Two that didn’t work for me (and why)

Can we learn from failure? With the obvious caveat that one viewer’s failure is another viewer’s work of genius, yes. Caution: spoilers ahead.

UNDERMIND (1965) is a British series I started watching for The Aliens Are Here, then dropped when it didn’t appear to have an ET element (I was wrong, but I’m focused primarily on US TV so no big). Anne Herriot (Rosemary Nicols) and her brother-in-law Drew (Jeremy Wilkin) discover Drew’s brother Frank has been brainwashed into committing acts of sabotage. Frank is unusually sensitive to high frequency sound, which is the method fo control; Drew and Anne stop the sabotage plot (Frank dies) but realize there are others out there. The enemy, whoever they are, will stop at nothing to see Britian … undermined.

What follows is a variety of plotlines dealing with ripped-from-the-headlines stuff (prostitution, corrupt politicians and juvenile delinquency) mixed in with more tongue in cheek stories: using children’s books to make them accepting of human sacrifice, arranging for incompetent students to cheat on their tests so that Britain’s best will be incompetent, unimaginative failures. A plot about Irish opposition to British rule treats the Irish as comic-relief seniors when (according to this review) the “Troubles” were already ramping up. The comedy could have worked on The Avengers but we’re supposed to take Undermind more seriously.

Doctor Who writer Robert Holmes comes on for the last two episodes and does as good a job as possible wrapping things up. It turns out “Undermind” is extraterrestrial-based (they’d hedged on the possibility before) but the sonic brainwashing is wearing off; an agent in British intelligence tries to reboot their puppets but fails. In the process we learn their agenda is to build a stargate that will bring their invasion forces to Earth. Of course that raises the question of why they bother with tricks involving children’s literature or discrediting politicians; we don’t get an answer. On the whole it’s watchable, but not satisfying. And the ending for Anne — she’s dating one of the security men they met in the course of the adventure — comes as out of the blue as Leila pairing off at the end of Doctor Who: Invasion of Time. “You can’t legislate against an alien radio signal!”

IN THE SHADOW OF THE MOON (2019) is a lot less watchable. In 1988, several people’s heads mysteriously explode; Lockhart (Boyd Holbrook), a cop, becomes convinced there’s a serial killer behind it.When he meets her, Rya (Cleopatra Coleman) knows a lot about him and also that she’s going to die, accidentally, in a matter of minutes. She does — but several years later there’s another wave of exploding heads and Rya shows up again.

Having literally written the book on movie time travel. it wasn’t hard to guess that Rya was a time traveler, and that she was also Lockhart’s granddaughter. In a more entertaining movie that would be forgivable but this one’s too much a plodding obsessed cop vs. relentless killer yarn.

What makes it a failure, though, is the backstory. It turns out Rya isn’t killing at random: she’s changing the future to prevent a 2024 terrorist incident (implied to be 9/11 level) followed by civil war. Rya is using time-travel tech developed by Dr. Rao (Rudi Dharmalingam), who explains her mission to Lockhart midway through the film. Rather than just kill the people who led the country into Civil War, she’s out to kill the people who inspired them with their ideas. His comparison is that to stop the 1860 Civil War it wouldn’t be enough to kill Lincoln, Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee — you’d have to kill the people who influenced and inspired them to see Civil War as the answer.

Dude, WTF? Are writers Gregory Weidman and Geoff Tock seriously equating Jefferson Davis, who led a secessionist nation founded on race-based slavery, with Abraham Lincoln, an opponent of slavery? And the script makes it sound as if civil war was the idea in 1860, rather than stemming from two conflicting underlying ideas, that humans can become property or that they can’t. Spoiler, these ideas are not comparable; it’s not “there’s some good and bad on both sides.” Slavery is bad. Treating human beings as property is bad.

Nor is it easy to see how this maps to a near-future civil war, but perhaps that’s the point. By implying both sides in whatever conflict lies ahead are equally objectionable the movie doesn’t have to take sides; by not saying what the conflict is about, it avoids offending anyone. But when you’re going back and killing people who, according to Rao, are not directly responsible for what happened, it requires a clear case to convince me that right is on Rya’s side (Lockhart eventually sides with her). If the movie were a lot better otherwise, that would still sink it for me. “If it begins with you warning me here on this beach then it always ends with me dying.”

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Filed under Movies, Now and Then We Time Travel, TV, Writing

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