Friday, 15 December 2017

three Twilight Zones from 1961

Three episodes of The Twilight Zone for this post, all written by Rod Serling, all from the second season and originally aired in 1961.

While I’m not the biggest fan of The Twilight Zone and while I have definite reservations about Serling’s writing I have to admit that when Serling got it right he could hit it right out of the ball park. The Silence, from season two, is one of his best episodes.

It’s a very unusual episode in that there are no supernatural or science fictional elements whatsoever. There’s no overt horror. In fact it’s a character-driven drama. The one thing that qualifies it as a Twilight Zone episode is the offbeat nature of the central plot device.

Serling later admitted that he had unconsciously borrowed some of the key plot elements from an Anton Chekhov story.

The setting is a gentleman’s club. Jamie Tennyson (Liam Sullivan) is the club bore. He talks incessantly and his conversation consists mostly of empty braggadocio which usually leads up to attempts to borrow money. Tennyson is a young man who has spent all his inheritance and he’s always looking for ways to make easy money. He has a lovely young wife with whom he is madly in love but she has very expensive tastes.

Colonel Archie Taylor (Franchot Tone) offers Tennyson a very easy way to make a great del of money. All he has to do is to shut up. If he can remain absolutely silent for a year Taylor will pay him half a million dollars. It’s not quite so easy as it sounds - Tennyson will be confined in a glassed-in room in the club basement and the room is filled with microphones. If he does speak, even a single word, it will be heard and he will lose the wager.

We get hints early on of where the story is heading but while Serling could on occasions be obvious in this tale he keeps some effective surprises up his sleeve.

Franchot Tone had had a glittering career in the golden age of Hollywood but this is actually one of his best moments as an actor. Liam Sullivan is excellent as well. The third major character in the story is Taylor’s lawyer Alfred, played totally straight but very effectively by Jonathan Harris (a far cry from his famous role as Dr Smith in Lost in Space).

Boris Sagal was a very fine television director and although there’s no action and really only two sets he keeps things interesting and he builds the tension rather nicely. He is also prepared to let the actors get on with the job, a wise move since it’s the characters and the relationship between them that is the strength of this story.

Mention must be made of the splendid glassed-in room set which adds a slight touch of Twilight Zone-style paranoid atmosphere.

This is a superb episode in which everything comes together perfectly.

Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up? is also a slightly unusual episode. In some ways it’s more what you expected from The Outer Limits. A UFO has crashed into a lake and a couple of state troopers have arrived to investigate. They find tracks leading from the lake to a nearby diner. In the diner are a group of people, passengers on a bus, who are temporarily stranded due to heavy snow. The problem is that six passengers got onto the bus but now there are seven of them. The state troopers conclude, reasonably enough, that one of them is really an alien from the crashed flying saucer. But which one?

This is a pure science fiction story but it’s done in a light-hearted whimsical style. Serling was not renowned for his ability to write comedy but he does a pretty decent job with this script.

A fine cast of talented character actors certainly helps.

There’s some fairly effective tension as well. The story might be essentially comedic but one of these people is not just a Martian but in all probability a dangerous and malevolent one so we can’t be quite sure whether it’s suddenly going to take a turn into much grimmer territory. A very good episode.

Twenty Two is a good solid supernatural horror story, written by Serling and based on a very famous  E.F. Benson ghost story. Liz Powell is a stripper who has been hospitalised as a result of overwork. All she needs is rest. She has a recurring nightmare in which she ends up in the hospital morgue. Liz has convinced herself that her nightmare is no mere nightmare - that it is real. Her doctor (played by Jonathan Harris) tries to convince her that it really is just a dream but she becomes more and certain that it’s real.

This one establishes the right mood from the start. We know something is very wrong. It’s nothing startling or ground-breaking and the ending isn’t a huge surprise but Serling delivers an effective script nonetheless. The atmosphere of terror is more important than the actual plot. The one fly in the ointment here is that it was made during the period when CBS had insisted on cost-cutting measures and was therefore shot on videotape. This is most unfortunate since the story needs as much help as it can get from the visuals. The hospital sets are good and director Jack Smight knows what he is doing but it doesn’t have quite the creepiness that could have been achieved on film. Barbara Nichols does well as the stripper, making her amusing but genuinely sympathetic - we like her and we don’t want anything terrible to happen to her.

