I warned you about this some time ago, and now the disaster is almost upon us: the BBC’s Classic Sitcoms season, starts on Saturday and runs through the Bank Holiday weekend and into the next fortnight. Do not even think of staying in this weekend, do not switch on your TV set or, if you absolutely must, avoid BBC1 as you value your values and any sense of decency in your life.
Herewith a link to the Guardian‘s summary of what is to come. As you will see, a half dozen unsuspecting sitcoms are to be ravished unmercifully. These include absolute legends like ‘Hancock’s Half Hour’, ‘Steptoe and Son’, ‘Till Death us do Part’ and ‘Porridge’, the popular ‘Keeping Up Appearances’ and that pile of steaming old tosh that nevertheless doesn’t deserve it, ‘Are You Being Served?’
Of the sextet, the first three are being remade. Selected scripts have been marginally updated and will be performed by actors prostituting their talent by attempting to impersonate the original stars, looking as much like them as they possible can. Of course, the ‘Till Death’ script has had to be carefully selected to avoid the very satirical purpose of the entire series; in this benighted age you cannot satirise the ignorance of racists unless you can do so whilst not sounding like a racist in the slightest.
Something similar applies to ‘Are You Being Served?’, although that is being honoured with a new, pastiche script, to go with the pastiche acting. A black character is to be inserted but there will not, of course, be anything remotely like the kind of gag the show’s creators, the late Jeremy Lloyd and David Croft, would have written when the programme was current.
‘Keeping Up Appearances’ has fared the best of all, by not actually being revived. At least a degree of sanity has prevailed in recognising that it is impossible to duplicate Patricia Routledge. Instead, we will have ‘Young Hyacinth’, a flashback tale of the future Mrs Bucket’s teenage years, setting her snobbery against her lower class family background, starring a much maltreated young actress who will be strait-jacketed into trying to duplicate all Miss Routledge’s mannerisms.
The only one in which I have the remotest interest is ‘Porridge’, which is the only one with the courage to update the story, whilst retaining the situation. Dick Clement and Ian La Fresnais are on hand to tell the story of Nigel Norman Fletcher, grandson of the magnificent Fletch who, like Lennie Godber and the unfortunate Richard Beckinsale, remains alive in the backstory of this latest chip off the old block.
It’s the only one of the sextet to show signs of facing the new era, and it’s therefore the only one of these artistic and comedic abortions to stand the remotest chance of being watchable or even, dare I dream it? Funny.
The big danger, as with the wretched ‘Still Open All Hours’, is that one or more of these one-offs will attract enough of an audience to tempt the BBC to order a series. So do everyone a favour, switch off your TVs, do not add so much as an eyeball to the audience of any of these, help avert the further degradation of British TV, that believes that the capturing of lightning in a bottle can be repeated by bringing back comedies that were successful representations of their times, and asking invariably lesser men and women to copy towering talents.
I can’t say I didn’t expect an immediate return to an essentially trivial story – it was about Quark, he’s not there for the serious stuff – though there were elements about this episode that demonstrated that Deep Space Nine wasn’t going to immediately run away from what it had started over the last three episodes.
What was good was that the effect of the Dominion threat carried over in continuity. Quark’s bar is virtually empty due to the lack of people coming to the station whilst it’s under threat, and Keiko O’Brien has shut the station school down because the only pupils she has left are Jake and Nog.
That latter is the subplot, which I personally found more interesting, and certainly more serious than Quark’s shenanigans at the front of the house.
Let me explain, as briefly as I can. The last customer left in the bar is a drunken, penniless Klingon named Kovak, who pulls a knife on Quark, but who is too drunk to stand and falls on his own knife, killing himself. Quark, seeing notoriety as a way of attracting morbid – but money-spending – customers, claims to have killed Koval in self-defence, in personal combat. Kovak, it transpires, was Head of a Klingon House.
Shortly after, Quark is ambushed by D’Gor, Kovak’s brother. He quickly scares the truth out of Quark but insists he maintain the lie since it is important that Kovak should have died an honourable death. Quark’s next visitor is Grilka, Kovak’s widow. She also learns the truth, but she knocks him out and kidnaps him back to Kronos, where the first thing she does once Quark is revived is to marry him.
This move is to try to preserve the House’s existence. Kovak left no male heir and, under Klingon custom, the House is to be dissolved. Were there ‘unusual circumstances’, a special dispensation might be obtained from the Council to allow Grilka to lead the House, but an honourable death in personal combat.
Should the House be dissolved, its lands, properties etc. shall go to Kovak’s brother, D’Gor, who has been a sworn enemy for many years and is the House’s principal creditor, Kovak having been a wastrel. By marrying Kovak’s killer, Grilka can save the House, even if it has to be led by a short, cowardly, stinking Ferenghi. It becomes the House of Quark.
D’Gor then throws a spanner into the wors by producing the only witness to the truth of Kovak’s death, Quark’s brother, Rom.
Our comic relief Ferenghi does have some talents however, especially when it comes to money, and it doesn’t take long to establish that D’Gor has been waging a most UnKlingon-like economic war of the House of Kovak, essentially defrauding it into its current parlous state. Unfortunately, he can’t get the Council to see this and the accusation enables D’Gor to challenge Quark to personal combat.
Needless to say, Quark wishes to have it away upon his toes in dead of night, and Grilka contemptuously washes her hands of him. Nevertheless, he turns up on time, complete with ba’tleth. It’s Quark’s story, he’s going to be the hero of it, what do you expect? But what he does is to throw his weapon away and offer himself defencelessly to D’Rog. It won’t be a duel, but an execution, a ridiculously one-sided personal combat rendered completely without honour by Quark taking the gamble of stripping it down to what it truly is. It’s not D’Gor but the Council that he’s out to con, and when D’Gor takes the bait and raises his ba’tleth, the Council rises in disgust at it, and he is ostracised.
Chancellor Gowron recognises the ‘unusual circumstances’ and gives the House to Grilka, who promptly thanks Quark by giving him his requested divorce – and a serious snog as soon as he’s no longer her husband, a sight I shall be spending much of the next week trying to scrub from my mind. Actually, she did kiss him as the conclusion to the wedding ceremony, but she did spit rather disgustedly after doing to, which made it a lot more acceptable.
