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Hot on the heels of Network's DVD release of the Bob Baker and Dave Martin scripted King of the Castle comes another of the duo's fondly remembered creations, the eerie and atmospheric Sky. A bona fide classic from the golden age of British children's television, this 1975 production is an intelligent and absorbing science fiction tale that also incorporates elements of new age mysticism and gothic horror-inspired scares. Originally billed and transmitted as a children's show, the quality of Baker and Martin's writing means that Sky remains compelling and intriguing enough to thrill and engage new viewers of all ages.
Note: This DVD is a Web Exclusive that is only available directly from Network's homepage.
Commissioned by the regional commercial television station HTV West, Sky's general look and attitude is typical of the kind of shows that independent television channels produced for British kids during the mid-1970s. While the BBC's children's shows from this period were still relatively staid and largely sought to reflect and reinforce middle class values and tastes, independent television's children's shows tended to be more daring and confrontational, often because they were more willing to incorporate elements that were representative of the working classes and popular culture. There's a bit of class and cultural antagonism present here in the strained relations that develop between Roy's posh-talking and elitist father, Major Briggs (Jack Watson), and the regional-accented Mr and Mrs Vennor (Thomas Heathcote and Frances Cuka). New to the area, Major Briggs automatically figures that the Vennor kids will be a bad influence on his son.
Perhaps more significantly, the show's central character and its extraterrestrial-trapped-on-Earth storyline appear to draw their inspiration from David Bowie's early 1970s "messianic alien rock star" stage persona, Ziggy Stardust. Actor Marc Harrison's mannered voice and his flamboyantly styled hair, slender frame and generally androgynous look immediately bring to mind a young Bowie. The reference is eventually made explicit when Sky dons a Ziggy-esque outfit and strikes some Ziggy-like poses during the show's final two episodes. In some ways Sky plays like the missing link between Ziggy Stardust and Bowie's turn as Thomas Jerome Newton in Nicolas Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth.
Sporting a pair of weird sky-blue contact lenses, Harrison does a great job of bringing the confused and ailing alien to life. Sky does have special powers that are handy for getting him out of a fix but his weakened and disorientated state mean that he cannot always resist or fight back against those who wish to destroy him. As such, the series features some really effective tension and suspense-filled moments. It's inferred that Sky is destined to function as a kind of deity for the survivors of a future catastrophe who live in an age where technology has been rejected and humans are at peace with nature. The ethereal forces of nature instinctively know that Sky has arrived in the wrong time and so seek to destroy him before his presence upsets the natural order of the present age.
The subsequent assaults on Sky result in some pretty disturbing scenarios. In one sequence a supernatural wind pins Sky to the roof of a cave where the gigantic dangling roots of a tree attempt to crush him. At other times dense clouds of leaves try to envelope and smother him. When Sky is taken in by two hippies (Prunella Ransome and Sean Lynch), who believe that his arrival fulfills part of a prophecy related to the myths of Glastonbury Tor, their caravan is attacked by malevolent plant life. This highly effective sequence brings to mind bits of the "Creeping Vine" story segment from Freddie Francis's Doctor Terror's House of Horrors.
Alarmed by their lack of success in dealing with Sky, the ethereal forces of nature eventually create Goodchild, who represents the physical embodiment of "the animus of the organism". Goodchild's piercing eyes, sculpted beard and sinister cloak, along with his hypnotic powers and his unswerving dedication to succeeding in his mission, bring to mind Anthony Ainley's turn as the malevolent Master in Doctor Who. While it could be argued that Goodchild isn't inherently evil - he's merely a human-like manifestation of the Earth's supernatural immune system - he is cast in an extremely menacing light. Ultimately his actions spell real danger for the show's sympathetic and innocent characters.
Just like Angus Scrimm's Tall Man from Don Coscarelli's Phantasm films, Goodchild uses the term "boy!" when addressing the show's younger male characters and some scary situations are prompted by his power to materialize from out of nowhere and his ability to see through walls. In one particularly disturbing episode Sky, Arby and Jane become trapped in a gothic mansion by one of Goodchild's underlings, Rex (Trevor Ray). Rex is a crow in human form who uses his still bird-like hands to claw his way through the house's interior walls. Held prisoner in the house's attic, Arby and Jane look out of a window and see Roy searching for them close by. Unfortunately for them, the house itself remains invisible to Roy.
