Saturday 27 June 2009

Destination Mars by Hugh Walters

Review #6 looking back at the old and largely forgotten science-fiction series Chris Godfrey of UNEXA.

With Venus now conquered and with all the world's grey slime problems in the previous book being solved in the intervening six months it's time for Chris to head to Mars in Destination Mars (pub 1963). This book introduces the bizarre idea that apparently Mars is outside the Van Allen belt and so anyone straying beyond it goes mad. But why?

Although nobody wonders why Chris didn’t go mad when he went to Venus, Chris leads a mission to Mars with his three chums to find out some answers. The madness turns out to be down to an ancient race of invisible Martians who have also read too much science fiction and are determined to take over the earth. They have a fiendish plan to achieve this which involves waiting for spaceships to come close to Mars then making weird noises on the radio that make astronauts go mad.

Soon, everyone on board is walking around with stiff legs and saying Martiany things like: "The chances of us leaving our home are a million to one, but still we come." Luckily, Chris is built of sterner stuff and after a strong cup of tea he resists the Martians, switches off the radio, and gets the ship back to earth. On returning, he provides scientists with the important answer on how to avoid being conquered by the Martians of: when in space, don't switch on the radio.

Next week Chris moves on to Jupiter.

Thursday 25 June 2009

The Red Arrows

Last night the Red Arrows, the British precision flying team, very kindly put on a display for me. I have a feeling it might have been for the benefit of the nearby airfield, but luckily they decided to spend half-an-hour whizzing around above my house. At times they were so close it looked as if they were skimming the treetops. Here's the pictures I took that by accident managed to actually catch the planes as they sped by at several hundred miles an hour.

Tuesday 23 June 2009

Forgotten movie: The Bofors Gun

This film was made in 1968 during a brief golden age for British cinema. Despite being directed by the acclaimed Jack Gold and starring many fine actors, it's strange that this film has been pretty much forgotten. It's not been issued on dvd, little information is available about it on the Internet, and it's been many years since I, and I guess most others, have even seen it. In fact I believe the last time it appeared on tv was the day I bought my first video recorder and I practised by recording this film. I managed to keep that recording for many years but it now appears to have been lost to time.

The film was originally a stage play and the film version does little to expand the story, but then again it didn't need to. It's largely filmed in real time, uses few sets, and is very talky. David Warner plays Terry Evans an ineffectual captain of an army detail in Germany that comprises both regulars and those on National Service. Their duty for the night is the unchallenging one of guarding the gun of the title.

Terry doesn’t mind this minor duty as tonight is to be his last night in Germany. Being a well-spoken and all-round decent chap, his connections have swung it for him to train to be an officer. He has already had a stint at college, but he failed as he lacks authority. But he's to get a second chance to become an officer, provided he has a quiet night and there are no loose ends.

This seemingly minor plotting point controls the main thrust of the story, because in his detail is O'Rourke played by Nicol Williamson. He is every commander's worst nightmare. O'Rourke is a fighting man whose interests in life are alcohol and thumping people. In times of war he's an ideal man to have in your squad, but not in peace time. Tonight is his 30th birthday, a time when he's determined to celebrate by getting blind drunk, having a punch-up, and being put on a charge. But having to deal with the administration of a charge will stop Terry returning to England and so he must try to keep him in line.

So the story becomes a character conflict between two men, one weak and well-meaning, the other a rebel and antagonistic. Terry tries to understand and reason with O'Rourke, and so prove that he can be a commander of men. O'Rourke is only interested in belitting Terry and so leaving him in no doubt of his utter contempt for him. That contempt ultimately creates a well-scripted role reversal.

At first you sympathise with Terry and his predicament of being in charge of an unreasonable man. But gradually you begin to appreciate O'Rourke's viewpoint and so your sympathies change. Like most 1960s British films it comes down to class. Terry has posh friends and so he will be a success no matter how useless he is. O'Rourke is an Irish working class man and so he is doomed to stay at the bottom no matter what he achieves. And despite his brawling, boozing exterior he has the soul of a poet. He has seen through to the rotten core of the British army's class system and he hates it.

