-victim role she always seemed stuck with until she cut her hair and became Supreme Commander of the universe in Blake’s 7).

A lot of the episodes from this series are beginning to acquire a sort of swinging-sixties vibe, but this one feels more like the fifties, mainly due to the depiction of the students – ties and gowns and very coffee-bar radical. Most of the plot revolves around trying to find out who wrote a rather concerning political thesis found amongst the victim’s effects, which doesn’t make for the most fully-developed episode, although the identity of this week’s diabolical mastermind is unusually difficult to guess – Steed and Mrs Peel have three goes before finally bagging the right person. Most of the episode isn’t especially memorable, though, but it does score strongly for the final act, set during a Robin Hood-themed fancy dress party (various gags about Steed’s droopy sword, while Mrs Peel looks devastating in her costume, maybe even more so than in the famous one from A Touch of Brimstone). Some consolations here, but slightly below-standard in many ways.