In and of itself, the story was an interesting one, especially for its revelation of Klingon social customs and mores, and Quark’s method of overcoming D’Gor was both ingenious and entirely logical, but – and this is my problem, not yours – come on, I mean, it’s Quark.
I don’t dislike Quark, but I do find him excessive. He’s a comic relief character who, at any given time, exists at a forty-five degree angle to everything about him. Because Armin Shimerman is in the cast, Quark is continually wedged into stories that have nothing to do with him, and to which he cannot contribute anything except a derailment of the plot. That means that putting him at the centre of a story that’s meant to be in any way serious gives the story a mountain to climb to gain any credibility. Quark is a silly and trivial character who makes everything around him silly and trivial by association.
Much more important to me was the subplot. Keiko had closed the school down due to circumstances beyond her control, which left her with nothing to do and feeling that intently. She was putting a very brace face on it, but Miles O’Brien knew, and it hurt him deeply that the woman he loved was unhappy.
Everyone sympathised and there were some good and decent lines that I took to heart, the more so for their being kept very simple, but I was unhappy with the solution,which was to send Keiko back to her profession/vocation as a botanist, on a Bajoran expedition that would be away for six months. So that’s the last we’ll see of Rosalind Chao this season.
It seemed like a counter-intuitive approach to resolving an issue that had the potential to undermine an otherwise very happy marriage – and the Chief is the only member of the cast who is married, or who is in a relationship at all (I am not counting Major Kira’s occasional shags with Vedek Bariel unless and until we learn that last season’s escapade hasn’t hindered their sexual relationship). Instead of a solution, it seemed more like a cheap way of writing out a character they had no real idea how to serve.
Still, considering the episode as a whole, it was well-constructed and performed, and Mary Kay Adams gave it plenty of wellie as Grilka, but it was the evidence that the incipient Dominion War was going to have an ongoing effect that I most welcomed. May this continue.
Speaking as an Arthur Ransome fan and a Lake District buff, I have to say that this was nearly a very good film. And in large part, being the parts that were derived directly from the book, this was close to being an excellent adaptation. Those bits where the film dipped below its generally high standard were, naturally, when the absurd Russian spy plot was allowed to intrude, which included the out-of-whole-cloth all-action ending. It was decently done for what it was, and could have been very much worse, but what it represented was a lack of faith on the part of the Producers in the film that they felt it couldn’t perform without adding so uncharacteristic and ill-fitting a story.
We’re going to have to deal with that part of the film eventually, but first let’s look at what did go nearly all right, and this was the Walker family, and especially the Swallows. Dane Hughes, Orla Hill, Teddie-Rose Malleson-Allen and Bobby McCulloch play John, Susan, Tatty and Roger respectively, and they are all completely convincing in their parts, but little Bobby McCulloch especially deserves praise for being perfect in every moment.
All the Swallows are written to their personas in the book, though changes have been made to the two elder siblings. Susan simply cannot, in 2016, be portrayed as the impossibly domestic, docile mother-substitute she is in the books, but by representing her gently-increased aggressiveness as a form of sibling rivalry with her dominating elder brother, a more modern female emerges without doing damage.
If anyone is shown to be out of character, it is Captain John. In the books, he is a natural leader, already a decent sailor, a totally trustworthy and honest boy. As might be expected from one of two of Ransome’s personae in the series: Captain Flint, balding, perspiring, fixed on writing his book, is Ransome in real life – that’s not ‘Mixed Moss’ that Jim Tyrner is working on, it’s ‘Swallows and Amazons’ – whereas John, a substitute for a real life elder sister, is the boy Ransome, bringing himself into the book to join in the games as the boy he was never allowed to be.
John Walker in the film is not a paragon. He accidentally breaks a window on the houseboat but doesn’t admit to it, he’s not as good a sailor, as Susan getting a crack on the head from the boom, and the loss of all their food demonstrates, and he has a tendency to blame his sister for whatever goes wrong.
I can understand, if I don’t welcome, the change, and this bleeds into the spy plot in due course. It alters the family dynamic to a degree, but not so much as to radically change the story, which is anchored in the utter naturalness of the younger pair and cannot escape being grounded as a children’s holiday, and a children’s adventure.
As in the book, the Amazons don’t come into the story until almost halfway through, though in the film, they appear out of nowhere, unforeshadowed. Surprisingly, the Blackett sisters have a distinctly minor role in the film, even though they are Jim Turner’s nieces. Hannah Jayne Thorp is very good as Peggy, though she’s a bit more assertive against her elder sister than is written, but the true disappointment is Captain Nancy: Seren Hawkes is simply not up to the standard of her fellow junior actors and actresses, being wooden in speech and personality whereas Captain Nancy has to be tomboy-forceful and bursting with life. I suspect this, more than anything else, is what reduces the Amazons’ role.
And she speaks with a strange, unplaceable accent that comes closer to Yorkshire than anything else. This is the place to make a few points about the film in general. The Walkers are southerners and speak as such: the film starts with their train journey from Portsmouth to Cumberland.
Now the Blackett girls are nearly as middle-class as the walkers in the book, but if the ‘Lake’ has been identified as being in Cumberland, then surely the locals, if not the Amazons, should betray a Cumberland drawl in their speech. (If we’re being technical, as Ransome’s ‘Lake’ was a composite of Coniston Water with the middle of Windermere inserted, the accent should strictly be a blend of Westmorland and Furness Lanacstrian). Harry Enfield and Jessica Hynes, as the Jacksons, are generic northerner, as in every other local in the film.
But authenticity is out for the afternoon. Mrs Walker’s accent has been shifted from Australian to Scottish for no apparent reason other than (presumably) to accommodate Kelly Macdonald whilst even Ransome’s map of the ‘Lake’, originally designed by Clifford Baker, has been totally transformed, with all the salient locations shuffled around. It’s not as if they’ve been redesigned to accommodate the actual lake being used for 99% of the sailing shots: this is Derwent Water (ironically, a genuinely Cumbrian lake).
Though the actual Lake on which ‘Swallow’ and ‘Amazon’ sail is Derwent Water, except for the few brief scenes of Jim Turner’s houseboat, which are, ironically, on Coniston Water, I shalln’t kick up a fuss: the filming is gorgeous and any film that allows itself that many spectacularly sunlit shots of the Jaws of Borrowdale, and the fells surrounding the Lake will get no complaints from me.
