Person of Interest: s01 e07 – Witness

Victim or Perpetrator, if your number’s up…

This one is pure thriller. Only not so pure.

It opens on the investigation of a murder, an execution, of an old man in a bodega. His name is Benny d’Agostino and he’s a gang hitman who’s come out of retirement to work for a new player who’s taking on the Bratva, the Russian mob. His name is Elias, Carl Elias. Detectives Carter and Fusco know that name. So too does Detective Szymanski (Michael McGlone) of Organised Crime.

There’s a witness to the crime, a balding, stocky, fortyish man, now to be a Bratva target. There’s also a uniformed cop, name unknown, with a distinctive scar below his right eye, part of the scene, handling information.

John Reese is on a roof, studying a nervous man through binoculars, a man named Charlie Burton, a High School teacher down in Brighton Beach. He’s balding, stocky, fortyish. Not until Fusco phones through to seek out Reese’s help on their shooting, do Reese and Finch know why Burton’s number has come up. And the Russians, led by Peter Yogaroff, son of Ivan, whose men are beingtargeted, whose operations are being encroached upon, whose brother has just been killed by Benny d’Agostino, have arrived, heavily-armed.

It’s a thriller. Reese goes in to keep Charlie alive, get him to the Police, despite Charlie’s refusal to testify. He loses his phone, and touch with Finch, who takes the step of contacting Fusco, by phone and in person, to help his investigation: a white people carrier, a cop with a scar on his face – is this the unknown, deeply hidden Elias?

John and Charlie take refuge in a housing project dominated by Bulgarian drug dealers. They have to stay one ahead of the pursuers. Charlie has a shoulder flesh-wound. He’s a philosophical man, a dedicated teacher, valued by his kids, one of whom helps them get out. Reese takes a captive, Laszlo, Peter’s brother.

Elsewhere, Carter and Szymanski approach Ivan Yogaroff, trying to get this war shut down, avoid more deaths. Yogaroth knows nothing of what they’re talking about but, speaking hypothetically, he lets on that Elias is the aggressor, cutting into his territory. No truce is possible without Elias. And Elias is a complete unknown.

John and Charlie get away on the Ferry towards the east side. Fusco’s to meetthem at 7.00am. Only someone’s got the info out of the Police. Scarface is on his way. Finch thinks Fusco’s done it, but he protests entirely too naturally, and besides he gets knocked out from behind. Someone is waiting for the witness to arrive.

And here is the massive twist thattthe performance of Enrico Colantoni as Charlie Burton has left us completely unprepared for. Laszlo spills it on the Ferry, exactly as Peter is spilling it at the Police station. Would they go to all this trouble, commit all these resources, for a mere witness? “Drop the gun, John,” Charlie says, in an apologetic voice. Charlie Burton is Carl Elias.

And Elias is taking Brighton Beach. It’s a start. He has plans: to reunite theFive Families, to take back crime from the hated Russians, drive them out of New York entirely. For three years he has buried himself as Charlie Burton, teacher to the Russians’ kids, learning all about them from their own flesh and blood. Anonymity has been very useful, but that phase is over now.

Elias won’t kill Reese, it would be ungrateful, but he warns him to stay out of his way. He greets Scarface, his lieutenant, who goes on toexecute Ivan Yogaroff. Reese is furious with Finch and his Machine, not to mention with himselffor nothaving seen Elias in Charlie, for having gotten so friendly with him. They have saved a monster. Finch accepts the Machine’s limitations, tries to point out that each day thereare other Numbers, but is silenced by Reese’s unanswerable question: how many of them will be victims of Elias?

A brilliant thriller. And a substantial upsurge for the series. There is now a powerful, important, ongoing story instead of a bit of continuity to a weekly procedural. It is the first. It won’t be the last.

SaturdaySkandiKrime/Horrar: Black Lake 2 episodes 7 & 8


All I can say is, I really hope they don’t try coming up with a third series of this.

I’ve been billing Black Lake 2 as a horror series all along, when I should have known better and guessed it would turn out to be crime behind it all, and this time without the leavening of horror that did form a strand in series 1. Put simply, Isabell has been in love with Uno for years, got pregnant by him at 17, had an abortion and found she couldn’t have children thereafter. So, when she saw him getting off with Josefine, she went mad, killed Josefine, kidnapped her daughter and has been ‘protecting’ her in the old Lighthouse on the island ever since. When Minnie finds Elsa/Maja, Isabell stabs her and nearly kills her, and when Uno comes to take Minnie out, she stabs him in the back, killing him. The hero who saves the day is, guess who? Johan the prick, suffering a completely inexplicable and un-prick-like reversal of character and coming back after he’d got away (with Lippi and Elin from series 1).

You probaly guessed all this last week, didn’t you?

Actually, I have to give the programme credit for one very adept piece of misdirection. Episode 7 was long and slow, stretching minimal story out by making things last, but at least entertaining us with some spectacular shots of the island: cliff paths, seascapes, magnificnt sea-caves and the old lighthouse, a lovely old building completely different from the columns we’re used to in Britain.

But there was a moment when Agnes looks worried as Minnie heads out yet again, alone, untrusted, everyone thinks she’s hallucinating. And I think, as I am meant to think, it’s Agnes. She’s the one. Hearty, SkandiBlonde, jolly hockey sticks Agnes, total believer in Uno’s course, she’s the killer.

And the two episodes dropped in plenty of non-blatant supporting material. Minnie finds Amina’s remains (and those of many others) in the cholera hospital, under the guard of creepy, crazy Oscar, waiting for the killer, brains him (gently) with the blunt side of a crowbar, convinces Uno she’s not imagining it. Uno takes the sensible course: everything’s off, contact the Police, get out.

But everybody’s mobile phones have been stolen and the phone ripped out of the wall. In a locked office to which only two people have keys, Uno and… Agnes. And a bit of business with Agnes taking unto herself a fireaxe. Sent me properly down the wrong path, and I admire things that can do that.

There was even an attempt to direct us back to Gittan, owner of the island, writer of a family history detailing all the ‘disappearances’ down the years (that opening scene was of her grandfather burying the Baltic refugees he’d killed, and killing the lighthouse keeper) and raver about the island containing something evil that mmakes people go bad things. She turns up with a shotgun and a canister of petrol, determined to burn the cholera hospital down, to prevent the Police sniffinf round her family secrets.

Incidentally, Grandad got his comeuppance: he was a passionate Stalinist, fled to Russia and died of starvation in a labour camp. Just a hint of irony, there.

But, of course, we learned last week that Gittan was Isabell’s foster mother. It shouldn’t be a surprise then that Isabell’s ‘defence’ is that it wasn’t her, it was the island: something evil made her do it against her will.

Frankly, it pissed me off that Johan should be the one who saves the day. His blackmail works, he gets his laptop, phone and Certificate of Attendance, calls brother Lippi and the boat (Lippi brings then-girlfriend Elin, a too short cameo from the fair Anna Astrom, who in series 1 will suffocate Lippi and be in turn strangled by Johan) and rocks off to Daddy’s meeting without a backward glance, let alone a tear.

Only to find, in episode 8, that he’s got Maja’s locket in his pocket, which convinces him, in defiance of everything we know about Johan, heavily reinforced in episode 7, that he must go back (what is this? Lost?). So, just when Minnie collapses through blood loss and appears to be dead, Johan’s boat appears in the dark, he spots the little girl waving Minnie’s torch and gets everything wrapped up (offscreen) in time to get her the medical attention that will save her life. Ho hum.

