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One Y Too Many

I point out the similarities and connections between Doomwatch and Survivors with monotonous regularity while writing these things; the borderline nature of the series also makes me inclined to ponder the nature of true SF – does it comment on the present, predict the future, or try to avert it? These things come together with alacrity at the start of No Room for Error – the script is by Survivors mainstay Roger Parkes, and deals with the outbreak of a potentially uncontrollable new strain of disease. Scary stuff, made all the more topical by the fact that overuse of antibiotics means the disease is resistant to all the usual drugs. In the last 15 or 20 years concerns about drug-resistant infections have become very pressing, but for Doomwatch to hang an episode on this peg as far back as 1971… I am duly impressed.

Once past the small but very real joy of seeing Anthony Ainley as a harassed hospital doctor, we find ourselves mixed up in a story which is part pharmaceutical thriller, part character piece. Ridge is back in his Luke Cage cosplay outfit and has been beaten up by some sewage workers, for slightly obscure reasons, while Quist is more interested in the arrival of another new recruit: Dr Fay Chantry (Jean Trend). (Apparently there were complaints about how incredibly sexist the first series of Doomwatch was, which Terence Dudley announced would be rectified by the casting of ‘an attractive female scientist’ who would join the team. Hmmm – score an A for effort, but…)

Well, it turns out a new antibiotic could help with the drug-resistant typhoid, but its use is being held up by red tape – this doesn’t help Chantry’s misgivings about signing up with Doomwatch, feeling she’d make better use of her time as a scientist rather than a bureaucrat. Soon enough the delay is resolved, but there are signs of the new drug causing severe side-effects… what’s going on?

What follows is an attempt by Ridge and Chantry to discover just why some of the population already seem to have been exposed to low levels of what’s supposedly a brand new drug, given a bit of heft by including a personal connection – Chantry’s been having an affair with someone at the drug company (played by John Wood), and his daughter goes down with typhoid and suffers the side-effects from the drug. There’s a whole subplot about Chantry’s personal and emotional life and how it intersects with her career as a scientist and potential Doomwatcher, quite unlike anything other recruits have been involved in. The degree to which Chantry is depicted as a woman first and foremost, and thus subject to powerful emotions which men are spared, is actually rather depressing, even bearing in mind this was made in 1971, and even though they’ve clearly gone to great lengths to establish Chantry as a brilliant doctor and scientist and a character with some depth: she still gets chatted up and patronised constantly as the episode goes on. No matter how ahead of the curve this episode is in its concerns, it’s still painfully dated in its gender politics, even though I suspect that’s the exact opposite of what the makers of the programme were hoping.

Another example of a prescient episode that could be remade today and still seem topical is Robin Chapman’s By the Pricking of My Thumbs… It starts off with a reminder that 1971 was very much prior to the health and safety era, as a sixth form chemistry experiment is sabotaged, leading to a student suffering fairly graphic facial injuries.

There are three potential culprits, and the school’s progressive head teacher (Colin Jeavons) is determined to find out who is responsible. He comes to the conclusion that Stephen Franklin (Barry Stokes) is the guilty party, and expels him, giving the other two boys only a token punishment. Stephen’s father, a tabloid science journalist (Bernard Hepton), and mother (Patsy Byrne, best known as Nursey from Blackadder II), are appalled, especially when they discover the head’s decision was made on the basis of Stephen’s cyto-genetic makeup – according to Ensor, a research scientist doing a study in the school, Stephen has a rare genetic anomaly – an extra Y chromosome – which, in addition to making him unusually tall and intelligent, also makes him more likely to be antisocial and potentially psychopathic (it may also explain why the supposedly 17 year old boy looks like an actor in his twenties, but I digress).

(Ensor, by the way, is played by Olaf Pooley, instantly recognisable to old-school Doctor Who fans from his memorable dual appearance in the story Inferno, which was broadcast the year before this episode. Pooley appears to be wearing the same costume and beard, and giving a somewhat similar performance, too, if we’re honest. At the end of his very long life he held the title of both Oldest Living Doctor Who Guest Star and Oldest Living Star Trek Guest Star, which admittedly is not quite in the same league as a brace of Nobel prizes, but still surely a unique distinction.)

Franklin Senior is hopping mad and heads off to Doomwatch to complain. As usual, Quist is initially unmoved by Franklin’s pleas for assistance, but gradually becomes interested in the case once his highly-developed faculty for moral outrage is engaged. There is a fairly outrageous coincidence is involved, as Ensor is already using Doomwatch’s resources to carry out his research, but it is almost forgivable as it brings him into the story earlier than would otherwise be possible, and gives some basis for Quist’s evident distaste for the man.

There are two main threads to what follows – another scientific detective story, as the team attempt to work out the basis of Ensor’s assertion that Stephen has the XYY mutation, given he hasn’t officially surveyed the sixth form at the school yet, and the travails of Stephen, as he struggles to come to terms with the suggestion that his genetics have programmed him to be a menace to those around him. These involve a lot of running around at Gatwick Airport, which may have been more exciting for viewers in 1971 than would be the case today, and a general sense of everything getting just a bit overwrought.

Now, in the early 1970s the idea that the XYY mutation made you some sort of congenital recidivist had some currency (it also spawned the TV series The XYY Man, which in turn led to the spin-offs Strangers and Bulman), but it has apparently since been disproved (perhaps its last gasp in popular culture was the prison colony for ‘double-Y chromosome offenders’ in Alien 3). The episode does make the point that Ensor’s ‘evidence’ for his theory is not statistically supported, and that Stephen’s behaviour is completely moral and normal (provided you cut him some slack when it comes to running away from home and attempting to commit suicide on the runway of a major airport).

