Lou Grant: s01 e08 – Scoop

Rather a change of pace, this week, for Lou Grant, with an episode that moved away from the social issue stock of the early stories to look at the newspaper business itself.

Lou, being a journalist of the old school, is still wedded to the idea of the exclusive, the scoop. Get the story, but get it before everybody else and instead of everybody else if you can. Billie’s covering the return of Terry Hall, missing for 28 hours, kidnapped and ransomed for $200,000. Except she’s still a bit naive and hasn’t thought to secure herself a phone, so the Trib gets the story ten minutes after everyone else and after its deadline. Even her one genuine exclusive, the ransom amount, gets blown for her on live TV.

Meanwhile, Rossi, who’s been rather overshadowed whilst Billie’s being bedded in, has also got an exclusive. Verified four different ways, he has the Councilman who’s going to run for Congress. Except he’s not. It’s not made clear whether Rossi genuinely misread his info, which had Lou excited for the scoop, or whether going with it a day early scared Councilman Garber off.

Either way, there’s a quick pooling of stories about ways reporters used to get exclusives, in the ‘old days’, and Rossi, in disgrace, is sent off to cover a nothing story about a Sheriff who’s got him a dirt bike and wants to show it off as a new Law Enforcement Vehicle.

I remembered this bit, the first one I’ve remembered. The Sheriff overdoes it, takes a fall, is called dead. Rossi and a rival scramble to beat each other to a phone, with Rossi winning. Only the Sheriff’s not dead: his deputy panicked. Two scoops in as many days, both wrong. Mrs Pynchon is not pleased. She would like a bit more Right Tomorrow reporting. Rossi’s confidence is shot.

Billie, on the other hand, is still following up the Hall kidnapping aftermath. There are some odd details, an aftermath that doesn’t fit. The kid’s a diabetic, was held 28 hours, missed his insulin shot. So why’s he in hospital with symptoms appropriate to excessive insulin?

It looks like, and it is, a scam. Terry and his girlfriend are both workers for Preserve Our Seas, their Dads both lawyers defending Oil Spill companies. $200,000 would tip the unequal odds a bit. This one’s gotto be right, and Lou still wants it exclusive. The Trib gets it, but only because Billie steals a rival’s car keys (and the guy gets his shoe run over), over which she gets an attack of conscience. Rossi, brought in on this to rebuild his confidence, and who’s contacts are instrumental in throwing this together very quickly, has a renewed attack of arrogance. Lou says, “welcome back.”

A neatly designed episode, played with gusto and a proper emphasis on character, which recognises the twin impulses behind journalism and, sensibly, doesn’t try to set one up above the other. The  LA Tribune is a reputable paper, aiming for accuracy and truth, and it’s nice to see that.

Pity we don’t have any newspapers like that in Britain.


A Lycanthrope in Wolfe’s Clothing: Gene Wolfe’s ‘Home Fires’

