Beware of Replicants?

I remember back in 1982 trawling through HMV stores, searching LP racks in vain for the Blade Runner soundtrack. Hell, the end-credits for the film actually advertised it as being ‘available on ‘Polydor Records & Tapes’ so I figured it had to be out somewhere, right? Alas no. The real story of why is lost to legend (and I won’t go into the rumours here) but the intended soundtrack release got cancelled. Warner noticed the many queries from customers regards the soundtrack so created a facsimile version by the New American Orchestra. At the time it seemed an awful joke on the films fans, but over the years I’ve made my piece with it. Other than the simply horrific attempt at the End Titles, the rest of the album, particularly tinged with the more jazzy, noir-influenced elements of the actual score, isn’t too bad and accompanies the film and the eventual 1994 soundtrack release fairly well.

Of course there are problems with the various incarnations of the proper score belatedly released over the years by Vangelis, so its perhaps inevitable that someone would have another crack at it. While I always wished the (soon to be folded, alas)  FSM label might have one day worked on a definitive release, instead we have BSX with, so many years after the NAO version, another re-recording.

You can find details and score samples here at    http://buysoundtrax.stores.yahoo.net/blru30ancemu.html

It’s due to be released anytime now, and out of morbid curiosity yes I’ve pre-ordered it myself. A listen to the samples will reveal that it doesn’t sound right. The funny thing is, nobody quite sounds like Vangelis, even after all these years. Actually, these days not even Vangelis sounds like he used to; analogue synths of the 70s used back in his Nemo days (when he worked on Blade Runner) are museum pieces now.  I’ve heard many versions of the End Titles of the years and they all sound poor, and the less said about all those Dance versions the better. The annoying thing about this release is that there seems, well,  little point to it. Had it been a 2-disc edition of the complete score, without the dialogue and edits and missing material still haunting the official releases, then even had it been a poor Replicant, as it were,  of the soundtrack, at least it being complete would have given it some purpose and appeal.

Oh well. Jump over to BSX if you are interested as its limited to 1,500 copies. I’ll post my opinion of it when it arrives in a few weeks.

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Jaws on Blu & Hitchcock Horror

So I finally got around to watching my Jaws Blu-ray the other night (ain’t that steelbook a beauty?).  It was delayed by my wife’s ongoing love of Tennis with the US Open dominating the television for the past few weeks; must say Andy Murray finally winning a Grand Slam was the kind of tv event you never forget. Exhausting, terrifying, exciting, ecstatic.

This is the second time I’ve seen Jaws this year, the first being at the cinema during its limited re-release during the summer. Here’s something to boggle everyone- I saw it with my mate Andy who actually fell asleep early on (I had to nudge him awake when the two guys go fishing with a slab of meat on the pier); can’t say many patrons fell asleep during that movie before, eh? The Blu-ray image is pretty astonishing, actually putting the cinema to shame, although I must confess the sense of mass the shark had on the big screen was inevitably lessened on the tv. Wonderful film though; one of those genuine timeless classics that rewards every viewing. To have it in such a fine HD edition is wonderful and I’ll return to it often.  And the many extras are a veritable bundle of joy, should I ever get the time to watch them.

On the subject of classic movies, many of you may have noted the growing anxiety on forums regarding the quality of Universal’s Hitchcock Blu-ray collection due next month. One of the guys who used to work at MOC has got hold of checkdiscs or screeners and has been voicing rather alarming observations. Picture quality varies and the titles/credits for Frenzy have been re-done, in an ill-chosen font complete with spelling mistakes. Well, the US and German releases have been pulled, and I can only hope that the UK version follows suit. I’d sooner wait another month or two for a ‘proper’ release than something shoddy and ill-judged, particularly when some great films are involved (Vertigo is one of my very favourite films and the main reason I’ve pre-ordered the set). It’s crazy how many Blu-ray releases get blighted by shoddy masters, incorrect aspect ratios, missing extras…

