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Posts Tagged ‘Roy Thinnes’

For a film directed by a relatively obscure journeyman, 1969’s Doppelganger (perhaps better known as Journey to the Far Side of the Sun, especially in the US) has a remarkably distinctive creative identity to it: I imagine that many people, of a certain age at least, could be shown a rough cut without credits and still come away with a very firm idea of who exactly the prime mover behind it was. From the very start, the music is instantly recognisable as the work of the composer Barry Gray, and the model work (which is extensive) is equally obviously the work of Derek Meddings and his team. Even if you don’t know these names, you will recognise the style from dozens of episodes of Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, and other TV shows originated by Gerald Alexander Anderson (Gerry to the world).

It has become one of those quite-well-known stories that, at some point in the middle 1960s, Gerry Anderson was taken out to lunch by Stanley Kubrick, who offered him the chance to do the model unit filming for 2001: A Space Odyssey. History does not recall exactly why, but Anderson turned Kubrick down – however, it looks like the eventual success of the film clearly had an impact on Anderson, who always seems to have wanted to be taken seriously as a film-maker, and it sometimes feels as if much of Anderson’s subsequent work was an attempt to make up for this missed opportunity and somehow show the world what the Gerry Anderson version of 2001 would have been like.

Doppelganger was directed by Robert Parrish, completed in 1968, and then sat on the shelf for a year before its eventual release. By this point Anderson had a string of successful puppet shows under his belt, but, as ever, was aching to get into live action, and a meeting with an executive from Universal Pictures gave him his opportunity: this film was the result.

The plot is initiated by surprising results from a deep-space probe sent to the vicinity of the sun: photos indicate the existence of a hitherto-unsuspected planet on the opposite side of the sun from Earth, in the same orbital path and travelling at the same speed, hence the other planet has remained hidden from terrestrial observers. Tough, hard-bitten head of European space research Jason Webb (Patrick Wymark, basically reprising his role as tough, hard-bitten mogul John Wilder in TV’s The Power Game) uses all his wily skills to get the penny-pinching governments of Europe to club together with NASA to pay for a space flight to survey the new planet (this will cost one billion dollars, or apparently three thousand million pounds: what this says about exchange rates in the film’s near-future setting I leave to others to decide).

As part of the funding deal (for the movie as well as the space mission), the chief astronaut is veteran American pilot Glenn Ross (Roy Thinnes, fresh from his stint as architect David Vincent in The Invaders), while there to do the science, provide character support, and turn up drunk on set is British astrophysicist John Kane (Ian Hendry). Soon enough – actually, not nearly soon enough, for we are nearly half-way into the movie already – the ship blasts off for its three-week trip to the new planet (the two astronauts spend it in a primitive form of suspended animation). Finding the new world to have a breathable atmosphere, a landing gets underway – but it goes badly wrong, and the lander is destroyed as it crashes into a bleak and rocky landscape.

But just when things look terminally bleak for Ross and Kane, they are surprised to find themselves saved, by what appears to be an Air-Sea Rescue vehicle. Apparently they have crash-landed back on Earth, in Mongolia. Kane has been grievously injured, but Ross finds himself dragged in front of Webb and his associates, demanding to know why the mission turned back and has returned to Earth rather than surveying the new planet as planned. Ross has no answer to this – but begins to get an inkling of an explanation when he notices that all the writing around him now appears to be reversed, as if appearing in a mirror…

The good news about Doppelganger is that it displays all the technical skill and inventiveness of the operation that Anderson had put together over the preceding decade: the model-work is superb and innovative, resulting in a deserved Oscar nomination for special effects. At this point in time, it’s fair to say that no-one was doing better model effects than Derek Meddings and his technicians. The bad news, on the other hand, is that the script for Doppelganger was largely written by Gerry Anderson himself, with the assistance of his wife Sylvia.

Now, I have a great and enduring fondness for Anderson and his work (I will even watch the odd episode of second-season Space: 1999 if there is nothing else on TV), but only the most devoted fan would deny there were limitations to his talent. Anderson’s genius was as an originator of ideas and as a producer – when it comes to actual story-telling and the scripts he wrote himself, one is likely in for a very bumpy ride, not least because, as the producer of his own scripts, he generally had the power to stop the directors from making any changes (improvements) to them.