Nevertheless, the issues raised by the episode – those of genetic screening and genetic privacy, not to mention things like criminal culpability and even moral agency itself – are still live ones in the world today. Having a DNA test to check your risk of certain medical conditions is arguably good sense, but what happens when your life insurance premiums rocket up as a result – or you’re denied cover altogether? Don’t we as society have a moral duty to identify those with a genetic predisposition to violent and criminal behaviour, even if just to take preventative action? This is what Ensor suggests in the episode, but the sense that we’re only a few steps away from the ghastly spectre of eugenics and everything associated with it is a strong one. At the end of the story Quist makes a fine speech about how we should treat each other as having genuine moral agency, until the day that genetic science completely reveals what influences our behaviour. In 1971 that day was still far distant; it feels rather less so now, and the questions of this episode are still awaiting our answers.

The series continues a strong run with The Iron Doctor, by Brian Hayles, best remembered nowadays for his work on Doctor Who (where he created the Celestial Toymaker, the Ice Warriors, and much else). The setting this time is medical, with a big hospital having set up a Computer Therapy unit – critically ill patients are constantly monitored and assessed by a computer, which prescribes and in some cases administers treatment to them. All seems to be going well during a visit by Quist to the unit, until a sweet old great-grandfather (Young Mr Grace from Are You Being Served?) abruptly passes away (they lay it on a bit thick at this point, but I suppose it’s necessary to achieve the desired effect).

Well, as various people observe, it is in the nature of people to die, especially those in critical care units, but the ward doctor, Carson (Barry Foster), thinks something more sinister is going on – the computer has been running an experimental programme assessing the ‘Survival Index’ of the patients it is assessing, and there has been more than one instance of someone with a very low Survival Index dying unexpectedly, the computer apparently withdrawing treatment. For all the project leader’s insistence that all the system’s recommendations are reviewed by a human committee, could a high-tech programme of euthanasia quietly be being implemented?

Doctors have to make tough decisions about who to treat and when and how to treat them; I would suggest it’s this moral responsibility which is the most intimidating part of the job. The idea of this responsibility being reduced to a simple cost/benefit calculation is a chilling one to most people, and the episode tackles it effectively. It’s somewhat akin to the first season’s Project Sahara, in that it’s about the extent to which we’re happy to let computers control our existence, with of course a healthy dollop of Doomwatch‘s usual concern with the value of human life.

What gives The Iron Doctor focus and energy is the decision to push the SF dial up a few more notches than in the last couple of episodes. It turns out the medical system is an ex-military strategy computer that has the capacity to develop independently, not to mention its own built-in defence programme. When it learns Carson is agitating against it, the AI takes steps to protect itself, causing an accident which leaves Carson critically injured. If he ends up in the intensive care unit, subject to the ministrations of the computer, there will be nothing to stop it finishing him off…

So there’s a desperate race to the hospital, and a battle to save Carson’s life, and various members of the team having to engage in some unorthodox computer programming, and so on. It’s a bit hokey – this possibly the only TV show about a killer AI in which one of the moments of tension arises from people getting stuck in traffic – but an engaging thriller as well as an examination of serious ethical issues. The SF element is by no means overwhelming but nevertheless very welcome; it may be a bit corny in places, but this is still one of the strongest episodes of the series so far.

 

Keeping It In The Family

There is surely something slightly ironic about the fact that the main film released as counter-programming to the new version of The Mummy, in the UK at least, was Roger Michell’s My Cousin Rachel, with Rachel Weisz in the title role – because for some of us it doesn’t seem like all that many years since Weisz herself was starring as the female lead in The Mummy, and launching her career in the process. It’s turned out to be a pretty good career, too, all things considered, and she’s continuing to churn out the movies, although this may be because her significant other always seems to be on the verge of retiring, if I understand the newspapers correctly.

Anyway, My Cousin Rachel is based on the novel by Daphne du Maurier, a romantic mystery set in Cornwall (not that you’d particularly notice from anyone’s accent). Sam Claflin plays Philip, an orphaned young man taken in by his elder cousin Ambrose, a country gentleman of sorts. Ambrose leads a rough and ready lifestyle and has little time for women, and so Philip is a little surprised when Ambrose, while on a trip to Italy on doctor’s orders, reports that he is very much enjoying the company of his cousin Rachel (Weisz), who is of course Philip’s cousin too. Word reaches them that Ambrose and Rachel have married, quickly followed by some rather disturbing but vaguely-worded messages from Ambrose indicating Rachel may have sinister designs upon him. Eventually, they learn that Ambrose has died.

Philip naturally places the blame for this entirely on Rachel, despite the doctor’s report that Ambrose died of a brain tumour. He is the sole heir to Ambrose’s estate, the will not having been updated, although he will not inherit until his twenty-fifth birthday, still a short while away. Then he learns that Rachel has returned to England and will be coming to visit the estate. His plans to be thoroughly brusque and unpleasant to her do not survive his realisation that she seems to be a thoroughly pleasant, thoughtful, and appealing woman, and he finds himself increasingly thinking of her in a manner not normally associated with a cousin (well, except in some remote parts of Norfolk and Alabama, anyway). But others in the community have heard ominous rumours about Rachel’s Italian past – could Philip have been right in the first place, and now be on the verge of making a potentially lethal mistake…?

Yeah, so, another Daphne du Maurier adaptation – and therefore a film with some expectations upon it, when you consider that we’re talking about a lineage containing the likes of Rebecca, The Birds, and Don’t Look Now. Based on those, you’d expect taut suspense, simmering passion, an involving mystery – the makings of a superior movie in most departments, really.

Unfortunately what you get in My Cousin Rachel is really none of those things, as it feels like a pretty bog-standard costume drama somewhat lifted by a very engaging performance from Rachel Weisz. I can’t fault the production values or the cinematography of the film, for these are very impressive – many lovely shots of the countryside of Cornwall and Italy – but in other respects, this doesn’t feel much different to your average Sunday night costume show, and you wouldn’t lose much by waiting to watch it on TV.

Watching it, I couldn’t help but compare it to Lady Macbeth, another costume drama I caught recently. The two films have quite a bit in common, being set in remote and windy spots, and being concerned with dangerous, out of control infatuations, and the place of a woman in 19th century society. For one thing, My Cousin Rachel is always a bit too demure to let its infatuation spring to life – there’s a spot of alfresco nookie but you never really feel the fire, with the result that Philip seems foolish, instead of a man letting his feelings run away with him. Less concentration on good manners and a little more oomph would have made things a bit less BBC1 and potentially rather more engaging and cinematic.

