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Sometimes there is a danger that over-familiarity with something can blind you to its essential nature, and this is particularly noticeable when that essential nature is, well, weird. I’m a big fan of Japanese monster movies, as long term readers will no doubt (wearily) recall, but it’s only when I attempt to describe the plot of (say) Godzilla Vs Biollante to an unsuspecting party that I am reminded of how hallucinogenically strange it really is. The same with a lot of TV, I suppose. These days Doctor Who is such a national (even international) institution that we take for granted it is a programme with a rather eccentric format.

In other words, I suppose, if I want to get that cherishable sensation of ‘What the hell…?’ I have to look somewhat further afield. At this point honour requires that I credit Neil and Sue Perryman, whose latest opus arrived in the post the other day and contains details of their encounter with The Tomorrow People in its 70s incarnation. They, naturally, went for the notorious episodes featuring a bewigged and cowboy-hatted Peter Davison. Feeling inspired to revisit the highly peculiar world of the homo superior myself, I opted to go down a different route and check out another story written by Roger Price from slightly later in the series’ run – from the 1978 sixth season, it’s Hitler’s Last Secret!

Yup, this is a mainstream youth-orientated TV drama from (what was then) the UK’s only commercial channel, and it’s so openly about Fascism that they put Hitler’s name in the title. But we are still only at the very brink of the rabbit-hole. We find ourselves in a reassuringly familiar low-budget secret base/bunker, from which a young man executes an escape you could charitably describe as ‘ridiculous’. He is pursued across country by other young lads, toting machine guns, before being run over and killed by a British army land rover (it transpires we are supposedly somewhere in Bavaria). This would be odd enough, but on top of that, all the teenage boys are wearing SS uniforms, and leading them is a youthful Nicholas Lyndhurst (yes, he of Only Fools and Horses fame), affecting a frankly wobbly German accent. The boundaries of taste and sanity are already cracking and we have barely reached the opening credits of episode one.

Thankfully, the audience gets a chance to process the concept of Rodney Trotter, He-Wolf of the SS, as we pop off to the secret lab HQ of the Tomorrow People (the psi-powered next step in human evolution, in case you were wondering). Your Tomorrow People for this outing are strait-laced big brother figure John (Nicholas Young), restless but good-hearted teen Mike (Mike Holoway), and Hsui Tai (Misako Koba), who may be a member of a hyper-evolved subspecies of humanity, but still sounds like she’s learned her dialogue phonetically.

In the sort of eye-rollingly contrived expository scene you only get in old genre shows, John just happens to mention to Hsui Tai that he has been breeding immortal (or perhaps more accurately amortal) rats, repeating experiments originally done long before (by the Nazis, would you believe? What a coincidence). Apparently, if you lock an organism in a state of perpetual adolescence, it essentially stops aging. This is delivered with all the earnestness usually reserved for the series’ frequent info-dumps of genuine improving knowledge, and it took me a few minutes to realise it is actually complete cobblers (well, maybe not: it’s a venerable old SF notion, perhaps most memorably employed in Norman Spinrad’s Bug Jack Barron).

The laborious laying-in of back-story takes a pause as Mike wanders through en route to the teleporter pads, heading to the youth club. However, in addition to the usual flared trousers he has also chosen to wear an SS uniform jacket and hat, which John is righteously angry about. The scene is so weird to a modern viewer that it’s quite hard to tell if it’s especially badly written or not; but it is almost certainly badly acted by any objective standard.

Once down the youth club we see another artiste who probably doesn’t include this on his showreel: Ray Burdis, actor in Scum and Gandhi, producer of The Krays, director of various iffy Primrose Hill Set movies, along with much else, turns up as the leader of a neo-Nazi youth gang called (wait for it) the Stormtroopers. Burdis’ character speaks frankly of his love for Hitler and belief that one day he will return to save the world (just to reiterate, this was apparently considered acceptable material for children’s TV back in 1978).

The studio-bound scenes in the youth club and secret lab are intercut with goings on at the SS base, which is also a youth club and a secret lab, of course. Untergruppenfuhrer Trotter is shocked to discover that the cryogenic suspension pods the perpetually-teenaged Nazis have been guarding for the last 33 years are starting to wear out and the occupants have to be defrosted, PDQ. One of these is the mad doctor responsible for making their teenage dreams last forever, the other is… well, you can probably guess.

Yes, it’s Hitler himself, played by Michael Sheard, who spent quite a lot of his time playing the Fuhrer (when he wasn’t playing Imperial Navy Admirals, autocratic school teachers, and various Doctor Who characters, anyway). But is Hitler really Hitler? John has already revealed that the Nazi leader is really Neebor, from the planet Vashir, a ‘galactic criminal’.

Taste barrier? What taste barrier? Just as John is concerned by Mike’s growing fascination with Nazism, so the world authorities have been troubled by a rising tide of neo-Nazism amongst young people (we’re told about this, not shown it, obviously), and British intelligence has realised there’s something funny going on in rural Bavaria, too. John heroically leaps to a wild but (naturally) completely accurate conclusion – at the end of the war, the Nazis used V2 rockets to spread a strain of e. coli which introduced a gene promoting blind obedience to Hitler into the population. Once again, this is an insane mixture of seriously-delivered science lecture (the young audience is informed about genetic engineering and how it works) and bonkers conspiracy theory (the rest of it). Now, of course, Hitler and his deceptively-youthful followers are planning to make the ultimate party political broadcast, activate the Hitler-worshipping gene in the world’s youth, and take over the planet! Can the Tomorrow People save the day? (Clue: yes.)

The thing about Hitler’s Last Secret isn’t just that it’s a episode of a fantasy adventure series which is to some extent fascinated by the iconography of Hitler and Nazism – these were alarmingly common in the 1960s and 70s. I have already written about the Eagle’s Nest episode of The New Avengers (Hitler is still alive and reasonably well and living on an island in the north Atlantic), and also the Patterns of Force episode of Star Trek (Hitler himself is long dead, but his ideology is alive and well and living on the remote planet Ekos, having been spread there by a misguided Federation historian). Off the top of my head, I can also think of the Anchluss 77 episode of the Lynda Carter Wonder Woman series (Hitler’s cells are alive and well and about to be cloned somewhere in South America), and arguably Doctor Who’s Genesis of the Daleks (though this is a much more allusive, allegorical connection). Round about this time there was also the movie The Boys from Brazil (numerous Hitler clones are alive and well and being groomed for power all over the world). So it’s not as if this was some weird anomaly, exactly; the Second World War had finished less than 35 years previously and was still a key influence on social attitudes. The seductive appeal of Nazi chic to younger people was also a genuine issue – round about the time this episode went out, you had Siouxsie Sioux and other first generation punks wearing swastikas and so on, probably more for their transgressive power to shock than for any other reason, and Nazi uniforms remained popular as bad taste fancy dress into the 20th century (even with members of the British royal family).

