Ace of Wands (1970-1972) – British Television Horror for Kids

There is a whole wealth of fantasy stuff that was produced for British kids in the 1960s and 1970s. It is a strange story. On one hand, it is worth remembering that some of the first films sold to television were the old Universal horror films, which were transmitted as part of children’s entertainment in late 1950s America. These films were already seen as dated when compared to the horror films that were being produced at the time: these films were being sold to television at around the same time as Hammer was having its first successes, Les Diaboliques was drawing huge crowds to art cinemas, and only a short time before Hitchcock and Michael Powell would make (respectively) Psycho and Peeping Tom.

So what does this tell us? Well, that the relationship between children and fantasy is an odd one: on the one hand, horror and fantasy are often associated with children, partly because they are seen as ‘childish’ and ‘silly’ when compare to more ‘adult’ and ‘serious’ forms such as social realism; but. on the other, they are often seen as worrying in relation to children. Fairy tales and Father Christmas are usually alright for the children, while the rest of us know that they are nonsense; but many people worry that children’s imaginations are fragile things that can’t handle things like the rest of us; and that they therefore can’t distinguish fiction from reality and might be traumatized by horror and fantasy.

Consequently, while horror is often seen as only fit for children, it is also often restricted to adults; and children’s horror is either derided for not being scary enough, or for being too scary. Even Dr Who provoked the censors in the 1960s and 1970s.

Anyhow, British television produced a whole slew of fantasy and horror television for kids in the 1960s and 1970s. Some of it was great, like Doctor Who; some of it was wonderfully awful (what the hell was Martin Landau doing in Space 1999); and some of it was wonderfully weird, like Ace of Wands.

In this series, Tarot is a a mystic magician who battles all manner of weird and wonderful menaces with his supernatural powers – you know, telepathy and all that kind of stuff. He is also supported by two assistants (like the good doctor) and an owl called Ozymandias. In the first two series, the assistants were Sam and Lulli, but they were replaced in the third season by brother and sister, Chas and Mikki. Although it should be mentioned that there were strong parallels between the both sets of assistants. For example, both Lulli and Mikki shared a telepathic link with Tarot (and had similar names).

Unfortunately, there aren’t many of the episodes left, although series three is available on DVD, and is well worth a gander. It’s the counter-culture for kids, sort of…

In one story, the local market is being driven into decline by some strange curse, but it also becomes clear that the situation is being manipulated by an evil corporate figure who lives in a strange, white, sealed office at the top of a large modern tower-block that overlooks the market: critiques of gentrification and corporate capitalism in a show for kiddies. Of course, the politics of the show as a whole is a little more odd: the corporate bigwig commands via a counter-cultural gang, who terrorize the market; and, in another story, Tarot and his assistants combat an evil threat to NATO, in which old ladies are the enemy! And then, in yet another story, the menace are a group of beautiful young people who are giving away expensive domestic appliances to the elderly but turn out to be plotting something dastardly that involves the old folk being endangered by their appliances, or something…

I am not claiming that Ace of Wands is a work of genius, but its great fun, and demonstrates that Dr Who was far from being the only game in town during the period. In fact, the period was a fertile one for children’s fantasy television, and we write these stories out of the history of horror and fantasy television at our peril!

Next Week: Kindred: The Embraced (1996): The 1990s that You May Have Chosen to Forget!

Advertisements

The Dead Zone (2002-2007) – There is Life in the King Story Yet

I didn’t know about The Dead Zone (the tv series) until quite recently, when it popped up in my amazon recommended list. Which isn’t always a recommendation. But I was intrigued, if only because it seems to have run for about six seasons and I hadn’t even heard of it. Also I had always been fond of the Cronenberg film version, which was always one of my favorite Cronenberg films: it has an emotional depth that is lacking in many of his yukky (but great) body-hororr classics and in his arty (and okay) later works. Also Christopher Walken’s performance really captured the lonely, doomed awkwardness of the novel’s central character, and the very presence of Herbert Lom, recreating his caring doctor from The Seventh Veil, by way of The Human Jungle, is a pleasure to relish. And unsurprisingly Lom delivers one of the most moving sequences in the film, when, armed with the insight that Johnny has given him, the elderly doctor wrestlies with whether or not to phone his mother that had formerly believed died during a Nazi purge in his childhood.

And of course the novel is one of my favorite Stephen King novel. I even remember (back in the 1980s) passengers on a London tube train slowly moving down to the other end of the carriage as I wept my eyes out while reading the last few pages of the novel.

In the series, however, Johnny Smith is played by Anthony Michael Hall, who is no Christopher Walken, and is best remembered (by me at least) for his role as the nerd in John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club and as the bad boyfriend in Edward Sissorhands. None of which is very encouraging. He also seems to specialize in one facial expression, a weird raised eyebrow that seems to imply: I am spooky; something weird is happening; I’m confused; I’m attracted to you; you’re going to die; its the end of the world! Almost anything really.

