The Counterfeit Man

David Hemming sits at a futuristic desk

I should warn you that there are going to be spoilers in this review.

The Counterfeit Man
by Alan Nourse
Adapted by Philip Broadley

Returning to Earth after a disappointing expedition to Ganymede, Dr Crawford, the ship’s medical officer, is shocked when a routine check-up reveals crewman Wescott cannot possibly be human. When a second test comes back normal, the doctor is convinced that they have an alien intruder which can copy humans down to a molecular level. With the reluctant help of Captain Jaffe, Crawford instigates a war of nerves on Wescott, hoping to force the shape-changing alien to reveal itself.

Given the concept of an alien metamorph which can disguise itself as anyone, many a writer would have gone for a whodunnit, raising the paranoia about who the intruder could be. This episode is certainly filled with tension but it is more that of a pressure cooker, slowly ratcheting up the atmosphere. We learn the identity of the ‘counterfeit man’ almost immediately, but tellingly we only know through the conclusions of Dr Crawford. This creates a different kind of tension in the first half, is the doctor correct? In most shipboard dramas, the doctor is a figure of calm reason and authority, but early on it becomes clear that Crawford is quite highly strung for an officer and no poker player, his voice cracking with emotion when he discusses matters with Jaffe. Wescott shows none of the obvious signs of alienness. His speech is natural, his gaze remains un-zombiefied, he only starts to look around suspiciously after he himself falls under suspicion of a crime we know he did not commit. Is Crawford persecuting an innocent man due to his own imagination? David Hemmings is excellent as the likable, increasingly angry Wescott, whilst Alexander Davion hits the right balance between authority and discomfort.

It’s striking looking episode with a large impressive spaceship control deck in gleaming white and chrome. For a story about stealing identities, the crew are strangely clone-like with their near-identical blonde wigs and uniforms. Watching the show with the sound off, you might think that the men (and they are all men, no token female presence here) would talk in a cold, formal fashion. In fact the atmosphere is much more reminiscent of sailors on a navy vessel. “There’s nothing more reassuring than the body of a woman!”, sighs one fellow early on.

But instead of launching into a rendition of “Nothing Like a Dame” at this point, we are treated to the only real weak spot of this episode, the mental breakdown and death of Donnie. Rather harrowing, this moment is unfortunately quite funny as actor Peter Fraser shouts and staggers around the room, being studiously ignored by the other astronauts. It’s not surprising that Nigel Planer picked it out for his spoof acting class “How to Be SF”.

As Crawford’s campaign begins to take its toll, the production takes on the feel of experimental theater. Long tracking shots and close-ups of Wescott looking strung out, soundtracked by some excellent stock music and radiophonic effects I’m pretty sure I’ve previously heard in the Doctor Who adventure The Moonbase. Eventually the story reveals its hand, and Wescott is revealed as an extraterrestrial in an impressively gloopy special effect sequence, lit with pulsing lights.

If the story had ended here it would have been satisfactory, but a final act pushes it into excellence. With the spacecraft quarantined on Earth, Crawford returns to it only to find his worst fears confirmed, there was a second alien on board. Others might follow what happens better, but to me the climax is interestingly ambiguous. Was the second alien Jaffe, which is what Crawford accuses to the empty room, or does his own fear and paranoia lead him to accidentally release the second alien from its specimen jar when he blasts a workbench with his gun? Either way I was quite struck by the explicitness of the final laser-crisped body, horrible even in monochrome. The production also smartly keeps the aliens’ motivation obscure. We never find out why they want to infiltrate the ship or reach the Earth. This lack of information is intriguing rather than frustrating. Nothing would be clumsier than one of the beings giving a speech about their plans for conquest or tourism.

Let me give  special acknowledgement to George Spenton Foster, who not only directs this striking episode, but as Associate Producer was also instrumental in getting this technically challenging series on to BBC2 in the first place. The Counterfeit Man is notable improvement on the opening story and has aged in quite a cool Sixties retro way.

No Place Like Earth

Two colonists watch alien miners

I enjoy SF TV anthologies a great deal. American television has tended to dominate this field from The Twilight Zone downwards, but the BBC has provided a handful of worthy entries, none more so than Out of the Unknown. As I was growing up it was a series that was an intriguing mystery for me. Mentioned in passing during articles on Doctor Who but fairly undocumented in the main. Certainly never repeated. I caught up with a few episodes in my tape-trading days but I never thought that an official box set would emerge as handsome as the one that has.

