For a moment there, I was about to make a bit of a fool about myself, unintentionally of course.
I had just learned about the death, on November 30, aged 71, of Heather North, a little-known television actress of whom I had never previously heard. Ms North’s claim to was being the voice of Daphne Blake, ‘Danger Prone Daphne’, from Scooby Doo.
And I would have happily recited my memories, aged 12-13, of avidly watching Scooby Doo, Where Are You?, with that original theme music running through my head, because like all of us of a certain age, I loved Scooby Doo, and Mystery Incorporated and, even though she was a cartoon, I fancied Daphne (long legs, short skirt, red hair, hey, who wouldn’t?)
And then, just in time, I did a little bit more digging, to check exactly when Ms North passed on, and discovered that although the lady was the voice of Daphne from 1970 to 1985, and again in 2000 and 2003, she was not the original voice.
Given that I consider the first series of Scooby Doo to be the only true series, definitive and unmatchable, and that I do not allow the words Scr***y D** to be mentioned in my presence, I would have looked stupid to wax nostalgic over the loss of Ms North, though her longevity in the role demonstrates thatshe must have been good in it.
No, that wash of nostalgia is properly set in motion by a lady still with us, one Stefanianna Christopherson. She is the voice of Daphne Blake for me, the voice of those memories: long may she last!
This is the point that’s taken me over two years to reach, the outermost point of those evenings twenty years ago, of sprawling in front of the BBC2 showings of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. The end of season 5, the start of the Dominion War. By the time DS9 came back, I had a house full of people, and coming in, throwing off my jacket and tie and sprawling on the couch was no longer an viable option.
I started watching DS9 from the beginning to fill in the beginning and end of a middle that, falsely, I remembered as stretching maybe as much as three seasons. When I finally caught up with my recollections, it turned out to be not even one full season. But the end of season 5 concludes that phase of the rewatch. Ahead of me lies terra incognita, just as much as if things had never gone the way they did and I had remained free to watch TV whenever I felt like it.
‘Call to Arms’ might have begun with the comic note of Rom and Leeta trying to agree a wedding dress for a ceremony in which, under Ferengi culture, she should have been naked (insert your own shallow comment here), but swiftly modulated to the tension that underlies the approach of war. The Dominion are bringing in warfleets every week, via the Wormhole, en route to Cardassia, regular as clockwork. Sisko has to take a decision: do nothing, and allow an irresistible fleet to be assembled, capable of ultimate victory when it chooses to act, or halt the incoming reinforcements, and preciptate war now.
The only choice, if victory is to be possible, is the latter: Sisko orders the entrance to the Wormhole to be mined.
Weyoun appears, to protest, to suggest a deal by which the mines are removed and the Dominion limits itself to civilian ships, medical and economic assistance for the poor, stricken Cardassian Empire. Sisko will consult the Federation, which isn’t sending its own reinforcements, for reasons we won’t learn until the end (a Federation/Klingon attack that destroys the Dominion shipyards in Cardassian territory). No-one believes anything for a moment.
War is coming. Everyone’s preparing for it. Keiko O’Brien and the children have been evacuated back to Earth, Jake Sisko won’t go because a reporter’s duty is to be where the action is. The Romulan Empire has signed a non-aggression pact with the Dominion, Sisko advises Bajor to do the same, over Major Kira’s protests: five years ago, he was assigned to DS9 to protect Bajor after it gained its independence and that duty still remains, so he will use his position as Emissary to take them out of the firing line.
All Bajorans evacuate. Rom and Leeta get Sisko to marry them, before she is ordered to go: Rom has a duty to stay as a Starfleet member, and a duty to protect his brother, who seems for once to appreciate this. Gul Dukat’s half-Bajoran daughter, Tora Ziyal parts reluctantly from Garak. Quark starts smuggling in yamok sauce. Odo and Kira are still acting awkwardly around each other until Odo officially tells her that he’s locking away his feelings for the duration (some of these scenes are more effective emotionally than others: you can actually hear the writing staff’s cheers of relief underlying this one).
Seeding the wormhole with self-replicating mines (Rom’s suggestion) takes time, and the Defiant will be a sitting duck until it has finished. And it is not finished when the War steps across the line between coming and arriving. A Dominion/Cardassian fleet under Gul Dukat comes to attack DS9. General Martok’s Klingon Warbird protects the Defiant. The station defends itself steadfastly, destroying 50 ships. But once the seeding is done, it is time to take the inevitable decision. Deep Space Nine is lost: the Federation will evacuate.
