Sunday, 15 July 2018

Fall of Eagles: The Appointment

In a way almost the mirror image of Absolute BeginnersThe Appointment is another episode heavy with politics, but this time showing the Russian government's counter-revolution following on from the events of 1905, as seen in the preceding episode Dearest Nicky.

After the assassination of the Tsar's uncle Grand Duke Sergei leads to the sacking of the chief of the police (who is also the chief of the secret police), Nicholas has to choose a successor. Sergei Witte returns from The Last Tsar to make the liberal case for a reformer, but he is up against a conspiracy led by Interior Minister Trepov (David "Drop the Dead Donkey" Swift) to appoint somebody both reactionary and ruthless enough to preserve the status quo in Russia... even if that means going so far as to replace the Tsar himself.

The conspiracy's candidate is Theodore Rachkovsky, played by Michael Bryant, and most of the episode focuses on his attempt to get "the appointment" of the title. Persuading the Tsar is the easy bit, he must also win over the Empress Alexandra, who got him sacked from the job once before for spying on her favourite holy manny du jour, one Father Phillipe. Rachkovsky maintains he was "a charlatan" and, while we don't meet this Phillipe, from his description alone he seems to foreshadow the coming of Rasputin.

Michael Bryant already had form for turning up in a single episode of a series and walking off with it, as this was made two years after he played Wing Commander Marsh in the Colditz episode Tweedledum. His performance here is every bit as compelling as Patrick Stewart's Lenin was in Absolute Beginners, and he almost single-handedly makes this one of the better installments of Fall of Eagles.

Thursday, 12 July 2018

The First Churchills

I have taken a break from watching Fall of Eagles to watch an even older (in both senses) historical BBC drama series, The First Churchills.

Made in 1969 (and so just in time for Monty Python's Flying Circus to come along and make fun of it and period dramas of its ilk), this series stars John "Baron Munchausen" Neville as John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, and Susan Hampshire as Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, and is set over the course of their life together, from 1673 when they first met through to 1714 when Queen Anne died.

Their lives are divided up into 12 episodes, with the first two concentrating on their meeting, falling in love, and then marrying. The rest sees one or both of them getting involved in major political and military matters of the day, due to their closeness to a succession of Kings and Queens of Britain: first Charles ii (who takes his doggy with him everywhere), then his brother James vii, then his daughter and son-in-law Mary and William, then finally her sister Anne.

Other major characters include John's best friend Sidney Godolphin (John Standing, Sam Collins in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), and Sarah's best friend - for a while - Queen Anne is played by Margaret "Antonia" Tyzack.

As with I Claudius and Fall of Eagles, there are a lot of minor characters who come and go over the course of the series, either for a single episode or else recurring as required. Some of the most notable include Michael "Captain Needa" Culver as John's brother Charles Churchill, (which is noteworthy mainly because there does seem to be a close physical resemblance between the two actors), Kevin Stoney makes his obligatory one-scene appearance (here as an Archbishop), and the main antagonist of the series is the French King Louis xiv, played by Robert Robinson (no, not that one, would that it were).

In the later episodes John Churchill is captain-general of all of Britain's army, and spends most of his time fighting wars against France. Due to the nature of this sort of series, we see virtually nothing of the actual battles - a handful of soldiers and a single cannon, in a field and on film, stand as shortpaw for the entire army. What we see is the generals and other important mannys making their plans and receiving reports in their tents, and in its own way this is just as enthralling, while being far easier on the BBC budget.

This is an interesting period of history, and this series gives viewers a solid overview of it, using the OTP of John and Sarah Churchill as POV characters gives it a unique perspective and sense of thematic cohesion. However, they are portrayed as unambiguous goodys throughout, so it may not be totally historically accurate. This could be because the series was based on the book Marlborough: His Life and Times by a manny who, by a curious coincidence, had the same surname as the Churchills.

Sunday, 1 July 2018

Fall of Eagles: Dearest Nicky

The middle of the series, and this is the first plot to properly crossover two of the countries. The framing device is Kaiser Wilhelm writing letters to Tsar Nicholas to offer him unsolicited advice on how to rule Russia, beginning each one with the "Dearest Nicky" of the title. He also likes sending the Tsar awful allegorical paintings featuring the two Emperors in the picture (and with the Kaiser depicted more flatteringly than the Tsar), which the Russians are too diplomatic to refuse.

Nicholas and Alexandra are, to begin with, more concerned with their pet project of getting a supposed holy manny canonised as a saint than the business of government, to such an extent that Nicholas prefers seeing the Archbishop (John Welsh, probably best known for being the Emerald Seer in Krull) over meeting with his ministers.