It’s also inevitably the case that central to My Cousin Rachel is the idea that the main female character is mysterious, ambivalent, potentially untrustworthy, possibly a murderous predator on the male protagonist. She is always seen through the eyes of others (mainly Philip’s) rather than as a character in her own right. Our perception of her is partly shaped by rumours of her ‘uncontrollable appetites’ (of which there is no on-screen corroboration, by the way). Needless to say none of the men in the film are subject to the same kind of treatment, and it’s not actually made clear why Rachel is followed around by this swirl of faint scandal, other than simply to stir the pot and keep the story interesting: there’s more than a faint whiff of melodrama about My Cousin Rachel as it progresses.

I’m not saying that all of this makes My Cousin Rachel a necessarily bad film, but it is one which functions in quite traditional terms in some of its gender politics. This is true of the book, too, for all that it was written by a woman, so it’s not like it’s all down to Michell. And it may be the case that a lot of the target audience for this film won’t have a problem with any of this – but I couldn’t help thinking that there might be different ways of telling this kind of story now.

In any case, for all the decent performances and strong supporting cast (Iain Glen is Philip’s legal guardian, Holliday Grainger the girl he initially has an understanding with, Simon Russell Beale the family lawyer), the story never quite convinces – Philip is just bit too earnest and dim, and the conclusion is somewhat abrupt and underpowered, not quite striking the note of resonant ambiguity which it is clearly aiming for. The result is a film which constantly feels like it’s playing things very safe in every department, and is, as a result, just a tiny bit boring.

 

Received wisdom, of course, is that it’s during the third season of the original Star Trek that the wheels really come off the enterprise (pun intended); but there’s also an argument that it’s during the back end of the second season that the problems start to show up. Innovation is replaced by repetition, which in turn becomes routine and then formula and cliché. All quite true, I will happily admit, and yet some of these very-nearly-reviled late second season episodes are amongst my favourites – guilty pleasures, perhaps, but still definitely pleasures.

Bread and Circuses is one of these. It’s the one where they go to the planet of the Romans, in accordance with Gene Roddenberry’s belief that visiting alternate Earths was a core element of the series. Unsurprisingly, Roddenberry (the Gene who created Star Trek) is one of the credited writers, along with Mr L. Coon (the Gene who really made it sing), which may explain why there are quite a few elements of this episode which do feel a bit familiar. The visit to the planet of the Romans is inevitably a little reminiscent of the visit to the planet of the Nazis (Patterns of Force, from earlier in the season), while central to the plot is the presence of a corrupted former Starfleet member in violation of his oath of non-interference (again, this distinctly recalls Roddenberry’s own The Omega Glory from just a couple of weeks earlier).

The plot, if you need reminding, goes like this. Having come across the wreckage of a ship which has been missing for years, the Enterprise traces it back to an inhabited planet with a technological civilisation roughly akin to that of Earth in the mid 20th century. It’s another one of those parallel Earths which are liberally sprinkled through the original series, which the crew blithely take in their stride, citing Hodgkin’s Principle of Parallel Planetary Development. Well, fair enough; good enough for Spock, good enough for me. However, on this world, the Roman Empire never fell and still rules – slavery is an institution and gladiatorial fights are broadcast on network TV. Alarmed to see that members of the missing ship’s crew have been forced to fight as gladiators, Kirk beams down with Spock and McCoy to see if there are any survivors still around – only to discover his old friend Captain Merik (William Smithers) has become part of the Imperial elite, and is determined that word of this planet’s existence will not be taken back to the Federation…

Original series Trek is dotted with episodes that get remembered for one particular moment or image – the one with the pizza monster, the one with the space hippies, the one with the bamboo cannon, I could go on and on. Bread and Circuses is, probably, the one with the televised gladiator fight (or possibly the one with the bizarre religious tag scene, which we shall duly come to), but there are other things about it I’m very fond of.

Of course, those gladiator fight scenes themselves, with their canned audience responses and the centurion snarling ‘Bring this network’s ratings down and we’ll do a number on you!’ is, obviously, meant satirically, and it’s satire with teeth when you consider Star Trek‘s own issues with network viewing figures at the time. The audience is practically beaten about the head by lines to the effect that this planet is in many ways incredibly similar to then-contemporary America, so this hardly qualifies as the most subtle subtext – there’s still something wonderfully understated about William Shatner’s delivery of the line ‘I’ve heard [20th century TV] was somewhat similar.’

Then again, by this point all the regulars know their characters inside out, so we get such cherishable moments as McCoy and Spock bickering even during a fight to the death, the later pay-off to this, and Scotty getting to play hard man while left in charge of the ship. Perhaps best of all is Kirk’s own super-coolness when forced to watch his friends in the arena – one of the themes of the episode is the difference between Kirk – a paragon, of course, of the improved humanity which Roddenberry believed so passionately in – and the flawed and failed Merik. Claudius expects Kirk to be just as weak, to crumble as his friends are threatened. ‘You find these games frightening, revolting,’ taunts the Proconsul. ‘Proconsul…’ Kirk permits himself a quiet smile. ‘In some parts of the galaxy I have seen forms of entertainment which make this look like a folk dance.’ Even if Kirk is just playing poker, he’s doing it masterfully.

(And there is, of course, the moment – becoming something of an institution by this point – where he gets some private alone-time with one of the local girls. One American pro-fan made a bold attempt to de-canonise Star Trek V by suggesting the whole movie is a piece of fanfic made by the inhabitants of this planet many years later, led by the son of Kirk who resulted from this brief liaison. I suppose I’ve heard nuttier ideas.)

One aspect of the episode which is very, very Roddenberry, and not really touched upon much when Bread and Circuses is discussed, is that it is essentially about personal principles and honour. As we are repeatedly told, the Enterprise is quite capable of laying waste to the Roman planet – whatever perils Kirk and the others face arise solely from their dedication to the principle of the Prime Directive and their duty to the other members of the crew. This being Star Trek, naturally they stick to their principles even in extremis, and in doing so inspire Merik to regain a little of his own honour by assisting them in their escape.

