Star Trek: Voyager – season one (1995)

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Over the last few months I’ve rewatched all of the science-fiction series Star Trek: Voyager. So, as the show celebrates its 25th anniversary, here’s what I thought were the notable episodes of season one…

Best episode:
Eye of the Needle. When this series was being developed in 1994, some big decisions were made by the production team in order to differentiate it from its Star Trek stablemates The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. A big choice was to catapult the regular characters across the galaxy, sending them 70,000 light years and 75 years of travel away from home. This cut them off from established Star Trek continuity, which was a terrific idea given how loaded down with recurring characters and races the other shows had become. Nevertheless, this early episode dips back into the familiar well by having the crew make contact with a Romulan via a wormhole. It seems to offer a quick way home or at least a way of sending messages to loved ones. But then comes a sucker-punch ending… The episode also has a charming B-plot about the ship’s Doctor – an artificial-intelligence hologram played by Robert Picardo – and his concerns over his role in the crew.

Honorable mentions:
Caretaker. A decent feature-length pilot episode. The regular characters get good introductions and all make an impression (except maybe Jennifer Lien’s Kes, an alien who the crew encounter and adopt). It also sets up many of the fascinating ideas that Star Trek: Voyager had inherent in its make-up. After being flung halfway across the galaxy, Captain Kathryn Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) and her crew must form an uneasy alliance with a group of resistance fighters who are similarly lost. There’s also the general jolt of being removed to another part of the galaxy and knowing it’ll take 75 years to get home. Then there’s the character of Tom Paris (Robert Duncan McNeill), a convict with a shady background who is brought along on the mission and has to step up the plate… This is *a lot* of potential drama and story. It’s such a shame that it was so quickly squandered. The conflict between the Starfleet crew and the Maquis rebels, for example, is resolved in this episode with risible speed (and mostly off-screen!). The episode’s ‘A plot’ (godlike entity draws people across the universe because it wants a mate) is also wishy-washy.
* Parallax. The plot is technobabblistic nonsense – something about the ship being trapped in a singularity. But by focussing on chief engineer B’Elanna Torres (Roxann Biggs-Dawson), a half-Klingon who’s one of the former rebels subsumed into the crew, we get a bit of drama as the Maquis characters struggle to adapt to Starfleet life.
* Time and Again. Anther script powered by an awful lot of gobbledegook dialogue, but the time-travel element of the story works well: Janeway and Paris are trapped on a planet in its recent past, just hours before a catastrophe is due to strike.
* Ex Post Facto. Paris is convicted of a murder on an alien planet in a fun, film-noir-ish mystery story.
* State of Flux. A paranoia plot, which sees Commander Chakotay (Robert Beltran) under pressure as fingers are pointed at one of his former Maquis colleagues. As a character, he’s been the blandest so far and oddly stuck in the background of many episodes. So this one gives us a bit of focus on Voyager’s new first officer. (The fact that he wears a Starfleet uniform, however, continues to be maddeningly frustrating. A show with a better sense of drama would have had him accept the post of second-in-command for pragmatic reasons, but *never* lose sight of his rebellious nature.)
* Heroes and Demons. Holodeck-goes-wrong stories were already old hat in Star Trek by this point, thanks to The Next Generation’s over-reliance on the cliché, but this episode gets away with it because the Doctor finally has a chance to get out of the sickbay and engage with some guest characters. He has to go into a Beowulf RPG to search for missing crew members and the actor has a ball with the idea.
* Faces. Thanks to the meddling of some organ-harvesting aliens, B’Elanna Torres is – rather implausibly, but let’s go with it – split into two separate people: a human and a Klingon. As a metaphor for her troubled personality it’s obvious but works rather well, and the actress does a good job with the two roles.
* Jetrel. A rare bit of depth for Neelix (Ethan Phillips), an eccentric and optimistic alien who hooked up with the crew in episode one and now acts as their tour guide to the Delta Quadrant. After encountering a doctor from a race who murdered Neelix’s community, he experiences anger, doubt and maybe even forgiveness.
* Learning Curve. Perhaps Star Trek’s most low-key ‘season finale’ (because it wasn’t intended to be one when made), this story reheats the frozen Federation/Maquis conflict. Vulcan security chief Tuvok (Tim Russ) is charged with teaching some new and sarcastic crew members about Starfleet protocol. It’s cheesy but effective.