Twenty Two delivers the goods in a fairly impressive fashion.

So three good Rod Serling episodes and they all have one important thing in common. Serling has resisted his natural and all too pervasive urge to us and to bludgeon us with heavy-handed messages, concentrating instead in these three stories on producing well-crafted tales that provide chills and entertainment. The Silence is outstanding but all three are very much worth watching, or (if you’ve seen them before) watching again.

Thursday, 7 December 2017

Hazell, season 2 (1979)

The second season of Hazell is very much in the style of the first but with a few personnel changes. Hazell has come to a parting of the ways with lesbian Dot Wilmington and her detective agency. When he finds his feet again he acquires a sort of assistant in the person of the slightly sleazy Graham Morris (Peter Bourke), a young artist specialising in insects. Mostly Graham just helps to pay the rent on the office and answers the phone but he helps on some cases. It’s not exactly a warm friendship between Hazell and Graham. At best they tolerate each other.

Fortunately the other two regular cast members are still there - Roddy McMillan as Inspector ‘Choc’ Minty and Desmond McNamara as Hazell’s cousin Tel. Hazell’s relationship with Minty is somewhat tense although there are moments of grudging mutual respect, and plenty of opportunities for acidic dialogue exchanges. They might not like each other very much but they are useful to each other. Cousin Tel provides the comic relief, and does so very successfully.

Hazell follows a formula that is very very close to that of The Rockford Files. Both deal with down-market private eyes who have uneasy relationships with the police, both feature heroes with unhappy pasts (Rockford was in prison, Hazell had a drinking problem), both take a tongue-in-cheek approach to the private eye genre, both series are stylish and witty, and both are heavily influenced by the American hardboiled and film noir traditions. Of course there is one very major difference - The Rockford Files is very American (in fact very Californian) and Hazell is very English (in fact very London).

Hazell and the Baker Street Sleuth kicks off season 2. Hazell finds himself working for the very down-market Fitch Bureau of Investigations. Fitch has a reputation for not paying his investigators but Hazell needs the work. Getting paid will be one challenge but there is also a moral dilemma - he has to investigate an unfaithful husband who really doesn’t seem to be unfaithful at all but clients want results and Fitch likes to give them results.

Hazell and the Deptford Virgin is a very amusing and very clever riff on The Maltese Falcon with an assortment of rogues after a statue containing a fabulous treasure in jewels. Charles Gray is in magnificent form as the chief villain, although he’s not quite a conventional villain. He’s ruthless and amoral but he’s more of a loveable rogue. This is a truly splendid episode with Hazell having to outsmart some very clever and very unscrupulous people. Luckily he’s equal to the challenge.

In Hazell Bangs the Drum Hazell is hired by a Dr Patel to investigate what appears to be a case of blackmail. Hazell suspects that an illegal immigration racket may be behind it, but it’s just a theory and really he’s not sure what he’s stumbled upon. He has to take crash course in rock’n’roll drumming to solve this case but he finds some surprising compensations in a laundrette.

Hazell Gets the Boot sees Hazell, much against his better judgment, working for a notorious gangster. The job seems harmless enough. Someone has stolen the gangster’s Bentley and he wants it back. Of course the job isn’t harmless at all. This excellent episode features a delightfully twisted plot.

Hazell is hired by a very attractive young lady in Hazell Gets the Bird. Someone is trying to put this lady out of business. Her business is exotic pets but mostly she deals in taxidermy. Hazell finds himself with a personal stake in this case when he starts sleeping with the lady in question. He’s getting well paid, he’s getting to bed an attractive woman and he’s getting to play the knight rescuing a damsel in distress. So far it’s all good. Except for the birds. The birds are a worry. Hazell discovers that sleeping with clients isn’t always a wise idea, although of course that’s not going to stop him from doing it again. A nicely plotted story and thoroughly enjoyable.

There’s always a tongue-in-cheek element to Hazell. The combination of this with plenty of homages to  the hardboiled style of 1940s private eye movies is a key part of the charm of the series. Hazell and the Big Sleep isn’t so much tongue-in-cheek as pure farce and for me it doesn’t quite work - even though it deals with Chicago gangsters it lacks the essential hardboiled flavour. Hazell is having cash flow problems and an offer of a job helping an old police colleague to catch a hotel thief seems like a lucky break. It’s more like an unlucky break. Everything goes wrong and Hazell is in trouble with just about everybody.

