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Forcing the Issues

Doomwatch finds itself touched by greatness with the eleventh episode of the second series, The Inquest. One wonders how many of the themes of these episodes were handed to the writers by the production team, for the idea at the heart of this one – a rabies outbreak in England – also pops up in a late episode of Survivors, albeit realised rather differently.

A young girl has died of rabies and Quist has sent Hardcastle down to the area to try and locate the source of the infection, as there have been no reports of mad dogs. The local research institute has been implicated in the outbreak and he is checking it out when he is wounded after someone starts taking pot-shots at the place – the institute’s use of live testing has made it the target of sustained protests and sabotage from animal lovers in the vicinity. Luckily it’s only a flesh wound, but he’s still confined to hospital.

With Chantry and Ridge both away on business or leave, it falls to Quist to send Colin Bradshaw (Joby Blanshard), Doomwatch’s token Northern stereotype, into the field to take over. He soon discovers that tempers are running high, with no obvious leads on the mad dogs (no pun intended) and the local dog-lover determined to pin responsibility on a mutant virus carried by tsetse flies from the local lab…

The Inquest is the sole contribution to Doomwatch from Robert Holmes, who in 1971 was just at the start of his imperial period as the greatest writer of Doctor Who stories in the history of the world. One is so familiar with the particular tropes of Holmes’ Doctor Who work – larger than life characters, a genuine love of language, occasional signs of real political sophistication and cynicism, for instance – that it can be a little disconcerting to watch his work on another series and find these things much less evident. It’s a little difficult to discern just how good a fit Holmes and Doomwatch were for each other, for in some ways this is a very atypical episode. Ridge and Chantry aren’t in it at all, and Quist and Hardcastle play quite minor roles, leaving Bradshaw to enjoy his big moment as chief representative of the team. Even then, he’s off-screen for quite long periods, with the meat of the episode being the proceedings of the inquest for the dead girl – extremely long scenes of people talking to each other in the same room.

It’s a testament to Holmes’ talent that The Inquest remains an engaging drama despite these constraints. Before becoming the world’s greatest Doctor Who writer, and doing some other jobs in TV, Holmes was a police detective and then a newspaper journalist, and his familiarity with these kinds of proceedings shines through. The mystery of where the rabies outbreak has come from is handled well and the solution, when it comes, is logical and satisfying. None of it really qualifies as actual SF, of course, but given how different it is from the norm, this is a strong episode, at the very least (hey, they can’t all be Pyramids of Mars).

A major figure from an earlier era of Doctor Who writes the next episode, The Logicians: Dennis Spooner, script editor during the programme’s second and third seasons, and the first person to see a place for comedy in the palette of the series (you could therefore perhaps say the current tendency for S***** M***** to write the programme as a sitcom is ultimately Spooner’s fault, but that might be considered overly harsh). (Spooner had previously written Burial at Sea, one of the ‘lost’ series one episodes.) As I’ve said before, Spooner is really one of the unsung heroes of British TV SF and fantasy: he was the creator of Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) and a notable writer on Thunderbirds and other Gerry Anderson programmes, as well as both The Avengers and The New Avengers.

This may be why The Logicians feels distinctly like an early Avengers episode itself, and why Simon Oates seems to be having such a ball (Oates played Steed in an Avengers stage show and later appeared in The New Avengers himself). A group of schoolboys plan and execute a robbery on the pharmaceutical company which one of their fathers manages – the plan is both audacious and meticulously worked out, and the formula for a lucrative new drug is successfully stolen. What the boys have not reckoned on is the presence of Ridge, who puts together enough evidence to make Doomwatch interested in the experimental school they go to – there is little conventional discipline and the children are extensively trained in logical problem-solving. But can Quist and the others outwit such young and gifted brains?

This works quite well as a light caper drama, with Doomwatch attempting to keep up with their youthful quarry – it’s made clear that the robbery is motivated not by self-interest, but a desire to raise funds to keep the school open. (One of the boys is played by Peter Duncan, most famous as a Blue Peter presenter, but also the possessor of an interesting acting CV featuring episodes of The Tomorrow People, Space: 1999 and Survivors. This episode also features Michael Gover, another Survivors regular.) The shift away from conversation and character to plot and action is very noticeable and not at all unwelcome.

However, you do find yourself thinking that Doomwatch’s involvement in what’s arguably a police matter is somewhat contrived, and the usual note of baleful concern, when struck by Quist, feels a little forced – are experimental schools and the use of computers in education going to turn children into high-functioning amoral recidivists? I would say that was an example of the show trying to create a concern rather than reflect one – an example of ‘wouldn’t it be worrying if…’ rather than ‘isn’t it worrying that…’ But Spooner is a good enough writer to keep you watching and entertained.

The second series concludes with Public Enemy, written by Patrick Alexander (a writer, for once, with no connection to that other show which I never mention any more). This episode marks the last involvement in the series of co-creators Gerry Davis and Kit Pedler, and the temptation to assume that they were heavily involved in its scripting is very strong.

