Spotlighting systemic racism in Britain on “Sputnik: Orbiting the World with George Galloway (Episode 4)”

George Galloway and Gayatri Pertiwi, “Sputnik: Orbiting the World with George Galloway (Episode 4)” (RT.com, December 2013)

In this episode, the Galloways enquire into institutional racism in the United Kingdom. First off, Gayatri Pertiwi tours the streets of London collecting opinions of the general public on whether they consider Britain to be a racist country; not surprisingly, she finds the responses depend very much on the perceptions and experiences of the individuals she stops. Taken together, the responses point to an underlying racial prejudice that persists thanks to a worsening economic situation, a rise in social inequality and deliberate fanning by the nation’s media and institutions including the Cameron government, the police and the court system.

Galloway interviews social and political activist Lee Jasper who wrote a report on racism in Britain. Jasper reveals that racism is deeply embedded in current government policies and government agencies and that this is generating wide consequences throughout society. The racism is directed not only against black British and Asian British (“Asian” in this context refers to people whose antecedents come from the Indian subcontinent) but also against travellers, Roma, Bulgarians and Romanians. Especially worrying is how racism has become rife in the police force and the law courts.

Next up is Stephen Norris, a former London Mayor candidate and member of the Conservative Party, who discusses racism in the police force. He and Galloway refer to various scandals that have dogged the police including the death of Mark Duggan in police custody in 2011 which set off riots across Britain and agree that the police have not dealt with these scandals sufficiently enough that perpetrators have been arraigned and charged with serious crimes. Particularly alarming is the extent to which police supply information to a greedy press in exchange for money.

The Galloways sum up the episode by canvassing Twitter responses on the extent of institutional racism in the UK. They find that most people agree that while Britain is much less racist than, say, France or the Netherlands, and indeed most other countries in western Europe, the situation is worsening; one respondent says that the media is stoking fear of immigrants and blacks among the general public. Galloway himself observes that as the economy declines and people compete for a shrinking share of jobs, racism will increase and politicians will whip it up for what it’s worth as they see votes in it.

This is a highly informative episode on how racism has become resurgent in a country under enormous social and economic pressure, and how governments and media collude in dividing people and encouraging mutual hostility and distrust among them, the better to control them and profit from their divisions and suffering. The racism comes at a time when the Cameron government is floundering in its management of the economy and government, and needs something to divert public attention away from its general incompetence and isolation from the public (several of Cameron’s Cabinet ministers have little real-world experience in industry and are basically career politicians and party bureaucrats), and its genuflections before powerful hidden corporate interests. The suspicion that in spite of the tapping scandals at News Corporation the Cameron government continues to work secretly with the Murdoch-owned media for cash is never far away. At the same time, the Galloways and their interviewees do not offer any suggestions as to how racial prejudice can be eradicated from the police and judiciary. At the very least, this last episode in the Galloways’ Sputnik series serves to alert people to a deep and ongoing problem in British society.

Sputnik: Orbiting the World with George Galloway (Episode 3) – talk-show politics and current affairs with a very slick media performer

George Galloway and Gayatri Pertiwi, “Sputnik: Orbiting the World with George Galloway (Episode 3)” (RT.com, November 2013)

In addition to representing Bradford West in the British Parliament, the politician / writer George Galloway found time to make a 4-episode series on global politics and current affairs with his wife Putri Gayatri Pertiwi. In Episode 3, he interviews John Wight on peace talks between the US and Iran over the Iranian nuclear energy program and Mother Agnes Mariam of the Cross on the plight of Christian communities in Syria during the Syrian war between the Bashar al Assad government and so-called “rebels” fighting for its overthrow.

The episode divides into two parts each dominated by Galloway’s two guests. John Wight discusses the situation in Syria and how it reflects the posturing of the Western powers, in particular the US, and their allies in Israel, Qatar and Saudi Arabia who have interests in the continuation of the Syrian war. The influence of the Western general public and the British government on delaying (temporarily at least) the Americans’ headlong rush into committing US troops to support and fight alongside the Free Syrian Army and other insurgents is touched upon. In the second half of the episode, Mother Agnes Mariam of the Cross talks about the difficulties and dangers faced by Syrian Christians from extremist Islamic militants in the FSA.