Though I was intrigued by the first shot of the ‘Lake’, a narrow, winding body of water with a single island in it, which corresponds to neither Coniston nor Derwent (nor even Windermere). I could not place it.
I suppose we are going to have to deal with the spy bit, or Rafe Spall and Andrew Scott won’t get to be mentioned. If it had to be done, it was at least cleverly done and integrated well into the story. Instead of Jim Turner being a kind of black sheep who’s knocked around the world and is now writing his memoirs, the Producers have borrowed the confirmation that Arthur Ransome himself was, in one degree or another, a British Agent feeding information during the Russian Revolution, and converted Turner into an active British spy, who has smuggled vital information out of Russia which, instead of taking to his superiors at MI-pick-a-number, he’s concealed on his remote houseboat in the Lake District (maybe this isn’t so well done after all).
But Turner – a decent if unspectacular performance from Spall – is being pursued by two Russian agents, Laslow (Andrew Scott being a very calm, cool, composed version of Andrew Scott in Sherlock) and his confederate (whose name and part I can’t find on any internet cast listing, not even imdb).
Through an entirely plausible set of circumstances, Commander Walker’s knife – entrusted to John but temporarily lent to Roger, who drops it into Flint’s boat when Laslow is searching it – John is blamed for the vandalisation of the houseboat and the theft of Mr Turner’s papers. His previous lack of candour tells against him and he, and the rest of the Swallows are banned from the Lake and returned to Jackson’s farm.
Where the children put all their several bits of info, work out that the Russians are holding Captain Flint prisoner on their island. So, in complete defiance of their banning, they steal ‘Swallow’ and join up with the Amazons to rescue him. John, having taken Turner’s service revolver, attempts to hold Laslow at gunpoint but is incapable of firing, especially as Turner is urging him to lower the gun.
So it all comes down to the big action ending, which, though well-made, is utterly stupid. By stringing a rope between both prows, the two little boats try to stop the seaplane from taking off by getting the rope across the floats. It’s a kids notion, and it’s doomed to disaster: both boats end up having to cut the rope to avoid being dragged into the Lake by the greater force of the seaplane.
Still, it buys Turner time to gnaw his way through his bonds (how old-fashioned) and force the plane to land, so the kids done good, the adults queue up to apologise to John, who is thus redeemed, and there’s time for a party on the houseboat and Captain Flint walking the plank in the grand manner.
That stupid ending, which really really doesn’t belong anywhere near this story, apart, most of Swallows and Amazons works with an easy and believable naturalness. There are still parts where inexplicable changes have been made – the story has been moved from 1929 to 1935 so as to drag it closer to the onset of war, despite the Russians not having anything to do with that terrible event, and the film containing no international elements at all.
And there’s a totally purposeless carnival in Rio, featuring women dressed up in Japanese costume that’s ridiculous in the extreme.
But let’s get back to Dane, Orla, Teddie-Rose and Bobby, who make this film the joy it was to watch, and on the strength of whose performances, I would dearly love to see a sequel. That depends on this being a success, and enough people holding their noses during the stupid bits, but I’d definitely sign up to watch a film adaptation of Swallowdale next.
Given that, in one form or other, I have the complete Dan Dare, hunting old Eagle‘s is about collecting the other strips, stories and features published in its long and mostly glorious history.
Naturally, the collector’s thoughts turn to the classic series, PC 49, Riders of the Range, Luck of the Legion, Storm Nelson etc. But Eagle is more still than these. Though it’s noted as a comic, like the comics of the era, it had prose stories as well.
Sometimes, these were serials/series in themselves. Peter Jay’s Three ‘J’s of Northbrook was a long-running school series, and I’ve previously mentioned both Beau Fortune and Horizon Unlimited, products of the Longacre era, the latter of which being an excellent continuing adventure.
But between the end of one and the start of the other of these two series, there were three one-off serials. The third and last of these was High Quest, about which hangs a tale I’ve already told. The first, and longest of this trio, was Johnny Quick, a twelve-part boxing serial that has its merits but, being about boxing, doesn’t grab me all that much.
Until a few months ago, I was completely unaware of Runway 13, a short serial of only seven episodes. I read it inside out, from the middle, until this week, when I secured the first and, crucially, last parts. I think it deserves a bit of attention.
The first thing I noticed about the story was a familiarity of style and subject. It’s uncredited, of course, but it’s instantly recognisable as by the same writer as Horizon Unlimited. It’s an aviation based story written by someone with a great working knowledge of planes and flying, and it has a near identical central pair, the middle-aged flying veteran and the youthful, eager lieutenant. Instead of Sam Golightly and Theo Kidd, think Rudge and Keith Hazard.
Although the title implies some sort of supernatural element, the opening chapter starts with a very brief, wholly realistic report on a plane crash, and sticks to a resolutely rational world all the way to the cliffhanger. Able Fox, a Bactrian jet owned by British Charter Airlines has crashed at Abbaq Airport, in the Nile Valley. Two of its three-man crew are dead, the pilot is seriously injured. This report sees Rudge, the company’s Chief Accident Officer, sent to investigate with his assistant of seven weeks standing, Keith Hazard.
This report may be complicated by two factors: the Bactrians are a newly-acquired and expensive fleet and Manager Eric Bayliss doesn’t want any fault in the aircraft to be found. But the Pilot, Smithson, is Rudge’s best friend of thirty years and he doesn’t want any pilot error to be found.
This is not going to be the kind of cliché story we would have been fed any time in the last forty years: Bayliss makes his wishes known, but they are preferences. Rudge is to report the truth.
Abbaq airport is just a way-station, carved out of the desert, little more than a refuelling post with a nearby town. Rudge and Hazard fly out in a converted Mosquito, arriving in time to speak to Smithson. The pilot has been fatally wounded but, knowing Rudge would investigate, he’s kept himself alive to report. He’s clear, strong, lucid and sane, which makes all the more of an impact when, after absolving the plane, the airport, the weather and the pilot, Smithson’s final words set out coldly the cause of the crash: that another pair of hands, invisible, inhuman, tore the controls away from him and sent the plane into its final dive.
Despite their source, Rudge refuses to believe this explanation. At least, he does so outwardly: Hazard is our viewpoint character for this story, we see and hear his reactions and thoughts, but we only see and hear Rudge through Hazard. Nevertheless, Rudge can’t accept the explanation. It’s superstition, and he is a man of the Twentieth Century, the Age of Machines. The explanation, when it is found, will be rational: it can’t be anything else.
