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Oktober (1997)
Writer and director: Stephen Gallagher

review by Tom Matic

Oktober comes from the same team of writer Stephen Gallagher and producer Brian Eastman that brought us BBC's Bugs and shares that series' suspicions about the applications that large mega-corporations put to scientific developments. But Oktober couldn't be more different to Bugs. Not only is it an adaptation of Gallagher's novel of the same name, but it is the author's directorial debut, and it is none the worse for that. In the accompanying interview and production diary on the DVD extras, Gallagher mentions the almost ad hoc way he ended up directing it and the extreme pressure of the work, but Oktober is none the worse for his inexperience.
   Gallagher expert Dr Matt Hills' commentary mentions the change in structure from novel to TV serial, in that the pre-credits teaser sequence that opens the programme is a version of an incident that does not occur until 80 pages into the novel. However this is a wise decision on Gallagher's part, for it provides an eerie, chilling prologue to what is a textbook example of how to turn SF and dark fantasy into successful primetime TV. One of the show's main selling points is the casting of Stephen Tompkinson, the archetypal, affable, boy-next-door romantic lead, as the innocent abroad Jim Harper, an English teacher at a Swiss finishing school. While pursuing his infatuation with one of the Genou Company's executives, Rochelle (Lydzia Englert), Harper stumbles upon a conspiracy to propagate a sinister wonder-drug called EPL. This substitute for amphetamine has left a group of Russian pilots in a kind of coma in Chechnya, but the Genou detail man in the area has noticed that when you stick a pin into one of the pilot's hands, the same hand twitches on his unconscious comrades.
   Harper soon finds he has fallen foul of the pharmaceutical firm: "I feel like I've pissed off the Cosa Nostra. Only they're bigger - and Swiss." He becomes the target of a manhunt, and has to seek refuge in a remote coastal town, where he is befriended by a group of friends led by Linda (Maria Lennon). She too is not all she seems, but in the end she turns out to be the only person he can trust. For a while it seems as if she is going to turn out to be the femme fatale of the story, but this is due to Lennon's strangely stilted acting. Englert is much more convincing as the real villainess of the piece, ice-queen Rochelle, particularly in the scene where she reveals the full extent of her coldness. She tries to market EPL as a kind of liquid cosh, by testing it on a convicted psychopath. When its side effects drive him to jump to his death from the roof of the secure unit, she shows that she is little better than him by her reaction to criticism of the trial, saying that there was nothing wrong with the trial, the test subject "let us down."
   As a result of his exposure to EPL, Harper finds himself entering a weird limbo between life and death, where he encounters the ghost of one of the Russian pilots and sees a uniquely grisly merry-go-round vision of Hell. However his access to this world also gives him the power to visit his torment on his pursuers. Tompkinson gives the right edge of boggle-eyed, wobbly-jawed desperation to the role of Harper, an everyman in the tradition of the heroes of Hitchcock films like North By Northwest (1959). Gallagher's direction makes excellent use of the dramatic settings, such as the alpine location of the drug company's mountaintop base. The result is a gripping and edgy paranormal thriller, with a haunting theme tune, whose DVD release is enhanced by extras such as the scripts, storyboards and deleted scenes.
Oktober

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