The Avengers 4.17 – The Girl From Auntie

If the previous episode of The Avengers was heavy and dated, then this delightful comedy was just what we needed. Our son was very taken with it, which is encouraging, because it’s almost like the official template for the color series: lots and lots of dead bodies of unusually-named men in unusual circumstances, silly organizations formalizing a hobby led by a silly eccentric, grandiose crime, and great guest stars. It’s breezy and very, very fun.

Tackling the cast first, the big name here is the much-loved Bernard Cribbins as a fellow obsessed with knitting. His oddball knitting circle has the office next door to the baddies. Comedy star Liz Fraser plays Steed’s impromptu partner Georgie Price-Jones. She’s been hired to impersonate Mrs. Peel, who’s been kidnapped, and Steed brings her along to get to the bottom of it. There’s also the delightful Sylvia Coleridge, who we saw in an Ace of Wands installment, as a daffy old lady, and David Bauer, one of ITC’s deep bench of American actors, here playing an enemy agent from the eastern bloc. They never actually say Russian, of course. All part of the fantasy. Going back to the previous post about The Avengers and its unreality, even when Bauer’s character ends up in a jail cell, we never actually see a policeman on screen!

I really love the villainous enterprise this time. It’s called Art Incorporated and is led by Gregorio Auntie, played by Alfred Burke. Their shtick is they obtain the unobtainable for extremely exclusive clients and leave behind reproductions. Burke, who is best remembered for playing PI Frank Marker in the long running Thames drama Public Eye, is a really entertaining villain and he has a great scene opposite Macnee.

This template gets tweaked a little in the color series before it becomes pretty standard and, eventually, we have to admit, a little rusty. One positive change they’d make is letting the audience briefly meet the various oddballs with silly names before Steed and his partner find their bodies. Still, even though we have only the briefest acquaintance with John, Paul, George, and Fred Jacques (“the Starr Brothers”) in this outing, they’ll always be remembered.

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The Twilight Zone 2.11 – The Night of the Meek

How appropriate that we should watch this famous Christmas installment of The Twilight Zone now, during this season of mall Santas. “The Night of the Meek” was written by Rod Serling and stars Art Carney – heavens! another future Batvillain – as Henry Corwin, a bum who dresses as Santa, badly, for a department store every December.

How lousy a Santa is Corwin? A few years ago, I was doing some social media stuff for the Children’s Museum of Atlanta, where we’d hired a Santa for our members’ holiday bash. I asked him to wink for the camera for a sweet little picture and he couldn’t do it without opening his other eye and his mouth like some deranged alcoholic pirate bellowing about doubloons. We didn’t use the photos. Henry Corwin is about that bad. He looks dirty and drunk because he is dirty and drunk. It’s startling that the store allowed him in the building, never mind built their holiday expectations around him.

Our son was a little skeptical and I made sure to clarify that this is not Santa Claus, but a man named Corwin. But the line between the two begins to blur and he was incredibly pleased with what happens next. He loved it when Corwin’s grouchy manager, played by John Fielder, gets a hilariously specific gift from Santa’s bag, and the charming, inevitable, climax certainly thrilled him. Not a bad little Christmas episode, really.

Interestingly, the producers tried to save money this season by videotaping six of the 29 episodes instead of filming them. This is one of three that I plan for us to watch, and I found it completely fascinating. It’s a little cramped and hard to believe – whenever anybody tries recreating a busy street in a studio, it’s not going to completely work – but I was so impressed by how the director kept the world they were building fluid and moving. I would have loved to have been in the studio when they taped this.

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What We’re Not Watching: Moonbase 3

We’re not watching Moonbase 3 for the blog, because it is a boring, boring program. Even I couldn’t sit through it without finding something else to do, so a six year-old certainly couldn’t be expected to tackle it. But because it’s an interesting footnote in this period of Doctor Who, and because we’ll be taking a short blog break while we have family in town, I thought I’d write a small post about it.

After four years on Doctor Who, producer Barry Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks were keen to continue working together but knew that they needed to find some new projects. Working a little fiscal magic, they were able to get the first story of Who‘s next season into production at the tail end of the 1973 block. Moonbase 3 was commissioned for a six-part introductory series and was taping almost at the same time as that story. Managing a massive, resource-demanding program like Who alone was a huge undertaking; I can’t imagine doing two series at once. Unfortunately for Letts and Dicks, this series was a ratings flop. They taped it in the summer of 1973, and it was shown in September and October to general disinterest, and the BBC didn’t ask for anymore.

