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You have to admire the nerve shown by the producers of Mystery and Imagination in doing adaptations of Frankenstein and Dracula in the same year, especially when the year in question was 1968. If that wasn’t quite the point of peak Hammer Horror, it was certainly thereabouts: the company released Dracula Has Risen From the Grave that year, while it was also the off-year between Frankenstein Created Woman and Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed. Beyond the marquee value of the names of these two most well-known Gothic novels, one wonders if there was any further motivation for doing them – some puritanical impulse to strip them of their Hammer trappings and restore them to their place as Classic Literature, perhaps?

There have been a fearful number of Frankensteins and a dreadful number of Draculas down the years, so the same question applies to the Mystery version of Dracula as to their Frankenstein – how to justify it? What makes it a worthwhile addition to the canon? Doing it as a largely studio-bound, black-and-white video-taped production also brings with it a set of additional challenges. Perhaps because of this, this hardly qualifies as an attempt at doing the novel faithfully – but there is a certain fidelity to Stoker, as we shall see.

The play (directed by Patrick Dromgoole) opens in an asylum somewhere in the Whitby area, where a mysterious inmate (the actor Corin Redgrave in a fright wig) is pleading for water from the attendants. But this is just a ruse, and the madman breaks free from his straitjacket and crashes a party being held upstairs by the proprietor, Dr Seward (James Maxwell). Present are local grande dame Mrs Weston (Joan Hickson) and her strikingly nubile daughter Lucy (Susan George). Less nubile and more noble is another guest, an exiled Eastern European aristocrat who has recently arrived in the area – Count Dracula!

Dracula is played by Denholm Elliott, who would normally seem to be cast against type, were it not that Dracula here is to some extent written against type. Eloquent, bearded, and occasionally wearing dark glasses, such is Elliott’s charisma that his sway over weaker-willed locals seems entirely understandable. The madman is packed off to his cell and Dracula continues to charm his hosts, especially Lucy. Seward remains somewhat sceptical about this new figure on the local scene.

However, the mystery of the lunatic deepens with the appearance of Mina Harker (Suzanne Neve), whose husband Jonathan has disappeared while on a business trip to Transylvania to visit Castle Dracula. Seward has called in his old mentor Doctor Van Helsing (Bernard Archard) to consult, and it transpires that the madman in the asylum is indeed Harker, left unhinged by his experiences abroad (there is a brief, filmed flashback to the goings-on at the castle, and very evocative it is too). But why does Harker call Dracula ‘Master’? Why does Dracula profess not to know who the inmate is? And could it all have anything to do with Lucy suddenly coming down with a bad case of anaemia?

As you can perhaps surmise, Charles Graham’s adaptation performs brisk, reasonable surgery on the sprawling source novel, limiting the setting almost entirely to Whitby and the time period to a few nights. (You do miss the London scenes a bit, to say nothing of Transylvania, but the budget is clearly demandingly limited.) The roles of Renfield and Harker are combined, which makes a certain sense as Harker rarely gets anything interesting to do, while Quincey and Arthur are dropped from the story entirely; I have to confess I didn’t miss them at all.

So it’s a cut-down Dracula but still a surprisingly effective one. What we are left with is a potent brew of graveyards, sex, and outraged Victorian sensibilities, so you could certainly argue that the essentials of the story have certainly survived. This could never have been as lavishly lurid as one of the Christopher Lee movies Hammer were doing at the time, but then for all their definite pleasures those films are so often a kind of schlock pantomime. Bereft of eye-catching production values, this version of Dracula is obliged to dig down into the text and actually engage with it in order to work.

But does it succeed? It is certainly a strikingly different version of this much-told fable. Elliott is certainly a very distinctive Dracula, employing his legendary scene-stealing abilities to full effect. You can imagine Christopher Lee grinding his fake teeth in fury as Dracula is actually given dialogue drawn from Stoker’s novel to deliver, which Elliott does with predictable aplomb. Whether the decision to give him rat-like incisor teeth rather than the traditional canine fangs is justified is probably a question of personal taste; the way that Dracula summons up his mesmeric powers by basically just screwing up his eyes and squinting at people is the only real element of Elliott’s performance which definitely feels a bit dud.

You would expect him to have a formidable opponent in the form of Bernard Archard: an actor capable of being mesmeric himself, given the right script and direction. Here, though, Van Helsing’s fake beard is the least of his problems. Rather than the smooth, unflappable savant that Peter Cushing invariably played, Archard’s Van Helsing is a bit rough around the edges and eminently flappable. The play decides to stick with Van Helsing being Dutch, but the good doctor’s battle against the undead is nothing compared to Archard’s struggle to get the accent right. We end up with another one of those vocal Grand Tours: Van Helsing may start off coming from Amsterdam, but at various points in the play he seems to be a native of Pontypool before finally settling on being from somewhere near Karachi. But on the whole Archard is quite acceptable despite this.

The play is mostly well-performed, anyway, especially by Susan George and Suzanne Neve. It is they in particular who make you realise just how bland and inappropriately bloodless most of the sex in the Hammer Dracula movies feels: the women tend to do a lot of limp sighing before quietly yielding to Christopher Lee. Here, there is a genuine erotic charge to the scenes between Dracula and his victims: in this sense at least, the play is a lot more explicit about the nature of the metaphor, for all that it contains no nudity and relatively little gore. The women are given real agency, too: Lucy is clearly dead keen on having a fling with their new neighbour, while Mina likewise seems almost to be an active participant, consciously choosing to become undead.

