Department S 1.10 – The Double Death of Charlie Crippen

A minor moment of personal disappointment this time: the beautiful Veronica Carlson shows up to see Jason, but she has absolutely nothing to do with the plot. George Pravda also shows up for a single scene as a red herring in this incredibly interesting mystery. Edward de Souza has a meatier part. He plays an old friend of Annabelle’s who finally gives them a lead in this convoluted case when he gets a thorough beating from some thugs in the employ of an exiled king hanging out in a villa outside Naples.

I quite liked this one, but our son did not enjoy it at all, I’m afraid. This one was so convoluted that he became frustrated, and when we finally do understand that it has something to do with this king in exile, it’s not really pitched down to his age level, so we paused it a couple of times. First we assured him that we – and our heroes – were every bit in the dark as he was, and later we caught him up to the plot. At least it ends with a lot of machine gun fire and cars driving fast. Weirdly, the terrorist gunmen are all packed into a hippie van and the Italian police show up in three Beetles. Did Volkswagen offer ITC a package deal?

I was most interested to see Department S’s boss finally enter the field. Dennis Alaba Peters was a late addition to the cast, and his very short scenes in several of the early episodes were added after the fact. This seems to be the first story that was written to actually include the character of Sir Curtis Seretse in the action. As a high-ranking diplomat attached to Interpol, he can throw some muscle around that the other heroes can’t. Or maybe that’s the wrong word. I don’t expect we’ll see him in many fistfights, you know.

Doctor Who: Mission to the Unknown

Among Doctor Who‘s many missing episodes, there is a one-off oddity made and shown 54 years ago this week, in 1965. Who was then made as a series of serials, and they were planning a mammoth twelve-episode storyline featuring the Daleks. The producers decided to take advantage of some budget and calendar hiccups and made a one-off adventure as a prologue to the Dalek epic. It didn’t feature the Doctor or his companions. It starred Edward de Souza as an outer space spy – it was 1965 after all – on a desperate mission to let the galaxy know that, after hundreds of years on the frontiers of space, the Daleks had formed an alliance with six strange alien races and were preparing an invasion of our solar system.

Edward de Souza is still with us, and a few months ago, he and Peter Purves, who had played one of the Doctor’s companions at the time, were invited to the University of Central Lancashire to see what the Culture and Creative Industries school has been doing. Each year, the staff and students collaborate on an incredibly intensive project, and this year, they recreated “Mission to the Unknown.”

Earlier today – well, yesterday, if, like this blog’s calendar, you’re in Europe – the recreation of “Mission to the Unknown” premiered on the Doctor Who YouTube channel. Click the image above and check it out! I won’t swear that it completely met our son’s expectations. We watched the trailer a few days ago and he was bellowing how badly he wanted to see that. Unfortunately, “Mission” is, like a lot of Who from its day, very slow and imaginative. It isn’t action-packed; the original production seems to have been cramped even by the low-budget standards of the William Hartnell years. It’s practically silent for long stretches, with only a few library music cues and actors projecting fear and intensity. More creepy than thrilling, the design may be dated in the way a lot of sixties sci-fi is – our hero’s tape recorder is about the size of a VHS double-pack – but you can see what kids in 1965 were wowed by.

I think the UCLAN team did a terrific job. It’s both a labor of love and, hopefully, valuable work experience for people looking to work in the film and television industry. I’m glad that the BBC and the Terry Nation Estate allowed them the privilege to recreate this.

Sapphire & Steel 6.3 and 6.4

Agatha Christie famously wrote the final Hercule Poirot novel, Curtain, in the mid-forties, but didn’t have it published until shortly before her death. She kept writing Poirot adventures, of course, but she had the manuscript where her popular character dies locked away in a bank vault for three decades.

I mention this because back in 1972, P.J. Hammond wrote the final Ace of Wands story and it ends with a very clumsy and ultimately disappointing climax which, they say, was meant to be resolved in the following season. Since Thames never ordered any more episodes, the last story has to stand as a series finale while not actually finishing. It’s not like many modern TV examples where programs end on never-resolved cliffhangers. “The Beautiful People” does actually end, but there was so much more we didn’t learn about that last weird situation that the audience can’t help but feel cheated because something was missing.

So with Sapphire & Steel, Hammond had to write a finale that would stand as a finale in case the new network, Central, didn’t pick it up. If they did, then he had a story in mind to continue the situation. But if Central didn’t, he needed the series to have an unforgettable, amazing end.