Hazell finds himself in the heart of the countryside in Hazell and the Suffolk Ghost. His client has inherited a cottage but he has no idea why it should have been left to him, plus there have some slightly spooky incidents. Ghosts and witchcraft are not normally in Hazell’s line and dealing with surly villagers who dislike strangers makes things a bit uncomfortable. There are compensations however. The client is overseas but his wife is staying at the cottage and she’s very young, very attractive and has a rather affectionate disposition. In fact she’s very affectionate indeed to Hazell. Bedding a client’s wife might not be strictly ethical but it doesn’t do to get too hung up on ethics.

Hazell and Hyde starts out as a very routine case. Hazell has to find a missing girl who probably doesn’t really want to be found. In fact it’s the beginning of a nightmare for Hazell. Someone is stalking him and it has something to do with the missing girl. A pretty good episode with a few genuinely scary moments.

Hazell and the Happy Couple has our dauntless enquiry agent dealing with marital problems. Other people’s marital problems, always a messy business especially when the client has been rather less than honest with him.

Hazell Gets the Part introduces Hazell to the glamorous world of the movie business, which turns out to be rather sordid. He’s looking for a stolen necklace but finds other kinds of villainy afoot. There's also plenty of fun to be had in this story.

The less said about Hazell and the Greasy Gunners the better. A clumsy political message episode.

The series gets back on track with the excellent Hazell and the Public Enemy. Hazell is hired by an old childhood friend. The friend has just broken out of prison but he’s actually in big trouble and he wants to hire Hazell to help him. That’s going to make Hazell unpopular with the law, and with a very nasty big-time gangster. Even worse, the whole scheme has been cooked up by a girl crime reporter and Hazell is quite rightly suspicious of her motives. This is a serious episode with a very definite film noir quality.

Hazell is fine television viewing, witty and intelligent but also great fun. Highly recommended.

Both seasons are available on Region 2 DVD from Network in the UK.

Friday, 24 November 2017

The Avengers - The Mauritius Penny/Mr Teddy Bear

A couple of 1962 Cathy Gale episodes of The Avengers for this post.

Mr Teddy Bear was one of the very early Cathy Gale episodes of the Avengers and was apparently one of Patrick Macnee’s favourites. It was recorded in August 1962, going to air in Britain a month later.

Martin Woodhouse wrote the script. Woodhouse was a doctor by training and he believed that not only would it be desirable to include scientific concepts in his stories, it would be even better if these scientific ideas were plausible.

Woodhouse went on to write a number of episodes featuring both Honor Blackman as Cathy Gale and Julie Stevens as Venus Smith, as well as one of the Diana Rigg episodes (the excellent A Sense of History).

Mr Teddy Bear is a notorious and very successful hitman. He has just masterminded the ingenious murder of a prominent military man, the murder taking place live on television. He is not just a hitman but a bit of a showman as well. One-Ten (Steed’s boss who appeared as a semi-regular character in the early Cathy Gale episodes) has decided that enough is enough. Mr Teddy Bear must be stopped. The plan is to use Steed as bait. Mr Teddy Bear will be hired to kill Steed. This should bring him out into the open. Of course if the plan goes wrong it will be very unfortunate for poor old Steed.

Mrs Gale is to be the one who makes contact with the assassin. She will be the one who hires him to kill Steed.

Mr Teddy Bear is no fool and Steed will have some uncomfortably close brushes with death in this adventure. And it builds to an effective and exciting climax.

This episode dates from the days when the series was shot live on videotape, a practice which was certainly limiting when it came to attempting any fancy visual tricks (although the talking bear is a nice touch). Fortunately such tricks are not really necessary if you have a good director working from a good script and, most importantly, if the lead actors have a form grasp of what characters tick and what makes the relationship between them tick. That’s very much the case here. It’s a good story but it’s the characters who make it great television. Patrick Macnee and Honor Blackman had already developed a wonderful chemistry.

