Double Dead Comics Weekend: Heroes in Crisis 9 and Doomsday Clock 10

So I was right when I predicted, maybe six months ago, that I’d see Heroes in Crisis 9 before Doomsday Clock 12, for here is the former appearing the same week as issue 10 of the latter, with the penultimate issue due in another three months time and the final issue in sight of no published schedule at all. Let’s put the two together and talk about which is the biggest bust.

For me, it’s got to be Heroes in Crisis. I was expecting something interesting, thought-provoking, original and ground-breaking. I was expecting it to enslave me. I was expecting it to be good. Doomsday Clock has done nothing but live down to my expectations.

Last issue, Heroes in Crisis revealed that its villain was neither Booster Gold nor Harley Quinn, as had been trailed from the start, but instead Wally West, the series’ most controversial and unwelcome victim. What was so bad, as well as just dumbfuck stupid, about it was that whilst the multiple deaths were a tragic accident, Wally’s actions in covering up, concealing and fabricating evidence and framing innocents, placed him at or below the level of the most evil of supervillains.

Worse still than that, was the choice of Wally as the villain: Wally West, the victim of the New52, the wellspring of Rebirth in 2016, the character whose reappearance was a deliberate beacon, a symbol of hope, and who less than three years later has been trashed beyond recovery. And in choosing to make Wally such a manipulator of evidence, Tom King destroyed his own story: literally everything in issues 1-7 has been a fake, a red herring, a lie. None of it meant anything, except seven months’ waste of paper, ink and colour. Did nobody at DC realise this in advance?

The series has made Wally West irredeemable. The character is poisoned beyond any hope, except as a villin or a madman, for at least two decades: that was how long in took to bring Hal Jordan back after Emerald Twilight, and that only tenuously possible by having him be possessed by Parallax, the Fear-Demon. In the late 2030’s, assuming the comic book industry hasn’t disappeared up its own backside at last, someone can try to rehabilitate Wally. It would be nice if someone could come up with something that isn’t as cheap and casuall, or as blatant a rip-off, as having him be possessed, and not in his right mind.

Was this what Tom King planned all along? There’s been rumour, and circumstantial evidence, of editorial interference by Interferer in Chief Dan Didio. Who is known to dislike Wally West almost as much as he does Dick Grayson. Who was the force behind the conceptual approaches of the New52, which was rejected by Geoff Johns in Rebirth. Who has come out on top in a power-strugle with Johns, who made wlly the Hope of Rebirth.

Would DiDio be so petty? Are you kidding? He works in comics, doesn’t he? The industry is littered with the petty, the obsessive, the maladjusted.

You may by now be wondering why I am going on at such length on what is essentially a reprise of my comments on issue 8, but this is the bar that the last issue has to overcome when it tries to present the Redemption of Wally West, by doing more or less the same thing issue 8 did, that is, to wipe out what has gone before, and render the worst parts of issue 8 non-existent. It doesn’t work, not even for a second.

What happens is that, amongst another slew of single panel trauma investigations at Sanctuary, which we later learn is the new, repaired, publicly-known Sanctuary, the Booster-Beetle-Harley-Batgirl team catches up with Wally five days in the future where/when he’s about to strangle Wally West for his crime and take him back to Day Zero for his body to be found. Wally has decided against using time travel to, you know, like, stop himself from killing all those people in the first place, because of Flashpoint.

So, in the least convincing of manners and most cheap of reverses, Wally and Wally talk Wally out of it, Booster scoots into the future to grab a clone of Wally + 5 so that can be dumped at Day Zero, everybody hightails it out of Day + 5 before the Justice League get there,  and Wally can go back to Day Zero and confess his crime and get therapy, and go on to his bright and bountiful future in the DC Universe. The fact that in doing so he has now changed time in contravention of his principles in not changing time is not allowed to cross the mind of anyone except awkward readers.

It’s bullshit, pure bullshit from start to finish. Worse than bullshit, it’s pathetic. The series has been dull, static and uninvolving, and it has undercut itself over and over to the point where it holds no reality whatsoever. And to prove this yet further, Poison Ivy is returned to life is issue 9.

That leaves Roy Harper as the only prominent dead character, along with a bunch of neverwases, and that isn’t going to last.

I really had hopes for Heroes in Crisis but it disappointed from the outset. According to one of the spoilers that I’ve avoided until now, King, as the writer, submitted his outline story and had the characters to use dictated to him, but I’m still not going to let him off. That’s stupid nonsense. Look for a complete set on eBay from Sunday afternoon onwards.

As for Doomsday Clock 10, this armpit of a story has dragged on for so long that I no longer have the energy for any truly visceral commentary. At this late stage, on this attenuated schedule, you’d think that Johns and Frank would be making at least some effort to move the story towards its glacial conclusion, especially given that Doomsday Clock is meant to be the future of the DC Universe and nobody as yet has any idea what they have to do to get there, and that it supposed to be the springboard for the long overdue returns of The Justice Society of America and The Legion of Super-Heroes.

Issue 10 has been trailed for longer than prehistoric beasts have existed as heralding the return of the Justice Society, and it is true that we have some new dialogue from their first meeting, but in which version of reality that takes place is beyond determining. Essentially, Johns has decided to spend this issue in the head of Dr Manhattan, who does not perceive time in linear fashion, and using this to summarise what the Doc has been doing since departing the Watchmen Universe and arriving in DC’s.

It basically wanders about haphazardly whilst the Doc adjusts to the idea of being in a Multiverse in which time shifts at periodic intervals, until he realises that the DC Earth is actually not a Multiversal construct but a metaverse, whose history is constantly shifting.

I mean, ho-hum or what, so very rose by any other name. In the end, we get back to the same old conundrum we’ve had waved under our noses for about a year of real time, that Manhattan’s perception of the future ends with Superman throwing a punch at him, meaning that either Superman destroys him., or Manhattan destroys the metaverse. And aside from all other considerations, the odds of Manhattan destroying something Johns has only just named/defined this week are non-existent.

This latest instalment essentially writes the series off as a crossover series, as well as its already pronounced failure as a Watchmen fuck-with. We haven’t had any of that for an issue or two, so in one sense it’s cheering to see Johns flash back to Manhattan’s last conversation with Ozymandias in Watchmen 12, but really it’s not since Johns has to lie through his teeth about what Alan Moore had these two talk about, and invent something that never happened and which demeans the good Doctor yet more.

With Tom King’s run on Batman suddenly announced as ending twenty issues prior than we’d been led to believe, and the only other DC title I’m getting being The Terrifics, I foresee discarding the contents of each of these series asbeing beyond easy. I doubt I’ll even have to read anything in which they have consequences.

Will someone put this thing out of its misery? Before August and issue 11.


We Who Would Valiant Read: Part 3

We pick up again with issue 163, cover date 13 November 1965. Between the last part and this, a little boy in East Manchester had his tenth birthday. As I’ve had cause to say before, I didn’t get Valiant in the Sixties. It wasn’t one of my comics, but at least one of my friends read it, so I was familiar with it. But for how much longer? I was now in Junior Four, the highest class in my local Primary School, looking down the barrel of Eleven-Plus Exams. A year from now, I would barely see any of my old school-mates. Thirteen months, and I would move away, and never swap for the Valiant again.
Brrr, morbid. Let’s have our usual reminder of what reading Valiant entailed as we start Part 3.

