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So, after my less than entirely satisfying encounter with late-period Enterprise and the serialised storytelling which seemed to define the series at that point, it seemed sensible to check out a much earlier, non-serialised episode and see if this was any more to my taste. (I know I have looked at a couple of first-season episodes in recent weeks, but not with any particular intent beyond just watching the show with my critic’s socks on. Some people have a critic’s hat, I have critic’s socks.) I ended up watching the first ‘normal’ episode to follow the pilot: Fight or Flight, first shown in October 2001 and written by the show’s creators, Rick Berman and Brannon Braga.

The episode kicks off with another of those peculiar non-grabby cold opens which are practically part of Enterprise‘s format: Hoshi visits the sickbay to look in on one of the animals genial Dr Phlox is looking after. Then again, part of the premise of the story is that the Enterprise has been out in space for a couple of weeks and nothing worth mentioning has happened, beyond discovering a slightly poorly slug, so it’s a bit difficult to see how else they could have pepped things up a bit.

Various things are used to establish the fact that this is still a ship and crew that is coming together: Phlox still treats the humans as specimens to be observed, there’s an odd squeak under the floor of Archer’s room, the torpedoes won’t shoot straight and T’Pol is a mood hoover in whatever room she happens to enter. Everyone (apart from the Vulcan) is getting frustrated by the lack of activity and is keen to get on with some proper exploring.

They get their chance when they come across an alien cargo ship, apparently derelict in space (the Easter egg in the script is that the aliens eventually turn out to come from Axanar, which later – which is to say, back in the 1960s series – had a medal named after it, not to mention a fan-made Trek movie which ended up causing immense ructions between the Trek rights holders and creative fandom). Despite T’Pol’s declaration that the Vulcan thing to do would be to let well alone and carry on with their original course, Archer goes aboard and insists that Hoshi comes along to translate, despite the fact she gets claustrophobic in an environment suit. The ship seems abandoned, until the boarding party discovers some odd machinery hooked up to the corpses of fifteen or so of the original crew, who have been murdered and strung up from the ceiling…

Fight or Flight does do a good job of establishing that the Trek principles that were in effect throughout the series set in the 2360s and 2370s no longer apply here in the 2150s: Enterprise is one small ship slowly heading out into a largely unknown galaxy, without the immense power of Starfleet and the Federation to back it up. There is much more of a sense of peril, which is most effectively communicated by the fact that Archer’s initial response to finding the dead crew is to pull his people out of there and warp out of the area as fast as possible.

Needless to say, they go back, but run afoul of the aliens who murdered the other ship’s crew, and here the episode’s A-plot and B-plot rather-too-neatly intersect, as you might expect from a Berman and Braga script: Hoshi has been struggling all episode with the realities of exploring the unknown, and has been contemplating asking to be taken home so she can return to a purely academic environment where she is more comfortable. But, needless to say, when the climax arrives, she conquers her self-doubt, develops the ability to speak an alien language practically spontaneously, and saves everyone from the bad guys. I suppose it makes up for the fact that most of her earlier scenes made heavy use of an extended metaphor where she was compared to a sickly mollusc.

It’s not just the pacing which is sluggish. Ha! Ha!

It’s all very glib, pat, and predictable, and it feels like it’s taking up bandwidth that could have been more profitably used to develop more interesting elements of the story: the murderous alien villains seem quite promising, but turn up too late to do more than be generically threatening before they are disposed of, for example. However, for me the really interesting development of the episode is one which barely receives any emphasis at all.

To begin with, Archer and the other human characters are just keen to start exploring and meeting new alien species, which is fair enough: this is the sort of thing which a lot of Trek pays lip service to, although (if we’re going to put on our pedantic socks) only a comparatively tiny number of episodes, across all the series, revolve around genuine exploration. But exploring only goes so far in terms of creating conflict and drama, and so there has to be a little bit more to it than just being menaced by natural phenomena and hostile aliens – it can’t just be scientific observation, there has to be an element of virtuous self-expression to it as well. Starfleet ships don’t just zip around looking at stuff, where possible they get involved and try to do the right thing – you could argue that the whole notion of the Prime Directive is, in dramatic terms, just a device to increase the conflict involved in this kind of situation.

The shift in Archer’s attitude from ‘let’s explore!’ to ‘let’s explore virtuously!’ thus seems to me to be what this episode is really about, but – in what seems to be another key Enterprise trope – rather than handling it through a dramatic scene, with different characters arguing their points of view, and the actors getting a chance to shine, Archer just thinks about it at lot, mostly off-camera, and eventually announces his decision to everyone else. It is in the failure to provide these key moments of character, tension and drama that Enterprise seems to consistently fall down: it seems to treat the resolution of rather hackneyed character arcs, most of them limited to individual episodes, as being of higher importance. Having hit upon a successful formula during the making of TNG – most latter episodes are built around a single character tackling a particular issue in this way – they seem to have been reluctant to abandon it, and it’s this which keeps Fight or Flight from being a more satisfying episode or reaching its full potential as anything more than meat-and-potatoes Trek.