Galloway is the dominant figure throughout the episode with his slick presentation style (though perhaps he should have been advised that some viewers would find his high-collared suit, reminiscent of suits once worn by Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong, somewhat disturbing – but he would probably tell such viewers to bugger off) that is finely attuned to hosting a current affairs talk show. Pertiwi plays distinct second fiddle and side-kick to Galloway by presenting additional information and videos of questions posed to the general British public on Iran and Syria. John Wight knows George Galloway and is able to hold his own in discussion while Mother Agnes Mariam is a very softly spoken interviewee.

For those who know a fair deal about Syria from following alternative news media on the Internet, Wight and Mother Agnes Mariam do not add much new information. Those following mainstream news media are not likely to have heard of Mother Agnes Mariam or her organisation Mussalaha (Reconciliation), which strives to mediate disputes, and thus do not know of the harassment and slandering that follow her in the West due to her support for the Syrian government. In recent months, the nun has been trying to call attention to the FSA rebels’ kidnapping of women and children from villages in parts of Syria in August 2013 and the kidnapped people’s exploitation as apparent victims of chemical warfare supposedly waged by the Syrian government later in month on videos made by the rebels. The nun has been met with silence at least and outright vilification by anti-war groups in the West. Indeed, Galloway refers to an incident in which Mother Agnes Mariam was barred from attending a Stop the War Conference in London by Owen Jones and Jeremy Scahill. It would have been most informative had Galloway devoted the entire interview to the nun and discussed with her what she thought of the incident and why it happened.

That Mother Agnes Mariam supports the Syrian government in the war does not automatically mean she supports or has supported its style of governance or the policies it has pursued. The Syrian government has followed secular policies since a group of army officers who were members of the Ba’ath Party seized power in a coup in 1963. All the army officers involved were Shi’a Muslims of the Alawite sect. In the years that followed, one of the officers, Hafez al Assad, removed his fellow coup leaders and became President in 1971; he replaced the old Syrian power elite with one of his choosing. Now ironically, the power elite he installed is intent on maintaining power (and perhaps forcing or persuading al Assad’s son and successor Bashar in continuing the old ways). Under Alawite rule, religious minorities may not have had very much freedom but they at least enjoyed security and stability so in the current chaos it should be no wonder that they prefer the devil the know to the devil they don’t.

I did respect Jeremy Scahill before for previous investigative reporting he has done on Blackwater Inc and the Obama government’s secret drone wars in the Middle East but my opinion of him since has been dropping so I was not too surprised to discover that he’d been instrumental in pushing Mother Agnes Mariam out of the StW Conference.

I did find the Galloways a little too slick and “media-whorish” for my liking. They are very highly opinionated and I suspect they only invite those interviewee subjects whose views and opinions match or correspond with their own. Their hearts and minds are in the right place and I sense they are basically decent so I will try to follow the other episodes they have done if only to confirm my intuition which is usually only 50% right.

 

Out of the Trees: uneven pilot comedy episode rehashing tired Monty Python sketches

Ian MacNaughton, “Out of the Trees” (1975)

Huge surprise when I was surfing Youtube.com one day: a pilot for an abandoned TV show written by former Monty Python man Graham Chapman and rising star script-writer Douglas Adams of “The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” fame! The pilot film was thought lost for a long time but happy serendipity decreed that a low-quality recording of the original master tape be made and it is this humble if overlooked recording that has survived to the present.

Billed as “A British Rail Film”, the pilot episode opens as long-haul passenger journey in which three sets of passengers share a berth and engage in odd conversations. Two of these passengers are a voice-over actor Michael (Roger Brierly) and a links man Ken (Graham Chapman) whose conversation wends from a documentary the actor has done of the exploits of Ghengis Khan across Mongolia, several Central Asian and European states, and finally Britain itself where Ghengis (sic) Khan sets about remaking the country in his own name. From there the episode dives into a skit about bureaucrats in fire-fighter uniforms trying to make speeches and chiding one another about the correct way to address their audience while a junior civil servant leaps about yelling that a nearby building is on fire. Concluding the episode is a skit about a young couple in love who pluck a peony from a tree and are immediately accosted by two coppers who harass them over stealing private property while just down the road there is mayhem as an elderly woman is bashed by a thug, another yob steals a man’s bicycle and several punch-ups break out. The police officers’ attempt to apprehend the couple leads to a chain reaction of emergencies and call-outs to the paramedics, the fire service, emergency services, the army, the navy, the airforce, the bomb squad … all resulting in explosions galore that all but finish off the entire planet. While Earth is consumed in a fiery holocaust, two bureaucrats, the last survivors on the planet, complement one another on their speeches.

