Space 1999 ‘War Games’
The show at its best as Alpha is almost completely destroyed with half its crew lost, in a remarkable fusion of special effects mayhem (including a giant battleship sliding over the top of the camera a good three years before Star Wars did the same thing) and metaphysical ideas about man’s right simply to exist in a beautiful yet cold and unforgiving universe. At times the production values feel almost overwhelming – especially if you’re watching on a really big screen – and once Koenig and Russell get to the planet (one of Brian Johnson’s most vividly realised creations) the callous attitude of the aliens they encounter slyly gives way to the real point of the story about humans unable to overcome their own innate instincts. This could be, as critics often charged, far too pessimistic a view, but the episode strikingly turns this around in a heartfelt speech from Russell (Barbara Bain really acting her socks off here) as she unapologetically declares “We are what we are!”, even if that recognition means the destruction of the aliens paradisiacal home. The reason behind all this carnage is carefully set up in the aliens (Isla Blair and Anthony Valentine) exchanges with Helena and not at all the deus ex machina plot device it’s sometimes ignorantly accused of being. Great stuff, with some unforgettable images – Eagles blown apart on launch pads, Alphans sucked out into space, our first view of the alien landscape, Koenig drifting in space (including a striking moment where the camera tracks Koenig’s hand as he reaches out having seemingly heard Helena’s voice) and a lyrical – practically poetic – final scene that’s as far from the hard driving action of the first act as you could imagine and yet totally works. Victor gets to deliver a touching Alpha memorial speech, Alan Carter performs heroics and there’s pretty much something here for everyone. A great episode.
Danger Man – ‘The Mirror’s New’
Drake in France investigating a murderous English diplomat (Donald Houston) in an episode that’s pretty much perfect from start to finish. Houston is spot on casting as the seemingly dull and square civil servant whose dutiful demeanour conceals a seriously wild side (amusingly, we’re told he’s been corrupted by the Continental lifestyle!), McGoohan is dynamic as always and posing as an unlucky encyclopedia salesman gets a lovely scene to play with a game Wanda Ventham that’s a hoot. The clever script gives Houston’s character a bump on the head early on causing him to lose a day without realising and this element shakes up to splendid effect what might otherwise be an all too predictable plot. Michael Truman is the credited director and he really makes this look like a little feature film. Highlights include Drake insisting that his quarry explain just what he won his medals for in the war, a marvellously played bit of cat and mouse-ery between hero and villain in which the latter gradually realises the game is up. Some great lines too, especially Paddy’s snarling observation on a couple of hoods, “Those two look like they’re waiting for someone to drop dead so they can eat”! Terrific stuff which I thoroughly enjoyed and bonus points for the ingenious use of Ravel’s Bolero.
Danger Man ‘The Man With The Foot’
Drake takes a holiday in Spain after an assignment goes wrong. An amusing shaggy foot story as Robert Urquhart’s informer-for-the-opposition spots Drake and his hunting rifle and comes to entirely the wrong conclusion about his motives. Urquhart (looking here like Eric Morecambe’s brother) is very funny indeed as the hapless ‘tec – constantly putting his foot into puddles (one of the story’s neatest gags is that this is Spain in the off season) and thinking he’s going about unobserved when Drake has him clocked from about a mile away. It’s a shame he and McGoohan don’t have more scenes together but the story’s the thing and it’s a mark of the talent both in front of and behind the camera that despite being about nothing very much this is all highly entertaining from start to finish. Great guest cast too with Bernard Lee and Isobel Black joining in the fun. And this is one of the few live action ITC shows with a genuinely feature film look about it. The production values and general care and attention all look notably higher and more polished than the average ITC lark not least a climactic car chase shot in freezing winter conditions that looks really good. To take a crew out in conditions like that and get those shots just shows what a first class team they had on this series.
I’ve been watching a few of these so this deserves an intro of its own. I think Joe 90 has been severely underrated over the years and watching these episodes in such amazing clarity courtesy of Network’s BR releases makes you realise first just how well made – how detailed – the sets were. It’s a joy to look at, frankly. And secondly, the scripts – for a puppet/children’s show – are really quite sophisticated. An episode like ‘Three’s A Crowd’ – which is all about the characters and their relationships with each other – is sharply observed for kid’s fare. Not patronising or condescending in the least. The voice acting too is as good as it gets. Because the puppets are no longer caricatures the actors don’t have to supply the kind of exaggerated delivery to match which defined Stingray and Thunderbirds. I’m always pleasantly surprised at how genuinely touching some of the exchanges between Mac and Joe can be – or how devious and manipulative Shane and Sam prove when they’re trying to con Mac into letting Joe go off on some incredibly dangerous assignment. I also love the essential cleverness of the format; this idea that because Joe’s a 9 year old kid none of his adversaries are going to take him seriously. They use that getout a lot in the scripts but it never really gets old and the stuff in the first episode with that Russian guard being laughed at as he informs his boss that a 9 old kid’s just made off with their country’s high-tech fighter is great. The other attraction for me is the laid back approach to all the technology. They don’t make a big fuss about Mac’s flying car or even the Big RAT. It’s a refreshing contrast to Thunderbirds and Scarlet and the cosy feel of the show – this inventor and his adopted son in this cosy cottage in the depths of the English countryside – there’s something very charming about that. I think the show’s one of the best things Gerry and Sylvia Anderson ever did. It’s so nice to see the show getting its due with these beautiful HD restorations.