The most famous scene neatly sums up the central conflict. Terry, at the end of his tether, asks O'Rourke why he hates him. O'Rourke glares at him. Then he walks over to the stove. He reaches in, pulls out a burning coal, and walks over to Terry with it held tightly in his fist. He stares into his eyes while clutching the steaming coal then deposits it on his desk. No words are needed. O'Rourke's hatred for posh British blokes is so strong he can control it only through pain and ultimately that will be his solution to the story's main dilemma.

The acting is exemplary from the two main leads as well as from numerous other well-known faces such as a young John Thaw. The only false note comes when the need to have a plotted resolution creates a melodramatic ending. The coal scene said it all but the story lets O'Rourke finally implode. Despite the ending, Nicol's character is up there with Jack Nicholson's McMurphy as being one of the great cinema rebels and it's sad therefore that he quit movies in the 1970s when there was so much more he could have achieved. But this movie stills stands as a great testament to quality acting and scripting.

Friday 19 June 2009

Knights of Cydonia

The final track on Prog-rocking Muse's album Black Holes and Revelations is the stand-out song. Knights of Cydonia delivers a self-styled theme tune to a futuristic spaghetti western. It opens to the sounds of galloping horses and wailing that would be familiar to fans of Sergio Leone's Man with no Name westerns. Gradually the tune turns into a Telstar type guitar beat (the lead singer's dad was The Tornadoes' guitarist) and then finally into a Queen style stadium anthem, but it remains at heart the theme tune to a futuristic western.

It's therefore pleasing that when the band came to do the inevitable promo video they made it a western. In fact I would rank it as being the greatest western music promo video ever made, although that's only because I can't think of another. What is most pleasing is that this 6 minute video actually has a plot and tells a familiar western tale.

The story goes like this: The man with no name practises his kung-fu moves before he straps on his gun and goes outside in a great 'going through the door to reveal the big country' shot. He rides off to the town of Cydonia (population 143), passing a collapsed Statue of Liberty on the way. Once there he beats up some rough-types in the road, then goes into the saloon and beats on some more rough types.

He gets into a card game with a saloon-girl. Her four queens beats his four jacks. They have a romantic fling, but the evil sheriff takes exception to them. The sheriff kidnaps the girl and beats up the hero in humiliating fashion using only two fingers then puts him in the stocks before running him out of town.

There in the wilderness the hero is about to crawl under a rock and die, but with the help of some kung-fu champions, several robots and a girl in a silver bikini riding a unicorn he rediscovers his courage. He rides back into town just as the evil sheriff is about to hang the saloon-girl. In the nick of time he saves her from the noose, shoots up anybody who gets in the way, and then in a showdown kills the evil sheriff. Cue end credits.

When you get down to it, that's a better plot than some westerns films I've seen, and better than a few I've written. Purists might take exception to the robots and the silver bikini as not being strictly authentic, but the video does well to cram a proper western story into six minutes.

With youtube taking down a lot of music videos these days I won’t link to something that will probably disappear within hours, but instead here is something even better. Muse in concert playing not only Knights of Cydonia but also doing an intro of the The Man with Harmonica theme from Once Upon a Time in the West. Pure bliss.

Monday 15 June 2009

Expedition Venus by Hugh Walters

Review #5 looking back at the old and largely forgotten science-fiction series Chris Godfrey of UNEXA.

After thoroughly exploring the moon, Chris wisely decided it was time to investigate further afield. By now he had a full team behind him of no-longer slimy Soviet Serge Smyslov, resourceful American Morrison Kant, and top-notch engineer despite being very young Tony Hale. The first planet to get conquered by the team was Venus in Expedition Venus (1962). This was my favourite book of the series.

An unmanned probe descends into the lush jungles of Venus (I know) and brings back samples of Venus plant life. Unfortunately that plant life has read too many science fiction novels and immediately breaks out of its capsule and starts growing at an exponential rate.

Within hours a town is coated with Venusian grey slime, within days a country, and within a week a continent. The world seems doomed. This is all very tragic, but when the pesky blighter has rampaged across Europe, destroyed France, and is poised to grey up the White Cliffs of Dover, the Brits decide it's time to spring into action.

Chris along with his mates Morrison, Serge and Tony are tasked with toddling off to Venus and finding an antidote. You see Venus isn't covered in slime so clearly there must be a slime scoffer over there that keeps it in check. They go to Venus, find the antidote, and just as the slime is about to do the worst thing imaginable and make London go grey they hurtle back to earth.