There’s even time for an in-joke. Johan says let’s not go there again, Minnie suggests somewhere different: skiing? Tortuously inserted reference to series 1 ticked off, we close on Minnie’s daughter Luna running towards her and a weary but sweet smile from a sweet-faced actress I’d watch again, hopefully in  something better.

Overall, this was an improvement on series 1 by simply not being anything near as bad, and by not lapsing into total incoherence in its final episodes. Not being as bad is, however, the best I could say: it suffered from not having enough plot for eight episodes, though maybe just too much for six, and it had an awful case of creeping camera, those slow forward pans meant to trigger tension that ended up so overused that all they triggered was tedium.

If they do think they’ve got a third series story, or even a viable common link character, I’ll probably watch it, because, you know, I do that and I blog it, so I’d do it to blog it. But I’d prefer not to, thank you very much.

Film 2019: Sleeping Beauty

I’m as close to certain as can be, after sixty years, that Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty was the very first film I saw in a cinema, taken one night by my parents, whilst aged 4 or thereabouts. I have vague memories of the onscreen spectacle, and of a journey home by bus, coming to the T-junction with Ashton Old Road, on the 169/170 route. That would make it a visit to the old Essoldo cinema at Gorton, our nearest cinema, and my only visit there: indeed, it was long closed by the time I began passing it regularly.

The film gave me nightmares, or one specific one at least. She burst through my window in a blaze of black and yellow light, one night in my little bedroom at the back of 41 Brigham Street, terrifying me. My only recourse was to pretend I was asleep, and I lay there, awake but completely unmoving for hours, drenched in fear-sweat, my pajamas soaked through, not looking for fear she was still there and would act if I showed I was awake.

There was a Three Good Fairies series in one of my very young comics, probably Robin, in which Maleficent was a recurring villain. I was so scared, I couldn’t look at her in the comic, yet I knew I had to keep this from my parents, not let them know how afraid I was. I believed it was real, you see.

Almost sixty years later, Sleeping Beauty is one of only two classic Disney films I have on DVD. Long ago, I outgrew my fears of the Evil Witch, and she doesn’t scare me now. It’s a short film, only 72 minutes in length, and I originally bought it because I had a high opinion of it in comparison to the other Disney animations, but watching it again, I’m very far from sure now.

Sleeping Beauty, which had been planned since 1951 but not completed until 1958, was not a success, commercially or otherwise, and its failure put the Disney studios off fairy-tales for thirty years. Even many of the animators found it cold and unappealing, and it’s not too difficult to see why.

For all its dynamism in the climactic fight scene, during which Maleficent transforms herself into a towering dragon, until she gets a sword through the heart, this is a film of limited animation. A tiny handful of characters move across an ornate but static background. Though it was softened during production, the backgrounds stand out as being detailed and gothic in appearance, whereas the characters are heavily-stylised. Even the Princess Aurora, or the peasant girl Briar-Rose as she is, and her swain, Prince Philip (a rare instance of a Disney Prince actually having a name), who are drawn as realistic characters and whose movements are drawn as rotoscoping of live actors, are themselves highly-stylised human beings.

So far as the adaptation goes, Disney decided that the Princess’s awakening after one hundred years asleep may have made for a climax but didn’t offer enough for the story in terms of build-up. Instead of the Prince being a complete stranger who comes across this timelost thorn-choked castle of eery sleepers, and deciding to snatch a snog off this hot Princess (there have been several versions where he does more than kiss her, including one by Anne Rice that turns the story into rather lurid S&M porn), he’s the slightly older son of King Stefan and Queen No-Name-Given fellow King, who’s betrothed to Aurora at her birth.

After a decently impressive curse administered by Maleficent (superbly voiced by Eleanor Audley), the Three Good Fairies, Flora, Fauna and Merryweather, take the baby off to live in the forest with them as a peasant girl and they as mortals, until her sixteenth birthday. On that day, she bumps into Philip in the forest, neither having any idea who the other is, and of course they fall in love.

This contrivance means that when Aurora pricks her finger, under Maleficent’s malevolent spell, and falls asleep, the Good Fairies put everyone else to sleep to share her slumber, only to learn by accident that this handsome stranger in the wood that Briar-Rose plans to marry is her actual betrothed and spell-breaking kisser.

Except that Maleficent has kidnapped Philip and imprsoned him at the Forbidden Mountain where she intends to keep him for 100 years, by which time his kiss will have dried up. But the Fairies, despite having not nearly enough power to combat the Evil Witch, free the Prince and help him escape. Maleficent then throws up the thorns round the castle only for Philip to chop his way through these as if they were as obstructive as daffodils, kiss Aurora awake after not even the equivalent of a good night’s sleep and dance into the clouds with her (symbollically).

I dunno.

The film’s music is all taken or adapted from Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty Ballet, the main theme of which is adapted for the song Once Upon a Dream, probably one of the best songs ever to be created for a Disney film, but overall my response today is pretty much that of the filmgoers and critics of 1958 and after, that it doesn’t really work on all sorts of levels. I’m not four years old any more, and I’m considerably more critical of everything I experience.

Nevertheless, I doubt I’ll sell the DVD. There’s a piece of me in it and such things arerare.

The Infinite Jukebox: Omerta’s ‘Synchronise Your Smiles’

Stop me if I’ve told you this before.
I remember a Friday night after work, back end of 1979, going for a drink with a guy I’d gotten friendly with where I lived in Nottingham.
The conversation turned to music, and I explained one of the things that I saw as a glory of the Punk/New Wave scene. Punk had rejected the standard Seventies rock meme about paying your dues, namely the gigging night after night, small venues, on the road, honing your chops.
Instead, bands were forming out of nowhere, bringing sometimes no more than crude enthusiasm and energy, and minimal technique, and independent labels were putting their records out without that two years of grind.
And some of those records were brilliant. Two to three minutes in which everything the band had got was concentrated into a moment that was awesome. Maybe/probably the band could never do it again (I cited The Undertones’ ‘Teenage Kicks’, their only release at that point, as an example of a band who would probably never produce anything else worth listening to…) but so what? We had that three minutes of brilliance.
Why did it matter that we didn’t get the boring, predictable stuff? Some bands only have three minutes of brilliance in them.
I know virtually nothing about Omerta. They were a Manchester band who were around in the mid-2000s. Very popular live, expected to be big, released three singles and disappeared. ‘Synchronise your Smiles’ isn’t even an a-side, that was a song called ‘One Chance’. I never heard them, or heard of them, when they were live. It’s only because I’ve researched this that I’ve discovered they involved into the equally highly-respected and longer lasting Slow Readers Club.
I found out about ‘Synchronise your Smiles’ when it was used as background music to a short video on the FC United of Manchester web-site. I thought it was brilliant. Thankfully, someone before me had asked what the music was and it had been identified, which enabled me to rush to YouTube and hear the whole thing immediately.
‘Synchronise your Smiles’ is one of those songs that’s a marriage of rock and dance/electronica. It begins shyly, slyly, with some beeps and tweeps, an almost rhythm, to which a solo bass that grows in regularity, cymbals dancing quickly behind, over which the lead singer(s) croons the title and follows it with the purely Mancunian advice that ‘you look so dumb’.
The electronica pulses throughout the song, which gathers in tempo as guitars and drums cut in, and suddenly, from a standing start the song is flying along on a yearning melody that drags the listener in its wake. The song becomes a rush of sound, the vocals mixed down so that the lyrics can’t easily be distinguished, except in certain moments, such as the chorus. which feels as if the song is accelerating: meet me down the (something) of Justice, don’t stand in line and they’ll see through all your bullshit lies in time, where has it all gone wrong?
And whilst that seems to be the key line, the one that repeats, the one that ends the song as the music fades to leave only that electronic riff that has underpinned the entire song is the fantastically optimistic I will see you again. Loss, pain and hope, whether justified or denied, in a three minute sugar rush.
I’ve no idea and I can’t begin to guess. I only know that this is just short of three minutes of brilliance, that this is in that sense you can’t define in words but can only know from living here, completely Mancunian. This couldn’t have been recorded anywhere else and sound like this and be like this. I don’t know what brought Omerta together and what drove them apart. I just know that here was a band that had three minutes of brilliance in it and here it is.
Where has it all gone wrong?