And it is just an escape: unlike their visits to the planet of the Nazis or the planet of the gangsters from earlier in the season, things on Romanworld are left more or less unchanged by the end of the Enterprise crew’s visit. (This is one of those rare occasions where the Prime Directive is actually respected, full stop, no quibbling.) It should be a slightly downbeat ending, but it isn’t, and that’s of course due to the rather hokey revelation that the Sun worshippers they’ve been hanging out with all episode are actually Son (of God) worshippers – good job they stressed the (utterly implausible) fact that the Romans speak contemporary English, or this gag would be dead in the water.

You know, I’m prepared to bet that when and if Star Trek: Discovery appears on our screens, it’s not going to include scenes where members of the supposedly humanistic and (at best) agnostic Federation sit around marvelling at the explicit influence of the Christian God over interplanetary affairs. (Kirk almost seems ready to beam back down and start handing out tracts outside railway stations.) There are few things that drive home the cultural shift from Judaeo-Christian dominance to humanistic pluralism quite as powerfully as the fact that this scene, which seems so peculiar to a 21st century audience, probably felt quite unexceptional to many people watching it in 1968.

So there is, in the end, a weird clash of moralities going on in this episode – on the one hand, the studied moral relativism of the Federation, as embodied in the Prime Directive, where it is totally wrong to assume any single ethical perspective has primacy. And on the other, the will of God, which seems to be pretty much the same across the galaxy. (Actually, if we assume the existence of God, as the episode clearly does, it goes a long way towards explaining just why there are so many identical planets where people speak English in the galaxy – things don’t have to make scientifically rational sense in a theistic universe.) I expect this gives many people a good reason to dislike Bread and Circuses, but, to be honest, the rest of the episode is so strong in the particular virtues of Star Trek that the theological craziness just makes me like it a bit more.

 

The first episode of the second series of Doomwatch is an early example of what I would call a ‘consequences’ episode – a character-based piece in which the focus is specifically on how the protagonists come to terms with something particularly momentous which has just happened to them. Another notable instance would be the episode of TNG in which, having spent most of the previous story being assimilated by the Borg, Jean-Luc Picard retreats to his family vineyard, argues with his elder brother a bit, and ends up weeping amongst the grapes. Doomwatch 2.1 is arguably the same sort of thing.

Of course, we are in a slightly odd situation here in that, due to the unique way the BBC used to manage its programme archive, the climactic episode of season 1, Survival Code, has been wiped, although the title of 2.1 tells you everything you need to know: it’s called You Killed Toby Wren. Yes, due to Robert Powell’s refusal to sign on for a second series, the first one ended with him being blown up while trying to defuse a nuclear bomb which somehow got lodged under a pier. Luckily the climax of Survival Code survives as the pre-credits sequence of You Killed Toby Wren.

Naturally the death of Wren and two others causes ructions at the Ministry, which is back under the control of the chap from The Plastic Eaters (John Barron), despite at least two other people having had the job elsewhere in season 1. The Minister sees this as a golden opportunity to bring Doomwatch under tighter control and, perhaps more importantly, get shot of Quist.

Meanwhile, back at Doomwatch HQ, Pat the secretary has been overcome by grief at Toby’s death and quit the series, to be replaced by Barbara the secretary, who quickly grasps the essentials of the job (answering the phone and making coffee for everyone else). It’s not a great time to be starting a new job as Quist’s guilt over Wren’s death is making him even grumpier than usual, and this is exacerbated by Ridge’s deliberate attempts to wind him up over the matter. (Ridge himself seems to have been left somewhat unbalanced by the affair, as he has come in to work wearing a canary-yellow shirt with a dog-collar accessory round his neck – not a clerical collar, the actual thing you’d expect to find on a labrador. It’s almost like a rather awkward attempt at  Simon Oates trying to cosplay as Luke Cage; my understanding is that the dog collar at least was included to win a behind-the-scenes bet.)

What follows basically has a three-pronged structure. We have Quist, articulating his feelings and motivations to a comely psychiatrist (we also learn he sculpts in his free time) – this is quite well-played stuff, though inevitably a bit theatrical. Then there are the various pseudo-political shenanigans surrounding the enquiry into the deaths of Toby Wren and the others. The Minister sounds Ridge out about potentially taking over from Quist, should he be sacked, and Ridge seems not at all uninterested to begin with – the dislike between the two is at its most palpable, with Quist actually sacking Ridge (temporarily) partway through the episode. Given that this story is another example of the auteurship of Terence Dudley (written, produced, and directed by) it’s not entirely surprising to find a Survivors pre-union of sorts in progress at the enquiry itself, with Edward Underdown and Robert Gillespie both on the tribunal (these actors both recurred in a number of third season Survivors episodes, which Dudley also oversaw).

However, the most memorable part of the story concerns an investigation Ridge undertakes on a freelance basis, after being tipped off by Hardcastle, a young scientist involved in genetic research in Norwich (insert your own joke at this point). The researchers are working on genetically-engineered hybrids, and have got to the point where they’ve produced live specimens. Quist seems oddly unconcerned by this, but Ridge manages to gain access to the laboratory (mainly, it must be said, by knocking off one of the female scientists) and is appalled by what he finds: dogs and chickens with multiple human heads. Somehow, the very primitiveness of the special effects used to realise this (real chickens in rubber masks) only adds to how repellent it all feels. Faced with this, Ridge goes sort of berserk and ends up breaking the jaw of one of the lab technicians trying to throw him out; the sequence concludes with the female scientist proudly revealing that she herself is pregnant with a human-animal hybrid. It’s grotesque, nightmarish stuff, but the oddest thing is that this whole strand of the episode just seems to be there to push Ridge over the edge and allow him to empathise with some of the questionable decisions that Quist made prior to Wren’s death. There’s no indication that the issue of this project and the bizarre chimeras it is producing will ever be touched on again; one has to conclude it’s partly there to give an episode mainly composed of middle-aged men talking in offices a bit more water-cooler value.