Unfortunately the episode is no great masterpiece: it feels rather stale in parts and some sketches are too long and the dialogue in them too contrived, droll and twee. The usual Monty Python satirical targets make their appearance and while they are funny, the sketches lack freshness and gaiety. Graham Chapman was obviously missing the Monty Python TV series, the team probably having broken up at the time, never to reunite for another series, and his contributions look rather like those skits from the series that originally ended up on the cutting-room floor. The best skits are the peony-stealing skit that features Mark Wing-Davey as one of the errant peony-pickers and the parts about Ghengis Khan. Apparently not all of the pilot episode ended up on the low-quality surviving tape and there are sections missing from Ghengis Khan’s tale. The dialogue can be clever and silly.

Women engaged in social one-upmanship, an apparently innocent action engendering severe consequences for the planet, bureaucratic bungling leading to disaster, a ruthless and bloodthirsty dictator wanting a sea-change from all the excitement of conquering the known world, pillaging towns and raping virgins … they must have all looked very good on paper but translated to the screen, the result is uneven. Compared to many modern comedies though, even when average this film still pulls quite a few laughs from unusual juxtapositions of ideas and issues.

The significant historical value of the film is that it brings together Douglas Adams and actors Simon Jones and Mark Wing-Davey who became associated with Adams’ “The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” saga.

The Wild, Wild West (Season 2, Episode 20: Night of the Vicious Valentine): fantasy, eccentricity and camp comedy in an original plot

Irving Moore, “The Wild, Wild West (Season 2, Episode 20: Night of the Vicious Valentine)” (1966)

This episode is notable for winning the series its only Emmy award for Best Actress, the gong going to noted actor Agnes Moorehead, better known for her role as Endora the witchy mother of main witch character Samantha Stephens in the famous TV show “Bewitched”.

The story is a murder mystery in that agents Jim West (Robert Conrad) and Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin) are investigating a series of unfortunate and untimely deaths of wealthy industrialists linked by the fact that they’ve been married for several months to much younger women whom they’ve met through a match-making agency run by one Emma Valentine (Moorehead). The episode runs in a narrative similar to the Diana Rigg colour episodes of “The Avengers” series with the agents chasing various leads, trying to prevent more tragedies and nearly meeting with tragedy themselves – Gordon nearly losing his head in a print shop but not over some gaudy stationery – and the colourful, almost surreal and even saccharine sets and the lavish costumes on all characters suggest a Western fantasy-land not far removed from that inhabited by John Steed and Emma Peel a hundred years later. Oh, Grant might be President but then Avengersland also had Queen Elizabeth II and Carnaby Street. A dastardly, eccentric villain with a noble quest to save women from economic and social exploitation that hide an agenda to take over the United States’ wealth and gain power, attended by equally strange and eccentric minions and claiming some bizarre torture and death-dealing devices, including one that looks like a steampunk version of Barbarella’s Orgasmatron. West and Gordon are even equivalent to Peel and Steed: West does most of the strong-arming but ends up spending a good part of the episode tied up and Gordon inveigles his way into Valentine’s love-nest. The climax is one of the highlights with both men trussed up helplessly attached to a glass structure that will collapse on top of yet another hapless industrialist on his wedding day. As ever, improbably the agents get out of that bit of trouble and into another but fight their way out and all good people in that episode live to see another day.

Moorehead is the star of the show here and doesn’t everyone from Conrad and Martin down to the script-writers and technical crew know it: the plot revolves around her, the script-writers give her the best lines, the actors acknowledge her star presence and let her dominate, the sets are as luxurious, spacious and decadent as the budget allowed, and even the folks in charge of furniture and ornaments give her a set of dumb-bells in the shape of love-hearts to exercise with. Moorehead knows she is playing an essentially campy role and deploys all her witchy Endora charm in infusing it with drama, character and wit. The only let-down here is that she doesn’t get enough screen time with Martin’s Gordon so they could parry witticisms; Conrad’s character is clever and resourceful but not allowed to trade puns and double entendres with Valentine while trapped in her creepy touchy-feely contraption which doesn’t get much of a work-out. (What the script-writers for The Avengers could have done with those hands to Mrs Peel!) I tip my ten-gallon hat off to “The Wild, Wild West” for combining the surreal, the campy and the plain bizarre with the spy adventure form in a way that makes this fantasy-land plausible without it looking twee in the way many Avengers episodes do.

