Friday, June 28, 2013

The Cities of That Remote Land Are Not Touched by Modern Civilisation (The Blue Veil)

airdate:  2 October 1960
NATO opening:  yes
NATO openings so far:  2
NATO-less openings so far:  2
Vacation spoiled: no
Vacations spoiled so far: 1

By contrast with the past three episodes, we begin not with a murder but with Drake arriving in a desert location by helicopter, accompanied by Drake’s own voiceover explaining his mission: investigating the slave trade carried on by “Tuaregs” in “Arabia.”  Inasmuch as the Tuaregs are native to northern Africa, whereas Arabia is a subcontinent of Asia, this episode really takes place in a kind of orientalist neverland, with most of the major tropes reliably checked off.  (The “blue veil” of the title is another Tuareg reference [and not a nod to the Jane Wyman movie], but is never mentioned in the actual episode; it may have a double meaning in Drake’s disguise, especially since in Tuareg culture it is traditionally men, rather than women, who are so veiled.)

Drake’s chief adversaries are the local ruler or “moukta” (an older Westernised spelling of “mukhtar” or “muhtar,” meaning an elected village chieftain, which does not seem to describe this wealthy and sinister feudal lord – played by Ferdinand Mayne, who will spend much of his later career playing vampires), and an English slaver “gone native,” with the decidedly inappropriate name of Spooner (a deliciously reptilian performance by Laurence Naismith), who is referred to as “the Fat Man” in an amalgamated homage to Sidney Greenstreet’s character in Casablanca and moniker in The Maltese Falcon. (Spooner refers to Muslim polygamy with the quintessentially English phrase “custom of the country” – I’m thinking of the jurisprudential meaning, not the Jacobean play, though I suppose the latter might be more apt here.  Of course having six wives is not actually the Muslim custom, but artistic license is compassionate and merciful.)  Drake’s (initially grudging) allies are a stranded showgirl whom Spooner is trying to acquire for the moukta’s harem, and a street urchin (with a venomous snake down his shirt) who pledges his service to Drake in exchange for sparing his life.  (Spooner tells the showgirl that women require a protector, and unfortunately nothing in the episode suggests otherwise; she merely trades up in protectors.)

But in this episode the plot is really just a showcase for McGoohan’s delightfully hammy tour de force performance as Drake’s undercover persona, a scruffy “desert rat” (whose antics bear more than a passing resemblance to those of the previous episode’s chuckleheaded millionaire; there’s a goofy smile that McGoohan rarely gives Drake except when Drake is playing a role).  McGoohan’s every move, gesture, and twitch in this episode are riveting to watch.  If the prologue feels rushed, that’s because its job is to get itself over with as quickly as possible in order to get the desert-rat act onstage.  (And ditto, mutatis mutandis, for the ending.)

Smart co-wrote this one with Don Ingalls, best known in sf circles for the Star Trek episodes “The Alternative Factor” and “A Private Little War,” and less happily for, well, this.  (Incidentally, the lighting in this episode is especially effective, for which credit is presumably due either to director Charles Frend or to cinematographer Brendan Stafford.)

This time around Drake is working for the U.N., and is explicitly identified as being American; and once again, as previously, American and/or western intervention is a force for good in a benighted third-world country.  The salutary cynicism of The Prisoner is not yet with us.  All the same, the emphasis put on Drake’s being an “unbeliever” in this episode seems to go beyond merely making the point that he’s not a Muslim; it seems to suggest, positively, that he sees through illusions where others do not, and negatively, that he has not fully committed himself to any particular allegiance – both traits that point forward.

Be seeing you!

No comments:

Post a Comment