Yeah, missing extras- I’m looking at you, Mickey Mouse. Yes the fine folks at Disney have short-changed UK buyers of Avengers Assemble by omitting the Joss Whedon commentary track. On the one hand I hardly care; I used to love commentary tracks but these days I struggle enough actually watching the Blu-rays I’ve bought without going through commentaries. There’s just never enough time.  On the other hand though, the track exists on the US version and its omission is likely a cynical cost-cutting measure or an even more cynical ploy with an eye to a special edition version later on. Thank goodness Disney aren’t involved in the Prometheus release (its weird though, quality-wise the Avengers movie likely deserved a features-rich edition more than Prometheus did). As for the UK version of Avengers Assemble being censored… well many folks have gotten very angry but hell, its a comic book movie. Its hardly going to ruin anyone’s enjoyment is it? I  dare say most first-time viewers won’t even notice.

Space 1999: Black Sun/Earthbound

“Incredible stupidity!”– Dr Helena Russell, Black Sun.

The problem with tv shows of this era (Space 1999 aired in 1975) is that they lack any proper internal continuity. I guess someone will argue the point with me, but I think it wasn’t until Babylon 5 that tv shows would break this trend. With its planned five-year arc, B5 had a set storyline with characters developing as events unfolded. Other than a few stand-alone episodes (of which there were increasingly few as the series progressed), events followed a definite arc. This was followed by shows like Farscape, later incarnations of Star Trek,  and Ron Moore’s Battlestar Galactica. Contemporary shows like Fringe continue this style of storytelling.

There is both a blessing and curse to this however.  It allows for an engrossing, richly rewarding experience such as reading a long novel, but demands attention and regular viewing. Missing a few episodes can result in the storyline becoming confusing, and the complexity can be oft-putting to new viewers. Both Farscape and Fringe found that increasing their ratings proved very difficult; it often seems that the very thing that such series are praised for can limit their long-term success, and that once ratings reach a plateau around season two they never seem able to raise any higher despite increasing critical acclaim. New viewers to series four of Fringe would likely be immediately perplexed by the complex plot and give up, and as far as it’s fifth (and final)  series that is coming soon, well, only die-hard fans need bother. I’d recommend everyone else to buy the boxsets and catch up.

Back in the days of the 1960s Star Trek and the later Space 1999, you could dip in an out of the series and know ‘where you were’ as the shows tended to press a magic reset button at the end of each episode.  Nobody ever seems to really fall in love or develop a relationship, and characters never change or evolve. With Space 1999, I guess you can watch the episodes in any particular order. Case in point are the episodes Black Sun and Earthbound. Black Sun should really have been the series finale as it basically sums up the series themes and ends with the main characters reunited and  triumphantly considering Alpha their home on the other side of the universe. It strikes me as a rewarding and fitting conclusion to the series.  Earthbound, airing fifth or sixth, should have been the second episode as it pretty well immediately follows the pilot episode Breakaway, dispensing with that shows carry-over character Commissioner Simmons who is mysteriously absent in the episodes between.

Black Sun is a very enjoyable episode and is fairly definitive; hokey science, leaps of logic, great production values… even Martin Landau fairs well in this episode as Commander Koenig thankfully shuns any heroics (other than one isolated WTF moment of Koenig asking Alan to test the shield by blasting at Koening and Bergman with his Eagle’s laser cannon).  The plot involves the moon encountering the titular Black Sun (otherwise known as a  Black Hole) and inevitable destruction as it is pulled into the gravity well of this terrifying force of nature.

Bergman- “Well, what are we going to do about it?”

Koenig- “What can we do? We’ll all be dead in three days!”

