Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘TV Reviews’ Category

I finally find myself in a position to address a nagging piece of unfinished business: to wit, the three outstanding episodes of the original 1960s version of The Avengers that we didn’t manage to look at last year, back when the pandemic and its effects still had the occasional shreds of a silver lining about them (should anyone be wondering, the prospect of doing something similar with The New Avengers is on my psychic radar, but I’ve no idea when it will happen). All of these come from the first season – now, when I was nobbut a lad, there was only one extant first season episode, which Channel 4 duly repeated back at the start of 1993. Since then, two more have turned up, which in the case of Girl on the Trapeze virtually qualifies as miraculous considering it was broadcast live back in February 1961 (this was only the sixth episode to be shown).

The episode opens in a sort of recognisable early Avengers vein with a young woman turning up at the dressing rooms of a touring state circus from one of those fictional countries on the Other Side, having been invited there by an old friend. However, she is set upon by a sinister clown (Kenneth J Warren, first of four).

From here we are transported into the social life of GP-with-a-sideline Dr David Keel (Ian Hendry), who is on his way to a reunion when he comes across an apparent attempted suicide: a young woman has hurled herself into the Thames. Keel springs into action and assists in fishing her out, but what we know that he doesn’t is that the woman who jumped into the river is not the same one who was pulled out. He’s pretty sure he recognises her from somewhere, though.

After a lengthy trawl through the day’s papers with his assistant Carol (Ingrid Hafner, a semi-regular at this point), Keel realises the girl was a trapeze artist with the touring Other Side circus, and whisks Carol off there to check the place out. They soon arouse the suspicion of a suave circus member (Edwin Richfield, in the first of his six villainous appearances on the show, one per season). It all turns out to be about a plan to kidnap the daughter of a defector in order to apply pressure to him, which involves getting rid of one of the circus artistes so the abducted girl can take her place and use the group visa.

Quirky borderline fantasy, this ain’t, but it’s early days, after all. This is, at least, a pretty brisk and coherent thriller (which you don’t always get in the videotaped episodes) – given that it was written by Dennis Spooner, one might have expected a few more gags, but you don’t get those either.

The absence of jokes is less striking than the fact that Patrick Macnee and Steed only appear in the opening credits: Macnee got the week off on this occasion. In his memoirs Macnee recalled that Hendry had a circus background, and came up with the idea for the episode himself – and omitting Steed from the story was done at Hendry’s behest. If nothing else it gives us a good chance to see how Hendry rolled in what at this point was the lead role of the series: and he carries the show rather well, even if it is clear that Keel is interestingly played, rather than an inherently interesting character. It’s also notable that even Carol the receptionist gets some agency and the chance to tackle a bad guy or two, although it would be pushing it to suggest she’s some kind of proto-Cathy Gale.

I was expecting this very early, Steed-free incarnation of The Avengers to be quite hard work; it actually rattles along quite nicely and certainly engages the attention. I’m not sure I’d have stuck around for twenty-six episodes in this same kind of vein, but considering its age it holds up quite well.

The next surviving fragment of the first series is The Frighteners, by Berkeley Mather, which now I reflect on it feels like the kind of Avengers script Graham Greene would have contributed, had he been up for it: lots of nasty, sweaty gangsters and class conflict. A wealthy tycoon, Sir Thomas Weller (Stratford Johns, first of two), pays a ‘massage contractor’ known as the Deacon (Willoughby Goddard, first of two) to have his daughter’s suitor beaten up. The Deacon duly despatches a couple of his boys (one of whom is Philip Locke, first of three) to deliver the requisite hard knocks – but somehow (the episode is necessarily very vague about this) Steed has got wind of the affair and is looking to shut the Deacon’s operation down.

Naturally, he brings Dr Keel along to assist, collecting him in a taxi. It is clear the two have a slightly wary relationship – ‘Good of you to come,’ says Steed; ‘Yes, I thought so’ replies Keel – and while there’s a suggestion that Steed is looking to use the doctor’s surgery for a few activities best not performed al fresco, it may just be that Keel is also convenient muscle. Anyway, Locke’s character is apprehended, along with the intended victim, Jeremy de Willoughby (Philip Gilbert, best known for voicing Tim the computer in The Tomorrow People) – but both men seem equally keen to avoid entanglements with the law…

Solid cops-and-robbers stuff, this, with an interesting wrinkle: the Deacon and Weller are obviously bad’uns, but so, it turns out, is de Willoughby himself – he’s a con man with a long history of swindles behind him. Is it not incumbent upon our heroes to do something about this before Weller’s innocent (and possibly a bit dim) daughter falls victim to his charms?

Well, needless to say, they do: Steed has the police in tow for part of the episode, but for the most part he and Keel do a very good impression of a couple of rogue agents, tricking, threatening, and bashing the opposition in the name of a good cause (even Keel admits what he gets up to is a bit melodramatic). Perhaps the most interesting bit of the episode comes at the very end, when they con Weller’s daughter into abandoning him by fooling her into thinking he is – gasp! – really a working class bloke named Briggs, with ideas above his station. She flees the room in tears. So much for social mobility in 1960s Britain.

Fifteen episodes in, and Patrick Macnee already seems to have Steed more-or-less nailed down: the charming slipperiness is there, the bowler is in place, the ruthless edge occasionally displays itself, and Macnee knows when to go slightly over-the-top when Steed is undercover (he has a couple of scenes here as a professional chaperone). Solidly engaging stuff, as well as obviously being of historical interest.

Oh well, we bring things full circle, finally and definitively (unless any more episodes resurface, of course) with John Kruse’s Tunnel of Fear, the twentieth episode. It opens with what looks like another classic Avengers hook, as a stuffy-looking gent gets on the ghost train at a Southsea fun fair only to mysteriously vanish into thin air. In a filmed episode he would turn out to be a colleague of Steed’s, but not this time. The plot proper gets going when a man bursts into Dr Keel’s surgery demanding first aid after a supposed hit-and-run, but Keel suspects there is more going on. It indeed transpires that the man, Harry Black (Anthony Bate, first of two) is an escaped convict who claims to have been framed for a robbery, and who mutters something about being made to do things in his sleep. Steed turns up quite by chance in the middle of all this and sees a possible connection to something he’s working on: secrets are being leaked to the Other Side out of Southsea, where Black used to co-own the ghost train at the fun fair.

For the first time we get to see Steed doing his usual thing of finagling his current partner into undertaking a potentially risky investigation on his behalf, which Keel goes along with surprisingly meekly. Down in Southsea, however, he encounters what seems to be a collision between The Manchurian Candidate and Play for Today, as there is one plotline about someone potentially being brainwashed while a prisoner during the Korean War, and another about Black’s strained relationship with his girlfriend (Black isn’t the only one who’s been banged up, as she has apparently had a child in his absence). Neither of these plotlines really gets fully developed, though.

Dr Keel suggests that Steed try a different hat in future – perhaps a bowler?

Keel does a lot of sneaking and occasionally charging about with Black in tow; all the fun stuff arises after Steed appears on the scene in the guise of the new and slightly dodgy barker for the funfair belly-dancing show, wearing a kaftan and a sparkly turban. Needless to say he hurls himself into the role, and Macnee has enormous fun with it. It doesn’t stop there: it turns out the gang of enemy agents running the fair includes a hypnotist, who tries to put the ‘fluence on Steed to get some information: either Steed puts them on, or turns out to be monumentally slippery and unhelpful even when hypnotised – when asked who he works for, the answer is ‘No one’ – a curious answer, unless he really is faking it. Finally, the episode concludes with some business about Steed bluffing the villains with an exploding cigarette.