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The issue I’ve previously mentioned in connection with TV in the early 60s – that there seems to be only an extremely limited talent pool available – is once again apparent when we come to Six Hands Across a Table, an episode which doesn’t quite warrant such a florid title. Not only does it feature Philip Madoc in one of the lead roles (Madoc previously turned up as a suspicious foreigner in The Decapod, back at the start of the season), but it is written by Reed de Rouen, who also appeared as a bad guy in The Removal Men.

This is a slightly more routine episode than either of those, though still not really The Avengers-that-we-know-and-love. A consortium of shipping moguls are planning on constructing a revolutionary new vessel, but one of their number is threatening to split with the plan by involving the perfidious French in the project! That’s not the kind of attitude that made Britain great. The removal of their errant associate is the top item on the board’s agenda…

The new ship is such a prestige project that Steed is keeping an eye on things and liaising with his French ‘opposite number’ (the mind boggles at what the French equivalent of Steed might be like), and he does not share the insular and Francophobic attitudes of the conspirators. What complicates matters, and makes this rather more character-driven than almost any other Avengers episode you might care to mention (well, there’s that New Avengers episode where Purdey falls for Martin Shaw…), is that one of the leaders of the plot is the father of an old friend of Mrs Gale’s (it looks like he must have been about fourteen when he became a dad), and he and Cathy have recently developed a bit of a thing…

Most of the rest of it concerns boardroom arguments, tricky business with stocks and shares, union troubles, suspicious accidents at shipyards, and people complaining about the decline of British industry: only the prospect of Mrs Gale in love makes it especially memorable. Steed seems to be actively trying to wind her up about it, as usual: only at the end, when the story is resolved and she seems genuinely upset, does he come close to actually showing any sympathy. Being Steed, this takes the form of his asking if she fancies giving him a lift, but such is the extent to which the relationship between Steed and Mrs Gale has been established that it does speak volumes. That bit’s good, Philip Madoc is always very watchable; the rest, not so much.

Season two concludes with John Lucarotti’s Killer Whale. In the course of a prolific career, Lucarotti is perhaps best remembered as the writer of a series of historically-set science fiction stories produced by the BBC in the early to mid 1960s; this is a much more… well, I was going to say realistic story, but as it concerns the intersection of boxing and the smuggling of rare whale products, perhaps that’s overstating the facts. It’s perhaps not quite as odd as  – to choose a vaguely similar example – that Babylon 5 episode which mingles bareknuckle boxing with Jewish funerary traditions, but it’s not that far off.

While round at Mrs Gale’s place ravaging the drinks cabinet, Steed meets Joey (Kenneth Farrington), the star pupil at her judo class down the local youth club (how does she find the time…?). (Farrington is visibly in his mid-to-late 20s, which might one to wonder what kind of ‘youth’ club this is, but it was the sixties, people aged more quickly, I suppose.) Apparently Joey is a handy boxer, too, but doesn’t have the cash to try going pro (again, just how old is he supposed to be…?). Steed offers to bankroll and manage him, until Cathy smartly steps in, recognising when Steed is up to something: he may provide the money, but she will do the actual managing.

Her instincts are quite right, as it turns out Steed’s apparent act of generosity is just a pretext to justify his hanging around at the boxing club of one Pancho Driver (Patrick Magee). Steed is on the trail of people smuggling ambergris (a whale extract used in the production of perfume) and is pretty sure the gym is a front, but his investigations so far have turned nothing up. Hence his scheme with Joey.

The details of what follows are not especially memorable, given the care with which the premise is estabished: adding Joey to the mix shakes up the usual dynamic slightly (he is almost a proto-Gambit, able to pull his weight in the fight scenes), and Magee is as effective a presence as usual. But it is, as usual, slightly mechanical, studio-bound stuff, with uninspired plotting, people turning up dead just in time for the ad breaks, and not fantastically well-staged fight scenes. I find myself a little reminded of The Decapod, again, even though that was about wrestling rather than boxing – although that particular episode was just so weird it was sort of memorable in a way this mostly isn’t.

