The Avengers 6.1 – Return of the Cybernauts

A quickish word before beginning: the DVDs, along with the books written about The Avengers in the 1980s, and the websites of today, all call the color Diana Rigg stories “season five” and the Linda Thorson stories “season six.” For a while in the 1990s, the pendulum of accurate research pointed the right way: the 24 Rigg stories were produced and transmitted in two separate batches, thus making seven seasons. The Thorson stories were produced in two separate batches and transmitted that way in the US, but shown as one long season in the UK.

Season five is the batch of 16 color episodes that we’ve already seen. These were made between September 1966 and April 1967, and shown between January and May 1967 in both the UK and the US.

Season six is made of the final eight Rigg episodes and the first seven Thorson episodes. These were made between June 1967 and March 1968, with a considerable… let’s call it a hiccup in production during about the last seven weeks of ’67, which we’ll discuss later. In the UK, the first eight of these were shown as the sixth season, from September to November 1967. All fifteen went out as one season in America from January to May 1968. I number them using their first broadcast date, whether in the US or the UK.

Season seven is made of the other 26 Thorson adventures. These were made over the course of a year, from the spring of 1968 to March 1969. The US and UK broadcasts of these both went from September 1968 to May 1969, with the US finishing first and the UK broadcasts including the seven previous Thorson stories dropped in at what seems like random intervals.

Yes, I know you don’t agree, so you don’t have to waste time trying to tell me.

Anyway, so September 1967 came around and The Avengers were back on British television with a big season premiere guest starring Peter Cushing and featuring, like the title says, the return of the Cybernauts, one of the very, very few antagonists to come back for a second engagement in this show. Really, it’s just them, Ambassador Brodny, and a group called Intercrime that nobody remembers.

Cushing plays Paul Beresford, the brother of Michael Gough’s Professor Armstrong from the first Cybernaut story, and he is just brilliant, smooth and debonair in every scene. Watch how Macnee and Rigg afford him the space to be the star villain. They share several scenes together because their characters don’t initially know he’s one of their diabolical masterminds, and they play off him. They’re the guests on The Paul Beresford Show. It’s amazingly good and generous acting to let Cushing lead his scenes.

The story, written by Philip Levene, is huge fun. It’s got lots of great location filming, and the Cybernaut – it’s just the one this time – gets to rampage through several scenes and break lots of people’s necks. Everybody gets great dialogue, and the villain’s deeply sadistic plan had our son extraordinarily worried for Mrs. Peel. He denied it, of course, but he hid his face and curled up in his mom’s lap when things look bleak and Peter Cushing is being incredibly evil at the end. But as much as he enjoyed the Cybernaut’s killer karate chops and the big climactic fight, his absolute favorite moment came in the tag scene, when Steed wires a toaster the wrong way and blasts two slices through Mrs. Peel’s ceiling. Kid laughed like a hyena.

Some other very good actors are in this story as well. Above, that’s the great Fulton Mackay along with Charles Tingwell, who we remember from the first series of Catweazle, as kidnapped scientists. Noel Coleman and Aimi MacDonald also have small roles. In yet another weird blog acting coincidence, we saw Michael Gough just last night in Young Indiana Jones, and he’s briefly in this story as well with some archive footage as Dr. Armstrong. That villain’s henchman, Benson, returned in this episode. He’s played by Frederick Jaeger, and we’ll see him tomorrow night in Doctor Who.

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Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

You know, I like Captain America’s first movie, but I don’t love it. It’s tough to completely embrace because there’s so much more to this story that time doesn’t allow us to see, but I want to so much. Everything works just fine until we meet the Howling Commandos. Then it’s into a montage of action scenes because this movie’s already gone for about eighty minutes and we still have several weeks of sneak attacks and missions behind enemy lines between where we are and the big climax.

It’s so unfair. Why aren’t there ten Howling Commandos movies here? I’ll settle for a ten episode TV series. Six. Two TV movies and a package of deleted scenes? They cast all these perfect actors as Cap’s team! I actually remember Dum Dum Dugan best from my own childhood as the starring part in Marvel’s silly Godzilla comic book, which I adored even despite the artwork that I didn’t like, and there is an actor named Neal McDonough who looks like the character came right off the page. There’s not nearly enough with these guys.

