Wednesday, 22 April 2015

The Invaders, season one (1967)

The Invaders, which aired on the US ABC  network from January 1967 to March 1968, is one of the many TV series and movies to take its inspiration from the original 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers movie.

All these series and movies could be described as belonging to the secret alien invasion paranoia genre. The basic idea of course is that we are facing an invasion by aliens who look just like us. Anybody could be an alien. No-one can be trusted. There is always one person, or sometimes two, who knows the truth but no-one will believe them.

The opening episode, Beachhead, sets things up pretty effectively. It gives us enough information to get us interested but wisely it doesn’t attempt to fill in any details. We know as much as the hero knows. He is aware that he has stumbled onto something big and that it involves aliens here on Earth. At this stage neither Vincent nor the audience knows anything about the origins of the aliens, or their intentions, or their methods. He knows they can be ruthless. This first episode also adds an intriguing suggestion of ambiguity - perhaps not all the aliens are entirely hostile and perhaps there is some disagreement among them about their policy towards humanity.

At four o’clock in the morning architect David Vincent (Roy Thinnes), returning in his car from a business meeting, loses his way and finds himself at a deserted diner. He sees a flying saucer land, and that’s all he remembers. He is, perhaps a little na├»vely, determined to alert the authorities. Not surprisingly the police think he was over-tired and imagined the whole thing. But David Vincent knows what he saw and his life will never be the same again.

The second episode, The Experiment, gives us a bit more information. We learn something of the capabilities and the methods of the aliens and we get an inkling that they may be more well established on Earth than David Vincent originally thought. This episode also reinforces the all-pervading atmosphere of paranoia as Vincent discovers just how careful he has to be in deciding whether or not to trust anyone else with his knowledge.

The Mutation offers some more hints that the aliens may be divided against themselves and that some aliens may be potential allies. The Leeches picks up on ideas about brainwashing that were so popular in the late 50s and early 60s. The next couple of episodes are just treading water but things pick up in episode 7, Nightmare. Killer insects are always fun and this story definitely has the kind of vibe that the better episodes of The X-Files had.

The difficulty with a series with this kind of premise is to keep coming up with new and interesting conspiracies on the part of the aliens. The Innocent adds mind control to the mix, with a fairly well-done dream sequence.

The premise of the series is fairly dark to begin with but with episodes 10 (The Ivy Curtain) and 11 (The Betrayed) it takes a very dark turn indeed - surprisingly so for a 1967 American network TV series. This works well, emphasising just how high the stakes are in this contest and the personal price David Vincent will have to pay.

The Invaders first went to air as a mid-season replacement which is why the first season comprises only seventeen episodes. This was followed by a full second season, which sadly proved to be the last.

The special effects are quite adequate by the standards of 1960s television and there are some reasonably impressive (and effectively sinister) sets. The production values are quite respectable.

Roy Thinnes makes an effective hero. He comes across as a fairly ordinary kind of guy but with a strong streak of determination and stubbornness and just a hint of obsessiveness, but without overdoing things. He isn’t impossibly brave or impossibly clever - he just doesn’t give up.

It’s very important in a series like this not to make the aliens excessively omnipotent. They have to be capable of making mistakes, but they still have to be convincingly menacing. Both the hero and his alien adversaries have to suffer their share of setbacks. The mistake made much later in The X-Files was to make the odds against the hero just a little bit too high so that he never really seemed likely to win. The Invaders manages to avoid this pitfall - at times David Vincent seems like he is getting close to success. The X-Files did copy one important ingredient from the Invaders - just when David Vincent seems to have found the evidence he needs to convince the authorities that evidence always seems to vanish completely.

The parallels between The Invaders and The X-Files are quite close. In both cases the hero knows the truth but he can’t prove it and in both cases he finds himself labelled as a nut. In both cases the hero faces enemies who have infiltrated themselves into positions of power and influence, and apparent respectability. In both cases the hero is faced with the problem of not being able to trust anyone. The principal difference is that the aliens in The Invaders are the only enemy - the government is often unhelpful or even obstructive but it isn’t the enemy. This means that the paranoia level is not quite as overwhelming as in The X-Files but the advantage is that the conflict seems slightly more evenly balanced.