Lou Grant: s01 e06 – Aftershock

On a dark and cold winter morning, it’s nice to be able to transport yourself to sunny late-Seventies Los Angeles where the problems are at least different from the ones of modern life.

The latest Lou Grant was a carefully misleading episode that concealed its plans well in a slow open, and with a nicely integrated B story that seemed designed for the pisode title. But the show’s story was on completely different lines that were about a very different kind of Aftershock.

The set-up was low-key, casual. It’s a slow news day on the City Desk, with no stories for Lou to pitch for page 1 at the budget meeting. Lou rejects a lead about a man who claims cockroaches can preduct earthquakes, as any normal City Editor would. Then there’s an earthquake during the budget meeting. It’s Lou’s first but the rest of the editors are so blase they immediately bet on the intensity (4.3 as it happens).

As Duncan Aldridge isn’t back from a very long lunch yet, Lou sends Rossi with The Animal (the slovenly photographer, played by Daryl Anderson, having his first semi-substantial week, despite having been cast since the outset) to report on it. As an afterthought, he sends Rossi to interview the cockroach man, get a humourous angle out of it.

But then the news comes in that Aldridge is dead, a heart attack. Charlie passes on to Lou the responsibility for informing Duncan’s widow, a nicely but not majorly attractive woman in her early forties, Gloria (an excellent guest appearance from Joyce Van Patten).

The problem is that Duncan’s died of a heart attack in a fleapit hotel or, to be more specific, in a bedroom in a fleapit hotel or, to be even more specific, in a bed in a fleapit hotel and, aw, you guessed it, whilst fornicating with a woman not his wife. She’s still on the scene, wanting Lou to know this wasn’t just some sordid affair, which briefly has us thinking hre’s the real story, but no, she’s a red herring. Because Gloria arrives, and Lou has to start explaining things so she doesn’t get an even bigger shock than the one she’s already had…

And here’s our story. Because Gloria, as much out of shock as her own conditioned wifedom, reels from what’s happened. Lou’s embarrassed generosity in trying to help her come to terms with this rapidly becomes a full-time job in running Gloria’s lifefor her. Every day, she grows more dependent upon him to take descisions for her, talk 15 year old son Roger out of running away, deliver (extremely badly, a lovely piece of playing by Ed Asner) the eulogy at Duncan’s funeral, everything.

Lou’s growing embarrassed and frustrated at every turn. Beneath the gruff exterior, several layers thick, he has the traditional heart of gold. And Gloria’s quite good-looking, and Van Patten’s body language males it plain, without any blatancy, that Lou could pull her into bed any time he wanted to. The thing is, he doesn’t want to, but his inability to push her away is making the situation worse.

Meanwhile, in the B story, Rossi has found that Mr Tumora, the cockroach man’s predictions are scarily accurate. He’s a small, calm, intense man who’s made insects etc his study. His predictions are made on a scientific basis, plus he ‘s smart enough to have proved them by sending them in registered letters, before the recent quake, and its first aftershock, which arises exactly on cue. Fame and riches call, as well as Johnny Carson.

And he has predicted an even bigger aftershock for November 30th at 5.00pm, 6.7: bigger than the quake of ’71. That leads to a lot of tension.

Everyone around Lou is noticing his predicament, and treating it as a casual joke. The episode portrays it in understated terms. It’s undramatic, it’s naturalistic, it’s believabl;e at every step, how Gloria is falling for a competent man, a rock on whom she can rely, and totally obliterating his part in the process. There’s only one way out and that’s to be blunt, a course urged by Mrs Pynchon who relates a story of how she herself ‘relied’ on a family friend after her huband died. The accidental revelation that he was sick of her hurt her basll;y but stirred her to taking responsibility for herself.

Lou is a lot more open about it, if only marginally less direct. Gloria’s even going on about thinking she’s falling in love with him, returning to her reportorial career at the Trib, seeing him every day, several times every day, until he has to tell her, “Get off my back.” Van Patten’s response carefully mixes shock and hurt with asudden realisation ofhow she’s been, and the episode ends on a joke, setting both on the path to restoring normality.

There’s another joke ending too. Despite everybody’s paranoid fears, the second, severe aftershock doesn’t materialise. Tumora takes it philosophically – two out of three isn’t bad – or so it seems. He tips out the jar containing his two ‘favourite’ cockroaches, then hammers them to death!

A neat episode, a very human episode, carefully plotted and filled with light, often superficial performances from the cast all round, with a lot of funny lines and situations that never turned the episode into a comedy but were still laugh-out-loud good. And sunny LA is a nice place to imagine being on January mornings when the temperature is hovering around zero.

A Lycanthrope in Wolfe’s Clothing: Gene Wolfe’s ‘Pirate Freedom’