Valiant 1966

The comic is still 40 pages for 7d. The only colour is on the cover, still devoted to It Happened This Week… Inside, Captain Hurricane offers WW2 comedy adventure at 4½pp, Master-Mind, a supposed cartoon strip (1p), Kelly’s Eye, still protected by the Eye of Zoltec (2pp), Crime-Busters, true life crook-catching (1p), Legge’s Eleven, a funny football strip (2½pp), The Nutts, another supposed cartoon strip (1p), The Astounding Jason Hyde, a prose serial about a scientist with x-ray vision (3pp), Jackaroo Joe, a new strip about an Aussie who’d inherited a lairdship (2pp), The Steel Claw, an invisible secret agent (2pp), 2pp of letters and a half page What Do You Know?, Sporting Roundabout (1p), Mytek the Mighty, a giant robot gorilla menacing the world (2½pp), Billy Bunter, who needs no introduction (2pp), The Space Explorers, third and final part of a reprinted US SF short (2pp), The Wild Wonders, a comic series about two kid sportsmen (3pp), Sporty, a one page atrocity, Jack O’Justice, highwayman turned thief-taker (2pp), Gabby McGlew (1½p), plus The Crows (½p), two supposed cartoon strips, and lastly but far from leastly, on the back page, the Belgian comic strip It’s a Dog’s Life (originally Boule et Bill).
One week later, Mytek the Mighty was at last laid low, and Gogra captured. Time was up for the giant gorilla robot. Or was it? A new maybe-EC reprint story started, but I’m not going to record all the titles, just the existence of the series.
Of course Mytek was not finished, but the series changed course. Gogra escaped, planning to work on his super-robot that would outclass the giant gorilla, who was supposed to be dismantled. But Mytek’s batteries got recharged and his own developing brain set him off independently, deflected towards Gogra as his enemy.
Legge’s Eleven’s current story was an object lesson in the flaws of such a series. Having built up the team, and won Fourth Division promotion, Rockley get taken over by a certifiable nutter, Colonel Bagshott, who appoints himself trainer and starts running things like an Army instead of a football team. It’s cheap, it’s stupid, it’s repetitious and it’s so far beyond credible that it’s a waste of paper. It’s almost a rule for any artistic venture that centres upon a sport that the sporting exploits rapidly become extraneous and are replaced by increasingly mad stories about crooks and exploiters instead.
To general surprise, Jackaroo Joe’s mysterious enemy was revealed in issue 171 (8 January 1966) to be his identical distant cousin Craig, next heir, determined to get his hands on the Scottish estate. The reason for this was still a mystery, just to keep interest up, not that it had ever left the ground in the first place.
The next issue saw Valiant expand to an unprecedented 44 pages, at no extra cost, but all the extra pages were only an advert for the Valiant picture library.
There was a touching moment in Jack O’Justice in issue 174 (29 January) when, in order to bait a trap for new villain, The Hawk, Jack persuades Moll, despite her tomboy ways, to dress up as a French princess, and is somewhat taken aback when his brave girl companion turns out to be a knockout. Unfortunately, whilst Moll may have looked a doll, her long dress, primped wig and discernible bosom locked her out of the action until the next story.
There were three weeks of 44 page issues starting with no 177 (19 February) to accommodate four page plugs for the new comic, Champion. Unfortunately, if you’ve read my series on the Lion, you know how that turned out.
When it came to issue 187 (30 April), there was a partial revamp, Lion-style, with most of the existing series starting new stories and four new features in a jump to 44 pages, plus free gifts. Crime-Busters, after a long run, was replaced by Operation ‘Rescue’, a true-life series featuring daring rescues. The Last Boys in the World was a new series about three schoolboys who, by being underground, retrieving a cap thrown down a grating by a bully, emerge to find the entire population of the world vanished. Sports Roundabout’s artist was on temporary assignment to draw the Valiant Book of Football, a series of four page instalments building up into a 32 page booklet in anticipation of the forthcoming World Cup in England. The worthless SF reprints were replaced by Danger-Hunter, former Paratrooper Simon ‘Glory’ Boyes, a professional trouble-shooter, who gave off the vivid sense of being a Rory MacDuff rip-off. Even the art was like a rougher Reg Bunn. And it looked like The Crows had finally got the bird, to be replaced by Tatty-Mane, a comic series about a Lion. Don’t get your hopes up: we had both of them the next week, but that was two weeks without Sporty. Maybe…
As for the continuing stories, Jackaroo Joe finally took up his inheritance in Scotland, having accidentally killed off cousin Craig the previous week whilst learning that the rotter had half a map to treasure in the Bahamas, the other bit of which was at Glenawe. Then it was off to the Bahamas. Frankly, expatriate Aussie boys might have enjoyed this but overall the series rivalled Legge’s Eleven for tediousness.

To go back to the Book of Football supplement, there was a delightful irony in a small feature pointing out that no team wearing red shirts had ever won the World Cup, and pointing to Russia, Chile, Hungary, Spain and Switzerland as red teams. Maybe this might be the year for the Reds? And what colour were England’s change shirts in the Final?
Once the free gift cover passed, a new cover series began, It Could Happen, micro-features about how modern-day inventions might be developed in an SF future. In its second week it forecast undersea glass boat tours of the ocean bed… by the year 2000. I think not.
The same week’s instalment of Danger-Hunter had a telling slip. Simon Boyes is supposed to be an ex-Paratrooper, but one caption describes him as ‘The Stuntsman’. That was MacDuff’s profession when he wasn’t advertising himself out to dangerous jobs. And when I started to look closer at the lettering, it was easy to tell that the letter GL were in a thinner style than the ORY, as if space were tight. Once one such lettering change was recognised, they started to come thick and fast. I didn’t recognise the story, but its original provenance was obvious.
Sadly, like the vorwulka that cannot be confined to its grave, Sporty was back in issue 192 (4 June), as unliving as ever.
Jack O’Justice’s latest adventure, against a villain named Doom who was kidnapping appropriate people to become living chessmen, ended in issue 194 (18 June) with Moll Moonlight is a skin-tight, head-to-toe black costume. It was an unexpected piece of titillation to crown the series’ last episode, ‘a rest from the perils of the highway’. It’s replacement was to be a bit of a surprise. Enter… Jack Justice.
Yes, the decision was taken to jump the series into the Sixties, replacing Jack with Jack, his three greats grandson by his wife Moll O’Justice (that all-black skin-tight costume clearly put ideas into three greats grandad’s… head). Young Jack came complete with his own daring girl companion, Diana Dauntless. No doubt it was perversity on the writer’s part to make Jack and Diana’s first opponent a Phantom Highwayman.
‘Glory’ Boyes started a new adventure in issue 199 (23 July), with the same, familiar, early Reg Bunn art, but none of the blatantly obvious relettering, nor was the opening episode at all familiar. Then again, my Lion DVDs were not complete. The same issue saw ‘Gabby’ McGlew off the paper: a substantial relief, but of course not permanent.
Valiant reached its 200th issue on 30 July 1966, the date of the World Cup Final at Wembley. Like Lion, there was build-up but no reference to England’s successful outcome, presumably down to printing deadlines that would have made celebrations old news by the time they could appear in print.
Legge’s Eleven returned to England and took up their position in the Second Division, The Steel Claw defeated the Magician, Jack and Diana defeated the Phantom Highwayman and moved on to the Birdman and The Last Boys in the World continued its meaningless way, with the kids and Mr Boyce unable to get on any form of transport without another disaster occurring within five panels and forcing them to abandon it. The series was going nowhere, literally. For the moment, Valiant had plateaued: decent each week, but lacking in peaks or troughs, or anything new.

