Posts Tagged ‘BBC’

Somewhere in the infinite possibilities of creation there is a world which is not experiencing a sudden spike in the number of TV shows and movies about parallel worlds. But it’s clearly not this one. Currently filling up cinemas across the land is Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (the clue is in the title), while arriving here soon (maybe even before this thing gets published) is Everything Everywhere All At Once, which has enjoyed an (apparently) unexpectedly healthy run at the American box office.

Sneaking up under the radar, however, has been another treatment of a very similar idea, this one from the BBC: the drama serial Life After Life (based on a novel by Kate Atkinson), which has recently concluded its network broadcast. I would say this qualifies as what some people call slipstream SF: something which deals with the themes and material of speculative fiction, but does so using the style and techniques of conventional or literary fiction. In short, it’s an SF or fantasy novel disguised (for the most part) as a costume drama. The BBC does costume dramas very well; it used to do SF and fantasy rather well too, so perhaps one should not be quite so surprised that this is as impressive as it is.

The story proper opens on a snowy night in 1910, with a small domestic tragedy unfolding: Sylvie Todd (Sian Clifford) gives birth to her third child, a daughter, but there are complications, the doctor has been held up by the weather, and the infant dies at birth. The screen fades to black.

And then we are back at the start of the scene, with the same events unfolding. But this time there is a different outcome: the doctor has managed to battle through the drifts and the baby survives. She is christened Ursula and goes on to enjoy a fairly happy childhood with her brothers and sisters. Until a trip to the seaside, when she and her sister unwisely go too far our while paddling, are swept away, and drown. The screen fades to black.

And we are back in the snow on that night in 1910 once more. It gradually becomes apparent that Ursula is gifted, or possibly afflicted, by some kind of dim, subconscious memory of her ‘previous’ (parallel?) existences, which means she can sometimes influence her path through life – sometimes, random chance plays a much more significant role. Many people have made the connection between Life After Life’s premise and that of Groundhog Day – the main character repeating variations on the same set of events over and over again – but for me the first episode in particular put me rather in mind of one of those government safety films like Apaches where a small child meets a horrific death every few minutes – Ursula drowns, falls out of a window, and so on, with traumatic regularity.

However, the story also serves as something of a cultural history of England in the first half of the last century, and by the end of the first episode Ursula is having to contend with the arrival of Spanish Flu: which one of the servants brings into the house. Ursula cops it from the flu at least three times before figuring out a way of avoiding this untimely death: her solution is surprisingly ruthless, given she’s still a nine-year-old girl.

Once Ursula manages to reach adulthood (from the age of sixteen she is played almost exclusively, and just as well as you might expect, by Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) you feel like you’ve got a sense of the way the story works (to the extent that this actually works as a unified story). It starts to feel like a computer game or one of those choose-your-own-adventure books, where each grisly demise brings you a little bit closer to figuring out what the ‘correct’ route is. Some of the iterations of Ursula end up on wildly variant paths, meeting very grim fates indeed: the fact that the main character’s repeated demise is a core element of the story means that there is a constant tension even when things seem to be going well for her. Certainly there are some profoundly moving moments – in one of her darkest moments, Ursula seems to be desperately inviting death, so she can have another go, but for once it stubbornly refuses to claim her: she is trapped, for the time being, in the life that fate has contrived for her.

Modern TV conventions – indeed, modern storytelling conventions – lead one to expect some kind of revelation, or resolution, as the story enters its third and fourth episode. There has to be an end point, surely – some goal, which once achieved will free Ursula from this endless loop. I was actively speculating as to what this might turn out to be (part of me was probably dimly remembering the final episode of the Nicholas Lyndhurst time-travel sitcom Goodnight Sweetheart, in which it is revealed that the main character’s ability to visit the 1940s only existed so he could save Churchill’s life) and thought it might turn out to be managing to die of natural causes at a relatively happy old age.

However, in another dazzling transition where the show’s costume-drama mask momentarily slips, a scene set in the middle of the Second World War is upended by the sudden appearance of the bassline from Blondie’s Heart of Glass on the soundtrack. Abruptly the setting jumps forward to the late 1970s or early 1980s – the only scene set after the war – and an elderly Ursula reflecting on the regrets of her life. She expires, peacefully. The screen fades to black. And then we are back in 1910, yet again.

The final episode focuses on Ursula’s experiences of the Second World War – dying in the London Blitz more than once, almost starving to death in a terrified Berlin awaiting the arrival of the Red Army – and almost qualifies as a sneaky piece of misdirection. If this was a more conventional piece of fiction, you could again probably guess which way the narrative was heading – something akin to Stephen King’s 22.11.63, with the protagonist intent on a bit of hands-on historical re-engineering. Something along these lines certainly happens along, but while Ursula indeed seems to be successful in creating a radically different new timeline, neither she nor the audience get to see it. The screen fades to black. And then we are back in 1910.

Nothing she does really makes any difference: in the end, she is always back being born (or stillborn) in 1910. She always dies; her friends and family are likewise always distressingly mortal. For a while it does seem like Ursula’s strange gift really is just a curse, as she can never achieve anything permanent. But then I suppose the same could be said for any of us. The series eventually achieves a degree of existential profundity which is very rare in a modern TV drama – something reflected in the script by the appearance of many references to Nietzsche and his philosophy, especially the concept of amor fati: the acceptance of destiny as a necessary fact of existence (to simplify the concept, probably egregiously). In the end, living an infinity of parallel lives is not more or less meaningful than living a single life, and by the end of the story (to the extent that a story like this can even have an end) Ursula seems to have achieved a degree of acceptance of her strange perspective on the world.

It’s a challenging, unexpected conclusion, and one which feels like it has come much more from the world of literary fiction than much of the rest of the story. But then the whole thing benefits from the synergy and genuine sense of creative excitement that often comes when you mash the BBC’s costume-drama expertise with less traditional styles of storytelling. The acting is uniformly excellent, but it’s McKenzie who carries the whole thing, giving a string of subtle modulations to what is basically the same performance, as Ursula’s experiences impact on her character over the course of the narrative. It’s not overstating things to suggest that she breaks your heart over and over again throughout the series; her eventual attainment of something approaching acceptance also gains its power from the actress’ ability.

I don’t often write about current TV, partly because I think things usually need time and perspective in order to be properly assessed, but Life After Life contains two or three of the most powerful and exciting moments I’ve seen in the medium this year, more than any other show. It is in the nature of the one-off serial not to leave the same kind of footprint as a continuing drama, but this is so good it deserves to be remembered and appreciated.

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Let us imagine, for a moment, that curious aliens manage lay their hands on the complete corpus of British culture for the last three decades of the twentieth century. What they might be able to learn about the state of the nation would be interesting, no doubt, but we could also speculate about the extent to which they could draw conclusions about non-British influences as well. To make it much more specific: to what extent could one reconstruct Star Trek, given only the British sci-fi series which were clearly based on it?

I feel like there’s an interesting article to be written on the subject of how Space: 1999 and Blake’s 7, two shows with aesthetics, tones and sensibilities which have almost nothing in common, both still manage to clearly be Star Trek knock-offs. (I’m thinking here primarily about first-season ’99 – which is not to say that the second season owes nothing to Trek (it has one of the original producers, after all), just that season two is much closer to Blake in some ways.) It’s as if there was some acrimonious divorce settlement (or, if you prefer, bizarre metaphysical transporter accident), and ’99 ended up with the international crew, the leading troika, and the interest in lofty science fiction concepts, while Blake got the action adventure, the spaceship, the Federation, the teleporter, and the arresting central dynamic between the main and second leads. (Avon has the same steely intelligence, dispassionate attitude and (I am given to understand) irresistible sexual allure that made Spock equally successful as a breakout character.)