Sky is greatly assisted in his quest by old Tom (Meredith Edwards), an eccentric patient that he meets during his stay in a hospital. Tom saw the Juganet time-space transportation portal in operation when he was a boy and his close encounter has had a lasting effect on him: he has an open telepathic link to Travellers like Sky and his alien-related ramblings have led others to assume that he is simple-minded. Interestingly, a similar idea to this was explored in the recent Torchwood series "Children of Earth". Given that the show features some fantastic location work in and around the mystical sites found at Glastonbury Tor we're not too surprised when the action relocates to another well-known mystical site, Stonehenge. Stonehenge is the Juganet (the iconic stone circle was also a site of alien activity in the final Quatermass adventure starring John Mills) and director Derek Clark makes great use of the mysterious monument. A series of creepily angled but perfectly framed shots give the stones an ominous feel that brings to mind Peter Weir's treatment of the sinister stone monoliths encountered in Picnic at Hanging Rock.
(... spoiler begins) Sky manages to activate the Juganet and he travels to his correct destination in time for the show's final episode. This final episode features some impressive set designs and is, in its own way, almost as mind-bending and as surreal as the final episode of The Prisoner. Here in the time of the cold sun and the sleeping Earth we meet telepathic humans who perform mystical rites that involve chanting the words "mission control" and "NASA". These ecology-minded future humans respect animals and hate machines and technology: the climax of their rites involves a The Wicker Man-like sacrifice-cum-punishment that employs a scrapheap-sourced approximation of an Apollo space module instead of a wicker man (... spoiler ends).
Sky's narrative plays out over seven episodes that are each roughly twenty-five minutes long. Each episode is presented here in two acts (the show broke for just one block of television commercials at the halfway point of each episode) and some decent cliffhanger endings can be found at the denouement of most of these acts. The series features a deliberately paced narrative arc that builds steadily over the course of the seven episodes and this allows space for the establishment of plausible character motivations and more general character development too. The show's theme tune is a very sinister violin and harpsichord-led piece and slightly avant-garde sounding variations of this theme crop up as incidental music throughout the series.
The show's soundtrack also features some fairly eccentric synthesizer doodlings that bring to mind those found in Jon Pertwee's early Doctor Who adventures. Much of the show's special effects work relies on imaginative lighting and blue screen effects that work pretty well. Day-glo psychedelic swirls cloud Sky's eyes and cover the palms of his hands whenever he uses his extraterrestrial powers. Some interesting solarization effects (similar to those seen during the denouement of Robert Fuest's The Final Programme) are employed during the sequence that details Sky's initial arrival on Earth. Cult favourite David Jackson (Gan from Blake's 7) pops up in one episode as a police officer who is keen to know more about Sky.
In common with many British television shows from this period, Sky was shot on a mixture of film (exteriors) and videotape (interiors). Since the series features much in the way of countryside-based location work, some episodes are almost exclusively shot on film. Picture quality is by and large near enough excellent: there's the odd small fleck and speck present during some of the film sequences and some of the video sequences sport an occasional and extremely mild dropout but none of these are particularly problematic. The show's sound is generally excellent too. Never re-broadcast and never released on home video until now, Network have done Cult TV fans a big favour by finally granting Sky a DVD release.
Note: episodes three and seven of Sky were missing from the studio archives and so off-air recordings of these two episodes have been used in order to make this DVD release possible. The picture and sound quality does dip a bit for these two episodes but the recordings used must have been done in a professional capacity of some sort as they're really not that bad given the show's age. Episode three fares the better of the two: the picture quality of this episode is a little soft while its sound quality is slightly muffled. The picture quality of episode seven is slightly fuzzier overall and there's a touch of mild colour banding at the very top of the frame in a couple of sequences. This episode's sound quality is generally more muffled too. However, both episodes remain entirely watchable. Given that it seemed until recently that this show would never publicly surface again, it seems churlish to even mention the dip in quality experienced during these two episodes.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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