Not permanently. Sisko, his staff and Garak depart to join a major fleet approaching DS9. McArthur-like, he promises he will return. Quark’s bar stays open. Rom rejoins him as Assistant Manager and (self-proclaimed?) Federation spy. Jake remains as a journalist, trusting in his ‘status’ as the emissary’s son to protect him.
Major Kira, Odo and Quark officially greet Dukat’s return to Terak Nor. The Major has already initiated a Sisko-developed programme that thoroughly wipes the control room computers of any ability to function.
But although it’s not the final shot, that being the cliched one of Sisko looking defiant, the episode and the series ends with a very effective moment. Gul Dukat commandeers the station commander’s office: his again, after five long years of waiting for revenge. It has been stripped of everything, but one item, Sisko’s baseball. Dukat recognises it as a message. Sisko is coming back.
We move onwards, I move onwards towards the only real step into the future since I began this series back in October 2015. Everything until now has been backing and filling, getting up to speed with the background to that brief period of which I was already aware. Forward I go.
Next week being Christmas week, I haven’t decided yet whether or not to take a week’s break. It is a perfect point to do so, but on the other hand, habit is habit. If you don’t get a DS9 post off me next Tuesday, that’ll be why, and we’ll pick things up again in the New Year.
I’m beginning to think that we might, just might, have a Retro Xmas no 1 this year.
If we do, it looks unlikely to be my dream choice, Kirsty and the Pogues’ ‘Fairytale of New York’, though that’s climbed to no 7 this week. But Mariah Carey and Wham! have both moved up three places, to nos 2 and 3 respectively. All three of these songs peaked at no 2, first time out, and there’s got to be a definite chance of either Maria the Diva or the late George M going that final one better.
We’ll know at 6.00pm on Friday, when the Xmas chart gets announced. Maybe a Retro top 3? Whoever gave that a chance of happening, in the years of livestreams?
We’re rolling onwards towards Xmas Day, and I’m looking forward to my usual peace and quiet-ful Xmas alone. It’s eight years since I last shared Xmas Day with other people, and that was in a homeless shelter, eating an unexpected traditional Xmas roast, drinking non-alcoholic lager and enjoying a surprising camaraderie with a bunch of strangers.
Ever since then, I’ve done Xmas day in solitude, and I’m looking forward to that again this year. I am prepared: there’s no-one to buy me presents so I have accumulated a pile which I shall unwrap on the day, unwrap here being a word that means tear off the Amazon and eBay packaging.
I have a turkey in the freezer which, on the day, I will cook (having defrosted it for the required period), sticking it in the oven somewhere between 12.00 and 2.00pm, with the aim of eating at about 6.00pm, back-scheduling all the necessary steps with that time in mind.
I currently have the booze in the fridge and the imperishables bought, except for the jam sponge pudding and custard I intend to have for dessert (can’t eat Xmas Pudding/Cake, just can’t stomach it) which I will buy tomorrow, leaving the carrots, brussells, potatoes, bacon (for the turkey breast) and sausages until next Saturday.
Like last year, I will be working Xmas Eve, technically until 9.00pm, even though this is a Sunday, though I expect/anticipate/hope we’ll get out about 7.00pm, or at least whilst the busses are still running.
But once I shut the flat door behind me, whatever time I arrive on Xmas Eve, I go into a pleasurable purdah, undisturbed by other people. I am responsible to no-one, beholden to no-one, able to relax completely and do my own thing. And I like it that way.
Between the closing of that door behind me on Xmas Eve, to the moment on Boxing Day when I decide to go out and buy that day’s Guardian, I will not see nor speak to any other person. On the Day itself, I will probably browse my regular sites and forums, and may make a couple of indolent posts if anyone is about.
But aside from that, this is the extreme of me-time, and I look forward to it.
It’s not that I haven’t enjoyed Xmas days in company in the past. A couple of them stick out in my memory. My Mother’s last Xmas Day, only four days before she died, when we were invited to my brother-in-law’s parents, which I recall with pleasure at my gradual realisation that everyone was looking forward to the premiere of the first Michael Keaton Batman film in the evening, the one with Jack Nicholson as the Joker, and that they all thought to was going to be an Adam West/Burt Ward, Biff, Bam, Pow affair and watching all their faces as the truth slowly dawned on them.
Or a few years later, invited to friends for the Day, and in the afternoon playing either Risk or that other strategy game that isn’t called Risk, getting knocked out fairly early on, starting to assist their younger son and helping him to Complete World Domination, with his ex-Army father complaining this was the first time he’d ever lost.
