Red Heat (1988, Walter Hill)

For this film-by-film look at the career of Arnold Schwarzenegger, I’ve been watching his movies in a random order and jotting down a few thoughts. The Schwarzenegger Says quotations are taken from Total Recall (2012), Arnie’s brilliantly bonkers autobiography.

RedHeat

Watched: 31 August 2019
Format: I’d recorded it from TV channel 5Spike on 25 March 2019.
Seen before? Once before, on TV a few years ago. I may have also seen it at the time on VHS. I was a huge Schwarzenegger fan as a child so it seems strange if I didn’t watch this one, but I don’t remember specifically.

Review: Director Walter Hill had energised the buddy-movie format a few years earlier with the caustic 48 Hrs, pairing a racist white cop (Nick Nolte) with a motormouth black crook (Eddie Murphy) to entertaining effect. The clash this time is that James Belushi’s underwritten American policeman must work alongside a stoic and humourless Soviet counterpart played by Arnold Schwarzenegger. It all feels tired and sluggish.

The film begins with a bizarre prologue, which sees a near-naked Arnie undercover (well, under loincloth) at a sauna. But outside the steamroom, cold-war Moscow is a snowy, harsh, drab place. This makes the contrast all the more effective when events then shift to America: Chicago is vibrant, colourful and scored by some prime James Horner funk-bass and saxophone. It’s a city where violence is never far from the surface and the police are coarse men willing to plant evidence to coerce a confession. Peter Boyle is the frustrated captain, Larry Fishburne an angry lieutenant: good actors going through the motions. Later, Gina Gershon shows up for a perfunctory role as the bad guy’s wife.

The rumours have it that the script was in flux during filming, with several hands at the typewriter, and that sense of messiness is evident in the finished movie, which is both aimless and shallow. The plot – a Russian drugs baron flees to the US, so Arnie’s Captain Ivan Danko gives chase – is simplistic and you never at any point believe in or care for any of the characters. It’s competently filmed in the right-wing, tough-guy mode – wetted-down streets, savage gunfights, police stations full of bored prostitutes being booked – but compare it with 48 Hrs, or the previous year’s slick and smart Lethal Weapon, and Red Heat is dead cold.

Schwarzenegger Says: ‘Red Heat was a success, grossing $35 million in the States, but it wasn’t the smash I’d expected. Why is hard to guess. It could be that audiences were not ready for Russia, or that my and Jim Belushi’s performances were not funny enough, or that the director didn’t do a good enough job.’

Five sacks of shit lying on the sidewalk out of 10

Next time: Conan the Barbarian

Rambo III (1988, Peter MacDonald)

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A series of reviews looking at Sylvester Stallone’s two most famous characters, Rocky Balboa and John Rambo, film by film…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Living off the grid in southeast Asia, John Rambo learns that his mentor has been captured by an evil Soviet commander…

What does Stallone do? He worked on the script, reprised the title role, and used his influence behind the scenes to have the film’s director replaced midstream… We first see John Rambo in Thailand. He’s working at a local monastery but also taking part in stick-fighting duels for spare cash. Then, just as in the previous film, his mentor Colonel Trautman shows up and asks this clearly damaged war vet to go on another life-threatening mission. There’s an area of Afghanistan, it seems, where the occupying Soviet forces are especially cruel so the US wants to do something about it. (This is therefore the third Rocky/Rambo film in a row with Russian villains. It was the 80s, after all!) John is understandably reluctant, but then Trautman goes on the mission alone and is snatched by the Soviets. ‘Can you get me in?’ asks John when he learns the news; yes, says Trautman’s colleague, but it’ll have to be an unofficial rescue mission. So John travels to Pakistan, meets up with a local guide, crosses the border, hangs out with the mujahedeen resistance, and hunts down the camp where his former boss is being held…

Other main characters:
* Colonel Sam Trautman (Richard Crenna) presumably never trained any other half-decent covert agents in his military career, given that this is the second time in three years he’s sought out a mentally scared loner and begged for his help.
* Robert Griggs (Kurtwood Smith) is a diplomat who shadows Trautman when the latter arrives in Thailand to ask John to go on the mission. Later, after Trautman has been captured, Griggs returns to the monastery – which is up a mountain, a long way from any town – for a 23-second chat with John before turning round to head back home.
* Mousa Chanin (Sasson Gabai) is the US government’s ‘man in Pakistan’. Rambo finds him in a prosthetic-limb shop (it does good business due to all the landmines in the area). Chanin then acts as a guide as well as supplying information, equipment and history lessons for the audience.
* Colonel Alexi Zaysen (Marc de Jonge) is the regional commander of the Soviet forces in Afghanistan and, obviously, as they always are in action films, is a sadistic, arrogant prick. He interrogates and tortures the captured Trautman for information. Being an American, Trautman is able to resist and even taunts Zaysen, saying Afghanistan is Russia’s Vietnam (ie, an unwinnable folly). Zayzen also personally leads a helicopter attack on a local village, just to emphasise how evil he is.
* Hamid (Doudi Shoua) is a young Afghan orphan who tags along on Rambo’s mission.

Key scene: Having escaped from the Russian compound, John and Trautman end up cornered in a large area of rocky wasteland. They’re in the open, with no available cover, and an helicopter piloted by Zaysen is hovering in front of them. It’s armed to the teeth, with torpedoes, machine guns… probably even flame-throwers knowing this film. Over a loud-speaker, Zaysen warns them they have no way out. ‘What do you say, John?’ asks Trautman. ‘Fuck ’em,’ snarls Rambo and the pair start shooting. The fact that not one bullet of the returning fire hits anywhere near them is, of course, a motif of action films. The fact they suddenly find a convenient gash in the landscape to hide in is a similar stretch. But the subtext – that a pair of vastly outgunned people can get out of this situation simply because they decide to – sums up this movie’s macho attitude perfectly.