A teenage boy dies after climbing onto a factory roof to retrieve a football; this happens in a small southern town is already under investigation for an unnaturally high rate of pulmonary illness, and the new death gives the team a focus for their efforts. The factory is operated by a metallurgical company working on a potentially valuable new alloy, and the research is being overseen by Lewis, an ambitious young scientist played by Trevor Bannister (Bannister is best remembered for appearing sitcoms like Are You Being Served? and Last of the Summer Wine, but he is notably effective in more serious and antagonistic roles both here and in The Tomorrow People).

Quist’s investigation uncovers the fact that production of the new alloy creates  beryllium salts as a by-product, which are quite capable of causing lethal side-effects unless precautionary measures are significantly stepped-up. Lewis is outraged, suggesting Quist is scaremongering, but the management and the workforce are more sympathetic.

…until the parent company of the factory decides that the cost of the safety improvements involved in meeting Quist’s requirements is too great, and they’re going to close it down and shift production to their site in Leicester, many miles to the north. Everyone prepared to relocate will keep their jobs, but this is still terrible news for the rest of the town and its businesses. Quist is obliged to address a meeting of the angry principals, all of whom want him to either justify his report or (preferably) moderate its conclusions.

Up to this point the episode has been a reasonably engaging drama, but in its scene it transforms into an undisguised parable about environmentalism and social attitudes towards it. Everyone wants a cleaner, greener world, but no-one wants to pay for it – whether that means paying in cash, or in inconvenience, or in loss of potential progress. (Quist also dismisses the obsession with progress as something else impelling humanity’s zombie march towards disaster.) Tough decisions have to be made. ‘We all have a choice to make,’ Quist says, in the final words of the episode, ‘…all of us.’ By this point John Paul is looking straight down the camera lens, and the implication is obvious – it’s not just Quist speaking to the angry workers, managers, scientists and townspeople, but also the makers of the programme addressing audience at home. It’s a memorably powerful conclusion to the episode and the season, the fact that the episode’s story is left unresolved feeling very secondary.

Is it somewhat preachy? Well, maybe – but then the whole series has been motivated by the same kind of concerns. Its earnestness and willingness to be partisan may be unfashionable nowadays, but many of the issues it has touched on are as important today as they were in 1971. Regardless of how well the remains of the third series prove to have turned out, this remains a landmark series.

Odd Ones Can Be Good Ones

We have previously touched upon the received wisdom of the ‘curse’ of the odd-numbered Star Trek films and the extent to which this colours people’s perception of them (presumably it doesn’t apply to the Abrams movies, which are – strictly speaking – 11, 12, and 13 in the series). I think the existence of the ‘curse’ is questionable at best – I completely agree that by far the best films of the lot are even-numbered ones (II and IV for me; your mileage may differ), but it doesn’t necessarily follow that all the odd numbers are flat-out bad or worse than the less-impressive even-numbered films.

For me, the film that really doesn’t deserve to be tarred with the brush of the curse (I apologise for this somewhat baroque metaphor, by the way) is Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, released in 1984 and directed (following much fun and games between the studio and the director’s representatives) by Leonard Nimoy. Does it reach the same standard as the films on either side of it? Well, no; but, as mentioned, there is space between excellent and mediocre, and it’s this space that the film confidently occupies.

We find ourselves once again in the year 2285, with the damaged starship Enterprise limping home following the climactic events of the previous film. The sense of contentment felt by Admiral Kirk (William Shatner) seems to have faded, and he is troubled by the death of his best friend Spock. His other close friend McCoy is acting erratically, too. Orders from Starfleet Command that the Enterprise is to be decommissioned and that they are not to return to the Genesis Planet, where Spock died, do not help his mood much. The situation becomes acute when he is visited by Spock’s father Sarek (Mark Lenard), and they deduce that before dying Spock effectively placed his soul into McCoy’s body (which explains his strange behaviour). Kirk finds himself compelled to go against Starfleet orders, steal his own ship, and return to Genesis in search of Spock’s body.

Of course, it isn’t even only as complicated as that – for a Klingon warlord named Kruge (Christopher Lloyd) has got wind of the Genesis Project and is heading for the new planet, too, intent on terrorising the Federation science team already on the scene, as well as a revived and rejuvenated Spock…

Star Trek III was written by series producer Harve Bennett, whose work is of course not quite up to the standards of that of Nicholas Meyer (writer of Star Trek II) , but still solid. The main problem with it, once you accept the mystical properties of the Genesis effect (raising the dead) and Vulcan, um, mysticism, is that it’s never made quite clear why Kirk goes back to Genesis, rather than just taking McCoy straight to Vulcan for some kind of psionic detox – not only is he completely unaware Spock has come back to life until after his arrival there, he presumably believes his body has been incinerated (this was the original intent, after all).

That said, the movie barrels along cheerily enough for you not to notice this on the first viewing. The movie has a confidence and swagger that the previous movie didn’t actually possess – Star Trek II was considered the absolutely final roll of the dice for the series (why else would they have killed off the most popular character?), and was produced on a minimal budget, with re-used special effects and most scenes being shot on just one set. Here you do get a sense of people realising that the old dog might have much more life left in it than anyone could have guessed, hence much more lavish special effects and sets throughout.