As an ongoing series, Moonbase 3 is full of problems, but the casting is the major one. The leads, left to right in the photo above, are played by Ralph Bates, Fiona Gaunt, Donald Houston and Barry Lowe, and Bates, whom genre fans may recall as the lead in some Hammer horror films from the early seventies, is the only one with any real charisma. They’re outshined in every episode by the guest stars. If you enjoy BBC or ITC dramas from the early seventies, you’ll see all kinds of familiar faces in Moonbase 3, including Anthony Chinn, Michael Gough, Peter Miles, and Michael Wisher. And you’ll wonder why the guest stars aren’t the leads. It’s that lopsided.

But I’m a huge fan of Peter Miles and not even he could save this program by leading it. This is a show about budgets and breakdowns. In going for realism, Letts and Dicks encouraged a format where imagination was sacrificed for the banal. There’s neither any worry nor any curiosity about the future, it’s just a bland place with bland people having arguments about money and weather satellites. Twice, science experiments are conducted by jealous physicists. At no point are any of the five moonbases threatened by Cybermen, or staffed by Gabrielle Drake in a purple wig, or invaded by the Bringers of Wonder, but the one we’re watching is going to have its budget cut in the next fiscal year to put more Eurodollars into a Venus probe. Staffing cuts! Now that’s what I want from science fiction!

So anyway, the show was a flop, losing two-thirds of its audience in a month, and then, in that 1970s BBC way, it didn’t exist anymore. As the corporation so often did, they wiped the tapes and forgot about it. The episodes were lost forever… except for a weird quirk of fate. The BBC got some co-production money from 20th Century Fox, who suggested that they might be able to sell it in America. I’ve read that they were hoping to get it on ABC, but it’s also possible that Fox was looking at PBS stations or even the same first-run syndication market where Fox was selling the Canadian videotape sci-fi show The Starlost that same September. Whatever, there’s been no indication that any station in North America purchased Moonbase 3 in the 1970s, and so it was completely forgotten.

Fast forward to 1993 and something very weird happened. When the Sci-Fi Channel launched, their most interesting program was an anthology called Sci-Fi Series Collection, which ran all sorts of quickly-cancelled flops without enough episodes for a proper Monday through Friday airing, things like Gemini Man, Otherworld, or Planet of the Apes. In many cases, they couldn’t even get all the episodes: four of the 20 installments of Kolchak: The Night Stalker weren’t available to Sci-Fi because Universal offered those as a pair of sausage-link TV movies instead. And the episodes were all edited by a couple of minutes to accommodate segments of interviews with these shows’ creators or stars.

A few months into the run, Moonbase 3 joined the rotation, and it was kind of funny to see how they had the background animation for the interview segments but no actual interviews. Bates and Houston had already passed away by the time this aired, and I suppose the channel didn’t have the budget to go to the UK to interview Gaunt or Lowe… or Letts or Dicks. At the time, some people in British sci-fi teevee fandom were very interested in the Sci-Fi Channel – there were frenzied updates each month in the fanzine DWB about what it was showing – and people in the UK were incredibly surprised to see that the channel had “found” this lost show. Fox had simply never wiped its tapes. It remained available for any station to buy for twenty years – much like those unidentified thirteen episodes of Ace of Wands from DL Taffner – and the show just sat on a shelf in some vault for two decades waiting for a buyer.

Happily, new copies made their way to the BBC promptly, and the show was released on VHS in 1994, and on DVD some years later. It’s a program for completists only, but I am glad that it survives, because everything should!

Photo credit: Archive TV Musings

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The Six Million Dollar Man 5.18 – Dead Ringer

For our final episode of The Six Million Dollar Man, I’m afraid that I picked another turkey. Linda Dano, who would later star in more than 1000 episodes of the soap opera Another World, plays a parapsychologist who helps Steve investigate the possibility of his spirit finally coming to kill him after those 52 seconds that he spent clinically dead in the accident that launched the series. This spirit is, of course, a Scooby Doo hoax by enemy agents. This isn’t merely telegraphed in the first scene after the opening credits, it’s skywritten in neon pink.