It all builds up to a final semi-twist in the tale – I say semi-twist because it is so understated, or perhaps just slightly fluffed by the script and direction, that it’s not entirely clear whether this is an intentional thing or not. It’s certainly not enough to spoil one of the better adaptations of Dracula that I have seen. Most attempts just take the premise and ditch as much of the plot as they feel they can get away with, but this one does seem to be making a genuine effort. It keeps enough of the traditional trappings to be recognisable and familiar, but isn’t afraid to try new and different things – even when being new and different means going back to the original book. A worthwhile piece of vampirology.

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Arriving back on a high-number channel like something out of the dark age (a previous one, not the current one), it’s Mystery and Imagination, an anthology series adapting classic horror and supernatural stories. This series was made from 1966 to 1970, so it comes as relatively little surprise to learn that most of the episodes have been junked, with only the last couple of series still surviving. Still, there is some interesting stuff here, such as the series’ take on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. This was originally shown in November 1968 and directed by someone billing himself as Voytek (which sounds a little pretentious until you learn his real name was Wojciech Roman Pawel Jerzy Szendzikowski, at which point it starts to seem like an eminently sensible idea).

There have, obviously, been very many adaptations of Frankenstein over the years, and this is before we even contemplate the colossal influence the novel has exerted on the science-fiction genre of which some would argue it was the main inaugurator. The question is, how do you make your own version of it stand out from the rest of the crowd? The obvious answer is also a very strange one: do the story from the actual novel, as it has never actually been properly attempted.

Well, the Mystery and Imagination adaptation isn’t exactly this, but it does come closer than most. All the material on the ice sheet at the North Pole has been cut, no doubt for budgetary reasons, but Victor Frankenstein is a relatively youthful student in early 19th century Geneva, not a baron with his own castle. Frankenstein is played by Ian Holm, whom I would suggest is not the most obvious choice for the role, but as he is Ian Holm he gives a strong performance (or set of performances; stay tuned). As he is supposedly a student of philosophy, the medical faculty can’t quite figure out why he is always lurking near the post mortem slabs, but the play quite sensibly doesn’t hang around and quickly confirms that Frankenstein has his own hubristic little project in mind.

Shelley, wisely, does not go into detail as to how Frankenstein achieves the thing he is most notorious for, but the play is sort of obliged to, and here we do find some of the stock features of Frankenstein-as-it-is-popularly-perceived starting to appear: Frankenstein acquires a hunchbacked assistant, Fritz (played by Ron Pember), who obligingly robs graves for him. No-one is attempting to do a Swiss-German accent, thankfully, but it is still slightly odd to hear the cor-blimey-guv’nor deliver of the members of the lower orders – then again, this is practically a genre convention of Hammer Horror films, so one should not cavill too much about it here.

Soon enough the lightning crackles (another inheritance from Hollywood Frankensteins) and Frankenstein’s creation twitches into life. (He is billed as ‘The Being’, rather than ‘Monster’ or ‘Creature’.) As the bandages come off, two things rapidly become apparent – firstly, the play’s fidelity to the novel is going to be moderate, at best, for rather than the almost-beautiful giant that Shelley describes, the Being is another patchwork man, heavily stitched together. He is also a bit on the short side, for the second thing to become apparent is that someone in the production has had a Big Idea: the Being is also going to be played by Ian Holm.

While the viewer is still digesting this, the play continues with its somewhat mediated take on the events of the novel. I have to say that there does seem to be some merit to this approach, as there are elements of Frankenstein which frankly strain credulity to the limit – most obviously, the sequence where the Creature learns to speak and read by hiding in a shed and spying on a peasant family living in the hovel next door. Nevertheless, the bit with the Creature and the blind man is one of the things everyone has come to expect, and they duly do it here.

With this out of the way, the play continues to be relatively faithful to the book, up to a point: the murders of William (known here as Wilhelm) and Justine are retained, and the Being does make its usual demand of Frankenstein that he provide it with a female counterpart – although they don’t set this part of the story in the Orkneys. The big question is, with the frame story concerning Captain Walton cut, how are they going to conclude the story?

Well, the ending isn’t awful, but then nor is it fantastic, either. This seems to me to be a reasonable description of Mystery and Imagination‘s take on Frankenstein as a whole. You can tell it’s a fairly lavish production by the standards of 1960s TV, with a reasonable amount of filming included, and Voytek’s direction is capable. You do get a sense that they really did want to do the book by-the-book, but the budget just wasn’t there for all the stuff with sailing ships at the North Pole, and that they may also have had half an eye on meeting audience expectations – hence the scarred, bandaged Being and the use of elements from other adaptations.

Then again, there is the oddity of the double-up casting of Holm as both Frankenstein and Being. You kind of have to have a Big Idea if you’re going to do Frankenstein nowadays – sometimes the big idea can be interesting (exploring the story’s connection with Romanticism), but all too often it turns out to be dreadful (turning the Creature into a superhero, or making Igor the hunchback the main character). The big idea here at least has the virtue of virtually guaranteeing the Being has a strong level of articulacy and agency within the story – the story is, after all, ultimately about the relationship between these two characters, and by turning one of them into a mute brute you lose most of the potential for subtlety and thoughtfulness inherent in that. I suppose that in the end it does work and has a certain power to it, for it certainly plays up the notion of Frankenstein playing God, making his creation in his own image. Holm’s performance as the Being is okay, although the script requires him to go from being icily articulate to sounding like someone recovering from a stroke seemingly at random.