So what else? Joe Johnston directed this, and he also made the wonderful Rocketeer and Jumanji – and that idiotic Wolfman movie with Anthony Hopkins, but nobody’s perfect – and it’s just a tremendously fun period piece. Captain America vaulted over every other Marvel superhero to become my favorite once it finally clicked and I fell in love with Jack Kirby’s comics with the character. (Weirdly, I didn’t like Kirby at all when I was little.) Chris Evans just cemented the deal for me. He’s just perfect in the part. I really appreciate how he’s made this character resonate. Even on Twitter, the actor embodies everything that Captain America stands for.

Tommy Lee Jones effortlessly steals every scene he’s in, and Hayley Atwell is terrific fun as Agent Peggy Carter – about whom, much more later this summer – and it’s got a pair of great villains in Hugo Weaving and Toby Jones. I like the concept of the Red Skull, a villain so hateful and horrible that even all the other Marvel supervillains hate him. I don’t like how there’s a get-out clause for him in this movie, that possibly the Tesseract/Cosmic Cube/Space Stone teleported him into the future so he might one day reappear to fight again. I hope not. I’m happier with him being a period villain only!

This also has the first appearance of Sebastian Stan’s character Bucky, who’ll end up turning the Marvel Universe upside down a few films later. Of course, all my childhood, Bucky was dead – and, because kid sidekicks were the worst thing in the universe when you’re thirteen or so, we were glad of it – so I was pretty surprised to learn, a couple of years before this movie, that they’d brought Bucky back as the Winter Soldier. Unpleasantly surprised, I should say. I was playing a miniatures game, Heroclix, at the time, when one of the other players at the shop explained this new-to-me character once he had a piece and thought that was the most idiotic thing I’d ever heard. I did win an important tournament for that expansion and snagged a super-rare prize with him, but grudgingly. So all credit to Sebastian Stan for taking a character I could not possibly care less about and making him so darn watchable. But some of that comes later, I guess.

Well, if you think I’m nitpicky about the way I write about these movies, you should see our son. He tells us that this is his favorite of the first five, but it needed one more explosion. The scene where Cap rescues the 400 soldiers from Hydra’s prison camp was his favorite part of the film, which I thought was interesting because it’s almost always the very end of the movie that thrills him most. But then again, this climax has Cap and Peggy being mushy over the radio to each other. He probably didn’t want to admit to any tears.

But all the action scenes had him hopping. He adored this movie and didn’t need too many explanations, although we did pause it to clarify what Hydra was up to after the Red Skull kills the three Nazi officials who visit his bunker to sneer at him, and also to explain Cap’s turn as an onstage propaganda hero to sell war bonds. Not like today’s children have many opportunities to learn what war bonds are!

And that’s another thing: they should have actually made one of those cheesy black and white shorts that Cap was making in the last half of 1942. That would have been so fun. So far my Marvel wishlist is a Sif and the Warriors Three feature, a ten-week Howling Commandos TV series, and a twelve-minute Captain America Punches Der Fuhrer’s Face short, like they’d run after the newsreel and the cartoon before the movie. Why does ABC keep making more Agents of SHIELD instead of what’s really important here?

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Young Indiana Jones 1.7 – Russia, 1909

After ABC canceled The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, another network came in to save the day. The Family Channel (later ABC Family and, today, Freeform) ordered four TV movies, three with Sean Patrick Flanery and one with Corey Carrier. The two-and-a-bit stories that made up the Carrier film, Travels With Father, were filmed in 1994 and shown in 1996.

The original movie, its script credited to Frank Darabont, Matthew Jacobs, and Jonathan Hales, had lengthy bookends with Flanery returning home in 1919 after the four years of globetrotting that we’ll see later, and trying to mend fences with his father. Those have been excised from the final DVD version of this series and used to form a separate story on its own. Nothing annoys like George Lucas and his constant tampering.

Our son enjoyed this episode more than the last pair we saw, and it gave us a fun moment of perspective to discuss. Indy has been misbehaving and, accident prone, has caused one spectacle after another, culminating in dropping a chandelier on a wedding cake. Afraid of his punishment, he runs away and meets up with another apparent tramp making his way through the Russian countryside: Leo Tolstoy, who’s trying to get away from his annoying family. They have a remarkable meet-cute – Indy shoots him in the rear with a slingshot while aiming for a weasel, much to our son’s delight – but they bond and decide to work together to get to Russia’s eastern shore and make their way to New Jersey. Michael Gough is terrific as Tolstoy, and I thought this was one of the more entertaining segments as well.