Whatever their other flaws, these latter-day Gene Wolfe books are far easier to read than the overlaid, multi-character, multi-dialect series of the Nineties and early Two Thousands. In the case of Home Fires, that’s only up to a point.
The book is closer to hard SF than anything Wolfe has written since his unregarded debut novel, Operation ARES. It’s set in a recognisable American setting, recognisable in being populated by familiar figures acting in ways that are recognisable to us, but in a future removed from us by a great gulf of time. It’s told mainly from the point of view of Skip Grisom (and that’s his real name), a middle-aged lawyer, who lives and practices in South Boswatch, which is part of the NAU or Northern American Union.
In a 1984-esque set-up, the world is now made-up of three great power-blocs, the NAU, the EU (hah-hah!) and Greater Eastlandia, who are engaged in a non-shooting war with each other. There is also the SAU, which is apparently negligible, being at war with itself.
The planet as a whole is engaged in an interplanetary war with aliens known as the Os (who do not directly appear), the two protagonists constantly on the search for habitable planets and fighting to be first to find, take and keep them.
At home, the NAU appears to suffer from over-population, massive unemployment, increased stratification of society, and, in the NAU at least, a much more draconian penal system in which there is an imperative to find accused people guilty and sentence them to execution so as to reduce the population. Nice world to live in, I don’t think.
The beauty of it is is that Wolfe’s world-building is deliberately sketchy and offhand. It hews to the refusal to ‘As you know’. Grisom lives in this future and refers to things in it as givens, in passing, just as we do not constantly tell our friends, neighbours, colleagues and loved ones that, for instance, Britain is a Monarchy, or that our governing body is called Parliament. The effect is impressionistic, avoiding detail that would bog the story down, and giving us a skeleton on which to build our own flesh.
Grisom is a very successful attorney, intelligent, astute, combative, instinctively given to analysis and cross-examination over the least little thing, a professional skill now turned into a lifelong habit. Twenty-three years ago, he and his girlfriend Chelle Sea Blue (pronounced Shell, and implied to be short for Shelley) were poor students. They came to a deal: he would build up a successful legal career and become rich, or at least well-off, and she would join the army, fight off-planet and, when rotated out of combat, due to time-dilation and FTL flight, she would return, still young and beautiful. They became contractors: a legal binding relationship that sits beside and has virtually replaced marriage.
Twenty-three years have passed on Earth for Grisom, three on the planet Johanna, or Gehenna as Grisom at one point miss(?)-calls it. Now she’s due back.
Grisom’s still very much in love with Chelle, but he’s equally aware that he is old compared to her, flabby, balding and off-putting physically. Though she left joking about returning a young contracta with a rich (sugar daddy) contracto, Grisom from the very first moment sees himself as bound to lose her. He isn’t attractive enough and, to put in with a crudeness Wolfe never uses, he’s too old to fuck her as often as her appetite will demand.
Nevertheless, he prepares for a wonderful life with her, a penthouse flat for them to live in, a long sea cruise on which to rediscover themselves and, as a special gift, Chelle’s mother, Vanessa Henessey.
There are complications that require explaining. Firstly, Chelle divorced her mother (and her father, Charles Blue) before enlisting. Secondly, Vanessa died five years after Chelle left Earth. This is another part of Wolfe’s future, Reanimation. Essentially, because everyone gets regularly and routinely brain-scanned, a person can be brought back from death by erasing the brain-patterns of a willing volunteer, and scanning a dead person onto their brain.
Vanessa Hennesey believes herself in every respect to be Vanessa Henessey. That her physical body once had an existence of its own (as one Edith Erkhardt) is merely an intellectual concept. But not to people who had dealings with Edith Erkhardt and attempt to kill her body.
Chelle isn’t aware of the truth abut her mother. She believes implicitly that that’s her, and the fact she hasn’t aged anything like enough years is down to her mother having been in space, inferredly as an Earth spy.
There’s a second complication, for Chelle is not wholly Chelle. She was caught in an explosion, seriously wounded, had to be rebuilt. Part of her is surviving tissue from someone called Jane Sims: Chelle talks in her sleep about Jane’s former lover, Don. Jane was a physicist, and some people believe that they can extract from Chelle secrets that Jane possessed.
One other thing: Grisom has not been faithful to his contracta (and it’s a stone-cold certainty that Chelle hasn’t been faithful to her contracto, though whether the concept of fidelity is as important in a marital-substitute relationship is a point on which Wolfe offers no clues). For the last nine years he has been having it off with his confidential secretary Susan Clerkin, who’s now in her mid-thirties, deeply in love with Grison and faced with the Damoclean sword of being dumped as soon as Chelle gets back ceasing to be a theoretical future.
That’s a lot of set-up, and this just covers the principal issues. Grisom and Chelle go on their cruise and, despite Chelle’s enthusiasm for his body, despite his fears, she quickly gets into a blazing row with him over her misimpression about Vanessa’s youth, and gets drunk and fucks someone of her own age in their stateroom.
Then they make up after discovering that Vanessa is no longer missing, feared dead, but has transmuted herself into Virginia Healey, Social Director on their cruise ship.
The book then transforms itself into its second phase, where it becomes a fast-paced action thriller. Grisom, Chelle and Virginia travel to meet a voodoo queen, who supplied the two women with guns. They return to find the ship has sailed early, and when they catch up with it, learn that this is because it has been hi-jacked (shades of Iain Banks’ Canal Dreams). Grisom becomes an unlikely leader in the fight back that eventually reclaims control of the ship This section too is sketchy, and the narrative continuity is disturbed by periods when Grisom is asleep, or unconscious.
At the end of this phase, Grisom is wounded in the head and unconscious for three days. Once he recovers, he starts cross-examining everyone he can speak to, reconstructing details of what happened whilst he was out, and indeed everything that he’s not personally seen. One of these things is that Chelle has hopped into bed with Mick Tooley, Grisom’s junior associate, a very resourceful lawyer, and another element of this partially-seen world given that successful young lawyers with a future ahead of them progress thanks to their ability to go all Die Hard Bruce Willis.
This, however, is where the book runs out of momentum and, indeed, collapses under its own weight. Everybody’s got secrets, things they’re not telling about, and Grisom’s determined to come up with explanations for everything. The last third of the book is not much more than a string of cross-examinations and speculations, until instead of the story growing clearer and more lucid, it is buried under skeins of conspiracy.
I’ve not yet mentioned one aspect of the book’s literary structure. It alternates between full-length chapters in the third person, built upon Grisom’s viewpoint, and brief interludes, headed ‘Reflections’, that are Grisom’s internal responses and thoughts about what the most recent events may involve.
But in the penultimate chapter, back in the NAU, showing off the penthouse home they’re not, after all, going to occupy, Grisom tells Chelle the truth about Vanessa. It provokes fury and revulsion and the end. The last chapter and the last Reflection are seen from Chelle, who has run off to Mick Tooley, and who reveals that her relationship with Skip was never one of love. It undermines everything the story has been about, and it impliedly places Grisom on a par with the parents Shelley Baines divorced.
And it doesn’t answer or divert the last twist, as Grisom joins the Army, as an attorney in the Judge Advocate’s Department. He’s going off-planet now. By the time he gets back, he and Chelle will be roughly the same age again…
This review has been substantially longer than many of my more recent Gene Wolfe essays, and yet there is an incredible amount of detail that I have left out. The story is, in myriad ways, much more complex than I have made it out to be, to the point where some of its connections begin to stretch plausibility. It is a good, impressionistic sketch of a future society relatable to ourselves but differing into uncountable ways, made up of constructions we put in place ourselves. It is a fast, impressionistic action thriller. But it is weighted down by a complicated and increasingly dull over-extended coda that burdens it with minutiae alien to the temper of the rest of the novel, and far too full of Wolfe’s Analytical Man, building true scenarios out of gossamer evidence and being conspicuously clever whilst claiming to be ignorant, and that is what relegates this book to the ranks of the final, fading works.

Person of Interest: s01 e08 – Foe

Two killers

I know I said this last week but I’m going to say it again: pure thriller, but pure with both undertones and a leavening of mythos, and massively good.

