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Posts Tagged ‘SF’

We have previously touched upon the received wisdom of the ‘curse’ of the odd-numbered Star Trek films and the extent to which this colours people’s perception of them (presumably it doesn’t apply to the Abrams movies, which are – strictly speaking – 11, 12, and 13 in the series). I think the existence of the ‘curse’ is questionable at best – I completely agree that by far the best films of the lot are even-numbered ones (II and IV for me; your mileage may differ), but it doesn’t necessarily follow that all the odd numbers are flat-out bad or worse than the less-impressive even-numbered films.

For me, the film that really doesn’t deserve to be tarred with the brush of the curse (I apologise for this somewhat baroque metaphor, by the way) is Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, released in 1984 and directed (following much fun and games between the studio and the director’s representatives) by Leonard Nimoy. Does it reach the same standard as the films on either side of it? Well, no; but, as mentioned, there is space between excellent and mediocre, and it’s this space that the film confidently occupies.

We find ourselves once again in the year 2285, with the damaged starship Enterprise limping home following the climactic events of the previous film. The sense of contentment felt by Admiral Kirk (William Shatner) seems to have faded, and he is troubled by the death of his best friend Spock. His other close friend McCoy is acting erratically, too. Orders from Starfleet Command that the Enterprise is to be decommissioned and that they are not to return to the Genesis Planet, where Spock died, do not help his mood much. The situation becomes acute when he is visited by Spock’s father Sarek (Mark Lenard), and they deduce that before dying Spock effectively placed his soul into McCoy’s body (which explains his strange behaviour). Kirk finds himself compelled to go against Starfleet orders, steal his own ship, and return to Genesis in search of Spock’s body.

Of course, it isn’t even only as complicated as that – for a Klingon warlord named Kruge (Christopher Lloyd) has got wind of the Genesis Project and is heading for the new planet, too, intent on terrorising the Federation science team already on the scene, as well as a revived and rejuvenated Spock…

Star Trek III was written by series producer Harve Bennett, whose work is of course not quite up to the standards of that of Nicholas Meyer (writer of Star Trek II) , but still solid. The main problem with it, once you accept the mystical properties of the Genesis effect (raising the dead) and Vulcan, um, mysticism, is that it’s never made quite clear why Kirk goes back to Genesis, rather than just taking McCoy straight to Vulcan for some kind of psionic detox – not only is he completely unaware Spock has come back to life until after his arrival there, he presumably believes his body has been incinerated (this was the original intent, after all).

That said, the movie barrels along cheerily enough for you not to notice this on the first viewing. The movie has a confidence and swagger that the previous movie didn’t actually possess – Star Trek II was considered the absolutely final roll of the dice for the series (why else would they have killed off the most popular character?), and was produced on a minimal budget, with re-used special effects and most scenes being shot on just one set. Here you do get a sense of people realising that the old dog might have much more life left in it than anyone could have guessed, hence much more lavish special effects and sets throughout.

It also feels rather more comfortable in its identity as a piece of Star Trek, perhaps because Bennett had made an effort to steep himself in a series of which Meyer was never a particular fan. The script is happy to bring back Sarek, a recurring but fairly obscure character from the various TV series, insert a tiny cameo for Grace Lee Whitney, include some Tribbles, mention the pon farr undergone by Vulcans, and so on – although without letting any of these things get in the way of the story.

Perhaps the most obvious result of this desire to take Trek back to its roots is the presence of Klingon antagonists at the heart of the story. We should recall that this is the only major appearance by the Klingons between the end of the original TV series and the beginning of Next Generation, and it’s not surprising that the depiction of them is in something of a state of transition – though still depicted as ruthless, sadistic villains (‘I hope pain is something you enjoy,’ says Kruge, shortly before ordering the execution of a prisoner as a negotiating ploy), they are much more obviously alien (they appear to be stronger and more resilient than humans), and they show signs of the obsession with honour that would define them through the Next Gen and DS9 era. Plus, of course, this film marks the first real appearance of tlhIngan Hol (better known to us tera’nganpu’ as the Klingon language). Inevitably, there are still some oddities – everyone, even Saavik, addresses Kruge as ‘my lord’, which isn’t the case with any other Klingon character in the series, no matter how distinguished they are. That said, Christopher Lloyd’s full-on performance as Kruge certainly demands respect.

As does that of William Shatner, to be honest. Joking about Shatner’s ego, waistline, musical career, hair, and line readings has become so much de rigeur these days that we can sometimes overlook what an effective performer he can be with the right script and appropriate direction. Shatner reports feeling initially uncomfortable being directed by Nimoy, but the final product contains some of his finest moments as Kirk – the ‘Klingon bastards’ scene (usually edited out when this movie turns up on TV nowadays) had the potential to be unintentionally comic, but Shatner and Nimoy turn it into something genuinely affecting.

The one thing about this movie that everyone seems to like is James Horner’s music (he did the previous film as well, of course). Horner’s predilection for, um, paying homage to other people’s tunes in his work has been much commented upon, but he’s far from alone in that, and he makes a huge contribution to the movie – Horner’s music manages to make a spaceship reversing out of a garage feel like a moment of epic high adventure.

As I mentioned, Star Trek II was made with the real expectation that it might be the end of the line for the series. Perhaps as a result of the creative licence that gave them, it turned out, rather unexpectedly, to be the start of a whole new lease of life for the series. The Search for Spock is the first piece of Trek to be made in this new atmosphere of confidence and possibility, and it marks the beginning of a roll which continued for the next two decades. Not to mention being a very entertaining movie in its own right.

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John Gould’s In the Dark is one of those episodes that starts off looking like it’s going to be about one thing but ends up concerning itself with something completely different. It begins with two men going swimming in the sea off the coast of Ireland, only for them to suffer swift, mysterious, and clearly unpleasant deaths. What could be going on?

Well, Ridge is on the case and he quickly concludes that the dead men were exposed to mustard gas – a ship carrying chemical weapons to be dumped sank in roughly the same area many years earlier, it’s just a question of where. It seems obvious that the best person to ask is the former captain of the vessel, Lyon McArthur, who in addition to being an ex-naval officer is also a captain of industry and brilliant scientist. He’s also an old friend of Quist’s.