Review: After clashing with Stallone, this film’s original director, Russell Mulcahy (Highlander), was fired mid-shoot and replaced by second-unit director Peter McDonald. ‘I was intrigued by the challenge,’ McDonald later said. ‘I tried very hard to change the Rambo character a bit and make him a vulnerable and humorous person. I failed totally.’ He wasn’t wrong. Rambo III is as amped-up and unsubtle as its lead character’s sweat-glistened biceps. We get lots of worthy talk about the indefatigable spirit of the Afghan people and the evils of the USSR aggression, but for a rescue plot there’s a distinct lack of urgency. John even takes time out to play a local version of polo that uses an animal carcass as the ball. Then, after Rambo has eventually freed Trautman, the film plummets into mind-numbingly drab action: a thousand gunshots, a hundred deaths, a dozen explosions. There *is* a way of doing this kind of story. Compare Rambo III with the superficially similar Arnold Schwarzenegger film Commando (1985) and you can see a gulf of difference. The latter is just as violent and simplistic. It also has a weak central performance and a naïve political attitude towards foreigners. But it’s also knowing and genuinely flamboyant and a lot of fun. Rambo III, on the other hand, is just empty-headed, jingoistic drivel.

Two worst nightmares out of 10

Note: In the three years since the previous Rambo flick, one of the more bizarre spin-offs in pop-culture history had hit TV screens. Animation production company Ruby-Spears decided to produce a kiddie-friendly cartoon version, Rambo: The Force of Freedom, which ran for 65 syndicated episodes between April and December 1986. John Rambo and Colonel Trautman were carried over from the films, sans any mention of PTSD, and were now complemented by zappily named characters such as Edward ‘Turbo’ Hayes, Katherine Anne ‘KAT’ Taylor and TD ‘Touchdown’ Jackson. As a team, these heroes battled terrorists called SAVAGE (Specialist Administrators of Vengeance, Anarchy and Global Extortion). None of the film actors took part.

Next: Rocky V

Scooby-Doo! and the Reluctant Werewolf (1988, Ray Patterson)

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An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: Modern-day America, then Castle Dracula and its surroundings in Transylvania.

Faithful to the novel? Nah, course not. The character of Scooby-Doo – a semi-anthropomorphised Great Dane – was created for American kids’ TV in the late 1960s. Initially conceived as a sidekick for a human gang of amateur crime-solvers who investigated spooky goings-on, he became the star of the 1969/70 animated series Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? and then appeared in a plethora of further series, one-offs, direct-to-video specials and live-action movies. This special was produced in 1988. As usual, Scooby (voiced by Don Messick) is hanging out with his owner/old buddy/old friend/old pal Shaggy (Casey Kasem), a stoned slacker who never seems in total command of his surroundings. The pair are accompanied by Scrappy-Doo (also Messick), Scooby’s puppy nephew who had been added to the format in 1979 but proved controversial so tended not to be used after this special. (The other famous members of the gang – Fred, Daphne and Velma – aren’t involved.) In his spooky, Gothic castle in Transylvania, Count Dracula needs a werewolf to take part in a motor race where all the drivers are monsters. Voiced by Hamilton Camp, Dracula is green-skinned like a corpse, has a Bela Lugosi accent and a cape, and can transform into a bat. Sunblock 500 also means he can be out in the daylight. Luckily, a prophecy has predicted that a man in America – who we recognise as Shaggy – is about to be transformed into a werewolf so the Count order two sidekicks called Brunch and Crunch to kidnap him. Meanwhile, Shaggy and Scooby are competing in a car race of their own; they’re cheered on by Shaggy’s ‘adoring but liberated’ girlfriend, Googie (BJ Ward), who’s then on a date with him when that night’s moonshine ‘turns’ him. Eventually, after Brunch and Crunch have nabbed the trio and taken them to Castle Dracula, Shaggy is convinced to take part in the Monster Rally, racing against various other monsters. However, Dracula wants him to lose, so starts to sabotage his attempt…

Best performance: As well as Dracula, there are some other stereotypical monsters involved in the story – Frankenstein’s monster and his bride, Swamp Thing, some witches, a skeleton called Mr Bonejangles, a Mummy, a version of Jekyll/Hyde. But the most entertaining character is Brunch, a hunchbacked dwarf who wears a monocle, has a thin moustache and speaks like David Niven. He’s voiced entertainingly by Rob Paulsen.

Best bit: Dracula’s sexy assistant, Vanna Pira (Pat Musick), acts like a game-show dollybird when she talks about the prizes available to the Monster Rally drivers.

Review: Draculas – whether the actual Count, his relatives, or people using his image as a disguise – have cropped up a lot in Scooby-Doo stories over the years. A Gaggle of Galloping Ghosts – the 11th episode of original series Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? – saw the regular characters visit a spooky castle and encounter the famous vampire (or so they think). Later, in an episode of The New Scooby and Scrappy Doo Show (1983) called Who’s Minding the Monster?, Scooby and his pals are hired to babysit the Dracula family’s children in Frankenstein Castle. The following year, A Halloween Hassle at Dracula’s Castle – the eighth episode of The New Scooby-Doo Mysteries (1984) – has the gang invited to a party hosted by monsters who need help because they’re being haunted (or so they think) by the ghost of Dr Van Helsing. Scooby-Doo and the Ghoul School is a 1988 TV movie that sees Scooby, Shaggy and Scrappy work at a school for the children of various monsters, including Dracula. An episode of A Pup Named Scooby-Doo (1988-91) called Dog Gone Scooby features a cameo from the Count. And Music of the Vampire, a 2012 direct-to-video film, is set at a vampire museum run by a guy called Vincent van Helsing (as well as having another character called Bram). So The Reluctant Werewolf is not doing anything stonkingly original. It’s a very silly and very throwaway animation that, while passable fun, sadly outstays its welcome. A very thin story is stretched out to 90 minutes, and the Wacky Races-style Monster Rally really does seem like it’s never going to end. But there are some funny moments along the way.

