Jason King 1.6 – As Easy as A.B.C.

More home movie footage, this time from Vienna and Venice. In fact, a few seconds of Peter Wyngarde climbing the steps of some old cathedral or other and catching sight of a pretty blonde was used in the previous episode. It’s part of the delightful charm of ITC shows when they go to the back of the same studio buildings and use their own underground parking lot for every hotel parking lot in Europe, but you know, that Jaguar’s only going to go over the cliff just one time in each series.

In fact, there’s probably more of Wyngarde in this blobby 8mm film this week than there is new footage at Elstree. Tony Williamson’s “As Easy as A.B.C.” feels like a budget saver; the main characters are two villains played by Nigel Green and Michael Bates who have started copycatting the absurdly detailed and improbable robberies in Jason King’s novels. At one hilarious point, they hire a young lady played by Ayshea Brough to be his escort and steal his newest plans and notes. These three actors are in the studio at Elstree inside a restaurant, while Peter Wyngarde is in Venice dining on the patio. Paul Stassino also shows up, right at the end, as an Italian police inspector who hopes to dress as well as Jason King does.

Also here this time is a squeeze-of-the-week played by Yutte Stensgaard, and she really should have been a semi-regular. Her character is an expert in judo, and by far our son’s favorite scene had her flinging one of the villains around. It was a terrific little fight scene. Jason probably wins a few more brawls in his own show than he did in Department S, but he could definitely use someone like her around more often. Overall, this installment made a lot more sense to our son than the previous one, and he liked the fights. He really wasn’t completely taken with it, probably because it spends more time with the baddies than he’d prefer. I think Williamson had to overlook a couple of huge plot holes to make the story work, but Green and Bates are entertaining enough that I didn’t mind much.

Stargate SG-1 5.12 – Wormhole X-Treme!

For SG-1’s 100th episode, it’s a comedy. Picking up a year after the events of “Point of No Return”, our heroes need to find the alien who thought he was a human conspiracy nut, and learn that he’s working as the “creative consultant” on a television series that’s a lot like Stargate SG-1, only with a lower budget. We also learn that in the Stargate universe, what was, in our world, an infamously dumb unsold NBC pilot called Poochinski ran for a hundred episodes. And that Jack O’Neill really liked that show.

So this is naturally full of industry in-jokes and winks at themselves and several other sci-fi teevee shows, some of which the kid got. One of the actors is aggravated about a plot hole that befell a previous episode of this series, other actors use the pseudonym of The Six Million Dollar Man, aliens use Star Trek‘s transporter tech and its visual effect, and the reason the TV show has such a dumb name is because shows with an “X” in the title are supposed to get better ratings, which is why they’re considering adding a sexy alien woman to the program. It’s all in good fun and is winningly playful, and a hundred episodes later, we’d find out how successful Wormhole X-Treme! was.

Dick Tracy (1990)

I’m often reminded of Otto Preminger’s bizarre 1968 film – slash – trainwreck Skidoo, in which the director decided to make a movie that would be hip with the kids, and filled it full of people like George Raft and Mickey Rooney and Jackie Gleason. I wonder whether the nineteen and twenty year-olds of 1968 heard about such a thing and concluded that nothing else could possibly be so far out of touch as Hollywood, that year. Because in 1990, that’s precisely how nineteen year-old me felt when news of Dick Tracy‘s imminent release reached me. It felt like Hollywood was so desperate for the next Batman that a bunch of eighty year-old men asked the air, “What else is a comic book? What do kids read? Dick Tracy, yeah, that’s the ticket!” and filled their cash-in with such popular-with-kids actors as Warren Beatty, Al Pacino, and Dustin Hoffman.

I mean, seriously, in 1990, exactly five people on the planet gave a damn about Dick Tracy. One was Tribune Media’s accountant and the other four were Max Allan Collins.

And yet, while Skidoo is almost hypnotic in its strange, dull awfulness, Dick Tracy turned out to be a surprisingly good film, full of offbeat performances, an occasionally very clever script, and some of the most gorgeous color and cinematography of anything else in its day. You can watch Dick Tracy with the sound down and fall completely in love with it. I really like the unreal color palette and the remarkable symmetry in the framing.

So even though Dick Tracy‘s world is an unreal one, it’s a believable one because it’s so consistent. The visuals are pared down to basics, just like an artist might do in a small comic panel. So instead of a detail-packed label on a can of chili, full of words and pictures, it’s just a red can with “CHILI” in black letters. A milk truck doesn’t deliver for any specific dairy with a logo, it’s just a white truck with “MILK” on the side. Everything’s told with broad strokes, but it’s told beautifully.

Our son liked it a lot as well. I wouldn’t claim that he loved it – I wouldn’t go that far myself – but it’s full of weird and grotesque villains, a believably fun hero, a heck of a lot of machine guns, and a few very interesting twists in the script. Plus there’s a shot where Dick Tracy punches an entire crowd and they go down like ninepins. Warren Beatty may be in the center of almost every frame where he appears, but Al Pacino, William Forysthe, Paul Sorvino, and especially Dustin Hoffman effortlessly steal their scenes from our hero, as the best baddies should. Mandy Patinkin and Dick Van Dyke are also here, with comparative subtlety, so there’s a lot for people who love watching actors to enjoy. On the other hand, Danny Elfman’s music is bombastic and incredibly annoying, and you can’t help but wish that Tess Trueheart wasn’t so helpless and passive.

Speaking of Hoffman, he kind of stole the audience’s attention when I first saw this movie as well as this morning. He plays one of the henchmen, a purple-suited dude called Mumbles. That first time, after the audience chuckled and guffawed through his interrogation scene, the crowd absolutely roared when Tracy confronts him again later on. Tracy and his men storm into his room, saying “Hello, Mumbles,” and the dozens of people I saw it with went completely nuts. It was one of the best little movie theater moments ever. And this morning, our son made one of his uncommon interruptions to protest “I don’t sound like that when I mumble!” And I said “You do.”