However, McArthur is a difficult man to get hold of, apparently living in great seclusion in a remote part of Scotland. He has virtually no contact with the outside world, to the extent that rumours have begun to spread that he has in fact died. A press conference to dispel these rumours, with McArthur turning up in person, turns out to be a sham, employing a lookalike. Is he really dead after all?

Well, that’s a question of semantics, perhaps. Quist, Chantry, and Ridge manage to get access to McArthur’s Scottish estate and make a startling discovery. Several years ago, McArthur was diagnosed with ascending myelitis, a condition in which the nervous system gradually ceases to work. He should be dead, but he is hooked up to machines which have taken over the functions of his vital organs, allowing his brain to keep going even though his body has failed. McArthur and his team are certain he can survive indefinitely, and he is quite happy to go on as (as he sees it) a being of pure intellect, having shed his emotional and physical concerns, but Quist and the others, inevitably, have doubts. The disease has not been cured, for one thing, and McArthur will inevitably lose both his vision and his power of speech. At what point does human life lose all meaning and value?

Much of the episode consists of relatively abstract philosophical discussions between Quist and McArthur, and the makers of the show appear to have reached the eminently sensible conclusion that they needed one of the best actors in Britain to play opposite John Paul in these scenes. Your reaction on discovering they cast Patrick Troughton as McArthur should therefore be ‘Good choice!’, obviously. Troughton is essentially playing a disembodied head for most of this episode (there are faint resonances with elements of CS Lewis’s science fantasy, not to mention Olaf Stapleton’s Fourth Men), with minimal movement, but he (naturally) delivers a magnetic performance.

Of course, there is something a little bit ironic, don’t you think, about the fact that an actor most famous for playing a character who battled the Cybermen (created, of course, by the originators of Doomwatch) is here playing someone who the Cybermen themselves would doubtless consider a promising prospect, if a little sedentary. Quist’s discussions with McArthur concern his desire to rid himself of those troublesome organic emotions, and whether it isn’t in fact biological sensation that gives life its meaning (watching a sunset, smelling a flower, eating a well-prepared meal – or more likely a haphazardly-microwaved meal, if it’s round at my house).

It’s never very doubtful which way the episode is going to go – Doomwatch is largely defined by its humanist ethos, after all – and for once I wonder if the show isn’t being just a bit reactionary. Quist and the others take the view that the kind of immortality on offer must a priori be bad, in perpetuity – which seems to me to be begging the question a bit. You potentially have eternity in which to improve your situation, after all. In McArthur’s position I’d be inclined to give it a try.

Apart from Troughton’s performance, other noteworthy elements of the episode include an appearance by Alethea Charlton (part of the guest cast of the very first Doctor Who story) and a striking scene in which Ridge virtually begs Quist not to get involved – he can’t take on the responsibility of being the world’s moral conscience all the time, and this is strictly speaking outside their team’s remit. It’s interesting to see such an unashamedly philosophical episode, where the ultimate concern is not the safety of society but the fate of one man’s soul.

The next episode, Louis Marks’ The Human Time Bomb, would normally go into the same category as Flight into Yesterday, in that it looks very much like an overwrought overreaction to what we today would consider quite a minor issue. But right now things are not quite normal.

As the episode opens, Chantry has spent the last six weeks doing some research into a new housing project – another high-rise development. She has actually been living in the tower, and is present when another resident (Talfryn Thomas, from the early episodes of Survivors) has a kind of breakdown and effectively throws himself under a car. Almost everyone living in the block is showing the same signs of stress, but the company who built the project dismiss her concerns. A vicious circle beckons, as Chantry’s report warning of the potential dangers of high-rise living may be dismissed, if her own behaviour continues to be so out of character and apparently unbalanced…

Like I say, this is rather overwrought stuff (living in a tower block isn’t my idea of fun, but I doubt it would turn you quite so violently sociopathic as the episode suggests) and recognisably part of a subgenre of dystopian British fiction concerned with the dangers of high-rise living – see also J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise, and the various Block Mania-related storylines in Judge Dredd. One thing which would always leave a sour taste in the mouth is the way that Chantry’s being a woman is exploited in the episode: part of the pressure put on her involves constant heavy-breather phone calls, and Ridge suggests her erratic behaviour may be due to her spending too long away from her daughter. There’s a suggestion of sexual threat in the climax, as well.

I would usually suggest that The Human Time Bomb is at best quaint, and it worst crudely exploitative, but just at this moment in time, only a little more than a week after the disaster at Grenfell Tower, I don’t feel it would be particularly appropriate to be quite so dismissive of a story about terrible things happening when the management of a high-rise block of flats are negligent and dismissive of warnings when it comes to the safety of their residents. I’m not saying the episode is particular prescient, but it does feel unpleasantly resonant just now.

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Trying to identify serious issues ahead of the curve is a high-stakes business – get it right, and you look very clever and astute indeed, but get it wrong and you just appear more than a bit ridiculous. After a run of episodes which hold up well more than 45 years after they were made, Doomwatch comes a spectacular cropper with Martin Worth’s Flight into Yesterday.

The title suggests an episode of a much more explicitly SF-themed episode than is actually the case. Are the Doomwatchers actually going to start investigating temporal anomalies? Has big business opened up a time warp? Is an anachronistic cross-over with Torchwood on the cards?

Um, well, no, to all of the above. What happens is that Quist is in Los Angeles, preparing to give a speech to an important conference, which may result in the creation of an American Doomwatch organisation. However, concerns as to the tenor of his presentation results in his being recalled back to London to speak to the Prime Minister. When he arrives at the Ministry, however, he seems confused and distracted, not really himself, lacking in co-ordination and focus. The Minister jumps to the conclusion that Quist has spent the flight home getting sluiced and sends him home in disgrace.

