The Man from U.N.C.L.E.: s01 e14 – The Terbuf Affair


Uncle

Inconsistency, thy name is U.N.C.L.E. season 1! Aside from the ridiculous title (Terbuf is supposed to be a small Balkan nation, on the Adriatic Coast), this was a perfect example of the kind of episode I’ve been expecting all along, and precisely because David McCallum was allowed to play a full role this week, both in tandem with Robert Vaughn and in his own right. It made a taut, well-written story even more fun by bringing in the kind of light-hearted approach to deadly danger that I associate with my mental impression of the show.

What we have is a Police State (much of the Balkans in that era was subsumed in the now-dissolved Yugoslavia, a Communist state independent of the USSR) whose Head of Secret Police, Colonel Morisco (played by Alan Caillou with a wonderful RAF-style fluffed out moustache) is diverting very large portions of the country’s foreign aid into his own pocket. A gypsy named Emil (Jacques Aubuchon) has obtained letters proving this and is trying to get out of the country with them. An attractive Amarican woman, Clara Valder (Madlyn Rhue, later to make a memorable guest appearance in Star Trek wearing skirts a damned sight shorter than she does here) is trying unsuccessfully to get Emil out of the country. Little does she know that her tall, upstanding sheep-farmer husband, Stefan (Kurt Kreuger) is not only passing every detail to Colonel Morisco, he’s in on the appropriating. But when he tries to bargain with the Colonel to hand over Emil in exchange for Clara being untouched, the Colonel gets a bit shirty – he does not like people who try to bargain with him – and sends Stefan off to torture, just like any other political prisoner, and introduces Major Vicek (Albert Paulsen) to the scheme.

We now cut to Rome, and Agents Solo and Kuryakin on leave, looking for the place that cooks the perfect veal parigan, when they find themselves being herded by gypsies, to meet with Clara Valder. Who, seven years ago, as Clara Richards, had a thing with Napoleon, in whose heart the flame is still alight. Clara wants Napoleon’s help with Emil. Ilya, with his Russian sense of pessimism, as well as his innately cynical turn of mind, adds himself to this voluntary mission, figuring that Napoleon is going to need someone who can keep his mind on the job.

It’s a wonderfully poised set-up. Napoleon arrives openly by train, met by Clara at the main railroad station, two-horse affair that it is, and introducing him to her ‘husband Stefan’ or, as she dare not give away, Major Vicek. Ilya turns up on a fishing boat, in the harbour, which will take Emil out unobtrusively with the fishing fleet, an hour after dawn tomorrow. Not much time then.

What follows is a wonderfully rambunctious affair of gaining the gypsies’ trust, uncovering the false Stefan, rescuing Clara, going before the firing squad and bashing their way out of the country against overwhelming odds. In short, a top-notch U.N.C.L.E. affair full of fun and frolics. The balance between the seriousness of the situation and the carelessness of attitude with which our Men approach it is beautifully maintained, and Madlyn Rhue spends the last third of the episode in her nightie, though with her dressing gown on over it, boo, hiss (she really was an attractive woman, who I’d never heard of before).

The episode ended on a bittersweet note that was, in itself, a moment of poignant genius. Everyone’s getting away on the fishing boat. Napoleon and Clara are handcuffed together but she is fawning over the wounded Stefan, eyes and thoughts only for him. She doesn’t know he’s a rat, nobody does, only the audience. He’s just her husband and she loves him. Ilya, spotting the sadness in Napoleon and sympathising in his reserved and unemotional manner, says they’ll get the handcuffs freed once they’re in Italy. And Robert Vaughn delivers the last line with perfect grace: “There’s no hurry,” he says, “they’re not holding anything together.”

This episode is more or less the middle of season 1. To be honest, I’ve been disappointed so far and thinking of putting the boxset on eBay once I get to the end of it. I’m not saying I won’t, but if they can manage to keep this up for the back half of the season, I’ll definitely be hanging on to it. Keep your fingers crossed for me!

The Infinite Jukebox: Kenny Rogers and The First Edition’s ‘Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town’