It also feels rather more comfortable in its identity as a piece of Star Trek, perhaps because Bennett had made an effort to steep himself in a series of which Meyer was never a particular fan. The script is happy to bring back Sarek, a recurring but fairly obscure character from the various TV series, insert a tiny cameo for Grace Lee Whitney, include some Tribbles, mention the pon farr undergone by Vulcans, and so on – although without letting any of these things get in the way of the story.

Perhaps the most obvious result of this desire to take Trek back to its roots is the presence of Klingon antagonists at the heart of the story. We should recall that this is the only major appearance by the Klingons between the end of the original TV series and the beginning of Next Generation, and it’s not surprising that the depiction of them is in something of a state of transition – though still depicted as ruthless, sadistic villains (‘I hope pain is something you enjoy,’ says Kruge, shortly before ordering the execution of a prisoner as a negotiating ploy), they are much more obviously alien (they appear to be stronger and more resilient than humans), and they show signs of the obsession with honour that would define them through the Next Gen and DS9 era. Plus, of course, this film marks the first real appearance of tlhIngan Hol (better known to us tera’nganpu’ as the Klingon language). Inevitably, there are still some oddities – everyone, even Saavik, addresses Kruge as ‘my lord’, which isn’t the case with any other Klingon character in the series, no matter how distinguished they are. That said, Christopher Lloyd’s full-on performance as Kruge certainly demands respect.

As does that of William Shatner, to be honest. Joking about Shatner’s ego, waistline, musical career, hair, and line readings has become so much de rigeur these days that we can sometimes overlook what an effective performer he can be with the right script and appropriate direction. Shatner reports feeling initially uncomfortable being directed by Nimoy, but the final product contains some of his finest moments as Kirk – the ‘Klingon bastards’ scene (usually edited out when this movie turns up on TV nowadays) had the potential to be unintentionally comic, but Shatner and Nimoy turn it into something genuinely affecting.

The one thing about this movie that everyone seems to like is James Horner’s music (he did the previous film as well, of course). Horner’s predilection for, um, paying homage to other people’s tunes in his work has been much commented upon, but he’s far from alone in that, and he makes a huge contribution to the movie – Horner’s music manages to make a spaceship reversing out of a garage feel like a moment of epic high adventure.

As I mentioned, Star Trek II was made with the real expectation that it might be the end of the line for the series. Perhaps as a result of the creative licence that gave them, it turned out, rather unexpectedly, to be the start of a whole new lease of life for the series. The Search for Spock is the first piece of Trek to be made in this new atmosphere of confidence and possibility, and it marks the beginning of a roll which continued for the next two decades. Not to mention being a very entertaining movie in its own right.

Blasted Heath

Where there is a big loud blockbuster, occupying the sides of every bus for miles around, intent on owning the nation’s cinemas for a weekend, there’s always the chance for counter-programming, too, and one could surely expect the new Transformers (described by Bradshaw in The Guardian the other day as ‘a machine for turning your brain into soup’) to be countered by something a little more mellow, thoughtful, and humane. What has actually emerged to hoover up the money of cinemagoers not keen to spend two hours recreating the experience of sitting in a tumble drier being pushed down a hill by an angry mob is Joel Hopkins’ Hampstead, a golden-years romantic-comedy-drama starring Diane Keaton and Brendan Gleeson. I get the impression expectations for this film are quite high, for it has won the coveted main screen at Oxford city centre’s nicer cinema, which I don’t feel I get to sit in nearly often enough.

In this movie, which (needless to say, I hope) is set in the London borough of Hampstead, Diane Keaton plays Emily, a woman whose husband has died fairly recently, leaving her with some financial concerns. (She still lives in an enormous apartment block with its own concierge, of course, like most people in London.) Her friends and family are all urging her to move on with her life, and her accountant keeps macking on her in a way which I’m guessing is meant to be pathetic-funny but actually just comes across as rather repulsive. Anyway, Emily’s life changes when she bumps into Donald (Gleason), a sort of human womble living rough in a secluded part of Hampstead Heath, in a shack he built himself many years earlier. The area is due to be redeveloped and Donald is about to be evicted, and as Emily finds herself increasingly drawn to him, she resolves to help him fight to keep his home. But can people from two such different worlds truly find happiness together? Especially when it turns out that Emily’s closest friends are deeply involved in the redevelopment project which looks set to evict Donald from the home he loves…

Look, Diane Keaton was in Annie Hall and Sleeper and The Godfather, there’s no excuse for not liking her as an actress. Brendan Gleeson was in In Bruges and Calvary and The Guard, in addition to all those supporting parts in blockbusters, so the same applies to him. I think I would give any film starring Brendan Gleeson a chance, in fact. Or so I kept reminding myself while I was watching Hampstead and trying to stop myself jumping from the cinema balcony in an attempt to escape from the movie.