Of course, the big difference in approach between the two shows is that ’99 was consciously made for an international audience, while Blake’s 7 is determinedly BBC in every respect. The generally miserabilistic tone of much of British SF seems to have influenced the majority of the BBC’s output in the genre – it tends to be bleak, cynical, even sometimes nihilistic. This certainly applies to Blake – its Star Trek trappings are largely superficial; as we have discussed, it is not really pure SF so much as an action-adventure drama set in the future, primarily concerned with a single axis of conflict – that between the crew and the Federation.

If you view the series this way, the problem with episode five, The Web, is thrown into sharper relief: episode four ends with the Liberator on the way to the planet Centero (apparently pronounced with a hard K) to commence another operation against the Federation. Episode six begins with the opening stages of that operation. So to some extent, The Web is just a detour on the way, another piece of pure filler.

At least it opens reasonably atmospherically, with the camera drifting around an apparently deserted alien installation in some web-shrouded woodlands. The effect of this is a sense that Blake is coming into the story’s world, rather than vice versa, which makes a subtle but important difference. But from here we go back to the Liberator, where something is amiss (I am tempted to say as ‘usual’). Even though she has only just arrived in the series, Cally has wasted no time in getting herself possessed by an alien influence and is sabotaging the ship, sending it off-course into an uncharted sector of space (she also lamps Vila, but most of the crew are probably regularly tempted to do this alien possession or otherwise). This is a great opportunity for Gareth Thomas and Paul Darrow to practise the delicate art of running up and down the Liberator‘s corridors; Darrow also gets a nice scene with David Jackson – Avon barely conceals his contempt for Gan’s lack of intelligence and apparently slavish devotion to Blake’s cause. Avon even gets to save Blake’s life at one point, which surprises both of them – then again, Blake later describes Avon as a friend (though not within earshot of him).

The ship eventually ends up orbiting a planet where it is entangled in the filaments of a silicon-based lifeform, which we are invited to assume has been placed there by the inhabitants of the base from the start of the episode. At this point it’s Jenna who gets possessed by the aliens (Sally Knyvette does some very entertaining I’ve-been-possessed acting) and they order Blake down to the planet to talk terms for their release. (This episode marks the debut of the Liberator kagoule rack, which is a good match with the Liberator picnic box which has already made a couple of appearances.)

Well, it turns out the aliens are exiles from Cally’s home planet Auron (it increasingly does seem like Cally genuinely is from non-Terran stock) who have come here to carry out some illegal experiments in genetic engineering, mainly to create servitor creatures and search for immortality. The main result of the latter is the fact the six aliens are now sharing one shrivelled body stuck in a fish tank; however, the slave-race angle has been going rather better and produced a fetching pair who resemble an early-eighties German synthpop duo, as well as large numbers of excitable diminutive creatures called Decima. The Decima have turned stroppy, like you couldn’t have guessed, and are running amok in the woods causing all kinds of trouble. The aliens have decided to bin this particular experiment, but wiping the Decima out will require some new batteries – which they are insisting that Blake and the others provide…

It is, as you have probably figured out, another riff on the old Frankenstein (or possibly Dr Moreau) story: life has its own imperatives and refuses to accept the primacy of its creators. It’s handled a bit simplistically here – the main plot complication is that the Decima are ugly and initially seem feral, while the aliens’ representatives are ostensibly more urbane. Even so, it doesn’t take Blake long to figure out what’s really going on, putting him in a bit of a bind – he needs the aliens to let the Liberator go, but they’ll only do this if he helps them wipe out their truculent creations.

While Googling for this image I found out there’s actually a writer named ‘Decima Blake’. It’s a funny old world sometimes.

The main problem with the script is that a good half of it is concerned with the hijacking of the Liberator and the journey to the alien planet: by the time Blake’s actually beamed down and started to get his bearings, the episode is well on the way to its climax. The result is that a set-up which is not without a certain amount of promise has to be resolved in a rush. Something approximating the following dialogue exchange ensues:

ALIEN: Give us the flutonic power cells.

BLAKE: Never! You’ll just use them to kill the Decima.

ALIEN: Give us the flutonic power cells or we will kill you.

BLAKE: Here they are.

It’s not the staunchest moral stand ever taken in the history of drama, to say the least. Virtue (of a sort) only prevails because of a risible plot contrivance – the aliens forget to close the door behind them when they go back into their base, allowing the Decima in to run amuck. (This would actually be pretty grim stuff, with a skull being kicked around like a football, were it not all rendered slightly absurd by the squeaky voices given to the Decima. It’s a bit like a peasant uprising featuring the Smurfs or a bunch of chipmunks.) Blake and Avon still get a chance to free the Liberator before bravely running away. Lord knows what the Decima end up doing with their newly-planet; knowing the general tenor of Blake’s universe, the Federation probably happen across it and nerve-gas them all from low orbit.

But of course we never find out. Nothing is picked up on again, the whole episode might never have happened. This in itself is not a problem per se – I am, after all, on record as someone who enjoys episodic storytelling. The problem arises from the fact that this only marginally feels like an episode of the same series we’ve been watching up to this point – that main axis of conflict we were discussing earlier barely features; the Federation is only present in the story as a device to exert time pressure on Blake (they need to free the Liberator before some pursuit ships turn up). This is a story of space travellers being hassled by slightly generic aliens that could conceivably have shown up in Space: 1999 or even Star Trek. It’s not especially distinctive, or well-structured – while it’s interesting to see Blake trying to push the envelope a bit in terms of its storytelling, the results are not particularly impressive.

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The very least you can say about The Way Back, the first episode of Blake’s 7, is that it is notably well-directed (the person responsible was Michael E Briant, whose name is on a lot of British TV from the 1970s). The first shot of the episode proper once the credits have faded (and, if I end up writing about all of Blake over the coming months, we will return to the topic of the credits and theme) is one of the surveillance cameras which – we are invited to assume – keep tabs on the inhabitants of the domed city where most of the story takes place.

We are in an unspecified future – suggestions by other watchers of the show that this is the 28th or 29th century are basically just shots in the dark – where everything is very well-lit and the tabard has apparently made a comeback as a fashion mainstay. People shuffle seemingly aimlessly around the corridors of the dome, usually singly, while a tannoy booms out public service announcements (the behaviour of most of the dome citizens may just be a question of the extras on the episode not being very well-wrangled).

Soon enough we meet Roj Blake (Gareth Thomas), whom we eventually learn has been working as an Alpha-grade citizen in a fairly important job. But for now he just seems to be something of an everyman, albeit a tetchy one: he is meeting two apparent strangers for the first time, and they have asked him not to eat or drink for a day and a half. It transpires this is because the food and water is dosed with tranquilisers to keep the population docile and obedient, and they want Blake to have a slightly better command of his faculties.

That Blake is usually fairly docile himself is apparent from his shock when his new acquaintances propose going outside the dome, which is a serious crime. But, believing they have news about his family, Blake goes along with them and soon they are moving across the apparently bleak countryside around the dome (for valid special-effects-related reasons, it is night; the shot of the actors with the dome in the background is acceptably achieved).

