The Bionic Woman 2.14 – Doomsday is Tomorrow (part two)

Well, the most important thing is that our son enjoyed the second episode more than he did the first. “I LOVED that episode,” he said, before adding “but part one was…” and he stuck out his tongue. The peanut gallery has spoken.

The second most important thing is that “Doomsday is Tomorrow” really entertained me as well. You could argue there’s a disagreeable cop-out near the end, but there are also a lot of completely unexpected twists and turns. Pretty much the whole thing is Lindsay Wagner stomping through some big industrial complex – I dunno where this was filmed, but if Disney showed up a year later to make the second Witch Mountain movie, I wouldn’t be surprised – arguing with the disembodied voice of ALEX 7000, pledging that the next round of defenses will surely kill her, so she should stop now. And yet Wagner is so good, and the plot keeps throwing surprises at us as ALEX improvises new ways to stop her, that this never feels like a low-budget way to do two episodes with a small cast. It feels like the end of the world.

Kenneth O’Brien has a whole lot less to do in the second part than I had thought, and Lew Ayres is only here briefly, having recorded his messages of doom to humanity before he died in part one. This is as close to a solo turn for a program’s protagonist as it got in the seventies, and it’s a genuine pleasure. I’m very glad that I picked this one.

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The Bionic Woman 2.13 – Doomsday is Tomorrow (part one)

He’s enjoyed the last few things that we’ve watched despite some worrying monsters and menace, but our son didn’t like part one of this story at all. I thought it was surprisingly good, miles better than that business with the police academy. “Doomsday is Tomorrow” was written, produced, and directed by Kenneth Johnson, and concerns a dying scientist and his seventies evil supercomputer triggering a Dr. Strangelove-style doomsday device, which will destroy all life on earth six hours after anybody, anywhere, ever triggers a nuclear device in the atmosphere.

The trouble is that just as soon as he reveals his threat and proves to a team of international scientists that he’s not bluffing, some middle eastern nogoodniks from Nosuchlandia decide this is a plot by the superpowers to stop their hydrogen bomb program and start a countdown. Jaime, teamed with a Soviet agent and electronics expert, has to race against time to penetrate more than six miles of artillery, lasers, and a minefield – that’s the second minefield we watched today! – to get back to the complex.

The problem with our son is that while, as a six year-old, he certainly loves lasers and explosions, he really, really didn’t like seeing Jaime so close to danger. He was so worried about her as she ran through the artillery barrage that it colored everything else!

Meanwhile, I did want to note that the scientist is played by Lew Ayres, who was a guest star in everything in the sixties and seventies, especially everything that Universal made. I remember him as a Nazi hunter working on a Gulf of Mexico oil rig in an early Route 66. Jaime’s unplanned partner is played by Kenneth O’Brien, another regular guest star actor of the day, and who we saw a year ago in an episode of Ark II. The evil supercomputer, ALEX, is voiced by Guerin Barry. Looks like two years later, he’d play another computer voice in Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. It was the seventies. Computers only spoke with men’s voices then, but things eventually changed didn’t they, Siri?

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Doctor Who: The Sea Devils (part four)

Thankfully, much better copies of the second half of “The Sea Devils” were available for the wizards at the BBC to restore the visuals. Part four of this story looks great, almost as though fate wanted the monsters to shine. The Sea Devils look organic and wet. The closeups of the latex and rubber show it looking more like skin than the plastic of the monsters in the previous story.

I’ve written before about how we enjoyed the novelizations of the stories in the days before our local PBS station bought them. The book version of this serial wasn’t one of the greats, but it did have a delightful embellishment by writer Malcolm Hulke. Onscreen, we see the doomed Colonel Trenchard get off a couple of shots against the monsters before dying. But in the book, he realizes too late that he left the safety on, a fitting end for the character.

Unfortunately, while the last episode ended with a fantastic cliffhanger, this one… doesn’t. Jo looks into a diving bell. Either the Doctor is inside, dead, or he’s not inside at all. We’ll check back in a few days for the answer.

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Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977)

Because it was a box office flop, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger seems to be overlooked, but holy anna, did I ever watch the heck out of this movie when I was a child. HBO showed it twenty times and my kid brother and I saw at least nineteen of the screenings. He even had a dream once where the ending was different, and when we saw it the next time and a big Ray Harryhausen monster didn’t survive – it never did – he started crying because he was convinced that “they” had changed the ending.