This changes when Japan attacks Russia and starts a war. Both Tsar and Kaiser show their racism, calling the Japanese "little yellow men", and expect an easy Russian victory to begin with. Early signs that this will not be the case come when Russian naval incompetence leads to the Dogger Bank incident - we don't see this on screen, of course, just hear about it through the medium of the Kaiser's exposition-delivering letters.

Father Gapon (Kenneth "Admiral Piett" Colley) is a priest who is also a police spy in a trade union, but after von Plehve gets assassinated (a black comedic moment as he tries to close his carriage door to keep the bomb out, only to shut himself inside with it) he properly goes over to the side of the union and begins a strike that leads to an attempt at revolution. Colley gives a magnificent speech full of rhetoric as he whips up the workers into revolting, and we also see him manipulate the workers by using the authority the Russian Orthodox church has over them.

Again we see the bad influence Nicholas and Alexandra have upon each other as they refuse to listen to advice from anyone else, which leads to them sending cavalry in to massacre the strikers.

The news from the war gets worse as Russia's fleet is sunk, and Kaiser Wilhelm sees this time of their weakness as an opportunity to get a treaty signed with Russia, even though Russia is currently allied to Germany's enemy France. His minister von B├╝low says he'll be impressed if the Kaiser can pull it off, but for a while it seems as if Wilhelm's policy of "monarch speaking to monarch" has succeeded - a hilarious scene as the Tsar and Kaiser meet, over the top of which we hear Wilhelm's unreliable narration of what happened.

Nicholas signs the treaty and for a moment it looks like the two Emperors are about to kiff (Wilhelm/Nicholas OTP FTW!!111), then there is a hard cut to the room of Russian ministers refusing to ratify the treaty, for the very sensible reason that it would undo 15 years of their diplomacy with France.

On top of all of this, for Nicholas and Alexandra, there is their personal worry about their baby son Alexei who has hemophilia. This weighs upon Nicholas even more than the rest of his and Russia's problems (war, revolution, and Germany "helping"), as shown by the unusual way the episode ends - the Tsar is cut off halfway through a sentence, with his worry about his son the unsaid part. What we don't hear him say only serves to emphasise to us what he is feeling, a clever way to end things.

Sunday, 24 June 2018

Fall of Eagles: Absolute Beginners

The opening narration by Michael "Gandalf" Hordern sets the scene:
"Tsar Nicholas ii - sentimental, petulant - practises the divine right to rule at his palace outside St Petersburg, and frowns at a changing world. Minister of the Interior von Plehve, more vigorous by nature, organises repression with system, if not subtlety. Both in Russia and beyond her frontiers, the question is no longer 'whether revolution?' but 'how?' and 'led by whom?'"

Aside from bookending scenes featuring Tsar Nicholas and von Plehve (played by Bruce "Bargain Basement BRIAN BLESSEDalike" Purchase, who does have the ability to tone down the ham when he's not doing sci-fi, it seems), this episode is a character study of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known to the world as Lenin, played by Patrick "Karla" Stewart. This was an early role in his career and Stewart gives an absolute tour de force throughout, and makes this one of the best episodes of the series.

Since the previous episode, Lenin has been forced into exile from Russia with his wife. He goes to London and meets up with an old friend, Julius Martov. They work towards founding the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, but we see the differences slowly creep in between them, and Lenin's character is such that he always puts his own ambition, for his Party to work the way he wants it to, as being more important than his friendships. And Stewart captures that coldness and ruthlessness very well.

Other characters we meet along the way include Trotsky, an early role for Michael "John Farrow" Kitchen. Trotsky switches allegiances between Lenin and Martov to further his own ambitions, and seems better able than Martov to not take the infighting personally.

The leader of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party is Plekhanov, played by Paul "Immaculate, I'd say" Eddington. He has arranged for the Party to hold its second conference, which Lenin wants to use to reshape the Party in line with his vision of what is necessary for the Party to be able to lead revolution in Russia.

The conference begins in Brussels, where Lenin has to do a deal with Plekhanov for his support, and part of that deal is that Lenin has to withdraw his own support from Trotsky. The conference is then broken up by the Belgian police, leaving Lenin and Trotsky to confront each other over the betrayal that has just taken place.

The conference resumes in London where, despite Lenin's cunning attempt to get himself two votes, Martov defeats him. Lenin then pulls every dirty trick he can to get control back, in the events that would split the party into Bolshevik (Majority) and Menshevik (Minority) factions.

More than any other episode of Fall of Eagles, this matches the stereotypical "mannys talking in rooms" image of old TV costume dramas, and the audience is not spoon-fed what is going on with all the political infighting and double-dealing, you are expected to be able to keep up all by yourself.