And then the big film was Robin Hood – Prince of Thieves, which I am here to tell you is the very best film to watch on Xmas Day when you are halfway pissed and cannot take it remotely seriously: he lands at the Cliffs of Dover in the morning, sets off to walk to Nottingham and by the evening is camping at Hadrian’s Wall? After that, the film had no credibility whatsoever and we took the piss out of it unmercifully.
But the fact is that I first started to spend Xmas day on my own in the mid-Nineties and did it often enough to coin the aphorism that you should always spend Xmas day with your family every three or four years so that you can understand how much fun you can have on your own.
Roll on Monday week, or rather Sunday week night at some point, where I shut out the world and for the space of a couple of days, it and I can have nothing to do with one another. Bliss.
When I read the mini-blurb on the DVD for this episode, I was mentally prepared for a substandard episode, a one-off with no relevance to the overall arc of American Gothic, a bit of a filler in fact. In one sense, that was an accurate impression, if you consider the story purely in respect of its plot. But it was a thoroughly well-made filler, it put Gary Cole in a position whereby Lucas Buck could be seen as an anti-hero, and it made space for a couple of scenes that subtly amplified the momentum of the series.
On the other hand, it did begin with what’s quickly becoming the show’s own cliche: Caleb and Boone, sneaking about at night, where they shouldn’t be, and coming across something horrific. This time, it’s a man being drowned in his own bath-tub, by a gang of four men in pig masks.
That’s the episode’s most serious weakness. The plot’s about four strangers in town, Northerners, from Flint in Michigan, here to run a protection racket among the stupid Southerners of South Carolina. A straightforward issue: the men are lawbreakers, a disruptive influence in an orderly small town. Why they should have killed off Will Hawkins is never explained. It’s a dramatic introduction, and as Will Hawkins voted for Lucas Buck’s opponent as Sheriff, it gives us a way into the wider picture, which is that Trinity as a whole immediately assumes these strongarm boys are working for Good Ol’ Sheriff Buck, but this is before we or Buck encounter them and no reason is given why they drown this man, or what purpose it serves them.
What we do get is a degree of unrest among the townfolk, and a substantial level of concern from sad sack and generally put upon Deputy Ben Healy, who can’t rightly rid himself of his conscience but who is too much of a weakling to be anything more than ineffectual. He even gets beat up on the street by these four charmers – one heavyweight drunkard, one rapist, the smooth, calculating leader and his shaky, unstable younger brother (played memorably by Richard Edson, whose face will be immediately recognisable even as his name isn’t).
Buck is playing this with his usual coolness. That everyone accepts the Northerners as just another one of the Sheriff’s tentacles is telling, and indeed Buck’s first step is to sound the quartet out on coming under his direction, though whether this is a real offer or just a means to get a close-up look and size them up is never defined.
Certainly Caleb thinks the Sheriff is conspiring with the bad guys, which he reports to Gail for her story. And he’s curious enough to sneak into their room, where he discovers a metal suitcase under the bed, filled with money, jewellery and at least one gun, which he takes.
This results in an invasion of his bedroom, at night, by three of the gang in their pig masks, to get it back. They’ve filled Caleb with fear, enough for him to openly call for Merly. When she doesn’t appear, he summons up his courage and, filled with some supernatural power, directs an animal roar at them that frightens them away. Caleb smiles in relief and thanks Merly, but the clear implication is that what Caleb has done has not come from the White side of the Magic line…
But let’s get back to the plot. I said three of the gang: Lucas has already picked off one of the gang, the drunk, intercepting him in the early morning, being dropped off after a night with one of the local tramps. A little more booze, conning the man into thinking he’s confessed to murder but been so drunk he can’t remember doing so, a little more booze and he falls asleep.
And wakes in a confined space at Will Hawkins’ funeral. Inside the coffin.
Lightweight member two is disposed of more briefly. He’s fixing to rape Gail, who’s already punched him in the balls, but Buck applies the traditional swing of the shovel to the back of the head, and lugs the unconscious body away, never to be seen (or spoken of) again.
This provokes Lowell into marching into the Sheriff’s office and attempting to ‘bail’ Earl and Just Eddie out, nudge nudge, wink wink. Buck provokes an assault, which gets Lowell into the cells, where somehow his belt gets wound tightly around his neck. Fortunately for all concerned, he’s saved at the last moment by the good Sheriff, and rushed to hospital where he recovers. As soon as Buck pushes himself into the operating theatre.