So why is it that Hitler’s Last Secret feels so monumentally screwed-up and misjudged? It can’t just be the clunky and obvious plotting, the preachiness of it, or the consistently bad acting of nearly everyone involved, because these were pretty much staples of this kind of TV show in the 70s and beyond (and especially The Tomorrow People). That’s not to say that there aren’t some terrible misjudgements going on here – the decision to make Hitler one of the series’ routinely duff alien monsters in disguise is surely trivialising the programme’s subject matter, especially as this is basically handled by a couple of lines of dialogue. Who is this Neebor character? Where’s he at? What’s his objective? The story is all about the appeal of the iconography of Nazism and barely considers its ideological basis.

No, the particular things that The Tomorrow People brings to the table are, firstly, the fact that this is British TV and thus very likely to have that before-they-were-famous factor somewhere in the mix – Nicholas Lyndhurst had quite an extensive career as a child star, but even so, playing a member of the Hitler Youth locked in perpetual puberty is the kind of role that doesn’t come along very often.

The other big deal is the extraordinarily low budget this story is obviously contending with. There’s a bit of location filming in some woods, but most of it takes place on the same few tiny studio sets with very primitive special effects. The Tomorrow People spend most of the story sitting around on their sofas. When Hitler is compelled to reveal his true, alien form, the effect is achieved by popping a fake eyeball in a bowl of green jelly.

It looks like a spoof of the worst kind of cod SF, but the story is clearly intended very seriously, a cautionary parable to any younger viewers who might be feeling tempted to pop on their own SS uniform before going down the school disco. There’s a kind of three-way collision between the most serious theme, the painfully unsubtle handling of this by the script, and the almost unbelievably crass way it’s all realised, and the result is something with a unique kind of awfulness to it. It is stupefying to watch, also very funny, and also has a sort of grim fascination in the way it manages to get virtually everything so very, very wrong. The Tomorrow People did produce some genuinely good stories. But this is in a class of its own, and probably one which has been placed in special measures.

 

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There was a time when any science fiction film that wanted to be taken seriously found itself helplessly caught up in the wake of 2001: A Space Odyssey – SF wasn’t SF unless it was cerebral, austere, and concluded on a note of either pessimism or wilful obscurity. This tendency is visible in movies from the late 60s until about a decade later – even the coming of George Lucas’ stellar conflict franchise didn’t quite kill it off, with Disney’s 1979 entry to the robots-and-ray-guns subgenre, The Black Hole, concluding with a bafflingly surreal sequence.

Even so, very few of these movies are quite as out there as Phase IV, a 1974 film directed by Saul Bass. Bass is best remembered as a legendary graphic designer and creator of some of the most memorable credit sequences in cinema history, and this was his only feature film: it’s clear throughout that as a director his focus is overwhelmingly on the visual element of the movie.

This is an early example of a film which dispenses with a conventional title sequence entirely (somewhat ironic, given who the director is), simply opening with the caption ‘Phase I’. Ten full minutes elapse before we actually see a human being, with the story being told via montages and voice-over. Some kind of cosmic event has occurred (the film is unspecific about what it actually is), but its key terrestrial consequence goes unnoticed by almost everyone: across the world, different species of ants, normally in competition with each other, cease their hostilities and begin to work together. But to what end? Strange geometrical structures, constructed by the ants, appear in the desert of Arizona, along with crop circles (the film predates the modern crop phenomenon and may in fact, it’s been suggested) have been one of its inspirations).

Entomologist Dr Hubbs (Nigel Davenport, best known to a generation of British viewers as fruity-voiced tycoon Edward Frere in Howard’s Way) cottons on to what the ants are up to and persuades the powers that be to fund an investigation into what exactly is going on. A lab is set up in a geodesic dome out in the desert (this is the kind of SF movie lab where the equipment includes grenade launchers, but, you know, go with it) and Hubbs sets about annoying the ants in the hope of learning what has happened to them, and ideally teaching them not to get uppity with the human race. Hubbs’ assistant, mathematician Lesko (Michael Murphy), is more cautious and inclined to take a moderate approach, but soon enough the scientists are besieged by hostile ants, along with a young local woman (Lynne Frederick) whose farm was destroyed by the formic hordes. Can Lesko find a way of communicating with the ants, whose collective intelligence is no longer in doubt, or is this just the first stage in a battle that will decide the fate of the world?

Fairly heavy stuff, I think you’ll agree. The film would probably agree, too, considering the intense and very serious way the story is handled – there are no moments of lightness or humour and the actors are all playing it absolutely dead straight. The result is quite a bleak and austere film, rather cold in tone despite the desert setting.

This isn’t the man-vs-killer-ant movie you might be expecting – I vaguely recall it turning up on TV in a double-bill with Them! at some point in my youth – and the striking central image of the movie’s poster, that of an ant gnawing its way out of the centre of a human palm, occurs relatively early on, and not quite as a moment of full-on horror, either. There’s less death-struggle and more philosophical and mathematical discussion as the two scientists discuss what’s going on in fairly abstract terms.

Even so, the most memorable parts of the film don’t concern the human characters but the ants themselves. There are numerous weird, long sequences of ants rattling around in the nests, doing significant but obscure things, clambering around inside human machinery, and so on. It’s a masterclass in editing skill, I suppose – the way the footage of the ants is assembled manages to suggest intention and a vague sense of what is supposed to be happening – but also betrays Bass’s fascination with playing with images and storytelling on a purely visual level. There is, obviously, a lot of miniature photography of ants in this film; there is also time-lapse photography, slow-motion filming, and various other optical effects too.

Many of these are accompanied by an expository voice-over from Murphy, and I wonder if this was something the studio insisted on as the movie started to take shape – the voice-over adds to the impression that this is a rather odd B-movie, but it does stop the film from becoming completely oblique and wilfully enigmatic. As it is, much is left for the viewer to decide – are the ants being actively controlled by some cosmic force to reshape the nature of life on Earth? Or has some random influence caused the ant hive-mind to experience a form of uplift, and it’s the ant superbrain itself which is responsible for everything that happens?

