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Posts Tagged ‘fantasy’

A now-obscure movie called The Siege was briefly the focus of some attention back in 1999 when odd behaviour amongst some of its patrons was noted: they would buy a ticket, take their seats, but then walk out as soon as the credits began. The reason? This was before the age of widespread and easy internet and they had just come to watch the trailer for George Lucas’ upcoming stellar conflict movie.

Now we are in the age of widespread and easy internet, trailers are a lot more accessible and subject to much more scrutiny than was the case in years gone by. Back then, much more of the heavy lifting when it came to promotional duties was done by the poster. We have considered in the past some of the more outlandish claims made on the posters of ambitious but low-budget exploitation movies, but few attempt the hard sell quite as ferociously as the advertising for the 1968 movie The Lost Continent:

Blood-beasts, female flesh, torture-pits, giant jaw-snapping molluscs, floating death-ship, helpless beauties, crazed kelp-monsters – sounds like a hell of a movie, doesn’t it? Or possibly just hell, depending on your taste in films. The Lost Continent (NB barely features a continent, and certainly not a lost one) was made by Michael Carreras for Hammer Films. Now, Carreras produced many of the studio’s best and most successful films, and deserves credit for that. However, as a writer and director his track record is rather less stellar, with The Lost Continent (one of two films that he wrote under a pseudonym and directed, the other being Prehistoric Women) a powerful exhibit for the prosecution’s case.

The movie opens with beat combo The Peddlers treating us to the title track, which is heavy on the Hammond organ (this forms a key element of the film’s soundtrack). We find ourselves in a strangely-hued graveyard of ships, aboard one of which a burial-at-sea is just under way: various people, some dressed as Spanish conquistadors, others in modern dress, stand around gravely.

Presiding is Captain Lansen (Eric Porter), a man who is deeply troubled by questions of how he got into this situation (there may not have been much acting required from Porter, to be honest). The film obligingly flashes back to provide some answers: Lansen’s ship, the tramp freighter Corita, is making a swift departure from Freetown in Sierra Leone, trying to dodge the customs launch in the process. Why? Well, Lansen has got sick of being the owner-operator of this leaky old tub and has taken on a lucrative but illegal cargo of highly explosive white phosphorous, with a view to selling it and the ship in Caracas and retiring on the proceeds. His more principled first officer is duly shocked.

When the ship runs into a hurricane and starts taking on water, the rest of the crew demand that Lansen turns back (white phosphorous detonates when wet, apparently), but the passengers are having none of it (the crew includes some fine actors, including Victor Maddern, Michael Ripper and Donald Sumpter, but they don’t get much to do in this film). Despite the contemporary setting, the roots of the story in a 1938 novel by Dennis Wheatley are very obvious here, as there is something rather hokey and dated about all these people sitting around the saloon of a freighter making a transatlantic crossing. Amongst them we meet a boozy con-man (Tony Beckley), a former trophy-wife on the run (Hildegard Knef), an enquiry agent in pursuit of her (Ben Carruthers), a doctor fleeing a scandal (Nigel Stock, who is briefly seen reading the Wheatley novel – about as close as the film gets to genuine wit) and his daughter (Suzanna Leigh), whom he is fiercely protective of for self-interested reasons.

None of this lot want to go back to Africa and so the crew mutiny and depart, taking one of the lifeboats; only a handful stick around, including the steward (Jimmy Hanley) and the chief engineer (James Cossins). We have commented in the past on Cossins’ tendency to be cast as pompous establishment figures; this is about as proletarian as he gets, although as the story goes on the chief engineer proves to be a man with a side-line is fierce theological rigour.

With the ship leaking, the movie attempts a tense sequence with the passengers having to shift all the explosives to somewhere less damp. It is not really very tense, to be honest, and concludes with Lansen deciding they have to abandon ship anyway. So everyone piles into a lifeboat, which is launched into something which is very obviously a medium-sized water tank.

Some occasional rowing (‘It’ll keep you fit!’ growls the captain) and arguing over the rations ensues, with everyone bemoaning their lot and the viewer possibly beginning to wonder when the crazed kelp-monsters, giant jaw-snapping molluscs, and indeed the lost continent itself are actually going to make an appearance in the movie. In the end Tony Beckley can’t take it any more and hurls himself over the side in a drunken stupor; Nigel Stock dives in to save him and is eaten by a rubber shark, but Beckley is retrieved anyway.

The lifeboat becomes entangled in thick sea-weed, which proves to be more serious than it first appears when the weed grapples onto Lansen with its thick, thorny fronds – yes, the crazed kelp-monsters have finally arrived! Another extra is eaten by the weed before the lifeboat bumps into the Corita, which has likewise been snagged by the kelp. Everyone gets back on board, which only leads one to conclude that this whole sequence has just been there to get rid of Nigel Stock.

With Stock out of the way, his daughter reveals he has been repressing her for ages and goes a bit mad as a result of her sudden freedom, chucking herself at Beckley (not keen, racked with guilt following the bit with the shark) and then Carruthers (rather more receptive). The two of them slip out onto the deck to see what happens, but any developments are forestalled by the appearance over the gunwale of a giant octopus, which proceeds to eat Carruthers and cover Leigh in green slime before it can be driven off.

