Sunday, January 1, 2012

We Girls Always Like To Be Taken Seriously (Time to Kill)

airdate:  18 September 1960
NATO opening:  yes
NATO openings so far:  1
NATO-less openings so far:  1
Vacation spoiled: no
Vacations spoiled so far: 1

[As always:  SPOILERS BELOW.]

Never trust a woman. – The Prisoner, “Dance of the Dead”

You, me, handcuffs: must it always end this way? – Another show entirely

A professor at a party reaches for the mango chutney and falls dead, a bullet through his heart. 

Another Clemens script – this time in collaboration with Ian Stuart Black, who was also the show’s associate producer, and who would go on to pen several more episodes in the first series.  (He’s perhaps better known today as the writer of the Doctor Who episodes “The Savages,” “The War Machines,” and “The Macra Terror.”)  Showrunner Ralph Smart directs this time.  Effective location shooting (Wales again, standing in for Hungary), and fancy props like a helicopter, are indicative of the show’s relatively large budget by 1960 British standards.  These early episodes feature voiceover narration by the protagonist, a device that rarely works well, and doesn’t work well here – but everything else does.

The dead chutney fancier is Dr. Barkoff, a defector from an unnamed but evidently Soviet-bloc country; the killer is Hans Vogeler, an agent of a rogue intelligence service in that country; and Drake is assigned to track Vogeler down.  His task is complicated by a Swedish schoolteacher, Lisa Orin, who keeps interfering, either by chance or – as Drake quickly comes to suspect – by design.

As in most of these early episodes, then, Drake is paired with a woman.  In the previous episode, Gina Scarlotti turned out to be involved in the case despite being introduced in such a way as to avoid initially raising the audience’s suspicions; in the present episode, by contrast, Lisa Orin’s introduction is precisely calculated to heighten the audience’s suspicions (and Drake’s), but she turns out to be a genuinely innocent bystander. (Owing to McGoohan’s own insistence, these pairings are not romantic – though Drake did seem to be showing a more than professional interest last time in Scarlotti.)  The women unfortunately tend to fall into the cower-in-the-corner-while-the-hero-and-villain-fight category (though this time Orin has the excuse of not being entirely sure that Drake is the hero); but both Scarlotti and Orin are at least portrayed as strong, intelligent women capable of challenging Drake’s certainty.

The title “Time to Kill” is triply ambiguous; the primary meaning is that this is a time when killing should be done (a thesis whose truth is debated between Drake and Orin), but Orin’s unexpected return to the hunting lodge in the final scene also distracts Vogeler long enough to give Drake “time to kill” him.  The third meaning would be that Drake has time to kill in the sense of time to waste, though this seems not to apply.

The episode features two now-familiar genre tropes:  an assassin assembling a gun out of apparently unrelated bits of stuff; and two fugitives unwillingly handcuffed together, forced to cooperate and then coming to respect each other.  I don’t know how familiar the gun trope would have been in 1960; the best known examples come from later sources like The Man With the Golden Gun and Day of the Jackal, and this page doesn’t cite anything earlier (though it doesn’t cite this episode either, so it’s evidently incomplete).  The handcuff trope, by contrast, has pre-1960 antecedents

Upon arriving in Vogeler’s nation of origin (never named, but the country is described as bordering Austria, the signs appear – despite Vogeler’s German name – to be in Hungarian, the name of Vogelers employers sounds like “A.V.O.” (the acronym of Hungarys actual secret police), and references to “the revolution” of “some years” ago might indicate the Hungarian Uprising of 1956), Drake is told by a state official (Edward Hardwicke, probably best known as the 2nd Dr. Watson to Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes):  “You understand the conditions governing your tour of our country?  You must keep to the prescribed routes, stay only at state-registered hotels, you must obey all security signs, stop at all checkpoints, carry your papers at all times, and be prepared to submit to military and police inspections.  I wish you a pleasant visit to our country.”  (He might as well invite Drake to be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, and numbered.)  Ironically, this occurs immediately after Drake has heard Lisa Orin opining that the country they are visiting is as democratic as any other.  Read one way, this could be a satire on left-wing naïveté about Communist countries; it’s surely no coincidence that Orin is depicted as hailing from neutral Sweden, rather than from a NATO member like Norway or Denmark or Iceland. Read another way – through the lens of The Prisoner’s insistence on the essential identity of oppression in both East and West – it could be taken instead, against the grain of Orin’s intention, as inviting reflection on the ways in which similar if subtler authoritarianism already pervades western societies.  (And the portrayal of the Hungarian intelligence service as operating on its own, ignoring its government’s current policy of détente with the west, naturally suggests the question whether western intelligence services ever do likewise – a potential nod in the direction of The Prisoner.)

