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How’s this for reductionist humour – Space: 1999? A ha ha ha ha ha! If you wanted to be a little more decompressed, you might bring up the issue of the show’s entry in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (‘see also: Scientific Errors’), the episode with the killer plants of Luton, the perpetually baffled chief scientist Victor Bergman (default response to any query: ‘Well, John, I just haven’t a clue’), and so on. The fact that the series has been brought to a whole new generation by the good folk at the Horror Channel is surely enough to give anyone cause to smile, even in times as difficult as our own.

Some context for the uninitiated: Space 1999 was a big-budget SF series made in the 1970s under the auspices of Gerry Anderson (he of Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet fame), although by this point he had moved on from the stilted, wooden performances given by puppets, having discovered you could get a similar result from living actors with the right kind of scripting and direction. By this point Anderson had already turned down Stanley Kubrick’s offer to do the special effects on 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it does seem like that movie was at the back of his mind when he came to make Space: 1999 – apart from the similarity in titles, this was an attempt at the same kind of blend of seriously-imagined ‘realistic’ space fiction and enigmatic cosmic mysticism.

The problem with the show is that the format doesn’t easily fit into either of these categories. The premise is that, in September 1999, nuclear waste dumps on the Moon explode, blasting it out of orbit and sending it zooming across the cosmos, encountering alien life and stellar mysteries on pretty much a weekly basis. It’s one of those formats which is frankly so absurd the show can’t even acknowledge its own implausibility, to say nothing of the fact the series is predicated on the fact that the crew of Moonbase Alpha can never arrive anywhere nice or meet anyone especially helpful, as this would destroy the format.

Even a show as daft as Space: 1999 occasionally throws up a decent episode, however, which brings us to Earthbound, written by Anthony Terpiloff, directed by Charles Crichton, and originally broadcast in December 1975. I must have originally caught it on a Saturday lunchtime repeat in 1981 or 82; this may be a dud series, on the whole, but a couple of episodes have lodged in my memory, and this is one of them.

The character driving this episode is Commissioner Simmonds (Roy Dotrice), a desk-orbiting political operator with an extraordinary choice of hairstyle and beard. Simmonds has been stuck on the Moon since the opening episode, which (as this is the fourteenth episode in the run as originally transmitted) kind of leads one to wonder where he’s been in the intervening time, given he’s such an obtrusively obnoxious individual (the episode would maybe make more sense located earlier in the chronology of the show). Simmonds is fixated on trying to get back to Earth, despite the fact this is obviously impossible, which doesn’t half tick off actual commander John Koenig (imported American star Martin Landau).

Still, it soon turns out that Simmonds isn’t the only one thinking along those lines, as an alien ship makes a forced landing on the Moon (it is an interesting shade of blue and looks like a sort of novelty vase or ornament). The Alphans go aboard and discover what seems to be a glam rock band lying in state, inside sealed glass cabinets. Not having their own copy of the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and thus being unaware that it is always, always a bad idea to interfere with apparently dead aliens, chief medical officer Dr Russell (Landau’s real-life wife Barbara Bain) tries to open one of the boxes but only succeeds in incinerating the occupant. Oops.

Looking on the bright side, this at least perks all the other aliens up a bit, particularly their leader, Captain Zantor, who gets all the dialogue. This is no bad thing as under the wig and the make-up is Christopher Lee, fresh off the set of The Man with the Golden Gun and well on his way to well-deserved living legend status already. It seems the ship is from the dying planet of Kaldor, and the six (now five) crew members are heading for Earth, intending to settle there (if the people of the planet permit them). Their ship was programmed to go into orbit around the Moon, which has still happened even though the Moon is not where it was supposed to be. The Kaldorians accept the various cock-ups which have beset them with good grace, and announce they’re going to continue on to Earth, seventy-five years’ voyage away, and, as they now have a free stasis box, they offer to take one of the Alphans with them.

The future’s bright – the future’s… various shades of beige, apparently.

Koenig decides to get the base computer to select the best person to receive this free ticket back to Earth, but Simmonds isn’t standing for any of that sort of nonsense (he has already suggested Koenig kill all the Kaldorians and seize their ship). Proving unexpectedly trigger-happy for a politician, he zaps his way into the power unit and basically takes the reactor hostage, insisting on being the one to take the spare berth on the alien ship. Zantor agrees, amidst much grumbling from the rest of the crew who quite rightly think that it’s not right that Simmonds should get away with this.

But will he? No-one has bothered to tell him the aliens need to create a special hibernation matrix keyed to whoever is using the stasis cabinet for it to function, with the result that Simmonds wakes up in his cabinet only three hours into the seventy-five year flight. Already the ship has departed and is beyond the range of Alpha’s support craft to reach; he is sealed in, unable to affect the ship. He screams and thrashes around helplessly in his box as the alien craft glides on through space…

It’s a memorably nasty conclusion, and of course the double whammy that sets it off so well is yet to come: when asked who the computer selected to send on the flight, Koenig reveals the inevitable answer – Simmonds. The Commissioner would have got his own way regardless.

Watching Earthbound again now, it is not quite as impressive as my memory suggested, but then neither is Space: 1999 in general quite as useless as it is popularly held to be. It remains, on a fundamental level, an awkward mash-up of the space opera stylings of Star Trek and the more philosophical approach copied, clumsily, from 2001, but the special effects are quite as good as you’d expect from an Anderson series and the production values are generally pretty good too. Barry Gray’s scores are also always a highlight of an Anderson show.

This is still a superior episode, the thing that lets it down being the way that Simmonds is presented. Leaving aside the fact that such a prominent figure seems to have materialised out of thin air in the gap between episodes, he’s just not plausible as a character. There’s potential for him to have been borderline-sympathetic – he ended up stranded on the Moon by accident, he’s not a trained specialist or astronaut like the rest of the crew, after all – but he’s written as a ruthless, self-interested villain, almost bordering on the psychotic. It’s not quite a panto turn from Roy Dotrice (usually a dependable actor) but the script kind of requires him to turn it up a bit too far to be credible.