The Region 2 The Invaders Believers Box includes commentary tracks for a couple of episode, interviews with star Roy Thinnes plus the extended version of the pilot episode, Beachhead. The extended pilot includes a few extra scenes that are rather interesting. They could be seen as vaguely suggesting an alternative explanation for the events of this episode. On balance I think the episode works better in its shorter form. The Invaders is not a series like The X-Files where we start off not being sure if the protagonist is correct in his suspicions. It’s made clear right from the get-go that this is no delusion - this is all too real. The deleted scenes undermine this certainty just a little. That could have been interesting if they had wanted to go down that path but if they had it would have been a very different series. Given the way the series actually pans out that would have been a distraction. The tension in this series comes from the fact that we are as sure as David Vincent that what he has seen is real, even if he has extreme difficulty in persuading any of the other characters of this. 

The extra scenes also give us a little of the backstory on David Vincent’s past and this is also something that on balance is an unnecessary distraction. We already have a fair idea of the sort of man he is and that’s really all we need to know about him.

It’s interesting to compare The Invaders to the excellent and very underrated 1965 British science fiction TV series Undermind. Undermind’s basic premise is very similar and it also has large helpings of paranoia as the protagonists slowly come to realise they can only trust each other. Undermind suffers from that mid-60s filmed-live-on-videotape look characteristic of British television of that era. The Invaders looks a lot more impressive although Undermind perhaps has slightly more ambitious and interesting ideas.

The Invaders is classic paranoia science fiction and highly entertaining to boot. Highly recommended.

Monday, 13 April 2015

Ellery Queen (1975-76)

The Ellery Queen TV series which aired on NBC for one season in 1975-76 was a very successful attempt to capture the flavour of the very popular Ellery Queen mystery novels. Although critics generally loved it and it is now highly regarded the series unfortunately lasted only one season.

The late 1940s has been chosen for the setting. I’m not sure that settings are always absolutely 100 percent accurate but they certainly look terrific. 

Like any series set in the past it reflects the time that it was made as well as the time in which it’s supposed to be set. That’s always inevitable to some extent but the producers in his case have tried very hard not to make it too obviously 70s. 

They’ve also managed pretty successfully to keep 1970s cynicism out of the series and to avoid making value judgments about the 40s.

The 70s was an era of increasingly graphic violence and sleaze in movies and this trend was starting to become evident in television as well. The Ellery Queen series made a refreshing change from all that. The series captures the flavour of the golden age of detective fiction where the emphasis is on solving an intricate puzzle rather than wallowing in sleaze and degradation.

Jim Hutton makes a very engaging Ellery Queen, perhaps even more engaging (and rather less snobbish) than the Ellery of the novels. He does look rather boyish but his enthusiasm is infectious. David Wayne plays Ellery’s father Inspector Richard Queen and he’s just as personable. John Hillerman has an amusing recurring role as radio detective Simon Brimmer who is constantly trying to prove himself a real detective, except that his solutions to the crime are invariably ingenious but wrong. Simon Brimmer did not appear in any of the Ellery Queen books, being a character created specifically for the TV series. He adds an element of comedy which was presumably considered necessary for television.

The series borrows one of the most famous devices of the early Ellery Queen novels, the famous Challenge to the Reader. Toward the end of the novels the reader would be informed that he or she now possesses all the information necessary to solve the mystery and is challenged to match wits with the fictional detective. In the TV series Ellery breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience directly offering the same challenge. It was quite a bold movie to include this element but it works very well.

Ellery Queen the detective is also Ellery Queen, successful writer of detective novels. Quite a few of the stories have a show business background or deal with some aspect of the literary or art worlds. Several deal with radio. All of this is quite fitting given that the Ellery Queen of the books was for a time a Hollywood screenwriter, and given that there was a successful Ellery Queen radio series. One episode, The Adventure of the Comic Book Crusader, deals with murder in the comic book industry. The Adventure of Veronica's Veils deals (very wittily) with an attempt to revive burlesque.

The Adventure of the Pharaoh's Curse uses a museum as a setting, a slight variation on the show business settings but it’s still dealing with a similar kind of world, a world of riches and glamour. The early Ellery Queen novels appeared during the Depression and part of their escapist charm was that they took place in the world of the wealthy and glamorous. This is one feature that the TV series retains and it’s a very attractive feature although in 1975 it may have been rather unfashionable.

