The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. 1.3 – The Orb Scholar

Normally I wouldn’t ever agree with a network shuffling the broadcast order of a show from the way the producers intended it, but watching Carlton Cuse’s “The Orb Scholar,” you can easily see why they showed this one after the pilot. It begins with a recap of the science fiction elements of the pilot, and while the meat of the story is Brisco hot on the trail of John Bly and having a run-in with an old friend who had betrayed him a decade previously, the Orb and its weird power, and the Jedi mind tricks that an older man who studies it has learned, are on the periphery of the story. Bly is hunting for the Orb, and while Brisco believes it was washed out to sea, it’s very much active.

Bly is played by Billy Drago, who passed away last month, and I think he’s completely wonderful. Years ago, I said that Bly was one of television’s greatest villains and I stand by that. We didn’t see very much of him in the pilot movie, so this is his first chance to shine. I love his quiet, silky voice and his theatrical gestures, and the way he walks with his head hunched forward and his black hat covering his face. He’s a fabulous example of a villain that you love to hate because he’s so successful in pushing Brisco’s buttons.

Brisco is usually too resourceful and intelligent a hero to fall for a bad guy needling him, but Bly very naturally and very believably slides right under Brisco’s skin and makes our hero do stupid things. A lot of this is down to television convention, of course. After the show, we reminded our son of how Carol Danvers correctly handled her climactic battle with Jude Law’s character in Captain Marvel, and how that was so refreshing and wonderful because (a) the woman had nothing to prove to the man and (b) the hero had nothing to prove to the villain. Bly can count on Brisco not figuring that out yet.

The main thing that our son loved this time was a great subplot about the crooked sheriff and his partner, played by Robert Picardo, who has to deal with the sheriff’s big mean Rottweiler. Picardo was probably best known at the time for his recurring role as the coach on ABC’s The Wonder Years, and while I was enjoying his performance as a snivelling number two with barely enough talent to match his boss’s expectations, our son loved the dog, who’s in charge of the jail keys, being mean to everybody. When Lord Bowler gets himself out of the jail cell by hooking the rug underneath the sleeping dog and sliding the snoozing beast across the floor, the kid was howling.

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King of the Castle 1.3 and 1.4

Marie gave up on this serial after the unbelievable awfulness of episode two, so she’s not going to believe this, but this has become a much, much more interesting production without Fulton Mackay’s overacting. In episode three, young Roland deals with a beautiful witch who schemes to shrink him and add him to a collection of captive children, and in episode four, he is trapped in a steamy scullery with several disheveled children under the thumb of a guard who screams “work makes you free!” at them and forces them to do repetitive, meaningless chores.

It’s not quite as visually bizarre as the second part, which makes it less interesting for me, but the special effects crew pulled off an impressive-for-the-1977-tech trick of shrinking the kid, trapping him under a crystal ball, and then having him walk the globe off a table. After the Frankenstein horrors and the bullying of the first two parts, this has become a more conventional adventure story, and, much like Into the Labyrinth, it’s pitched just right at eight year-olds. Our kid really got into Roland’s escape from the love witch, and hissed “yes!” as he got to a safe spot in the wall.

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The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. 1.2 – Socrates’ Sister

I didn’t realize until now that Fox did not originally run this series quite in the order intended. “Socrates’ Sister” was made second, but shown fifth. This might be because the episode, while not bad, is really quite ordinary. It plays like a very standard western, and it wouldn’t have done at all to come down from the wildness of the pilot with something that pretty much any western of the previous forty years could have done. It was written by Chris Ruppenthal, and this is his only credit on this show. He’d previously been a producer on Quantum Leap for three seasons and, the next year, would write for Bruce Campbell again in an episode of Lois & Clark that we looked at in May.

With no explanation of how he survived what looked like his death in the previous episode, John Pyper-Ferguson is back this week as Pete Hutter. Motormouthed and with a hair-trigger temper, Pete’s really the best thing about the episode, which also very, very, very briefly introduces Yvette Nipar as a recurring character, Ellie, who owns Brisco’s favorite bar. Our son loved the underwater fight, and enjoyed giggling over a recurring gag about Socrates rushing off to rescue his sister while loaded down with an absurd amount of unnecessary junk.