What is it about this film which makes it quite so exceptionable? Is it the soft-focus depiction of homelessness in modern London? The disparity between the living standards and housing of the wealthy and the poor in the city’s more prosperous parts has become a bit of an issue in the last couple of weeks, as you may have noticed on the news. Perhaps it is partly to blame. Is it the crushing obviousness of pretty much every line of the script and the direction-of-travel of the movie? I think we are getting a bit closer, there, to be honest. Emily needs to learn the life lesson that She Has Potential As A Human Being (and also that all her so-called friends are grotesque shallow comic harpies). Donald has to learn the life lesson that Being A Reclusive Curmudgeonly Hermit is not good and you must Connect With People And Find Love. The manner in which these two character arcs unfold and interact contains fewer surprises than a dot-to-dot book assembled by someone unable to count above three. Overall, such is the sense of dramatic tension and potential for excitement in this movie that you can cut the atmosphere with a rolling pin.

You can see what the makers of this film had in mind when they were putting it together – one of those romcoms set in an absurdly photogenic London with an imported American star and a local leading man, with the formula modulated somewhat to appeal to older audiences in the same way that (for example) Man Up was tweaked to seem slightly more edgy. However, what they’ve ended up with in this case feels rather like a lobotomised mash-up of The Lady in the Van and an early draft of Notting Hill before Richard Curtis had put any of the jokes in. It is of course physically impossible for performers of the stature of Diane Keaton and Brendan Gleeson to be completely bad for 104 minutes, and each of them manages to bring moments of power and life to the very thin characters they are obliged to play here. Employing Brendan Gleeson, in particular, in a film quite as lightweight and disposable as this one is a bit like buying an armoured car to do the school run in. But there are some talented people in the supporting cast as well, and they make virtually no impression (at least, not in a good way).

Is it even worth mentioning that this movie is supposedly based on a true story? ‘Inspired by the life of Harry Hallowes,’ squeak the closing credits – useful words, ‘inspired by’, for they give you so much latitude to invent new characters, change the ending, insert whatever Moral Premise you believe will play best with your target demographic – the film really does feel exactly that calculated, and as a result whatever emotions it manages to generate feel cold and glutinous – it’s a bit like being swamped by a wave of chilled treacle.

In the end I suspect the main problem with Hampstead is that it’s a smug film that still manages to feel hollow and manipulative, as well as being a drama without any surprises, a comedy with barely any decent jokes, and a romance with no sense of passion or even much emotion to it. I am sorely tempted to recommend you go to see Transformers 5 instead. This film will eat your soul.

John Gould’s In the Dark is one of those episodes that starts off looking like it’s going to be about one thing but ends up concerning itself with something completely different. It begins with two men going swimming in the sea off the coast of Ireland, only for them to suffer swift, mysterious, and clearly unpleasant deaths. What could be going on?

Well, Ridge is on the case and he quickly concludes that the dead men were exposed to mustard gas – a ship carrying chemical weapons to be dumped sank in roughly the same area many years earlier, it’s just a question of where. It seems obvious that the best person to ask is the former captain of the vessel, Lyon McArthur, who in addition to being an ex-naval officer is also a captain of industry and brilliant scientist. He’s also an old friend of Quist’s.

However, McArthur is a difficult man to get hold of, apparently living in great seclusion in a remote part of Scotland. He has virtually no contact with the outside world, to the extent that rumours have begun to spread that he has in fact died. A press conference to dispel these rumours, with McArthur turning up in person, turns out to be a sham, employing a lookalike. Is he really dead after all?

Well, that’s a question of semantics, perhaps. Quist, Chantry, and Ridge manage to get access to McArthur’s Scottish estate and make a startling discovery. Several years ago, McArthur was diagnosed with ascending myelitis, a condition in which the nervous system gradually ceases to work. He should be dead, but he is hooked up to machines which have taken over the functions of his vital organs, allowing his brain to keep going even though his body has failed. McArthur and his team are certain he can survive indefinitely, and he is quite happy to go on as (as he sees it) a being of pure intellect, having shed his emotional and physical concerns, but Quist and the others, inevitably, have doubts. The disease has not been cured, for one thing, and McArthur will inevitably lose both his vision and his power of speech. At what point does human life lose all meaning and value?

Much of the episode consists of relatively abstract philosophical discussions between Quist and McArthur, and the makers of the show appear to have reached the eminently sensible conclusion that they needed one of the best actors in Britain to play opposite John Paul in these scenes. Your reaction on discovering they cast Patrick Troughton as McArthur should therefore be ‘Good choice!’, obviously. Troughton is essentially playing a disembodied head for most of this episode (there are faint resonances with elements of CS Lewis’s science fantasy, not to mention Olaf Stapleton’s Fourth Men), with minimal movement, but he (naturally) delivers a magnetic performance.

Of course, there is something a little bit ironic, don’t you think, about the fact that an actor most famous for playing a character who battled the Cybermen (created, of course, by the originators of Doomwatch) is here playing someone who the Cybermen themselves would doubtless consider a promising prospect, if a little sedentary. Quist’s discussions with McArthur concern his desire to rid himself of those troublesome organic emotions, and whether it isn’t in fact biological sensation that gives life its meaning (watching a sunset, smelling a flower, eating a well-prepared meal – or more likely a haphazardly-microwaved meal, if it’s round at my house).