Blake is shocked to be taken to a meeting of outsiders and other undesirables, and confused when the key speaker, a man named Foster, greets him as an old friend despite having no memory of having met him before. Foster is played by Robert Beatty, who (along with actors like Shane Rimmer and Edward Bishop) was one of British TV’s go-to Americans for many years, and it’s interesting to speculate as to why Foster, almost uniquely in Blake, is played by an American actor.

In many ways Foster is the episode’s key guest character, even though Beatty doesn’t get much more than a cameo; it’s Foster’s info-dump as to Blake’s true identity and past that is the inciting incident for the whole series. These days you’d expect a fairly heavyweight actor in the role, to signal this fact, but Beatty wasn’t that big a name. Perhaps Foster is made to stand out, given extra presence, simply by being cast as American.

Anyway, Foster reveals that four years before Blake was a key figure in resistance to the authoritarian oppression of the Administration (which we eventually surmise is the Earth-bound government of a larger polity known as the Terran Federation, or just the Federation for short). However, the movement was betrayed and Blake was essentially brainwashed, first into recanting his political beliefs in public, and then into forgetting his entire career as an activist. His family, whom he believes to be on a colony planet, have actually been executed. (One wonders why, given the opportunities for leverage they would offer in the event of Blake showing signs of being troublesome again. Perhaps they were also involved in the resistance and any real contact with Blake would potentially undo his memory-wipe.)

The flashbacks to Blake’s conditioning and torture by the Administration are another effective sequence, initially book-ended by the camera zooming into Thomas’ eye and holding on Beatty’s mouth; there is an element of genuine psycho-drama to this first episode which is never present to the same degree again.

Naturally Blake needs time to process these revelations, and wanders off for a walk – which means he is not present when a platoon of Federation troopers arrives and massacres nearly everyone present – a sequence which is somewhat hobbled by the less-than-impressive pyro effects on the troopers’ guns, but already the budgetary restrictions on Blake’s 7 have become quite clear. On returning to the dome, Blake himself is captured.

We should pause here to consider a couple of things: mainly, the yawning logical chasm in the heart of Blake’s back-story. Four years ago he was a figure of such notoriety and influence in the resistance that it was deemed useful to get him to make a public renunciation of his former beliefs and activities. The fact he has been brainwashed to forget all about that was presumably not public knowledge. And yet no-one in the intervening time has passed him in the corridor or another communal space and gone ‘Oooh, you’re Blake, the ex-rebel!’ Maybe the citizens are kept docile, but they’re presumably not completely stupefied by the drugs, so why not? (Could it be that Blake has been given some kind of face-change to conceal his new identity? But it would be strange to do so and not change his name as well, which doesn’t seem to have happened.)

You can see why Terry Nation has gone for this idea, as it establishes Blake as a freedom fighter of integrity and experience, not to mention as a damaged, angry man, while at the same time making him an everyman who learns about all of this along with the audience – but it’s still an awkward narrative contrivance and not something the series ever really addresses ever again. This whole episode is just setting things up and getting Blake exiled into deep space, anyway.

The episode takes, for modern audiences at least, an eye-opening turn as Blake is put on trial facing trumped-up charges of child abuse. Given Blake’s 7 has a reputation as cheesy, camp nonsense the very presence of a storyline about child abuse is startling. In the context of the story, the really grim element – not much dwelt upon – is that the alleged victims have had false memories of the supposed offences implanted, with all the trauma associated with that. It makes the ruthlessness and corruption of the Federation so horribly explicit it’s a surprise they don’t focus on this aspect more, but then again this was a series shown well before the watershed.

Anyway, Blake is sentenced for transport to a prison colony in deep space, but not before his insistence that this is a cover-up plants a seed of doubt in the mind of his defence lawyer, Varon (Michael Halsey). At this point the narrative splits – Varon and his wife start investigating the cover-up properly and discover it extends to the highest echelons of the Administration, while Blake is left to stew in custody.

To be fair, Varon’s sleuthing and conversion to Blake’s side happen very rapidly, but this is only a fifty-minute episode, and for the brief amount of time the story is operating as a conspiracy thriller it does so quite effectively. Blake’s time in the jug, on the other hand, mainly serves to introduce two of the other characters who will be prominent on the show: Jenna (Sally Knyvette), a tough smuggler who isn’t afraid to let her more vulnerable side show occasionally (it’s a thin characterisation that Knyvette can’t do much with in the short amount of time she’s on screen) and Vila (Michael Keating), a light-fingered kleptomaniac. Keating does manage to make an impression, but in this first appearance Vila is much less of a clown than he quickly becomes – his intelligence and utter lack of scruples are both foregrounded, making him a rather more unsettling character.

We should of course remember that, back in 1978, no-one watching really knew for sure what shape Blake’s 7 would turn out to have, so there may have been some genuine tension involved in waiting to see if Varon manages to find the evidence that will clear Blake’s name. But of course he doesn’t, and in another well-handled plot development both he and his wife – who have simply but effectively been established as decent, sympathetic characters – are murdered off-screen by Federation troopers – we just see their sprawled bodies.

It all leads up to Blake’s effectively underplayed declaration, made as the prison ship leaves the planet far behind, that he will come back one day. Establishing Blake’s character and his motivation are the main job of the episode, which it does very effectively; but it is also creating a world and an atmosphere. There is always a lot of pulp sci-fi in the mix with Blake’s 7, and that’s true in this episode too, with its trial-by-computer, domed cities, and prison planets, but what makes this series distinctive is the collision between glittery BBC pulp sci-fi and a much darker and grimmer undertone, recognisably part of the miserabilist tradition of British science fiction. (Let’s not forget that this series effectively replaced Survivors in the schedules, another frequently very bleak show.) Few subsequent episodes are quite as dark and grim as The Way Back, but perhaps they don’t have to be: the premiere episode very effectively establishes the mood of the series, at least as effectively as the premise of the story. In the end that is much more important than any of the gaps in the story.

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If you’ve spent much time nosing about the dimmer recesses of this blog, you will know that there are not many things I enjoy more than an obscure old horror movie, more likely than not a gothic horror movie. It’s always a pleasure to find another one of these things floating around on the internet, especially when it’s an obscure version of a famous story – it’s getting to the point where I find it almost impossible to predict whether any given film or play will be available free-to-view or not, so it’s always worth a look, I find.

Which brings us to the BBC’s 1977 adaptation of Dracula, which for some reason they decided to call Count Dracula – the world was at close to peak Dracula in the 1970s, especially at the back end of the decade when there was this one, the John Badham movie with Frank Langella and Werner Herzog’s superb remake of Nosferatu, so I suppose tweaking the title a bit was one way of standing out from the crowd. For a long time all I knew about this production was that the BBC treated it so seriously that all other vampire-related dramas were banned that year, for fear they might appear to be sending it up. That said, the young reader version of Dracula at my school had a picture of Louis Jourdan on the front, presumably because it was cheaper to license than one of Christopher Lee or Bela Lugosi.

Anyway, this version of the story has turned up on TV in various different forms, both as a single (rather lengthy) film and in two- and three-episode chunks. I watched it one sitting, which was more or less okay, though I would completely understand if you fancied stringing it out over a long weekend or whatever; I doubt it would make a great deal of difference. It might even make a nice companion piece to the BBC Dracula from the start of the year.