Unfortunately, due to a bit of a cock-up on the navigating front, they've already used up all their retro-rocket fuel darting in and out of Venus's atmosphere and they can't slow down. They can do nothing but whizz past the distinctly grey earth. Luckily, Chris comes up with a cunning plan.

He chucks a bottle of slime killer out the window as he surges past the earth. The bottle hurtles earthward being slowed only by some hankies tied together as a parachute. A helicopter is sent out to intercept it and to make sure it doesn't smash to the ground and be lost in the slime. Luckily a pilot with a big net snags it just before it's about to fall into the slime whereupon scientists take the bottle back to a laboratory, open it up, and sprinkle the slime-scoffer over the slime, thus destroying it. You might have guessed that that plot development irritated me!

The world though is saved and after some improbable manoeuvres in space Chris gets the spaceship back home to receive a hero's welcome.

Next week Chris battles the Martians.

Friday 12 June 2009


Ray tagged me at Broken Trails so I've taken up the baton:

Four Movies that I can see over and over.
1. Dave
2. Eraserhead
3. 2001
4. Blade Runner

Four Places I have lived.
1. Bulwell, Nottingham
2. Mapperley, Nottingham
3. Arnold, Nottingham
4. Forres, Scotland

Four TV shows that I love to watch.
1. Bottom
2. Mash
3. Frasier
4. Auf Weidersehen, Pet

Four places where I have gone on vacation.
1. Scotland
2. Scotland
3. Scotland
4. Scotland

Four favourite foods.
1. Pie and Chips
2. Pasta Salad
3. Curry
4. Peanuts

Four websites I visit daily
2. Digital Spy
3. Trek Today
4. eBay

Four Places I would rather be.
1. In the garden
2. In the living room
3. In the kitchen
4. Walking the dog

Four things that I would like to do before I die.
1. Finish decorating the kitchen
2. See the local dolphins
3. See England retain the Ashes
4. Get lots of cards from King William V's grandson

Four novels I wish that I was reading for the first time.
1. Tiger, Tiger by Alfred Bester
2. Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake
3. The Cyberiad by Stanislaw Lem
4. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Four people to tag.
1. Sierra Donovan
2. Elisabeth Rose
3. Lois Carroll
4. Laurie Alice Eakes

Thursday 11 June 2009


I did an interview for the Tainted Archive. It can be read here

Tuesday 9 June 2009

Ashes to Ashes - Season 2, Episode 8

Season 2 gets the spectacular ending it deserves with a fast-paced tale that brings closure to most of the on-going plot strands while offering a few clues as to where season 3 might go.

This season turned away from the light style of the first year to introduce a darker world, but the format has remained the same. Each week there's a mediocre central cop story which can never withstand even a moment's analysis because it relies on the bad guys acting in illogical ways. This doesn't matter because the entertainment comes from watching the main cast going about their business with style and fun. And all the time there's the extra intrigue added by the bigger mystery which every episode seemingly takes giant leaps forward while not actually moving at all. The final episode perfectly captured the essence of the series but doing all that again, except more so.

The story picks up from last week's underwhelming ending in which Lafferty and his dodgy building site turned out to be a cover to hide a stash of guns. It seems those guns are important. They are to be used for a really big blag, but what is it? Hunt seeks the answer using his usual methods, but after giving an informer a battering in a fish and chip shop the unfortunate man then gets a deep fried battering from some really nasty men. But even these really nasty men are scared of the worst nasty men of all, the police. It seems the police corruption saga is set to reach a climax when raiders will steal a shipment of gold bullion, but then the raiders will get raided by the police in an operation known as Oscar Papa Romeo, Operation Rose.

Sadly the corrupt coppers who are everywhere, know everything, and can achieve anything don’t know Chris has been rumbled. So to speed the story along they tell him their cunning plan despite his role being a minor one as befits his normal level of ineptitude. Chris redeems himself by passing the information on to Hunt, and so the team in a tense conflict with much shouting and shooting bang all the bent coppers to rights. The closure of the main story arc is done with tension and speed, but the main point of this tale is to give the characters closure on their development this season. And so absolutely everyone gets a big moment.

