Jason King 1.22 – Every Picture Tells a Story

Happily, for the benefit of regular readers wondering whether our son was going to enjoy this show again, the kid liked this one much more than many of the previous episodes, and that’s even with us pausing a few times to discuss the racism and the unflattering stereotypes in this tale written by Robert Banks Stewart and set in Hong Kong. While on a layover, Jason finds a weird error in the local version of the syndicated Mark Caine comic strip, and learns that it is being used to send messages to a local hit squad to ferret out foreign agents.

There’s really nothing wrong with the script, but the production is very, very much of its time, which means that Wyngarde gets to haul out a number-one-son accent a couple of times. Also, sadly, while some familiar faces from the period like Bert Kwouk make up the ranks of the gunmen and the lieutenants, the major roles are played by British actors like Clifford Evans in yellowface. So yes, we had a lot to talk about. Allan Cuthbertson also appears as a British intelligence agent.

As part of my decluttering, I’ve been giving my set of Titan Books’ reprints of James Bond newspaper strips one final flip-through and moving them on. Honestly, I paid $13-14 apiece for these things, read them once, and forgot what happened in every one of them. I’m so stupid sometimes. Anyway, the strip carried on long after they’d run out of Ian Fleming novels and short stories to adapt, with writer Jim Lawrence and Yaroslav Horak coming up with all sorts of outlandish plots and reasons for people to take off their clothes. So these were fresh in my mind as we looked at the episode and its talk of international newspaper syndication, with Jason acknowledging that he does not write the strip, but approves what happens in it and is familiar enough to recognize problems or replacements.

However, I’m sorry, but the images that make it onto the screen do not look even remotely professional, and nothing at all like a strip that would have ever seen print in any newspaper anywhere. At least when The Avengers did something a little bit similar, they had the good sense to hire Frank Bellamy to do the comic strip illustrations. Honestly, ITC, couldn’t you have phoned Yaroslav Horak?

Firefly 1.3 – Bushwacked

I occasionally have problems choosing a picture to illustrate these silly posts, particularly when the bit that our son enjoyed the most doesn’t lend itself to still pictures. “Bushwhacked,” which was written and directed by Tim Minear, deals with a derelict ship on which something is still living, even while most of its passengers were brutally killed. So there’s lots of skulking around in low-lit sets, and it succeeded magnificently in getting under our son’s skin. “That was really creepy,” he announced.

Conceptually, about the only thing I don’t care for in Firefly are the Reavers, who take the place of evil space aliens since this program doesn’t have any aliens in it. These are roving gangs of once-humans, who’d gone so far out in space that they’d gone mad from isolation and whatever else. It seems like the sort of thing that might could happen occasionally, but the show presents it as something that happens a lot, and to large groups of people. The show presents it extremely well for something so unlikely. There’s a moment here that I like quite a lot on that front, actually.

See, there’s a clumsy bit in the first pilot where Simon has never heard of Reavers, which is convenient, since it lets everybody else explain them to the audience. But here, we see that Simon’s ignorance is not an isolated moment for the viewers’ benefit. It turns out that the cops have heard of Reavers, but they don’t believe in them. There are very, very few cops – they have giant floating space precincts, but space is really, really big – and they occasionally hear these outlandish stories of lunatic cannibals on junk starships from little criminals trying to talk themselves out of trouble. It cements the idea that people in “civilization” in the 26th century simply do not care what goes on in the outer fringes of this solar system, and makes Simon a more believable character in the process.

Stargate SG-1 6.8 – The Other Guys

Once upon a time, among the cats in her household, my sweetie had two particular standouts. One was always rushing headfirst into trouble, guaranteed to find it. On one occasion, he came back from some outdoor play slightly wounded, with teeth marks around his shoulders as though he had put his entire head into a larger animal’s mouth. His brother was not quite that reckless. He was a little chubby and a little nervous. He knew he was being led into mischief but couldn’t do much of anything to stop it. The cats were inseparable and their names, of course, were Felger and Coombs.