Irrespective of their merits, the songs that were being played on Radio 1 in those first days when I started listening to it daily, all day, hold a distinct place in my memory.
Certainly, ‘merits’ isn’t a word I would apply to Kenny Rogers’ first British hit, ‘Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town’, recorded with his band, The First Edition. It had reached no 2. in December 1969, unable to break through the immovable object that was Rolf Harris’s ‘Two Little Boys’, but was still in the Top Ten, though falling, and still getting plenty of airplay.
The song and the performance are a far cry from Rogers’ glutinous and saccharine run of British hits in the late Seventies through to the Eighties, a period where the Great British Record Buying Public once again demonstrated their total lack of taste. Rogers doesn’t so much sing as murmur in a monotone, over a slow, shuffling rhythm, the band making minimal efforts to accompany him. The whole thing is so laid back as to be horizontal, a phrase we used to use a lot back in the Seventies.
Inevitably, the lack of anything conveying even a vestigial tune throws the single’s emphasis onto the words. Back in 1969/70, a newly-turned 14 year old, and a less than worldly-wise one for my age, I had very little idea what Rogers was singing about. Later, when I’d got a bit more of an idea, I understood it all too well.
Rogers starts things off with one of the longest opening lines to a song in pop history. You’ve painted up your lips and rolled and curled your tinted hair, he murmurs, Ruby are you contemplating going out somewhere?
Well, yes she is. The sun’s going down and she’s off to town to have a good time, she’s a young, fit, attractive woman, and what he says next is not nice: Ruby, don’t take your love to town. What he’s basically doing is accusing her of going into town to shag about, to break her wedding vows to him, commit adultery, in short, act like a whore.
Why does he think she’s going to step out on him like that? Kenny’s a bit defensive about that. It wasn’t me that started that old crazy Asian war, he protests, but of course he was all in favour of it, he was proud to do his patriotic chore. But it’s cost him, he has to admit that he’s not the man he used to be, but Ruby, he still needs some company.
Crazy Asian war? It’s 1969, everyone’s thoughts immediately leapt to Vietnam, though songwriter Mel Tillis, who first recorded it in 1966, insisted it was about a WW2 veteran, so he was thinking about Japan. But just as M.A.S.H.’s Korean War antics were a surrogate for Vietnam, at the height of a war that so affected, and warped, the country, no-one’s going to look further than the end of their noses.
There’s another nod to the reality of the situation from Kenny, agreeing that it’s hard to love a man whose legs are bent and paralysed, and, with the band dropping out to leave only the skipping drumbeat, a nod to the wants and the needs of a woman your age… But then the truly maudlin bit, about how it won’t be long he’s heard them say until he’s not around…
This really is starting to get a bit gooey, but Rogers and the song haven’t finished. There’s one last obscene sting in the tail. She’s leaving now cos he’s just heard the slamming of the door, the way he knows he’s heard it slam one hundred times before (geez, exaggerate much?) And then it goes very dark indeed, because Kenny threatens that if he could move he’d get his gun and put her in the ground… Jealous husband, all set to murder his wife, domestic violence, what else can you ask for? And we were buying this, presumably approvingly?
I don’t feel like wasting any more time on this repellent little piece. It’s a relic of an age when it was sooo much more acceptable to call your wife a slut, and kill her because your feelings were hurt by her not hanging around having no fun with you. Of course I’m aware that Ruby is acting in a potentially hurtful and selfish manner, that she’s putting her own need to have a good time (nudge, nudge, wink, wink, but is she actually shagging about or is it all in Kenny’s imagination?) and it’s all about her need to have a cock between her thighs. What? That’s what Kenny thinks, isn’t it?
And a man’s got a right to kill a cheating whore bitch, hasn’t he, especially when he’s only been doing a good thing, fighting for his country overseas, sacrificing his mobility and his welfare.
Mel Tillis might have meant Japan, but no-one hearing the song in 1969, unless they were a naive teenager, thought of anything but Vietnam. It’s a conservative song, that assumes Vietnam was right, was good in exactly the same way it assumes spousal murder is good and justifiable.
But what really gets my goat about it, what causes me to want to rant, no matter how long after the fact this is, as I did with Jack Jones’ rendition of ‘Everything is Beautiful’ in that same era, is the way that people have held this song up to be significant, as emblematic of the pain of a nation torn by the effects of the Vietnam War, the gulf between Hawks and Doves. No, I want to scream at those who tried to elevate this into something it so manifestly is not, it’s a scuzzy, self-entitled, male violence encouraging little shitefest and you have no business erecting this into something of philosophical proportions. There is nothing noble about this, quite the contrary.
Apparently, though I’ve never heard either, there were two answer songs to this piece of slime, though the only answer I’d have given it is very loud and rough. There was an answer song from a female country singer, earnestly assuring ‘Billy’, as she named the singer, that whilst she had to go to Town (did she need to pick up extra balls of wool for her knitting?) he should trust her to honour her vows/not to fuck around on him, and a much later one purporting to be the son that he’d clearly managed to father despite his bent and paralysed legs (artificial insemination?) insisting that his parents had had a long and happy life together, which just goes to show the extremes some people are willing to go to to lie to each other.
Ok, you’re good to go now, the rant is over.

Death of an Imagination: Jean-Claude Meziere R.I.P.


It is a bitter thing on a Monday morning to wake up and the first thing you discover is that another creator has gone out into the infinite unknown. Jean-Claude Meziere was the artist and co-creator of the tremendously popular and highly influential French SF series, Valerian and Laureline, that started in 1967 and only ended in 2010. It was bold, it was bright, it was a tour de force of visual imagination, from the multiple alien races to the cities and lands and environments Meziere conceived. Highly influential: you cannot imagine what Star Wars would look like if Meziere and his writing partner Pierre Christin had taken up carpentry instead.

And there were Val and Laureline themselves, and especially little Laureline, the almost perfect feisty heroine, no respecter of authority, no sufferer of fools, which very often included her good-hearted but conventional fellow Spatiotemporal Agent.

How did The Who put it? The Good’s Gone. Once again the horizons narrow and another tone of light is removed. How bitter for this to be the first news on a Monday morning.

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Sunday Watch: Country Matters – The Little Farm


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Tragedy is clasically defined as the fall of a person from a high position. When such things happen to ordinary folks, it’s usually defined as a domestic tragedy. In the utterly excellent Country Matters I would go so far as to further define it as a tiny tragedy. It affects the lowest among us, and its effects only take place within a very narrow compass, but they are no less devastating, no less destructive for all that. And the emotions they can rouse are every bit as violent.

‘The Little Farm’, based on an H. E. Bates short story, comes from the second series of Country Matters, in 1973. It’s a three-hander, between Tom Richard (Bryan Marshall), a hard-working farmer living alone in the middle of nowhere, Jack Emmett (Michael Elphick), his part-time hand who takes and sells his milk for him, and who is taking advantage of Tom’s slow honesty and his inability to read or understand figures, and Edna Johnson (Barbara Ewing), Tom’s new housekeeper/companion and eventually lover.

It’s a very slow story whose path takes time to develop. The very fact that Jack is played by Michael Elphick clues us in to his being a rogue before we hear him talking about betting, and twitting the near silent Tom in a very familiar all-men-of-the-world-here-well-I-am-but you-ain’t manner. Tom’s been lonely since his mother died, and the house is a pigsty. He advertises for a housekeeper/companion and, based on her photo, chooses Edna, a tall, slim, attractive woman, who is handsome rather than beautiful.

Edna, an honest, astute and forthright hard worker, transforms the farm. Tom’s innate decency and his slow, almost fearful love for her attracts her. She’s equally astute as to how Jack is ripping him off and sets to rectifying the situation.

Jack is unhappy about losing his easy mark. He tries to pin it on her, a stranger, interfering with his friendship with Jack, we wuz alright till you came here, poking your nose in. He’s a schemer, a conman, and beneath the outwardly cheery manner, he’s a nasty piece of work, a piece of vicious slime. He hates Edna, but at the same time he wants to screw her, is continually flirtatious with her. In the end, he threatens that he will find out what she really is.