Let’s not forget: Person of Interest was ordered as a procedural with a twist, and in this season that’s exactly what it is. Each week a new Number, each week a new story, about what circumstances or devils threaten a person’s life, or turn them into someone intent upon killing. But behind that there are a number of ongoing themes, building into something we haven’t yet begun to see the shape of.

This week’s number was one Wallace Negel. He was played by Alan Dale so immediately you knew he would be a heavy: Dale can play menace just by standing there, looming rather, and using something in his eyes. Negel hasn’t made an electronic transaction since 1987 so that establishes two things: he’s a cover identity for a spy, and Finch can’t track him by his normal methods.

In fact, Negel is a former Stasi agent, used to kill East German defectors when there still was an East Germany: his real name is Ulrich Kohl. We will learn that he has been in prison, in a literal hole, for 24 years, in Russia. He’s back in New York to kill the other members of his four-man team, for revenge, revenge both for betraying him to a captivity in which he has not merely been officially dead but officially non-existent, and revenge for his wife, Anya, killed in a car accident. There is a twist already constructed in there.

The thing about Kohl is that he’s a professional, a soldier. There is little or no difference between him and Mr Reese, a fact that Reese uses both to anticipate Kohl’s moves and, when taken captive and tortured, to try to get into Kohl’s head and deflect him from his course. But the similarity between them means that Kohl is well aware of what Reese is doing and can shrug it off.

The series is being very bold in this move because it quite deliberately does nothing to distinguish between Reese and Kohl. It doesn’t try to sell us that Reese is different, i.e., less dangerous or compromised because some specious reason. Any difference to be drawn betwen the two is drawn solely by the viewer.

This is further emphasised by an extensive flashback scene, viewed in The Machine’s archives, in 2006, split into three sections, just as was the flashback to Reese’s final parting from Jessica. It follows directly on from that meeting. Reese, immaculately tuxedoed (man in a suit?), has arrived at his assignment and is meeting his new superior, Kara Stanton, a first appearance in a recurring role from Annie Parisse. We watch Stanton cynically laying down the rules of their trade. Reese has gone into the dark, he has crossed a line that ceased to exist the moment he crossed it. There is no going back because there is nothing to go back to. He has no old friends. He and Stanton are about answers, not questions. They execute who they are told to execute. Their tips come from an anonymous but very reliable source (clearly an at least partially functioning Machine).

It’s Reese’s introduction to his own dehumanisation. And the name by which we know him is given him by Kara Stanton.

In 2012, Kohl shoots his former team leader after torturing him with needles, inserted into nerve clusters. Next, he approaches their former forger, sliding a needle into his neck byway of greeting. It’s coated with poison, somthing reasonably fast acting (though something Reese recognises, and can administer an anecdote to). That doesn’t negate an extraordinary moment. These men were a team, agents in a foreign country, bound to one another. The three betrayed Kohl to escape, given asylum, new identities, a soft life by American Intelligence in return for giving Kohl,the monster, up. Wernick recognises Kohl’s need for revenge, takes his death philosophically, and as he slips into unconsciousness, manages the last words, “Be at peace, my old friend.” Extraordinary.

The twist, as I’m sure you have foreseen, is that Kohl’s wife Anya is not dead. She too sold him out, accepted a new life. The force of this hits Kohl like half a brick between the eyes. Reese and Finch spirit her away, but Reese is captured and tortured. He doesn’t give anything up, but Kohl accidentally discovers the other twist: Anya has a daughter. He has a daughter.

Kohl finds Marie at college. When he admits to having known her father, Marie repeats what her mother had told her, that he was a soldier, that he was a hero, that he impliedly died to get them to safety. This last was true, albeit in a back-handed manner, and the first was what Anya Kohl originally believed about her husband.

But in a late-night meeting in Central Park, to which Kohl brings Marie and Anya brings Finch and Reese, whilst Carter and Fusco bring dozens of cops to the perimeter, Marie begins to realise who this man holding her really is, and Anya tells Ulrich of how she was shown photos of his killings, evidence of his monsterdom, evidence that she had never truly known the husband she had once loved and by whom she was pregnant.

Kohl takes all this in with no more than an outward show of resigned regret. He lifts his gun and fires at Anya’s face. Reese fires simultaneously. Anya is unhurt, and Finch gets her and Marie away, before the cops arrive. Kohl is fatally wounded. His gun’s magazine was empty. He still loved Anya, and could not have hurt her. And he knew Reese was a soldier, who would shoot to kill if Kohl threatened his ex-wife. Kohl manipulated Reese as the agent of a suicide he could or would not perform. For 24 years he had planned for this day of revenge. He had never planned for the day after.

If all drama series were this good, simultaneously tight and fast-paced, but with this depth of story, and the slow construction of a bigger, over-arching story, I would be forced to consider getting a television set again.

Film 2019: All The President’s Men

I’m surprised, and in a way a little ashamed, that I haven’t had this film in my collection long before now. After all, it marked a turning point in my life, perhaps not as extensively as did JusticeLeague of America 37, but certainly as much as starting to read The Lord of the Rings from Didsbury Library.

From 1980 to 1983 I worked in my first job as a fully-qualified Solicitor, at a small, two-man branch office in Romiley, a village-like part of Stockport, to the south east of the centre. Early in 1981, and at my expense, we started renting an old, top-loading VHS video recorder from Granada, from whom our TV was also rented. Towards the back end of that year, a video rental shop opened up in Romiley, and I became a member, in order to hire a film for each weekend. My first choice was All The President’s Men.