The show business and literary backgrounds do of course have the effect of emphasising the fictional nature of the series. Television audiences generally prefer series that give the illusion of realism and this, combined with the breaking of the fourth wall mentioned earlier,  may have been slightly off-putting to television audiences in 1975. This may have worked to the show’s commercial disadvantage although to my way of thinking it adds considerably to its charm. This is a series that is quite unapologetically uninterested in realism.

The acting also tends to reinforce the feel of unrealism, with the guest performers clearly feeling free to give slightly larger-than-life performances. The series boasts some pretty impressive supporting players and on the whole they appear to be enjoying themselves immensely.

The sets, the costumes and the props (and especially the cars) look magnificent. Everything is very colourful, and since we’re used to seeing the 1940s in black-and-white in old movies the effect is quite startling. It’s another factor adding to the deliberately unrealistic feel - everything is bright and vibrant and awash with colour. Everything looks shiny and brand new. Everyone drives a car that looks like it has just driven out of a showroom. Everyone wears clothes that look brand new. Nothing is worn or battered. This might be considered a fault in any other series but in this case it gives the viewer the feeling of having stepped into a kind of alternative universe. Detective stories were often criticised as escapist entertainment and this TV series goes out of its way to present itself as unashamed escapism.

If your preference is for gritty realistic crime dramas then you’ll find the Ellery Queen series to be about as diametrically opposed to your tastes as a series could possibly be. 

Some episodes are based on Ellery Queen stories whilst others are original to the television series. In both cases a genuine and fairly successful attempt has been made to adhere to the rules of the classic fair-play detective story of the golden age of the genre.

The TV series does add some humour to the basic Ellery Queen formula but this is, very wisely, not allowed to dominate proceedings. Ellery himself at times strikes a mildly comedic note with a slight tendency to be totally disorganised about any aspects of life not directly connected to crime, but this is kept within very strict bounds. The temptation to make Ellery scatter-brained and bumbling is resisted. Jim Hutton has enough natural charm and warmth to make it unnecessary to play the role too overtly for laughs. Purists may feel that his version of Ellery is not quite the Ellery of the books, but on the whole his performance is not too much at variance with his literary original.

The tone is fairly light-hearted but then that’s basically true of the early Ellery Queen novels as well, which are mercifully larger free from the depressing grimness of so much modern crime fiction.

On the whole the Ellery Queen series is pure entertainment and it’s an absolute delight. Very highly recommended.

Friday, 3 April 2015

The Man from U.N.C.L.E., season one (1964)

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. began its run on NBC in 1964 and was cancelled in 1968, midway through the fourth season. I have very fond memories of this series and it’s proving to be just as much fun as I’d remembered it. I’ve been working my way through Season 1 (it’s a long season of no less than 29 episodes).

The pilot episode was interesting, showing how there was originally going to be just one Man from U.N.C.L.E., Napoleon Solo. The pilot also demonstrates just how much the original concept owed to James Bond creator Ian Fleming. The original idea actually came from Fleming and it was Fleming who came up with the name Napoleon Solo. At a very early stage he realised that with the Bond movies proving to be so successful he was competing against himself and dropped out. Fleming’s actual contribution to the series was  minor but there’s no question that without James Bond there would have been no Man from U.N.C.L.E. From the outset it was planned as James Bond for American television.

The tone of the series changed a little after the first season. In season one the series is not really an outright spy spoof as such. The aim seemed to be to capture the flavour of the early Bond movies (not surprising given Ian Fleming’s part in devising the series). The tone is semi-serious. There’s a definite tongue-in-cheek element and an engaging wittiness but it’s mostly not played for pure comedy (although some episodes are definitely heading in that direction). The humour is generally used as a seasoning but without overwhelming the main course which is secret agent action-adventure. It’s witty and sometimes outrageous but it doesn’t descend into mere silliness. It’s almost precisely the formula that would prove so successful for The Avengers at its peak.

One key feature of the series was producer Norman Felton’s insistence that wherever possible each episode would feature a hapless civilian bystander who gets accidentally caught up in the world of espionage and intrigue. Felton’s idea was that the heroes being highly trained professional super-spies it was essential to include guest characters that the audience could relate to - perfectly ordinary people who understand little of what is really going on but who do their best to help out. It was a sound idea and it works well.