Unfortunately the double-up casting is about the only really distinctive thing about this version of Frankenstein. It’s well-made and well-performed, but it feels like the story is being treated as a rather grisly costume drama rather than a genuine piece of horror or science-fiction. It could use a few more ideas, and a bit more willingness to explore them. Its very respectfulness towards the source makes it a little too cautious to completely succeed.

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How’s this for reductionist humour – Space: 1999? A ha ha ha ha ha! If you wanted to be a little more decompressed, you might bring up the issue of the show’s entry in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (‘see also: Scientific Errors’), the episode with the killer plants of Luton, the perpetually baffled chief scientist Victor Bergman (default response to any query: ‘Well, John, I just haven’t a clue’), and so on. The fact that the series has been brought to a whole new generation by the good folk at the Horror Channel is surely enough to give anyone cause to smile, even in times as difficult as our own.

Some context for the uninitiated: Space 1999 was a big-budget SF series made in the 1970s under the auspices of Gerry Anderson (he of Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet fame), although by this point he had moved on from the stilted, wooden performances given by puppets, having discovered you could get a similar result from living actors with the right kind of scripting and direction. By this point Anderson had already turned down Stanley Kubrick’s offer to do the special effects on 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it does seem like that movie was at the back of his mind when he came to make Space: 1999 – apart from the similarity in titles, this was an attempt at the same kind of blend of seriously-imagined ‘realistic’ space fiction and enigmatic cosmic mysticism.

The problem with the show is that the format doesn’t easily fit into either of these categories. The premise is that, in September 1999, nuclear waste dumps on the Moon explode, blasting it out of orbit and sending it zooming across the cosmos, encountering alien life and stellar mysteries on pretty much a weekly basis. It’s one of those formats which is frankly so absurd the show can’t even acknowledge its own implausibility, to say nothing of the fact the series is predicated on the fact that the crew of Moonbase Alpha can never arrive anywhere nice or meet anyone especially helpful, as this would destroy the format.

Even a show as daft as Space: 1999 occasionally throws up a decent episode, however, which brings us to Earthbound, written by Anthony Terpiloff, directed by Charles Crichton, and originally broadcast in December 1975. I must have originally caught it on a Saturday lunchtime repeat in 1981 or 82; this may be a dud series, on the whole, but a couple of episodes have lodged in my memory, and this is one of them.

The character driving this episode is Commissioner Simmonds (Roy Dotrice), a desk-orbiting political operator with an extraordinary choice of hairstyle and beard. Simmonds has been stuck on the Moon since the opening episode, which (as this is the fourteenth episode in the run as originally transmitted) kind of leads one to wonder where he’s been in the intervening time, given he’s such an obtrusively obnoxious individual (the episode would maybe make more sense located earlier in the chronology of the show). Simmonds is fixated on trying to get back to Earth, despite the fact this is obviously impossible, which doesn’t half tick off actual commander John Koenig (imported American star Martin Landau).

Still, it soon turns out that Simmonds isn’t the only one thinking along those lines, as an alien ship makes a forced landing on the Moon (it is an interesting shade of blue and looks like a sort of novelty vase or ornament). The Alphans go aboard and discover what seems to be a glam rock band lying in state, inside sealed glass cabinets. Not having their own copy of the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and thus being unaware that it is always, always a bad idea to interfere with apparently dead aliens, chief medical officer Dr Russell (Landau’s real-life wife Barbara Bain) tries to open one of the boxes but only succeeds in incinerating the occupant. Oops.

Looking on the bright side, this at least perks all the other aliens up a bit, particularly their leader, Captain Zantor, who gets all the dialogue. This is no bad thing as under the wig and the make-up is Christopher Lee, fresh off the set of The Man with the Golden Gun and well on his way to well-deserved living legend status already. It seems the ship is from the dying planet of Kaldor, and the six (now five) crew members are heading for Earth, intending to settle there (if the people of the planet permit them). Their ship was programmed to go into orbit around the Moon, which has still happened even though the Moon is not where it was supposed to be. The Kaldorians accept the various cock-ups which have beset them with good grace, and announce they’re going to continue on to Earth, seventy-five years’ voyage away, and, as they now have a free stasis box, they offer to take one of the Alphans with them.

The future’s bright – the future’s… various shades of beige, apparently.

Koenig decides to get the base computer to select the best person to receive this free ticket back to Earth, but Simmonds isn’t standing for any of that sort of nonsense (he has already suggested Koenig kill all the Kaldorians and seize their ship). Proving unexpectedly trigger-happy for a politician, he zaps his way into the power unit and basically takes the reactor hostage, insisting on being the one to take the spare berth on the alien ship. Zantor agrees, amidst much grumbling from the rest of the crew who quite rightly think that it’s not right that Simmonds should get away with this.