Dolmann and his ‘children’

The It Could Happen front page feature continued to give amusement at its enthusiastic predictions, the latest of which (issue 208, 24 September) was both funny and disheartening. Referring to the expectation of a Moon landing by 1970, it went on to evoke the year 2000 again, claiming that trips to our neighbour would be commonplace, and Moon tours an exciting feature. As always, future predictions are a mug’s game: who would have ever believed though that in that year, it would have been a quarter century since we had last walked on the Moon.
But one change at least was at hand. Jackaroo Joe reached the end of his Bahamian adventure in issue 209 (1 October) and took himself and his kangaroo back to Australia, forgetting conveniently that he was a Scottish laird with a welcome in the Highlands. Change was welcome, and it took the form of another classic Sixties series, The House of Dolmann.
Dolmann was a brilliant inventor and ventriloquist, an agent of International Security who lived as a shabby puppet-shop owner in a London back-street, and built highly-talented puppets/robots to carry out missions in four page complete stories. Dolmann was drawn by Eric Bradbury, who’d been drawing Mytek the Mighty up to now.
Mytek’s new artist was engaged on a story that saw Gogra back, trying to cannibalise the giant ape robot for his new nefarious plans for world conquest. Tom Kerr was drawing Diana Dauntless with a more than perceptible bosom – in a boy’s comic! – and the Wild Wonders’ latest adventure was taking place in an African kingdom with plenty of opportunity for dodgy caricature.
There was a degree of accuracy to It Could Happen on the cover of issue 216 (19 November) which extrapolated from motorway cameras to the surveillance society, eyes on every corner. Typically, the feature saw this as a good thing, with squads of highly mobile Police swooping to stop crime even as it was committed. Well, they got it half right. A quarter right, maybe. Predicting the future is a mug’s game.
Tim Kelly’s latest adventure was an amusing pre-echo of Eagle‘s The Guinea Pig, with the holder of the Eye of Zoltec testing the experimental creations of Dr Diamond, a brilliant scientist with a complete lack of concern for other human beings, whilst Legge’s Eleven’s Second Division series was a copy of their Third Division tale: eccentric trainer forces new and idiotic ideas on team who succeed by subverting them only for eccentric to claim, and be given, credit for success.
I don’t find Jack Justice as impressive as his illustrious forebear, though Tom Kerr’s art is superb, week-in, week-out. The modern setting isn’t as interesting and I confess to being unimpressed at junior Jack’s insistence on wearing a spotted cravat at his throat, in the manner of how Bruce Wayne was depicted back then. It’s smug, and suggests autocracy. Nor is Diana as much of an equal as was Moll Moonlight, having no observable skills but bravery.
Then it was 1967, and Dollman had had enough time to make an impression on me, and that impression is dull. The problem is that the story is told in complete, three or four-page episodes, or the occasional two-parter. The stories are always the same, there are no setbacks that aren’t overcome instantly, the solution is always the same, and Dollman himself has no personality. Such personality as there is isall invested in the puppets, whose voices are provided by Dolmann’s ventriloquism.
As if aware of this, the series started the new year with a three parter, but it made no great difference.

The Steel Claw in costume

For once, It Could Happen got it spot on in issue 226 (28 January), forecasting airbags in cars to save lives in the event of accidents.
I don’t usually comment on the adverts in the Sixties comics I’m re-reading, though they are a frequently fascinating reminder of things past and missed, such as old games, and toys, and fruit-flavour Spangles (fetch me a time machine, will you?) but February 1967 saw Valiant start to run the A.N.G.L.O. Ace commercials, for Anglo’s Tip Top bubble gum. And I only want to mention these for one point that still puzzles me.
It was Eagle who started the idea of making adverts in comics form, and of offering the services of its artists. The practice continued in the Sixties, but in comics like Valiant and Lion, with great, good and even passable artists on display, why did Anglo – to offer one extreme case – choose such an awful artist to draw for them? With the exception of Tom Kerr’s run on the Clark’s Commandos series, I cannot think of a drawn advert worth appearing alongside the series it accompanied. Instead, they stick out so awfully that I would have thought the effort counter-productive. A.N.G.L.O. Ace was abominable, and I’d have been ashamed to chew the bubblegum (not that anyone was letting me do so back then).
Back to the strips. The Steel Claw was struck a mortal(ly stupid) blow in issue 231 (4 March) when the Shadow Squad stuck him in a superhero costume (they hadn’t brought Jerry Siegel in to write, had they?)
The real disaster, for me, was issue 239 (29 April), for this was the last of It’s A Dog’s Life. I had had just over three years worth of the series, 159 issues, so I shouldn’t grumble, but it had been my favourite part of Valiant, and I sorely missed it.
Pete and Larry’s replacement in issue 241 (13 May) was Sam Sunn, the strongest boy in the world. One look was enough to identify this as a local product and, in keeping with the likes of The Nutts, The Crows and Tatty-Mane, devoid of all humour. It might amuse a four year old, if they’d never seen a cartoon strip before, that is.
One issue later, The Last Boys in the World came to its long overdue ending, with a reboot back to the beginning that was only one SF step up from ‘…and he woke up and it was all a dream.’ It had taken 56 weeks to go nowhere, and demonstrated a point common to both Valiant and Lion, that the strips that relied for their stories from situations were inevitably inferior to those that derived from continuing characters. By that token, its successor, Lords of Lilliput Island, did not auger well.
Once again, change was in the air. It Could Happen was replaced on the cover by They All Laughed, But…, a series on inventions pooh-poohed at the time that because established, starting with the Wright Brothers and the invention of flight. Lilliput Island was the island of Mayo (refuse obvious joke), a Falklands-style British possession in the South Atlantic where a plane carrying atomic waste crashed into the lake that supplied its drinking water. Anyone who drank the contaminated water shrank to a few inches in height. The only ones who didn’t were a bunch of schoolchildren. There was an obvious clash of leaders between Clive Driscoll, the good boy and Tug Wilson the bad boy, who saw the opportunity to do whatever he wanted now the grown-ups seriously needed to grow up.
But not only The Last Boys made way, for Jack Justice was also gone. It had never lived up to its forebear, but it had still been a decent series, and there was now no Tom Kerr art to enjoy every week. Jack and Diana were replaced in issue 244 (3 June) by The Laird of Lazy Q. I suppose enough time had passed since the Duke of Dry Gulch for us to be bored by another fish-out-of-water Western, this time with a stereotype Scottish Highlander, Duncan McGregor, inheriting a spread in Kansas.
Sam Sunn went only three weeks before being replaced on the back page by a colour ad for Dinky Toys but I somehow suspected we hadn’t seen the last of the little pest. And I was right.
All this time, Captain Hurricane was being Captain Hurricane week-in, week-out, always in a different theatre of the War and a different period. Consistency was not the watchword here but after several strips of the big Marine hastening the Allied advance across Europe leading towards VE-Day, it was nevertheless a bit much to have him pushing the Japanese back across Burma at the same time (issue 245, 10 June).
Legge’s Eleven were off on another of their ridiculous inter-season stories, having been invited to America by a tribe of smugly caricaturised Red Indians – it’s the Sixties, repeat after me, it’s the Sixties – hoping to learn football and beat the white man at his own game.
Tim Kelly had segued into another adventure at the hands of Dr Diamond, with the self-centred little bastard inveigling the possessor of the Eye of Zoltec into his Time Clock and straight to the Stone Age, with the determined intent to roam time and solve fascinating mysteries. Here I part company with the noble Mr Kelly: given that the Eye enhances his intelligence something rotten, I would have kicked the little bugger so hard up the backside my boot imprint would register on his tongue and leave him in the past. Guess I’d have never made a Valiant scripter, eh?
The big difference between Valiant and Lion is that the former offers no natural cut-off points, so this instalment ends on a round number, issue 250 (15 July 1967). I think it fair to say that, despite its profligacy with unreadable elements, this has been Valiant‘s strongest period to date, an era of a solid line-up of classic characters. It wasn’t perfect: updating Jack O’Justice was a mistake that led to the series terminating and, despite its status, The House of Dolmann has never risen above dull. But overall, the standard is high enough. As we move further towards the end of the Sixties next time, here’s hoping things don’t start to slip.