Anyway, we thus come to the end of a season which is, any way you look at it, a mixed bag. One is inevitably reminded that TV drama 57 years ago was almost unrecognisably different – filmed as-live and studio-bound, this seems to have acted as a spur to the creativity of the programme-makers rather than a limitation. No TV drama nowadays would contemplate doing a story set in Jamaica, Peru and Chile, and make it entirely in the studio; likewise, no TV show these days would respond to losing its lead actor the way The Avengers did: promote the second lead and then introduce a rotating cast of new partners for him. The experiment is ultimately a successful one, given it allowed them to see that Mrs Gale’s character worked best and drop Venus Smith and Dr King (although I understand that King was only intended as a stopgap for use in scripts written for season one’s Dr Keel). I expect that season three will prove rather more consistent and see a gradual shift towards the ‘classic Avengers style’ I keep going on about. We shall see.

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It’s just possible that you may vaguely recall I started the year by looking at some of the productions from RKO’s horror unit in the early 1940s, specifically Cat People and I Walked With A Zombie. For a while I did entertain the notion of watching them all, but it proved hard to track down copies of some of the films – not being able to find a free copy of The Seventh Victim anywhere was a bit irksome, as I recall – and, well, it does seem hard to believe now, but five months ago the world was a very different place: things kept happening unexpectedly, the days were all very different from each other, and in these circumstances it was easy for a project to get forgotten about.

But anyway. One RKO horror movie which it is currently quite easy to track down is The Curse of the Cat People, released in 1944 and directed by Gunter von Fritsch and Robert Wise: Wise, as you may be aware, would go on to direct such outstanding movies as the original The Day the Earth Stood Still and West Side Story (he also ended up having a fairly gruelling experience trying to direct Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which only goes to show that nobody has a perfect career), so this is a significant movie for this reason if no other. It is, as the title suggests, a sequel to 1942’s Cat People.

Having said all that, I can quite easily imagine people taking exception to several of the assertions I’ve just made: namely, that this is a horror movie, and also that it is a genuine sequel to Jacques Tourneur’s original movie. Well, it’s a follow-up, certainly, for it features four of the cast of the 1942 film, three of whom are definitely meant to be playing the same characters.

Seven or eight years have gone by since the events of Cat People (or so we are invited to assume), and ship designer Oliver Reed (yes, yes, we went through all that back in January) – played once more by Kent Smith – is married to former co-worker Alice (Jane Randolph). The two of them are living in wholesome suburban bliss with their young daughter Amy (Ann Carter) and their butler, Edward (Lancelot Pinard, who is billed – last, despite having a significant role in the movie – under his stage name of Sir Lancelot). I would say not to let the fact that this fairly ordinary family have a live-in Afro-American servant alienate you too much, but I’m not sure that’s possible.

Well, anyway, all is well for the Reeds, except for the fact that Amy is a bit ‘dreamy’ – she makes friends with butterflies, rather than other children, and seems to find it difficult to distinguish between reality and her imagination. Oliver reveals himself to be far from the most sensitive of parents by decrying this sort of behaviour as ‘lying’ and getting quite cross with his daughter about it, without fully hearing her out or considering her situation. Alice isn’t exactly off the hook, as the pair of them have rows about their child-raising technique in Amy’s presence, which I doubt Dr Spock would approve of.

Amy’s neighbourhood wanderings lead her to make the acquaintance of a lonely old woman (Julia Dean) and her hostile daughter (Elizabeth Russell, who played a cat person in the 1942 film but seems to be a different character here). The old woman gives her a ring which Amy comes to believe can grant wishes, and in her loneliness wishes that she had a friend. And a friend comes to her, called out of ‘silence and darkness’: a friend named Irena (Simone Simon), who very much appears to be Oliver’s first wife, who died in rather mysterious circumstances at the end of the first film…

Spooky stuff, huh? Especially when you consider that Irena’s main issue was that she was a cat person, descended from Serbian witches and given to turning into a panther and tearing things and people apart when powerful emotions like jealousy were roused in her. How do you imagine she reacts when she discovers her man has married her rival and had a child with her?

Well, you may continue wondering, for the film makes only the vaguest allusions to Irena’s problem – beyond the title, the cat people are barely mentioned at all, and the ‘curse’ referred to is the shadow that Irena’s death continues to cast over Oliver and Alice’s marriage. In this film, Irena appears to be an entirely benign presence in Amy’s life, almost like her imaginary friend – but for the fact Amy recognises her from some old family photos which Oliver has rather thoughtlessly left lying around the house.

So what, then, is this film about? Well, that’s a very good question; I wish I had a good answer for you. It may seem to have a ghost in it, but I wouldn’t honestly describe it as a horror movie at all: it’s actually very family-friendly, as you might expect of a film where one of the main characters is a six or seven year old girl. I think the film is largely about being a child, and not yet fully appreciating the difference between fantasy and reality – the implication, of course, is that ghosts and other objects of fantasy do exist in some form, and people should be more open to such possibilities: it does seem that Irena has some form of objective reality (though she seems to have become much more French in the afterlife), and plays a part in saving Amy’s life before the end of the film.

