Star Trek: Voyager – season four (1997/98)

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

Best episode:
* Nemesis. Commander Chakotay (Robert Beltran) is stranded on a warring planet and is forced to join up with one side’s guerrilla soldiers. The culture is pleasingly odd, in the way that sci-fi can do so well when it puts some thought into it. The guest characters, for example, have an ornate vocabulary (‘glimpses’ rather than ‘sees’, ‘fathom’ rather than ‘understand’), which is not only interesting in itself but also plays a storytelling role: the more Chakotay empathises with them, the more he starts to talk like his new colleagues. Then comes an effective twist, which pulls the camping mat from under what we’d previous thought. It’s an examination of war, propaganda and the psychology of hate, enriched by visual references to movies Predator, Platoon and the Manchurian Candidate.

Notable episodes:
* Scorpion Part II. A decent opener to the season, picking up from the Borg-centric cliffhanger at the end of season three. Captain Kathryn Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) has daringly proposed an alliance with the Borg, which means her working with their appointed representative: a female drone called Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan). The latter is being introduced as a new regular character and right from the off she’s an intriguing addition – an outsider, a true rebel (rather than the neutered Maquis characters), and someone who will shake up Voyager’s too-cosy world
. In fact, just generally, season four feels like there’s been a big injection of drama. In this episode, for instance, there’s an all-too-rare falling-out between Janeway and her second in command, Chakotay.
* The Gift. Seven of Nine is the focus as she’s largely de-Borged and Janeway tries to undo her brainwashing. Meanwhile, the character who Seven is replacing in the title sequence – the underused alien Kes (Jennifer Lien) – is written out in a rather wishy-washy, sci-fi way. In the final scene, we then see Seven of Nine in her new non-Borg costume: a slinky, undeniably sexy catsuit that is patently a shameless attempt to pander to fanboys.
* Day of Honor. It initially feints at being a boring story about the Klingon heritage of chief engineer B’Elanna Torres (Roxann Dawson), but we then get an engaging plot about Seven continuing integration into the crew.
* The Raven. Another episode about Seven’s deeply hidden humanity reasserting itself in interesting ways.
* Scientific Method. Another entertaining episode. Invisible, undetectable aliens invade the ship and perform imperceptible experiments on the crew. It’s artfully directed stuff, with good roles in the story for Seven (the one person who rumbles the invaders), Janeway (who is pushed to the limit emotionally by the ordeal), and helmsman Tom Paris (Robert Duncan McNeil) and Torres (Roxanne Dawson), who have by now started a relationship.
* Year of Hell Parts I & II. The plot is timey-wimey nonsense – an alien who has a weapon that can alter history targets the Voyager – and, maddeningly, the reset button is wheeled out at the end of the 90 minutes. But for most of its run time this is a terrific, action-packed two-parter. Taking place over several months, the story sees the ship badly damaged, friends killed, colleagues put at odds… This kind of stuff is what the whole show should have been, frankly – a desperate, dramatic journey through space with genuine costs and consequences. Year of Hell makes most of Voyager seem so tepid.
* Message in a Bottle. Not the best, but at least the Doctor (Robert Picardo) gets a fun solo mission as he’s transported a vast distance across space and ends up trapped on an Romulan-occupied ship in the Alpha Quadrant. The episode is part of a loose story arc that runs through season four about the crew finally making contact with Starfleet. The final scene is a touchingly understated moment as Janeway learns that the Doctor was able to get a message back home.
* The Killing Game Part I & II. Due to a tedious plot contrivance, most of the regular characters end up in a holodeck simulation of Second World War France…. and they believe themselves to be resistance fighters repelling the Nazis. All very Secret Army. Heavy-handed but the cast are having fun with their ersatz roles. There’s also an in-joke going on. Roxann Dawson (Torres) was pregnant in real life. While they have to keep hiding the fact in B’Elanna scenes, her holodeck character is visibly with child.
* Unforgettable. An alien shows up and claims she once spent several days with the crew – and fell in love with Chakotay – but because of a quirk of her race, they’ve all now forgotten her. Film star Virginia Madsen (Dune, Candyman) guest stars.
* One. The whole crew aside from Seven of Nine and the Doctor must go into suspended animation for a few weeks while the ship passes through a dangerous nebulae. How Seven deals with the situation – and especially how the isolation affects her psychologically – works well.
* Hope and Fear. The possibility of a quick way home is dangled in front of the crew, but not all is as it seems. A fun culmination of this season’s themes, as not only is there progress in the journey to reach the Alpha Quadrant, but Seven of Nine again has a central role to play in the drama. She’s very quickly become the de facto second lead after Janeway – and the show’s most interesting character.

Worst episode:
* Waking Moments. Dream-based episodes can be tricky beasts; it’s difficult to feel the tension when you know events aren’t ‘real’. Do it well – A Nightmare on Elm Street, certain episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer – and you’re winning. This, however, falls into a cliched round of ‘I’m still asleep!’ plot twists as various crew members suffer from the same vivid nightmares. There’s also another iteration of Chakotay’s boring dream-quest motif and everything is played and staged so earnestly.

Next time: Season five

Star Trek: Voyager – season three (1996/97)

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

Best episode:
* Before and After. In the midst of a fairly pedestrian season comes this really wonderful episode, which has one of those timey-wimey plots Star Trek can do so well. As the story starts, we’re several years into the future and Voyager nurse Kes (Jennifer Lien) is now an elderly woman. We then follow her as her consciousness jumps back in time every so often, so we see her at earlier and earlier ages but she only retains memories of her future experiences. But this is not just a sci-fi gimmick. Along the way, as Kes grows younger, she develops as a character and there are effective themes concerning memory, grief, senility, trust and loss. Superb stuff. (Aptly and bizarrely, the episode itself also seems to have knowledge of what’s to come: the structure is not a million light years away from the 2000 film Memento, while there are foreshadows of events we’ll see in Voyager’s next season.)

Honorable mentions:
* Flashback. Produced to honour Star Trek’s 30th anniversary, and featuring classic-series character Sulu (George Takei), this is muddled, dull and has a plot constructed from various bits of nonsense. It even has a ‘Who knows?’ final scene because the script can’t begin to justify what’s happened. It’s mentioned here solely so we confirm that the equivalent episode made at the same time by sister show Deep Space Nine – a playful and postmodern time-travelling romp called Trials and Tribble-ations – is *far* superior.
* Chute. A not-bad one that sees Ensign Harry Kim (Garrett Wang) and helmsman Tom Paris (Robert Duncan McNeill) trapped in an alien prison. It benefits from starting with them locked up, so we jump straight into the story, but it’s a shame the show’s episodic format means they can’t be locked up for that long. Where’s the bravery to say, ‘Six months later…’?
* False Profits. As the punning title suggests, this episode sees a pair of Ferengi, money-obsessed aliens often seen in other Trek shows, crop up. They’re posing as gods on one of those Star Trek planets populated by naïve locals. It’s not the best episode but it does point the way forward: familiar Star Trek continuity from the Alpha Quadrant is starting to encroach on Voyager’s isolationism now.
* Future’s End Part I & Part II. Essentially Voyager’s take on the 1986 Star Trek film The Voyage Home, this sees our characters flung back into Earth’s past – ie, what was the present day to contemporary viewers (1996). There’s a convoluted setup, but no matter: this two-parter is not asking to be taken too seriously. The script has a sense of humour, the cast are enjoying playing their characters as fish out of water, and guest stars Ed Begley Jnr (the villain) and Sarah Silverman (a 1990s woman who helps the crew) are good value. Enjoyably daft.
* Warlord. A member of the Voyager family is possessed by a despotic leader who promptly uses their body to escape the ship. The fact the character used for this plot is the sweet and hippie-ish Kes gives this hokey episode a fun incongruous feel.
* Fair Trade. An effective one about Voyager’s alien chef, Neelix (Ethan Phillips), whose loyalties tested by an old friend involved in some dodgy business deals.
* Blood Fever. A tedious and very possibly sexist episode about chief engineer Lieutentant B’Elanna Torres (Roxann Dawson) being affected by a chemical imbalance and becoming sex-mad. But it’s worth flagging up here because of its brief, rushed ending: Captain Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) and Commander Chakotay (Robert Beltran) find the body of a Borg in some undergrowth. It was inevitable this would happen at some point in the series, given that the characters are stranded in the Borg’s area of space (and that the Borg – totalitarian, cyber-enhanced drones – had recently been given a boost of publicity thanks to being the bad guys in Star Trek movie First Contact).
* Unity. The Borg enter the story in an odd communism metaphor that sees a group of survivors unwilling to give up the order and security being part of a monolithic society had provided them. Chakotay has sympathy, largely because the group’s leader is blonde and pretty.
* Rise. A schlocky but enjoyable episode with one of those sci-fi gimmicks (an enormous elevator, basically) that works as both a setting for an action plot and as a metaphor for our characters’ predicament. Neelix and Lieutenant Commander Tuvok (Tim Russ) get lots of attention, the story feels like a disaster movie at times, and the guest alien race are refreshingly free of pomposity.
* Distant Origin. It gets lumpy in its second half, when the drama becomes very obvious, but this an entertaining one overall. For the opening few scenes, it breaks Star Trek’s usual rule by presenting the story from the point of view of guest characters: reptilian aliens who evolved on Earth in the distant past before heading out into space. (Doctor Who fans will clock this notion’s similarity to one of that show’s recurring races, the Silurians.) The story is a pastiche of the resistance faced by men like Galileo when attempting to advance our knowledge of the universe, and the script has plenty to say on the topic of science versus dogma.
* Worst Case Scenario. Torres stumbles across a virtual-reality game that’s essentially an episode of Star Trek: Voyager, and various characters take turns to play its lead character. So we see lots of version of the same narrative. As it goes, a humdrum idea. But because the roleplaying game is set during a theoretical mutiny aboard the ship, the show is able to rekindle the long-forgotten tension that existed for about 30 seconds in the pilot episode. (Half the crew are resistance fighters who were sworn enemies of the Federation! Remember?!) There are also some smart comments made about storytelling devices and even inside jokes about Star Trek: Voyager clichés.