The same is not the case when it comes to the episode’s genuine special guest star, Christopher Lee. Lee is really up against it, given the costume and make-up he is required to perform in (originally, heavier prosthetics were planned for the Kaldorians, but Lee refused to wear them), but as you would expect he rises to the occasion magnificently. You quite rarely get actors of Lee’s distinction playing guest aliens in space opera TV shows, and too often the resulting performances are just, well, not very impressive – for whatever reason, they don’t seem to be particularly trying to portray a genuinely alien being and just treat the make-up or whatever as a special kind of hat beneath which they just give a standard performance. Exceptions to this are few and far between; honourable mention must go to Martin Sheen’s appearance in Babylon 5, but also to Lee here – there is something genuinely unearthly and detached about his demeanour and line-readings here. The big question left open at the end of the episode is one of whether Zantor has deliberately arranged things so Simmonds meets his awful fate at the end; Lee’s performance is carefully pitched to give no indication, which just adds to the creepiness of the conclusion.

I expect that the discerning modern viewer would look at Earthbound nowadays and just say ‘This is rubbish’, and not without a smidgeon of justification – in addition to all its other faults, Space: 1999 simply hasn’t aged at all well. But in the context of the series this is still a superior instalment, and that ending does stay with you. And while the rest of the series may be even more rubbish, at least it is interesting, often unintentionally funny rubbish, and you have to take your pleasures where you can these days.

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Just when it looks like the late-summer interesting-movie drought is a thing of the past, the UPP goes and closes for its annual week of maintenance. Sigh. Still, when it returns, it is at least with an amusingly tongue-in-cheek choice of subject matter for its usual revival season – the weeks leading up to October 31st feature a series of films under the umbrella title of Apocalypse, Now?, connected by the fact they are either dystopian or downright apocalyptic British-set movies. One can appreciate the joke even if, fingers crossed, recent events mean that Halloween no longer has particularly ominous associations this year.

I expect it says something about me that most of the films in the Apocalypse season are ones I’m already rather familiar with. It includes A Clockwork Orange, Children of Men, and The Day the Earth Caught Fire, and you’ve already got two classic films there at least. The curve-ball of the season, however, is a film which wasn’t originally made for the big screen, and, well… it’s a very different kind of beast from those others. It is Threads, from 1984.

If I may digress a moment, a few years ago I was in Prague for a long weekend and one of the places I visited was a nuclear bunker in the suburbs of the city. We had an engaging time exploring the facilities, putting on the gas masks and having our photos taken in them, and so on, and then the guide pointed out to us that the mirrors in the bathrooms were all sheets of polished metal, rather than the usual glass. And when we asked why, he explained it was part of the policy to make the bunker suicide-proof, because it was anticipated that even the survivors of a nuclear strike would be very likely to contemplate ending their own lives. And suddenly we felt a bit subdued and queasy, and everything was considerably less jolly.

Threads is a film which will give you that moment of uneasiness and recognition of what is really at stake here, and stretch it out to 108 minutes. It was first broadcast on British TV in 1984, and even before the transmission it was drawing complaints – even the front cover of the BBC’s TV listings magazine was considered to be too disturbing and explicit. I was much too young to watch the actual film when it was shown then, but the cover did lodge itself in my memory as a grisly, haunting symbol of the film.

Quite when the film is set is a little ambiguous – based on the dates given on screen, it appears to be a near-future 1988, but it is clearly mean to be contemporary, although it does not identify specific politicians. In the opening scenes, we meet lead characters Ruth (Karen Meagher) and Jimmy (Reece Dinsdale), a young couple living in Sheffield, getting on with their lives, not paying much attention to the world situation – Russian troops have recently moved from the USSR into eastern parts of Iran. Ruth falls pregnant, and in the absence of any other options, they decide to marry and move in together, although Jimmy’s commitment to the relationship seems far from complete.

They buy a flat, start to think about a wedding; the two sets of parents get to know each other. But while all this is going on, tensions are building in the Middle East, with both the Americans and Soviets building up their forces in the region, and the rhetoric becoming increasingly antagonistic. Slowly it impinges on the characters that armed conflict is a possibility, then a likelihood. There is panic-buying in the supermarkets. The TV broadcasts public information films about how to convert part of your home into a fall-out survival room, and what to do if someone dies while you are in there. Key personnel and resources are quietly moved into locations of safety.

And then, one Thursday morning, the air attack warning sounds. As an industrial city not too far from USAF bases in England, Sheffield is targeted and struck by several nuclear warheads.

The first half of Threads has something of the look and feel of a kitchen-sink drama – something gritty and naturalistic, about the real lives of young people today, albeit one punctuated by occasional captions giving supplementary information, and contributions from an omniscient narrator (Paul Vaughan). The very nature of the production means it has an extraordinary atmosphere of impending doom, and a weird tension – you’re kind of anticipating the moment when the world comes to an end, and wondering what it’s going to be like, and yet at the same time you are dreading how the actual reality of it is going to be presented to you.

And your instincts are quite right, because the second half of Threads is probably the most soul-crushingly bleak hour of TV ever broadcast in the UK – yes, even worse than the final episode of Blake’s 7. And the tone and nature of the film feels like it undergoes a quite radical shift. Some of the documentary realism persists, but it is mixed with an almost impressionistic approach to portraying the scenes of nightmarish horror which ensue: we see fragments, odd scenes; montages of photographs take the place of live action. We almost seem to be seeing events from the point-of-view of Ruth and the other characters as they teeter on the edge of madness. Perhaps this was necessitated; even on a pretty big budget by 1984 standards, the BBC was probably quite incapable of naturalistically presenting the sheer scale of the horror of the aftermath of a UK-wide nuclear attack. And perhaps even the writer’s mind recoiled from the magnitude of the task he had been charged with. The film covers the decade-and-a-half or so following the attack, and we are presented with an increasingly disjointed set of snapshots of the dismal future world which comes into being. But the horror of it is tangible: survivors breaking up farmland with hand tools, swathed in cloth to shield themselves from post-nuclear UV exposure; children being taught to read using fuzzy pre-apocalypse video recordings; and the concluding sequence of the film, suggesting that the damage extends far beyond the severing of the threads of civilised society, even to the essential humanity of the survivors.

