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Archive for the ‘TV Reviews’ Category

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 somewhere (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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I have occasionally commented in the past on the meatgrinder nature of episodic TV, the constant need to find new and interesting ideas and situations that work within a particular format. Sometimes you can tell that people are just grabbing concepts from different places and slapping them together – when this works, it can produce really interesting material. But when it doesn’t, quite…

Which leads us to Deep Shock, an episode from early in the fourth season of The Incredible Hulk, originally broadcast in late 1980. The show was sixty episodes in by this point, so perhaps it’s understandable that a) the series should feel a little formulaic by this point and b) the makers should be trying to shake things up a little bit. We find ourselves at the Tres Lobos power plant, which is currently being converted to automatic control, something causing no end of grumbling amongst the workers who suspect they are conniving in their own redundancy by making the alterations. Also helping out, which if nothing else proves there was a major shortage of labour in the early 80s, is our man David Banner, employing one of his trademark wafer-thin alibis (‘David Benton’ this week).

Well, Banner finds himself co-opted into helping the gruff-but-caring shop steward Edgar (Tom Clancy, but not the famous one) on a tricky part of the job – but it turns out that Edgar has an undisclosed heart condition and things do not go according to plan. Soon a high-voltage cable is spitting sparks everywhere, endangering both men. Despite the fact the episode has only just started and it’s really much too early, Banner turns into the Hulk and saves Edgar’s life – but in the process he is exposed to a massive burst of electricity, enough to flatten even the Hulk.

After a day or so in a coma, Banner wakes up in hospital, where the attending physician (Sharon Acker) is pleasantly surprised by his resilience (Banner stays deadpan about this). But she is also concerned about his mental state – apparently being electrocuted can have strange side-effects, and she’s also noticed that his brain contains a high level of a chemical associated with split-personality syndrome – does he have any history in this department? (Banner stays deadpan about this too.) I’m not sure the neuroscience in this episode is really up to much, even by the standards of 1980.

Banner checks himself out and moves in with Edgar, just in case he does have any side-effects, and also to progress the plot. Edgar is about to be forced to retire, because of his heart, but there is still the future of his guys to resolve! And also the issue of how safe the plant will be when it’s run solely by machines. The heartless suits who run the place just don’t seem to care.

Meanwhile, Banner finds himself suffering from tinnitus, and something more – apparently, and this really is the plot, the Hulk’s electrocution has given Banner temporary precognitive powers, and now he has visions of the future (just for this episode). It’s not at all clear, but they seem to involve some sort of crisis at the power plant, with the Hulk on the rampage at the heart of the complex. Maybe it’s time to get out of town and start listening for that piano music…

It doesn’t work out that way, of course, and the episode concludes with the Hulk tearing through the odd wall and smashing up a few consoles, after Edgar basically hijacks the plant in an attempt to show how vital human involvement in managing the place is. It all feels a bit contrived, and an attempt to do the end of The China Syndrome on TV with a rather low budget (The China Syndrome was in movies the previous year, around the time of the Three Mile Island incident – I will just mention again that Banner is working at the ‘Three Wolves’ power plant). Also, with the first Hulk-out shifted to the start of the story, the episode feels like it has a rather flabby middle, with arguments about industrial relations and the usual low-comedy business with Banner and McGee just missing each other in hospital lobbies not doing much to help.

In fact, other than the movie pastiche and the slightly odd structure, the most distinctive thing about Deep Shock is the Banner-becomes-precognitive element, which is certainly a curve-ball and quite atypical of what’s usually a studiously down-to-earth programme (or as studiously down-to-earth as a programme about a green gamma monster with an infinite supply of jeans can be). I can’t help wondering if the whole psychic-powers element of the story was a late addition to pep the rest of it up. It doesn’t really impinge on the main storyline and could easily have been cut without too much difficulty. In any case, it produces an episode which is ultimately distinctive without being especially distinguished.

I’m not entirely sure the same isn’t true for the next episode, Bring Me the Head of the Hulk (not something anyone says, or seems likely to say, in the story itself), for all that it regularly pops up in ‘Top Ten Best Hulk Episodes’ lists. This is yet another shake-up-the-formula episode; the start of season four had a lot of these. I suppose it is especially noteworthy for being directed by Bill Bixby, the star of the series. You would have thought that a consummate actor like Bixby would have been a shoo-in to direct one of the more character-driven episodes, but this is almost pure action-adventure stuff.

It begins with a Hulk-out already underway, with the creature demolishing another laboratory before vanishing into the night. But news of this latest Hulk-sighting is delivered to Paris, France (stock footage from the Universal library duly sets the scene), where psychopathic mercenary La Fronte (Jed Mills) seems to be tracking the Hulk’s appearances. ‘Another genetics lab,’ says his (apparently) faithful lieutenant, Alex (Sandy McPeak), seemingly unsurprised.