I knew that our son would adore “The Other Guys” and I wasn’t wrong. This is one of Stargate‘s masterpieces, and it would be a standout in any program, but it’s Richard Dean Anderson who turns this into one of the show’s four or five best hours. Colonel O’Neill simply can’t believe that these idiots – civilian scientists doing research at a long-abandoned alien site – have followed them on an undercover mission, and he gets increasingly exasperated as it goes on. (Anderson had years of practice dealing with Jack on MacGyver, and I enjoyed finding similarities in his performance here.) It turns into absurdity instantly, and every time Felger and Coombs try to behave and stay out of trouble, the situation spirals further out of control and they have no choice to dig further in.

Felger is played by Patrick McKenna and Coombs by Jay Billingsley, and they may be overeducated idiots who can’t stop arguing about Star Trek, but they’re so wonderfully human and funny. They’re here to show everybody in the audience with a silly fantasy about going into action with SG-1 that no, that would really be a terrible idea. I love how even after watching sixty-eleven space aliens on Trek, Felger’s “Jaffa” voice sounds precisely like that of a man who is squeaking “please don’t kill me” between every word.

It all ends triumphantly, even if Felger doesn’t quite get the girl like he hoped he would. Was the whole event a fantasy? Felger gets a second appearance in season seven that suggests that what happens here was not entirely a product of his fanboy imagination. That’s good; even if some of it was misplaced here, there should always be room for daydreamers.

Jason King 1.21 – A Royal Flush

“I have seen this Jason King in the newspapers… always a different woman!” Yes, and this time it’s Penelope Horner.

Well, I was saying last time that the kid runs hot and cold on King, and this was another very, very cold one. Quizzing him afterward, his main objection to this story by Philip Broadley was that neither he nor Jason had any idea what was going on. Jason is trying to enjoy some kissy time with the girlfriend-of-the-week – which our son didn’t like either – and is oblivious to British and Russian intelligence storming around Italy trying to swipe a cigarette lighter from a chain of Mafia types. Eventually, we paused to ask why he couldn’t concentrate on the story. “I don’t understand why everybody wants the lighter,” he said, and we replied that we didn’t either; the story hadn’t yet told us. “But there’s probably microfilm in it,” Marie added, guessing correctly.

I’ll agree that this was not a particularly strong outing, and I can see the kid’s point. It is a really odd adventure in that Jason is so removed from the action. Earlier in the run, in the story “As Easy as A.B.C.”, the difference was more obvious: we were watching the villains as the main characters in that episode. In this outing, the time is split equally between the Mafia pipeline and their business, and Jason doing his romancing, so he was front and center most of the time, but unaware of the situation. In fact, we knew much more about it than he did until the last eight or nine minutes.

Five more to go; I really think he’ll enjoy the final one, but I hope he gets some satisfaction from at least a couple more.

Firefly 1.2 – The Train Job

“The Train Job” was the show’s second pilot, and the first episode that Fox aired, and was co-written by the hugely talented Tim Minear, who was the showrunner for the series and is credited as either writing or co-writing four of its fourteen episodes. It’s actually what sold me on the program when I saw it about three years after its network run. The first pilot is good, and so is this one, with an added “wow” at the climax that I’ll come back to in a moment, but I think lots of programs are good, and only sit up and pay attention to a few of them.

The hour starts by introducing Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres, and Adam Baldwin as the three fightin’ members of the crew, the ones who get their hands dirty, looking for a quiet drink in an Alliance-friendly bar on the anniversary of the end of the civil war that saw Fillion’s and Torres’s characters, Mal and Zoe, on the losing side. From there, “The Train Job” had a weird balancing act, because it had to give us an exciting but simple story to launch the show, while reintroducing the other six regular characters that the original film, consigned at the time to the vault, had already established.

I think that, had I been willing in 2002 to give Fox another try for its umpteenth Friday sci-fi show, I’d have been hooked. There is one very clumsy bit where it comes back from the title sequence to start a scene with Sean Maher and Summer Glau without giving viewers a reason to think that these two are on board the same spaceship we had seen previously, but I like how each character and their backstory gets defined – and, sadly, Mal gets another opportunity to be rude to Inara – and I’m always in the mood for a good heist story.