There is perhaps a bit of a mismatch in the creative team behind Threads – the writer was Barry Hines, otherwise best-known for the working-class bildungsroman A Kestrel for a Knave (famously filmed as Kes by Ken Loach), while the director was Mick Jackson, who would go on to make rather more cheerful Hollywood movies like LA Story, The Bodyguard and Volcano (more recently, he also directed Denial). Apparently there were creative tensions between the two of them on set. But together they produce something which does full justice to a weighty remit – Hines’ script is loaded with social and political anger, although it resists the temptation to make explicit political points and still finds time for formal quirks (one major character simply vanishes out of the film, midway through the bombing sequence) and heart-breaking moments of pathos (we see that Ruth is still carrying around tiny, useless mementoes of her dead loved ones, years after the end of the old world). Jackson brings documentary realism to the early parts of the film and a willingness to go big and cinematic in the key moments depicting the attack. The film is superbly made, even if it is also in a very real sense awful to watch.

It would be nice to say that age has worked wonders to diminish the ghastly power of Threads, and rendered it a bit of a cold-war era curio, a reminder of what kept our parents and grandparents awake at night with alarm, something we have moved on. Certainly, all the video tapes and fake TV news broadcasts do give Threads the feeling of a period piece. But the last time I checked, we still have nuclear weapons, we still have international tensions, we still have foolish politicians who want to look like strongmen in the global media. (That nuclear bunker in Prague could be made fully operational again in only 48 hours.) We have not stepped back far enough from that brink: Threads suggests it is impossible to step back too far. This is one of those pieces of art which transcends time and place.

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Episodic TV was (and perhaps remains) an all-consuming monster, devouring time, talent and money in order to produce 45 or 60 minutes of product every week. People get tired, money runs out, sometimes there just aren’t enough hours in the day. So how do TV producers cope? Well, obviously, on ensemble shows you can rotate the cast, so some people aren’t featured so prominently some weeks; other programmes have the option of doing what they call ‘bottle shows’, a money-saving measure whereby an episode features only the regular cast and sets. A third possibility, mainly intended to save time, is ‘double banking’, where two episodes are produced simultaneously (both carefully written to feature largely different sets and characters). The most derided shortcut, however, and one of the most obvious to the audience, is the clip show.

Clip shows are basically thinly-disguised re-runs, where a selection of highlights (or not) are presented once again to the audience via some sort of frame story. Clip shows used to be more common than they are today; Gerry Anderson seemed particularly keen on them back in the sixties. The last live-action instance I can think of is the gruelling Shades of Grey episode of TNG (known in some circles as Riker’s Brain), although I believe The Simpsons still persists with the form.

The Incredible Hulk‘s first contribution to the odd world of the clip show is probably a better example, mainly due to the circumstances which led to it. The episode in question, Proof Positive, came about because Bill Bixby, the show’s star and central presence, was unavailable for filming due to court dates for his divorce. They had all the usual time and money, they just didn’t have a lead actor. So what were they going to do?

Proof Positive (written by Karen Harris and Jill Sherman, two of the series’ stalwarts) opens in a manner which quickly makes it obvious this is a very atypical episode. The cold open starts with the Hulk roaming an arid desert, apparently in pursuit of the reporter Jack McGee (an ironic role reversal). The impact of the sequence is somewhat reduced by the fact it’s clear that while Lou Ferrigno is obviously on location (I think this is reused footage from the start of season two), Jack Colvin is filming his contributions in a sandpit somewhere and the two never share the screen. Anyway, the Hulk catches up with McGee, gets ready to do him an injury –

And McGee wakes up in a cold sweat. Clearly he has been letting the Hulk get to him. This would be bad enough, but his obsession with tracking the creature down means he is ignoring all the juicy sex scandals his employers at the paper expect him to cover as well. Trouble is on the cards, especially when the paper gets a new publisher, Pat Steinhauer (Caroline Smith), who wants to take the tabloid up-market and sees stopping publishing Hulk stories as an essential part of this (Steinhauer was the name of the show’s producer – the series has a certain penchant for this kind of in-joke).

Well, Jack McGee takes the news as well as you might expect and threatens to jump off the roof of the building. His editor is quickly on the case, both as a humanitarian and a pragmatist – ‘Call the police and the fire department! And get a photographer out there!’ Quite how much of this is a ploy by McGee is left open, but Pat agrees to let him try to persuade her the Hulk is the stuff of serious news, so he can keep the story.

And… roll those clips! Actually, this clip show works better than most, partly because the clips make up only a small proportion of the episode, and also because they’re quite well chosen to recap the history of McGee’s encounters with the Hulk and their subtly-changing relationship (by this point McGee knows that someone else turns into the creature, he just doesn’t know who). We kind of rub up against one of the limitations of the format, in that Pat seems almost wilfully sceptical about the Hulk even existing (he’s popped up in front of whole crowds of people by this point), but I suppose that’s necessary to make this episode work.

If nothing else Proof Positive is a chance for the writers to develop McGee’s character a bit more, and it’s one which they enthusiastically grab: this may mark the point at which he becomes more of a secondary protagonist of the series, and less of a menace to Banner. On the other hand, this does take a rather melodramatic form – Colvin gets to deliver long, heartfelt speeches about just what his pursuit of the Hulk has cost him, personally. There’s also a rather odd shift in that the episode starts as McGee trying to persuade Pat of the Hulk’s reality, but somehow ends up as a romance between the two of them, chief impediment to which being that he believes in the Hulk and she doesn’t. The problem is that they start talking to each other in highly impassioned terms apropos of pretty much nothing, almost as if a scene has been omitted from the final cut.

Hey ho. In the end there is a quite well-staged Hulk-out in a blast furnace (McGee inevitably falls down some stairs and drops his tranquiliser gun), with Lou Ferrigno running through a pile of foam rubber painted to look like scrap metal, and a pretty good episode results without Bill Bixby having to involve himself at all.

(Although, one has to wonder – did they even consider doing a Ferrigno-centric episode where our hero spends the whole time as the Hulk? Could this have been an opportunity for the story, which Lou Ferrigno was apparently desperately keen to do, where the Hulk develops the ability to speak? I can think of a couple of ways this could have been attempted, but I expect there were very sound reasons for doing a McGee episode instead.)

Then again, sometimes you can have all your stars available, a decent budget to hand, and some interesting ideas, and still end up producing something with the ineffable aura of duffness about it. This brings us to Deathmask, written by another of the show’s lynchpins, Nicholas Corea, which aired in early 1980 (around the time it’s actually set). This episode gets off to an uncompromisingly dark and very atypical start, with a masked killer standing over the corpse of his recent victim, a young blonde woman, who has had a plaster death-mask placed on her face. It transpires that a serial killer is preying on the female students of a minor university – the students are uneasy, with groups of vigilante young men patrolling the grounds after dark and suspicion inevitably falling on any quiet drifters who may have recently arrived in the area.