Beginning in 1965 and running for four seasons on BBC2, Out of the Unknown was the brainchild of producer Irene Shubik. An experienced story editor who had worked on the acclaimed ABC anthology Armchair Theatre, she had a long-standing love of literary science fiction and felt intelligent, notable short stories and novels would make good thought-provoking television drama. She probably also wanted to prove that SF could deal with adult dilemmas, as well as simple juvenile escapism.

I recently received the British Film Institute’s splendid Out of the Unknown DVD box set for Christmas. A talented team has not only expertly restored all the existing episodes in the BBC archives, but added four reconstructions of lost episodes, created some interesting looking extras and finished it off with a scholarly booklet on the history of the series. So I thought it might be a fun idea to share my thoughts of the series with you as I watch it.

No Place Like Earth
by John Wyndham
Adapted by Stanley Miller

What is it about most anthology titles sequences that they tend to the sinister? It’s hard to think of any that do not have a feeling of impending threat to them. Out of the Unknown is no different, a sequence of abstract images (including a fear-struck man’s face) whilst Norman Kay’s music features a swooping harp and muted horns that end on a note of suspense. Man is definitely not going boldly to the final frontier here, he is treading warily. It is an effective opening though and feels very much of its Sixties era.

Earth has been destroyed and the remains of humanity are surviving on several small colonies. One of them is Mars, where Bert drifts along the canals, trading his repair skills for provisions and dreaming of the old days. Annika, the matriarch of one of his favourite Martian families is keen for him to marry her eldest daughter, but Bert is restless. His answer seems to come when a ship arrives from Venus, recruiting men to create a new Earth on that hostile planet. But he soon finds that Venus is far from the brave new start he hoped for.

Based on two Wyndham stories stitched together, Time to Rest and No Place Like Earth, this opening installment still feels a bit padded out. Apparently producer Irene Shubik was unhappy with how the episode had turned out and wanted to launch with The Counterfeit Man by Alan E Nourse but was overruled by head of drama Sydney Newman who preferred using a more famous author. With its canals, noble savage Martians and a jungle Venus it is clearly a whimsical science fantasy and old-fashioned even by Sixties standards. The elegiac theme of Bert’s nostalgia for an Earth that never was recalls to something of the later chapters of The Martian Chronicles, except Bradbury’s stories are richer and their fantastical elements are more clearly shown to be a deliberate style of the novel with his re-imaging of Mars as the American mid-west. It’s not a bad story by any means and well-acted, but it often just plods and everything is spelled out when it could have been left as subtext. The biggest offender is an elderly Venus colonist who gives a long long speech describing the oppressive crooked society that has arisen on Venus since the Earth’s destruction. However Terrance Morgan is a good lead as the idealistic dreamer Bert and it is fine to see a young bewitching Hannah Gordon as Zaylo, the Martian maid who wants to domesticate him.

Designer Peter Seddon’s set for the Martian ruins is an excellent creation, recalling Egyptian and Mayan architecture. The spacesuits and Venus overalls are somewhat cartoonish by comparison but the realisation of the primitive native Venusians is quite clever in using stocking masks to obscure their faces.

Reading the booklet I discovered this episode under-ran by six minutes. It did not feel like that. I think better is to come.

History repeating itself? Star Wars The Force Awakens reviewed

Warning: This review contains spoilers.

Breathe a sigh of relief; The Force Awakens is not going to embarrass you at parties. The latest instalment is fun, comfortable, even exciting in places. It is eager to be liked, commits no major faux pas, but at the same time it never inspired me or made me feel anything more than entertained. At least on this first viewing. Odd to admit, but the first and second trailers on Youtube affected me more deeply than the ultimate movie I saw on the big screen.

Perhaps it is not so surprising however. When I went to see Star Wars back 1978 with my dad and sister Gail, I came out a little disappointed. After all the hype and reading the novelisation twice before I had even been to the cinema, Star Wars was good, just not overwhelming. George Lucas’s creation has been one of the big influences on my youthful imagination, probably second only to Doctor Who. For years, I saw other films through the prism of a galaxy far far away. I can see now it was the whole universe that excited me. For me, Star Wars was always more than just the movies, but the action figures I created more stories with, the novels and comics, even the not-quite-Star Wars products that came in its wake like Battlestar Galactica or Starlord comic.

I am not surprised that JJ Abrams initially turned down to the film. The Force Awakens has to satisfy middle-aged fans who want a film that will stroke their nostalgia, whilst containing enough sophistication in the story and characters that they do not feel embarrassed to be watching an essentially childlike SF fantasy. Episode VII also needs to find and thrill young audiences for whom both trilogies are something from their parent’s/siblings’ distant past. Oh yes and launch a new Disney empire of spin-off movies, TV series and a tsunami of merchandise. Amazingly I think he has managed to deliver that film. The only drawback is that he has had to play it very cautiously indeed.