I was not, then, the political enthusiast I became. I had lived through Watergate, and Nixon’s resignation, but they had been background noise rather than anything I was interested in. My first, nascent sense of American politics came indirectly through comics: I kept reading references to something incredibly hip called Doonesbury, which intrigued me. In the summer of 1981, I saw a Doonesbury omnibus volume in Wilshaws (a much-missed City Centre bookshop), at only £2.95, enough of a snip in an era when expenses were few and salary decent, to take a flyer on. I loved it, but it was full of references to things I knew nothing about.

All three of us sat down to watch All The President’s Men, and all three of us were impressed. This might have been October/November.

In theJanuary of 1982, I found a good condition paperback of the book in a long-vanished second-hand bookshop on Shudehill, just down from the bookstalls. I read it, surprised firstly to learn that the book went on some distance beyond the period of the film, but not as far as Nixon’s resignation. For that, I needed thesequel, ‘The Final Days’ and for that I went back to Wilshaws. I have those copies still.

And they contained references to things I was still ignorant of, not least to the famous ‘Joe Welch moment’. So I started hunting in the American History section of the Library, most often at Central Ref, where the selection was more widespread. My first choice, a book about the McCarthy era, was dull and dry, but I struck gold with my second choice, David Halberstam’s classic ‘The Best and the Brightest’, a long but absorbing account of the generation of men who took America into the Vietnam War. In time, I would suck that section dry.

All because I rented this film on VHS.

I know a tremendous amount about the making of All The President’s Men. The screenplay was by William Goldman, and I had heard of but not yet read his legendaey ‘Adventures in the Screen Trade’, which I urge on anyone with the least interest in the film industry. There’s a very lengthy section in that book about this film, so I know a lot of the twists and turns.

What I know most of all is that Goldman was passionate, almost obsessive, about not ‘Hollywooding-up’ the material. The Watergate Affair, and what it revealed about the conduct of Government in those years (which is of direct relevance to the antics of the current incumbent, even if only to demonstrate how much smarter Tricky Dickie was in comparison) was of massive importance to the history of any country and not least of America, the self-proclaimed (and sometimes actual) bastion of democracy. With all the power a scriptwriter can have, i.e., bugger all, he was insistent that the film be true to the material, that it be accurate, that none of it should be sensationalised, that it stand as close to the historical record as the reduction of nearly six months’ patient, detailed and often frustrating investigation could be.

For the benefit of anyone under forty, let me summarise Watergate. In thesummer of 1972, with President Richard Nixon certain to be nominated by the Republican Party as their candidate for re-election in November, five men were arrested trying to break-in to the Democratic Party Headquarters at the Watergate Hotel complex in Washington. Junior Washington Post reporter, Bob Woodward, was assigned to cover  routine arraignment, but became interested in some unusual details. Working in collaboration with fellow junior reporter, Carl Bernstein, Woodstein (asthe two were bracketed at the paper) doggedly pursued a non-story until it revealed a massive story of corruption, manipulation, and undermining of the Constitution that eventually led all the way to the top. All the way.

Woodstein’s investigations ultimately led to the revelation that President Richard Nixon had knowingly ordered the cover-up of criminal acts (of which he probably did not know in advance) in direct violation of his Oath of Office. Despite resistance and denial stretching across two years, Nixon eventually became th first and only President to resign his office.

Thanks to two nobodies, regarded by their paper as no-hopers.

The film was directed by Alan J Pakula, and starred two of the biggest film stars of the time, Robert Redford as Woodward and Dustin Hoffman as Bernstein. Jason Robards performs a show-stealing supporting role as Post Editor Ben Bradlee.

The film is, indeed, what Goldman wanted of it. Though you’re always conscious that these are *Robert Redford* and *Dustin Hoffman*, they do inhabit their roles comfortably, without histrionics or emoting. The entire film is naturalistic, and the intercutting of television scenes showing the real-life politicians is markedly grainy in contrast, but not excessively so.

It’s a mark of the film’s intentions that, when the Post refused permission to film in their newsroom, the film’s designers measured everything to the last inch and constructed an exact replica in Burbank, complete with the identical brand of desks, repainted, and reconstructions of out-of-date telephone directories from the time period in question.

Neither Hoffman nor Redford, and definitely not the script, goes deep into Woodstein as people. Both actors play then ccorsing to the details they giveof themselves in the book, but the investigation is the thing. That is the story, that is the film, and nobody is going off-reservation to blur the essentials.

At Goldman’s decision, the film cuts out the entire, incomplete second half of the book. The film needs a structue and the structure needs an ending, not a tailing off. The story ends on the pair’s biggest mistake, a revelation that is actually true in fact but predicated on a mistake of attribution. It might seem a strange place to stop, but Goldman argued that the audience knew it wasn’t the end, just a set back, and it’s the nearest thing to a conclusion this side of Nixon’s resignation.

But what the film does end on is Woodstein and the Post’s decision to carry on. A shot of the pair, typing at separate desks, alone at night in the newsroom, merges into the same newsroom by day, full of people. It’s Nixon’s re-inauguration, playing live on the newsroom TVs, and everyone stops work and gathers to watch, except Woodstein, at their desks, the camera edging in so that we see Nixon swear on a bible in the left of the screen and thereporters type in the right.

Then that telex shot of guilty pleas and verdicts, of names we’ve heard throughout the film. Pakula and Goldman kept all the watergate conspirators off-screen, voices at the ends of telephones, a superb decision not to distract the audience with actors playing faces they know.