The criminals’ consciences get the better of them, leading to a delicious little climax. “Serenity” had already established, when Mal ended the hostage standoff very abruptly, that these characters were not going to act like conventional teevee heroes. “The Train Job” repeats the situation in its famous “Now this is all the money Niska gave us in advance” scene. Our kid’s eyes got about the size of dinner plates, because he’s never seen a teevee hero kick a villain into an engine intake before. Sold. Hooked. I’ve never been a fan of telling people “there’s a scene you’ll love that I can’t tell you about,” but when two different people asked me, in 2005, whether they should look into this program that people had gone nutty over, I had to say that twice.

The show’s almost twenty years old at this point; I don’t mind spoiling it now. Sorry if I did, but the DVDs are old enough to vote.

Firefly 1.1 – Serenity

Every fandom has its myths. Firefly seems to have more than its fair share, and people tend to mythologize its cancellation without understanding the way these things used to work. See, when Firefly debuted in the fall of 2002 on a Friday night on the Fox network, it was just the latest in a long, long series of Friday night sci-fi bombs that stretched back a decade, to when The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. and The X Files were treading Nielsen water. Files grew into a mammoth hit and cultural touchstone, and the network spent the next ten years trying to make lightning strike twice, constantly and impatiently forcing the process to hurry up, failing every time.

Firefly wasn’t treated any worse than any other teevee program in its day. Unless a show was an established hit, it was, of course, going to get preempted for specials and sports events. Any which way you look at it, even if the network had ordered a full 22 episodes, they were still going to spread them out over 39 weeks. All the networks did that for every program. If I may continue to act like a mythbuster, the show was only preempted three times, and I daresay that if you go look through the listings for 2002 at TV Tango, you will find that almost all of that season’s hour-long dramas, most of which you never heard of, were probably preempted about three times in any given three-month run.

Its fans often complain that the network aired episodes out of the intended order, but all networks did that with all sorts of series. But Firefly was different, people said, furious, with emphasis, because it had a carefully crafted and ongoing storyline. Yeah, so did every drama of every shape and size made for any American network since about 1990.

In point of fact, during its Fox run, Firefly was the lead-in to another sci-fi program called John Doe, which had precisely the same problem of the network screwing with its intended running order and preempting it for baseball games and movies. Nobody remembers John Doe anymore, but the ratings don’t lie. It got audiences 40-50% greater than Firefly, and made it to the end of the season, while Firefly was gone before Christmas.

No, Firefly‘s audience of hardcore fans came too late; they found it on DVD and just didn’t want to accept that the crappy way Fox treated it was no different to the crappy way Fox treated everything else. But that makes a little sense. Firefly is about scrappy underdogs trying to get a little respect and pay some bills when the government and corporations do not care about their problems, so it naturally grew fans who saw the program itself as a scrappy underdog crushed by the wheels of an uncaring multinational corporation. It was a fun, smart, and occasionally blindingly intelligent series with some great writing and terrific performances, but it had exactly the same problems with a network run by greedy, desperately demanding pinheads that the TV version of Logan’s Run had dealt with a quarter-century previously, along with countless programs, forgotten and beloved, in between.

Well, having said that, choosing to hold back Firefly‘s original pilot to some nebulous “later date” and showing it as the series finale after it had already been axed… that is, admittedly, possibly unique.

If you’ve never seen Firefly, it wouldn’t surprise me if you’d heard that little factoid. The network bought the show, but hated the pilot, and asked for a brand new one. Not a cut-down version of the already-filmed pilot, not a one-hour version, they wanted something different and punchier, and they shelved the movie that introduced the premise. Fox only aired 11 of the 14 stories, across 14 weeks in the same timeslot, and saved the first for last.

And frankly, as much as Firefly‘s bungled network run was business as usual for bungling networks, every time I have watched this pilot, I remain utterly baffled by Fox’s brain-deadedness. It is a truly fine pilot, it moves fast, it introduces all of the characters incredibly well – Jewel Staite’s Kaylee is so perfectly defined by little touches in her props, like her little parasol and the nameplate above her door, that the actress could have played the part silently, with smiles, and the audience would still adore her – and it tells a simple and uncomplicated story. I will never understand why they found this baffling.

The only thing I don’t like, and never have, is Nathan Fillion’s lead character being a jerk to and around Inara. There’s a truly great moment about three-quarters of the way through the film where the crew shares a loud and raucous laugh over a “psychotic” prank that Mal has played on Simon that finally gives some badly-needed levity to his obnoxiousness and rudeness, and gives some color and explanation to his character that the script had ignored to that point. That doesn’t mean I like seeing him be snide to Inara, or use her to get under other people’s skins. But that’s probably in part because everybody likes Inara more than Mal.