The most obvious difference between the two BBC Draculas is the startling degree of fidelity on display back in 1977: this is, in fact, probably the most faithful adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel ever brought to the screen. It opens, obviously, with young solicitor Jonathan Harker (Bosco Hogan) being packed off to the Carpathians to close a deal with the enigmatic Count Dracula (Louis Jourdan). As we’re talking a BBC budget, it’s largely a stock-footage version of Transylvania (looking not unlike the woods from all of those Hammer horror films), and we never see Castle Dracula in long shot, but the virtues of BBC costume drama – acting, costuming, direction – certainly compensate.

One element of the novel they do dispense with (and, ironically, one of the few bits which the Moffat and Gatiss version retained) is the idea of Dracula initially looking like an old man and gradually rejuvenating thanks to the restorative properties of human blood: here, he starts off looking like Louis Jourdan at the age of roughly 55 and more or less stays like that for the rest of the programme. I think Jourdan makes a very good Dracula, rather like Claes Bang in the recent show: he has a nicely understated foreign-seeming quality, and most of the time comes across as rather enjoying his own malevolence – perhaps he’s a bit too much of the predatory womaniser (albeit with claw-like nails and hairy palms), rather than the actual predator, but I think it’s impossible for any single performance to be the definitive Dracula. This one, as noted, is certainly of a high standard.

The story unfolds with all the bits you’d expect, perhaps subtly tweaked (‘Don’t trust mirrors,’ the Count cheerily advises Harker, after notably failing to show up in one – a rather neatly done bit of video-tape magic). Dracula crawling down the sheer wall of the castle doesn’t quite work, but Harker’s encounter with Dracula’s brides, after a rather sedate start, turns into something unexpectedly shocking and unsettling.

Soon enough Dracula heads off to Whitby, drawn (it is implied) by his desire to get his teeth into Harker’s fiancee Mina Westenra (Judi Bowker) and her sister Lucy (Susan Penhaligon). Yes, that’s another change from Stoker, though I’m not sure what making them sisters really achieves; amalgamating the characters of Arthur and Quincey (which Gerald Savory’s script also does) at least cuts some of the dead wood from the dramatis personae. Everyone else is present, from Van Helsing (Frank Finlay) to Renfield (Jack Shepherd).

And it all proceeds quite faithfully, as noted. That’s the one word you’re almost obliged to keep using when talking about Count Dracula – it’s not quite the filmed text of the book, but it’s a damn sight closer than any other version of the story I can think of, and by quite some distance too. Given that many people just aren’t that familiar with the novel, I think this is obviously a point in the programme’s favour: it’s nice to have at least one ‘accurate’ Dracula to go with all the oddly variant ones which appeared down the years.

On the other hand, this approach does throw into sharp relief some of the structural flaws and possibly-regrettable choices that Stoker made when writing the thing. Dracula himself gets some good lines in the first hour or so, while hosting Harker at the castle, but once he departs for England he’s largely reduced to a walk-on part, appearing or disappearing in a cloud of special effects when not gorging himself on one of the actresses. Finlay is a very charismatic, authentic Van Helsing, and it is simply very regrettable that Van Helsing and Dracula only get one scene together: the same is really true of Dracula and Renfield (Jack Shepherd resists the temptation to chew the scenery and is mostly very effective). There is also the pace of the thing, which is a bit sluggish even with the final act and the Club of Light’s journey from London back to Transylvania heavily trimmed down.

By choosing to simply be a vessel for Stoker, the film does give up the opportunity to put its own spin on the story of Dracula (doing this is arguably what makes the best adaptations so successful), and perhaps it does come across as a little staid and dry as a result. Nevertheless, provided you are not foolish enough to be dissuaded by late 70s BBC production values (a mixture of film and videotape, some distinctly peculiar video effects, a timpani-heavy score from Kenyon Emrys-Roberts) there is still a lot to offer you here if Dracula or vampires are your thing, especially if you’ve never battled your way through the novel (no shame in that – I didn’t manage it until I was thirteen). In the end, you come away wanting to see Jourdan and Finlay play these characters again, and that’s usually a sign of a Dracula which has got all the most important things right.

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There’s nothing quite like pointlessly diluting your brand, is there, and so we shall take another break from reviewing movies old and new and looking at cult TV shows to examine another obscure play from over forty years ago. Well, maybe this stuff qualifies as cult TV as well, I don’t know – it seems to be a curiously elastic term which expands to cover everything from Supermarket Sweep to The Bridge. Up for consideration this time is a play I mentioned a little while ago when discussing Abigail’s Party: the 1974 production Penda’s Fen, written by David Rudkin and directed by Alan Clarke.

Clarke was an acclaimed and controversial director who is best remembered for a series of political, naturalistic plays concerned with topics such as racism, the death penalty and the situation in Northern Ireland. Penda’s Fen is a wholly different kind of beast, and apparently Clarke himself, who was recruited to the production by Rudkin, never completely understood what it was supposed to be about. Perhaps this explains some of the play’s weirder and more outlandish images. Or perhaps not: the whole thing is like a sort of lyrical fever-dream set in the heart of England.

Penda’s Fen begins with classical music playing over beautiful shots of the English countryside – but then what looks like barbed wire is superimposed on the image and a hand, disfigured with some kind of burn or scar, rises into view to grasp at it. It’s the first of many striking images and, like many of them, the significance of it only becomes clear (or, at least, less obscure) later.

We spend most of the play in the company of Stephen (Spencer Banks), a boy in his late teens who is, shall we say, a lad of strong opinions. His father (John Atkinson) is the local clergyman, so it’s just as well that he is a devout adherent of a certain brand of Christianity; his politics are equally uncompromising and he also seems to be staunchly homophobic. Perhaps unsurprisingly, all this means that he is a bit of a misfit at school, mocked and disparaged by his peers – and his teachers too, to some extent. The scorned do well to look scornful, as Aldous Huxley nearly said, and he is hostile to a local left-wing writer named Arne (played by Ian Hogg from Rockcliffe) when they meet, and Arne shares his belief that a secret military facility has been built somewhere in the vicinity.

It seems that Arne may have a point, when a young man out in the fields is found horribly burnt, and the police and army camp out around his hospital bed. (It looks like Penda’s Fen is about to turn into something resembling Edge of Darkness, but this plot point never actually eems to go anywhere.) The play has a curiously impressionistic quality to it, where it’s often not entirely clear how events are connected, but this seems to be the catalyst for a sort of existential crisis which besets Stephen: he dreams of angels, demons, and an erotic encounter with a male classmate. He discovers not only that his father is responsible for a number of almost-heretical works of theology, but that he himself has been adopted. His sense of his beliefs and himself is deeply shaken as the play continues, where he has more bizarre visions, including an encounter with Edward Elgar and a climactic audience with King Penda, the last pagan ruler of England and a symbol of…

Well, that would almost be telling, wouldn’t it? If you take a long hard look at Penda’s Fen and render it down to its essentials, it is basically just a story of the coming of age of white middle-class boy who learns to look beyond the clear-cut certainties that have previously comprised his beliefs. This is a horribly reductionist view of the play, however, missing out much of what makes it such a startling cultural artifact. It’s obviously the product of a somewhat rarefied intellectual sensibility – there are casual references to etymology, classical music (the dream-Elgar Stephen encounters imparts to him the ‘solution’ to the Enigma Variations), and theology – in 1974 it was apparently perfectly okay for a mainstream TV drama to include lengthy discussions of the nature of the Manichaean heresy.

