Wombling Free (1977)

In my favorite part of Neil Jordan’s 2005 film Breakfast on Pluto, the character played by Cillian Murphy gets a job at a family fun park based on the BBC’s Wombles. It’s set in the mid-seventies, when the Wombles were pop culture juggernauts. The park seems to be an invention of the movie and not a real place, but you could imagine it happening. To put their dominance into perspective, in 1974, the Wombles, with their kid-friendly songs by Mike Batt, managed more weeks on the UK Singles chart than any other pop music act.

So, in that grand tradition of striking while the iron is hot, it took three more years for a Wombles feature film to be released. It is ninety minutes long, and it feels like nine hundred and ninety.

The film stars David Tomlinson and Frances de la Tour as the parents of a young teenager played by Bonnie Langford whose lives become intertwined with the rubbish-collecting residents of Wimbledon Common. The charming stop-motion puppetry and hilarious narration by Bernard Cribbins that made the TV show so engaging and cute were discarded in favor of full-size mascot costumes and voices by David Jason and Jon Pertwee. That’s kind of all you need to know about why this film isn’t going to appeal to anybody over the age of eight, and that’s pushing it. You watch the five-minute Wombles TV episodes for the delightful puppetry and silliness from Cribbins. You watch the ninety-minute Wombles movie because you have watched everything else that’s ever been made already.

I believe that this was Langford’s film debut, and it was made between the two series of Just William, where, as the spoiled rotten Violet Elizabeth Bott, she became one of the television characters that people hated above all others. Since she was unknown to American audiences, I was baffled by the hatred that Doctor Who fans expressed when she joined the show in 1986. I didn’t like her character, Mel, when I was a teenager, but I was wrong. She’s also probably the best thing about this movie, somehow. Tomlinson and de la Tour just phoned in their performances and are completely unbelievable as actual human beings in every last scene, while their young co-star is actually making the effort.

For the under-eights, this might – might – work. I won’t pretend that our experience would be repeated in your own home, but our son, six, did enjoy the musical numbers a lot, and surprised the heck out of me with a huge and happy hug when David Tomlinson finally sees and acknowledges the Wombles. Up to then, he’d been passing by them without a second glance. In the next scene, Tomlinson is doing a choreographed dance routine with the Wombles set to the tune of their popular song “Exercise Is Good For You (Laziness Is Not),” which is not something I ever expected to see.

Chris Spedding played guitar on that song. Imagine that.

I grouse, but this can actually be looked at from another angle, and that’s how downright weird the script is. What might have been major plot points in another movie are introduced and then completely abandoned. Early on, it looks like the movie’s going to be about the Wombles getting the human family to notice them so they can stop a freeway construction across their home of Wimbledon Common. Not ten minutes later, John Junkin calls off the excavators; they intended to build at Wandsworth Common. Then there’s some business with a miracle plant formula called Womgrow. If it mixes with polluted air, it could wreak havoc, and Bungo Womble is taking it to the humans, uncapped, as a gift. Disaster looms, right? But the Womgrow doesn’t even make it to the humans and is forgotten. It’s so odd!

But while the script is built to baffle, where it’s certain to offend is with the “Japanese” neighbors. Holy anna. I thought that I was used to watching dated stereotypes in films and TV from the sixties and seventies, but this surprised even me. Bernard Spear plays “the Jap chap,” and Yasuko Nagazumi is his wife, who does not speak English and dresses in full geisha costume and makeup for a dinner party. Spear can’t pronounce his Ls, talks about kamikazes, and freaking Pink Lady and Jeff was more culturally sensitive.

In short, this is certainly one of the lousiest films we’ve watched for this blog. Fugitive Alien might have been a little worse. But you know what? I kind of liked that big hug I got when Tomlinson goes to shake Great Uncle Bulgaria’s paw. I could suffer through ninety minutes for a hug that nice from a kid so happy.

