Sky is the limit

The 1970s were a bold time for children’s TV in the UK. A generation of writers weaned on the weirdness of Doctor Who were coming into their own, proposing original projects that had some of that show’s sci-fi and fantasy DNA…mixed into a frothy brew with a bit of local legend and superstition and sinister tales. Shows like Children Of The Stones and The Tomorrow People were becoming the norm. And shows like Sky.

Created by writers Bob Baker and Dave Martin, who had already written for Doctor Who earlier in the decade and would continue to do so well into the late ‘70s, Sky is a bizarre supernatural tale of natural forces personified and anthropomorphized. In the opening moments of episode one, a gaunt, pale boy appears out of thin air in a forest, and immediately seems to be under attack by the surrounding foliage. (Let’s take a moment here to appreciate young star Marc Harrison’s enormous patience in allowing the crew to throw buckets of leaves on him for these scenes throughout the series.)

Three youths, who have grown tired of watching their adult relatives duck hunting, find the boy, who is quickly named Sky, since they assume that’s where he came from. But it’s a bit more complicated than that: Sky Is from Earth’s possible future, and he has powers beyond those of mere mortals. But there are vast powers ranged against Sky as well: like the immune system of a body under attack by disease, Earth itself is rejecting this out-of-time, out-of-place visitor, manifesting as a bearded, sinister man known only as Goodchild. He stalks Sky throughout the show’s seven episodes, intent on wiping him from the face of the Earth and restoring the natural balance of things.

Actor Marc Harrison is the best young actor that the show’s makers could have found to play Sky. Thin and pale, and wearing scleral shells that no only make his eyes look huge but are frequently used as part of the show’s somewhat meager special effects, Harrison is more Bowie-esque than Bowie: if the rock star had adopted his Thin White Duke persona in his teens, one imagines this is what he would have looked like.

His youthful co-stars include Richard Speight, who played kid-from-the-future “Peter” on Sky’s ITV stablemate, The Tomorrow People. In one episode, you can even catch a glimpse of David Jackson, a few years before he became strongman Gan on the BBC space opera Blake’s 7, as an affable policeman who isn’t quite buying what he’s being told about sinister supernatural forces on the march.

Adding to the considerable atmosphere of the show is the spooky music. There isn’t a lot of it – maybe all of five minutes of music was created, repeating throughout all seven episodes – but it’s full of foreboding atmosphere that does a lot to set the stage.

[Via] Weird Network

Sky is available as a region 2/PAL DVD, but…there’s a problem. Let’s talk about the British broadcasters and their tendency to lose tapes and entire shows. At the time that this show was made, two-inch open reel videotape was the industry standard…but it was also expensive and took up a lot of space, at least as much as reels of film. In 1975, there was no afterlife for television shows – home video recorders were an incredibly expensive rarity – and once they were shown once or twice, it was customary to wipe and reuse the tape.

As it happens, the original 2” master tapes for Sky still existed through the 1990s…but two of them were fatally damaged in storage. Episodes two and seven on the DVD are represented by VHS backup recordings of those masters, the quality being noticeably lower than the other episodes…but again, when there are classic UK series missing episodes or even whole seasons, the alternative would be a show lost to time. It’s better than nothing.

[Via] Lee Wells

Sky is an acquired taste – it takes a little while before the show tips its hand as to what it’s really about – and it reflects the theme of many a ‘70s show from that era, questioning whether or not human technology is outracing human wisdom…and trying to find a way to play that struggle out dramatically.

Moonbase 3

Lunar lunacy on Moonbase 3

How excited would you be to find out that the minds behind Doctor Who were being given a second show to run, an original science fiction epic of their own design, with money coming not just from the BBC, but a major American studio, to be shown on a U.S. broadcast network?
Moonbase 3

If you were asked this in 2017, you’d probably be pretty excited. If, on the other hand, you were asked in 1973, you might also be excited, unaware that the result would be a short-lived show called Moonbase 3.

[Via] Collin Dubberley

Devised by Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks, who were, respectively, the producer and script editor of Jon Pertwee-era early ’70s Doctor Who, Moonbase 3 chronicles the dramatic goings-on at a British-run moon base, where research, politics, and the middle ground between the two – funding – are always points of contention. The pent-up confines of the base make it a pressure cooker between conflicting personalities; in this environment, personality quirks can become more pronounced, or even dangerous to others.
Moonbase 3

The BBC got 20th Century Fox to pitch in on the making of Moonbase 3, so its model work is fairly impressive – not just 1973 impressive, but nicely done and detailed. (Compare to a contemporary episode of Doctor Who, Frontier In Space, which featured a spacecraft whose spherical nose was literally a painted light bulb. Please don’t drop the model.) There was no obligation from the BBC to connect Moonbase 3 to Doctor Who, so it isn’t a spinoff; it actually aired in a late night slot on ABC in the States.