In a perfect world, though… in a perfect world, Sapphire & Steel should have been renewed for two or three more series of fourteen episodes each, but this story should have stayed on the shelf just like Curtain did, until the very end. By all means, let’s go back in time and alter reality and create some parallel universes. Let’s make sure the BBC never wipes any of their old tapes, and let’s make sure they actually finish “Shada” in 1979. Let’s have a third series of The New Avengers with Linda Thorson as Mother, and a second season of Bret Maverick with Jack Kelly as Bart. Let’s make sure that a series of fatal combine harvester accidents in 1980 befall every politician and media magnate who are making our lives miserable today. And by God, let’s have another 28 or 42 episodes of Sapphire & Steel, but show them first, and leave this finale alone and untouched.

Our poor kid. Tonight, for the very first time, he expressed actual happiness and excitement about watching the show. He was really looking forward to it. Then it storms its way through the cliffhanger ending to part three, which is one of television’s all-time greatest cliffhangers, into part four. He punched the air as one obstacle was overcome, and then a second… and then it doesn’t end like anybody expected.

He wouldn’t admit to being unhappy, even though his eyes were quite red, and he was numbed with surprise. I asked him to try and explain how he felt, and he said “Like this…” and he socked me gently on the shoulder and then gave me a hug. I asked “So it hurt, but it felt good, too?” And he said yes, and I said that was kind of how it made me feel, too.

The very best television, after all, breaks your heart at least a little.

Sapphire & Steel 6.1 and 6.2

Two people from 1948, fleeing their unhappy marriages together, take a wrong turn and arrive in 1981. But something’s even stranger than this Twilight Zone-styled setup. The service station where they stop is in a frozen pocket of time. Nobody else is there, except for Sapphire, Steel, and Silver, who find these two and their lack of curiosity very puzzling. And except for an old man from 1925, only he seems to be correctly in his own time, and sees the other characters as faded ghosts. And except for somebody who none of them can see, only hear. He keeps slapping a tambourine…

The final assignment in this series is absolutely astonishing. I love all six stories, but I might love this one most of all. I’ve certainly watched it the most. The attention to detail is amazing, and I am really impressed with Edward de Souza and Johanna Kirby’s performances as the stubborn, incurious couple who are prepared to wait indefinitely to go home. De Souza was often cast as characters who were a little louche, and he’s perfect here. He radiates insincerity, but that seems to be because he and his pretty young girlfriend are up to no good and he doesn’t feel that anybody has the right to question them.

The tension in Sapphire & Steel is always really tangible, but it’s through the roof in this one. Everybody knows that something is wrong, but nobody can identify what, and as more time zones enter the narrative, the weirder and the worse it gets. Our son went from being pleased to see Silver back to wrapping himself up in a tight ball. “I was so scared I couldn’t move,” he told us.

The Avengers 6.11 – The Curious Case of the Countless Clues

Almost at the same time that the producers were making “The Forget-Me-Knot”, they were also working on Philip Levene’s “The Curious Case of the Countless Clues,” and I noticed that Linda Thorson is only in scenes that are set in Tara King’s apartment. It does seem a little odd that they’d sideline the new character so early in her tenure, and so I hypothesize, ahead of the facts, that they may have had one crew shooting Diana Rigg’s material on one set while a second was filming Thorson’s. Is that a reasonable deduction?

There’s a heck of a good cast in this story. Peter Jones, who would later be the immortal voice of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, plays a… well, Steed never actually gets around to telling us who Sir Arthur Doyle is, just that he likes to pretend to be Sherlock Holmes. Our villains are a gang of blackmailers named Erle, Stanley, and Gardner, played by the very familiar faces of Anthony Bate, Tony Selby, and Kenneth Cope. It looks like Cope began work on Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) about five months after making this episode.

Edward de Souza, who was in just about everything in the sixties and seventies, is one of the blackmailers’ victims, and his sister is a former – slash – occasional girlfriend of Steed’s, played by Tracey Reed, who had so memorably played General Turgidson’s secretary, as well as “Miss Foreign Affairs,” in Dr. Strangelove. Incidentally, rather driving home the point that British adventure film and TV was so much a man’s world in the sixties, other than the sidelined Thorson, Tracey Reed is the only actress in both this episode and in Strangelove.

But having said that, while Tara looks to be so incredibly sidelined that she appears helpless with a broken ankle in this episode, and this is emphasized by the decision to spend time with her desperately trying to lock the doors of her apartment, I like how she’s more than able to defend herself in the end. She fights off and apparently kills one of the villains. Steed rushes to rescue her, but he isn’t needed. Good choice! It was fine for he and Mrs. Peel to rescue each other regularly, but the audience still has to see Tara as competent on her own at this stage.

Our son was pleased with this one. It is a straightforward adventure with a clear scheme, hissable villains, and a few good fights. Certainly not as pleasing to him as those other, lesser Avengers, but I’m glad he enjoyed it all the same.