Well, there’s Koenig back in his familiar post-traumatic apathetic mode. To be honest though the show is pretty good. I was bugged by the show’s typical leap of logic though, in which Bergman presents a clever force-field umbrella idea to shelter Moonbase Alpha from the crushing gravity of the Black Sun. Why it never occurs to anyone that its pretty pointless as the moon itself will be crushed to a pea beneath it is beyond me and bugged me throughout, but it turns out that Bergman never expected it to work anyway, it all being a clever ploy to maintain morale in the face of imminent doom (!).  Indeed, what really makes the episode work is that the plan never really succeeds anyway, the show slipping into a mystical and metaphysical/religious mode as it transpires the Alphans are saved by apparently Divine or Alien intervention, a theme that continues through the series it seems. The thing is, to me this all seemed to be the ideal series finale- Koening and Bergman questioning how they have survived all their many adventures when we are only watching one of their first (hello? its episode three?!). Likewise the logic of Earthbound is somewhat undone by following Black Sun, as Christopher Lee’s Eartbound Kaldorians are therefore a bit on a detour visiting the moon on the wrong side of the universe, whereas had the show aired immediately after Breakaway bumping into the Kaldorian ship would all make sense. Incidentally, the appearance of Christopher Lee is a wonderful piece of casting and a reminder of the calibre of talent available to tv in the 1970s- it even seems that Lee is in Saruman mode and I doubt I’l watch him in the LOTR films without thinking of his Space 1999 turn.

As for Earthbound, well Roy Dotrice’s wonderfully slimy Simmons is a joy, and his eventual end is really quite scary- it terrified me as a kid back in the day and is still quite disturbing watching it now.

Yes two very good episodes, albeit hampered by their transmission schedule. Its funny, considering the evident care and ambition of the series, that the running order of the series was handled with such apparent lack of care or attention. Guess that’s just how things were back then. Thank goodness for Babylon 5.

 

Space 1999: Breakaway/Matter of Life & Death

Ah, Space:1999. The Brits answer to Star Trek by way of 2001:A Space Odyssey–  an utterly daft story with rock-solid production values. You have to admire the courage, and damned audacity, of the Brits who decided they could pull a show of this scale off back in 1973/74; maybe Gerry and Sylvia Anderson were just plain crazy, but I wish we had people like them working in tv today, and likewise such bold moguls as Lew Grade. British television today lacks such characters, such daring, such mad ambition.    In some ways it hasn’t aged well, but in others its just as damned impressive as ever- indeed, even in these post-Babylon 5, BSG days, Space:1999 remains a bold and arresting achievement, even if it is in many respects a failure. Back then, in the dark, dismal, strike-riddled, National power-cuts ‘seventies, Space:1999 was pretty amazing for this particular kid, even on a small black and white tv set (one week I watched it over a mates house whose slightly-wealthier parents had a colour tv and it was incredibly even more amazing). The spectacular title sequences of every episode, featuring dramatic action shots from the coming episode accompanied by exciting seventies action music, was just nirvana for me as a kid, leaving me riveted to the screen for the next fifty minutes. Gerry Anderson was a genius at title sequences; loud explosions, loud music, loud drama; priceless. This country needs another Gerry Anderson in television.

Space:1999 grew out of an aborted second series of UFO. Originally, a second series of UFO set in the year 1999 (near twenty years after the first series) would have involved humanity taking the fight to the alien invaders. Set on the SHADO moonbase, heavily expanded and fortified with weapons and fighters, the moon itself was to be launched into space to attack the alien home planet. I don’t know about you, but as daft as that sounds, its such a wild High Concept Science Fiction idea I only wish it could have been made.  Alas, the deal for a second season of UFO fell through, but many of its ideas and assets would be transferred to another project, becoming Space:1999. Instead of the moon battling a particular alien menace, it would wander the universe, defying any law of time and space as it careered through the cosmos led by Commander John Koenig.