We were amused to learn that our son thought that Indy was perfectly justified in running away and worrying his parents to death, because his father was mean. We protested that Indy’s father didn’t actually do anything other than tell him to stand in one place out of the way – which he promptly ignored – and send him to bed. Yes, he told us, but it was his father’s tone of voice that was the problem. “He sounded mean!” We had to suggest that maybe the destruction of so much of their host’s property, and embarrassment at a wedding might spark a mean tone. Grudgingly, he had to agree a little with us there.

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Doctor Who: Horror of Fang Rock (parts three and four)

It’s always nice when our son is happy and excited about what we’re watching. He didn’t want breakfast this morning, he wanted to watch Doctor Who. Those last five Twilight Zone stories we watched were really sapping his enthusiasm!

He was thrilled and enjoyed this one, and I agree. It’s really entertaining, and amazingly, only the Doctor and Leela survive the incident. Even more amazingly, he doesn’t seem to notice, and certainly doesn’t say anything about it. The Doctor is shown as brooding and frightened for much of the story, until he figures out that their enemy is an alien blob called a Rutan, at which point he becomes the more relaxed and confident hero that we know.

But he never returns to brood over the fact that he failed to save any of the humans in the lighthouse, and left behind what must have been one of England’s greatest unsolved mysteries. Think about it: at some point, the authorities would find the bodies of these eight people, one of them graphically disemboweled by the Rutan to understand how Earthling anatomy works. One is a peer called Lord Palmerdale and another is a highly respectable retired colonel, and the killer left a fortune in diamonds behind, before fleeing. The History Channels and the In Search Ofs of the Who world probably feature recreations of “The Fang Rock Lighthouse Murders” as often as stories about Jack the Ripper, the lost colony at Roanoke, and the Oak Island Money Pit.

The Rutans, incidentally, are kind of the big Doctor Who monster that wasn’t. They were first mentioned in 1973’s “The Time Warrior” as the primary enemies of the Sontarans, but as for television Who, they’re an offscreen enemy, existing only to motivate the Sontarans into moving into this situation or that to gain a strategic advantage over them. It’s always “What are you Sontarans doing on Koosbaine?” and they say “We must conquer Koosbaine to establish a bridgehead into Andromeda to defeat the Rutans, don’t stand in our way, puny Time Lord!”

The next time a Rutan would actually be seen is in a 1995 direct-to-video movie called Shakedown: Return of the Sontarans. This is an independent production made with the cooperation of Robert Holmes’ estate, who own the rights to the aliens and license them out, but without any BBC input. The producers even got Terrance Dicks to write the script for the movie, and cast a bunch of Who and Blake’s 7 actors to play the parts.

It’s not actually a shame that the Rutans have never reappeared on the show, I say. The shapeshifting and electrical powers are interesting, but as characters, all they do is rant about the glory of war, and we get enough of that from the Sontarans!

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Doctor Who: Horror of Fang Rock (parts one and two)

Our son has quite a delightful theory about “Horror of Fang Rock,” the serial that launched Doctor Who‘s fifteenth season in the fall of 1977. The old lighthouse keeper believes in a monster called the Beast of Fang Rock, which was last allegedly seen eighty years before – the 1820s – on an occasion where two men died. Our son thinks that the shooting star that crashed in the nearby ocean might be the beast teleporting from its home planet, and that it comes to Earth every eighty years to feed. His theory was much, much more detailed than that, but he was talking fast and I wasn’t taking notes. Usually he’s quick to move on, with a brief “creepy!” before finding something to take his mind off the terrors, but not tonight!

“Horror of Fang Rock” was a last-minute substitute for another script by Terrance Dicks that was due to go into production before some high muckity-muck at the BBC decided to cancel it. That story was called The Vampire Mutations, and since the BBC was making an adaptation of Dracula that fall, somebody at the top didn’t want Who doing the same monster. So this was how the new producer, Graham Williams, got his start on the show, having his debut story axed out from under him. Dicks hurriedly wrote this replacement, but the delay meant that other productions got the London facilities and this was made at the BBC’s Birmingham studios.

Lore has it that Tom Baker was in a horrible mood with this story, and transferred his grouchiness into what seems like genuine fear on camera. He’d clashed with the director, the fantastic Paddy Russell, before, and was butting heads with his co-star, Louise Jameson, because he was under the impression that he didn’t actually need a co-star. For the next four seasons, there are pah-lenty of stories of Tom Baker causing headaches for everybody around him behind the scenes, and making Williams’ job extraordinarily difficult!