Stand up, then, David Brent, which is the rather unfortunate and mood-breaking alias adopted by Banner this week. He is working on the campus (and taking the opportunity to do some genetic research of his own in his spare time), and, being the sensitive, charming babe-magnet that he is, managing to carry on at least two low-key romances as well. One of these is with campus figure Joan Singer (Melendy Britt), who in her own spare time runs the women’s self defence club. The local police chief (Gerald McRaney, making his fourth guest appearance in three seasons), who’s a big city cop recently relocated here for a quieter life, seems to have misgivings about this project, suggesting that fighting back may only incite a male attacker to worse violence. He also seems to carry a bit of a torch for Joan, which does not incline him to look cheerily upon Banner.

The Incredible Hulk is a show which is not afraid to head into some unusual territory, but this episode really does feel like it’s pushing the envelope – the tone is dark and sombre, and the script tackles some complicated issues concerned with violence against women head on. It’s still a show from nearly 40 years ago, so don’t expect it to be exactly enlightened, but this is still heavy (and thus interesting) stuff for a Marvel superhero TV show.

However, things go badly wrong round about the mid-point: Banner has just said goodnight to one of his amours when she is attacked by the death-mask killer. Our hero being the kind of chap he is, he charges in, the stress levels rise, and before you know it the Hulk is flipping over cars and both he and the killer are running away from cop cars. David’s young friend is left in a state of shock, repeating his name again and again, the kind of thing you just know is going to be misinterpreted…

The next morning Banner is dragged in by the police, having been a person of interest already due to his studied vagueness about his background. We don’t see him actually being arrested, and the question of why he didn’t just get the hell out of town as soon as he de-Hulked is skipped over; we know this was already his intention. Common sense and logic would suggest that at this point the game is up for Banner, as having his mug-shot taken and being finger-printed would be awkward enough, before we even consider the results of a proper investigation into his identity. (Even before we consider that his companion would surely vouch for his good character.)

But the series cannot allow its format to be shattered in this fashion, and desperate contrivances are introduced to dodge all these points. The local mayor is up for re-election soon and, for somewhat obscure reasons, believes that having the death-mask killer interrogated locally will help his chances of swinging the vote. So all those usual procedural niceties are conveniently waived. And what of the witness who can clear him of the crime? Aha, well she is unable to do so, as she is kept drugged into a coma – this is not even revealed until the last moments of the episode, when it feels like an afterthought.

To be honest, revealing it earlier might have tipped off the resolution of the episode. I’m not sure ‘twist’ is quite the right word for this. The conventions of US TV drama in 1980 mean that the killer has to be caught, but also that he can’t just be some guy off the street; he has to be an established character. There are not many candidates to be the murderer – in fact, there is only one, and this is (spoiler alert, and I use the word ‘spoiler’ in the broadest possible sense) the police chief. A troubled childhood, together with many years on the mean streets of Chicago, have left him as deranged as the current state of British politics, and it is he who has been killing all the blondes.

How do we know about the troubled childhood, and so on? Aha. The scenes in which Banner is interrogated about his obscure background and the selection of fake IDs discovered in his possession are initially quite interesting, but soon – and rather preposterously – turn into the police chief delivering various hollow-eyed monologues about the untrustworthiness of women, striking a rather Travis Bickle-esque note as he does so. Banner, being Banner, seems to be more concerned about helping his captor with his issues than with the fact he could be on the verge of very serious trouble.

More serious than he knows, as disgruntled locals, led by the father of one of the victims, have decided to deliver their own brand of justice by storming the police station and lynching Banner, conveniently doing so just after the killer chief has departed to kill Joan. Yet again the format of the series creaks under the strain: we are supposed to accept that the Hulk is an urban legend, his existence and nature subject to debate: but in this episode Banner hulks out while under a pile of people, and the Hulk smashes his way through at least two walls on his way to rescue Joan. He is a peculiarly solid and destructive urban legend.

I do really like The Incredible Hulk, in a genuine and non-ironic way, but I have to say that Deathmask is one of its weaker episodes – there is a lot of potential here, and there are glimpses of the much better episode this could have been – I’m not sure about whether the whole ‘violence against women’ angle is really a good fit for this kind of show, but someone taking a serious interest in Banner’s identity obviously lends itself itself to some dramatic moments. But in the episode-as-made, the script bangs up against the restrictions of the format and the results of the collision are not pretty. All I can say is that, even when it’s not very good, The Incredible Hulk is at least bad in an interesting way.

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Every time I think the internet has lost its capacity to startle me, something comes along to – well, startle me. The nature of the world’s most popular video sharing website being what it is, I’m never especially surprised to find obscure old movies posted there in its quiet corners – were this not the case, I might never have seen The Deadly Mantis or Night of the Lepus. Even the least distinguished films have a habit of turning up on budget DVD, such is the nature of the medium, but when it comes to old TV shows… well, even today I would imagine there are hundreds of thousands of hours of material which has never been licensed for commercial release; there are whole series which have slipped out of the collective memory. For example, I’d never heard of an ITV play strand entitled Against the Crowd, which apparently ran for one series in 1975 – until I came across a complete episode available for viewing. How did this even happen?!

Of course, it turns out that my initial surprise may have been a bit premature, for the episode in question has the unique distinction: unlike the rest of the run, it has enjoyed a DVD release, having been included as a special feature on the box set of Beasts when that came out. This, I suspect, is the source of the copy which is available to watch. The reason Murrain got added to Beasts is that it was written by Nigel Kneale, effectively acting as an unofficial pilot for the later series, and I suppose part of my surprise at discovering this play is that I thought I was familiar with virtually everything Kneale wrote for TV, certainly in the 1960s and 1970s.