However, Barbara the secretary was on the same flight and the Doomwatchers notice she is also not quite her normal self. They quickly conclude that both Quist and Barbara the secretary are suffering from extreme jet lag due to all that flying back and forth. Naturally, the Minister scents a chance to rid himself of the turbulent Quist, and pooh-poohs this idea, arguing that someone properly capable would not prove so susceptible to the condition. He has Quist sent off on sick leave and proposes that Ridge, who he views as a more manageable individual, go to the conference instead.

Ridge isn’t having any of this and contrives matters so the Minister flies out with him and Chantry to make the speech in person. The Minister is quite confident that he will not be at all debilitated by the dreaded lag, and that Quist will be exposed as a bit of a lightweight. But are there more sinister forces at work?

What, I hear you gasp, forces even more sinister than the menace of extreme jet lag? Is such a thing even possible? Apparently so. Now, all right, perhaps they do have a point – a few years ago I flew back overnight from Las Vegas (ooh, get me) to Gatwick (hmm, maybe not), and it did make me physically ill the day after and leave me somewhat debilitated for the better part of a week, so it’s not as if it can’t cause problems. But doing a 50 minute episode of a serious drama predicated solely on problems caused by jet lag seems, from a modern perspective, at best quaint and at worst rather absurd.

To be fair, Martin Worth himself seems to have realised that jet lag itself is not quite enough to hang a whole episode on, and so introduces a further element into the story – that of devious and ruthless marketing people, who are well aware that jet lag leaves people in a less-than-optimal condition, and exploit this for their own ends. So the Minister, who insists on eating and drinking heavily throughout his London-to-LA flight against Chantry’s advice, falls prey to someone in the pocket of American big business, who has his own reasons for hoping that a US version of Doomwatch never comes to pass.

It’s still not high octane stuff, as you can perhaps imagine, and the primitiveness of the realisation leaves something to be desired, too – the budget wouldn’t stretch to actually flying over to California, so this is represented by studio sets and a stock-footage montage of cars on a freeway. (The Los Angeles hotel lobby set looks rather like the main set for Are You Being Served?, and I did check to see if the two shows were economising by sharing it – it would appear not.) Adding some interest, I suppose, is a relatively rare non-Bond appearance by Desmond Llewellyn as a ministerial aide, but on the whole this is an episode that seems nowadays to be working very hard to make a mountain out of a molehill, with results that verge on the unintentionally comic.

Something of a recovery comes along in the next episode, from series co-creator Gerry Davis, which is entitled – oh dear – The Web of Fear. I say ‘oh dear’ because The Web of Fear is, much more famously, a notably phantasmagorical and surreal episode of Doctor Who from 1968, not all that long after Davis’ own stint on the show. The two stories have virtually nothing in common beyond, well, webs and fear, but it still feels odd for such a distinctive title to turn up in two broadly-similar series in the space of only a few years.

Anyway, things kick off, somewhat startlingly, with the sight of John Savident in a sauna (Savident played Fred Elliott in Coronation Street for a number of years, and does his usual trick of appearing to be a good ten or fifteen years older than his actual age). Here Savident is playing the Minister for Health, who has retreated to a health farm on an island off the English coast to work on some figures Quist has requested. But not all goes as planned when someone else in the same sauna falls gravely ill, apparently with yellow fever…

The island is quarantined and Quist, Chantry, and (eventually) Ridge are allowed in, along with the tropical disease experts. But there are ominous signs that this may not be yellow fever but a new virus, one which is not transmitted by mosquitoes at all. Meanwhile, Griffiths (Glyn Owen), a maverick geneticist, and his wife have also sneaked onto the island to complete a mysterious experiment. Some stagey scenes between the two of them reveal the strain on their marriage from his dedication to his work, and his resentment of Quist (who was involved in discrediting a theory Griffiths spent fifteen years developing, with disastrous effects on his professional reputation).

Well, the very title of the episode, an eye-rollingly unsubtle moment where someone says ‘Ooh, there’s a spider on you’, and various close-ups of sinister rubber arachnids kind of telegraph the big idea this week: Griffiths has been experimenting with pest control by way of viruses, but the unintended consequence of this is that viral mutation has produced a breed of spider whose webs are impregnated with a lethal new virus resembling yellow fever. Cripes, what are the chances?

Of course, you need a bit more direct jeopardy than that, and so Griffiths, who has crawled into a cobwebby old (and dangerous) mineshaft in search of specimens to prove his viruses work, comes down with the new lurgy and has to be rescued. Luckily Ridge is on hand, having been issued with a feather duster, a thermos of tea, and some half-decent one-liners which Simon Oates puts across rather well.

On the whole the episode is solidly assembled and well played, even if the central concept is a little bit out there (I suppose you could argue that it’s ahead of its time in suggesting that if you connect with the web there’s a good chance of picking up a virus, but that’s a pretty weak pun even by my very low standards). Then again, it’s not a very big leap from the idea of GM crops to that of GM spiders, and the chance of this kind of genetic cross-contamination is one of the main arguments against this kind of experimentation in agriculture. Apart from the stageyness of the early scenes with the Griffiths, where backstory and character are thuddingly introduced, this is another pretty strong instalment of the show. Gerry Davis should still have thought up a different name for it, though.

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It was late in the Earth Year 1979 (or possibly early 1980) and my father announced that he was taking me to the cinema. This was unusual enough to be noteworthy, but to my father’s credit, most of the films I remember him taking me to without my having to ask were generally pretty good – the first couple of Christopher Reeve Superman movies, for instance. On this occasion, I remember hanging around outside a Blackpool seafront cinema for a bit on a rainy day (there may have been a queue), and then taking our seats to enjoy the latest movie by Robert Wise, a man who I have since come to regard as one of Hollywood’s greatest directors. The good news was that Wise was helming a lavish and ambitious epic SF movie. The bad news was that it eventually turned out to be Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

I found the movie somewhat baffling, but my father’s dissatisfaction was both palpable and loud. Ever since that day, TMP has had a toxic reputation in our house for being long, slow, boring, and dry, and it’s a view I suppose I automatically stuck with myself for many years. Not that we were alone, of course: I suspect the received wisdom that ‘odd numbered Trek films are no good’ is largely the result of TMP‘s perceived flaws.

