Deep Space Nine: s06 e26 – Tears of the Prophets


Farewell

This is one of the points I’ve known about all along, going back almost twenty years. It’s been a long long time coming, in both senses, and when it came, despite the opinions of many, I found it disappointing, if still emotional. Terry Farrell’s last episode, Jardzia Dax’s death, a death foretold yet in its arrival perfunctory and meaningless, a side-issue in an episode that wanted to engineer a reversal for Captain Sisko.

In terms of guests stars, this was one of the fullest episodes of them all, with practically every recurring character popping up somewhere or other, including Vic bloody Fontaine in the most seriously ill-thought out idea of the whole script, wasting time crooning to Bashir and Quark, who’d chosen to have themselves serenaded as ‘The Losers’ (oh, you bet) after Jardzia announces that she and Worf are going to try for a baby.

As if that wasn’t a glutinously cheesy bit of melodrama in itself.

It had been known for no little time that Farrell wasn’t renewing her contract, having burnt out on the long days of filming. What wasn’t known then was the disgusting sexual harrassment the actress had been experiencing from day 1 from co-Showrunner Rick Berman, who’d pretty much put a stop of Farrell’s willingness to stay on as a recurring, not cast member. No, it was pretty much decided that Jatdzia had to be written out by dying, and originally it was supposed to be heroically, of course.

But with all that time to think it out and get it right, there was a colossal failure of imagination as Jardzia just gets ambushed by Gul Dukat, who’s possessed by a Pah-Wraith, and blasted with no-one there to even be horrified by the assault on her. Except the audience, of course.

For the season finale, the show wanted to kick Sisko in the teeth. The set-up was that the Federation had finally agreed to his urging to switch to an Offensive War, striking at the Cardassians in a weak system, under-defended. Gul Damar is having it seeded by automated defence platforms, so there, but the nutcase Dukat turns up out of nowhere with a plan to open up the Wormhole to enable Dominion reinforcements to flood in again.

The Prophets warn Sisko not to leave Bajor but Admiral Ross makes him choose between the Federation and being an Emissary, which is all stuff and nonsense anyway. Sisko leads the assault, leaving DS9 under Jardzia’s command and vulnerable to the possessed Dukat beaming aboard into the Bajoran temple (how? Just like that, into the Federation’s most important centre?).

Jardzia goes down, the nearest Orb gets carbonated, the Wormhole vanishes, Sisko falls ill on the Defiant‘s bridge, the attack succeeds, the Dax symbiont is saved, Worf mourns, Sisko mourns then he buggers off to Earth on indefinite Leave of Absence (Supreme Tactical Commander of the Federation and he can just nip off on holiday like that?). And, to make it all seem so serious, he takes his baseball.

No, this one fell flat on its face in so many respects. It failed to provide even a half decent send-off for Farrell, it spilled dross over everything else, it was completely unconvincing, and if I’m in a minority again, sobeit. After six seasons, they should know how to do better than this.

Six months from now, give or take the odd double-episode, I’m going to be coming to the end of this long run of Deep Space Nine Tuesdays. I’d like to hope the show finale is better than this was. For once, I’d accept a spoiler warning that it is.

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Father’s Day


Today has been Father’s Day.

Not since 1970, when I wrote my last Father’s Day card have I had any personal involvement in the occasion. A couple of months after that, he died, and since then it has been just another commercial event, of no meaning to me, except to memory.

I still think of him. I always think of him and I will go to my deathbed hoping that, in the face of my complete inability to believe in God or religion, there is another level of life above and beyond our sphere where I will, at long last, see him again, and I will ask him  that only thing that matters to a small boy: did I do good? was I alright? were you proud of me?

There’s been some things happen again, bringing back some of the bad shit, disturbing my never very certain confidence in myself, and once again I’ve been referred to counselling. Not directly about that void that is what Dad would have been if things had been otherwise: I have largely come to terms with that, and have no resentments on that score, it not being his fault that he left me (though I will never cease hating those fucking cigarettes that killed him).

Maybe though I will talk about what I don’t know about him, which is who he was as a man. I never knew my Dad as a man, he died before I could even begin to think of having an adult conversation with him. I know things about him: his practicality, none of which I inherited, his passion for motorbikes, likewise, and his love for the fells, which he bequeathed to me in spades: all my walking has been, in some degree, following in his footsteps, however far beyond him I was allowed to go.

I only know of him as a father, as a Dad. He was a good Dad, strict when he needed to be, but kind and loving to both of us, my sister and myself. All small boys worship their fathers, unless they are cold, or nasty, or angry or violent. Dad no doubt punished me when I was naughty, but always fairly.

Once upon a time, there was something I wanted to go to, desperately. I knew that I, we couldn’t, that it was impossible, out of the question, but I wanted it so much that I had to ask. I hedged my plea about with so many caveats, and resignations that it would have been the easiest thing under the sun for me to be told, I’m sorry, no, it’s just not on. But for reasons I never knew, Dad blew up at me, in anger, shouting at me as if I’d committed some unforgivable crime. It shocked and overwhelmed me, and it reduced me to tears. Not the refusal, but the manner of it. It stands out in my memory still, because he was never like that. Mam comforted me, and Dad came and apologised to me. Naturally, I diddn’t bring it up again, and would never have mentioned it, but a week later he came home with tickets for us both, he and I.

Maybe his temper derived from pain. Not long after, he took the pains in his shoulder to the Doctor. It was the beginning of the long end.