Worst episode:
Sacred Ground. Kes in injured on an alien planet, so Janeway has to spend an entire episode humouring some smug religious types who refuse to help an innocent woman. Woeful.

Next time: Season four

Crime Traveller (1997)

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Spoiler warning! Minor plot twists might be revealed.

On Saturday 1 March 1997, a new drama series began on BBC1. Crime Traveller was created and written by Anthony Horowitz, who’d been struck by the notion of using time travel in a detective-show format while writing for ITV series Agatha Christie’s Poirot. It immediately won a place in my heart…

In March 1997, I was nearing the end of my A levels. The pressure of studying, revising, applying for universities, and working weekends at a supermarket was building up. My life, for the first time, was genuinely busy and intense. But for eight weeks I had a little treat each Saturday night. I’d get home at 9pm after an eight-hour shift on the checkouts or pushing trolleys around. I’d have some food and open a beer. And I’d watch Crime Traveller, which I’d videoed earlier that evening. It was a joy: a light-hearted, likeable detective show with a sci-fi twist. I was hooked.

I didn’t see it again for a few years, not until the DVD release. I bought the first four episodes on DVD at the Virgin Megastore in Camden on 26 March 2003. I know that because I still have the receipt in the slipcase. Sadly I didn’t keep the record of when I bought the second half of the series, but it wasn’t too long after its DVD release in May 2003. Since then I’ve gone back to Crime Traveller again and again, rewatching it about once a year or so. It’s often been a friend in dark times: an instant cheerer-upper.

I’ve also had a couple of encounters with the show in real life. On 27 August 2009, having figured out where it was from viewing the episodes, I went to have a look at the building used in Crime Traveller as Holly Turner’s flat. When I got there, the front door was wedged open to allow some workmen to come in and out. So I chanced my arm and had a look inside the lobby, which was instantly recognisable from Crime Traveller (even if Danny’s partitioned-off office had gone – maybe it was only installed for the filming). Then, on 27 September 2014, I went to a sci-fi signing event in Barking because one of the guests that day was Crime Traveller star Chloe Annett. She kindly signed my DVD cover – well, I did pay her £10 to do it – and then listened patiently as I told her what the show meant to me.

So, to celebrate its 20th anniversary, here’s a look at this TV series that means so much to me…

Crime Traveller is a cop show with a difference: the two lead characters, Jeff and Holly, have a time machine, which they use to go back in time and solve crimes as they’re happening. The episodes are therefore structured ‘answers first/questions second’. We usually see the chaotic consequences of a murder, then the fun comes when Jeff and Holly travel back in time and we find out what really happened. It’s also a series set in a world you don’t see on TV any more: similar to real life, but with theatrical embellishments. It’s a Britain where a police detective can barely read; where solicitors blab about the contents of wills before the body is cold; where both the police and the press declare people guilty months before a trial; where widows make jokes about pottery on the day their husband’s been killed. The locations and settings are often arch and dramatic too. Bank managers have cavernous, Ken Adam-like offices. People live in Art Deco houses. Hospitals look like art galleries.

Detective Inspector Jeff Slade (Michael French) is a charming but reckless maverick who doesn’t mind bending the rules if it gets results. He also used to be married but she died a long time ago. At the start of the series, he grows close to colleague Holly Turner, who has a time machine, and they use it to solve crimes. In one episode she gets the hump when she thinks he’s slept with another woman, and in a later story he’s jealous of her ex being back on the scene, but their relationship is mostly platonic.

Holly Turner (Chloe Annett) is a clever and likeable police science officer. She has a time machine that was built by her father, Frederick, who has since gone missing. The machine sends you back (never forwards) an unpredictable amount of time, usually a few hours. You can’t actually change the past – you were always there, as it were – and it would be disastrous if you ever met yourself. You also have to be back at the machine at precisely the time you left, otherwise you’d be caught in a loop of infinity (ie, you’d go round and round the same few hours forever). This presents a *whopper* of a plot hole, which the series wisely ignores: why do the two versions of the characters never see each other at the machine? Every time Holly and Jeff are about to use it, future versions of themselves should come running in, surely?

Detective Chief Inspector Kate Grisham (Sue Johnston) is the grumpy, M-like boss of the team who is often frustrated by her detectives… until Jeff and Holly miraculously solve the case. She has football knickknacks on her desk, and in one episode we learn she’s married. She also has two other subordinates: Detective Sergeant Morris (Paul Trussell), 28, seems to be one truncheon short of a constabulary (we never learn his first name), while Detective Constable Nicky Robson (Richard Dempsey), 23, is a graduate trainee who’s very clever and friendly.

Rounding out the regular cast are: Danny (Bob Goody), the good-natured caretaker at Holly’s block of flats, who appears in all but one episode, and Frank (Jack Chissick), a duty officer at the police station, who appears in episodes 2, 4, 5, 7 and 8.

Created and written by Anthony Horowitz. Produced by Brian Eastman. Directed by Brian Farnham (episodes 1, 3, 6 & 7) and Rick Stroud (episodes 2, 4, 5 & 8).

EPISODE ONE

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Broadcast: 20.10-21.00, Saturday 1 March 1997, BBC1.
Radio Times synopsis: “Detective Jeff Slade is at risk of losing his job until a colleague, Holly Turner, tells him about her secret time machine.”
Notable guest cast: This week’s murder victim, an arrogant aviation magnate called Guy Lombard, is played by Terrence Hardiman (aka the Demon Headmaster).
Time travels: #1 – Holly first uses her time machine at 12.05pm and goes back three hours. Earlier in the episode, through Jeff’s eyes, we saw her at a train station. Now we see the same events from Holly’s point of view. #2 – Holly and Jeff travel at 6.25pm and go back 10 hours. It’s Jeff’s first ever trip in time.
Observations:
* The first shot of the episode is a close-up of a clock (it’s 10am); the final scene is in a restaurant that has a clock face projected onto a wall (it’s 8.10pm). A visual motif of time and clocks recurs throughout the series, obviously.
* On a wall of Holly’s living room is a poster for On a marché sur la Lune (aka Explorers on the Moon, 1952-1953), the 17th book in the Tintin series. Crime Traveller creator Anthony Horowitz is a huge Tintin fan and has visited every location used in one of the stories (except the moon, obviously). In 2011 he was hired to write the sequel to Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn. By 2016, however, his script had been scrapped and the film is still unmade.
* Holly’s flat is said to be in a block of flats called Sundown Court. In real life, it’s on St Mary’s Terrace in west London. The same block – though a different entrance – was used as Maddy Magellan’s home in the first series of Jonathan Creek, which was broadcast on BBC1 later in 1997.
* Other filming locations in this episode include: Reading train station, used for the opening sequence; Café Laville at 453 Edgware Road, London, a café with a view of Regent’s Canal (for plot reasons, it’s renamed Giovanni’s); Randolph Avenue, London, where Jeff and Holly find the catering van; and a bookies just off Randolph Avenue.