But will he? No-one has bothered to tell him the aliens need to create a special hibernation matrix keyed to whoever is using the stasis cabinet for it to function, with the result that Simmonds wakes up in his cabinet only three hours into the seventy-five year flight. Already the ship has departed and is beyond the range of Alpha’s support craft to reach; he is sealed in, unable to affect the ship. He screams and thrashes around helplessly in his box as the alien craft glides on through space…

It’s a memorably nasty conclusion, and of course the double whammy that sets it off so well is yet to come: when asked who the computer selected to send on the flight, Koenig reveals the inevitable answer – Simmonds. The Commissioner would have got his own way regardless.

Watching Earthbound again now, it is not quite as impressive as my memory suggested, but then neither is Space: 1999 in general quite as useless as it is popularly held to be. It remains, on a fundamental level, an awkward mash-up of the space opera stylings of Star Trek and the more philosophical approach copied, clumsily, from 2001, but the special effects are quite as good as you’d expect from an Anderson series and the production values are generally pretty good too. Barry Gray’s scores are also always a highlight of an Anderson show.

This is still a superior episode, the thing that lets it down being the way that Simmonds is presented. Leaving aside the fact that such a prominent figure seems to have materialised out of thin air in the gap between episodes, he’s just not plausible as a character. There’s potential for him to have been borderline-sympathetic – he ended up stranded on the Moon by accident, he’s not a trained specialist or astronaut like the rest of the crew, after all – but he’s written as a ruthless, self-interested villain, almost bordering on the psychotic. It’s not quite a panto turn from Roy Dotrice (usually a dependable actor) but the script kind of requires him to turn it up a bit too far to be credible.

The same is not the case when it comes to the episode’s genuine special guest star, Christopher Lee. Lee is really up against it, given the costume and make-up he is required to perform in (originally, heavier prosthetics were planned for the Kaldorians, but Lee refused to wear them), but as you would expect he rises to the occasion magnificently. You quite rarely get actors of Lee’s distinction playing guest aliens in space opera TV shows, and too often the resulting performances are just, well, not very impressive – for whatever reason, they don’t seem to be particularly trying to portray a genuinely alien being and just treat the make-up or whatever as a special kind of hat beneath which they just give a standard performance. Exceptions to this are few and far between; honourable mention must go to Martin Sheen’s appearance in Babylon 5, but also to Lee here – there is something genuinely unearthly and detached about his demeanour and line-readings here. The big question left open at the end of the episode is one of whether Zantor has deliberately arranged things so Simmonds meets his awful fate at the end; Lee’s performance is carefully pitched to give no indication, which just adds to the creepiness of the conclusion.

I expect that the discerning modern viewer would look at Earthbound nowadays and just say ‘This is rubbish’, and not without a smidgeon of justification – in addition to all its other faults, Space: 1999 simply hasn’t aged at all well. But in the context of the series this is still a superior instalment, and that ending does stay with you. And while the rest of the series may be even more rubbish, at least it is interesting, often unintentionally funny rubbish, and you have to take your pleasures where you can these days.

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Every time I think the internet has lost its capacity to startle me, something comes along to – well, startle me. The nature of the world’s most popular video sharing website being what it is, I’m never especially surprised to find obscure old movies posted there in its quiet corners – were this not the case, I might never have seen The Deadly Mantis or Night of the Lepus. Even the least distinguished films have a habit of turning up on budget DVD, such is the nature of the medium, but when it comes to old TV shows… well, even today I would imagine there are hundreds of thousands of hours of material which has never been licensed for commercial release; there are whole series which have slipped out of the collective memory. For example, I’d never heard of an ITV play strand entitled Against the Crowd, which apparently ran for one series in 1975 – until I came across a complete episode available for viewing. How did this even happen?!

Of course, it turns out that my initial surprise may have been a bit premature, for the episode in question has the unique distinction: unlike the rest of the run, it has enjoyed a DVD release, having been included as a special feature on the box set of Beasts when that came out. This, I suspect, is the source of the copy which is available to watch. The reason Murrain got added to Beasts is that it was written by Nigel Kneale, effectively acting as an unofficial pilot for the later series, and I suppose part of my surprise at discovering this play is that I thought I was familiar with virtually everything Kneale wrote for TV, certainly in the 1960s and 1970s.

Certainly Murrain resembles an episode of Beasts, clearly being made on a low budget – shot on videotape and on location. The play is set somewhere in the north of England. David Simeon (one of those actors who isn’t famous by any stretch of the imagination, but is still one of those faces you kind of recognise if you’re anything like me) plays Alan Crich, an idealistic young veterinary officer with the local council, who as the story begins arrives at the pig farm of a man named Beeley (Bernard Lee, best known for appearing in the first dozen or so Bond films). Beeley’s pigs are suffering from an unidentified sickness which Crich’s ministrations have so far been unable to cure; Beeley is not impressed, to put it mildly, and the atmosphere between the two men is soon tense.

Then Beeley announces he’s going to show Crich a few other points of interest, and marches him off to where the pipeline drawing from the local spring has completely dried up, for no apparent reason. Finally, Crich is taken to the local shop, where the owner’s child is also ill, again with an unidentified sickness. Crich can’t make out what Beeley and his men are driving at until they make it absolutely clear to him: it is their sincere belief that the old woman who lives up the hill is a witch, and has placed what they refer to as a murrain (in other words, a curse) on the pigs and other things.