The kid was extremely happy with this, which is nice because, as I’ve been relating, Stargate SG-1 has been disappointing him and Jason King is touch and go. He said that it didn’t feel like two hours, and I said that’s because it was only 86 minutes. It didn’t feel like 86 minutes either, he emphasized. But the real test will come later, Marie added. We’ll have to see whether he likes the Firefly enough to try making it in Lego. Dear readers, you’ll be the first to know.

Stargate SG-1 6.7 – Shadow Play

“What I want to see is crazy adventure, not a bunch of people talking in a room,” our son grumbled. I’d mentioned before that this season really, really isn’t doing it for him, and here’s the hour that’s annoyed him the most so far. It makes me wonder whether the move from Showtime to the Sci-Fi Channel didn’t come with some serious production and budget issues for Stargate SG-1 initially. In time, we’ll get back to grandiose action set pieces and lots of sci-fi ships and explosions and big mobs of extras, but there’s been a conspicuous lack of these for the first seven weeks, along with an hour that didn’t even have the show’s star in it, plus the next episode sidelines all the regulars to focus on other characters.

For what it’s worth, I think these first two months of season six have featured some really good and really intelligent scripts, and the grownups can’t wait for the next episode, which is a firm favorite. Wondering whether they had to start running before the money caught up doesn’t mean these installments are at all bad, just that they don’t get the nine year-old’s seal of approval.
Anyway, clearly the Sci-Fi Channel saw that at least one of the show’s regular tricks at Showtime was worth continuing: hire a guest star from another popular SF program with an active fan base. This time, it’s Dean Stockwell from Quantum Leap, playing an old professor of Jonas’s who gets involved when Jonas’s countrymen ask to reestablish diplomatic relations with Earth.

There’s interesting wheeling and dealing and a fascinating sense of perspective. Earth suddenly gets thrust into the same situation that their since-annihilated allies, the Tollan, were in, because Jonas’s people, from the nation of Kelowna (on the conveniently-named planet of Kelowna), need assistance against two aggressive other countries. Kelowna’s tech is decades behind Earth’s, but they have access to a very useful and very powerful radioactive isotope that nobody else in the universe seems to know about. But Earth has bad experience interfering between the affairs of warring nations; they bring up the events of season four’s “Other Side” to drive that point home.

It’s a great moral argument, and it’s played well, the morals are fascinating, and Stockwell’s character has a secret that could really change the negotiations… but our son is, in the end, correct. It’s a bunch of people talking in a room. Things’ll brighten up for him, though, I’m sure.

Jason King 1.20 – The Stones of Venice

Well, I certainly wish that I enjoyed this one more than I did, because it guest stars the great Roger Delgado, but I found myself nodding off about halfway through it. The story’s told in flashback from Jason’s jail cell, so there’s quite a lot of Delgado in the episode, it’s just not a very good one. I think it was likely made at some point between Delgado’s Doctor Who appearances in “The Daemons” and “The Sea Devils.” The script is by Donald James, and happily, the kid enjoyed it more than I did. Last time, Marie suggested that he enjoys it more when Jason King is getting into fights in warehouses than when he’s being cerebral and deducing weird crimes, and this one begins with an after-hours brawl in a jewelry store, so he was paying attention from the start.

The most interesting part of the story is how the girlfriend-of-the-week, played by Anna Gaël, makes sure that she gets Jason’s attention. She publishes a fake Mark Caine novel called The Stones of Venice that contains all the details of her twin sister’s recent kidnapping, and hires a pretty salesgirl played by Imogen Hassell to stock a sales kiosk with the phony books, making sure that our hero is outraged enough to get to the bottom of the crime depicted in the book and find out who’s getting crooked royalties off his name.