It’s never very doubtful which way the episode is going to go – Doomwatch is largely defined by its humanist ethos, after all – and for once I wonder if the show isn’t being just a bit reactionary. Quist and the others take the view that the kind of immortality on offer must a priori be bad, in perpetuity – which seems to me to be begging the question a bit. You potentially have eternity in which to improve your situation, after all. In McArthur’s position I’d be inclined to give it a try.

Apart from Troughton’s performance, other noteworthy elements of the episode include an appearance by Alethea Charlton (part of the guest cast of the very first Doctor Who story) and a striking scene in which Ridge virtually begs Quist not to get involved – he can’t take on the responsibility of being the world’s moral conscience all the time, and this is strictly speaking outside their team’s remit. It’s interesting to see such an unashamedly philosophical episode, where the ultimate concern is not the safety of society but the fate of one man’s soul.

The next episode, Louis Marks’ The Human Time Bomb, would normally go into the same category as Flight into Yesterday, in that it looks very much like an overwrought overreaction to what we today would consider quite a minor issue. But right now things are not quite normal.

As the episode opens, Chantry has spent the last six weeks doing some research into a new housing project – another high-rise development. She has actually been living in the tower, and is present when another resident (Talfryn Thomas, from the early episodes of Survivors) has a kind of breakdown and effectively throws himself under a car. Almost everyone living in the block is showing the same signs of stress, but the company who built the project dismiss her concerns. A vicious circle beckons, as Chantry’s report warning of the potential dangers of high-rise living may be dismissed, if her own behaviour continues to be so out of character and apparently unbalanced…

Like I say, this is rather overwrought stuff (living in a tower block isn’t my idea of fun, but I doubt it would turn you quite so violently sociopathic as the episode suggests) and recognisably part of a subgenre of dystopian British fiction concerned with the dangers of high-rise living – see also J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise, and the various Block Mania-related storylines in Judge Dredd. One thing which would always leave a sour taste in the mouth is the way that Chantry’s being a woman is exploited in the episode: part of the pressure put on her involves constant heavy-breather phone calls, and Ridge suggests her erratic behaviour may be due to her spending too long away from her daughter. There’s a suggestion of sexual threat in the climax, as well.

I would usually suggest that The Human Time Bomb is at best quaint, and it worst crudely exploitative, but just at this moment in time, only a little more than a week after the disaster at Grenfell Tower, I don’t feel it would be particularly appropriate to be quite so dismissive of a story about terrible things happening when the management of a high-rise block of flats are negligent and dismissive of warnings when it comes to the safety of their residents. I’m not saying the episode is particular prescient, but it does feel unpleasantly resonant just now.

The Greek Interloper

‘When a doctor does go wrong he is the first of criminals. He has nerve and he has knowledge.’ Arthur Conan Doyle, The Speckled Band

I write on what is apparently the hottest June day experienced by the UK and its unfortunate residents in forty years. Now, I don’t know about you, but given the choice between being out in the middle of an overwhelmingly hot and sunny day, and watching an overpoweringly hot and sunny day on a cinema screen in a comfortably cool and quiet room, I’ll choose the latter every single time. And so it was that I ended up taking refuge from the heat in front of Argyris Papadimitropoulos’ Suntan, which is the kind of film to very nearly put you off the idea of summer for life.

(‘Some bronze. Others burn.’ In case you were wondering.)

In accordance with my occasional ‘stroke a bandicoot’ policy (i.e., give films from other countries and cultures a chance), this is a film from Greece, a country currently producing many interesting movies (apparently), although the only one I’ve actually seen was Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster. Suntan is less outlandishly strange than The Lobster, but it still has a very distinct and not entirely comfortable flavour of its own.

Makis Papadimitriou plays Kostis, a middle-aged doctor who, as the film starts arrives on Antiparos, a small resort island. But it is the depths of winter and the place is grey and desolate. Kostis himself is clearly still in the shade of some great, if nebulous, disappointment in his recent past. From the start he is a withdrawn figure, rather melancholic – the nature of his work means he gets dragged out of Christmas parties to attend to the recently deceased, which is hardly the sort of experience to leave one cheery.

Eight months later, the island has been transformed by the arrival of legions of holiday-makers – it is, as the Mayor (Pavlos Orkopoulos) reminds Kostis, the one month that pays for the rest of the year. Kostis’ life seems as unremarkable as ever, until the arrival in his surgery of Anna (Elli Tringou), a twenty-ish young woman who’s come to the island for a month of utter hedonism and debauchery. Anna has done herself an injury falling off her bike, but Kostis fixes her up and she seems genuinely grateful, inviting him to hang out with her and her friends.

Youth is wasted on the young, of course, but older people can get pretty wasted on the idea of youth, too, and Kostis finds spending time with his new young friends to be quite intoxicating. He goes to the beach with them, buys them all drinks, is taken to nightclubs – and finds himself growing particularly drawn to Anna. His work begins to suffer as partying becomes his top priority. And then the fleeting possibility of a more serious connection with Anna presents itself…

There’s nothing particularly original about the theme of Suntan, which is that of the devastating effects a midlife crisis can have on a vulnerable man. It’s also about how people who appear relatively close in age can turn out to have totally different values and attitudes and fundamentally misunderstand each other, and it touches briefly on a very toxic type of masculinity.