I never spoke to him about his life. He had done his National Service in the Navy, he was a trained Draughtsman, he had built up a Division at the company where he worked then had it taken away from him. Afterwards, I didn’t think to ask questions about him, only rarely. He was Dad, frozen in time, and what he’d been outside my eyes seemed unimportant. And then those who had known him started dying too, and there was no-one to ask. My sister and I have been estranged for many years now, yet for reasons I can’t begin to account for, we never talked about him, and probably never will, now.

I last saw her at Uncle Jack’s funeral, back in 2011. He was married to Mam’s younger sister, who’d died before him. My cousins came back to England for the funeral: two live in Australia, but my cousin John, the only relative remaining who is older than me, has lived in Canada since 1981. He talked to me about Dad,about how much he’d respected him, and how he’d never seen Dad anywhere without thinking he was the most intelligent person in the room. And then he stopped, concerned that he’d upset me, for I was all but in tears. To have someone talk to me about Dad, someone who knew him as an adult. There is no-one else.

In a couple of months I’ll be making that annual pilgrimage to the Crematorium, to that place that is the last place some part of him physically was on this Earth. Today was Father’s Day, for you but not me. I hope you don’t mind me asking you to listen. It was a very long time ago and I have no-one else to talk to.

Film 2018: Brazil


I never went to the cinema when I was on holiday in the Lake District. This had nothing to do with the puritanical belief that days on the fells and nights at the flicks didn’t mingle and everything to do with the way that the schedule of films at Zeferrellis in Ambleside showed that the film I wanted to see had been on last week, or was due next week (or, sometimes, both), but the one playing now wasa pile of poop.

Brazil was the exception, yet even that didn’t break the sequence. The film that week was indeed a pile of poop, but there was a one-off, late night showing, starting at 10.30pm and ending close to 1.00am. It was strangely fitting: a wide-open space, a small audience, a big screen on which to watch Terry Gilliam’s astonishing, coherent, fully-integrated vision unroll to its stunning ending, and coming out into the silent night, slipping quickly through empty streets I’d never seen at that hour before or since, into bed to get the hours needed before another day in the open air.

No matter how often I’ve re-watched it, knowing now where that unbelievable final section leads, Brazil never disappoints. Indeed, thirty-odd years onwards, in an era that makes its effects look primitive for all they are utterly convincing, it remains an immersive experience, one that takes several minutes to shake off after the credits finish running.

As a story, the film is surprisingly simple once dissected. Due to an unforeseeable error, the wrong man is arrested. Jill Layton, a neighbour, attracts suspicion by protesting this. Sam Lowry, a wilfully bored minor bureaucrat tries to save her from this attention. The outcome is disaster. Put like that, it’s an awfully skeletal story, but so is ‘A group of seven mercenaries, for their differing reasons, agree to defend a village from Bandits’, and we know what classic film was built on that foundation.

What Gilliam does is to bring an especially powerful visual imagination, allied to a hatred of bureaucracy, and bound into a hybrid of dystopian SF and slapstick comedy, to life on the shoestring of this plot. There are psychological levels driving the story, and changing its course, homages to other classic films, a strong cast (when Robert de Niro plays a bit part, you have a strong cast), and a complex mosaic of of incident, display and example that places the insane society of the film onto a well-grounded and completely believable footing.

The film’s most obvious inspiration is 1984. The year is never given but the film was made in 1984 and released the following year, and Gilliam very intelligently places the look of the future in the style of the past, specifically that of 1948, when Orwell wrote his legendary book. Over this, he lays an Orwellian dictatorial bureaucracy, based upon suspicion and paranoia, Nazi-imagery in security uniforms and building construction, with an information technology equivalent to the then-modern age but expressed in Heath Robinson-esque equipment: small screen television style monitors fitted with magnifying glass screens, keyboards like pre-War typewriters and largescale cabling like gigantic spaghetti in its profusion, contained in ducts, ducts, ducts, everywhere.

Yes, and a fully-maintained pneumatic tube communication system, which is glorious.

What starts the insanity is the tiniest thing possible. This is a fly, that annoys an anonymous bureaucrat into swatting it. It falls into his machine, changing the name on an arrest warrant, from freelance Heating Engineer Archibald Tuttle to cobbler Archibald Buttle. Buttle is arrested, in an horrific scene of home invasion by gun-bearing, black-clad, jackbooted, black-helmeted officers, bursting through ceiling, door, window, wrecking a small, cheap apartment, fitting Buttle into a straitjacket, making his wife sign a receipt for him (in duplicate), and bearing him off, leaving his wife and two small children. The replacement hole-plug for the bored-through ceiling – which is the floor for upstairs neighbour, truck-driver Jill Leyton (Kim Greist) – is the wrong size.

This becomes a mini-theme for this world of bureaucrat, form-filling comprehensiveness. Quite apart from the obvious drawbacks of a fascist system, it keeps making minor mistakes. The nature of the system makes correcting them almost impossible, and indeed their effects multiply rapidly, and as we’ll see, fatally: there is no such thing as a mistake, it’s clearly enemy action, this Government has been fighting against terrorists for thirteen years. Bombs keep going off, but the terrorists are never seen, or identified. Their invisible presence means that anyone drawing attention to themselves in this horrific world is automatically suspected of being a terrorist. And, in a sadly accurate prefiguration of today, suspicion is proof of guilt, especially when interrogation is torture. The torturer, all white coats, surgical precision, happy, secure, family man, Jack Link, is played by Michael Palin, whose smiling niceness does nothing to hide his total amorality.