So how’d she churn out a novel that quickly? Simple, because this was the seventies, she just fed a bunch of his other books into a computer, which turned them into punch cards. She added her sister’s name and fed the punch cards into another computer that spat out an ersatz King novel, and sent it to a printer who could do it up – in English and Italian – in the standard King orange trade dress. There was a lot of that plot going around back in the day – The Avengers met a computer that churned out romance novels around that time, although The Avengers being The Avengers, theirs looked like a piano – but I’m amused by the in-universe ramifications. In Jason King’s world, original copies of the quickly-suppressed The Stones of Venice, which had only been sold in a single airport for a couple of weeks, must be his fans’ Holy Grail!

The StoryTeller 1.9 – The Three Ravens

The seventh of the StoryTellers to be produced was the last one to air. It probably showed up in the program’s syndication package in other countries before it was shown in the US. It was paired with the eighth and final MuppeTelevision to make a twelfth and last Jim Henson Hour, but it doesn’t look like this episode ever aired anywhere. A copy of the completed hour is held by The Paley Center for Media, but it’s never been released commercially.

The story of the Three Ravens is possibly better known by the later variant with Swan Children, but this version includes a twist where the curse can be broken if the children’s sister can remain silent for three years, three months, three weeks, and three days. It features Jonathan Pryce in a small role as the king, and Miranda Richardson just commanding the screen and being just about the most wicked witch we’ve ever seen in anything, ever. It’s a very fine production, and I enjoyed it a lot.

So that was that for this incarnation of The StoryTeller, but two years after production on the nine episodes with John Hurt wrapped in 1988, the Henson team made four new episodes, starring Michael Gambon as another StoryTeller, which amusingly comes to a syndication-friendly package of 13 half-hours. These were called The StoryTeller: Greek Myths, and first aired across four Saturday evenings on Britain’s Channel Four in December 1990. Maybe if I had known how much I would enjoy the nine Hurt episodes, I’d have splashed out for the full set, but it was only available at a silly price last year. Maybe one day there will be a nice, cleaned-up Blu-ray set of all 13. It’s certainly worth rediscovery.

In Atlanta, you can go visit the StoryTeller’s delightful dog at the Center for Puppetry Arts and learn lots more about Jim Henson’s amazing career and his wonderful work. Tell ’em your pals at Fire-Breathing Dimetrodon Time sent you! They’ll be sure to say “…who?”

Stargate SG-1 6.6 – Abyss

“There wasn’t even one explosion in that,” our son grumbled. Kind of drives home how a nine year-old is definitely viewing the show through a very different lens right now. I am really enjoying this run of episodes all over again for all the character conflict and interesting production decisions – this one is definitely one of the cheapies – but he’s been dissatisfied since this season began, unfortunately.

Anyway, this is the first time we’ve seen Cliff Simon’s excellent villain Ba’al since he was introduced the year before, and also the first time since Simon’s tragic death in March. This is where he became my favorite of the show’s bad guys, a patient, ruthless, and incredibly intelligent opponent. Much of the story is a two-hander between Simon and Richard Dean Anderson…

…but the meat is the two-hander between Anderson and Michael Shanks, who makes a return visit this week as Ascended Daniel, coming back to our plane of existence to help Jack ascend, because there doesn’t seem to be any other way out of the trap he’s in. There’s such great chemistry between the actors, and there’s an amazing moment where Jack loses his temper, and he can’t keep up the sarcastic front any longer, letting the real and unpleasant Colonel O’Neill come to the surface. It’s great stuff.

As a very nitpicky aside, while I do enjoy this hour a great deal, they missed a trick by giving it (yet again) another forgettable title unrelated to anything that actually happens in it. Ba’al’s fortress has all these gravity traps within it, and Jack’s prison doesn’t need a door, because one little control knobs turns the far wall into the floor, with the door in the ceiling. Surely it should be titled “Oubliette.”

Jason King 1.19 – It’s Too Bad About Auntie

This was certainly our son’s least favorite episode of Jason King so far. It’s a very slow story in which a desperate and very stupid criminal, guilty of some awful elder abuse, murders a vacuum cleaner salesman for unclear motives. Norman Bird, Sylvia Coleridge, Dinsdale Landen, and Fiona Lewis all appear, and Lewis is wonderful as the girlfriend-of-the-week who can get Jason to cross the Channel for her with the help of a well-placed lie in the newspapers, but the only scene that our son honestly enjoyed features Jason advertising a hideous breakfast food that “tastes like rancid yogurt,” thinking better of it, and refunding the money.