Uncollected Thoughts: Good Omens – part 1

I’m not used to this Netflix all-at-once bit yet (and yes, I do know this isn’t Netflix but Amazon Prime and the BBC, but it’s the same idea), and I don’t have another five lots of fifty minutes stretching out in front of me right now, but I have just watched  the first episode of Good Omens, the TV series of the brilliant book by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, by Neil Gaiman, and I am here to tell you that it’s ok, you can watch it without thinking it’s vastly inferior to the book, and in fact you can enjoy it, and you can laugh at it. No, make that: you will laugh at it.

This was only to be expected, though I was going more along the linesof hoped for, because it’s adapted by Gaiman himself, wanting to do the very best by his friend, it has an all-star cast starting with David Tennant and Crowley and Michael Sheen as Aziraphale, andit’s  had enough money thrown at it to fill up a whole chain of gravel pits, but even so you have to wait and see for yourself.

Teennant is all wonderfully laid-back and with-it, but it’s Sheen who has the harder task because Aziraphale is supposed to be an angel, also somewhat unwordly, definitely unrealistic, and it’s so much easier to do bad because then you have positive traits to work with, whereas good is ethereal and altogether bland, especially when you’re tying to be funny with it, but Sheen is as good as can be, rather like Ryan Giggs running at a packed Arsenal defence.

As for the adaptation, given how much of the book’s humour is in its narration (and its footnotes), it’s awe-inspiring just how closely Gaiman manages to adhere to the exact plot, keeping scenes focused and brief without the sense of anything being rushed or pared down or letting you start to drift off and remember what’s been left out.

No, take it from me, this is one that works, at least up to End of Part 1, and I’m confident it won’t all fall apart, despite the lukewarm reviews that have appeared this week. And I speak as one of the ones who’s owned Good Omens since it came out, who’s read it a dozen times, who’s inordinately pleased that they left out that line about Manchester, and who can safely and defiantly say that for this series the Omens are decidedly Good.

Lou Grant: s02 e03 – Hooker

With an episode title like that, there was very little doubt of what this week’s story would be about. There was an early attempt to lay a false trail which wound up being the show’s avenue of entry into its chosen subject, but once we realised we were going to be looking into prostitution, 1978 style, the show then settled into being determinedly even-handed.

Looking back forty years, this was probably a transgressive episode. The show starts with an overblown panic about a body found dead in a children’s park, that turns out to be a young woman, a hooker, murdered by a serial killer. But this is not about Melody, nor the Dropcloth Killer, but about Patti, Patricia (an excellent guest performance by Dee Wallace, the mother in E.T.), Melody’s co-worker at the Village Spa, a massage parlour where, once a month, some guy comes in who wants a massage, the jerk.

Patti’s the centre of the episode, it’s her portrait. Billie, investigating Melody, quickly moves on to curiosity about Patti, then friendship with her. Patti busts the stereotype about hookers (well, of course she does). She’s genuinely pretty, she’s got her act together, she’s cool (we are very Seventies tropes here). She’s intelligent, has her sights set on breaking out of this business, just as soon as she gets her Real Estate Licence, and she’s studying hard.

The show plays around with our expectations. The Dropcloth killer isn’t just a MacGuffin: Patti misses a late night meet-up with Billie, dosn’t answer her phone, another body drops. I’d sort of expected this, but it’s misdirection, it’s another hooker, and Patti’s being pretty blase about being a possible victim where Billie is anxious and not a target at all.

Then the pair meet up at McKennas, where Lou joins them, unknowing of Billie’s friend, Patricia. He sees them both as career girls, professionals, is very impressed that Patricia would give up her career in an instant to marry the right man. When she leaves, Lou says she reminds him of his daughter. Billie, who has been smiling and silent throughout this, then lowers the boom.

It’s in every way a positive portrayal, almost to an excess. Billie can’t get her head round why such a winner as Patti could be fucking strange men for money, which, let us remind ourselves, is what he does for a living and why we are interested in her in the first place. The closest we get to an explanation starts to introduce the classic (i.e., stereotypical) elements: broken home, unstable mother, stepfather with whom she made love at age 12 (that is how it is presented: the word rape of a minor can’t be used here, which is either some belated squeamishness or else a subtle foreshadowing that our paragon of prostitutes may be something less than she presents.

Because despite Patti being this near-Goddess figure, the show isn’t going to let her have her cake and eat it. In a disappointing volte-face, it first has Patti busted for solicitation on the eve of her exam but, instead of having that as a twist of cruel fate, it then kicks Patti’s legs out from underneath her, unconvincingly. Patti’s still in her work clothes, she’s only got 15 minutes until her exam starts, she can’t make it on time, and her head is understandably not in the right place. So she gives up. Just like that. Goes in to the Spa because they’re short-handed. Who am I kidding? she says. She’ll try again, but we immediately know she won’t. Patti has surrendered. Billie accuses her of being lazy, taking the easy way out (yeah, prostitution is the easy thing to do, isn’t it?).