Now there are two, Lowell and Barrett. The Sheriff offers the pair a last chance: they can hand over everything they’ve stolen to him, and go to work under his aegis – as tyre salesmen – or they can go back north. Predictable to the end, the brothers run. South. There’s a roadblock waiting, Sheriff and Deputy. Lowell attempts to drive round it, flips the car. He’s stuck in it, Barrett’s trying to crawl away. Buck offers them one final chance. He cuffs them together around one of the car stanchions and flips them a knife. No, it’s not an original scene, it wasn’t when Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons used it in Watchmen ten years earlier, but it’s still effective. The knife won’t cut through the handcuffs but it might through a wrist, if they’re motivated enough.
Then he sticks a flare in the petrol tank.
This is all disturbing to DeputyBen, our conspicuous conscience. But he has the pain in his ribs to compete with the pain in his decency. The show suggests the latter is not the worst.
So: a filler, yes, but one that impacts on the overall picture, filling in a lot of unobtrusive background. One other thing does bother me, however, and that’s the boarding house where Caleb and Doctor Matt live. In episode 3, Caleb’s placed in the temporary care of Loris Holt, who runs the boarding house, which is supposed to be filled with African supernatural exotica. Actress Tina Lifford hasn’t been seen since, the statuary has disappeared, and the house currently seems to be being run by a blonde MILF.
Checking imdb reveals that Ms Lifford does appear in other episodes, one of which, according to their episode guide, I should already have watched, in fact last week, as episode 6. It appears very much later on the DVD. I’m assuming that the DVD arranges the episodes in the intended order, that reflects the overall arc, just as my Homicide:Life on the Street DVDs reflect the intended order, not the sometimes asinine placing of episodes by NBC.
Well, although it’s quite obvious that American Gothic is a superb series, it lasted only one episode. With CBS scheduling episodes out of order, and confusing the audience over what’s supposed to be happening when in a season-long arc, we have here one of the reasons why it ended up cancelled…
A couple of weeks ago, I posted about Doonesburyand how it had faded itself into insignificance by going Sunday only. My point has just been reinforced.
I started reading the Guardian in the first place, as far back as 1981, because it had recently picked up running Doonesbury, six days a week. Obviously, I stayed with the paper for more reasons than this, though these reasons wear thinner year on year. But Doonesbury has been indelibly associated with this paper in the UK for over thirty five years.
This has been evidenced by what happened on the two occasions the paper tried to drop the strip. The first was when the Berliner format was adopted. Doonesbury was absent on that first Monday, and back o Wednesday (with the two missing strips reprinted) thanks to a massive and vocal wave of reader protest. I am not alone, people.
The same thing happened when the paper underwent another redesign earlier this decade. The re-designer decided it was old hat, a thing of the past. Monday came, and no Trudeau. And it (and the missing two strips) were back by Wednesday. Same again: massive vocal protest demonstrating the Guardian was wrong.
At some point, Monday of last week, or maybe even the week before, the Guardian dropped Doonesbury again. Or rather, it dropped the Doonesbury Flashbacks that have been running for over four years now. It’s been replaced by adverts. I didn’t even notice until some time round the middle of last week. Today, I specifically checked, and the more recent printing of the Sunday strip has also vanished.
And there has been no protest, no reaction, no complaints. Nobody wants to fight for it, or if they do the numbers have been so low that not only has the Guardian been able to ignore them with impunity, but there isn’t even any evidence of a protest: no Letters to the Editor, at least, none in print.
So the link has been broken after 36 years, and one once fundamental cartoon strip, in its forty-eighth year, is demonstrated to be, as I said, insignificant.
So here we are, on the eve of War. Everyone’s tense, grim and gloomy. People and shops are leaving DS9 for healthier climates. Captain Sisko’s dinner party for the senior staff (except Jardzia Dax, missing for a second week) has fallen flatter than a flat thing that has been flattened by being run over by a steamroller. And Kai Winn is dropping in for a meeting tomorrow morning.
When the Kai arrives, it is with troubling news. She is here to meet with a representative of the Dominion, the egregious Weyoun. The meeting is at the Dominion’s request: they wish to conclude a non-aggression pact. Sisko is concerned, as is the Kai. For the first time, they are completely in accord, they are prepared to work together towards the common goal of Bajor’s preservation.
Portentous stuff. And guess what? That’s the B story. And it’s deliberately so.