Probably a better episode for Steed than Keel, then, but a reasonably good one if you overlook the fact that various plot ideas go nowhere – I would say not quite up to the same standard as The Frighteners, while it’s hard to fairly assess a Steed-free episode in comparison with the others. Maybe it’s just with the knowledge of how the show developed – and an instalment like Girl on the Trapeze has almost nothing in common with anything from the final season, apart from the title of the series – but you can see that Steed is the character with potential, and the tiny off-beat moments that are present even here are usually the ones that make the stories sing. First season Avengers only very occasionally resembles the show in its legendary incarnation, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth checking out.

(There will now follow a suspension in blogging activity, hopefully a brief one. See you on the other side.)

Read Full Post »

‘I know it’s awful that the cinemas are still all closed, but there’s lots of interesting, high quality things on Netflix you can watch,’ someone said to me, just the other day. Quite how I got from there to watching a couple of episodes of Star Trek: Voyager I’m not entirely sure: my memory is slightly cloudy. But one could have worse problems at the moment.

The two-part story in question was Equinox, originally broadcast in 1999 (it bridged the show’s fifth and sixth seasons), directed by David Livingston, and written by Brannon Braga and Joe Menosky (all three stalwarts of the Berman-era Trek production line). Almost immediately one gets the sense that this production is slick, polished, professional, and yet somehow getting things slightly wrong.

It opens with the USS Equinox hurtling across space, under attack from a hostile alien force. (We have never seen this ship before and have no idea where it is or what its story might be.) The captain of the vessel, Ransom (John Savage, who sort of resembles the result of an accidental transporter fusion of Charlton Heston and Niles from Frasier), shouts various orders and his crew fire their phasers at not-too-awful CGI fish-aliens who start materialising on the bridge. (Again, we have no idea who these people are.) As teasers go, it’s not especially thrilling, and while it’s somewhat intriguing it arguably blows the gaff on the episode’s big idea too soon.

With the credits out of the way, we are back in the familiar environs of the starship Voyager, which has just picked up a distress signal from the Equinox. Given that they are still supposedly decades away from their home turf, they receive this news of the sudden appearance of another ship from home with remarkable composure. As you can probably tell, I think they missed a trick here: opening with Voyager receiving a mysterious signal, with the revelation it comes from a second stranded Federation ship forming the hook of the teaser, seems to me to be a much more rational way of structuring the episode. But I suppose it’s easy to be wise about script decisions two decades later.

No-one on either ship seems particularly surprised by this apparently random meeting, especially considering the vast distances and spans of time involved (both ships have been lost in space for five years, and have travelled forty thousand lightyears since then). The closest thing to a personal reaction comes as a result of the fact that the Equinox’s exec is an ex-boyfriend of Voyager‘s chief engineer B’Elanna, but even this feels like it’s there just to fill a box marked ‘Character-based C-plot’.

Naturally, Captain Janeway lends all due assistance to the embattled Equinox (which is a much smaller and less well-equipped ship). However, it soon becomes apparent that their ordeal in the Delta Quadrant has taken its toll on the crew of the other ship: Janeway has staunchly stuck to the Prime Directive and the rest of the Starfleet rulebook throughout their journey, but Ransom and his people, it is suggested, have not displayed the same degree of moral fortitude.

Janeway and the others eventually figure it out: the CGI fish-aliens are well within their rights to be cross, as Ransom has discovered that capturing them, killing them, processing the corpses and sticking them into the warp engine boosts the Equinox‘s speed to the point where they could potentially get home in a few weeks. Accepting that any Starfleet crew would do anything quite so ghastly is a fairly big ask, but to be fair to the guest cast, they do a pretty good job of suggesting just how traumatised the personnel of Equinox have become.

Nevertheless, Captain Janeway sticks them all in the brig – but has reckoned without the Equinox’s EMH, who is naturally a dead ringer for Voyager‘s own doctor. Evil-twin subroutines in full effect, the other EMH springs Ransom and the others, and they make a run for it, stealing one of Voyager‘s shield generators and accidentally taking Seven of Nine with them. Janeway and everyone else is left at the mercy of the CGI fish-aliens. Cue inter-season hiatus!

Well, as cliffhangers go, The Best of Both Worlds it ain’t. I know that, in the years following the end of Berman’s curatorship of the franchise, the regular writers trained up on the series became widely respected for their ability to break down the structure of a story and turn it into a viable script in a very short period of time, and there’s nothing that’s flat-out mishandled here, but even so… there’s something slightly glib and facile about the first half of the story in particular. Everyone involved knows that, as a piece of episodic TV, there aren’t going to be any significant changes by the end of the story.

I find myself in an awkward spot here, as one of the things I don’t like about what I’ve seen of the new wave of Star Trek shows is their reliance on serialised storytelling. This kind of precludes me from suggesting that some of the problems with mid-to-late-period Berman-Trek are due to the fact they’re so episodic. That can’t really be the case, anyway – most of the TV shows I’m fondest of are episodic to their cores. I think it may simply be just that there’s no real sense of passion or drama about this show a lot of the time – all the attention seems to have been on sorting out the story beats and other narrative connective tissue, none on creating really memorable moments or scenes.

That awkward moment at a party where you realise someone else is wearing the same outfit as you.

Things improve a little bit in the second half, though. There are a couple of battles between the Equinox and the Voyager, though these largely boil down to shaky scenery and people shouting percentages and there’s no sense of the cognitive shock felt by the participants in this Starfleet-on-Starfleet conflict, the sort of thing Babylon 5 did so well. More interestingly is an unexpectedly subtle plot thread about the effect that Janeway and Ransom seem to have had on each other. Janeway seems to take Ransom’s transgressions almost as a personal affront, and becomes nearly as ruthless as he is in her attempts to hunt him down: torturing prisoners, terrorising innocent aliens, and so on. (There is the obligatory scene where Chakotay complains about this and gets relieved of duty as a result.) Ransom, on the other hand, almost seems to get back in touch with his Starfleet soul, experiencing remorse and showing signs of a desire for redemption. (This allows a much more two-dimensional character to step in and be the villain for the climax of the story.) It’s an interesting bit of parallelling, but the fact one knows that both the Equinox and Ransom are going to be toast by the end sort of undercuts the drama a bit.

I know that Equinox has a pretty good reputation as Voyager episodes go, and I’ve certainly seen worse. You can see where the genesis of this story might lie: on one level it’s a road-not-taken story, with the Equinox crew dark reflections of the regular characters, what they might have become without Janeway’s moral compass. But it never really digs into their moral corruption, not in a way that hits home: you’re never actually shocked, and the redemption of Ransom at the end doesn’t carry much impact as a result. It’s slickly put together and technically very competent, and the bones of the story are sound – but, like a lot of Voyager, it feels rather inert dramatically.

Read Full Post »

Every now and then, when I’m about one of my creative endeavours, I’m suddenly struck by a sudden attack of self-doubt and become convinced the thing I’m doing has no value. Nowadays when this happens, I tend to park the thing and either forget about it or think about something else for a bit before returning to it with fresh eyes. In years gone by, though, rather than waste the work I’d already done, I often used to try and turn what I’d been working on into something else that I found myself filled with more enthusiasm about: ghost stories would turn into post-apocalyptic sci-fi, high fantasy would turn into a western or spy story, all with little regard for logic or coherence.