There is a sense of the plot finally getting somewhere, and not before time, as the freighter pitches up in a strange weed-infested realm of wrecked ships, some of them seemingly very ancient, and rocky outcrops. (It’s still not a continent though.) Strange shapes are sighted through the mist, and then contact is made with the locals, as a young woman approaches the ship. She is played by latter-day blues singer Dana Gillespie, and has an impressive set of floatation devices. She also has a set of helium balloons strapped to her shoulders.

(Yeah, I do kind of appreciate that that last attempt at a gag is probably unacceptable in these enlightened days of 2021, and I feel duly apologetic – though clearly not to the point of actually removing it from the review. It’s not as though the film doesn’t go all out to exploit the potential of the stunning Gillespie decolletage: the poor woman is in a shirt open practically to the navel, and most of the publicity photos for this film seem to show her leaning forward while sitting on a giant plastic crab:

My mistake, it’s a giant scorpion, not a crab.)

Gillespie is being chased by Spanish conquistadors working for the Inquisition, with whom there is a brisk scrap. (All the locals wear balloons and snowshoes to let them walk around on the weed.) She reveals they are the descendants of explorers who got stuck here centuries ago and are reigned over by the tyrannical El Supremo, a child ruler under the control of a pointy-hood-wearing maniac. Clearly conflict between the newcomers and the Inquisition is on the cards, but not before they can cram in Jimmy Hanley being throttled by a giant crab and a death-struggle between the crab and a giant sea scorpion (the question of which is the worse prop is also fiercely contested).

The poster catch-line ‘A living hell that time forgot!’ accurately nails The Lost Continent as a precursor to the Trampas movies made by Amicus in the following decade (The Land That Time Forgot, etc) – but while those films occasional attain the level of Good Bad Movie, this one is (to quote the Encyclopedia of Science-Fiction’s review) wholly absurd, even if the art direction is good. The Doug McClure films are unashamed pulp from start to finish: Carreras seems to think this film has an outside chance of functioning as serious drama, hence a lot of very intense scenes as the captain and passengers articulate their various personal issues to each other, usually by monologuing. These would probably feel corny even in a conventional context; surrounded by scenes dealing with killer sea-weed and rampaging invertebrates, they become utterly ridiculous and just as funny as the bad creature effects.

The saving grace of The Lost Continent is that its general badness is still somehow exceeded by its extreme silliness; how anyone involved managed to take any of it seriously is a miracle, but somehow they did and the result is an extraordinary piece of unintentional comedy. Perhaps I’m being unnecessarily harsh to the producer class, but so many producers-turned-directors start off by making this sort of tat: plenty of action and character and colour, but no developing storyline, no connections, just incident after incident. The material here is so bizarre that the film achieves a surreal kind of bad-acid-trip quality; afterwards you can’t quite believe what you’ve been watching. It’s a terrible film, but also enormously entertaining.

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One of the things that Hollywood writers grumble about and bring up when the Writers’ Guild contemplates strike action is something called the possessive credit: this is when, at the start of a film, it says ‘A Film by…’ and then the director’s name. If you’re talking about a pure piece of auteur cinema, written, directed and otherwise shaped by a single person’s vision, then fair enough – but if the director’s just realising someone else’s script, you can see why the writers might get a bit peeved about their contribution being downplayed in this manner.

Certainly there are occasions when the use of the possessive credit feels – what is the mot juste here? – silly. But directors like to think of themselves as artists and creative visionaries, even when they are making films like Godzilla Vs Kong (which is apparently ‘A film by Adam Wingard’. I’ll be honest and confess I’d never really heard of Wingard before, but apparently he made a name for himself doing visceral micro-budget horror films and things loosely linked to the mumblecore movement (low-fi, low-budget, naturalistic movies). How therefore he ended up in charge of a $200 million franchise movie I am not entirely sure; he must have made a very good pitch.

For anyone who doesn’t follow the meta-plot of Hollywood monster movie franchises as closely as I do (I suppose it’s possible such people do exist), this is a follow-up to both 2017’s Kong: Skull Island and 2019’s Godzilla, King of the Monsters. As the movie gets underway, we learn that giant ape Kong (never actually referred to as King Kong here, in case you were wondering) is essentially being kept in protective custody by monster-wrangling agency Monarch, to stop Godzilla from tracking him down and beating him up (there is bad blood between their families, or something). Deeply concerned for the big guy, and de facto leader of Team K as the movie progresses, is primatologist Ilene (Rebecca Hall), who has a cute deaf-mute adopted daughter who shares a special bond with the ape.

The plot proper kicks off when colossal nuclear dinosaur Godzilla surfaces in the Gulf of Mexico and launches a seemingly unprovoked attack on an industrial facility in Pensacola owned by one of the world’s leading tech companies. The world is shocked by this sudden aggression, but firmly on Team G is Madison Russell (Millie Bobbie Brown, reprising her role from King of the Monsters), who is sure there has to be a reason for the attack and sets out to discover what it is.