In the end, Quist’s natural astuteness and quick wits allow him to survive the enquiry with his authority undiminished (the scene where John Paul is questioned by Robert Gillespie is, as you’d expect, a good one), and both he and Ridge have come to know themselves and each other a little better – the hostility between them seems to have drained away, for the time being at least, and the team has recovered from the loss of Wren and found a new determination to carry on doomwatching for the rest of the second series.

Which they do, starting with Invasion, a lavish big-scale episode with loads of location filming. Ridge and new recruit Hardcastle are in Yorkshire, checking nitrate levels in the local water table. To assist with this they’ve engaged the services of a couple of local lads who are into potholing and cave-diving, but there’s a bit of a panic when the duo disappear while exploring a local cave system. Having checked out the geology of the area, Ridge concludes they may have emerged near the Grange, a big local house that has been abandoned for years.

Of course, it turns out the Grange is not as deserted as it appears, for it is subject to a high-security military presence who insist there is no chance of the missing lads having been there. Ridge’s curiosity is piqued by the nature of the military presence, and attempts to do his world’s-worst-spy act in order to sneak in; he is caught, which upsets everyone.

Quist (who hasn’t bothered coming to Yorkshire until this point) discovers that the Grange was used for decades as a testing facility for bacteriological warfare, and the potential for infection is still worryingly high. This is why all wildlife going near the house is shot by the guards (hmmm, that doesn’t sound particularly reliable to me) and no-one is allowed in. Quist is disturbed by the existence of this kind of place, scorning the notion of germ warfare as a defensive weapon, but accepts there’s nothing to be down about it.

In any case, the missing lads turn up quite well, and deny ever having been in the Grange. Case closed, surely? But a slow accumulation of evidence leads Quist and Ridge to conclude that someone isn’t being completely straight with them, with dire consequences for the local community…

Invasion is a solid, straightforward episode written by Martin Worth, later head writer on the latter part of Survivors. The rural setting and comparative lack of political wrangling marks it out as a bit different – there’s not much needle between Quist and Ridge compared to usual, either. The story develops satisfyingly, and concludes with another of those memorably downbeat Doomwatch endings: faced with the fact that the contamination has escaped from the Grange, Quist is forced to call in the army and have the villagers relocated, their old homes placed in quarantine just as the Grange was. Their community is broken up, their livestock and pets all shot. The images of the deserted village patrolled by armed soldiers in hazmat suits is one of the series’ most striking. There’s not much moral ambiguity here, not much personal drama (something of a shame, as the great Geoffrey Palmer appears, but doesn’t get much to do), not really very much SF content – an atypical episode, compared to what we’ve usually seen up to this point, but a good one.

The next episode, Louis Marks’ The Islanders, is so much a companion piece to Invasion that it initially almost feels like a continuation of the same story. It opens in what looks like some kind of internment camp, where Ridge is attempting to fingerprint the inhabitants – who seem to be a collection of everyday country folk. They take violent issue with this.

Well, it’s not much of a pre-credits sequence, but it turns out we’re effectively six months into the story already. The people in the camp are the former inhabitants of a remote Pacific island, forced from their homes by an earthquake, and relocated to the UK. Due to their near-total isolation from modern civilisation, they are effectively a control group allowing scientists to measure the effects of industrial progress on human beings – hence the interest of Quist and the other Doomwatchers.

It soon becomes very clear which way this story is heading – the island elders bewail the way their close-knit community bonds are dissolving in this new world, as their young people become distracted by the pleasures and pitfalls of 1971 society. Ridge comes down with a mild case of the flu, which he inadvertently passes on to the islanders, who have no resistance: there is at least one death as a result.

Naturally, Quist starts to question the wisdom of bringing the islanders to the UK at all, but there’s a problem with sending them back – their old home is in a politically-sensitive region and is being considered for use as a military base. And then it transpires that the whole area has become contaminated with mercury leaking from a sunken ship, condemning anyone who does go back to a premature death…

Another story of Displaced Persons and a community under threat, then, though the tone is less ominous and more one of regret and resignation. There’s something slightly simplistic in the telling of it – it’s hard to shake the impression that the islanders are being depicted rather patronisingly. At one point the young islander who’s the key guest character says he finds working on a factory assembly line much more interesting than being a farmer, and – although he doesn’t notice it – Quist and the others are clearly viewing him with a mixture of condescension and pity. Then again, as this suggests, the story is also big on the idea that living close to nature is somehow better than modern technological life, and it’s just a shame that the former is being crowded out by the latter.

It’s fairly effectively done, the key problem for me being that nothing about the islanders themselves screams South Pacific to me – I could easily buy that they’re from the Scilly Isles or the Hebrides, or the next island over from Christopher Lee’s mob in The Wicker Man, but the South Pacific? I suppose they’re meant to be analogous to the Pitcairn islanders, but I still don’t think the episode quite convinces on this front. It doesn’t help that Quist’s visit to the island near the end of the episode has clearly been filmed somewhere rather closer to home, BBC budgets not extending to location shoots in the south Pacific in 1971. Nevertheless, this is a relatively minor point, and the episode sustains its theme and its tone rather well: no-one really lives on an island any more, these days, no matter how much we might wish it otherwise.

 

Universal Confusion

So there I was, just watching the closing credits of Alex Kurtzman’s The Mummy, waiting for the bafflement and confused disbelief to lift from my mind (hmm, kind of given the general tenor of the review away there – hey ho), when the guy across the aisle from me shouted ‘Is there anything to stay for?’ – meaning, would there be a post-credit sequence trailing a coming attraction? ‘I don’t think they’ve planned that far ahead,’ I said. Having established some sort of relationship, my new acquaintance asked me how familiar I was with the series. I made noncomittal noises and he said, ‘I’ve seen the old one, with… what’s his name…’

Hmm, I thought, could he mean the 1932 version with Boris Karloff? Or perhaps the 1959 one with Christopher Lee? Maybe even the 1971 take with Valerie Leon? (All of which I have inevitably seen.) It seemed pretty unlikely. ‘You mean the 1999 one with Brendan Fraser,’ I said, somewhat resignedly. Yes it was; it turned out he preferred it.