What the ending is really about, as I’m sure you can see, is not letting the bad girl win. It doesn’t matter how many bright and positive aspects she has, how much a winner she really is, she spreads her legs for strange men and she has to pay for that. The final scene, of Patti closing a door into a room where she’s taken her last John of the day, a silent guy who creeps the less-experienced Karen out, invites us to infer that this John will be her killer: despite her cave-in, Wallace still leaves us thinking this is unfair.

Call it the times, and perhaps Network policy dictated that you could not show a Hooker as a winner, in case it inspired all those fresh-faced teenage daughters of America into thinking, hey, if I fuck for money, I too can become a realtor!, but the episodes bottles it seriously, and for that matter is on tenterhooks throughout, because it cannot really solve for itself just how someone like Patti becomes a prostitute. There’s a truly risible scene, late on, a cross-the-generations musing on changing sexual attitudes, where Billie wonders why, in an age where women now own their sexual freedom and are equal, the industry still exists and Lou delivers a philosophical thought that men used to be brought up to believe women were there to please them and, now that they’re expected to please the woman too, it’s scary (insert your own sarcastic comment, why should I do all the work?). At least with a hooker, they know they’re giving her what she wants, hint, hint, jangle your loose change.

I’ve been savage on this episode and it doesn’t really have any defence except the one of That Was Then, This Is Now. Lou Grant was prime-time Network TV in America, ITV Saturday night 9.00pm in the UK. It was forty years ago. Very possibly, this was the best they were allowed to do. But that doesn’t mean that we should refrain from criticism, nor that we should at all forgive the abrupt way it cuts Patti off at the knees, which is wrong in every era.


Person of Interest: s02 e02 – Bad Code

Root and Harold

Episode 2 of the second season of Person of Interest is both the resolution of the kidnapping of Harold Finch by the mysterious Root and the setting of the course of not just this season but all those to follow. Though the show separates its cast into three different strands, as well as providing us with our deepest flashbacks to date, everything is integrated. Though Finch is reclaimed, and restored to the Library, from which Numbers will once again emerge, this isn’t a reversion to the status quo. Things have been stirred up.

Reeese divides the forces succinctly. He and Carter are off to Bishop, Texas, investigating the 1991 disappearance of 14 year old Hannah Frye, who walked out of the Public Library one night and was never seen again. John is convinced Hannah is Root.

Fusco stays in new York, looking after Bear, the dog who’s joined the team, and pursuing the Alicia Corwin murder case, including just who’s interfering with the investigation. He may not appear to be the World’s Finest Detective, but our chunky little man does at least pick up that Hersh is the one doing this, if not necessarly who/what Hersh is.

And Finch is still bound to a chair in Denton Weeks’ love nest, waiting for Weeks to wake up, and listening to Root expressing her opinions on humanity in general and those to whom Finch and Nathan Ingram sold The Machine in particular. She sees them as Bad Code, and much of what goes on between her and Weeks is proof that she’s not wrong in her specifics, but, listening to her, it’s hard not to see her as mad, clinically insane. She is obsessed with The Machine, with unfettering it, with letting a truly Artificial Intelligence force an extreme evolution on humanity, but she sees that humanity as unimaginably beneath her, failing to attain a level of intelligence that she possesses, and which she uses as a bar to them that cannot be crossed, except by the exceptional, like Harold Finch.

Whilst this is going on, Reese and Carter are in Bishop. There’s the usual small-town trouble: the local idiots want to take the piss out of ‘Wall Street’, the man out of place in the suit, and get their comeuppance, the Sheriff (played by Loudon Wainwright III) won’t let Carter see the case file without her coming over with what she’s got that might tie into the matter that still haunts the town, twenty years later, so Reese steals it.

They work the case Cold Case style, from the beginning, but nobody’s got anything new. Hannah was playing a primitive video game, the question-and-answer type, and consistently dying of dysentry, whilst her younger friend, a slight, fair-haired girl, pooh-poohs it.

There’s very little to go on. Hannah leaves the Library, accepts a lift from a respected local man in his car, Trent Russell. Her friend makes an anonymous call to the Police, which gets nowhere. She makes a much more specific statemet to Librarian Barb, who shouts her down and tells her to keep her mouth shut. But Barb is in love with Trent, and will marry him, have a few, brief years of happiness, until Trent is killed in a roadside robbery (oh, but there’s much more to it than that).

There would be no lead but for the fact that someone, Hannah/Root, is sending yearly reminders. Credit card statements in Hannah’s name to her drunken and neglectful father, copies of Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon (Hannah’s favourite book) to Barb.

The pieces slot together. Reese, stil using his stolen identity as Detective Stills, traces the credit card back, step by step. He discovers that Hannah’s first Bank Account was opened with $100,000 electronically stolen from a Mexican drugs kingpin, paid into an account co-signed by Trent Russell (classic Root manipulation, setting up Trent’s murder). He finds a credit card transaction, three hours ago, at a gas service station in Maryland.

Where Root is still manipulating. Weeks is subjected to Palestinian Hanging Torture until Finch pleads with her to stop. Whilst she is gone to get gas, Finch manages to knock a suspiciously handy knife close enough to Weeks so he can free himself. Weeks jumps Root and beats her. He thanks Finch, who he now knows to be The Machine’s creator. He’s proud to finally meet him. He then shoots him with Root’s gun.

Actually, he doesn’t. There are no bullets in the gun. And Root was only shamming and tasers him down and ties him up again. Everything wa a set-up, to demonstrate to Finch that The Machine is in the hands of the wrong people. He still refises to assist her in any way. Weeks does give up some information, the beginning of a trail of where The Machine went, but that’s all he knows. Then she administers a mild sedative to Finch: they’re going on a train journey.

In NewYork, Fusco’s got to Corwin’s hotel room before Hersh. He provides John with an address in Maryland, that love nest. John’s going there, where Hannah’s got Finch.

But she hasn’t. Hannah Frye is dead, has been dead for a very long time, her body discovered under a patio relaid two weeks after she disappeared. She couldn’t be Root. But her twelve-year old friend, Sam Groves, who solves the video game that frustrated Hannah inside thirty seconds, establishing an unbeatable high score, could be. And is.

Reese catches up with Root and Finch at the station. Root’s dismissed John as a knuckle-dragger so his appearance genuinely startles her. But Finch has broken her rules, so someone innocent will be shot. Finch manages to disturb her aim, John has got too close, and she runs off. Finch ticks him off for coming after him: his job is to protect other lives. John’s unabashed. The pair have passed through an ordeal by fire: things will change.

Not Root though. When they’re back at the Library, she calls Reese on a supposedly disconnected mobile phone. It’s partly a warning that she isn’t going to give up. But it’s also a thank you. Thank you for finding my friend Hannah, for assuring her a proper burial: Root won’t forget.

So, like I said, the status quo is restored. Only it can’t be. New conditions exist. The Person of Interest of season 1 could have gone on forever, or until viewers interest dissipated. Now there’s a story taking place. and stories have endings. We are on the road that leads to final fates. We will learn what fates these are over the next 78 weeks.