Six bat burgers (a little undercooked) out of 10

Die Hard (1988, John McTiernan)

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Spoiler alert: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Police officer John McClane visits his estranged wife during her office’s Christmas party. But when terrorists enter the building and take hostages, John finds himself the only person free…

Source material: Die Hard is an adaptation of Nothing Lasts Forever (1979), an enjoyable-enough potboiler by Roderick Thorp. Because the novel was a sequel to a book that had been turned into a film starring Frank Sinatra, Sinatra was asked to headline Die Hard too. But he had just passed 70 and retired from acting, so turned it down. The script was then retooled as a standalone story, and middle-aged Detective Joe Leland became the thirtysomething Officer John McClane. (It’s often been said that, at one point, Die Hard was going to be a sequel to the 1985 action film Commando and would therefore have starred Arnold Schwarzenegger. However, Steven E de Souza – the writer of Commando and co-writer of Die Hard – has denied this. He says the ultimately unmade Commando 2 was a completely separate script.)

John McClane: Die Hard’s hero is a dry, droll, cynical cop from New York. For overseas viewers who might not understand, it’s spelt out that he doesn’t have any jurisdiction in LA,  but he still leaps into action when trapped in a skyscraper with gun-totting terrorists. Cast in the role was Bruce Willis, an actor who was hot from witty TV drama Moonlighting, and he’s *perfect*. He gives McClane a wry smirk, plenty of sarcasm and bags of attitude. One of the key reasons why the character is such a success is that he’s not a Schwarzenegger-type Special Forces vet who can kill a platoon with his little finger; he’s just an everyday guy (albeit one who knows how to fire guns). He even gets an instant all-time-great catchphrase: the villain likens him to a cowboy, so he replies, “Yippie ki-yay, motherfucker.” A good indicator of what an amazing performance Willis gives is the fact he often talks to himself and yet the device never feels clunky or forced. That’s a difficult trick to pull off.

Regulars:
* Holly Gennaro (Bonnie Bedelia) is John’s wife. Six months earlier she moved across country for a new job; she’s been using her maiden name, which doesn’t please John when he arrives at her office at Nakatomi Plaza. Once the terrorists take over, she becomes the leader of the hostages and shares a couple of excellently frosty scenes with bad guy Hans. (In Nothing Lasts Forever, the lead character was visiting his daughter not his wife. But then they cast 33-year-old Bruce Willis.)
* We briefly see John and Holly’s young children, Lucy (Taylor Fry) and John Jnr (Noah Land). They’re at home being looked after by a maid called Paulina (Betty Carvalho).
* When John finds a two-way radio and contacts the outside world, he strikes up a connection with local policeman Sgt Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson). Unlike his LAPD superiors, the likeable Powell quickly recognises the severity of the hostage situation and also figures out that John must be a cop. Their friendship as they talk over the radio has real charm.
* Once it becomes clear that something is going on at Nakatomi Plaza, a news reporter called Dick Thornburg (William Atherton, efficiently slimy) starts covering the story. He’s an amoral shit who thinks nothing of manipulating children for his report.   

Villain: The story’s bad guys show up primed and ready. They move into the building stealthily and with little dialogue, killing security guards and making their way up to the floor hosting the Christmas party. The group has distinctive, memorable members – which always helps in a film with a crime gang – but the standout is still its leader. Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) is an icy-cool yet charismatic German in a Savile Row suit. There’s a great reversal of expectations when we learn that he’s not the political terrorist we all assumed him to be: he’s just after the loot stored in the building’s vault. However, when Holly accuses him of being just a common thief, he sharply replies. “I am an exception thief, Mrs McClane, and since I’m moving up to kidnapping you should be more polite.” Rickman gives a sensational performance of guile and confidence and poise in what was, remarkably, his first ever film. Actually, it’s difficult to think of a better-played, more entertaining villain in any movie.

Music: The near-constant incidental music was written by Michael Kamen, who’d previously provided great scores for Brazil (1985), Highlander (1986), Lethal Weapon (1987) and TV magnum opus Edge of Darkness (1985). It’s an excellent piece of work, creating tension and supporting action with aplomb. It’s especially good at taking us by the hand and guiding us through moments where we’re crosscutting between different scenes. Kamen also quotes Beethoven’s Ode to Joy when Gruber and the others finally open the vault.