The tension really works here. “Fang Rock” is a textbook example of a claustrophobic story. It’s all set in a lighthouse on a remote, craggy shore on a dark and foggy night. I don’t like some of the visuals, and a few of the actors really don’t impress me. Colin Douglas, who had been in “The Enemy of the World,” is the only guest star that I really like in this one, but I think it’s a super story. For something that had such a frantic production, it’s very impressive, and our son’s right, it really is creepy.

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RIP Trevor Preston, 1938-2018

It was announced today that writer Trevor Preston passed away last month. He’s best known for his work on crime series, both ongoing programs like the seminal The Sweeney as well as one-off films, television plays, and serials like 1978’s Out. Most of Preston’s work was outside the scope of this blog, but he did have one fantastic credit to his name. He created Ace of Wands, which we really enjoyed watching last year.

Sadly, none of the Ace of Wands episodes that Preston himself wrote still exist. He also wrote a 1967 adaptation of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe that is mostly missing, as well as a Freewheelers four-parter for Southern in 1968 which has never been released on home video. So there’s a lot that we’d like to watch together, but can’t!

I’ve been saving two of his other works for a rainy day, though. One of the missing Ace of Wands stories featured a villain called Mr. Stabs. Preston really enjoyed the character and brought him back as the protagonist in two TV plays in 1975 and 1984. They’re included as bonus features on Network’s Wands DVD set. We’ll have to check those out sometime. And as always, our condolences to Preston’s family and friends.

Photo credit: The Guardian.

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Thunderbirds are Go 2.26 – Brains vs. Brawn

It’s the wildest, funniest, most amazing game of “pass the parcel” ever, when the parcel is being passed between four aircraft and a submarine, and the parcel is a rescue pod containing the Hood, and when they’re all keeping the parcel away from the Mechanic, who’s gunning for him with a solar-powered laser satellite.

So it’s the end of the show’s second season, and once again they go out with a bang and a slight change to the status quo, including the arrival of a couple of new characters right at the end. The third season’s already started in the UK and so I know who these newcomers are, but our son will have to wait several months to meet them. We’ll catch International Rescue again down the line, when the complete DVD set of season three, with all 26 episodes, is released. In the meantime, stay tuned for more classic TV at your favorite fire-breathing blog!

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Young Indiana Jones 1.6 – Florence, 1908

It amazes me just how much they spent on this program. This time out, it’s not just all the costumes and the extras and the copious amount of location filming around Florence and Pisa, including a trip to the Leaning Tower, but there’s a production of the opera La Boheme as well as rehearsals for Madame Butterfly, and the fellow who wrote them became one of our son’s most hated TV villains.

Make no mistake, he didn’t like anything about this story of a romance that, mercifully, doesn’t blossom. But Giacomo Puccini, played by French actor Georges Corraface, had our son absolutely fuming. With Indy’s dad off to a conference in Rome, his mother gets swept off her feet by Puccini while Indy stays mostly oblivious and Miss Seymour worries about the right thing to do for somebody in her place. At last, Indy spots his mother having lunch with Puccini in a cafe and our son was off the sofa like a rocket, shaking his fist right in the TV screen. “I HATE him,” he growled. “He should LEAVE HER ALONE!”

Production-wise, Young Indy, particularly the 1908-1910 segments, was a truncated mess produced in a nonsensical order, but this segment was badly overdue. Indy’s mother and father are badly underused in the first episodes. We needed to see more of this family unit and see what makes them tick and love each other. We really could have used more time before Puccini got thrown in like a grenade. It ends well – at the very least it ends before Anna crosses a very bad line – but there isn’t a passing line in any of the Harrison Ford movies where Indy grumbles that he hates Madame Butterfly, and this episode makes you kind of wish there was.

I was mentioning how Matthew Jacobs wrote the 1996 Doctor Who TV movie, where Madame Butterfly is a curious little plot point, but amusingly, this wasn’t actually one of Jacobs’ Young Indy segments. Jule Selbo wrote it, and Mike Newell, who made the film Enchanted April shortly before this, was the director. Phyllida Law has a small role as the owner of the large house where the Jones family is staying. But for all this talent and money spent on it, the episode was only shown in a few European countries, and not in the United States. Bootleg tapes did the rounds for a while, but most people never had the chance to see this until the DVD came out in 2007. And as far as our boy is concerned, nobody should have seen this, ever. There was “way, way, way (x 14) too much romance in that,” he said. And the bad kind, too!

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