The biggest surprise is how deliberately Episode VII resembles Episode IV in story moments. A cute droid with vital plans for a vast superweapon. A desert planet. A bar filled bizarre aliens. Said superweapon having one vital weak spot requiring a X-wing raid, whilst another commando group sneaks about the gleaming corridors. Not to mention shout outs to the ice world of Hoth, the green forests of the rebel base on Yarvin’s moon and a supreme leader who favour dark robes and appearing as a giant hologram. At times it feels alarmingly more like a reboot rather than a continuation, that the team are relying a bit too heavily on the imagery of the older films to reach our emotions.

There is progress elsewhere though. More women taking part and a wider ethnicity is welcome, as is Kylo Ren, a villain who is not quite as straightforward as usual. His struggle for his identity and unwillingness to believe in or accept forgiveness for his crimes is a believable motivation, one that also ties in with the series’ mythic storytelling. In fact throughout the movie, casting younger faces in the bad guy roles pays off well, making the First Order feel more like an extremist movement of a radicalised generation.

Interesting that the only famous faces in the movie belong to the original generation of Star Wars. This franchise does not need celebrities or A-list stars and it is the better for casting relative unknowns in all the major roles. Daniel Craig’s cameo appearance as a Stormtrooper is all the better and funnier for being revealed only in the end credits crawl. JJ Abrams has come up trumps in choosing Daisy Ridley, John Boyega and Oscar Issac as his new trio of heroes. Three charismatic young actors who just like Hamill et al can the comic strip bubble dialogue off the paper and make it feel real and human. As for the veterans, they all do more than simply phone it in, as they could easily have. Ford especially is such a good actor he actually makes Solo look like he is having a good time. Plus it is sweet to think of Peter Mayhew back in the furry suit as Chewbacca, at least for the growling scenes.

Great to see the dirty, rusty lived-in universe of the original trilogy back and the green screen work kept under control. BB-8 is a wonderful robot design that lends itself to an impressive amount of expression. For me there is still not been a spaceflight sequence to match the asteroid belt battle in Empire Strikes Back, achieved with models and opticals, but the fight through the wreckage of a star destroyer is beautifully choreographed. The battle with the hideous tentacled Takodana monsters are probably the best surprise in the film, a frenetic corridor chase which takes the franchise into Alien territory for a few moments.

Generally, the plot held few surprises for anyone who has seen many Star Wars-inspired films. I was generally correct in guessing what came next, although the reveals of the Millennium Falcon and that Kylo was Han and Leia’s son were genuine shocks, which I enjoyed.

Ultimately, JJ Abrams and writers Michael Arndt and Lawrence Kasdan understood that Star Wars always owed more to Greek legend and the Brothers Grimm than to science fiction. The Force Awakens is at its best when it puts tragic destiny at its core, of heroes making bad choices with terrible outcomes. It also adds more detail and richness to the Star Wars world’s future, without alienating newcomers and boring them with continuity. Maybe it does not take too many risks itself, but it has built a foundation for future instalments to be bolder.

 

 

  1. Note: I wish cinemas would sign some kind of agreement to limit adverts and trailers to fifteen minutes. Is it necessary to advertise so many summer blockbusters, which will not be with us for six months or more? Half an hour of cinematic adverts and epic superhero trailers made me feel exhausted before the two hour plus movie had even begun.

 

Go Ape! Or Get Your Stinking Paws Off My DVD Boxset

go_ape

I am a terrible hoarder of unwatched DVD boxsets. It’s a modern blight of our affluence. So this year I’ve been doing my best to reduce the clutter on my DVD shelves and that has led me to this six disc collection in an orange slipcase. Watching the five Apes movies in order for the first time I’m struck by how good the continuity is, especially considering that most of the films were not planned with sequels in mind. Little details like reusing the design of the spacecraft throughout the films mean a lot because I like my film series to fit together into one world.