It’s not the plane though, because Rudge and Hazard go over it with a fine-toothed comb and find nothing. It’s not the airport: it might be way out in the arse-end of nowhere, but it has never had an accident before. Nothing in the way of a solution is coming up. Except that Crosby, the Ground Controller, an experienced South African ex-pilot, without any knowledge of Smithson’s statement, describes the crash as looking like two pilots fighting over the controls.
And then there is the nickname: Runway 13. There aren’t thirteen runways at Abbaq. The prevailing winds are east-west, and the main runway is laid out accordingly. But maybe a dozen times a year, the wind shifts to the north, so a cross-runway was constructed. It got the nick-name of Runway 13 because of the number of accidents during its construction, vehicles going out of control, three workers killed. Smithson’s Bactrian was the first attempted landing on that runway.
Rudge is still fighting any notion of superstition being involved. But the wind’s in the north again, so he and Keith take up to Mosquito to repeat the landing, investigate the conditions. And fifty feet along the runway, another pair of hands tears the controls from Rudge and flies the Mossie towards the ground.
The effect is temporary: it only covers a short range, and because the Mosquito’s a lighter plane, Rudge can regain control and pull out of the dive. So now the cause of the crash is established. Still he resists: they know how now, but not why? What explains what just happened.
Quickly, the story piles on more and more ‘evidence’. Rudge and Keith investigate the trench caused by the Bactrian’s crash and Keith finds the entrance to a tunnel, cold, utterly black, completely creepy. It leads to a burial chamber, complete with Mummy. It is a Pharaoh’s tomb, that of Senruset (a fictional Pharaoh, from 2,600 BC, which would place him at the start of the Fourth Dynasty, in the era occupied by the real Pharaoh Sneferu), and it comes complete with Pharonic curse: upon all that disturb his eternal sleep, ‘I shall reach out my hand from my tomb to punish them’. Senruset’s tomb is directly below Runway 13.
I must be honest and admit that this is pure cliché, 100% through and through, yet I can’t deny its effect, and that’s down to our unknown writer. A similar theme underlay R. B. Maddocks’ Corrigan and the Purple Priest, which I spoke of here, but I find its use in this story considerably more effective.
This seeming degree of ‘proof’ is a facer for Rudge, but the story is quickly, and cannily diverted. The Tomb is filled with an unearthly shriek that sets the Mummy into motion, and which sends Rudge, Keith and the on hand archaeologist Kendrick running in blind panic but, in a foreshadowing of the ending, the noise is an acoustic distortion of the noise of a plane coming in to land. On Runway 13.
This becomes another crash, and three more dead despite Rudge and Keith’s attempts at a rescue. Strangely, however, this latest disaster puts fresh heart into the practical Rudge, by offering an alternate, rational explanation in the face of the mounting superstition.
Also present at Abbaq are two foreigners, a Syrian named Sulim and his shabby Greek clerk. There is a degree of period racism here, automatic rather than directed, as both are, at best, slimeballs. Sulim in particular is full of whining implications. He owns Trans-Mesop Airlines, a rival charter company that is struggling against the likes of British Charter, with its rich resources, its modern jets. If British Charter’s reputation is ruined by this, Sulim stands to profit.
And the second crash? A local sheikh, testing out using his own planes to avoid to exploitive charges of local operators. When Sulim’s Greek is found laughing at the latest crash, Rudge adds two and two together and comes to the kind of four he likes. Sabotage: it’s obvious. None of this superstitious claptrap. Especially as Sulim’s managed to bribe his way in to where the Bactrian’s cargo is being stored and destroy a large part of it.
There’s just one problem with that friendly, comfortable, rational theory (apart from, how did he do it?). Sulim runs, intent on reaching his plane, flying out. Rudge and Hazard pursue. Sulim crashes onto the airport, drives across the runway. Runway 13. It wasn’t sabotage, not any kind of sabotage we recognise in the Twentieth Century. Another pair of hands rips the wheel out of Sulim’s as he drives over Senruset’s tomb. The car crashes. Sulim dies.
Everything points one direction, the one direction Rudge is still resisting facing. Keith Hazard’s convinced, he’s scared down to his spine of what’s below Runway 13. Rudge still won’t bend, won’t report back, won’t commit to paper what they’ve found out. And suddenly there’s another plane coming to Abbaq. It’s from British Charter Airlines. It’s carrying a team, including an Air Ministry expert, and Eric Bayliss.
They’re going to do a flight over Runway 13, to see for themselves. They won’t listen to Rudge when he warns them not to. And Rudge breaks. His determination not to accept the by-now-horribly-obvious but still unbelievable shatters. He sets off for the tomb of Senruset, with a stick of dynamite, racing the aircraft…
Hazard chases him all the way to the tomb, is there when Rudge throws in the stick of dynamite, but the atmosphere traps them, keeps them from running. Bayliss’s plane swoops, the scream begins, they start to run. Then the explosive goes off and the Mummy flies towards them. They are buried in the collapsed tunnel, but only for a few minutes before both are dug out.
There’s an unusual double-ending. This one is the first, but the episode leaps head three months, to the official report, signed off by Rudge and counter-signed by Keith Hazard. Dryly, technically, plausibly, it places responsibility for Smithson’s crash on unusual and excessive wind turbulence caused by an unsuspected cavity under the Runway, that ceased when the cavity was filled in. It’s a good, scientific solution, Twentieth Century rationality superseding supernatural claptrap. There was no curse. The Mummy was a red herring, a coincidence. This is 1963. The Air Expert signed off on it.
And then we roll back, to the aftermath of the explosion. In the sky, the controls of the Bactrian were torn from the pilot’s grasp. But only for two seconds, until the explosion, and then the controls went free. Everybody landed safely, on Runway 13.
Rudge tells the whole story, just as we’ve learned it, and everyone believes it. The Man from the Ministry does put forward the air turbulence theory, agrees to work it into a scientifically established rationalistic explanation. And it could be so, could be the real cause of everything, it’s been a fact all along, just misinterpreted. But even the expert believes in the curse.
The last paragraph belongs to Keith Hazard. When he leaves Abbaq, he takes with him a gift, an ivory talisman, a good luck charm taken from the entrance to the tomb of Senruset itself. Because Keith Hazard, man of the Twentieth Century, former RAF pilot, knows that the world contains things of which to be afraid. And that you can never have enough good luck talismans.
