Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Cult TV DVD Review: 'Sky'

Back in the 1970s HTV West, operating out of Bristol, made quite a reputation for themselves as providers of quality children’s drama for the ITV Network at a time when the ITV Network...er...actually made children’s drama; days sadly long gone. HTV’s output tended to be a bit more cerebral than the sometimes brash wannabe ‘Dr Who’ shows churned out by the other regions – most of which, I’d add, were hugely enjoyable in their own right. But HTV specialised is more grounded, potentially-disturbing stuff – series like ‘King of the Castle’ and ‘Children of the Stones’ may not have had the sci-fi trappings of ‘The Tomorrow People’ and ‘Timeslip’ (my own particular favourite from the ITV era) but they were often dark, complex and challenging stories, resolutely not written down for their young audience but rather pitching thought-provoking and often quite adult ideas and concepts which demanded a bit more of the kids than just sitting there passively being shouted at and seduced by pretty colours.

Then there was ‘Sky’. ‘Sky’ was an odd one at the time – it was screened across the ITV network in 1976 – and viewed now, over thirty years later – it’s still a strange, rather schizophrenic series. Written by Bob Baker and Dave Martin (Dr Who’s ‘Bristol boys’ back in the 1970s) the six-part serial tells of the titular Sky, a lithe, blonde, unearthly youth who arrives in a forest on Earth in a blaze of light. He doesn’t seem to know quite who he is, where he is or why but he’s quickly befriended by a group of West Country yokel kids who also don’t quite know what he is. But they soon find out he has very strange powers and that he seems to be locked in combat with the forces of Nature herself as the 20th century does its best to repel this intruder, this threat to the biosphere. Whilst the kids – Arby and his sister June and their friend Roy, try to protect Sky and help him in his quest for something called The Juganet, Sky is being shadowed by a mysterious cloaked figure called Goodchild...

‘Sky’ is all over the place. What starts out as an intriguing fairly typical kids thriller about an alien befriended by curious human teenagers slowly starts to lose its focus, introducing random new characters for an episode or two and losing some of those – Roy’s Dad (HTV favourite Jack Watson) and Arby and June’s parents – who feature fairly heavily in the first three or four episodes. It’s almost as if Baker and Martin had a rough idea about a benevolent alien figure (who actually turns out to be from the future) who finds himself in the wrong time at the wrong place ; he seems to come from some terrible post-apocalyse world and starts to warn anyone who will listen about the fate which awaits the human race as it continues to abuse its planet. But it also seems as if the writers didn’t have enough story for seven episodes and felt obliged to wander off down narrative blind alleys with episodes set in a hospital and a peculiar interlude with a couple of hippies. Perhaps the hippies are really the key to the series as the ‘peace and love’ 1960s motif of the hippy period is pretty high profile all the way through ‘Sky’. Sky himself is a pacifist – he has extraordinary mental powers but he only ever uses them to protect himself and never to harm anyone when he’s under attack. And Goodchild (Robert Eddison), who floats about the place like a cross between Dracula and the Master, appears to be a creation of the Earth’s immune system, determined to stop Sky returning to his rightful place in Space and time courtesy of said Juganet, a circular machine in the form of Stonehenge, a cross-over point whose energies Sky can use to get home...

Thirty-odd years on ‘Sky’s is very much a product of its time. The special effects range from bright and garish chroma-key and overlay, a few decent physical effects (attacks by thrashing vines and branches) and Sky himself, eerily made-up with his glowing contact-lense eyes and smooth, other-wordly complexion. But it’s a big, expansive series – location filming is pretty extensive (utilising West Country settings such as Glastonbury Tor and the Stonehenge circle) and the many studio sets are detailed, intricate and pretty effective. It’s a shame the same can’t be said for the acting which is stilted at best. Marc Harrison looks the part as ‘Sky’ but, probably by design, he doesn’t display much character beyond his propensity for spouting New Age gobbledegook dialogue. His human sidekicks Arby, June and Roy are a pretty wooden bunch too and good old British character actors like Peter Copley and Bernard Archard are wasted in peculiar cameos in the frankly-bizarre final episode which sees Sky arrive at his intended point in time, Arby in tow, where survivors of the apocalypse worship old NASA technology and relics and offer up Arby as a sacrifice.

‘Sky’ is undoubtedly a brave and interesting series. It’s not as successful as some of its contemporaries in the genre because the scripts seem a bit undisciplined and random and the performances need to be a lot stronger to really draw the viewer into the drama. But ‘Sky’ remains a well-remembered series and, if you saw it at the time or you’re just interested in classic cult TV, it’s a show that’s worth tracking down out of curiosity value even if it’s likely to leave you wishing it could only have been as good as its first couple of episodes suggested it was going to be.

Sky is available on DVD now and can only be obtained direct from Network DVD at www.networkdvd.co.uk

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