Class – “Like a Hellmouth”

Torchwood High? Doctorloo Road? I suppose it’s appropriate that the latest addition to the Doctor Who family is something of an awkward adolescent itself. There are parts of it that are very good indeed, but there are also moments in these first two episodes when its teeth grindingly annoying too. Considering this is almost acclaimed author Patrick Ness’s first television work, it is confident work, and if the story gears are sometimes a little loud, it is aimed at a slightly younger audience who may not be as big a TV geek as me.

My heart did sink in the first half of For Tonight We Might Die listening to the tiresomely arch dialogue everyone was using, not to mention clunkers like Tanya’s “Isn’t it great not to have to talk about what the white kids want to?” But gradually the script calmed down and became more real, more engaging. The Shadowkin were effective monsters, the action was slick and the amount of blood surprising. The infodump scene about Charlie and Quill’s alien home was enlivened by the cleverness of seeing it through April’s imagination as a kind of paradise school of polite A+ students. I really like the concept of one supposedly enlightened race enslaving another as a ‘punishment’ but being embarrassed when the cruelty is pointed out. It is quite a neat metaphor for colonialism.

Peter Capaldi’s guest appearance was fun, particularly his joke about “strange” Ikea. For a man who says he hates banter, he was quite a puckish mood and surprisingly he was very complimentary about nearly everyone, I’d have thought one pudding brain reference would have got in. Katherine Kelly (Sarah-Lancashire-in-waiting as The Guardian newspaper amusingly put it) was also entertaining, although Miss Quill so far works much better as a comedy character than as a super warrior.

The Coach with the Dragon Tattoo was a definite improvement for me. It felt more confident, the dialogue much more natural and the plot the kind satisfying melding of Science Fiction A plot and emotional B plot that Doctor Who has learnt from Joss Whedon. The Ofsted sub-plot was fun too. They’ve definitely cast this well, all of the leads were impressive here, Fedy Elsayed and Vivian Oparah especially as sports joke Ram and lonely Tanya. Lovely little moment from the dinner lady too, that made her visceral death all the worse.

Class looks like it is going to be enjoyable, if slightly disposable entertainment for the next couple of months. It’s definitely aimed squarely at the Young Adult demographic and not suitable for children because of the amount of gore. Next week’s episode looks promising too. Going off the clips, after Steven Moffat’s emphasis on time paradoxes in the parent series, it’s fun to have one that showcases the monsters again.

Feature: Celebrating HG Wells’ 150th birthday on audio

I am a big fan of science fiction radio drama and this is an excellently curated list of choices. – Gareth

In October 1938, Orson Welles’ broadcast of H G Wells’ The War of the Worlds caused consternation in America. To mark the 150th anniversary of the birth of the celebrated writer, the ed…

Source: Feature: Celebrating HG Wells’ 150th birthday on audio

If I Were You

A new season of plays is opening next week at Bolton Little Theatre, kicking off with Alan Ayckbourn’s gender swapping comedy If I Were You. I’ve put together a video trailer for it, the first of a new season of movie-style teasers, rather than the behind the scenes style I’ve used in the past. My aim is for none of them to be much longer than 30 seconds. So far it seems to have gone down very well, with plenty of hits on Facebook and Youtube. Hope you like it too.

Here’s the text I’ve written for the website: “A hilarious comedy about swapping bodies, living someone else’s life, and learning something unexpected.

“The Rodales seem like an ordinary family, but beneath the surface things are beginning to crack. Jill and Mal have lost the spark in their marriage, their son Sam resents his father and their daughter Chrissie has recently become a mum and is dealing with marriage issues of her own. And while they all share advice on how others should live their lives, nobody is really taking it on board – until Mal and Jill see things from a dramatically different perspective, that is.

“Waking up one morning and finding they have switched personas, Mal in Jill’s body and Jill in Mal’s, they must continue life “as normal” as their other half. Jill faces the challenges of working with their laddish son-in-law, Dean, as the Store Manager of a homewares shop, while Mal has suddenly becomes a housewife, learning more about his children – and finding out the secrets they already know about him!

“Will seeing things from the other side make matters even worse, or is this just what they need in order to save their family?”

Tickets are £10 and you can book them at the box office or online.

Book now

Return to the Unknown

It has been a real pleasure to watch and review this British Film Institute box set of Out of the Unknown. Just to wrap up this series, I thought I would take a look at the collection itself – seven DVD’s in a sturdy plastic case and cardboard sleeve. We have been particularly fortunate that after announcing the release, the BFI listened and cooperated with a group of classic television enthusiasts to produce a remarkably complete collection, for a programme which is missing so many episodes. The four reconstructed episodes, eleven commentaries, photo galleries, interview with director James Cellan Jones and the forty two minute documentary Return to the Unknown are all high quality fan contributions. Many of these contributors also worked on the Doctor Who DVD range, another series featuring a very high standard of extras.