The thing about Bring Me the Head of the Hulk is that it does rather ignore all the conventions of the series as established up to this point – that the Hulk is an urban legend like Bigfoot, primarily. Here it’s strongly implied the Hulk goes around wrecking genetics labs on a fairly regular basis, and that this makes it into the media somehow or other. If so, why aren’t the police and army hunting the Hulk, instead of just the lonely and quixotic McGee? The episode also implies that working out the Hulk’s real identity is not that challenging either.

Well, anyway, La Fronte goes to the offices of McGee’s paper and promises to kill the Hulk for them, in exchange for a truckload of cash. McGee demurs, partly because he has come to realise the Hulk is essentially benign, but also because he knows the creature is also a normal person most of the time. So the mercenary heads off to the paper’s competitor, who agree to bankroll his Hulk-killing scheme.

Here we do step rather a long way from credibility, if you ask me. La Fronte’s cunning plan is to set up his own genetics research lab, advertise for staff, and then give preference to hiring people who match his Hulk profile. If he’d talked properly to McGee, he’d know just to hire people with the first name David and a surname beginning with B, but I digress. Needless to say, Banner (using the cunning pseudonym David Bedford) applies and makes it onto the shortlist of Hulk-suspects, together with five other guys.

(Really? There are five other people with the same skill set and a history of being in town when the Hulk shows up? Who are these people? What must they think of their sheer bad luck? There’s potential for a whole episode here that barely gets touched on.)

Banner ends up as chief assistant to Dr Cabot, a geneticist known for her interest in phenomena such as werewolves and other odd transformations. She is played by Jane Merrow, a British actress who appeared in The Avengers, plus various Hammer horrors and other British genre movies; the kind of person who’s a fixture of the heritage section of this blog, if we’re honest. Needless to say there is a lab accident, leading to our first proper Hulk-out of the episode, and the confirmation for La Fronte that his plan is working. But with McGee on the verge of tracking down La Fronte’s operation, he may have to force the issue if he wants to get the Hulk in his sights…

Bring Me the Head of the Hulk is, obviously, a rather different episode: it has three Hulk-outs (well, two and a half, at least); it has someone actively pursuing the Hulk, with considerable success; we actually get to see Banner on the phone applying for another of the endless jobs he drifts through (and his interview technique is so dreadful it’s a miracle he ever gets work); we get to see McGee actually saving the Hulk’s life, for a change. But is there quality to match the novelty?

Well – I’m not sure, like I say. La Fronte’s plan works so quickly and perfectly that you do wonder why McGee, supposedly a brilliant investigative reporter, hasn’t managed to catch up with Banner yet. And La Fronte is such a one-dimensional loon that it does kind of hurt the credibility of the episode. This series doesn’t often do full-on villains, and La Fronte isn’t in the first rank of them – he doesn’t convince in the same way as Sutton from The Snare, or Frye from The First. (Being French can only excuse so much.)

And, to be honest, I kind of miss the down-to-earth naturalism and character stories which this series usually does so well. The closest we get to that here is a subplot about Alex and Banner becoming friends, leading the somewhat world-weary mercenary to question his allegiance to La Fronte. It’s good stuff, well played by McPeak, but rather peripheral here. The main plot is so atypical and busy that everything else gets squeezed out – this might have worked better and had more space to breathe had it been a two-parter, but this season already had two of them – the brilliant The First and the nearly-brilliant Prometheus. As I say, it’s hard to keep this kind of series fresh, so I suppose the makers of The Incredible Hulk deserve credit for trying so hard. In the end I would have to say that Bring Me the Head of the Hulk is the better of these two episodes by far, but is it a classic? I’m still not sure.

 

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Look, if you really must know, my position on the whole royal family thing has modulated somewhat to the point where I feel that on some level they do an important service for our nation, and do it fairly well. (I think the best argument for abolishing the monarchy is that the existence of the institution is simply not fair on the poor sods trapped in it.) On the other hand, the boiler in my house also makes a decent fist of an important job, and I don’t expect to have that splashed all over the papers and 24 hour news channels, either. So the paroxysm of monarchist psychosis which afflicts the nation on days like today is somewhat gruelling. As with the last time all this nuptial absurdity kicked off back in 2011, I find the best way of escaping from it all is to engage with it on the level it deserves, i.e. in the form of a mind-bogglingly horrific American TV movie re-telling of the events in question. Last time around it was William & Kate: the Movie, this time it is Harry & Meghan: A Royal Romance, directed (if that’s not too strong a word for it) by Menhaj Huda.

Harry is the one on the right, if you were wondering.

Somewhat unexpectedly, the movie gets underway with a sequence set in Botswana in 1997, where Prince Charles (Steve Coulter, an uncanny lookalike, at least in the sense that he has the correct number of limbs) has brought his young sons to get over the recent death of their mother (who thankfully only appears in one brief flashback). ‘My darling boys, I have brought you here to the cradle of mankind,’ announces HRH, but before he can get any further Prince Wills expresses his doubts about the whole idea. ‘You’re not going to start quoting The Lion King again,’ he complains. Sadly, Prince Charles does not.