One of Jack’s friends is Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce in a role he says was the highlight of his career). Sam is a minor bureaucrat, a very clever one, with total command of all his systems, whose boss, Mr Kurtzman (Ian Holm) utterly depends on him. Sam is in an anonymous backwater and loves it: his mother (Katherine Helmond), who is otherwise obsessed with cosmetic surgery to reduce her age by decades, is ambitious for him and wants to get him promotions. Sam just wants to be left alone. He lives alone, isn’t interested in mother’s attempts to fix him up with the awkward Shirley, daughter of her best friend, wants to maintain the emptiness of his existence.

But Sam dreams and daydreams, and in his dreams he’s a flying warrior, in silver armour, soaring the clouds and coming to the rescue of a lovely long-blonde-haired damsel in distress, floating in the air, dressed only in a long diaphonous white dress. She’s constantly under threat, from escalating dangers that symbolise Sam’s real-life experiences. She is being played by the short, spiky-haired Greist in a floaty wig, which gives us a clue towhat’s going to happen.

The Buttle mistake results in an unprecedented thing – a refund cheque. It’s finagled into Kurtzman’s department where Sam, kind-hearted, agrees to get rid of it by the unorthodox step of actually taking it to Buttle’s widow and getting her to sign a receipt. Whilst there, he sees Jill, his dream girl.

In a subtle foreshadowing of the film’s ending, Sam cracks up. From here until the end of the film, he is driven entirely by obsession over Jill. She’s a perfect stranger, from an entirely different social strata, an American in Britain, and she has a phobia about having her personal space invaded on top of her loathing of the bureaucracy that has crushed the Buttle’s and which Sam represents, but she’s literally the girl of his dreams. Even if the girl of his dreams is a helpless, Rapunzel-like damsel, existing only to be saved.

But not only is Sam driven by his obsession with finding Jill, and protecting her from the state that sees her as a terrorist (and he can’t be sure she isn’t), but his every act is that of the noble warrior. He’s already living in a fantasy, of getaways and shoot-outs and the hero winning the day without any thought of the chaos he causes that has to be mopped up immediately behind him. Sam will save the girl, the day, the world.

Watching this morning, I began to wonder exactly when the fantasy takes over. Sam is knocked out and arrested for being too close to another bomb. He’s released (?) back to his new role in Information Retrieval, where he blows the pneumatic tubes, Jill turns up at his apartment all lovey-dovey, he takes her to his mother’s whilst he erases her from the system for her protection, comes back to find her in a long, flowing, blonde wig. They shag each other senseless.

Then, in the morning, the same home invasion scene is re-enacted. Sam is taken prisoner, processed through the system. His only thought is Jill. It’s all a mistake, he’s not a terrorist. The disabled Deputy Minister who’s been his (sinister) sponsor, Mr Helpmann (Peter Vaughan), tells him Jill was killed resisting arrest. Sam laughs it off: no, that was him. Oddly, she seems to have died twice… Then it’s torture at the hands of Jack, furious at Sam’s selfishness in putting him through this.

Until Jack is shot through the head. Tuttle and the resistance rapelle into the chamber from above, free Sam. There’s a running gun battle as the break out of the Ministry, a bomb to destroy it, triggered by a glorious old-fashioned plunger. Sam and Tuttle go on the run through a shopping centre, but the floating papers attach themselves to Tuttle, swathe him entirely, and when Sam tears them off, there is no body.

The black-clad troopers chase him to the funeral for his mother’s friend. His mother is surrounded by young men, eager for her rejuvenated body: she now has Jill’s face. Sam is surrounded and fall through the coffin into the streets of his daydreams, surrounded by nightmares. He steps through a door in a wall, finds himself back on Jill’s truck. She’s driving it. She’s alive. They drive off into the sunset, set up home in the country.

Until Helpmann and Jack’s heads appear across the sky.He’s got away from us, they sadly agree. And Sam has, in the only realistic way he could: into catatonia. It’s the ending of The Prisoner again, only this time explicit. The mind – insanity in an insane situation – is the only escape.

As I said above, the film takes a turn into a less certain reality even earlier. Clearly, Sam’s mind snaps at the moment Jack Link is ‘shot’. But Sam’s balance is lost, irretrievably, as soon as he sees Jill, and I now have trouble accepting that anything from his first knocking out until the moment he’s pleading with Jack to spare him is real, on the same level of reality as before.

If I’m right, then Gilliam has been even more subtle than I’d previously realised. The return to Information Retrieval, his destruction of the system, the lovely horribleness of Tuttle’s comeuppance for the two official Heating Engineers (Bob Hoskins in a very effective cameo), and the whole thing with Jill suddenly wanting nothing more than to be all over him like a cheap suit, that too is not real. It’s just a daydream. As Sam tried to take his daydreams into his real life, with disastrous results, now he’s incorporating his real life into his daydreams. But his success has a trap door in it: sooner or later, we always wake up.

No matter how little we want to.

Waking up from Brazil is a difficult process. Though it creates its effects by being an alternate past in an alternate future, like The Prisoner it is incredibly prescient about our real future and present. There’s a lot I haven’t mentioned, like the homages to The Third Man, and even Fantasia, which come in the reality-daydream sequence, and Battleship Potemkin, after that. And apparently Gilliam was unhappy with Greist, who was something like eighth choice for the part, and cut or edited some of her scenes, but I enjoyed her performance.

I enjoyed it all. From the Ambleside streets long after midnight to South Reddish on a cloudy Sunday, and everywhere between and to be. And why is it called Brazil? For that, you have to wait until the film’s very last word…

Friday SkandiKrime: The Bridge 4 – episode 6


Might we yet see him again?

Where do I begin?

