Anybody else rewatching UFO?

ufo3I have very fond memories from my childhood of late Sunday nights, when my Dad would come up to check if I was asleep, and if I owned up that I wasn’t (what kid ever slept easy on a school night?), he’d let me downstairs to catch an episode of Gerry Anderson’s remarkable series.  As I remember it being on Sunday nights they must have been repeats late in the evening, probably around 11 pm, because my Dad would have been out for a few hours and gotten back in about then, and popped upstairs to check on my brother and I. It would have been around 1972 or 1973, something like that so I’d have been about six or seven. Dad knew I loved space stuff so knew it would be a great treat: just like with Dr Who of that era, I’d be scared witless at the same time as being excited by all the futuristic hardware. UFO wasn’t really a kids show, at least not like the 1960s puppetry shows that Anderson produced previously- as I’ve gotten older and returned to UFO over the years on DVD and now Blu-ray, I’m endlessly surprised that while its officially a family show its really pretty dark and bleak. I mean, aliens abducting humans to steal organs and body parts? Yikes. I can’t imagine there’s any kids out there who didn’t get freaked out by the scary end-title sequence with Barry Gray’s creepy ambient music.

UFO is one of those shows that seems way ahead of its time while also inevitably dated as times have moved on (remember it was filmed in 1969/1970). Its decidedly non-PC, with sexist jokes and scantily-dressed women, clearly an indication of the times it was made in. Early in the pilot episode sequences of a character clearly ogling a female Shadow operative, while played for laughs, feels rather uncomfortable viewing now. And of course scenes feature characters endlessly smoking and drinking. There is something quite refreshing though regards UFOs non-PC credentials, a strange source of charm I suppose, but the show was ahead of its time, too, with black actors in fairly prominent roles of authority, with consideration of race relations and a mixed-race relationship featured in an early episode that feels very positive and forward-thinking. 

sherrytrekMarch seems to be a month for looking back; the lure of nostalgia seems irresistible while stuck in lockdown for so long now… maybe lockdown and Covid have nothing to do with it and its just the endless siren-call of old favourites. Maybe settling down to the first five episodes of UFO is a reaction to seeing a few episodes of Starsky and Hutch on the past few Saturday nights. Speaking of the latter, I was surprised to see a fairly young M. Emmet Walsh appear in an episode last weekend, and Sherry Jackson in an episode the week prior (Sherry having a particularly memorable role in a Star Trek episode that I’m sure left its mark on many a young fan).

But I digress. I started this post writing about UFO. It just occurred to me, watching it… all the smoking and drinking, it began to dawn on me that its possibly just a matter of simple direction back then. For instance, there are many scenes with Alec Freeman (George Sewell) and Ed Straker (Ed Bishop) in Straker’s office in Shadow HQ, mostly dialogue-based scenes which are expositional and moving the plot forwards. Its just two guys talking, so it seems likely that the smoking and drinking was just a crux for the actors, something for them to do physically while talking. So they are just using props to make the scenes interesting, visually- moving to the drinks dispenser, pouring a whiskey, drinking it, or taking a cigarette, lighting and smoking it, or thumbing through a document file etc. The drinking and smoking feels incongruous now, of course, as its obviously unhealthy and looked at differently now than back then, but my initial thoughts that it was a reflection of the time or a way of ‘selling’ tobacco or booze to viewers were eventually dispelled as I considered what the director might have felt necessary when spacing out a scene in rehearsals to try keep mostly dialogue-scenes interesting for viewers. Maybe I’m wrong. But they even feature characters smoking while relaxing on Moonbase (can you imagine that, NASA letting astronauts smoke after what happened with Apollo 1?) which looks wrong, even though when I think about it, characters smoked on the Nostromo in Alien. I’m reminded of references to the great Peter Cushing, who was considered a master at using props when on-set (something I often have a keen eye on when I watch him performing in films). 

