Jul 1, 2010

DVD Review: Saracen: The Complete Series

DVD Review: Saracen: The Complete Series

I never had the opportunity to watch Saracen (1989) when it aired on television because in late 80s America, there really wasn’t a market for British shows of this sort (even though the producers of this one seem to have been catering to an American market with the presence of an annoying American co-star). If it wasn’t masterpiece enough for Masterpiece Theater (this isn’t) nor mysterious enough for Mystery! (eh, it might have passed muster), then forget about it. (As we Americans are apparently wont to say.) I read about it, though, with great curiosity during the ensuing decades: a Dalton-era British action/adventure series? My interest was piqued. Now, thanks to Network, I’ve finally had the opportunity to watch Saracen. My expectations had been suitably dulled by what I’d read online–and particularly by the comments that my first post about the show’s DVD release inspired. With lowered expectations, would the show exceed my wildest dreams? Or would it live down to the notoriety? Neither, I’m afraid to report. It isn’t terrific television, but it isn’t exceedingly bad either. It merely exists, and in that existence provides thirteen reasonably entertaining ways to pass the hours and a brief glimpse into the mindset of an era.

Saracen Systems isn’t a government spy agency; it’s a private international security firm–a proto-Blackwater–from the days when such a firm could be looked upon heroically and wasn’t yet the de rigeur bad guy that it is today for movies like Edge of Darkness and The A-Team. The main characters are established quite succinctly in the distinctive–and very 80s– “computer file screen” introduction (complete with glowing green beepy text) present on the first several episodes. There’s David Barber, “ex-Irish Guards and SAS.” He’s the Brit, played by Christian Burgess. “Tom Duffy, US Army Airborne and Delta Force.” The token yank (Patrick James Clarke). Supporting players include “Alice Kavanagh (pert blonde Ingrid Lacey), ex-Foreign Office and MI6. Recruited as Saracen Intelligence Officer 1985. Eric Nugent (John Bennett), ex-Metropolitan Police CID and Special Branch. Now head of operations, Saracen Systems” and finally, “Patrick Ansell, ex-Grenadier Guards. Formed Saracen Systems, Limited in 1982, to provide specialized security services to VIPs, corporations and governments.” Colonel Ansell is the boss, and the most compelling character in the series. He’s played very ably by Michael Byrne. Byrne is one of those actors whose name you might not know, but whose face you definitely do. His highest-profile role was probably as the Nazi villain Vogel in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (the one who goes over the cliff in a tank, screaming), but he also pops up lots of other places, including as the bald admiral aboard the HMS Bedford in Tomorrow Never Dies. (Other genre appearances from the same era include The Saint and The Sum of All Fears.) Byrne brings touches to Ansell that elevate the character above the standard “military boss” mold he so easily could have fit into. For example, he imbues the Colonel with a charming restlessness. This isn’t a man who sits patiently as Nugent reports bad news; instead he manically spins around in his desk chair as he contemplates the gravity of the situation. (This habit leads to the most original shot in the pilot, a close up in which Byrne’s head rotates in and out of the frame as he spins.)

The first episode, “Decoy,” digs a hole for its characters from the start by establishing them right off the bat as a rather ineffectual security force. As Barber and Duffy guard some champagne-swilling rich men and their bikini-clad playmates on a yacht docked on the Spanish Riviera, a motorcycle revs sinisterly on land, its two riders’ faces obscured behind black helmets. From all the revving and suspicious loitering, it’s obvious to viewers what isn’t to the professionals: these motorcycle guys are about to kill one of their charges. Sure enough, they do–in fairly spectacular style. The passenger opens fire with an Uzi and then the driver tears away, pulling off a very impressive jump on the docks and scattering enough local vendors’ flowers for a Bond movie. With their charge dead, this protection team quickly find themselves solving a whodunit. That would be just fine for a show about detectives, but since these are security specialists whose job it was to keep the victim alive, it’s a little embarrassing. It also sets a precedent for the series to come: Duffy and Barber lose a fair percentage of those they’re hired to protect.

In a neat twist, it quickly transpires that the motorcycle stunt that looked like it could have been from a Bond film looked that way because it was indeed a stunt, pulled off by professional stuntmen. Alice somehow gets that idea from talking to a couple of Spanish eyewitnesses whose only discernable English amidst a torrent of Spanish is “James Bond.” Lacey is appealing (especially if you like 80s perms) and Alice is a pretty sharp cookie, despite being spanked and condescended to by her male co-workers. I guess that was just the reality of the era. Duffy and Barber turn their attention to tracking down the stunties in question and then keeping them alive long enough to find out who hired them. On this account, they end up batting .500, which is a good average in baseball, but really not so much in personal protection. The assassins after the stuntmen use the old milk bottle bomb trick that served Necros so well in The Living Daylights and just wouldn’t be possible in America, where the mere presence of a milkman would set off all sorts of alarm bells! (Are there still milkmen in England?) The action keeps bouncing between England and Spain (the seaside setting is quite beautiful whether it’s really Spain or not, but I’d hazard that it is), and the conclusion is... complex, to put it nicely. One could be forgiven for asking oneself, “Wait! Who are all those guys with guns?” at the end of any number of episodes of Saracen, including this one.