The bloke with interesting hair gets to ride around in a fast car and grin happily. And the other main extra, who I'm sure has been around since the first episode of Life on Mars, finally gets a whole word to utter while whirling around in the Quattro. Viv gets to show off his comic timing with a couple of funny lines and Luigi gets to show he doesn’t have such good comic timing with a rant.

Ray gets an excellent send-off. This season it's been hard to tell where his soul-searching is leading, but finally he is at peace with the world. He supports Alex when others doubt her, applauds her efforts, and is magnanimous in his support for Chris. He also gets to be on the receiving end of a gloriously tasteless gag, which is sure to put me off eating deep fried sausages for life.

Chris and Shaz don’t fare so well. With so much to get through in the final episode, it was inevitable that some elements would happen too quickly. Last week Chris was left in a hopeless situation, shunned by his mates, branded a traitor, and his forthcoming marriage seemingly off. Yet Shaz dismisses Chris's double-crossing, taking bribes and being generally bent as being no more important than a disagreement over flowers for the wedding. And so does everyone else. Still, Shaz gets her best moment this season when she saves Chris's butt while wearing a wedding dress and rather improbably holding a firearm. Chris also gets a good moment looking moody in a car park.

Hunt has a more substantial closure. He gets his big moment when after avoiding uttering his catchphrase all season he encourages the lead bent cop's stunt double to dive head first on to his bonnet so he can have a new catchphrase: 'you've been quattroed.' Better still, after a season in which he has found he can trust nobody, his suspicions finally turn to wondering if can trust Alex. With the answer being he can't he seeks friendship with a bottle blonde who can give him everything that Alex can't, namely a love of western films and analysis as to who is the greatest cowboy hero.

So with Alex not being so hot on her western knowledge, his solution to her being untrustworthy turns out to be a weak one that is out of character and is done purely to make the plot work. He kicks Alex off the force. This is the second time she's been dismissed this season and to my mind that's twice two often for any cop show. Luckily Alex knows that being kicked off the force means nothing and this enables her, again, to solve the crime on her own.

Her solution ultimately involves her confronting Summers and finally uncovering his big secret. Apparently Summers was a young cop who was part of the bullion raid and the shame he felt destroyed his life. Now dying in real life, he's gone into a coma so he can return to his past shame and relive it. This like all the revelations explains everything but adds nothing. We already know that the dream world acts like a sort of elaborate past life regression therapy. Sam Tyler returned to his childhood to find out why his father left home, but he couldn't stop him going and so he didn't return to real life. Alex returned to her childhood to find out why her parents died, but she couldn't stop them dying and so she didn't return to real life.

Summers returned to the scene of his downfall, but this time events turn out differently, even if he did nothing to change them by his own actions, and so he got to die. The last point may be significant, but I don't think so because at no stage in his journey did he behave like a free thinking sentient person. If he was a decent man all along, why didn't he just tell Alex the truth in episode 1 rather than kidnapping her, sending her roses, acting oddly? Why did he act like the standard mystery antagonist who enjoys leaving cryptic clues for the police to solve for no good reason other than it fills up the story in an entertaining way?

The fact he did act in such an unnecessarily mysterious way only makes him appear to be nothing more than a mystery construct in Alex's mind. She did after all solve the clues and work out who he was and what he was doing. And ultimately she is the one who foils the bullion raid. It may be that that's the way the dream world works. You have to make someone else do your bidding to affect a change, but that feels too complex.

So with Summers' unconvincing credentials as being another real person, Alex's role becomes all the more significant. And she gets her strongest scenes yet. On the basis that any tension-packed episode can become even more tension-packed if you add a ticking clock, she learns that today in the real world she will either live or die. She has an infection and when her medication reaches fifty milligrams, she'll die.

This deadline concentrates her mind and after 16 episodes in which her psychological background has been presented as nothing more than a running joke, she uses her skills properly. She reduces a bloke who was so tough even Hunt couldn’t crack him to a gibbering wreck in one minute with a simple word-association test. She also gets her big moment with Hunt when the one obvious scene that has never been done before gets played out.