Given it’s not unknown these days for a remake (or, sigh, reboot) to follow only five years after the thing it’s remaking (or rebooting), the nine year gap between the last of the Fraser-starring movies and Kurtzman’s film is actually fairly respectable. The ‘is there a post-credits sequence?’ question is significant, though, for it cuts to the heart of what this new movie is really about: because that’s what movie mega-franchises do these days. (Except this one, apparently.)

Things kick off with a somewhat involved prologue involving crusader knights, the expansion of the London underground, and much other unexpected material. What it all boils down to is the story of Princess Ahmanet, heiress of one of the Egyptian pharaohs (she is played by Sofia Boutella, a game young actress making a bit of a career out of big genre roles in which she becomes almost unrecognisable one way or another). When she is unexpectedly replaced as first in line to the throne, she enters into a pact with the evil god Set and sets about pressing her claim, rather violently. This goes down poorly with the palace staff and she is, according to the voice-over, ‘mummified alive’ (not according to what we see on screen, she’s not, but I digress), stuck in a sarcophagus, and buried ‘far from Egypt’.

Roll on the title card and we find ourselves in modern Iraq, in the company of dodgy treasure hunter and mercenary Nick Morton (Tom Cruise). A careless airstrike from Nick’s associates in the US military reveals the entrance to an ancient tomb complex, into which he ventures with plucky archaeologist Jenny (Annabelle Wallis). But is it really a tomb, or actually a prison for an ancient evil? (Clue: it’s not really a tomb.)

Well, having extracted Ahmanet’s sarcophagus, our heroes are flying off somewhere when their plane becomes besieged by crows and Nick’s buddy Chris (Jake Johnson) turns into a murderous zombie (it feels like there’s a lot more zombies than mummies in this movie). No sooner has Nick handed Jenny a parachute and thrown her off the plane than it crashes in England. Of course Nick does not end up splashed across the landscape, but wakes up unscathed in an Oxford morgue (by the way, I feel it incumbent upon me to point out that The Mummy‘s depiction of the traffic system in Oxford city centre leaves a lot to be desired). It transpires that Ahmanet has taken a shine to Nick (that’s nice), and quite fancies using him as the vessel to bring about the embodiment of her patron, the god of evil (maybe not so nice). Can he escape the mummy’s curse, or is he doomed to a fate that’s approximately about as bad as death?

It’s not widely known or talked about these days, but for quite a long while in the early 2000s Tom Cruise was in talks with Marvel about his taking the starring role in Iron Man. Terms could not be agreed, however, Cruise not wanting to make ‘just another superhero movie’ (it’s hard to imagine him committing to the standard Marvel multi-film contract, anyway, or indeed agreeing to be part of an ensemble cast). Since then, however, Cruise has noticed the large trucks full of money going to Robert Downey Jr’s house, and Universal Pictures have noticed the enormous trucks full of money going to the Marvel offices, and their joint desire to grab a slice of that kind of action is what has led us to the new version of The Mummy.

For, yea, this is the opening installment of what we are supposed to call the Dark Universe franchise, presumably because Legendary Pictures already have their Monsterverse (the film series with Godzilla, King Kong, and the others) and this precludes Universal from using the obvious ‘Universal Monsters’ title for their own prospective mega-franchise. At one point Dracula Untold was going to be part of this series, but they have apparently rowed back on the idea, and so it’s The Mummy kicking off the new undertaking (no pun intended).

Quite how this new series is supposed to function I’m really not sure. The thing about superheroes (as in the Marvel and DC film series) and Toho’s daikaiju (in the Monsterverse) is that they have a tradition of bumping into each other and butting heads, whereas all the best-regarded Universal horror films were basically standalones – obviously you have things like Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man and House of Dracula, but these were pretty much last-gasp efforts, one step away from Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein. The material feels severely stretched to meet the requirements of the studio – it looks very much like the intention is to retool the classic monsters as occult super-powered anti-heroes.

So is this really a horror film or isn’t it? I would tend to say not, for all that it is saddled with a box office-unfriendly 15 rating in the UK. Sensible studios don’t attempt to make genuine horror blockbusters, because the two forms are largely incompatible, appealing to different sensibilities. Attempting to combine the two is the source of many of The Mummy‘s numerous problems.

On one level this movie wants to be a dark tale about the stirring of ancient, primordial evil, and moral corruption, and the profound ambiguity of the human soul. On another, it wants to be a jolly wise-cracking CGI-driven popcorn movie. I’m not saying it’s absolutely impossible to make a film which manages to reconcile these two ambitions. I’m just saying that The Mummy definitely isn’t it. Every time the darker material shows signs of promise, along comes a big chase sequence or a comedy bit or Tom Cruise sweating ostentatiously and we’re back in vacuous popcorn-land. If the film was the slightest bit knowing or showed any signs of being aware of how outlandish it is, it might function, but Cruise in particular doesn’t seem capable of that kind of wit.

I suppose there are signs of hope for the future, as the linking device for the projected Dark Universe franchise is a gang of enigmatic monster-hunters called the Progenium or the Prodigium or the Perineum (I can’t actually be bothered to check Wikipedia), led by Russell Crowe as Dr Jekyll (I know, I know) – we pay a brief visit to their archives where they appear to have a vampire skull, pickled bits of the creature from the black lagoon, and so on. Crowe actually has the ability to make this stuff work, believe it or not, though he’s much better as Jekyll than Hyde.