Joe 90 ‘International Concerto’
Not only a lovely showcase for Barry Gray’s music – seriously, how good is that Cook’s tour sequence as Gray takes the national anthems of a half dozen countries and weaves them into a patchwork quilt symphony as we follow pianist/spy Igor Sladek (great name, that!)around the world – but also a cracking script. Sladek ends up nabbed by the bad guys on the eve of his final concert performance but allowed to go ahead before being carted off to the gulag because the studio he’s giving the performance in is ringed by guards and the building’s completely sealed off. He can’t possibly escape in the middle of a live concert performance – or can he? The central conceit of the script – that no one can play quite like Igor Sladek – leads to an ingenious climax as the pint sized Joe, having received Sladek’s brain patterns, is smuggled in to take his place. One of the funniest moments is Joe, having received the brain patterns of Sladek, taking over the piano from Igor as the Colonel, listening outside and completely unaware of the switch, declares of Sladek’s performance, “Inimitable!”
Joe 90 ‘Breakout’
Another good one and a Mac and Joe standalone with Sam and Shane nowhere in sight. I’m very fond of this, partly out of nostalgia, as it was one of the earliest episodes I taped on VHS back in 1983, but mainly because it’s a story that holds up. This has the pair on vacation at a fort in the Canadian Rockies when a couple of escaped convicts ambush the President’s train and hold him to ransom on a rapidly crumbling bridge. Like ‘Double Agent’ it has a harder edge along with humour. That the action is all taking place in the snow also gives the miniature sets – for me anyway – an especially charming quality. The miniature cannon and the monorail train zipping through the snow look terrific and Joe’s confrontation with the baddie who refuses to believe the gadgets in his WIN briefcase are anything other than kid’s toys is all too plausible. Something else I’m noticing is just how fluid and accomplished the puppetry is in Joe 90. The way the puppets seem to mimic human reactions with their movements is a huge step forward over Captain Scarlet. Combine that with the excellent, naturalistic voice acting and it’s surprising how involved you find yourself getting. As with all the other episodes Jonathan Wood’s restoration work is magnificent and I kept noticing little details – such as one of Joe’s bullets cracking the glass on the copter behind the baddie during the final shootout – I’d never picked up on before.
Joe 90 ‘Double Agent’
Which could just as easily have been titled ‘Let’s Kill Everybody!’ and definitely one of the best stories Tony Barwick ever wrote. There’s a traitor in the ranks, Joe’s got the brain pattern of WIN’s top courier and a briefcase full of top secrets that’ll explode if anybody tries to open it and an itinerary. There’s just one problem – Joe isn’t going where he’s supposed to be going. Pretty soon Mac’s at his wits end and the accusations begin to fly amongst the team. Are Shane and Sam conning Mac because the mission’s so dangerous they won’t tell him the truth? But from WIN’s perspective maybe it’s Mac trying to sabotage the mission so they’ll stop pestering him to use Joe. There’s intrigue and mystery but the heart of the story is this character conflict between Mac and WIN over little Joe. The truth of course turns out to be something else again and a shootout at the end climaxes in a delightfully brutal payoff. Great fun and again quite hard edged. If you contrast this with something like ‘Relative Danger’ – which was this rather sweet little family tale – you can see the sort of variety of stories the format allowed. Speaking of which…
Joe 90, ‘Lone Handed 90’
Joe falls asleep while watching a western and dreams of himself as the sheriff of Joesville doing battle with the infamous WIN gang. A total charmer and one of the highlights of the series. It’s not just that the episode has such fun riffing on the clichés of the western (a bank robbery, saloon bar shootout, jailbreak, a train chase) but the modelwork is of such exceptional quality throughout that it’s just a joy to look at. Sam, Shane and Mac are a hoot as the bickering villains and Joe is amusingly unflappable as the pint sized hero. The saloon bar scene – in which a shootout erupts after Shane guns down Joe’s glass of milk – is so well done you can almost forget you’re watching puppets. Barry Gray’s western style rearrangement of the Joe 90 theme is a charmer and there are some nice in jokes of which barmaid Sylvia’s “Keep it going, Gerry!” is the obvious – but not the only – one.