EPISODE TWO

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Broadcast: 20.10-21.00, Saturday 8 March 1997, BBC1.
Radio Times synopsis: “Slade and Holly travel back in time to investigate the murder of Holly’s aunt, who was apparently poisoned in a restaurant.”
Notable guest cast: Holly’s aunt Mary Chandler is played by Mary Tamm. Pip Torrens is one of the suspects.
Time travel: At 8.05pm, Holly and Jeff attempt to travel through time, but the machine blows a fuse and the building’s electricity goes off. Some people are trapped in a lift – eagle-eared viewers will recognise the cries for help as Grisham. Once the power’s back on, Holly and Jeff try again and travel back to 11.45 that morning.
Observations:
* This episode is the first to have time-travelling Holly and Jeff interact with other regulars. Therefore, the story has to be structured in such a way that the original timeline’s Jeff and Holly are out of the way. Having been removed from the case – because Holly knew the victim – they go to see Mary’s solicitor, but we never learn how they spend the afternoon before time-travelling.
* The episode is set in early August (even though a scene at 8pm is after dark).
* We meet a new recurring character for the first time: a friendly duty officer at the police station called Frank.
* We see a screen showing Holly’s bank details. Her account number is AGH-345-0054, her sort code is 90-43-68, and she’s £1,669.90 overdrawn thanks to buying lots of electrical equipment.
* The building used as the location for the solicitors’ offices was Marco Polo House, 346 Queenstown Road, near Battersby Park in London. Built in the late 1980s, it was a glass-and-marble office building, sadly now demolished. The 1993 Red Dwarf episode Legion also filmed there.
* There are lots of clocks throughout the episode, in almost every scene in fact. Some are highlighted by characters or camerawork, others are just background details, but you could – if you wish – track the timings of each scene.

EPISODE THREE

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Broadcast: 20.10-21.00, Saturday 15 March 1997, BBC1.
Radio Times synopsis: “Slade and Holly go undercover in the world of fashion after a high profile designer receives a series of death threats.”
Notable guest cast: IMDB and other websites list American actor Alexis Denisof (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Avengers Assemble) as being in this episode. However, he’s not mentioned in the end credits and – as far as I can see – doesn’t appear on screen.
Time travel: Holly and Jeff travel back 20 hours, arriving at 8pm the previous evening.
Observations:
* Holly is forced by her boss to go undercover as a seamstress, despite not being a detective and not being able to sew. (Everyday sexism!)
* In one of the show’s sillier moments, Grisham gathers all her police officers together to give them a detailed briefing. She tells regular characters Slade, Turner, Morris and Robson what they should do, but everyone else gets a vague wafting of a pointy stick at a map as Grisham says, “And the rest of you, as agreed.”
* Fashion designer Sonja’s house is, in reality, the Art Deco masterpiece St Ann’s Court in Chertsey, Surrey. It was designed by Sir Raymond McGrath in 1936 and is currently valued at around £9 million. The house contains a recording studio used by Roxy Music and Paul Weller, while several other film and TV crews have used it, such as Agatha Christie’s Poirot.
* Holly and Jeff discuss their previous time-travels. Holly moans that she’s been imprisoned (referring to episode two), chased by lunatics, been involved in two cars smashes, and been attacked with a knife. Jeff replies that she’s also solved two murders, a blackmail racket and an art fraud. The mention of the art fraud suggests that this episode was originally planned to come after episode four.
* The Tintin poster has gone missing from Holly’s flat.
* We see Jeff’s flat for the first time: he bought it from a murderer he sent to prison, but then couldn’t afford much furniture. He serves Holly her meal on a ping-pong table.
* Jeff mentions his father, who used to be a copper but is now retired. This reference means that if this episode has been moved in the running order, it can’t have originally gone after episode five.
* Danny the caretaker misses an episode for the only time.

EPISODE FOUR

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Broadcast: 20.10-21.00, Saturday 22 March 1997, BBC1.
Radio Times synopsis: “Holly travels back in time in an attempt to save Slade’s life.”
Notable guest cast: Two hostage-victim extras are played by Anthony Horowitz’s sons Nicholas and Cassian.
Time travel: When Holly sees a news report about Jeff being shot, she uses her machine to find out what happened. She goes back 11 hours and 14 minutes to 8am. For the next chunk of the episode, time-travelling Holly interacts with the past version of Jeff.
Observations:
* This is the only episode where Jeff doesn’t travel in time.
* The Tintin poster has returned to Holly’s living-room wall.
* The murder victim’s next-door neighbour is a man called Kelly, who’s clearly a fan of British comedy. He lives with cats called Kenneth and Hattie (ie, Williams and Jacques) and has posters on his wall for The Ladykillers (1955) and Carry On Doctor (1967).
* Holly and Jeff have a coffee in the same canal-side café we saw in episode one. They even sit at the same table. However, this time there’s no fictional rebranding: a waitress’s apron has the establishment’s real name on it.
* The location used for the art gallery and the jewellers next door is Woburn Place in Bloomsbury.
* Jewel thief Crowley’s flat, meanwhile, was filmed at the Alexandra Road Estate in north London. The area’s Brutalist architecture has also been seen in The Sweeney, Spooks, Prime Suspect, New Tricks, 28 Weeks Later (2007) and Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014). Incidentally, the production design of the flat’s interior is slightly odd. Hardened criminal Crowley has rows of pretty postcards on every wall and sofa cushions in the shapes of the mid-90s BBC1 and BBC2 logos.

EPISODE FIVE

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Broadcast: 20.05-21.00, Saturday 29 March 1997, BBC1.
Radio Times synopsis: “Slade is determined to find out if his convicted father (played by The Bill’s Chris Ellison) is innocent, when he too is accused of a robbery he did not commit.”
Notable guest cast: There are three notable guest actors: Christopher Ellison (The Bill) as Jeff’s jailbird father, Jack; Ray Lonnen (The Sandbaggers, Harry’s Game, Rich Tea and Sympathy) as police divisional head Gareth Oldroyd; and Stephen Grief (Blake’s 7) as Lenny Gebler, a fence who’s made a name for himself north of Watford.
Time travel: When it becomes clear that Jeff is being framed for the theft of some diamonds, he and Holly use the time machine. They need to go back more than a day, to before the case began, but Holly says they can’t predict how much time the machine will give them. She suggests they cross their fingers, which works: they go back 24 hours to 1.30pm the previous day.
Observations:
* After her moonlighting as an undercover agent in episode three, this time lab-rat Holly is seconded as a diamonds expert. “Gemology isn’t really my field,” she says.
* No one dies in this episode. The only other time that happens is episode seven.
* We’re initially told that Gebler’s meeting with some diamond sellers will be at 9pm. Grisham even asks her squad to assemble at 8pm so they can prepare to swoop in. However, the swoop itself takes place in broad daylight, as do various scenes set later the same day. Then, after Jeff and Holly have time-travelled, we’re told the arrest happened at 2.10pm.
* The combination to the safe in Grisham’s office is 36-17-25.
* Five years ago, Jeff’s policeman father was sent to prison for nine years. Jack Slade was in charge of a bank-raid case with Oldroyd, but half of the £200,000 loot went missing. Slade was framed for the theft by Oldroyd. Now, he breaks out of prison to help his son. His conviction quashed – and presumably his escape ignored – he then comes round to Holly’s flat for dinner, where he tells her and Jeff that in prison he found Holly’s father’s book about time-travel. He might read it one day.
* While time-travelling, Jeff sees his earlier self at the police station. There’s thankfully no temporal schism, as Holly warned about in episode one.
* The prison governor’s office has ‘Tempus fugit’ printed on the floor. Taking the mick, that, isn’t it?