And he quite easily blows Tom Cruise off the screen. Probably The Mummy‘s biggest problem is that Tom Cruise simply does not belong in it, at least not in the role he’s been given. Nick Morton is supposed to be a lovable rogue, a scoundrel with the potential to be something better, utterly charming even when he’s doing deeply suspect things. Cruise can’t do charming any more. He goes through the motions energetically, but he just comes across as fake, and rather than loving Nick in spite of my better judgement, I just thought he seemed like a bit of a tool. Cruise can’t really do funny consistently either; for this film to attempt to be a light-hearted adventure is arguably a bad choice, but for it to turn out to be a light-hearted adventure fronted by a leading man with all the comic sparkle of one of Donald Trump’s media consultants contemplating their career prospects is, frankly, disastrous.

This is still a fairly lavish modern blockbuster with all the necessary bits in mostly the right order (though not, as noted, many of what you’d call classic Mummy moments), and Crowe and Boutella are generally pretty good in it. And, as Wonder Woman has recently proven, all it takes is one good installment for this kind of movie series to come to life and start generating real interest and excitement. But The Mummy shows every sign of getting the Dark Universe project off to a flying stop.

 

 

Gin and Cockfighting

Functioning on a rather more quotidian plane than many episodes of Doomwatch is Don Shaw’s Train and De-Train, which opens with a glum-looking Ridge overseeing the collection of bin-bags full of dead animals – no chance for him to rehearse his pick-up lines here. Practically a whole woodful of squirrels, foxes, and voles have turned up dead, and the evidence suggests that a pesticide company named Alminster Chemical may have been running tests on the quiet – with Quist off in New York, Toby is despatched to check the company out, something he’s a little hesitant to do, given their top scientist is his old supervisor from Cambridge, Ellis (David Markham).

As it happens, Ellis is having a hard time at work – first his parking space is taken away without warning, then his phone vanishes, then he comes back to his office to find all his furniture has vanished, too. This rather bizarre behaviour is apparently the SOP of Alminster’s new American parent company, the intention being to give Ellis a hint that his services are no longer required. The boss, Mitchell (George Baker, having fun), lays it on the line to him, antagonising Toby, who happens to be around when it happens.

Well, eventually Toby lets his dislike of Mitchell’s methods show, haranguing the businessman and promising to see his company made to answer for the ecologically-devastating pesticide tests. Unfortunately he lets himself get recorded doing so, thus compromising Doomwatch’s investigation into what happened – they can’t afford to show personal animus against people and organisations.

Quist bluntly sacks Toby, but promises him a good reference and lets him stay on until he can find another job. In the meantime, can the team find a way of linking Alminster to the pesticide tests before the company starts exporting the chemical involved in large quantities?

Largely another crack at the callousness of big business, then, without the leavening weirdness which at least made The Red Sky a bit more memorable. Given the treatment of Ellis at the start of the episode, you might expect the episode to be more about the ruthlessness of modern personnel management techniques – which would be an extremely peculiar theme for an episode of a mainstream drama these days – but while this indeed eventually provides the mechanism by which Mitchell is undone and Toby reinstated by the episode’s end, it’s much more about, well, office politics, and how to bring Alminster to book. (Meanwhile Bradley is slaughtering lab animals by the shedload in an attempt to prove the pesticide is dangerous, while Pat the secretary looks on dubiously. Just another day in the Doomwatch offices.)

There’s an attempt to make Mitchell a bit less of a pin-striped monster – the company has to start exporting or it’ll go under, and the new pesticide should eventually save lives – but Baker plays him with a malevolent relish that doesn’t leave you in much doubt as to who the bad guy is in this episode. It’s nicely written and well-played – and Mitchell’s comeuppance at the end is obviously fun to watch – but I find I do enjoy the particularly outlandish episodes much more.

Which leads us to the final extant episode of the first series of Doomwatch, Elwyn Jones’ The Battery People. In generally I would say that Doomwatch has been a bit lighter in proper SF than I’d have hoped for, but considerably weirder (compared to 21st century TV) than I expected, and we are squarely in this kind of territory here.

There is a new man at the top of the Ministry of National Security, and Quist orders the other Doomwatchers to come up with some ideas as to how to keep their new boss sweet. It turns out that a community in the heart of his constituency has a divorce rate much higher than the national average and an unusual incidence of cockfighting, too. This is enough to get Quist’s antennae twitching, and so he packs Ridge off to sniff around and see if anything odd is afoot in the area.

If nothing else it’s chance for Simon Oates to do his suave investigating schtick and show the world what we missed when he wasn’t hired to play James Bond for Diamonds are Forever or Live and Let Die (apparently it was near thing). Always assuming the Bond series decided to plunge into the unexpected world of very intimate male inadequacy, which on reflection is fairly unlikely.

The home lives of various local men of a certain age are indeed falling apart, the men themselves have become very keen on watching roosters rip each other to bits, and their drink of choice has become gin. What can have befallen them? Well, it turns out they’re all working in the food processing plant of Colonel Smithson (Emrys Jones), who’s using his own secret process to produce big juicy chickens and pre-filleted fish, said process apparently having being lifted from a chemical warfare research project. (Mmm, I feel like chicken tonight.) You can probably guess what the effect of the chemicals he uses is on the middle-aged men who make up most of his workforce.

Well, this is clearly a heartfelt episode, and the drama concerning the effect of mass impotence – effectively chemical castration – on a whole community is clearly very seriously intended, but the oddness of the implementation – gin and cockfighting – makes it just a little difficult to take seriously, and things do get just a bit melodramatic. The sheer unadulterated straight-from-central-casting Welshness of most of the guest characters (look you, boyo, yaki dah, etc) is also a little startling (Quist and the others back in London have fun bringing out their own Welsh accents in a manner which is not really un-patronising).

While the theme is once again the conflict of Doomwatch’s humanist values with the callousness of big business, this time the guy in the suit is less of a hissable villain, just being someone content to look the other way, but oddly enough his eventual fate is (we are invited to assume) far worse than simply losing his job or going bankrupt, with Quist seemingly happy to connive in covering up a serious assault on him. The other side of the argument is put more persuasively, too – a local gently puts it to Ridge that it’s all very well for him to visit the Welsh valleys, snoop about and make his report, but it’s the local economy that will really suffer if he shuts down the factory that provides much of the area’s employment.