Film 2019: Toy Story

Beyond acknowledging Toy Story as a landmark film, that has changed the face of animation possibly forever, for a second successive week I’m not sure what I can say about this film. It was the first, full-length CGI animation film, as well as being a funny, energetic story with deeper resonances that the surface tail of the rivalry between its two leads, and it set the standard for Pixar in creating a film that spoke to both childand adult, often simultaneously. And it stands up well technically, in the face of the near twenty-five years of development since.

I first watched the film at my sister’s, in Warrington. I’d gone over there for a visit one Sunday afternoon, and to see my nephew, who was then only a few years old. I had already discovered Teletubbies there, when his mother put on a tape of that, and now she did the same with Toy Story. I watched it with as much fascination as he did.

That far back, I had an awkward habit when it came to certain films and experiences. I couldn’t sink fully into them as you should, because a part of me was detached, observing how the thing was made, how they handled the construction of the film, oh yeah, they’ve done that this way, I see. My attention was split and the analytical part withdrew from engagement. I was like that when Toy Story started, but I didn’t go more than five minutes in before I had stopped looking at the CGI and was watching the story. And having tremendous fun.

It made a difference. Without that experience, which enabled me to bridge those two aspects of myself, I couldn’t have enjoyed the Lord of the Rings films half as much as I did, because I would have had too much of my mind engaged in exactly how the book had been adapted, what had been left out, what included, that I couldn’t have simply relaxed into the film on the same level as I did the books. Np, I didn’t wholly forget that, but it didn’t intrude into my perceptions. Thanks to Toy Story.

Of course, Toy Story is a film built upon powerful emotions that affect all of us, adult and child. Underneath the colourful surface, and the astonishment and glee of seeing inanimate objects move and talk in so realistic a fashion, the film is about loss, and the fear of loss. Andy’s toys fear displacement by new toys. Woody fears the loss of his status as both Andy’s favourite toy, and the toys’ leader. Buzz Lightyear loses his specialness in his own eyes, when he discovers that, as Woody has been saying all along, he is a toy and not a super-powered Space Ranger. Andy fears the loss of his two favourite toys, and they fear the loss of their entire raison d’etre: a toy deeply wants to be played with. A toy is their for boy or girl, to comfort and excite and share with them. It’s a symbiotic relationship with which both are happy.

And, of course, because this is a children’s film in all its surfaces, it must contain reassurance, it must have the eucatastrophe that Tolkien identifies in The Lord of the Rings, the snatching of glory from the point of destruction. By sinking their differences in the face of disaster, by working together, by saving each other, Woody and Buzz build their losses into a stronger whole, forging a friendship and a joint leadership by willingly giving their selfishness up for the greater good. Not a bad lesson to give a child.

There’s even a reason to hope for the future of the one figure in the film that has suffered the biggest loss of all, before it all started. That’s the pre-teen psychopath, Sid, a bundle of misdirected energy, driven by hatred and self-loathing that manifests itself into displacement torture against the only things he can control, because they’re the only things that are weaker than him.

Sid’s a menace, and he’s the creator of mutated toys, Frankensteinian combinations that are meant to creep the life out of us and which do. We don’t know why Sid is like this, and to the kids it won’t matter. Everybody knows a mad kid, a bully and a nightmare. We get a sliver of possibility, a figure asleep in a chair, in a room out of which Woody backs furriedly, from which we can infer the father of our disgust, the tree from which the apple has fallen not so far.

But Sid is confronted by the reality of what he’s been doing, is hit with the animist principle, that everything is alive, in short, he’s scared shitless that the weak and helpless that he torments to feel alive mightrise up and get him. Maybe his fear will lead him back to where he should be. Psychologically, there are better, surer ways, but they do not involve the punishment, which is what the kids need to see. Fairy-tales tell children something vitally important, that the monsters don’t win.

So they all live happily ever after, the threat of a puppy notwithstanding. And ironically, twenty-five years later the wheel has turned full circle and here I am analysing Toy Story as I found myself unable to do when it was my nephew’s favourite film, bless him. It’s a rainy Sunday morning, but clouds can be dispersed, and when the threat of loss is averted, sometimes afternoons can be quite lazy.

Uncollected Thoughts: Game of Thrones – the final episode

Hell’s Bells, he was good

Way back in the back end of the 1990s and thestart of the 2000s, when I was a George R R Martin fan and had all his books (even the vampire one which I didn’t like because I don’t dig horror), I borrowed the first three A Song of Fire and Ice books from the library, long before anyone ever thought of making a TV series out of them.

The first two I read back-to-back and thought they were all right, but the third went on forever. I stuck it out but concluded life was entirely too short. As evidenced by the fact that in the intervening twenty years, he’s only completed two more of the total seven.

By the time Game of Thrones first appeared, I had jut started working for my present employers. Because I’d had such a deadening experience with the books, I had no interest in watching the series, but a high proportion of my colleagues took it up. The only thing I could remember from my reading was that Ned Stark (Sean Bean) got his head chopped off. I didn’t know whether Game of Thrones would follow through on that so I kept my mouth shut until it did, rather than deliver the only spoiler I had.

And I’ve never bothered with the series at any time, except to occasionally take the piss over the non-publication of Book 6, both before and after the series entered into its territory unguided. My time is limited, I have to make an effort to watch any TV series, I have other priorities and I just wasn’t interested enough. Or at all.

This afternoon, due to my team winning a Game of Thrones oriented competition (without my assistance), our reward was an extended period off the phones in our plush Cinema Room, watching the final episode. I found the idea irresistible, that my only episode of such a sweeping, long-running series should be its last.

So I sat and watched in silent absorption (apart from the occasional chuckle) with only the most minimal knowledge of context, i.e., that Danaerys Targaryen had just burned King’s Landing to the ground, killing Cersei and Jamie Lannister.

The episode opened on Peter Dinklage, as Tyrion Lannister, walking through the ruins of the town. It was a smouldering winter scene, though I needed to be told afterwards that that grey stuff everywhere was not actually snow, but ash. I should have realised for myself. The effect was, quite intentionally, taken from Hiroshima. And I want to say straight away that Peter Dinklage was immense, that his every second of performance was so completely right that I understood every thought of his without knowledge of his history.

It was clear from the first moment that Tyrion was in shock, that everyone was in shock, that the world in which they lived had been rammed into a brick wall and the brick wall had stood and they had shattered. This episode was about shock, about aftershock and aftermath, about what shape the new world would take.

How that would develop was equally clearly dependent solely upon Daenerys, and by God the girl clearly was as mad as a jam butty. Emilia Clarke looked confident and clear but the light of inviolable fanaticism shown out of her eyes with enough force to melt a Polar ice cap. Given that she had a dragon at her back, it was equally plain that the only way to stop her was the way Jon Snow stopped her, with a dagger through the heart: that at least was one thing he did know.

What remained was rearranging the world to cope with the aftershock, and to try so far as it was possible with such people in charge of it, to stop anything like the series from every happening again. People fell upwards into positions unexpected, from which Westeros might or might not profit. Were George R R Martin about half his age, maybe a sequel series could tell us if the weary optimism of the finale or the realistic pessimism of life would prevail, but he hasn’t got near finishing the first series yet, and from my position on the sidelines, I’ve long since been convinced he never will.