The episode is an amusing commentary on the status of women in the US in the late 19th century and also in the 1960s: West’s conversation with Valentine on women seeking political and economic equality with men plays safe so that West doesn’t come off as too conservative or too progressive on the idea of feminism. A minor female characters plays a stereotypical simpering type but shows unexpected courage in the plot’s climax. Perhaps the producers could have done much, much more with the theme but as is, “The Night of the Vicious Valentine” is a real highlight with everyone pulling out all the stops in creative flair, camp comedy and inventive plot devices.

The Wild, Wild West (Season 2, Episode 13: Night of the Skulls): an entertaining plot with surprises and running gags

Alan Crosland Jr, “The Wild, Wild West (Season 2, Episode 13: Night of the Skulls)” (1966)

A really surprising episode this turns out to be, with surprises and gags following after another, all done in such a way as to appear completely plausible in spite of many daft ideas. Firstly Jim West (Robert Conrad) and Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin) fight over a woman, and West shoots Gordon dead. West then goes on the run while Gordon’s funeral, officiated over by Gordon himself in disguise as a priest(!), is held. Turns out the stoush is a set-up to allow West to infiltrate a secret cult that is swallowing up various murderers on the run and the only way West can penetrate this group is to be a murderer himself.

West not only infiltrates the cult but thanks to a bizarre trial in which he is tried by a jury of “peers” – that is, fellow murderers! – for the murder of Artemus Gordon, he is convicted and made a member of the cult. The cult leader (and trial judge) proposes a new trial in which the murderers whittle down their numbers – that is, one another! – to select three people for a special assignment. In the meantime, Gordon in yet another disguise infiltrates the cult and gets as far as contacting West before they’re both discovered by the cult members and imprisoned down a well. By means of an ingenious though the hokeyest of hokey escapes, the two agents emerge from the well and try to foil the cult members’ plot to kill US President Ulysses Grant, his Vice-President and the Secretary of State.

This is an entertaining episode all the way right through to the end with perhaps the biggest surprise of all in the customary tag scene that takes place in West and Gordon’s private railway car. The cult members are rounded up and sent on their way to justice. There are at least three or four fights, the most notable being a swordfight between West and a Japanese samurai: West can’t handle a sword properly so the fight ends with an accidental tragedy. Conrad and Martin act out their parts in the way they’re supposed to, Conrad as the straight James Bond spy type and Martin as his comedy foil; they keep up the running gag of West nearly killing Martin yet again, and moreover include the cult leader who turns out to be a US senator suffering from a bad case of megalomania in a near-murder scene. The climax is cleverly done, taking place the next day after West has despatched the three would-be assassins, when viewers would have expected West to rejoin Gordon in seeking out the ring-leader.

The cheap budget for the episode gives it a clean bare-bones setting in which West has to keep negotiating a labyrinth of passage-ways and cul-de-sacs that end up as a closed maze. The ambience is somewhat austere as a result and the producers had to resort to unusual techniques, like filming one particular scene from a bird’s-eye view, to maintain the suspense and the shadowy nature of the cult.

The narrative of the plot plays with and confounds viewer expectations of how it should proceed while maintaining the series’ usual tropes of West playing straight man who attracts fights and femme fatales like a lamp attracts moths, Martin’s penchant for outlandish disguises, various eccentric villains, a main baddie with a swollen ego and bizarre motifs that reference and question aspects of modern society at a safe distance for viewers. In this episode, the theme is political corruption and the thin division between legitimate politicians who look and act squeaky-clean, and secret crime organisations on whose help those politicians rely. (Ironically President Grant, the ultimate employer of West and Gordon, in real life was sometimes associated with corrupt appointees, especially during his second term.) West’s trial and conviction appear to mock the rituals of court sessions in the US. At times the episode does not feel much like a Western at all, so closely does it depend on the plot and its characters to pull the story along.

Viewers will enjoy the emphasis on a secret cult within the US government plotting a coup against the President and his cabinet, and the various plot twists that advance the plot along, make it look plausible and tie up all loose ends. Surprisingly the plot and the ideas and issues associated with it resonate with modern conspiracy theories about the possibility that a secret government might exist within the nominal US government and the episode feels very fresh and contemporary.