Is it true? The film is faithful to the book, which most people regard as being faithful to the facts, a position emphasised by that list of convictions. One scene isn’t, imported from an alternate script by Carl Bernstein and Nora Ephron, where Bernstein fakes his way into a secretary’shouse to worm answers out of her. Nor is the famous phrase, now  trope, ‘Follow the Money’.

But it feels true. As true as a film can ever be. It feels solid, grounded, rooted. It feels like what it must have been like, and without having lived that history as a fly on the wall, you can’t say more than that. These were the people, these were the times, these were the events. Watch them, learn from them, be thankful that a time existed when something like this could be done, because there won’t be anything of this quality or verisimilitude about the current President of the United States of America.

The Infinite Jukebox: Jilted John’s ‘Jilted John’

Because. Just… because.

But also because this spoof of a punk song, recorded by Graham Fellows for local Manchester indie label, Rabid Records, as the b-side to another Fellows track entitled ‘Going Steady’, in a run of 15,000 copies, all of which were bought up on the strength only of record shops playing the eponymous side, until EMI bought the rights to the single and re-issued it and the song’s novelty value took it to no. 4 in the charts, this spoof of a punk song is also a totally Mancunian, down-to-earth expression of what rather more break-ups than the regular songwriters admit are really like. It’s the 14 year old younger brother of The Distractions, in that sense: gawky, less intelligent and utterly naïve, and that makes it amazing.
And because…

More Crap Journalism


I don’t know what Zoe Williams is like when she’s drunk. I even more don’t know what Anne Hathaway is like when she‘s drunk, and I bet that Zoe Williams doesn’t know either, but Anne Hathaway does, and if she doesn’t want her son seeing her like that when he’s growing up, then good on her for foregoing getting pissed for so long, and, though I usually like Zoe Williams, fuck anyone who whines about her choice.