So far in the play, Kneale has been working diligently to draw the contrasts between Crich and Beeley (who do most of the talking between them) – Crich is young, well-spoken, college-educated, polite, while Beeley is older, rough around the edges, practical. What follows at this point is a decent enough articulation of differing views when it comes to witchcraft and the supernatural, with Beeley rehearsing the argument that what may seem weird and miraculous now could easily be explained by science at some point in the future, and that Crich has no right to dismiss their concerns out of hand. But Crich just dismisses their concerns out of hand, thus – you would think – setting him up for a touch of nemesis before the end of the play.

The locals want Crich to visit the supposed witch (played by Una Brandon-Hill – the woman is supposedly ‘very old’ but Brandon-Hill was under sixty at the time) and perform a ritual that will break her power over them. He makes the visit, but refuses to play exorcist, and instead finds what he expects to find – an old, lonely, slightly pathetic woman, who is apparently being bullied by her neighbours. He resolves to make amends…

There’s very little wrong with the narrative carpentry in Murrain, except for the fact that it becomes very obvious early on just how the thing is going to play out: Crich is so openly contemptuous of the superstitions of Beeley and the others that the only way this can possibly end is for there to be just a suggestion that the villagers have been right all along, and he has been unwittingly assisting the forces of darkness. And so it proves, but if anything Kneale plays it too safe, as the ending is just a bit flat. The only point of ambiguity is that of whether the old woman genuinely does have access to some kind of Power with a capital P, or whether she and the other locals share the same delusion (the special effects budget of Murrain is approximately no-money-whatsoever, so everything is left very ambiguous).

Of course, this being a Nigel Kneale script, Murrain is also notable for its thorough-going, indiscriminate misanthropy. As I may well have said in the past, Nigel Kneale doesn’t have prejudices – he treats everyone with equal disdain and contempt, whether that’s for being idealistic and naïve, or ignorant and crude. This is a fairly bleak play in every respect, but it’s also a very solidly written one, let down slightly by its predictability and also by the low production values involved. There’s obviously a sort of family resemblance to Beasts, but one suspects that series came about more due to Kneale’s reputation than because of the quality of this particular play.

Watching Murrain now, it isn’t an outstanding piece of work in any respect, but it still represents something that we have lost in modern TV – who does low-budget single dramas any more? No-one at all in the UK, not on free to air TV at least. There is no place for this kind of drama any more, and I can’t help thinking that’s a shame.

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In the Earth Year 1979, one thing that everyone involved in commissioning films and TV series was absolutely certain of was that science fiction and fantasy had suddenly become very, very popular over the previous couple of years. As producing popular movies and shows is basically part of the job description for these people, the inevitable result was the late-seventies boom in SF and fantasy, which resulted in a vast number of frankly variable new projects hitting screens both large and small. Some of these were very good, many of them were extremely poor, and a few of them are clearly the work of people with only the vaguest ideas about what science fiction is.

Which brings us to the 1979 version of Quatermass, written (of course) by Nigel Kneale and directed by Piers Haggard (who had previously been in charge of the cult folk horror movie Blood on Satan’s Claw, which has a few very vague similarities to this). Also known as Quatermass IV and The Quatermass Conclusion, this had started life as a project for the BBC some years earlier, which progressed as far as some initial special effects filming before the corporation had second thoughts about the tone and expense of the undertaking. It is understandable why the commercial network ITV would want to take over a prestigious project by a celebrated screenwriter, especially given the fact that it was the late 70s and this is ostensibly an SF show, but watching the end result you can’t help but wonder if the BBC weren’t right in the first place.

 

The proper big movie star John Mills plays Professor Q. The story has a near-future setting which, nearly 40 years on, inevitably feels rather quaint: there are various not-very-subtle references to King Charles being on the throne, but the USSR is still a going concern. Things have not changed for the better, however – ‘in the last quarter of the twentieth century, the whole world seemed to sicken,’ intones the opening monologue of the story. Things seem pre-apocalyptic, if not actually apocalyptic, from the word go, with law and order breaking down in the UK, dead bodies in the streets, armed gangs on the rampage, and regular power cuts. (Some of which must have seemed very familiar to a country which had recently experienced the rise of punk rock and the Winter of Discontent.)

With the British Rocket Group apparently disbanded (there are vague allusions to the events of the previous three Quatermass serials), Quatermass has been living in seclusion in Scotland, and is shocked when he returns to London, ostensibly to appear on a live broadcast covering a joint Russian-American space mission. Practically the first thing that happens to him is an attempted mugging, from which he is rescued by Joe Kapp (Simon MacCorkindale), a radio astronomer booked for the same show. Uncompromising as ever, Quatermass goes on live TV and dismisses the mission as an empty display from two diseased superpowers that is bound to end in disaster, before revealing why he’s really decided to appear: his teenaged granddaughter has disappeared and he is desperate to find her. Naturally, he is yanked off the air, but moments later something mysteriously causes the spacecraft to disintegrate in orbit, killing all the crew…

Finding his suspiciously-accurate prophecy of doom has made him a person of interest to the authorities, Quatermass takes refuge with Kapp and his wife (Barbara Kellermann) at their bodged-together radio telescope installation in the countryside. On the way he and Kapp encounter members of a mystical youth cult, the Planet People, who speak of being transported to another world by mysterious forces. Kapp is scornful of this anti-intellectualism, but Quatermass is not entirely unsympathetic and decides to visit the local stone circle which the Planet People are congregating at.