So while our favorite six year-old critic was taking this creepy-to-the-young story at face value and worrying about spirits and psychic phenomena, the grownups were questioning each new addition to the story. How’d the bad guys arrange this, and that? It’s all very straightforward until we get to the doctor’s apartment and she becomes possessed by the spirit and tries to kill Steve. Good grief, I wondered. How on earth will they explain that?

They don’t.

I was pretty amazed. In the traditional “here’s how the baddies did it” scene at the end, they explained the this and the that, but they don’t even mention the elephant in the room! That’s one heck of a plot hole.

ABC showed three more episodes of The Six Million Dollar Man and canceled the program, too late for the producers to consider making a final episode. That was very rarely done in the seventies, of course, but by chance, Universal was pretty sure that NBC was going to ax The Bionic Woman, and so they did give that one a proper sendoff. More on that one day next week.

As for Six, I think that overall I enjoyed this more than I thought I might. I certainly picked some turkeys, like this one, the second half of that first Death Probe story, and “The Deadly Test,” but most of what we watched was reasonably entertaining and I enjoyed seeing some good guest stars. The nicest revelation was learning that Lee Majors is actually a much better actor than I had credited him. His performances in the first Bionic Woman adventures, and in “The Seven Million Dollar Man,” were all really good.

Earlier in this blog, I compared him favorably to David Janssen, and I stand by that. Like Janssen, Majors seems more expressive and natural in the television medium than on film. Majors made some features after Six, but his next big success was in another action series, The Fall Guy, which, like this series, ran for five years. He was still believably an action star in CBS’s 1990s series Raven, and more recently he’s had recurring roles in Dallas and Ash vs. Evil Dead.

Steve Austin and Jaime Sommers were revived for three reunion TV movies in 1987, 1989, and 1994, the first two of which were positioned as pilots for new series with younger bionic characters. I’m not planning to track these down for the blog, but if I run across inexpensive copies of them one of these days… who knows?

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The Avengers 4.16 – Small Game for Big Hunters

I’ve been a little concerned about this episode. Once upon a time, it had a reputation as one of the most clever and imaginative installments. I think it was in those American Files Magazines of the ’80s where the author singled it out as one of his ten favorite Avengers episodes, asking how anyone could resist the charms of a story doing “the natives are restless” in Darkest Hartfordshire.

Thirty more years on, and it’s actually quite easy to resist any story that does “the natives are restless.” It is an old and very dated trope.

It’s also one that our son has absolutely no experience with. I figure by the time I was eight, I’d seen dozens of Tarzan movies and the like on afternoon TV, plus all those mid-period Godzilla movies set on Pacific islands, and knew all about “ooga-booga” natives. The only ones he’s seen, however, are the ones we’ve showed him in old movies like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. He had a lot of trouble following this episode; he missed many of the socio-cultural clues that older audiences might know, things like the skull in the tree, the war drums, the “darkest Africa 23 miles from London” marker, and told me that he didn’t like it.

In point of fact, and this is a horrible thing to admit, but I remember when I was a child being surprised to learn that people from “Africa” didn’t all dress like movie witch doctors. “Africa,” then, was a place that stretched from the end of the desert all the way down and then across Asia. That’s where the nation of Kalaya is in this story. It might be on the African continent, and it might be in the south Pacific. About the only thing this episode gets right is having the discretion to not specifically nail it down.

And it’s because of film and television like “Small Game for Big Hunters” that I got that stereotype. There are actors of color in this story. All but one of them play immigrants from the nation of Kalaya who live in a mock “jungle” in Bill Fraser’s character’s gigantic greenhouse. In other hands, Fraser might have been an interesting Avengers eccentric; he’s another ex-colonial officer holding on to old glories, oblivious that he’s been used by the real villain, played by James Villiers, to engineer a lethal strain of tsetse fly in tropical conditions.

The one actor of color who isn’t an ooga-booga native in war paint sleeping on the ground is a Kalayan secret agent played by Paul Danquah. And he’s undercover as… an ooga-booga native in war paint sleeping on the ground.

This could have been avoided. There’s a scene where Steed visits a clothier to get information on the jungle outfit one nearly-dead man was wearing. It would have been so much better if they instead cast an actor of color to play the Kalayan ambassador who is phoned by Mrs. Peel and gave him a scene. Take off the war paint from the extras and you’d have an hour that isn’t nearly so tone-deaf. But then again, cultural norms and outrages are always evolving. Who’s to say what people thirty years from now will find insensitive and unflattering?