And yet, I actually like both him and the series, which was clearly filmed in Canada – it rains ALL the time. At one point, Johnny has to track down a serial killer who is triggered by rain, which basically means that the maniac is out almost every night. But even the rain-swept locations seem to work, although at one point, when Johnny heads off to NYC for an episode, the Big Apple looks suspiciously like small town America (or rather Canada).

Of course, Cronenberg’s film was also a Canadian effort, so the miserable weather only reminds one of the original film, and those involved in the series have done a quite neat job of littering the first series with stories from the novel, or vaguely recall stories in the novel, although these are padded out with other stories that were written for the series. By the end of series one, Johnny has even had his vision of the future that an evil political hopeful, Greg Stillson (played by Martin Sheen in the original movie), will bring into being, which brings the season to the edge of a nice cliffhanger and gives Johnny a major mission or story arc to take him through the next five season (presumably). After all, Smith dies in his final confrontation with Stillson in the book.

So, all in all, The Dead Zone ain’t half bad. Its sort of charming without being earth shattering, and I am actually quite looking forward to watching series two…

Terra Nova – Beware, Corporations Are Stripmining Your Past!

Terra Nova is a science fiction series with monsters. Sometime in the future, the ecosystem has gone kaput but a rift in time has handily turned up which allows people to travel back millions of years to when dinosaurs ruled the earth but American corporations (a far more vicious predator) have not yet been invented. So when Chicago cop, Jim Shannon (Jason O’Mara), falls foul of the law (his family decide to have a baby in defiance of the new quota system), he manages to escape into the past along with his family and a host of other ‘pilgrims’.

Given that time travel only works one way in this series (until a plot turns up that allows it to work both ways), he can’t be sent back to the future where he pay can for his crimes and the authorities in the new Jerusalem find that his skills as a cop come in very handy: nobody in the future, it seems, had thought of sending cops into the past but have rather thrown all their energies into sending back scientists and soldiers…

Anyhow, once in the past, the Shannon family settle down to a nice life (this is a Spielberg production), although luckily there are some issues to disrupt their idealized domestic arrangements. First, the past into which they have been dropped is full of dinosaurs, many of which are unfamiliar and/or unpredictable, so there are lots of opportunities for them to munch on the humans and threaten the homestead. Second, there is a political conflict going on in the past. The settlers are led by tough military man, Nathaniel Taylor (the wonderful Stephen Lang), who is in conflict with the ‘sixers’, a group of rebels who live outside the compound and are trying to undermine it. Worse still, his estranged son is out there too, and he is writing on rocks!!! Honest, I kid you not – it is really mysterious.

Of course, with Stephen Lang in the role of Taylor, his intentions are already deeply suspect. After all, Lang is an actor that has built his reputation by playing psychopaths and his casting in the show is clearly supposed to remind one of his evil commander in the mega-hit, Avatar. Taylor’s suspect character is also emphasized by the casting of O’Mara as Shannon, given that the younger actor has a history of Oedipal time-travel narratives and played Sam Tyler in the American version of Life on Mars, in which he was pitted against Harvey Keitel’s Gene Hunt.

But (SPOILER ALERT) it soon transpires that Taylor is not a bad man, and is actually trying to protect Eden from the sixers, who are in league with evil corporations back in the future (along with Taylor’s wayward son): the corporations plan to strip the past of its resources and ship them into the future. Clearly, this is not a show that has any interest in the paradoxes of time travel.

Of course, the irony here is that the show is itself a virtual strip-mining of the past. It is a Frankenstein’s monster that has been made up out of earlier objects of popular culture, as are many of Spielberg’s projects. There are bits of Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, bits of Avatar (except that here there are good and bad colonialists – pilgrim family settlers are good and strip-mining corporations are bad – but more of that later), and of course the homestead, the sixers and the new Eden start looking a lot like something out of a western. Oh, and Jim is a Chicago cop, so a lot of the plots are straight out of a cop show.

Furthermore, as should have become abundantly clear, the whole thing is a literal rip-off of the American story itself. Terra Nova is the new world; the pilgrim settlers are, well, pilgrim settlers; the new world is an explored Eden that doesn’t feature the pesky problem of the ‘indians’ – this time, the settlers have really got there first and have laid claim to virgin land that really hasn’t already been settled by others.

Of course, I am not complaining about the show’s plundering of the past – what text doesn’t work with the languages that surround it – but it is all a bit too obvious and contrived. Great popular culture makes the old into something new again; this makes something old into something that is all a bit too familiar. In both senses of the word. If it is too reminiscent of other things, this is partly because the show all a bit too comfy and cosy. In fact, unlike the western, in which the frontier is both opportunity and danger, and often feels quite bleak and tough, the world of Terra Nova, despite its monstrous dinosaurs and rebel sixers, all feels a bit to easy.