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Doctor Who: Planet of the Daleks (part three)

The first time I watched (most of) “Planet of the Daleks,” on PBS around 1987, I wasn’t impressed. I wasn’t impressed when I watched it again after getting a complete copy in 1994 either. But about nine years after that, I watched it with my older son, then about six, and got a new appreciation for it. This is definitely a story to watch with a kid, as we experienced again tonight. The thrill that a child has for Daleks, and the total conviction they have in their cruelty and their power, almost totally overshadows any production problems or scripting silliness.

You can be a curmudgeon on your own; watching this story with a kid is huge fun. Ours was excited, worried, frantic, and, when the ice-volcano erupts and two Daleks are splashed with gallons and gallons of “ice hot lava,” absolutely pleased. We briefly debated whether that shouldn’t be called “ice cold lava” before paying attention to the next bit of running down corridors. Upstairs, now, his nightly playtime before bed has been interrupted several times while Mommy has been threatened with extermination.

Note that I say “almost totally.” Kids can love Daleks all they want, but nothing can save the next Dalek serial that they made, the following year. That thing’s a complete turkey.

Anyway, the reason I’m less familiar with this story than almost all the others from the era that I’ve seen many times is that Lionheart, the company that syndicated Doctor Who in the 1980s, deliberately provided stations with a badly edited version. As I’ve mentioned previously, the BBC wiped many of Jon Pertwee’s color tapes, retaining only black and white film prints for export to countries who hadn’t switched to color yet instead. Lionheart’s package of the 24 Jon Pertwee stories, edited into TV movies, included five black and white movies and nineteen color ones.

However, both “Planet of the Daleks” and “Invasion of the Dinosaurs,” from the following season, were idiotically offered as color TV movies with their missing color segments simply cut out. Since part three of this story was missing in color, the narrative of the movie version just jumps from the character telling Bernard Horsfall “Somewhere on this planet there are ten thousand Daleks!” to a scene a few minutes into part four, once everyone has escaped from the Dalek base. Twenty-five minutes just chopped out. I know I’ve said that these six-parters are all about one episode too long, but that’s insane. They should have syndicated it as a complete black and white movie. It was good enough for “The Daemons.”

(Even weirder, I’ve read that Lionheart also offered this in its mostly-original episodic format, only with the credits remade, so the American “part three” was the original “part four,” and so on. Since WGTV only bought the Pertwee adventures as TV movie compilations, we never saw it like that in Atlanta, but I wonder whether this version included the escape from the refrigeration room that was cut out of the TV movie.)

Anyway, the version of “Invasion of the Dinosaurs” that they offered was, while still obnoxious, not quite as incoherent since the missing color part was the opening episode, and so it looked like the movie began with the adventure already in progress. I hope we’ll be watching this story in about one month’s time, and I’ll talk more about that when we get there, but it was also one that I skipped copying off air.

There’s a terrific short documentary on the DVD about how they rebuilt this episode and restored the color. It took two separate projects: traditional colorizing done by a firm in Los Angeles, and a really neat project in London that extracted color information – chroma-dots – from a black and white telerecording. It’s absolutely wonderful to finally see this episode just about exactly as it was first taped.

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Doctor Who: Planet of the Daleks (parts one and two)

“Invisible Daleks!” shouted our son. Yes, indeed.

“Planet of the Daleks” is another story that I’m not actually all that familiar with. I’ve maybe seen it in full only twice. I never recorded it off-air when WGTV played it – I’ll explain why in the next post – and didn’t get a VHS copy until early 1994, a few months after BBC-1 had shown the story in a very nice 30th anniversary surprise. On those rare occasions when Doctor Who had been repeated, it was on BBC-2, not the main channel, but they commissioned a new documentary about the show and gave it a prime time berth for six weeks of garish and very dated glam rock purple and green videotape, leading The Sunday Times to observe that the show didn’t seem to actually time travel very well.

It was a return for both director David Maloney, who hadn’t worked on Who in four years, and writer Terry Nation, who’d been busy with other things for seven. Among them: he’d been on the staff of The Baron, The Avengers, and The Persuaders! while contributing freelance scripts to several other ITC shows. He’d failed to sell a Dalek TV series to any of the American networks, and the BBC passed on a curious and entertaining pilot film with the unfortunate name of The Incredible Robert Baldick.