Though it can’t be compared in length, density and complexity to the earlier work, Pirate Freedom has a lot in common with The Wizard Knight. And it has enough elements in common with Soldier of Sidon for it not to be inaccurate to paint it as a hybrid of its two immediate predecessors.
Pirate Freedom, like Soldier of Sidon, is primarily a work of historical fiction, dedicated to an accurate depiction of the great era of Caribbean pirates, as carefully researched as the Egyptian book, and presented honestly through the eyes of an outsider, absorbing and reflecting the culture revealed.
And at the same time, Captain Chris, Crisofero, Father Christopher – the man has several names depending on where and when he is – is another unreliable narrator in the mould of Able of the High Heart: naïve, removed from his ‘natural’ world by some never explained means that dumps him in a world to which he has to become used, in which he proves to be implausibly successful, and, especially like Able, can’t tell a half decent story worth a damn.
Chris, like Able, tells his story via the medium of a long letter, this time to a stranger. He’s awkward, prone to lose where he is and writes as if he’s talking to someone and has to continually keep interrupting himself to tell his listener that he’d better tell him things.
But he’s not merely a retread of Able, because Gene Wolfe doesn’t do retreads, but also because there are significant differences between the two: Able/Art was a contemporary boy, from a ‘real’ America, translated to a mythical universe, whereas Chris comes from a near (early Twenty-First Century) future, who travels back into the past.
Chris’s story, after a short introduction, setting up that he is telling this story to an acquaintance who has asked him for it, begins with the Communist regime falling in Cuba. Chris’s father moves to Havana to (shades of the Battista era) a casino, and places his son in a monastery for his education (and safety?) Dad never comes back, Chris studies with a view to becoming a priest but decides not to remain in St Bartolomo.
And there’s a casual, solitary mention of Chris being extra tall because his father had engineered him that way (very Beaker Parrish from Robert Loren Fleming’s Thriller).
But that’s the only SF reference in the book, unless you count Chris’ translation in time. He leaves the monastery to walk into Havana but by the time he gets there, Havana’s not there because it hasn’t been built yet. Chris has gone back in time, without explanation or rationale or any better purpose than to drop him into the age of piracy, where, for no particularly detectable purpose, he lives several years as a pretty good pirate.
And at the end of the book, and after having the development telegraphed several times over (by which I don’t just mean telegraphed by Gene Wolfe’s standards but actually telegraphed), Chris goes back to his own time by the same unexplained and purposeless means.
In between, Chris recounts his progress into piracy and captaincy, not to mention his relationship with Novia, one of several women who dote upon him and want to do it with him all the time. There’s a housemaid and her mistress and a couple of native women and, to be honest, Wolfe renders the question of who is who so densely that, apart from her being Spanish, I can never entirely be sure which one Novia is.
Either way, this Roman Catholic novitiate, who kills a lot of people, does it very frequently with Novia (and the others), represents Novia as his wife though they have undergone no religious or legal ceremony, and fathers a baby upon her out of anything but their own personal wedlock. Wolfe is himself a very devout Catholic, so there is a great deal of musing upon what is owed to God or what we wishes us to do, but this is bending the principles more than somewhat.
Meanwhile, Chris, like Able, is stronger and harder than those around him, though not strong enough to resist two gang-rapes on his first voyage. Furthermore, like Able, he is a much more than competent strategian, tactician, analyst, whatever word you choose to use, than anyone around him.
Chris’s account of his piratical history is continually punctuated by interjections as to his life back in his own time as Father Chris, and how he practices his faith (there is one point at which Chris gives an opinion on the thorny subject of Priests abusing young boys where he or Wolfe goes very much too close to victim-blaming, saying that the boys should have been taught to fight back: that Chris acknowledges that he can be accused of that very thing doesn’t alter the fact that it is victim-blaming, and that Chris is unrepentant of his views).
He’s also forever punctuating his account by pointing out how real piracy and real pirate ships and crews went about things totally differently from what we have seen on television and in films. Between this, overly didactic approach, and Wolfe’s deliberate awkwardness in telling the story through Chris, I found things very frustrating, and despite the different subject, entirely too much like The Wizard Knight for my reading comfort.
And the absence of any mechanism for Chris’s two time jumps I found very disappointing. Wolfe is a far better writer than that, so I can only put it down to a deliberate decision. Of course, the standard response to any ignored information in a Wolfe novel is to immediately start working out what lies buried beneath. After all, Chris does mention late on that his surname is almost impossible for anyone else to pronounce, impossible to shorten and beyond the capability of signal flags, which is an open invitation to Wolfe scholars to discover it.
But I am no Wolfe scholar, as you may well have surmised by now. Chris’s name, the mechanism for his time jumps, are mysteries that remain mysteries because they are too far detached from the purpose of the story. And like high fantasy, I an not enough of an aficianado of pirates to ultimately want to know that badly.
This book is the true beginning of the slow decline. There is still interesting writing to follow. But the great books, the ones of legend, have been written.

Person of Interest: s01 e06 – The Fix

The Fixer

A very clever, very important episode, and a very insightful one as well, particularly in the wake of last week, and John Reese’s heartfelt appreciation of what Harold Finch is allowing him to do.

The episode begins in media res. A tall, attractive woman in her early forties leaves her home at night. A driver awaits her. He is not her regular, he is Mr Reese. Immediately, she is suspicious and calls the company. Mr Finch answers. He has an explanation: Bill’s called in sick, laryngitis, contracted from his younger son, Andy. The details are accurate. Her new driver is told no conversations, eyes on the road, stay with the car. His fee is torn in half: the rest to be paid at the end. The woman is Zoe Morgan (Paige Turco). She is the Number of the Week: victim or perpetrator.

It could go either way. Reese drives her to the Naval Yards (Finch is searching her impersonal apartment) where she buys something off a street gang. A gun. Then to a big social function where, stripped down to a little black frock, she calls out a ranking police officer, Lt. Gilmore. A shooter, then. No, a fixer. The gun is a police weapon, left in a subway bathroom, recovered discretely to save the officer’s career (a good officer, Gilmore says, your nephew, Ms Morgan replies).

Zoe’s next job is to recover a tape. It appears to disclose an affair between CEO Mark Lawson, of Vitragen Pharmaceuticals, and an unknown woman, and a fat slovenly blogger is willing to give it up for $40,000. Zoey’s professional: she doesn’t listen to the tape, she doesn’t need to. But that’s not enough: Vitragen’s head troubleshooter, Samuel Douglas, tries to take her in, but this is where Reese intervenes to save her.

It’s all down to what’s on the tape, and Zoe’s copied it (she may be discrete, but she’s not stupid). The matter takes on a new level of seriousness when they arrive at the blogger’s home to see his body being removed: a heart attack. And Zoe motors whilst Reece is distracted.

Another distraction: Detective Carter has another case, a former Mafia hit man, stabbed through the chest with a steak-knife. Only it’s not one of his steak-knives. It’s not serrated, it’s old, dull. The killer has brought it with him. The hit man rolled on a murder charge forty years ago, a stabbing, a woman named Marlene Elias. The case that was stolen from the evidence locker. The murder weapon. Something’s building here. We’ll come back to this.

Reese brings the copy tape to Finch, who starts cleaing it up. He also takes it a busness meeting: a Mr Harold Partridge has bought eight percent of Vitragen’s shares in the past few days and gets a meeting with not only Lawson, but Robert Keller, the company owner, and Lawson’s father-in-law. Lawson’s the heir apparent, providing Keller doesn’t get to hear about any affairs, that is.

Meanwhile, Finch has traced the woman on the tape, one Dana Miller, a former employee at Vitragen, in their clinical trials department. Vitragen has a new migraine drug coming out, FDA approved, a guaranteed winner. Mr Partridge’s money is safe: he’ll never need to invest in another company again.

Only, Mr Finch has heard Dana Miller’s name before. Six months ago, before he met Mr Reese, her Number came up. An apparent brain aneurysm. But the Machine doesn’t do accidents. Finch could do nothing, for her or any of the other Numbers that litter a noticeboard of their own, all people that could have been saved but for whom he could do nothing. To be able to avenge at least one makes this case intensely personal for the little man.

Zoe surfaces. She’s bet herself on Reese tracking her cellphone and she’s right. There’s a definite sexual tension between this pair, over and above the tension of deciding just how far to trust each other. They’re going to burgle Vitragen, and Lt. Gilmore, who owes her a favour – always have something to trade – will ensure the Police don’t respond.

In Lawson’s office, the pair uncover Dana Miller’s deleted records and the file she accessed multiple times, the file that had been altered before submission to the FDA, to remove six test subject’s names. Six subjects who all died of congestive heart failure. And Finch cleans up the tape enough to confirm that Dana Miller wan’t threatening to expose an affair, but a dangerous drug on which billions in profit rested.