And of course part of the reason for this is that the show is far too concerned to operate as a family show. Its plots are all about the Shannons as a family, and even Taylor starts looking increasingly like a rather cantankerous grandad. In fact, it starts feeling a lot like Lost in Space, the TV series not the bewildering film version. Well, Lost in Space without all the weirdness that the Robinson family was forced to confront!

Grimm – It’s All About The Sidekicks!

I must admit to having a real fondness for Grimm. It is a mess, and its makers seem to find it impossible to make the hero interesting. But it is the peripherals that matter here. The series is partly the creation of David Greenwalt, who brought us Angel, which gives you a fair sense of what the show is like. Its sort of angel mixed with some fairy-tale horror.

Of course, fairy-tale horror is so hot right now. In movies, there is  Snow White and the Huntsman and, in television, there is Grimm and Once Upon a Time. I am guessing that this is some sort of post-Twilight attempt to develop horror properties that have a strong female angle, but it also makes for a nice change of gear. In fact, Grimm‘s use of the pacific northwestern woods, and of sets that visually remind one of fairy-tales, actually makes the series look pretty good and quite atmospheric.

The problem with the show is, as I have indicated, its hero, Nick Burkhardt, a cop who discovers that he is descended from a family of Grimms. But what are Grimms? They weren’t just a couple of brothers who collected folk-tales but a group of monster hunters that are endowed with superpowers and a monster-killing destiny! The problem is that I am both confused about both their powers and their destiny.

At first, it seems that their destiny is to battle evil, but then Nick quickly works out that there are a whole series of species of ‘monsters’ and many of them are benign or, at least, feature individuals that are able to suppress their urges and live in harmony with humans. So it turns out that Nick is actually a nice Grimm and that most Grimms in the past were pretty much racist vigilantes – or worse! May even seem to have done the bidding of the key force of evil in the series, The Varrat, a kind of aristocratic, fascistic association for evil that I am still trying to understand. But they are bad (or at least some of them are!)

But if Nick’s destiny seems confused, his superpowers are even more weird. In short, they seem to boil down to two key abilities: the ability to see monsters for what they really are (all other humans are simply too unimaginative to be able to process reality); and the ability to fight brilliantly with weapons that he has never used before. Oh, and he has a really impressive library, which he stores in a trailer (kind of like a super academic!) But the trailer also contains an impressive arsenal of strange weapons (which isn’t like a super academic, or none that I know anyhow).

The trouble is that Nick just isn’t very interesting. He doesn’t seem to have any ‘story’. By series two, even his girlfriend has forgotten who he is! Okay, so that’s supposed to be the result of magic but I think that it is also a sign that the makers have spotted the problem.

None of which does anything to dampen my enthusiasm for the show. If Nick is a little boring (and I feel mean saying this when the actor that plays him is trying so hard to do something with his impossible role), the series is chock full of great characters; and I find myself watching each episode with a thrill, while thinking of all the great spin-off shows that they could create.

Of course, leader of the pack is Monroe, a friendly werewolf, who is one of Nick’s numerous sidekicks, and the coolest cat (canine) on television. He is funny and engaging; has an interior struggle; and I can’t wait for the forthcoming Werewolf of Portland, a fantasy project that I have invented in my own head.

I must admit to also being quite excited about the spin-off with Rosalee, Monroe’s partner, where she battles evil from her store of magic and potions – unfortunately, Monroe and Rosalee would have to split up for this and that would be a shame as they are a lovely couple. Their nervous romance is one of the key pleasures of the series.

Another great series would feature Nick’s police captain, Sean Renard, who is a member of one of the royal families of Europe (the evil, monster ones) and probably a member of the Varrat (but I am not sure). He’s great. I love him. And I still don’t know if he is good or evil. But, frankly, I don’t care.

I could also imagine a pretty good series with Nick’s girlfriend (so long as she can dump Nick). In the first series, she was incredibly boring and her only real function was to represent that ‘ordinary’ life of happy domesticity that was now lost to Nick. So basically she was kept ignorant of everything happening elsewhere in the show. However, by the end of series one, she was brutally pulled into the main plot and, as series two progressed, she becomes more and more interesting – as she forgot about Nick entirely and developed a narrative of her own.

Even Nick’s partner-in-crime (or crime-fighting), Hank, is more appealing than Nick. He’s human but learning to cope with a reality in which monsters exist, even if he can’t quite see them with the clarity that Nick can. I can’t quite see how he could become the centre of his own spin-off but he is still more interesting than Nick.