Meanwhile, maverick geologist Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgard) is recruited by the owner of the tech company (Demian Bichir, giving an enormous, swaggering, I-am-delighted-by-my-own-evilness performance) to help find a means of fending Godzilla off should he start playing up again. This involves locating a mysterious power source only found at the hollow core of the Earth. The expedition involves going down a very deep hole they have dug in Antarctica, and…

Well, look, here’s the thing. As regular readers will know I am a big fan of Japanese monster movies (and indeed monster movies in general) and happily cut them all kinds of slack as long as they get the good stuff right. And, up to a point, Godzilla Vs Kong delivers the goods in spades: the monster rasslin’ between Kong and Godzilla is as imaginative, violent, and destructive as one could wish for. (Similarities between this film and the jokey King Kong Vs Godzilla are thin on the ground, but both are obliged to address, in different ways, the fact that Godzilla’s atomic breath appears to give him a distinct advantage. Bonus points are also given for there actually being a genuine winner when the two face off in the third act.) Hereabouts we have previously discussed the issue of the aesthetics of giant monster battles, and the slightly tedious tendency of Hollywood movies to set them at night. There’s a touch of that here, but it’s offset by the film’s general use of a garish, neon-saturated colour palette, even if it is a bit video-gamey.

Nevertheless, you can’t just have 113 minutes of monsters fighting each other; there needs to be some kind of connective tissue of plot and structure to give it all a bit of context and significance and, dare I say it, logic. It’s true that this is a film about how the ancient rivalry between an enormous ape and a gargantuan nuclear dinosaur is impacted by the plans of a lunatic billionaire who has decided, for reasons known only to himself, to build a giant cyborg replica of said nuclear dinosaur using body-parts harvested from an alien space dragon, and thus it could be argued that normal standards of credibility and logic are not fully in effect. Even so, much of the plot of the film is nonsensical, reliant on outrageous and absurd plot contrivances and devices. You can see that they’re hoping that if they go really fast and keep hitting you with visual grandeur, lavish CGI and new plot developments, a sort of fridge logic will be in effect and you won’t notice how little of it makes sense. But fridge logic has its limits and even as you’re watching it, you can’t help but notice how under-exposited most of it feels.

But as I say, it does look very pretty, with some impressive new monster designs (including a new version of yet another member of the classic Toho kaiju stable). You have to feel a bit sorry for the actors, though, who join the long and distinguished roll-call of performers who have signed up for a Godzilla or Kong film and found themselves all at sea. Takeshi Shimura, Raymond Burr, Jeff Bridges, Charles Grodin, Jean Reno, Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins: there is no shame in joining their company, as Skarsgard, Hall, and various other members of the cast do here. Bichir, on the other hand, seems to be trying to win a bet: it’s a big and enjoyable performance, but camp in a way that most of the film seems to be trying to avoid.

In the end, it’s colourful and action-packed and sort of fun, but it’s like drinking a bucket of cola instead of enjoying a balanced meal. I’m rather surprised that the proper critics have gone so easy on Godzilla Vs Kong, admitting to its various flaws but suggesting they don’t matter and may in fact be inherent in this kind of a movie. Obviously, I would disagree: even the critically-mauled King of the Monsters was more coherent and satisfying story-wise. It may just be that the presence of Kong, as opposed to a group of more obscure Japanese monsters like Mothra and Ghidorah, makes the new movie more accessible to a general audience. I didn’t find it as satisfying as either of the films immediately preceding it, but it is entertaining on a superficial level; it’s just a shame they couldn’t have come up with a way of keeping all the monster fights but surrounding them with a plot that actually made sense.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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As regular readers will probably have gathered, in happier days it was very unusual for a big studio movie with a decent release to pass me by. (Obviously there were always exceptions: I swore off Michael Bay movies nearly fifteen years ago.) Sometimes I look back at a big film that I didn’t see on the big screen, and wonder, what was wrong with this one when it was new? (Especially considering some of the rubbish I’ve gone out of my way to see in the past.)

Hey ho. A few months ago I was on holiday with the family and the late movie on the telly was Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger, which is one of those movies I’d skipped on its release in 2013 – mainly, I seem to recall, due to largely terrible reviews and a general impression that the whole enterprise was somehow laboured and a touch misconceived. Rather to my surprise, it looked, if not great, then certainly intriguingly different, and I decided to check it out on catch-up the next time I had a few hours spare. Naturally, I had forgotten about the Empire of the Mouse’s hawkishness when it comes to exploiting its various properties, and the BBC hadn’t stumped up for the catch-up rights. The modern world being as it is, though, movies seem to come around with the frequency of buses, and it turned up again just the other week.

The movie opens at a San Francisco theme park in 1933 (the year is probably a reference to the first appearance of the original Lone Ranger radio show), where a young, Lone Ranger-obsessed lad is startled to come across an extremely elderly Native American featuring in one of the exhibits. The old chap claims to be the one-and-only, original Tonto, sidekick of the Lone Ranger, and goes on to reveal the truth of this legendary figure’s origins…

The bulk of the movie occurs in 1869, with the railroads unfurling and slowly taming the old west. Idealistic young lawyer John Reid (Armie Hammer) is heading back home to see his family for the first time in years – but travelling on the same train is brutal outlaw Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner), who’s being taken to the gallows. (Also chained up with Cavendish is Tonto (Johnny Depp), who has his own reasons for wanting to stay close to the bad guy.) Cavendish’s gang appear and spring him from the moving train, nearly causing a disastrous accident which Reid and Tonto only manage to avert with the help of Reid’s elder brother (James Badge Dale), a Texas ranger.