But even so, this is a strange, oblique film, very dream-like itself in many ways. Even at only about 70 minutes long it doesn’t really seem packed with incident, and it almost feels like some of the different elements of the story don’t quite connect together in the conventional way: it’s not immediately clear how the subplot about the Farren family actually adds to the story – the casting of Elizabeth Russell is certainly suggestive, but is this a red herring? It’s hard to be sure. Certainly the ending of the film smacks a little of a manufactured climax, which is perhaps a shame.

‘Sequel’ really isn’t the right word for The Curse of the Cat People, though I’m struggling to think of a better one. How do you describe a film which takes a group of characters and uses them to tell a new story, almost entirely unconnected from the one in which they first appeared, with no commonalities of plot, tone, or theme? ‘Follow-up’ is the best I can think of, but even this suggests a commonality which simply isn’t there. This is a well-made and memorable film, if only for the strange oneiric atmosphere that pervades it, but it neither functions as a sequel nor could it really work as a standalone movie. A real oddity, but a classy one.

 

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As I have noted in the past, one of the few reassuring universal truths is that nobody is brilliant at everything, and even those who are brilliant at something are almost never brilliant at it all the time. This surely comes as a great reassurance to those of us who are never especially brilliant at anything, at any time. It can still be a bit disconcerting, however, to come across an instance of someone who is usually reliably brilliant – this piece is not scoring highly so far for its range of vocabulary – turning in subpar work.

Still, it happens. It would almost be invidious, and certainly unacceptably negative, to give too many examples, and so I shall just move briskly on to our main topic for the day, and the source of this observation, which is Pedro Almodovar’s 1989 movie Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (title en Espanol: ¡Átame!).

Now, as regular readers will know, in the course of the last year I have gone from having only a vague awareness of Almodovar’s work to becoming a bit of an enthusiast, and I feel like I am starting to get a feeling for the kind of general trajectory of his career: a gradual increase in the sophistication and confidence throughout the 1980s films, followed by the imperial phase movies of the late 90s and early 2000s – then perhaps a little bit of a wobble, before consolidation in his current position as one of the most respected names in world cinema.

Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! is a film which doesn’t really fit into this pattern, simply because it’s not very good. It did, however, lead me to contemplate what it is we mean when we talk about good and bad movies. Certainly it is a more polished and coherent movie than, say, Dark Habits, and the key roles are better acted. And yet I find it to be a poorer film. Perhaps the key difference is between weakness of conception and weakness of execution – I find the latter easier to forgive than the former.

The movie opens with a young man named Ricky (Antonio Banderas) being released from a psychiatric institution, which the director clearly finds rather distressing as she is much taken with the lad: there is a note of over-the-top campness here which suggests a much broader film than this actually turns out to be. His first act upon getting out is to find some chocolates and track down the location of a young actress named Marina (Victoria Abril), with whom he had a one-night stand some time earlier.

She is coming to the end of making a horror movie for wheelchair-bound director Max Espejo (Francisco Rabal) – there is possibly an attempt to suggest this is a Spanish take on an Argento-style giallo movie – and looking forward to a break. However, she is nevertheless pounced upon by Ricky when she returns to her apartment, tied up and informed that he will keep her like this until she does the sensible thing and falls in love with him as completely as he is devoted to her…

Looking back upon my life, I now realise that the key factor responsible for my lack of romantic success in my younger years was my ASD, but second to that was probably my deeply misguided belief that copying Roger Moore’s lady-killing moves from his James Bond films would naturally lead to similar results. I can only be grateful that things didn’t get any worse, as they might well have done if, rather than the Bond series, I had taken my cues from films like Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! and other films from what I can only describe as the ‘coercive romance’ subgenre.

By this I mean movies where the male character contrives to put himself in a very controlling position with regard to the female character, but she falls in love with him anyway. Sounds pretty niche and unpleasant, right? Presumably pitched as a wish-fulfilment exercise for a certain kind of male viewer with limited social skills? Well, you might think so, but that’s a pretty good description of the premise of Passengers, which I have seen some women favourably compare to the much more conventional romance Titanic. It’s far from the only film based on the same idea: namely, that women will forgive a man anything as long as his devotion to (or, to put it another way, obsession with) her is strong enough. Is there another trope which makes it quite so clear that the film industry is still largely run by and for men?

It’s still a bit disconcerting to find Almodovar’s name on a film based around such a dubious central idea, but I can imagine how a worthwhile (if still inevitably provocative) film on the topic could be attempted – but it would have to be in part a spoof or deconstruction of the whole notion of coercive romance, perhaps demanding the kind of ironic sensibility and knowing playfulness Almodovar often employs so well. Unfortunately, this is one of his films where these qualities are much less in evidence: the central relationship is handled very ‘straight’, and the film-within-the-film is meant to be a commentary on the story, this is handled with much too light a touch (there’s a line suggesting romances and horror stories are sometimes indistinguishable).

