Doctor Who 10.6 and 10.7 – Extremis and The Pyramid at the End of the World

Two days ago, I read aloud someone’s joke on Twitter, prompting our son to ask what the word stigmata meant. This turned into a long and silly discussion about holy relics and the sort of things that the Vatican is said, in fiction, to keep in dark and secret archives. And so last night, we watched Steven Moffat’s unbelievably good “Extremis,” which launches what seems like, for a good while, is going to be one of the all-time greatest Who adventures. Will Moffat fail to stick the landing? Of course. It’s Moffat, and it’s Who. The show’s endings, as I’ve said often enough, are rarely as good as its openings. When Moffat nails it, it’s punch-the-air excellent, but he’s uneven, and the higher the stakes, the greater the chance of a belly flop.

“Extremis” takes us to the Vatican’s secret vault of heretical writings, which is brilliantly designed and also extremely large. Dudes have banned a whole lot of books in two thousand years. It introduces us to the Monks, who are also brilliantly designed and also extremely patient and clever. These guys don’t pull off many invasions, but the ones they do, they do intricately and carefully.

The hour is an amazing example of one misdirection after another, which feeds into part two. Perhaps my favorite is the slow and fascinating explanation of why the Doctor has been guarding this vault underneath St. Luke’s for the first fifty (or seventy?) years of a promised thousand: Missy is in it. The direction makes it look like that Michelle Gomez has been brought back to serve as the Doctor’s executioner, but no, he has been assigned to kill her. He has a better idea.

Also, I really, really love the way that Missy takes a break from all the taunting, realizes that the Doctor has ended his retirement because River has died, and quietly offers her condolences. Amazing.

So for part two, Peter Harness comes on board as co-writer as the action moves to Turmezistan, which Harness introduced in his Zygon adventure in the previous season. I’ve less to say about the second part, except that it’s done so brilliantly well. Watching it again just cements how much I absolutely love Peter Capaldi’s Doctor.

Our son has enjoyed the daylights out of the story so far. In both parts, the Doctor’s triumphs have had him grinning ear to ear, fists clenched. He gets so animated when the hero turns things on the villains, especially when the Monks’ own attempt at misdirection backfires and the Doctor figures out where they don’t want him to be. But there’s a flaw in his plan, and – not for the first time – one of the Doctor’s companions makes a deal with the devil to save his life. The cliffhanger is downbeat and I truly enjoy how we couldn’t guess what would happen next.

Master of the World (1961)

A few years ago, I was thinking about what we might watch for the blog and put 1961’s Master of the World on the maybe list. I’d never seen it, but it sounded interesting, and of course we’ve told our son how important Jules Verne was to the development of science fiction. Plus, all boys should watch as many old Vincent Price films as they can find. But lots of movies were on the maybe list. It took a chance visit to a museum to prompt me to buy a copy.

Last month, we drove down to Cartersville GA to visit Tellus Science Museum, where we like to pay our respects to a dimetrodon along with many other beautiful creatures who came a little later on, several rooms full of gems, and a history of transportation that includes a few examples of very early automobiles, like the quadrovelocipede that Nicodemus Legend – I mean Ernest Pratt – used to drive. They only have a small room for temporary exhibits, but currently they have a small collection of film and TV science fiction props and memorabilia. There, our son saw a small model of the Albatross from Master of the World, and said it was the coolest thing he’d ever seen. I’d noticed that Kino Lorber had a new special edition on their coming soon list, and decided that enthusiasm should not go unrewarded.

Kino’s new Blu-ray comes with a very nice restoration, two commentary tracks, a tribute to screenwriter Richard Matheson, and several trailers for Vincent Price movies. We watched a few of those before we got started, and it struck me just how much nicer it would have been to see these trailers projected instead of all the unpromising movies that they were promoting the last time we went to the theater.

Master of the World begins with a short look at some of the failed experiments in flight from the late 19th century, the same sort of goofy crashes of impractical “airplanes” that we saw at the beginning of Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines. Our son enjoyed the heck out of that. It put him in the right mood, and after a few minutes of well-dressed fops yelling at each other formally with language like “I tell you, sir, that it is balderdash!” things get started with some missiles knocking a hot air balloon out of the sky.

Our son asked “Did they really crash a hot air balloon for this?” I said that no, this was an American International Picture. They couldn’t have afforded any such thing. In point of fact, they couldn’t afford newly-shot footage of the British navy or a big land battle in Egypt either, so the Albatross ends up interacting with material from more expensive movies. Other than Vincent Price and the Albatross, this cost-cutting is the most interesting thing about this movie. Not even the great Vito Scotti, here playing a comedy cook, prompted me to smile, though the kid guffawed over his situation a few times.