Review: Like a million-pound sports car or a shiny new iPhone, this movie appears so effortless and elegant and pristine, but it’s powered by some extraordinary complex engineering. On the surface, Die Hard is an endlessly entertaining slice of popcorn cinema. There’s action, humour, drama, surprises, suspense and violence, and it’s all muscle, no flab. The film keeps opening up, starting relatively low-key as a group of criminals sneak into a Christmas party and ending up as an enormous action thriller involving helicopters, explosions and SWAT teams. It’s populated by vibrant, interesting, well-played supporting characters – cheeky young chauffeur Argyll (De’voreaux White), stoic company boss Takagi (James Shigeta), lairy businessman twat Harry Ellis (Hart Bochner), befuddled police chief Dwayne T Robinson (Paul Gleason), two arrogant FBI agents both called Johnson (Robert Davi and Grand L Bush). Everyone in this amazing cast gets line after line of acidic, colourful dialogue packed full of substance and swearing and wit. But look underneath and the film is even more impressive. A huge amount of skill, smartness and hard work has gone into making Die Hard seem so graceful. Narrative filmmaking is about the revelation of information – character details, plot developments, and so on – which must be drip-fed in a specific order and at specific times. Here, the pieces are moved around the chessboard with absolute precision, guaranteeing that we know exactly what we need to know at exactly the right time. We also learn about characters through their behaviour, while their choices drive the plot and action is always significant. Cinematographer Jan De Bont uses the anamorphic widescreen format for all its worth, throwing in extreme framings and telling the story through composition, lighting and purposeful camera moves. John McTiernan directs with a ballsy energy but also a light touch when needed. It’s simply a masterpiece. One of the very best action films ever made.

Ten machine guns (ho ho ho) out of 10

Dracula’s Widow (1988, Christopher Coppola)

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An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: The 1980s. A seedy, neon-lit Hollywood full of punk gangs, graffiti and rain.

Faithful to the novel? This 80s B-movie is essentially a sequel to the events of Bram Stoker’s novel. In Los Angeles, a wax museum is preparing for a new display based on the long-dead Count Dracula and an extra crate of materials is delivered from Romania. It contains a female vampire called Vanessa (Sylvia Kristel), who wakes up from hibernation and says she wants to find a way to get home to Romania. While she puts absolutely no effort at all into that, she goes on a killing spree. She also enslaves the museum’s manager, Raymond Everett (Lenny von Dohlen). But she’s troubled when Raymond tells her that her husband, Count Dracula, was killed many years ago. Meanwhile, a cop called Hap Lannon (Josef Sommer) is investigating her murders. Soon, local antiques dealer Helsing (Stefan Schnabel) figures out that vampires are in LA and offers Lannon help. He’s the grandson of the famed Dr Van Helsing who killed Dracula in 1893. The movie contains a few other references to the Dracula myth: at one point we see Raymond watching the 1922 film Nosferatu, while his girlfriend has the same surname as one of the novel’s characters (Harker) and sleepwalks like another (Lucy).

Best performance: Josef Sommer as LAPD Detective Hap Lannon. Here’s a character actor having fun with a rare leading role. He plays the film-noir voiceover for all its worth, wears a hat and raincoat, smokes, and tosses off the dime-novel dialogue. (Hap jokingly claims to be Sam Spade’s nephew.)

Best bit: The schlocky special effects are a real treat. The physical monster make-up and gore are both gross and charmingly cheesy. (Vanessa turning into a bat during the climax is more risible, though. You can almost see the prop’s strings.)

Review: The film has a lot of style to it. It’s lit like a giallo movie, with lots of bold colours that expressionistically match the mood of the scene (and even change during a shot to reflect the drama). The production design is also good fun. The story is set in the 1980s, yet the feel and look of a 1940s or 50s noir is never far way. However, the story is muddled and drab, and there’s a very mixed cast (Sylvia Kristel is especially rubbish). It’s enjoyable in a trashy kind of way, though doesn’t linger long in the memory. The film was directed by Christopher Coppola, the nephew of Francis Ford Coppola (who made his Dracula movie a few years later). In a not-so-sly nod to his famous relative, Christopher places the museum of the story right next to Francis’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Seven pentagrams out of 10

Star Trek: The Next Generation: season two (1988/89)

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Over the last few months I’ve rewatched all of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Here’s what I thought were the notable episodes of season two…

Best episode:
* The Measure of a Man. A Starfleet officer wants to carry out experiments on Data, who he claims has no rights as an individual… A weighty character story with a great moral dilemma that has reason on both sides. The courtroom drama is excellent and there are wonderful performances from Patrick Stewart and Brent Spiner.

Honourable mentions:
* Elementary, Dear Data. While Data and Geordie are playing a Sherlock Holmes roleplaying game, a hologramatic character becomes sentient… Terrific fun, with the Sherlock pastiche mined for all its worth.
* The Outrageous Okuna. The crew rescue a freelance captain, but the local planet has a problem with him… This is refreshingly based on a character who seems a bit more modern than the 24th-century characters. Okuna is a Han Solo type, basically, so more earthy and louche than our regulars. (Teri Hatcher cameos as a transporter chief.)
* The Schizoid Man. We meet the scientist who claims to be Data’s grandfather, and he takes over Data’s body… Basically, it seems that if they made the episode about Data they couldn’t go wrong. Another good one.
* A Matter of Honor. As part of an exchange, Riker serves as the first officer on a Klingon ship, which of course brings him up against the Enterprise… It’s a fun idea, and is part of a process to make the initially po-faced Riker more rounded.
* Time Squared. A Picard from a few hours into the future shows up… A small-scale step into the time-travel genre. An effective little episode.
* Q Who. The Enterprise encounters a previously unknown race of androids… Q returns and we get the first appearance of the Borg. It’s pacey, urgent and gripping.
* Up The Long Ladder. Two colonies who have not had contact with the outside world are in danger… Clichés abound, especially in the Irishness of the guest characters, but there’s fun and humour too.
* The Emissary. When a ship containing hibernating Klingons is found, a negotiator is sent to help deal with it… There’s a good guest role for Suzie Plakson as the half-Klingon/half-human K’Ehleyr.