TV Century 21 – 2066

It’s 2066. Thunderbirds are still coming, but they’re closer now. Thunderbird 1 had the big pin-up in issue 50 (1 January) and Lady Penelope received a mysterious postcard, telling her that Thunderbirds were nearly go… And the Lady Penelope Investigates investigated Maxwell Smart in advance of a new series starting two weeks hence.
The changes planned for issue 52, completing TV Century 21‘s first year, were announced on the front page of issue 51: the arrival of Thunderbirds, the arrival of Get Smart!, the expansion of Agent 21 to two pages – and the departure of Lady Penelope to ‘edit’ her own weekly comic, TV21’s first spin-off, echoing the Eagle path by spawning a girl’s paper for the readers’ sisters. Inside, the preview also included The Munsters, and a new feature, Dateline 2066.
The last issue of the ‘old’ comic saw Fireball XL5 return to the future with the aid of a man called Zodiac. Venus muses that it might have been Steve’s grandfather, only for Steve to pour cold water on it immediately: his father (who was also named Steve) only adopted the name Zodiac when he joined the U.S.S (United Secret Service: remember, he’s Twenty-One’s ultimate boss), when he changed his named from Kalinski! It also saw Lady Penelope contacted directly by Jeff Tracey, offering her the job of International Rescue’s British Agent.
But when revamps around, there are departures as well as arrivals. Burke’s Law was out, giving up it’s position on pages 2-3 to 21 Special Agent, as the expanded feature was renamed. Stingray was booted out of the centrespread onto pages 4-5, with Ron Embleton now drawing the feature as two individual pages. My Favourite Martian held its place whilst The Munsters slipped onto page 9. Initially, I thought this was drawn by Amos Burke’s former artist, the presumed Gerry Embleton, whose facility with real faces made him ideal for the strip, but a signature in issue 54 (29 January) revealed it to be yet another ex-Eagle alumnus, former Spot the Clue man Paul Trevillion.
Thunderbirds took the new pride of place, occupying the centre spread in full colour, and with the honour of an unprecedented third page, in black & white. Drawn by the inimitable Frank Bellamy, this was the instant flagship series. It even included a visit from Penny and Parker, in direct continuation from the last of her former strip. And Bellamy was the first of the Anderson artists to genuinely capture the dynamics of machines in motion (of course he was, he was Frank Bellamy, wasn’t he?) and to inject a greater degree of character into the puppets, by simply refusing to draw them as puppets, and as people instead.
Dateline 2066 was a news page set in 2066, reinforcing the notion of the Anderson era as a world in itself. Get Smart immediately captured the silliness of another of my favourite American sitcoms of the time, a spy spoof starring Don Addams (and let’s not forget Barbara Feldon as Agent 99), which was good going when you consider that the show’s regular writers included Mel Brooks.
Fireball XL5 moved into the back half of the comic but was business as usual. Supercar, however, was out, along with Lady Penelope. Saddest departure of all for me was Roger Dunn’s page on the real story of space exploration, replaced by a page devoted to real-life rescues, under the inevitable heading of International Rescues.
Lastly, The Daleks continued to head up the back page, but with a change of artist, Richard E Jennings having left. My educated guess was Eric Eden, but I was completely wrong on that, the strip becoming the work of Ron Turner.
Initially, the comic made a meal of all things International Rescue, but it only took until issue 55 (5 February) before reverting to normal with a non-Thunderbirds front page. And though Lady Penelope was now off entertaining the girls as opposed to the boys, the continuity of the Anderson universe was again reinforced by a major Dateline 2066 report of the story she was leading in her own title.
Lady Penelope was not the only female to be excised from the comic in its new line-up. Agent Twenty-One’s move to two pages seemed to have been achieved by excising his right-hand-woman, Tina, until issue 61. With Twenty-One wounded and undergoing life-saving surgery, Agent Twenty-Three is sent to protect him from Bereznik assassins (Bereznik is the Soviet Union style country that haven’ joined the World Government and thus function as all-purpose enemies for the Anderson Universe.
Tina arrives just in time in issue 62 (26 March) to foil the hit squad, but at the price of her own life. So, now we know, unless you’re Venus, Atlanta Shore or Marina, don’t be a female in TV Century 21.
Interestingly enough, Twenty-One wants revenge for Tina, and when S refuses it, in issue 66 (23 April), Brent Cleever resigns from the USS to go it alone. The same issue saw Thunderbirds abruptly cut back to two pages, the colour centrespread, as a mysterious aircraft appears over Tracey Island and attacks Thunderbird 2, leading to a long and morally dubious story about International Rescue attacking the US Air Force to steal a jammer that’s fooling their security devices.
Issue 71 (4 June) saw the replacement of Ron Embleton on Stingray by an artist with a much simpler line. The following week saw My Favourite Martian’s artist take over the Get Smart strip as well, and a week later a new strip series, The Investigator, was trailed, based on the Australian engineering company, UEI, starring their top troubleshooter, Bob Develin.
This started running in issue 74 (21 June), which introduced a new artist to My Favourite Martian, but made no substantial changes to the series. The International Rescues feature was of personal resonance for me now, though not then, with the still-to-play World Cup marking my real introduction to professional football, dealing as it did with the Munich Air Disaster.
The Investigator got off to a slow start. It was an anomaly in having no apparent connection either to the Andersonverse or to any TV series, and Develin himself came over at first as a bad-tempered semi-hysterical shouter with nothing to shout about. Meanwhile, Ron Embleton dropped off Stingray, though his replacement made a similarly good job, and Agent Twenty-One achieved his mission of delivering the Bereznik Security Chief responsible for Tina’s death to Western… er, World Government justice, only to become a fugitive wanted by both sides and doomed to death.
Then the My Favourite Martian/Get Smart artists swapped back assignments again, rather untidily. And in issue 80, Paul Trevillion came off The Munsters for a week.
A new The Investigator story started in issue 82 (13 August), with more delicate art, giving the impression that the artist is drawing real people. I’ve googled the title but can’t find anything to confirm that the strip was based on any TV series of the era (a period when Australian imports were relatively rare, but cheap, and were not restricted to soaps). That makes the series an oddity, given TV21‘s otherwise total reliance upon TV series. What made it a further oddity was that, to save the day in issue 89 (1 October), Develin sacrificed his life and his series, evidence that the story had not worked.
This led into a mini-revamp in issue 90. There was a re-ordering of features, bringing Fireball XL5 back into the front half again and pushing Stingray further back, a superb regular feature on the Apollo Moon programme, predicting a Moon landing (accurately) within three to four years. The Investigator was replaced with another black and white strip, Catch or Kill, a two-pager about playboy Craig Raymond Alan Gorton, known as Crag, who inherits his hunter Uncle’s fortune but only if he completes Uncle John’s last assignment. It’s another anomaly in the TV world of the title, but it boasted superb art from John Burns.
A long, involved Thunderbirds story that saw Thunderbird 3 crash, burned out on Venus, requiring Thunderbirds 1 and 2 to be modified for space flight was abruptly disturbed in issue 93 (29 October) when Frank Bellamy left the series temporarily, not returning until the follow-up story started in issue 99 (10 December). His replacement did a sterling job, but he was no Frank Bellamy, because nobody else was. International Rescue continued to dominate the comic as no other series did.
Stingray’s art was slowly getting rougher and sketchier, with an increased amount of white space, but the story came up with a neat bit of Anderson crossover, when Titan’s agent in trying to discredit Troy Tempest turned out to be the Hood, taking a temporary break from trying to get Thunderbird plans and going after the WASP’s flagship craft.
Catch or Kill took the opportunity to attach itself to the Anderson universe in issue 98 (3 December) when Crag and Kipper’s latest hunt, for a pre-historic bird on an alien planet, uncovered a hostile robot civilisation: Crag called Space City for assistance, resulting in the despatch of Fireball XL9 to the scene.
TV Century 21 reached its 100th issue on 17 December 2066 with nothing more to distinguish it than the announcement of a serialisation of the soon-to-be released ‘Thunderbirds Are Go’ feature length film (which I saw on the big screen at the Odeon in Manchester City Centre, my Gran and Grandad taking me to an 11.30am performance as soon as the school holidays started) and another art change on Stingray, to the strip’s increasing detriment.
With a front page headline and a massive photo of the Zero-X spaceship, the four-part adaptation began on Xmas Eve. It was presented in strip format, but not with art but rather stills from the film itself, with extensive captioning. Sadly, all this proved, yet again, was that photographs do not a successful comics series make, even ones of sharper reproductive quality than these.
The Munsters offered a Xmas board game in addition to their weekly slot. Catch or Kill started a new story, cut back to one page. Fireball XL5 was dropped into black and white with a new artist, whose style had a very strong Frank Hampson influence.
And the year rounded off with everything in mid-story.
TV Century 21‘s 2066 was undoubtedly the year of Thunderbirds. Both in terms of the centre-page strip, drawn but for that six week interruption by Frank Bellamy, the best artist to work for the comic, and in terms of the non-stop advertising, of toys, uniforms, records etc., International Rescue dominated the comic week-in, week-out. In contrast, Stingray was first displaced from its original role as centre-spread, before losing Ron Embleton’s art and undergoing a number of changes of artist, each a little worse.
I was sorry to see Supercar and Lady Penelope go, but the latter was probably inevitable: TV21 was pitched firmly at the boy’s market and it made commercial sense to spin Penny off into a girl-oriented weekly of her own. Their ‘replacements’, one-pagers based on popular American sitcoms that I watched avidly and still have fun memories of, boasted vigorous art but never quite matched up to their originals. Perhaps it’s that I remember it the least, because I had been just that bit younger, but My Favourite Martian, still going strong after nearly two full years, still seems to be the most successful representation.
Agent Twenty-One continued to be pretty good all year, but the comic’s foray into other series were very mixed. The Investigator was basically a nothing and whilst Catch or Kill had impressive art, its stories were not really anything to write home about.
So the end of year report is the same as before: excellent technical quality, vivid colours but overall unengaging: the pre-teen me got far more out of this than the adult does. On to 2067.