It’s all left very unclear – not least because the studio cut about five minutes from Bass’s preferred climax, leaving it a very brisk 84 minutes in total. If the extant film is off the wall, then the original would have been downright freaky – a reconstruction of the original ending exists on the internet, apparently depicting what the world will be like after Phase IV is completed, and the bizarre impressionistic symbiosis of human and ant that is shown in it is not quite like anything else I’ve ever seen.

Despite all the fascinating and unique things about Phase IV, however, this is still one for the ‘novel but deeply flawed’ category. The B-movie premise and characterisations don’t help the film when it comes to achieving the level of rarefied sophistication it’s clearly aiming for, while the visual storytelling, while innovative and memorable, is just a bit too slow and abstract for the film to work as a thriller or conventional drama. The film’s visual distinctiveness and general air of weirdness mean it is worth watching, if you like abstract SF movies or maybe even art movies generally, but as a conventional piece of movie entertainment this is basically a tough and probably not especially rewarding watch.

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So here it is: the final episode of the original run of Survivors, Martin Worth’s Power. Whether or not you find this to be an appropriate and satisfying conclusion to the series is probably a matter of taste; personally, I think it rounds off the series better than any of the other obvious candidates, despite the fact it is only tangentially about any of the core characters of the programme.

Charles, Hubert, and Jenny are travelling up to Scotland by rail, trying to catch up with Alec and Sam. Alec is ensuring the power grid is shut down, preparatory to his attempts to restart the generation of electricity at a hydroelectric plant. What he doesn’t realise, of course, is that Sam is determined to stop the restoration of power, believing self-sufficiency to be a morally better way of life for the survivors.

Things get a little more complicated when Charles and Jenny discover, rather to their surprise, that Scotland is not the empty landscape they expected but home to a thriving population of about 150,000 people – outnumbering the entire population of England by about ten to one! The local laird, McAlister (Iain Cuthbertson), is rather cynical in his expectations of English attitudes towards the Scots, and hardly surprised when he learns that Charles has been planning to utilise Scottish-generated electricity exclusively for the benefit of English communities. Even assuming that Sam’s plan to destroy the mechanisms at the power stations can be stopped, can the English and Scottish survivors reach an agreement as to who will control the electricity?

Well, the first thing I have to say about Power is that is does require the dedicated viewer to accept that the nature of the show’s world has fundamentally changed since series one – McAlister’s explanation as to why the plague left Scotland relatively untouched doesn’t really make sense given what we’ve seen and were told in early episodes, especially Gone to the Angels. Isolation is only a protection against the virus as long as you stay isolated, as the angels discovered in series one – as soon as one survivor carrying the virus meets a community which hasn’t been exposed to it, the whole process of infection and death should start all over again. Power is essentially inconsistent with the early series one episodes (not to mention the general tenor of season two, where a running theme was the characters’ awareness of how close to extinction humanity was).

Once you get past this, it’s a decent enough story, I suppose – exactly what power the title refers to being usefully ambiguous, potentially either electrical or political power. The episode stresses that from this point on the two will go together, provoking yet another political squabble between Charles and McAlister. The fact that England and Scotland are basically now engaged in a diplomatic negotiation stresses the fact that nation-states are now back on the scene, and that while things are of course nowhere near their pre-plague state, the essentials of civilisation are no longer in doubt. As someone else has pointed out, the last scene of the episode could well be a call-back to a key moment in The Fourth Horsemen – both depict a couple eating by candlelight, but the important thing is that in Power they are doing so by choice.

Of course, one of the key influences on early Survivors, at least, was George R Stewart’s Earth Abides, which stresses how utterly unlikely the restoration of technological civilisation would be – certainly not within three years of the disaster, starting from such a low base population. The inclination and the resources surely wouldn’t be there, and the survivors of Stewart’s book have basically regressed to being hunter-gatherers by the time it concludes, six or seven decades after the plague. That said, it’s pleasing to find echoes of other classic SF fiction in Survivors, and one key element of Power – the way that, as soon as basic survival is guaranteed, politics once again rears its ugly head – seems to me to recall the conclusion of John Christopher’s Tripods books, where the alliance which has repelled an alien occupation of Earth messily disintegrates into petty nationalism and distrust. This is classic British SF, so naturally it’s going to be pretty miserable.

It seems to me that there is one further intersection between John Christopher’s brilliant catastrophe novels and Survivors, as well. Nearly twenty years later, Ian McCulloch (having finished being a star in Italian video nasties by this point, a gig he apparently got off the back of his Survivors stardom) approached the BBC with a view to reviving the series and seeing what kind of state post-apocalyptic Britain would be in, nearly two decades after the plague. (McCulloch was planning to return as Greg, but has always refused to reveal how this would be possible.) The big idea for the revived show would be that an unspecified African nation had made a much more rapid recovery from the plague than anywhere in Europe, and was now intent on a military occupation – colonisation, if you will – of the continent. The BBC declared that this was racist and declined to produce the new series, and when Survivors eventually returned it was as a remake rather than a continuation. McCulloch’s notion sounds to me to be very reminiscent of Christopher’s The World in Winter, in which the sun’s output declines, resulting in a new ice age and the populations of temperate regions being forced to flee to the equator. The final section of the book concerns a military expedition by an African nation to an ice-bound UK which has fallen into anarchy and cannibalism. The World in Winter is a problematic book in many ways for a reader nowadays – its themes of racial and cultural conflict remain awkwardly potent – but it does anticipate, at the very least, McCulloch’s vision for a new Survivors. Whatever: it was not to be.

Survivors itself may be an inconsistent series, troubled by conflicting ideas as to what it should really be focusing on, but its best episodes still stand up extremely well today, with a capacity for handling big ideas, and including complex, subtle characterisation, that few modern programmes can match. (Of course, most of the time the production values are lousy, but that’s BBC SF from the 20th century for you.) You can see why people have returned to it, in both the 21st century revival and the recent audio continuations of the original series. No end in sight to this vision of the end of the world; as you might expect, Survivors is a survivor.