At seven episodes, Runway 13 barrelled along without stopping. It stayed strictly within its linear story, except for that curious double-ending, and as a result, it felt substantially shorter than its immediate successor, High Quest, which was only one episode longer. That serial, though comparatively tautly written, was nevertheless by another writer, but the guy behind this was given a broader canvas to paint on with Horizon Unlimited, and brought to it his love and knowledge of airplanes and flying, and good, two-fisted adventure.
Overall, Runway 13 doesn’t stack up against High Quest, and that’s not just the nostalgia of reading High Quest in 1963 talking. In a way, that makes it more impressive, that a story written over fifty years ago for 7 – 10 year olds should, of its own making, entertain and interest a 60 year old.
But this is Eagle we’re talking about. Even in the beginning of decline, it still produced stuff like this, from an anonymous staff or freelance writer, working to commission, no doubt. Some of Eagle‘s serials were by professional book writers, named authors. At least two of Eric Leyland’s Flame series of boys thriller novels were first serialised in Eagle, as was a Biggles adventure, and Mr Anonymous was certainly a better writer than either of them: and yes, I do include the semi-legendary Captain W. E. Johns.
To read it for yourself, as with High Quest, you will have to haunt eBay for the right copies of Eagle, volume 14, issues 3 – 9 inclusive (for High Quest you will need issues 10 – 17, and for Horizon Unlimited practically the next year). It’s not a major work. It’s half a century out of date. You’ll need a mind attuned to that era. But if you have that, it’s half an hour well spent.
Much is being made of the fact that Friday Night Football is coming to our television screens (if we have Sky TV), in the form of Manchester United vs Southampton, and the fans are protesting.
Basically, I’m on their side. The new contract, allowing for ten Friday night Premiership matches in 2016/17, means that live televised football now takes place on every single day of the week. Fans who go to games are, once again, getting screwed in the process: there are hundreds of regular Southampton fans who turn up for the away trips to Old Trafford who are being forced to miss the game, because the last train back home leaves 35 minutes before the final whistle.
And it takes me back, back to 1992, when the newly-formed Premier League, signed up to Sky for the first time, went to its first Monday night game. Which was the reverse fixture, Southampton vs Manchester United, at the old Dell.
There wasn’t half the screaming then, even though the traveling United fans were in the same boat as the Southamptonians will be tonight. Not all of that was down to the classic lack of sympathy the vast majority of fans have towards United, nor the jokes that it made no difference, they all live on the South Coast anyway. It was more that those who could afford Sky, or were prepared to put up with going down the pub of an evening to watch, were happy to have more live football available.
Those of us who remember the antediluvian days, pre-the Premier League, pre-Sky, will remember that it had taken until the back half of the Eighties to get live League football on TV. The two networks had different times: ITV’s like matches went out at 2.00pm on Sunday, the BBC’s at 7.30pm on Friday night. The incredible finale in 1989, the post-Hillsborough Liverpool v Arsenal game that decided the League on the last kick, was on BBC1, on Friday night.
And it’s not like we’ve not had Friday night Football since then: Sky have been running Championship matches in that slot for ages, without the same kind of fuss.
So whilst I support the aggrieved fans, I can’t share the outrage which, though entirely valid, is being expressed not in a losing cause but in a cause lost twenty-four years ago. In a way, I’ve almost admired Sky for nailing its colours to the mast in such a forthright manner, by selecting as its debut Monday Night Match a game that so inconvenienced the away supporters. It stated, plainly, that it’s attitude was FTF – Fuck The Fans. And it’s been that way ever since.
Tonight’s selection is probably not a deliberate reminder of that initial game – it’s probably far more to do with Jose Mourinho’s first competitive match as United manager at home, and the first start of the world’s most expensive player, Paul Pogba – but by its nature it’s a doubly-symbolic gesture. Who gives a toss about the Southampton fans? Certainly not Sky’s TV audience, who see themselves as the fans whose interests have to be put first: there are many more of them, after all, and those primitives who still, bizarrely, want to go to live games, should get over themselves and their sense of entitlement.
Either way, I shalln’t be watching. I’ve made my position plain in respect of Mourinho and there’s going to be precious little live United TV for me this season, not until semi-finals at least. Anyway, I’m going out for a meal with my mates tonight.
Friday Night Football is here to stay. It’s not like it’s a breakthrough, the way Thursday night football was. It’s been around before, when the balance was more finely set. When there was a balance. If it makes Sky money, it’ll stay.
And FTF. Especially the ones getting out of Old Trafford at about 10.00pm tonight and making tracks for Southampton. You – and we – are on the wrong side of history. We are the army of the defeated, who don’t know when to stop fighting, eve when stopping fighting, forcing football to be played in empty grounds, without sound or atmosphere, is the only weapon we have left in our hands.
The ultimate weapon, the Deterrent, the Nuclear Option.
Even though it’s forty-three years ago, I remember mine vividly.
We’d been on holiday in the Lake District two years earlier, when the O-Level results were published (and, coincidental or otherwise) I’d fallen ill with headaches and nausea that very day. Being unable to go to the school to check, I’d left a stamped postcard with my subjects written in a neat column, which the school then filled in and sent to me at home.
My first check, however, was in Thursday night’s Manchester Evening News when we got to Droylsden, coming home. Not having read the MEN in decades, I don’t know if the practice continues to this day but, that long ago, they would publish all the O- and A-Level results, school by school, name by name, in close-set italic type: just the name and, in brackets, the number of passes.
Having been rushed out so quickly, the printing was sometimes not of the best. I’d taken eight O-Levels and I had duly passed eight. Or was that a smeared three? In a situation where paranoia was hovering eagerly, it was impossible to tell with certainty, and I had to wait, fretfully, until we drove home to Burnage and the postcard confirmed that I had passed all eight subjects, with a range of grades from 1 to 6 (Grades 7 to 9 were fails).
The better scores were where I wanted them to be, and the lower half were in the subjects I was keen to drop: Physics and Chemistry, French and German. I’d scored my sole Grade 1 in my favourite subject, History.
Choosing A-Level subjects was both easy and difficult. I wanted my top three subjects, History, English and Maths, but at A-Level level, this was rather a crossing of disciplines. The Grammar School system at this stage separated itself into Arts and Sciences strands, with the two meant to be parallels. But I didn’t have a third Arts subject I felt comfortable with, given that I would be doing double periods, two hours at a time, on it every day.