EPISODE SIX

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Broadcast: 20.10-21.00, Saturday 5 April 1997, BBC1.
Radio Times synopsis: “Holly questions Slade’s increasing dependency on the time machine, while Grisham becomes suspicious of his crime-solving success rate.”
Notable guest cast: The murder victim, former government minister Sir Iain Hawkins, is played by David Neal. He was the president in classic Doctor Who serial The Caves of Androzani.
Time travels: #1 – Holly and Jeff are time-travelling as the episode begins. They’ve popped back to spy on a gang of bank robbers planning a heist. #2 – Later, when Jeff wants to use the machine to solve this week’s murder case, Holly says no. They’ve been using it too much, causing damage to its expensive workings. However, Jeff learns that Holly won’t be at home that evening – so he goes round at 6pm and uses the machine solo. He travels back 10 hours and seven minutes. Therefore, we get a reversal of episode four: now it’s Jeff who’s travelled back without Holly’s knowledge. As in that earlier story, there are then scenes where one of them doesn’t know the other is from the future.
Observations:
* Grisham wonders why Slade’s been solving cases like never before for the “last few months”, so we’re some way on from the first episode.
* This is the third episode in which we’re told (or shown) that a man was fleeing the crime scene…. only for us to later learn it was a time-travelling Slade.
* One of the murder suspects is Lawrence Kirby, a man who runs a business that converts old telephones boxes into shower cubicles, flowerboxes or general garden ornaments. The firm is called The Big Box Company and its building is surrounded by classic British red phone boxes. There’s also a blue police box… When Slade sees it, it gives him the idea to time-travel. The incidental music even quotes the Doctor Who theme tune.
* While trying to work out how Slade is so successful these days, Morris actually sees both Jeffs at the same time – the original timeline’s and the time-travelling one.
* At the end of the episode, Holly is angry with Jeff and says he can’t use the machine any more.

EPISODE SEVEN

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Broadcast: 20.10-21.00, Saturday 12 April 1997, BBC1.
Radio Times synopsis: “Slade develops a complex plan in order to win the lottery, but reckons without Holly’s elusiveness.”
Notable guest cast: Space 1999’s Zienia Merton has a small role as a receptionist.
Time travel: This is the only episode were Holly never travels in time. Jeff convinces her to let him go alone – his plan is to go into the past and win the Lottery. He journeys at 8.20pm and ends up at 7.26 that morning. Uniquely, time-travel is not being used to solve this episode’s crime. It’s a comedy subplot.
Observations:
* At the beginning of the episode, Jeff gives Holly some flowers as an apology for using the machine without permission in episode six.
* Holly’s flat is number 67.
* Jeff tells Holly that he’s “solved five cases thanks to you” – another hint that the episodes’ running order was shuffled before transmission.
* Jeff travels in time specifically to play the Lottery, having already learnt the result. The winning numbers are 8, 12, 11, 22, 6 and 1. However, after Jeff writes them down and asks Robson to buy him a ticket, Robson reads them upside down. Jeff, therefore, only gets four right (8, 11, 22 and 1); Robson inadvertently replaces 12 and 6 with 21 and 9. Jeff wins just £186.
* Holly has a second Tintin poster on her living room wall. Above the desk is a print of L’Oreille cassee (aka The Broken Ear, 1935-37), the sixth book in the series.
* Filming took place at Brixton Market.
* The scene of Jeff, Morris and Robson tailing a suspect was filmed in and around Sherief’s Snack Bar, a café on the corner of Sandwich Street and Hastings Street in central London. The café is now called Sandwich Street Kitchen.
* Darkness falls well before 7.30pm, so presumably this episode is set in winter.
* Morris tells us that his regular Lottery numbers are 7 (his birthday), 28 (his age), 10 (the number of his flat), 31 (his Scout number), 33 (his girlfriend’s age) and 40 (his lucky number).

EPISODE EIGHT

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Broadcast: 20.10-21.00, Saturday 19 April 1997, BBC1.
Radio Times synopsis: “Slade and Holly are confronted with the possibility that theirs may not be the only time machine in the world.”
Notable guest cast: Angela Pleasence has a small role as a landlady. The main guest star is Christopher Villiers, later a regular in Emmerdale.
Time travels: #1 – Having seen a man run over and killed outside Holly’s flat, Holly and Jeff attempt to travel back to see who was in the car. However, the unpredictable machine only gives them three minutes, which isn’t enough time. #2 – Later in the episode, Jeff uses a time machine built by guest character Stephen Marlowe to travel back two hours (a span he can specify) so he can spy on Marlowe.
Observations:
* Holly takes Jeff to the cinema to see Les Enfants du Paradis. Released in 1945, and directed by Marcel Carné, it was once voted the best film of all time by French critics. Holly enthusiastically says it’s timeless; Jeff replies that it felt endless (the film is 190 minutes long). The scene was shot outside the Renoir Cinema (now the Curzon Bloomsbury), The Brunswick, Bloomsbury, London.
* The murder victim, Professor Hayward, has a bedroom littered with dozens of clocks.
* The episode has a distinct film-noir feel about it – lots of night shoots, lots of smoke and shadows.

ADDENDUM: After I’d published and promoted this blog post, Anthony Horowitz sent me this tweet.

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Jackie Brown (1997, Quentin Tarantino)

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Spoiler alert: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Flight attendant Jackie Brown sees an opportunity to steal half a million dollars from a gunrunner…

What does QT do? The script is an adaption of the Elmore Leonard novel Rum Punch (1992). When writing his version, Quentin Tarantino changed the lead character from a white woman called Jackie Burke to a black woman called Jackie Brown, essentially so he could cast one of his idols, Pam Grier. (The new surname is an allusion to Grier’s 1974 film Foxy Brown.) He also moved the story’s setting from Miami to LA and cut out a subplot about neo-Nazis. Director Quentin decided against casting himself this time, other than providing the voice for an answerphone machine.

Notable characters:
* Jackie Brown (Pam Grier) is a 44-year-old air stewardess who works for a shitty airline so supplements her $16,000 salary by smuggling cash into the country for a gunrunner… It’s a really smart piece of casting, this. Not only because of the associations with the actress’s previous characters – Jackie could be an older version of Coffy or Foxy Brown – but also because Grier is *stunning*. It’s the best acting performance in any Quentin Tarantino film: truthful, charismatic and full of pathos. Jackie is a strong, proud and smart woman who’s been beaten down too many times, and this is the story of her fighting back. She drives the narrative, playing Ordell and the cops off against each other, and comes out on top. She also has a beautifully understated romance with Max Cherry.
* Ordell Robbie (Samuel L Jackson) is a flamboyant and loquacious man who buys and sells guns. He wears Kangol hats and has a small braided beard. Early on in the story, he kills someone rather than let him talk to the cops. He’s then manipulated by Jackie, who cons him into thinking she’s on his side.
* Louis Gara (Robert De Niro) is Ordell’s pal, who’s just got out of prison for bank robbery. He’s a man of few words, but takes part in a fascinating subplot with…
* Melanie Ralston (Bridget Fonda) is a hippy-chick girlfriend of Ordell’s whose main ambition in life is to get high and watch TV. During the film, however, she realises she has a chance to steal Ordell’s cash and asks Louis to help her.
* Max Cherry (Robert Forster) is a 56-year-old bail bondsman, who’s getting bored of his job. When he’s hired to bail Jackie out of jail, he’s quickly attracted to her. It’s a likeable, soulful performance of seen-it-all-before weariness, for which Forster rightly got an Oscar nomination.
* Beaumont Livingston (Chris Tucker) is an employee of Ordell’s who gets arrested. Rather than risk him blabbing about his business, Ordell kills him. Beaumont’s section of the story showcases Tarantino’s love of long takes: Tucker is only in seven shots in Jackie Brown: one is 150 seconds, another 47, another 100…
* Simone (Hattie Winston) is a friend of Ordell’s who looks after Louis – she entertains him with a Diana Ross impression – then helps out in the story’s set-piece money exchange.
* Detective Mark Dargus (Michael Bowen) is an LAPD cop who takes Jackie in for questioning because he knows he can get to Ordell through her.
* Agent Ray Nicolette (Michael Keaton) works for the ATF and is trying to get the evidence he needs to arrest Ordell. It’s a terrific, slightly unbalanced performance, which lifts a non-descript character off the page.

Returning actors: Samuel L Jackson appears in his third Tarantino-scripted film. Pam Grier was mentioned in dialogue in Reservoir Dogs. The shop assistant who sells Jackie a suit – which, by the way, is the same outfit worn by Mia Wallace in Pulp Fiction – is played by Aimee Graham, who’d had a small role in From Dusk Till Dawn.