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The block of three Parkes-scripted episodes towards the end of Survivors series 3 is so focused on one particular plotline – Charles’ increasingly fanatical quest to restore the electric power – that it’s a real wrench when the programme fundamentally shifts gears and tackles a wholly different story – namely, just what has Greg been doing all this time? It’s not just that – The Last Laugh functions on a wholly different level to the rest of series 3, if not the series as a whole. More than anything else it makes you incredibly regretful that Ian McCulloch wasn’t much more central to the creation of the final series, because it certainly seems like he had a much better idea of the potential of this programme than the people who were actually in charge of it.

It transpires Greg is looking for Dr Adams, a leading member of a community near the one Pet and the kids have settled at. On his journey he encounters a group of wanderers, led by Mason (George Mallaby), a former playboy-sheep-shearer turned full-time itinerant sheep-shearer (I kid you not). Greg is initially extremely suspicious of the group, suspecting them to be just another group of raiders, but when they express an interest in his scheme to federate the settlements, he lowers his defences. A bit too soon, as it turns out: he is knifed in the back and left for dead.

Unfortunately, Greg’s notes on the disposition of valuable resources scattered around the countryside are all in Norwegian, and so Mason and his men set off to find Anna, who is at the settlement with Pet, Jack, and the kids. One of them lingers, however, but lives to regret it (briefly) – Greg is not as dead as they assumed, and after a brutal fight the raider gets his head staved in with a rock.

Greg is still in a bad state, though, and makes his way to Dr Adams’ settlement – but there’s no sign of the forty people who are supposed to live there, and the two men who are resident are acting very suspiciously. Someone seems to be being held prisoner, and Greg discovers signs that human bodies have been burned there. Showing all his usual resourcefulness and determination, he outwits his presumed-captors, and breaks in to find Dr Adams (Clifton James)…

…who is in self-imposed isolation, disfigured and suffering from a mutant strain of smallpox that has already wiped out almost the entire settlement. The disease is usually lethal within two weeks and highly infectious. Greg initially thinks he’s cheated death yet again, not initially feeling any signs of infection, but his hopes are cruelly dashed the next morning. He has the virus. Dr Adams suggests the only thing to do is to make his peace and await the inevitable.

What follows, of course, is a tremendously powerful performance from McCulloch in a long two-handed scene between him and James. Lucy Fleming has spoken of the anger which is always at the core of McCulloch’s performances as Greg, and it is of course present. Greg speaks about his feelings for Jenny, and his regrets about the path his life has taken. And then, of course, being Greg, he sets out intent on revenge, determined to find the men who attacked him and share the virus with them as well. Adams is appalled, quite rightly suggesting that this may just lead to the virus spreading across the whole countryside, but Greg doesn’t give a damn. Has the shock of learning he is dying unhinged him? Or has he been less than entirely selfless all along?

Seeing an episode which mixes these kinds of big questions with decently-mounted action and a reasonably tight plot, not to mention one of the series’ most plausibly despicable villains in George Mallaby’s Ed Mason, really reminds you of what a great show this can be when handled properly. You can pick holes in the plot if you really want to – Pet’s settlement does seem rather sparsely populated, given all we’ve heard, and while I’m sure Greg is a bright guy, why on Earth has he learned to say ‘I have smallpox’ in Norwegian? – but this towers above the rest of series 3 on every level, with a thoughtful, allusive script – there are allusions to Shakespeare and Gerard Manley Hopkins – and great dialogue, too. After a raft of episodes which are ultimately hopeful, focusing on the threads of society slowly coming back together, The Last Laugh is shockingly dark and bleak, too. One of the handful of essential Survivors episodes, I would say.

Any episode following The Last Laugh would effectively have been slipped the hospital pass, but the thing about Martin Worth’s Long Live the King is… well, it’s not that it’s a bad episode, as such, it’s such an infuriating one, not just on its own merits, but in the way it epitomises all that makes the third series of Survivors such a frustratingly inconsistent one.

At least the makers of the programme appear to have realised that the death of arguably its central character could not go uncommented-upon by the other characters, and this episode is to a large extent about Greg’s legacy. The journey of Charles and the others up to Scotland is put on hold when he receives an urgent message asking him to meet Greg at an army camp on the east coast of England – Jenny’s response is ‘oh, no, not again’, quite possibly speaking for the viewer by this point. Charles resolves to go there; Jenny and the others press on.

Charles arrives at the camp to find ‘GP’ signs in evidence everywhere, and the place under the control of Agnes, who seems to have turned into a paramilitary version of Rosa Luxemburg. Greg’s most trusted associates from across the country have been summoned to form the new ruling council of Britain – the rebirth of the nation, even. The problem is that the coalition Greg has been putting together since his return from Norway is heavily reliant on his personal authority and charisma, and with Greg now, well, dead, the whole thing is showing signs of collapsing before it is even properly established.

And it turns out there is another problem – the Captain (Roy Marsden), the real leader of the band of raiders from The Last Laugh, has escaped from the farm which was destroyed by smallpox and is heading for the camp, too…

Watching Long Live the King made me realise there’s an element of classic theatre about the last series of Survivors, but only because it’s either very reminiscent of Waiting for Godot (to be more accurate, it’s Looking for Greg) or just Hamlet without the Prince. You get a very strong sense that there have really been two stories happening all season – that of Greg travelling the country preparing to restore the basis of civilisation, and that of the others rather haplessly wandering around in his wake, never quite catching up with him. On the basis of what we see on the screen, the story of Greg is considerably more interesting and involving than the story of the others: I feel cheated!

The plot gymnastics required to tie Long Live the King to the end of The Last Laugh are bizarre, and to be honest not that successful – some weeks have passed since the end of the previous episode, and exactly what has happened in the meantime is never completely clear. Given Agnes is lying her head off for most of the episode, can we really believe what she says about nursing Greg in his last days? What are we supposed to make of her claim that, having had brucellosis, she is now apparently immune to the mutant smallpox which was so terribly contagious and lethal last episode? Something very odd seems to be going on here, anyway – the Captain has had the smallpox but seems to be okay now, and not contagious, but what was he doing at the farm anyway? Did Martin Worth even see the finished script for The Last Laugh before writing this one? As I say, it’s infuriating and frustrating, not least because the Captain is an absurd, cartoon villain – he’s wearing a flat cap, welly boots, and a tie, for crying out loud – and arguably all he contributes to the story is to provide a sign of how much the backdrop is changing: despite having murdered two women in the course of the story, he is not executed out of hand but held as a prisoner at the end. The rule of law has been restored.