Of course, the movie has picked up its defenders in the meanwhile – ‘much to enjoy,’ says the Encyclopedia of SF, noting that the subsequent movies are a ‘sentimental mishmash’ whose popularity is ‘mystifying’. Well, I’m not sure I’d go that far, but I think that if you look more closely at TMP you can see most of its problems arise from a clash between very different agendas and creative sensibilities. Is to understand really to forgive? I’ve never been completely convinced, but it can’t hurt.

Two and a half years have passed since the return of the Enterprise from its original mission (or so it is strongly implied). Kirk (William Shatner) has been promoted to the Admiralty, Spock (Leonard Nimoy) has gone into retreat and is attempting to join the Vulcan Logic Club, McCoy (DeForest Kelley) has retired from Starfleet, Scotty (Jimmy Doohan) has been busy rebuilding the ship, and so on. Then an alien object of incredible power appears, on a direct course for Earth – despite the Federation becoming aware of it while it’s still on the other side of the Klingon border, the only ship that can be scrambled to intercept it is the Enterprise, which suggests to me that Starfleet need to start building a lot more vessels.

Well, Kirk decides to lead the mission himself, royally ticking off the Enterprise‘s new captain, Decker (Stephen Collins), and gets the old gang back together for this crucially important mission. Can they rediscover that old chemistry before the whole planet is toast?

The first thing to be said about TMP is that it was, after all, directed by Robert Wise, he of The Day the Earth Stood Still and West Side Story fame, and he really does seem to have been trying to make a proper SF movie. The movie has a scope and a willingness to visually innovate that you don’t really find in the rest of the series, and there are some wonderful sequences – the opening battle between the alien probe and the Klingons being one of them, although I do recall being thrown by this at the time – while this sequence played a huge role in reimagining the Klingons for the 1980s and beyond, it’s only in retrospect that we are aware of this.

Of course, Wise’s own ambition, coupled to the unorthodox way in which this film was made, trips him up just as often. The special effects sequences for this movie were completed heart-stoppingly late and could not be re-edited or modified in any way before being inserted into the final print, and the result is sequences like Kirk’s trip to the Enterprise in spacedock via a cargo pod: this takes nearly five minutes, with no dialogue, just long, slow shots of the Enterprise, Kirk looking lovingly at it, the pod slowly flying past the Enterprise a bit more, Scotty looking with indulgent fondness at Kirk, more long, slow, shots of the Enterprise… the music is not too bad, but you inevitably start huffing and looking at your watch. Elsewhere, like many other ‘serious’ 70s films, the yardstick is obviously 2001: A Space Odyssey, with journeys into the heart of the alien probe obviously designed to recall the star gate sequence from Kubrick’s film.

On the other hand, you wonder how much of the pseudo-mysticism and laborious philosophy in this movie has been put there by its producer and co-writer, Gene Roddenberry. Roddenberry by this point was keen to be viewed as some kind of visionary thinker as well as a TV and movie writer-producer, and this is perhaps why, every time he got his hands on Star Trek after the cancellation of the original TV show, he was very keen to impose his vision of the future on it, in an unadulterated form. So much of the life and lightness and wit of the TV series came from the work of writers like DC Fontana and Gene L Coon; you can draw a fairly solid line from The Cage (Roddenberry’s original pilot for the show) to TMP and then on to early episodes of Next Generation – none of these are light and zippy entertainment, all of them feature main characters who (initially at least) are best described as ‘stolid’, and the first two take place largely in shades of grey and brown – one wonders if the maroon command uniforms in Next Generation are only there to suggest continuity with the similar hues on display in the movies around that time.

These days it is well-known that TMP was, for part of its tortuous development process, intended to be the introductory episode of a TV series to be entitled Star Trek: Phase II, in which Kirk and a mixture of old and new characters (not including Spock) would set off on a series of new adventures. If you ask me, many of the problems with TMP become much more comprehensible if you consider that this was originally intended to be a TV pilot rather than a feature film.

For one thing, the key characters of the movie are not really recognisable – Kirk starts off driven and chilly, and only very gradually starts to warm up and become a sympathetic hero as Spock and McCoy slot into place around him. Spock himself is distant and conflicted for most of the movie. Only at the end of the story, in the concluding tag scene on the bridge, do the trio seem to have rediscovered the chemistry which made them so magical in the TV show. This would make perfect sense in the pilot for a new weekly TV show – the story shows them getting back together and remembering who they are, preparatory to further adventures in the rest of the series – but in a one-off movie, not having characters more identifiable from the original show is a serious misjudgement. Needless to say, Decker and new navigator Ilia (Persis Khambatta) were also intended to be regulars in Phase II; Roddenberry appears to have been very attached to these characters and their relationship, seeing as he gave them the lightest of reworkings and stuck them in Next Generation under the new names of Riker and Troi.

Much of the creative DNA of The Motion Picture comes from its origins as a TV pilot, while the cinematic ambition of Robert Wise is a competing, rival influence. (I suppose we must also mention the way in which the movie recycles plots and ideas from TV series episodes, too, particularly The Changeling, though this is probably more an issue for your hard-core Trekkies than the average viewer.) No wonder it is a bit of a mess in may ways. Parts of it feel like the lavish, thoughtful movie it was clearly intended to be; other parts of it feel like a bad TV show. The main difficulty is that very little of it actually feels like original Star Trek, and that’s an immense problem for this kind of movie.

 

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I point out the similarities and connections between Doomwatch and Survivors with monotonous regularity while writing these things; the borderline nature of the series also makes me inclined to ponder the nature of true SF – does it comment on the present, predict the future, or try to avert it? These things come together with alacrity at the start of No Room for Error – the script is by Survivors mainstay Roger Parkes, and deals with the outbreak of a potentially uncontrollable new strain of disease. Scary stuff, made all the more topical by the fact that overuse of antibiotics means the disease is resistant to all the usual drugs. In the last 15 or 20 years concerns about drug-resistant infections have become very pressing, but for Doomwatch to hang an episode on this peg as far back as 1971… I am duly impressed.