However, what makes the play so visually striking are the fantasy elements that are perhaps responsible for much of its reputation and the continued interest people have in it. Angels and demons fill the screen, ancient kings manifest from out of thin air, Stephen witnesses a ritual where children are ritually mutilated while their smiling parents look on, the ground cracks open, threatening to engulf the action… much of this is done with a primitiveness that makes it all the more jarring. I should really it make clear that this is not a ‘naturalistic’ fantasy (there’s an awkward oxymoron for you) – it is always quite clear that the play is operating in the realm of symbolism and metaphor, rather than ‘real’ supernatural creatures: lazily putting it into the same category as a play like The Stone Tape would be a mistake.

At the heart of the play is the English countryside, which Rudkin clearly envisions as the heartlands of a kind of principled dissent, home of a spiritual awkward squad including Penda and Edward Elgar, possibly including Jesus as an honorary member and with Stephen as their latest representative. Near the conclusion of the play he laments the fact that he now finds himself questioning his faith, his political beliefs (he can no longer be sure he’s the pure-blooded Englishman he formerly thought), and his sexuality. But Penda’s apparition suggests there is no shame in any of this, that there is merit in being an outsider and a revolutionary. A play which initially looks to be in the lyrical-pastoral mode turns out to be a paean to the radicals and the misfits (not entirely surprisingly given this was initially shown in the Play for Today strand).

Put like that, the message sounds glib, but the play is powerful in both its imagery and performances, striking for its intelligence and willingness to challenge the viewer. It’s one of the most experimental pieces of TV drama I’ve ever seen, but it was clearly made with commitment and skill by Dudkin, Clarke, and the BBC. It would probably be disastrous if something like Penda’s Fen was shown on TV every week. But it must have been wonderful to live at a time when new dramas like this were always a possibility.

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Genre’s a funny old thing, especially when you start playing games with it. I used to watch a lot of rather formulaic American TV shows and in some cases the only specific episodes I can remember are the ones which stirred a big dollop of fantasy or horror into an otherwise naturalistic set-up: both CHiPs and Matt Houston did episodes about alien abductions, while there were also episodes of Quantum Leap featuring vampires and the Devil. As we have recently touched upon, British series have sometimes done the same thing – just today they repeated the episode of The Saint with the giant ants in it, while we’ve been talking about those episodes of The Avengers which included things like alien plants and genuine telepathy, rather than the usual tongue-in-cheek whimsy. (I suppose it works the other way too: the various Star Trek series would very occasionally do a show which was SF only in virtue of its setting.)

In conjunction with this, I recently mentioned the Bergerac Christmas special from 1986, which is a) exactly the sort of thing I’m talking about and b) memorable for being properly scary (at least it was when I was not yet in my teens). Bergerac, for those not in the know, was a sort of precursor to modern shows like Death in Paradise and Midsummer Murders, in that it was built around competently-presented detective story plots (with perhaps a touch more action to them than usual), occurring against an attractive, escapist background. To pay for the thing, the BBC went into partnership with an Australian network, and quite possibly the Jersey tourist board too, given this is where the series is largely set.

Our lead character is Jim Bergerac (played by John Nettles), a detective with the (fictitious) Bureau des Etrangers, a usefully vague fictitious branch of the Jersey police. Bergerac has the two essential attributes of a 1980s TV detective, namely a memorable car (a 1947 Triumph roadster, it says here) and a complicated personal life (he is divorced and has a history of alcoholism).

The Christmas show in question is entitled Fires in the Fall, and was written by Chris Boucher (this must have been one of the last things he did on the show before departing to focus on Star Cops, which we have also discussed recently). The tone is quite properly set by a scene in a darkened graveyard and what sounds like a child’s voice chanting a nursery rhyme. Yes, this is going to be a bit spooky. The plot itself gets underway with Bergerac’s father-in-law, local tycoon Charlie Hungerford (Terence Alexander), asking for his help in exposing a man named Raoul Barnaby (Barrie Ingham) whom Charlie believes to be a fake medium (widescale cognitive dissonance ensues for anyone used to John Nettles himself playing a character named Barnaby in Midsummer Murders).

Barnaby has been attempting to insert himself into the good graces of wealthy local widow Roberta Jardine (Margaretta Scott), a friend of Charlie’s, by trying to contact her late husband. Jim and his partner Susan (the great Louise Jameson) duly attend the seance, something Susan is not entirely pleased about following a rather eerie experience at an old house she is involved in selling. Further odd events ensue at the seance, with the voice of a young girl being heard, strange scratches appearing, and a grave in an one of the island’s cemeteries bursting into flame at the same time.

Barnaby appears convinced he has been contacted by the spirit of the girl whose grave was interfered with, and goes to the press with this – a scummy reporter (Paul Brooke) duly appears – which in turn forces Bergerac’s boss to task him with finally closing the case on the girl’s death. Apparently she was the only victim of a spree of arsons back in the 1960s, but what is the connection to the Jardine family? It turns out the cop who was assigned to the case back then retired after it went nowhere – well, not quite ‘retired’, but took a well-paid job with Jardine’s company. There are also some irregularities involved with the firm of undertakers who handled the interment.

Bergerac thinks he’s cracked the case – the arson attacks back in the 1960s were the work of Mrs Jardine’s disturbed son, who is known to have committed suicide. Bergerac thinks he killed himself out of guilt, after being responsible for the girl’s accidental death, and the family covered up the scandal. Now Mrs Jardine’s rapacious niece (Amanda Hillwood) has uncovered the family’s dark secret, and – in partnership with Barnaby, an old associate of hers – is using it to damage her aunt’s mental stability to the point where they can fake her suicide, allowing them to inherit the family fortune.

So far, a satisfying and clever detective story, as smart and cynical as the best of Boucher’s work elsewhere. The supernatural trappings just seem to be set dressing, fun though they are. But what was that scene with the spooky old house all about? Before we even have time to ponder that, things abruptly take a different turn. Mrs Jardine abruptly rumbles Barnaby as a fraud after he affects to receive messages from her dead son. The corrupt copper involved in the cover-up (Ron Pember) and Barnaby himself are found dead in mysterious circumstances, with a black-robed figure seen near them shortly before, both times.

It turns out that the dead son did not in fact die: he was just horribly burned and smuggled off to a Swiss sanatorium by his mother, with the story of his death put about to facilitate the cover-up. Now, it seems, he is back in Jersey, and seeking revenge on the individuals involved in his mother’s murder (quite why he offs the bent copper is a bit of a plot hole). It also seems that he used to live in the spooky old house where Susan had her scary experience at the start…

Cue a rather creepy sequence where Susan is stalked around the old house again by the cowled spectre – all of the set-piece ‘phantom attacks’ are very well directed, with Tom Clegg the gentleman responsible. Perhaps running and screaming is a bit less than Louise Jameson deserves as a performer, but Bergerac was a show with a very large and unwieldy regular cast at this point (there’s Bergerac, his girlfriend, his ex-father-in-law, his ex-wife, his daughter, his boss, his boss’ secretary, two other detectives from the Bureau, and a nightclub owner of his acquaintance) and I suppose this was as elegant a way of incorporating all of them into the plot as any. It’s almost a shame they don’t make more of this horror angle, but the script still manages to bring it into the resolution of the main story: the villain confesses to the murder after glimpsing Nemesis over the shoulder of an oblivious, genially sceptical Bergerac: an almost uncannily creepy moment.