And he does. Edna has fallen in love with Tom and shares his bed – in a touch of unexpressed genius it is her bed he shares: Tom still sleeps in the bedroom he occupied as a son and when she came installed Edna in his mother’s room, the one with the double bed – and is in all respects his wife, save in one. Her secret, which undermines her resistance to the despicable Jack, who is out to destroy Tom’s relationship for his own ends, once he finds out she is already married, and has run away from an unhappy marriage far away.

Of course, he can be persuaded to keep his mouth shut if she’ll…

So the inevitable climax comes. Edna sneaks away in the very early hours, leaves forever, leaves a letter explaining why. But Tom is illiterate, it’s been clearly established without being spelled out for us. In a flash, the final dimensions of this tiny tragedy are understood and the story plays in the shape we have already understood: the only person available to read the fateful letter to him is Jack. So we hear Edna’s voiceover, as her bus slowly meanders down country roads, explaining about her marriage, about not being free to give him what she has given, but that for all her life remaining she will love him. And then Jack reads out that she has run away because she has been taking and keeping the money Jack has been giving her for Tom’s milk and eggs.

Oh, you bastard, we want to cry, and to have a means of crushing the words in his lying throat, especially as he then rips the letter to pieces, in case someone else might one day read it to Tom. Poor Tom, whose life has fallen in on him so unexpectedly, who cannot comprehend that the woman he loved, so good and true, could betray him.

The adaptation is, I am led to believe, extremely faithful, and the performances are both natural and powerful. I must praise Bryan Marshall as Tom, for extracting the most from the least material, and having the least to work with. Michael Elphick is the same Michael Elphick we know from his later career and Barbara Ewing rises to the intelligence of Edna, but it is Tom, who is and remains a very limited human being that Marshall raises from being an inert lump to the figure who can be the centre of the tragedy, and for whom our heart breaks. Without a word we know he will never be the same again.

I keep saying it and I will again for the three remaining episodes but it is an artistic crime that this series should not be fully available, and that there should be five episodes not available at all, except by travelling back in time to watch them on ITV, on Sunday nights.

Bat and Cat: A Love(ly) Affair


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I don’t know the whole story, and even if I did it wouldn’t make any sense, any more than any of the character biographies you read for any comic book character in Wikipedia, but especially the ones who have been around for decades. Too many writers, too many editors, too many takes: it doesn’t take long for a history to become irretrievably screwed up.
If I’m remembering correctly, my first exposure of substance to Catwoman came in 1968, in Batman 197, an issue in which, after years and years of the long split skirt and the boots, Selina Kyle re-dressed herself in a skin-tight glittery costume that echoed Julie Newmar’s outfit in the Batman TV series, except for being bright green – and what more cat-like colour could you think of?
I imagine that I’d seen Catwoman before, in reprints of her from the dispiriting Fifties, when Batman had a literally square jaw and Catwoman’s wasn’t all that soft and delicate. And I didn’t even buy this comic for the Feline Felon but because it featured Batgirl. It was a typical late-Sixties Gardner Fox/Julius Schwartz script, in which Catwoman’s crimes were all based on obscure words that began with the letters C-A-T, and in which she was out to humiliate Batgirl in front of Batman in order to demonstrate to the Caped Crusader how much better a bride our Miss Kyle would make.
The Sixties. You had to be there. It helped to be twelve and uncritical.
Times change, and comics characters with them. In the mid Nineties, I read a couple of years’ worth of the first Catwoman title, the one drawn by Jim Balent, which probably tells you all you need to know about my motivations. I read some of the second series in the run up to Infinite Crisis and on for a few issues into the ‘One Year Later’ era. I’ve read odd bits and pieces but nothing consistently. From out-and-out supervillain, to anti-heroine, to someone straddling the line between both sides.