Unfortunately, Lt. Gilmore has decided to free himself of any favours due to Zoe Morgan by shopping her to Vitragen. ‘Mr Partridge’ tries to contact Keller urgently, intending to expose Lawson’s plans to save Reese and Zoe until the simultaneous revelation, on the tape and in Vitragen’s offices, that the kindly, avuncular Keller knew all along, and was in it up to his neck.

Zoe swings a deal. In return for her life, she’ll hand over the copy of the tape she’s using as security, leaving Reese to be executed. As a farewell gesture, she gives Reese a lingering kiss – and a paperclip he can use to unlock his handcuffs, fulfilling the gag she made about the very same thing, earlier on.

Let’s go back to Carter. She’s called in Bernie Sullivan, the detective on the Maria Elias case, who confirms he had the hitman dead to rights but the political fix was in, bought and sold. Sullivan fills in some essential background. Marlene was having an affair with Mafia Don Gianni Moretti, and had a son with him, Carl. Marlene was killed because she wanted Moretti to marry her. Carl went into the system, became almost a professional runaway. There was only one teacher he was close to, to whom he sent Xmas cards and money every year. Sullivan’s got these: Carter will come get them.

Reese frees himself from the handcuffs and turns Douglas’s lethal hypodermic against him. Finch updates him that Zoe hasn’t betrayed him, she’s provided clues to her whereabouts: the Naval Yards. Reese arrives on time to stop Lawson.

Robert Keller enjoys a lunch meeting with ‘Harold Partridge’. He’s all jovial and optimistic, until ‘Partridge’ reveals that he knows of troubles coming the way of the company’s senior officials and that he’s sold out his shareholding. Keller threatens that he is not someone to be treated this way, but Finch, with a quiet but lethal determination gves him a photo of Dana Miller. He tells Keller that he knows money is the only thing that hurts him so he’s taken it all away. Finch will come out with half a billon dollars by selling short (I cannot work out how that works), ruining the company.

Carter arrives at Sullivan’s apartment to collect the cards. She passes someone on the landing. Inside his apartment, Sullivan is dead. The man on the stairs fires back at her and disappears. Who is Carl Elias and what does he want?

I’ve gone into extra detail as to the plot of this episode to show how Person of Interest works: intense, detailed plots, intricate twists, dry, ironic humour, and the willingness to build long-term stories in small increments. It’s giving nothing away to confirm that Zoe Morgan bcomes a semi-regular guest, and it’s equally obvious that Carl Elias, for all that he’s yet to appear, will have a major role to play. And remember, this is still the procedural-with-a twist stage, before it gets really complex.

What sticks with me though is Finch. Emerson has played him as completely self-contained, private, withholding. He built the Machine, he took on the obligation of trying to save the Numbers, but until now it might have been almost an abstract duty. Finch’s intensity in the face of his past failures, the chance to atone, and make no mistake, it is atonement, shows how deeply he feels the responsibility of his position. It matters to him, it matters very much.

“You are being watched. The government has a secret system: a machine that spies on you every hour of every day. I know, because I built it. I designed the machine to detect acts of terror, but it sees everything. Violent crimes involving ordinary people; people like you. Crimes the government considered ‘irrelevant’. They wouldn’t act, so I decided I would. But I needed a partner, someone with the skills to intervene. Hunted by the authorities, we work in secret. You’ll never find us, but victim or perpetrator, if your number’s up… we’ll find you.” Harold Finch’s voiceover introduction, season 1.

Saturday SkandiHorrar: Black Lake 2 – episodes 5 & 6

Would you buy a used psychological course from this man?

I’m prepared to make one complimentary remrk about Black Lake 2, namely that it isn’t as egregiously stupid as Black Lake 1, and that it isn’t sliding inexorably into an horrendous mess, story-wise, or at least not yet. Other than that, it is a piece of crap, in a dull, leaden way as opposed to the sparkling, mad eye glitter of things like Follow the MoneyModus and, still the doyen of them all, Salamander.

Take episode 5. This was a long and slow affair, in which the course-mates, less the deceased Amina, were taken on a trek acoss the island to a semi-boarded up wooden building in which everyone was to wander around, take in the atmosphere lie down and contemplate (which not everybody did).

This took up practically the whole episode, especially Minnie, wandering around so slowly that it was tempting to suspect that the camera was running the digital equivalent of sixteen frames per second. We’re at episode 5, we’re into the back half, so structurally this is the glacial episode where we start getting a bit of connective tissue thrown at us so we are told that the island of Kallskar has always been an isolation ward, effectively, for Stockholm. The crumbling building was a cholera hospital, where victims of epidemics were shunted off to live or die. Later, during the Second World War, it was a camp for Baltic refugees, several of whom, no doubt, had been executed in that pre-credits scene in episode 1, visited by the little girl.

Episode 5 went heavy on the horror tropes, to the point where I got thoroughly sick of the slow forward pan towards a door or a room that creates tension in those who aren’t sick of the obvious manipulation. Vincent thinks creepy Oscar has something to do with Amina’s disappearance, Isabell takes it seriously, Johan doesn’t, and Minnie’s certain she’s getting psychic flashes from Maya (shades of Hanne in series 1, dead children ghosts, or maybe it’s just lack of creative originality).

Minnie’s getting close to connection in a creepy room whose doors open and close (creakily) all by themselves. Creepy Oscar asks what she’s doing, breaking the ‘connection’. She complain about it, as if he’s done it deliberately, to Johan, who tells her to forget it, get her certificate and get out, but she’s too far gone for that kind of rationality. Instead, she goes back on her own, sees a little golden-haired girl.

Incidentally, we learn that wheen Josefine disappeared last year, three weeks later, her daughter Elsa disappeared on her way home from school. Josefine was in a custody battle. Q.E.D., nothing to see here, move on.

Episode 5 ends with someone late at night digging. They uncover a human skull, shift it out the way. Then they start shovelling the dirt over the body of Amina.

Next up, it’s supposed to be the debriefing session, of digital videocamera, for everyone with Uno. There are differing outcomes. Vincent, who’s not afraid of his emotions, ends up sobbing his heart out. Isabell, who’s mentally and emotionally divorced her family, is a former drug addict with connections to Gittan, who straightened her out, that go back years: she’s very familiar with the island. Oscar believes himself to be beyond help, which Uno automatically, and banally, seizes upon as a perfect starting point for help, but he’s here to find out about Josefine. Minnie’s obsession and her statement that she’s seeing things leaves Uno veryworried about her, so she goes all sullen teenager, refusesto speak and walks out. Johan: Johan’s a prick who thinks he’s found the unanswerable blackmail material to get his own way.

But episode 6 is Minnie’s episode and it’s not healthy watching. The girl’s getting obsessed. She took a photo from the cholera hospital, of the Mannheim family, long-term owners of the island. There’s a little blonde-haired girl in the corner, who obviously has to be Maya, but she’s not: guess what, she’s Gittan.

So crazy Minnie decides Gittan knows more about Maja than she’s letting on and enlists Johan to stand guard whilst she maniacly searches Gittan’s place and finds nothing (Johan sees a photo of a younger Isabell inside, does a mini-search and nicks the ledger that he thinks gets him his own way).