(At this point I thought, well, at least they’ve got the least credible dialogue out of the way in the first scene. Excitingly, I was wrong: later scenes feature such cherishable dialogue as (from Kate) ‘Meghan makes Wallis Simpson look like Judi Dench’, (from Camilla) ‘I love a dirty martini’, and (from Charles) ‘I suppose moving to Canada’s all right – Mother’s on the currency.’)

Well, anyway, soon it is established that Prince Harry (Murray Fraser) is growing up to be a troubled young loose-cannon of a royal, leading a wild life and desperately searching for someone to give meaning to his existence. Meanwhile, over in Uncle US of Stateside, Meghan Markle (Parisa Fitz-Henley) is growing up to be a feisty empowered modern woman with a mind of her own. (Rather to my surprise, it turned out I had actually seen Fitz-Henley somewhere else, as she plays Mrs Luke Cage  in the Netflix Marvel series.) When these two finally get together, it’s murder!

Not actually murder, though I was tempted to violence by some of what happens in the movie. I do wonder if the royals actually get together and watch the various movies and TV shows made about them – in this movie, there is actually a moment where the Queen complains about The Crown. (It’s a bit difficult to be sure – the people responsible may actually be hiding from MI6 – but it seems Her Maj is portrayed by someone named Maggie Sullivan. This is quite a noteworthy performance as it manages to be almost totally inaccurate to a breath-taking degree, reminiscent more of a particularly twinkly version of Mollie Sugden than our own dear head of state.) If the House of Windsor do get together and enjoy A Royal Romance – I use the word ‘enjoy’ in a sense so broad it is essentially meaningless – I think it may prove to be something a record-breaker in every department.

You can tell that all their Christmases came at once for the people who perpetrated this movie, as not only does it present the same kind of opportunities for royal-related soap opera as William & Kate, guaranteed to thrill the heart of a certain type of person with a limited grip on reality, but this time around not only is one of the principals American, thus increasing audience identification, but they are African-American, thus giving some real oomph to the subtext, which as before is about a brave young woman coming into the orbit of the Windsors and saving a previously-helpless young princeling from a crippling life in an outdated institution. The writers are so thrilled by this that Kate, who was the feisty, spunky heroine of the last movie, is initially a bit of a mumsy thicko in this one, although she is presented somewhat more flatteringly as it goes on.

Yes, of course Meghan Markle is the protagonist: this is a romance, after all. That’s understandable enough, but what I really found quite difficult to cope with is the sheer simple-mindedness of the film. Subtlety does not exist in the world of a Menhaj Huda movie, apparently – we just get an interminable succession of scenes where the same basic character points are laboriously stressed again and again – Harry is troubled, but has a good heart. Meghan is plucky and adorable, and Her Own Woman: the scene depicting their first date opens with her giving him a protracted hard time for turning up a bit late, beyond the point of credibility. All this is done via the miracle of dialogue which is basically a mixture of people stating facts about themselves and apparently-unfiltered interior dialogue, uttered out loud.

Of course, this is not to say that there are not many other things in Harry & Meghan: A Royal Romance which are difficult to cope with. This is a based-on-true-events movie in the sense of most-of-it-is-entirely-made-up, but personally I would have drawn the line at the scene where Meghan finds herself essentially chasing Harry’s private jet down the runway on foot in order to win him back after an overly-precipitate chucking. Most eye-opening of all is a subplot about Harry being stalked by his mother’s spirit, which has apparently been reincarnated in the form of an African lion. I don’t remember seeing that mentioned on the Six O’Clock News.

Implicit throughout, of course, is a peculiar kind of double-think: the depredations of the horrid media come in for some stick, especially when the awful paps pitch up around Meghan’s house in a scene not unlike something from a George Romero zombie movie, only with more flashbulbs. Yes, this couple should not be pestered by the media but left to lead their lives without being intruded upon. How you square this with then going on to make a bloody awful TV movie speculating wildly about the intimate details of their relationship I am not sure (the rumoured scene depicting Harry and Meghan actually in the act does not appear – or at least not in the version Channel 5 showed mid-afternoon). In same way, there’s an odd cognitive dissonance between the film’s implication that the royal family is a hidebound, conservative anachronism, and the fact that if one of the people involved wasn’t a prince this movie would never have been made at all. Can’t beat a bit of doublethink, I guess.

So in the end it was all pretty much as I expected, a mixture of unintended comedy, brain-paralysing weirdness, and emetic schmaltz. I ended up watching it with my young niece, somewhat against my better judgement, and in the end her opinion was that it was ‘a good film’. I can only hope that her judgement improves as the years go by, but at least we have some evidence that the film should succeed with its target audience – not necessarily just the under-tens, but people who are comfortable thinking around that level.

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