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But I’ve most consistently enjoyed the portrayal of Selina Kyle, and of her twin relationships with Batman and Bruce Wayne, as they appeared in Tom King’s Batman series that spun out of the DC Rebirth event. Indeed, it was a review of Annual 2 to that story, and its associated regular issue, that tempted me into buying both books and loving them for the way they were such fun, and for how utterly convincing I thought King depicted the pair as being in love: deeply, passionately, and filled with a bedrock understanding of each other. Or should I say, with her bedrock understanding of him?
Because, let’s face it, Batman may be one of the only two minds in the DC Universe smarter than Mr Terrific, but he hasn’t got half the idea of who he is that Selina Kyle has of Bruce Wayne, and whilst he may be smarter on the subject of Catwoman, in terms of levels of emotional intelligence, she’s still got the boy beaten.
A portrayal of Batman in which Catwoman is not merely his equal but, in many aspects, better than him? Let me read more of this!
But one further, though relevant, digression, to ask myself who is this Catwoman who plays such cat-and-mouse games with Batman? For the lady has, like so many others, gone through multiple pasts. She was created by Bob Kane as a jewel thief, in 1940. Ten years later she gets a knock on the head, restoring her memory of her past as an Air Hostess who discovered a criminal side to herself after a knock on the head. Selina reformed and even helped Batman out a couple of times before being driven back to crime by taunts from crooks about Batman taming her. This revival was brief as only a few months later she was dropped from the series, in the light of the Comics Code Authority’s stupid restrictions on how women could be portrayed!
Catwoman wasn’t seen again until 1966, and even then first in Lois Lane. In 1983, but meanwhile, on Earth-2, their Selina Kyle, still reformed, unconsciously lets slip that the amnesia story was a lie, that it had been a convenient excuse to escape a life she hated, felt trapped in, and which left her unable to find love, and children. It was a neat, poignant story that took the unusual step of treating the two characters as human beings, both desperately lonely because of the lives that had been forced upon them, and the outcome was marriage, of course.
I mention this sidebar idea because of Earth-2’s ability to show different aspects to characters, and for its relevance to the modern era. But the real changes followed Crisis on Infinite Earths. Firstly, Frank Miller (who else?) rewrote Selina as a professional dominatrix – Catwoman in a Cathouse, geddit, geddit? – introducing a piece of griminess, rather than grim’n’grittiness that thankfully didn’t last too many years; you don’t have to degrade every-bloody-thing, Miller, you sicko.
This stark piece of bullshit was soon ameliorated, by a female writer I’m pleased to say, though Catwoman’s history was then made boringly complicated to try to keep things nasty, but not necessarily sexually nasty (Americans…). Then the Nineties saw Catwoman drifting towards antiheroine status as a jewel thief who sort did all sort of right things along the way. And the post-Balent series had her acting simultaneously as a thief and a protector of Gotham’s grubby and down-market East End, until it was revealed that she’s been magically brainwashed by Zatanna to turn good…
There were all manner of stories, including one in which Batman reveals his true identity to her, as well as declaring his love for her. The New 52 just made things worse, as it did for everything, and the next reboot was DC Rebirth in which Selina’s parents died early, she spent years in an orphanage and demands to be executed for causing 237 deaths when her old orphanage burns down, if I’ve understood Wikipedia properly. Now is the time to turn to Tom King’s series, and Read On…
(But is it any wonder I want to reject a history like that?)
Though it’s nearer the middle than the beginning, let me start with that Annual, and its associated two-parter. The Annual is an immediate delight, which hasn’t lost any of its power to amuse and satisfy since. It contains two stories, one from the beginning of Batman and Catwoman’s relationship and one from the end. The first is a comedy, a sweet comedy. It’s all about flirtation by burglary, as Catwoman endlessly demonstrates her ability to defeat every kind of security Bruce Wayne instals in Wayne Manor. She bypasses alarms, then triggers them when she chooses, leading to chases in which she outwits the Bat, disappearing without trace and leaving a souvenir, in the form of a small mouse. King drops in a brilliant line from Alfred, irritated enough to request, in pained tones, that she at least leaves cages and some money to feed them.
It’s a first demonstration, or at least it was for me, that King was going to be writing Catwoman as, in her own way, superior to Batman. He can’t keep her out, of his Mansion, his Batcave and his life. Subconsciously, he doesn’t want to. Selina, in her way, is slightly more detached, more capable of conducting her life without the Bat: she has been independent all her life and has no intention of surrendering that self-possession. But she loves him as much as he loves her. They are, in that sense, made for each other, despite their very different natures and pursuits, and the game she plays with him is far deeper than its superficial playfulness.
The other story was of the end. Of Bruce Wayne and Selena Kyle, an old married couple, about to be parted forever. Bruce Wayne has contracted cancer. His family gathers around him. He dies, in bed, the opposite of unloved and unmourned. And she remains, the holder of the Wayne fortune, composed to the last, having come to terms with what is going to happen. Left with her daughter Helena, she shares her feelings about how she had never wanted to be tied down, how her independence had been the only key thing to her, had not wanted children, but it turned out that Helena had stolen from her: had stolen her heart.
This combination of sweet and sour, of joyousness and the ultimate, inescapable sadness, was a perfect combination. When taken in conjunction with the contemporary issue 38, I was hooked.
That issue guest-starred Superman, and Lois Lane. It had the minimum of action, deliberately token. It was about Bruce Wayne introducing his fiancée to his best friend and his wife. It was about the uncertainty on Clark Kent’s part and the instant confidence on that of Lois Lane, about Selena’s concerns about how she would be taken, as Batman’s bride and supervillain simultaneously, against Lois’s immediate acceptance of Catwoman as a new girlfriend.

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This was enough to trigger me into buying the bi-weekly from that point forward, one visit to the comics shop a month, two instalments to read on the bus home, and to the embrace of the Deluxe Editions to catch up the earlier part of the story.
I suspect that if I had bought in at any other point, at any of the bits that are Batman the Crime Fighter, the broken boy out to hold the world together, I would not have been seduced into the story. That’s what mattered to me, that King captured a very ordinary, very deep and involving love, such as that I had enjoyed myself, between two very far from ordinary people, and the best stages in the story are those that are about Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle just being a couple, together.
Going back to the beginning, seeing the psychological profile of Batman build up, from the introduction of two short-lived superheroes into Gotham, naming themselves for the city, to the convolutions that led Batman into confronting Bane, yet again, requiring to lead a ‘Suicide Squad’ mission that included a Catwoman on Death Row for 237 murders that she claims to have committed but which Batman is determined to clear her of: these are the building blocks of the overall story, and the foundation of two of the three separate strands that constitute King’s story.
It’s all about breaking the Batman, and it’s about how he comes back from being temporarily broken, because Batman always wins. There’s Bane, out to break him by taking his City away from him, there’s Dr Thomas Wayne, the Batman of a different reality, in which the little boy Bruce was the one shot in an alley, out to break Batman by being a bigger, stronger Batman than him, forcing little Bruce to turn into a human who can be just that: human and untortured.
And there is Selina Kyle, who fears to break him by that ultimate corruption, happiness, who understands Bruce Wayne better than he understands himself, and who builds the Batman back up, and without whom…
Catwoman’s essential to this story. Without her role, without her refusal to accept Batman’s reality as the ultra-grim, deadly-dull thing it is, her playfulness born directly from her love for the Bat, this would be no more worth reading than any of the interminable quagmire of Batman stories generated every minute. She refuses to take it seriously, and she makes it what it is, an exploration of just how deep into people love can go.
There’s more than mere banter between people who have a near-absolute confidence in each other in the constant to-and-fro over where Bat and Cat first met. He insists it was on a boat, she on the street. There’s a meta-textual competition here: Bob Kane’s Bruce and Selina first met on a boat, Frank Miller’s in the street. Two competing versions of reality are facing each other down: I’m prejudiced but despite the lady possessing the greater clarity and sanity, I see Batman’s version as championing a cleaner, healthier lineage: love is not possible in the Miller version of the world.
The part of the series I entered into was the lead-up to the ‘Wedding Issue’, in Batman 50. Yet, unlike Superman and Lois, twenty years before, it was all set-up and no bouquet. Selina was being worked on, to play her part in the breaking of Batman. By the Joker, on the one hand, and her friend Holly Robinson on the other, Catwoman was being led to a particular view of Batman, of Bruce Wayne, one slanted to her fears about how they – crimefighter and thief – can have a life, subject to her need for independence, without control. And one slanted to how much she knows him, knows that he is at heart that scared boy whose world was killed in an alley, the scared boy who made himself into Batman, and who cannot be Batman, the effective Batman, if you take pain away from him.
Bruce Wayne cannot be both happy, and Batman.