There is a direct conflict between the importance of the beginning and the importance of the end. The one was a flashback, an extended one at that, lasting almost 18 minutes, something The Bridge has never done before, the other was a cliffhanger of the kind that we would usually assume won’t prove fatal, simply cannot be taken lightly because, after this, there are only two episodes left. Two final, never coming back episodes.

The flashback, to four years earlier (placing it sometime around The Bridge 2?), was about Tommy. Who was Tommy? Well, for one thing, he was exactly who I thought he was: Nicole’s ex, Solveig’s son, Kevin’s Dad, except that Kevin is really Brian. He was also a member of William Ramberg’s gang, and a Police informant, getting information to enable the Police to bring William down. Only they failed him. Everybody let him down. Prosecutor Vibeke, who wouldn’t sanction the raid. Psychologist Neils Thormod, who wouldn’t diagnose him as mentally unstable. Journalist Richard Dahlqvist, who accidentally revealed Tommy’s identity as an informant. His mate Moyo, who didn’t turn up with the getaway truck, and whose beloved wife was found hanging (that’s five) just before the end.

Which leaves Tommy’s Police contact, Henrik Sabroe, and his superior, Lillian.

So Tommy’s story, a tragedy in a minor key, spiraling outwards from Vibeke, who evidently didn’t give humans enough of a damn, unlike her beloved horse, started to draw all the disparate little elements together, locking them into a recognisable pattern in preparation for the increasingly narrowing approach to the outcome.

Which left forty or so minutes for the episode, in painstaking and almost loving detail, to completely reverse the effect by tearing practically everything apart to create utter and hellish chaos for absolutely everyone involved.

Take Saga and Henrik. That’s gone, completely. Henrik is in a state of suppressed anger throughout, except for when he’s screwing the lovely Tanya, his pick-up from the Find Me scene where we found him at the start of The Bridge 3. He has to work with Saga but he’d rather never see her again in his life, and despite Lillian demanding the pair behave professionally, he can’t not let it show.

Poor Saga is hurt but enable to either show it or understand it. She wants Henrik not to be disappointed in her again, and believes she can get this by finding his daughters. She throws herself into the case and discovers that Anna Sabroe was seeing a Counsellor through work, who advises that she had met another man and was thinking of leaving Henrik. Herik doesn’t want to know unless Saga has absolute 100% certainty, backed up by proof (irrefutable evidence, eh? Very 100 Bullets).

Incidentally, Anna’s Counsellor? It’s Friendly Frank. Yes, him. Sofie’s helper. There’s a backstory out there in among the mists and icebergs and its shape may be visible. Cristoffer wants to go back to his old school so Sofie talks of going back to Malmo. Frank, just like last week, instantly and icily guilt trips her into staying, because she’s not being very grateful, after all he’s done for her, made himself an accessory to murder for her, etc., etc., etc.

And Frank’s got a daughter, Astrid. And Astrid had a younger sister, Anna, only she’s dead. Cristoffer finds her at night, speaking in Danish, at Anna’s gravestone. Astrid claims the Danish is only one of her roleplaying characters. Then Frank finds Cristoffer peering at the grave and absolutely smashes him one in the head.

Counselled Anna Sabroe. Has a daughter who looks nothing like him. Had another ‘daughter’ who’s now dead. Can you tell what it is, yet?

Both our detective heroes are causing chaos. There’s a disturbing scene where Henrik directs his anger at Kevin/Brian, who is now a suspect, even to the point of doubting he is disabled, dragging him out of his chair, making him stand, only for Kevin to collapse. And before that, Henrik just grabbed the handles of the wheelchair and pulled Kevin away from what he was doing, his job, without a word, without respect, which was an incredibly offensive thing to do.

Yet Kevin (as Henrik insists on calling him despite it only being a name Brian uses at Narcotics Anonymous, for anonymity) remains fixated on Henrik, as if he has transferred his addiction from the drug to his ‘friend’.

As for Saga, she is left holding the baby, literally, at Nicole and Tobias’s. She spots the brown eyes. She asks Tobias who the father is? Next thing, Tobias is round at Morgan’s busting him one in the mouth and telling Malene to ask her husband. He also shops Nicole to the Police over the key safe thing. Next time we see Malene, she’s telling Saga and Henrik that if they want Morgan, they have to speak to her Divorce lawyers.

By this time, they’re after a new character, Stephanie, Malene’s daughter, who it appears was seeing Tommy. Malene says her daughter’s in Colombia, but she’s been back in whichever of the two countries we happen to be in at the moment, not being Danish or Swedish I can never tell, and she’s not let on to Mummy. Despite all this, and as a pointed reverse to Henrik, Malene thanks Saga for bringing all this out into the open: she would rather now.

In it’s way, it’s a moment of private pain, and there are others in this episode. Henrik and Lillian are obviously among the remaining targets. Saga asks Lillian about her loved ones: she has none now (there is a short, but charming section in the flashback in which we see dear much-missed Hans). Saga tells her to go home and write out a list of everyone she’d miss if they were killed. We next see her at her table at home, with a bottle of wine and a pen in her hand: the paper is blank.

And when Saga and Henrik leave Malene’s, there is a silent shot of their walking to their two cars, parked one behind the other.

But thanks to Brian/Kevin, we have added mate Moyo to the scheme of things. Moyo, who works at Tobias’s garage, where Nicole got him a job. Who gets pulled in for questioning. Who talks about how good life is with Sandra, his missus, his sole alibi. Henrik goes to their house to talk to her. The door’s open. It’s silent and dark. She’s hanging from a doorframe. There’s someone else in the dark, a figure dressed in black, holding a gun. We cut outside, and hear a gunshot…

As I said above, it’s nothing we haven’t seen before. Henrik’s a principal, a hero, he’s bound to survive, you don’t kill off your stars in mid-series.