The kid was very happy with it, and correctly noted “That reminded me a bit of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” This villain, Robur, is nothing more than a Nemo of the sky, and while Vincent Price is a million times more interesting than most of the actors who played Nemo, Richard Matheson didn’t write the character as any different than the one James Mason had played for Disney seven years previously. The most interesting thing about the experience was that our son had assumed from the model at Tellus that the Albatross was going to be the heroes’ ship, but no, like the Nautilus, it’s commanded by a villain and crewed by loyalists who have turned their backs on the rules of human nationalities.

I’ll be honest: I fell asleep, and must have missed ten minutes. I woke when Robur’s captives were making their escape on a beach, wondered whether it was the same beach used in Planet of the Apes, and waited for the inevitable conclusion. I wasn’t impressed, but the ten year-old was really entertained. Everything from the comedy to the tech to the special effects had him really pleased, and while this purchase will go to his shelf and not mine, I’m very glad I got it for him. This keeps up, he’ll want to see Price teamed with Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre in one of those films we saw in the trailer collection next, and that’d certainly be a good thing.

Stargate SG-1 8.13 – It’s Good to Be King

Last week, I wrote that this time around, I’m finding season eight not as good as I remembered, but I think it’s still very interesting from a production standpoint. At the time they were preparing these episodes for production in 2004 and deciding what stories to tell and when, everybody had agreed that this was the final year of SG-1 and they had to wrap up all the business with the System Lords and the Replicators and freedom for the Jaffa. This was all planned for the final five episodes of the show, and so it left them a little leeway to tell a couple of smaller tales and give some recurring characters one last curtain call. It also meant that they were gonna run out of money doing all the big things they wanted to do, which is why they needed yet another clip show for episode fifteen. Ah, well.

So this week, Harry Maybourne gets a last hurrah as we say goodbye to actor Tom McBeath and his amusingly slimy character. We last saw him back in season six, and since then, he’s found a new planet and a parlor trick in interpreting some Ancient writings – literally Ancient, though they have been there a long time – which foretell the future. He’s used this to become a wise and beloved king, and knows that SG-1 will show up to fight a new invasion by some old Goa’uld. What he doesn’t know and didn’t consider is how many of his subjects will die in the crossfire. The kid really liked this one, and was paying so close attention that he realized the hidden Ancient ship was an Atlantis puddle jumper before the grownups did. Then again, he’s much better at recognizing props and spaceships than he is actors and cars.

The Saint 5.1 – The Queen’s Ransom

In the spring of 1966, ITC started production of The Saint and, briefly, Danger Man, in color. The result here looks a little threadbare, doesn’t it? Maybe it’s overdue for a really nice restoration, because The Prisoner began filming a few months after this and has always looked so colorful and gorgeous. I’m not sure in which order these were actually made, but they started with a block of 30 episodes and the first 27 of them became “season five,” led by “The Queen’s Ransom” in most of the ITV regions. I remember reading that it was also chosen to launch the first season on NBC in the summer of 1967, but I can’t confirm that presently.

I’m still not sure that moving to color was the right move for this series, in part because it always looked so right in black and white, but our son certainly enjoyed this one a lot. Simon pulls a great switcheroo on the bad guys that had him laughing out loud, and the whole thing is one fisticuff-fueled cat-and-mouse game with criminals while Simon brings some snobbish Nosuchlandia royalty back down to Earth. Bits of it are very reminiscent of one of the most entertaining black and white episodes, “The Golden Journey.” Dawn Addams, who our son predictably did not recognize despite seeing her twice in the last month, plays the snobby queen, with support by George Pastell and John Woodvine.

But I didn’t pick “The Queen’s Ransom” for its guest stars, actually. I picked it for the ITC white Jaguar going off a cliff again, and the darn kid didn’t realize what was happening until it was on its way to launching. “I didn’t realize it was a Jaguar,” he protested. They picked a brilliant, amazingly twisty road to shoot on, and Avengerland tells me that it’s a road on the Llyn Stwlan Reservoir in Wales. The road was also used in a Persuaders! four years later, as well as, weirdly, another Saint that we’re going to watch soon, in which the other stock ITC crash, with the Red Renault, is used. I honestly didn’t plan this. I swear I picked it for its guest stars, not its car crash.