Worst episode:
* Shades of Gray. Riker is injured and relives previous adventures as he’s treated… Once you twig it’s going to be a clips show, any tension falls out of it. The episode is cheap, tatty, unimaginative and rushed. They never did another clips show.

Star Trek: The Next Generation: season one (1987/88)

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Over the last few months I’ve rewatched all of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Here’s what I thought were the notable episodes of season one…

Best episode:
* The Neutral Zone. Three humans are awoken from decades-long hibernation, while the Enterprise is sent on a mission to the Neutral Zone… Unlike a lot of the opening season, this episode doesn’t suffer from being too linear. Far too many stories have no subplots or differing points of view, so can get relentless. This one, however, has two strands that click together at the end and some fun characters from Earth’s past who contrast nicely with the more straitlaced regulars.

Honorable mentions:
* Encounter at Farpoint. Jean-Luc Picard takes command of the USS Enterprise, but is soon put on trial by a godlike alien called Q… The pilot episode of Next Gen is a decent enough start. It introduces the core characters in groups, rather than throwing them all into the mix together, which gives them turns in the spotlight. The main plot might be on the dull side, but the courtroom stuff is fun and well staged.
* The Naked Now. The crew are affected by a virus that causes lots of odd behaviour… Entertaining, and it focuses on regular characters that are still new to us. The cast are clearly enjoying themselves; Patrick Stewart is especially funny.
* Where No One Has Gone Before. A new engine set-up sends the ship a vast distance across the universe… A good old-fashioned Star Trek-y story, full of wonder for the strangeness of space. The Traveler is a fun character, and Wesley gets a chance to shine.
* Justice. Wesley Crusher inadvertently commits a minor crime on a planet with a no-tolerance policy and is sentenced to death… Not bad, though the planet it takes place on is very Aryan. An interesting moral dilemma is played out, even if it the plot ends abruptly.
* The Battle. An encounter with some Ferengi results in Picard reliving a traumatic episode from his past… A decent episode for the captain with an entertaining plot.
* Haven. An arranged marriage for Deana Troi is imminent… Lightweight but enjoyable, this sees the first appearance of semi-regular Lwaxana Troi.
* The Big Goodbye. Picard gets stuck in a 1940s holodeck fantasy… An good bit of nonsense that revels in the film-noir idiom.
* Datalore. The crew encounter Data’s ‘brother’ Lore… One of a number of fine episodes that focus on Data.
* Symbiosis. The Enterprise rescue the crew of a freighter, but it generates an ethical dilemma… There’s a nice twist to the expected story, but we do also get a preachy scene about drug addiction.

Worst episode:
* The Arsenal of Freedom – in which an automated weapon system causes all manor of problems – is awful, dreary and looks cheap. The subplot of Geordie having to take control of the Enterprise, because everyone else is indisposed, is quite fun.

Red Dwarf: series two (1988)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Written by Rob Grant & Doug Naylor. Directed by Ed Bye. Broadcast on BBC2.

Regulars: The same line-up as series one. Holly’s face is no longer pixellated.

Episode 1: Kryten (6 September 1988): For the first time we meet a character from outside Red Dwarf itself. They crew find an android called Kryten (David Ross), who’s living on a crashed space ship. Although he takes a while to accept the fact, his crew died a very long time ago… A consistently funny episode that hits the ground running. There’s a real confidence on show now. David Ross is good fun as the subservient, earnest Kryten.
Observations: The episode starts with a clip from a futuristic soap opera about robots called Androids. The theme tune is very Neighboursy, while Tony Slattery voices one of the characters. We see the gang’s shuttle, Blue Midget, for the first time.
Best gag: Lister, Rimmer and the Cat travel to Kryten’s ship, thinking it contains three attractive female officers. But when they arrive they learn that the women are just skeletons. Kryten – who’s deluded and thinks the girls are still alive – returns from making some tea, and Rimmer points out that the crew has died. Kryten: “My God, I was only away two minutes.”

Episode 2: Better Than Life (13 September 1988): This entertaining episode has some nice character stuff for Rimmer, who learns that his father has died. He then has to confront his bullying dad in a virtual-reality computer game the gang are playing called Better Than Life… The information about Rimmer’s childhood goes a long way to justifying why he’s such a prat.
Observations: This episode, the show’s eighth, is the first to include scenes set outdoors – albeit in a VR simulation. The production team filmed on a beach, a golf course and surrounding areas. Tony Hawks gets another role and appears on screen this time: he plays a character within the Better Than Life game. A fantasy version of Yvonne McGruder, a crewmember mentioned in series one, is played by Judy Hawkins. Rimmer’s dad is played by John Abineri. Ron Pember appears as a tax collector.
Best gag: Learning that Casablanca has been remade, Lister is outraged. “The one starring Myra Binglebat and Peter Beardsley was definitive!”

Episode 3: Thanks for the Memory (20 September 1988): Feeling sorry for Rimmer’s inadequate life, Lister decides to give him some fake memories of an exciting romance… This is a tremendous little mystery story, effectively told in flashbacks. It’s really funny and there’s no fat on it anywhere. (They never explain how Lister and the Cat wipe their own memories, however!)
Observations: Because he’s a hologram powered by the ship, when we see Rimmer on the surface of a moon he has to stand in a ‘hologramatic projection booth’ – that idea will get dropped! Blue Midget features again.
Best gag: Rimmer’s drunken confession about his only sexual experience: “Yvonne McGruder. A single, brief liaison with the ship’s female boxing champion. March the 16th. 7.31pm to 7.43pm. Twelve minutes. And that includes the time it took to eat the pizza.”