ufo5Network’s Blu-ray of UFO looks pretty stellar- the series looks so much better now than it did back when I was a kid on my folk’s black and white television. I last watched the series on DVD several years back, and difference in the HD upgrade is really noticeable, its a great restoration, akin to that served The Prisoner and Space:1999 Blu-ray releases. Indeed its really quite extraordinary and I’m thoroughly enjoying it.  Its also something of a testament to the quality of the film-making I guess, and I do wonder what Gerry Anderson might have thought about the restoration. I bought my set when it first came out, so its accompanied by a 600-page book that serves as a great reference when watching the episodes. I expect later sets that were minus the book were better served by the disc-holders though- this set has a digipack featuring some of the most horrible clasps holding the discs that I have ever had the misfortune to encounter, truly horrendous packaging which is the sets weakest point. Such a shame the episodes had such TLC and the packaging (obviously well-intentioned) came so short. The box is gorgeous and the book is heavenly but the digipack is the work of aliens: still, its the show itself that counts (once you can pry a disc out of the bloody evil digipack). 

 

From the Earth to a HD Moon

e2mbluThe new blu-ray edition of HBOs classic From the Earth to the Moon arrived today, and eager to see how good/bad it looks I gave it a quick spin. Specifically, I loaded up the two episodes I’d watched on DVD late last year– episode five; Spider,  and episode six; Mare Tranquilitas. 

I’ll get the negative out the way (and while its a biggie for some, it is pretty much the only negative I can see), and as widely expected, it’s the aspect ratio. Originally filmed in the 1990s when most everyone had a 4.3 television, and a cathode ray tube one at that, the show was filmed for a 4.3 (square) ratio (although thankfully on 35mm film I believe, certainly not on video). So purists baying at losing visual information on the top and bottom of the screen (HBO having expanded the whole image to fill a 16.9 widescreen ratio panel in the majority of homes today) will no doubt carry on their baying. The ideal solution would have been to preserve that original ratio as did HD remasters/presentations of the original Star Trek series and shows like The Prisoner and Space: 1999, but HBO no doubt had their eyes on HD presentations on HBO and worldwide sales to foreign networks, where Joe Public likely switches off aghast at black bars on the left and right of the image on their shiny big televisions. Die-hard fans buying shows on disc or download are the minority audience for shows like this, unfortunately (physical sales very much the minority, it’s the world we are living in, and I feel lucky to have the show on disc at all).

This aspect ratio issue was also true of the last DVD edition of the show, but at least this edition has a saving grace, of a sorts, and that’s the newly-executed visual effects, something I really hadn’t expected when news of this HD edition broke.

Possibly one of the deciding factors against preserving a 4.3 ratio is that the majority of the visual effects (and all of the original CGI shots) have been redone, in full HD to replace the original SD effects, and these have been formatted specifically for the wider frame, so couldn’t have been placed in the 4.3 original. I suppose they could have retained those old original effects shots for the 4.3 presentation but that would have negated any benefit from remastering the original negatives of the live-action material as the effects would have stuck out like a sore thumb (we are fortunate to have the option to keep the original effects shots for the 1960s Star Trek Blu-rays – it’s likely we wouldn’t even have that option were they released today, I doubt the studios would make the effort).

I’ve only seen sections of the episodes but on the whole the new effects shots, while certainly not typical of a modern blockbuster movie due to a no doubt limited budget, look very fine indeed. Much better, anyway, than the original effects shots looked, and definitely succeeding in HBOS intentions of giving the show a fresh update and leaving it more like what viewers expect today. They definitely look more cinematic in composition thanks to them being designed for a  widescreen image. When I watched that DVD last year, the visual effects looked horribly dated, particularly on my unforgiving OLED panel- they looked horrible, almost unwatchable, so I commend HBO making that effort. I appreciate some would have liked better CGI but you can hardly expect a remaster of an old tv show to be afforded hugely expensive and time-consuming effects. As it is, what I have seen looks pretty fine and certainly makes the show easier to watch.