The Wild, Wild West (Season 1, Episode 1: The Night of the Inferno): a cautious start to a classic TV series

Richard C Sarafian, “The Wild, Wild West (Season 1, Episode 1: The Night of the Inferno)” (1965)

With the Civil War over and the period of Reconstruction begun in the South, there is unrest aplenty in the western and southwestern territories of the United States and President Grant needs a man to go undercover and help bring order to these lands and their peoples. Enter one Jim West (Robert Conrad), brought to Grant in disguise as a renegade prisoner, and entrusted with a mission to seek and apprehend a Mexican revolutionary Juan Manolo in Texas. Travelling by private train given him by Grant and enlisting the help of Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin), Jim meets a Chinese informant Wing Fat (Victor Buono) who introduces him to Lydia (Suzanne Pleshette), who turns out to be an old flame of Jim’s.

Gordon and West discover that Manolo is keeping gunpowder in barrels supposed to contain wine in the cellar of Lydia’s mansion. After going their separate ways, West is later captured by some of Manolo’s men and imprisoned with Lydia. West engineers an escape, rejoins Gordon and together they capture the man who they think is Manolo. West takes the man back to his train where he is ambushed by the real Manolo who has been disguised as Wing Fat all along.

There follows a billiards game during which West tries to buy time while Gordon and Lydia, having arrived at the train, battle Manolo’s men. Both agents quickly despatch the baddies and with Lydia ride off into the night on the train. All quite mundane really: but this episode was a pilot episode for the series so it erred on the side of caution.

The episode liberally borrows from the James Bond movie series and the tropes borrowed become part of the show’s regular props: the character of James West himself, a suave undercover agent who’s cool, calm and very collected in even the most dire and dangerous situations; a femme fatale who’s attracted to West but can’t always be trusted; eccentric villains; bizarre plots and plot devices such as the billiards game; and strange settings (a train as a secret hide-out?!) among others. An original touch is the character of Artemus Gordon who’s a dab hand at ventriloquy and outlandish disguises which come in handy in every episode. Conrad plays West as a straight, fairly colourless character, foil to the real star Martin who imbues Gordon with a distinctive cheerfulness and zest: no matter how far-out the disguise is, Martin’s Gordon pulls it off comfortably in a way that treads a fine balance between plausible (and not so plausible) camp and seriousness.

Victor Buono brings flamboyant flair to the episode as the disguised Manolo, enlivening an otherwise run-of-the-mill story-line. America in the mid-1960s being a relatively innocent time, the producers dared to push the boundaries of what was acceptable to American TV audiences by portraying a Chinese character relatively sympathetically and then deconstructing it: in this way, the show called attention to racist stereotyping and the Hollywood tendency at the time to cast white people in roles of non-whites. (The series was unusual for its time in hiring non-white actors to play minor and sometimes major characters, to reflect the reality of the period in which it’s set.) The plot about a Mexican revolutionary thirsting for the return of US territory to his motherland soon after the end of the Civil War and the beginning of Reconstruction might say something about how fluid territories and identities can be at a time when the civil rights movement was in progress and people generally were hit with the notion that what they considered “normal” was really unjust and degrading to people who through no fault of their own were born as social and economic inferiors.

The series was also pushing the portrayal of women just a little: women were no longer helpless but were as capable of throwing bombs or acting off their own bat. Still, compared to the British TV spy series “The Avengers”, “The Wild, Wild West” had a long way (literally and figuratively) to go.

And last but not least – why the Western setting? It provides a comfortable arena for a TV series to comment on and deconstruct familiar stereotypes about American society and history, past and present, and to present an alternate view of how America might or could have evolved. The Western genre had become tired and stale and was in need of a fresh approach in both TV and movies: shows like “The Wild, Wild West” by throwing and blending together the spy and Western genres breathed new life and eccentricity into both genres. Future episodes would feature science fiction and horror elements. Plus it’s just fun to think that “The Wild, Wild West” anticipates sci-fi steampunk about 20 years before William Gibson introduced the world to cyberpunk and all that followed in his 1985 novel “Neuromancer”!

Somehow it’s ironic that I’ve started watching this series at a time when American society in particular and Western society across the world generally seem to be retreating into identity politics and a crisis of confidence in its institutions, values and ideologies. West and Gordon might have been backing the “wrong” side as we moderns see it but whose side is really “wrong”?