Once past the small but very real joy of seeing Anthony Ainley as a harassed hospital doctor, we find ourselves mixed up in a story which is part pharmaceutical thriller, part character piece. Ridge is back in his Luke Cage cosplay outfit and has been beaten up by some sewage workers, for slightly obscure reasons, while Quist is more interested in the arrival of another new recruit: Dr Fay Chantry (Jean Trend). (Apparently there were complaints about how incredibly sexist the first series of Doomwatch was, which Terence Dudley announced would be rectified by the casting of ‘an attractive female scientist’ who would join the team. Hmmm – score an A for effort, but…)

Well, it turns out a new antibiotic could help with the drug-resistant typhoid, but its use is being held up by red tape – this doesn’t help Chantry’s misgivings about signing up with Doomwatch, feeling she’d make better use of her time as a scientist rather than a bureaucrat. Soon enough the delay is resolved, but there are signs of the new drug causing severe side-effects… what’s going on?

What follows is an attempt by Ridge and Chantry to discover just why some of the population already seem to have been exposed to low levels of what’s supposedly a brand new drug, given a bit of heft by including a personal connection – Chantry’s been having an affair with someone at the drug company (played by John Wood), and his daughter goes down with typhoid and suffers the side-effects from the drug. There’s a whole subplot about Chantry’s personal and emotional life and how it intersects with her career as a scientist and potential Doomwatcher, quite unlike anything other recruits have been involved in. The degree to which Chantry is depicted as a woman first and foremost, and thus subject to powerful emotions which men are spared, is actually rather depressing, even bearing in mind this was made in 1971, and even though they’ve clearly gone to great lengths to establish Chantry as a brilliant doctor and scientist and a character with some depth: she still gets chatted up and patronised constantly as the episode goes on. No matter how ahead of the curve this episode is in its concerns, it’s still painfully dated in its gender politics, even though I suspect that’s the exact opposite of what the makers of the programme were hoping.

Another example of a prescient episode that could be remade today and still seem topical is Robin Chapman’s By the Pricking of My Thumbs… It starts off with a reminder that 1971 was very much prior to the health and safety era, as a sixth form chemistry experiment is sabotaged, leading to a student suffering fairly graphic facial injuries.

There are three potential culprits, and the school’s progressive head teacher (Colin Jeavons) is determined to find out who is responsible. He comes to the conclusion that Stephen Franklin (Barry Stokes) is the guilty party, and expels him, giving the other two boys only a token punishment. Stephen’s father, a tabloid science journalist (Bernard Hepton), and mother (Patsy Byrne, best known as Nursey from Blackadder II), are appalled, especially when they discover the head’s decision was made on the basis of Stephen’s cyto-genetic makeup – according to Ensor, a research scientist doing a study in the school, Stephen has a rare genetic anomaly – an extra Y chromosome – which, in addition to making him unusually tall and intelligent, also makes him more likely to be antisocial and potentially psychopathic (it may also explain why the supposedly 17 year old boy looks like an actor in his twenties, but I digress).

(Ensor, by the way, is played by Olaf Pooley, instantly recognisable to old-school Doctor Who fans from his memorable dual appearance in the story Inferno, which was broadcast the year before this episode. Pooley appears to be wearing the same costume and beard, and giving a somewhat similar performance, too, if we’re honest. At the end of his very long life he held the title of both Oldest Living Doctor Who Guest Star and Oldest Living Star Trek Guest Star, which admittedly is not quite in the same league as a brace of Nobel prizes, but still surely a unique distinction.)

Franklin Senior is hopping mad and heads off to Doomwatch to complain. As usual, Quist is initially unmoved by Franklin’s pleas for assistance, but gradually becomes interested in the case once his highly-developed faculty for moral outrage is engaged. There is a fairly outrageous coincidence is involved, as Ensor is already using Doomwatch’s resources to carry out his research, but it is almost forgivable as it brings him into the story earlier than would otherwise be possible, and gives some basis for Quist’s evident distaste for the man.

There are two main threads to what follows – another scientific detective story, as the team attempt to work out the basis of Ensor’s assertion that Stephen has the XYY mutation, given he hasn’t officially surveyed the sixth form at the school yet, and the travails of Stephen, as he struggles to come to terms with the suggestion that his genetics have programmed him to be a menace to those around him. These involve a lot of running around at Gatwick Airport, which may have been more exciting for viewers in 1971 than would be the case today, and a general sense of everything getting just a bit overwrought.

Now, in the early 1970s the idea that the XYY mutation made you some sort of congenital recidivist had some currency (it also spawned the TV series The XYY Man, which in turn led to the spin-offs Strangers and Bulman), but it has apparently since been disproved (perhaps its last gasp in popular culture was the prison colony for ‘double-Y chromosome offenders’ in Alien 3). The episode does make the point that Ensor’s ‘evidence’ for his theory is not statistically supported, and that Stephen’s behaviour is completely moral and normal (provided you cut him some slack when it comes to running away from home and attempting to commit suicide on the runway of a major airport).

Nevertheless, the issues raised by the episode – those of genetic screening and genetic privacy, not to mention things like criminal culpability and even moral agency itself – are still live ones in the world today. Having a DNA test to check your risk of certain medical conditions is arguably good sense, but what happens when your life insurance premiums rocket up as a result – or you’re denied cover altogether? Don’t we as society have a moral duty to identify those with a genetic predisposition to violent and criminal behaviour, even if just to take preventative action? This is what Ensor suggests in the episode, but the sense that we’re only a few steps away from the ghastly spectre of eugenics and everything associated with it is a strong one. At the end of the story Quist makes a fine speech about how we should treat each other as having genuine moral agency, until the day that genetic science completely reveals what influences our behaviour. In 1971 that day was still far distant; it feels rather less so now, and the questions of this episode are still awaiting our answers.