Reid Minor is soon deputised by the rangers and a posse sets off in pursuit of Cavendish and his gang – but they are betrayed and ambushed, and all killed, apart from John Reid. Tonto, who has somehow managed to escape from jail, turns up and performs the necessary burial duties – but recognises that Reid’s ordeal has left a spiritual mark upon him. Adopting a mask and various other eccentric accoutrements, Reid assumes the identity of the Lone Ranger, intent on justice for the death of his brother and Cavendish’s many other victims…

The fact that the origins of the Lone Ranger so closely recall those of a superhero shouldn’t really come as a surprise, given the character was a product of the same era of pulp adventure stories which gave the world characters like the Phantom and the Shadow, many of whom were very influential on the first actual comic-book costumed heroes. A mask, a gimmick, and more often than not a sidekick was the formula for this type of character, and the Lone Ranger stories stuck to the formula with great fidelity.

These days, of course, you can’t really do sidekicks, and especially not sidekicks of a non-caucasian ethnic background. Even so, it’s hard to shake the sense that the reason Tonto is promoted to partner and co-lead of the movie is basically because Johnny Depp is playing the part. I suppose it could have been worse – at the time I got the impression that Tonto was actually the main character, a reasonable assumption considering that the Lone Ranger seems in danger of being crowded off his own movie poster by his erstwhile sidekick.

Looking back, I think it was the impression that The Lone Ranger had been rejigged as a star vehicle for Johnny Depp which put me off it: I’m not saying I’ve never enjoyed one of the actor’s performances or movies, but I got tired of the whole quirky-comedy-schtick thing which seems to be his stock-in-trade before the end of the 2000s. (No doubt the actor has bigger issues to worry about these days than the fact I’m not exactly a fan.) Nevertheless, Depp was still a big, bankable star back in 2013, which might lead one to wonder why this movie ended up costing Disney over $200 million.

As so often seems to be the case, the real question is not ‘why did this movie lose $200 million?’ but ‘how is it possible for this movie to expose its makers to that degree of liability?’ – I mean, to lose $200 million means the movie had to cost at least $200 million in the first place (maths isn’t exactly my forte, but the logic here seems sound to me) – and the total production costs for Lone Ranger were apparently closer to $400 million. And why was anyone spending $200 million on a Lone Ranger movie in 2013? It appears to have been a combination of a fumbling attempt to reproduce the success of the Verbinski-Depp Pirates of the Caribbean movies, together with typically risk-averse Hollywood thinking; choosing a title that everybody knows (even if very few people actually care that much about it) rather than taking a chance on something new.

Certainly, as a reasonably-budgeted (say, $130 million) blockbuster this would have done well and probably been a better movie: the version we ended up with certainly looks lavish, and has a couple of enormous set-pieces that Verbinski handles well, but it suffers from a bloated plot and concomitantly extended duration. Furthermore, the film seems to be trying to do all kinds of things, not all of which naturally go well together: the Lone Ranger itself is, obviously, a faintly absurd pulp western premise, but the film seems intent on threading it through a very dark, revisionist and arguably subversive western narrative: the Comanche are the good guys and the US Cavalry the instruments of evil. Then on top of this comes an element of the supernatural, with the suggestion that one of the characters is possessed by an evil spirit, whose presence is disrupting the natural order (there are some carnivorous rabbits at one point, and some very odd behaviour from the Lone Ranger’s horse Silver). And then, of course, they attempt to lighten it all up with the same kind of dead-pan, off-beat comedy that you find in the Pirates movies, together with some whistles and bells with the narrative voice (Tonto is a rather unreliable narrator). It’s a very peculiar concoction.

That said, it’s usually interesting and occasionally funny and even thrilling: the closing sequence, which is of course choreographed to the rousing strains of the last part of the William Tell Overture, is an almost irresistible piece of overblown blockbuster bombast – if the rest of the film had been made to this standard, The Lone Ranger would surely have been a palpable hit. As it is, rather than capping the movie, it just helps to salvage it. This is a shame, because as well as Depp and Hammer (Hammer seems to be one of those actors who has all the essential star attributes except the ability to pick good scripts), there’s an impressive cast here too, even if most of them never need to get out of first gear: Tom Wilkinson, Helena Bonham-Carter, Ruth Wilson, and so on.

But there you go. All the talent in the world isn’t enough to make a great movie if the basic conception of the thing just doesn’t quite hang together, and that’s the case here. The Lone Ranger is by no means a terrible movie, it’s just one that didn’t make enough money. But then it should never have been expected to. That’s Hollywood, I suppose.

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Kornel Mundruczo’s White God, originally released in 2014, opens with a rather lovely aerial shot of a seemingly-deserted city, which I presume is Budapest (this is a Hungarian production). Gradually we become aware of a single moving figure in the great urban expanse – a teenage girl (Zsofia Psotta), riding her bicycle. (There is a trumpet sticking out of her backpack, incongruously enough.)

Questions as to what is going on begin to get an answer very soon, although it is not one of those answers which is particularly helpful: the girl, whom we eventually learn is called Lili, is being chased by dogs. But just one or two dogs. Not even a pack of six or seven or a dozen. Hundreds of dogs of all shapes and sizes are pursuing her through the streets of the apparently empty city.