Certainly Murrain resembles an episode of Beasts, clearly being made on a low budget – shot on videotape and on location. The play is set somewhere in the north of England. David Simeon (one of those actors who isn’t famous by any stretch of the imagination, but is still one of those faces you kind of recognise if you’re anything like me) plays Alan Crich, an idealistic young veterinary officer with the local council, who as the story begins arrives at the pig farm of a man named Beeley (Bernard Lee, best known for appearing in the first dozen or so Bond films). Beeley’s pigs are suffering from an unidentified sickness which Crich’s ministrations have so far been unable to cure; Beeley is not impressed, to put it mildly, and the atmosphere between the two men is soon tense.

Then Beeley announces he’s going to show Crich a few other points of interest, and marches him off to where the pipeline drawing from the local spring has completely dried up, for no apparent reason. Finally, Crich is taken to the local shop, where the owner’s child is also ill, again with an unidentified sickness. Crich can’t make out what Beeley and his men are driving at until they make it absolutely clear to him: it is their sincere belief that the old woman who lives up the hill is a witch, and has placed what they refer to as a murrain (in other words, a curse) on the pigs and other things.

So far in the play, Kneale has been working diligently to draw the contrasts between Crich and Beeley (who do most of the talking between them) – Crich is young, well-spoken, college-educated, polite, while Beeley is older, rough around the edges, practical. What follows at this point is a decent enough articulation of differing views when it comes to witchcraft and the supernatural, with Beeley rehearsing the argument that what may seem weird and miraculous now could easily be explained by science at some point in the future, and that Crich has no right to dismiss their concerns out of hand. But Crich just dismisses their concerns out of hand, thus – you would think – setting him up for a touch of nemesis before the end of the play.

The locals want Crich to visit the supposed witch (played by Una Brandon-Hill – the woman is supposedly ‘very old’ but Brandon-Hill was under sixty at the time) and perform a ritual that will break her power over them. He makes the visit, but refuses to play exorcist, and instead finds what he expects to find – an old, lonely, slightly pathetic woman, who is apparently being bullied by her neighbours. He resolves to make amends…

There’s very little wrong with the narrative carpentry in Murrain, except for the fact that it becomes very obvious early on just how the thing is going to play out: Crich is so openly contemptuous of the superstitions of Beeley and the others that the only way this can possibly end is for there to be just a suggestion that the villagers have been right all along, and he has been unwittingly assisting the forces of darkness. And so it proves, but if anything Kneale plays it too safe, as the ending is just a bit flat. The only point of ambiguity is that of whether the old woman genuinely does have access to some kind of Power with a capital P, or whether she and the other locals share the same delusion (the special effects budget of Murrain is approximately no-money-whatsoever, so everything is left very ambiguous).

Of course, this being a Nigel Kneale script, Murrain is also notable for its thorough-going, indiscriminate misanthropy. As I may well have said in the past, Nigel Kneale doesn’t have prejudices – he treats everyone with equal disdain and contempt, whether that’s for being idealistic and naïve, or ignorant and crude. This is a fairly bleak play in every respect, but it’s also a very solidly written one, let down slightly by its predictability and also by the low production values involved. There’s obviously a sort of family resemblance to Beasts, but one suspects that series came about more due to Kneale’s reputation than because of the quality of this particular play.

Watching Murrain now, it isn’t an outstanding piece of work in any respect, but it still represents something that we have lost in modern TV – who does low-budget single dramas any more? No-one at all in the UK, not on free to air TV at least. There is no place for this kind of drama any more, and I can’t help thinking that’s a shame.

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The Pegasus, an instalment of Star Trek: The Next Generation first shown in January 1994, is one of those episodes of a TV show which didn’t receive much in the way of particular attention on its first appearance, but found itself on the outskirts of severe fannish opprobrium over a decade later. This is because it’s also one of those episodes which has another episode going on inside it, in this case the supremely unpopular series finale of Enterprise, These Are The Voyages. (How does this work? Well, in the course of The Pegasus, Riker finds himself wracked by a crisis of conscience and – not being able to talk to anyone about it – decides to resolve this problem by talking to holodeck simulations of the crew of the NX Enterprise. It is an odd, slightly contrived conceit and – one might argue – a fairly transparent attempt to boost the ratings for the Final Episode of Star Trek by arranging guest appearances by stars of the much more popular Next Gen.)

I don’t think These Are The Voyages quite deserves all the hatred directed at it by both Trekkies and many of its own cast and crew, but it’s certainly unfair for The Pegasus to get tarred with this particular brush, as it is a solid episode (written by Ronald D Moore) which touches on a few interesting points and manages to do things which Next Gen usually struggles at.

A case in point is the opening scene, which manages to be charming and understatedly funny, all without compromising the regular cast. Preparations are underway for the Enterprise’s annual ‘Captain Picard Day’ (the ship’s children have all been making pictures and models of Jean-Luc) when a priority signal comes in sending them off on a new mission to be carried out under the auspices of Starfleet Intelligence. Quite apart from setting up the plot, the scene neatly carries out a couple of other functions, emphasising the close and warm relationship between Picard and Riker before it comes under severe strain later in the story, and also giving Troi some actual lines in an episode where Marina Sirtis otherwise appears to have been on holiday.

Well, Admiral Pressman of Starfleet Intelligence beams aboard (a strong performance by guest star Terry O’Quinn, possibly best known for playing Locke in Lost) and announces that they are off to locate and ideally salvage the Pegasus, a ship believed lost in slightly obscure circumstances twelve years earlier. Pressman was commanding the ship at the time, with a youthful Riker as his helmsman: Riker is quite shocked by this, although it isn’t immediately apparent why (sensors detect an Incoming Plot Point, Captain).

The search takes them to an asteroid-filled system near the Neutral Zone, and they discover a search is already underway by a Romulan ship. Another rather nice scene ensues, in which Picard and the Romulan Commander engage in the best traditions of diplomacy by being very courteous and pleasant to each other, even though they both know the other is lying through their teeth about why they’re there.

A search gets underway, with everyone aware that they are in a race with the Romulans to find the Pegasus. As this proceeds, it becomes apparent that we are in for a Riker-centric episode, as Jonathan Frakes is in nearly every scene, and even when he’s not there the other characters (essentially Picard and Pressman) are talking about him. Pressman believes Riker’s great virtue was his unquestioning loyalty to the chain of command, while Picard thinks his best quality is his ability to prioritise doing the right thing over more personal concerns. The episode basically comes down to a conflict between these two principles.