Minnie’s starting to crack up, and no wonder. She pleads with Agnes to phone her daughter, Luna, she just needs to talk to her. It’s genuine, and Agnes leaves her to talkin private. Little Luna has a friendwith a pet name and wants one of her own. But Minnie’s brush with sanity doesn’t last long: she seizes the chance to phone Josefine’s ex-husband, posing as a journalist. A casual last question, did Elsa have a pet name? Yes, but only Josefine used it: it was (wait for it) Maja.

Last bit next week. Here’s hoping for something better in a fortnight.

Film 2019: Elle

Last year, with my birthday as an excuse and the availability of several highly rated films at cheap prices on eBay, I treated myself to another tranche of Isabelle Huppert films. With the Film 2018 season still to complete, I reserved watching these until the new year, which gives me a new twist in the form of the first Sunday morning film that I am seeing for the first time.

Elle (adapted from the novel “Oh…” by Philip Djian) is a 2016 film directed by the infamous Paul Verhoeven. I was going to say that this is the first film by Verhoeven that I’ve seen but, on checking his credits, these include Basic Instincts, to which I took a long-term girlfriend many years back. He’s famous, or notorious, for exploring sex and violence in his films, to an intense degree (Basic Instincts is not a healthy film), and the presence of his name did make me wonder in advance.

But we’re here for the presence of another name, Isabelle Huppert. Her role as Michele Leblanc has been acclaimed as the greatest of her career, and whilst you will never shake my attachment to Pomme in La Dentelliere, she is incredible here as a successful woman in her fifties, who begins the film by being raped in her own home by a ski-masked assailant, who then cleans things up implacably and returns to her life.

The film is a psychological study of Michele, who is fascinating, but also something herself of a monster. In format, and it seems in the original novel, it is a rape-revenge film, and had Verhoeven been able to achieve his original intention of filming it in America, I’ve no doubt whatsoever that that is what it would have been, and only that, and pretty much worthless.

But the controversial subject matter seems to have prevented Verhoeven getting the kind of name actress needed to play the central part, for which thank the filmic gods for taking him to France and the marvellous Huppert.

Michele’s life is tightly wound. She’s the joint owner/controller of a successful company making violent video games, her writer ex-husband is seeing a much younger woman, her slacker son is involved with a volatile girl who’s pregnant by another man, and there’s a very dark shadow across her path that everyone knows about except the viewer, who has to learn. It’s public nature is vividly demonstrated when Michele takes lunch in a small cafe: a woman turns to look at her and then walks past her, tips her very full tray into Michele’s lap and hisses “Scum!” at her.

It involves her father, Georges Leblanc. It is the source of the extremely difficult relationship Michele has with her elderly mother. Michele is cold, critical, cutting. She refuses to reconcile to her father in any way (and we’ll soon learn why) and is openly contemptuous of her mother’s messing around with toyboys, the current of which, Ralf, she is considering marrying.

In a conversation with her best friend and partner, Anna (Anne Consigny), Michele is forthright: if she does, she’ll kill her. When Irene announces her engagement at a Xmas party organised by Michele, her daughter berates her in front of everyone. Irene collapses with a stroke that Michele questions as being real. She equally berates her comatose mother in hospital, during which Irene has a heart attack and dies. Michele is not a nice woman.

Indeed she’s not: she’s been fucking Robert for 6-8 months, just wanted to get laid, that’s all. Robert is Anna’s husband.

One very good thing Verhoeven does is not to link things together. Michele’s responses are unpredictable, she never does quite what you expect of her. I’m inclined to call her a sociopath, unheeding of the needs and wants of those around her, concerned only with herself, and once we learn about Georges Leblanc, there’s a golden opportunity to say that, a-ha, that’s clearly why.

Because Georges Leblanc is a serial killer, a man who murdered 27 people, parents and children. No wonder his wife and ten year old daughter turned out the way they are, we say, when we learn this from a recently repeated documentary that has sparked the lap-tipping. In America, I guess it would have gone no further. But in Elle there is a scene where, at the Xmas party, Michele talks about it openly, to her over-the-road neighbour Patrick, who she has already masturbated over, and everything takes on other dimensions.

Georges used to thumb crosses onto the foreheads of children on their way to school in the morning, until some parents asked him to stop doing it. That night, he killed all those people, in one night, and their dogs and cats too, though he spared one hamster, an incongruous note that bent the moment even further by its absurdity. He came home to Michele, Irene being on duty as a nurse, and together they started burning everything. Curtains, cushions, furniture, even clothes, until the Police came.

Suddenly, you can’t draw simple, straight-line connections, make easy assumptions.

Not that Huppert has ever allowed you to. Everything, every word and action, complicates the picture more, until you lose any sense of what you ought to think, if there is such a thing.

No wonder Michele won’t report the rape to the Police, she will never have anything to do with them. Almost unemotionally, but this is Huppert so that almost is in there, she does all the sweeping under the carpet things: throws the broken crockery in the bin, along with the blue dress she was wearing, has a hot sudsy soak (a heart shape of blood forms in the bubbles, just above her groin, a dissturbing visual), has her locks changed, visits the Doctor. She tells Richard (the ex-), Anna and Robert at a dinner that night, where, in order to park her car, she has already wrecked the fender of the car behind, belonging to Richard. She goes about her life with its demands, to which she responds acidly, never failing to be brutal.

But she’s also being stalked.

The rapist seems to be able to get to her: e-mails, texts, semen on her bed and a screenshot on her laptop. A parody of the in-development videogame in which a character is tentacularly raped, with Michele’s head superimposed on her, turns out to be a red herring. The pressure is horrendous.

The original rape takes place in darkness, sound only, sight being added when it is over. A flashback brought on by Michele’s cat meowing gives us the attack in daylight, in horrific clarity, but a second flashback catches us out by turning into Michele’s re-ordering of events so that when her hand pulls the tablecloth down, she grabs a heavy metal ashtray and uses it to, prophetically, bash his head into a pulp. Then she’s attacked again, in her home, raped again. She manages to pull the ski-mask off, and it is Patrick.

Late on, Michele, being driven home by Patrick from the very successful launch party for the game, a launch that cements better relations with chief designer Kurt, helps son Vincent to grow by having him successfully organise it, gives struggling Richard, his girlfriend gone, an opportunity and at which she’s admitted to Anna that she’s been the one fucking Robert, Michele says to Patrick, “It’s twisted.”

That’s a very Verhoeven state of filming, and indeed it is, and only Huppert has saved the film from turning into an exploitive mess. Because Michele hsn’t reported Patrick to the Police. She hasn’t told his sweet, innocent, devoutly Catholic wife, Rebecca. She hasn’t told anyone.

Her mother’s death prompts her to decide to see her father for the first time in 36 years.  Michele arrives at the prison to find him dead, a suicide overnight. He was told of her visit just before lights out at 7.00pm. She takes pleasure in how she has killed him. But driving back, distracted by an intrusive Press call, her car crashes and she is trapped. Richard and Anna’s numbers go to voicemail: it is Patrick who manhandles her out, fixes her leg wound.

They begin a micro-affair. It’s twisted, that she should do that to begin with, that she evinces a hitherto unadverted masochist tendency, wants to be hit. That ruins it for Patrick: it has to be real. To achieve orgasm – for him but maybe not for her – she assaults him to provoke him to hit her.