My default position is to be rather disparaging about films which open with this kind of striking sequence and then jump back to days or weeks earlier to show how we ended up in this situation. With a TV show or a book, where the audience may have come across it by chance and may not be fully committed, fair enough: hook them in. But for a movie? Come on. They’ve already bought their ticket and popcorn and settled in. This kind of tease is surely not necessary.

Except when it’s really well done, of course. The opening of White God (as far as I can tell this is a fridge title, by the way) is certainly well done enough, and, like the rest of the movie, scores impressively high on the ‘well, I’ve never seen anything quite like this before’.

The plot proper begins with Lili’s mother having to go to Australia for her work for three months, obliging Lili to go and live with her cold and distant father, Daniel (Sandor Zsota). This would be awkward enough – Daniel’s flat is so small that the two of them have to share a bedroom – but the situation is exacerbated by the fact that Lili, naturally, insists on bringing her dog Hagen with her (Hagen is played by two other dogs, named Bodie and Luke).

It turns out that the Hungarian government has recently imposed a special tax on non-purebreed dogs (just go with it, I guess), and naturally Hagen is a mongrel. This is the last straw for Daniel, who turns Hagen out of the car on a busy road and drives off.

So far, so very much like a whole load of weepy melodramas about dogs and their young owners – but even up to this point, the film has had a bleak, hard edge to it, suggesting things may take a slightly different path. So it proves, as the narrative splits – one strand follows Lili’s attempts to find Hagen, rebelling against her father and getting into trouble as she does so. This isn’t a barrel of laughs, but it’s still lighter than the travails of Hagen, who is variously hunted and exploited by the human beings he encounters, eventually being sold to a man who trains him to take part in dog-fighting bouts. (There is a degree of grisliness involved, but the film almost goes out of its way to indicate no animals were harmed, etc.) Hagen ends up being grabbed and taken to the pound, but there’s only so much that a dog can take before he snaps…

As readers of long standing will know, I usually avoid lazy ‘this film is like X meets Y’ formulations, but the temptation to describe White God as ‘Lassie meets Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ is irresistible (obviously). Soon enough Hagen is leading a horde of warrior mongrels into the city, intent on a terrible revenge against human civilisation…

Well, as I said: the film does score highly on the ‘not seen this in a movie before’ front, and the storytelling is very well done, considering that quite long stretches of the film feature no dialogue whatsoever. The radical shifts in the narrative – from girl-and-her-dog melodrama, to the bleak and naturalistic mid-section, to the slightly surreal fantasy-horror of the closing stages – are very adroitly handled as well. Nor should one overlook the contribution made by the two lead actors – Zsofia Psotta in particular gives an impressively self-possessed performance.

The truth is, while novelty isn’t everything when it comes to a story, genuine novelty can take you a surprisingly long way. I can understand why the makers of the film decided to open with the flash-forward to the third act: seeing how we get from an ordinary, rather downbeat domestic drama to one of the more surreal movie apocalypses of recent years is the film’s main point of traction.

That said, once the doggie apocalypse gets going, there’s an element of slightly self-conscious weirdness to the film that stops it from being completely successful and immersive as either a drama or a piece of horror – perhaps it’s there all along, albeit as manneredness rather than weirdness. Possibly even the writers and director are aware that suggesting a canine rebellion could put a whole city into lockdown and lead to the army being called out.

Beyond that, I’m also slightly curious as to what the moral premise of the movie is. There’s clearly some kind of subtext about animal rights going on – Daniel appears to be some kind of quality control inspector at an abattoir, and we get to see various scenes showing what goes on there (knives and bone saws are prominent). Clearly, if everyone had been nicer to Hagen from the start, things would have worked out differently – but is the subtext and fundamental message of the film really just ‘be nicer to dogs’? I rather think it might be, in which case we kind of have to conclude that White God is ultimately quite facile.

But, as noted, for all that it may be a slightly odd and simplistic fable, White God is well directed and performed, with sterling work in particular from the animal trainers. It’s certainly worth watching simply for its sheer ‘you what…?’ value.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vaughan Rice conducts an interrogation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The end is nigh.

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

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

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It’s always a lovely moment when the first big superhero movie of the summer comes along. Of course, 2020 being a hideous brute of a year, it only really qualifies as such if you live in the southern hemisphere, but this sort of thing shouldn’t surprise us any more.

Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman 1984 was one of the films still being advertised the day before the first lockdown was announced back in March, theoretically as ‘Coming Soon’. With Warner Brothers having announced simultaneous cinema and streaming releases for all their films next year, I suppose we should be grateful for the chance to see it on the big screen at all – and I feel obliged to point out that while the DC movie franchise tends to get some flak, at least they haven’t battened down the hatches like Marvel or the makers of the Bond franchise. I just hope people respond appropriately and (where safe to do so) take the chance to see a proper, accessible blockbuster at the cinema.

If we’re going to be quibblesome about these things, this movie has a bit of a fridge title, as the lead character is never actually referred to as Wonder Woman and the 1984 setting barely informs the plot – it’s just there to enable a bit of shallow nostalgia and easy jokes about legwarmers and bad fashion, as well as providing a bit of cognitive distance for the film’s more satirical elements to function in (we shall return to this in due course).

