Uncovering Soviet Disasters: Exploring the Limits of Glasnost (1988)

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“A disturbing aspect about the Soviets’ reaction to revelations of their secrets was the insistence that any Western attempt to explore these secret mishaps had to have been inspired by malice, not by an understandable interest in the truth. Even during the period of glasnost the ancient and strident Russian paranoia toward foreign curiosity about their failures is very evident.”

– James Oberg, Uncovering Soviet Disasters

One of my favorite “mysteries” is the conspiracy of the lost cosmonauts. Basically, it’s a theory that claims that “The Space Race” may have been built upon the corpses of many forgotten heroes lost to both time and Soviet censorship. These so-called “lost cosmonauts” have been proven to be usually more fantasy than fact, and I don’t actually believe in many of the stories that have been circulating for upwards of sixty years. But all one has to do is listen to the chilling Judica-Cordiglia brothers audio recordings from 1962 that claim to be the last words of a handful of such cases, and think “what if…” I was looking for a book on this subject and was shocked to see that there really aren’t many that aren’t conspiracy nut garbage, so I broadened my net and found a series of books written by James Oberg during the Cold War. There is a chapter in here about lost cosmonauts, both factual and mythical, and information on the narrative that makes a conspiracy like this so hard to shake – if the USSR lied and covered up so much stuff, what don’t we know about?

The Purpose of Uncovering Soviet Disasters by James E. Oberg is to explore the USSR’s new (at the time) government policy of open discussion, or Glasnost (openness in Russian). The USSR had routinely covered up almost any bad news pertaining to not only government affairs but personal tragedies for so long that many were living in a dream-world of sorts for many years. This book is an attempt to “level the playing field” and expose a lot of these blatant misuses of censorship. Oberg does this by organizing everything into a series of articles each covering a different Soviet Era disaster that had been in some way wiped from public records or covered up.

Oberg usually presents many sides to each story, and since most of his “experts” were going off of eye-witness testimony or professional gut-feelings, many of the theories were vastly different from one another. For example, chapter one talks about a suspected anthrax epidemic in the early 80’s that caused dozens of deaths, but was almost unheard of until the fall of the USSR within the country itself. Some experts chalked it up to being a case of tainted meat, others blamed it on a misplaced vaccine that somehow got out of a medical facility. Since this book is so old (it was published in 1988), it was fun to look up many of the incidents listed to get an update of what really happened (since all of this info has largely been unclassified since). After the fall of the USSR it was revealed that, according to Wikipedia, that the USSR did in fact violate a biological weapons ban and produce Anthrax like many suspected, and the whole ordeal was caused by a miscommunication between workers in said weapons facility rendering a vent system offline for a few days allowing anthrax to escape unfiltered into the town. Now the whole ordeal is called “Biological Chernobyl” and is pretty infamous.

Some of the stories are a bit “tainted”, I suppose, with American Cold War era propaganda – many Soviet “characters” are described in a less than flattering manner. In many instances, the reader is presented with the narrative that The USSR was always up to no good as if populated entirely by mustache twirling Bond Villains, or reactionary morons that were only trying to protect themselves in the face of disaster. while this wasn’t too over-the-top, it colored an otherwise well-done book. He does go to great length to talk-up the heroism and toughness of many everyday Russians in an almost “noble savage” sort of way, leaving you to admire their resolve. If anything, I REALLY wish there was a later edition of this where Oberg went back and updated everything, but alas the entire book would have to be basically re-written, and he is now in his 70’s.

All-in-all this is a good read despite the age and political motivation. I will need to look into reading more of Mr. Oberg’s work.

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The Tripods: (1984) France, October 2089

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AKA season 1, episode 12

Episode 11 of The Tripods was an action-heavy chapter that dealt with the boys resorting to theft to get food while traveling to the White Mountains. The aftermath of said choice was basically the resulting punishment they received. Not only did they have to escape a tribe of murderous “Vagrants” living outside the town, but were apprehended by some Blackguards and put on trial for theft.