The A story is basically a joke, and I mean that in every sense of the word. Sisko, like everybody else, is down, and Jake wants to cheer him up. The ideal opportunity arises: an auction that includes a framed 1951 Willie Mays rookie baseball card (that even I know is a bit legendary). Jake wants to win it for his Dad, make him happy so, with Nog in reluctant tow, the pair set about trying to ge it. Much havoc and hilarity ensues.
At least, that’s the theory. The inversion of the usual Serious A/lightweight B formula was deliberate, and arose in part from the plan to do a ‘bottle’ episode, cheap’n’cheerful, as a contrast to the major events to come in the season finale next week. And generally it was well-received, though to be honest it bored me, and I felt it to be too contrived.
Some of this is, and I have called myself out on this many times, that I CANNOT watch Deep Space Nine without thinking of the way that TV serial fiction is conducted in the Twenty-First Century. I can’t see it in its own terms, precisely because Deep Space Nine, especially at this time, with the Dominion War brooding, was so perfect for the current day treatment.Some of this is that I started this rewatch because I’d seen some of the series back in the day, and loved it, but never saw beginning or end, and this is the last but one of those episodes from then, and next week’s is the last one I remember, and I don’t find this A story funny or even plausible. It disappoints me by being given prominence over the prelude to War, over the revelation of other facets to Kai Winn, over Sisko’s last advice to try to keep the situation fluid, avoid choices where every choice is fateful and tainted. Instead, we have to watch an obsessive quest for a baseball card that gets inflated into an all-round feel-good story that we’re supposed to accept as A Jolly Good Thing All Round (except for Leeta).
So, basically, Jake and Nog get massively outbid for the lot by the mysterious and paranoid Dr Giger who, it turns out, is working on a cure for mortality that is deliberately ridiculous, who’ll trade the card in return for several McGuffins in the form of unusual materials, for which our young pair have to barter with half the station staff, except that he’s commandeered the quarters below Weyoun and the Jem’Hadar, who suspect assassination and kidnap everybody, including Jake and Nog, only refuses to believe their ‘innocent-victims-of-implausible-circumstance’ story, so Jake spins a yarn about Spacefleet Intelligence and Time Travel, which convinces Weyoun their first story was true, so everybody’s happy, Sisko gets his card, the staff all cheer up thanks to what J & N have done for them, and Weyoun is interested in Giger’s stupid machine.
The B story is left without an ending. But it’s the season finale next week, and we all know what’s coming then, don’t we?
I understand the reasoning, I respect the intention, and if the A story hadn’t been so intentionally stupid, I might have enjoyed the result. But once again i have to go against the grain and say that this was not, in my book, a good episode.
It’s December again, and once more I am recording/celebrating the annual return of the greatest Christmas song in history, The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl’s “A Fairytale of New York”.
It’s hit the Singles chart again, for the fifteenth time and for the thirteenth successive year, and this time, by jumping from 55 to 10, today, it’s reached the top 10 for the fifth time, and the first since 2007.
And for some reason, this is a nostalgia heavy Christmas pop period, because Mariah Carey is at no 5, Wham at no 6 and Band Aid at 16. Even Shakin’ Stevens and Wizzard have crashed the top 30. All this with two more charts to go. And whilst I hold no brief for either Mariah or George Michael, it would fill me with delight if either one of those, or both, could knock Simon Cowell’s latest into a cocked hat.
I’d love it even more if it were “Fairytale of New York”, which peaked at no 2 first time round, exactly thirty years ago this year, but I’m content with what it’s already achieved. According to Wikipedia, it’s the most played Xmas song of the 21st century in the UK, so you’ll already be familiar with it, but here it comes again, together with the tears that cannot help but well every time I play this, and I think of poor, wonderful Kirsty, killed 17 years ago, but who will never ever die because this record will be around as long as people have ears.
Behind its deliberately flat, punning title, and its cheerful descent into the gross-out aspect of horror, this episode of American Gothic nevertheless displayed enough subtlety to keep us from taking its path too much for granted. There isn’t necessarily going to be a complete reset at the end of any given story: the characters are too well-rounded to be entirely predictable.
This week’s story focused around the person of Selena Coombs, schoolteacher and southern bad girl. With her slow-moving ways, her dry, breathy tones and that accent, you would be looking at Brenda Bakke a long time before you started thinking of vanilla sex. Certainly that doesn’t appear to have been in the mind of Heck Waller, who has gone missing before things start, or Coach Bender, who has provided Selena with a private key to the school pool so she can don a backless black swimsuit and slowly do the breast stroke at night.