Worst episode:
* The Cloud. A boring, character-less sci-fi plot, a pointless holodeck diversion and a scene where Chakotay teaches Janeway how to talk to her imaginary friend. Eugh.

Next time: Season two

Star Trek: The Original Series – season three (1968-69)

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

Best episode:
* Spectre of the Gun. With viewing figures unimpressive, NBC actually axed Star Trek after its second season. Then, at least in part due to an organised letter-writing campaign by fans, it was given another year – but on a smaller budget and in a less favourable time slot. Creator Gene Roddenberry also stepped away from the production. So season three has long had a crummy reputation, not least because of its lack of ambition. (In 24 episodes, they filmed on location just once.) The lack of money is evident in several episodes, but the one that sidesteps the problem the best is Spectre of the Gun, a brilliant take on the classic Hollywood Western. Captain Kirk (William Shatner), Mr Spock (Leonard Nimoy), Dr McCoy (DeForest Kelley) and Chekov (Walter Koenig) find themselves in an alien reconstruction of the Arizona town of Tombstone in October 1881. The Enterprise crew realise they’re the Clantons. The Earps are nearby and the scene is set for the Gunfight at the OK Corral… As they had to shoot this episode on a soundstage, and save cash, the production team decided to go surreal. The sets contain deliberately missing walls; the barriers between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ are blurred; the sky is a vivid, bold red. It’s a brilliant effect, both heightening and supporting the script.

Honourable mentions:
* The Enterprise Incident. A tremendous espionage plot as Kirk and Spock are captured by a female Romulan officer (a watchable turn from guest star Joanna Linville), who then starts to fall for Mr Spock. There are plenty of twists and a spy-story structure.
* The Paradise Syndrome. An intensely odd episode, this. Kirk suffers from amnesia as he’s left behind on a planet populated by Native American types. He falls in love, marries, and grows sideburns in the months it takes for his colleagues to return and pick him up. (Downside: the near-constant incidental music gets irritating, and you also need to excuse a fair amount of naive 1960s racism.)
* Is There in Truth No Beauty? Ultimately a rather silly episode with some naff attitudes, but it contains a good guest appearance from Diane Muldaur (later a regular in Star Trek: The Next Generation) and a nicely disguised plot twist.
* Day of the Dove. A claustrophobic episode that sees the crew trapped on the Enterprise with a group of Klingons and an alien force that exaggerates negative and aggressive tendencies. The end is rather risible, though, as humans and Klingons alike down weapons, call a truce and burst into fake hearty laughter to outfox the alien entity.
* For the World Is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky. Merits a place on this list just for its amazing, poetic title! It’s an engaging enough story about Dr McCoy falling terminally ill (spoiler: he gets better) and having a romance.
* Wink of an Eye. It’s an intriguing concept for a sci-fi episode (aliens move at a vastly higher speed, so are imperceptible to humans), but the season’s budget restrictions mean it’s another episode that’s dragged out by scenes on familiar sets.
* Whom Gods Destroy. By this point, we’re past the point of boredom with the powerful-yet-loopy-villain cliché, but this episode at least has a fun guest star (Batgirl Yvonne Craig), lots of doppelganger scenes (cue William Shatner acting opposite his body double) and a general air of oddness.
* Let That Be Your Last Battlefield. Some rather hamfisted satire of race relations is made enjoyable by interesting guest characters (including one played by Frank Gorshin) and a tense sequence as Kirk threatens to destroy the Enterprise unless its control is returned to him.
* The Mark of Gideon. The meat of the story is a bit rancid – something about an arrogant race on an overpopulated planet – but Kirk being conned into thinking he’s on an abandoned Enterprise works well. (Spoiler: it’s actually a Truman Show-style recreation.) There are some surreal images and a strong subplot for Spock, who gets to act as both diplomat and detective.
* The Savage Curtain. A fun one, as Kirk meets his hero Abraham Lincoln (sort of). It gets a big eggy as the show a) rolls out another ‘war is bad’ metaphor, and b) yet again refuses to leave the soundstage for exterior scenes. But it’s enjoyable tosh.
* All Our Yesterdays. An enjoyable, if convoluted, concept episode. Visiting a strange library on an empty planet, Kirk is accidentally sent back in history – to a time similar to the earth’s 17th century. Spock and McCoy, meanwhile, are sent back even further and end up trapped in a harsh Ice Age wilderness. Being 5,000 years in the past begins to affect Spock’s psychology (somehow) and he becomes emotional…
* Turnabout Intruder. Star Trek’s final episode is one of its more ludicrous. A woman swaps bodies with Kirk, Freaky Friday-style. While playing the nefarious Dr Janice Lester masquerading as Kirk, Shatner overeggs it something rotten, but the gimmick plot works and it keeps the interest (which is more than can be said for many season-three episodes!).

Worst episode:
* The Way to Eden. Hippies. Hippies singing songs. Eugh.

Star Trek: The Original Series – season two (1967-68)

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

Best episode:
The Trouble with Tribbles. A terrific comedy episode, full of wit and class. Behind the scenes, there were worries the show was going too far into self-parody with this story, but there was no need for concern. The big hitters among Star Trek’s cast – William Shatner (Captain Kirk), Leonard Nimoy (Mr Spock) and DeForest Kelley (Dr McCoy) – were all capable comic actors, able to play funny scenes without undercutting the premise. (Thirty years later, spin-off show Deep Space Nine produced a tribute episode in which that show’s characters travel back in time and interact with the events of The Trouble with Tribbles. It’s an absolute marvel.)

Honorable mentions:
* The Changeling. It seems old-fashioned now, as many Stark Trek ideas do (because they’ve been copied so often), but this is a generally engaging episode about a computer that’s out to destroy all non-perfect life. Our heroes must, essentially, out-logic it to death. The less said the better, however, about the subplot where Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) has her memory wiped so must learn to read again!
* Mirror, Mirror. A fantastic, foot-to-the-throat thriller based on an imaginative idea: the Enterprises crosses into a parallel dimension where they meet their fascistic, sadistic and cynical counterparts (which obviously gives the regular cast a chance to have some fun). The concept has since been rehashed several times in other Star Trek series, but here it still feels fresh and very dangerous.
* The Doomsday Machine. A passable episode with a Moby Dick metaphor. (Rather than a whale, it’s a giant planet-killing entity from another dimension.)
* Catspaw. Another story about an all-powerful figure toying with lesser beings, which Star Trek was very keen on, but this episode has gothic trappings and fun guest characters. It perhaps loses its impact as it becomes more campy and hokey, especially when Kirk and Spock are menaced by a giant cat (ie, a normal cat filmed in such a way that we only see its enormous shadow).
* I, Mudd. Roger C Carmel returns as guest character Harry, who is now king of his own planet populated by androids, and is again an enjoyable presence. The episode contains the now-hoary idea that robots can be turned loopy if you confuse them.
Journey to Babel. There’s some good, meaty drama for Spock as we encounter his parents for the first time. His Vulcan father, Sarek (Mark Lenard), needs a blood transfusion but, with Kirk incapacitated, Spock feels his duty is to command the Enterprise rather than give blood. He should logically stay at his post.
The Deadly Years. A decent one. The key members of the crew are affected by a virus and begin to age artificially, which leads to Kirk having to be relieved of command when his memory starts to fail him. (This is one of several episodes that highlight the stupidity of sending a starship’s captain, first officer and chief medical officer on missions together!)
* Obsession. A simplistic plot, on which an engaging character drama about Kirk’s guilt for a long-ago catastrophe is hung.
* Wolf in the Fold. The famed Scotty-as-Jack-the-Ripper episode. It’s perhaps not as good as its reputation suggests (there are too many scenes of computers explaining the plot) but it whips up to a maniacal climax.
* A Piece of the Action. Near enough a comedy, but played and directed with a light touch. Not for the first time in Star Trek’s run, it’s a let’s-use-the-backlot episode: standing sets are used for an alien planet that has modelled its whole society on Al Capone-era gangsters. William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy revel in the gangster idiom and are great at playing their respective characters’ differing reactions to the situation.
* Patterns of Force. Another episode where the Enterprise stumbles across an alien world that’s oddly similar to an era of Earth history (which allows the production to save some money by shooting of pre-existing sets). This time, Kirk and co go looking for a long-missing Starfleet officer and find him as the leader of an ersatz Nazi Party. It’s a gripping episode with something to say and some surprise turns.
* The Ultimate Computer. Kirk feels threatened when an ‘AI captain’ is roadtested on the Enterprise. Not the best, but it contains a wistful scene where Kirk romantically ponders the golden era of sail (quoting John Masefield’s poem Sea-Fever: ‘And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by’). Co-stars Blacula himself, William Marshall.
* Bread and Circuses. *Yet again*, the Enterprise discovers an alien culture modelled on a period of Earth history. This time: Ancient Rome, though an Ancient Rome where people have technology and guns. It’s clunky at times but generally enjoyable and contains – gleefully – a satire of the television industry when we see behind the scenes at the gladiator contests. Also, Spock and McCoy share a lovely heart-to-heart scene.
* Assignment: Earth. Not the most nuanced or fluid piece of television you’ll ever see, but interesting for its minor place in Star Trek history. A back-door pilot for a spin-off show that never happened, this episode spends a lot of time seeding the potential new characters, such as the enigmatic Gary Seven, his secretary, his intelligent cat and his idiosyncratic computer.

Worst episode:
The Apple. A boring, naff episode about the crew wandering around a soundstage jungle set and encountering hippies who don’t know what love or sex are.

Star Trek: The Original Series – season one (1966-67)

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Over the last few months I’ve rewatched all of the original Star Trek TV series. Here’s what I thought were the notable episodes of season one…

Best episode:
Balance of Terror. The debut of the militaristic Romulans in Star Trek is a terrific episode that plays like a submarine movie. The Starship Enterprise stalks a Romulan ship in the Neutral Zone between the two empires’ territories and the story is tense and exciting. There are also subplots and an interesting villain and telling character moments. Superb.

Honorable mentions:
The Naked Time. A fun, early episode that sees the regular crew go a bit loopy after being affected by a virus. It’s well paced and has good stuff for both Sulu (George Takei), who gets some gleeful scenes where he fences topless, and Spock (Leonard Nimoy), who struggles with his human/Vulcanian psychology.
* The Enemy Within. The central concept has become a sci-fi cliché – due to a transporter accident, an evil doppelgänger of Captain Kirk is let loose on the Enterprise – but it’s very well done here. William Shatner hams it up as the evil Kirk and there’s a ticking-clock element to the plot thanks to some crewmen stranded on a desolate planet below.
* Mudd’s Women. It’s not exactly ‘woke’, being a story about a charlatan selling women to miners, but Roger C Carmel is very entertaining as the lead guest character: the flamboyant and verbose Harcourt Fenton Mudd.
* Miri. The first really great episode. (Balance of Terror wasn’t broadcast until after this one.) A set of enigmas is set up – a planet that looks identical to Earth, a society that seems to be stuck in the 1930s, no adults anywhere to be seen – then a plot with a countdown is kicked into gear. There’s good drama along the way and it’s well directed too. The subtext of the story is that, after puberty, people do ‘bad things’.
* The Menagerie (Parts I & II). An ingenious way to save some production budget by reusing footage from Star Trek’s then-unbroadcast pilot episode, The Cage, as a flashback story. The wraparound scenes have mystery and intrigue because Spock is acting so out of character.
* The Conscience of the King. An effective – if thoroughly prediactable – drama about an actor who may be a mass murderer in hiding. There are plenty of Shakespearean parallels and quotations, such as the title.
* Shore Leave. The regular characters spend some time on a planet but start to hallucinate and undergo personality changes. Fun and surreal, if lightweight.
* The Galileo Seven. A superb showcase for both Mr Spock – the show’s most fascinating character – and the actor who played him. The story sees Spock, Dr McCoy (DeForest Kelly), Scotty (James Doohan) and others stranded on a planet with no way of contacting the Enterprise. There’s a monster nearby, deaths within the group, and dissention in the ranks…
* Tomorrow is Yesterday. A fun time-travel story (Star Trek’s first ever) sees the Enterprise end up above 1960s America and encountering an Air Force test pilot. The script has a good sense of humour.
* Space Seed. An entertaining episode about a megomaniac from the 1990s coming out of suspended animation. (The second Star Trek movie, The Wrath of Khan, is a direct sequel.)
* A Taste of Armageddon. A society is killing its own people as part of a deal with its enemy, rather than the two states launching actual attacks. A decent story about the futility of war.
* This Side of Paradise. A good episode for Spock, who’s pacified by a weird spore and then has a romance. (It’s kind of a druggie/hippie metaphor, I guess.) The only way Kirk can shake him out of his ennui is by provoking an emotional response.
* Errand of Mercy. Kirk and Spock are stranded on a planet under Klingon occupation. Engaging stuff. (This is the Klingons’ first appearance in Star Trek.)
* The City on the Edge of Forever. It’s contrived, and needs a lot of sci-fi set-up, but this is a brilliant time-travel tragedy with a good guest performance from Joan Collins. When a disturbed Dr McCoy is flung back into 20th-century America, Kirk and Spock must give chase. There’s lots of future-men-out-of-water stuff as the two men adapt to a more basic lifestyle, then the tragic ending really packs a punch.

Worst episode:
The Squire of Gothos. It’s become such a cliché in science fiction: a capricious, arrogant, sociopathic god-like figure toys with people because he’s bored. And as well as being boring and irritating, this example gets its history wrong and has a dreadful deus ex machina ending.

“Cheers is filmed before a live studio audience…”

Episodes of the American sitcom Cheers typically begin with a voiceover informing viewers that the show has been recorded with a studio audience in attendance. The device was introduced during the first season to confound rumours that the producers were adding a laughter track.

The phrase first appeared on the 13th episode (Now Pitching, Sam Malone, which was broadcast on 6 January 1983) and was used on nearly every episode until the show came to an end with its 11th season in 1993. The regular cast shared the duties, on a seemingly random rotation, so I thought it would be edifying – or at least diverting – to see who did it the most often.

11. Nicholas Colasanto (Coach Ernie Pantusso) – 0

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Of the 10 actors credited in a Cheers opening title sequence, only one never said “Cheers is filmed before a live studio audience”: Nicholas Colasanto, who played dim-witted but eternally loveable barman Coach. The character was a regular from episode one, but Colasanto died from heart disease on 12 February 1985 during production of the show’s third season.

=9. Kirstie Alley (Rebecca Howe) – 1

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Despite neurotic bar manager Rebecca being in all 149 episodes made after she joined the cast in 1987, Kirstie Alley performed the introductory voiceover just once: on the episode Paint Your Office (5 November 1987).

=9. Bebe Neuwirth (Lilith Sternin-Crane) – 1

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Psychiatrist Lilith was initially a one-off character in season four – a love interest for Frasier Crane – then returned as a semi-regular from season five onwards. But despite all these appearances, Neuwirth only got to say “Cheers is filmed before a live studio audience” once. It was on Madame LaCarla (3 October 1991), which came during the 10th season when she’d been temporarily promoted to the regular cast.

8. George Wendt (Norm Peterson) – 12

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One of only three actors who appeared in all 270 episodes of Cheers, George Wendt – who played slovenly but good-natured barfly Norm – was conspicuously underused when it came to assuring viewers that the laughs were genuine. When the gimmick was introduced, he actually said it on the first three episodes. But he was then called on just three times in the next two seasons… and then not again until season 10. His final go at it was on the episode It’s Lonely On The Top (29 April 1993).

7. Kelsey Grammer (Frasier Crane) – 13

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Psychiatrist Frasier Crane was introduced in the first episode of the 1984/85 season, initially as a short-term character. But he proved so popular he was promoted to the regular cast and stayed until the end. He performed the voiceover 13 times, from season six’s My Fair Clavin (10 December 1987) to season 11’s Is There a Doctor in the Howe? (11 February 1993).

6. [No one] – 22

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There are 22 episodes of Cheers that don’t use the phrase. Most came before the device was introduced, but in occasional later episodes it was replaced by either a ‘Previously on Cheers’-type voiceover or simply the first line of the opening scene.

5. Shelley Long (Diane Chambers) – 27

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One of the co-leads when the series began, Shelley Long – who played aspirational waitress Diane – featured in every episode until leaving at the end of the fifth season. (She also returned as a guest star for the last ever episode in 1993.) Her first go at “Cheers is filmed…” was on the second-season episode Homicidal Ham (27 October 1983); her final instance was on I Do, Adieu (7 May 1987), her last episode as a regular.

4. Woody Harrelson (Woody Boyd) – 33

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Naïve, young barman Woody Boyd joined the show at the start of season four, as a replacement for Coach, and stayed until the end. But he had to wait for his first “Cheers is filmed…”. It finally came in season six on the episode Christmas Cheers (17 December 1987). His final voiceover was exactly five years later on Love Me, Love My Car (17 December 1992).

3. John Ratzenberger (Cliff Clavin) – 49

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Postman Cliff featured in the show’s opener, Give Me a Ring Sometime (30 September 1982), then was in nearly every episode until the finale in 1993. Ratzenberger said “Cheers is filmed…” regularly between No Contest (17 February 1983) and Look Before You Sleep (1 April 1993). He’s one of only two actors who got to do it in all 11 seasons. He’s also one of only two actors who were allowed to embellish the phrase. The first and fourth times he performed the function, it was amended to “Here’s a little-known fact: Cheers is filmed before a live studio audience.”

2. Rhea Perlman (Carla Tortelli/LeBec) – 53

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Caustic waitress Carla was in every episode of Cheers and performed the voiceover in every season, from Show Down Part 1 (24 March 1983) until penultimate episode The Guy Can’t Help It (13 May 1993). She also got her own character-centric embellishment. In most of her instances during the first five seasons, she said “Hey” before the usual wording. This addition was then dropped.

1. Ted Danson (Sam Malone) – 59

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Unsurprisingly, the actor who introduced episodes of Cheers the most often was the top-billed Ted Danson, who played bar owner and ladies’ man Sam Malone in every episode. What is surprising, perhaps, is that he didn’t do it until the third season. Ted’s first voiceover was on Rebound (Part 1) (27 September 1984), then he performed the role regularly until series finale One for the Road (20 May 1993).

Night Gallery: The Devil is Not Mocked (27 October 1971, NBC, Gene Kearney)

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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: A castle in the Balkans during the Second World War. There’s a brief framing device in the modern day (ie, the early 70s).

Faithful to the novel? The Devil is Not Mocked makes up the last quarter of an hour-long episode from the American TV show Night Gallery (1969-1973). This anthology series was created by Rod Serling as a more horror-based version of his earlier hit The Twilight Zone. He appears on screen at the start of the hour to introduce the episode’s first story (A Question of Fear, which stars Leslie Nielsen) then again after 45 minutes to tee up The Devil is Not Mocked. The latter segment was based on a short story by pulp writer Manly Wade Wellman and is about a Nazi general called von Grunn (Helmut Dantine). During the Second World War, he arrives at a Balkan castle, intending to search it for resistance fighters. His soldiers force their way in, but the castle’s owner – a strange, calm nobleman in a cape (Francis Lederer) – seems unconcerned. Von Grunn reckons that the man is the leader of the local resistance, but when midnight strikes all the Nazis are wiped out by the nobleman’s acolytes and wolves. As he closes in on the general, the man confirms that he’s the leader of the rebels and then announces that he’s also Count Dracula…

Best performance: This was Francis Lederer’s second go as the famous vampire: 13 years earlier he’d starred in a tame horror movie called The Return of Dracula.

Best bit: When von Grunn tells Dracula that they’re going to burn his castle down, Dracula just smiles benignly. If he were a Twitter gif the caption would be, “Bitch please.”

Review: Evil meets evil in a 15-minute drama. It has just one story beat: a punchline that surely every member of the audience sees coming a mile off. In its favour, the plot is notable for Dracula being (relatively speaking) the good guy.

Five paintings out of 10

Cheers has the same scene twice…

Rewatching superior sitcom Cheers recently I noticed that two episodes contain the same scene. This isn’t a case of footage being repeated in a later episode. The same minute or so of dialogue and action has been restaged and refilmed.

The first instance is in an early episode called Coach’s Daughter (broadcast on NBC on 28 October 1982). After approximately 10 minutes comes a moment where Cheers owner Sam (Ted Danson) asks a barfly called Chuck (Tim Cunningham) about his job search…

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Chuck tells him that he’s now working as a janitor at a biology lab where they experiment with DNA and mutant viruses. He’s nervous about being so close to ‘weird stuff’…

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Sam, barmaid Carla (Rhea Perlman) and customers Cliff (John Ratzenberger) and Norm (George Wendt) react with mild interest and tell him not to worry about the dangers.

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Chuck then downs his drink, says he feels better after the encouragement, and leaves…

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…and as soon as he’s out of the bar, everyone snaps into action and cleans the entire area. Sam sprays the counter, Carla scrubs the floor, Norm and Cliff polish the telephone, then Sam disposes of Chuck’s glass and gingerly picks up his tip.

It’s a self-contained gag that doesn’t have anything to do with the rest of the episode (which is a really terrific and very moving story about barman Coach not liking his daughter’s boorish fiancé).

Then in the final episode of the same season – Show Down (Part 2), broadcast 31 March 1983 – the exact same scene happens again. Only, it’s not *exactly* the same. The section of script has been restaged. Again, the joke has no connection to the rest of the episode, which sees Sam and barmaid Diane (Shelley Long) confront their feelings for one another.

This time it’s the episode’s opening scene. Sam asks Chuck about his job search…

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Chuck tells him about the clinic…

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The others – now including Coach (Nicholas Colasanto), who was absent from the earlier version – tell him not to worry…

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Feeling more positive about the job, Chuck leaves…

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And everyone frantically cleans the bar.

The dialogue and actions are almost identical, though in the second version Sam no longer picks up Chuck’s glass with a cloth or his cash with his fingertips. Another difference is that Carla is pregnant in the redo. The character was expecting a baby because the actress was: Rhea Perlman gave birth on 11 March to Lucy DeVito, who’s now a 34-year-old actress.

Incidentally, Tim Cunningham returned to Cheers many times. He played a customer called Greg for two episodes, then was in a further 33 as a barfly named Tim. To all intents and purposes, Chuck, Greg and Tim are all the same character.

But does anyone know why this bit of comedy business was performed twice, just a few months apart?

UPDATE: In January 2019, the answer was revealed thanks to some research by Time Out New York’s Adam Feldman and others.

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ER: Motherhood (11 May 1995, Quentin Tarantino)

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Spoiler alert: these reviews reveal plot twists.

In this penultimate episode of ER’s first season, Dr Susan Lewis’s sister gives birth to a baby…

What does QT do? Quentin Tarantino was a fan of ER (1994-2009) right from the start so jumped at the chance to direct an episode. Unless you count one scene in 2005 movie Sin City, this is the only time in his career he’s directed someone else’s script. (It was written by ER’s supervising producer Lydia Woodward.)

Notable characters:
* Dr Susan Lewis (Sherry Stringfield) is woken early by her flighty sister, Chloe, who’s gone into labour but waited until the contractions are two minutes apart before doing anything about it.
* Chloe Lewis (Kathleen Wilhoite) gives birth to Little Susie in this episode – a plotline that had major implications for the next season or more. While in labour she insists on hearing the Beatles song Blackbird.
* John Carter (Noah Wyle) is a medical student who ends up helping with the delivery. He struggles to find the Beatles cassette, so Susan and Chloe have to sing Blackbird themselves. (Presumably this was done to avoid paying for the use of the original recording?)
* Carol Hathaway (Julianna Margulies) is the ER’s head nurse.
* Dr Mark Greene (Anthony Edwards) is the chief resident.
* Dr Peter Benton (Eriq La Salle) is a surgical resident and Carter’s mentor. During his shift, he gets a call to go and see his elderly mother. By the time he arrives, though, she’s died.
* Dr Doug Ross (George Clooney) is a womanising ER doctor who ruins a fledging relationship by messing around with an ex.
* Dr Angela Hicks (CCH Pounder) is everyone’s boss. She tells Carter he’s missed out on the surgical placement he wanted.
* Cookie Lewis (Valerie Perrine from Superman: The Movie) is Susan and Chloe’s ditzy mother. We first see her holding an enormous bunch of flowers, which mask her face.
* The episode has a flurry of one-off patients and other characters, including… A 15-year-old boy who’s been impaled on a metal bar (his mother is played by Tarantino’s old drama teacher, Brenda Hillhouse)…  Boy Scouts with diarrhoea (their adult supervisor is played by Kathy Griffin)… A man found unconscious after mixing ammonia and bleach (his concerned wife is played by Amanda Jones)… A young girl with a fever… A girl who’s been bitted by a bee… A guy with an obstruction in his throat… An elderly woman who dies before she can be examined… A drug overdose… And two warring gang chicks, one of whom has had her ear bitten off.

Returning actors: Amanda Jones, Kathy Griffin and Brenda Hillhouse all had small roles in Pulp Fiction. (Although not in this episode, Pulp Fiction’s Ving Rhames was a semi-regular in ER around this time.)

Music: The incidental music – tense but unshowy – is by ER’s in-house composer, Marty Davich.

Time shifts and chapters: The episode is presented in chronological order.

Connections: A character losing an ear a la Reservoir Dogs is a coincidence, apparently. It was in the script before Tarantino was assigned to the episode.

Review: The episode title is bang on the money. This story is set on Mother’s Day, Chloe gives birth, Cookie refuses to help her daughter, Susan’s thrust into a surrogate mother’s role, and the mums of patients recur throughout. The episode actually begins with a labour and ends with the death of Benton’s mother. The early birth comes in a pre-titles sequence that’s quite astonishing. It’s a fast, funny, five-minute prologue that tells the story of Chloe’s labour; like a little mini-episode in itself. As the episode progresses, as well as ER’s standard well-written drama, we get a lot of comedy: pratfalls, fart gags, projectile vomiting and people running around in the background of a serious drama scene. There are also a couple of brilliantly playful scenes where, bored of their respective families, Susan and Carol sneak up on the roof and sunbathe. Tarantino, ever the arbiter of cool, insisted on the characters wearing all-black sunglasses. (He also has them barefooted: another example of the director’s fascination with women’s feet.) In fact, given that this is the 24th episode of a TV show with its own storytelling conventions, Tarantino is able to bring a lot of himself to the party. Motherhood is a fascinating mixture of ER’s house style (Steadicam shots arcing around characters, long takes, frenetic medical jargon, lots of extras rushing around a huge, four-walled set) and Tarantino’s obsessions (fetishist close-ups, flashes of violence, self-conscious coolness). Of course, a visual technique that both ER and Tarantino have excelled at is the long take. The show used them routinely, especially in high-energy scenes to build tension and a sense of real-time, and Motherhood contains Quentin’s most elaborate example yet. Just shy of two minutes and featuring dozens of characters and huge reams of dialogue, it’s a rather spectacular piece of work. Check it out here:

Nine blackbirds singing in the dead of night out of 10

Dracula (2013/14)

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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: London, 1890. (The show was filmed in Hungary.)

Faithful to the novel? Vaguely… This British/American TV show uses Bram Stoker’s basic elements and character names but rearranges things quite a bit. The vampire Dracula (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) moves to London and poses as an American entrepreneur called Alexander Grayson. In public, he promotes scientific endeavours; in private he seeks revenge on those who have wronged him. In episode one he meets Mina Murray (Jessica De Gouw). She’s the reincarnation of his long-dead love, Ilona – a plot device stolen from Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) – so Dracula/Grayson works hard to keep Mina close to him without giving the game away. He even takes an interest in her boyfriend, a journalist called Jonathan Harker (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), and helps arrange their wedding. Elsewhere, Mina’s friend Lucy Westenra (Katie McGrath) is secretly in love with her, while her university professor is Abraham Van Helsing (Thomas Kretschmann). However, this Van Helsing is very different from Stoker’s version. For a kick-off, he’s in league with Dracula. The two team up because they both have beef with the Order of the Dragon, the sect that killed Ilona, turned Dracula into a vampire and murdered Van Helsing’s family because he wasn’t loyal to them. While all this is going on, Dracula also has a fling with non-book-character Lady Jayne Wetherby (Victoria Amurfit). She’s connected to the Order of the Dragon, but doesn’t know that Grayson is a vampire. The only other person in on Dracula’s secret is Renfield (Nonso Anozie), here repurposed as a non-insane African-American lawyer-cum-enforcer.

Best performance: The cast is mostly either boring or actually rubbish, so let’s champion the production-design team. Some stunning locations have been used to represent London of the 1890s, while the interiors are regularly gorgeous. There’s a steampunk/Victoriana vibe to everything, while the warm, candle-lit colours are often very pretty too.

Best episode: Episode five, The Devil’s Waltz, is centred on Mina and Jonathan’s engagement party. Several plots bubble to the surface.

Review: This recent television show was axed after just one season of 10 episodes. It did well to last that long, frankly. Cheesy dialogue, poor plotting and a weak cast made it a slog to sit through. As mentioned above, the look of the series is really nice, while Trevor Morris’s incidental music is often fantastic – almost John Carpenter-like. But the superficially similar Penny Dreadful (2014 onwards) beats it on every level.

Five words guaranteed to dispel any manner of mediocrity masquerading as conventional wisdom out of 10