And, crucially, it just doesn’t convince. Antonio Banderas and Victoria Abril are both very capable and charismatic performers, but the key moment of the film – when Marina submits to her growing attraction to Ricky – feels sudden and unwarranted. Normally Almodovar makes a virtue of the melodramatic nature of his stories, and the outrageous plotting, but here it doesn’t work: they don’t feel like a natural part of the film’s ethos, but something limited to just this one scene in order to make the film function as a romance.

Compounding the problem is the way that Almodovar concentrates on the central relationship quite strongly, with the result that many other potentially interesting characters and ideas are shuffled off to the fringes of the film – Rabal’s character is an interesting one, as is Marina’s sister (played by Loles Leon), but neither of them get very much to do. This feels like one of the director’s more straightforward films, in terms of its thesis – all the usual unconventionality seems to have been converted into the weirdness of the central relationship, although this is still unusually graphic for what’s theoretically a romance: a graphic sex scene, a couple of scenes with people on the toilet, and a startling moment where Marina finds a new use for a bath toy all conspired (it is suggested) to ensure Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! got an X certificate on its initial American release (something usually reserved for actual pornography).

Maybe they had a point, I don’t know. Perhaps I am letting the fact that I find the idea at the centre of this film objectionable colour my opinion of it too much. Maybe it is possible that by insanely kidnapping a woman, threatening to kill her, and keeping her tied up, you can eventually kindle the flames of love between you and her. But I still think this is a long shot, and to suggest it’s a dead cert is not just misleading, it’s arguably irresponsible, especially when the film doesn’t even suggest it has its tongue in its cheek: the happy ending feels entirely sincere. Whatever touches of quality the film has as a piece of cinema – and these are inevitably present – it’s hard to get past the problem at the heart of the story.

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Deep in The Avengers‘ second season we come across Man in the Mirror by Geoffrey Orme and Anthony Terpiloff, such a thin piece of work that it does seem to suggest a production team struggling to keep things together. Most of it isn’t that bad, I suppose, it’s just very slow and obvious.

After an opening which features a man being found dead at a funfair, there’s an extended sequence of Steed turning up to a briefing and chatting with various colleagues: which would be an interesting insight into the way his department operates, were it not for the suspicion that it’s really just filler. On this occasion he’s working for the first time with yet another superior, One-Six (Arthur Gover): Steed’s new boss is a stickler for procedure and is clearly not much taken with Steed’s more swashbuckling style, suggesting that a protracted stint of office work may be good for Steed’s attitude. The particular assignment is to investigate the recent apparent suicide of a man called Trevelyan, an expert in cryptography – if it really was a suicide, the department can relax and not worry about having to change all its codes. If not…

Venus takes Steed’s dog for a walk to the funfair where Trevelyan was found dead at the top of the episode and enjoys herself with the camera Steed has lent her (apparently he wants some pictures of the location where the body was found and has sent her here deliberately, which is just as well or this episode would be based on a completely preposterous coincidence). However, when the photos of the hall of mirrors are developed, one of them shows a man’s reflection – it seems to be Trevelyan! Could he still be alive?

You can probably work out the rest of this one for yourself, although your version may end up with more twists and a slightly more cohesive and rewarding climax than the episode they ended up making. Pretty mundane, ambling stuff, and the apparently obligatory musical interludes where Venus does a couple of numbers don’t really help much (she started off as some sort of jazz singer, but in this one she’s singing the folk song I Know Where I’m Going from the Powell and Pressburger film of the same name). Undistinguished and unmemorable.

Much the same is true of Conspiracy of Silence, from the typewriter of Roger Marshall, which is part of that subset of Avengers episodes concerned with circuses and killer clowns. (Possibly I am overestimating the frequency of this particular trope.) This is, as you might expect from a second season episode, towards the naturalistic end of the spectrum, and concerns an Italian circus performer, long established in England, finding himself unwillingly activated as an agent of the Mafia. Suffice to say that if he wasn’t before, he is now the crying-on-the-inside kind of clown. Quite why the Mafia have singled out the clown as their hitman of choice is not clear, as he seems both temperamentally and physically unsuited for the role. However, we shouldn’t be too upset as his assigned target is none other than Steed, who has been making a nuisance of himself breaking up the Mafia’s drug pushing activities.

The clown turns out to be about as much use as a contract killer as you might expect, missing Steed at short range while our hero is out walking his dog (Sheba not Freckles on this occasion). Even worse, he drops not only his gun, but his briefcase, which contains various helpful clues as to his identity. (What kind of a hitman, or indeed a circus clown, carries a briefcase around with them?) Steed wastes no time in inserting Mrs Gale into the circus in order to discover what’s really going on.