This is edging, no shouldering its way, into areas of macho, see-she-likes-it territory, but this might not be what we think. The launch is a success, Michele leaves Vincent behind, gets Patrick to drive her home, tells him it’s twisted, and asks him if he really thought he would get away with what he did? She’s going to tell the Police.

He says nothing, just lets her out of the car. She dawdles over going into her house, leaves the gate unlocked, a bit Tony Martin. With ski-mask on, he attacks her inside, throws her about, beats her, caresses her throat gently where he will, after he’s had her again, strangle her. Someone weaves into the room from behind, with a log from the firebasket, crushes his skull: Vincent, who was supposed to have been left behind at the party and whose excuse for leaving his triumph and being there is never given, although you, like I, may well have thoughts about that.

Patrick dies confused. Michele is collected at first, but in shock for the Police. Rebecca sells up but, just before moving, thanks Michele for helping, for a brief time, to ease Patrick’s torment. Anna’s thrown Robert out, is selling the house, and plans to move in with Michele.

What have we been watching anyway? If there had been an American version, I wouldn’t have touched it with a barge pole, and Verhoeven himself has said it would have been banal and not worth doing (presumably because he’s already done it with Basic Instincts). I an deeply suspicious about Michele, about who she is and what she’s capable of, and that’s entirely down to Isabelle Huppert, firstly for being so unbelievably good as to make this into a film of innumerable angles that draw your thoughts in so many directions, and secondly for being so unbelievably good as to draw both Director and writer into deeper waters than the otherwise crass concept would usually emcompass.

The film is Huppert’s. There isn’t a single scene without her in it, but she’s supported by a cast good enough to frame her at every turn. Anne Consigny’s part as best friend is small but beautifully judged, and Laurent Lafitte as Patrick is the only other part of any genuine size and he is vital to allowing the sexual role in the film to stay within the realms of the believable, close run thing though it is at times.

So, the first sight-unseen Film 2019 production is an undoubted success. There will be two more Isabelle Huppert performances in the next couple of months.

TV Century 21 – 2065

I was lucky to grow up with generous parents.
Like any boy of my generation, I loved comics, and like any parent of their generation, they worried about letting me read them. In this I had an ally, in Mr Phillipson, he who got me into the Eleven plus when I should never have, and who changed my life. He pointed out, quite rightly, that my reading comics did not stop me being a voracious reader of books, and my parents need have no fears that the comics were stunting my mental growth.
I don’t know how closely the two may have been connected, but my parents decided, in their infinite generosity, to allow me six comics a week. Irrespective of their official publication dates, these were doled out to me one a day, Monday to Saturday, in a fixed rotation.
As time passed, and I got older, the titles changed. Things like Robin and Harold Hare Weekly, Beano and Dandy, gave way to older comics, like Victor and Hornet, Eagle and Lion. I was not allowed to chop and change frequently, and I could only swap, not add: for every new title I wanted, I had to sacrifice an old one, and sometimes the choice was far from easy.
Nor did I have a free hand. My parents held a right of veto over what I could select, and anything they decided was too young for me, or too anarchic in its sense of humour, would be refused. I never got to read Wham! or Buster. New titles were very difficult to get added to my list: offhand, I think the only one I did get to read from number 1, or very very soon after, was Hurricane, though I’ve no idea why.
Which meant that I did not get to read my second favourite comic of the decade until, I dunno, anything from 10 to 20 issues after it started, even though it was the only comic that offered production values akin to those of Eagle: clean white paper, photogravure reproduction, full colour and, what’s more, high-quality photographic covers. Even though it was made for me and a generation of boys hooked on Gerry & Sylvia Anderson’s Supermarionation SF series, Supercar, Fireball XL5 and Stingray.

TV Century 21 was ready-made for me and all the other boys and girls who loved Gerry Anderson’s puppet series, who sat glued to the set through every episode, who almost religiously came in from playing out to watch every second, who can even today recite every word of every introduction. It was even laid out as a newspaper from the future, dated a hundred years ahead, with full colour photos taken from the Anderson series’ every week. Why I didn’t get it from the first week, I don’t know. But I got it, and stayed with it until the days when I grew out of comics for good.
And now I have it on DVD, starting from the beginning.
TV21 debuted on 23 January 1965 but presented as a newspaper, Universe edition, with a publication date of 23 January 2065, and that would be the pretence throughout. The contents however were divided between stories set in the notional publication year, which were all presented in colour, and stories in black and white, set ‘historically’ in 1965.
Officially, the comic was TV Century 21 until issue 155, when it became simply TV21 but we all called it by that name from the start.
With one exception, all the series were directly based on television programmes, with four out of seven featuring Gerry and Sylvia Anderson characters. Fireball XL5, Stingray and Lady Penelope all appeared as two page full colour strips, with reproduction qualities equal to those of Eagle, with Stingray leavened with stills taken from the TV series in place of certain panels. Supercar, in contrast, appeared in black and white, set in 1965, and was played primarily as a comedy.
The back page was given over to a full-colour series about The Daleks, taking up their history from the war on Skaro with the Thals that devastated the planet and led to the construction of the Dalek machines, which in the beginning were merely casings and vehicles protecting a disgusting looking and small organic creature within.
The other two series are long-forgotten now, being a one-page comedy adaptation of the American sitcom My Favourite Martian and a two-page adaptation of the police procedural, Burke’s Law.

My Favourite Martian was one of my favourites of that early Sixties wave of American sitcoms that used to fill the schedules around tea-time. It starred a young Bill Bixby as Tim O’Hara, a reporter, and Ray Walston as Martin the Martian, who’d crash-landed on Earth and, to conceal his secret whilst he was trying to repair his ship, posed as Tim’s Uncle. Martin had various Martian powers, most often invisibility, and two antenna that grew out of his head.
Burke’s Law was a different thing. I don’t remember actually watching it, probably because it held down the 8.00 – 9.00pm slot, when 8.00pm was my bed-time. I do remember a part of its theme tune, the female, breathy cooing of the title. It was a vehicle for Gene Barry, as Amos Burke, a millionaire Police Captain in LA’s Homicide Division, who was driven around in a Roll’s Royce Silver Cloud, and who solved crimes and dropped pithy lines whilst his underlings ran round doing the work.
Both were reproduced as simplified stories in cartoon b&w doing a good caricature of the actors involved, and Supercar, despite being of the Anderson stable, should be grouped with them, but they were also-rans to the colour series, which were detailed and accurate representations of the puppets and the equipment. Mike Noble drew Fireball XL5, Ron Embleton Stingray, and Hampson Studio veteran Eric Eden Lady Penelope. The Daleks were drawn by former Storm Nelson and Eagle star, Richard E Jennings.
The comic was the creation of Alan Fennell, script editor for the Anderson studio, principal writer for TV21, and writer of a couple of paperback novels featuring Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet’s Angels, down the line.

The Eagle comparisons extended to more than paper quality and full colour art as the comic also featured factual articles on space, the oceans and countries around the world. There was also a micro-celebrity feature where Lady Penelope answered questions about TV stars. The space articles, by Roger Dunn of the British Interplanetary Society, were especially fascinating, coming as they did halfway between the first Apollo launches and the actual Moon landing, making them historical documents of the (simplified) development of space travel.
There was also a curious Eagle-like wildlife series, The World We Share, each week featuring a different creature, be it animal, bird, fish or snake. At least 80% of these fellow creatures turned out to be vicious, lethal predators of a kind you wouldn’t even want to share a pen-pal correspondence with!
Though it looked like caricatural cartooning from the start, it took me quite some time to see an increasing continental influence on Supercar, primarily in the poses and actions. The strip may not have originated in Pilote or Spirou (unless rights to Supercar had been sold before TV21 was a gleam in Alan Fennell’s eye), but I strongly suspect a French or Belgian cartoonist.

