Sky: The Complete Series Review
Somerset. Saturday 15th November 1975. About 11am. Young Arby Vennor is out with his sister helping at a pheasant shoot in the country. While attempting to find a wounded bird in the woods he receives a telepathic summons for help and finds a strangely beautiful and apparently naked teenage boy buried in a mound of leaves. The youth with strange eyes asks Arby to take him 'away from living things' so Arby appropriates his dad's Land Rover and hides the strange young man in an abandoned mine workings. What follows is doubtless the strangest 24 hours of Arby's life which, ultimately, only he will remember.
If you overlook the homoerotic undertones, Sky is a fairly bog-standard child-helps-a stranded-alien-return-to-his-people story overlaid with lashings of early-70s eco-hippy Christian mysticism. Judging by the websites devoted to the show it is held in very high esteem by many people who watched it avidly over 30 years ago. Produced by HTV, the serial was one of several created by Bob Baker and Dave Martin for the company. They also contributed significantly to Tom Baker-era Doctor Who and are now chiefly remembered for creating the tin dog himself, K-9. Who is still going strong.
So, does Sky stand up to modern viewing? Surprisingly it does. It is very much of its time with the extensive (and effective) use of CSO and its thematic concerns. However, by modern standards the narrative is glacially slow. I was surprised to find, as it unfolded, that the main plot (with the exception of a time travel interlude) occurs over a period of only 24 hours. The pacing (and a significant continuity error) would suggest a period of days, if not weeks. It certainly felt like it. A single episode of new Who would probably rattle through a similar amount of plot in 50 minutes and not miss anything out. But having said that the show is well-written and well-performed (with one glaring exception) and does hold the attention.
Storywise, it is all fairly straightforward. Arby (Stuart Lock), his sister Jane (Cherrald Butterfield) and their friend Roy (Richard Speight) come under the spell of the mysterious alien and assist him in his quest to find the Juganet, an ancient device (in reality Stonehenge) that will help return him to where he came from. Sky is a Traveller, a being who travels through space and time and whose people, throughout history, have visited planet Earth and, because they can see the future, have attempted to make the locals see the error of their ways before the time of Chaos descends. When asked what he is, Sky identifies himself as someone humans would describe as a god. In later episodes the Christ allegory is made more explicit and the implication is made that all of the great spiritual reformers in human history such as Jesus and the Buddha were Travellers in human form. From the first episode, base darker forces within the Earth itself attempt to destroy Sky as Nature turns on him at every opportunity and an avatar is created in the form of the black-cloaked Goodchild to facilitate this.
As you would imagine, such a story would stand or fall on its depiction of the title character and here it does very well indeed. Marc Harrison was just 17 but, with his ethereal beauty, conveys a sense of timelessness and naïve youth simultaneously. His sense of alien-ness is helped by the enormous blue contact lenses he wore at all times (which allow CSO-style spacey visuals to be inserted which lend his eyes an air of infinite depth and mystery) - and which are quite disconcerting to look at, not to say uncomfortable for the actor who had to wear them for the entire shoot. Throughout the serial Sky rarely walks anywhere. He usually stands or sits extremely still and occasionally appears to teleport himself from place to place (when he isn't lying unconscious, that is). There is also a practical reason for this – to assist in the visual depiction of Sky's 'sanctity' Harrison is constantly lit by a strong spotlight to suggest he is producing some kind of inner golden glow. Had he been moving around it would have been well-nigh impossible to maintain this lighting effect. But it works very well and the stylised stillness goes with the character.
It struck me constantly just how much the visual characterisation of Sky reminded me of David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth which, at first, I thought had been an influence on the serial. Not so. The Bowie film came out after Sky had aired. What I do remember is that at the time Sky was in production Bowie had such a strong public image of almost-alien androgyny that this must have been in the designers minds when putting the show together.
Of the other young performers, Stuart Lock acquits himself well as Arby, the young everyman. I particularly liked Cherrald Butterfield's performance as his prickly younger sister. She underplays every scene in an almost non-acting way but has a likeable and convincing presence. The fly in the ointment is Richard Speight who had started his TV career in The Tomorrow People with an embarrassingly wooden and inept guest turn. His performance in this is slightly improved but is still woefully bad. However, Marc Harrison's turn as the still centre of the whole piece anchors everything nicely. The other performance of note is Robert Eddison as Goodchild who brings tremendous Shakespearian gravitas to Sky's nemesis. His grey beard and mane of hair atop a heavy black cloak could, in lesser hands, have made him a simple pantomime villain but here he is genuinely creepy not to say scary. And I have to specially mention Meredith Edwards, a wizened Welsh character actor who plays old blind Tom, someone of great help to Sky and the children at one point. He's one of those enormously experienced character actors who can effortlessly sketch a complex character from the barest bones of the script.
Video and Sound
The episodes taken from studio tapes are in good shape – there is very little tape damage and the CSO visual effects still look clean. The mono sound has no apparent damage and the eery score by Eric Wetherell is perfectly clear. However episodes three and seven no longer exist in the archive and have been taken from off-air VHS recordings (in colour). As you would imagine for recordings of this vintage the picture quality is very fuzzy and the sound is muffled. There is also noticeable occasional tape damage. But the eye and ear soon adjust and the episodes are watchable. As a side note, in the 1990s the BFI archive stated that the expected lifetime of a home VHS recording was about 7 to 8 years. I have recordings I made in 1986 which still play perfectly today (but are rather fragile) so who knows what else is out there waiting to be rediscovered in the nation's personal archives?
There is an image gallery lasting 3m 59s made up of promotional material and high quality production photos. Curiously it includes a photo of a blacked-up Raymond Burr in Arabian costume from some other film altogether.
There are no subtitles.
Modern teenagers would probably find Sky far too slow and mystical to be entertaining. The teen protagonists have no mobile phones or internet or laptops to aid them, just a battered old Land Rover, the school library and Sky's mystical pronouncements to follow. There are also fashionable thematic concerns of the time such as von Daniken's loopy tales of alien visitation in the distant past coupled with elements of Gaia theory which a modern young audience would have no knowledge of or interest in. At the time of its transmission, the show was on the crest of a wave of mystical children's sci-fi which would reach its zenith the following year with Children of the Stones. But people of a certain age who saw it first time around or are connoisseurs of classic sci-fi will love it.
Last updated: 18/04/2018 19:04:56