A little trouble in a big top.

The premise of the episode, not to mention the opening section, is so dubious that it really struggles to recover; there are some interesting characters, but also a few duds, and much of it is played as a melodrama (for example, many of the scenes between the clown and his wife). There is some interesting tension in the Steed-Gale relationship (a bit more than usual), but other than the circus setting there is little to elevate the episode or make it especially memorable.

The last of the Venus Smith episodes heaves into view in the form of A Chorus of Frogs, which is supposedly the best of the bunch. I can see how you might think this, but on the other hand it is one of those ‘exotic’ episodes which I don’t think the series ever handles especially well. A part-time agent (basically, a mercenary) turns up dead in the Med, apparently of the bends, having seemingly been dumped from the yacht of millionaire Archipelago Mason (Eric Pohlman). Steed, who is on holiday in the area and sporting what Mel and Sue used to call le fashion nautique, meets up with One-Six who packs him off to investigate what Mason is up to: the complication being that the dead man was part of a tight-knit crew of divers known as the Frogs, who are intent on doing a spot of avenging of their own…

This is by no means the worst studio-bound Avengers episode set largely on a boat, but the bar in this area is set particularly low. It’s okay, I suppose: the tension between Steed’s activities, those of the Frogs, and those of Mason and his backers from the Other Side, creates an interesting dynamic even if the actual revelation of what’s going on is relatively pedestrian (tests on a new type of bathyscape which could revolutionise the production of midget submarines). Much of the fun of the episode comes from Steed having to stow away on Mason’s yacht, which requires him to hide out in Venus’ cabin, much to her chagrin (once again we have to accept the apparently monumental coincidence that she just happens to be singing in the vicinity of where Steed has an assignment in progress): she and Steed even butt heads in a very mild way, although her general uselessness as a sidekick is still much in evidence, as are the musical numbers (Julie Stevens sings straight to the camera some of the time, which is a bit jarring). One other odd quirk stems from the fact that there were apparently only about twelve people involved in making British TV in 1963: Frank Gatliff, who was in an earlier episode of season 2, reappears here as a different character. All in all this is a reasonably good episode; the best of an indifferent bunch.

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Some friends and I were having a discussion just the other night about the virtues (or not) and place (if any) of serialised storytelling in Star Trek. I say friends, but most of these people I’ve only met (and by met I mean ‘have begun to talk to via internet audio messaging’, as we live in four different countries) recently and all we have in common, I suspect, is a shared interest in Star Trek and games related to it. Things therefore got a bit fraught when I suggested I’m not necessarily a fan of ongoing storylines; our DS9 fan strongly argued that this was the best of the Berman-era series, which inevitably rolled on into a somewhat heated debate about whether Voyager is, in fact, any good at all, and so on. I nearly had to step in and calm everyone down.

The odd thing is that while I’m not at all a fan of Discovery (or Picard, much), and these are shows which are largely defined by their serial nature, I do like Deep Space Nine a lot, mainly because it does have that big, overarching storyline running for most of its seven seasons. Am I just having another one of my little interludes of total inconsistency? I would like to think not. I think this is really a case of plot as opposed to meta-plot; in DS9, the meta-plot about the Dominion threat to the Alpha Quadrant powers is there from the middle of the second season, motoring along in the background, but most of the episodes are standalones without particular continuing threads. In the newer shows, pretty much everything runs from one episode to the next.

As it happens I was thinking about this just the other day, when I watched a couple more episodes of Enterprise. Why am I watching so much Enterprise late at night at the moment? Well, to be honest, under lockdown, I find myself watching reruns of the original series and TNG two or even three times a day on regular TV, while a run of Voyager recently concluded and my sense is that DS9 really demands a complete rewatch if you want to fully appreciate it it. Plus it seems that Enterprise still has a bit of a bad rep – our Voyager fan has never even watched it – and I can’t resist an underdog.

The episodes I watched were Affliction and Divergence, from quite near the end of the show’s run. The story starts with the Enterprise returning to Earth for the launch of her sister ship, the Columbia, to which chief engineer Trip will be transferring for personal reasons. However, trouble is afoot, taking the form of genial Dr Phlox being kidnapped by persons unknown.