And Boucher still hasn’t quite finished – the final twist of the episode is that the believed-dead son has not snuck back to Jersey, killed his mother’s tormentors and then escaped. According to the Swiss staff, he has been there in the sanatorium all the time. Nettles delivers this information with a completely straight face, in complete contrast to the amused scepticism about the supernatural that’s been going in. It’s very nicely pitched, in fact: it’s up to the viewer to decide whether this a simple case of the Swiss staff getting it wrong, or some sort of psychic projection, or something even stranger and more obscure. Anyone who doesn’t like Christmas ghost stories is afforded just enough wriggle-room to be able to avoid feeling peeved.

At the time this felt like a fun seasonal change of pace, but it seems that Bergerac did its first horror-tinged episode earlier in the same season (I should say that every other episode was shown in 1985) – What Dreams May Come, starring Charles Gray (and very much informed by Gray’s appearance in The Devil Rides Out). The annual excursion into something a bit supernatural became something of a Bergerac tradition (I remember my teenage sister being genuinely scared by 1990’s The Dig, about a Viking burial site with a spectral guardian), but I don’t think any of them were quite as effective as Fires in the Fall (maybe the ninety-minute run-time helps the story and atmosphere develop). No-one, I think, would describe Bergerac as a genuinely classic piece of TV, but this is a solidly entertaining episode.


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Chris Boucher’s return as writer for Little Green Men and Other Martians at least means the series gets a sort-of-worthy final episode, although the behind-the-scenes ructions which had blighted the production of the show did not relent – apparently, Erick Ray Evans went down with chicken pox and couldn’t appear in the episode at all, leading to David Calder and Trevor Cooper going through the script themselves and divvying up his lines between them. It has to be said that the absence of David Theroux does not leave a glaring hole in the team: Evans has a certain kind of presence, but Theroux is less strong a character than Kenzy, Devis, or even perhaps Anna Shoun.

Anyway, the episode lives up to the promise of its title by taking us to Mars, which is initially realised through some impressive model footage of a Martian rover travelling through a dust storm. However, this is followed by a much less than impressive scene shot on a visibly tiny studio set. One of the Martian surveyors discovers something absolutely astonishing, that promises to bring him vast fame and fortune, buried under the Martian surface – but what?

The rest of the episode is set on Moonbase, pretty much, although people do talk about Mars a lot – not least because Nathan is about to go out there, possibly for an extended period of time, to set up the Martian branch of the ISPF. He seems to be genuinely reluctant to go, and this seems to be more than just concerns about the extended period in zero-gravity (as usual, the series skips over just how long it takes to travel anywhere). The whole episode has a rather touching tone of elegiac resignation to it, as though all concerned realised that this would be the end for Star Cops.

Before his departure, however, he has other other things to worry about: an investigative journalist (Roy Holder) who Kenzy once knew has arrived, in pursuit of some kind of story, but what? Could it have anything to do with the presence of a curator from one of Earth’s wealthiest museums, apparently here to make a sale of some kind? How does this tie in with rumours of something utterly incredible having been found on Mars? Surely the death of a freelance shuttle pilot in a crash and the presence of drug dealers on the Moon can’t have anything to do with it?

Well, naturally, all these things do in fact tie up with one another, resulting in possibly the series’ most fiendishly convoluted plotline, and one which the episode really struggles to contain and do justice to. You really have to keep your head on straight and your mind focused to keep track of all the ins and outs, but in the end it proves to be rather clever.

My recollection of the episode – I think I may have seen it just the once before, properly, back in 1987 – was that it concerned an actual attempt to fake evidence of an extinct Martian civilisation. But the memory cheats, naturally, and what the story is actually about is a conspiracy to suggest contact between ancient Earth civilisations and some kind of intelligence on Mars, all in the cause of swindling people out of massive amounts of money, naturally. That’s a bit more plausible, though I wonder how long the deception would have held for.

As noted, perhaps it’s as well that Erick Ray Evans was off sick, as the episode does have a lot going on already – perhaps too much. A subplot about a designer drug operation on the Moon feels particularly short-changed, with a few key events happening off-camera. It seems a little odd that Boucher chose not to include these but did insert a subplot concerning an American news anchor visiting in connection with the Martian discovery (in one of those amusing resonances, the actress involved, Lachele Carl, would later acquire a certain type of fame for playing a virtually identical character across many episodes of another BBC genre franchise).

In the end, though, this is a solid conclusion to the series and a return to form after the weaker non-Boucher episodes. Whatever the issues with the over-ambitiousness of the plot, the characterisation is as strong as ever and you do get a sense of the various individuals genuinely having become a team – the others seem genuinely upset when it appears that Nathan has been killed, while a sincere affection does seem to have developed between Nathan and Kenzy.

In this respect, as with may others, it’s a shame that Star Cops never got a second set of episodes, but it’s a little difficult to see how the proposed idea of incorporating Martian Star Cops and ISPF officers on the deep-space outposts could have been integrated into the format that had developed. (I know that Big Finish have produced a well-received set of audio dramas continuing the story – slightly ironic, given Boucher originally conceived of Star Cops as a radio show – but, things being as they are, I doubt I’ll be listening to them.)

Star Cops remains a fairly obscure cult series even in the realms of TV science fiction, notable, perhaps, as being the BBC’s last attempt to initiate proper full-blooded SF for an adult audience for many years – there was Invasion: Earth in 1998, and then virtually nothing series-wise until the revival of Survivors in 2008 and then Outcasts in 2011. Could things have been different? I’m not sure: Star Cops got a reasonable push at the time (a Radio Times cover, even), but it was unsympathetically scheduled and very little about the series screamed that it was a prestige production. One has to ask the question: even with the biggest budget and the best scheduling, and (if we’re speculating) Chris Boucher being allowed to write all the episodes and even produce the thing himself, did and does an audience even exist for this kind of realistic hard SF show?

I am tempted to say no, even though I would love to be proved wrong. So I suppose we should just be glad that such a marginal series got made at all. For all its flaws and technical shortcomings, Star Cops always has good performances at its heart, and the best moments of the Boucher scripts include some of the most intelligent and witty writing I’ve ever seen in BBC science fiction. No-one would argue, I think, that this series isn’t seriously flawed, but it’s also a definite gem.

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Other People’s Secrets (the last of the John Collee Star Cops scripts) has the feel about it of what I suppose I would call mid-season filler – the kind of epiode they do on the cheap to save money, hopefully without it being too obvious. Everything has been pared down to the essentials. There’s very little new model filming (a few stock shots are re-used), only the most basic new sets, only a handful of visiting characters, and – and perhaps here one might suggest this is a detective show which has gone overboard when it comes to economising – hardly any actual crime to investigate.