For what it’s worth, Maloney hired Bernard Horsfall, one of his regular go-to actors. Always nice to see Horsfall at work, even if he’s stuck under a ridiculous blond wig in this story. He also hired Prentis Hancock, and would again when he directed “Planet of Evil” three years later. I can’t claim to enjoy Hancock’s acting quite as much as I do Horsfall’s.

“Planet” is kind of Nation-by-the-numbers, only taped in a remarkable and eye-poppingly busy jungle set and dealing with invisible aliens who have been enslaved by the Daleks on the hostile planet of Spiridon. It’s not a story that aspires to very much more than wowing the under-tens in the audience.

As for our own under-ten, he seems to like this story much, much more than he did “Frontier in Space,” and spent the hour alternately wide-eyed and wondering out loud, or wide-eyed and transfixed. “Ten thousand invisible Daleks! That’s ten thousand times the original problem!”

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The Six Million Dollar Man 5.5 – Bigfoot V

This was an odd little hour. It’s almost entirely on location, filmed in summer but pretending to be the chilly high mountain elevations with patches of fake snow on the ground and the actors dressed in jackets and parkas. Apparently, Steve’s alien buddies have gone home but left the sasquatch behind for a very lengthy regeneration process that will remove all of his bionic circuitry and eventually leave him a simple Earth animal again. But this gets interrupted by some humans, some of whom, like a character played by Geoffrey Lewis, are up to no good. This leaves Bigfoot maddened and confused, and Steve only has a short time to return his old sparring partner to hibernation before he short-circuits and dies.

Ted Cassidy’s back as Bigfoot in this one, which would prove to be the last outing for the character. I think the producers must have realized that there’s not a lot you can do with this character without the secret space aliens, and everything you can do with him gets done in this episode. It’s perfectly entertaining, and pleased our son greatly. He said that the first part was very surprising, and then it gets very exciting, and it finished up both surprising and exciting.

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Catweazle 1.10 – The House of the Sorcerer

Much of Catweazle‘s comedy comes from one character completely misunderstanding another. This time, everything starts to fall apart when Catweazle believes that Sam the farmhand has been murdered by a powerful sorcerer and Carrot agrees… only he thinks the killer is a foreign spy. Of course, Sam isn’t dead, and the fellow in the caravan is neither a sorcerer nor a spy, but a folklorist who also collects the sounds of birdsongs and chirping toads. This meant we needed to pause the episode to explain just who this odd man is.

Naturally, the misunderstandings don’t stop there. The folklorist, played by Bernard Hepton, thinks that Catweazle is an old fellow from down the pub sent by Sam to tell him old stories and tales. “You come from an England long past,” he tells the dirty old wizard. “Aye, ’tis true,” he sadly agrees. The whole episode is very funny, but that was my favorite bit.

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Doctor Who: Frontier in Space (part six)

The last part of “Frontier in Space” is one of the very few occasions in Doctor Who where major villains team up. The Master and the Daleks only get a few minutes together, and the neatness is overshadowed by knowing this was Roger Delgado’s final appearance in the series.

Delgado had told Who‘s producer that he was ready to move on. He and his agent had heard that the reason he wasn’t getting as many offers in 1971-72 as he might was that all the casting people assumed that he was a regular in Doctor Who and wouldn’t be available. So Barry Letts was beginning to put together ideas for a big finale for the character, which is why he doesn’t get anything like a sendoff this time. He just vanishes in the confusion of the Ogrons running around.

“Frontier” was made in September of 1972. Not too long after, Delgado flew to the south of France to shoot an episode of ITC’s fun little Mission: Impossible clone, The Zoo Gang, which would be shown in 1974. It would be his last English language performance. In June 1973, he flew to Turkey to appear in a small part in a French TV miniseries, La Cloche Tibetaine. On the 18th, while being driven to a location shoot, he was killed in a car crash along with two other men.