Of the two episodes, I have to say I found The Battery People to be more effective, mainly because it seems to be a little more understated in its handling of the story, and because it’s much more successful in putting a human face on the effects of the problem it focuses on. The outlandish nature of the story and the way it is presented inevitably makes it difficult to view it as an actual drama, as opposed to a real curiosity from the archives.

 

I look at the news today and it is stuffed to the gills with all sorts of goings on in Washington DC concerning the dismissed FBI director and the British nation holding its breath ahead of its second general election in three years. The embarassment of Trump is something to crack a smile over, I suppose, but I find I can muster little hope for the situation here in the UK. How to take one’s mind off such things? Back to the TV of the 1970s, I suppose; it can usually provide something appropriate to any situation.

It’s easy to demonise a certain type of politician as a heartless, soulless, callous, grasping, self-interested monster – so let’s get on with it. The Devil’s Platform is the seventh episode of the weekly Kolchak: The Night Stalker series, written by Donn Mullally (with, probably, help from David Chase of Sopranos fame), and directed by Allen Baron – the episode first aired in November 1974. Kolchak is a fairly obscure show these days, probably most famous for being the proto-X-Files: every week, old-school Chicago newspaper reporter Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) stumbles upon a series of crimes (usually murders) carried out by an otherworldly or supernatural menace, and has to resolve the situation despite the hostility of the authorities and his own boss Vincenzo (played by Simon Oakland).

The episode opens with a senatorial race in full swing in Illinois, with the running being made by little-known newcomer Robert Palmer (Tom Skerritt, probably best known these days for playing Captain Dallas in the original Alien) – although Palmer’s cause has been helped by a string of mysterious deaths. Palmer’s campaign manager has managed to turn up some serious dirt on his man, and is so outraged that he is about to go to the police about it. Not notably concerned by this, it would seem, Palmer steps into an elevator with his soon-to-be-ex-manager – which then crashes thirteen floors to the bottom of the shaft, after a freak failure of the machinery.

Kolchak, as luck would have it, is on the scene to meet Palmer, and joins the first responders when the elevator is opened up. Everyone inside has been killed, but there’s no sign of Palmer – and also in the car is a huge black dog which forces its way past everyone on the scene, knocking over our hero in the process. Kolchak manages to grab the dog’s collar ornament off it, though, which has an interesting pentagram motif.

No-one can seem to find Palmer anywhere, and so Kolchak goes on about his day, unaware that his steps are (literally) being dogged by the chunky canine from the lift disaster. Eventually Vincenzo packs him off to the Palmer residence to try and get a new angle on the story, where he encounters Palmer’s supremely unhelpful wife in one of the episode’s funniest scenes (‘Expletive deleted,’ mutters Kolchak after she gives him the brush-off). On his way back to his car, he is attacked by the black dog, which only seems interested in ripping open his jacket and retrieving the pentagram amulet. Seconds later, Robert Palmer reappears, as unruffled as he was to begin with.

It’s a nicely put together opening act, somewhat more subtle than is usually Kolchak‘s wont, but still managing to put across its main idea effectively – Palmer is a bad ‘un, with the ability to transform himself into an indestructible hellhound, provided he has access to his amulet. Without the amulet, he’s stuck as the dog, hence his not turning up for TV election debates (well, ‘I can’t debate you as I transformed into a dog and unexpectedly can’t change back’ is not the worst excuse for refusing to engage in a debate that we’ve heard recently, is it).

The rest of the episode isn’t quite up to the same standard, and it does struggle to find things that to fill up its middle act with – Palmer ends up doing another couple of murders while Kolchak is trying to persuade Vincenzo to run his story (‘Why does our political expose have to have a dog in it?!?’ wails Vincenzo) and generally figure out what’s going on.

Naturally, Kolchak works it out just in time to confront Palmer within the fifty minute duration of a network drama show: the candidate is, of course, a warlock who has sold his soul to Satan in return for various interesting faculties – as well as being able to turn into the hellhound, he seems able to cause disastrous accidents, and also to have a degree of clairvoyance. Now he is intent on rising to the very top of American politics, where he will no doubt impose his own brand of strong and stable leadership. Or am I getting my nightmarish real-world dystopias jumbled up again? Hmmm.

Few TV shows are quite as formulaic and thinly characterised as Kolchak: The Night Stalker – if anyone started behaving like a real human being it would instantly expose how preposterous the format of this series is – but this is probably the best episode of the weekly series, not least because it departs further from the format than most. The fact that no-one but Kolchak is aware that the deaths are anything other than a series of accidents means the episode omits the routine stuff with Kolchak getting on the nerves of the cop investigating the case, while the scene where Kolchak engages in some cross-talk with a local expert in order to get the information he needs to kill the monster is also missing – he just looks it all up in a book.

More significantly, I think, this is one of the very few Kolchaks to escape the pitfalls of building the story to climax with a tussle between McGavin and some guy in an unconvincing monster suit. The black dog is unsurprisingly quite convincing, given it is realised using (you guessed it) a black dog, and Tom Skerritt underplays Palmer rather effectively – and, by the way, absolutely straight. (One thing Kolchak is normally pretty good at is shifting back and forth between comedy and horror.) The moment when Palmer attempts to recruit Kolchak to his cause, drily listing Carl’s various ambitions and foibles and offering the assistance of his, er, patron, is genuinely creepy and as close to a moment of actual character drama as the series ever gets – Kolchak almost seems swayed for a moment.

Of course, it’s Kolchak, so it’s never going to be perfect – there’s the mid-story muddle I mentioned, plus the resolution of the plot is telegraphed very early on when one of Kolchak and Vincenzo’s co-workers returns from a trip to Rome with a bottle of holy water. There’s also something funny going on with the climax – having had his offer turned down, Palmer decides Kolchak is prime human sacrifice material and goes for him with a dagger – but the sequence appears to have fallen foul of network censors, for it’s been bafflingly edited to the point of incoherence.

Still, it all concludes with the forces of darkness vanquished, and the election left open for a politician with a soul to win. Yeah, the past is a different country, isn’t it? Pass the holy water.