In fact Return to the Unknown has a format familiar to any one who has collected the timelord’s adventures. A collection of talking heads filmed against white, interspersed with vintage photos, BBC documents and apposite video clips. It is a warm tribute to all four seasons, with plenty of fond reminiscences and little in the way of controversy. There is predictably alot of anecdotes about the relatively primitive production facilities of time but also the way BBC2 encouraged innovation. Interesting to note with Head of Drama Sydney Newman overseeing the series, he once again set up a science fiction series with a young female producer Irene Shubik, assisted by a veteran BBC man George Spenton-Foster, in the same way that Doctor Who began with Verity Lambert and associate producer Mervyn Pinfield. At times the narration does irritatingly present opinion as fact, for example that the surviving episode of season three The Last Lonely Man was also one of the finest. Mark Ward – author of the excellent guide to the series published by Kaleidoscope, contributes as well but he comes across as a little too enthusiastic and uncritical, seeming to describe every episode he mentions as “one of the best ever dramas”.

Without the time to cover the whole series in depth, certain episodes are singled out for more detailed treatment including The Machine Stops, Second Childhood and the Issac Asimov robot stories.The best part of the documentary for me were the intriguing clips from the missing episodes. Wendy Craig is on good form as the reluctant new owner of a handsome robot servant in Satisfaction Guaranteed. Several recoloured scenes from Liar! suggest that it was particularly good story and that Ian Ogilvy gave a brilliant performance as Herbie the telepathic robot. Even the striking end credits of The Fox and the Forest and Andover and the Android are tantalising. We learn that the former was only broadcast the once due to the unusually high repeat fees demanded by Ray Bradbury. In fact, another nice touch to the documentary is that the end credits are done in the same striking graphic design as those of the first two seasons.

Most of the contributors to the documentary also turn up in the commentaries, moderated by comedian and writer Toby Hadoke, a safe pair of hands for these, having hosted a fair number of the commentaries of the later classic Doctor Who DVD releases. He always does his research, has a deep knowledge and love for British telefantasy, and also possess an engaging manner which usually brings out the best in his speakers. As a result the commentaries are all of a pretty good standard, even if the passing decades means the contributors rarely have detailed memories of the filming, beyond one or two particular moments. Although often the onscreen action will provoke some extra thoughts, even if it is just amusement at the costumes.

The image galleries on every disc are impressive, with all the episodes getting some coverage. James Cellan Jones, director of Beach Head gives an informative interview but I could have used some photos to break up the static shot of him talking. What I did not realise until I looked him up was the length and success of his directing career, from Compact in 1963 to Holby City in 2001, by way of many TV movies and mini-series. The Deathday film inserts, which are seen on a television in the background of the episode, do not add anything beyond adding to the box set’s feeling of completeness. Finally there is the excellently written booklet by Mark Ward, as well as a useful episode guide. From this 42 page booklet we can learn enjoyable trivia such as the original intention to have Vincent Price introducing each episode, in the way Boris Karloff had for Out of this World. That the series might have been called 12 Tomorrows. Or that record producer and well-known science fiction fan Ian Levine tried to revive the series in 1981.

This box set is one of the highlights of the BFI’s television range and it is hard to see how it could be much improved upon unless more episodes are uncovered, which seems unlikely now. Picture and sound quality have been restored to a good standard and the inclusion of the reconstructions is a pleasant bonus. It is still quite a pricey set but for fans of BBC science fiction and the so-called golden age of science fiction represented by Asimov, Bradbury, Wyndham et al this is great viewing.

You can read more details and learn where to order it from on the BFI site.

Below is a complete episode guide and a checklist of all my episode reviews, in case you would like to read more of them. Thanks for checking with me and the encouraging comments. I will be back to this blog with more cult reviews in the future, but my next posts will be concentrating on my current theatre work.

Season 1
No Place Like Earth
The Counterfeit Man
Stranger in the Family
The Dead Past
Time in Advance
Come Buttercup, Come Daisy, Come..?
Sucker Bait
The Fox and the Forest
Andover and the Android
Some Lapse of Time
Thirteen to Centaurus
The Midas Plague

Season 2
The Machine Stops
Frankenstein Mark II
Lambda 1
Level 7
Second Childhood
The World in Silence
The Eye
The Tunnel Under the World
The Fastest Draw
Too Many Cooks
Walk’s End
Satisfaction Guaranteed
The Prophet

Season 3
Immortality Inc
Liar!
The Last Lonely Man
Beach Head
Something in the Cellar
Random Quest
The Naked Sun
The Little Black Bag
1 + 1 = 1.5
The Fosters
Target Generation
The Yellow Pill
Get Off My Cloud

Season 4
Taste of Evil
To Lay a Ghost
This Body is Mine
Deathday
The Sons and Daughters of Tomorrow
Welcome Home
The Last Witness
The Man in My Head
The Chopper
The Uninvited
The Shattered Eye

 

The Uninvited

by Michael J Bird

So here the series ends, as far as we can know it, since the final episode The Shattered Eye is long since missing. And a series that had been conceived as a showcase for the best of literary science fiction finishes with a ghost story.