As even the Star Cops themselves admit, it is a slack period, without very much going on in their line of work. Krivenko, however, is busy with a visit from an old friend, safety controller Ernest Wolfhartt (the fine character actor Geoffrey Bayldon, perhaps not getting the material he deserves). Unfortunately his visit coincides with a spate of minor technical malfunctions – Nathan’s new communications system blows up while Wolfhardt is in the ISPF office, the electronic card table in one of the rec areas likewise goes haywire while he is around, and so on (why bother with an electronic card table? what’s the problem with normal cards?).

It just puts more pressure on Moonbase maintenance, which seems to effectively consist of one man – Hooper (Barrie Rutter, one of those where-have-I-seen-this-guy-before? actors, but apparently a celebrated theatre director as well), who is exceptionally brusque and Northern. He’s giving a very hard time to his assistant Anderson (Leigh Funnell, in what appears to be her only TV or film appearance – no, she wasn’t even in The Bill), which doesn’t help the situation.

Everyone is getting a bit stressed out, which may be why a psychologist is coming to Moonbase to assess the state of key personnel. Talking to Dr Parr (Maggie Ollerenshaw) – one of Devis’ many ex-wives, if you can believe that – is of course voluntary, except for the Star Cops (Krivenko has called in a favour from Nathan in the hope this will encourage others to volunteer). Well, Anna is of course happy to comply, David seems indifferent, Colin Devis seems mainly preoccupied with a bad case of sexual frustration, and Kenzy flatly refuses to see the shrink.

This is pretty much the plot of the first half or two-thirds of the episode: slice-of-moonbase-life character stuff, for the most part, with the possible suggestion that someone actually is sabotaging minor Moonbase systems for no apparent reason. Then, of course, there is a major incident and part of the base is depressurised: everyone is forced into sealed areas and other refuges while waiting for help to arrive.

What this means in writing terms is a chance for characters to get stuff off their chests to each other in extremis – a common scriptwriter’s tactic but a reasonable one all the same. For whatever reason, the main beneficiary is Nathan, who reveals something of his own backstory – the break which launched his career came when he cracked a case involving corruption at a computer manufacturer’s, the revelation being that the collar he felt was that of his own father. It’s a reasonable bit of writing and well put-across by David Calder. Counterpointing this are a bunch of scenes building up to a punchline which is the alarming sound of Colin Devis in the throes of passion (thankfully the visuals are left to the viewer’s imagination).

If you subscribe to the idea that Other People’s Secrets is basically there to be cheap filler, which is really the most charitable way of viewing it, then it is a success: which is to say it exists, it fills in a slot in the schedule, it keeps the BBC from having to show the test card for fifty minutes or so on a Monday night (to paraphrase the late Terrance Dicks). Beyond this? Well, it’s really very marginal stuff. The idea of doing a hard SF crime show in space is already a fairly fringe one – someone has suggested that rather than appealing to both crime and SF fans, the SF in Star Cops alienated people who enjoyed detective shows and the detective work put off SF viewers – and the notion of doing an episode of a hard SF crime show set in space which doesn’t actually contain any crime is on the verge of becoming provocative.

Well, there is a crime, sort of, but it’s very minor and the culprit, when caught, admits to not really knowing or caring why they committed it. The episode is really about the odd things that people do in extreme circumstances and when under pressure – as I said, it’s really character stuff for the most part, but the problem is that the Star Cops characters are drawn with such a broad brush for the most part that there doesn’t seem to be much to uncover here. Nathan Spring is the exception, being by far the most complex and best played of the lot of them. But the others? David Theroux is mostly laid-back, occasionally a bit prickly, and likes movies; Kenzy is something of a loose cannon and clearly has some kind of issues she doesn’t want to talk about; Colin Devis is coarse, blunt, over-sexed and often more than a bit bigoted; and Anna Shoun is very nice and Japanese. Krivenko is, as noted, the mayor of space, a decent guy trying to do a difficult job and willing (regretfully) to pass some of his problems on to the ISPF. To be fair, Krivenko is the main beneficiary of the episode, getting a few nice scenes where he and Wolfhartt talk about their lives and what any of it all means.

I suppose the fact that, by this point in the season, Star Cops had such a substantial regular cast meant that this kind of bottle show was a viable proposition – it would have been hard to manage much earlier in the run – but it feels like the show treading water. The fact it’s the penultimate episode really is a bit unfortunate, but the fact that one of the two final stories (Philip Martin’s Death on the Moon, apparently something of an Agatha Christie pastiche) was abandoned due to an electricians’ strike means that this is where it ended up. It is what it is: hardly an example of the show at its best, but then it was never meant to be.

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If I say that A Double Life (once again written by John Collee) feels like the dud of the bunch when it comes to Star Cops episodes, it’s not because it’s appreciably much more awful than any of the others – it’s just that the things that distinguish the best episodes just aren’t there, and the weaker elements which have crept in as the season has progressed are more prominent.

The episode opens in an embryo storage facility on Moonbase, which is a surprisingly substantial set considering it isn’t that central to the story. Someone breaks into one of the freezers and extracts three embryos before making his escape. The ISPF are clearly on it, as they are investigating the scene of the crime within ten minutes, identifying traces left behind by the thief. Or, given he has stolen some embryos, is he in fact a kidnapper?

Owner of the stolen tadpoles (as Devis describes them, with characteristic coarseness) is Madame Chamsya Asadi (Nitza Saul), immensely wealthy and influential widow of a noted international arms dealer, on the moon to have the embryos implanted (apparently, and I’ve no idea if this is backed up by actual science, the odds of success are much higher in microgravity). She is highly displeased about the crime, not surprisingly, and could use her clout to make life very difficult for both Krivenko and Nathan.

Unfortunately, after a good start, the Star Cops drop the ball a bit: Anna Shoun, who is searching anyone leaving the base, is overpowered by the criminal, who makes good his escape. (This just strengthens Devis’ belief that she’s not cut out to be a police officer, and the pair’s relationship and his attitude towards her is at the heart of one of the episode’s more effective plot threads.)

Here the episode starts to go a bit wobbly: Anna, desperately trying to make amends for her error, spends hours working on a photofit of her attacker, but wails to Nathan that she keeps coming up with a photo of the famous international concert pianist James Bannerman (Brian Gwaspari) – we have already seen Bannerman giving a concert at the Albert Hall, courtesy of wobbly CSO effects, so we know he is important to the plot. Now, you or I would probably say, ‘well, let’s check the records for anyone who looks a bit like James Bannerman,’ and take it from there. However, Nathan, in a credulity-straining move, decides to take this at (literally) face value and see if Bannerman has a motive, and it indeed turns out that his father (a famous geneticist) was allegedly murdered by Asadi’s late husband.

Despite the fact that Bannerman was giving a concert at the exact time the crime was committed and thus has a pretty good alibi, Nathan nevertheless packs Theroux off to Earth to interview him (Gwaspari goes for a rather peculiar non-specific accent) and test his DNA. It’s a match for that found at the crime scene! But how to explain his alibi and the fact we know it’s someone else?

Literally the most exciting photo from this episode I could find, which should tell you something…

Here comes improbable development #2: hang on, says Nathan, what if there are actually two James Bannermans (Bannermen?) – his father was a geneticist who was estranged from his son, but he could have had the lad cloned. (This would have happened in 1995, apparently.) Once again this wild leap in the dark proves to be entirely accurate, but before they can track down the clone (courtesy of another inspired intuitive leap – the episode is stuffed with them), Krivenko tells Asadi of their suspicions regarding Bannerman, and he is kidnapped by the Arabs. Can the Star Cops find the clone and rescue the embryos before Arab justice means that Bannerman will never play the piano again?