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None of that changes in the back half of the story. King doesn’t turn things around and come up with some magical reversal that allows Wayne to be both in love and the Batman he has to be if DC’s roster of publications doesn’t instantly shrink by a third. To that extent, his ending in issue 85 is flim-flam, hustling us via action out of asking the awkward question. Selina comes back into Bruce’s life when he is broken, comprehensively broken, by Bane and by Thomas Wayne, and she repairs him, by love, by commitment to him, by partnering him. Batman’s future is to never be alone again. Selina Kyle, wife in all but marriage licence, sees to that.
King’s series was originally to run for 100 issues. Then it was adjusted to 105 issues to take account of Doomsday Clock and Heroes in Crisis crossovers. Then it was abruptly shortened to 85 issues and the final phase, the this-will-change-Batman-for-a-generation bit was separated into the current, ever-so-slow motion Batman/Catwoman Black Label maxi-series, of which nine issues have at this time of writing been published, at ever-increasing intervals, just like everything.
Like King’s other projects, Heroes in Crisis, Strange Adventures and the one I refused on principle to read, Rorscharch, Batman/Catwoman is doing much to undermine my respect for those parts of his Batman that left Catwoman out. Once again it’s tediously nonlinear in its chronology, set in past, present and future. I’m trying not to be too judgemental until it’s all available, but I’m getting increasingly uninterested in reading the remaining three issues. What’s more, it’s held me up so long on my intended stepping away from current comics that Astro City is on the 2022 horizon to drag me back in.
The thing is, once again, logistics. Had this story appeared as Batman 86-105 I would have warmed to it far more. There would have been an instant continuity, and I confidently believe that what we would have read would have been fresher, more absorbing. Severed from its parent story, by more than just time, it has become dessicated, stale by overthought. At least, that’s what I’m getting from it.
Again, as I write, Tom King is setting out to psycho-analyse and destroy another DC character, this time Christopher Chance, the Human Target. The story will be told in non-linear chronology. How dull.
But let’s go back to the lovers of Batman 1-85, who are the basis for all these thoughts. By now, after too much exposure to Batman, I am more interested in Catwoman, but more than him over the last thirty-odd years, she’s been reinvented, usually ineptly, too many times, and there’s only a minority of her solo adventures that were well-handled or entertaining. The problem is that, when handled right, she works beautifully with Batman, but that can never be allowed to develop into a permanent situation, because she restricts Batman’s freedom in too many respects. Firstly, romantically, then professionally, because she is too much of an equal with him in a way that none of the rest of the Bat-Family can be, not even Batwoman, the only other non-protege, and lastly in terms of her greater emotional intelligence. That’s before taking into account the character’s individual commercial viability, which would be taken off the board by making her Batman’s permanent partner.
I don’t really have an ending for this essay, which is appropriate, because DC don’t have an ending for Batman. An ending is the last thing that’s allowed, or should I say it’s the first thing that’s not allowed. World without End. Batman wins again. In this world, this Batman could not win without the woman who is the other and better half of him. Eventually, Superman not only admitted his identity to ‘snoopy’ Lois Lane, but changed his entire existence, entirely for the best. Superman need never be alone again.
DC had the opportunity to do that for Batman, but cannot, because to do so would not not be seen as reinvention and revivication, but an ending. And an ending, no matter how right, is the one anathema in comics.

Due South: s01 e01 – Free Willie


Due South

After the more serious atmosphere of the Pilot film, I did wonder if Due South was going to turn out to be stronger in my memory than in re-eatching it twenty-five years later. On the strength of the opening episode, that’s not going to be the case.

Thankfully, ‘Free Willie’ nods its head to the glutinous kids film only in its title. It’s otherwise a purely urban story, of armed robbery and detection, complete with no less than three decent chase sequences (only one of which feels as if it’s being over-extended to make the plot fill up the episode length) which strikes the exact right tone for the series to work. Due South is very much a comedy, a fish-out-of-water comedy based on RCMP Constable Benton Fraser – unfailingly polite and helpful – in Chicago, teamed up with ultra-cynical Detective Ray Vecchio, a cop with an up-till-now poor record at cracking cases.

The show gives our Odd Couple serious, straight cases to work on, and layers the comedy on top in the form of the interaction between the leading pair.

The start of the show gives a perfect example. The open is wholly straight. Three armed figures in grey bolier suits, ski-masks and shades invade a Chicago brokerage, shoot a guard in the arm and force the manager to open the vault. They steal one specific folder of bearer bonds. In the elevator going down, they strip off the bolier suits. Two of them, ordinary guys, exit the bank and turn stage left, the third, who we don’t see for reasons pertinent to the plot, turns stage right, carying a distinctive pale leather bag. Cue titles.

We then get Benton being driven by Ray to his proposed new apartment in a slum. Ray is full pof advice, all of which boils down to

We then get Benton being driven by Ray to his proposed new apartment in a slum. Ray is full of advice, all of which boils down to Don’t. It’s a lousy neighbourhood, the building’s a slum, the apartment’s a disaster area. Fraser, on the other hand, is one of nature’s own optimists, genuinely believing that everything can be solved by treating people fairly and decently, an opinion totally alien to the naturally cynical Ray, as well as to anyone who’s been a Chicago cop.

And here’s where we get the first couple of lines. Fraser points out that the area is central and easily available for work, he can walk it in seven minutes, to which Ray replies, ‘Not without backup’. As for Fraser’s hotel, he’s already checked out, because the windows don’t open, leaving Ray to point out that the only reason people open windows in Chicago is to get a clearer aim.