They apparently have a semblance of a fair trial, but it seems that the trial itself is more of a ritual than an actual legal proceeding. It seems like it’s a foregone conclusion that they will get capped once a Tripod arrives, and that is even if they are somehow found innocent. Boys of their age simply do not walk around uncapped, it’s uncivilized and terrifying! Our buddy Danielle, the French Blackguard that has been stalking the boys ever since they left the vineyard, shows up and punches holes in their defense. Danielle basically ruins everyone’s day by stating that he knows they are up to no good. he’s no Duc Du Sarlat on the scale of jerkitude, but he’s got to be pretty close.

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They are caged, and Danielle volunteers to take him back to his precinct for processing. Suddenly the boys are in a moral dilemma – Henry feels bad that they have to hurt Danielle in order to escape seeing that he is part of the family that took care of them. It comes down to the fact that “it’s either him or us” and the boys attack.

Danielle isn’t killed or anything, but bound, gagged, and stranded in the middle of nowhere locked inside of the cage he trapped the boys in. I liked this scene a lot because Henry had to come to terms with the fact that he probably wasn’t going back to that vineyard, and that Danielle was not their friend and family member.

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The rest of this episode is full of some very important information including our very first glimpse at what the true nature of The Tripods is. This kicks off when the boys are traversing an eerie ruined city and stumble onto a Tripod that is guarding it. Somehow they have gone completely undetected, or as beanpole puts it “just like how a fat man cannot see his own feet”.

Pretty soon a plan is concocted to attempt to destroy this Tripod. Henry climbs up a rock face and places a hammer under the foot of the hulking enormity of the machine’s foot. Beanpole then hoists one of the grenades that were plucked from the shopping mall way back in the beginning of the show, and pulls the pin with a rope. The resulting explosion knocks the beast over and a hatch opens on the front face of the Tripod.

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Until this very moment we were not exactly sure if the Tripods themselves were sentient robots or if somebody was inside of it piloting. With the hatch opening, the boys get a glimpse of an off-screen face that proves the latter is most likely the case. This is, of course, right before another grenade is hurled into the cockpit rendering the occupant inside nothing more than a thick green slime oozing out of the door.We are not only one step closer to knowing the true nature of the villainous Tripods, but we now know that they can also be killed.

As the episode closes, we see The White Mountains off in the distance, signaling that the first part of the boys’ quest is nearly complete. They aren’t sure what to expect other than the fact that there are probably more like-minded individuals there, and none of them should be capped. Here’s hoping that crazy old coot Ozymandias was right and this whole ordeal wasn’t a wild goose chase.

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Last week I discussed how much I loved the location shooting in this show, and this is yet another episode full of great shots. The ruins that the boys walk through were especially eerie, seemingly plucked from a medieval village that was destroyed. I did a bit of research, and it appears that this was actually an old Welsh slate quarry called Diffwys Quarry, that had been abandoned since the 1950’s. I’m not sure how something so recent fell into such disrepair so quickly, but it definitely gave this episode the terrifying post-apocalyptic vibe that it had lost a bit of in all of the pastoral episodes.

Also of note, were the awesome model shots and practical effects especially in the Tripod battle at the end. I’ve seen far more recent films have less realistic scenes of large creatures or machines walking around, and it really goes to show that sometimes models and puppets work better than computer generated effects for some things. My hat goes off to the director, Christopher Barry, and his entire crew.

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That’s it for this week, join me again in seven days as discuss the final chapter of season one – Episode 13, The White Mountains! Remember, if you missed any entries for this series and want to read more, go to the front page and click the “Tripods” button.

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The Tripods: (1984) France, September 2089

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AKA season 1, episode 10

I believe that John F. Kennedy said it best when he once wrote: “There are risks and costs to action. But they are far less than the long range risks of comfortable inaction.” I chose this quote in particular because it best illustrates the central dilemma of this episode of BBC’s Tripods.

In case you’re following along at home, the previous episode of Tripods showed our intrepid trio “laying low” for a while in a French vineyard. They were seeking shelter so that Will could recover from a Tripod abduction and the resulting amateur surgery required to remove a tracking device crudely clamped onto his torso. Much like the time spent at the Chateau earlier in the year, the gang is finding it hard to leave the relative comfort of the vineyard, even though Tripods seem to be everywhere. We see the gratuitous long tacking shot of Tripods walking around in the distance, and considering the way the boys evaded them in the last episode, they are probably close by because they are looking for them.