Summers sends Hunt a tape of Alex's bizarre musings, and so Hunt asks her for the truth. And so she tells him that she's from the future. Hunt is understandably upset. After all he asked for the truth and she lied to him. Sam Tyler spent 16 episodes asking himself if he was mad, back in time, or in a coma. The final episode answered that he was in a coma. Alex knew she was in a coma in episode 1. She's spent 16 episodes trying to wake up. And then when finally someone asks her to explain why she says nonsensical things, she lies and says she's gone back in time. I did not get that. Obviously Hunt would have been unhappy if she'd told him he was a figment of her imagination and she was the only real person in the world, but it'd have made more sense.

But after offering the time-travel solution and being kicked off the force, she still foils the raid. But just as it looks as if everything is over the bottle blonde turns up and attacks her. I don't know why she did this, but Hunt suddenly comes over all rubbish and accidentally shoots Alex instead. Alex closes her eyes and when she awakes she's back in the real world. Her operation was a success, the infection is cured, an older-looking Molly is delighted, and everything is fine. She's basking in happiness when Gene Hunt appears on the hospital tv telling her she's in a coma and to wake up, and he's on all the monitors too...

So what did that mean? Was it the most meaningful scene yet or the most meaningless? To me it was the latter. It was fun, mind, but it came over as being merely a thank you from the makers to all the fans who have spent the last four years analysing every scene searching for hidden meanings. This was a big unsolvable cliff-hanger to keep everyone entertained until the new season.

If there is a solution, to my mind it comes from the unreal nature of both the ending and its set-up. Even before Hunt appeared on screen the scene was unreal. Nurses do not wheel dead people away with a blanket over the head in open view while giving Alex just enough clues to figure out that Summers was under the blanket. People who have just woken up from a coma don’t sit up in bed in a sprightly manner and then wander off, except if the crisis she'd just recovered from was unreal.

We are supposed to trust messages from the real world as being truthful, and yet it felt wrong that a doctor would soothingly whisper in her ear that she has a life-threatening infection. If the drugs don't work, you're dead. Neither did it feel right that Alex would know how many milligrams she's had and so how long she's got to live. This sets up an unreal crisis to pave the way for her waking up in a dream of the real world.

So where does that leave the story if even messages from the real world are untrustworthy? Hopefully the drugs she received to battle her infection warped her senses and so she can still trust real life messages, just not the ones she received this time. More importantly though this offers a clue as to the solution to the bigger mystery, and to consider that we have to go back to Life on Mars and an alternate theory on the ending.

Sam Tyler returned to the real world, but he hated it and killed himself to return to the dream world. I loved that ending, but many people didn’t and so I think Ashes to Ashes will revise it. Although I think it wasn't the original intent, an alternate reading is in many ways more logical, even if it doesn't have emotional resonance. Sam was an intelligent and rational man. It's implausible that he would have killed himself to be with dream-girl Annie. His counselling would have told him that he was depressed and so he would have soldiered on to see if life improved. He might have killed himself eventually, but as there was no reason to suppose he'd return to the dream world, he wouldn't have killed himself to get there.

This leads to the thought that maybe he didn’t return to reality. Maybe reality was an illusion too and he chose to return to a better illusion. If that is the case, then that's what's happened to Alex. She's returned to a real world that is an illusion. Admittedly that makes explaining the opening ten minutes of episode 1 tricky, but as a hint of the bigger mystery that also explains Life on Mars, it could be the way it's going.

And that final solution gets hinted at with Hunt's strange behaviour over Summers' death. He soothed him before he died, as he did for the girl from Hyde eight episodes ago. And so maybe the dream world is, after all, a fantasy that people who are dying construct to put their past lives in order before they move on. Of course, having hinted at that, it'll probably be something completely different!

To keep you going until season 3, someone has now kindly posted up the baffling last 5 minutes on Youtube.

Monday 8 June 2009

The Treasure of St. Woody cover

I received the cover for my Avalon Western to be published in August. And I like it!


Harlan Finchley loved reading dime novels, his favorite western hero being the fearless lawman Colt T. Blood, the marshal of the wildest frontier town of them all, Fort Arlen. So when Harlan set out to write his very own dime novel, he sought inspiration by going to Fort Arlen to see first hand the Wild West action he'd read about. But fact and fiction prove to be very different things.