Stargate Atlantis 1.13 – Hot Zone

Okay, so a screencap of a briefly-seen hallucination of something that might have some big teeth is probably one of the more… let’s say eccentric choices I’ve made for a screencap for this blog. I guess that means the jerk who keeps pilfering my images for his classic TV blog will give this one a miss. But I picked it because, for the first time in a long time, something onscreen really got under our son’s skin, briefly, and gave him enough of a fright to send him hiding under a blanket. His much-loved security blanket stays in bed these days, but we have cozy and comfy light bamboo-fiber blankets on the couch, and one of these hallucinations was all he needed to hide his head from the others.

Anyway, I wonder whether “Hot Zone” was originally intended to immediately follow the two-parter “The Storm” and “The Eye”, because it deals with a damage assessment of the flooding. In one of the “suburbs,” a search party finds a previously unknown bio-lab and they let something out. The strange infection kills its victims in precisely the same time and in precisely the same way. In the way of these things, somebody refuses to shelter in place and insists on returning to the “city” so he can infect everybody. How prescient of the writers.

I don’t talk about the acting on Atlantis nearly enough. More precisely, I don’t talk about how good David Hewlett is. Faced with his imminent death, he gives a hell of a good farewell scene, perfectly balancing the character’s sadness that he didn’t accomplish all that he wanted with his hilarious, petulant selfishness. Everybody else in the series is really good as well, but I think everybody’s at their best when they are playing off Hewlett, especially Rainbow Sun Francks, who knows just how to poke holes in him.

Funny sort of synchronicity with today’s viewing. I pointed out that this morning, we saw Martians killed off by Earth bacteria, and this evening, we watched people from Earth get killed off by alien bacteria. I often call our boy “Baby Drax” because he can be so literal. He corrected me. “This wasn’t bacteria, Dad, it was nanobots!” Not the same at all, no…

The War of the Worlds (1953)

Picking movies to watch with our son usually comes down to weighing two big factors: do I want to sit through it again, and will the kid enjoy being introduced to a “classic” – however you want to define that – from long ago. This shouldn’t be homework. To be honest, I wasn’t sure about The War of the Worlds. I hadn’t seen this since I was a kid myself, and I’ve picked up the memory of it being quite dated. But really, that’s a problem with the original story. The 1953 production, directed by Byron Haskin, is mostly a lot better than its source, and some of it is just fascinating to watch. Criterion released a new edition with a brilliant restoration and piles of bonuses last year, so I decided to give it a try. We enjoyed it very much. It was not homework.

I’ve never liked the original novel, and since any adaptation of it is probably going to stick to its – let’s be blunt – utter cop-out of an ending, I’m going to be checking my watch waiting for the Martians to die without any help from the protagonists. That means what an adaptation needs to give us is a story worth watching while all the death rays and war machines do their trick. For a while, it’s the usual disaster movie / monster movie stuff, with Gene Barry, Ann Robinson, and Les Tremayne, plus a small on-camera role for the great Paul Frees, going through the motions against a backdrop of tremendously good special effects. It’s a lean 85 minutes long, and I liked how it doesn’t waste any time getting started. The prologue’s awfully dopey, but once we get to Earth, war machines are landing.

But there were lots of “usual” disaster movies and monster movies in the fifties, some good, and some bad. The War of the Worlds is a standout because after that first big battle against the Martians, this movie kicks it up a notch and goes for real bleakness. It’s a movie that does a whole lot with sound, both in the screaming, shrieking noises of the Martian guns (later pilfered by everybody, including Benita Bizarre’s zapper in The Bugaloos) and in silence so thick it’s uncomfortable.

The scene in the abandoned farmhouse is rightly remembered and praised for being one of the scariest things in any monster movie, but in my book, it’s the evacuation of Los Angeles that really makes this film a genuine classic. I’ve seen a lot of extras running away from giant monsters in my time, and a lot of empty streets, but The War of the Worlds is just eye-poppingly excellent. It shifts from backlots to the real streets of LA effortlessly. Well, that’s probably not the right word, because prepping the streets with all that trash in the dead of night just to get first-light Sunday morning shots like the one above was certainly not effortless. But the conviction in making audiences believe this city has fallen apart except for the looters and the ones too poor or injured to get out, is solid.