The episode is largely about what it takes to run a functioning, large-scale society, and it is impressively cynical about it (this angle is interesting enough that it makes the more peculiar elements of the plot even more annoying, as they’re spoiling a superior episode). The new society Agnes is proposing to inaugurate is essentially a massive scam, based on various deceptions. (It’s quite ironic that it’s Charles who takes her to task over this, given how ruthless many of his own recent activities have been – he does come across as a bit of a hypocrite in this episode.) But the episode makes it very clear that every society is, to some extent, based on exactly the same kind of shared fictions, especially when it comes to things like money. I’ve been reading Yuval Harari’s Sapiens recently, which discusses very frankly how cultures function, and Harari stresses that money, while being essential to a large-scale society, only has any utility as long as people believe in its value. But how do you create money for a society which hasn’t used it at all in years? How do you foster that kind of shared belief in the intrinsic value of bits of paper? It’s a fascinating area, one I’ve never seen dealt with anywhere else, and it’s just a shame so much of the episode is preoccupied with other business.

As I say, a real mixed bag of an episode, and rather infuriating as a result. At least the final irony of the story of Survivors is clear at the conclusion, and it’s one that says a great deal about the differences in how drama is written and produced now, as opposed to 40 years ago. Characterisation in genre series tends to be better these days, I suppose, but characters tend to be defined in very strict ways – they tend not to have space to develop or unexpectedly reveal surprising facets to themselves. Most of the time they just have one or two defining characteristics which they display over and over again. But in programmes like Survivors you do get a sense of the actors and writers learning about the characters as they go along, and often making surprising discoveries along the way. Real people aren’t as flatly and immutably archetypal as they’re usually presented on TV. One of the things that makes Survivors so special, for me, is the authentically human unknowability of the principal characters – their capacity to develop in genuinely surprising ways in the course of the story, while remaining recognisably the same individuals: Charles, the passionate visionary, shows signs of becoming a ruthless political operator as the series nears its end; Hubert, the comedy relief yokel, murders someone in cold blood for the good of the group.

And Greg Preston, the survivor who initially didn’t want to get tied down or take on any particular responsibilities at all, ends up as the man almost solely responsible for recreating his nation, with his initials on the flag. Long live the King, indeed.

 

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Quite a few years ago, I saw Shekhar Kapur’s adaptation of The Four Feathers, which was one of those films that almost dropped through the net completely – it didn’t get much of a release, received lukewarm reviews, and didn’t recover its budget. The reason why, I suspect, is that The Four Feathers is a stirring tale of imperial bravery, whereas Kapur’s movie was intended as a deconstruction and critique of colonial attitudes – almost a wilful subversion of the source material.

This sort of approach is very difficult to pull off. Unless you are Paul Verhoeven, apparently, for he does something very similar in his 1997 adaptation of Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. Over ten years earlier Verhoeven had made one of the best SF films of the 1980s in RoboCop, and while I’m not sure I’d make the same kind of claim about Starship Troopers, it’s still a typically provocative and accomplished piece of work.

Some time in the future, Earth has become a gleaming utopia; rather Americanised too, it seems, for even Buenos Aires looks like somewhere in California. Here we find Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien), handsome high-school jock, his more academic girlfriend Carmen (Denise Richards), and Diz (Dina Meyer), a girl who has a bit of a thing for him. Carmen wants to fly spaceships, so she enlists in the military of the Terran Federation, as this is her best chance of doing so. Johnny follows her into the service, largely to impress her, and Diz joins up to stay close to him.

Carmen gets her wish and ends up in the space fleet, while Johnny and Diz become members of the infantry. Their training proceeds, with only a moderate level of maiming and crippling amongst the recruits, but events are progressing in the wider world, with tensions growing between the Terran Federation and the Arachnids, an arthropod race from the other side of the galaxy. A devastating Arachnid attack on Earth results in Johnny and the others going to war with the invertebrate menace…

Starship Troopers, the movie, has a very strange relationship with its source novel, but this becomes a bit more understandable once you learn that it started existence as a wholly separate entity entitled Bug Hunt at Outpost Nine. When various similarities with Heinlein’s book were noticed, the decision was made to buy the rights to it and retrofit the script to be even closer to the story.

If nothing else, this explains one of the most noticeable differences in the substance of the movie – the novel’s most lasting SF innovation was the invention of powered armour battle-suits, as worn by Rico and the others as they take on the Bugs. Power armour is completely absent from the film, which mainly concerns foot infantry carrying automatic rifles and rocket launchers.

The more significant change is subtler and arguably more interesting. Heinlein’s novel is largely a vehicle for the author’s political views, and as a result the book is very right-wing, to the point where some have accused it of open militarism (written as a piece of SF for younger readers, the original publisher refused to accept it for this reason). However, what is sincerely and seriously presented in the novel is outrageously satirised in the movie – the movie is to some extent parodying the book it is based on.

As a result, Verhoeven and his scriptwriter Ed Neumeier have been criticised for wilfully misrepresenting Heinlein. The movie depicts an implicitly totalitarian, arguably fascist society, where public executions are broadcast live on TV and having a child requires a license, and one of the key points of the book is that its world is still a democratic one. There’s something to this, but on the other hand the book does contain a sequence in which Heinlein argues the case for aggressive war as a moral imperative, on apparently racial grounds.

The important thing is that whatever political commentary Verhoeven is making, it’s entirely implicit: it’s possible to watch Starship Troopers and just come away thinking you’ve watched a lavish SF action-adventure with a somewhat hackneyed story, and this does in fact seem to be what happened on the film’s original release, given the extent to which it apparently baffled audiences and divided critics. Personally I find the nature of the film as another piece of stupendously violent SF satire impossible to miss, no matter how tongue-in-cheek it is (and it is extremely tongue-in-cheek in places) – I’ve even heard it argued that the casting of Denise Richards, an actress whose dramatic range means she is really best qualified to appear in shampoo commercials, is a flag to the audience that this is not meant to be taken seriously.

The difference between RoboCop and Starship Troopers, I suppose, is that at the heart of RoboCop is a genuine and powerful human story, which Verhoeven surrounds with various elements of topical satire, whereas the story of Starship Troopers is a deliberately superficial and corny tale, solely intended as a delivery system for the satire which is what the film is really about. One striking thing about Starship Troopers is the eerie way in which it seems to anticipate American politics and foreign policy, and media coverage of them, in the years immediately after the September 11th attacks. Watching the movie now, it seems resonant and relevant in a way it didn’t at the time it was released.