Episode 4: Stasis Leak (27 September 1988): The gang find a wormhole that allows them to travel to March 2077 – ie, three weeks before the accident that killed the crew… A fantastically structured and paced episode that both uses and mocks time-travel clichés. It ends with a surreal scene featuring three Listers, three Rimmers, the Cat and Kochanski.
Observations: The episode starts with a black-and-white flashback to 2077. In this scene – and later on when the regulars time-travel – Captain Hollister returns from series one. Kochanski and Petersen also appear. Morwenna Banks cameos as a lift stewardess. Tony Hawks voices a talking suitcase.
Best gag: The Cat repeating “What is it?” as Lister and Rimmer try to explain the stasis leak.

Episode 5: Queeg (4 October 1988): Holly’s inept management of the ship results in a back-up computer, Queeg 500, taking over. He soon puts Lister, Rimmer and the Cat through gruelling exercise drills and on meagre rations… A nice ‘bottle’ episode with a phenomenal punchline. In fact, the whole thing is a lead-up to the big woofer waiting at the end.
Observations: Charles Augins plays Queeg. It’s specified that it’s been 14 months since Lister came out of stasis. A scene where Rimmer is affected by a virus and repeats other characters’ dialogue gives Chris Barrie a chance to show off his impersonation skills.
Best gag: Holly reveals that he was pretending to be Queeg all along. “We’re talking jape of the decade. We are talking April, May, June, July *and* August fool.”

Episode 6: Parallel Universe (11 October 1988): An okay episode in which the gang travel to an alternative reality and meet other versions of themselves. Lister sleeps with his equivalent and ends up pregnant… It has some good moments, but it’s a bit one-note.
Observations: There’s no title sequence or intro from Holly. Instead we launch right into an elaborate dream sequence of the Cat’s: him, Lister, Rimmer, Holly and some sexy women performing a 1960s-ish LE song-and-dance routine on a gaudily lit stage. (The track, Tongue Tied, was later released as a Red Dwarf-branded single. It reached number 17 in October 1993.) Hattie Hayridge makes her Red Dwarf debut playing Hilly, the computer in the alternate reality. The other corresponding characters are played by Angela Bruce (as Deb Lister), Suzanne Bertish (Arlene Rimmer) and Matthew Devitt (Dog). Bruce and Bertish are very good.
Best gag: The fact that Lister would one day fall pregnant was seeded in series one. Rimmer takes great delight in reminding Lister about it, and is then gleeful when he remembers that childbirth is agony.

Best episode: Thanks For The Memory. Worst episode: Parallel Universe.

Alternative version: As with series one, all of series two was ‘remastered’ for a VHS release in the 1990s. The results were ghastly.

Review: The writers have clearly decided to break their self-imposed rule about the show being contained on the ship. Things are now opened up massively – four episodes feature the characters leaving Red Dwarf, another sees them travel through time – and there’s even some location filming. Holly also gets more to do and his solo spots (a riff on decimalising music, for example) are always really funny. These changes are a huge help. The whole run has more zip, more bite to it, than series one. Lister and Rimmer are still the leads, and Craig Charles and Chris Barrie are again superb – even though behind the scenes the actors weren’t getting on. (As well as a personality clash, Charles was unhappy with the fact Barrie was on more money.) There are no ‘difficult second album’ issues here: this set of episodes is more ambitious, more polished and generally funnier.

Nine triple-fried-egg butties with chili sauce and chutney out of 10

Red Dwarf: series one (1988)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Written by Rob Grant & Doug Naylor. Directed by Ed Bye. Broadcast on BBC2.

Regulars: The line-up in series one of this sci-fi sitcom has a definite hierarchy about it. At the top are two lead characters: Dave Lister (played by Craig Charles) and Arnold J Rimmer (Chris Barrie). At the start of episode one they’re crewmembers on board a space mining ship called Red Dwarf. The officious, arrogant and buffoonish Rimmer is boss to the slobby, lazy and happy-go-lucky Lister. After being caught with an illegal pet cat, Lister is put into suspended animation as punishment so survives a nuclear accident that kills the rest of the crew. Three million years later, Red Dwarf has drifted into deep space. Lister is awoken by the ship’s AI computer, the deadpan and befuddled Holly (a floating head seen on monitors, played by Norman Lovett). Holly then resurrects Rimmer as a lifelike hologram. And they find a strange creature called Cat (Danny John-Jules), who – after three million years of evolution – is descended from Lister’s pet moggy. The series is based on the bickering relationship of Lister and Rimmer. The Cat and Holly are sidekicks who drift in and out of episodes.

Episode 1: The End (15 February 1988): A decent start to the series, which tells the story of the accident that kills most of the ship’s crew. Around two-thirds of it is set before the explosion, in fact. There’s some economic plotting and a few funny lines. Chris Barrie and Craig Charles impress straightaway with a great chemistry. You want to spend time with these people.
Observations: The guest cast include a few characters who – though killed off here – will crop up in later episodes: Mac McDonald as Hollister, the ship’s American captain; Clare Grogan as Kristine Kochanski, a very pretty flight technician who Lister really fancies; and Mark Williams, Paul Bradley and David Gillespie as Lister’s crude pals Petersen, Chen and Selby. An actress called Alexandra Pigg was originally cast as Kochanski, but a strike delayed the filming of this episode and she had to be replaced. Grogan, of course, was the lead singer in Altered Images.
Best gag: Holly’s replies when Lister’s asking what’s happened to the crew: “They’re dead, Dave… Everybody, Dave… Everybody’s dead, Dave… Everybody’s dead, Dave… They’re all dead. Everybody’s dead, Dave… Everybody is dead, Dave… Gordon Bennett, yes, Chen, everybody. Everybody’s dead, Dave… He’s dead, Dave. Everybody is dead. Everybody is dead, Dave.”