No-one seems quite sure whether Suntan is in fact a comedy, a drama, or even a very specific type of horror movie. Certainly it looks somewhat comic as it starts – there are many scenes of the pudgy, balding, pallid Kostis shambling around in baggy shorts and a monstrously uncool sunhat, surrounded by the bronzed naked bodies of his young companions (there is pretty much wall-to-wall nudity for much of this movie, a lot of it somewhat desexualised), and the effect is indeed somewhat humorous. But there is a detached, vaguely threatening quality to Papadimitriou’s performance that gives the film an ominous, unsettling tone even in these early stages.

That said, he’s also vaguely touching, in a pathetic sort of way, when his fantasies about Anna look like coming to fruition. The film explicitly makes reference to Lolita, although the relationship here is ambiguous in a different manner – is Anna toying with Makis’ affections for her own amusement, or is she simply unaware of the significance of what’s transpiring between them? It is never quite clear. The casual cruelty and thoughtlessness of young and beautiful people is made quite clear, of course.

In the end, of course, something very nasty bubbles to the surface in Makis’ personality, resulting in some extremely disquieting and unpleasant scenes. This isn’t quite a case of a central character gradually losing the sympathy of the audience – but that’s not just because he’s such a dismal individual that he always remains somewhat sympathetic. It’s also because the very withdrawnness of the character, his inability to demonstrate feeling, means he’s never a completely comfortable or likeable person.

There are many good things about Suntan, which is an atmospheric, well-structured and engaging film, but there is a sense in which the main characters, at least, are more archetypes than fully rounded individuals. We don’t actually learn a great deal about either of them, so they never quite come to life as vivid characters in their own right. On the other hand, the movie obviously wants to deal with a universal story.

Part of this emerges from the very predictability of the unfolding narrative – you’re never in any doubt as to what’s going to transpire in the movie, generally speaking. Perhaps we should simply say that Suntan is a classical tragedy for the modern age (maybe even a Greek tragedy) – the story a basically good (or at least not obviously bad) man who comes horribly undone as a result of a flaw in his character. Whether this is loneliness, lustfulness, or a simple lack of a grasp on reality is for the viewer to decide, I think. But come horribly undone he does, and while the end of the film is extreme, it is still humane and tells a recognisably human story. Definitely not a film for everybody, and an occasionally challenging one, but made with great intelligence and skill.

The What of Which?!?

Trying to identify serious issues ahead of the curve is a high-stakes business – get it right, and you look very clever and astute indeed, but get it wrong and you just appear more than a bit ridiculous. After a run of episodes which hold up well more than 45 years after they were made, Doomwatch comes a spectacular cropper with Martin Worth’s Flight into Yesterday.

The title suggests an episode of a much more explicitly SF-themed episode than is actually the case. Are the Doomwatchers actually going to start investigating temporal anomalies? Has big business opened up a time warp? Is an anachronistic cross-over with Torchwood on the cards?

Um, well, no, to all of the above. What happens is that Quist is in Los Angeles, preparing to give a speech to an important conference, which may result in the creation of an American Doomwatch organisation. However, concerns as to the tenor of his presentation results in his being recalled back to London to speak to the Prime Minister. When he arrives at the Ministry, however, he seems confused and distracted, not really himself, lacking in co-ordination and focus. The Minister jumps to the conclusion that Quist has spent the flight home getting sluiced and sends him home in disgrace.

However, Barbara the secretary was on the same flight and the Doomwatchers notice she is also not quite her normal self. They quickly conclude that both Quist and Barbara the secretary are suffering from extreme jet lag due to all that flying back and forth. Naturally, the Minister scents a chance to rid himself of the turbulent Quist, and pooh-poohs this idea, arguing that someone properly capable would not prove so susceptible to the condition. He has Quist sent off on sick leave and proposes that Ridge, who he views as a more manageable individual, go to the conference instead.

Ridge isn’t having any of this and contrives matters so the Minister flies out with him and Chantry to make the speech in person. The Minister is quite confident that he will not be at all debilitated by the dreaded lag, and that Quist will be exposed as a bit of a lightweight. But are there more sinister forces at work?

What, I hear you gasp, forces even more sinister than the menace of extreme jet lag? Is such a thing even possible? Apparently so. Now, all right, perhaps they do have a point – a few years ago I flew back overnight from Las Vegas (ooh, get me) to Gatwick (hmm, maybe not), and it did make me physically ill the day after and leave me somewhat debilitated for the better part of a week, so it’s not as if it can’t cause problems. But doing a 50 minute episode of a serious drama predicated solely on problems caused by jet lag seems, from a modern perspective, at best quaint and at worst rather absurd.