And Gene Barry, who spent the next few decades of his long career looking for a role half as memorable as this, is just remarkably good throughout. When night falls and he moves from church to church desperately searching for Ann Robinson, he really looks like a man who just wants to die holding somebody’s hand. And if the film started a little unconvincingly, with a big echoey studio pretending to be a country hillside, it ends looking like a trillion bucks, black, red, and orange, a city on fire with hours to live. It’s a movie which badly deserved a better ending than “Oh, the invaders didn’t wear spacesuits.”

For what it’s worth, our son didn’t roll his eyes at the climax like I did. It’s one that culture spoiled for him quite some time ago, somewhere, so I couldn’t keep this one a secret like some of my other triumphs in the field, and said “I think it’s a good ending. It makes sense that our bacteria would kill them!” He enjoyed all the mayhem and explosions and can’t pick out a favorite moment or scene. He did say that his favorite character was the little orange tabby who briefly surveys the destruction of LA. Film buffs have not positively identified this cat but speculate that it’s probably Orangey, a cat who did a lot of work for Paramount and also appeared in two other well-remembered fifties sci-fi epics: This Island Earth and The Incredible Shrinking Man, which Criterion is releasing in a spiffy new edition next month.

The Saint 4.2 – The Abductors

Everybody knows that Ivor Dean played the Saint’s regular foil at Scotland Yard, Inspector Teal. It’s less well-remembered that he had another recurring irritant among the French police, Sergeant Luduc, played by Robert Cawdron. Luduc appears in six episodes, although unfortunately they couldn’t settle on a regular actor for Luduc’s superior, Inspector Quercy, and he was played by four or five different people. This time out, Templar calls Quercy a “second-hand Maigret,” which was a bit mean.

“The Abductors” is another one packed with memorable guests, including Annette Andre again, and a trio of villains played by Dudley Foster, David Garfield, and Nicholas Courtney, whose character is strangely more violent and base than we usually see from this series. Andre and Courtney crossed paths again a few years later for the Randall and Hopkirk that everybody remembers for its own amazing guest cast, “The Ghost Who Saved the Bank at Monte Carlo”, and weirdly, in 1969-70, Foster, Garfield, and Courtney each appeared one at a time in consecutive Doctor Who serials: “The Space Pirates,” “The War Games,” and “Spearhead From Space.” No, I don’t know why I know that, either.

The kid liked this one much more than the previous two. It is a very straightforward tale of criminals with a goal that’s easy for a ten year-old to follow. No weird adult stuff like mistresses or market manipulation, just plenty of driving around, making the police look like idiots, with some funny quips, great brawls, and a credibility-straining dungeon where the bad guys stuff their captives. I’ve always liked it a lot. It was one of the episodes I taped off-air in 1986-87 and rewatched several times later, but I had forgotten just how ugly and bloodthirsty Courtney’s character is. We’re so predisposed to love Who‘s Brigadier that it feels downright wrong to know this dude strangled a prostitute to death. Maybe WATL cut some of that part out from their copy to make room for an extra commercial or something.

Stargate SG-1 8.12 – Prometheus Unbound

So back when we first started watching Stargate, I said that the world of this series is “really chaste and sexless.” That’s why the introduction of Vala Mal Doran is like a long, long overdue atom bomb. The show had brought in several actors who were familiar to SF fans over the years, usually from the Star Trek franchise, but Stargate typically reserves its lighter touch for smaller stories without guest stars. Since the show is otherwise really serious and often quite heavy, that means that none of these familiar faces really got to let their hair down and have lots of fun. Claudia Black got to have fun. Vala is my favorite character in the whole franchise.

While Amanda Tapping and Christopher Judge were off filming the previous story, Michael Shanks got to team up with former cast member Don S. Davis for this one. General Hammond decides to command the Atlantis rescue or recovery mission himself, brings Daniel along, and the flying battleship gets hijacked by a space pirate. It begins with one of my favorite scenes from the whole series, where Daniel protests that he should go on the Atlantis for reasons x, y, and z, O’Neill says that he can’t, and Hammond, apparently oblivious to their argument, beautifully undermines O’Neill because he needs Daniel… for reasons x, y, and z.

But then Vala shows up and steals the ship out from under everybody. The beauty of this is that it feels like SG-1 just goes crashing into another series entirely. Before this, SG-1 only rarely hinted at a universe outside of worlds of Goa’uld control and human slaves. But Vala – while herself possibly a former host for a Goa’uld and old rival of a recent enemy, Camulus – is from a universe of pirates and illegal weapons trading and dodgy deals with weird aliens. Daniel takes the alias “Hans Olo” at one point just to drive it home.