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Doctor Who: Ghost Light (part three)

John Hallam shows up as one of Doctor Who‘s immortal super-being characters in this story’s final episode. I don’t know that Light is in the same league as the White and Black Guardians or the Eternals. He’s kind of stupid. Tens of thousands of years ago, he came to Earth and catalogued all life on the planet and then went to sleep. Light’s never encountered life that evolves before now, and when he wakes up in 1883, he becomes furious and the Doctor talks him into one of those “does not compute… self-destruct!” moments that we saw, with eyes rolled, on television in the sixties and seventies, or at the end of “The Daemons.”

At least Light’s goal made sense to our son. I gave him a recap over supper, and we talked about the show afterward, and he understood that Light wanted to catalog everything without it evolving. He also understood that Control, who has evolved into a female humanoid with good dress sense, wanted to be free. He didn’t understand anything else at all, which makes him a member of a very large club. Maybe after nineteen more viewings and twenty thousand online reviews and blog posts, he’ll figure it out.

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Doctor Who: Ghost Light (parts one and two)

In early 1990, I got the first seven episodes of season 26. They were maybe fourth gen. I thought “Battlefield” was pretty good. “Ghost Light” wasn’t. The tape hiss obscured most of the dialogue. I had to turn the volume way, way up and I still couldn’t make any sense of it. The only actors – and this remains true, twenty-nine years later – who seem to have ever been in a television studio before and know how to project toward the microphones are John Nettleton, who plays a deliberately annoying comedy vicar, and Frank Windsor, who plays a racist Victorian policeman. I had no clue what anybody else was saying.

About a year later, I finally watched a movie version that I’d recorded, or had somebody else record for me, off WGTV. The excuse this time was that somehow the BBC’s new stereo sound mix got messed up by Lionheart, the distributor who edited these into movie versions. Watching this was still a chore and a half, but I started to get it and enjoy it.

In December of 1993, I was in London and bought a copy of the fanzine DWB, which was celebrating Doctor Who‘s 30th anniversary with essays loving and praising each Doctor. Virgin had just published Kate Orman’s debut novel, a Seventh Doctor adventure called The Left-Handed Hummingbird, and here she was in DWB singing the praises of McCoy, and “Ghost Light” in particular. The story started making a lot more sense when explained by its champions.

And that’s what makes “Ghost Light” such a weird piece of television. It’s a story that could have worked a million times better, but fans of this one – and of “Fenric” – respond with absolutely breathtaking smugness when you mention that you had trouble understanding it. It’s not just the unbelievably bad sound mix and godawful delivery, which the later commercial releases still provide, which is why we watched the DVD with the (often comically inaccurate) subtitles tonight, it’s that the writer and script editor wanted to send the audience on a thrill ride and give them all the information they need in passing, without spoon-feeding anybody, or having the Doctor sit down with his audience identification character and explain what’s happening.

So in the late nineties I liked it – it was, once, incredibly interesting watching Orman and her husband-to-be Jon Blum and their internet pals defend the show’s last three seasons on rec.arts.drwho – but, over time, I liked it less and less. In early 2006, I watched it with my older children. They loved every minute of the Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy years, and then we hit this and “Fenric” and they reacted like they were getting lessons in Esperanto instead of time-travel teevee.

My older son was about nine then. “This sucks,” he said, with emphasis.

I was Livejournal-friends with a McCoy-is-God fellow in Indiana then. I reported how badly they reacted to these popular stories, and how the third cliffhanger of “Fenric” – which I’d have said was the original run of Who‘s last great cliffhanger – ended with the kids asking “What? What did he say? Did he stand up? This is stupid.” The guy said that my kids were wrong.

No, I’m pretty sure that when Doctor Who‘s target audience of thrilled seven and nine year-olds stop enjoying the show and start telling you that it sucks that they may be onto something.