Anyway, since Ray Harryhausen movies took a heck of a long time to make, he and Charles Schneer began preproduction for the third Sinbad movie while the second one was still in theaters. By the time it was finally released, Star Wars was in the process of changing everything. It’s a fine adventure film, headlined by Patrick Wayne as Sinbad, with Jane Seymour and Patrick Troughton in good supporting roles, and a terrific villain played by Margaret Whiting, who is just awesome and gives a splendid performance. Apart from the memorable monsters, Sinbad movies had great bad guys. But the movie was seen as an old-fashioned throwback, and audiences in 1977 wanted outer space action.

Strangely, Taryn Powers, playing the daughter of Patrick Troughton’s character, is second-billed here despite a much smaller role than many of the other actors. She is the daughter of Tyrone Powers and didn’t have a really long career, but she must have had a good agent.

Our son was a little bit leery of this one, because while his memory isn’t exceptional, he definitely remembers the previous two movies being scary. This time out, the stop-motion monsters aren’t quite as memorable, though. It starts with some demon-things that interact with the live-action photography better than any previous Harryhausen fight scene, even bringing down a tent atop the human actors by striking the pole with a sword. But there’s a bronze clockwork minotaur that just steers a boat, and a big wasp whose actual size we can’t determine until it’s been killed, and a great big walrus, for some reason. But half an hour before the end of the movie, we meet a strange ally in the form of a grunting troglodyte, and “Trog” might be Harryhausen’s finest monster to that point.

But I specified monster for a reason. Sinbad’s big quest this time is to save an old friend, the rightful caliph of the city of Charak, who has been turned into a baboon. There are a couple of scenes with a prop monkey, but otherwise the animal is entirely stop-motion and the effect is just amazing. It’s almost as though Harryhausen decided to challenge himself by animating something with so much hair, and to have it be so expressive atop that is just icing. A crowd of skeletons meant less work.

Anyway, his verdict was that, like the previous Sinbad movies, he liked the film, but it was scary. I like it a lot: Wayne and Seymour are great together, Troughton is just about the most watchable actor around, Bernard Kay has a small part and he’s always worth seeing, and Margaret Whiting is just superb.

Weirdly, another film that I watched a dozen times on HBO, a few years later, was John Boorman’s Excalibur. I haven’t seen either movie in decades, and somehow my dwindling familiarity with the films long ago confused a mid-movie fate for Whiting, where her transformation from a seagull back into a human isn’t 100% effective, with that bit in Excalibur where Helen Mirren ages fifty or sixty years. Memory’s a weird thing, isn’t it?

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Doctor Who: The Sea Devils (part three)

Part three of this story ends with a delicious cliffhanger, with the Doctor and Jo trapped on a beach with a minefield on one side, four men with rifles on another, and a Sea Devil rising from the ocean. It’s a really effective scene that had our son utterly stumped how they’ll get out of this. Helicopters and International Rescue’s Mole were considered.

Speaking of effective, I love how the titular Sea Devils have completely dominated the narrative despite only appearing onscreen for maybe two minutes totally throughout the first three parts. We wondered whether our son would pick up the subtleties in how the Master has convinced Colonel Trenchard to let him take over the prison, and he didn’t. The Master has given him some song and dance about enemy agents operating in British waters, and how only he can stop them, and Trenchard will soon have the thanks of a grateful nation. I think he treated this as new, additional information, like the enemy saboteurs were real, and yet another obstacle and headache.

I think the problem with six year-old viewers is that they will take everything at face value, and not quite understand when characters are being dishonest yet. I realized this when I had to pause the first couple of Avengers episodes we watched because he didn’t really get that Steed and Mrs. Peel will lie about their undercover activities. Television that’s really designed exclusively for younger viewers will wink at the kids a little more obviously.

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Doctor Who: The Sea Devils (part two)

There’s so much to like about “The Sea Devils.” It’s just a terrific and fun adventure story, with some monsters that look fantastic, wonderfully classy and claustrophobic direction, great set design, and a fun performance from Edwin Richfield – he had played the father in the deeply weird serial The Owl Service a few years previously – playing a military role that the Brigadier would not have been right for. The Brig had learned to trust the Doctor’s wild stories, but this is one of the few examples of the Doctor being seen by the authority figure as being utterly mad. I think Richfield had fun playing Captain Hart as an even more weary straight man than Nicholas Courtney’s Brigadier.

A slightly more controversial thing to praise in “The Sea Devils” is the music, which is a harsh and discordant wall of electronic noises played by Malcolm Clarke as though he was angry with whomever sold him his synthesizers. Three months after “The Sea Devils” aired, Roxy Music released their debut LP. Writing in The Evening Standard, Andrew Bailey dismissed the record as sounding full of “Dr Who gimmickry.” I’ve no doubt this story was what Bailey had in mind.