Music: Across 110th Street (Bobby Womack and Peace) from the 1972 movie of the same name is used as this film’s theme song. It appears over the opening credits – a fab sequence showing Jackie go from statuesque to harried as she races to work – and is reprised at the end when Jackie lip-syncs along to it in quiet triumph. Other great pieces of soul music used here include: Strawberry Letter 23 (The Brothers Johnson), Street Life (Randy Crawford) and Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time) by the Delfonics, which becomes an audio motif for Jackie and Max’s relationship. Yet again with a Tarantino film there’s no specially written incidental music. However, finding himself in need of some, Quentin appropriated cues written by Roy Ayers for the Pam Grier revenge movie Coffy (1973). A scene showing Jackie in prison is set to Long Time Woman, a song Grier recorded for a 1971 film called The Big Doll House.

Time shifts and chapters: The story mostly plays out in chronological order, but an important sequence at the shopping mall smartly rewinds twice so we see the same events three times – each from a different point of view. There’s also a minor confusion over when the film is set. We’re told that 1985 was 13 years ago, but Ray later specifies the date as 1 July 1995.

Connections: Six months after Jackie Brown, another film adapted from an Elmore Leonard novel – Steven Soderbergh’s supremely brilliant Out of Sight – was released. As both books feature the character of Ray Nicolette, Tarantino and Soderbergh colluded to each cast Michael Keaton in the role. In a scene deleted from Jackie Brown’s final cut, Laura Lovelace reprised her waitress character from Pulp Fiction; there was even a riff on the earlier film’s ‘Garçon means boy’ gag.

Review: In a fascinating hour-long interview on the Jackie Brown DVD – which catches Quentin Tarantino in a likeable, self-aware mood – the director says he designed this film to be seen more than once. He imagined it to be a movie that people go back to every three years or so. Spot on. This classy film demands to be in your life for a long time: I’ve been watching it for nearly two decades now, and am impressed more and more each time. It’s populated by people you enjoy hanging out with: their dialogue is like music, and everyone feels like a character with a life that extends beyond the filmed scenes. There’s also a *devilishly* clever plot, full of agendas and double-crosses, twists and turns, dark comedy and tension. It’s a long film, but you wouldn’t take a single frame away from it. Everything’s so taut; everything’s there for a reason. As well as writing great scene after great scene, Quentin’s also having plenty of filmmaking fun: a crane shot for Beaumont’s death; split-screen to give us key information at precisely the right time; the same events shown from three points of view; an illustrated map to show Jackie’s flight from Mexico… But these things don’t feel gimmicky. They’re there to tell the story in fun, inventive ways. And the story never disappoints. What’s especially striking is how poignant it is. Jackie Brown is melancholic in a way we hadn’t seen in Tarantino’s work before. At its heart is a love story, which is surprisingly rare in Quentin’s films (True Romance and Django Unchained are the only other real examples). But Jackie and Max’s connection is a grown-up, pragmatic romance: it’s about soul, not sex. They touchingly bond over ageing, weight issues, boring jobs and listening to old music. (Ordell, Louis and Nicolette aren’t spring chickens either, meaning the film is dominated by characters over 40.) Tarantino has a point about this being a movie you can return to. As it gets older, and you get older with it, it becomes more and more effective. A masterpiece.

Ten beauty products out of 10

Red Dwarf VII (1997)

Picture Shows: Rimmer (Chris Barrie), Kryten (Robert Llewelyn), Kochanski (Chloe Annett), Lister (Craig Charles) and Cat (Danny John-Jules) TX: BBC-2, TBC The successful science-fiction comedy series 'Red Dwarf' returns for another run of surreal and bizarre events. COPYRIGHTED IMAGE FROM BBC ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Written by Doug Naylor (all), Paul Alexander (2, 7, 8), Kim Fuller (5), Robert Llewellyn (6) and James Hendrie (8). Directed by Ed Bye. Broadcast on BBC2.

Regulars: Having enjoyed the brisk studio days on BBC1 sitcom The Brittas Empire, Chris Barrie had tired of the stop-start process of making Red Dwarf. He wanted to quit but agreed to appear in two full episodes, and record cameos for two more, so Rimmer could be written out properly. His replacement in the line-up is Kristine Kochanski. It’s not actually the same woman we saw sporadically in series one and two, though. This Kochanski is from an alternative reality. She also looks different: the not-good-enough Clare Grogan has been dropped, and Chloë Annett cast in her place. Kochanski was added, in part, to prepare the ground for a Red Dwarf movie. Funding would be easier to get if the show had a female regular.

Episode 1: Tikka to Ride (17 January 1997): Because he’s run out of curry supplies, Lister convinces everyone they should travel into Earth’s past to get more. The gang end up in Dallas on 22 November 1963… The Dallas scenes are really something. Clearly a lot of research, thought, effort and talent has gone into restaging John F Kennedy’s assassination. Given the budget and the fact it was shot on an airfield in Surrey, the scene is a remarkable match to real events. Also, the script is peppered with both genuine and fictional history, all nicely thought-out. But the comedy is more silly than actually funny.
Observations: The cliffhanger from the end of series six is dealt with in the first scene by a bit of comedy exposition from Lister (we also get a clip from Out of Time). Lister says he’s 28 years old. No one explains how the time machine from series six now moves people through space too. (Or why the characters don’t use it to escape the drudgery of being stranded on Starbug.) Michael J Shannon plays JFK with a spot-on Massachusetts accent.
Best gag: Kryten’s enormous double take when he realises they’re in the Dallas Book Depository.

Episode 2: Stoke Me a Clipper (24 January 1997): The show goes back to its popular-old-character well again: Ace Rimmer shows up and asks our Rimmer to take over from him as an inter-dimensional superhero… The episode is built on some really naff ideas. Firstly, the notion that Ace Rimmer is someone who needs replacing. It’s reminiscent of what’s happened in modern Doctor Who: a character becoming mythic within the fiction just because he’s popular with audiences. Secondly, the writing has some juddering gear changes with big, ugly grinding noises when it tries to convince you that our Rimmer would even consider doing the job.
Observations: There’s a corny pre-titles sequence of Ace fighting some Nazis (one of whom is played by Reg Holdsworth). It contains some *appalling* green-screen shots and an awful rubber crocodile. Later, Lister and Kryten enter a medieval VR simulation so Lister can have a shag. The game’s king and queen are played by Brian Cox and Sarah Alexander. It’s 10 minutes into the episode before we see either the Cat or Rimmer (though we have seen Chris Barrie, of course). This episode’s Ace isn’t actually the same Ace we saw in series four; that one died and another Rimmer from a different reality took over. When our Rimmer is thought dead, his eulogy consists of numerous callbacks to old episodes. On a literal level, this is the last time we ever see the hologram Rimmer who was activated in episode one and lived through the show’s first 38 episodes.
Best gag: Because Chris Barrie’s got funny bones, Rimmer’s attempt to impersonate Ace are enjoyable.

Episode 3: Ouroboros (31 January 1997): Starbug flies into a spatial disturbance and the crew meet their equivalents from another dimension. In that reality, Lister’s one-time girlfriend Kristine Kochanski has survived… Chloë Annett is instantly impressive as Kochanski – especially when the façade drops and we learn she’s just as messed-up as the other characters – while Kryten’s jealousy of her is really funny. This is a generally funny episode, in fact. The central gag (the word ourboros being mistaken for ‘our Rob or Ross’) doesn’t really work. But there are some good comedy moments, such as the state of Lister (broken tooth, shaving foam in his ears, pink dressing gown) when he meets Kochanski.
Observations: We find out the details of Lister’s backstory. He was abandoned in a Liverpool pub, the Aigburth Arms, on 26 November 2155. So he’s now a *22nd*-century guy – that’s the third different century he’s been said to be from. Well, he was actually born three million years later then taken to 2155 via time travel. Turns out, he’s his own father and Kochanski, his ex-girlfriend, is his mum. The baby Lister is played by Danny John-Jules’s nephew Alexander. The Starbug crew from the other reality include a hologramatic Lister and a gold-plated Kryten. We see a flashback to Red Dwarf before the accident – it reinforces Kochanski’s backstory (or the current version of it, at any rate), Lister is dressed in a series-one-style Hawaiian shirt, and it also features Rimmer.
Best gag: Kochanski has fallen through a tear in the dimension bridge (or whatever it is), so Lister fires an arrow at her that has a rope attached. It hits her painfully in the leg and she calls Lister’s walkie-talkie. Kryten answers it, listens for a moment, then says, “It’s an obscene phone call, sir.”