What follows is the first and most over-extended chase sequence. Fraser sees a teenage pickpocket, the Willie of the title, Willie Lambert (Christopher Babers), snatches an old lady’s bag. He goes after him. It’s a three part chase: Diefenbaker (the deaf wolf, remember) on four legs, Ray on two, but Fraser takes to the rooftops, almost unhurriedly following Willie’s path and finally intercepting. It’s funny initially, especially as Ray is on the rooftops at first, taking things in much less of his stride, but it simply goes on too long.

Once Fraser confronts him, Willie produces a gun. Fraser talks him into handing it over. Once it’s run through ballistics, it’s shown to be a match for the gun that shot the guard in his arm. The three robbers, identified by the manager, Hamlin (Ed Sahely), as all male, included one much shorter than the others, about 5′ 3″. The Police, which includes Ray, like Willie for the shortie.

In the Police station, we get to meet what will be the main supporting cast for at least this season: Ray’s rivals Detectives Jack Huey (Tony Craig) and Louis – pronounced Lewis – Guardino (Daniel Kash), better known as Huey and Looey, and world-weary Lieutenant Harding Walsh (Beau Starr), not to mention Station Officer Elaine Besbriss (Catherine Bruhier), who Ray fancies but who definitely fancies Fraser.

Fraser’s the only one who’s convinced Willie isn’t involved. He manages the kid to trust him enough to admit that he got the gun by grabbing a bag off a woman. On the back of Fraser guaranteeing his return – and if he doesn’t come back, Vecchio is out – Willie leads them to the bag. Which contains sheets of thick, white, blank paper. Meanwhile, a young and very attractive woman named Caroline Morgan (Christina Cox) has gotten into Willie’s trail. She’s the robber’s leader and he’s the only one who can identify her.

The gang strike whilst Fraser and Ray are examining the scene at the brokerage and talking to Hamlin. Something about his manner clued me in to his being involved (the plot’s not a rip-off of Donald Westlake’s Cops and Robbers but the scheme is similar), just before Hamlin makes the mistake that triggers Ray’s intuition and Fraser’s deductive skills, when he describes the one who went into the vault as ‘her’.

Incidentally, the show is already confident enough to toy with one of its signature tropes: inside the vault, Fraser licks a finger and holds it up, turning round. When Ray wants to know how that helped him figure out Hamlin was involved, Fraser tells him all the finger told him was there was a fault in the ventilation suystem, which he reports to a maintenance man on the way out.

All of this is being intercut with Caroline’s gang outside trying to smash their way into Ray’s car to get at Willie, who hotwires it and drives off, with the gang in hot pursuit. Fraser and Ray are also in hot pursuit, only Fraser’s commandeered one of those pony and carriage ‘see Chicago’ tour outfits. The spectacle of them chasing two high-speedng cars, and keeping up with them, is wonderfully silly and not overdone, but though they drive off the robbers, Willie has absconded. So Ray has until 5.00pm to clean out his desk.

Which is the moment that Fraser solves the case. Everyone’s been slightly baffled by why the robbers striuck just after 5.00pm, in rush hour. But this enabled Hamlin to send the real bonds out of the office just before then, in an envelope collected by the postal courier. Which he’s going to collect from the Post Office Depot… If the lovely but untrusting Caroline and Co let him…

All of which leads to our third and conclusive chase, throughout the depot, causing havoc. The two blokes are taken out but Caroline gets the drop on Ray, holding a gun to his neck. She tells Fraser to pick up the spilled bonds, though he warns her not to do so. Because, as he explains, the bonds are a promise, in trust and honour. Once he has them, he cannot hand them over. Over her increasingly angry threats to kill Ray, he walks away, until she takes a shot at him, at which point Ray brings her down. All part of other plan to raise her frustration levels to where Ray would get his shot at her, he explains, pleased that Ray understood it all and played along perfectly. Except that Ray was in a blind panic, pleading for his life. Oh, dear, my mistake says Fraser.

Of course there’s more to it than that. The story inevitably comes over as serious, as it should, a well-balanced police procedural that could be produced on nearly any series, with the comedy arising from the twists and turns of the tale, yet floating like a layer on top of it, like the cream on a strawberry shortcake. And thus so much harder to explain and draw out. It’s not always going to be like that, eventually the absurdity will creep into the stories as well, and when we get that far we’ll see how well – or if – that works. But here at the start, it works a treat. Roll on episode 2.

Death of the Justice League


https://bleedingcool.com/comics/dc-comics-cancels-and-kills-off-the-justice-league/

Dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark, dark…

The Lord of the Rings – Amazon-style


LOTR

Up until now we’ve had nothing but speculations, overwhelmingly concluding that it’s all going to be utter crap because, well, God forbid it might be interesting and leave us with nothing, as fans, to bitch and moan about. Now we’ve got an announcement.

And exactly as everyone predicted, it’s all going to be set in the First Age and feature Morgoth… Actually, you stupid fuckers, it’s going to be set in the Second Age and lead up to Sauron’s first defeat. Which hasn’t stopped people already predicting it’s going to be utter crap because there’s nothing like shooting your mouth off first instead of waiting to see it for yourself. And you should see how many of them are calling it an adaptation of The Silmarillion, which as anyone who really knows anything about Tolkien, was about the First Age, and Morgoth…

Me, I’m looking forward to it, assuming the country and the world survives until September this year. I promise you, if it actually is crap, I’ll call it out as being so. But I’m not clever like all those other people who know it’s crap, because I have to wait and see it for myself before I decide on such things.