That may require a bit of explanation, since Roxy Music and Bryan Ferry have been defined in the public mind by that one melodic song with heartbroken lyrics and sixty-four tracks of dense, interwoven guitars and keyboards that Bry wrote in 1980 and has been rewriting ever since. I don’t mind, because while sure, Bry has evolved into a one-trick pony, it’s a more entertaining and rewarding pony than just about anybody else in music, even if all ten songs on his last LP could have just as easily been released on any of his previous ones.

But before he became the impeccably-dressed cool ruler, Bryan Ferry was downright weird. With his incredibly noisy collaborators Phil Manzanera, Brian Eno, and Eddie Jobson, those first three Roxy Music LPs, beyond the crooning odes to accountants and blow-up sex dolls that namecheck Baby Jane Holzer, Lolita, and Guernica, are, musically, unlike pretty much anything in the world… except for what Malcolm Clarke did with this performance. Check ’em out if you don’t believe me. Better yet, find First Kiss, a bootleg of their BBC sessions, where Eno turns the ending of “Ladytron” into a rocket blasting off in a wash of bubbles while Manzanera batters his guitar to death, and an under-rehearsed “Virginia Plain” sounds like a Studebaker built in Frankenstein’s castle.

But if that bootleg’s not immediately available to you, just watch “The Sea Devils.” The cacaphony that goes on while that monster chases the Doctor through the fort sounds so much like the beginning of side two of that first LP that it makes me think about stars shining so bright and growing potatoes by the score.

Interestingly, the Doctor explains to Jo that the Sea Devils are probably related to the Silurians, and that story had a similarly divisive musical score. Well, I say divisive, but I don’t think anybody actually enjoys Carey Blyton’s lunatic kazoo on that story, while this music is amazing. I can’t wait to hear more of it in a couple of nights…

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Doctor Who: The Sea Devils (part one)

Here’s my guess as to why “The Curse of Peladon” looked a little, shall we say, financially underwhelming. “The Sea Devils” teams up writer Malcolm Hulke, director Michael E. Briant, and guest star Roger Delgado from the previous season’s “Colony in Space” and it looks twice as expensive as any other period Doctor Who adventure, with lots of location filming, a great big cast, and a real sense of space, three important qualities that “Peladon” lacks.

The home video copy of “The Sea Devils” is an uglier than usual washed-out mess that was returned from Canada, reverse-engineered into PAL, then re-converted to NTSC, so the images I’ll use to illustrate posts about this serial will be pretty ropey, but if you haven’t seen this one, you really should. It’s a great adventure story, with Hulke turning down the politics in favor of really impressive set pieces. The Master has been sentenced to life imprisonment on an island, in nearly solitary confinement under the watchful eye of a Colonel Trenchard. But it didn’t take long for the Master to start running the place. He’s got Trenchard running errands for him, and is every bit as interested in the recent sinkings of three ships as the Doctor is when he finds out about it.

While our son was most charmed, of course, by the Master showing off his fascination with children’s television – Trenchard interrupts him when he’s trying to enjoy Clangers on his weird Venetian blind color TV – he was properly creeped out by the shadowy appearance of a strange monster on an old sea fort. “We’ll watch part two tomorrow night, and I hope those strange sea monsters won’t freak you out,” I told him. “I’m ALREADY freaked out,” he replied.

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The Avengers 4.9 – The Hour That Never Was

I don’t know whether modern TV audiences would have the patience for “The Hour That Never Was.” Half the episode is just the two leads wandering around a deserted airbase on the day before its formal closure trying to figure out where all the people are. And it’s amazing. It’s Roger Marshall’s first story for the film years of The Avengers – he’d written seven episodes during the videotape days – and I love it. It’s an exercise in atmosphere, contrasting the bizarre mystery of where everyone has gone with the leads’ wonderful chemistry and very witty banter. It doesn’t even matter that the villainous plot is a little far-fetched, even for The Avengers. Getting to the climax is just so fun that it doesn’t matter.

Speaking of atmosphere, our son really found this story and its mystery compelling. He said this was “weird and creepy” early on, and repeated that at the end, concluding that this was great, and his favorite episode of the show. That might possibly be because the plot was a little easier for him to follow, without the undercover disguises and loads of extra characters, but we’ll take the win.

Notable guest stars this time out include Roy Kinnear as an ill-fated tramp who lives on the airbase, and Gerald Harper as the squadron leader. I love how we’re introduced to the missing squadron leader by way of a photograph of Gerald Harper, as opposed to some anonymous model or member of the production team, unwittingly confirming to anybody in the audience who might recognize the actor that the squadron leader is alive and we’ll be meeting him soon! I was reminded of a color episode of The Saint, where there’s a painting of a recently deceased family member, and it’s clearly actor Francis De Wolff, which sort of spoiled the revelation that the guy wasn’t really dead.

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