Both Heck and Coach are middle-aged, married men, bored with wives who aren’t as young as Selena, both under the delusion that they can get off with her, even though her contempt for them is as pretty naked as it gets. Maybe they’ll get lucky if she feels bored enough to play vicious games, and they’ll put it down to their irresistability. But in reality, it gets them dead.
Heck turns up as a skeleton, under the old Temple place (now the new Buck place, Lucas having foreclosed on his loan and planning to set up a mansion), found by accident by Caleb and Boone. A skeleton, stripped to the bone. Even though Coronoer Webb only played gold with him last Friday. Thanks to my reading of Alfred Bester, I was aware of carpet beetles, and how they’re used to clean the flesh off corpses donated to medical school, and my mind went leaping, accurately, ahead.
Heck’s transformation brings State Police Lieutenant Drey to Trinity, a smooth guest performance from Bruce Campbell, openly suspicious of Sheriff Buck (Selena’s his girlfriend, two guys sniffing round her go missing, wind-up dead, equals four in Drey’s book). Because the same thing happens to Coach after he tries a little late-night swimming practice with our lady schoolteacher and has to be choked off by the ubiquitous Sheriff.
All’s not entirely well between Buck and Selena either. She’s in Drey’s protective custody, and in his faux-honest manner, Buck’s dropping hints that she might be everything Drey clearly hopes she is. And Gail’s investigating in the hope of finding the Sheriff’s finger in some kind of pie. She even visits the Trinity Museum of Natural history, where the not-in-the-least-creepy Mrs Constantine shows the the Bug Chamber, the colloquial name for the Flensing Room, you know, where the local collected beetles strip the flesh from bodies…
And there’s all these creepy shots of beetles, everywhere, which might not gross everybody out but was doing it for me.
But what of the show’s main topic? Caleb is disturbed by discovering Heck’s skeleton, but he’s even more disturbed by discovering a lop-sided gravestone in a corner of the graveyard, with his name on it. Dreams about digging it up plague him, dreams of his own leech-covered face, but when he does dig it up, who should appear but Sheriff Lucas Buck, and what should the coffin contain but cash? $30,000 worth in fact, for Caleb, a down payment for someone with the strength of mind to seize an opportunity, not to live in a boardinghouse forever.
Caleb’s tempted, and Merly’s disappointed. Her ghost fades out. Caleb comes to a decision.
Gail, snooping round Selena’s home in her absence, until disturbed by Drey, discovers hordes of flowers and heartfelt cards from Ossie. Drey goes to the museum. My sphincter muscles tighten. Gail goes to the museum. MrsConstantine sends her to the Flensing Room, where there’s the distinct sound of beetles munching. Inside the chamber, they’re munching on Drey, who’s chained inside. Still alive, mind you.
But Gail isn’t allowed to get him out. The lid is closed again by the Director of the Flensing Room. Whose name is Ossie. No, it wasn’t Lucas Buck, who arrives to save the day.
So all’s well that ends well, by implication at least in the case of Lieutenant Drey. Buck’s still trying to push his way with Gail, talking about the illusion of free will: whether she stays in Trinity or returns to Charleston, she’ll think it’s her decision. But it won’t be.
And then a reasonably pretty middle-aged woman enters, Heck’s widow. She hugs Buck, is so grateful, though he doesn’t know why. It’s the money, see. The Sheriff has given her and Coach Bender’s widow a substantial sum of money each, to tide them over is such times. $15,000 each. Isn’t that generous?
I’d barely finished laughing at that before the show demonstrated its superiority with its double ending. First, Selena in the pool again, Lucas come to talk. The charade is over, she’s had her sport, played up to Drey, who never quite suspected her enough of being the killer. Selena pouts that just because she is free, sometimes, with Lucas, don’t mean she’s easy. Still, it’s over, and he leans towards her… and she turns and swims away.
And Caleb, kneeling by his bed, saying his prayers. He’s been good, he’s resisted temptation (again), he’s sorry for lashing out at Merly. He expects her back, expects her forgiveness, her presence. All he gets is darkness, and his own tears.
If Volume 7 was a year in which Eagle needed no more than the lightest-touch editing, Volume 8 was, by definition, the beginning of the end. The line-up that had taken almost six years to develop would, in the end, last just over two years, from Volume 6 no 4 to Volume 8 no 10. Change was on its way.
And change came, rapidly, within the first eleven issues of Volume 8, with new stories starting for Dan Dare, Luck of the Legion and Storm Nelson, together with the end of ‘The Great Sailor’, telling the life-story of Sir Horatio Nelson.