The Pegasus turns up, inside one of the asteroids of the system, although the Enterprise can’t mount a salvage attempt for a few hours without tipping off the Romulans to this. This delay gives everyone time for another cracking scene, this one between Riker and Picard. The captain has been doing some digging and turned up a classified report concerning an attempted mutiny on the Pegasus immediately before it was believed destroyed, something Riker (who assisted Pressman in resisting the mutineers) has never spoken of before. Given everything that’s going on, Picard is smelling a rodent of unusual size, and is not best pleased when Riker is forced to admit he’s under orders from Starfleet Command not to discuss the matter, even with his own commanding officer. Picard breaks out the righteous anger, at one point even intimating he may sack Riker as first officer. Patrick Stewart gets to do moral outrage and show Picard’s sense of personal betrayal in this scene, and it must be said that Frakes also gives a fine performance, in the sense that he’s not blasted off the screen by Stewart.

(It’s not really clear at what point Riker pops down to the holodeck for his These Are The Voyages guest spot, as he does seem quite busy throughout this episode. But I digress.)

On with the adventure-intrigue plot: the Enterprise is taken inside the asteroid itself, against Picard’s explicit objections, and they discover the remains of the Pegasus, which has weirdly ended up merged with the solid rock of its surroundings (the Pegasus is a rather venerable Oberth-class starship, one of those models where you wonder how they get from the saucer section to the secondary hull, unless there are actual lift shafts running through the nacelle supports). Riker and Pressman go aboard and the mysterious doohickey Pressman has been so keen to recover is located – forcing Riker to finally make a decision – obey orders or do the right thing?

Many of these Next Gen episodes do feel rather formulaic, not that this is necessarily a bad thing, and while watching this one I concluded that Moore had decided to an episode about Riker’s moral dilemma first and come up with the lost ship plot-line later. But apparently not: it seems Moore encountered one or other version of Raise the Titanic! and decided to Trek it up a bit. Apparently Moore was also sick of being asked why the Federation didn’t use cloaking devices, when the Klingons and Romulans are so keen on them, and wrote an explanation into the episode in the form of it being one of the provisions of a treaty between the UFP and the Romulans.

Prior to this the closest thing to an explanation was Gene Roddenberry’s declaration that sneaking about in a cloaked ship was against the principles of the Federation and Starfleet. Moore’s explanation is a little more credible, though once again one doubts the Great Bird would have been particularly enamoured of this episode’s presentation of black operations and illegal experiments carried out secretly by Starfleet Intelligence – the episode kind of foreshadows the more morally grey and pragmatic depiction of Starfleet which would become increasingly common as DS9 progressed. As it is, with the various conflicts and arguments between the three main characters, the episode is (at the very least) pushing up against the limits of the Roddenberry box.

Given that the episode is concerned with illegal attempts to develop a Federation cloaking device, one does have to wonder why Starfleet Intelligence were apparently field-testing the thing just around the corner from the Romulan Neutral Zone, the location where the Romulans would be most likely to notice if there were any problems. Oh well – the imperatives of plot, I suppose. The same is true of the fact that this is apparently a ‘phasing cloak’, which makes the ship on which it is operating not just invisible but intangible, able to pass through solid objects. One wonders just what additional advantage this would present in the normal course of ship operations on top of the standard invisibility, although I expect I am showing a dreadful lack of imagination.

Another issue that would only occur to the troubled: at the end of the episode, Riker is placed under arrest and slung in the brig, presumably for his role in the initial Pegasus experiments twelve years earlier and the fact he never spoke up about their existence. Vulcan lawyers would no doubt argue that, logically, the Other Riker whose existence was revealed in the episode Second Chances should also be arrested, as he is equally at fault (he was there at the time, too). And if, as it is implied here, Riker’s exemplary service on the Enterprise is one of the reasons why he’s not more severely punished (in Moore’s first draft he got a month in the brig and his chances of further promotion were effectively ended), one wonders what would happen to Other Riker, who doesn’t have these mitigating circumstances in his favour? It’s easy to imagine Other Riker having a very hard time as a result of Enterprise Riker’s actions here, which (it is tempting to think) may explain why he eventually goes rogue.

Let us emerge from the rabbit hole. I would say this was a solid episode, good but not quite great, and a very fair representative of this series when it is functioning well: it has an engaging plot, strong characterisation, and makes a point of giving Picard the opportunity to exercise his moral authority (good TV though this is, one wonders if one of the reasons Picard is still out there commanding a ship rather than working in the Admiralty is because the other admirals don’t want him around, causing trouble by taking a principled stance on everything: he can almost come across as a bit of a prig sometimes). It’s certainly one of the better Riker-centric episodes, too; well worth revisiting.

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We live in a more connected world than was once the case. These days day-and-date releases for major movies are standard practice, and big TV premieres also happen close together in different parts of the world. It was not always thus, of course: I remember the sense of resignation with which I learned that that Star Trek TNG would not receive a UK transmission until 1990 (three years after its American debut). There was once a time when it was seriously speculated that the delay in the UK release of The Phantom Menace (two months after its US opening) might actually impact on tourism figures, as people went to the States solely or partly in order to see it.

Doesn’t happen these days, of course. Something else that doesn’t really happen any more is the phenomenon where US TV networks, having splashed out big money on a TV pilot or two-part episode, arranged to have their TV show released into theatres in Europe and other foreign territories, in an attempt to recoup their investment. I remember seeing in the very early 80s a movie entitled Spider-Man: The Dragon’s Challenge, which was an extended episode of the TV series starring Nicholas Hammond. Also earning big-screen outings in Europe were various episodes of the Bill Bixby Hulk series, and – most relevantly for our purposes today – Battlestar Galactica.

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Strictly speaking there were three Galactica movies, if you lived outside the US at least: one which was a re-edited version of the pilot episode, plus Mission Galactica (cobbled together from elements of the episodes The Living Legend and Fire in Space), and Conquest of the Earth (a similar fix-up derived from the follow-up show Galactica 1980, which I came across being shown at a Butlin’s in about 1983). But let’s stick to the original, directed by Richard Colla.

Things get underway with portentousness dialled up to maximum and an opening voice-over from an uncredited Patrick Macnee, who presumably appeared as a favour to an old friend and for a hefty fee. ‘There are those who believe that life here began out there… some believe that there may yet be brothers of man, who even now fight to survive – somewhere beyond the heavens!’ Well, that’s as maybe, but as a glance at any newspaper will tell you, these days some people will believe anything.