*Guest Post* Garth Groombridge – My 40 Favourite Movies: 17 – Forbidden Planet


FP

17: FORBIDDEN PLANET: 1956. Director: Fred M. Wilcox. US. Science fiction. Leslie Nielsen. Anne Francis. Walter Pidgeon. Warren Stevens. ‘Robby, the Robot’.
Producer, Nicholas Nayfack. Screenplay written by Cyril Hume, Allen Adler and Irving Block, loosely adapted into an interplanetary science fiction story from William Shakespeare’s 1610-11 play The Tempest. Photography by George J. Folsey, using 98m Eastmancolor.
John Douglas Eames, in his 1975 The MGM Story, remarks: “Without so much as a by your leave to Shakespeare’s agent, the Forbidden Planet pinched the whole plot of The Tempest and turned it into a sci-fi epic starring Robby the Robot. And what’s more, it credited Irving Block and Allen Adler for the basis of Cyril Hume’s script. Blow, blow, thou winter wind, thou art not so unkind as Nicholas Nayfack’s ingratitude. Especially as his production was a spectacular hit.”
Before its revival – yet again – with George Lucas’s original 1977 Star Wars, the previous heyday of cinema science fiction was the 1950s, many being cheaply-made as ‘B’ movies to the main feature. Most were pretty dire. Just a glance at a few of their titles probably illustrates this point: Invasion of the Saucer-Men, The Astonishing She-Monster, The She-Demons; Queen of Outer Space, Attack of the Crab Monsters, The Brain from Planet Arous, Attack of the Fifty-Foot Woman, The Mole People, Invasion of the Hell Creatures, Invaders From Mars, Devil Girl from Mars, Fire Maidens from Outer Space, It Came from Beneath the Sea, It Came from Outer Space, The Angry Red Planet, The Woman Eater, The Phantom Planet, Missile to the Moon, Flight to Mars, Invisible Invaders, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, The Brain Eaters, The Alligator People, The Hideous Sun-Demon, The Incredible Shrinking Man, The Colossus of New York…The list goes on. Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959) was arguably the worst movie ever made, and has thereby acquired its own cult status and following. Against this generality of dross – inevitably in any popular genre – were a handful of rather more superior science fiction movies, such as Destination Moon (1950, a better effort by George Pal than his later, awful adaptions of H.G. Wells); the original version of The Thing From Another World (1951, Howard Hawks, with James Arness – later to be US Marshal Matt Dillon of Dodge City, in the television series Gunsmoke, as ‘The Thing’); The Day the Earth Stood Still (also 1951, Robert Wise); When Worlds Collide (again 1951, scripted by Philip Wylie); 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954, Disney’s comparatively sympathetic adaption of the Jules Verne novel); This Island Earth (1955, Joseph Newman); and finally Invasion of the Body-Snatchers (1955, director Don Siegel, starring Kevin McCarthy, despite its schlock title, a masterpiece of American small town paranoia). However, rising above the rest, for both story and special effects, is Forbidden Planet, which Arthur C. Clarke, quite rightly, rated as one of the best science fiction movies of that period – or since. Time Out film review (echoing Clarke’s summary) emphasises why it is – and remains – a classic: “…Surprisingly, but effectively based on [Shakespeare’s] The Tempest, with Nielson’s US spaceship coming across a remote planet, deserted except for Pidgeon’s world-weary Dr Morbius (read Prospero), his daughter (Miranda) and their robot Robby (Ariel). Something, it transpires, has destroyed the planet’s other inhabitants, and now, as Bard and Freud merge, a monster mind-thing Caliban begins to pick on the spaceship’s crew. An ingenious script, excellent special effects and photography, and superior acting (with the exception of Francis), make it an enduring winner.”
Philip Strick, in Movies of the Fifties (1983), offered a slightly more detailed analysis: “…Jules Verne’s Nemo character becomes Shakespeare’s Prospero, alias Morbius, a castaway on Altair-4. This planet contains, in mile upon mile of strange chambers, the accumulated knowledge of the Krell race, long since disappeared. Again mankind is offered scientific wealth that could bring, if anyone is interested, the key to the universe. Again mankind proves incapable of looking further than his immediate hungers, and Morbius is unable to prevent himself from using the Krell power simply to attack his fellow creatures. It wasn’t a lesson to take too seriously at the time. The hit of the film was Robby the Robot, not the star, Walter Pidgeon, and while critics made passing allusions in the Tempest, it was overlooked that Shakespeare’s play had also dealt with disenchantment and the collapse of a once-stable system.”
Finally we have film critic Angela Errigo, in Steven Jay Schneider’s 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die: “This superior 1950s sci-fi gem by director Fred M. Wilcox, ambitiously shot in widescreen CinemaScope, owes nothing to the period’s paranoid McCarthyite preoccupation with hostile invaders from outer space but a great deal to the plot of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest and the sophisticated psychological premise that the most dangerous monsters are those lurking in the primitive impulses of the subconscious mind. A mission led by Commander John J. Adams (Leslie Nielson) to the planet Altair 4, to discover what became of an expedition from Earth of whom nothing has been heard for decades, finds the only survivors of the colony are brilliant, arrogant scientist Edward Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) and his seductively mini-skirted, child-of-nature daughter Altaira (Anne Francis), attended by one of the best-loved metallic characters of the screen, versatile and obliging Robby the Robot. Doctor Morbius has found the awesome remains of the ancient annihilated Krell civilisation, and dabbing with its technological wonders brings destruction on them all. Outstanding effects (including the unleashing ‘monsters from the id’), the awesome Krell underground complex, and an eerie, ground-breaking score of electronic tunes are among the treats in a much-referenced picture that inspired many later speculative fictions of technology running away with its users.”
Walter Pidgeon (1891-1984) was a Canadian-American actor, born in New Brunswick, Canada. After a rather thwarted military service in the First World War, he moved first to Boston, Mass., initially working for a bank, before moving again to New York and following an acting career. His debut on Broadway was in 1925, then in silent movies, and finally in talkies, thanks to his singing voice. His filmography was from 1926 to 1978. He was married twice, his first wife dying in childbirth of their only daughter. In 1961 he starred in another science fiction movie, Journey to the Bottom of the Sea.