The Wild, Wild West (Season 2, Episode 17: Night of the Feathered Fury): well balanced between serious drama and tongue-in-cheek fantasy

Robert Sparr, “The Wild, Wild West (Season 2, Episode 17: Night of the Feathered Fury)” (1967)

In this episode, the two US government agents Jim West (Robert Conrad) and Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin) meet the diabolical master-mind magician Count Manzeppi (Victor Buono) who is seeking a toy bird that his assistant Gerda Scharr (Michele Carey) has stolen from him. Gordon has already stashed the bird in a locked safe after finding it abandoned in a building that Gerda had recently fled. Both West and Gordon are puzzled as to why Manzeppi and Gerda want the bird so desperately that they’re prepared to kill for it. West and Gordon subject the toy to various tests and find the name of the toy shop where it was made. West visits there with the toy where he watches an early form of motion picture in a box and is again introduced to Manzeppi who makes a grand entrance down from the ceiling on a crescent-shaped prop. After a fight and a chase, Manzeppi traps West in a bird-cage.

Buono over-acts magnificently as the dastardly devilish Manzeppi, particularly in the scene where he explains that inside the toy bird he seeks is the famed Philosopher’s Stone which also has the Midas touch on nearby objects when exposed to the full moon. Everyone else plays second fiddle to him though Martin’s Gordon almost steals the show in disguise as a Jewish travelling salesman. Minor characters can be quite eccentric and include a deadly Mexican dancer and an equally threatening Japanese fellow with an awfully long and vicious scythe. After a daring rescue and many fights, West and Gordon pursue Gerda who has taken the bird, only to discover that she has exposed herself and the Stone in the bird to the light of the full moon with a dire effect on her that recalls the famous murder scene in the James Bond film “Goldfinger”.

This episode treads an excellent balance between serious drama and tongue-in-cheek fantasy: it’s true that Manzeppi has too many far-out magic tricks up his sleeve that can’t be explained by science or logic to be completely credible but Buono carries off the character’s flamboyance and psychopathic villainy without a care in the world. Viewers can clearly see the actor was enjoying himself immensely in the role.  The sets for the toy shop with its labyrinth of dark passages and dead-end tunnels, and collection of sinister toys make for a magnificent backdrop for the action which ranges from all-out action-thriller Western to comedy to fantasy. There is an air of lushness and decadence to the entire episode: all the actors wear bright and lavishly decorated clothes, even for fighting – and that’s just the men alone! The coda to the story suits it well as West and Gordon voice a hope that one day Gerda could be restored to human form but the toy bird ends up in the ownership of someone who is completely unaware of the bird’s power.

Perhaps the silliest part of the whole episode is that something as mystical and dangerously powerful as the Philosopher’s Stone could be housed in a toy chicken of all things … no wonder in an early scene Martin is struggling not to laugh as Gordon and West face down a couple of villains.

The Wild, Wild West (Season 3, Episode 2: Night of the Firebrand): insubstantial plot wastes a good cast and some good ideas

Michael Caffey, “The Wild, Wild West (Season 3, Episode 2: Night of the Firebrand)” (1967)

In this episode, government agents Jim West (Robert Conrad) and Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin) travel to the Oregon Territory to stop an insurrection fomented by outlaw Sean O’Reilly in Canada. Going their separate ways at first, West goes to Fort Savage to meet a Major Jason – and discovers the fort’s been taken over by O’Reilly (Pernell Roberts), aided by a comely lass Sheila O’Shaughnessy (Lana Wood, the younger sister of Natalie Wood). Despite O’Reilly’s best efforts to kill West, the agent escapes and continues on. Likewise Gordon meets a few colourful characters and despatches them to join up with West.

The episode is very slow to reach its centrepiece which comes about halfway through when West steals a Conestoga wagon, kidnaps Sheila from O’Reilly by making her comatose first and then high-tailing all the way from Oregon back to Fort Savage. This part of the film becomes a running gag: West and Gordon keep losing the wagon for some reason and Sheila keeps reviving only to be made comatose again … and again. The climax is an all-out catfight in which West faces down O’Reilly and a horde of henchmen; West however saves the day with a stack of dynamite which he throws one by one, eerily simulating a 20th century bombing raid. Eventually he has to get his hands dirty going mano a mano with O’Reilly and, well … no prizes for guessing who goes tumbling over a cliff.