It isn't action-packed chases and explosions, but it is fascinating, riveting stuff.

Wednesday, 20 June 2018

The Owl Service

A small cast of characters. An isolated location. A lot of supernatural things happening for inadequately explained reasons. It's like a Sapphire & Steel story where Sapphire and Steel don't turn up.

The Owl Service is an eight-part TV series from 1969 starring Edwin "Captain Hart" Richfield. Like Sapphire & Steel's first assignment, it appears to have been made for little mannys to watch, but is really far weirder and scarier than it probably ought to be.

Three of the characters - Roger, Alison and Gwyn - are obviously being played by mannys who are significantly older than the characters they are playing, and one character - Alison's mother Margaret - doesn't appear at all.

The fantastical element, where a Welsh legend repeats itself every generation and it is up to Roger, Alison and Gwyn to see if they can break the cycle or else suffer the same tragic fate as Gwyn's parents, is even subtler than in Sapphire & Steel. Several episodes in the middle pass without any sign of it at all, before it ramps up in the final part for a sudden, dramatic, albeit rather rushed, ending.

Any fan of Sapphire & Steel should give this series a look.

Sunday, 17 June 2018

Fall of Eagles: The Last Tsar

We've had two episodes on Austria, two episodes on Germany, and so now the series turns its attention to the third eagle: Russia. There Alexander iii is the Tsar, and his son and heir is Nicholas, played by Charles "Pendleton" Kay.

Nicholas has no interest in politics, and spends all his time drinking and playing games with his friends, or carrying on a relationship with ballerina Mathilde Kschessinska (Jan Francis, Lisa in Secret Army). His parents want him to marry a princess, not a ballerina, and considering the difficulty he has breaking it off with Mathilde, it becomes clear just how indecisive and generally useless he is.

The princess he chooses is Alexandra "Alix" of Hesse-Darmstadt, and while his parents do not approve of her because she is German, it does meet with the approval of both Queen Victoria and, especially, Kaiser Wilhelm - Barry Foster making a short appearance in the episode to practically order Nicholas to propose to Alix immediately.

Princess Alix is played by Gayle Hunnicutt (Irene Adler in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes). Nicholas's lack of tact means he makes a mess of his proposal by talking about his affairs to Alix, but then they do appear to come to genuinely love each other.

Sadly, they are going to prove to be very bad influences on each other, with their shared conviction that the Tsar is appointed by god and can therefore do no wrong and need not share power with anyone else. There are early signs of that here as Alix ignores advice from those around her, even her own sister.

No sooner are they engaged when Tsar Alexander falls ill and is probably dying, and Nicholas has to face the fact that he will be Tsar very soon. The Russian liberals, represented by industrialist Sergei Witte (Freddie Jones, Claudius in The Caesars, Ynyr in Krull, among many other roles) and professor Paul Miliukov (David "Monkey" Collings), hope they can influence him into being more of a reformer than his father.

Witte is actually doing very nicely out of the status quo, but he fears that if Russia does not modernise at least a little, their whole system could be threatened by revolutionaries.

In the leader of these revolutionaries we meet the final main character of Fall of Eagles, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, played by Patrick "Sejanus" Stewart. He is only in a couple of scenes in this episode, meeting his future wife Nadezhda Konstantinovna Krupskaya for the first time as he takes over her secret group just by being better at organising than the rest of them are, and by actually having a plan.

In the closing scenes Tsar Alexander dies, and there is a brief appearance from Kevin Stoney as the priest who officially recognises Nicholas as Tsar Nicholas ii. His only dialogue is a long list of the many titles Nicholas has inherited, which carry on even as the credits start to roll.

Friday, 15 June 2018

Once Upon a Time-Lord...

Once Upon a Time~Lord... (the comics love ellipses so much they're even making their way into titles now) is a direct continuation from the end of Polly the Glot, with the Doctor pursuing the renegade Time Lord Astrolabus who has penguinnapped Frobisher.

The TARDIS scanner proves to be useless, showing "an empty world, devoid of life" while we can see it has countryside, buildings, hot air balloons, Little Red Riding Hoods, and Black Riders.

As soon as the Doctor steps out of the TARDIS he is attacked by a Black Rider and cries out
"By Elbereth and Luthien the fair, you shall have neither the ring nor me!"
Even the Doctor is confused why he said that, but then Frobisher arrives and starts speaking in a strange way:
"I've been having a lovely time, Doctor! Come and meet some of my merry chums!"
"Merry chums? You're a guttersnipe from a slum on some backwater planet... you've never had a merry chum in your life!"
I can just imagine Colin Baker shouting "merry chums?" three times if it had been him delivering this dialogue. The Doctor seems to accept that this is the real Frobisher, but he doubts that the other things in the land are real, including the talking tree they meet. The Doctor has plenty of experience with illusionary landscapes, such as in The Mind Rober, The Deadly Assassin, or The Penalty, so he knows they have a "dark side" as well (although he may be thinking of The Force there).