It wasn’t until issue 15, 1 May, that I recognised a couple of things: a line in Burke’s Law, the closing panel in The Daleks, which I already remembered and had been expecting. I don’t think that was necessarily my first issue, however.
Amos Burke received a new artist the next issue, one with a far more representational style which, given its similarity to one of the existing crew, I’m confidently ascribing to Gerry Embleton, Ron’s brother. The feature was also upgraded to a semi-serial, with each story now taking two weeks to conclude. Gerry Embleton, if indeed it were him, was excellent in realistically portraying Burke and his two side men, though as the weeks went by, he did seem to rely on a very limited stock of headshots for the trio.
The underlying idea was still the Supermarionation Universe, and the several series, Supercar aside, were treated as occurring simultaneously. This was primarily a background theme, more often on the newspaper cover than in the strips, where occasional mention was made of the other services, but there was an interesting crossover in issue 19 (29 May). The Fireball XL5 serial running featured an attempt to avoid space war with the adjoining Astran Empire (the Astrans looking like human-sized coloured jellybeans). Disaster was threatened in Fireball XL5 when the Astran Kaplan (or Emperor) was assassinated in Earth’s capitol, Unity City.
Fortunately, Lady Penelope and Parker were taking a week off between stories, and their strip saw Thunderbirds’ future London Agent track down and capture the assassin, leaving him tied to a lamppost for Steve Zodiac and Commander Zero to pick up! I don’t believe such a crossover had ever taken place in British comics before.
The story continued in Fireball XL5 the following week, with Steve and the Commander rammed off the road and the assassin being killed, but the thought was there.
Fittingly enough, the comic’s first new feature arrived in issue 21 (12 June), in the form of a one page b&w strip, 21. This was set in 2046 and featured toy salesman Brent Cleever of Century 21 Toys, a front for the Universal Secret Service. Cleever is Special Agent 21, already familiar to the readers as the seeming editor of the comic, Twenty One, bringing news, letters and quizzes to the audience and now being personified (artist John Cooper’s ‘likeness’ was, of course, no likeness at all, Twenty One being a highly secret figure.)

Meanwhile, the Astra assassination story took another crossover twist, with Stingray joining in for another one-off continuation, shooting down the villains as they attempted to flee underwater.
The Dalek strip on the back page was the justification for issue 28 (31 July) to break with the Anderson theme and feature the cinema Dr Who film on the photo cover. This was Dr Who and the Daleks, Peter Cushing’s non-canonical outing as the Doctor, with an annoyingly spoilery feature on the film, giving away the entire story, inside. The following week there was a poignant moment, as Roger Dunn’s space feature, working its way through the Solar System, reached Neptune. The page included a sidebar on real-life astronauts which, that week, highlighted a 34 year old back-up pilot for ‘a forthcoming Gemini mission’. The man was Neil Armstrong, who would become the first man to walk upon the Moon.
Agent Twenty-One established another link between the Anderson worlds when it was revealed that Brent Cleever’s boss, S, was former General Zodiac, namely the father of Fireball XL5’s Steve Zodiac: a decidedly Marvel Universe moment.
The same strip was given an upgrade in issue 37 (2 October) with a change of art-style to a superb, soft pencil shading technique, introducing a host of grey shades into what had been a plain pen-and-ink approach. This delicate style was toned down after only a week, though the series showed an admirable modernity by sending Twenty-One’s assistant in by parachute to save him, his assistant being Agent Twenty-Three, Tina, a woman!
And there was a switch of artists on Fireball XL5 in issue 40 (23 October) with Mike Noble’s clean and simple lines being replaced by an artist who was trying to render the crew’s faces more like-like than puppet-like, with varying degrees of success: almost perfect on Mat Matic, patchy with Steve Zodiac and bottling out of trying to depict Venus at all. This was only for a four part story, however, with Noble back for the new story starting in issue 44 (21 November).
This turned into another of those tales I remembered, as a new engine fitted to Fireball for testing saw it travel so fast, it went back in time. To the soon-to-come 1966…

Issue 44 also saw a foretaste of what was to come, as the Lady Penelope Investigates mini-feature was expanded to a page and filled with colour photos as the Lady investigated Thunderbirds over two weeks. The Anderson studio’s most popular and successful series had debuted on 30 September (the week of issue 36) in three ITV regions, and we of Granada had had it the next month. Lady Penelope’s series had been a foreshadowing, and it was plainly only a matter of time before the International Rescue organisation would make its debut in TV Century 21.
The Thunderbirds connection took another turn in the new Lady Penelope adventure, with the arrival of a mysterious torch at Creighton-Ward Manor drawing the attention of both British Intelligence and an exotic freelance spy, a bald man with bushy eyebrows going by the name of The Hood…
The same issue also confirmed that the Supercar strip, which had suddenly developed serial-like aspects, had undergone a permanent cutback to 1½ pages.
And in issue 46, the countdown began, the first of five full page colour photos of the Thunderbird craft and their pilots. 5, 4, 3, 2, 1… And or those with sharp eyes, a two-page boardgame space race was decorated by drawings of Thunderbird 1 and Thunderbird 5 from two angles, the artwork being identifiable as being by Frank Bellamy.
But the Thunderbirds countdown had only reached 2 when TV Century 21 reached issue 49, 25 December, bringing to an end the comic’s first year. It’s funny to think that, re-reading these issues in December 2018, I am slightly nearer the 2065 of the comic’s fictional era than the 1965 of its production.
What’s my impression of this first year, so much later? I’m sorry to say that I found most of it impressive but bland. There’s a high standard of full colour art, reproduced on paper fit to show it at is best, and the artists in use represent some of the best talents of their time. The imagery is clean and bright, the colours primary, and each of the Anderson series is a wonderful thing that I still love to this day.
But there’s something essential to good comics series that’s mainly missing from all the colour Anderson strips, and that’s living, breathing people. Let us not forget that these were all puppet series, in which the least realistic elements were the puppet people. They were all SF series in which the focus was on the machinery: it was Fireball XL5, not Steve Zodiac, Stingray, not Troy Tempest. The focus had to be on the equipment, because the only way to make the puppets remotely natural was to sit them down at pilot’s consoles.
And this carries over into the various comics series. The artists are forced to draw people who are based on puppets, artificial, caricatural humans beings, and are only being held to be successful by literal ten year old boys such as myself to the extent that the characters most closely resemble their originals.
Though it’s a comedy series, Supercar works the best because the characters are characters, no matter how much they are played for laughs, and Supercar itself is much the smallest part of the strip. And both Burke’s Law and My Favourite Martian are more substantial because they derive from real people and take on more substance by association.
Nor are the Anderson series done any favours by the brevity of their stories, allowing insufficient time and space for complexity to develop, because complexity can either enable more realistic character portrayals, or at least cover up their absence a bit better.
But this is merely the first year. Will we see an improvement when we move on into 2066?