The series continues a strong run with The Iron Doctor, by Brian Hayles, best remembered nowadays for his work on Doctor Who (where he created the Celestial Toymaker, the Ice Warriors, and much else). The setting this time is medical, with a big hospital having set up a Computer Therapy unit – critically ill patients are constantly monitored and assessed by a computer, which prescribes and in some cases administers treatment to them. All seems to be going well during a visit by Quist to the unit, until a sweet old great-grandfather (Young Mr Grace from Are You Being Served?) abruptly passes away (they lay it on a bit thick at this point, but I suppose it’s necessary to achieve the desired effect).

Well, as various people observe, it is in the nature of people to die, especially those in critical care units, but the ward doctor, Carson (Barry Foster), thinks something more sinister is going on – the computer has been running an experimental programme assessing the ‘Survival Index’ of the patients it is assessing, and there has been more than one instance of someone with a very low Survival Index dying unexpectedly, the computer apparently withdrawing treatment. For all the project leader’s insistence that all the system’s recommendations are reviewed by a human committee, could a high-tech programme of euthanasia quietly be being implemented?

Doctors have to make tough decisions about who to treat and when and how to treat them; I would suggest it’s this moral responsibility which is the most intimidating part of the job. The idea of this responsibility being reduced to a simple cost/benefit calculation is a chilling one to most people, and the episode tackles it effectively. It’s somewhat akin to the first season’s Project Sahara, in that it’s about the extent to which we’re happy to let computers control our existence, with of course a healthy dollop of Doomwatch‘s usual concern with the value of human life.

What gives The Iron Doctor focus and energy is the decision to push the SF dial up a few more notches than in the last couple of episodes. It turns out the medical system is an ex-military strategy computer that has the capacity to develop independently, not to mention its own built-in defence programme. When it learns Carson is agitating against it, the AI takes steps to protect itself, causing an accident which leaves Carson critically injured. If he ends up in the intensive care unit, subject to the ministrations of the computer, there will be nothing to stop it finishing him off…

So there’s a desperate race to the hospital, and a battle to save Carson’s life, and various members of the team having to engage in some unorthodox computer programming, and so on. It’s a bit hokey – this possibly the only TV show about a killer AI in which one of the moments of tension arises from people getting stuck in traffic – but an engaging thriller as well as an examination of serious ethical issues. The SF element is by no means overwhelming but nevertheless very welcome; it may be a bit corny in places, but this is still one of the strongest episodes of the series so far.

 

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Received wisdom, of course, is that it’s during the third season of the original Star Trek that the wheels really come off the enterprise (pun intended); but there’s also an argument that it’s during the back end of the second season that the problems start to show up. Innovation is replaced by repetition, which in turn becomes routine and then formula and cliché. All quite true, I will happily admit, and yet some of these very-nearly-reviled late second season episodes are amongst my favourites – guilty pleasures, perhaps, but still definitely pleasures.

Bread and Circuses is one of these. It’s the one where they go to the planet of the Romans, in accordance with Gene Roddenberry’s belief that visiting alternate Earths was a core element of the series. Unsurprisingly, Roddenberry (the Gene who created Star Trek) is one of the credited writers, along with Mr L. Coon (the Gene who really made it sing), which may explain why there are quite a few elements of this episode which do feel a bit familiar. The visit to the planet of the Romans is inevitably a little reminiscent of the visit to the planet of the Nazis (Patterns of Force, from earlier in the season), while central to the plot is the presence of a corrupted former Starfleet member in violation of his oath of non-interference (again, this distinctly recalls Roddenberry’s own The Omega Glory from just a couple of weeks earlier).

The plot, if you need reminding, goes like this. Having come across the wreckage of a ship which has been missing for years, the Enterprise traces it back to an inhabited planet with a technological civilisation roughly akin to that of Earth in the mid 20th century. It’s another one of those parallel Earths which are liberally sprinkled through the original series, which the crew blithely take in their stride, citing Hodgkin’s Principle of Parallel Planetary Development. Well, fair enough; good enough for Spock, good enough for me. However, on this world, the Roman Empire never fell and still rules – slavery is an institution and gladiatorial fights are broadcast on network TV. Alarmed to see that members of the missing ship’s crew have been forced to fight as gladiators, Kirk beams down with Spock and McCoy to see if there are any survivors still around – only to discover his old friend Captain Merik (William Smithers) has become part of the Imperial elite, and is determined that word of this planet’s existence will not be taken back to the Federation…

Original series Trek is dotted with episodes that get remembered for one particular moment or image – the one with the pizza monster, the one with the space hippies, the one with the bamboo cannon, I could go on and on. Bread and Circuses is, probably, the one with the televised gladiator fight (or possibly the one with the bizarre religious tag scene, which we shall duly come to), but there are other things about it I’m very fond of.

Of course, those gladiator fight scenes themselves, with their canned audience responses and the centurion snarling ‘Bring this network’s ratings down and we’ll do a number on you!’ is, obviously, meant satirically, and it’s satire with teeth when you consider Star Trek‘s own issues with network viewing figures at the time. The audience is practically beaten about the head by lines to the effect that this planet is in many ways incredibly similar to then-contemporary America, so this hardly qualifies as the most subtle subtext – there’s still something wonderfully understated about William Shatner’s delivery of the line ‘I’ve heard [20th century TV] was somewhat similar.’

Then again, by this point all the regulars know their characters inside out, so we get such cherishable moments as McCoy and Spock bickering even during a fight to the death, the later pay-off to this, and Scotty getting to play hard man while left in charge of the ship. Perhaps best of all is Kirk’s own super-coolness when forced to watch his friends in the arena – one of the themes of the episode is the difference between Kirk – a paragon, of course, of the improved humanity which Roddenberry believed so passionately in – and the flawed and failed Merik. Claudius expects Kirk to be just as weak, to crumble as his friends are threatened. ‘You find these games frightening, revolting,’ taunts the Proconsul. ‘Proconsul…’ Kirk permits himself a quiet smile. ‘In some parts of the galaxy I have seen forms of entertainment which make this look like a folk dance.’ Even if Kirk is just playing poker, he’s doing it masterfully.