George and Millicent Patterson about to emigrate to Botswana, and are spending their last night in their old, virtually empty flat. But their night turns into a frightening ordeal as they are assaulted by visions which gradually tell the story of a controlling husband who abuses and eventually murders his wife.

It is difficult to review this episode fairly, since we only have a handful of publicity photos which omit most of the cast, plus the soundtrack. The reconstruction therefore illustrates the audio with pages of the original camera script. It is a shame there was not the time or money to re-type the script, since the faded copy we see is quite hard to read in places. Still I would rather have this version than omit the episode altogether.

Although essentially a supernatural story, The Uninvited did remind me of Sapphire and Steel with its limited interior setting and use of an electronic howl to herald each visitation. The events could be explained as some kind of time rift if you cared too. It is difficult to judge how frightening it might have been since it would have depend a lot on how good the visual shocks in the script were realised.

In a season that has generally featured fraught relationships, it is rather lovely to listen the genuinely loving and affectionate marriage of George and Millie, played with easy naturalism by John Nettleton and June Ellis. The fact they are so likeable and committed to each other, definitely amplifies the horror when it begins because I really did not want anything tragic to happen to them. June Ellis was incidentally the wife of producer Alan Bromley. It is almost a shame that Brian Wilde is remembered for playing ineffectual comedy characters in Porridge and Last of the Summer Wine because he excelled playing sinister, slightly pathetic villains, whether the abusive husband Ramsay here or Mr Peacock in Ace of Wands. The moment where he advances on Millie, telling her she must be punished is unsettling even on audio.

Writer Michael J Bird had already written the controversial To Lay a Ghost for this season. He was something of a specialist in writing contemporary dramas with a supernatural flavouring, penning Maelstrom, The Dark Side of the Sun and The Aphrodite Inheritance as well as guest scripts in quite a few long running BBC series. Whilst this episode is lost, interestingly Michael J Bird rewrote his script as In Possession for Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense in 1984. Another missing Out of the Unknown episode The Last Witness was adapted by Martin Worth for the same series, retitled A Distant Scream.

Perhaps the only criticism I can make of The Uninvited is that it would have fitted comfortably into any of the Seventies supernatural anthologies, such as Dead of Night. It demonstrates that Out of the Unknown had lost its distinctive identity and unique selling point. So it was not surprising that indifferent ratings and incoming new executives with fresh agendas led to it not being picked up again. Survivors, Moonbase 3 and Doomwatch would keep the flag flying for BBC adult-aimed science fiction through the Seventies. Eventually, just as Out of the Unknown sprang from in part from Armchair Theatre, so Play for Tomorrow would spin-off from Play for Today. But that is an article for another time.

I’ve not quite finished with this BFI boxset. Coming up next is a review of the brand new documentary Return to the Unknown and the other extras included in this impressive collection.

The Man in My Head

by John Wiles

More by accident than design, due to the intervening episode The Last Witness being lost, The Man in My Head continues the theme of the misuse of psychology and drug therapy which Welcome Home began. Not only that but its criticism of the military mind, with its emphasis on obedience and the chain of command, and the way most of it takes place in an underground complex, it also recalls season two’s Level 7.

It is the ultimate in covert operations.A crack team of commandos on a mission to infiltrate and sabotage a hydro-electric power station, where each soldier has been subliminally programmed to only know the next stage of their mission when they hear a tone on the radio.They have been equipped with specialised personas and skills tailored for this mission. Not only that but they have been programmed with a backup cover story in case they are captured, which they will utterly believe when it is activated. It looks foolproof on paper, but when the team hits an unexpected accident, doubt, paranoia and identity crisis are soon eating away at them.

With most of the action taking place in a single large set, there’s very theatrical feeling to this episode. Perhaps that explains the slightly larger than life performances from most of the cast. That brand of over-emphasised, reaction heavy acting that science fiction often encourages. Its not necessarily a bad thing but it lends an artificiality to the episode that makes its final revelations not as much of surprise as it could have been. Yet theatrical does not mean it visually flat. Director Peter Creegan makes great use of dramatic camera angles from above and below and the whole production is dramatically lit with the cast’s sweat gleaming faces lit quite noir-ishly in half-light.