But this is the last season. We have a third detective working this case, even though he’s been kept to a minor role. For the plot’s sake, we have a ready-made back-up. And above all, this is The Bridge, which doesn’t piss around, like Follow the Money 2. So we don’t know. We can’t trust to amiable certainty. We have to wait until next Friday night. And ask ourselves, would they really? Really?

Yes, they bloody well would.

Eagle Volume 17 (1966)


One last time – great strip one

This is where I get off.
Though Eagle ran on into 1969, and Volume 20, and I faithfully read it, week by week, in those late Sixties years, my continuing interest in it ends here. Volume 17, and the first issue of Volume 18. With the last of these issues, Eagle ceased to feature new ‘Dan Dare’ stories, the four week ‘Underwater Attack’ excluded, choosing to reprint the series’ glorious past, starting from 1954’s ‘Prisoners of Space’.
Given that, by that time, the only decent feature left in Eagle was ‘Blackbow the Cheyenne’, for Frank Humphris’s art, and certainly not the stories, and that the comic was destined to experienced a further cheapening, transmuting to a smaller size, coarser paper, I have no interest in going further.
The Eagle story ends dismally, but then we all knew that from the beginning. By the last dozen or so issues of this Volume, my re-read was a skim. It had been a skim for most of the year, but until issue 37, there was at least one other feature that deserved proper attention.
Though ‘Dan Dare’ is usually the star of any volume of the Eagle, my nomination for most entertaining feature belonged to ‘The Croesus Conspiracy’, the first of three serials to feature adventurer, freebooter and ‘Saint’-alike, Nick Hazard, whose debut story ran from issue 3 to 39, making it the most substantial text feature since ‘Horizon Unlimited’.
Hazard is very much in the mould of The Saint, though without the romantic aspects. He’s an internationally-sought thief, one of those multi-talented adventurers, quick-witted, lawless, yet still bound by a code that prevents him from cold-blooded murder, even of those deserving, and with a hatred of the rich, powerful and arrogant. In ‘The Croesus Conspiracy’, Hazard has been brought in, entirely unofficially, by Superintendent Glanville of Scotland Yard, to put a spanner in the works of a plot by twelve millionaires to take control of the world. Hazard starts with a list of only five ‘confirmed’, and a couple of other suspected members of the plot. His approach is to get close to each in turn, learn his weakness and exploit that to gain the evidence that, if Hazard can beat an unknown deadline, will enable these millionaires to be taken down.
The story’s told in arcs of three or four parts, seguing into each other in the ‘Horizon Unlimited’ manner. It’s not by the same writer, but it’s in the Eagle manner of a strongly written thriller, and Hazard’s comprehensive skills push at the bounds of plausibility but never topple them. He’s forever falling into cliffhangers and getting out of these by forward planning, inspired improvisation or believable strokes of fortune.
Yes, it’s a juvenile thriller, but it’s a tightly-written one, it holds the interest even of jaded sixty-plus blokes, and it is by far the strongest thing in Eagle this year. Dan Dare certainly doesn’t have his best year. ‘The Singing Scourge’ works to an end, still dogged by murky colouring, obscuring the art. Watson tries a variation on his style for ‘”Give Me The Moon!”’, more angular in his line work, but the story is a load of sub-James Bond tosh, with a terrorist organisation called FIST demanding to be given the Moon (why?), led by a blind Spacefleet Commissionaire. Beyond bringing back Lex O’Malley, it’s a dumb story, falling far below even Eric Eden’s negligible efforts in its rooted objection to making the slightest sense. Several negative marks for ‘killing off’ Digby without anyone caring, and bringing him back between panels as if nobody cared.
But this was before ‘The Menace for Jupiter’, the last story, starting in issue 27. For this, ‘Dan Dare’ was reduced to one page, the same fate as ‘Heros the Spartan’, whose slot it took. Watson’s art got more solid, the colourist improved, but the serial rejects any sense of connection with what has gone before, as surely as any of the 2000AD versions did. Digby’s a cypher, he keeps calling his Colonel ‘Dan’, and not until the penultimate episode does he sound like Digby, or even like a human being instead of a plot function.
There’s little to say about the final six months of Heros. The outlaw story ended with his redemption, of course, but the following week, he was once again fighting for his honour and reputation under the evil Caesar’s hatred. At one page a week, the story had no room to breathe, and no more energy. It’s a compendium of ‘Heros’ tropes and the vindication of the Spartan’s courage at the end falls flat. The series gets a non-ending.