The Finny Foot Affair, involving a secret formula that speeds up the ageing process, is also particularly good. The Shark Affair, which seems to be about modern pirates but turns out to be much crazier than that, is even better. The Project Strigas Affair features guest starring performances by William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy (appearing together for the first time).

The idea of creating exact doubles of people is one that was much over-used during the 60s. It’s employed here in The Double Affair, and in a much cleverer manner in The Double Decoy Affair. The Deadly Games Affair with the beautiful but deadly THRUSH agent Angelique is great fun as well.

The Fiddlesticks Affair sees Napoleon Solo and Ilya Kuryakin trying to break into an ultra-secure vault beneath a casino. The vault houses $55 million dollars belonging to THRUSH. They engage the help of a treacherous but skillful thief and an enthusiastic young woman named Susan, a good girl who is desperate to prove herself a glamorous deadly femme fatale.

The Yellow Scarf Affair takes Napoleon Solo to India, in search of a piece of top-secret equipment stolen by THRUSH. He finds that the cult of Thuggee, suppressed by the British in the 19th century, is not so dead after all. 

The Mad, Mad Tea Party Affair is the series at its best - an intricate and outlandish combination of conspiracies plus a touch of the surreal (and as the title suggests some Alice in Wonderland references). It compares very favourably to the best episodes of the Avengers. The Bow-Wow Affair involves gypsies and killer dogs and features some of the season’s best action scenes. Episodes like this are enormous fun and fine examples of the strength of the writing in season one. Even better is The Never-Never Affair, a delightfully crazy episode with delicious performances by guest stars Barbara Feldon and Cesar Romero. This one is well and truly in spy spoof territory but it’s done with a wonderful lightness of touch.

The Gazebo in the Maze Affair benefits from the presence of George Sanders, one of my all-time favourite actors (and Sanders would pop up again in the second season)

An impressive aspect of the series is the way they give the impression of lots of gadgetry while in fact spending almost nothing on the gadgets. On a television budget (and with television shooting schedules) they could not possibly compete with the Bond movies. Instead they had to rely on getting a high-tech flavour on the cheap and generally speaking this is done effectively.

The first season was a definite hit. The latter part of the second season would see the series moving further into out-and-out spy spoof territory, not always successfully.

The U.N.C.L.E. initials might suggest that Solo and Kuryakin are working for a United Nations agency but in fact they stand for United Network Command for Law and Enforcement. Making one of the lead characters a Russian was rather bold for 1964 and was an attempt to avoid straightforward Cold War themes. As in the later James Bond books the main enemy is an international criminal organisation, rather than the Soviet Union. It also throws in assorted diabolical criminal masterminds and mad scientists. The avoidance of Cold War themes has had the advantage of making the series seem now less dated than it might have been. It’s interesting that the most successful British spy series of the same era, The Avengers, also adopted a generally similar approach.

The fine performances by the two leads, Robert Vaughn and David McCallum, obviously contributed a great deal to the success of the series. Both actors have the ability to strike the right balance, not too serious but not too silly. David McCallum’s role was originally intended to be quite minor but once the first few episodes went to air it became obvious that he was going to be immensely popular. As a result there was a quick rethink and Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin became equal partners with McCallum sharing top billing.

Another reason for the success of the series was the very high quality of the guest stars - people of the calibre of George Sanders, Ricardo Montalban, Carroll O’Connor, Jill Ireland and Anne Francis. Not forgetting Barbara Feldon’s delightful guest appearance as a very enthusiastic would-be secret agent.

Compared to the exactly contemporaneous British spy series Danger Man it’s clear that Danger Man is more concerned with character and with moral dilemmas. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is more interested in style and action. The comparisons are perhaps a little unfair. Danger Man belongs more to the gritty realist style of spy thriller while The Man from U.N.C.L.E., even in its first season, was definitely uninterested in anything approaching gritty realism. Both series are excellent in their very different ways.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was successful enough to spawn a spin-off series, The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. That came somewhat later when the parent series was moving further and further into out-and-out spoof territory. The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. has its moments but it was probably stretching a good idea rather too thinly.

This first season of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. remains one of the true classics of 1960s television. It really is a delight.