Episode 4: Duct Soup (7 February 1997): A power failure seals all the doors on Starbug, so the team have to spend the night crawling through the ship’s innards to get to the cockpit… Right from the word go this feels different – it’s character comedy and, production values aside, feels like a story from series one or two. Again, Kochanski’s very funny: amazingly, the show isn’t missing Rimmer (this is the first ever episode without him). And considering how much of the story takes place in cramped, samey tunnels it’s very well staged. Really good stuff.
Observations: There’s no title sequence (it was dropped for time reasons: better that than cutting meat out of the episode). Not since Queeg in series two has there been an episode where the crew neither go somewhere nor bump into someone. Kochanski specifies that she’s from Glasgow – a nod to the original actress, I suppose, even if Annett uses her own English accent.
Best gag: Kryten sees an insomniac Kochanski wrapped in a white blanket and wearing earmuffs. “Oh, my goodness,” he says to himself. “It’s Princess Leia.”

Episode 5: Blue (14 February 1997): While the crew attempt to get Kochanski back to her own dimension, Lister starts to realise that he’s missing Rimmer… It’s a smart move to have Lister yearn for Rimmer’s company. After all, the latter was created specifically to keep the former sane. A very enjoyable episode.
Observations: Rimmer appears in flashbacks, a dream sequence and a virtual-reality fantasy created by Kryten. This is the second episode running to feature no ‘outside influences’.
Best gag: Rimmer returns to visit Lister, talk of his adventures as Ace and ask about Kochanski. Overcome with emotion, Rimmer and Lister embrace… then kiss! (It’s a dream, of course. Lister wakes up screaming.)

Episode 6: Beyond a Joke (21 February 1997): Kryten’s head explodes when he gets angry, so the others try to track down a replacement and end up finding Kryten’s sorta-brother… Entire minutes pass without a single laugh. I’m not sure Red Dwarf has ever been more boring than this.
Observations: The episode was co-written by Kryten actor Robert Llewellyn. The gang play a Jane Austen virtual-reality game, which Kryten invades with a tank because he’s upset. The frequency of VR simulations in this show is getting tiresome now. Don Henderson plays an android trader. Llewellyn also plays Able, the Kryten-like character the team find.
Best gag: When asked what his name is, the senile Able has to send the request down to long-term-memory retrieval.

Episode 7: Epideme (28 February 1997): The crew board a derelict space ship and find a frozen woman, who wakes up, bites Lister and infects him with a strange virus… A boring and largely unfunny episode.
Observations: Gary Martin voices the intelligent virus. This is the start of a two-part finale.
Best gag: The gross-out comedy of Kryten hacking bits of Lister’s arm off in sloppy, squelching chunks.

Episode 8: Nanarchy (7 March 1997): On the search for Kryten’s missing nanobots – infinitesimally small robots that fix mechanical faults – the gang find a planetoid that was constructed from Red Dwarf… An underwhelming end to a mixed batch of episodes.
Observations: It starts with a ‘Last week on Red Dwarf…’ montage. The team return to the planetoid from series five’s Back to Reality. When Red Dwarf is found again, the characters also locate Holly – now played, for the first time since 1988, by Norman Lovett. (Why the character is no longer Hattie Hayridge is not mentioned.) At the end of the episode, Red Dwarf is rebuilt and we get a blast of the old-style theme tune.
Best gag: The early scenes of Lister trying to come to terms with only having one arm are amusing.

Best episode: Duct Soup. Worst episode: Beyond a Joke.

Alternative versions: Tikka to Ride is available on the DVD in four different edits: the broadcast version, an ‘Xtended’ cut with a few deleted gags and scenes added back in, and both of these with new CGI special effects. The new effects are appreciably better than the 1997 shots, but still not a patch on earlier series’ model work. The 37-minute Xtended version, meanwhile, has had its laughter track removed – an instant improvement. The biggest addition is a new ending set three weeks later, which explains what really happened to the ship’s curry supplies. Ouroboros and Duct Soup also have Xtended edits with jokes added and the laugh track removed. Duct Soup is a real treat, actually. Perhaps it’s our best indicator of how a Red Dwarf movie would have felt.

Review: Blimey, more changes. This show rarely stands still, you’ve got to admire that. For example, the episodes are now shot single-camera with no studio audience. This technique was the coming thing for British sitcoms in the late 90s, and in some ways Red Dwarf VII was the vanguard for The Royle Family, The Office and the like. However, not only has laughter been inelegantly dubbed on – at times actually masking lines of dialogue – but the comedy is still being written, played and edited as if there were an audience. It means stilted moments and forced timings. (It’s not far off Red Dwarf does Last of the Summer Wine.) The episodes have also been filmised, which only adds to the sensation of the comedy being at a remove somehow. Elsewhere, the most noticeable changes are in the cast. Rimmer jumps ship after two episodes; Kochanski joins the team in the next story. It works much better than you would have thought beforehand. As routinely funny as Rimmer has been for six series, giving him a break was probably a necessary evil, while Kochanski creates a whole new dynamic. Other changes include… Deep breath, now… New writers (co-creator Rob Grant had left after an obscure parting of the ways with Doug Naylor)… The return of Ed Bye as director after two series off… An increase in the number of episodes (the plan was to reach 52 so the show could be sold overseas as a package; this run gets it to 44)… New cartoony CGI for special-effects shots (though model are used at times)… The incidental music being much bigger than before (it sweeps and bombasts like a film score)… And a regrettable OTT change in Robert Llewellyn’s performance (once the calm voice of reason, Kryten is now like a CBBC character). After a very mixed opening, the series hits its stride with episodes three to five – all good, well written and funny – but then falls off a cliff with a trio of episodes that are duller and more lumpen than anything we’ve seen before.

Six nureeks out of 10

Alien: Resurrection (1997, Jean-Pierre Jeunet)

AlienResurrection

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Scientists on a space station create a clone of the long-dead Ellen Ripley, complete with an alien growing inside her…

The cast: Sigourney Weaver plays the scientists’ eighth attempt to clone the original Ripley. (She also climbs into a grotesque fake body for one scene as an earlier version.) The character has quite a journey, beginning as a Bambi-like simpleton and ending up as an action-movie cliché who makes postmodern quips. Weaver’s great, of course, but the film doesn’t justify the progression. Elsewhere, the cast is a mixed bag. The gang of space pirates from a ship called the Betty are writer Joss Whedon’s dry run for his later TV show Firefly. But whereas those characters were well written, brilliantly cast and endlessly enjoyable, here we get a rubbish Michael Wincott as captain Frank Elgyn and a bland Winona Ryder as Annalee Call, who’s later revealed to be an android. The other members of the crew are played by Kim Flowers (boring), Gary Dourdan (boring), Ron Perlman (fun and the only one to make much of an impression) and Dominique Pinon (terrible). The head of the space station, General Perez, is played by Dan Hedaya. Brad Dourif gives the Brad Dourif performance as one of the scientists. Leland Orser plays a man sold to the scientists so they can experiment on him and does the same kind of permanently scared stuff he did in Seven. Raymond Cruz’s character, a soldier called Distephano, is bizarrely not introduced properly and just kinda joins in the action. He’s only there for exposition, which makes you wonder why the more interesting Perez wasn’t used instead.

The best bit: An underwater sequence features our heroes being chased by swimming aliens. It’s really well staged action with an ace music cue. The tension is eked out by the very length of the scene (the characters are holding their breath for over three minutes), then we see that their escape route is actually leading them closer to alien pods…

Alternative version: A 2003 director’s cut made some minor changes. Most notably there’s a new title sequence – a long zoom out from the teeth of an insect to a huge space ship – and an extra scene at the end with Ripley and Call on earth. It seems there’s been a big war while they’ve been away.

Review: “They said the lines… mostly,” claimed Joss Whedon years after this film came out. “But they said them all wrong. And they cast it wrong. And they designed it wrong. And they scored it wrong. They did everything wrong that they could possibly do.” Watch the movie in this context and it suddenly makes more sense. Alien: Resurrection is like that scene in Raging Bull where Jake LaMotta is practising a speech – it’s written with some wit, but a steamroller delivery just flattens everything out. Whedon’s script has some funny lines, a bit of crafted banter and Western-style cadences (“She is severely fuckable, ain’t she?”). But the cast and director just aren’t able to give it life. Speaking of which, Jean-Pierre Jeunet was a really strange choice to direct a big-budget action movie. He’d just made a stylish but boring fantasy movie called The City of Lost Children, and his next film was the whimsical Amélie. He doesn’t seem a good fit for this kind of material. (Danny Boyle, Peter Jackson and Bryan Singer were all sounded out before Jeunet got the gig.) To give him his due, the action stuff in the second half is quite enjoyable and reasonably tense. But just think how much better it’d be if we cared about the characters. Alien: Resurrection’s miscast mercenaries are a poor version of the marines in Aliens. Those earlier characters didn’t ask us to like them, so therefore we did. Here, the crew of the Betty each get a moment in the spotlight yet fail to impress. As I said above, Perlman’s Johner is the best of the bunch, thanks to a performance with some attitude behind it. He also gets a good gag when he’s spooked by a tiny spider’s web. But another big problem is the aliens themselves. Ignoring the less-is-more rule, the film gives us long, lingering looks at them. Suddenly they’re robbed of their power and are just men in rubber suits. And that’s representative of the whole film. There’s no wow factor. Still more enjoyable than Alien³, though.