Anne Francis (aka Anne Lloyd Francis, 1930-2011) began her career as a model, while her first film was in 1947. Her parents were Philip Ward Francis (1900-1974) and Edith (Albertson) Francis (1901-1995). Several supporting roles followed, before her first lead in Blackboard Jungle, 1955, then her role as the naïve, innocent Altaria. In 1965-66 she starred in the ground-breaking television serial Honey West, playing the title character, a woman detective. She was married twice, 1952-1955 and 1960 to 1964. She had two children and did not remarry. Her distinctive feature was blonde hair, blue eyes, and a small mole right of her lower lip. Her last film was in 1995.
Leslie William Nielson (1926-2010) was another American-Canadian actor and producer, with a filmography of over 100 films from 1955 to 2011 and 150 television appearances from 1950 to 2007. His career took a complete change after 1980, moving from routine romantic and drama roles to more zany comedy parts, following the success of Airplane! The Naked Gun comic police movies, based on the television series Police Squad, followed in 1988, 1991 and 1994. In 1972 he starred in The Poseidon Adventure. It is, therefore, quite difficult to relate his later screen persona with the young, handsome and heroic spaceship captain.
The term ‘robot’, now denoting a machine functioning like a human, dates from the 1920 play R.U.R. (‘Rossum’s Universal Robots’), by Czech writer K. Capek, deriving from the Slavonic word for work or ‘forced labour’. The name Robby (then spelt ‘Robbie’) for a robot, apparently first appeared in a pulp magazine in 1935, and again in an Isaac Asimov story in 1940. In the story Forbidden Planet, Robby was designed, built and programmed by Morbius from his compilation of Krell knowledge. He is the equivalent of the spirit Ariel, enslaved by Prospero. In the real world Robby was a combination of MGM production designer Arnold ‘Buddy’ Gillespie, art director Arthur Lonergan, writer Irving Block, draughtsman and mechanical designer Robert Knoshita, and illustrator Mentor Huebner. It cost $125,000, about 7% of the total budget of $1.9million. It was operated by stuntmen Frankie Darro and Frankie Carpenter, although neither were credited. It, or variations of the same model, were thereafter frequently used, in the 1957 movie The Invisible Boy, in the television series The Twilight Zone, and Lost in Space, and even in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. One Robby appeared at the 1974 LA Star Trek Convention. In 1971 the original Robby was purchased by Jim Brucker and put on display at the Stars Museum, near Disneyland, in Buene Park, Orange County, California. Unfortunately it was often vandalised, and by the time the museum closed in 1980 was in a sorry state. Eventually enthusiast William Malone restored it, using many of the original studio repair parts, and it remained in his collection until 2017, when it was sold by auction in New York for $5,375,000 – one of the most expensive film props ever!
Shakespeare’s play – his swansong – continues to fascinate with its themes of art, magic, betrayal, revenge, tragedy, comedy and family. Some have seen the complex – almost contradictory – Prospero character, white magician, as being Shakespeare himself, and his renunciation of magic as the playwright’s own farewell to the stage. Thus, even amongst Shakespeare’s other works, it still stands out as something special. A similar combination of happy factors – perhaps each insignificant by themselves – have given Forbidden Planet its own additional magic – being in colour rather than black and white; the clever plot motif; the superior artistic designs rather than the cheap effects of so many other contemporary films. Both the landscape and the underground Krell world were alien and unearthly, but believable. Wisely the Krell are themselves never depicted. It was perhaps the first movie to feature the idea of interstellar exploration by Earthmen, in faster-than-light spaceships. Another original feature is the Earth spaceship is a flying saucer design. We are the ‘aliens’ visiting other planets. Of course, the exploration and possible conquest of space is an all-male, all-American affair, but that was both typical of the time. It was also necessary not to include women amongst the crew of Earth spaceship C-57D, as this would have weaken or complicated the plot, which had to have young Altaria becoming the focus of attention. The magic and sorcery of The Tempest has been replace by science and technology, very much in the spirit of Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law, which stated that today’s science would seem like yesterday’s magic, but both must be used with care and wisdom, least they destroy us. It is a message and warning as relevant today as it was in 1956.
Justly so, this movie had a lasting influence, even today. In the immediate aftermath Robby became the architype robot-man, appearing in road safety commercials and pulp magazines, as well as numerous photo-cards together with Anne Francis in various skimpy outfits. A variation on the theme was a science fiction “Captain Condor” story in the UK boys’ comic The Lion, written by Frank Pepper, actually titled “Forbidden Planet”, which ran from the 19th March to 4th June 1960. The artist was Geoff Campion. Captain Condor of the Interstellar Space Patrol was set in the 31st century. The story begins with an Earth spaceship sent to investigate (if I recollect) the planet Procyon IV, the ‘forbidden planet’ of the title, three previous Earth expeditions having failed to return. As the spaceship approaches its goal, so there appears a number of threatening, intimidating ‘space monsters’. The expedition commander requests help, and Captain Condor intervenes. He soon realises the ‘monsters’ are not real, but mere projections. [Incidentally this idea had been used in a Sydney Jordan “Jeff Hawke” story Out of Touch, 1957/8 in the Daily Express.] When Condor and his sidekick land on the planet they discover the native human inhabitants forced to isolate under a glass dome from the ‘baddies’, known as Dommes, who are not shapeshifters, but merely project illusions of themselves as trees, animals or humans. The good guys had used the projections in space to keep visitors away. All three Earth expeditions had fallen victim to the Dommes, who just seemed to be nasty for the sake of it. So, not really the same, but still an off-limits planet, and they pinched the story title.
Back in the 1970s there was a roving theatrical touring company then called the Bubble Theatre, who several years running set up their big-top-like bubble dome on Feltham Green, West London, where I used to work. I remember one year my first wife and I saw their clever combined version of Forbidden Planet with Shakespeare’s The Tempest. They were founded 1972, and now call themselves London Bubble, still performing theatre for ordinary people.
Finally, of course, the name Forbidden Planet is now best associated with the science fiction and fantasy megastores, originally founded in 1978 by Nick Landau, Mike Luckman and Mike Lake, who opened the first shop in Denmark Street, London, later moving to New Oxford Street, now located in Shaftsbury Avenue. They now have 30 stores wide-world, including New York and Rome.