One last time – great strip two

‘Blackbow the Cheyenne’ would go on, until the ultimate end. The thinking plant story that continued from the previous year was thankfully a nadir, and it was followed by a rather straight and non-fantastic story about a gang of thieves, but even that had to include the Hooded One, and it was too short overall, as the ‘Blackbow’ stories tended to be. After that, it was back to the silly stories again, with fantastic elements underpinning them. Poor Frank Humphris.
But that was Eagle now. Once, it had been the home of solid, thoughtful, exciting but utterly realistic story-strips. Only ‘Dan Dare’ was completely outlandish, and Frank Hampson was determined to make everything in the series believable. Now Eagle went in for short, sharp shock stuff, fantastic elements underpinning everything. ‘The Iron Man’ fought criminal masterminds with stupid names, who wore masks concealing only that there was nobody real behind them. ‘The Guinea Pig’ tested weird inventions with no scientific basis, and frequently solved the disasters they spawned in only two episodes.
And the kids wanted this sort of thing. Like ‘Blackbow’, these features went on to the end without producing anything that held the mind for more than the few seconds they took to read.
Nothing demonstrated this more than ‘UFO Agent’. ‘Can you Catch a Crook?’ lasted two more, desultory episodes at the start of the Volume before being replaced by this series, about which I can only reference a song from Neil Young and Crazy Horse’s 1994 album, Sleeps with Angels. Those familiar with the record will anticipate that I am thinking of the short, tight but completely apposite song, ‘Piece of Crap’.
Two former agents of the now closed Ministry of Unusual Activities, Major Grant and Boffin Bailey (sic), are summoned to become Agents of crime-busting Satellite Zeta, with their very own Flying Saucer and fantastic superweapons with which, each week, they defeat agents of ‘E.O.S.’ (‘Enemies of Society’). It’s complete garbage.
The strip started in black and white, initially with art by Paul Trevillion who, rather sadly, hung onto the did-you-spot-the-clue notion, whilst the clues got exponentially dumbed down. Before long it was being drawn by Jose Ortiz, with contributions from Luis Bermejo. The idea is moronic, its execution worse: all it does is demonstrate that it is impossible to tell even a quarter-decent story in two pages.
And ‘Cornelius Dimworthy’ continued to be Cornelius Dimworthy.
There was, of course, the traditional revamp. This took place exactly halfway through the year, in issue 27. ‘Dan Dare’ took over ‘Heros’s single page, ‘UFO Agent’ moved to the centrespread and was elevated to colour. What replaced ‘Heros’? That would be ‘Blunderbirds’.
The only decent thing you can say about ‘Blunderbirds’ was that it lasted no more than eighteen weeks, a clear sign that the kids rejected it. It was a cheaply obvious and obviously cheap parody of Gerry Anderson’s greatest and most popular creation, which was still soaring high, and I wonder if the readers made it plain that it just wasn’t wanted. We were talking serious ‘Cornelius Dimworthy’ territory here.
Oddly enough, ‘UFO Agent’ greatly improved in the centrespread, not that it was a full centrespread, merely full page three-quarter width, thanks to some eye-catching colouring that suddenly gave Ortiz’s art a fantastic range and a genuine visual appeal. The stories weren’t enhanced one bit, but the almost psychedelic intensity of the colour gave the retina something to take in.
Finally, the cover feature, ‘Arms Through the Ages’ caught up with the present day and was replaced by ‘Did it ever Happen?’, a primarily poster-sized feature on implausible situations, inviting the reader to guess whether these were true or a pack of porkies. A surprising number of them were, in fact, True.
The loss of Nick Hazard left Eagle with little but the token ‘Dan Dare’ page. A new Jennings serialisation, overlapping ‘The Croesus Conspiracy’ by two weeks, took over the prose slot, and what little enjoyment ‘UFO Agent’ provided died for good when Major Grant was evaporated along with a Zetan, merged with him and came back as Smokeman. At least Eagle was being honest by finally turning one of its strips into an actual superhero, instead of the half-hearted pretending that had gone on so far, but they were a very long way from knowing the remotest thing about doing a superhero effectively.
But I began with ‘Dan Dare’ and let’s end with him. The final menace was driven off in issue 53 by a rip-off from H.G.Wells’ The War of the Worlds. Keith Watson was given one page more, one panel rather, in Volume 18 issue 1, to depict Dan being congratulated by all his friends, or at least all the Hampson era ones, plus Wilf Banger, on his promotion to Controller of the Spacefleet. His first task? Write his memoirs. And so Longacre finally got out of paying anyone for Dan Dare stories or art, because all those Hampson strips were free.

One last time – great strip three

So my reviews end here, unlike Eagle itself. What have I left out? As I’ve already said, Blackbow, the Guinea Pig and the Iron Man made it to the end. Nick Hazard came back in volume 18, with back to back serials offering another 29 weeks entertainment. There was a fourth and final Jennings serial and a couple more serials of which I have no memory, even from the names.
Cornelius Dimworthy didn’t last through Volume 18, being replaced by Micky Merlin, about whom I have no memories whatsoever, whilst UFO Agent lasted into Volume 19, though it underwent multiple changes of title: ‘Smokeman UFO’, ‘Smokeman CID’, ‘Grant CID’ and finally just ‘CID’. I shudder.
Other strips had short runs: ‘Sky Buccaneers’, whatever that was, ‘Circus Wanderers’, which fifty years on I have still not managed to totally forget, and partial reprints of ‘Mark Question’ (as ‘Mark Mystery’) and ‘Hornblower’. There was even a run of Jack Kirby’s ‘Tales of Asgard’ short back-ups from Marvel’s Thor in Volume 19, strange as that is to recall. Not that they were advertised as reprints, no sir, this was a new Eagle feature so far as its audience was concerned.
But these things were beyond the end and beyond the pale. I have my Eagle collection, to my delight and continuing disbelief, and I’ve read the whole lot, and now I’ve written about it all.

Treme: s02 e01 – Accentuate the Positive


Hero or Villain? Or Mr In-Between?

So it rolls on. An oddly subdued, quiet and moving open set the scene, fourteen months after, seven months on, St Joseph’s Day in the graveyard, people visiting stones, Antonie Batiste playing at the stone of his mentor. Mostly silence around them, the first sounds of cars speeding up the day. Down in the Treme…

So where are we? We are where we always are in life. Some things are the same, some things have moved on, on being a direction that can be positive or negative, though the episode title, and the song itself, which pops up, invites us to accentuate the former, even as the City of New Orleans and what is happening to it, or rather not happening to it, nudges us very firmly in the direction of the latter.