Episode 2: Future Echoes (22 February 1988): A very entertaining sci-fi concept that could have come from an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation – the ship passes the speed of light, so time is affected and the crew experience weirdness. It’s still focused on the characterisation of and dialogue between the two leads, though. Very funny.
Observations: From now on, Holly begins each episode with a short précis of the situation then a unique joke. There are flash-forwards to Lister aged 171 and then him as a younger man holding his twin sons, Jim and Bexley (a gag not completed until the end of series two). Comedian Tony Hawks has his first of many roles in the series: voicing a vending machine. It’s also the first appearance of the ship’s sentient toaster (voiced by John Lenahan).
Best gag: The scene where Lister has a conversation with Rimmer that makes no sense at all. Rimmer’s replies bare no relation to what Lister’s saying. Then, after Rimmer walks off, a second Rimmer comes in and says the exact same dialogue as before – but this time it matches Lister’s side of the conversation.

Episode 3: Balance of Power (29 February 1988): Another good one in which Lister takes a chef’s exam in an attempt to outrank Rimmer.
Observations: We finally get an explanation of why Rimmer, of all people, was resurrected by Holly: by giving Lister an antagonist, Holly hopes to keep him sane. There’s a flashback to before the accident that features Petersen, Chen, Selby and Kochanski. Clare Grogan also plays Rimmer, in effect, when he pretends to be Kochanski. Sadly, Grogan’s pretty ropey in the scene. At the end of the episode Lister is promoted above Rimmer.
Best gag: Despite the performance, Rimmer pretending to be Kochanski has some great lines: “I’m having a woman’s period!” he says as a desperate explanation for Kochanski’s strange behaviour.

Episode 4: Waiting For God (7 March 1988): The first poor episode, with a dull, simple storyline. Lister learns about the religion based on him that built up in his absence, then meets a cat priest who’s been living on the ship. The priest is played by a shaky Noel Coleman. The subplot about a pod found in space is much more fun. It’s the series’s first specific pastiche of 1979’s Alien (Rimmer thinks it will contain aliens who will clasp themselves to your face).
Observations: Holly’s introduction tells us that Lister was only lying about his promotion in the previous episode. Talkie Toaster appears again.
Best gag: Rimmer’s zealous conviction that the pod contains aliens. He’s even decided which aliens: “Quagaars! It’s a name I made up. Double A actually!”

Episode 5: Confidence and Paranoia (14 March 1988): It’s a decent idea, but the episode falls a bit flat for some reason. A radiation leak causes some strange happenings, including Lister’s confidence and paranoia being manifested as separate men. Craig Ferguson plays the former; Lee Cornes the latter.
Observations: Rimmer practices his ridiculously elaborate salute for the first time.
Best gag: The punchline that sees two Rimmers on board the ship.

Episode 6: Me2 (21 March 1988): Good stuff. At the end of episode five, Lister was tricked into creating a second hologramatic Rimmer. Now that there are two Arnolds, they choose to move in together. However, they quickly rub each up the wrong way… The humour comes from a) Lister and Rimmer kinda missing each other, and b) the fact that even Rimmer can’t cope when trapped with himself. The split-screen shots of two Rimmers are done well, and Chris Barrie carries a huge amount of the comedy. A superb performance.
Observations: Captain Hollister appears in a flashback set right before the accident. Tony Hawks voices a cinema advert.
Best gag: Rimmer’s self-recorded video tribute to himself. It goes on a bit, so Lister fast-forwards and stops at a random point. Rimmer is saying: “…if you put Napoleon in quarters with Lister, he’d still be in Corsica peeling spuds.” (Also worth mentioning is Holly’s joke about sausages and Norweb.)

Best episode: Future Echoes. Worst episode: Waiting For God.

Alternative version: In the 1990s, this series was ‘remastered’ by writers/producers Rob Grant and Doug Naylor. It was an attempt to do for early Red Dwarf episodes what George Lucas was then trying to do with the Star Wars trilogy – ie, upgrade it and make it seem more modern. The title sequence was replaced with a fast-paced montage, CGI effects were crudely added, some scenes were trimmed, Norman Lovett recorded new material as Holly, the episodes were filmised and the frame was cropped into widescreen… The result was terrible and has thankfully been mostly forgotten.

Review: Compared with what’s to come, this first series certainly feels small-scale. Aside from the lovely model shots of Red Dwarf itself, we never leave the interior of the ship; the cast never leave the TV studios. A remarkably slow and oomph-less title sequence doesn’t help. Neither do some really cheap-looking sets – the ship is mostly grey and boring and drab and bargain-bin. It’s not slick television. Fortunately, the comedy (the important bit) is tremendous. For example, Chris Barrie *shines*. He’s on the money right from the word go, instantly hilarious and committed to the role. Rimmer is a monster with many, many unlikable traits… Yet you miss him when he’s not on screen and actually feel sympathy for him. Craig Charles is a lot looser as Lister, but charismatic and with a genuine likeability. The series is built on scenes of these two bickering and it’s never boring. We even ignore the fudging that sees two men who despise each other choose to share a bunkroom. Away from the big two, the Cat breezes in and out of scenes, mostly unconcerned with the episode’s events, while Holly doesn’t feature too much. All four characters are very funny, which makes the occasionally muted laughter from the studio audience difficult to fathom. Some good gags actually go unnoticed.