While he and the Kapps are there, however, something rather unexpected happens: a blinding column of light descends from the sky, striking the circle and the hundreds of cult members assembled there, and when it withdraws only an ashy detritus remains of them. Other Planet People believe that the worthy have been transported to another world – but Quatermass and Kapp draw a different conclusion, that the young people have been obliterated. It emerges that similar visitations have been happening around the world, the first of which coincided with the destruction of the space mission.

Quatermass slowly draws the threads together and realises what is happening: an implacable alien force which first visited Earth five thousand years previously has returned and is harvesting the youth of the human race, drawing them to assembly points (many of them marked by stone circles and the like) and then vaporising them. Quatermass speculates that this is just some kind of machine, not an actual sentience, and that it is functioning on behalf of ‘unimaginable beings’ who have a taste for human protein, and nothing on screen contradicts him, naturally. But can anything be done to stop the slaughter of the human race?

I imagine that for many modern viewers, the first thing that will strike them about Quatermass is the extent to which it clearly appears to have inspired the Torchwood mini-series Children of Earth, because both programmes have basically the same plot – alien forces return to Earth intent on devouring, one way or another, the youth of the planet. In both cases the response of the authorities leaves much to be desired, and it falls to the outspoken outsider to see what needs to be done and make the necessary terrible sacrifice. That said, while Children of Earth is a pretty bleak element of the larger franchise of which it is a part, it is still in many ways a musical comedy version of the story, compared to Quatermass – many years ago I met someone who had it on VHS, and his opinion was that it was ‘the most depressing thing you will ever see’.

He kind of had a point. Most late-seventies SF, both on TV and in the cinema, followed very much in the wake of George Lucas’ first stellar conflict movie, which after all inaugurated the SF and fantasy boom to begin with – swashbuckling action, cute robots, and ray gun battles were very nearly de rigeur. Quatermass has no truck with this, being firmly ensconced in the ‘bloody miserable’ tradition of British SF. And it’s a very particular kind of miserabilism, too: on some level the story is about a clash between science and anti-intellectualism (Kneale seems to have had an almost superstitious dread of the latter – there are several scenes in which previously-sensible characters encounter the Planet People and somehow become ‘infected’ with their New Age beliefs, abandoning their former friends and responsibilities), but it’s also about the conflict between youth and age.

Quatermass seems to be in his seventies in this story (Mills was 71 at the time), but Kneale was only in his late fifties when it was broadcast, and considerably younger when the project was originally conceived. So it is a little disconcerting that this should feel so much like an old man’s wail of rage and despair against a changing world. This is very Daily Mail SF: everything is getting worse and worse, society is heading for collapse, football hooliganism is a blight on society, young people don’t respect their elders and have all kinds of ridiculous ideas, the telly is filled with sex and violence. We tend to think of SF as an inherently youthful and progressive genre: but this is SF in reactionary mode, the generation gap viewed from the senior side – the central metaphor being that young people seem alien to their elders because they are indeed subject to some extraterrestrial influence that older and wiser heads are immune to.

Naturally, it falls to Quatermass and a picked team of elderly boffins to resolve the crisis (young people can’t be trusted, due to their susceptibility to the alien ‘fluence) – making tea and sandwiches for everyone is Ethel from EastEnders (there are quite a few familiar faces in supporting roles here – Toyah Willcox pops up as a Planet Person, Brenda Fricker plays one of Kapp’s team, Brian Croucher appears as a cop). Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong or necessarily stupid about this as a piece of storytelling, it’s just so very peculiar and at odds with how TV SF usually operates that you almost can’t help reacting negatively to it – the doomy bleakness of the whole thing doesn’t help much, either.

This is not to say the storytelling is perfect – the manner in which Kneale kills off both the leading female characters can’t help but feel rather arbitrary, while he can’t help letting his interest in Judaism (a feature of many later scripts) show, to no very obvious purpose. But on the whole this is a solid story, lavishly realised for the most part – although the model work on the spacecraft sequences is really quite poor. The writer, typically generous to his collaborators, apparently felt that Mills lacked the authority to play Quatermass, and that MacCorkindale was ‘very good at playing an idiot’, but all the performances in this series seem perfectly acceptable to me.

It’s not the acting that sticks with you after watching Quatermass, anyway, nor even much of the story: what stays are a few images and a general sense of the all-consuming mood of despair and hopelessness which suffuses the story from start to (very nearly) finish. This is well-achieved and sustained, but not particularly easy or relaxing to watch. This is SF, but not escapism; not a cautionary tale about how things could be worse in the future, but a jeremiad about how bad they are now. It’s competently made, but inevitably depressing: that’s really the point of it. It’s watchable, and occasionally impressive, but really difficult to warm to or genuinely like.

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Well, now, here’s a slightly odd coincidence – just the other day I was writing about the film career of the Hungarian-British director Peter Sasdy, and (in a couple of quite separate venues) about horror films with the disjointed, compelling logic of a bad dream. And then last night I stuck on a random DVD, solely for pleasure, and it turned out to be a bad-dream horror story directed by Peter Sasdy. Either my subconscious mind is rather more on the ball than its conscious equivalent, or a cry of ‘Whoo, spooky!’ is justified.