For Dan Dare, the rest of the year was taken up by ‘Reign of the Robots’, with the Cryptos Expedition returning to Earth after ten years’ absence, and finding the planet under the thumb of the Mekon. When the artwork was in the hands of Frank Hampson, it continued to be superb, and those weeks when it was more clearly the work of the studio – frequently credited to ‘Frank Hampson Production’ – was still good, although somewhat variable, but there were weeks when the art looked rough, unfinished, lacking any kind of detailed background, that suggested it had neither seen the inside of Bayford Lodge nor yet been turned over to Desmond Walduck.
There were no such signs of concern for Sergeant Luck or the Silver Fleet, with the former winding up their battle again at the Legion traitor before traveling south to defeat a mysterious slave-trader mastermind dressed as a Templar Knight. At the end of the year, the Legion’s most successful trouble-shooting team found itself in fin-de-siecle Paris, being sent on a mission on a balloon!
The Silver Fleet’s adventures took them from Canada into America, to the West African coast and into the Mediterranean, their colourful adventures involving Blue Beavers, Red Diamonds and Black Boxes.
But this was just the natural shift of story to story within series still maintaining their way, albeit with several such concluding in a short space of time. The changes to which I refer were of a different order.
Excluding a single story drawn by Giorgio Bellavitis, Norman Williams had been the artist in residence on The Great Adventurers for the past five years, but with a single week of Lord Nelson’s story remaining, Williams passed away. Jack O’Lantern‘s artist, Robert Ayton, pitched in to draw the final page, and when the series resumed the following week, with the life of David Livingstone, it was now Peter Jackson who took over Eagle‘s back page.
At the same time, David Langford’s ‘Professor Puff and his Dog Wuff’ came to an end after 188 episodes, with neither fanfare nor any sense of loss. To replace it, Langford turned to ‘Simon Simple’, drawn with a much darker, heavier line. This was simple, gag-a-week stuff, about a small schoolboy wearing a cap, round glasses and an imbecilic smile. The new series was silent for the first seven weeks, until the inherent weakness of this approach became obvious: Eagle still had ‘Chicko’ covering the same territory, and doing it better and more imaginatively with three panels to Langford’s six. Even with dialogue, the series was rarely funny.
But the biggest change of all, the true break-up, was on page 3. ‘The Case of the TV Terror’ too a further ten weeks to wrap-up, with the Boy’s Club and PC49 as usual foiling the bad guys. But that was the end for the only other remaining feature from Eagle‘s first week. PC49 had long since disappeared from its original home of the Light Programme, and now, with a farewell in verse, in a story in which he’d at long last given his full name, Police Constable Archibald Berkeley-Willoughby retired.
It was the end of John Worsley’s association with Eagle but not that of Alan Stranks. Apart from his continued association with Dan Dare, which would keep him at Eagle until his death in 1959, Stranks had not done with page 3, and was back the following week with Mark Question – The Boy with a Future but no Past.
There was no comedy in this series, just a straight drama. A neatly-dressed boy aged about fourteen arrives at a London railway station. He has his wallet stolen. The crooks recognise him as someone who can be exploited. But, as he realises he’s lost his wallet, he’s hit by a truck. When he wakes up, he’s lost all memory of who he is and where he’s from. So he gives himself the name ‘Mark Question’ (think about it) and sets off to find out who he is.
Frankly, it’s not very interesting. The art, by Harry Lindfield, is bland, and so too is Mark, who has no personality except for his obsession with discovering his identity. And the plotting is dreadful. The two thieves, Conger and Snuffle, work for Professor Carracul at the British Museum. The Professor, an expert in Natural History, is a criminal mastermind who uses Conger and Snuffle (the names don’t get any better the more you use them) to rob jewellery etc., which he then smuggles out of the country stuffed into stuffed animals bound for foreign museums. The taxidermy is done by Mr Feathers, who owns a pet shop. Where Mark takes a job as a shop assistant.
Oh please, as plots go that has to be the worst contrivance in Eagle to date. Conger and Snuffle keep Mark’s secret to themselves, not telling Carracul, which means that, when the Professor orders them to dispose of Mark, they don’t tell him that the boy might be worth more alive than dead. So, when their speeding car crashes into the river, and only Mark gets out, his identity dies with them.