This is all very well when it comes to someone labouring (for want of a better word) in obscurity (this is already the best word), creating solely for their own amusement. It’s a bit more of a surprise when something similar seems to be happening in a reasonably big-budget TV series. Which brings us to Sakho & Mangane. After watching a lot of old TV shows high in comfort-viewing value and The Queen’s Gambit (well, everyone’s been watching it), I decided to strike out in a bold new direction and check out the ‘world drama’ section of one of the big free streamers (rather curiously, there are some TV shows available on Netflix also available for free elsewhere, if you hunt about). Quite why I decided to watch what was billed as a ‘fast-moving African cop show’, I’m not completely sure: simple curiosity, I guess, never having seen a TV series from an African nation before.

Anyway, Sakho & Mangane mostly takes place on the streets of Dakar, where a new special Crime Brigade has been set up. In charge is the no-nonsense Mama Ba (Christiane Dumont), despite the fact that veteran cop Commander Sakho (Issaka Sawadogo) half-expected to get the job. Sakho is very stern and serious all the time, for reasons we will later discover. The new brigade’s first problem is a dead Belgian anthropologist who’s turned up dead on the sacred island of a local tribe of fishermen. The problem (and our first splash of Senegalese colour) is that the fishermen won’t let non-tribe members onto the island to investigate. Luckily, there is a cop from the tribe in the building – but he’s in the cells, as Sakho has just busted his derriere on suspicion of being corrupt. His name is Basile Mangane (Yann Gael), and he is a bit of a rogue.

Mama Ba decrees that Sakho and Mangane, horribly mismatched though they are, must partner up to solve the case of the dead Belgian. ‘I work alone!’ the duo cry in outraged unison. ‘So do unemployed people!’ responds their boss. And so a fairly convoluted police-procedural gets underway, involving a stolen idol, people-traffickers, a mysterious local gangster named Bukki, and Mangane’s on-and-off relationship with local journalist Antoinette (Fatou-Elise Ba). It’s fairly engaging stuff, helped by the charisma of the two leads.

Fair enough. After an opening two-parter, the third episode goes with another resonant theme, that of European sex tourists (mostly women) visiting Senegal to enjoy themselves with handsome young gigolos. It opens with one of these lads turning up dead on the beach. ‘Looks like a ritual killing, his balls have been cut off,’ announces one of the team (not something you often hear in Midsomer Murders, nor indeed Death in Paradise). Naturally, Mangane has to go undercover as a gigolo, which he is not delighted about. Again, it’s slightly knockabout stuff, but colourful and fun, with the actors clearly growing into their roles – I particularly enjoyed the performance from Christophe Guybet, who plays the team’s perpetually drug-addled pathologist.

Episode four is where things take… a turn. Mangane’s old army mate turns up dead in mysterious cirumstances, leading him to become even more excitable and impulsive than usual. It seems he was working undercover to expose a gangster leading a counterfeiting ring (I think, this episode is not one of the best-scripted). The bad guy is either a midget or a pygmy, but more importantly he claims to have a magic amulet that makes him bulletproof. Just another nutter, right?

Wrong. Come the climax, Mangane unloads into the pint-sized perpetrator, who’s coming at him with a machete, only for it to have no effect. He is only saved when Sakho appears and plugs the villain. What was that all about? Even weirder, an old bloke who’s been turning up occasionally to give Sakho vague, ominous warnings puts in another appearance. ‘You can’t use your powers that way!’ he tells Sakho. What powers? What is going on here?

Now, anyone watching Sakho and Mangane via Netflix will have had a slightly different experience: there, the show is advertised as a story of two mismatched detectives taking on strange forces as the supernatural threatens Dakar – anyone tuning in for that must have found three episodes about dead Belgians and sex tourism rather confusing.

Nevertheless, this is a show which takes one of the hardest and weirdest left-terms mid-season that I’ve ever seen. What was going on behind the scenes on this series? Was this planned all along? Did the people making it get bored of doing a police procedural and decide to have a go at making something more like The X Files instead? It’s baffling and intriguing at the same time.

From this point on, things get progressively more peculiar, as you might have guessed. Episode five is a post-financial-crisis story, with bank executives involved in selling dodgy sub-prime mortgages turning up dead with their faces melted off. Working out the connections and identifying the individual with a motive takes us briefly back into the realms of a detective story, but the killer turns out to be some sort of avenging angel with supernatural powers (Sakho and Mangane face a sticky moment until the big man calls on his ‘special powers’ again).

Episode six throws the format well and truly up in the air, with the entire regular cast reporting for special training at a cinema inside a deserted theme park. But it’s a trap! Bukki (who, it seems, is a close relative of Mama Ba) has managed to get out of prison and unleashes a horde of zombies against our heroes. Sakho is forced to reveal his special abilities to the whole team before the day is saved.

Yeah, it’s about rampaging zombies in a theme park. By this point I was just letting the show sort of wash over me, as there was clearly not much point in trying to anticipate what was coming next. This looks like the kind of episode made in a hurry, as a response to some kind of behind-the-scenes crisis, so different is its structure and style. None of the regular sets appear (and indeed the Crime Brigade’s HQ is blown up while they’re all off fighting the zombies, and is never seen again).

Episode seven finds the Crime Brigade now based out of Mama Ba’s back yard, with a rather peculiar sex attacker on the loose and the team a man down, as Sakho has gone AWOL now everyone knows he is an exorcist or a magician or something. Mangane seems more bothered about finding his former partner than the killer, which gives some of the minor characters a chance to shine; the fact the culprit turns out to be a demonic incubus (or ‘night husband’, as such things are apparently known in Africa) is not really a surprise at this point. (The demon is surprisingly well-realised.) Highlight of the episode, for me, was the scene in which a government minister summons Mama Ba and announces that the Crime Brigade is publicly being shut down – but it will continue as a secret task force fighting paranormal threats! Mama Ba takes this news with surprising stoicism, and does not appear to inform anyone else on her team of this minor change in focus.

By this point I was expecting something pretty spectacular from the last episode, in story terms at least. However, and this may not come as a total shock if you’ve been paying attention so far, iron narrative control and thought-through structure are not amongst Sakho & Mangane‘s most obvious virtues: the last episode is one of the duds of the season, over-preoccupied for most of its length with a sub-Saw plotline: Sakho is held captive and put through various fiendish tortures (some of them supernatural, of course), while the killer sends Mangane all over the city doing various errands for him. By the time we get to the climactic revelations (something to do with an evil cult Sakho would rather cut his ties with, various estranged relatives, and Mangane’s soul), there’s not much time left to sort it all out.

Furthermore, this is the 21st century, and no self-respecting series bothers with closure if there’s the slightest chance of a continuation, so everything ends on a rather confusing cliffhanger, bringing an end to one of the weirdest viewing experiences I’ve had this side of the final episodes of The Prisoner. Was a second season on the cards prior to the pandemic? Is it still a possibility nowadays? Where can this series possibly go next?

I don’t know. The thought of another full season of Sakho & Mangane quite as detached from the anchor of reason as the first one certainly gives me pause. But I suspect that in the end I would feel compelled to give it a look. In a world so often characterised by tedious competency, it’s important to cherish these eruptions of wildly inconsistent madness. Bravo, mon braves.