In fact, it’s that little known American broadcast that explains why we have the show at all now; as is often sadly the case, British-made shows shot on videotape tended to be shown once or twice, and then the tapes would be wiped and reused, as videotape was an expensive luxury in the 1970s. As far as anyone knew, until PAL-to-NTSC converted broadcast videotapes turned up in the vaults in America, Moonbase 3 was lost for good. (In fact, the show’s co-creator, Terrance Dicks, has offered the opinion that this might’ve been just as well, but when one considers the sadly incomplete state of such series as Doomwatch, Doctor Who, Ace Of Wands and Out Of The Unknown, the recovery of the entirety of Moonbase 3 has to count as a good thing.) Converted back to PAL, Moonbase 3 has since been released on DVD in the UK. (It’s so completely unknown in America that no Region 1 release has ever been scheduled; for whatever it’s worth, the show also exists in YouTubed form.)

[Via] Whovian69uk’s channel

What does Moonbase 3 have going for it? An always-interesting cast, ever-shifting alliances and agitations between characters, and some decent sets and special effects for an early ’70s BBC series. The acting style is, to be charitable, early ’70s UK TV – stagey and a bit shouty – but Moonbase 3 boasts some familiar guest stars if you’re a fan of British TV. The highlight of the six episodes is Castor & Pollux, an episode chronicling a mishap during an international space mission involving one of Moonbase 3’s crew – it’s a gripping and plausible story (from a show that predated the American/Soviet Apollo Soyuz Test Project mission by two years) with some dizzying effects work.

On the downside, Moonbase 3 is thick with human intrigue and interpersonal conflict, and perhaps a bit short on the awe and wonder of space. The heavy, oppressive atmosphere of the show isn’t a bundle of laughs, and depending on your frame of mind may not even be entertaining. A few keen observers of British TV have noted that there’s more than a slight similarity between Moonbase 3 and the moody first season of Space: 1999, which arrived two years later on rival network ITV.

Moonbase 3 is an acquired taste, and it’s easy to see why it ran six episodes and then simply didn’t get picked up. The spacey sets built for the show were easy enough to recycle – they turned up as a faux spaceship in the season of Doctor Who that came after Moonbase 3’s short run – and Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks elected to concentrate their energy on the relatively light-hearted travels of the TARDIS. Moonbase 3 survives as a bit of a TV cul-de-sac, a sci-fi curio that may be more effective as a mood piece than as a story.


1977’s Raven: a show fit for a King?

In the 1970s, there wasn’t really anything akin to a blank check in British TV sci-fi and fantasy, but if there was, writer/producers Trevor Ray and Jeremy Burnham would likely have had one after scoring a success with their first project, Children Of The Stones, produced at regional broadcaster HTV West and aired nationwide by ITV. Based partly on the real lore behind a Neolithic stone circle in Avebury, Wiltshire, which also happened to be the primary filming location, Children Of The Stones was a masterpiece of mood. Even if its plot – which ended up involving a cult whose purpose was to focus the energy of a black hole upon the Earth, and a time loop that trapped everyone within the fictional village of Milbury – was a bit convoluted, the sheer atmosphere – helped along by possibly the creepiest TV theme tune ever – was palpable.

[Videos Via] Network Distributing

What could Burnham & Ray possibly do to top that? They were already working on it at the time Children Of The Stones was going out over the air. The answer: England’s most legendary figure would return, as lore often said he would, at the country’s time of greatest need.

Raven, starring very young future EastEnders soap stars Phil Daniels and Shirley Cheriton, involved an attitudinal juvenile delinquent named Raven, sent to an archeological dig sit on a work-release program. The dig is in its final days, however, as the caves being studied by Raven’s host, Professor Young, will soon be evacuated to serve as a dumping ground for potentially hazardous nuclear waste.

Raven begins experiencing visions of a bird, and of himself – in robes and a crown – and is amused when Professor Young’s wife, herself a noted ornithologist, tells him that, judging by his descriptions, the bird he keeps imagining is known as a merlin. Can you see where this is going?

If not, the show’s six episodes waste little time in hammering it home. With six half-hours to tell its story, Raven has to be as subtle as a jackhammer at times with its Arthurian parallels. Worse yet, the show’s two writers can’t decide if Raven is going to rail against the destiny that seems to have been decided for him, or if he will embrace it and indeed become the reincarnated leader of legend, back from the dead to lead his country away from an ecological disaster in the making. There’s little consistency to the character – one moment he’s rallying followers who truly believe he is Arthur reborn, and the next he’s complaining about the role to which everyone nearby seems to be assigning him.

By the end of watching Network’s meticulously restored DVD* of the series, I couldn’t decide if Raven needed six more episodes to play out its story…or if it didn’t quite have enough story to fill the six episodes it had. Sadly, there’s no bonus documentary covering the show’s genesis and execution – and this is a show that really could’ve used some explanatory material along those lines.

Like Children Of The Stones, Raven is a triumph of style over substance, but there’s not quite enough style to disguise the plot holes and seemingly random character evolution. As a rule, if a show needs a commentary track or a documentary to explain itself, the scripts probably needed more time to cook.