For now it felt fitting. It was slow to the point of being stately, as opposed to being funereal, and my total ignorance of who was who and what they’d done on the way here was no bar to understanding the episode in its own lights. Now I’ve watched it, I’ve already had half a dozen opinions on this episode from dedicated fans who get here the hard way, but I’ve got to say I enjoyed it.

Not enough yet to make me want to undermine the purity of the experience by watching any more of them. In a different world, with complete leisure time in the aftermath of the fabled Euromillions Lottery win, maybe. Maybe after Breaking Bad at least.

What I did instead of celebrating my Girlfriend’s Birthday


I’m posting this on 23 May because that’s the anniversary of the day I climbed Barf, back in 1993. I’m reminded of this particular walk because I’ve just acquired the latest ‘Walker’s Edition’ of Wainwright, updated by Clive Hutchby, The North Western Fells.

This compact little wedge of Lakeland, between Bassenthwaite Lake and the Buttermere Valley, is my favourite area of the Lakes, and I have had nothing but wonderful days on the fells when I have been using this book. My family would never ever have considered walks in this area so by the time I took The North Western Fells out for the first time, it was the last area I visited. In due course, it would be the first book I completed.

The first time I read one of Hutchby’s revisions, I am on the look-out for places where he has overruled Wainwright. There seem to be fewer than usual, but I did notice some changes on the page for Barf direct, from what used to be the Swan Inn. It doesn’t take much to remind me of that day, a Sunday afternoon in the sun, there and back from Manchester for no more than a couple of hours of walking, and the reason I can be so specific about the date I did this is that it was my then-girlfriend’s birthday.

By this point in our relationship, things had gotten volatile and we were going through frequent periods of not speaking to each other or, to put it more accurately, of her not speaking to me. That is why I wasn’t celebrating her birthday that year, and the sunny weather was why I’d headed up the M6 to try myself against the direct route up Barf.

I was in place, parking in the car park of what was still the Swan Inn that year, for about 11.30am, not having felt the need to push myself from Manchester. Then it was across the road and along the lane into the woods, coming sooner than I expected to the Clerk. And a poor thing this was, a simple stone not reaching even as far as my shoulders, almost invisible in the grass at the side of the lane, and lacking in even the rags of a whitewashing. Just beyond it was the beginning of the direct route.

This route breaks down into five distinct sections, getting progressively easier the higher up you get. The first is the direct climb, on a scree slope long since rubbed clean of all but the littlest stones, up to the legendary Bishop.

There seemed to be two parallel routes, about twenty feet apart. The right-hand path was not only theologically the more correct but also appeared to be marginally less severe. It was certainly steep, impossible to walk up, requiring a near hugging of the ground, hands and feet in tandem. I had no great difficulties getting up this, other than the growing concern about any possible necessity to retreat this way, which I was _not_ going to enjoy. Little flecks of whitewash, just in front of my eyes, reminded me that I was merely hauling myself and a rucksack up: how anyone did this carrying a bucket of whitewash I couldn’t imagine, but I was bloody glad I didn’t have to.

Once I reached the Bishop that was it. No matter what difficulties might lie ahead, there was going to be no retreat that way. The Bishop was far more impressive, a massive, twisted pillar whose back, contrary to Wainwright’s thirty year old report, was now fully whitewashed. I wondered if today’s volunteers had been shamed into doing that by The North Western Fells.

The Bishop

The next stage was the scree gulley. Wainwright found it treacherous and unpleasant. Hutchby dislikes it just as much, and directs walkers to the alternate path which equally unimpressed walkers have worn behind it to the right over the intervening years. I didn’t find it anything like as bad as either of them, though I approached with ultra-caution.

The worst part of the gully, to me, was an awkward step up to a higher level about halfway. Nothing came apart under my hands, the gully was wide enough to vary my line over the easier ground, I emerged rather wondering what the fuss was all about. Usually, the ground is more difficult than Wainwright describes: this was practically the only example of the opposite.

Stage 3 was very much an interlude, posing nothing but steepness. it was like walking up a field of scrubby land, with little hollows and inclines, nothing in the least dangerous or even awkward until I reached the foot of Slape Crag.

This is where Hutchby reports a second alternative, a higher route across the left hand side of the Crag. Oddly enough, because I wasn’t checking my Wainwright at that point, I took the green rake across that section of the Crag to be the escape into stage 4, and started along it. That is Hutchby’s alternate route, which he describes as easier except for one awkward step across an overhang. That stopped me. I would have to swing my left leg over a rock rib, without any knowledge of what lay on the other side of it, and I refused to take a literal step into the unknown on a rough little bugger like Barf.

So I retreated, checked the book, discovered I was in the wrong place, found the correct rake and crossed it without incident.

Stage 4 took me across the steep side of the fell, rather than up, on a narrow trod where I couldn’t put both boots down together. It stayed on a level for what appeared to be an excessive distance, walking towards the forests. In the end, I started to worry, looked for and found a grassy rake going up, and within the feet found the continuation of the path, this time angling left to right, and gently uphill, and emerging on the third summit.

All was plain sailing from here. I took a breather, looking down upon Bass Lake, suddenly surrounded by walkers, none of whom I’d seen on my ascent.

Where I was at was the third summit. The final stage was strolling stuff, a gentle uphill walk through rambling, easy little grass outcrops with a plenitude of paths to follow until I’d reached the summit.

Getting there was fun, and I’d only ever considered doing the direct route, though I had no intention of descending that way, and not because of my usual horror of going back over trodden ground. In fact, looking up from Barf’s little top, I could see that Lord’s Seat (which I’d already visited, and which, geographically, is not just a parent fell but the whole of the thing and Barf no more than a feature) was in easy reach.

I’d done it, in conditions of rain and snow back in 1984, and it had been no part of my plans, but this was still early, and it was easy to approach, and I’d probably have been ashamed of myself if I didn’t walk over there: what did I go fellwalking for?

It was my second visit to Lord’s Seat. The third and last would be transformational. I recalled a long-ago piece of writing I’d written after my first ascent, that had lodged in my memory, started playing about with it in my head and, 52 days later, I had completed a 72,000 word novel. Little did I know, that Sunday afternoon.

For descent, I was going to take the dull route, the one that crosses over, off Barf itself, into the forests. Walks along forest roads are always easy but, as far as I’m concerned, they’re also dull. I walk to see things and don’t like having masses of trees between me and the views. There was only the occasional glimpse of the Vale of Keswick.

It was like a Sunday afternoon stroll in flat country, until the awkward step down to follow the steep path alongside the beck. Now this was more like what I expect from walking, though I was surrounded by trees throughout, the sun striking through in fragments. I’m trying to avoid the word ‘dappled’ but that’s the one.

My point about the trees was proven as I neared the bottom of the descent. I was drawing level with the Bishop, gleaming white, thrust out from the stripped slope. It would have made for an ideal photo, but hunt as I might, I could find no line of sight that gave me a line of sight: nothing but a gleam of white among the trees was visible.