The film opens with a rather stirring and well-mounted scene depicting one of she-who-will-never-be-referred-to-as-Wonder-Woman-on-screen’s youthful adventures, during which Hans Zimmer’s score keeps promising to erupt into the full, thrillingly berserk Wonder Woman theme. (But it doesn’t, for a good long while.) As noted, it’s a nice little vignette, which sort of relates tangentially to the resolution of the plot – but I sort of suspect it’s just there because Robin Wright and Connie Nielson were still under contract and they couldn’t think of another way to get them in the movie.

Anyway, the story moves on to the mid-1980s, where Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) is working as a cultural anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institute, as well as doing a little discreet day-saving when duty calls (well, as discreet as one can manage when leaping around in red and blue armour lashing a glowing golden rope at people). One of the robberies she foils is that of a mysterious and ancient stone of obscure provenance, allegedly with the power to grant wishes.

Well, something like that can’t possibly be real, so Diana indulges herself in just a little wish. Her new colleague Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig), who hero-worships her, has a go at wishing too. But it turns out the person the stone is intended for is ambitious would-be tycoon Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal). Lord seems harmless enough, until Diana finds herself reunited with the spirit of her dead boyfriend Steve (Chris Pine) – rather than actually coming back from the dead, he just possesses the body of some poor schmo, a fact which everyone concerned with the film handwaves away just a bit too easily. Diana’s wish has come true – so what about everyone else’s…?

Saying that Wonder Woman 1984 easily qualifies as one of the year’s top two big summer movies doesn’t really mean a great deal, and probably qualifies as too faint praise – it may not seem as fresh and exciting as the 2017 movie, and none of its moments land quite as impressively as the big ones from first time around, but it’s still an efficient and sharply-made movie, with a reasonably coherent plot and some well-written characters.

That said, I’m not sure it really needs to be two and a half hours long (there’s a fair deal of faffing about, mostly concerned with flying around – sometimes in the Invisible Plane, which presumably the Comic-con crowd really wanted to see, or not), and it also falls into the trap of giving the villains all the most interesting things to do: Wonder Woman herself mainly just wanders around in pursuit of exposition. Gal Gadot inhabits the role charismatically, but she’s mostly stuck sharing the screen with Chris Pine, who as usual is – to paraphrase Stephen King – an agreeable-looking absence of hiatus. And while the film hits all the usual notes concerning empowerment and the toxic nature of sexual harassment, its feminist credentials struck me as a little wobbly: the plot is to some extent set in motion by the fact that the biggest personal issue Wonder Woman has to address is feeling a bit sad that she doesn’t have a boyfriend. The same is really true of Barbara Minerva – this is a big, meaty role, which Wiig really does good work with, but on the other hand the character’s major issue is being a bit of a klutz who feels jealous of glamorous women who can walk in heels. I’m not sure this is what Hannah Arendt meant when she spoke about the banality of evil.

Considerably more interesting is the main villain, whom Pedro Pascal likewise does some very good work with. To briefly venture down the rabbit hole, in the comics Maxwell Lord is a second- or third-string villain or supporting character (he also turns up as a substitute Lex Luthor in the Supergirl TV series), sometimes with mind-control powers. Jenkins and her fellow writers do something rather more provocative with him: here, he is a failed businessman, minor TV personality and con man, much given to shouting things like ‘I am not a loser!’ The power he acquires from the wishing-stone isn’t explained especially clearly, but suffice to say it permits him to erect vast (and politically provocative) walls in the twinkling of an eye, and steal the power of the presidency of the United States – one set-piece has Wonder Woman attempting to apprehend him within the corridors of the White House itself. (Playing, by implication, Ronald Reagan is an actor named Stuart Milligan – who ten years ago was playing Richard Nixon in another over-the-top fantasy: there’s a pub fact you can have for free.)

Jenkins has said, apparently with a straight face, that the Lord character as depicted here is not based on any real-life businessmen with dubious tax affairs and TV careers who may have found themselves in the White House. (And if you believe that, she would probably like to sell you a bridge in New York.) To be fair, the film probably does just enough in the way of camouflaging its subtext to keep the cute-red-baseball-cap brigade from getting all huffy and boycotting the movie (the eighties setting obviously helps a lot with this), but it’s still hard to see the film’s subtext as being anything other than a both-barrels takedown of you-know-who.

It’s interesting and rather enjoyable to see a blockbuster with such an unashamedly partisan edge to it, even if that edge is heavily disguised. Of course, events mean that the film is coming out after a certain election, rather than in the run-up to it, so thankfully real-world events have already been resolved without Wonder Woman having to get involved. Still – and this applies to the whole movie, which is a very engaging piece of entertainment – better late than never.

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My Wildest Dream is another Philip Levene script from early in season six; it was the first show from the full production block comprising the bulk of the Tara episodes. The US got it three months before the UK; the British transmission came over a year after production was completed. If any of this matters, it’s because this is another of those episodes which does feel somewhat like a fifth season script with Emma Peel’s name scratched out and Tara King’s written in to replace it.

Steed finds himself the recipient of a series of odd anonymous phone-calls, each one requesting him to be in a certain place at a certain time. Every time he and Tara follow the tip-off, they find themselves witnessing the immediate aftermath of a murder – but Steed has no acquaintance with any of the killers or the victims, so what’s going on?