This is the early version of Steed, a more cynical and more ruthless operator than the later Steed. There are times when Mrs Gale definitely does not approve of Steed’s cold-bloodedness. That makes the relationship between them rather interesting. There’s flirtatiousness and there’s clearly an element of sexual attraction but there’s a bit of an edge as well. Cathy is a bit cautious about Steed.

The Optimum Region 2 DVD release includes an excellent audio commentary for this episode which features writer Martin Woodhouse.

Mr Teddy Bear is a truly superb episode.

The Mauritius Penny on the other hand has some major problems. It starts promisingly enough, with murder and mayhem in the world of philately. A very rare stamp has come on the market. The trouble is that this stamp is too rare - it just isn’t possible that such a stamp could suddenly turn up out of the blue. One murder in the world of stamp collecting would be odd enough. When Steed and Mrs Gale witness a second murder during a stamp auction it’s obvious they have stumbled onto something big.

Mrs Gale happens to know quite a bit about stamps. Steed unfortunately knows nothing of the subject. The fact that he doesn’t realise that there’s no such thing as a Maltese twopenny blue almost gets him killed.

Had the script stuck to stamps it might have been amusing and offbeat but writers Malcolm Hulke and Terrance Dicks have a different agenda and the script degenerates into heavy-handed political messaging. And it’s neo-Nazis once again. The obsession of television writers in the 60s with this topic was truly excessive and truly embarrassing. It could be made to work quite well if writers treated the subject as an opportunity for outrageous conspiracy theories and silly fun but this story is more like an earnest political lecture, with endless speeches. As the focus switches away from the stamps the fun seems to evaporate.

A very fine guest cast, including Richard Vernon and Alfred Burke, almost saves this one.

This is one episode that does suffer a little from the limitations of the shot-live-on-videotape format. Too much of the episode is focused on a dull political meeting (that seems to go on forever with speech after speech) in a nondescript hall.

So two episodes, one excellent and one not so good.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

The Outer Limits - Don't Open Till Doomsday, ZZZZZ

Don't Open Till Doomsday is a fairly generally admired episode from the first season of The Outer Limits. Back in the 1920s a wealthy young couple received an odd wedding gift. It just looks like a fairly ordinary box. If you look inside the box you’ll wish you hadn’t. The groom did look inside the box and that was the end of that marriage.

Thirty years later a young couple elopes. The Justice of the Peace who marries them suggests they might like to stay at Mary Kry’s place. She has a large bridal suite that she’s just started renting out. It sounds like an enticing offer but Mrs Kry’s house turns out to be a gigantic dilapidated wreck of a place, and Mrs Kry herself (played by Miriam Hopkins) is more than a bit disturbing.

Gard Hayden (Buck Taylor) and his bride Vivia (Melinda Plowman) are a bit concerned that Vivia’s dear old dad may be pursuing them and being pursued by Emmett Balfour (John Hoyt) is no joke. He’s a powerful and formidable man, and since Vivia is underage he could cause them a lot of grief.

Still, they are newly married and everything is a romantic adventure and the bridal suite seems like it’s just the place for romance. They’re a nice young couple, hopelessly in love, and we feel that things will probably end up working out for them. If only they don’t look in that deceptively ordinary looking box. It’s not a very big box so it couldn’t possibly contain anything really bad or dangerous, could it? But evil can come in very small packages.

This episode has an extremely gothic feel to it which you don’t really expect from The Outer Limits but it works extremely well, adding to the sense of not just horror but of weirdness. It’s a weird story and it’s an appropriate combination.

The story itself is quite clever and it has the right touches of real menace. Joseph Stefano was a fine writer and his script hits all the right notes.

The Outer Limits was a series that was always willing to do stories that required effective special effects even though early 60s American network television wasn’t really up to doing elaborate effects in a convincing manner. The Outer Limits was also very willing to show us the monster early and show it often even though that’s usually a bad idea unless your monster is effective enough to allow you to get away with taking such risks. In this episode on the whole the gamble pays off, and in any case the real impact of this story is from the atmosphere of gothic creepiness and the horror of the situation the characters find themselves in rather than from the actual scariness of the monster.

Miriam Hopkins goes outrageously over-the-top and it’s the right approach. The rest of the cast take a much more restrained approach, and that’s the right thing to do as well.

An excellent atmospheric episode with some real chills that come from moral dilemmas rather than straight out monster stuff.