Six Terran growth conglomerates out of 10

Next time: ALIENS AND PREDATORS IN THE SAME FILM!

Return of the Jedi: Special Edition (1997, Richard Marquand)

MosEisley-celebration

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

WHICH VERSION? This is a look at the notable changes made to Return of the Jedi for its 1997 special edition. For research, I watched the film on a 2004 DVD, for which some additional alterations were made. My review of the original cut can be found here.

* The 20th Century Fox and Lucasfilm logos have been updated.

* Although I’ve not seen it, the 2011 Blu-ray release altered the shot of C-3PO and R2-D2 approaching the entrance of Jabba’s palace – it’s much wider now, so the droids seem even more dwarfed by the door.

* Inside Jabba’s palace, the house band now performs a different song. Additionally, whereas there used to be three musicians – called Max Rebo, Droopy McCool and Sy Snootles, according to the internet – there are now loads of them. The most heavily featured new member is a CGI creation called Joh Yowza, who sings the lead vocals. The replacement song is high-tempo tosh called Jedi Rocks. The way it’s staged and filmed like a music video is horrendously out of place for the scene.

* Some new close-ups of dancing girl Oola were specifically mounted for the special edition (the same actress returned after 14 years).

* New cutaways of Boba Fett in Jabba’s palace establish his presence a bit more strongly. In one of them, he’s flirting with two of the dancers. The dog.

* There’s a new shot of Tatooine’s surface, which features a herd of banthas (woolly mammoth-type creatures also seen in Star Wars).

* The Sarlaac has been significantly changed. Rather than just a big hole in the ground, the creature now has a CGI beak and extra tentacles.

* The scene with an unmasked Darth Vader was untouched in 1997. For the DVD release seven years later, however, Anakin’s eyebrows were digital removed because the upcoming prequel, Revenge of the Sith, had the character being heavily burnt. His eyes have also been tinted to match those of Hayden Christensen, the actor who played the character in the prequel series.

* The Death Star blows up with that favourite effect of the special editions: an energy ring.

* As well as celebrations on Endor, the downfall of the Empire is marked by new CGI shots of people cheering and dancing on the planets Bespin, Tatooine, Naboo and Courascant. Whether the tone of the Tatooine image – a mass outpouring of civic jubilation – fits what we know of its seedy, crime-driven streets is another matter. The Naboo footage was only added in 2004, after the planet had been seen in the prequels. A Gungan shouts “Weesa free!” – is it meant to be Jar Jar Binks? The Courascant shots were tweaked in 2004 to take into account some design decisions from the prequel films.

* The distinctive Ewok music (“Jub jub!”) has been thoughtlessly ditched, which might be the most objectionable change in the whole trilogy (that doesn’t feature Han Solo not shooting first). In its place is a new panpipe-laced theme, written and recorded especially for this special edition. It’s pleasant enough but, vitally and sadly, is *not the Ewok celebration music*.

* In the versions of the film released from 2004 onwards, Anakin’s ghost is played by Hayden Christensen. It’s a bit nonsensical, this. Both Yoda and Ben look as they did when they died – whereas Anakin looks like he did when he became Darth Vader. It ties the film in more closely with the prequels, but it does rather undercut Anakin’s redemption within Return of the Jedi itself.

REVIEW: A mixed bag. The new Sarlaac is an improvement, while the celebrations on other planets help round off the trilogy’s story arc. But the tiresome song in Jabba’s palace, the loss of the Ewok music and the addition of Hayden Christensen mean a mark gets knocked off from the original cut’s score.

Nine delusions of grandeur out of 10

 

The Empire Strikes Back: Special Edition (1997, Irvin Kershner)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

WHICH VERSION? The special edition of The Empire Strikes Back, which added computer effects and new footage to the original version, was released in cinemas in 1997. For this review, I watched the DVD that came out in 2004. As I’ve already discussed the 1980 cut of the movie, this is a list of the notable changes made in the 1990s and since…

* The 20th Century Fox and Lucasfilm logos have been updated.

* During the early sequence where Luke is attacked and captured by the bear-like wampa, newly filmed inserts give us a better look at the creature. After Luke cuts off its arm – seriously, what is it with George Lucas’s obsession with dismemberment?! – we see the wampa writhing in pain. The 1997 footage cuts in seamlessly.

* The scene between Darth Vader and the Emperor was untouched in 1997. However, there were significant changes when the film was prepared for DVD release in 2004. The original performance of the Emperor (by extra Elaine Baker and voice actor Clive Revill) was replaced by newly shot footage of Ian McDiarmid, who played the character in every Star Wars film from Return of the Jedi onwards. Bringing this film in line with the others is a nice move. Lucas also took to opportunity to tweak the dialogue so the Emperor now specifies that he knows Luke is the son of Anakin Skywalker.

* Although not altered in 1997, when the Special Edition came out on DVD Boba Fett’s dialogue had been dubbed by Temuera Morrison (the actor who had recently played the man from whom Fett was cloned in Episode II).

* The lengthy sequence in and around Bespin’s Cloud City has had a picturesque overhaul. Existing exterior scenes have been graded to push a more sunset-time vibe; a few new simple CGI shots establish the Millennium Falcon coming in to land; and whenever the city is seen in the background of shots or through windows, it’s now busier, even more artful and tonally warmer. All the additions work really well: they open out the previously studio-bound city and, by being so summer-evening-y, provide a nice contrasting bookend with the Hoth sequence.

* There are new shots – one of real actors, one a CG cityscape – showing people reacting to Lando’s panicked Tannoy announcement on Bespin.

* In order to salve a plot hole, Darth Vader’s dialogue has been changed from “Bring my shuttle” to “Alert my star destroyer to prepare for my arrival”. We then see him boarding his shuttle and arriving on the mother ship (in footage stolen from Return of the Jedi). It’s not subtle, but it does tidy up the moment in the original cut where Vader appears on the ship rather suddenly. The new dialogue sounds awfully like someone doing an impression of James Earl Jones…

REVIEW: There are far fewer changes than there were in the special edition of Star Wars. And the big, noticeable alterations actually enhance what was already a pinnacle of popular culture. Childhood nostalgia is the only thing that stops me admitting that this version might be the better one.

Ten negative power couplings out of 10

Star Wars: Special Edition (1997, George Lucas)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

WHICH VERSION? In 1997, writer/director/producer/corporate-bigwig/beard-wearer George Lucas returned to his masterpiece and rejigged it for a cinematic reissue. This new edit added some then-state-of-the-art special effects and features some never-before-seen footage. Irritatingly, this ‘special edition’ has since become the default version of the movie for home-video releases and TV screenings. Further minor tweaks were made for a 2004 DVD (that’s the version I watched for this write-up) and again for a 2011 Blu-ray box set. I’ve already reviewed the original film – so instead this is a discussion of the changes made in the 90s. It’s not a definitive list; just a look at the ones I spotted and thought interesting…

* The vintage 20th Century Fox logo has been updated, while a Lucasfilm logo has replaced its old text credit.

* The film has the subtitle ‘Episode IV – A New Hope’, which had actually been on the original too from a 1981 rerelease onwards.

* We get a few new establishing shots of Tatooine. They’re nice enough. R2-D2’s encounter with the Jawas has been colour-timed to make it seem more like dusk.

* The scene of Stormtroopers finding the crashed escape pod has had an overhaul. It’s longer now, with some newly filmed Stormtroopers and computer-generated dewbacks (we only had static models of these elephant-like creatures in the old version). They’ve been digitally added to some existing shots too.

* A nice model shot of the Jawas’ huge sandcrawler vehicle has been replaced by a CGI version, which is pleasant enough and more dynamic.