The fact that everyone involved is a top businessman, many of them on the board of the same company, is certainly indicative, as is the fact that the desk diaries of several of the killers have disappeared. Steed and Tara’s investigations lead them to Jaeger (Peter Vaughan), a rather unorthodox psychiatrist – specialising in ‘aggresso-therapy’, his method is to unlock the violent impulses latent in everyone, and give them expression through cathartic dreams (often of murdering irritating colleagues). But it’s just therapy, Jaeger insists, it’s not like he has any reason for wanting his clients to kill. Steed is somewhat bemused, but can’t pin anything on the shrink – however, Jaeger’s receptionist does have an oddly familiar telephone manner…

After the exuberance of a lot of the sixth season episodes, this one feels a little bit staid and talky, but it’s a superior offering nevertheless – mainly because it does make a concerted, and rather successful attempt to hoodwink the viewer about who the actual bad guy is. There are a couple of other fairly decent twists, one of which (when it arrives) explains the presence of a number of slightly laborious comedy scenes involving Edward Fox as a frustrated suitor of Tara’s. Also in the cast is Philip Madoc, making his fifth and final appearance on the show. In the end, after some dodgy recent offerings, it’s nice to come across an episode which is so reminiscent of the glory days.

What almost looks suspiciously like a semi-holiday episode (Patrick Macnee spends most of it on one set) comes along next, in the form of Brian Clemens’ Requiem. This was the first Tara episode I saw, and the first colour episode: the whole of season five slipped past me on its mid-80s re-run: I distinctly recall wondering who the new characters were, and thinking (despite what my father said) that Linda Thorson wasn’t as good as Diana Rigg.

The department is protecting Miranda (Angela Douglas, from various Carry On films), the key witness who is due to testify against Murder International (which proves to be a fearsomely large and well-resourced organisation). Steed whisks her off to protective custody at a location known only to Mother and him, which leads to the bad guys setting their sights on Tara – she is captured but escapes, though not before learning of a plan to booby-trap Steed’s flat. She rushes there, but not quite quickly enough…

She wakes up in hospital, her legs in plaster, and is told that the bomb which wrecked the flat killed Mother. (Her doctor is played by John Paul, who later starred in Doomwatch and played a somewhat similar character in several episodes of The New Avengers.) The need to find Steed and Miranda before the bad guys do is still pressing – so can she remember any details to help them locate Steed’s hide-out?

I suspect that once you know the twist (and it’s a relatively obvious one from the moment you learn Mother has supposedly been blown up), this episode loses a fair amount of its charm, but it does work hard to sell its main idea, as well as disguise the fact Macnee is on light duties (he gets some nice scenes with Douglas, who proceeds to trounce him at every game they play to pass the time – these are all whiffle, not to put too fine a point on it, but Macnee sells them magnificently). It does still rely on Tara conveniently fainting whenever the bad guys need her to, but there’s a strong cast and a clever resolution to the story (in which it’s Mother and Rhonda who deal with the villains, not Steed or Tara). I suspect I’m probably being a little too hard on it, for whatever reason. Hmmm.

Tara is pleased to find Mother is not dead after all. Understated work as ever from Patrick Newell.

Once more unto the unpredictable world of Terry Nation – I really am on the verge of turning into Sue Perryman – for his script Take-Over. This feels very much like something he had on the boil when he got the job as script editor and turned into an Avengers episode, rather than something written specifically for the series.

After a teaser which does nothing but introduce the episode’s gimmick – death by remote control – we learn that Steed is off for a weekend in the country visiting some old friends (Michael Gwynn, perhaps best known as Lord Melbury from Fawlty Towers, and Elizabeth Sellars). Could this be yet another semi-holiday episode? There have been so many of these things one is inclined to wonder if the show isn’t just routinely double-banking at this point; I wouldn’t be surprised.

Any chance of a nice weekend is spoilt when Steed’s friends the Bassetts (who for some reason have a vintage car in their front room) are descended upon by diabolical mastermind Grenville (Tom Adams, very smooth) and his henchmen (one of whom is Garfield Morgan, making his third appearance as a heavy and his second just this season – they stick a toupee on him to try and disguise this a bit). Grenville needs the house for an undisclosed nefarious scheme, but also needs the occupants alive, so rather than kill them he has them fitted with remote-control death implants by his loopy underling Circe (Hilary Pritchard). He has planned for every eventuality – except for Steed arriving unexpectedly…

The death-implants aside, this is a very straight thriller – I seem to recall an episode of the later Clemens series The Professionals with a very similar premise – and played as such by most of the actors. Tom Adams is in expansive Bond-villain mode, but you can imagine him playing the Commander himself on a different day. It’s reasonable stuff, I suppose, with an unusually hard edge for The Avengers – Steed actually gets shot and wounded, for the first time in what must be a couple of years. That’s the thing about it, really: like a lot of Nation’s stuff, it’s okay on its own terms, but he just doesn’t seem to have much feel for the tone and style of this series. Still, this was his final screened contribution – the handful of episodes left are written by either Brian Clemens or Philip Levene. Yes, we’ve nearly finished, at least as far as The Avengers itself is concerned…

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One of the things which has genuinely surprised me about this trawl through The Avengers‘ sixth season – it turns out there are more than a few of these episodes I have no recollection of ever having seen before – is the degree to which it occasionally anticipates The New Avengers. The department-based format obviously helps with this, as does the shift back towards something vaguely realistic. Sometimes the resemblance is not just general, but specific: Complex (New Avengers) has a similar premise to Killer (Avengers), Sleeper has a similar atmosphere (and uses a similar plot device) to The Morning After, and Jeremy Burnham’s Who Was That Man I Saw You With? does have the same kind of plot as Hostage from the sequel show.