Overall, “Decoy” is indeed exemplary of the series to come, both in highs and lows. It sets the template for good action–especially on a TV budget, dense plotting and an appealing supporting cast. It also sets the pattern for downbeat endings in which politics and business trump morals. That’s fine (in fact, it makes the show considerably more interesting than some other action hours of the era), but when it results too often in the deaths of the protectors’ charges, it does undermine the credibility of the heroes just a bit. And, honestly, they don’t really have that much cred to begin with. The two leads are the weakest links in the series. Duffy is too annoying and Barber is too bland. Burgess pulls off some Daltonesque smoldering, but lacks the then-current 007's charisma. Strong and silent? Ok, but he could still be interesting! Or charming instead of dour. Clarke is frequently annoying as Duffy, as Americans inevitably are on British shows. He also favors the white linen sport coat and jeans look that was so popular on American TV at the time, but doesn’t age that well. And he says “fuggedaboutit,” which I guess Brits think all Americans say. The chemistry in the whole group is off when it involves either of the two leads. What seems intended as sharp banter frequently falls flat (such as the Brit calling the American a “neanderthal moron” and the American retorting that the Brit is a “pompous dickhead” in a later episode). Yet sometimes, as (for the most part) in the first episode, it works, somehow. Perhaps the success or failure lies with the director and not the stars? Whatever the case, Barber and Duffy fail to ever click like The Professionals, Bodie and Doyle, as they so clearly want to.

Saracen is most intriguing viewed as a time capsule to an interesting era, from which there are far fewer spy (and spy-related) shows than earlier in the Cold War. Storylines involve real countries and seem frequently “ripped from the headlines,” as they say. In “Infidels,” Saracen is hired to protect an Arab princess, but it turns out that she might be in on a plot to assassinate the leader of the country, who’s also one of their clients. Meanwhile, the private firm inadvertently becomes entangled in a British Intelligence operation, MI6 having recently lost an agent who was placed in the princess’s camp. This development spawns the first of many meetings that Ansell will have with shady intelligence guys at his club throughout the series. There’s also an arranged marriage in the mix, and Duffy gets a rather unconvincing love story with the princess. There’s a lot of gunplay, too, all of which I enjoyed. The action is generally handled well on Saracen, and the fact that it takes place against the very real geopolitical backdrop of the late 1980s makes the series fairly unique and fairly fascinating to watch today.

“Proof of Death” finds the Saracen team in the Philippines attempting to negotiate the release of British journalists kidnapped by rebels. From the start, however, nothing goes as planned, and Alice manages to get herself kidnapped as well while attempting to broker an exchange. The CIA and American mercenaries are also in on the act, as is the main journalist’s loose cannon brother, who proves the X factor in the whole equation. It’s an interesting setting, but not a very compelling episode overall.

“Robbers” strikes a strange comedic tone at odds with most of the series. It begins with Duffy somehow using his neanderthal dance moves to pick up two chicks for a threesome. He then spoils any coolness of the moment by turning to the camera as the ladies leave and exclaiming, “Man!” with a shit-eating grin on his face. He and Barber are tasked with protecting an armored truck delivery of some diamonds, but of course it gets stolen out from under their noses by a pair of very suspicious “painters” who just happen to be working in the doorway receiving the delivery. As with the motorcyclists in “Decoy,” the audience will recognize these shady painters as crooks right away, but Duffy and Barber don’t even realize it after questioning them! Duffy himself ends up an inadvertent hostage, along with the courier who has the priceless cargo handcuffed to his arm. The constantly bickering bad guy duo provides some really awkward running comic relief that seems way out of place. I suppose they’re supposed to be counterparts to Duffy and Barber (who also bicker), but that doesn’t really land.

“Into Africa” is far more successful. Rebels are attacking convoys transporting gold from mines to an African capital, slaughtering everyone and stealing everything. A Saracen guard is killed in one of the raids, so Barber and Duffy are sent as replacements. A plucky female reporter tags along, whom Barber hates (“probably because you increase the chances of him getting killed,” explains Duffy, quite legitimately) and Duffy seduces. The boys have to team up with some Russians to protect the shipment in the desert, which adds another interesting dynamic of period politics. (“Good old Gorbie!” exclaims Nugent when Ansell gets ahold of air support for his men through a GRU contact.) We’re also treated to some very cool Road Warrior-style action sequences involving motorcycles and old pickup trucks shooting each other to pieces as they careen through barren desert wastelands. “Into Africa” is definitely one of the series’ better episodes, even if it’s marred by Duffy’s penchant for cracking himself up by doing weird voices (that are neither funny nor good) during briefings.

The main characters grew on me slightly throughout the season, but never to the extent that I particularly missed their company when an episode ended. And, as I already mentioned, their chemistry and banter runs hot and cold from episode to episode. “Next Year in Jerusalem” catches them on a good day, and finds them schooled in rudimentary tradecraft by a wily old former Mossad agent and Nazi hunter they’re tasked with protecting. The problem is, he doesn’t seem to really want protecting, so he’s constantly giving them the slip. Or is that the reason? Perhaps he has another agenda for ditching his bodyguards...