In ZZZZZ the rather studious and dedicated middle-aged entomologist Professor Ben Fields gets a new assistant. Regina (Joanna Frank) is a remarkably beautiful young woman and very very sexy. She doesn’t appear to have any actual qualifications and she has no references but she gets the job anyway, which doesn’t please the professor’s wife Francesca (Marsha Hunt) very much. Francesca is middle-aged and just a little on the dowdy side and for some strange reason she’s a bit suspicious of her husband’s new sex kitten assistant.

In fact Ben Fields is a happily married man and he has no idea that Regina is likely to cause a problem. She’s such a nice girl and she’s so keen. He genuinely has no desire to sleep with her.

Regina however is very interested indeed in mating. She is not an ordinary young woman. She is not a woman at all (which is giving anything away since we in the audience know this from the beginning). Being an entomologist Ben knows quite a bit about insect mating rituals, but not enough to realise that he’s right slap bang in the middle of one.

The success of this episode depends to a very high degree on Joanna Frank’s performance. She has to be beautiful and very sexy, which she manages with ease. In fact she oozes sex from every pore. She has to be seductive, but not in a crass way. If Ben Fields is going to be tempted he’s the type of man who is most likely to be tempted by a girl who is sexy in a sweet nice girl sort of way. Wide-eyed innocence and all that sort of thing. She has a stunning figure but it’s those big eyes that are likely to get him. Miss Frank however has to do more than this. Given what we know about her true nature she has to have a certain haughty arrogance, the arrogance of supreme power. She also has to have sublime confidence in her beauty. She has to do all this whilst still being sweet and innocent. Not easy but she does it and she does it extremely well. She also needs to have a certain quality of disturbing strangeness. She has to be a beautiful woman and still let us know that she is not human. It’s a superb performance and it’s enough on its own to carry the episode.

This episode has more than this going for it though. It’s a good story. It’s far-fetched but it’s done skilfully enough to allow us to suspend our disbelief successfully. And it has at least some emotional punch.

There are only a couple of brief special effects and while they’re not great they work well enough. I do love the professor’s laboratory. The gadgetry manages to be clever and imaginative while obviously done on a very limited budget.

ZZZZZ is a terrific episode. And you have to love a story with a monster who combines menace with innocence and seductiveness.

Two excellent episodes that serve as a reminder of just how good The Outer Limits could be.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Francis Durbridge Presents - Melissa (1964)

Melissa is a six-episode mini-series first broadcast by the BBC in 1964 as part of the Francis Durbridge Presents series. It was remade in colour in 1974, again as part of the Francis Durbridge Presents series.

Melissa opens in typically Francis Durbridge fashion. Guy Foster (Tony Britton) is a rather inoffensive journalist now trying to make a living as a novelist. He’s not the sort of man you would expect to be a murder suspect. But that is what has happened to Guy. His problem is that the story he has told to the police has been contradicted, in fairly spectacular fashion, by the evidence of other people. Are these people lying? Is there some kind of conspiracy? Has Guy gone insane? None of it makes sense but the upshot is that to the police he’s looking more and more like a guilty man.

Guy is now in a nightmare world. The police don’t seem to believe anything he says. Nobody seems to believe him. People he has never met claim to know him. A very respectable doctor tells the police that Guy is one of his patients, although Guy has never even heard of the doctor. Any evidence that might support Guy’s story seems to disappear,  or (even more worryingly) appears to have never existed although Guy distinctly remembers seeing these pieces of evidence.

It’s obvious that if Guy wants to clear his name, and avoid being arrested, he’ll have to solve the case himself but he doesn’t know if he can trust anybody since nobody seems to be the person that Guy thought they were. In fact his whole life may not have been what he thought it was, and certainly the reality of his marriage differed from Guy’s perception of it. Did he even know his wife Melissa at all?

Guy also thought he knew his friends pretty well. Friends like glamorous racing car driver Don Page (Brian McDermott) and Paula and Felix Hepburn (an amiable if slightly dotty middle-aged couple). Now Guy is wondering if he could have been wrong about them as well.

And it’s not just one murder. And the circumstances of the second murder tend to point towards Guy as well. It’s also by no means certain that this second murder will be the last.