Planet of the apes (1968)

The opening half hour is already visually striking, even before the apes appear. The spaceship crash is ingeniously created and because it is shot from the ship’s POV it hasn’t dated. Once the astronauts are on the surface there’s an emphasis on their tiny figures in a large unforgiving landscape. Taylor is a well-conceived protagonist who’s a bit more interesting than the average straight-arrow hero. He’s confrontational, cynical and self-reliant, but also intelligent, capable, passionate and ultimately concerned for the individuals around him, even if he doesn’t entirely respect them. I also approve of the way he doesn’t go “on a journey” to become a cuddlier, more sensitive man. He survives and achieves a kind of victory by the end.
Watching the film again, I’m impressed with how balanced its components are. It’s a satisfying action adventure, a witty satire on Western society, in particular race, class and religion, and it’s a meaty science fiction concept too. Seeing ape versions of environments like zoos and museums is unsettling. A definite droll highlight is the funeral service Taylor interrupts, with the priest eulogising that the deceased “never met an ape he didn’t like”, unconsciously quoting cowboy star Will Rogers. There’s a couple of terrific horror moments too, the gorillas posing for a photo over a pile of dead humans, and the later discovery of a stuffed Dodge in the museum.
The impact of John Chamber’s ape prosthetics cannot be under-estimated, a great melding of nature observation and theatricality. The apes are realistic enough to be convincing, whilst having faces that convey recognisable human qualities, such as the aristocratic orang-utans. Jerry Goldsmith’s marvellous and imaginative music score is another big factor, increasing the sense of Taylor’s alienation and the peril of the fight scenes.
Noticeably absent from this first film is the theme of gorilla militarism that becomes a much bigger motivation in the series later. Here the gorillas are simply straightforward blue collar workers.
Zira’s changing relationship with “Bright Eyes” as she names Taylor is cleverly written and played. Whilst always sympathetic, at first she treats him very much as an amusing pet. Later she has a moment when she’s resisting the idea of him being an equal, before accepting him as a person and in their last scene actually kissing him (clearly shown as a sign of affection rather than attraction take note).
Although its ending is a well-known part of pop culture, and in fact spoiled by the DVD box art, seeing it in context the moment is still chilling. I think it’s partly because of the lack of music, just the sound of the indifferent waves upon the beach, partly the way Charlton Heston sells it, and perhaps partly in the emotion of the glass painting itself, thanks to artist Emil Kosa.

Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)

It’s slightly irrational but with its mutants with psychic powers, an underground city, a more obvious antagonist in General Ursus and a new emphasis on action and militarism, this first sequel feels much more of a conventional science fiction movie than the original. To me is one of the main reasons why this sequel is inferior to the original. Another problem is that there is an inbuilt feel of repetition in the first half of the movie, as Brent undergoes the same series of discoveries that Taylor did, not to mention the fact that with the addition of a beard, James Franciscus has been cast as a knock-off Charlton Heston. That’s a shame really because Franciscus is fine in the lead and handles the action convincingly, but because of his cloned look, the film is continually reminding you that he isn’t Chuck.
There are some impressive scenes. The mass unmasking of the mutants is a great set piece. The gorilla army on the march and the mass hallucination they are attacked by is an unexpectedly vivid moment, especially the statue of the Lawgiver weeping blood. Ruined New York is not as poignant as the statue because the melted buildings give the whole place more of a fantastical atmosphere and thus less recognisable.
The film’s story may be darker but it also feels shallower. The first film touches on all kinds of modern concerns whilst this one is a cruder anti-war, anti-bomb parable. It also mostly misses the humour of its predecessor, aside from Cornelius and Zira pretending that he struck her, in order to deceive Zaius.
It’s quite brave move to seemingly finish the series so definitely but in the coming years that knowledge of the destruction of Earth does lend an extra frisson to the further sequels. That last line from some unknown omnipotent narrator is portentous yet I find it quite effective, a moment of very literary SF.

Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971)

In retrospect it is such an obvious idea, reverse the journey of Taylor and make some intelligent apes the misunderstood strangers in an alien civilisation. That it works so well and makes this third sequel almost as much fun as the original owes a lot to Roddy McDowell and Kim Hunter and their strong performances. It also benefits from the return of much of the droll humour of the first film, making the fantasy seem much more believable. The sequence where they explore Seventies USA as celebrities is one of my favourite parts of the film and its loveliness only enhances the tragedy of the third act. The scene where they face a congressional enquiry and win the audience over with their wit is another highlight.
It’s a smart piece of continuity that the villainous scientist pursuing the couple is Dr Hasslein, the scientist Taylor was narrating to in the first film. The story is an excellent tragedy. We know from the beginning about Zira’s past as a human zoologist and that sooner or later that is going to catch up with them. Carrying on the mirroring of the first film, their very existence challenges the society they have landed in, and it is almost inevitable they will be imprisoned and killed.
The film’s sympathies are almost completely with the chimpanzee couple, although commendably human society is depicted not so much as actively evil, more misguided and short-sighted. Only Hasslein is unquestionably the bad guy for his hubris in trying to change future history.
Natalie Trundy gets the best of her four roles in the Apes series, as sympathetic zoologist Dr Branton, even though she basically in the role of supportive girlfriend of the human hero Dr Dixon.
I remember the final scene of the young Caesar beginning to talk being quite haunting. Watching it this time, not so much because the looping of the film to make the chimp appear to talk is more obvious to me this time. Nevertheless it is an effective end and the only film in the series to end on a cliffhanger they had already planned to resolve.