I thought this would be a half-decent episode but it’s turned out to be a lot of fluff: the story is too insubstantial to sustain nearly 60 minutes of viewing-time. That’s a pity as some fine guest actors, notably Roberts and the horse playing West’s mount, appear: Roberts himself dominates the cast whenever the camera focuses on him. Conrad plays his usual all-American hero self who extricates himself from an apparently cast-iron deadly fate that Houdini himself would have gasped at, and Martin rises to the occasion of impersonating a French-Canadian diplomat and an ornery coonsman out of the backwoods. The story could have been beefed up a lot more by depicting the relationship between O’Reilly and Sheila as more complex than it is: Sheila the idealistic and starry-eyed proto-socialist following the more cynical O’Reilly who pretends to fight for the cause of the common man but who’s prepared to throw the girl to the wolves and take the money and run when it suits. The budding romance between West and Sheila is unconvincing: viewers know that in the next episode there’ll be another femme fatale waiting for him.

Although some ingenious fighting weapons are at hand for both West and Ward, the episode as a whole features few futuristic ideas and concepts. Aerial bombing as a form of warfare is the main futuristic technological idea here and a world in which ideologies favouring either the wealthy or the poor are at loggerheads is prefigured also. Historical accuracy was apparently a bit sloppy: in an early scene, a van passes through the forest in the far distant background.

Like many tongue-in-cheek TV drama series of its time, episodes of “The Wild, Wild West” usually feature so-called tag ends which comment on or parody the action that’s just concluded: in this respect, this series’ tag ends seem a lot less cute and more humorous than the ones for “The Avengers” (Season 5) which would have been screening in the same year.

The Avengers (Season 5, Episode 10: Never Never Say Die): under-cooked plot fails its cast and ideas

Robert Day, “The Avengers (Season 5, Episode 10: Never, Never Say Die)” (1967)

Now this is the episode that should have been the Return of the Cybernauts and not that other wishy-washy episode featuring just the one robot and a lot of mind control. Christopher Lee as both Professor Frank N Stone (chortle) and his robot duplicate are a fine team, even if very under-utilised in two roles that send up his Hammer Horror film career playing Count Dracula, the Mummy and Frankenstein. One fine day the robot duplicate is wandering the countryside and is hit twice about two hours apart by the same car driver. The horrified driver reports to the nearby hospital and Steed (Patrick Macnee) and trusty sidekick Peel (Diana Rigg) are quickly called onto spy duties. Peel finds a clue left behind at one of the accident scenes and this leads them to the Ministry of Technology – Neoteric Research Unit, a secret government facility engaged in work of the usual dubious sort that wastes taxpayer money. Steed narrowly escapes being chopped down to size in a country house and Peel visits an eccentric radio ham operator playing chess games with several people around the world to get information about the government unit. The two agents’ paths bring them to the unit’s headquarters where they are informed by the pack of mad scientists there that the unit is creating robots that look exactly like real human individuals, sharing their thought processes and memories, but indestructible and possessed of superior intelligence.

The quest for immortality, scientific arrogance and doppelgänger robots with minds of their own conspiring to rule the world by deliberately impersonating real people full-time are the main themes that are played for satire and to express people’s fears that one day science will run riot and regular folks might be replaced by clones or robots. Eventually the robots themselves will decide to replace the thinkers, creators and leaders of society with their kind and humans will have become completely redundant. The satirical aspect is made blindingly obvious in the episode’s coda and in the scientists’ plans to replace some visiting politicians with their duplicates. Amusingly, one of the radio ham operator’s chess opponents is an American lady whose face and hair are never seen but whose arms and legs are long enough that we suspect she might be Peel’s long-lost identical twin! Let’s hope the lady never meets Steed! The one weakness of the robots is that their neural wiring is affected by transistor radios operating at a certain frequency and this is exploited in a long scene, harking back to scenes in old Frankenstein films where the monster meets a little girl beside a lake, where Lee’s robot attempts to kill an enthusiastic old gent playing with his remote-control boat but can’t because the old fella’s radio is interfering with the robot’s functions; thus the boat’s circular movements on the pond are replicated in Lee’s movements around the field behind the man who is completely unaware of the robot.