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One thing became clear in this episode, and it is that teenagers are really stupid when they get hormones pumping through their systems like a rush of Nitrous through the engine of a sports car. It’s hard to not want to punch both Henry and Beanpole at the beginning of this episode. They are having fun and chatting up cute girls and constantly telling Will to “lighten up!”. This is a complete 180 degree reversal from the chateau where Will was “livin’ it up” and the boys wanted a one way ticket out of Dodge. Winter is soon to be there, and Will understands that they need to make it to the mountains ASAP.

Luckily we don’t see too much bickering between the boys, but the animosity is there. Will is jealous about what happened last episode regarding the “love of his life” Eloise. He took part in a village Olympics sort of festival, and lost to a cheating ball of jealousy that chose his love interest as the town tribute to the Tripods. She now gets to live in the Tripod city far away from Will, because if the Duke couldn’t have her nobody could. Will now sees everyone else having googlie-eyes at girls and feels like crap about it.

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The mother of the house, Madame Vichot, pulls the boys aside to show them a collection of art and other wonders from the past that they may have never seen. This sort of stuff is mostly lost to time and frowned upon by the Tripods and those that support them. We find out that she is showing them this a trade of sorts, she is suspicious why a french boy (Jean Paul aka Bean Pole) is traveling with two boys that are obviously from somewhere in England. They let it spill that they are on their way to the White Mountains, a place we discover is somewhere in the French or Swiss Alps. If this wasn’t red flag number one that they are too comfortable, our buddy the Blackguard-in-law Danielle starts nosing around to figure out who these “travelers” are, and it’s just a matter of time before his superiors want answers as well.

The reason that Madame Vichot is so worldly and interesting is that she is some sort of “Vagrant”, whose capping was not fully completed or failed. If you recall a “capping” is the process by which the Tripods place a mind-control device on every person of a certain age, and vagrants are those that cannot be capped or are rendered insane by the process. While she isn’t crazy, the Vineyard mistress is very distraught by the fact that she has ambition, hopes, and can still dream – all things that other capped adults simply cannot do.

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She talks to Will about his guilt about what happened to Eloise, and the fact that he seems to be redirecting all of his angst towards Henry an Beanpole. This seems to level Will’s head a bit, and by the end of the episode he seems mostly angst-free for the most part.

The boys get a new set of traveling clothes, maps, and travel documents to aid them on their journey, and eventually set off. Unfortunately, it seems that Danielle was basically trying to trap them with the documents, as he is seen stalking the boys at the end of the episode.

If you’ve missed any reviews in this series, please feel free to click the “Tripods” banner on the main page – It’s all there! Tune in next week for my review of episode 11!

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V for Vendetta (1982-5)

By Alan Moore and David Lloyd

Warning: there are spoilers in this review, by reading this I assume you are familiar with the works of Alan Moore, or at least will not be offended if I discuss the ends of a few of his books.

 

“Because while the truncheon may be used in lieu of conversation, words will always retain their power. Words offer the means to meaning, and for those who will listen, the enunciation of truth. And the truth is, there is something terribly wrong with this country, isn’t there? Cruelty and injustice, intolerance and oppression. And where once you had the freedom to object, to think and speak as you saw fit, you now have censors and systems of surveillance coercing your conformity and soliciting your submission. How did this happen? Who’s to blame? Well certainly there are those more responsible than others, and they will be held accountable, but again truth be told, if you’re looking for the guilty, you need only look into a mirror. I know why you did it. I know you were afraid. Who wouldn’t be? War, terror, disease. There were a myriad of problems which conspired to corrupt your reason and rob you of your common sense. ”

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As the cold air creeps into our homes, and the smell of pumpkin spiced confectioneries seems to permeate our everyday lives, I figured that today would be the perfect day to look back at a literary classic that is relevant to this very week (November 5th to be precise). It’s the story of a future Europe riddled with fascism and the one man (?) willing to try to change everything for the better. If that means razing it to the ground to start over, that’s par for the course for our hero. Of course, I’m talking about Alan Moore‘s dystopian masterpiece V for Vendetta.

Remember, remember!

The fifth of November,

The Gunpowder treason and plot;

I know of no reason

Why the Gunpowder treason

Should ever be forgot!