That said, of course, while the movie may only superficially be an SF action movie, it’s still an extremely accomplished one – Verhoeven knows when to play it straight and pull out a superb set-piece action sequence, and does so at various points in the movie – the Them!-meets-Zulu battle at the outpost is as good as anything in Aliens. He’s helped, of course, by a score from Basil Poledouris, the best composer in the Hollywood if you want to make bombast sound fun (also the only one to play a redshirt in Star Trek), and special effects which still stand up well today. In terms of the casting, Verhoeven seems to have been actively searching for blandly good-looking young actors (see comments on Denise Richards above), but he also finds a chunky role for veteran genre actor Michael Ironside, who delivers a perfectly-pitched performance – I can’t imagine anyone else delivering a line like ‘His brain has been sucked out!’ with quite the same degree of ambiguity – is he playing it absolutely straight or engaged in a deadpan send-up of the whole thing? It’s impossible to tell. Perhaps he’s doing both.

Then again, the same is true of all of Starship Troopers – it’s both an exploitation movie and a vicious parody of exploitation movies, a lavish war film and a parody of war films – apparently hugely excessive and dumb, but at the same time very subtle and clever. The one thing it’s not, except on the most superficial level, is a genuine attempt at an adaptation of Heinlein’s novel. No-one else has made SF movies with the same level of wit and sense of gleeful mischief than Paul Verhoeven, and few people have matched his level of technical ability as a storyteller. Starship Troopers requires you to engage your brain in a way that few other Hollywood SF action movies do, but that’s hardly a criticism, especially when this is what makes it such a rewarding piece of entertainment.

 

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The final chapter of the original run of Survivors, comprising the last six episodes, gets underway with three episodes in a row from Roger Parkes: the only time other than at the very start of the series that one person does so. At least this gives you hope of a little more tonal consistency than is often the case with this series.

The first of the three is The Peacemaker (The Pacemaker might also be an appropriate title, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves). To begin with, would you believe it, Jenny, Charles, and Hubert are still searching for Greg (it’s starting to seem like Jenny’s suspicions that he doesn’t actually care about her or his son may have some truth to them), but almost at once they get distracted when they discover a working windmill under the control of a religious group. These guys initially look like Christian monks of some kind, but it soon transpires they’re not quite as ascetic as they appear (Hubert gets a roll in the hay before the end of the episode – we don’t see this on camera, thank God), and many of their beliefs in fact seem to be vaguely Hindu – an Indian woman, Rutna, has converted them all to vegetarianism, for instance. Hubert is appalled when he discovers curry is on the menu, grumpily complaining (in one of those only-in-1977 moments) about – oh dear – ‘wog food’.

The ostensible leader of the mill settlement, Henry, is in fact very much reliant on his mentor, Frank (Edward Underdown), as indeed is everyone else. Frank was apparently a professional head-hunter (as in, recruitment consultant) before the plague, and has become a kind of counsellor and, for want of a better expression, life coach. Everyone is very protective of him, and the visitors soon sense a little chilliness towards them – but then their horses are poisoned, stopping them from making the prompt departure they were intent on…

This is an interesting episode, for all that Hubert’s mutterings about ‘darkies’ make it a slightly awkward watch 40 years on.  There’s some slightly contrived shotgun-toting action half-way through (it has to be said that neither Denis Lill nor John Abineri is as adroit at this sort of thing as Ian McCulloch usually was) but mostly this is character-based stuff, exploring what it takes to be the kind of mentor Frank has become, and also (once again) the question of what kind of world it is that the survivors are trying to build. The mill setting is somewhat distinctive, as is the religious angle, and there are some interesting moments along the way – Charles criticises Henry for his decision to withdraw from the outside world, viewing it as a desertion of his responsibility, while Jenny gets an excoriating speech, tearing into Charles, Frank, and Greg (in absentia) for being all too ready to set out across the countryside on their various crusades and pilgrimages rather than staying in one place and meeting their more quotidian responsibilities there. And you can’t really blame her, especially when the search for Greg is finally parked, and the trio, joined by Frank, set off in search of an electrical engineer who may be able to help Charles get the electricity switched back on. This is probably not the greatest episode ever, but it’s a big improvement on the last couple, for sure.

Next from Parkes is Sparks, which primarily functions to introduce Alec Campbell (William Dysart), the last major character of the original run of Survivors. I have no idea whether there were ever plans for a fourth series of the show in 1978 (received wisdom seems to be it was canned in favour of Blake’s 7), but if there were, could it be that Alec was intended to become a new male lead? Given the problems that arose when Ian McCulloch and Denis Lill were sharing the male lead role, it would have been a slightly odd choice, given that Alec is, like Charles, a passionate, bearded Celt. Unless the plan was to ditch Charles completely.

Anyway, as the episode gets started, Charles, Jenny, Hubert, and Frank are searching for Alec, as they need his expertise as an electrical engineer to restart the hydroelectricity plants of Norway (the point is stressed that Greg, a civil engineer, is from the wrong specialisation). Alec is living in a settlement based out of an old and rather decrepit church, which reflects his rejection of the technological world and everything it represents. He is a bitter, sombre figure, much given to brooding over his dead wife’s picture (Vincent Price was presumably unavailable for the part).

Well, the main thrust of the episode is about Charles and Frank’s increasingly startling attempts to snap Alec out of it so he can help them get the electricity turned back on. The possibility that Alec has the right to hold whatever views he wants is at least touched upon, but not explored in any detail – one of the things you take away from this episode is how quietly fanatical Charles and Frank seem to have become about federation and the reconstruction, and you’re more inclined to agree with Jenny, who finds it all deeply suspect (and inevitably gets patronised when she raises a dissenting voice).

When Charles’ impassioned reasoning fails to get Alec to shift his position, kindly old Frank’s solution is to get hold of a bottle of pethidine and slip Alec a slug of it without telling him. This appears to trigger some kind of psychotic breakdown, not to mention hallucinations and suicidal impulses, but apparently this is all for the best (according to Frank) as it is breaking through the shell of his alienation and allowing a catharsis of the… you get the idea. Frank and Charles even get Jenny to pretend to be Alec’s dead wife to assist in the ‘cure’. Quite apart from the fact that this is handled in a rather stagey and melodramatic fashion, you have to wonder about exactly what kind of new society these guys are planning on setting up, because (based on their treatment of Alec) it isn’t one that seems to value the rights of its individual citizens very highly.