So I returned to the Clerk, and the car, changed back into my trainers and, content at my half day out, headed back towards the motorway and the road home.

That’s how I spent my girlfriend’s birthday that year. Two months later, when we were speaking again, I took her up to Keswick for the day, on a Saturday. We climbed Catbells, had a brilliant time, and decided to stay over. Long ago.

Lou Grant: s02 e02 – Prisoner

The band-aid

From the moment of the first shot, I recognised this latest episode of Lou Grant as  one of those few I recalled from its originl transmission. It made an impact on me then, to be remembered so long, and it still makes an impact now, especially for the equivocal way it ended.

That opening shot is a noose, in a dark room, a half-seen man, looking rough and ill-dressed. Two men in military uniforms enter, seize him, force him over to the noose, put his head in it. He’s screaming. He’s Charlie Hume.

The scene is a dream, a nightmare rather. Charlie wakes up in bed, screaming what he’s screaming in the cell. There will be two more such flashbacks (flashbacks always come in threes on American TV), in one of which a gun is put to his head, and in another he is being fed some sort of thick gruel, whose flavour comes from the cockroaches crawling all over it.

Why is Charlie undergoing torture? That’s what the episode is about. We learn that it happened fifteen years ago, in a small Latin American country called Malagua, ruled by General Barrojo, an unequivocally fascistic dictator. This is of direct relevance today because Malagua’s First Lady (who is the old General’s at least third wife) is visiting  LA, in the company of her good friend, Margaret Pynchon, inspecting a Children’s Hospital. Billie and Animal are reporting in the visit, there are pro-‘Amandita’ placards being waved, it’s all very nice.

Then anti-Barrojo protesters, their faces disguised by some very rigid and professional looking  paper bags, disrupt proceedings, causing a running battle. Lou’s interested in following up the story, Charlie doesn’t want to give it any play whatsoever.

The advantage of a series set in a newspaper is that it can encompass great swathes of exposition in a natural fashion. Billie follows the protesters, who are students, who include people who have been subjected to torture in a horror land of Secret Police, absolute repression, the taking without charge, torturing and killing of dissidents. There is one scene where, depending upon your sensitivities, either you hear a painful tale of torture and death, to the point where the teller is glad, genuinely glad, that his pretty young wife is dead, because then she has escaped the torture, or else you are being shamelessly manipulated: the truth is a mixture of both, though the scene’s power is undiminished and, if you are opposed to dictatorship and the free ability to indulge is cruelty, brutality and treating those you hate as things to be ground under your heel, you will mind no amount of manipulation.

On the other hand, horses for courses, Rossi is pursuing the pro-Amandita brigade. It’s an irony the show leaves for its audience to work out, but where the antis are dismissed as professional agitators, agents of foreign governments (presumably Communist) paid to destabilise Malagua, the pros are artificial: Malaguan Air Cadets, ordered into civvies, and bussed in by a Malaguan businessman.

The talk is so familiar, typical of an era that has started to fade. The businessman, smmugly promoting his country, dismissing the least criticism as either the work of paid liars or, with a shrug, a necessary consequence of progress. It’s the omelette and eggs argument all over again, which is only ever employed by those confident of never beingan egg. There’s even a slightly more sophisticated version of the old “My people are not yet ready for democracy, senor” line.

Woven into this is Charlie, bottlingup experiences from fifteen years ago that no-one except his wife, Margaret, knows of. He’s trying tokeep it bottled up still, dismissing the importance of the story whilst Lou is digging deep into it. It’s only when he’s forced to attend a Reception for Amanda Barrojo, organised by Mrs Pynchon, that it comes out: Charlie gets crocked and confronts the First Lady with what Malagua does, outraging her, causing her to leave in embarrrassment.

Charlie doesn’t turn up for work next day. He’s tending his plants (self-imposed gardening leave) and wants Lou to deliver the letter of resignation he’s written. Maybe he’ll go back to freelancing? So Lou commissions him to write an article. About being held in a Malaguan prison for five weeks, being mentally tortured, about mock-executions staged every day, about the fear of death every day, about being an ordinary, everyday human and being pants-wettng scared, and about coming out blaming yourself for being scared, a coward.

Another reminder of the times was the budget meeting over whether or not to run the story. Everybody but Lou is agin it, and the weasel arguments may well be the words of 1979 and we are in an era of shamelessness when it comes to defending dictatorships who are our allies against the Red Menace, but every word said, down to the idea that the Trib shouldn’t single out Malagua for torture when over 100 countries in the world regularly use torture, was a horrible reminder of the apologists we suffered then.

The story ran. Charlie mandated it, expecting it to be his last act as Managing Editor, only Mrs Pynchon wouldn’t accept his reignation. Still the story played out. Mrs Barrojo rejected the story absolutely as lies, accounts she does not recognise. Heavy-hearted at the end of their friendship, Mrs Pynchon arranges for Amandita to meet her accusers face-to-face, or face to professionally-made paper bag. Still she refuses to accept even a word: they are liars, ingrates, agitators, cowards speaking from the shadow. So the four representatives unmask. And one of them is Madame Barrojo’s nphew, Ernesto.

Nevertheless she sweeps out. Has her mind been changed? Has her thinking been changed? Sensibly, the episode opts for the equivocal ending I’ve already referred to: the First Lady’s last words at the irport are to the Malaguan students in America, congratulating them, especially her nephew. Is that a coded message of approval? Just which students is she congratulating? Mrs Pynchon and Lou are optmistic. Charlie reserves judgement.

This was a very powerful episode, especially for the times in which it was made, times when liberalism was a powerful force, but in which the forces of Conservatism were gathering strength. The episode didn’t force an opinion on anyone, not overtly, and made sure to fully respresent the circle of arguments that real life used in tackling this very predicament. I’d be very concerned at anyone who didn’t see this as a powerful indictment. Like the smug businessman, who saw what he could make of it.

One item of casual interest is that Edwards Asner sports a very prominent band-aid on the left side of his face, a good three inches long, just under his sieburn. It’s alibied in the episode as three stitches from as having accident, but the odditty is that, in last week’s episode, he was wearing a much smaller band-aid in the same place, unremarked. This is because ‘Prisoner’ was filmed before ‘Pills’ but, for some reason, held back, my guess being that CBS didn’t want such an overtly dark episode to start off the season. Networks are like that. But when you have things like this, they draw attention to the artificiality of television. This is one of the reasons why shows of that era only had the most minimal of episode to episode continuity.


Two Years Ago Tonight

…they tried to break my City. They attacked us, killed the young among us, expecting us to bend and shatter. They had no idea who they are dealing with. We are Manchester. We do not cower from you, we will never kneel to you, we will not change for you, and in the end we are too many and too much for you. We are Manchester. We will stand side by side. We will laugh in your faces and if you dare try to do this again, we will have you. That lot down the other end of the East Lancs Road say ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’. Cross us once more, and You Will Never Walk Again. We are Manchester, and you don’t mess with us, mate.