Tom Chadbon is excellent as Captain Brinson, the initially cool leader who becomes increasingly unravelled as his leadership and even his personality is challenged by the casually superior Hine, the older scientist who has been working undercover at the plant. It’s a trivial point maybe, but as we reach the end of the series, it is sort of nice to see the return of the dodgy blond moptop wig that was such a staple of the first season. This time it is Kenneth Watson who gets to sport it as Hine.

John Wiles was an experienced television writer with many credits to his name, from Dixon of Dock Green to A Horseman Riding By. He also been a script editor on several BBC shows and produced Doctor Who during  most of the later part of William Hartnell’s era, despite not a great fan of science fiction. He had already provided one story for the fourth season – Taste of Evil – which is now lost. His script is clever in the way it shows how a seemingly logical idea as subliminal programming is filled with pitfalls. Especially when one of the men Fulman triggers his backup programming and becomes a soldier who has accidentally crashed landed in an enemy territory, looking on in bewilderment as his comrades seemingly prepare to carry out a random act of terrorism.

Ultimately the real villains of this piece are the military officers who regard these soldiers are little better than cheap robots who are ultimately disposable. In fact there is an inference that these men and one woman may not even have been real soldiers originally. As a story it still feels quite relevant and is probably the existing episode from this season which could be most easily remade today. It manages to do some fresh with old what-is-real / what-is-imaginary concept that underpins a lot of the fourth season. Unlike Welcome Home, which is based around the mystery of what has been done, The Man in My Head shows us its box of tricks at the start, yet still tells a story with some unexpected twists.

Welcome Home

by Moris Farhi

It is less a case of whodunnit than of howtheydunnit in this entertaining paranoia story. Moris Farhi MBE is definitely a renaissance man. Author of several novels, including the multi-award winning Children of the Rainbow, poet, acclaimed writer on Jewish history and philosophy, campaigner for writers imprisoned by oppressive regimes, and jobbing scriptwriter on television series from Return of the Saint to The Onedin Line. His late wife Nina Farhi (nee Gould) was a psychoanalytic psychotherapist and I wonder how much input she had on this story, which involves a psychiatrist abusing his power.

Dr Frank Bowers travels to his new cottage after a long convalescence in hospital following a car accident. To his shock, neither his wife Penny or his friends recognise him, and worse another man is living in his place, who tells him patiently that he is the real Frank Bowers.

This is a much more enjoyable example of the twist followed by twist thriller than Deathday was. There is always a danger with this kind of story that the plot become too contrived and reliant on characters acting very stupidly, but Welcome Home stays just about on the right side of logic. One of its most satisfying revelations is about Bowers’ flashback dreams, which are portrayed through time lapsed photos. We later discover that this is not just a stylistic choice by director Eric Hills, but actually a clue in plain site as to what is really happening.

Casting Anthony Ainley as Frank Bowers One, as he is named in the credits, is a clever idea because at the start he generates distrust. Later most famous for playing recurring villain The Master in Eighties Doctor Who, Ainley had a flair for the sinister and Frank Bowers initially seems very suspect indeed. When talking to his doctor and then later on the train, his smile is a bit too wide and his bonhomie has touch of mania about it. As he desperately tries to prove his identity, only to be thwarted at every turn, first by circumstance and then by what seems to be a deliberate conspiracy, he does begin to engender sympathy though and by the end he has become a tragic protagonist.

On the other hand Frank Bowers Two, played by Bernard Brown, first appears as a self-assured, patriarchal personality and pretty much stays like that for the whole story. The only crack in his certainty is when Penny begins to be sympathetic to the other Frank, making him accuse her of being attracted to a younger version who more openly needs her, something he says he hadn’t considered before. Bernard Brown had a long television career of playing lawyers, doctors, officers, and other authority roles. It soon becomes clear that he is the driver behind whatever is happening, but the tension comes from trying to work out what his plan really is.

Special mention should go to Norman Kay’s sinister electronic incidental music, which frequently recalls Doctor Who, another show Kay worked on. In fact thanks to the music, the outdoor filming around a weir rather reminded me of a Jon Pertwee era story.

As with much of the fourth season Welcome Home is more concerned with telling a dramatic story than exploring a concept or issue. It does however touch on the misuse of science and medicine, at a time when psychiatry and other therapies were becoming a popular subject. In shares some DNA with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest for example. Although only tangentially science fiction it carries a warning familiar from many short stories – that people who concentrate too much on a future greater good, and justify immoral actions in the short term, frequently suffer severe consequences – and so do the people around them.