The basic premise of Doppelganger (the existence of a mirror- or counter-Earth which is a near-perfect duplicate) was probably approaching the status of SF old chestnut even in 1968, and part of the problem is that Anderson seems to have thought the notion itself was strong enough to carry the movie. It’s not: the film doesn’t seem interested in the philosophical or metaphysical possibilities of the idea, and why the other Earth differs only in that everything seems to have been reflected is never explained. And as the central idea of the story, it doesn’t really go anywhere or lend itself to a compelling plot – the climax they come up with here feels very contrived and abrupt.

Of course, there is also the issue of the sluggish pacing and structure of the film. It’s almost a hallmark of many Anderson productions that he seems to be much more interested in process than in plot – you remember all those elaborate sequences in Thunderbirds of people rotating through walls, going down ramps, etc, all leading up to the launching of one of the Thunderbird vehicles? That’s the kind of thing I mean. There’s another one at the start of the movie Thunderbirds Are Go, where we see the Zero-X spacecraft being assembled prior to launch: this goes on for about five minutes, without any dialogue. No matter how much you love model effects, it is slow and adds nothing essential to the plot. And it’s the same kind of material that hobbles Doppelganger: it turns out there’s a spy in the European space agency (this is Herbert Lom, basically doing a cameo), and there’s a pointlessly long and involved sequence detailing how he develops the photos he takes with his secret bionic-eye-camera. The sequence of the astronauts transferring to their lander before attempting touchdown on the other Earth is a similar offender.

That said, as a new kind of venture for the Anderson organisation, Doppelganger introduces some innovative varieties of mis-step to the repertoire. Most of these seem to derive from Anderson’s fierce desire to be seen as more than just a maker of children’s TV programmes. He was apparently desperately keen to establish this as a movie for an adult audience by including a nude scene for one or both of the female stars (Loni von Friedl and Thinnes’ real-life wife Lynn Loring), and ructions ensued on set when the director wanted to go in a more subtle direction. There’s something similarly odd and jarring about scenes concerning tensions in the Rosses’ marriage and their apparent inability to have children, which may or may not be due to radiation he was exposed to in space. You think, aha, when he gets to the mirror-Earth his counterpart will be happily married with kids – but no. This goes nowhere too.

Doppelganger is not great in all kinds of ways, but for the dedicated follower of things Andersonian it is obviously of some interest – not least because of the number of ways it anticipates the way the rest of his live-action career would develop. The interest in slightly laborious metaphysical SF would find its fullest expression in the first season of Space: 1999, while on a more practical level, one is immediately struck by how many members of this film’s supporting cast turn up as regulars or semi-regulars in Anderson’s first fully live-action TV series, UFO: Ed Bishop and George Sewell, most obviously, but also Vladek Sheybal and Keith Alexander, almong with many others.

I do think that the craziness of the scripts of Gerry Anderson productions is as much a part of their charm as their visual appeal and the quality of the special effects. The special effects in Doppelganger are good, as previously noted, but the script is lumpy and frustrating throughout, with no single element being completely satisfying. The actors do their best with the material, but there’s really very little to work with. Only worth watching for Anderson completists, I would say.

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Let’s have a bit of a thought experiment. Let’s imagine you are involved, at some sort of executive level, with a cartel of callous aliens intent upon infiltrating and then subjugating our dear old planet Earth. Let us further suppose that a particular Earthling (we’ll call him Vincent David, for the sake of argument) has been making such a nuisance of himself that you have finally decided to bump him off, to hell with the consequences, media attention, and whatever.

So the planning department have been mulling it over and come to you with two plans for the disposal of your target. Here is plan A:

  • Arrange to have Vincent David almost killed in a hit-and-run accident.
  • Have him saved by one of your people (Agent 1), who will thus gain his confidence.
  • Have another one of your people (Agent 2) inserted into Earth society as an exotic entertainer (NB: best to choose a good-looking female for this assignment, not one of the usual slab-faced guys in green boiler suits).
  • Get Agent 1, posing as a journalist, to introduce Vincent David to Agent 2, posing as someone who knows the location of the flying saucer landing site our enemy is so desperate to find.
  • Agent 2 will then lead our target to the place we are so desperate to keep secret. (We shouldn’t bother checking to make sure that Agent 2 isn’t one of those emotional weirdos who goes around having emotions and falling in love with people – there is such a thing as over-planning, after all.)
  • Once they arrive, disintegrate Vincent David and his jeep. A noted UFO scaremongerer vanishing without trace while known to be out in the desert looking for a UFO landing site that’s already been mentioned in the media is not going to attract any attention at all.