The town marshal has never met an outlaw in his life never mind arrested one, and the sleepy town has never seen a saloon punch-up, or a bank-raid or even a showdown at high noon. In fact the town is so quiet the only wanted poster that's displayed outside the law office shows a picture of a missing pig!

Having failed to find any exciting Wild West action to inspire him, Harlan's dream of becoming a writer seems doomed to fail. But just as he is about to give up on his quest, the snake-oil seller Fergal O'Brien rides into town on a quest of his own, and Fergal might just be the right man to make Harlan's dreams come true.

Friday 5 June 2009

Moon Base One by Hugh Walters

Review #4 looking back at the old and largely forgotten science-fiction series Chris Godfrey of UNEXA.After being the first man to set foot on the moon in Operation Columbus, Chris returned to the moon in Moon Base One (pub 1960). This was frankly a dull adventure compared to the earlier tension-packed stories.

Chris Godfrey and Serge Smyslov's co-operative behaviour in the previous book has convinced the world to set up a united world space program called UNEXA, with all the key roles being taken by Brits. Sadly international co-operation isn't as much fun as international tension and worse, the British led space program had explored all the interesting possibilities for moon based stories involving those blasted to bits domes near Pico.

This time Chris commands a mission to the moon to find a cure for the radiation sickness briefly mentioned two books back. Apparently, children are now getting very ill. His new found friend Serge goes with him as does American Morrison Kant. A new addition to the team is Tony Hale, from Dudley, a freckle-faced kid who is dying from radiation poisoning. Scientists reckon that the months of rigorous training followed by blasting him off into space and taking him to the source of the radiation might cure him. And it does!

There's not much more to say about this story as by now the moon had been pretty much over-explored. Afterwards Chris wisely decided it was time to go boldly elsewhere.

Next week the space adventure hots up when Chris starts to explore the solar system.

Pesky Critter

Here's a couple of cute photos for all you animal lovers. I have a bird feeder outside my living room window and this morning I thought one of the birds looked a little odd.

Somehow a pesky mouse had shinned up a four foot metal pole to scoff the nuts. Here's the little blighter in close-up, a foot on the bird's resting pole, tail wrapped around the carrier.

Thursday 4 June 2009

Sheriff Stuart's hat

The reality tv series Big Brother UK starts tonight and so I'm facing the decision on whether I can afford to lose more brain cells over the next few months. So for the benefit of the three or four people out there who still follow this program I thought I'd recall one of my favourite BB moments, one that has a small western element.
This year is the 10th summer show and we're sure to get the usual mix of inane attention seekers, desperate future media stars, and clever people pretending to be stupid. Again in our house the cry will go up that we're definitely not watching BB this year. We'll watch the opening night though to see how bad it is… and three months later we'll still be watching. But no matter how bad it turns out to be, fans will probably still agree that the 4th series was the worst.

For the 4th year the makers tried an interesting experiment. They decided to see what would happen if you locked a dozen pleasant, quiet people in a room for three months. To nobody's surprise it turned out that pleasant, quiet people are pleasant and quiet. This was comforting, but ratings plummeted and the show nearly died. So for the 5th series the makers tried a different experiment. They locked twelve unpleasant, noisy people in a room for three months. To nobody's surprise it turned out that unpleasant, noisy people are unpleasant and noisy. The ratings soared.

Amongst any group of unpleasant people, there are inevitably some who are less unpleasant than the rest and Stuart was perhaps one of them. He described himself as being unpopular because he was too intelligent, although he never showed that side of his personality. I fondly remember the cruel voice-over: 'Stuart has been in the living room for the last one hour and twenty minutes playing with a ball of string.' That summed him up.

That aside, I remember Stuart for his naïve love of dressing up as a cowboy. Whenever there was a chance to dress up, there was always a cowboy costume available, and he always made sure he became Sheriff Stuart. And he was a pretty useless lawman too.

During the most infamous event in Big Brother UK's history of Fight Night (this was a night in which a fight broke out) the entertainment value came from the argument happening at a fancy dress party. Somehow a handbags at dawn argument between someone dressed as an Indian squaw and another person dressed as a clown comes over as surreal. Anyhow, despite Stuart's failure to instil order while dressed as a sheriff, he really did love his cowboy hat and he always delayed returning it until the last moment.