And this universe is fun and it’s sexy. Vala initiates things talking dirty to throw him off his game, and their fighting/flirting is hilarious and hot. After he zats her, she wakes up in the battleship’s brig in crew coveralls, her stolen armor confiscated, complaining that she’s hungry. “You’ve seen me naked already, the least you can do is cook me dinner,” she protests. The best thing is that the show’s producers knew they were onto a winner with the character and brought her back. Late October? I suppose I can wait that long.

The Saint 3.10 – The Imprudent Politician

Hey, it’s Jean Marsh and Michael Gough! Reckon they’re up to no good? Just look at them.

Back when I first started watching The Saint in 1986-87, “The Imprudent Politician” became one of my favorite episodes, in part because of the story and in part because Marsh and Gough were in it and I knew who they were from their roles in sixties Doctor Who. In time, I’d come to recognize most of the great guest cast, including Anthony Bate, Moray Watson, and Mike Pratt. And in the spring of 1988, after reading a little bit about the Profumo Scandal of 1961-62, I caught that guest star Justine Lord is being a little bit Mandy Rice-Davies in this story about blackmail that involves an accidental death and a country house full of suspects.

So no, for the small number of you hoping our kid would recognize Lord after seeing her in another episode just four days ago, he didn’t. This one took a little more work, and a little backtracking after we got started, than I would have thought. It seemed simple enough: a politician’s being blackmailed because he has a cute mistress and once passed her some insider stock information. I overlooked the reality that the kid has only a vague idea of what a mistress is or why anyone would want one, and no clue at all what insider trading is. But I wasn’t going to let this one collapse because he didn’t understand it, so we got it all cleared up and once he understood there’s a big country house full of brooding visitors who don’t seem to like each other, he said “Okay, it’s like Clue,” and he was good to go.

Mike Pratt plays one of the blackmailers in this, and you’ll remember how, as Jeff Randall, the poor guy lost just about every fight he got in? He coshes Simon Templar from behind about halfway through this story, and that’s it for his luck. He gets thrashed to within an inch of his life later on. When Monty Berman and Dennis Spooner were putting together Randall and Hopkirk, they might’ve looked at this episode and said “That’s our man!”

Doctor Who 10.5 – Oxygen

Typically, I’m probably going to like a Doctor Who that’s both angry and intelligent. “Oxygen” is another truly excellent script by Jamie Mathieson. It’s his fourth for the show, and sadly the last, but every one’s a winner. If they gave the program to him tomorrow*, I’d punch the air, knowing it’s in safe hands. And it’s furious, angrier at the establishment than Who often is. This is like “Happiness Patrol”-level furious with capitalism.

If “Sleep No More” hinted at an ugly future where management needs to exploit labor to inhuman levels, this takes it a step further and gives us a corporation run by an algorithm which has decided labor, at least in its human form, is entirely expendable. It’s not worth the expense of replacing them with robots when the AI-controlled smartsuits which are already on-base can just kill the humans inside them and resume their work. It even gives us a nasty version of company scrip: the miners have to purchase the air that they need to breathe.

Interestingly, we had a nice, long chat with our son last night about lots of things, but circled back to how science fiction can speculate about the ills of the present. It’s part of reminding him that there’s more to the genre than laser guns and space stations and corpse-filled suits and trying to get Nardole out of the way by sending him from Bristol to Birmingham for a packet of potato chips. He really enjoyed the episode, and I hope he comes back to it and considers it in the future. It’s why something has to go terribly wrong for me to consider using a self-checkout at the grocery store. Those should go to paying jobs for people who need them, but I suppose some algorithm says otherwise.

*I say that, but I also kind of hope they give it to somebody who has never worked on the series and is not a fan, to see what a really fresh pair of eyes can see and do.

Stargate Atlantis 1.12 – The Defiant One

There’s a very cute bit of misdirection in this very fun episode of Atlantis. The heroes encounter these little light bugs who seem harmless enough, and later on, the chips are down and they’re in serious trouble with a Wraith who’s been hiding on this planet, hibernating and feeding on his own crew when their supplies ran out. The light bugs show up again, and suddenly they don’t just look like a resolution to the problem, they reminded us all of some very similar light bugs from back in SG-1‘s fourth season. Surely it wasn’t just us. Everybody was expecting these dots to turn into super-aggressive mosquitos and sting him to death, right? They don’t – there’s a much more explosive end in store for this jerk – but as our son put it, “I was expecting them to turn into a swarm of piranhas!”