In point of fact, there’s something incredibly insensitive about Brian Clemens’ view of The Avengers as an escapist fantasy. It’s kind of the elephant in the room:

“No woman should be killed, no extras should populate the streets. We admitted to only one class and that was the upper. As a fantasy, we would not show a uniformed policeman or a coloured man. And you would not see anything as common as blood in The Avengers.” (This quote appears without citation in several places; I’m unsure of the original quote, but Clemens made similar expressions in many, many interviews.)

On the one hand, I get it: British television drama in the mid-sixties was often addressing social realism, and The Avengers is set in a world that is defiantly unrealistic. I can get behind that much.

But saying that a world that doesn’t show actors of color is a fantasy leads you to question exactly whose fantasy this is, or why anybody would fantasize about something so wretched.

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The Twilight Zone 2.7 – Nick of Time

We’re stepping back into The Twilight Zone for a little while. I’ve picked eleven stories from the program’s second season that sound promising. There are a couple that we’re going to watch that I remember fondly. Others I don’t know, but they have memorable actors in them. I picked Richard Matheson’s “Nick of Time” because William Shatner is in it. I never saw this one before, but publicity photos from the production, thanks, perhaps, to Shatner’s later celebrity, are among the most common Zone pictures out there.

Shatner and Patricia Breslin play newlyweds whose car breaks down in a small Ohio city. While waiting for a part to come in from Dayton, they kill time in the local Busy Bee Cafe, trying to enjoy some lousy sandwiches and iced coffee. Shatner’s character is deeply superstitious, and he quickly becomes obsessed with a penny-per-question fortune teller on their table. It’s part of the napkin-holder, a cute and clever way for restaurants to make an extra buck or two a day.

You could imagine a later production doing the same sort of script with a Magic 8-ball. The fortune telling machine could be viewed as stunningly accurate, leading to one very surprising moment and one very funny one involving Stafford Repp, who plays the town mechanic… or are they just coincidences? Shatner coughs up twenty-odd cents, stunned by its power. Breslin urges him to leave it alone and write his own fortune.

Our son really enjoyed this one, more than most Zone stories, and so did I. It’s a simple and uncomplicated episode with an ethical question at its core that viewers of any age can grasp. I liked the straightforward script and the performances. Breslin is very good and Shatner is even better. The Twilight Zone Wiki noted that Matheson had hoped that Breslin would have been available to play Shatner’s character’s wife in the even more famous fifth season story “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” but she wasn’t, and Christine White played that role instead. What a missed opportunity!

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The Bionic Woman 3.15 – The Martians are Coming, the Martians are Coming

When NBC picked up The Bionic Woman, they asked for one of those pre-credit showreels that you often saw in the seventies, with clips from the episode you’re about to watch. These are always obnoxious, but I liked the way they did this one. All the clips are from about the first seven minutes of the story.

I’m not giving away too much when I reveal this is one of those incredibly common hoax flying saucers that we often saw on TV in that decade, because the show gives it away after about ten minutes. These always let me down as a kid. But to their credit, the bad guys behind this hoax stick to their guns and keep their “holograph” projectors going even once the heroes and the audience are in on the scam. That way the kids in the audience can still have a special effect to look at.

Speaking of effects, while these are about as good as what you could expect to see on TV in 1978, there are a couple of shots where the plate which is used for the image of the flying saucer is pockmarked by two big black blobs right in the center of the picture and what looks like a huge ink smear in the upper left of the frame. Kind of hard to suspend disbelief when Universal’s special effects crew couldn’t even wipe down the plate with some glass cleaner, really. On the other hand, it gave us the opportunity to wind it back and talk with our son how they used to do special effects like this. I used to absorb every article about visual effects in magazines like Dynamite to understand how things like this were made.

In the cast, Jon Locke, who had played the leader of the Sleestak and a couple of other monsters in the last year of Land of the Lost the previous season, has a small part as one of the townspeople excited by the flying saucers. Jack Kelly plays a scientist who has been “abducted” along with Rudy Wells. Kelly is shamefully misused by this story and given next to nothing to do. Since Kelly was all over television doing guest parts during this period, often for Universal, perhaps he was only available for what looks like just two days of filming. That’s idle speculation on my part, but there are three other adult male roles in this story with much more meat on them where I’d prefer to have seen Kelly, who I really enjoy.