Well, one thing you can say about this episode is that the general improbability of the premise and plotting does rather take one’s mind off the presentation of the Arabic characters. On the one hand, it’s not quite as provocative as the way the show handled Japanese and Italian culture in the previous two episodes – but on the other hand, they are presented as generically ‘Arabic’ rather than belonging to a specific nationality (shame: if there had been even a whiff of Madame Asadi being Egyptian, this piece would have been titled Nile Delta and the Bannermen, but you can’t have everything I suppose). Also, Asadi is no respecter of international law, is quite happy to use her power and influence to get her own way, and there is the whole element of the climax revolving around a character having his hand cut off for being a thief. With all this going on it’s hardly worth mentioning the unconvincing way the Middle East setting is handled, or for that matter Madame Asadi’s curious choice of a fur hat in a number of scenes.

Oh, I suppose it just about hangs together, but the witty, intelligent, and cynical show which Star Cops was for the first few weeks seems to have turned into something in danger of just being knockabout sci-fi gubbins, with perhaps a few grittier elements to it (Devis is still an obnoxious borderline-racist, although he modifies his views by the episode’s end). It’s about nasty clones and people with laser pistols, suddenly, with not much attention paid to the subtleties of the investigation or the political angle of the story.

Also – and this may just be a personal thing, I admit – Collee seems to have been under the impression that all SF episodes must conclude with a jokey tag scene at the very end, so the story finishes on a big laugh. (A convention established by original Star Trek and consolidated by Space: 1999, amongst others.) The previous one, with Devis pretending to be a karate expert and hoiking himself through the air, was okay if a bit iffy – the one in this episode is simply obvious and cringey. I’d completely forgotten about it, and even as I was watching it thought, well, they could do a gag where… but it would just be stupid. And even as I was watching it, they did exactly the joke I thought they wouldn’t go near.  This isn’t a completely awful episode, but parts of it come very close.

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Exhibit B for the ‘Star Cops can be a bit iffy when it comes to national stereotyping’ prosecution is John Collee’s episode In Warm Blood, which was apparently a slightly fraught production behind the scenes: production on the series was, we are given to understand, largely characterised by creator Chris Boucher and producer Evgeny Gridneff not getting on or sharing a vision for the show, with relations reaching something of a nadir around this point. The particular bone of contention was Gridneff’s decision to introduce a new regular character without Boucher’s agreement. One is tempted to side with Boucher, if only because… well, we’ll come to that.

As the episode gets underway, top of the ISPF’s agenda is the return to lunar orbit of a survey ship, the Pluto 5, which has been to the asteroid belt. Now, however, the crew are not responding to communications from Moonbase, and so the ISPF send up a team to investigate. There is a bit of a dark-and-spooky vibe to all of this, leading up to the moment when Theroux spies something through the cockpit window that momentarily gives him the ab-dabs. The crew are all dead, and – more than that – appear to be virtually mummified, or dessicated.

The Pluto 5 is under the purview of Hanimed, a major international pharmaceutical company, and in order to get permission to board the ship, the Star Cops have to accept the presence of a Hanimed employee on the team, a Japanese doctor named Anna Shoun (played by Sayo Inaba – the actress may be Japanese even if the character’s name blatantly isn’t). Anna Shoun keeps bowing to people and talking about her loyalty and gratitude to the company which is as a mother and father to her.

Nathan is all set to join the mission until Krivenko, whose role in these plots is basically to be the mayor of space, make Nathan’s life difficult, and complicate the stories, makes a personal request: a friend of his, a medical researcher named Janssen, is not answering her own radio, and Krivenko wants Nathan to make sure she’s okay, as a personal favour. Reluctantly Nathan agrees.

It turns out that Janssen is also dead, apparently having committed suicide somehow, but the condition of her body – and her orbital module – is eerily similar to that of the Pluto 5: in both cases, death seems to have overtaken the occupants very rapidly, and the internal heating is turned up to 41 degrees – due to a systems failure on the ship, but seemingly intentionally in Janssen’s pod. Nathan digs a little deeper and discovers that Janssen was funded by Hanimed, and that she cut off communications just after the problems with Pluto 5 became apparent…

I am tempted to conclude with ‘could there possibly be a connection?’ but that would be a bit fatuous, wouldn’t it: of course there is. What ensues is another story basically taking a pop at the machinations of the pharmaceutical industry: suffice to say that the sinister and ruthless head of Hanimed, Richard Ho (another fantastically authentic Japanese name, I think you’ll agree) has been treating the crews of the corporation’s space flights as unwitting guinea pigs, carrying out unauthorised human testing on new drugs, which in this case has gone disastrously wrong.

Well, fair enough – it’s another fairly coherent episode, albeit with a couple of questionable plot developments. At one point Nathan decides to try and infiltrate Hanimed HQ in Tokyo (thriftily realised in the usual Star Cops manner), but ends up sending Colin Devis, possibly the least credible covert operative since Ridge in Doomwatch – maybe even worse. (This ties into a comic-relief subplot about Devis trying to pass his medical so he can stay in space.) Devis naturally gets caught so quickly you wonder if this was Nathan’s plan all along. The episode concludes with Nathan confronting Ho in a sauna and basically beating a confession out of him (well, not quite, but there’s a degree of physical coercion involved) – which makes one wonder how Nathan plans to make his charges stick; the ‘confession’ doesn’t seem to be recorded, which may be as well for our hero, considering the methods he employs. As you might begin to expect, the level of intelligence is a bit lower than in the Boucher-written episodes.

That said, I’m not sure this assessment quite does justice to the Japanese elements of the story, which are at least as badly handled as the Italian ones in the previous episode. At least the Italians in that one looked Italian and had Italian names – the employees of the Japanese megacorporation here have names that are either Bavarian or Chinese in origin, and Richard Rees (the actor playing Ho) doesn’t even look especially Japanese – Rees had a decent TV career playing characters from a wide range of ethnicities, including Japanese, Chinese, Tibetan, and so on. The old stereotype of Japanese people being fanatically devoted to their companies is in full effect here, too, although – after a little tough love from Nathan – Anna Shoun eventually decides to do the right thing and expose Hanimed’s activities. (We should probably also touch on the tag-scene gag of this episode, which sees Devis making cod-Japanese sounds before attempting to flying-kick the office furniture, all for comic effect.)

I’m still not sure why the producer thought the series was crying out for the addition of Shoun as a regular character, though, as she’s really not much more than a cardboard cut-out at this point. Presumably it was just a case of providing a bit more gender balance, as the regular cast is very blokey up to this point. Well, fair enough, and full marks to the show for casting someone actually Japanese as their Japanese doctor (with a Bavarian name) – but Sayo Inaba never seems particularly comfortable acting in English, regardless of the slimness of her character. (Four episodes of Star Cops may in fact constitute the bulk of Inaba’s acting career, based on her IMDb entry at least.)

Anyway, six episodes in, Star Cops finally has the complete regular cast that will see it through the rest of its run (another three episodes). I find it really hard to decide if this story is better or worse than the one about the Mafia, but I am sensing a definite drop in the general quality of the episodes when Chris Boucher isn’t writing them. Having done the Italians and Japanese, if memory serves the next episode is the one about Arabs. Seat-belts duly fastened…

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