This episode continues the previous episode’s theme of Drake’s annoyance with his superiors – first at the trivial level, as Drake makes fun of their cloak-and-dagger business with passwords (whereupon his agency contact looks at him blankly, without a scintilla of humour), and then more seriously, as Drake refuses to assassinate Vogeler, insisting on trying to bring him in alive.  When told that it “amounts to the same thing” since Vogeler will doubtless be executed after capture, Drake replies:  “That’s not my business.”  Drake thus demonstrates enough moral independence to resist the agency’s demand that he act as their assassin, but evidently not quite enough to admit to himself that one can hardly disclaim all responsibility for a death if one turns a prisoner over to those one knows will kill him.  (Drake’s moral discomfort with his job may already be indicated during the opening credits, by the less than enthusiastic way that he refers to the kind of “messy job” that gets assigned to “someone like me.”)

The ethics of Drake’s profession are further explored in the clash between Drake and Orin.  They exchange credos: speaking of her pupils, Orin says, “I teach them that men are good, that violence is wicked; and I also teach them not to distrust their fellows” – to which Drake responds, “There are some men who thrive on hate, Miss Orin; they make a profession out of war.  They aren’t many, but they’re dangerous, and they have to be stopped.”  Yet doesn’t Drake too “make a profession out of war”?  His reasons for killing Vogeler are the same as Vogeler’s reasons for killing Barkoff – preemptive defense.  (Barkoff’s research presumably has military applications.)  Don’t Drake and Vogeler both fall, at least broadly, into the “someone like me” category? 

No clear winner emerges from the ethical debate.  On the one hand, Orin’s pacifist stance is apparently “disproven” by the eventual necessity of killing Vogeler (though ironically, Orin’s own intervention is what makes impossible Drake’s original plan of capturing Vogeler instead); and her idealistic assessment of the Hungarian government is clearly intended to be undercut by the sight of border guards in the background searching Drake’s car while she talks blithely about international understanding.  But on the other hand, the guards were quite right to be suspicious of Drake’s car and should in fact have searched it still more carefully; Orin’s opposition to assassination parallels Drake’s own qualms; and Drake’s attitude of automatic distrust – a paranoia later to be counseled by the “extra” lyrics of “Secret Agent Man” (advising distrust of women in particular), and subsequently reinforced by the endless deceptions and betrayals in The Prisoner – is apparently “disproven” by Orin’s turning out to be just who she says she is.  Thus neither hawks nor doves receive unambiguous confirmation in this Cold War tale.

The fact that Orin is a woman no doubt contributes to Drake’s misperception of her intentions.  As I’ve noted elsewhere:
[I]n a patriarchal culture, women are constructed as enigmatic and deceptive, while men are plain-dealing, reliable comrades for other men .... In a culture where men subordinate and objectify women, it’s no surprise that men have trouble perceiving women’s subjectivity ....
But in addition, Drake’s own profession, with its associated habits of mistrust, surely makes it harder for him to trust anybody.  And of course, given that profession, those habits are vital to his survival; yet they are also portrayed as deforming his capacity for ordinary human interaction.  “I said that I was a schoolteacher, but I’m not. What exactly are you, Miss Orin?”

Alongside the ambiguity as to whether Drake should kill Vogeler is the ambiguity as to whether he does kill him.  Vogeler accidentally shoots himself by striking the trigger as both men are wrestling for the gun; Orin tells Drake that Vogeler’s responsibility is Vogeler’s rather than Drake’s, but that surely stretches the truth.

The ambiguity as to Drake’s own identity persists as well.  When asked “Where do you come from – the States?” Drake replies with a grunt that I think is supposed to be “Ireland,” thus apparently contradicting the implication in the previous episode that he hails from New England.  Of course he is undercover when he so grunts, so it may not be intended as accurate.

Only two episodes in, and we’re already in a maze of mirrors ....

Be seeing you!