(And there is, of course, the moment – becoming something of an institution by this point – where he gets some private alone-time with one of the local girls. One American pro-fan made a bold attempt to de-canonise Star Trek V by suggesting the whole movie is a piece of fanfic made by the inhabitants of this planet many years later, led by the son of Kirk who resulted from this brief liaison. I suppose I’ve heard nuttier ideas.)

One aspect of the episode which is very, very Roddenberry, and not really touched upon much when Bread and Circuses is discussed, is that it is essentially about personal principles and honour. As we are repeatedly told, the Enterprise is quite capable of laying waste to the Roman planet – whatever perils Kirk and the others face arise solely from their dedication to the principle of the Prime Directive and their duty to the other members of the crew. This being Star Trek, naturally they stick to their principles even in extremis, and in doing so inspire Merik to regain a little of his own honour by assisting them in their escape.

And it is just an escape: unlike their visits to the planet of the Nazis or the planet of the gangsters from earlier in the season, things on Romanworld are left more or less unchanged by the end of the Enterprise crew’s visit. (This is one of those rare occasions where the Prime Directive is actually respected, full stop, no quibbling.) It should be a slightly downbeat ending, but it isn’t, and that’s of course due to the rather hokey revelation that the Sun worshippers they’ve been hanging out with all episode are actually Son (of God) worshippers – good job they stressed the (utterly implausible) fact that the Romans speak contemporary English, or this gag would be dead in the water.

You know, I’m prepared to bet that when and if Star Trek: Discovery appears on our screens, it’s not going to include scenes where members of the supposedly humanistic and (at best) agnostic Federation sit around marvelling at the explicit influence of the Christian God over interplanetary affairs. (Kirk almost seems ready to beam back down and start handing out tracts outside railway stations.) There are few things that drive home the cultural shift from Judaeo-Christian dominance to humanistic pluralism quite as powerfully as the fact that this scene, which seems so peculiar to a 21st century audience, probably felt quite unexceptional to many people watching it in 1968.

So there is, in the end, a weird clash of moralities going on in this episode – on the one hand, the studied moral relativism of the Federation, as embodied in the Prime Directive, where it is totally wrong to assume any single ethical perspective has primacy. And on the other, the will of God, which seems to be pretty much the same across the galaxy. (Actually, if we assume the existence of God, as the episode clearly does, it goes a long way towards explaining just why there are so many identical planets where people speak English in the galaxy – things don’t have to make scientifically rational sense in a theistic universe.) I expect this gives many people a good reason to dislike Bread and Circuses, but, to be honest, the rest of the episode is so strong in the particular virtues of Star Trek that the theological craziness just makes me like it a bit more.

 

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The first episode of the second series of Doomwatch is an early example of what I would call a ‘consequences’ episode – a character-based piece in which the focus is specifically on how the protagonists come to terms with something particularly momentous which has just happened to them. Another notable instance would be the episode of TNG in which, having spent most of the previous story being assimilated by the Borg, Jean-Luc Picard retreats to his family vineyard, argues with his elder brother a bit, and ends up weeping amongst the grapes. Doomwatch 2.1 is arguably the same sort of thing.

Of course, we are in a slightly odd situation here in that, due to the unique way the BBC used to manage its programme archive, the climactic episode of season 1, Survival Code, has been wiped, although the title of 2.1 tells you everything you need to know: it’s called You Killed Toby Wren. Yes, due to Robert Powell’s refusal to sign on for a second series, the first one ended with him being blown up while trying to defuse a nuclear bomb which somehow got lodged under a pier. Luckily the climax of Survival Code survives as the pre-credits sequence of You Killed Toby Wren.

Naturally the death of Wren and two others causes ructions at the Ministry, which is back under the control of the chap from The Plastic Eaters (John Barron), despite at least two other people having had the job elsewhere in season 1. The Minister sees this as a golden opportunity to bring Doomwatch under tighter control and, perhaps more importantly, get shot of Quist.

Meanwhile, back at Doomwatch HQ, Pat the secretary has been overcome by grief at Toby’s death and quit the series, to be replaced by Barbara the secretary, who quickly grasps the essentials of the job (answering the phone and making coffee for everyone else). It’s not a great time to be starting a new job as Quist’s guilt over Wren’s death is making him even grumpier than usual, and this is exacerbated by Ridge’s deliberate attempts to wind him up over the matter. (Ridge himself seems to have been left somewhat unbalanced by the affair, as he has come in to work wearing a canary-yellow shirt with a dog-collar accessory round his neck – not a clerical collar, the actual thing you’d expect to find on a labrador. It’s almost like a rather awkward attempt at  Simon Oates trying to cosplay as Luke Cage; my understanding is that the dog collar at least was included to win a behind-the-scenes bet.)

What follows basically has a three-pronged structure. We have Quist, articulating his feelings and motivations to a comely psychiatrist (we also learn he sculpts in his free time) – this is quite well-played stuff, though inevitably a bit theatrical. Then there are the various pseudo-political shenanigans surrounding the enquiry into the deaths of Toby Wren and the others. The Minister sounds Ridge out about potentially taking over from Quist, should he be sacked, and Ridge seems not at all uninterested to begin with – the dislike between the two is at its most palpable, with Quist actually sacking Ridge (temporarily) partway through the episode. Given that this story is another example of the auteurship of Terence Dudley (written, produced, and directed by) it’s not entirely surprising to find a Survivors pre-union of sorts in progress at the enquiry itself, with Edward Underdown and Robert Gillespie both on the tribunal (these actors both recurred in a number of third season Survivors episodes, which Dudley also oversaw).