The series had no formal stories to it, but once Professor Carracul is defeated, when Mark turns out to be an Olympic level fencer, we switch to another, longer story. A Spaniard calling himself Don Scorpio tries to kill Mark by sending him, what else, a Scorpion. This sends Mark and his unofficial guardian Doctor ‘Doc’ Steele (who only has one arm yet can drive a car for twenty hours straight) off to Europe, where they eventually come to the tiny Pyreneean kingdom of Comorra which, despite its Irish-sounding name, is as Ruritanian as you can get, and where Mark appears to be ‘the Boy King’.
No, the story doesn’t quite sink to that level of cliché, but it does directly rip-off Anthony Hope by having Mark be the spitting image of Maximillian, the real Boy King, about to inherit from his grandfather, Gustavo, except that Max is a screaming coward who wants to run away… And Mark is impersonating Max for the King, who knows who he really is but who’s so far gone…
No, Mark Question is no fit substitute from PC49. But he is a foretaste of what is to come as Eagle moves forward.
I’d like to make mention of Jack O’Lantern at this point. His fourth story, ‘Man-Hunt’, took our young shaver, and his faithful dog, Turnspit, across the Channel to France, where Bonaparte was Master. Jack was determined to track down his kidnapped and disgraced cousin Rufus, free him from the captivity of the turncoat Captain Zero, and frustrate Zero’s plan to impersonate Lieutenant Yorke and enable a mass escape of French prisoners from the new Prison on Dartmoor.
Of course, Jack and Rufus succeeded, and the latter cleared his name and resumed his commission, but before that there were several superb weeks of art by Robert Ayton, depicting the English prisoners escaping downriver and out into the Channel, where Ayton’s staging and depiction of the geography was a highlight of each issue, even when set against Frank Hampson!
Riders of the Range spent most of the year on the story of Billy the Kid, with Frank Humphris’s passion for accuracy showing through at every turn. From there, he and Charles Chilton went on to an even bigger story, ‘The War against the Sioux’, that would lead, in the next Volume, to the Battle of the Little Big Horn.
MacDonald Hastings was represented in about two-thirds of the issues in this Volume but, apart from a final round-up of photos from Norway in issue 1, there were no further adventures. Instead, E.S.I.’s accounts remained very ‘studio-bound’. At first, there was a series on unexplained events and ghosts, which included a superb two-part take-down of the Mystery of the Mary Celeste that I’ve never read elsewhere and which explodes the myth quite thoroughly. It also included a piece on the then-relatively fresh mystery of the Loch Ness Monster.
Later in the year, Mac devoted his time to a series of reports on acts of wartime bravery that resulted in the award of medals for high courage in both World Wars. All very entertaining stuff, and no doubt exciting, but a far cry from actually going out and participating in adventures on behalf of the readers.
And cheaper too, I imagine. Though we are as yet some distance from the fateful decision by Hulton Press to sell up, that was to have such devastating effects on Eagle, the timescale that led up to that moment had more than likely already started to roll out. Hulton’s empire was past its peak. Picture Post‘s heyday was gone, its circulation declining, the profits from the redtop comics becoming increasingly central to the group’s income.
As the year declined, there was another round of new stories starting together, this time in issue 40, with Luck of the Legion, Storm Nelson and Jack O’Lantern all starting fresh tales. There was another new Great Adventurers story on the back page, but this was very different, and astonishingly prestigious. The Happy Warrior was not only the first, and one of only two serials to feature a living subject, but this was none other than the hero of Wartime, Sir Winston Churchill, and for this feature, Marcus Morris brought over the legendary Frank Bellamy from Swift to make his debut in Eagle.
The story is almost stultifyingly respectful, as it would have had to be, and as it would have been even if there had been no pressure. This was Churchill, and this was long before the merest hint of revisionism was tolerable. Certainly, in the dozen episodes published in this volume, Bellamy is so respectful as to be stiff, his art notable for its realism, and his use of a limited but effective colour palette, but this is not the Bellamy we are used to. There are no dynamic layouts, no expressive colours, no freedom.
But it was nevertheless a landmark. And once Bellamy hit Eagle he stayed, and we were all better for it.
Of The Three J’s, and Harris Tweed, there is not much to say. Apart from the cleverness of running a term-story into a holiday story to create an eighteen part marathon, there was little new in The Three J’s. Two more new Fourth Formers became the focus of two more stories, whilst John Ryan introduced no new themes, motifs or story structures into the Extra Special Agent.
Overall, a number strong year. But the loss of PC49 upset a subtle balance, and that all important page 3 slot was diminished. Eagle would never get so distinctive a strip for that position ever again. Mark Question was its first fumble for a long time, but it was the sign of the future arriving.