Tara has been given special duties, which are to try and breach security around the new Field Marshal defence system: this looks rather like a case of the government putting a super-computer in charge of everything, but it’s an acceptable plot device. As the security system was apparently designed by Steed (in the absence of Cathy or Emma he has apparently become not just the brains of the team, but a very clever chap all-round), she has not been having much luck.

What she doesn’t realise is that a grooming-obsessed diabolical mastermind named Gilpin (Alan Macnaughtan, second appearance of two) is using this exercise to bring about the dismantling of the Field Marshal system and thus leave the country wide open to enemy attack. How he does this is by framing Tara as a traitor, who has been trying to break security in earnest rather than as an exercise: this involves lots of people trailing each other in cars and surreptitious surveillance, and Steed and Mother looking very grave as they contemplate having to put Tara under arrest. It’s quite well-done but just a bit predictable and dour; the bad guys are decent enough, and there are some entertaining fight sequences. A good performance from Linda Thorson, too. I’m not sure that doing ‘serious’ Avengers episodes this late on doesn’t miss the point of the show, but this is certainly one of the better ones.

So it’s come to this: an Avengers clip show. Well, not quite, but the general sense of the sixth season occasionally being a production in complete chaos reaches its zenith (or perhaps nadir) with Homicide and Old Lace, ostensibly written by Malcolm Hulke and Terrance Dicks (who were quite cross about the end results, if memory serves). Two apparently sweet old ladies appear to be cooking up a nasty surprise for Mother when he comes to visit them – but it turns out they are his aunties, and the antique pistols they are waving about are his birthday present.

Mother’s aunties have become big fans of the spy genre and want to hear a true story, so he ends up spinning them a yarn about an attempt by the Intercrime organisation to steal all the art treasures of Britain in one fell swoop. At least, it turns out to be that, once we’ve seen a couple of clips from The Bird Who Knew Too Much and Murdersville; later on, action sequences from The Fear Merchants and Never, Never Say Die are likewise reused, resulting in a bizarre Christopher Lee cameo.

Apparently what happened was this: an episode called The Great Great Britain Crime was on the shelf when John Bryce was sacked and Clemens and Fennell reinstated, but it was deemed unbroadcastable (I can’t believe it was worse than Invasion of the Earthmen) and cannibalised to make this, with the framing material with Mother and his aunties added to cover, or at least fill, the many resulting gaps in the narrative. To say the result is inconsistent is rather an understatement: it’s hard to judge if the original episode was really as bad as all that (the basic premise is actually quite a clever one), and it certainly has an interesting cast (Edward Brayshaw, who briefly appears, ended up making rather more of an impression in another Hulke-Dicks-scripted TV series later in 1969). The rather knowing running commentary from Mother’s aunties on the implausibility of the story is also mildly amusing. But it’s so obviously been slapped together to cover for some massive production slip-up that having the patience to even keep up with the plot becomes a bit of a challenge. Personally I don’t think it’s quite as bad as Invasion of the Earthmen, but it is a real mess.

Steed has just read the script; Rhonda is the only one who thinks the tag scene is funny.

Speaking of Terry Nation scripts, we’re back in his weirdly unpredictable world for the next episode, Thingumajig (which is practically another fridge title). A group of archaeologists are exploring the crypt of a Norman church when one of them comes across something rather mysterious – which promptly kills him with a flash of light and a crackle of electricity. Not obviously Steed and Tara’s wheelhouse, you might think – which Nation gets round by making the vicar of the church in question an old friend of Steed’s, who asks him for help.

Well, all the signs are that something is on the loose that kills people and feeds on electricity, and the story gets a lot of mileage out of the investigative angle of all this, with odd tracks, dead fish, and so on. Steed eventually turns up a mysterious black box, which he gives to Tara for safekeeping. What’s actually going on is that another diabolical mastermind (Iain Cuthbertson) has hit upon a scheme whereby the Other Side will pay him to cripple the UK by unleashing hundreds of homicidal electricity-eating black boxes (these are basically just very cheaply-realised robots), but he’s mislaid two of them…

Steed gets lots to do (this looks rather like a semi-holiday episode for Linda Thorson, as Tara spends most of it in her flat), but it somehow doesn’t feel very much like The Avengers – we’re very near the border between improbable techno-thriller and no-foolin’ sci-fi with this story – and despite the premise it’s all played rather straight. The scene in which Tara is menaced in her flat by a cardboard box that’s been sprayed black has the sort of kitsch grandeur to it you’d normally associate with very primitive sci-fi B-movies rather than a usually-class act like The Avengers, too. Apart from this, it’s a little hard to point to anything genuinely dreadful about it, but it’s still below-par even for season six.

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