David Morse, as Lt Terry Colson, and India Ennenga, as Sofie Bernette, have stepped up into main cast whilst there’s a new but old face in Jon Seda, of fond Homicide: Life on the Street memory, as newcomer Nelson Hidalgo, from Dallas, here to sweep up as much as he can get of that dinero that is undoubtedly lying around on the street for that sharp-minded guy who can seize the opportunity to make New Orleans the model 21st century city, eradicating crime, drugs and poor education. Or, in a word, White.

Let’s roll round everyone. Antoine and Desiree finally revisit their old home, like so many places irreperable. Antoine’s still gigging, but they need more money, regular money. Antoine’s starting to consider forming a band.

LaDonna’s mother’s moved up to Baton Rouge to live with them, but LaDonna’s still running the bar, and William’s even more urgent abut getting her to sell up, move out, come home to him. LaDonna’s heels are firmly dug in.

Big Chief Albert Lambreaux’s nose is firmly pushed out of joint. That bar he took over? That he made habitable and turned into his domain? The owner’s finally back and it’s his and the silent, resentful Albert has to find a new place.

Toni Bernette’s still crusading. She’s collaborating a lot more with Colson now, who’s job is being made worse by the rising street crime: a shooting in a bar where the increasingly drowning Sonny is drinking, a dead blonde on the street after a mugging. Sofie is still severely depressed over her Dad’s death, over the stasis in N’Awlins, the endless, ongoing struggle just to live a life. She’s followed in Cray’s shoes with a YouTube blog. Toni’s very worried.

Some people are out of town. Janette’s in New York, saucier in a restaurant with a genius chef of the explosive temper, this-is-not-fucking-good-enough, fuck you over to show that I can fuck you over kind.

Delmond Lambreaux’s career is advancing. The critics want to praise him for transcending New Orleans, for completely obliterating all trace of it from his music, and it is seriously pissing him off. It’s true and it’s only what he’s said himself, but Delmond still thinks of himself as New Orleans, even if he doesn’t know that yet: he can say that sort of stuff but they ain’t earned it.

And just as Sonny is falling downhill, musically at least, Annie’s ascending gloriously. She’s on a tour with The subdudes (they of the glorious a capella harmonies on Shawn Colvin’s version of ‘Tenderness on the Block’), a rising star, and her singing’s coming on too. She’s living with Davis McAlary now, and seriously impressed that he cleaned his pad for her homecoming, though she hasn’t seen the gloriously funny ‘cleaning’ taking place: thank the stars that we still don’t have Smell-o-Vision.

As  for Nelson, well, let’s keep our eyes on him. He’s there to make money in property, in redevelopment. He’s a smoothie, flirting with LaDonna at her bar, and she flirting back. Which side of the increasingly easy to see line are we talking about here?

Down in the Treme, just me and my baby. It rolls on.