And tonight, subtitles on to help – not that the half-assed transcription helped a very great deal – our favorite eight year-old critic didn’t find it thrilling, either. He found it weird and hard to follow. It makes sense to me, because I’ve sat through it twenty times and can see how all the explanations are hidden here, there, and everywhere except in an A, B, C pattern, and I have read twenty thousand essays, reviews and criticisms of this weird story that celebrate its weirdness, often very smugly.

“But did you like it?” I asked our son.

“I like having my tummy rubbed,” he replied.

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King of the Castle 1.1 and 1.2

Back now to 1977, for a seven-part serial made by HTV which our son calls “absolutely scary” and his mother calls “actively painful.” King of the Castle was written by Bob Baker and Dave Martin, who had made the fantastic Sky for HTV two years previously and, like Sky, it really should have made it to Nickelodeon’s Third Eye anthology. It’s a freaky, supernatural and very weird story. I don’t agree with either my wife or my son about it so far. I think it’s very peculiar and odd, and even though it’s lining up to climax with a “gasp! it was all… a dream!” ending, I’m curious to see where it’s going before it gets there.

At least it starts out well enough. King of the Castle stars Philip Da Costa as the son of a saxophone player who’s got a scholarship to a local, exclusive school, although he’d rather read comics – the props department mocked up a Mummy’s Tomb cover and pasted it atop a seventies Marvel UK title but didn’t bother to dress the back of the magazine and its ads for other Marvel comics – and keep a low profile. His family’s moved to the top floor of a ten-story apartment building and the elevator’s out of order and a tough teen called Ripper has his gang of bullies ready to cause trouble on the staircases. Providing support are some generally very reliable character actors, including Milton Johns, Fulton Mackay, and Talfryn Thomas.

Interestingly, episode one is almost entirely filmed on location on 16mm film. It’s only right at the end when our young hero backs into the out-of-order elevator and it plummets to lower levels that the videotape starts. Up to this point, our son had watched with a mix of sympathy and frustration – our kid has always hated bullies on TV and movies – and the instant the world changed into a creepy dungeon with cobwebs, bizarre sound effects, and overlay on top of overlay on top of overlay as the guy running the video mixer loses his mind, he got incredibly scared and hid.

No pictures will convey how weird this looks. I imagine most of our readers are familiar enough with the sort of image-atop-image visuals of seventies videotape, whether you can picture the blue-screen worlds of Sid and Marty Krofft or, most precisely, the alien ship/environment in Doctor Who‘s “Claws of Axos,” which was also written by Baker and Martin. Now take that look and go nuts. In part two, Da Costa and Talfryn Thomas, now playing a different character with a similar set of keys, navigate through cramped environments with lots of curtains or obstacles to block a clear shot, like an amusement park haunted house, but then other elements are chromakeyed on top of those, and other visuals on top of those. By the time we get to the Frankenstein castle where Mackay’s otherworld character lives, they’re keying lava lamp blobs on top of erlenmeyer flasks full of green food coloring and then keying firecracker sparks on top of those.

But I’ll grant my wife one point: it’s one thing to suffer through a bad performance from an otherwise unknown actor – take Mordred in “Battlefield,” please – but seeing a really good actor like Fulton Mackay go so over the top in this wretched performance really is painful. At least he’s doing it on a downright weird set and there’s lots of other things to look at. Like Milton Johns’ Frankenstein monster in a Ronald McDonald wig. Really.

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Doctor Who: Battlefield (parts three and four)

The end of part two certainly scared our son, but otherwise he really enjoyed this story. It’s full of swordfights and explosions and knights and soldiers brawling. As ever, there aren’t enough extras and stuntmen – and what is with that one knight of Morgaine’s stomping around in red pajama pants? – but the stuntmen that they did employ got blasted and blown up and did somersaults in the air quite magnificently. So he loved the action and all the gags landed with bullseyes. He particularly loved the Doctor interrupting two fellows’ fight by walking between them like a comedian from the silent film era.