Oh well. By the episode’s end, Alec has made an absurdly rapid and full recovery from his long-term psychiatric malaise, and is as keen as mustard to switch the power back on – but why go all the way to Norway? There are power stations up in Scotland, after all. (Does this mean all the Norwegians will be left to starve after all? After everything else this episode, I wouldn’t completely rule it out.) So, the quest to meet up with Greg and help establish a trading connection with Norway, has, somehow, mutated into the mission to switch on a hydroelectric plant in Scotland. By this point I suspect most viewers are inclined to just shrug and let them get on with it. Lucy Fleming is making the most of an increasing number of good scenes where she takes the others to task for being ruthless, self-centred, and unreliable, and there’s a decent scene where Charles and Frank consider how they coped with the death of their own loved ones during the plague, but this is a very odd episode and a rather unsettling one. (It also ends on a freeze-frame, which is another oddity for this show.)

Things initially don’t show much sign of improvement in The Enemy, which opens with Charles, Jenny, Hubert, Frank, and Alec (Uncle Tom Cobley and all are presumably travelling just off camera) heading north as fast as they can. This is bad news for Frank, whose pacemaker battery is showing signs of conking out. To allow him to rest up, the party stop at a settlement near an old coal mine – just the kind of resource Charles and Frank want to preserve. Frank doesn’t want to let on to Alec how ill he is, so they have to find a pretext to stay – and, luckily, the settlement has a generator they can’t seem to get working.

There’s quite a long sequence with Charles, Hubert, and Alec getting epically wrecked with the locals. Charles and Frank, coming across even more like a chillingly Machiavellian post-apocalyptic Arthur and Merlin, have figured out that Alec will be easier to keep under control if they use Jenny and her feminine wiles to manipulate him (I repeat: this is Charles, ostensible hero of the series, doing this). Meanwhile, we are also introduced to Sam (Robert Gillespie), a technician and ex-junkie who believes his life was saved by the collapse of the old world in the plague. Sam is concerned that Charles’ quest to restore the electricity will symbolise the resurgence of the bad old ways and the destruction of the new, purer world the survivors have managed to create.

We get another electric scene between Charles and Jenny, where he at one point suggests it’s her moral duty to sleep with Alec, and also reminds her that her dedication to Greg seems to have declined a bit in recent weeks, regardless of how indifferent he seems to her (Greg does seem to have visited every other settlement in the country before finally heading back to his friends; this episode marks one of the few times Charles arrives somewhere Greg hasn’t visited first).  The episode’s big revelation comes later – just what is the enemy alluded to in the title? Is it laziness or boredom, as the settlement leader suggests? Apparently not: the enemy is a true believer with an agenda.

The generator won’t work because it has been deliberately sabotaged. Sam is so terrified of the old world and all its evils – the social workers who he feels enabled his addiction, ‘softness’, corruption – that he is prepared to destroy the surviving technology himself. He tries to persuade Frank of the justness of his cause, believing Charles won’t listen to him, but Frank dies before he can warn Charles and Alec of what Sam believes. Alec fixes the generator anyway, and Charles has visions of a techno dream team to get everything running again – Alec, Greg, and Sam! It’s a properly ominous set-up for the climax of the series, and works quite well because of the strength of Robert Gillespie’s performance – he was equally good in a small part in one of the very early episodes. He’s a convincing softly-spoken zealot, and just sympathetic enough to be very interesting, especially when placed in opposition to characters like Charles and Frank, who seem equally fanatical and ruthless in their own way, and equally unwilling to examine their own motives. Is Charles indeed right to try and bring about his own vision of progress without really having consulted anyone around him? His motives are more obscure now than when we first met him. All in all, an episode with more strong elements than weak ones, I would say.

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The third season of Survivors opens with Manhunt, the only episode where the writing credit is given to Terence Dudley, producer of the series. Anyone familiar with the Dudley oeuvre from his time as a regular contributor to Doctor Who could be forgiven for buckling their seatbelt and reaching for a stiff drink, as all of his scripts to that show are eccentric (to say the least) – they’re about giant frogs using androids as part of a plan to go back in time and meet God, or android versions of British royalty being used to try and stop the signing of the Magna Carta. To be fair, Black Orchid doesn’t feature androids at all, but such are the manifold peculiarities and absurdities built into a running time of less than 50 minutes that a DWM writer has largely devoted a column to a detailed exegesis of just how weird this one story is for the last couple of years now.

Despite all that, Manhunt starts promisingly enough, with a reasonably impressive pack of feral dogs. The dogs are pursuing an injured Jack, who is found and taken in by Seth the blacksmith, a minor character from the end of season 2. Most startling for modern viewers is the fact that Seth has, during the inter-season hiatus, apparently shacked up with Dot Cotton (June Brown), who is clearly a real survivor. At once you are aware of how much darker and dingier and grimier everything seems compared to season 2; gritty and frayed around the edges. The post-apocalypse has finally caught up with the series’ tone and design choices, and (as usual) you can’t help but think about how terrific it would look if they could have afforded to make the whole thing on film.

Well, a message is sent to Charles, Jenny, and Pet, who have relocated from Whitecross between series, along with the children – although Lizzy seems to have had a facelift along the way (Tanya Ronder departed to concentrate on her own career as a playwright). It seems that in the six months since New World, Greg, Jack, and Agnes have managed to get all the way to Norway and back. Unfortunately, Jack has been left delirious by his ordeal with the result that Charles, Jenny, and Hubert set off on a rescue mission which may not in fact be necessary…

Their journey takes them to an armed camp under military control, where drugs are being produced. They come across a man staked out on the ground, apparently left for the dogs – severe discipline is enforced, too (it’s all a bit like the settlement in The Chosen). Are Greg and Agnes still being held prisoner here? Or have Charles and Jenny somehow got the wrong end of the stick?

They’ve got the wrong end of the stick. Sorry to break it to you so bluntly, but, well, yeah. I suppose you could argue that the main plot of Manhunt subverts the usual ‘characters arrive at an inviting place only to discover the horrifying secret at its heart’ story structure, by creating a place which initially seems rather grim but which actually turns out to be relatively benign, but novelty value alone does not a great story make; the conclusion is arguably a bit of a let down. (And let’s not even dwell too much on the climax – oh, go on then: Jenny gallops into the camp to rescue Charles and throws him a shotgun, but of course she throws like a girl, hitting him on the head with the weapon and knocking him unconscious. It’s written as farce, but the realisation is even worse – simply primitive and unconvincing.)