Astrolabus is watching them and decides to let the little mannys and aliens in his audience choose their fate:
"Only you can decide, children! So on with your thinking caps... and let the story commence!"

Astrolabus is so powerful that he changes the very nature of the comic strip. For the next three pages the Doctor and Frobisher are trapped in a six-panel strip with rhyming couplets beneath each picture, and the main story told in text form at the bottom.

The perils they face are those of old-school adventure stories. The badger is friendly enough, although my friend Longdog is still suspicious of him, but the eyes in the woods are sinister.
"It's only the little people who live in the woods." "Yes, Doctor," replies Frobisher. "But what kind of little people? It seems to me that they're the kind of p-people who like to p-pick up a p-penguin!
Lol! Although a possibly trademark-infringing lol at that. Frobisher tries to run away and gets captured by primitive little mannys from before the era of Political Correctness, who intend to nom him.
"Don't they know they can't do that?" gasps the Doctor. "It would be too horrible, too tragic. Why, penguins taste awful and give you terrible heartburn!"
The Doctor is too busy making this joke to rescue Frobisher, but luckily Frobisher gets rescued by a passing Tarzanalike. The comic goes back to normal as the Doctor and Frobisher run towards a castle and get chased by a giant, but now Astrolabus has taken over the caption boxes.

While it seems as though the Doctor and Frobisher are escaping from the successive perils pretty easily, it is revealed that this is because the Doctor is mentally fighting Astrolabus for control of the story - when Astrolabus is dominant there is a new threat, but when the Doctor is in control they can get away.

In the castle, the Doctor finds Astrolabus and challenges him. They swordfight until the Doctor uncovers one of Astrolabus's arms, where he sees "the missing star charts" have been drawn. Astrolabus runs away and the Doctor chases him across a number of panels depicting different genres until Astrolabus gets even more meta and says
"Got to... get through... door. Short cut to... next page..."

"Made it! I'm in the clear! Out in the open! Untrammelled! Unshackled! Free!
If I can just make it to the next episode!"

"But what's this? I feel a power greater than my own! I'm losing control! It's taking over! By Odin's beard... que pasa?"

"Oh no! It can't be!! Not at this stage of the game! Please! Say it isn't so!"

On a minimalist page showing only Astrolabus and his footprints against a white void background, we see Astrolabus's costume has changed. Voyager arrives upon a ship of the desert (Clever. Clever. Clever.) as the Doctor uncovers Astrolabus to reveal his body is covered in the charts.

Voyager finally explains what the plot has been about.
"You stole the sacred charts for the secrets and the power they contained. For access to the last, the most mysterious dimension of all...
The dimension of death! 
You shall have your wish!
Death will be your dominion!"

He blasts Astrolabus with "a hurricane force" and then turns his camel around and leaves, telling the Doctor
"I have claimed that which is mine... you are free now, Timelord... you are free..."
Although Astrolabus is also a Time Lord, so there is an ambiguity as to which one of the two Voyager is talking to there.

The Doctor asks Astrolabus the question that's insoluble for manny or machine. The final exchange between them, as Astrolabus lies hidden behind a rock except for his withered hand, hints at something even more epic in scope than even that which we have seen.
"Such a shame... Doctor... that you had no interest... in my powers. You would have made... a worthy... successor...
You were just getting... the hang of it!"
"I follow nobody, Astrolabus. I'm free... I go my own way!"
"Aah, Doctor... How can you know?
How can you know... how long... I have been writing your life?
What will you do?
Now that I'm...

Astrolabus's castle explodes, in accordance with the rule of No Ontological Inertia. The Doctor and Frobisher find themselves back at the Ridgway Ringway Carnival, where Frobisher suggests visiting "the tattooed man" but the Doctor declines, saying
"I'd much rather go somewhere else."
and looking sad to show that he regards Astrolabus's death as a waste, and that this is not a totally happy ending after all.

Once Upon a Time~Lord... completes the story arc begun back in Voyager by tying up the Astrolabus-Voyager conflict. The sections where the different characters are playing with the medium of comic-strip storytelling is fantastically meta, and ensures that this is like nothing that could be done in the TV series (which would have a go at playing around with its own medium in Vengeance on Varos about the same time). As a result this a very distinctive, memorable conclusion to the plot, and sends off the characters of Astrolabus and Voyager in style.