Much of the first half-hour of the episode is wasted with the robot Frank N Stone, Steed and Peel literally given the run-around such as the one just described above. Fortunately the episode starts to speed up once Peel is captured and imprisoned by the scientists.  For a change, the climactic fight ends differently with a minor character Dr James (Patricia English) coming to the spies’ rescue in the nick of time.

To this viewer, Lee is wasted in this episode which obsesses over his previous Hammer horror film roles in the way he stumbles around early on and later when he is lying still on a bed, his eyelids just flickering: he’d have been better off in a role trying to seduce and ravish Peel with the force and elegance of his personality and good looks … and succeeding! Apart from this, the acting of everyone in the episode is adequate for the job at hand. Unfortunately the plot appears under-cooked to address the themes adequately and the idea of robots taking over the world seems to have been incorporated into the story as a second thought.

 

The Avengers (Season 5, Episode 23: Murdersville): good episode with suspense, tension and some horror

Robert Asher, “The Avengers (Season 5, Episode 23: Murdersville)” (1967)

Major Paul Croft (Eric Flynn) has retired from the army and bought a mansion on the edge of the village Little-Storping-on-the-Swuff, an idyllic little place with a pond, so his childhood friend Emma Peel (Diana Rigg) offers to drive him there where his valet Forbes (Norman Chappell) should be unloading the furniture from the car and moving it inside. On arrival, the two discover a lot of smashed crockery in the driveway. Croft assumes Forbes is down at the pub dead drunk so he runs off to the village while Peel snoops about and discovers Forbes dead near a log. Someone whacks her from behind and when she wakes up in a doctor’s surgery, she is told she crashed her car. Unconvinced, she tries calling for the police to report Forbes’s death but when the sergeant arrives, takes down the details and drives off, she sees he is not dressed in full regulation uniform.

Peel attempts to escape and accidentally discovers the bodies of Croft and Forbes in the doctor’s spare room. Earlier, Forbes had been killed by two men who were supposed to help him move the furniture, then laid next to the log and later moved to the doctor’s surgery. Croft, on arriving at the village, stumbles into the village library and sees a businessman kill another. For being a witness to a crime, he is also killed. Furious and upset, Peel beats up the doctor and almost brains him with a telephone. She tries to escape the village but after running through fields, is captured and imprisoned in the village museum where she meets four prisoners who inform her that the entire village, at one time on the verge of dying out due to lack of money, is now in the business of killing people on behalf of crooks who pay them loads of dosh to do so and hushing up witnesses, with Forbes and Croft the latest victims.

Subjected to waterboarding on a dunking stool, Peel is forced to tell the villagers that her husband will miss her so they frog-march her to a telephone to phone him. She phones Steed (Patrick Macnee) instead and gives him a heavily coded message that she is in trouble. Satisfied, the villagers imprison her again, planning to take her out to sea in a helicopter where she will be dumped. Steed however turns up in the nick of time, releases Peel and the other prisoners, and together he and Peel put a stop to the villagers’ extortion racket with a custard-pie fight.

The plot is played for laughs, the acting is unremarkable and the ending deeply unsatisfactory – Steed and Peel waltz off to yet another party when they should have been attending the funerals of Croft and Forbes, and Steed wiping tears from Peel’s eyes – but there are some dark undercurrents to what is basically a satire on the provincial and narrow mind-set of small-town people. In some ways, the message that gets through the fluff is still a timely one: when a community is desperate due to the local economy drying up, and someone comes along promising a cornucopia of riches, without the necessary information they need to check out the offer the people may sell themselves to the Mephistophelean benefactor, unaware they have entered a Faustian pact that imprisons them forever to greed. In this way might gangs create their territory and continue to extort payment from the people under their “charge”, and petty vendettas begin between and among rival groups and factions within a community. The plot-line strikes me as cruel to working people caught between continuing poverty and joining in communal crime and murder, but even in TV and movies life isn’t always fair. The whole thing might have worked better if the village had been reworked into a modern-day estate where the landlord has been replaced by a crook and all the tenants choose to work for the crook to save their jobs – but if Steed and Peel free them and help them to rebel against the landlord, that would be too, er, socialistic.

Overall the episode is enjoyable with plenty of suspense, tension and a moment of horror when Peel is dunked in the pond but the silly pie fight is anti-climactic and detracts from the plot. This could almost have been a Hitchcockian piece along the lines of “Psycho” and I’m rather sad the producers threw that opportunity away.