Some Books: Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising Sequence


Since 2014, when I went in search of books I had once read and re-read enthusiastically from Didsbury, I began an occasional series about re-discovering such books after something like thirty years. I am curious about whether I still find them appealing, and if this is for more than nostalgia for the times I associate them with.
The latest of these is Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising Sequence, as it’s commonly known and is indeed titles on the paperback omnibus I obtained through eBay for the purpose. At the time, I borrowed it in individual volumes, never more than one at a time, which suggests to me that either they were sufficiently popular that it was hard to get each succeeding book when I’d finished with its predecessor, or else that I wasn’t that into them that I had to read the full story.
The Sequence has been praised, and by people whose opinions to tend to alert mine, such as Neil Gaiman. There is, however, criticism that the first book, Over Sea, Under Stone, doesn’t live up to the rest of the series, being a far too obvious children’s story, almost unrelated to the later, greater sequence.
I’d say that’s fair comment. Before starting my re-read, I checked the publication dates, which show Over Sea, Under Stone appearing in 1965, and the other four books appearing over a five year period that doesn’t start until 1973. And though Cooper does start with the idea of a longer, background story, in which the Drew children, Simon, Jane and Barney, play a significant role, none of the deeper matters impinge on the tale, which is a simple Treasure Hunt, with the Drews, under the direction of their (honorary) Great-Uncle Merriman Lyons, find a golden chalice that is identified as being the Holy Grail, and which ends up in a glass case in a Museum, from which it has to be stolen in book three in order to be recovered in time to use.
The opening book, and its simplistic nature, has the look and feel of an altogether lighter story, without long-term consequence, and the eight year gap before its sequel appeared – a sequel in which the Drews are absent and whose central character, eleven year old Will Stanton, is a direct and more than human participant in the overall struggle – suggests to me a later development of the major story, creating a Hobbit/Lord of the Rings clash of tones, albeit not so severe.
That sequel, which gives its name to the sequence, introduces Will and moves the action lock, stock and barrel from Cornwall to Buckinghamshire. Again, it’s something of a Treasure Hunt theme, but this is different. Instead of being a game for three normal children, fun but with dangerous edges, it’s a life and death matter from the outset, and Will, who learns on his eleventh birthday that he is actually the last of the Old Ones, participates as an equal with closer to full knowledge of what is involved.
Though this was explained by Merriman in Over Sea, Under Stone, it’s not until The Dark is Rising that Cooper starts to give us a greater feel for the longer story. This is of the opposition, since the world began, between the Dark and the Light. The Dark is everything mean, dirty and offensive. It is control and power, forever seeking the means of ordering everything according to its lights. In contrast, the Light, which is represented in the Old Ones, seeks nothing for itself but the freedom of those it protects to live their lives as they choose. The Dark is rising, to one final, fatal push, which will either win they total control, unendingly, or else their own dissolution forever.
What Will has to do in this book is to collect and bring together six signs, each a circle, quartered by a cross, each of a different substance, to create a weapon essential to the Light’s ultimate aim.
It’s a much stronger book because, notwithstanding Will’s pre-adolescent age, he has to be, and indeed is, adult in all but years.
Greenwitch, a surprisingly short, and overly simple book, takes everything back to Trewissick, and brings the Drews back into things. The Grail has been stolen and has to be recovered which, despite Will’s powers – which he hides from the children until it’s almost too late – it’s Jane, the only female leading character in the series, who makes victory possible, and that is due to her innately feminine niceness.
The Greenwitch is a wicker woman, constructed by the women of Trewissick and given to the sea, as an ancient rite born in the desire to seek protection for the fishermen. By chance, the Grail, stolen by a minor figure of the Dark, hoping to rise in their ranks, is hidden in the Greenwitch, who refuses to release it. If it is taken into the realm of Tethys, queen of the sea, it will pass into the hands of the High Magic, and cease to be available to Dark or Light. It is Jane’s kindness, making a wish on the Greenwitch not for herself but for the being created from the woven wicker to be happy that persuades the latter to release her treasure to the only girl in the game.
The Grey King returns to Will, sending him into Wales whilst recovering from a life-threatening bout of hepatitis. Will has memorised three verses of ancient property that have now gone out of his head (but not permanently, of course), but the rags he can recall indicate that the next stage is a confrontation with the Grey King, translated as Cader Idris.
Cooper shows herself very adept at conjuring up the feel of Wales, relying not on phonetic dialogue as with the Cornishmen, as on the rhythm of Welsh speech and the use of unexplained Welsh terms. And whilst much of her mythology already rests on Celtic concerns and an underlying touch of Arthur, both are greatly enhanced here as Will makes friends with, and more importantly brings to the Light’s side, the initially strange albino Welsh boy, Bran (pronounced Braan) Davies.
For Bran, with his mysterious, greatly obscured parentage, proves to be the son of Arthur himself, brought by Guinevere and Merriman forward in time, and he and Will are key to first finding the golden harp that is the next thing of power required by the Light, but also in waking the Six Sleepers, held under the Grey King’s power in the bearded lake, Tal-y-Llyn.
This sets up the final confrontation, in Silver on the Tree, in which the Drews return, but the major part of which concerns Will and Bran’s journey into the Lost Land, to persuade the doubting King Gwynnndo to give to Bran the sword made for Arthur. This leads to a frantic race to the Chilterns, where a bud is to be cut from a certain tree.
En route, there is a clever, and moving twist, as the Dark, in what might be seen as an oddly pedantic appeal to Rules and Regulations, seek to have Bran disqualified from taking part. In a way, it reminded me of the old distinctions of County Cricket, held onto longest by Yorkshire, that permitted only players born within the county boundaries to represent their county (this was used in a DC Thomson ‘It’s Runs that Count!’ series, in which a mystery player for Rob Higson’s Highshire was claimed by their unscrupulous neighbours to be only qualified to play for Broadshire).
Despite this bureaucratic approach, Cooper turns the scene to great advantage, for the decision is placed in the hands of an ordinary man, a man who considers himself betrayed by all that has happened, and especially by the Light that has destroyed the life of contented love he once had. And this man reaches deeply through his pain and regret to give a fair, composed, and deeply thought-out verdict that refutes the Dark’s challenge, and permits Bran the part he is destined to play, to turn back the Dark, from this, its greatest Rising.
And defeated thus, the Dark is not merely diminished but is defeated forever. And the Light withdraws with it, no longer needed. Earth and humanity now has control of its destiny, and will forge its future from now on. Merriman, oldest of the Old Ones, can now move on, never to be seen again, though Will, youngest, will remain, the only one to remember what has happened. The Drews will not, nor will Bran, who chooses to remain with the father who adopted him and showed him nothing but love, rather than Arthur, in idyllic and mythic retreat.
Overall, despite its shaky beginning, the Sequence is a very good, well-thought out and knowledgeable fantasy, far better than many I have read, whether for children or adults. The problem with it is that, underneath everything, it is always and ineluctably a children’s story. As such, it consciously limits itself to a certain depth, below which it will not allow itself to sink. The worst that the Dark can perpetrate is horrible violence against animals (usually by other animals), the perverting of vulnerable humans to betrayals, and some overt racism in Silver on the Tree to demonstrate the kind of thing that’s going to be in store for us if the Dark wins.
It’s not much, it’s far from graphic, and it shrinks the series’ horizons to things shaped to a young audience.
What I was hoping for is something of the strength, the deep-lying conviction, that comes out in Alan Garner. Though they mostly remain even further from the surface than Cooper’s Dark, Garner’s horrors are terrifying. They are vivid and real, even though they take their substance from what Garner doesn’t write but instead effortlessly draws from us.
But there is only one Alan Garner, and even if he writes no more, as Boneland seemed to predict, I dread the day of losing him. Cooper can’t do that. She can write a good story, full of symbols and myths and evocations of things other than we can see, but she can’t draw me into them in the way that cries out to be drawn. My younger self – I say younger but we’re looking at my early twenties at the very best – was clearly not sufficiently interested in the books then. Though she has written other, later fiction, I don’t think I’ll be spreading my net wider. A shame: I had hoped for better. But like most of the books in this series, this will be going back on eBay, in the hope it finds a more appreciative reader than I.