The rest of the image has been remastered very well indeed. Colour, contrast etc have been boosted and adjusted brilliantly, and there is plenty of grain for the film purists- likely a result of the image being slightly ‘blown up’ to fill the widescreen frame. Regards this, I’ll have to reserve judgement until I can compare scenes from my DVD but I suspect some care has been given to the framing, I don’t expect it is a simple hack job. A remastering featurette on disc three suggests that considerable care has been given. Skin textures, clothing textures, lighting and colour range are all improved, certainly to my eye (albeit I guess my panel is upgrading the HD image to pseudo-4K anyway). There definitely is a great deal of added detail on the screen, and it definitely looks much better than that horrible DVD did last year- it’s a pretty great HD picture overall; the only real downside I suppose is for those fans who prefer the original 4.3 ratio image. I suppose they can keep (and rewatch) the original DVD edition that was in 4.3 but really, the new remaster is leaps and bounds superior in image quality and they’d be missing out on something here.

So anyway, on the basis of this quick spin I’m very happy and looking forward to really putting HBO to the test with a full rewatch of the series.

Now, if only La La Land can have some really good news for me tomorrow…

 

Melancholy Apocalypse: The Leftovers

left2017.61 & 62: The Leftovers Seasons Two and Three

There’s all sorts of ways to interpret The Leftovers. It’s a strange/ambient series akin to David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, with the peculiar weirdness of The Prisoner thrown in (particularly towards the end), so it is rather fitting that The Leftovers finished the same year that Twin Peaks returned and The Prisoner celebrated its fiftieth anniversary.

Fans of either of those shows will take me to task for this, but one thing that The Leftovers has over both of them is better acting and better, more rounded characters- or at least, more rounded battered psyches. Everyone is damaged goods in The Leftovers. The Leftovers is a study of loneliness, melancholy and grief, and how fragmented personalities/lives try to make sense of a senseless world after a massive, biblical event.

Biblical, yes- the chief supposition of The Leftovers, at least as how I personally see it, rather than how it might seem to others, is that God does exist, but it’s a God that we cannot really understand, and that the world is therefore stranger than we can possibly know. The Leftovers to me is an intensely religious series, its conceit being how would our modern pragmatic world respond to a Biblical event- the Sudden Departure, in which 2% of the planet’s population -millions of people- disappeared. Husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, children… there is no connection, no reason, no scientific explanation. There were here, then suddenly in the blink of an eye, gone. Gone where? Or have they ceased to exist? Should they be mourned, or should they be searched for? Was it random, or were they chosen? Who were the blessed, those that departed or those that remained?

Of course, some might believe it’s a bunch of crazy scientists whose experiment went massively wrong (in the third season, some scientists claim to have a machine to send people to another universe), but I think it’s more likely God (in the third season, you see God get mauled to death by a lion).

Ah. Yes, you read that right. And I’ll write no more about it. At turns enthralling and frustrating, amazing and confusing, there are many mysteries in this series. Inevitably for a show with such twists and turns and layers upon layers as this one has, I’m hesitant at this point to discuss the series in any great detail. The beauty is in its ambiguity and discovering its secrets. Surely one of the appeals of this show is the fact it is just three seasons long – three precious miracle seasons- with episodes as intense as anything else on television.  So its not expecting you to sit around for several seasons and outstay its welcome.

Personally, I feel the shows producers nailed the ending (Damon Lindelof! Who’d have thought it! He nailed an ending!)  although I do know some fans felt shortchanged. Some people like to be shown, to see something, rather than have it suggested to them- me, I’m okay with letting my imagination work , extrapolate the suggested possibilities. There are depths to this show that I am sure will reward repeated viewings.

One of the best tv shows I have ever watched, basically. More pointedly, it is possibly the best tv show that no-one else seems to have watched.  I hope it will pick up an increasing audience with time. That’s the beauty of tv box-sets, whether via streaming or on disc (the latter being the rub- season one had a blu-ray release over here, but my second season is an Australian disc and the third season an American disc, and not many people are going to go to such lengths). Its beautifully acted, lovingly shot and directed and scripted. Like any object of art, I’m certain it will raise string responses and that some will hate it as easily as other fall in love with it, but nevertheless it’s worth searching out and discovering and experiencing.  Yes, The Leftovers is an experience and one that you will not forget.