* Similarly, there’s a new establishing shot of Ben’s house, which is more detailed (and more digitally) than the old one. It tells us that his hideaway is on top of a hill and he has a nice view across the wastelands.

* Luke and Ben’s arrival at Mos Eisley is a lot more elaborate now. There’s new CGI footage of the city streets as their speeder drives into town. It’s crammed full of people and creatures and vehicles – some on newly shot film, some computer-generated. There’s even a bit of comedy. Great in theory, as it expands the city and brings it to life, but the additions stick out a mile – especially the cartoony shots of the speeder.

* In the cantina scene, one of the strange creatures seen in the montage of customers – a wolfman – has been replaced by a new frog-headed hipster alien who’s wearing a beret and smoking a pipe.

* In Han Solo’s confrontation with Greedo, Han no longer simply kills the guy rather than deal with him. He now shoots only in self-defence, after Greedo takes a shot at him. At point-blank range. And misses. This is a justifiably ridiculed, infamously unpopular change, which undermines Han’s entire character arc for the film. It’s like painting in eyebrows on the Mona Lisa or dubbing a new bassline onto a Beatles song.

* The Stormtroopers searching Mos Eisley now have little floating devices following them around (cameras, I guess?).

* An entire unused scene from the 1976 shoot has been added in. Han returns to the Millennium Falcon to find Jabba the Hutt and his cronies waiting for him, and has to use his silky charisma to buy more time before he has to pay off his debt. Jabba is a computer-generated character and is pretty corny-looking (he was even worse in the 1997 cinema version, but the DVD I watched carried out some repair work). The raw footage featured actor Declan Mulholland playing Jabba, but George Lucas claims he shot the scene that way only as a guide. The notion, he says, was that Mulholland would be replaced in post-production, probably by a stop-motion puppet. Well, that’s clearly bullshit. Not only was Mullholland is full costume, but Harrison Ford walks behind and in front of him and even touches his chest at one point – not things you’d get an actor to do in 1976 if the intention is to matte in a special effect. (Han also calls him a ‘wonderful human being’ in the dialogue, though admittedly he’s being sarcastic.) The whole thing is awful. On a story level, it adds little and slows down the momentum. It robs the viewer of first seeing the Millennium Falcon through Luke’s eyes. And the clash of 1970s film and 1990s technology is nothing but distracting. The worst moment comes when, in the original shot, Harrison Ford walks behind Jabba. When later designed for Return of the Jedi, Jabba was given a huge tail – so how can Han avoid it? The solution – to have Han walk up and over it, and for Jabba to grimace in pain – is a pathetic idea and looks absolutely terrible. On the plus side, although not part of the original shoot, Boba Fett has been digitally added to the scene. Nice touch.

* There’s a new shot of the Millennium Falcon taking off.

* When Dantooine explodes, it does so mainly with a focused arc of energy for some reason. The Death Star does the same later on.

* The Death Star hanger now looks more like it does in Return of the Jedi.

* The gag of Han turning a corner on the Death Star and bumping into six Stormtroopers has been altered: he now finds dozens of them.

* There are some new CG shots of the Falcon approaching Yavin.

* The Aztec-style temple on Yavin 4 now looks a lot more weatherworn.

* In the original cut, Luke goes from maudlin about Ben’s death to excited about the upcoming battle very quickly. Now we can see why: a deleted scene of him bumping into old pal Biggs Darklighter has been slotted in. (Biggs’s other deleted scenes from the shooting script haven’t been used – it seems the footage hasn’t survived in good enough quality.)

* We get new computer-generated shots of X-Wings taking off from Yavin 4, then shots of them approaching the Death Star have been replaced by CG versions with significantly more craft. A few CGI shots have been slipped into the main battle montage too. As a surgical bit of editing, it works really well: the geography of the dogfight is a bit clearer and none of the urgency is lost.

* James Earl Jones is now credited for playing the voice of Darth Vader. It’s astonishing to realise he wasn’t listed originally.

REVIEW: First and foremost, it’s really enjoyable to see a good quality copy of Star Wars. Little restoration work was done to the 2006 DVD release of the original cut, allegedly because Lucasfilm felt guilt-tripped into releasing it. So it’s smashing to see the movie shining and gleaming and popping through the TV screen. Most of the alterations in this version are good in theory and liveable-with in practice, but the two big changes to the Mos Eisley sequence – Han and Greedo, Han and Jabba – damage the film significantly. Let’s knock a mark off because of that.

Nine explosion rings out of 10

Batman & Robin (1997, Joel Schumacher)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Another pair of super-villains – ice-cold Mr Freeze and eco-terrorist Poison Ivy – team up and cause all kinds of trouble for Batman, Robin and their new friend, Batgirl…

Good guys: It’s amazing this film didn’t stop George Clooney dead in his tracks. He was still in ER while filming Batman & Robin – having taken over the lead role from Val Kilmer, who was busy on The Saint – and was only a couple of years into a promising movie-star career. He’s clearly one of the world’s most charismatic actors, yet just seems embarrassed to be here. Bruce Wayne has a long-term girlfriend, but is reluctant to commit to her; he’s also worried about Alfred, who’s dying from a degenerative disease. Dick Grayson (Chris O’Donnell for a second time) is now Batman’s full-time partner-in-crime-fighting. Robin has a motorbike and everything. But he gets annoyed by Bruce’s patronising, protectionist attitude and strops off, saying he’s going to go solo (a tiff exacerbated by the film’s villain). The pair also have a new member of the team. Barbara Wilson turns up unannounced at Wayne Manor in a school uniform (“Please be looking for me,” says Dick when he answers the door). She’s Alfred’s niece and is on a break from her studies at Oxbridge Academy in London – yet has an American accent. She seems timid at first, but then sneaks out at night to take part in illegal street racing. After she open a box the dying Alfred specifically asked her to leave alone, she learns Bruce’s secret. Wanting to help, she defines herself as Batgirl and joins in during the climax, dressed in a body-fitting costume pre-emptively built by an AI programme in the Batcave. Alicia Silverstone is staggeringly awful in the role. It’s like they’ve filmed her first reading of the script.

Bad guys: Arnold Schwarzenegger gets top billing for his pitiful performance as Victor Fries, aka Mr Freeze, a scientist who has been affected by an accident that means he has to remain at a frozen temperature. He has an ill wife in a cryogenic tank, ice-skating henchmen, and a relentless need to make laborious puns at every opportunity. Schwarzenegger was a boyhood favourite of mine. I endlessly rewatched The Terminator, Predator, Commando, The Running Man, Twins, Total Recall and others, while I sneaked into a cinema to see Terminator 2 when I was only 12. It’s all the more depressing, then, to see him miscast and floundering in this garbage. Mr Freeze’s ally in the story is Poison Ivy (played by a flamboyantly rubbish Uma Thurman). She starts out as Dr Pamela Isley, a botanical researcher whose work is being exploited by deranged Dr Jason Woodrue. When she confronts him, he tries to kill her – but she’s instead swallowed by the earth and emerges as confident, flame-haired Poison Ivy. She has a grudge against Bruce Wayne because of his company’s poor record on the environment, and teams up with Mr Freeze (and a super-soldier called Bane, who Woodrue was working on before Poison Ivy killed him).

Other guys: Michael Gough actually gets an emotional subplot in his fourth and final appearance as Alfred. Elle Macpherson plays Bruce’s girlfriend, Julie Madison – it’s a role that feels like it’s been cut down in post-production (presumably because she can’t act). Pat Hingle reprises Commissioner Gordon one last time. John Glover (Scrooged, Gremlins 2, Robocop 2, and the voice of the Riddler in Batman: The Animated Series) plays Woodrue. Jesse Ventura has a cameo as a prison guard.

Best bits:

* There aren’t any.

Review: A two-hour toy advert. Perfunctory plotting, plywood performances, plastic production design, crass comedy, diarrhoeic dialogue, senseless stunts and a general air of ‘Will that do?’… Is this film some kind of elaborate practical joke? A Starship Troopers-like satire of mediocre movies? If so, I’m missing the joke in a phenomenally powerful way. It’s by no means the only disappointing ‘fourth film’ in a series – Thunderball, Superman IV, Police Academy 4, The Omen IV, The Next Karate Kid, Alien: Resurrection, The Phantom Menace, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Terminator Salvation, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, The Bourne Legacy, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides – but it’s easily the worst. Apocalyptically atrocious.

One fetishistic close-up of Batman’s vacuum-packed arse out of 10.

Next time: Catwoman gets her own movie!