The story fiddles about with ideas connected to discipline and law and order – the new settlement is being raided by ‘primitives’ in search of recreational drugs – but doesn’t really have a great deal to offer on these subjects. I suppose there’s an interesting moment where Charles’ plans of federating the country are mocked on the grounds that he’s much too soft and nervous a man to take on such a significant task (well, maybe: it does seem like everyone else is ahead of him, if nothing else). It’s initially quite striking, if only for the change in the look and tone of the series (bleak naturalism is now in effect), but I suspect once you get accustomed to the series 3 ethos this is much more clearly a silly and insubstantial story which is most significant for setting up the new ‘on the road’ format for the show.

It becomes clear that the new look of the show is all-pervasive when we see Greg in the opening moments of A Little Learning, written by Ian McCulloch – even he is looking rather scruffed up following his trip across the North Sea and back. It’s nice to see McCulloch back, as both writer and leading man, but you almost wish they had held this episode back a few weeks in the running order – he’s only in two all series, after all.

That said, this is about as bizarre a story as Survivors ever indulges in. It opens with a weird, presumably-meant-as-comic scene between Greg, Agnes (now Anna Pitt), and an eccentric old bigoted woman (nice to see UKIP going strong even after the plague) who complains about Indians stealing her chickens.

Greg goes off to investigate by himself and discovers an old school which has been taken over by a group of children who are living without adult guidance or supervision. Their leader, Eagle (Joseph McKenna) seems capable enough, but a strange illness is afflicting the children, causing them to suffer from convulsions and gangrene of the extremities (nice pre-watershed stuff this – the past is another country, and 1977 particularly so it would seem).

Mixed up in all of this are the activities of a pair of dodgy traders, Miller and Mackintosh, one of whom has his eye on Jenny. Yes, Jenny is in this episode, but all she does (pretty much) is to ride round and round the fringes of the plot, never quite meeting Agnes or Greg. Is this supposed to be ironic or bittersweet somehow? I’m not sure. It just comes across as an annoying distraction from the main storyline.

The episode’s most effective sequence sees Greg hunted across country by a band of armed children, one that recalls Peter Pan and Lord of the Flies in equal measure (this follows a scene in which Greg shows an alarming tendency to let people who wish him ill sneak up on him, possibly intentional foreshadowing of the end of the season). Based on this and the startling scenes dealing with the disease, this could have been a very memorable horror story of an episode, but instead it ends up going off in all sorts of directions – Greg reveals his encyclopaedic knowledge of folk legends, puts a young girl out of her misery by smothering her to death, discusses juvenile delinquency with a teenage boy, and organises a musical parade, and then right at the end an elephant turns up out of nowhere.

McCulloch and Dudley apparently agreed that the director, George Spenton-Foster, ‘****ed up’ A Little Learning, but there are some effective moments and a very arty sequence where the faces of Jenny and the girl Greg’s about to kill fade into one another repeatedly, and I’m not exactly sure how you could make such an eclectic collection of elements work as a coherent story. Still, nice to see Ian McCulloch again, if nothing else.

Ian McCulloch is basically just now an occasional guest star in a series not previously much known for barnstorming performances from the visiting cast, but one of these does form the centrepiece of Martin Worth’s Law of the Jungle, a more obviously philosophical and focused episode than the other ones so far this series. Again, you wish it was made on film, because as it stands it looks rather like an experimental zero-budget student film.

Jenny meets up with Charles, Agnes, and Hubert again, and together they visit what they previously thought was a flourishing farm. But it is deserted, the family who lived there having vanished. It transpires that the young men of the family have fallen under the sway of Brod, a pre-death slaughterman turned hunter chieftain. Brod has rejected the settled lifestyle completely, and he and his followers live solely by hunting and scavenging, with Brod maintaining his dominance through a combination of sheer personal charisma and brute strength.

(Some sort of not very subtle retcon seems to have occurred at some point, because this is the second episode in a row to apparently feature members of the same family who all survived the plague – a mother and her sons here, and a pair of siblings in A Little Learning. With the possible exception of Abby and her son Peter, there was no suggestion that resistance to the virus ran in families – Paul and Arthur both lost their children to the disease, though it makes sense for the offspring of two resistant parents (like Greg and Abby’s son) to inherit it. The revision of the series’ ground rules does not end here, either.)

On paper, Brod is another one of the series’ small men turned despots, but he’s lifted to a new level simply because he’s played by Brian Blessed (one of his final pre-bearded appearances, I think), who blasts everyone else off the screen with his sheer charisma. Blessed exudes the same kind of jovial malevolence he occasionally displayed while playing Augustus in I, Claudius the previous year, to say nothing of his raw physical presence. If I found myself living in an apocalyptic wasteland with Brian Blessed, I’m pretty sure I’d want to be a member of his tribe, too.

On one level, the episode represents a clash between Brod’s primitivism – never mind trying to hang on to an industrial revolution level of civilisation, Brod’s looking to go back to the iron age – and Charles’ more idealistic conception of survival.  As you might expect, Charles finds himself on the back foot when trying to contend with Brod’s enthusiastic barbarity (in much the same way that Denis Lill is when trying to act opposite Blessed, to be honest), and his espousal of civilised values means he can’t do what everyone is urging him to do and just kill Brod. There’s another level going on too, though, dealing with something a bit more psychological – Brod is such a rampant alpha male all the time, it seems, because his performance in another somewhat more intimate arena is quite simply not up to scratch. (That’s the kind of plotline you never get in Blake’s 7.)

After quite a lot of speechifying and boisterous bullying from Blessed, the plot resolves in interestingly ambiguous style – Hubert decides that if Charles won’t see sense and take Brod out of the picture, someone else will have to, and puts a crossbow bolt in Brod’s back himself, quite cold-bloodedly. Hubert has been threatening to turn into an interesting character for a while now, and this is another important step in his development, as well as being another example of the kind of thing you hardly ever see even in supposedly ‘edgy’ genre TV shows. Everyone is free to go, but the duel of philosophies between Charles and Brod is unresolved at best. The first strong episode of the final series, although it still has that third-season undercurrent of oddness running through it.

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