That may be why even American kids remember Children Of The Stones and not Raven – the former show was selected as one of the UK imports that aired on cable in the U.S. as part of Nickelodeon’s “Third Eye” programming block, which also included such classics as The Tomorrow People. Raven wasn’t so lucky. Maybe its Arthurian mythology made it “too British” to make the jump across the Atlantic (though, let’s be fair, that’s never stopped any other attempt to play with or modernize the Arthurian myth), or maybe it confused even the people selecting programming at early Nickelodeon.

[Via] refbiz

Raven is fondly remembered by those who saw it air in late 1977, though it’s definitely an obscure minor footnote in the pantheon of British sci-fi and fantasy series – a fleeting, momentary memory. Like a bird.

Network’s Raven DVD release is only available as a Region 2 / PAL release.

Invisible Man

Visible Appreciation For The Invisible Man

Hollywood has taken many a swipe at retelling H.G. Wells’ tale of The Invisible Man. It’s just possible that none of them were as intentionally shagadelic as the 1975 NBC TV series of the same name.
Invisible Man

The Invisible Man starred David McCallum, who had just finished a two-season stint on the BBC World War II series Colditz, but was still best known to viewers the world over as The Man From UNCLE’s Ilya Kuryakin. McCallum was instantly recognizable, and still hot property on both sides of the Atlantic, and in this series he played scientist David Westin, who uses himself as a guinea pig in experiments to achieve invisibility. Westin’s wife, Kate, is refreshingly shown to be his partner in both lab and love, and his intellectual equal as a scientist; she’s played by Melinda Fee, who later became a household name on the soap opera scene. Craig Stevens, still best known for playing Peter Gunn, is their beleaguered boss, Walter Carlson.

But the effect is supposed to be temporary, and instead Westin is permanently invisible. And since the Cold War is still on, as soon as word leaks out from the Klae Corporation, the Westins’ employer, that invisibility has been achieved, it isn’t long before government agents want Westin and his secrets, and show few qualms about hurting anyone who stands in their way. The Invisible Man is emblematic of entertainment in the lingering shadows of both Watergate and the Cold War: even our guys can’t be trusted, never mind the Commies. To prevent the process from being repeated for the benefit of spies and assassins, Westin destroys the equipment that rendered him invisible, thereby cutting off any hope that he can just step back into the machine and become visible again.

In order to pay back for the equipment and to stay in a position where he can try to figure out how to become visible again, Dan Westin becomes “the Klae Resource”, a top secret asset for which the Klae Corporation commands top-dollar prices. From takedowns of drug rings to corrupt small-town judges, nothing is more than the Invisible Man can handle. Dan always has a handy stockpile of gloves and masks that just happen to look flawlessly like the hands and head of David McCallum.

To show Dan donning or ditching his “visible man” disguise involved a problematic process of shooting on video against a blue screen, with McCallum in at least a partial blue bodysuit that would “vanish”. In an attempt to avoid the jarring switch between film and video, that video footage would be played back on a monitor whose refresh rate matched the shutter speed of a film camera positioned directly in front of it. This effect was used sparingly, both because of the time involved and because, frankly, it didn’t look that great.

So what did The Invisible Man have going for it? The sheer chemistry going on between McCallum and Fee accounts for much of the appeal. In true 1970s style, the show plays up the one thing we’ve always suspected about the Invisible Man, in whatever setting the story is told: while Westin is invisible, he’s running around naked. Little secret is made of the fact that the Westins take every opportunity to…enjoy…Dan’s invisibility. They’re a great on-screen team – The Invisible Man has a lot of comedy moments and doesn’t take itself too seriously. The invisibility gag is put to use in situations other than earth-shaking secret agent scenarios, which also keeps things lively.

If you’re new to The Invisible Man, you’ll be happy to know that the pilot movie and all twelve episodes are available on DVD and, since the show was shot on film, Blu-Ray. Be warned that the Blu-Rays, while sharp, reframe the show in widescreen, cutting off the top and bottom of film footage that was always intended to be in a 4:3 aspect ratio. I wish the Blu-Ray producers of the world would get the hint that this is as much of a butchering of the original material as pan-and-scan VHS tapes were. (The DVD gives you the original 4:3 picture.)

So why did The Invisible Man last only 12 episodes? Invisibility gags, whether they’re of the time-consuming, video-to-film type or pulling stuff along on fishing line, aren’t cheap to do, and each episode has several of them. The show’s creators, Harve Bennett and Steven Bochco, were rising stars who had more than one iron in their respective fires – Bennett was already overseeing The Six Million Dollar Man, while Bochco was in the early stages of a career that would see him go on to be the showrunner and creator of the likes of Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, and Cop Rock. After The Invisible Man’s cancellation, Bennett retooled the concept and relaunched it just a few months later as the even-shorter-lived Gemini Man, trading McCallum’s British class in for Ben Murphy’s all-American aw-shucks, which only stayed on the prime time schedule for four weeks following a pilot movie. (Gemini Man may well be remembered best for giving us the MST3K episode “Riding With Death”.)

In the meantime, rewind to 1975 and enjoy once more the days when The Invisible Man – complete with a mention of H.G. Wells in the end credits – was keeping the prime time schedule groovy.

[Via] Visual Ent