“Girls’ Talk” puts the spotlight on Alice, which is a welcome shift. None of the supporting characters are terribly well utilized (a subplot involving Nugent is introduced in one episode, but then fizzles out with no payoff), but Alice is always a welcome respite from Bland and Doofy, so it’s good to see her get more screen time. When she takes it upon herself to guard a former classmate (and former romantic rival) who’s found herself a target in a case involving big pharmaceutical companies, biological weapons and rogue states, Alice proves no more adept at ensuring the safety of her charges than the boys. But then again, that’s not her job, so at least she has an excuse! “Girls’ Talk” rewards faithful viewers with a genuinely satisfying finale in which the clear bad guys actually get their just deserts, which is, as I’ve mentioned, not par for the course with this series.

After odd comedic forays like “Robbers” and, to some extent, “Next Year in Jerusalem,” things return to Dead Serious for the series finale, “Reaper.” A training exercise goes horribly wrong when an old colleague gone bad comes gunning for Barber. Since the two were in the SAS together before taking divergent paths, Ansell very reasonably removes Barber from the case–but it turns out he’s not the only one who’s made this rivalry personal. The assassin turns his assignment into a personal vendetta, and even resorts to kidnapping Barber’s little-seen son (who’s usually tucked away at boarding school). The season–and, unfortunately, the series–ends abruptly on a very ambiguous and potentially very dark cliffhanger, with the fate of one character up in the air. Even after all thirteen episodes are exhausted, however, there is still some serious content left to view.

Network’s set includes Saracen’s feature-length pilot, The Zero Option, as a bonus feature. Why is it a bonus feature, and not the first episode? Because The Zero Option features completely different actors in every role. The role of Barber’s sidekick, moreover, is not just a different actor but a completely different part–and an Australian instead of an American.

The Zero Option would stand up as a pretty good TV movie of its era on its own, even outside its context as the pilot for this series. It kicks off with a wonderfully 80s title treatment that made me smile from the get-go, accompanied by a less wonderful 80s synth score. (The series theme is also of its era, but very moody and much better.) This opening is clearly inspired by The Equalizer. (The pitch for Saracen might well have been “it’s The Equalizer meets The Professionals.”) The Zero Option is an origin story for David Barber, and begins with his final, ill-fated mission with the SAS. A hostage situation–involving children–gone terribly wrong thanks to unwelcome political intervention in a military operation leaves the career soldier out in the cold. His wife (not a character on the series) urges him to take up her father’s offer to manage her family’s large estate, but that’s not what he’s cut out for. An offer from Colonel Ansell proves far more enticing, and Barber is given a trial job to see if he’s truly Saracen material.

This Barber is much less convincing as a hard man than Christian Burgess, but still manages to be more likeable than his eventual replacement. As Burgess resembles Timothy Dalton, this guy looks a bit like a scrawny, wussy Daniel Craig His Australian partner is much better than the American one on the series. Of the four actors to play the leads on the various iterations of Saracen, this guy is by far the most appealing and it’s a shame he wasn’t retained for the series. The Saracen supporting cast, however, are all improved upon in the series proper. The first version of Ansell barely makes an impression. Speaking of actors, Buffy fans (and instant coffee lovers) are in for a treat, as a young Anthony Stewart Head shows up as a slick, posh bad guy–and he’s very convincing The character is set up to recur, but never returns on the series itself, which is a shame.

The finale of The Zero Option features a good (well, decent, anyway) chase sequence involving a Volvo station wagon (how 80s!), plenty of guns, a helicopter and an airplane that Barber ends up dangling from. It’s a pretty impressive action sequence for 80s British television (comparable to the American shows of the time, which generally had much bigger budgets), although that’s all a bit undone by the unfortunate–and very visible–“Dollar Helicopters” logo on the side of the chopper! Calling such attention to the pinched budget rather undermines how generally well the producers were able to stretch it.

Video on both the series and the pilot film is on the murky and muddy side. That’s not really Network’s fault, I don’t think, as much as that of production values on British TV shows in the late 80s. I didn’t mind, because honestly that era is Saracen’s main appeal, for me anyway. I may have come off a bit hard on the show in this review. I certainly enjoyed watching it, though it hardly inspires re-watching. And I once again find myself indebted to Network for releasing such an obscure show, and for giving me the chance to finally see it. If you’re in England, I’d recommend a rent. If you’re elsewhere, don’t shell out for the import unless you dearly love late 80s action television, or very much want to witness how Timothy Dalton’s Bond image trickled down to TV. For a generally more favorable review (complete with video) from someone who initially warned me to lower my expectations, head over to The Medium is Not Enough.

1 comment:

Rob Buckley said...

You missed out four eps (Starcross, Tooth and Claw, Crossfire and Ratline) - mostly the good ones!

Anyway, not bad, but not a classic, mainly marred by too much drama, the main leads not having much chemistry, and Saracen cocking up the whole time.

Thanks for the link!