He loved his cowboy hat so much the production team promised him he'd get to keep it when he left the show. This led to a classic moment of psychological torture. About eight weeks in, the housemates had spent so long being unpleasant and noisy, they'd failed to win any tasks and so they had never received much food. Starved from only eating beans and rice they staged a protest. From now on they would be pleasant and quiet until they got a square meal.

Big Brother refused to feed them and so a stand off developed. BB tried loud music, louder music, taking away all their food. Nothing worked. They were staying pleasant and quiet until they got a big meal, and that was final. So BB called everyone to the living room and switched on the tv. A picture appeared of Stuart's cowboy hat and the ultimatum is given. Either start being noisy and unpleasant again or the hat gets it.

They did nothing and so petrol is poured over the hat. Still they did nothing. Then a match is applied and the hat goes up in flames. The agony written on Stuart's face as he sees his beloved cowboy hat being burnt to a cinder was a hoot. The protest died shortly afterwards and everybody spent their remaining time in the house being noisy and unpleasant.

Sadly, I doubt anything this year while scale those 'heights'. Even more sadly, I'll probably still end up watching the flaming thing.

Tuesday 2 June 2009

Ashes to Ashes - Season 2, Episode 7

The penultimate episode of season 2 sets out to systematically destroy Alex's world in a tale of the unexpected.

For the most part Alex's fantasy world of the 1980s has been a cosy place full of fun and nostalgia. Season 2 has added a darker dimension, but it is still a comforting place. The feeling of comfort comes from the contented interaction between the main cast and through the inevitably of the stories. It's usually painfully obvious who the guilty parties are, sometimes even before the title credits have finished rolling, so the fun is in seeing how the inevitable plays itself out. All that changed this week.

This episode achieves that transition by throwing out the rule book on how plots develop in this series with several jarring twists that I'm sure nobody saw coming. The usual thing with big plot twists is that they should be unexpected while at the same time also being very much expected. They are usually foreshadowed cleverly beforehand so that when they arrive you can trace back the logic. This episode didn’t do that and the effect was unsettling, and therefore was exactly what the makers were aiming to achieve.

Firstly I'll deal with the one expected plot development. Alex finally tracks down Martin Summers' home and finds to her shock, and nobody else's, that Martin like every other psychokiller in the history of fiction has collected lots of photographs of her and stuck them on the wall. There has to be a less predictable way of telling us this guy is deranged. Thankfully the other main developments were far cleverer.

The story starts off routinely enough when a body is found half-buried in concrete on a building site. Gene and co put together the clues. They realize the site foreman Lafferty must be guilty as no self-respecting builder would get his concrete mix so wrong it still has the consistency of porridge by nightfall so that bodies can be dropped into it.

Before Gene can beat a confession out of anyone, a young PC Martin Summers arrives to help him. This was unexpected and was a nice development as the old Martin was getting tedious. Alex distrusts him and so a meeting is arranged. She, old Martin and young Martin get together on the building site for one of those meetings that make sci-fi so compelling. What would old Martin tell young Martin? Would he give him the benefit of 27 years of accumulated wisdom? Would he tell him to patent the Internet? Or would he just tell him to live long and prosper? Old Martin does none of these things. He shoots his younger self, proclaims that being a bad guy is more fun than being a good guy and wanders off.

I did not see that coming and that one moment of glorious unpredictability set the tone for what was to come. As an aside I'll mention that the appearance of young Martin excited me because I was sure the actor had also been in Life on Mars playing a young cop, but I couldn’t quite place where. IMDB tells me I'm wrong, sadly!

Anyhow, this shooting so disorientates Alex she loses all control and for no logical reason I could see she disposes of the body in Lafferty's porridgey concrete. It would have made more sense for a good cop like Alex to do absolutely anything but that. But then again young Martin being killed by old Martin was so complex a plot idea it would upstage the more important things to come and burying the body was perhaps the best course of action.

With Alex disorientated, the next unexpected development occurs with the discovery that a mole is in the CID office. Evidence is going missing, tip-offs are being passed to Lafferty, backhanders are being accepted. Gene hatches a plan to catch the mole by giving all the characters with speaking roles a bogus piece of evidence they can pass to Lafferty. Then he sits back and awaits developments.