On the other hand, one of the wackier members of planning has been working away on his own in a corner and come up with the following outrageous scheme:

  • Arrange to have Vincent David killed in a hit-and-run accident.

I mean, what? What? What are we paying these people for? (What are we paying these people in, come to think of it?)

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(Most episodes of this show are visually a bit nondescript, so I suspect I’ll be using this pic a lot.)

Oh, boy. It seems only fair to shine a light on the sub-par episodes of The Invaders as well as the superior ones, and three shows in, the series’ batting average is just that: average. The pilot show is excellent (particularly, as noted, the extended version), the first weekly episode, The Experiment, is so-so (it feels a bit like a routine crime drama with ‘gangsters’ crossed out and ‘aliens’ written in in pencil), and the third episode, The Mutation, strains credulity (not to mention credibility) from the first moment to the last.

It’s not just that the aliens’ plan is ridiculous, it’s that the entire plot of the episode is shotgunned with moments which make you go ‘…really? Really, that’s the plot? …No, really?’ It all gets underway with David Vincent having himself driven out into the desert in search of a downed saucer, being rolled over by his so-called guides, and then – after some sun-addled staggering about – his actually stumbling across the alien ship he’s been looking for, completely by accident.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, the demands of the plot require that he forgets exactly where he saw this by the time he gets back into town, in order from him to have to go and hook up with the beautiful alien stripper (Suzanne Pleshette, in a role which does her no favours) for the main plot of the episode. And this, in turn, is so we can have the main movement of the narrative, which is Vincent and the girl being pursued through the desert by ray-gun toting men in green, with her unconvincingly falling in love with him along the way.

Then again, this may be partly due to one of the distinguishing features of The Invaders, which is that David Vincent is a very strange protagonist for an ongoing adventure series. Roy Thinnes is so intense and yet oddly detached in the role that you almost start coming up with wild theories like the one about him secretly being a renegade alien himself. This is a guy who has sacrificed his entire life to commit himself to the battle against the aliens, and yet we never get much sense of why he’s doing it, or who he is as a person (perhaps this is why he is routinely introduced as ‘architect David Vincent’, as it’s the one element of his background we actually know about, even though it hardly ever informs the plot). In one episode somebody actually asks him why he’s pursuing his crusade, and the question pointedly goes completely unanswered. Is the show making an existential point, or is it just substandard characterisation and formatting? Understanding Vincent’s motivation is a fairly big deal, as this is a guy who seems to operate in a grey area, ethically: he deceives, breaks and enters on a regular basis, and has no problem with putting others into danger when it suits his crusade, or even orchestrating the deaths of human collaborators. (It goes without saying that he’ll cheerfully blow away any suspected Invader without a second thought.)

In any case, The Mutation is just a particularly egregious example from a run of weak episodes near the start of The Invaders’ first season, ones that squander most of the promise of the pilot. Beachhead works as well as it does by keeping the explicit alien threat off-screen most of the time and playing with the creeping paranoia resulting from not knowing exactly who’s an Invader and who isn’t. The weaker episodes deal less in uncertainty and paranoia, with the aliens handled as more conventional bad guys. Later episodes are a bit more inventive and intelligent, thankfully, or this might qualify as a series with enormous potential run into the ground by a production team with no idea what to do with it.

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Well, after four or five months spent following the travails of a lone protagonist travelling from place to place as he grapples with a terrible secret, living in fear of the authorities all the time, I thought I would make my new excursion into DVD Land something completely different. So I plumped for the complete box set of the late 60s show The Invaders, in which a lone protagonist travels from place to place as he grapples with a terrible truth, living in a state of paranoia all the time. Hey, it may not look like the biggest of departures on paper, but The Invaders still comes across as a very different show to The Incredible Hulk.