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)

Despite the fact that it often looks more like a made for television movie, thanks to an even lower budget, this is an entertaining if downbeat seventies SF parable. The metaphor about black slavery may be anything but subtle, especially compared to the first film, but it does create some striking scenes in Ape Control as human guards herd crowds of frightened apes about, moving them with cattle prods and whips. Making MacDonald, the apes’ chief supporter amongst the government a black man is also rather obvious, even if Hari Rhodes plays him well.
Roddy McDowell impresses once again by making Caesar noticeably different to Cornelius. Much more aggressive and less humorous. Once a slave he quickly takes on the mantle of the alpha male in a prison block, with a wide streak of cynicism. As a result the studio re-edit of the final scene to make him a peacemaker, rather than a revenger, doesn’t really work. Those final words about treating the conquered humans with justice and fairness ring hollow, especially against a city on fire.
Using the Irvine Campus of California University was a good decision, since the place certainly looks futuristic without the need for too much set dressing. Dressing nearly all the apes in jumpsuits however does lend an air of cheapness to the enterprise and it was no surprise to read that a lot of the futuristic props and sets were recycled from Irwin Allen television productions. It seemed in keeping with the TV feel of much of the film. But the story is brisk and benefits from no gratuitous romantic sub-plot being shoehorned in. If the series had ended here it would have been a satisfying conclusion.

Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973)

The final film in the original series is not great but it’s not a turkey either, thanks to the care taken to keep the continuity links with the previous films, and the performances, especially Roddy McDowell and more interestingly singer/actor Paul Williams as the optimistic, curiosity-driven orang-utan Virgil. It’s a more hopeful conclusion to the saga, although there remains a shadow that the promised human and ape equality will fail and humanity will devolve into mute hunter gatherers again.
As with the previous film there is something of television movie feel about it all, with lots of recycled props and masks from older films. Aside from the debate about whether the future can be changed or not, after Caesar hears the voice of his father describing it, the plot in this one is shallowest yet. It is essentially a western, with the good ranchers facing gorilla black hats and mutant enforcers from the railroad company. It’s not about themes of racism and nuclear war anymore, it is about captures, escapes and a chimpanzee having to do what a chimpanzee must do.

Planet of the apes (2001)

A misfire on several levels, director Tim Burton’s “reimagining” suffers from not really being about anything more than a nostalgic desire to do an Apes movie with modern technology. The film’s highlight is undoubtedly Taylor’s arrival in Ape City, watching in amazement along with Mark Wahlberg at a culture that is simultaneously non-human but with echoes of our own. The detail in the costumes and implements, drawing on Asian and African influences is beguiling. I feel this is where Burton’s real interest lies, just realising a simian-centric culture.
However neither he nor writers William Broyles Jr, Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal have an idea what story to set in that world. So we get a script that tries to be different for difference’s sake, making the planet definitively alien for example and bringing in genetic engineering, neither of which really adds to the interest. As for the ending, it just doesn’t make any sense tagged on to the end of the story we’ve just watched, let alone having a huge statue of Thade on Earth without any more justification than it’s a surprise.
Performance wise it’s largely a disappointment too. In the role of Taylor, Wahlberg is his usual dull frowning self, whilst Helena Bonham-Carter gives one of her worst performances as Ari, failing to convey any sense of being a non-human and perfunctorily running through her admittedly trite dialogue. In fact only Tim Roth really comes out with any credit, putting in the energy and conveying Thade’s personality with his whole body and movement.
Rather than telling a good adventure tale whilst holding a mirror up to our current culture, this remake is just a succession of sub-plots about characters we don’t really care about, leading to an underwhelming time travel revelation. And it’s a tribute to John Chamber’s original make-up that the ape prosthetics of thirty plus years later do not look significantly better.

I’m going to leave the recent two CGI movies for another time, especially since I haven’t seen Dawn yet. Watching these movies again has been an entertaining experience. Strange to think the Apes movies were the biggest SF movie franchise until Star Wars came along four years later. They were very much films of the restless Seventies, when pre-Star Wars, USA cinematic SF tended to be gloomy and message driven rather than just escapism. The best of the Planet of the Apes series combined that intelligence with good characters and a sense of adventure and Saturday matinee peril.