Well, anyway, somewhere beyond the heavens we find the assembled fleet of the Twelve Colonies of Mankind (yes, I know: but they seem not have discovered gender-neutral nomenclature beyond the heavens), who are happily anticipating the conclusion of hostilities between their people and the Cylons, who seem to be oppressive alien robots. We really don’t learn much at all about the Cylons, except they apparently ‘hate freedom’ and want to eradicate civilisation as we know it, which is the kind of lazy propaganda you see on the right-wing news; it would be interesting to hear the Cylons’ point of view, but we never really do.

Alone in his scepticism about the coming armistice is basso profundo (and, it must be said, somewhat nepotistic) patrician Commander Adama (Lorne Greene), whose suspicions turn out to be well-founded: two of his sons, flying a patrol mission in their space fighters, discover a massive Cylon ambush. It turns out that peace broker Count Baltar (John Colicos) has sold them all out.

The Cylon attack devastates the unprepared fleet while the Cylon base ships wreak havoc on the home planets of the human colonies. Only Adama and his crew, aboard the ‘battlestar’ Galactica, manage to escape more or less unscathed. The commander seems to develop a kind of Moses complex and declares they will gather together the survivors and set out across the universe in search of a fabled lost colony where they may yet find haven – a mysterious planet known only as Earth…

There is, of course, a very good reason why Battlestar Galactica received its US premiere in 1978, only a few months after George Lucas’ initial stellar conflict opus began its demolition of box office records. On top of all the space battles, laser blasters, weird aliens and so on being displayed here, calling this story ‘Saga of a Star World’ was probably overdoing it – almost inevitably, accusations of plagiarism and a lawsuit ensued.

Battlestar Galactica is kind of respectable again now, mainly due to the success of Ronald D Moore’s Bush-era retelling of the tale (a programme I find it easier to admire than to genuinely like), but for a long time this was not the case: it had a reputation for being cheesy and po-faced and sometimes unintentionally camp. The creator of Babylon 5 instituted a ‘no cute kids or robots’ rule for his show, and you can’t help thinking that this was at least in part a reference to Galactica, which frequently has both in close proximity. However you view the relationship between the main show and Galactica 1980, this is still another US SF TV series that failed to last more than a couple of seasons. It’s got to be tosh, right?

Well – maybe. Glen A Larson, creator of Galactica, was a smart enough cookie to get as much of the budget up on the screen as possible, and the big draw for this show is that it had – for the late 70s – near-as-dammit movie-quality model work and special effects. The ships look great and the production designs are impressive. Even nowadays, you watch the first few minutes of Battlestar Galactica and go ‘wow, this looks pretty good.’

Then you spend the next few minutes going ‘Hang on, I’ve just seen this bit,’ for they start very obviously re-using special effects footage within the first half-hour and continue to do so throughout. Battlestar Economica might have been a better title for this project; it’s round about this point that most people start paying more attention to the plot and the acting.

There’s an odd sort of twin-track approach going on here – obviously, much of the plot is derived from an odd mish-mash of classical and religious influences. There are characters called Apollo, Athena, and Cassiopeia, and many elements of the story are based on Mormon theology; the tone of the programme occasionally resembles that of a Biblical epic with extra ray-guns. ‘And the word went forth to every outpost of human existence, and they came…’ declaims Greene at one point.

On the other hand, most of the rest of it is late-70s quotidian stuff, with disco dancing, interesting haircuts, and so on. The younger characters are designed to be archetypes, for maximum audience identification – there’s earnest young leader Apollo (Richard Hatch), loveable rogue Starbuck (Dirk Benedict), feisty single mum Serina (Jane Seymour), and so on. Chief human villain Baltar is a bit of a panto turn.

You wouldn’t expect the two styles to go together particularly well, but they somehow do: it is sometimes camp and cheesy, and sometimes (as mentioned) rather po-faced and portentous, but still strangely watchable. This is not the subtlest of programmes – ‘broad’ is perhaps the kindest way to describe the default performance style of everyone involved –  and while it is occasionally somewhat sentimental, it is seldom full-on mawkish.

It’s still the case that you can practically see the joins where this pilot movie will be chopped up to make at least three separate episodes when the show goes into syndication, for the plot is episodic at best – there’s the opener, concerning the apocalyptic Cylon attack on the colonies, then some rather humdrum stuff about food shortages in the fleet and a minefield that must be traversed, and finally the secret of the space casino of the planet Carillon and its insectoid owners. But it holds together, just about.

(For the purposes of this rambling I watched the cinema edit of the pilot, which is slightly different to the TV version – the main difference being that it has the scene where Baltar has his head chopped off by the Cylons. In the US version he survives and goes on to become the regular villain on the show. I like the comeuppance, but I also enjoy Colicos’ performance, so I find myself a bit torn by this.)

I don’t know, I find it very easy to indulge the original version of Battlestar Galactica, mainly because I am amused by the way in which its lofty storytelling ambitions collide with the minutiae of making a weekly mass-audience TV drama (here’s some more Mormon theology, along with a guest spot by Fred Astaire), but also because it does manage to give a better sense of an epic voyage across the galaxy in one season than Voyager managed in seven (yes, I genuinely think that). You couldn’t honestly describe the pilot as great, but much of it is good and most of the rest is not that bad either.

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There seems to be a bit of a pattern developing, at least to the extent that whenever I end up writing about The Incredible Hulk TV show it’s more than likely to concern episodes from the fourth season. The reason for this is fairly straightforward – with any long-running, somewhat-formulaic series, most of the episodes tend to blur together and become fairly indistinguishable. The thing about the fourth season of Hulk is that there seems to have been a genuine attempt to push back against the constraints of the existing format, with episodes that break new ground or explore the characters in a new way.

This tendency is there from the very start of the season, which opens with the two-part story Prometheus. This is so radically different from the typical Hulk episode that it almost looks like the series is undergoing a significant reformat – for good or ill, this turns out not to be the case.

The story is written and directed by series overseer Kenneth Johnson, and opens with US military radar detecting an object heading for Earth out of deep space. It must be an asteroid, but… it’s a strangely symmetrical cylinder! What can it be? At least the radar techs are certain where it’s going to come down: northern Utah.