Read Full Post »

Just for the sake of completeness, and because I’d never got around to actually watching it before, let’s conclude our look at Ultraviolet with the unaired (and unsold) pilot episode for the American version of the show, which was made in 2000. There’s a sense in which a circle is being closed here, as one of the producers on the US version was Howard Gordon, who’d previously worked extensively on The X Files (and as we have previously discussed, it’s very unlikely the British version would have been made had The X Files not inaugurated the great mid-to-late 90s horror-fantasy boom). Gordon’s verdict on the American pilot was ‘we screwed it up and it just didn’t come out that well,’ which certainly inclines one to fear the worst with regard to it. The pilot was directed by Mark Piznarski and written by Chip Johannessen.

As the story opens we find ourselves at the stag party of former undercover cop Viggo (Spence Decker), who after a slightly chequered past is finally marrying the lovely, if slightly idiosyncratically named, Nealy (Madchen Amick). Keeping an eye on him is his former handler, NYPD lieutenant John Cahill (Eric Thal). (The IMDb listing for this show gets many of the character names wrong, usually defaulting to the UK equivalent – in this case, Jack, Kirsty and Mike, respectively.)

Anyway, the party seems to go reasonably well, but Viggo refuses Cahill’s offer of a lift home. Instead, on the way to his apartment he is approached by a mysterious stranger whom he clearly knows. As will not come as a surprise to anyone who’s been following along, Viggo does not make his wedding the next day, while evidence relating to an investigation into a prominent money-launderer he was involved in has been stolen. It does not look good for him, but Cahill refuses to believe his friend is as corrupt as he appears.

Viggo, meanwhile, is travelling through the city with the stranger, in a car with blacked-out windows. They get caught up in traffic and involved in a contretemps with a biker (slightly discombobulatingly, this is clearly derived from the opening sequence of episode two of the British show, almost on a shot-for-shot level). The car is attacked, sunlight pours through a crack in the window, the stranger partially combusts before pulling away in the vehicle.

Before Cahill becomes aware of this, though, he must contend with a new player: a mysterious federal agency has become involved, represented by taciturn hard-man Vaughan Shepherd (Idris Elba, basically reprising his performance as Vaughan Rice from the UK show) and CDC haematologist Lise Matthews (Joanna Going). Shepherd wears a rather prominent crucifix and Matthews is forever waving UV lamps about. Cahill’s investigation into what’s really going on is going nowhere – Viggo reappears and makes various vague claims of being in danger – until the biker, who was paralysed when the car hit him while departing, is now walking again and has checked himself out of hospital.

Cahill goes in pursuit of the man, and finds him indeed back on his feet. He flees into the New York subway system, occasioning a retread of a sequence from the first episode of the UK show: Cahill’s ability to track his quarry is severely hampered by the fact he doesn’t show up in mirrors or on video cameras. Someone who does show up is Shepherd, however, who promptly puts a bullet into the biker, causing him to explode into burning dust…

Apologies for slightly grainy screen-grab from this untransmitted piece of TV ephemera: that really is Idris Elba in the middle, by the way. Most of it is about as interesting as this to look at.

Well, Cahill tracks Shepherd and Matthews to their base, but remains sceptical about what they claim to be hunting even after watching an apparently paralysed man walk around and then explode. Matthews explains that, post-AIDS, the creatures they are pursuing have grown wary and are seeking to secure their food supply, which will require large amounts of cash (hence their involvement with the money-launderer). The question is one of whether Viggo is simply an ally, or has actually completely joined their cause…

As you can see, in a lot of ways this closely resembles the UK show in terms of its narrative. The first big difference is the absence of a character corresponding to Pearse in the US version; maybe he was being held back for subsequent episodes, or possibly the network were wary of including a priest (or ex-priest) in this kind of show. I wonder how much of the impact of Pearse is due to Philip Quast’s performance, though: he would certainly have been a tough act to follow.

The other big alteration is that Viggo is more of a central character than Jack in the British show, and doesn’t actually join the opposition until near to the climax of the episode (he survives to the end as well). He also gets a number of scenes interacting with his new friends – and here there seems to be a concerted effort to develop them and depict them as fully-rounded and even somewhat sympathetic individuals. The contrast with the UK version, where the undead are off-screen the vast majority of the time, and their agenda and motivation remains mysterious, is marked, and the main effect of this is to heighten the ambiguity in the way the hunters are depicted: we see Vaughan Shepherd blowing away an unarmed man, and they seem cold and hard and untroubled by softer feelings, whereas the creatures they are pursuing get big scenes talking about how much they love one another.

The result is that this really feels like less of a show in the mystery-investigation genre and more a kind of morality play, with much more parity between the two sides – it seems to be building up to be about that old question of whom the real monsters truly are. This isn’t a dreadful premise for a show, but it is a very different one from Joe Ahearne’s conception of the series. It’s equally understated, although in this case perhaps that isn’t completely a positive thing – British Ultraviolet did a good job of looking like any number of other TV shows made in the UK, but American Ultraviolet seems unusually grey and dour for an American TV show, especially a fantasy. It’s not the most inviting or engaging visual palette, and the plot is somehow less immediately gripping. Maybe this is just because the American networks never seem to have had the same kind of prejudice against fantasy and horror that UK ones have routinely shown. I can think of half a dozen American shows featuring vampirism that predated this pilot – in the UK, all the immediately springs to mind are various adaptations of Dracula.

I don’t think US Ultraviolet is quite a bad as Howard Gordon suggests it is – it’s not as immediately accomplished as its immediate progenitor, and the look of the thing could certainly do with improvement, while somehow none of the characters pop this time around. On the other other hand, there are signs of potential here – this could possibly, and I stress the adverb, possibly have turned into a very interesting, morally ambiguous show about not knowing who to trust, and the thin line between good and evil. But it would most likely have just been fairly dull and quickly been cancelled: on the basis of what we see here, it’s hard to feel terribly robbed by the fact that Ultraviolet US never went to a full series.

Read Full Post »

After about eight months watching not-quite-all of The Avengers, it’s a shock to get through all of Ultraviolet in less than a week, but here we are: the final episode, Persona Non Grata. This follows on directly from the previous one – the inquisition is holding a member of the opposition prisoner, while Kirsty is being manipulated by the bad guys for reasons which as yet remain slightly obcure.

Pearse is refusing to take his medication until this case is resolved, and decides their priority is to identify their prisoner – as he can’t be photographed or even fingerprinted, this is a little bit tricky. Their only lead is a scar he has retained from his mortal days, suggesting cancer treatment in his past. Nevertheless Pearse puts Mike and Vaughan on the job, and Mike promptly ditches Vaughan on the grounds they can cover more ground individually – he’s intent on his own parallel investigation into Jacob, the recently-turned journalist the opposition are using to handle Kirsty. Almost at once he runs into Vaughan, though: it seems Jacob was also recently investigating hospital cancer wards.

Meanwhile, Philip Quast and Corin Redgrave are getting some cracking scenes together, as the former priest and the former human being debate morality and philosophy – it’s implied that the experience which brought Pearse to his faith was an encounter with the undead, which, their captive suggests, rather suggests they are instruments of the divine will, rather than the abominations Pearse’s general shoot-on-sight principles suggest he thinks they are. ‘We are the source of all religion. We are the afterlife,’ whispers Redgrave; a compellingly creepy performance.

Off in yet another plot thread, Kirsty is essentially being kept in protective custody by Jacob, and being sold a line about Mike being part of the same death squad that killed Jack in episode one (which is basically correct). Inevitably, she discovers the truth of exactly what Jacob has become, before too long, but is clearly susceptible enough to buy his line about how the opposition are victims of propaganda from the Church and other sections of the establishment.