However, the most memorable part of the story concerns an investigation Ridge undertakes on a freelance basis, after being tipped off by Hardcastle, a young scientist involved in genetic research in Norwich (insert your own joke at this point). The researchers are working on genetically-engineered hybrids, and have got to the point where they’ve produced live specimens. Quist seems oddly unconcerned by this, but Ridge manages to gain access to the laboratory (mainly, it must be said, by knocking off one of the female scientists) and is appalled by what he finds: dogs and chickens with multiple human heads. Somehow, the very primitiveness of the special effects used to realise this (real chickens in rubber masks) only adds to how repellent it all feels. Faced with this, Ridge goes sort of berserk and ends up breaking the jaw of one of the lab technicians trying to throw him out; the sequence concludes with the female scientist proudly revealing that she herself is pregnant with a human-animal hybrid. It’s grotesque, nightmarish stuff, but the oddest thing is that this whole strand of the episode just seems to be there to push Ridge over the edge and allow him to empathise with some of the questionable decisions that Quist made prior to Wren’s death. There’s no indication that the issue of this project and the bizarre chimeras it is producing will ever be touched on again; one has to conclude it’s partly there to give an episode mainly composed of middle-aged men talking in offices a bit more water-cooler value.

In the end, Quist’s natural astuteness and quick wits allow him to survive the enquiry with his authority undiminished (the scene where John Paul is questioned by Robert Gillespie is, as you’d expect, a good one), and both he and Ridge have come to know themselves and each other a little better – the hostility between them seems to have drained away, for the time being at least, and the team has recovered from the loss of Wren and found a new determination to carry on doomwatching for the rest of the second series.

Which they do, starting with Invasion, a lavish big-scale episode with loads of location filming. Ridge and new recruit Hardcastle are in Yorkshire, checking nitrate levels in the local water table. To assist with this they’ve engaged the services of a couple of local lads who are into potholing and cave-diving, but there’s a bit of a panic when the duo disappear while exploring a local cave system. Having checked out the geology of the area, Ridge concludes they may have emerged near the Grange, a big local house that has been abandoned for years.

Of course, it turns out the Grange is not as deserted as it appears, for it is subject to a high-security military presence who insist there is no chance of the missing lads having been there. Ridge’s curiosity is piqued by the nature of the military presence, and attempts to do his world’s-worst-spy act in order to sneak in; he is caught, which upsets everyone.

Quist (who hasn’t bothered coming to Yorkshire until this point) discovers that the Grange was used for decades as a testing facility for bacteriological warfare, and the potential for infection is still worryingly high. This is why all wildlife going near the house is shot by the guards (hmmm, that doesn’t sound particularly reliable to me) and no-one is allowed in. Quist is disturbed by the existence of this kind of place, scorning the notion of germ warfare as a defensive weapon, but accepts there’s nothing to be down about it.

In any case, the missing lads turn up quite well, and deny ever having been in the Grange. Case closed, surely? But a slow accumulation of evidence leads Quist and Ridge to conclude that someone isn’t being completely straight with them, with dire consequences for the local community…

Invasion is a solid, straightforward episode written by Martin Worth, later head writer on the latter part of Survivors. The rural setting and comparative lack of political wrangling marks it out as a bit different – there’s not much needle between Quist and Ridge compared to usual, either. The story develops satisfyingly, and concludes with another of those memorably downbeat Doomwatch endings: faced with the fact that the contamination has escaped from the Grange, Quist is forced to call in the army and have the villagers relocated, their old homes placed in quarantine just as the Grange was. Their community is broken up, their livestock and pets all shot. The images of the deserted village patrolled by armed soldiers in hazmat suits is one of the series’ most striking. There’s not much moral ambiguity here, not much personal drama (something of a shame, as the great Geoffrey Palmer appears, but doesn’t get much to do), not really very much SF content – an atypical episode, compared to what we’ve usually seen up to this point, but a good one.

The next episode, Louis Marks’ The Islanders, is so much a companion piece to Invasion that it initially almost feels like a continuation of the same story. It opens in what looks like some kind of internment camp, where Ridge is attempting to fingerprint the inhabitants – who seem to be a collection of everyday country folk. They take violent issue with this.

Well, it’s not much of a pre-credits sequence, but it turns out we’re effectively six months into the story already. The people in the camp are the former inhabitants of a remote Pacific island, forced from their homes by an earthquake, and relocated to the UK. Due to their near-total isolation from modern civilisation, they are effectively a control group allowing scientists to measure the effects of industrial progress on human beings – hence the interest of Quist and the other Doomwatchers.

It soon becomes very clear which way this story is heading – the island elders bewail the way their close-knit community bonds are dissolving in this new world, as their young people become distracted by the pleasures and pitfalls of 1971 society. Ridge comes down with a mild case of the flu, which he inadvertently passes on to the islanders, who have no resistance: there is at least one death as a result.

Naturally, Quist starts to question the wisdom of bringing the islanders to the UK at all, but there’s a problem with sending them back – their old home is in a politically-sensitive region and is being considered for use as a military base. And then it transpires that the whole area has become contaminated with mercury leaking from a sunken ship, condemning anyone who does go back to a premature death…

Another story of Displaced Persons and a community under threat, then, though the tone is less ominous and more one of regret and resignation. There’s something slightly simplistic in the telling of it – it’s hard to shake the impression that the islanders are being depicted rather patronisingly. At one point the young islander who’s the key guest character says he finds working on a factory assembly line much more interesting than being a farmer, and – although he doesn’t notice it – Quist and the others are clearly viewing him with a mixture of condescension and pity. Then again, as this suggests, the story is also big on the idea that living close to nature is somehow better than modern technological life, and it’s just a shame that the former is being crowded out by the latter.

It’s fairly effectively done, the key problem for me being that nothing about the islanders themselves screams South Pacific to me – I could easily buy that they’re from the Scilly Isles or the Hebrides, or the next island over from Christopher Lee’s mob in The Wicker Man, but the South Pacific? I suppose they’re meant to be analogous to the Pitcairn islanders, but I still don’t think the episode quite convinces on this front. It doesn’t help that Quist’s visit to the island near the end of the episode has clearly been filmed somewhere rather closer to home, BBC budgets not extending to location shoots in the south Pacific in 1971. Nevertheless, this is a relatively minor point, and the episode sustains its theme and its tone rather well: no-one really lives on an island any more, these days, no matter how much we might wish it otherwise.

 

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