To be fair, Martin Worth himself seems to have realised that jet lag itself is not quite enough to hang a whole episode on, and so introduces a further element into the story – that of devious and ruthless marketing people, who are well aware that jet lag leaves people in a less-than-optimal condition, and exploit this for their own ends. So the Minister, who insists on eating and drinking heavily throughout his London-to-LA flight against Chantry’s advice, falls prey to someone in the pocket of American big business, who has his own reasons for hoping that a US version of Doomwatch never comes to pass.

It’s still not high octane stuff, as you can perhaps imagine, and the primitiveness of the realisation leaves something to be desired, too – the budget wouldn’t stretch to actually flying over to California, so this is represented by studio sets and a stock-footage montage of cars on a freeway. (The Los Angeles hotel lobby set looks rather like the main set for Are You Being Served?, and I did check to see if the two shows were economising by sharing it – it would appear not.) Adding some interest, I suppose, is a relatively rare non-Bond appearance by Desmond Llewellyn as a ministerial aide, but on the whole this is an episode that seems nowadays to be working very hard to make a mountain out of a molehill, with results that verge on the unintentionally comic.

Something of a recovery comes along in the next episode, from series co-creator Gerry Davis, which is entitled – oh dear – The Web of Fear. I say ‘oh dear’ because The Web of Fear is, much more famously, a notably phantasmagorical and surreal episode of Doctor Who from 1968, not all that long after Davis’ own stint on the show. The two stories have virtually nothing in common beyond, well, webs and fear, but it still feels odd for such a distinctive title to turn up in two broadly-similar series in the space of only a few years.

Anyway, things kick off, somewhat startlingly, with the sight of John Savident in a sauna (Savident played Fred Elliott in Coronation Street for a number of years, and does his usual trick of appearing to be a good ten or fifteen years older than his actual age). Here Savident is playing the Minister for Health, who has retreated to a health farm on an island off the English coast to work on some figures Quist has requested. But not all goes as planned when someone else in the same sauna falls gravely ill, apparently with yellow fever…

The island is quarantined and Quist, Chantry, and (eventually) Ridge are allowed in, along with the tropical disease experts. But there are ominous signs that this may not be yellow fever but a new virus, one which is not transmitted by mosquitoes at all. Meanwhile, Griffiths (Glyn Owen), a maverick geneticist, and his wife have also sneaked onto the island to complete a mysterious experiment. Some stagey scenes between the two of them reveal the strain on their marriage from his dedication to his work, and his resentment of Quist (who was involved in discrediting a theory Griffiths spent fifteen years developing, with disastrous effects on his professional reputation).

Well, the very title of the episode, an eye-rollingly unsubtle moment where someone says ‘Ooh, there’s a spider on you’, and various close-ups of sinister rubber arachnids kind of telegraph the big idea this week: Griffiths has been experimenting with pest control by way of viruses, but the unintended consequence of this is that viral mutation has produced a breed of spider whose webs are impregnated with a lethal new virus resembling yellow fever. Cripes, what are the chances?

Of course, you need a bit more direct jeopardy than that, and so Griffiths, who has crawled into a cobwebby old (and dangerous) mineshaft in search of specimens to prove his viruses work, comes down with the new lurgy and has to be rescued. Luckily Ridge is on hand, having been issued with a feather duster, a thermos of tea, and some half-decent one-liners which Simon Oates puts across rather well.

On the whole the episode is solidly assembled and well played, even if the central concept is a little bit out there (I suppose you could argue that it’s ahead of its time in suggesting that if you connect with the web there’s a good chance of picking up a virus, but that’s a pretty weak pun even by my very low standards). Then again, it’s not a very big leap from the idea of GM crops to that of GM spiders, and the chance of this kind of genetic cross-contamination is one of the main arguments against this kind of experimentation in agriculture. Apart from the stageyness of the early scenes with the Griffiths, where backstory and character are thuddingly introduced, this is another pretty strong instalment of the show. Gerry Davis should still have thought up a different name for it, though.

Pilot Error

It was late in the Earth Year 1979 (or possibly early 1980) and my father announced that he was taking me to the cinema. This was unusual enough to be noteworthy, but to my father’s credit, most of the films I remember him taking me to without my having to ask were generally pretty good – the first couple of Christopher Reeve Superman movies, for instance. On this occasion, I remember hanging around outside a Blackpool seafront cinema for a bit on a rainy day (there may have been a queue), and then taking our seats to enjoy the latest movie by Robert Wise, a man who I have since come to regard as one of Hollywood’s greatest directors. The good news was that Wise was helming a lavish and ambitious epic SF movie. The bad news was that it eventually turned out to be Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

I found the movie somewhat baffling, but my father’s dissatisfaction was both palpable and loud. Ever since that day, TMP has had a toxic reputation in our house for being long, slow, boring, and dry, and it’s a view I suppose I automatically stuck with myself for many years. Not that we were alone, of course: I suspect the received wisdom that ‘odd numbered Trek films are no good’ is largely the result of TMP‘s perceived flaws.

Of course, the movie has picked up its defenders in the meanwhile – ‘much to enjoy,’ says the Encyclopedia of SF, noting that the subsequent movies are a ‘sentimental mishmash’ whose popularity is ‘mystifying’. Well, I’m not sure I’d go that far, but I think that if you look more closely at TMP you can see most of its problems arise from a clash between very different agendas and creative sensibilities. Is to understand really to forgive? I’ve never been completely convinced, but it can’t hurt.