The team is clearly on the point of falling apart: Angie is tormented by the possibility she made a terrible mistake in destroying her husband and daughter, Pearse appears to be very aware of his own mortality and is perhaps even contemplating switching sides (which Vaughan predictably responds to with great hostility), and the enemy are exploiting Mike’s own misgivings and his feelings for Kirsty: she will be released, but only as part of a trade. There is someone in the inquisition’s headquarters whom the opposition would like sprung, very badly.

This isn’t quite the epic conclusion one might be hoping for, but it raises the stakes (sorry) very effectively and includes a lot of things assiduous viewers have probably been hoping for: Frances finds out just what Mike does for a living, for instance. The opposition also get some proper screen-time too, for a change. I’ve seen it suggested that Joe Ahearne initially considered doing a show where some of the main characters were undead, but realised that the budget wouldn’t permit it to be made exclusively at night – hence the existing format, where in the first few episodes the bad guys are mostly off-screen. Here, they get some proper scenes and meaty dialogue, as I’ve suggested.

In the end it largely boils down to the arcs of the four main characters, though (five if you include Kirsty), and this is quite satisfyingly done, without feeling particularly contrived. The plots of the previous episodes are also revealed to be connected to an overall plan to seize control of the world by instigating a nuclear winter and blacking out the sun for months – at least, this is what Pearse surmises, based on what they eventually learn about Redgrave’s character. The actual climax of the series isn’t its strongest or most convincing moment, but it ties nearly everything up quite neatly – there is a loose thread, but it’s not an egregious one.

Which brings us to the question – should we celebrate Ultraviolet as a superbly-effected miniature, or complain about the fact they only made six episodes? (Seven if you count the US pilot, which is supposedly awful.) Given the series was relatively well-reviewed, how come they didn’t do any more?

I seem to recall that in interviews around the turn of the century, Joe Ahearne indicated that the problem was that Ultraviolet was a show with a mainstream budget but only a cult audience (the same old story, sadly). However, more recently he’s said that it was all to do with how the series came together – other people were initially supposed to be writing and directing episodes, but it ended up with him doing the whole series, almost as an auteur. This meant he was fully occupied with filming and editing episodes at the time when the early work on a second series would normally have been done. Ahearne has said he always assumed there would only be six, and that it was a relatively high-concept show that would have struggled to come up with new plots anyway; the production company apparently did invite pitches from other writers on how a continuation might possibly be done, but most of these were very radically different takes on the series (which isn’t to say that Ahearne was unimpressed by them).

It is kind of a shame, because my feeling is that it’s usually in the second season that a TV show really hits its creative peak, and the prospect of another set of Ultraviolet episodes even better than the first would have been a mouth-watering prospect. (Perhaps they might even have managed to turn Mike into a more engaging character: Jack Davenport was one of the show’s big names at the time, but he’s playing such a hopeless individual that he doesn’t get much to do – the other regulars are all much more interesting characters.) But then again, I suppose one really shouldn’t be greedy about these things. All of the episodes are good, at the very least; some of them are exceptional. Is this the best British horror series of all time? It’s such a tiny genre that the answer wouldn’t mean much either way, especially when you consider that most of these shows are anthologies. Let’s just say that this really is an overlooked gem that transcends its origins as a sort-of knock-off of The X Files and becomes a great show in its own right.

Read Full Post »

The episodic nature which has characterised the first four instalments of Ultraviolet begins to disappear with Terra Incognita – although as there are only six programmes in total (this is a perfectly-formed miniature, really), it could really qualify as the first of a two-part series finale.

A man arrives at Heathrow on a flight from Brazil, but is stopped at immigration on medical grounds – he is bleeding from the ears. A full examination reveals an open bite wound on his neck, and suggests he is suffering from some form of haemorrhagic fever. More startlingly, the man’s sister, Maria (Ellen Thomas) indicates they have come here to get help from a doctor in London who is an expert on his condition, whom the man’s specialists in Brazil suggested could cure him – someone called Dr March…

All of this naturally raises an enormous red flag for the inquisition, and both siblings are brought in for examination and interview. Vaughan and Mike interview the crew of the flight they came in on, and discover it was carrying medical equipment – the cause of a last-minute flight delay. The equipment turns out to take the form of large, hermetically-sealed, time-locked casings, one of which Vaughan and Mike manage to secure.

It turns out the bleeding man has a history of sickle-cell anaemia, which appears to have mysteriously vanished – but an examination reveals that the opposition have been nibbling on him in a most peculiar way, almost as if they have been sampling his blood. Maria tells the team she has come here not to see Angie March, but her husband Robert – the man whom she staked years before – as apparently only he has the knowledge to save her brother. Angie realises it could make a certain kind of sense – the opposition could be trying to perfect synthetic blood, something which would free them from their dependence on human beings as a food source. Judging from the man’s condition, they’re not quite there yet – but Robert March was a brilliant haematologist who could conceivably crack the problem. Angie points out to Pearse that the breakthrough would not only remove the casus belli between the inquisition and their enemy, but also help in the treatment of conditions such as non-Hodgkins’ lymphoma.

However, their top priority is finding the other casings, as they assume each contains a member of the opposition – the time lock is set to open just after the sun sets. But the enemy has been cunning, and sold the team a dummy – and Vaughan is captured, knocked unconscious, and wakes up in a locked room with four of the casings, each set to open in only a few minutes…

There’s a slightly schlocky element to this, basically to enable its resolution – whichever Renfield has locked Vaughan in there has been gallant (or dumb) enough to leave him with his gun and pen-knife – but it’s still really the dramatic peak of the episode. Vaughan is difficult to read, as usual, but seems almost on the verge of terminal despair – we also get a glimpse of the man behind the tough-guy front, as he rings Angie with only moments to go. Idris Elba doesn’t get a great deal to do acting-wise in many of these episodes – he’s basically there as the team hard man – but he makes the most of this opportunity to do a little more with it, and it works well.

But apart from this, the episode doesn’t have same focus as the previous ones. The initial mystery sort of gets forgotten about in the aftermath of Vaughan’s ordeal, overtaken by other concerns – mainly the arrival in the team’s base of the occupant of the container they captured. It’s almost implied this is part of the opposition’s plan – insert one of their number into the heart of the inquisition’s operation, to sow dissent and misinformation. Emerging from the quasi-coffin is a quietly impressive individual played (as well as you might reasonably ask) by the actor Corin Redgrave. (Thirty years earlier Redgrave had turned in a fine performance as Jonathan Harker in an ITV adaptation of Bram Stoker’s most famous novel, although I’m not sure that’s enough for this to count as stunt casting.)

Corin Redgrave prepares to be interviewed.

Redgrave has the presence and technique to hold his own against the regular cast, and believably puts the team on the back foot, making Angie once again question their ethos and methods. The plotline is left unresolved, as events are clearly building towards some kind of climax: Mike has succumbed to his feelings for Kirsty and arranged to see her again, even if he does turn up armed and prepared to potentially put a wooden dum-dum in her chest if she turns out to have been turned by the opposition (the question of whether Kirsty is still human or not is left open, reasonably skilfully, until after she’s seen Mike getting ready to take her out – at which point there’s yet another homage to the Citizen Kane hall-of-mirrors shot, though here for a reason on this occasion).

This is an odd, all-over-the-place kind of episode, without the strong central plot of most of the others and containing a few convenient plot devices, and some odd digressions. At one point Vaughan and Maria have a discussion of Candomblé (a syncretic Afro-Brazilian religion), which is sort of interesting but doesn’t really go anywhere except in that it links into the episode’s theme, which I think is faith (and the loss of faith). Maria is a believer, and has faith in Robert March’s ability to cure her brother (though this ultimately profits her little); Vaughan nearly loses all hope during his moment of crisis; Mike is clearly having severe doubts about having joined the inquisition; and so is Angie – though it’s been clear all along she’s never quite recovered from destroying her own husband and child.