The tale in question was an episode of Hammer House of Horror, a 1980 anthology series which was very nearly the final gasp of the original incarnation of the legendary British production company. I would never argue that this is either a great TV show or a real example of what makes real Hammer horror movies so special – the TV budget means that the episodes are all set in contemporary times, making it feel somewhat more like an Amicus production, while the desire to sell the show to a US network means the horror and exploitation elements are too often watered down – but quite a few of the famous Hammer names are involved in various capacities, such as Sasdy in this instance.

This episode is entitled Rude Awakening, written by Gerald Savory, and its particular Amicus resemblance is somewhat heightened by the fact it stars that legend amongst British character actors, Denholm Elliott (he had previously played a hack horror writer in The House that Dripped Blood and one of the victims of Tom Baker’s voodoo paintbrush in Vault of Horror, both for Amicus). This is, as far as I’m aware, the only conjunction of Hammer and Denholm Elliott, but the result is one of the series’ more striking episodes.

Elliott plays Norman Shenley, a middle-aged provincial estate-agent whom the actor invests with all the understated seediness he often brought to this kind of part – although calling it understated may be stretching a point, as virtually the first thing we see Norman do is start letching over and groping his secretary, Lolly (Lucy Gutteridge). Norman is having an affair with Lolly, of course, although there is the slight problem that his wife (Pat Heywood) refuses to grant him the divorce he so desperately wants.

Anyway: a man named Rayburn (James Laurenson) appears, claiming to be the executor of a will with a large country house to be disposed of. He would quite like Norman to take a look at the place in his professional capacity, and our man cheerfully agrees. His enthusiasm is only slightly dented when the manor turns out to be a half-decrepit, cobweb-festooned old pile, complete with spooky doors that open seemingly by themselves and wall-to-wall suits of armour. But then a disembodied voice berates Norman for the murder of his wife, and the armour creaks into life to exact retribution on the hapless estate agent…

Who wakes up in a panic, rather annoying his wife in the process. It was all just a bad dream, apparently – but so realistic! Norman can’t get over it, talking to his wife about, and Lolly when he goes in to the office. He’s so obsessed with his odd nocturnal experience that Lolly suggests he drive out to see if the country house really exists. Discovering that he still has the map given to him by Rayburn in his pocket (somehow!), Norman finds the house is not there, but a phone box is. He almost dies when the box threatens to combust around him, spying a tramp who resembles Rayburn while doing so, but then enjoys a somewhat torrid interlude with Lolly (still in the phone box)…

Only to wake up yet again, back in bed with his unimpressed missus. One of the bricks you could throw at Rude Awakening is that the structure of the story becomes rather predictable as the episode progresses – Norman wakes up from his latest nightmare, restarts the day in question, only for events to go off at some odd tangent or other, normally resulting in him meeting an outlandish sticky end. The sticky ends get progressively more outlandish in the course of the episode – never mind being assaulted by animated suits of armour, Norman finds himself executed by undead domestic staff, almost killed when the building he’s in is demolished around him, and (most surreal of all) waking up midway through brain surgery to find himself dead on the operating table.

All good fun, if you like weird, not-especially-horrific horror, but the problem is really that it builds the viewer’s expectations of something really spectacularly surreal at the climax of the episode, and unfortunately it just doesn’t happen. The conclusion is reasonably clever, though, as is the way the script combines several different story types – Rude Awakening goes for, and pretty much achieves the triple by including elements of a recurring nightmare story, a precognitive dream story, and a can’t-tell-dream-from-reality story. It’s clear from early on that something fishy is afoot – Norman doesn’t seem at all surprised to find a dream artefact in his pocket while he’s supposedly awake, to say nothing of the fact that he doesn’t notice Lolly appearing in a different provocative guise in each new iteration of the story – but the resolution, when it comes, is relatively understated. It may be that it is in fact supposed to be blackly comic – after so many fake demises, Norman ends up assuming he’s asleep, which proves to be a serious mistake – but the script is not quite sharp enough for the results to be particularly amusing.

That said, there is, of course, a masterly performance from Denholm Elliott to enjoy, which is the episode’s main treat. Ineffectual and/or seedy men were really his speciality, usually in a supporting capacity, and he is, it almost goes without saying, on fine form here. He keeps you watching even after it’s become quite clear how the episode’s going to function, even if not where it’s going. And Sasdy has fun with the more surreal elements of the story, which are quite different from the stuff of the relatively grounded feature films he made for Hammer. Rude Awakening probably counts as only a minor item on the CV of both men, but it brings a certain style of surreal British horror to the small screen reasonably effectively.

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It goes without saying that the new Thunderbirds (aka Thunderbirds Are Go) has been made for a fresh, young audience, unencumbered by nostalgia for the original series – but should it, though? (Go without saying, I mean.) After all, when I went to a revival of the classic Gerry Anderson puppet shows last year, I was one of the younger people there, and who exactly was it who funded a new attempt at the ‘lost’ Anderson show Firestorm on Kickstarter in record time? I doubt it was the very young audience ITV appears to be gunning for.

Nevertheless, the kids are whom ITV clearly have in their sights as far as the new show is concerned, this even extending to putting first-run episodes on at 8am rather than at a more family-friendly time. Well, we’ll see: fan outcry wasn’t enough to make them give New Captain Scarlet a proper timeslot ten years ago, and I doubt it will here, either. I see they have ordered another run of episodes already (and did so well before the series even debuted). Can’t argue with confident people.