Nor did I have any career in mind. I had no idea what I wanted to be. Given my lack of any discernible practical skills, much to my good-with-his-hands Dad’s disappointment, it would have to be an office-based job, and between them my mother and uncle suggested solicitor and accountant. Neither of these filled me with great enthusiasm, but then again, both seemed perfectly possible subjects for me, so I said ‘Why not?’ and it was settled. I was not a decisive person when I was fifteen, basically lacking any confidence in my ability to take the right decision.
So Solicitor it was, with Accountant as a back-up, which meant I needed to include Maths in my courses, no matter what opposition the school put up, essentially arguing that the clash of disciplines could – or rather would – hinder my progress in both. But I had no other subjects that would suit and so my choices were respected. And they were my choices. To a degree at least. But if my mother had objected, they wouldn’t have been.
Of course, the Maths was a mistake. Not for the reasons the school put forward, the switch from Arts to Science strands, and back, never had any noticeable effect on my work. No, it was the unforeseeable one that, essentially, I was a good Maths student to O-Level but that, beyond that, I’d hit my peak and was starting to struggle.
It didn’t help that, alone amongst all the teachers in the Sixth Form, I didn’t get on with the Maths teacher (who was nicknamed Katmandu Pete after he’d taken a Summer holiday there). We’d never crossed paths during my first five years, and he was simply disappointed in me. Subsequently, I was told that my name had come up in the Masters’ Common Room when the School had been advised that my Dad had died, and several of the teachers were very sympathetic, and hoped that it wouldn’t throw me off track. Katmandu Pete had asked about me and been given rather glowing reports, so when he finally had me to teach, just as I was starting to hit the limit of my Maths skills, I fell far short of what he’d been led to expect.
And as our Maths group consisted of only ten pupils, there was nowhere to hide.
(Actually, I do have one pleasant memory of Maths in those two years, being the only time I punched someone in class and got away with it completely. Which is not to say that I was given to punching people in class and getting caught. With only ten of us in a standard classroom, we naturally gravitated into widely-spread pairs. I sat my my mate Zack, who sat on my right, further away from Katmandu Pete’s desk. Somehow, Zack had managed to get my right wrist and twist up behind my back, where Katmandu Pete couldn’t see it. I lacked the strength to break free, and it bloody hurt so, once I’d been released, I sat there seething and determined on revenge. In a Sixth Form Maths Class where I was so much more visible than my so-called mate. I waited, however, my lightly balled right hand on the desk, resting easy, watching and waiting until, at last, Katmandu Pete turned back to his desk. In that split second, when he was looking the other way, I lashed out, without the least warning, swinging my right arm round as hard as I could, and smashing Zack in the face. Long before Katmandu Pete looked back, I was sitting angelically in my seat, hand on my desk where it had been when he looked away. If he’d heard the impact, I don’t know. He didn’t show the least suspicion. I got totally away with it. Zack didn’t even try to get his own back. And he never tried that again.)
We were doing four subjects for A-Level, with General Studies imposed on top of our three course choices. This was a woolly, wishy-washy course, which offered a single period every day, that might be about anything, since its principal purpose was to act as a relief from our specialisations. It was a pig of a subject, simply because it had no structure or defined theme, which made it simultaneously, a terrible paper to sit – because how could you study for it? – and a doddle. We used to say that you got a C if you wrote your name on the paper, a B if you spelt it correctly, and an A if you used your ruler to underline it.
Midway through the Upper Sixth, and very aware that I was losing ground in Maths, I asked to drop the subject. I had an offer to go to Manchester University, subject to me getting a B and two Cs (the par line) and I was justifiably confident of achieving that with History, English and General Studies. The additional ten hours per week could be put to further study on those subjects. And I was serious about that: I genuinely was not thinking that I could breeze around, do nothing.
But my mother was having none of it. If there was a way of talking aback to my mother, of standing up in the face of her decisions, I never found it. I didn’t get to drop Maths.
So I took all the several papers, and one more. In History, my mate Glyn and I were the two acknowledged leaders. To be fair, it was a triumvirate, including Steve B., who was every bit as smart as us but who doomed to exam results that didn’t reflect his standard, because he was painfully slow at writing and never finished a paper. Glyn and I were aware of the Special Level papers, which lay over and above A-Levels, and pressed our History – who was also the Deputy Head – to be entered for that as well.
‘Bill’ was very reluctant to do so. He had put twenty-three boys into S-Level History at one time or another, and only one had passed, and he only got a Grade 2 (at S-Level, there were only three results: Grade 1, Grade2, Fail). The odds were against us and he didn’t want us having extra pressure at such a vital time. But not only were we both eager to test ourselves, we could deal with that objection very quickly. The S-Level paper was based on the same curriculum as the A-Levels and the single exam was a whole week after the last of our A-Level papers so we could treat that completely separately.
As to the papers themselves, I have only two memories, both involving History, and I’m not even completely certain that the first of these involved the actual A-Level paper, or maybe a Mock, or midterm paper. Basically, there were two exams, one on British History, the other on European History. We had to answer four questions out of six in a three hour period. I turned over the European paper and scanned the questions, quickly finding three I could do confidently (one was my pet question: I had already written that essay for a) homework, b) a midterm exam and c) the Mock A-Level paper: I could have written it in my sleep by then).
But I was immediately concerned about which of the three remaining questions I would have to answer. The actual choice I put off until I’d written the first three essays and the choice became imperative.
I can’t remember the selection, but the most probable was a question about why a certain treaty had failed to prevent the War of the Spanish Succession (think Duke of Marlborough, Battle of Blenheim). I hadn’t a clue about the terms of the Treaty, but I did know the causes of the War.
So I started off by arguing the proposition that the (undetailed) Treaty had failed to prevent that War because that had never been its aim. I put it that Treaties in that era – i.e., prior to the Twentieth Century – were not seen or intended as peace-making, but were rather an exercise in aggrandising the victor at the expense of the loser by landgrabs etc., the intention being to put the victor into a better, stronger place from which to fight the next war. The War of the Spanish Succession began because…
I still think it was a nifty little trick to shift the question onto the grounds I could fully answer, and as we’ll shortly see, the examiners must have shared that opinion, or at least applauded my cheek, but there was this moment, with about fifteen minutes left and me deep in my explanation, when ‘Bill’ came wandering past, looking over people’s shoulders at what they were writing.