The Invaders is a paranoid fantasy from the age before sat-nav: not just series opener Beachhead, but the preamble to every episode kicks off with main character David Vincent (Roy Thinnes) getting lost on a short cut in the wee small hours of the morning and stopping in the Californian equivalent of a lay-by, only to find a flying saucer wants to park in the same space.

Vincent is straight off down the local police department to report what he’s seen, and refuses to dismiss that the ship was the stuff of a bad dream. But upon dragging the cops and his partner (James Daly) back to the scene of his close encounter, he finds there is – of course – no sign of it, only a honeymooning couple who say they didn’t see anything all night. But Vincent can’t help noticing the man has something decidedly odd going on with the way his hands work…

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So he goes back to the scene yet again and discovers that the honeymooners are indeed alien beings in human form, though something very inhuman seems to be on the verge of happening to the man: he starts glowing and his eyes go all silvery. The aliens get away and Vincent is carted off to a private hospital, though not before the aliens have blown an attempt to actually kill him – something they do with baffling infrequency in the series itself.

They even have another go when they burn down his apartment with him inside, which only motivates him to investigate further. The trail of the honeymooning aliens leads him to an almost deserted town being bought up by a mysterious investment group. Is there something going on here? Well, the episode still has half its running time left to go, so you decide…

Actually, Beachhead is available in two forms, the 45-minute version which actually aired and a 60-minute cut which has only been released on DVD (apparently this itself is a cut down edit of the original 75-minute pilot). I have to say that the 60-minute version is considerably more thoughtful and subtle, with greater emphasis placed on characterisation and the odd touch of irony. But they both do a good job of setting up the format of the series.

The Invaders is the product of the slightly-awkward coming together of two very different sensibilities. On the one (deformed) hand, the format of the show was dreamt up by Larry Cohen, a guy who’s become a bit of a cult figure when it comes to uncompromisingly strange or high-concept genre entertainment: this is the guy who wrote and directed Q: the Winged Serpent, for instance. On the other, it’s the product of the Quinn Martin TV factory, makers of a seemingly-endless stream of highly formulaic cop and detective TV shows (also The Fugitive, which The Invaders sometimes tries to copy as if its existence depended on it – the guest star in Beachhead, Diane Baker, was fresh off the series finale of The Fugitive). Often the two approaches seem to be genuinely at cross-purposes – the atmosphere built up by the genuinely moody and creepy introduction to the series’ format is almost instantly dispelled by the blaring ‘Tonight’s guest stars…!‘ voice-over immediately following it – but on the other hand the plotting is usually fairly solid, and The Invaders does at least take itself very seriously. This is probably the least campy and most downbeat of all the classic 60s SF shows: Beachhead has the feel of an unfolding tragedy or nightmare, with Vincent winning a pyrrhic victory at best by the story’s end: he’s forced a strategic withdrawal by the aliens, but they are still very much out there.

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Or could they be much closer? One of the ways in which the episode sets up the premise of the series is in the way it establishes that anyone at all could be an alien, successfully pulling off the shock-revelation-that-someone’s-one-of-them trick more than once. The atmosphere of paranoia is finely evoked, helped by some clever direction and Dominic Frontiere’s music: there’s a particular motif of such queasy, ominous suggestiveness that gets deployed whenever alien activity is afoot that it practically embodies the entire essence of the series. The script also tries to pre-emptively tackle the ‘why don’t the aliens just kill David Vincent?’ question, something which constantly undermined the series’ credibility: although the answer (that his death might cause people in authority to take his claims seriously) isn’t much more than a vague handwave.

On the other hand, the show clearly hasn’t worked out all the details yet, for one of the aliens Vincent encounters seems almost sympathetic to his plight, apparently trying to talk him out of his efforts to stymie their plans: a far cry from the generally impassive beings the show would feature later. And you do have to roll your eyes a bit when the first alien installation Vincent discovers is unlocked, unmanned, and not even equipped with CCTV cameras.

Hey ho. This is still a strong opener with some genuinely great moments, especially in the 60-minute version – Vincent encounters a fellow believer during his hospital visit, only to realise they’re nuts, while an alien laments that ‘He looked so normal… just goes to show you never can tell,’ while Vincent is being hauled away by the police at the conclusion of the story. I strongly suspect this is an above-average instalment of the series, but I’m still looking forward to revisiting the rest of them.

 

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