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Once upon a time it wasn't necessary to focus group a new television show. Once upon a time, sideburns were not just in but hot. Once upon a time a wire recorder and walkie-talkie were enough to establish their users as high tech.

This was the age of Department S.

Department S was a television series that aired on ATV in the United Kingdom between September 1969 and March 1970. The episodes were filmed from 1968 to 1969, which causes some confusion in listings. It was another entrant in the Cold War-drenched arena of espionage and crime television series, joining such august names as Danger Man, The Prisoner and The Saint (in the U.K.) and Mission: Impossible (in the U.S.).

The Setup

As a narrative quote in the trailer states, "When a case proves too baffling for the minds of Interpol, they turn to the talents of Department S!" Department S is a special unit within the international police organization whose task is to handle the unexplainable, the strange, and the downright weird cases that cross the desks of the member nations' police forces. The X-Files owes some homage here, indeed. Whereas Mission: Impossible was focused strongly on proactive setups (a la The Sting), and The Prisoner had its own deeply twisted story arc, the tales of Department S are individual and reactive. The members of the unit are called in to various situations, and usually end up following them into explanations that are more involved than the initial circumstances indicate - it's an investigative crime drama more than an espionage show, but the espionage aspect keeps poking up in the context if not the actions of those involved.

The People

Department S consists of four people. Jason King (played by Peter Wyngarde) is an adventure novelist, gentleman playboy, and investigator when he feels like it. Stewart Sullivan (played by Joel Fabiani) is a clean-cut action type, American by accent. Annabelle Hurst (played by Rosemary Nicols) is our lone female in this televised sausage party - at least, the only one who works with them. Finally, the department is supervised (incredibly loosely) by Sir Curtis Seretse (played by Dennis Alaba Peters) who wafts through the action once in a while and makes snarky remarks about the expense reports.

The Production

This series was produced by ITC Entertainment, the same company that produced The Prisoner. If you've watched the latter series, the production values and habits will be incredibly familiar, as will the musical scores, which sound like the same band and composer. The production isn't terribly high-class (microphones sometimes visible waving from behind 'blind' angles where the sound men are hidden, for example). Despite Department S's highfalutin Interpol connections, they don't even usually get the cool-looking props of the Mission: Impossible crew, making do instead with reg'lar old 8 mm film projectors and meticulously-drawn paper posters for the 'analysis' scenes. The show was filmed in color for television. It's available on unlocked PAL DVD from Umbrella Entertainment. There were 28 episodes produced and aired.

The Heritage

Why, then, might one care about Department S in the new century? Well, unlike many television shows, this one dug its way into the cultural psyche, influencing many artists and producing recognizable results today. Austin Powers is, it has been said, directly based on Jason King - the flamboyant clothing, playboy behavior and all. When asked about this, Peter Wyngarde once said "Jason King would never have been seen dead in crushed velvet," but the influence is clear.

Grant Morrison offers homage to Department S in his famous graphic novel series The Invisibles. In that series, there appear two detectives of Department X, including a flamboyant playboy named Mister Six whose mustache and outfits fairly precisely match those of Jason King. Wyngarde, as Jason King, went on after the show to star in an eponymously named spin-off series about his character. In 1993, the British comedy troupe The Comic Strip did a short film for the BBC entitled Detectives on the Edge of a Nervous Breakdown. In it, Peter Richardson plays Jason Bentley of Department Z, essentially Jason King again. Some say that the Austin Powers character is a direct descendent of this incarnation, as Bentley did wear crushed velvet and drink while driving.

The Review

While not a stand-out show, Department S is fascinating for the many tropes which tumble out of it and are quickly recognizable by the current television and movie aficionado. It fills a solid place in the late 1960s spy/crime drama field. The episodes themselves are often quite enjoyable, starting as they do with dramatic situational mysteries - in the first episode, for example, a jetliner lands in London only to find that it is mysteriously six days late, and had been presumed lost.

The only somewhat disappointing bit of the show's formula is that it emphasizes the 'logic and reason' resolution as only the 1960s could. Everything, and I do mean everything, is explainable, and usually explainable using banal motives, methods and props. The mysteries at the start of the episodes are typically mysteries only because there's a great deal of relatively straightforward information made available to the viewer later on - but usually in a very offhand manner. If you imagine those few X-Files episodes where the answer turns out not to be 'out there' but rather down to earth for a change, and then made a series out of just those, you'd have Department S. Well, and used wider ties and more mustaches.

Useless Trivia

I can't watch this show without having continuous Flash Gordon flashbacks (ha ha). This is because Klytus, Ming's faithful lieutenant, was played (beneath his gold-plated mask) by the distinctively-voiced Peter Wyngarde.

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