Seven complete and total tits out of 10

Blackadder’s Christmas Carol (1988, Richard Boden)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Cast: Rowan Atkinson plays Ebenezer Blackadder, a gentle, polite and generous Victorian shopkeeper. In the visions shown to Ebenezer by the ghost, Atkinson also plays Lord Blackadder from series two, Mr Blackadder from series three, and two potential Blackadders in a distant sci-fi future. Tony Robinson plays five iterations of Baldrick: the new Victorian version, the servants from Blackadder II and Blackadder the Third, and two possible Baldricks in the far future. Miriam Margolyes and Jim Broadbent reprise their double-act from series one, this time playing Queen Victoria and a dippy Prince Albert. A succession of people turn up in Blackadder’s moustache shop and con or guilt-trip money and presents from him: one of them, his goddaughter Millicent, is played by Nicola Bryant; another by Dennis Lill. Robbie Coltrane plays the Spirit of Christmas. In the scenes set in the time of Blackadder II, Miranda Richardson, Patsy Byrne and Stephen Fry reprise their former roles. Hugh Laurie puts his Prince George costume back on for the Blackadder the Third scene. And in the future stuff, Richardson, Byrne, Fry and Laurie all play new characters. (Laurie also provides the opening narration.)

Best gags:

Blackadder’s Christmas Carol (23 December 1988). Kind businessman Ebenezer Blackadder faces a sparse Christmas because he’s always giving to the poor and needy (and blatantly wanty). But then he’s visited by a ghost who shows him Blackadders past and future, so Ebenezer starts to question why he’s being good…
* We hear Blackadder approaching. “Humbug! Humbug!” He then walks into his shop with a bag of sweets. “Humbug, Mr Baldrick?”
* Baldrick has written a Christmas card, but spelt ‘Christmas’ so badly he hasn’t used a single correct letter.
* When told that the local workhouse’s nativity play lost its baby Jesus, Blackadder philosophically says, “This high infant-mortality rate’s a real devil when it comes to staging quality children’s theatre.”
* Prince Albert keeps getting excited and giving away secrets and surprises – each instance is followed by an annoyed, “Daaaamn!”
* Charity-conscious Blackadder says to Baldrick, “In the feeling-good ledger of life, we are rich indeed!” Baldrick replies, “I just wish were weren’t doing so well in the bit-short-of-pressies-and-feeling-a-gullible-prat ledger.”
* Blackadder, not unkindly, tells Tiny Tom’s mother that if he eats any more he’ll turn into a pie shop.
* “Looked like a fat git to me,” says Baldrick of a man who’s just come round and swiped their stash of nuts. “Strip away the outer layers of a fat git,” says Blackadder, “and inside you’ll find–” “A thin git.”
* Prince Albert wonders if Blackadder can give a gift for the poor: “What about a goose?” he says, and Victoria giggles.
* “I am from Glars-go!”
* The ghost says he’s just visited a man so miserly he cuts down on heating bills by using his John Thomas as a draft excluder.
* In Elizabethan London, Baldrick gives Lord Blackadder a Christmas present then asks if he’s getting one. “Oh, it’s nothing really,” says Blackadder. “No, really, it’s nothing. I haven’t got you anything.”
* “I can’t see any subtle plan.” “Baldrick, you wouldn’t see a subtle plan if it painted itself purple and danced naked on a harpsichord singing, ‘Subtle plans are here again.’”
* When Lord Blackadder sarcastically suggests Melchett would want to whip him in the streets of Aberdeen, Melchett laughs: “I don’t think we need go that far, Blackadder. Aylesbury’s quite far enough.”
* The Regent, Prince George, asks: “What can I do with a girl that I can’t do without you?” Blackadder: “I cannot conceive, sir.”
* Baldrick’s go at charades. “It’s a book,” says Blackadder. “Well done, Mr B! I didn’t think you’d get it that quickly.”
* “Two silly bulls?”
* Prince George wants to hear a Christmas story, as long as it’s not that one about the chap who’s born on Christmas Day, shoots his mouth off about everything under the sun and then comes a cropper with a couple of rum coves on top of a hill in Johnny-Arab-land.
* The future stuff – a la bad Blake’s 7 with tones of terrifically painful dialogue.
* Baldrick – and then Blackadder – in a posing pouch.
* Now turned cruel, Ebenezer tells Baldrick he’s found a present in his stocking: a fist.
* “If we were little pigs, we’d sing piggy-wiggy-wiggy-wiggy-woo!”
* Blackadder says Millicent’s head is emptier than a hermit’s address book.
* “We are Queen Victoria!” “What, all three of you?”
* Blackadder suggests Victoria is the winner of the Round Britain Shortest, Fattest, Dumpiest Woman Competition.
* Blackadder tucks into his turkey then passes Baldrick a wishbone. “What do you wish?” he asks. Baldrick: “I wish there was some meat on this.”

Cunning: None!

History: Charles Dickens’s novella A Christmas Carol – formally called A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost-Story of Christmas – was published in 1843. Queen Victoria (1819-1901) and her consort, Prince Albert (1819-1861), are in the main storyline; Admiral Lord Nelson (1758-1805) is played by Philip Pope in the Regency scene.

Review: A one-off Christmas special based on the notion of a friendly Blackadder who’s shown that being bad can have its rewards. The show unites regulars from the previous two batches of episodes – the first series is pointedly ignored! – as well as some notable guest stars. Great fun.

Nine foul Marmidons out of 10