Anyway, what are we to make of the new show? Having been a fan of the original series for nigh-on 35 years it is obviously difficult for me to be properly objective about it (especially when Gerry Anderson himself gets only a very cursory credit in the end titles). I suppose the best thing to do is to look at the changes which have been made and see what they in turn tell us about how the world has moved on in the last 50 years.

jeff

The most obvious difference, perhaps, is simply in the medium of the thing: original Thunderbirds was a mixture of (super)marionettes and physical modelwork, while new Thunderbirds has dumped the puppets in favour of CGI animation. The least one can say is that this results in a show with a very distinct (less charitable people might say ‘odd’) aesthetic, especially when CGI elements are inserted into scenes with physical models.

One might wonder why they didn’t just switch to full CGI (as New Captain Scarlet did), but I suppose the half-and-half decision is justified by the modelwork of the Thunderbirds themselves, which is frequently stunningly beautiful (and, to be honest, the thing which really kept me watching the first episode). The subtly-modified industrial aesthetic of the machines is, I suppose, the best compromise possible between the original designs and what’s credible nowadays. Set against this, I feel moved to comment on just how dreadful some of the special effects were, particularly any scene featuring FAB1 and the ‘English countryside’, which strongly brought to mind episodes of Postman Pat.

Of course, the main reason why the classic Anderson shows were so hardware-intensive was because of the limitations inherent in the use of puppets as characters: the response was to stick the puppets in rockets or subs or tanks and let the machinery carry the plot. New Thunderbirds‘ CGI characters are more flexible, and as a result it seemed to me that the Tracy boys were taking a more athletic approach to rescuing in the opening installment.

The big deal about Thunderbirds, not to mention the other shows from the same stable, was that it was the result of steely determination on the part of a film-maker forced to work in a medium he despised, but doing his damnedest to compromise as little as possible. As a result, old Thunderbirds looked like nothing else on TV in terms of its production values, and some of the scripts were not without elements aimed squarely over the kids’ heads. I didn’t see much sign of that in the new show – then again, kids TV is more sophisticated now anyway – and that garish, cartoony aesthetic didn’t really win me over, either.

I’m afraid the same goes for Ring of Fire‘s plot. It obviously remains to be seen how representative this episode is of the series as a whole, but it was a bit frantic. Will they feel obliged to use all five (sorry, six) Thunderbirds in every episode? That could result in some fairly tortuous plotting. And – this will sound strange – I was sort of disappointed that the plot actually hung together and made sense, more or less, being completely bereft of the more lunatic elements that were such an integral part of the products of the Anderson script system.

To be honest, I got an ominous whiff of JJ Abrams’ Star Trek from the series opener: permit me to explain why. This isn’t a completely from-scratch relaunch of the series, as the script takes it for granted that the audience already knows who everybody was, not to mention the nature of International Rescue and its mission statement. (The glorious pre-credits hero shot of Thunderbird 2 would probably have a lot less impact on a complete newby.) The outfit has clearly been operating for some time before the series begins, and the characters have already acquired a bit of new backstory, which is not the same as that in the original show (that was set in 2065, five years after the date given here). In short, the series is trading heavily on audience knowledge of and affection for Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds, but using this to tell its own rather different set of stories. The makers eat their cake – but, as if by magic, they still seem to have it.

One of the incidental pleasures of hanging around certain SF-themed websites with a particular kind of militant agenda is the comments you often see. Someone actually grumbled that the Tracy brothers (that’s ‘brothers’ as in ‘male relatives sharing the same parents’) were not more diverse when it came to their gender or ethnicity. I hope the decision to give Tin Tin – sorry, Kayo – a more engaged, (sigh) kick-ass role, not to mention her own Thunderbird, will keep the Diversity Police happy. I don’t really have a problem with it. Making Brains Asian, on the other hand troubles me a little: not because I have a problem with a non-white character being a technical genius, but because I think it almost turns him into the dubious stereotype of the effete, wobble-headed Asian wimp. Naturally – I say ‘naturally’ – one of the original show’s more prominently non-white characters, the Hood, has become rather more ethnically anonymous in the new series. Diversity is a good thing, of course, but not to the point that you can have non-white villains any more. Hmmm.

All of this is fairly small potatoes compared to my biggest grumble with the series, namely: where the hell is Jeff? Without the Tracy patriarch, International Rescue just feels like a ship without a captain. Who’s in charge, anyway? It doesn’t seem to be Scott. Is it actually John? (Gerry Anderson will be spinning in his grave like a lathe.) Is the organisation some kind of free-form collective nowadays? Hmmph. Clearly, parental authority is not where the kids are at these days, and if that doesn’t tell you a lot about cultural differences between 1965 and 2015, nothing will.

Despite all this, the new show was clearing working quite hard to keep the long-term fanbase on board, with little references like Dr Meddings’ name, a casual mention of Thunderbird 1’s MIDAS system, the use of actual footage from Stingray, and – perhaps a bit tenuous, this – one model design seemingly being influenced by the iconic Eagle transporter from Space: 1999. The quality of some of the modelwork, along with the pleasure of spotting these little references, is just about enough to make me tune in again for the second episode, but I strongly doubt this is a series anyone will have very strong memories of even in ten years time, let alone fifty.

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