In the end, though, it still works – it’s clearly doing things to set up the final episode, and there are lots of good individual set pieces, even if they don’t really link up with one another – Vaughan’s crisis with the coffins, Redgrave’s first appearance, and Mike’s confrontation with Kirsty. More than enough good stuff here for it to pass muster, anyway.

Read Full Post »

Ultraviolet‘s fourth episode is entitled Mea Culpa, which would probably qualify as another fridge episode-name – were it not for the fact that there was a movie a few years ago entitled Mea Maxima Culpa, which it shares a few thematic elements with. The thing about this episode is that it really is trying very hard to be a proper serious drama for adults, rather than a campy bit of genre-based fun. This is always true of Ultraviolet, of course, but perhaps on this occasion they go over the top in the whole dour-and-gritty department.

The story opens at a school where a priest attempts to speak to a boy in his early teens named Gary (Robert Stuart). The lad is reluctant to speak to the older man, and when the priest refuses to take no for an answer, stabs him repeatedly with a craft knife. The priest dies of his injuries, Gary goes on the run. For some reason – and the episode really fudges this a bit too much – the inquisition are called in, as such a savage assault on a religious figure might be connected to the opposition’s activities. Even Mike is openly dubious of their getting involved in what looks like a job for the conventional police.

However, inquiries at the school reveal a suspicious degree of heliophobia amongst the boys, and Angie discovers they show a marked aversion to religious artifacts as well. Mike still thinks this might be symptomatic of something like meningitis, with the aversion to religion more closely linked to the dead man in particular. There’s also the question of how all the boys managed to pick up a Code Five infection given there’s no sign any of them have been bitten.

Meanwhile, Gary is in hiding in the local park, where he encounters a man named Colin (Rupert Procter). Here the episode starts heading into what seems to me to be quite dodgy territory: Colin is presented as pretty much the stereotype of the seedy gay man, cruising public lavatories, and so on. Anyway, Colin takes Gary back to his place, but before anything else can occur, Gary is attacked by Colin’s dog and badly injured. Colin dumps Gary at the local hospital and runs for it. Mike, on the other hand, who’s become rather appalled by the draconian measures employed by the team when there’s very little evidence of opposition involvement (all the children have been brought in for testing), has discovered evidence that the priest who was murdered was a paedophile.

(Round about this point, the A-plot is gently paused and we catch up on what’s going on with Kirsty and the journalist she has teamed up with – he has been digging a bit too deeply and got himself turned by the opposition – and Pearse and his mysterious ailment. Angie’s diagnosis is lymphoma, which is not good news for the team’s top man.)

Everything changes when it turns out that Gary indeed has a form of meningitis – but one which has been engineered to carry a version of Code Five infection, rendering the carrier heliophobic, hostile to religious symbols, and highly suggestible (by the opposition, anyway). This same virus is spreading through the school. The spectre of an epidemic of a disease which could render huge swathes of the population vulnerable to control by the opposition qualifies as a nightmare scenario for the team, but where has it come from?

Well, Vaughan and Mike track down Colin, and Vaughan – in a display of barely disguised homophobia – proceeds to beat the information they need out of him, while Mike looks on uncomfortably. Gary, Colin reveals, showed signs of having been groomed before, but not by the priest. All the evidence points to a man named Oliver – a recluse suffering from a genetic condition called xenoderma pigmentosum, which means he can never leave his home during daylight…

Vaughan Rice conducts an interrogation.

In many ways, this episode shares all the strengths of the rest of the series: it’s slick, well-played, and cleverly plotted with an inventive new take on the traditional lore (it turns out the opposition are indeed experimenting with producing mass infections without having to bite everyone individually, but one of their test subjects is refusing to socially distance himself). There are a couple of places where the plotting could be tighter, but this is only a minor concern. My issue with it is really that it just seems to be in rather dubious taste.

I’m not saying that paedophilia – even paedophilia involving the Catholic Church – is something that should be off-limits for drama. But if you’re going to use it as a plot element in a fantasy drama – and, when it comes down to it, Ultraviolet is ultimately a fantasy drama, an entertainment – you need to be justified in doing so. The problem is that the story doesn’t contain a metaphor for child abuse, or anything similar. It just seems to be there because including it makes the series look properly grown-up and dark.

I’m not sure this is enough, and there are other ways in which the episode doesn’t really distinguish itself in handling its subject matter: Colin, in particular, is a homophobic stereotype, and I don’t think the episode does anything like enough to clarify that not all gay men are paedophiles. The scene where Colin is beaten into helping the team is uncomfortable to watch – it really does add to the impression that the team are not terribly nice people. On the other hand, this may have been intentional: the suggestion seems to be that what they’ve all been through has left them damaged and callous. What new-recruit Mike’s excuse is, is another matter: Jack Davenport is always reasonably watchable, but Mike often comes across as glum and a bit moody. He certainly doesn’t seem to be enjoying the new job, referring to Pearse as the witchfinder-general and openly questioning his judgement. He’s even upset when he’s let off after accidentally shooting someone he thought was one of the opposition – Vaughan Rice, on the other hand, is more worried by the fact that Mike put two bullets into the guy and still managed to miss the heart.

As I said, this is a strong episode in lots of ways, sharing all the series’ usual virtues. But the nature of the story and the tone of it both leave me uneasy, despite all of that. It feels exploitative of real-world issues in a way that the previous episode wasn’t – and quite crassly exploitative, too. Worth watching, nevertheless, if only because the ongoing story elements do move on somewhat in the course of it – but I do think it’s problematic in many ways.

Read Full Post »

The third episode of Ultraviolet is entitled Sub Judice, which is essentially a fridge title only serving to maintain the gimmick of Latin episode names: sometimes these sort-of allude to the plot, but this one doesn’t. I mention this at the start as it is one of the few complaints I can make about it.

It opens with a solicitor in her thirties (Emer Gillespie) entering an underground car park and being attacked by a couple of low-lives; not entirely surprisingly, she faints. Entirely surprisingly, though, her two assailants are set upon and brutally murdered – by an immensely strong and swift killer who somehow isn’t picked up by the car park’s CCTV system. Who you gonna call?

The inquisition are soon on the case (although not before Pearse can confide to Angie March that he’s not been feeling 100% recently, a plot point which the show will return to), with their objective being to discover the connection between the solicitor, Marion, and the opposition: why would they want to save her? Is she working on an important case they have an interest in? Nothing seems particularly significant. What about her background?

It seems that Marion’s husband committed suicide some years earlier, apparently unable to accept the fact the couple could not have children. A colleague who showed signs of romantic interest in her eighteen months later was killed in a hit-and-run, and the driver never found. It all seems rather sad, but not in any way sinister – until, at the end of an interview with Pearse (the fact he is implied to be a priest may be significant) she faints again. A search of her home and a medical exam reveals that she is pregnant – but the embryo does not register on the ultrasound scanner.