Durbridge’s script twists and turns in very satisfying fashion. By the end of the fourth episode I must confess that I still had no inkling whatever of the solution to this mystery. There are six half-hour episodes and Durbridge knows how to make the most of this format, giving us some kind of surprise (or enigmatic) ending for each episode. 

The solution to the mystery is quite typical of Durbridge’s work but I won’t say any more for fear of revealing spoilers.

Tony Britton gives a fine performance. It’s mostly understated and even when Guy’s whole world is collapsing around him Britton doesn’t overdo the gradually increasing hysteria because Guy is the sort of man who, if he were going to go mad, would go mad quietly and unobtrusively.

Brian Wilde plays Chief Inspector Carter, who seems rather gentle and quietly spoken for a policeman but perhaps that’s just the impression he likes to give. He finds it difficult to believe Guy’s story but what exactly does the inspector believe? He doesn’t give much away.

This is early 60s BBC television so don’t expect too much in the way of production values. There are a few outdoors scenes but mostly it’s shot in the studio and it is a bit dialogue-heavy at times. 

Melissa is one of the four Durbridge serials in Madman’s Australian Region 4 Francis Durbridge Presents Volume 1 DVD boxed set. The set also includes The Desperate People and A Game of Murder (both of which are excellent) and A Man Called Harry Brent (which I haven’t yet watched). The transfers are good (considering that this is early 60s shot-on-videotape British television) and the set is great value.

Melissa is an unassuming but entertaining mystery. Durbridge fans won't want to miss it. If you're not yet a Durbridge fan it's probably as good a place as any to start. His television serials are all pretty consistent and all are enjoyable.

Monday, 30 October 2017

Banacek season two (1973-74)

Banacek having been one of the successes of the first year of NBC’s Mystery Movie series it was hardly surprising that a second season of eight episodes followed in late 1973 with George Peppard once again playing the handsome debonair insurance investigator who has a taste for the good things in life, and the money to indulge that taste. It is almost unnecessary to add that Banacek’s idea of the good things of life most certainly includes women.

The format was the same as in the first season with each feature-length episode being an impossible crime story (and usually a pretty good one).

In season two Carlie Kirkland (Christine Belford), who had appeared in the pilot episode, was added to the regular cast, at least for the early part of the season. She’s an insurance investigator as well and it was obviously felt that the sometimes friendly, but mostly antagonistic, rivalry between the two would add some interest. And of course there’s an uneasy romantic tension as well. I’m not sure it was an entirely necessary change but their interplay is quite amusing. She disappears in the later episodes.

Once again Banacek gets invaluable help from his friend Felix Mulholland (Murray Matheson), rare book dealer and expert in all manner of esoteric subjects.

One of the secrets to the success of this series is George Peppard’s ability to make Banacek a character who is both arrogant and genuinely likeable. He’s likeable because the arrogance is done with a twinkle in his eye.

In No Stone Unturned an eleven foot high three ton statue disappears. To get the statue into the museum where it was to go on display required an entire wall to be removed. The wall was then replaced so there was absolutely no way the statue could have been removed from the building. But someone did remove it.

If Max Is So Smart, Why Doesn't He Tell Us Where He Is? concerns the theft of a computer. A brand new high-tech medical computer. And this is 1972, so this computer is the size of a room. A large room. The computer, costing several million dollars, was built with money put up by a wealthy hypochondriac. This is a very good episode.

A three million dollar horse-drawn wedding coach belonging to a Middle Eastern potentate is stolen from a shipping container in The Three Million Dollar Piracy. The coach was being shipped to the Middle East for the ruler’s marriage to movie star Diana Maitland.

In this episode Carlie has become engaged to the very respectable, and very dull, Henry DeWitt and this gives Banacek the opportunity to have a good deal of fun at his expense. This is a particularly pleasing episode that includes everything a Banacek fan could ask for.

The Vanishing Chalice is a valuable ancient Greek artifact that is stolen from a museum. Stolen in public. Stolen right in front of dozens of witnesses. But nobody saw it happen. The solution turns out to be a quite ingenious and satisfactory impossible crime solution.