John Koenig. My God what a frustrating character- and what a frustrating actor, a woefully miscast Martin Landau, playing him. American backers insisted on American leads, and while actors like Robert Culp were considered, Landau and his wife, Barbara Bain, were still ‘hot’ off Mission Impossible and offered the solution to both the male and female lead casting problem. This was still the era (if it has ever changed since?) of star-power, when the acting talent welded considerable clout. As well as high fees, the actors had demands such as regards on-screen time and which angles they had to be shot from. Eager to satisfy American backers and with an eye to selling the show to American Networks with established stars, Koening and Bain were brought on board, Diva troubles and all. Bain is either a terrible actress or particularly brilliant playing the cold and clinical (sic) Doctor Helena Russell.

I certainly would not suggest that Landau is a bad actor. He’s a very fine supporting actor and  character actor. His turn in Woody Allen’s Crimes & Misdemeanors is wonderful, as are his other performances in films such as Ed Wood. But he’s not a leading man, and certainly not a commanding, charismatic hero figure like William Shatner’s Captain Kirk. Landau clearly lacked the physicality for the role, Sylvia Anderson later bemoaning how “flat-footed” the actor was. Landau’s John Koening always seems to be out of his depth, lost, aimless, any confidence stemming from false bravado.  He often seems an idiot (as much due to the stupidity inherent in the scripts as much as Landau, to be fair), making wild and crazy decisions. In Matter of Life and Death, Doctor Russell’s husband, dead back near Jupiter some five years before, suddenly turns up on a stricken Eagle following a reconnaissance mission on an alien world. Although the world seems perfect for the Aphans needs for colonisation,  the mysterious presence of Russell’s  long-dead husband strikes Koening as cause for concern. Koenig delays exodus operations until he is sure there is no danger on the planet. However, when Russell’s dead husband, Lee, announces to Koening that they are indeed all  in grave  danger and the planet will be their doom, Koening suddenly decides to go ahead with the exodus anyway, leading the Aphan’s to the planet surface with a big grin on his face confident nothing is wrong! Has the man got a death wish, I wondered, watching this episode the other night? The show’s second episode and already he’s a critical danger to the personnel of Moonbase Alpha. How on Earth the Aphan’s will ever survive the next twenty-two episodes with this guy in charge is beyond me.

Its one of many WTF moments in Space 1999 that defy belief. The fact that it’s Koenig who is the architect of most of them (likely because the actor insisted on being the series’ centre of attention in his contract stipulations) makes Landau’s performances such a bizarre pleasure. He often seems to me to be a round peg in a square hole, a man suffering from post traumatic stress, the wrong guy in the wrong job suddenly dropped in an almighty desperate mess when the moon gets blasted into deep space. It’d be like Sulu or Yeoman Rand being given Captaincy of the Enterprise’s five-year mission when Kirk and Spock got killed on an alien planet in Trek’s pilot episode. It is almost endearing seeing Koenig struggle hopelessly with every crisis. Its the kind of miscasting that somehow strengthens the role in ways the original writers and producers never envisaged at the time. Koenig is an over-confident jerk of a time-bomb waiting to go off in every episode.

Breakaway remains a very impressive pilot episode, inspite of the central premise being utterly daft nonsense more typical of an Ed Wood b-movie. Even today its production values are rock-solid and certainly theatrical quality for the time. The production design is heavily influenced by 2001 with hardly a tenth of that film’s budget, managed through clever use of a modular system of set-building. The huge Main Mission control room is particularly impressive, a large multi-storey set that is simply amazing (they don’t make ambitious shows like this anymore, certainly not over here in old Blighty). Fast-moving to the extent that the viewer often forgets how implausible the whole thing is, characters are quickly introduced and the setting established before the nuclear shit hits the fan and we are off on our cosmic adventure.

Watching the series again after many years, I’m going to dare the frustrating lapses of logic and dodge the many plot-holes and hopefully revel in 1970s fashions, 1970s actors and1970s music. Failing that, I’m just going to watch mouth agape as Landau’s remarkable Commander Koenig lurches from incredible gaff to the next..