Lou Grant: s01 e07 – Barrio

Dating can be so difficult

Another worthy episode, once again focusing on Billie Newman, alongside Lou himself, with only minimal support from the rest of the cast, most often one-liners from Art Donovan who, let me just remind you, is Lou’s Assistant City Desk editor. There’s been surprisongly little from Joe Rossi since the first few episodes, despite Robert Walden being second in the cast.

Our subject this week is, as the title states, the Barrio, i.e., Los Angeles’ east side Latino quarter. Our in is the shooting inthe street of a mother, in front of her children. It’s not a story the Trib wants to make too much of: westsiders don’t like things that make them nervous, eastsiders don’t buy the Trib. Newspaper values.

Lou sends Billie on the story, causing her to break her date wth boyfriend David. Our B story is about the commitment to the job. Lou sees an attractive woman his age in a small foodstore and awkwardly manages to negotiate a dinner date. But just as Billie has to continually break dates with David because of the barrio story, until he dumps her, Lou winds up an hour late waiting on Billie’s final story and Lynn drops him.

Like last week, this background element is fully and naturally integrated into the main story, though this is easy enough because the same two featured cast play both tales. As for the A story, this is one that now looks very much like a period piece.

Mrs Ramirez’s son, Henry, age 14, seeks revenge on the shooter. Neither Billie nor Lou understands Henry’s need to get revenge, in thefull knowledge that it will only lead to a revenge against him, ad infinitum. It’s a gang thing, it’s a gang culture. The Anglos don’t understand because they can’t understand because they don’t live in this world. Social worker Jorge Delgado (a wonderfully underplayed guest role by Joe Santos) is of this world. He knows, he knows the gangs, they know him, he’s trusted, he’s out to keep the lid on the pot, keep it at simmer, not boiling over.

And it’s a gang thing. A guy called Loco, because he is, has done it. His own gang don’t want that, it’s outside their code of honour, the limits they set upon themselves. They will punish him. But they won’t allow Henry to punish the man. Shooting up his house, with all the family and Billie inside is to warn Henry off, and stop things escalating.

To give the show credit, it realises there isn’t an answer, that everyone and especially Henry is locked into a cycle of inevitability as inescapable for them as the sun coming up every day. Henry learns the shooter’s name by tricking Billie. He’s going after theguy. No-one can stop him. If not today, tomorrow. If not tomorrow, the next day. Even Jorge stands aside. We don’t hear how it ends but we don’t need to.

But the episode is now a period piece. It might have been innovative in 1978, but time has caught up with it and gone a long way past. With the exception of Santos, the acting from the latino characters is weak. The barrio, a run-down, facilities-deprived area, is too clean, too well-constructed. Onlya handful of years later, Hill Street Blues would give a much more convincing portrayal of barrio life and latino gangs. Maybe Lou Grant opened the doorto make that possible, I don’t know. But this one area where the show’s ‘good intentions’ are a bit too near the surface for my comfort.

Good news

Back in the Nineties, my then girlfriend and I spent many a Friday night laughing our heads off to Smack the Pony. Fancying Sally Phillips something rotten didn’t hurt either. Now it’s coming back this year, so absolutely brilliant as far as I’m concerned.

We all now the problem with revivals, especially two decades after but let’s face it, if it’s only has a funny as it used to be, it’ll still be funnier than anything I’e seen for a very long time.


A Lycanthrope in Wolfe’s Clothing: Gene Wolfe’s ‘An Evil Guest’