We were conscious of him doing that, and he was no real distraction. He’d read a few lines, show no reaction, and go on to the next boy, leaving you in peace. But on this occasion, he leaned in and did a double-take. He studied my paper over my shoulder for several seconds then, instead of strolling on to the guy in front of me, he strode to the top of the Hall, picked up the paper and studied it intently, obviously trying to work out which question I was trying to answer!
I don’t say that it didn’t disturb me at all, but I don’t remember being that concerned. I knew what I was doing, and why, I was in full slow and closing in on the end of my essay and it was too bloody late to scrub what I’d been doing and tackle an even dodgier question.
My other memory is of the S-Level paper, a week after it was all over. It was a hot, sunny day and, as Glyn and I were the only students, we were taking it in the Technical Drawing Room, sharing the room with the guys taking that A-Level.
The S-Level paper was based on the same curriculum, but it was broader-based and more interpretative: it was another three hour paper, but we were required to answer only three questions. The exam began: Glyn and I turned over our papers, scanned the questions and simultaneously looked up and at each other. Our expressions were identical: oh well, it was worth a try.
Afterwards, we compared notes. Glyn claimed to have written the same answer three times whereas I had written two of my three answers not based on the course we’d studied for the past two years but rather the political background gleaned from two series of Dennis Wheatley novels (Roger Brook, on the French Revolution, and Gregory Sallust, on the failure of Appeasement, a part of the course we’d never even reached). Oh well, it was worth a try.
The results were published on a Wednesday in the middle of August, as the O-Level results were published on the Thursday of the following week. By a weird coincidence, it was the day of my Dad’s anniversary, three years since he had died. Mam was taking us out for the day, to Southport, but first we visited the Crematorium and then, on the way back, we called into the School for my results, which had been posted in the Secretary’s window from about 10.30am.
Mam drove down the drive and across the front of the school. There was room to park beyond the Secretary’s Office and the main entrance. She’d barely brought the car to rest, had not had the chance to even out the handbrake on and I was out of my seatbelt, out the door and striding back towards that window. What ever the results, and I was now no longer confident, I had to see them for myself first, had to know what I’d done before my family knew anything of it.
I still remember striding out in the sun. As I approached, I saw four or five of my classmates sat on the grass, talking. As I came up, they turned towards me and, in unison, they began shaking their heads, sucking in their breath and going ‘tt tt’. It was enough to tell me that I had done alright, but I didn’t give them any attention until I’d gotten to the window and seen the results. Three As and a D (Maths, what else?) Gloriously more than I needed for Manchester. A Pass, a result. That made it ok for Mam and my sister to have a look.
Funnily enough, I have no memory of her response, except that it would have been positive. Now I knew the result, and knew that the next three years of my life, at University, were set up, it was the chance to chat with my classmates – who had just been through the exact thing I had, who were justified in relaxing and celebrating – which mattered. I’d always been younger than all of them, always felt myself inferior to them despite being overall one of the smartest in the Year, from the start, but this was one of the few occasions on which we were genuinely equals. We’d bee through the mill together and we’d come out on the other side.
It was an odd measure of togetherness, given that we had already been together as a group for the last time. I had close friends I’d continue to see, at least for the rest of the decade, but we’d already split apart and I was only ready to admit myself as their equal after it was all over.
I’d have liked to have stayed and talked longer, but I had a mother and a sister waiting to scoot off to Southport, so we got back into the car and headed off towards the East Lancs Road.
Oh, and those S-Levels? We’d passed, both of us, Glyn with a Grade 1, I with a Grade 2.
Two brief codas. The following week, we were off to the Lakes on holiday, the week of the O-Level results again. Nothing to do with me but, by coincidence, on Thursday, the day of the results, we set off on the same walk as two years previously, when I’d fallen ill whilst out walking for the first time ever. Maybe it was psychosomatic, because I was aware of the connection, but I fell ill, headaches and nausea, for the only other time whilst out walking.
And, a week or two later, I had to go into school again for something, I don’t remember what. Whilst I was there, I bumped into ‘Bill’, who was full of congratulations over my results. And who then asked me if Glyn and I weren’t grateful for how he’d pushed us into doing the S-Level exams? I was nearly laughing out loud at the hypocrisy, and for one of the first times in my life, I answered an adult back, reminding him that it was the other way round and that we had had to badger him to let us do the exam.
He looked at me oddly, and said, “You cheeky thing!” I never saw or spoke to him again.
This is what comes back to me on A-Level Results Day, forty-three years later.
And so we arrive in season 3 of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and a mighty powerful start it is: long may it continue.
‘The Search’ is a direct sequel to last season’s closing episode, wasting no time in picking up from the near-cliffhanger left behind from the Federation’s first direct contact with the Dominion, the rulers of the Gamma Quadrant. At least, that’s how it seems when we open with Major Kira conducting a meeting on the senior staff, with pessimistic reports on the results of simulations of how DS9 would perform in the event of a direst attack by the Dominion: two hours, tops. The Chief isn’t even that optimistic and, given that DS9 is a fixed space station with limited power, structural weaknesses and total lack of manoeuvrability, facing a highly mobile fleet of warships, he’s not wrong.
However, this is not immediately but two months later. Sisko has been on Earth, at Spacefleet HQ, undergoing debriefing on the Dominion threat. Now he’s back, and he’s brought with him the ‘Defiant’, DS9’s own warship, and a considerable upgrade on its offensive/defensive capabilities, not to mention a considerable upgrade on the series’ ability to move beyond DS9 itself. It even comes with an on-loan Romulan cloaking device, not to mention an on-loan Romulan, T’rul, to make sure that that loan stays nohow permanent.
For there’s a mission, into the Gamma Quadrant, for Sisko to lead and his entire staff to man: a Peace Mission, to find the mysterious Founders and convince them the Federation is not hostile.
Before that gets under way, there’s a brief but telling scene between Sisko and Jake. Whilst on Earth, Sisko has had all his belongings removed from store and brought with him. Jake recognises, before his father, that Sisko no longer sees his home as being Earth, but rather Deep Space Nine.