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Iron Man (2008)

Mainly we watch older movies here at Fire-Breathing Dimetrodon Time, but we’re going to cycle the Marvel Universe movies into a rotation so that he’ll have the chance to see some of them before next summer. Maybe we’ll see five or six of them before the next Avengers movie? Seven might be a good age to see these on the big screen. He’s pretty mature for his age and very well-behaved in theaters. And if this is any indication, he might just love that Avengers film. He told us at lunch that Iron Man is second only to his beloved Captain Underpants as his all-time favorite movie.

That’s not to say it didn’t baffle him in places. It’s interesting to look back in the series; I’ve seen two of the films twice, and the rest no more than once, in theaters. I’ve been picking these up when I find copies, usually used, at a sensible price. They never seem to be on sale, and Marvel Studios has not released any sensible collected-in-sequence editions to take up less space on fans’ shelves. So I bought some six-disk boxes and wish I had a copy of Photoshop and the talent to make new artwork for them!

It’s amazing how comparatively slow this movie is. It takes a long, long time for Tony Stark to appear in his first suit of armor. The more recent movies, particularly Doctor Strange, work in shorthand compared to this. Iron Man spends a lot of time, and I mean a lot of time, emphasizing how insufferable and arrogant Tony Stark is. It’s all hugely entertaining and I wouldn’t change a minute, I’m just interested in how the later origin films follow the early ones’ template, trusting the audience, once they’ve seen a few of these, to understand the main character from much shorter sketches.

There are lots of reasons I don’t see many modern movies. One of them is that I prefer the comfort of the character actors of the sixties and seventies; I just don’t see enough modern movies and television to really know the actors. Honestly, I’m not kidding, I’ve seen Scarlett Johansson in literally one film that isn’t a Marvel movie. I know her as a singer first, and Black Widow second! I’ve even missed most of Robert Downey Jr.’s career. According to IMDB, I’ve seen him in exactly four roles other than Tony Stark, and I was in high school for two of those. (He was in a movie version of The Singing Detective? There’s a movie version of The Singing Detective?)

Anyway, it’s become standard in blog posts about Marvel movies to praise the casting. These might be the movies’ real genius, because the plots aren’t anything that outrageous. The stories don’t thrill me and CGI special effects don’t make my jaw drop any more, so it’s all about the casting and the humor for me. Iron Man introduces us to Stark, to Gwenyth Paltrow’s long-suffering Pepper Potts, Jon Favreau’s loyal Happy Hogan, and Clark Gregg’s SHIELD agent Coulson. Samuel L. Jackson shows up right at the end as Nick Fury, setting an unhappy precedent of sitting around through a million credits for maybe sixty bonus seconds.

Terrence Howard played James Rhodes in this movie. I’m not sure why, but Don Cheadle took over the part after this one. Blink and you’ll miss Bill Smitrovich (Inspector Cramer in A Nero Wolfe Mystery) as a general. Leslie Bibb plays a reporter and Jeff Bridges – okay, him I’ve seen a fair bit – is the villain. They’re all excellent.

While Bridges is terrific as the villain Obadiah Stane, this story does suffer more than a little from the same malady that infects so many superhero movies: the odd need to have the hero’s and the villain’s stories intertwined. As such, Stane’s betrayal is never even remotely surprising. I was once told that I should have known that immediately, but I wasn’t reading Iron Man comics in the eighties, when it appears that the character was introduced, and never heard of the Iron Monger until they made a piece for him in Heroclix, a collectible combat game I once played.

The business about Stark Industries’ stock prices plummeting was over our son’s head, and he was probably tuned out for about six of this movie’s 120 minutes. But Jon Favreau, who directed the movie as well as playing Happy Hogan, knew how to keep things busy and moving for even the younger viewers. Some of the humor was over his head, but the slapstick of Tony learning to fly had him riveted and guffawing. I like how you just know one of those cars is going to get crushed; place your bets on which one. The action scenes had his eyes popping out of his head. I was just a little worried that Iron Man’s first appearance in the caves would frighten him, but it didn’t. This morning was all talk about Iron Man, and how he can’t wait for the next Marvel movie. Then we rented him the complete Hanna-Barbera cartoon Wacky Races and he might have forgotten about Tony and his friends. (Car # 6, the Army Surplus Special, is his favorite. I like the Gruesome Twosome most myself.)

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