Gene matches Alex in being discomforted, but he does so in his own particular brooding way. This series has given the actor plenty of opportunities to show off his brooding intensity, with mixed results. When Gene was wondering whether to join the masons, the scenes of him being quiet and intense perfectly conveyed his inner angst. Last week when he went all quiet and intense after being beat up he just came over as being a bit sulky. This time it works well as he looks around his beloved team and he no longer trusts any of them.

Is it Ray, known to take backhanders and who has mentioned he's a mason for the first time in 6 episodes? Is it Chris, desperate for money for the forthcoming wedding? Is it Shaz, who gets to look sneaky for the first time? Is it Viv, who after 15 episodes has suddenly been given the nickname of Skip as well as more lines than usual? Or is it that bloke with the interesting facial hair who always gets lines of dialogue when the camera's not on him? The answer was a shock and I'll hold my hand up and say I had five guesses and still got it wrong. Chris is the mole.

This was by far the most unsettling choice. I didn’t believe it for a moment, but then again that was by design. It was like finding that Bambi was a drug-addict. It's too unsettling to think about. Somehow Chris, a cop who went to the Inspector Closeau school of policing, a man who is more likely to trip over his own feet and handcuff himself than arrest anyone, is a master criminal. For months he's been secretly stealing evidence, carefully covering his tracks and being clandestine while all the time presenting the image of being a dipstick. It's so wrong and yet so right.

The point of this episode was to tear down every comforting aspect of this fantasy world. Finding that Chris is a bent cop who's been taking backhanders all along, helping Mac, aiding in the death of the other bent cop from episode 1, achieved that brilliantly. No other choice could have jarred the viewer so effectively, with the possible exception of Viv as Desmond's is one of my all-time favourite sitcoms.

Chris hasn't developed since his first scene in Life on Mars in which he giggled while outlining the evidence found at the place where they found the body. So this gave him a welcome chance to get a character, and the actor seized the opportunity. I guess most actors practice their breaking down in the interview room technique in case they get a chance to star in The Bill. Even so, Chris's breakdown came over as believable. When given the chance to deny the accusations, his barely perceptible headshake was moving, and when by the end he is left alone in the CID room, there's a real feeling that this world has been destroyed.

And being destroyed is what needs to happen. In Life on Mars by the end Sam knew that the danger this fantasy world presented was that it was so cosy there's no reason to wake up. With his body healed Sam's mind invented a way to make the world feel less appealing so that he would awake. This appears to be happening again.

As the series has progressed, the bigger mystery has become smaller and has ever more clearly shown that Alex is just waiting to awake from her coma. Of course this could be misdirection, but for now Alex's fantasy has become less appealing to her. Chris's double-dealing has torn apart the unit from within and from without Martin Summers has fulfilled the Frank Morgan role of sowing disharmony.

It has to be remembered that there was no suggestion that the real surgeon Frank was aware he was in Sam's world. Sam merely sub-consciously interpreted his pleas to wake up in terms that fitted into his fantasy. If Martin Summers has a real life role, it doesn’t have to match the one he has in Alex's world. Everything he has told Alex doesn't have to have come from a man with independent thought; it could just be Alex projecting her need to awake. In fact old Martin's murder of young Martin probably proves he doesn't have freewill. Killing your younger self doesn’t feel like something anyone would freely do, even in a fantasy and even if you're a deranged man with photos on the wall, unless they are only doing what Alex needs them to do, and that is to make her world an uncomfortable place. And in that it succeeded.

Even minor things were unsettling. The music wasn't light and frothy, but dark and brooding. Alex's mum appeared for the first time this season as a ghostly image chiding her for not having saved her. The ultimate solution to what Lafferty had been up to turned out to be uninteresting, which was strangely unsettling. And strangest of all the cryptic message written on the corpse dug out of the porridge, a message that just had to have an ominous warning about Operation Rose, turned out to be instructions to an X marks the spot. This week I got every single guess as to where the story was going wrong, and that unsettled me as much as it unsettled Alex and Gene, and for that I'm grateful.

Next week is the final episode of season 2. Is it the very final episode? I hope not. From the clips, Chris gets a chance at redemption and Alex gets attacked by a nasty anagram.