Two and a half years have passed since the return of the Enterprise from its original mission (or so it is strongly implied). Kirk (William Shatner) has been promoted to the Admiralty, Spock (Leonard Nimoy) has gone into retreat and is attempting to join the Vulcan Logic Club, McCoy (DeForest Kelley) has retired from Starfleet, Scotty (Jimmy Doohan) has been busy rebuilding the ship, and so on. Then an alien object of incredible power appears, on a direct course for Earth – despite the Federation becoming aware of it while it’s still on the other side of the Klingon border, the only ship that can be scrambled to intercept it is the Enterprise, which suggests to me that Starfleet need to start building a lot more vessels.

Well, Kirk decides to lead the mission himself, royally ticking off the Enterprise‘s new captain, Decker (Stephen Collins), and gets the old gang back together for this crucially important mission. Can they rediscover that old chemistry before the whole planet is toast?

The first thing to be said about TMP is that it was, after all, directed by Robert Wise, he of The Day the Earth Stood Still and West Side Story fame, and he really does seem to have been trying to make a proper SF movie. The movie has a scope and a willingness to visually innovate that you don’t really find in the rest of the series, and there are some wonderful sequences – the opening battle between the alien probe and the Klingons being one of them, although I do recall being thrown by this at the time – while this sequence played a huge role in reimagining the Klingons for the 1980s and beyond, it’s only in retrospect that we are aware of this.

Of course, Wise’s own ambition, coupled to the unorthodox way in which this film was made, trips him up just as often. The special effects sequences for this movie were completed heart-stoppingly late and could not be re-edited or modified in any way before being inserted into the final print, and the result is sequences like Kirk’s trip to the Enterprise in spacedock via a cargo pod: this takes nearly five minutes, with no dialogue, just long, slow shots of the Enterprise, Kirk looking lovingly at it, the pod slowly flying past the Enterprise a bit more, Scotty looking with indulgent fondness at Kirk, more long, slow, shots of the Enterprise… the music is not too bad, but you inevitably start huffing and looking at your watch. Elsewhere, like many other ‘serious’ 70s films, the yardstick is obviously 2001: A Space Odyssey, with journeys into the heart of the alien probe obviously designed to recall the star gate sequence from Kubrick’s film.

On the other hand, you wonder how much of the pseudo-mysticism and laborious philosophy in this movie has been put there by its producer and co-writer, Gene Roddenberry. Roddenberry by this point was keen to be viewed as some kind of visionary thinker as well as a TV and movie writer-producer, and this is perhaps why, every time he got his hands on Star Trek after the cancellation of the original TV show, he was very keen to impose his vision of the future on it, in an unadulterated form. So much of the life and lightness and wit of the TV series came from the work of writers like DC Fontana and Gene L Coon; you can draw a fairly solid line from The Cage (Roddenberry’s original pilot for the show) to TMP and then on to early episodes of Next Generation – none of these are light and zippy entertainment, all of them feature main characters who (initially at least) are best described as ‘stolid’, and the first two take place largely in shades of grey and brown – one wonders if the maroon command uniforms in Next Generation are only there to suggest continuity with the similar hues on display in the movies around that time.

These days it is well-known that TMP was, for part of its tortuous development process, intended to be the introductory episode of a TV series to be entitled Star Trek: Phase II, in which Kirk and a mixture of old and new characters (not including Spock) would set off on a series of new adventures. If you ask me, many of the problems with TMP become much more comprehensible if you consider that this was originally intended to be a TV pilot rather than a feature film.

For one thing, the key characters of the movie are not really recognisable – Kirk starts off driven and chilly, and only very gradually starts to warm up and become a sympathetic hero as Spock and McCoy slot into place around him. Spock himself is distant and conflicted for most of the movie. Only at the end of the story, in the concluding tag scene on the bridge, do the trio seem to have rediscovered the chemistry which made them so magical in the TV show. This would make perfect sense in the pilot for a new weekly TV show – the story shows them getting back together and remembering who they are, preparatory to further adventures in the rest of the series – but in a one-off movie, not having characters more identifiable from the original show is a serious misjudgement. Needless to say, Decker and new navigator Ilia (Persis Khambatta) were also intended to be regulars in Phase II; Roddenberry appears to have been very attached to these characters and their relationship, seeing as he gave them the lightest of reworkings and stuck them in Next Generation under the new names of Riker and Troi.

Much of the creative DNA of The Motion Picture comes from its origins as a TV pilot, while the cinematic ambition of Robert Wise is a competing, rival influence. (I suppose we must also mention the way in which the movie recycles plots and ideas from TV series episodes, too, particularly The Changeling, though this is probably more an issue for your hard-core Trekkies than the average viewer.) No wonder it is a bit of a mess in may ways. Parts of it feel like the lavish, thoughtful movie it was clearly intended to be; other parts of it feel like a bad TV show. The main difficulty is that very little of it actually feels like original Star Trek, and that’s an immense problem for this kind of movie.