The ‘pregnancy’, if that’s what it is, is apparently the product of sperm which Marion’s husband had frozen before his death. The team check out the IVF clinic involved – no doubt wondering if the ‘V’ stands for something different on this occasion – and initially find nothing to raise the alarm. Examining the late husband’s frozen semen, however, reveals something very unusual: the sperm show up on video, indicating they are normal, but spontaneously combust when exposed to sunlight. No wonder Marion seems to be having such a difficult pregnancy: it appears that she’s carrying more than she bargained for (the technical term is dhampyr). Thus ensues a cracking scene where Pearse and Angie discuss their options, including the possibility of a termination (the irony of a Catholic priest ordering one is not lost on Angie). ‘It’s not human,’ Pearse says. ‘It’s half human,’ Angie replies. ‘I believe that’s what I said,’ comes the response. Philip Quast is consistently impressive in this series, bringing a kind of understated gravitas to what could have been just a stock part; the fact he gets most of the best lines helps, too.

That said, this episode is really Susannah Harker’s chance to shine, and she really grabs it. (A fun connection: one of her ancestors was a Joseph Harker, a friend of Bram Stoker, and thus presumably the person that Jonathan Harker is named after in that well-known novel by Stoker.) All the ongoing plot threads concerning Mike and his relationships with Kirsty and Frances are got out of the way nice and early on, with Mike himself sort of shoved into the background along with Vaughan: rather subtly, the episode focuses primarily on Angie and her history, and her relationship with Marion.

As noted, this is all done with tremendous, and very creditable subtlety: Harker underplays it very effectively. But the subtext is still there if you look for it: the episode is about motherhood, in all sorts of different ways – the fierce desire for a child which Marion feels, Angie’s own residual guilt for destroying one of her own children after she was turned by the opposition, but above all the conflict between Angie’s empathy for Marion and her duties as a member of the inquisition. This is only exacerbated by the lack of emotional intelligence shown by any of the male leads – Rice and Colefield are basically just crass young blokes and Pearse has his higher calling. Vaughan Rice seems very sure that the opposition are completely devoid of normal emotions and sympathies, and that the experiment in progress is a means to some further end – but the episode actually seems to suggest otherwise, with Marion’s late husband, when he finally appears, showing signs of genuine distress at her situation. I don’t remember the show giving many other hints that the inquisition’s insistence that the opposition is purely and simply malevolent is anything but justified, but they’re certainly present here.

This initially looks like another police procedural episode, but rapidly takes a sharp turn into the realms of obstetric horror: the big question in this genre always being, what’s cooking? There’s almost a touch of Rosemary’s Baby to Marion’s situation, with her clinic, her opposition-sponsored midwife, the inquisition, and a well-meaning abortion clinic volunteer all attempting to manipulate her, and Emer Gillespie does a fine job of making her sympathetic but not too passive – but as a guest character, she inevitably doesn’t have quite the same prominence as Angie. Nevertheless, the conclusion of the episode has a genuine touch of tragedy to it, and Gillespie plays a key part in creating that feel. As obstetric horror stories go, this one is admirably underplayed and lacking in both tackiness and schlock. It doesn’t seem to have a particular axe to grind – it would be weird for it to come down unequivocally on either side of the fence, given the subject matter – except to suggest that women should have the right to choose for themselves. It’s a slightly simplistic message, but put across well and subtly.

I was thinking about all the post-X Files genre TV shows which came along in the mid to late 90s, specifically the British ones (the American and Canadian lists are even more extensive): apart from Ultraviolet, I’ve already mentioned Invasion: Earth and The Last Train (though that’s really the product of a different tradition). I suppose you could also mention the ITV adaptation of Oktober and the serial The Uninvited, plus The Vanishing Man, too. Apart from most of The Last Train, I don’t honestly remember most of the others as being much cop – but this episode of Ultraviolet is a top-class piece of intelligent and effective horror, with a serious subtext to it. Better than I remembered, and I remembered it being really, really good.

Read Full Post »

Regular readers who’ve been following along with the final-season Avengers reviews have probably got used to my commenting rather drily on the sheer number of holiday and semi-holiday episodes enjoyed by Patrick Macnee and Linda Thorson in the course of this year. I honestly am starting to think I’ve misread this whole phenomenon: I know this series in particular was made under enormous pressure (US airdates were unforgiving beasts) and it may simply be that they had to double-bank many of the episodes (meaning they were effectively making two episodes at a time for much of the production block).

It perhaps also explains the sheer oddness of many of the episodes. Which brings us to Brian Clemens’ Pandora, another episode which is fairly functional but still hardly in the traditional Avengers style. Tara, in search of a particular clock, is lured to an antiques shop from which she is kidnapped by this week’s villains: the Lasindall brothers, played by Julian Glover (fourth appearance of four, and his second in a Tara episode – once again he has slightly different hair this time) and James Cossins (his only appearance on the show, but his tendency to play pompous or slightly dodgy establishment figures has been noted in these parts previously).

She wakes up in what seems to be a house in 1915, where the brothers and their maid insist on referring to her as Pandora. She is routinely drugged up to the ears, to the point at which she starts to wonder if she might not actually be Pandora after all (whoever that may be). Meanwhile, Steed is following the only clue – a note dropped by one of the brothers, suggesting a link to the First World War and a British agent known as the Fierce Rabbit…

As noted, it sort of hangs together in a Tales of the Unexpected melodrama way, complete with twist ending, but it all boils down to a plot by the brothers to con their very elderly relative into revealing the location of his secret treasure. A wildly convoluted and implausible plot, of course, but you sort of assume that. Tara spends most of the episode in a tranquilised stupor (insert your own joke here if you really, really must); Steed rattles around on the outside of the story until the very end; quite a lot of it concerns the guest cast, which also includes a fourth and final appearance by John Laurie. It almost feels like both regulars are on holiday, somehow – the production isn’t bad and the conclusion is acceptably clever, but it’s probably not what you’ve turned up for.

There’s much more chance you’ve turned up for a slightly formulaic Philip Levene script, built around an iffy sci-fi gimmick, maybe even one featuring yet another guest-villain appearance by Peter Bowles, and if so, Get-A-Way! will land squarely in your happy spot. (This was part of the initial group of Tara episodes, completed in February 1968, but not shown in the UK until May 1969, which may be why it feels so retro.) Much of the action is set in and around a supposedly maximum-security military prison (it is clearly nothing of the sort, but the plot makes its demands), run by Andrew Keir (second appearance of two, after a pretty thin cameo early in season five). The prison is disguised as a monastery (plenty of gun-toting monks are the warders) and it is currently playing host to three enemy assassins, led by Martin Ezdorf (Bowles), sent here to kill top British agents. One of them instantly escapes, apparently by disappearing into thin air.

Not entirely unsurprisingly, we find Steed playing host to a meeting of two of his very best friends (whom we have never heard of nor seen before, suspiciously enough). After this brazen bit of empty stakes-raising, one of his pals is ambushed and killed by the escaped assassin, who once again appears to materialise from nowhere…

Well, I’ve had some strange experiences with odd spirits, vodka amongst them, but the premise behind this episode – the enemy agents have been splashing their rear aspects with special vodka which allows them and their clothes to blend in with whatever they’re standing in front of – almost compels one to raise a eyebrow. This really isn’t Levene’s finest hour, but it rattles along fairly engagingly, helped by a decent performance by Peter Bowles, who’s trying hard to pull off the villain-as-dark-mirror-of-the-hero routine. He doesn’t quite manage it, but it feels a lot more like authentic Avengers than a lot of the later season six episodes.

And so the series ends, not quite as it began but fairly close, with a Brian Clemens script: namely, Bizarre, which one must assume is a rather differerent beast to Brought to Book, his first contribution to the series back in 1961 (now lost, along with the vast majority of the first season). It opens with a young woman with a Jean Seburg crop staggering across a snowy field (the location sequences have a wintry chill about them rather at odds with the general tone of the story) before collapsing.