Well, naturally, Captain Archer won’t take this sort of thing lying down, and sets off in pursuit of the abductors (that old reliable Trek plot device, the Vulcan mind meld, gives them a clue as to the species responsible), but things are complicated by the fact that tactical officer Reed seems to have an agenda of his own. His initial reports that the Orion Syndicate may have been responsible starts to look very suspect when the ship is attacked by a Klingon vessel – although the Klingon boarding party is a decidedly odd one, the warriors in question lacking their bumpy heads and looking like nothing so much as members of a post-grunge rock band under a lot of fake tan…

Phlox, meanwhile, has found himself in a Klingon medical research facility (Klingon ideas about medical ethics are quite as alarming as you might expect) and discovered the truth: a plague is sweeping the Klingon Empire and he has been ‘recruited’ to find a cure. What the Klingons don’t initially come clean about is that the virus is one derived from human attempts at genetic augmentation (the same ones that produced Khan, he of wrath fame, back in the 20th century) – but rather than genetically enhanced super-warriors, the result is a new breed of human-looking Klingons who quickly expire, although not before infecting those around them.

Naturally, the Klingons aren’t keen on telling anyone about their little mistake, hence the attack on Enterprise, which was mainly to sabotage the main reactor – it soon becomes apparent that unless the ship maintains a velocity of at least warp five, it’s going to explode, which is a bit of an issue given that’s barely below its emergency maximum speed…

I have to say that I find myself very ambivalent when it comes to this particular story, even at a conceptual level. The origins of the whole thing surely lie in the thirtieth anniversary episode of DS9, where there is a very droll gag about the difference between the original series Klingon make-up and the more elaborate prosthetics used ever since the movies got going (‘It is not something we talk about,’ declares Worf, deadpan). Prior to this, explanations for the difference had ranged from there being different subspecies of Klingons (bumpy-headed ‘pure’ Imperial Klingons and human-Klingon ‘fusions’) to there being no actual in-universe difference, just a presentational one. The motive behind Affliction and Divergence is basically to continuity-cop the difference in Klingon appearance away.

What it all really boils down to.

And part of me, the tiny hard-core Trekkie part, really likes and responds to this particular impulse. The fact that Discovery (and, to a lesser extent, Picard) break so profoundly with established continuity is not the main reason for my dislike of them, but it is certainly a factor. But on the other hand, there is also something slightly mad about devoting eighty or ninety minutes of your TV show to resolving continuity inconsistencies that have developed over the course of a nearly-forty-year franchise: this is not a question your average viewer would have been burning to discover the answer to. In the past I have been deeply critical of long-running series and franchises that became overly-obsessed with their own lore and continuity.

(Perhaps if Enterprise hadn’t been canned and the original series-style Klingons had made more appearances, and the ramifications of the ‘human’ virus had been explored further, the episode wouldn’t feel quite so niche. But this turned out to be the last major piece of Klingon-focused Trek of its era.)

Perhaps part of the problem is that the episodes just feel like a piece of continuity-copping: it doesn’t feel like there’s any other compelling reason for the decision to tell this story. The big high-concept set piece – Star Trek does Speed! – comes midway through the story; the conclusion is a very generic late Berman-era space battle (the kind where people stand around on the bridge shouting out percentages as CGI starships zap away at each other inconclusively) while Phlox tersely issues medical technobabble.

Most of the rest of it feels almost entirely procedural, and here we come to the issue of the serialised storytelling: this episode refers back to many previous ones, including such elements as Archer’s recent experiences carrying the soul of legendary Vulcan Surak, Trip and T’Pol’s personal relationship, Reed’s relationship with the enigmatic Section 31, xenophobia on Earth, and so on. All this is probably more acceptable if you’ve been following along with the series to this point, but it makes for a much less satisfying experience watching the episodes in isolation.

Perhaps I’m doing the final series of Enterprise a disservice, and the episodes aren’t intended to be watched this way – the fact the season is almost entirely composed of two- and three-part stories is probably a clue to this end – and I know that these particular episodes are well-liked, by the cast and crew at least. But I have to say that for all that I appreciate the impulse responsible for them, I enjoyed them rather less than the best episodes of the first couple of seasons. Perhaps in the end this, like DS9, is a show you really need to watch from start to finish to be able to properly appraise.

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As anyone who’s dug through the archives of the blog will know, a lot of my earliest reviews were written for the online newspaper of a very early social media/open-source collaborative encyclopedia website, and I still do a piece for them every week. Usually this is a topical review, which has obviously been tricky for the last couple of months, but at least this frees me up somewhat to contribute to the themed issues the paper occasionally runs. They recently did an ornithological number, which I treated with due respect by submitting an update of my 2012 review of The Giant Claw, and I have just been informed they’re following this up with a bug-themed issue, and would appreciate something appropriate.

Well, as you know, if I have a genuine passion in my life, it is science fiction, and there does seem to be an implicit link between insects on film and the SF genre. You can start the line with Them!, and then trace a path through the years, taking in such treats as Tarantula! (not actually about an insect, of course, but as we shall see taxonomic precision is not the strong suit of arthropod-related cinema), The Deadly Mantis, The Fly and its sequels,  and so on, down through Phase IV and on to the present day (personally I’ve always felt that Aliens in particular owes a huge debt to Them!). This doesn’t even touch on the Japanese contribution to the tradition – how can one not mention Mothra? (There are also the giant caterpillars which appear in Rodan and, much later, Godzilla Vs Megaguirus.) It’s actually a lot harder to think of insect-related movies which aren’t SF – the only ones I can think of are The Naked Jungle and The Swarm, in which Charlton Heston and Michael Caine contend with large numbers of our exoskeletal friends.

Still, the sheer number of bug movies in the SF-horror vein suggests there has always been money to be made here. This may explain the nature (no pun intended) of the distinctly odd movie The Hellstrom Chronicle, made in 1971 and directed by Ed Spiegel and Walon Green. The Hellstrom Chronicle was advertised in the style of those SF-horror projects, on the strength of its various baleful pronouncements on the future of the human race, which seems to me to be rather disingenous considering it is actually a wildlife documentary (albeit one including brief clips from Them! and The Naked Jungle). Nevertheless, the film was a financial success and won an Oscar and a BAFTA, so it clearly didn’t do anyone any harm.

After some striking opening footage representing the formation of the Earth and the origins of life itself, and then some nice footage of carnivorous plants doing their thing, we meet the radical scientist Dr Nils Hellstrom himself. Hellstrom has a PhD (Doctor of Philosophy), an MS (Master of Science), and is WF (wholly fictitious). He is played by Lawrence Pressman, who basically hosts and narrates the entire movie. Hellstrom is, by his own admission, a fanatic, a heretic, and a lunatic, and has fallen out of favour with the scientific establishment due to his his unpopular Big Idea: this is that, in the ongoing struggle between the human race and the insect world, there can only be one victor, and it’s not going to be the big soft pink fleshy things.

The rest of the movie is basically Hellstrom trying to convince the audience that we’re all doomed, and supporting his argument with various pieces of state-of-the-art footage of insects in their everyday lives. We are treated to segments showing battles between red and black harvester ants, more ants attacking a termite colony, the curious sex lives of spiders, a startling sequence showing what it’s like to be inside a plane flying through a locust swarm, driver ants on the march, and so on.

The photography still looks good even nearly fifty years on, with many striking images; no doubt it seemed even more impressive back in the early seventies. It is quite fascinating and absorbing, even before one considers the contributions made by Hellstrom himself. These add a lot to the tone of the movie and the impression it leaves, but viewed objectively they are frankly a bit of a mixed bag. Hellstrom’s thesis was apparently synthesised from the work of a range of contemporary entomologists, approved by two advisors from the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, and then turned into a script by David Seltzer (later to have a decent career as a writer-director, most notably as scriptwriter of both versions of The Omen). I’m guessing the advisors didn’t get a look at the final script, or if they did their notes were ignored.

There are some interesting philosophical ideas here: insects have no capacity for intelligence or abstract reasoning, but – argues Hellstrom – this also means they are incapable of stupidity or irrationality. Their lack of individuality likewise gives them a competitive advantage. (And so on: there are some ecological ideas here too.) But on the other hand, you can imagine the advisors seething every time Hellstrom refers to the entire class of insects (eight million species, more or less) as a single creature, analogous to humans (one species – extant, anyway).

In the end, though, one kind of gets the impression that Dr Hellstrom and his theories are basically here to provide a bit of colour and atmosphere to link together bits of (very impressive) footage showing insects and their cousins up close. And this they do successfully. I suppose it’s always a question of how you find an audience for this kind of film, which isn’t typical cinema fare – twenty-five years later, a European movie called Microcosmos was released, which took a much more lyrical-pastoral approach to the same sort of material, largely eschewed narration, and once again did very well for itself.

The Hellstrom Chronicle turned out to have a curious afterlife as well – apart from winning various big documentary awards, it also inspired an actual SF novel by Frank Herbert: Hellstrom’s Hive, portraying a human society run along the same lines as a nest of social insects and its conflict with ‘wild’ humanity. Perhaps more significant, though, is the way the film presents wildlife footage with a strong element of narrative, including the use of incidental music to heighten the drama and impact of what is being shown. I’ve no idea if this was an innovation of the film, or something which was widespread in nature films at the time. Certainly, The Hellstrom Chronicle does this well, and the technique has become ubiquitous in wildlife documentary series today: one of the reasons I’ve more or less stopped watching this sort of programme is that any kind of scientific or educational underpinning has been dropped in favour of simple spectacle, very often sentimental. But it would be excessively harsh to hold The Hellstrom Chronicle responsible for this. This is obviously quite an odd movie, and in some ways it feels quite dated now, but the quality of the microphotography and Pressman’s well-pitched performance keep it engaging even today.

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