Most of V for Vendetta originally appeared in black-and-white between 1982 and 1985, in Warrior, a British anthology comic published by Quality Communications. That publication went under in 1985, leaving the story unfinished. DC comics came to the fans rescue and encouraged Moore to complete his work, an act that seemed awesome at the time, but has led to years of litigation and sour grapes between the two parties. I’m not going to touch on that too much, but it’s hard to consider that if Moore had his way, V for Vendetta wouldn’t be the cultural lightning rod that it has become some 32 years after pen touched paper.

It’s hard to write about any version of V for Vendetta in 2014 without stumbling over many modern uses of it’s iconography, most notably with the modern anarchist-driven protest movements led by the self-styled “hacktivists” that go by the name Anonymous. It can be argued that they have slightly missed the point in their use of the iconic Guy Fawkes masks and other homages, but one cannot ignore their passion for their hero – the antihero named V. Artist David Lloyd has been quoted saying: “The Guy Fawkes mask has now become a common brand and a convenient placard to use in protest against tyranny – and I’m happy with people using it, it seems quite unique, an icon of popular culture being used this way.

Protesters Camp Out In Front Of European Central Bank

Before I get too far, I wanted to drag out my soap box for a minute. Notice, I said “literature” up there and not dismissive things such as “comic book” or “graphic novel”, because, as pretentious as this must sound, I feel that this is one of the many examples of sequential art that can easily be considered a classic of modern literature. Even today, comics somehow still have a near hundred year old stereotype as either a silly or childish storytelling medium. This is, of course, the established art community trying to resist new mediums, much in the same way that video games get the cold shoulder by critics and art lovers alike. I challenge anyone to hold in one hand a popular book such as 50 shades of Gray and in the other a copy of V for Vendetta and come to the conclusion that the former is in some way a better piece of literature. Just because something has pictures in it, it doesn’t immediately mean it’s inferior. Love him or hate him, Alan Moore has been one of the few comic writers to break this elitist barrier and gain even the slimmest amount of recognition by the non-comic media.

The story of this book is pretty complex, but it mostly boils down to the story of a girl named Evey Hammond, and how a chance encounter with a domestic terrorist (or a freedom fighter?) changed her life. It’s Bonfire Night in London in the far off future year of 1997 (I always love joking about dates in sci-fi, don’t mind me). A down on her luck young girl named Evey has resorted to prostitution due to her inability to find a job, and makes the mistake of soliciting men who are undercover members of the state secret police, called “The Finger.” These men plan, not to arrest her, but to rape and kill the poor girl until a cloaked figure calling himself V steps in and takes care of the situation. V is a well-spoken, seemingly intellectual, anarchist wearing a Guy Fawkes mask, a long black coat, and a tall old-timey hat, all fashioned to look like the infamous Guy Fawkes. What follows is the story of how V slowly dismantles a fascist regime through both ideas and bloodshed.

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The backdrop for this dark world revolves around uprising of the villainous white supremacist group Norsefire. Sometime in the late 1980’s there was a large-scale nuclear war that ravaged the Earth, and while Britain was unscathed physically, it led to economic and social scars. After something like 5-6 years of lawlessness and rioting, a group stepped up with claims that they could bring stability back to Europe, this was of course with a cost. Norsefire implemented a by-the-numbers Orwellian nightmare upon the populace including mass surveillance and re-education campaigns. Racial and political cleansing was soon instituted, leaving most of the populace afraid to do anything that would remotely put themselves on the state’s radar.

To understand how Moore thought up Norsefire, one has to look back at the British political climate in the early 1980’s. Many were scared that the conservative ideas of politicians such as Margaret Thatcher were leading towards the acceptance of ideals usually held by radical groups such as The National Front and The British National Party. These groups were after political offices, and many felt that any success they might have would pave the way for something akin to Nazi Germany. As a result, many anti-fascist and anarchist groups popped up to “fight” the dangerous ideologies behind these Nationalistic parties, and it seems Alan Moore was very active in those scenes. Alan Moore was interviewed back in 2000 by a site called Blather about his creation of Norsefire, and here is a snippet about what he had to say:

“Well, exactly. You know, like originally, when I thought “Oh, I’ll make fascists the villains,” it was precisely so that I could sort of do a bit of propaganda, I mean, remember at the time I think I was still – I mean, this was 1981? 1980-81? – I mean, I was still involved with Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League, things like that – but it doesn’t do anybody any service to actually just do a load of cartoon Nazis, you know, with funny monocles and cigars and accents […] they’re just caricatures. “Ve ask ze questions”, you know? Whereas in fact fascists are people who work in factories, probably are nice to their kids, it’s just that they’re fascists. [Laughs]. They’re just ordinary. They’re the same as everybody else except for the fact that they’re fascists. Like, in order to really -I mean, I’ve read somewhere that – I’m sure I’m not going to get this exactly right but the basic quote is something like – “Total understanding is total love.” It’s something [like that] or vice-versa. ”

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One of the more refreshing things about the character V is that he is no hero. In fact, he does some pretty deplorable things in order to further his cause. I liken him to other villain-protagonists like Dexter, Light from Death note, or even Tony Soprano. In the comic at least, it becomes pretty evident that V’s time in the Norsefire concentration camp system may have shattered his mind completely. As readers, we are challenged to determined if he is sane or psychotic, hero or villain, due to his morally ambiguous acts. At one point he goes as far as torturing one of the former guards of Larkhill concentration camp in just about one of the most messed-up ways imaginable.

The man, Lewis Prothero, was once the site Commander of the camp, and was promoted to a role not unlike that of a news pundit. He basically takes information from a state computer system and broadcasts it to the masses. V kidnaps Prothero from a train and dresses him up in old Larkhill clothes. Prothero wakes up, and very quickly is driven insane by a combination of an overdose of the same drugs that were used to experiment on V and the shock of seeing his prized doll collection burned in a mock recreation of mass killings of camp detainees that he oversaw. Usually when V does stuff like this, he is seen wearing a more grotesque mask that is similar to a clown.

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I actually plan on reviewing the 2005 film based on this comic, but I do want to point out that much of V’s “dark side” is absent from the movie version of the character. We do see him getting revenge on folks, but it’s in a borderline heroic way. Many see the film, and do not realize that there is a duality to the character that makes him very unlikable at times. For example, V’s entire reason for taking Evey in was to use her to get at a priest known to be a pedophile (Evey is only sixteen in the book), one can assume that she was going to be left to get raped and killed along with the priest, that is had everything gone to plan. This is one reason I mentioned the misguided idolization by internet hackers earlier – to them V is a modern hero, but the book says otherwise. To V the ends justify the means, and he is just as willing to inflict all manner of atrocity to end the reign of the Norsefire leadership. The only difference is that V is willing to die, and has no plan to lead if he meets his goals.

Moore later revisited this idea with another character in his book The Watchmen. One could say that the character Ozymandias is the main villain of the piece, but when you think about what he actually did it becomes a gray area that involves testing your own morality. Ozymandias did commit mass murder on a terrible scale, but he was working towards a “good” result. He planned to stage an alien invasion to bring the world together and stop an impending a nuclear holocaust. It could be argued that in by blowing up cities such as New York City and Paris he actually saved billions of people that would have died otherwise. Then again, some of the best villains in fiction are heroes in their own story, and are only bad to us because we don’t agree with their methods.

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The edition of V for vendetta that I am using for this review happens to be one of the trade paperback editions released in the 2000’s prior to the release of the theatrical film. Between issues of the 10 comics, there are a handful of “making of” vignettes and other extras that are pretty entertaining. I’m unaware if these were part of the original DC run, or if they were added when the comics were grouped together as a trade paperback, but their inclusion is still very nice. Since the comic was originally black an white in Warrior, a lot of the first chapters are pretty drab despite being in color. In a way this adds to the dystopian feel of everything as it seems like everything is always dark, dingy, and sick in some way. With such a text heavy script, David Lloyd was able to create panels that were both exciting and somehow action-packed even when very little action was going on. The griminess somehow makes the art age better than some other 80’s comics. Even classics like The Watchmen seem older in comparison. Compared to another text heavy comic such as The Dark Knight Returns, with it’s multitude of “talking head” panels, this was a breath of fresh air.