Our favorite six year-old critic hadn’t been enjoying this serial very much, but he perked up so much when the Daleks arrived that I genuinely felt bad telling him why this was Delgado’s final appearance as the Master. He listened to my story, a little glum, before saying “He was a great actor, because he played real bad at making the Master SO BAD!” That’s possibly not the most eloquent way to put it, but I agree with the sentiment. He certainly was a terrific, wonderful actor. It’s always a pleasure to watch an adventure show or ITC series from the late sixties or early seventies and find him in the cast. He never had all the major roles that he deserved, but every one of his appearances is worth tracking down.

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Doctor Who: Frontier in Space (parts four and five)

Resuming this serial with a double-bill tonight, our son still says that he isn’t enjoying it, but he does at least enjoy the gunfights. That is, I think he likes the idea of the shootouts, because what happens on screen is not all that thrilling. Honestly, I’m not taken with Paul Bernard’s prowess as a director of action sequences. This isn’t the only time in Doctor Who that the design of a set got in the way of a director who needs to stage a shootout – “The Claws of Axos” comes to mind – but it’s every bit as frustrating to watch. The scene where the Ogrons capture Jo is so sloppy. It doesn’t look like Bernard gave any thought at all to where his cameras should be.

For many reasons, I’m not as familiar with this story as I am most of the Pertwee years. Around 2002, when I was watching the series with my older son, circumstances forced me out of the room to deal with unpleasantness for the first five episodes, five nights straight of real life awfulness, and that hangs over this story for me. So it’s locked in my memory as going from prison cell to prison cell and me unable to enjoy even that. I had forgotten many of the details of my original copy, which I taped off air in the eighties and watched several times afterward.

WGTV had shown this during a pledge drive and interrupted the compilation movie at the approximate points of the original cliffhangers. This led to an interesting surprise tonight. At the end of part five, the Master turns on his fear box and the very last shot is Jo looking in horror at something that we can’t see yet. The next part will open by showing her a few of the most recent monsters in the show: a Drashig, a Mutant “mutt,” and a Sea Devil, and that’s the point where WGTV had faded to black, so I thought we’d be seeing them tonight.

Since I’m not as familiar with this as I could be, I had forgotten just how darn good Katy Manning is, especially in this climax. She and Pertwee and Roger Delgado carry almost all of part four with limited interruption from other characters, which is incredibly entertaining, and they dominate the critical scene in the throne room of the Draconian Emperor, played by John Woodnutt.

But at the end, the Master tries to hypnotize Jo again, and she is not having any of that. She is amazing! Delgado goes right into his party trick of “You. Will. Obey. Me!” and Manning stares him down with cold fury, reciting nursery rhymes in his face. He hypnotized her with ease on their first meeting, on her very first UNIT assignment, but she is not the same scatterbrained kid from “Terror of the Autons.” That’s a fantastic scene.

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The Bionic Woman 3.4 – Fembots in Las Vegas (part two)

This story ends with a pretty run-of-the-mill episode, with a big climax built around getting out of the big enemy base before it blows up. It’s the sort of story the Bionic shows had done several times before. On the other hand, this does have some pretty interesting visuals. I love this shot of three Fembots confronting Jaime outside Carl Franklin’s secret base, and there’s a too-short nightmare sequence where Jaime is dreaming about unmasked Fembot showgirls.

Well, I say that it’s too short, but given the reality of this basic adventure plot, I don’t know that they could have really done much with a plot that ran in that direction instead. Nevertheless, while the images in the show are blurry and fleeting, NBC used several black and white photos of the Fembot showgirls in promoting their new acquisition. I was kind of disappointed that there was so little to the actual presentation in the episode!

Anyway, everything’s neatly tidied up at the end, with the Fembots all destroyed and no chance that their new controller will bother the heroes again. Even the Howard Hughes type we met in part one has a new miracle cure and a reunion with his girlfriend. On the other hand, our son enjoyed it quite a lot and told us that he liked all the big explosions. It’s a shame they didn’t bring back these villains for one last go-around before the end, though. I would’ve liked to have seen one more story with them.

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