What else has changed? Terry Farrell has a new, more complex hairdo, and the coms badges have been redesigned to be bigger. Oh, and Odo gets semi-replaced by Starfleet Security Officer Lieutenant Michael Eddington. Of course, he’s only there for the Starfleet stuff and Odo’s still Head of Security for non-Starfleet station stuff, but it’s still too much for everybody’s favourite prickly shapeshifter and he resigns in a huff, giving the lovely Kira a devil of a job to persuade him to join the expedition to represent the Bajoran government.
For all that I’m making light of things, this first half is a very serious episode, and so it should be. This is the series moving into very dangerous and very serious territory and the episode marks this correctly. Even the presence of Quark on the expedition is a logical, and intelligent step, since the Ferenghi contacts within the Dominion – remember last season’s Grand Negus episode? – are the only initial step on the road to finding the reclusive Founders. And, properly, once he has established an in, Quark drops out.
The trail leads to an unmanned relay station, to which Dominion-bound messages are sent. Dax and O’Brien are beamed down and, with suspicious ease, find co-ordinates that that beam back to the ‘Defiant’, just before being trapped and jumped by the Jem’Hadar. Sisko makes the cold but only practical decision to leave them and pursue the mission.
Meanwhile, Odo is behaving very strangely. He’s not merely his usual antisocial self, he’s completely distracted: obsessed with, fixated upon, drawn irresistably to something known as the Omarian Nebula. So much so that, when the Romulan cloak is penetrated, when the Jem’Hadar cripple and board the ‘Defiant’ Odo gets himself and the injured Kira onto a shuttlecraft and makes for the Nebula, leaving Sisko and Bashir behind, fate unknown.
But there’s a reason for this and a reason why this double-episode is called “The Search”. There’s a single planet, a rogue, in the Nebula. It’s a beautiful, pastoral, lovely world. It also contains a thick, slippery looking lake that reminds us of Odo in his liquid form. As it should when four columnar shapes emerge from it and take on the form of humans, their leader a female twin of Odo. This is the planet of the shapeshifters. This is where Odo comes from. This is his home.
So far, a stunningly good episode. But the second part seemed to be completely off. It started with Sisko and Bashir, escaped from the ‘Defiant’ in a shuttlecraft and trying to get back to and through the Wormhole. They’re picked up by a tractor beam and their rescuers are… Dax and O’Brien, happy as Larry and obviously fresh for a trip to the hairdressers in the former’s case. What? How? And there are big things going on back at DS9.
It felt completely wrong. Indeed, most of the entire episode, or the parts set at DS9 at least, felt off, strange, not quite there. Dax and O’Brien, we were told, had been taken to the Founders, who had accepted that the Federation only wanted peace, and negotiations were going on at the station for a Peace Treaty, led on one side by Admiral Nechayev (she may not have been young but Natalija Nogulich always did look good) and on the other by Borath (Dennis Christopher), a Vorta, like Eris in the previous series, who claims to be one of the Founders.
I’ll admit to not being sure whether we were being set up to learn that this wasn’t really happening, or whether the show was just being bloody lazy again and not being bothered to work out a convincing way Dax and O’Brien could have escaped. Even when things got more and more improbable, and the evidence kept mounting up in a way that, retrospectively, looks overwhelming, I still couldn’t be sure that this was the equivalent of a dream scene. Until Garak was killed. Then I knew.
I should have realised much earlier, because things really are badly out-of-kilter at the station. A massive alliance of all the Alpha Quadrant groups – including the Cardassian Empire, but excluding the Romulan Empire, over which T’Rul is threatening war – has come together to negotiate with the Dominion. Sisko is hailed as the man whose mission has brought the two sides together, but he’s excluded from participation in very secret talks. When he protests Romulan exclusion, and the prospects of their response, the Admiral and Borath are smugly boastful about how ineffectual they will be against an alliance with the Dominion.
Things go too fast. There are Jem’Hadar all over the station. One picks a fight with O’Brien (who else?) and beats him up so badly he winds up in the infirmary whilst Eddington intervenes to ensure the Jem’Hadar go untouched. Dax gets reassigned as Science Officer on a Federation starship. When Sisko protests he finds himself jumped to Captain, and told everyone will be re-assigned: the Federation are abandoning the sector: Bajor will be a Dominion planet in future.
It’s all going to custard. T’Rul is killed by the Jem’Hadar, Sisko imprisoned for fighting back. Garak leads Sisko, Dax and the Doctor on a mission in a pre-prepared runabout, loaded with photon torpedos. He is killed, but, in an act of direct mutiny, Sisko fires the torpedos into the mouth of the Wormhole, collapsing it…
But there’s another story going on betweenwhiles (or is it another story?), and that is Odo coming home. His fellow shapeshifters, or Changelings as they call themselves, adopting the pejorative ‘solids’ use against them as blacks But he is ‘damaged’, isolated: he knows nothing of the ‘Great Link’, where everyone liquefies and there are no longer separate bodies and nor are there separate minds. The female Odo partially merges with him, shows him the edges of it.
They don’t like solids though, they have learned to fear and hate them for their aggression. That’s why they retreated to this planet, where they can control, and that’s why a hundred infants were sent out, to learn about the universe outside. Odo is the first of them to return – about three hundred years ahead of schedule.
Kira is delighted for her friend, but also saddened at the thought of losing him. Her efforts to get back to the Federation, find Sisko and Co, are being hindered by a field generated from underground, from a chamber secured by a heavy door. But what need have Changelings for doors?
It depends what’s behind it, and the stories merge when Odo opens the door to reveal the Jem’Hadar. And Borath. And everyone from the ‘Defiant’, including Dax and O’Brien. They’re all under sedation, ‘dreaming’ a Dominion simulation, designed to test the resilience to invasion. Starfleet will not be pushovers, exactly as Borath warned.
Odo is immediately in horror that his people work for the Dominion, but it’s worse than that: the Changelings are the Dominion: they are the Founders. A Universe of order, a universe under control. A Universe that can never hurt them again. That is their goal. They propose to extend this to the Alpha Quadrant.
For Odo there is a choice to be made. He has found his kind, his people. But he is already too far removed for them. He believes in Order, yes, but in Justice, not control. He already has a family. The experiment is ended and everybody returns to DS9: Odo is already among his own.
What a magnificent pair of episodes, probably the best so far since Deep Space Nine was first conceived. I hope that this standard can be maintained. From a very cursory, and unwilling, glance at the next few episodes to come, I suspect it won’t.