I think a copy of V for Vendetta should be on the bookshelf of most comic fans, and read alongside many other subversive classics like Orwell’s Ninteen-Eighty-Four and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. The book is a challenge to anyone used to the typical hero vs. villain motif seen in most fiction, and plays up things like moral ambiguity. This isn’t a story of “The Government” vs “Freedom” like some would like for you to believe, that’s too simplistic. This is the story of how we rationalize things that could be seen as heinous, even evil, if it means a greater goal can be reached. Do the ends really justify the means? If that means that we’re better off with a draconian fascist police state, that’s one option that a character like Detective Finch strives for. If that means we’re better off with freedom through anarchy, that’s yet another option that V stands for. This book is the key to keeping someone from looking at things in a truly dualistic manner (i.e. “good” vs “evil”) and to see all of the factors that go into the choices one makes. Think of what the mask represents – the real Guy Fawkes, a Catholic mercenary that tried to kill King James and his full parliament on that fateful day over 400 years ago, to some he was a hero, and to others a terrorist.

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Day of the Triffids (1981) – Episode 2

Egads! It has it been a while since I looked at this series, and I know that I should do more seeing that it brings the most traffic to my blog than any other topic! I had previously stated how thrilled I was that Netflix was carrying the show, and that they had a big selection of such material. I guess the people who make sure we don’t have any fun saw my glowing praise and the show was gone immediately from their digital service. All kidding aside, I had wondered if I should go ahead and just buy the film from Amazon, which was until I noticed that it was on Amazon Prime for free. It seems that in the wake of “Flixtergate”, the debacle wherein Netflix announced that they were splitting into two companies and raised prices – killing their reputation, many of these great UK shows have moved to both Hulu Plus and Amazon prime. Most of these aren’t science fiction shows, but I know that I’ll be getting some new material for this blog from this none-the-less. Now I hope that this very article will not trigger another calamity such as the show being lost forever, but I think I can take the chance, if only to share with you all this great drama.

When we last left Bill Mason, he was lying in a hospital bed thinking back at the series of events that ultimately led to him being there. His blindness seemingly gone, Mason yanked his bandages off only to find everything in disarray. As far as he can tell not many people have the ability to see anymore, and even worse – the world has gone to hell. Dead bodies lay everywhere, Triffids are crawling all over the place, and human society has ultimately crumbled. Some of the post-apocalyptic scenes we are presented with are truly disturbing; one of the earliest shots in this episode sees a man committing suicide nearby a field full of people wandering around without the use of their eyes. It’s always a cheap tactic to use endangered kids against the viewer to illicit certain emotions, but hearing small children yell “Mummy where are you?!” was a shock.

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We are also introduced to another main character of this program, Josella Payton as played by Emma Relph, the eventual love interest of Mason. Being another person that hasn’t gone blind, Jo finds out first hand that the world isn’t such a nice place anymore as she is assaulted by a haggard looking man with a beard. Desperate people want to take advantage of anyone that still has their vision, and this man is the worst kind of accident survivor there is. Jo isn’t in danger long, and eventually meets up with Bill when he saves her from this creep. Her interest in Bill seems sort of forced, as if she is only tagging along because she feels helpless by herself, but it’s cool for such a nerdy guy to get with such an attractive lady. Then again this was a time of the “weak female assistant” as seen in Doctor Who and other shows; all they do is get in trouble and act emotional as the strong man character does all the work.

I think I really like this show based on the simple fact that Bill Mason, as portrayed by John Duttine, doesn’t look or act like your typical action hero. He’s a normal looking guy with a beard and a tweed jacket, not a square-jawed badass that you would normally see in Hollywood action shows. Bill feels the need to help people in the situation, but feels bad that his size and ability gives him no upper-hand in altercations with bands of marauding football hooligans. If there is one thing he’s awesome at, it’s killing triffids – we see him destroy one with a pitchfork towards the end of this episode in a manner that would make Neptune himself blush with envy.

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My last review of episode one was pretty sparse, as it was like the third entry for this blog, so hopefully I’ve improved here. Episode 2 of Day of the Triffids was awesome, and keeps me coming back for more. Slowly but surely through this and the 2009 miniseries, I am becoming a big fan of the property, and plan to seek out more if I can.  Since I can definitely watch this on Amazon prime, I will try to get through this fairly quickly so that I could possibly read the books as well. Onward we go to episode three, where Mason is hopefully on his way to get some firepower in order to battle the triffids.