Jean Marsh gets a great finale during her final argument with the Doctor, although – and I say this as a huge fan of the Seventh Doctor and the fellow who portrays him – I’m afraid that Sylvester McCoy’s long experience in fringe and experimental comedy leaves him pretty far in the dust in a big, important scene against the classically-trained Marsh. I have no idea what he even looks like in this scene because you can’t take your eyes off Jean Marsh, who does more with disbelief in her eyes and a twitch of her lip than McCoy does with all his yelling. The writer, Ben Aaronovitch, gave the Doctor a great speech, but it’s how Morgaine responds to it that sells it.

So season 26 continued the trend of the crew taping way, way more than they had time to broadcast. I’ve never actually watched the “special edition” cut, which is about six minutes longer and I believe contains my favorite scene, which was cut from the broadcast edit (it’s in the More Than Thirty Years in the TARDIS documentary, which we’ll watch next month). About my only grumble with the otherwise splendid DVD range is that they re-edited a few stories into extended-length movies instead of into an original-but-longer episodic format. That said, we will be watching “The Curse of Fenric” in its full-length version next weekend, because it kind of demands to be seen in full.

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The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. 1.1 (pilot)

I spent the 1990s in Athens GA, the best city possible to see lots and lots of live music. And I saw some great shows, but never went out as much as I should have, and very rarely on Fridays. That’s because I spent my Fridays in front of the television instead of at the 40 Watt or the Uptown Lounge. The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. was one of the programs that kept me home on Friday nights whenever there was a new episode.

Had I known in 1993 that one day you could get all 28 hours, uncut, on a format yet to be developed, and take up just slightly more shelf space than one VHS tape, then I’d have recorded them on a timer on 6-hour speed to watch once and collect later on down the road, and go out to see Hillbilly Frankenstein or the Labrea Stompers like I should have been doing. But no, I sat in front of the TV, taping and live-editing out the commercials while watching Brisco County and The X Files and, the next season, Homicide: Life on the Street. Did I see Elf Power’s first dozen or so shows? Not a one of them. But I wouldn’t have missed Brisco County for the world.

The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. was created by Jeffrey Boam and Carlton Cuse. It’s a western, mostly, but its tongue is in its cheek. There are science fiction elements, and it’s very, very funny. In the Maverick tradition, this is a show that where the situations are often “hopeless, but never serious.” It starred Bruce Campbell as our hero, with regular support from Julius Carry as the bounty hunter Lord Bowler and Christian Clemenson as the representative of the wealthy robber barons who are paying them to clean up a criminal gang. In recurring roles, there are Billy Drago and John Pyper-Ferguson as two of the villains – more about them another time – and John Astin and Kelly Rutherford as occasional allies.

Aggravatingly, one character who didn’t return when Fox agreed to buy this as a regular series was Amanda, the daughter of Astin’s mad scientist character, played by Anne Tremko. It might have been fun to have a naughty vs. nice love triangle with her, Brisco, and Kelly Rutherford’s sexy showgirl, Dixie Cousins. James Hong also has a one-off role in the two-hour pilot as an old friend of Brisco’s father. Hong probably couldn’t have returned even if they wanted him, because he had about fifty-two other commitments that year. Busy man.

Our son has been very skeptical about this show, since he didn’t enjoy Barbary Coast very much and that has soured him on westerns. But Brisco won him over exactly as it did me that Friday night in 1993. The first scene introduces the science fiction element of the show in the form of a mysterious, otherworldly Unearthed Foreign Object called The Orb, and the second scene builds to a train derailment using a variation on all those fake tunnels that Wile E. Coyote used to paint on rocks. Seven minutes into this and we hadn’t met the hero yet but I wasn’t going to miss an episode no matter who was playing at the Rockfish Palace that week.

And our kid indeed watched with eyes about as wide as mine must have been. Add in John Pyper-Ferguson’s hyperactive never-shuts-up gunslinger Pete, and Brisco’s horse Comet, who does not understand that he is a horse and needs to do horse things, and he was sold. He really liked Brisco racing to save the day riding a railroad rocket, although sadly he didn’t recognize the rocket’s inventor. He and I rewatched the Eerie, Indiana episode “The Hole in the Head Gang” this morning about an hour before we sat down to this and he still couldn’t identify John Astin!

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