Though I’d still call it a minor work overall, An Evil Guest (whose title comes from a quote by Simonides of Ceos, that gold is the kindest of all hosts when it shines in the sky, but comes as an evil guest too those who receive it in the hand) is much the most easily readable book in Wolfe’s oeuvre since at least Pandora by Holly Hollander.
It’s another third person story, but the profusion of accents and dialects that filled Wolfe’s last third person books, The Book of The Long Sun, are not present. The story is set in America, a hundred years into the future, with some technological advances, but otherwise in a recognisable society, and with pretty much contemporaneous language. The biggest and most relevant change is that Earth has connected with an alien race, and has links with the planet and society of Woldercan, whose technology is sufficiently advanced that they apparently have a process for manufacturing gold. An evil guest.
Wolfe introduces us to Dr Gideon Chase, a University Professor, a multi-talented man, an investigator who solves the hardest of puzzles. Chase was born on Woldercan, when his father was the American Ambassador there. He is highly intelligent. He’s obviously the hero, to the extent that he is wounded by a bullet to the leg and this has to be amputated. Wolfe suffered polio as a child and there is a running theme that his heroes at some point or other are left limping.
And Chase is being sought by the President and the FBI to investigate William (Bill) Reis, until recently the Ambassador to Woldercan. Reis is also very intelligent, not to mention impossibly rich and very powerful: complete dictator material. The President wants Reis investigating because it’s believed he’s learned how to manufacture gold, and also because wherever Reis goes, Government secrets are being stolen by some incalculable means.
In order to help himself pursue this case, Chase contacts thirtyish actress Cassie (Cassiopeia Fiona) Casey, a reasonably attractive redhead, a fair but undistinguished actress, currently appearing in an ensemble play about to close after one more performance. Chase wants to enlist her aid in locating Reis. To win her assistance, and to further his plan, Chase intends to unlock Cassie’s star quality, by some quasi-magic means that he insists is only activating something already in her.
The effect is instantaneous and overwhelming. Cassie becomes the most beautiful and in demand woman in the world, a commanding presence on stage who cannot do anything less than excellently. She is the bait to attract Reis to where Chase can get a handle on him, and she is immediately successful. Under the name of Wallace (Wally) Rehnquist, Reis attends Cassie’s last, stunning performance, and immediately signs up her Director, India, to direct a musical play, “Dating the Voodoo God”, with Cassie as its star. Wally/Bill has fallen in love with her and is determined to win her for herself.
But Cassie is the real centre of the book, playing a faux-naif role in which her new found success is a constant surprise to her. She’s forever downplaying her own abilities, not accepting that these have been enhanced, and continually deprecating about her appearance, accusing herself of being fat, and far too fat for bikinis, when it’s apparent that men will walk into walls when she’s fully dressed, let alone when she’s in swimwear.
Wally/Bill falls in love with her and, at some undefined point in the book that is never telegraphed, she falls in love with him. Gideon Chase is hunted, pursued and wounded early on, reappears under a magical disguise, by which time he’s working for Reis as well as the Government, then slides out of the book, in effect, winding up at the very end as Ambassador to Woldercan.
As well as his manipulations, all of which more or less he explains prosaically, Chase proclaims himself in love with Cassie, not just the enhanced Cassie but the lesser woman from before. Reis’ increasing and increasingly direct involvement with Cassie pushes Chase out of the way, as if the story can only accommodate one male lead at a time. Cassie ends up in love with Reis, making love with him, and removed to the South Pacific, the Takanga group of islands, where she is acclaimed as its High Queen, to Reis’ off-stage High King.
Which is where things start to go off-kilter.
Because An Evil Guest is, and is heralded by prestigious names such as Neil Gaiman as, a genre-hopping book, a book that plays with various genre style, smoothly and evenly. It begins in an SF mode, and Reis’ abilities to manufacture gold remain a strand throughout the book. But it plunges deeply into hard-boiled crime, with a number of organisations threatening Cassie in order to get at and kill Reis (her dresser, Margaret, is kidnapped, one of her fellow cast members is shot dead next to her to demonstrate how serious things are and how easily she could be killed), some vampiric aliens appear at her window, a werewolf (another Wolfean trope) hypnotizes and eats her divorced second husband when he turns up on the side of the devils, the book swings between genres with an admirable flexibility whilst Wolfe maintains an even and consistent narrative tone.
But there’s one genre shift that I cannot take with Wolfe and Cassie. It’s foreshadowed by the musical, ‘Dating the Volcano God’. Cassie’s been installed as high Queen, living a life of luxury and utter colonial native worship. She’s fallen in love with Bill/Wally, and had sex with him, though I can’t decide that this is real and is not the luxury he is determined to lavish upon her overwhelming Cassie.
But the High King has an opponent, the Squid King, also known as the Storm King (nothing to do with the Foglio’s Girl Genius). And this is an alien who has been in Earth’s seas for millennia, a Lovecraftian monster out to kill Bill Reis, and Cassie is forced through a ritual in which the Takangan’s manipulate her as ordering Reis’ ritual sacrifice, by having his head crunched in by a ritual staff, in front of her eyes.
This one is just too far outside the hard-boiled crime/espionage milieu that envelopes the majority of the story for me to accept it, coming as it does out of the leftest of left-fields in the last fifth of the book. Until then, the book is an intact experience. Now, Reis’ death is immediately followed by apocalyptic storms, destroying the Takangas. She is left stranded as a beach refugee, living off the land, until she is finally and reluctantly rescued, an indeterminable time later, almost by force, and eventually repatriated to America.
By now she is grey-haired and homely, skinny as a rake, under-nourished. All her friends are dead or gone, though her dresser, Margaret, is briefly seen. How much of this is a genuine transformation from her experiences and how much Cassie’s harsh self-assessment can’t be determined. The men she speaks to about her appearance contradict her, but out of truth or chivalry is not discernible.
The ending is very strange. After re-establishing herself in an anonymous life, and made rich by one of Reis’ manufactured gold gifts, Cassy tries to contact Chase and learns he’s now on Woldercan as Ambassador. She heads out there. Because of peculiar time dilation effects, his invitation in response to her question arrives before her question. But the story ends in mid-journey, with Cassy looking at a talking picture of a teen Bill Reis, and then collapsing in sobs asking Wally to come back.
It’s abrupt and unsettling, and not in the sense of when a skilful author leaves a story suspended to create the very effect. Wolfe is that skilled author, and he’s more than good enough for that, but from Reis’ execution onwards, the story as seen through Cassie’s eyes loses all concreteness, and becomes a kind of semi-abstract dream, so that the ending loses all substance.
It might, of course, be that Cassie doesn’t survive the storm, that all that follows is indeed a dream, and is not subject to any circumscription of logic, and I’m just not perceptive enough to read that. But in a book that for fully four-fifths of its length to be solid to change into something anti-realistic, without proper foregrounding renders the complete experience a disappointment.