Which is where, naturally, we catch up with our man David Banner (Bill Bixby, of course), who is doing a spot of fishing. This turns out to be rather incongruous, given we later learn he has recently had one of his episodes and is planning to make his usual rapid and discreet departure, but I suppose even irradiated fugitives are allowed a fish supper now and then. Anyway, Banner comes across a young woman who has fallen in the river, and ends up fishing her out as well.

She turns out to be Katie, a recently-blinded pianist who has retired to the wilderness to be alone with her bitterness (even in one of the more genre-oriented Hulk episodes, they find time for some slightly sentimental melodrama, but this is one of the series’ charms if you ask me). Katie is played by Laurie Prange, who clearly specialised in this sort of thing: she played an heiress suffering from hysterical paralysis in the series’ second pilot.

Well, unbeknownst to Banner and Katie, the military are preparing for the arrival of the mysterious space object, although running the show is an equally mysterious agency known as Prometheus. McGee (Jack Colvin), who is in the area checking up on the recent Hulk appearance, smells a story, and starts to poke around.

Sure enough, the meteor enters the atmosphere as predicted – ‘A shallow trajectory! Almost like it’s being piloted!’ says someone in uniform. As you can see, the episode seems to be foreshadowing something highly unusual about the object, possibly even the appearance of a genuine extraterrestrial. But this is all a bit of a red herring: on this occasion, a rock is just a rock, albeit one with some unique properties.

As luck would have it, Banner and Katie are in the area when the meteorite strikes, and – thinking it may be a plane crash, with survivors needing help – Banner selflessly trots off to investigate. All he finds is a big rock – but it’s one that seems to cause him severe discomfort, the closer he gets to it. Being Banner, he ends up tripping over a beehive and turning into the Hulk (Hulk smash bees!). It has to be said that this is an extremely well-done set piece, especially considering that not very much happens.

Katie is less than thrilled when the Hulk bashes his way into her cabin, and frankly non-plussed when he reverts back to Banner. Or does he? Here the episode unveils its biggest new idea: the meteorite is giving off unique gamma radiation which screws up Banner’s body chemistry even more. Banner hasn’t fully changed back; he’s stuck in a transitional form between his human form and the Hulk, with somewhat enhanced strength, limited mental capacities, and a bestial appearance. This Demi-Hulk is mostly portrayed by Bixby under prosthetics, but there are frequent and somewhat instrusive moments where bodybuilder Ric Drasin plays the Demi-Hulk in long shot.

With the army combing the area, Katie decides to take the Demi-Hulk into town where her brother can decide what to do with him – but she ends up wandering past the meteor crater, where the army, McGee, and representatives of Prometheus are congregating. Another big set piece ensues, with the Demi-Hulk going back into his full-on green form, and a full-scale clash between the Hulk and the army on the cards. However, Prometheus has another option, dropping what is called the ‘Alpha Chamber’ (basically a dome made of foot-thick steel) on the Hulk and taking him prisoner (probably best not to worry too much about how the dome works as a piece of machinery). The episode ends with the Hulk and Katie being flown away to parts unknown…

You could probably argue that Prometheus‘ first episode is built around some suspiciously static set-pieces, but the combination of big ideas, lavish production values and excellent direction still make this one of the best episodes of the series. Of course, the second episode has the job of paying off this set-up, and it’s here that the story stumbles a bit.

All over the country, scientists attached to Prometheus are being activated and brought to the agency’s secret base, in the belief that the Hulk is actually an alien who arrived on the meteorite (there’s a very X-Files/Andromeda Strain vibe going on here). Meanwhile, the (now badly dented) dome is brought in, Katie is whisked off for examination, and the Hulk is placed in an observation area inside a microwave force-field (quite how the Hulk and Katie are separated is, once again, perhaps best not worried about).

Meanwhile, McGee has also managed to infiltrate the complex and is watching what happens with interest. Unfortunately, the Prometheus scientists meet with little success in their attempts to establish intelligent communication with the Hulk, and their bright idea of sticking a chunk of meteor rock into the chamber goes badly wrong when the enraged creature escapes by ripping a hole in the concrete floor and goes on the rampage through the complex…

This is still a very strong and distinctive episode, not least because it is so Hulk-centric – Lou Ferrigno gets much more screen-time than usual, possibly even more than Bixby. And the big new ideas keep coming, with the revelation that Prometheus is a secret government agency tasked with handling possible alien contacts and exploiting any discoveries in the American national interest (a bit like the Torchwood Institute from that other show, in fact). There’s the prospect of a team-up between McGee and Prometheus in order to capture and study the Hulk.

But all of this… doesn’t really go anywhere, unfortunately. The big climax of the episode largely concerns Banner’s relief at discovering that, away from the meteor fragments, he can fully de-Hulk himself. Which is fine, but the Hulk has been the object of so much of the episode, that for it to conclude with him as its subject is a slightly jarring shift.

And there is a lot of padding and filler in the episode – the Prometheus scientists are introduced in detail and at length (slightly sleazily, in one instance), there are endless scenes of the Alpha Chamber being moved about by crane, and so on. Even a scene in which McGee discovers the shady hidden agenda behind Prometheus doesn’t contribute much to the plot.

You almost wish the episode had really gone all the way with the sci-fi B-movie vibe and had the meteorite disgorge some kind of gamma-guzzling alien monster for the Hulk to have a proper fight with. There’s certainly slack in the episode that could be used to accommodate setting this up, and I’m sure it would have been a great climax. There was also clearly a big budget for this episode, so producing another monster suit could certainly have been possible. The series wasn’t afraid to go down this route just a few weeks later with the Hulk-on-Hulk battle at the end of The First. So one wonders why Prometheus doesn’t just go for it a bit more.

In the end, though, everything just resets back to normal come the end, with the exception of Katie being less of an embittered recluse: Banner magically replaces all his stuff and goes back on the road, McGee goes back to hunting the Hulk, and so on. Given the Hulk has just demolished a multi-million dollar base, one wonders why the US government don’t pursue him much more actively from this point on, but that’s TV from this point in time: the episodic format was king, even if it could productively be pushed against sometimes.

This is why I say that Prometheus is only halfway-brilliant – it’s full of potential which never quite gets fully realised. But even a halfway-brilliant Hulk story is still extremely watchable TV.

 

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