 

 

In the Mind of The Prisoner

inmymindblu2017.57: In My Mind (2017)

Kudos to Network that whilst marking the 50th anniversary of classic tv series The Prisoner with a new blu-ray set they have also released one of its major new extras, Chris Rodley’s curious documentary In My Mind, as a standalone edition. Whilst I’m not huge enough a fan of The Prisoner that I would have ordered the new series box set just for new extras, I’m sure many fans would feel obliged too, so it’s nice they at least have the option.

This documentary dates back to 1983 when Rodley somehow (even he isn’t sure how) managed to get the infamously reclusive and secretive Patrick McGoohan to talk about The Prisoner in a series of interviews. Most of this material has never been aired and has now been assembled to form the heart of this film. In all honesty, little new seems to be revealed so it’s unfair for viewers to expect amazing revelations to have been brought to light, but it is a fascinating glimpse of McGoohan as an artist haunted/hounded by an iconic cultural work. It must have been rather like this for Orson Welles, living in the shadow of his Citizen Kane for most of his life. At some points McGoohan seems trapped by the camera, wanting to get away, as if aware he has made some terrible mistake in agreeing to the interview.

Its interesting to see a work of art with the perspective of fifty years and see its creator wrestling with it as if with inner demons. McGoohan does seem to be a maddening, complicated and conflicted individual who somehow beat the system many years ago to create something utterly unlike anything made before or since (although The Prisoner clearly paved the way for shows such as Twin Peaks and many others). The irony of course is, did the creation of The Prisoner itself make McGoohan a prisoner to it? I do wonder if he would have preferred to have lived a life in which he hadn’t made The Prisoner. He is clearly ill at ease in the behind the scenes footage, a confident yet also fragile figure, almost tragic – or am I reading too much into it?

So new answers to The Prisoner‘s fifty-year old riddle are wholly absent, but instead you’ll see new insights to the man behind that riddle, a human figure now lost to us forever. Its a quite enchanting film and a must-see for anybody interested in The Prisoner.

Portmeirion, Sept 2016

p1040635Took a few days break last week, and visited Portmeirion for the first time, something I’ve been intending to do for years. Portmeirion, of course, is where they shot the tv series The Prisoner, fifty years ago to this very month. It’s quite a surreal place anyway, but even more so when you recognise locations used in the tv show and get a sense of the ‘true’ geography compared to that engineered by the tv show and particularly its editors (the taxi tour given to Patrick McGoohan in the first episode has it going one way, then returning back along the very same pathway although it is inferred to be someplace else entirely). It was quite odd seeing places I’ve seen in the tv show in the flesh, so to speak- I’m sure it will be just as odd re-watching the show next time, too.

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It was so very strange walking those streets thinking it had a tv crew shooting the show there fifty years ago (there is some fantastic silent Super-8 footage filmed by tourists during the filming that can be found on the Blu-ray set). Fifty years though- I suppose most of the people on that set would never have imagined the impact and long life that The Prisoner would have. Many years have passed and most of the people on that set are naturally long gone, such as McGoohan himself, but that tv show and their work remains as vibrant and strange and infuriating as ever.

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The series wouldn’t actually air until the September of the following year, a reminder of the long gestation such ambitious shows had back then  For a sobering comparison,  over in the States, the first series of Star Trek was being shot and aired in the very same year as The Prisoner was being filmed, each episode mere months between shooting and broadcast, some feat considering the pre- and post-production complexities of that show. I’m currently reading Marc Cushman’s excellent These Are The Voyages books about the making of Star Trek, which are giving me a better appreciation of the achievements (and brutality) of making that iconic series fifty years ago. I don’t think we Brits were set-up for that ruthless kind of scale of production; I recall filming on Space: 1999 commenced in 1973 and it wasn’t aired until late 1975.

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The Prisoner remains one of the most important, and iconic, tv shows created here in the UK, and certainly is as timely and thought-provoking now as it ever was. Portmeirion of course has a life utterly seperate from that tv show, and a history stretching back decades before and after The Prisoner filmed many of its exteriors there. But post-The Prisoner, visitors familiar with the show will always have a curious sense of walking through a film set. Anyway, here’s a few shots I took of the place and some of the iconic landmarks from the show. Be seeing you.

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