For some reason an unconscious woman in a nightdress turning up in a field attracts the attention of Steed’s department (one can’t help but wonder why) and investigations reveal she fell off a train travelling along a nearby line. When asked about this, she remembers there being a coffin on the train, too, the occupant of which rose and attacked her. It turns out the body of her alleged assailant was that of disgraced financier Jonathan Jupp (John Sharp, third appearance of three), who has now been laid to rest in a high-class cemetery operated by Roy Kinnear (fourth of four), whose character is called Bagpipes Happychap for no remotely plausible reason.

It seems that Jupp’s body has disappeared – but also that the cemetery is full of disgraced tycoons and other dodgy-but-rich types who just happened to die before the authorities could take them to task for their activities. Could these things be connected? Of course they could. I have seen Bizarre get a rough ride in some reviews, mainly because the plotline is quite so far-fetched (also because some of the sets aren’t brilliant, and this may be a fair point) – it all boils down to another scheme to help crooks dodge justice, but this one involves a yogic expert known as the Master – Fulton Mackay (third of three, and second Tara episode) in a turban and blackface – and a subterranean luxury resort/disco underneath the cemetery itself. If it tried to take itself seriously, it would be absurd – but it never does, this is the show very definitely pitched as a comedy. Even as such, it’s still not the series at anything near its best, but there are some decent gags and enough laughs to make it worth watching even if you’re not aware it’s the very last episode of the series.

The end is nigh.

So, having been through every surviving episode from the second season onward over the course of the last eight or nine months, what conclusions can one draw about The Avengers? Well, firstly, it’s a bit reductive to treat this as just one series – any TV show which runs for more than three or four years is going to shift its style and approach very appreciably. The Avengers is no exception, and honestly feels like at least three or four different programmes across its five surviving seasons. It almost goes without saying that the two series with Diana Rigg as Emma Peel are the high-point of the run, and indeed quite possibly one of the high-points of British TV in general (certainly the fourth season). But there are lots of Honor Blackman episodes which stand up very well, and even a few from the final year which are outstanding.

In the end, though, how could one regret taking the time to watch such an inventive, witty, strange, and entertaining series? (If nothing else, the exercise revealed there were still a few Rigg and Thorson episodes I’d never actually seen.) Very little on TV these days is such consistently good fun, and virtually no drama. It’s a treacherous path to start down, but maybe things really were better in the past.

Read Full Post »

The line between episodic and serialised TV has become very blurred this century, but they used to be two quite distinct forms. It was in the late 90s that ongoing plot elements began to appear on a routine basis even in programmes which ostensibly did stories-of-the-week. Bearing all this in mind, the question of whether Ultraviolet is a serial or not becomes a somewhat moot one. It’s really in a sort of netherworld between the two – it does build towards a climax in the final episode, but on the other hand, the second episode (In Nomine Patris, written and directed like all the others by Joe Ahearne) feels very much like an exercise in establishing the format for an ongoing series.

It opens with a woman named Danni Ashford (Jane Slavin) visiting her mother, who is deeply in the grip of Alzheimers’, while an associate (Christopher Villiers) waits outside in an expensive car. It looks like she has a big decision to make, and her companion – a smooth, handsome type – makes a big deal about not pushing her into it. They drive off, and the heavily-tinted windows of the car give us a big clue as to what may be going on here. Sure enough, the car is involved in a road rage incident after the man nearly runs a couple of bikers off the road: furiously, one of them attacks the vehicle with a wrench, damaging the window and allowing sunlight into the interior. The man begins to combust as the sun’s rays strike him, and he desperately drives away, running over his attacker’s companion as he does so…

Meanwhile, Vaughan Rice has been completing Mike’s induction into the inquisition – Mike is less than amused when the computerised firing range presents an image of Kirsty as a possible target, but Vaughan makes the point that their enemies are ruthless when it comes to exploiting any weak spots or vulnerabilities. Mike is clearly conflicted about the idea of cutting all ties with her (perhaps a bit too obviously conflicted, this plot element is laid on with a trowel), but before they can resolve the issue they are off on a job: news of the driver of a blacked-out car spontaneously combusting is right up their street, after all.

The evidence suggests their quarry is Lester Hammond, playboy son of tycoon Gideon Hammond (Trevor Bowen). The senior Hammond has recently specialised in constructing unusual bits of architecture – bunkers and basements with no windows, ventilation or plumbing – which is also rather suggestive. Pearse’s directive is to follow the money and find out what the opposition is up to, and the trail leads to a clinic researching into various blood disorders (which it’s suggested the opposition view rather in the same way that humans regard things like fowl pest and foot-and-mouth disease: they contaminate the food supply).

As usual, the episode takes great pains to be downbeat and naturalistic – there’s a reasonable twist towards the end, about the real identity of the man they’re hunting, but most of it you could watch with the sound turned down and not suspect this was much more than a routine police procedural show. I really like the way Ultraviolet generally eschews the flashy and the camp, not least because it just gives extra oomph to those moments when they do arrive. The set-piece with Hammond beginning to burn up in the car is very neatly done, and there are a couple of other pleasingly grisly touches: Slavin’s character ends up with a nasty hand-shaped burn on her arm as a result of the same scene, while the crushed vertebrae of a paraplegic turned by the opposition are visible when they send her to take out Mike.

Almost in passing, lots of interesting and flavourful world-building is going on here: Mike’s friend Frances indicates the inquisition is officially operating as part of the anti-terrorism squad (which sort of makes sense, although it may be another cover). Pearse suggests the opposition were responsible for the Great Fire of London, apparently an attempt to stop the spread of the plague. It’s confirmed that the opposition don’t register on cameras or phones, which just leads me to wonder – what about motion sensors? Pressure pads? (Some interesting possibilities here.) One twist on the usual lore is that the opposition can’t regenerate damage or injuries leaving Hammond permanently disfigured and in constant agony. On the other hand, being turned restores a paralysed young woman’s ability to walk, which does suggest some kind of regenerative ability, and Angie has already indicated this is one of their powers (presumably it’s just UV exposure that does irreparable damage to them). It’s indicated again that the dissolution of one of the bad guys is basically like a small bomb going off (so get ready to run after staking one of them).

What one of the opposition looks like after forgetting his sun block.

Beyond all this, though, the episode does have a theme, and one which works well with the conceit of keeping the actual monsters off-screen and in the shadows most of the time. We see them more through their effect on the people around them – Gideon Hammond, though outwardly successful, has lived his whole life in the shadow of the thing which has dominated him, while Lester has clearly done a number of Danni Ashford. With (it’s implied) a family history of dementia, it’s entirely reasonable that she would look for a way to dodge the ageing process and its effects. Nevertheless, it’s made quite clear that there is nothing benevolent about the agenda or methods of the opposition – the question, of course, is whether this justifies the methods the inquisition adopt, or the cost to its members: they intimidate witnesses into silence, cover up mysterious deaths and other activity, and Rice indicates that none of them have any friends outside the unit – the risk to them is just too great. It’s a hard and cold life being a slayer, it would seem.

I think this is a strong episode, but I can see why Ultraviolet ended up as a cult gem rather than a mainstream hit: it’s mostly a detective thriller, but people who’d enjoyed something like Between the Lines would probably have issues with the whole concept of the show. On the other hand, its determination to keep things real and grounded may have meant it seemed rather dull to many members of the fantasy and horror fan tribe. It may be pitching to a small constituency, but it’s still a very effective piece of TV.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »