DVD Review: Doomwatch

Starring: John Paul, Simon Oates, Robert Powell


JOHN PAUL as Dr Quist

This mammoth box set brings together all the surviving episodes of one of the iconic series of the early ’70s and a key entry in British sci-fi. Created by Gerry Davis and Kit Pedler – who also dreamt up the Cybermen during their long stint on Doctor Who – it’s a typically brooding, downbeat show in the manner of Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass stories, but whereas Quatermass usually had threats from other planets to deal with, this group are battling problems of humanity’s own devising.

The series resolves around a scientific research department supposed to have oversight of possibly dangerous research projects, led by Dr Spencer Quist (John Paul), a Nobel laureate haunted by memories of his work on the atomic bomb (a “professional busybody” and his “staff of gestapos”, as one disgruntled scientist calls them). Doomwatch is the name of the room-sized supercomputer which helps them identify possible threats (“We’ve got to have more data!” is the constant clarion call), but again and again they find themselves hampered by Whitehall secrecy and the spinelessness of government ministers.

The topics touched upon are often extremely prescient – for example, in the first episode a plane is brought down by a virus originally created to destroy plastic waste (an issue which came to the forefront of people’s minds again with the recent introduction of the plastic bag charge). But the stories can also segue neatly into horror (a strain of sapient rats bred to eat each other but instead feasting on children and doomwatch 1pets). There’s usually a clever puzzle element to each of the tales, as well as a fascination with Whitehall manoeuvring expressed in rich, literate language (“What would you call this, blackmail or bribery?” “Politics. It’s the bastard of both.”). And all the while ethical issues are explored without any dumbing down.

Forty years on, Doomwatch isn’t a thing of beauty to look at, although it does its best to disguise its own limited production values and even comes up with some fun gloopy FX now and then. It was shot on videotape which looks quite soft and grainy on this transfer, and the audio can also be a little weak and reedy. But the quality of the scripts is so high, that even with these provisos it’s a must-have purchase for fans of vintage British science fiction. 8/10


DVD Review: Coppelion – Complete Series Collection

COPPELION 1In this heartfelt 13-parter, a trio of schoolgirls head into a post-nuclear-meltdown Tokyo looking for pockets of survivors. Only they’re not ordinary schoolgirls, they’re clones genetically engineered to be resistant to contaminated environments (even in really short skirts). And with escaped convicts, mysterious military types, evil mutants, super-powerful rogue clones and toxic fly-tippers on the loose, it quickly turns out that their visit to the no-go zone is going to be busier than a night in Vegas.

Initially, there’s something slightly lacklustre about the depiction of the three girls and the early stages of their mission, but as the plot thickens the series becomes much more involving. Interesting new characters emerge, such as a community of hardy survivors who live in a high-tech bunker called The Shelter, and Haruto, the girls’ male counterpart, a languidly cynical schoolboy who works as a one-man clean-up crew. There are some outstandingly fast-moving, dynamic fight sequences, and in the quieter, more reflective moments weighty themes come into play to do with the way these COPPELION 2youthful clones, designed to be perfect, are having to sacrifice themselves to fix the mistakes of humanity – the sins of the fathers visited on the children.

Because it’s a self-contained story, the whole thing has a concentrated power which some more open-ended anime lack, and it steadily builds momentum towards a genuinely moving and nail-biting conclusion. Visually, Coppelion stands out from the crowd too. The use of extra-thick outlines for some of the character designs won’t be to everyone’s taste, but there’s no denying the beauty of the show’s panoramic urban backdrops, done in a scratchy pen-and-ink and watercolour style full of movement and subtle detail. The imagery of the city returning to nature is haunting, making Coppelion one of those rare anime that really lingers in the mind. 8/10

DVD Review: A Traveller in Time

Starring: Sophie Thompson, Gerald James

This BBC TV series from 1978 (based on the classic children’s novel by Alison Uttley) is an engaging mixture of history lesson and timeslip story. Recovering from pneumonia, city girl Penelope (Sophie Thomspon) is sent to stay with her countrified uncle and aunt on their Derbyshire farm, an historic pile that once belonged to a Catholic family involved in a plot to free Mary Queen of Scots from prison. Before she knows it, she’s stepping back into Elizabethan times where she is befriended by various locals who are very handy at providing ye olde exposition …

It’s a show that now has a double timeslip factor, in that one of its main attractions for contemporary viewers is the opportunity it offers to wind back the clock to the rural England of the ’70s. And with some nice location photography and a pleasantly cuddly performance from Gerald James (perhaps best remembered for appearing in the “Railway Station” episode of Sapphire and Steel) as the uncle, the “present day” scenes are very well handled, strongly evocative of log fires, cream teas and long country walks.

Despite humming with plans to tunnel Queen Mary to freedom, the historic scenes haven’t dated quite so well, partly because there’s too much theeing164438 - A Traveller in Time - Sleve.indd and thouing and lute-playing, but mainly because Penelope’s reactions don’t seem to have been thought through very clearly – she seems placidly ready to hang out with her new Elizabethan besties but keeps on mentioning things that only a denizen of the 20th century would know, although luckily they’re too busy doing picturesque but time-consuming chores to notice.

The series is spliced together from a combination of film and video – a common practice back in the ’70s, but in this case, the transition in particularly abrupt because the downstairs of the farmhouse is shot in film and the upstairs on video, with Penelop forever trotting from one to the other. Still, despite these niggles, this is an enjoyable version of a much-loved story, with a clean, attractive transfer on this welcome DVD re-release. 6/10

DVD Review: Dark Matter

Starring: Roger Cross, Zoie Palmer, Anthony Lemke

dark-matter 1Dark Matter starts out a little bit like “Lost” in space as six people (and an android) wake up on an ailing space ship with no recollection of who they are. Mutual suspicion reigns as they realize that one of their number must have wiped their memories on purpose, to be followed by consternation as the things they do find out about themselves all seem to be bad news.

Any keen sci-fi fan will discern in Dark Matter echoes of futures past – the memory loss plot device has more than a hint of the first Ultraviolet movie, while the characters are the usual suspects previously encountered on shows like Andromeda: the sensitive one who wants to help the needy, the jokey cynic, the kickass alpha female, the gamine stowaway who is innocent yet mysterious. Likewise, the situations have a ring of familiarity – beleaguered miners terrorized by mercenaries in the pay of big business, dodgy salvage operations, space viruses.

However, the basic set-up puts a nice twist on things. Just when the show seems about to settle into a Firefly-like rhythm, with the team taking on various crappy jobs to pay their way, the past comes back to the bite them. Their ship, the Raza, harbours various nasty secrets in the form of mysterious dead bodies in storage holds and persistent gremlins that might be sabotage. The creative team behind the show handle the smoke and mirrors very well, paving the way for some bold reveals in a season finale that has plenty of dramatic urgency.

Visually, the show aims for a dark, gritty Ridley Scott-esque look – very successfully in the case of the main Raza set, with its spooky neon lit corridors, but the planetside sequences show some obvious penny-pinching. Thankfully, there’s no dark-matter 2stinting when it comes to the action, and scarcely an episode passes without some well choreo’d (and surprisingly bloody) fisticuffs and gunplay.

This hard edge doesn’t quite extend to the characterization. The crew of the Raza might have their dark side, but compared to your average Celebrity Big Brother house they seem like a bunch of pussycats, and there are times when they positively seem to vie with each other for nobility. Still, there’s grist here for a couple of excellent performances – from Roger Cross as the most avuncular yet dangerous member of the team, and from Zoie Palmer (who generated an unexpected chemistry as the lesbian doctor in Lost Girl) as an android with a touch of passive-aggressive ‘tude. 8/10

33 minutes of featurettes talking about the sets, fight choreography and character arcs. 7/10

DVD Review: Haven Season 5, Part 1

Starring: Emily Rose, Lucas Bryant, Eric Balfour

haven 2Be warned – it’s all getting terribly complicated. For those not in the loop, do-gooder Audrey is now inhabited by the spirit of the evil Mara, who has plans to heap yet more troubles on the humble fishing town of Haven. Some of the embattled locals want to kill her and put an end to their difficulties once and for all, but lovelorn Nathan still believes he can bring Audrey back. Any good news? Well, Duke’s finally cut off his ponytail …

Haven’s engaging mix of small town colour and high concept supernatural menaces shows no sign of flagging in this fifth season. People having their eyes and mouths sewn up, a woman who shoots lasers from her belly button and a plague of dancing bears are just some of the cases that crop up this time round. The twists just keep on coming, but there’s also plenty of scope for the cast to have fun with their roles, as in an episode where grouchy forensic examiner Gloria and burly Chief Dwight swap bodies. Decent CGI and practical FX help make the eruptions of magic convincing, but more importantly so do consistently warm, funny, self-aware scripts.

Emily Rose struggles a bit with her new role – her Mara is more pantomime dame than arch nemesis. But on the plus side Eric Balfour really gets to show his chops as Duke haven 3goes on one helluva story arc, with his own trouble causing him mounting problems and his friendship with Nathan becoming strained. Just occasionally the scriptwriters pile on one or two shock twists too many, but on the whole this box set augurs well for what promises to be a huge second half-season. 8/10

Audio commentaries for every episode. A couple of them sound slightly tinny, but on the whole they’re very enjoyable, with the cast, writers and producers talking about matters such as the use of two-episode storylines in this season and how cold it was shooting in Halifax, Nova Scotia. ~ Two 7-minute dramas exploring the town’s past. ~ 47 minutes of featurettes, with lots of joky chatter between the leads, very much a showcase for Lucas Bryant’s dry sense of humour. 8/10

DVD review: New Tricks Season 12

Starring: Denis Lawson, Nicholas Lyndhurst, Larry Lamb

new-tricks 1This twelfth and final season of the long-running BBC detective show kicks off with a meaty two-parter saying goodbye to Gerry Standing (Dennis Waterman), the last of the original cast, and ushering in his replacement, honest (but highly superstitious) copper Ted, played by Larry Lamb. That done, it’s back to what we’ve come to expect from New Tricks, a selection of nicely turned mysteries sprinkled with humour and winning interplay between the leads.

Unlike Waterman, his replacement Larry Lamb isn’t a big household name, but his casting was presumably down to him having aced the audition, because he brings a mixture of burly solidity and quirky charm to the role of Ted that’s absolutely spot-on. Tamzin Outhwaite continues to have an easy chemistry with the other actors in her mother hen role, and Denis Lawson’s Steve bumbles around in an amusingly fallible manner as the appearance of Ted in their midst compels him to try and up his game in various ways.

The standout performance in these last few seasons though comes from Nicholas new-tricks 2Lyndhurst, who’s pretty much reinvented himself through the role of the Jeeves-like ex-diplomatic minder Danny, and it’s especially nice to see him getting a well-deserved flirt on with forensic pathologist Fiona (Tracy Ann Oberman).

With Lamb in place, the new line up works so well you can’t help feeling the BBC have been a bit premature in pulling the plug on the series. Its team of sleuths may be superannuated and even the suspects are pretty geriatric sometimes, but in its twelfth year New Tricks still feels remarkably fresh and buoyant. 8/10

40 minutes of top moments from the series, enthusiastically introduced by the cast and producers. 6/10

DVD Review: The Green Man

Starring: Albert Finney, Michael Hordern, Josie Lawrence

green-man 1Lovers of well-turned tales of the supernatural will want to snap up the long-awaited DVD release of this BBC three-parter from 1990, adapted by Malcolm Bradbury from Kingsley Amis’ excellent novel. Albert Finney delivers a flamboyant turn as Maurice, the boozy, lecherous proprietor of an up-market Cambridgeshire coaching inn whose reputation for being haunted is just a gimmick for entertaining the guests … until, that is, Maurice starts seeing ghosts himself. Not that this shock to the system stops him trying to bed Diana (Sarah Berger), the wife of the local GP.

Early on in proceedings, director Elijah Moshinsky replaces the subtle chills of Amis’ source novel with some rather more obvious scares, but on the whole the series does a marvellous job of capturing the book’s delicious mix of old dark house mystery and sex farce, its counterbalancing of high-spirited banter and bed-hopping with night terrors and thoughts of mortality. Amis’ clever, Nigel Kneale-like deployment of dusty background documents is also preserved intact, as are the novel’s wonderful setpieces, such as Maurice’s comical attempts to get his wife and mistress into bed together on the afternoon of his father’s funeral.

Shot on film, the series isn’t short of spooky cinematic flourishes and some surprisingly green-man 4decent monster FX, and the whole thing is brilliantly carried by Finney, who gives such a multifaceted, full-blooded performance that you can’t help wishing he’d done more telly work rather than settling into a career of movie cameos. By the way, when the series was originally aired, some critics thought they detected a resemblance between Maurice and Basil Fawlty, but in anything it was Amis’ novel which influenced John Cleese. The DVD transfer is a little soft and scratchy, but this is still an unmissable treat for ghost story aficionados. 10/10