This episode also sees Carlie manoeuvre herself into the position of being Banacek’s assistant. She claims that she just wants to learn from the master but this being Carlie we’re not surprised that she has another more devious agenda. Carlie is pretty good at manipulating men but she discovers that a girl has to get up pretty early in the morning if she wants to out-manipulate Thomas Banacek. Another fine episode.

Horse of a Slightly Different Color is pretty good as well. This one was written by Jimmy Sangster, better known for writing scripts for Hammer horror movies.

A racehorse is stolen, in full view of numerous witnesses. This is not just any racehorse. This is Oxford Don, the best racehorse in America, and he’s insured for a cool five million dollars. That means half a million dollars if Banacek can find the horse (his terms are always that he gets ten percent of the insured value of any items he recovers). Oxford Don had been owned by Katherine Wells, the most glamorous racehorse owner in the country. Katherine admires horseflesh but there are other things that interest her more. To be more specific there is one thing she likes more than horses, and that is men. She chooses her men the way she chooses her horses. They need to be thoroughbreds, in the peak of condition, and with lots of stamina. She prefers stayers to sprinters. Anne Francis has plenty of fun with this role and is able to make Katherine both slightly horrifying and rather sympathetic.

Oxford Don wasn’t exactly stolen. He was taken out for trackwork and when he came back he wasn’t Oxford Don any more.

Carlie Kirkland doesn’t appear in this story which is just as well. There are two women involved in this case and Banacek needs to give them both his undivided attention.

In Rocket to Oblivion a new highly advanced rocket engine is stolen from a science and technology expo. There is no way something of that size could be stolen within a few seconds and there was in any case no way of removing something that heavy from its display, given that the electricity was off at the time of the theft. Nonetheless the engine was stolen. The insurance company wants it back. The inventor of the engine wants it back. The Pentagon wants it back.

Carlie thinks she can crack this case herself. She was a secret weapon. And anyway Banacek seems to be spending all his time bedding the glamorous organiser of the expo, the deliciously named Cherry Saint-Saëns (Linda Evans).

Fly Me - If You Can Find Me concerns a jet airliner forced to make an emergency landing at a remote airfield in Nevada. The crew spend the night at a motel and when they return to the airfield the next day the aircraft is gone. But there is no way it could have taken off. It was not only in no condition to fly, it would have been impossible to get the plane airborne.

Now You See Me, Now You Don’t involves stage magic, and usually I love movies or TV dealing with this subject. In this case the setup is very good but to me the ending was just a bit too far-fetched.

The second season generally maintains the high standards of season one. Banacek is stylish and witty entertainment with some reasonably clever plots and it has a charismatic star. There’s not much more you can ask for in a television program. Highly recommended.

Monday, 23 October 2017

Doctor Who - Silver Nemesis (1988)

Finding myself discussing 1980s Doctor Who recently I decided I just had to watch some last night. So I dragged out Silver Nemesis, from 1988.

I know it’s an episode that has a fairly dire reputation, but I’ve found that some of the most reviled Seventh Doctor stories are the ones I enjoy most (like Paradise Towers and The Happiness Patrol). And while most of the criticisms of Silver Nemesis are valid (the plot is overly complicated, the various plot strands don’t quite come together, and the cybermen are absurdly vulnerable) it was still rollicking good fun.

When you have a female 17th century black magician, an ageing Nazi trying to usher in the Fourth Reich with the aid of alien technology, a setting that jumps back and forth between 17th century England and 1980s England, some bizarre and horrendously destructive piece of Gallifreyan technology that the Doctor may well have been responsible  for unleashing, some intriguing hints about the Doctor’s dark and mysterious past and secrets about himself he would prefer not to have revealed, plus you have Ace getting to blow stuff up, how can you not have fun?

It also has a fine supporting cast, with the standout performance being by veteran actor Anton Diffring as a crazed Nazi with a Wagner fixation. Fiona Walker is also excellent as the equally crazed Lady Peinforte, the 17th century dabbler in black magic and time travel with her own plans for world domination.

I was always quite fond of Sylvester McCoy's Seventh Doctor, although nowadays I find Ace to be just a little bit tiresome.

Maybe there are just too many interesting ideas thrown together, but perhaps the biggest problem is that it’s only a three-parter. Usually the major problem with classic Doctor Who is an excess of padding, but this is a rare case of a story that might have benefitted from an extra episode. I still thought it was great fun.