So yes, it’s a much, much better film than Skidoo. But I still want a Blu-ray of Skidoo from Criterion, and I might even watch it more often than I would ever watch this, because I contradict myself, and contain multitudes.

Jason King 1.5 – Variations on a Theme

This blog’s meant to be about sharing experiences with my kid more than it is me, so let’s be very, very clear on this one: the kid barely tolerated Philip Broadley’s “Variations on a Theme.” This is a murky, shadowy spy story with nobody telling anybody much of anything, and the only actress who does want to tell somebody something is – in that way of damsels in distress in the fiction of days gone by – “too scared” to talk. He was restless and bored and the only time he brightened up was when a VW Beetle or hippie van showed up on screen, which was constantly, because the streets of Vienna were full of them in 1971.

From a production standpoint, though, I thought this was fascinating. I wonder whether the script was actually finished before they shipped Peter Wyngarde off to Vienna with what appears to be a single cameraman, and a few reels of what looks like 8mm film, with the ambient sound of crowd noises and music dubbed on later. So you’ve got Wyngarde outside the Vienna airport with all the resolution of somebody’s home movie, and actors in London watching him in 16mm.

The other interesting thing about the production is, of course, all the great guest actors. Ralph Bates is here as the spy who can’t quite come in from the cold yet, and Alexandra Bastedo is a Russian agent posing as a Swedish journalist, and Julian Glover, who our kid saw earlier this week when he watched The Empire Strikes Back again, is a British spy who really should have been used in other episodes beyond this. No, the kid still couldn’t recognize a face, but when I said “You saw him as the AT-AT commander the other day,” he replied “Well, you told me then that he was in everything, guess you’re right!”

Stargate SG-1 5.11 – Desperate Measures

Back to Earth for another conspiracy story, and this one turns into something much like a better than average X Files installment. Major Carter gets abducted while outside the base. It’s not random: somebody in the civilian sector is desperate enough, and wealthy enough, to start paying for access to records about aliens with healing powers. And thanks to the incompetents running the Russians’ Stargate operations, there’s another Jaffa on Earth besides Teal’c, and the long-growing alien inside this guy’s body has reached maturity and needs a new host.

So there are threats and double-dealings and appearances from both Tom McBeath’s and John de Lance’s utterly untrustworthy characters, and some great dialogue between Jack and Maybourne. Marie commented that this wasn’t a funny episode and she shouldn’t be laughing as much as she was, but Richard Dean Anderson’s delivery was really tickling her. The kid followed suit, but that might have been because he’s really sick of Maybourne and wishes that somebody really would finally just shoot him. The story ends with the alien finding a new human host and reaching an agreement with Col. Simmons, which opens all kinds of ugly possibilities which play out over the next year or so.

Surprisingly, this is the first time that Stargate filmed at the former Crease Clinic location of Vancouver’s Riverside Hospital. It’s a familiar sight to anybody who watches TV shows made in town. It was seen frequently in the first couple of years of The X Files, and is still used all the time by contemporary programs like Dirk Gently and the Arrowverse series, where it’s used regularly as Mary’s clinic in Batwoman. You’ve probably seen it a time or ten yourself.

Jason King 1.4 – A Deadly Line in Digits

Tonight’s episode was a very good one written by Tony Williamson. He’d written a few adventure shows prior to this – “Killer” for The Avengers comes to mind – that suggest he was very interested in the possibilities of computers. Fifty years on, and Williamson’s ideas seem really quaint, but that’s just because technology has marched on so much. Ronald Lacey’s weasely character of Ryland is back, getting Jason King involved in a crime that Whitehall can’t solve. Some criminal organization seems to be tapping in to Scotland Yard’s room of mammoth reel-to-reel computers and diverting police away from crime scenes. Joanna Jones guest stars as one of the computer operators.

Our son smirked, as you’d expect a nine year-old to smirk, when I pointed out that this was made fifty years ago, and to imagine how much more power is in his little tablet than all the computers in the room. But then I asked him to imagine what the technology fifty years in the future will look like. What will his children – or grandchildren – be using to play their edition of Plants vs. Zombies when he is fifty-nine? The mind boggles. My mind boggled when about six minutes of screen time passed with Jason undercover, hunched over, with big-frames glasses and a beard, before he realized who it was. Good disguise, I suppose.

Stargate SG-1 5.10 – 2001

There’s not an explosion or a gunfight and there’s only a single flying tackle without a punch thrown, but the kid really enjoyed this one, as well he should. It’s a terrific follow-up to the previous season’s “2010”. That story was set nine years in the future, when Earth’s alliance with a powerful race called the Aschen goes terribly wrong. It ended with some timey-wimey hocus pocus to cut off access to the Aschen homeworld in the present, stopping that rotten future from happening. But now, our heroes meet the Aschen on some other planet and have no idea that they’re villains.

There are a couple of things in the story that I wasn’t completely sold on. Ronny Cox is back as the recurring pain-in-the-rear Senator Kinsey, and he’s written in too broad strokes: rushed and hurried, bent on signing a treaty with the Aschen far more quickly than any politician or diplomat would ever dare. But Richard Dean Anderson is completely flawless this week, very believably getting an increasingly bad feeling about the situation, and I love the way that he calmly tells the ambassador who comes with them that he’s not dressed for the mission, and that his shoes will be ruined. I also really like the way that they move Daniel right into his element, researching the Aschen and finding evidence that Jack’s bad feeling is right on the money.

I think what works best for me is the feeling of impending doom. How are they going to discover the truth about the Aschen in time, since it took their timey-wimey counterparts more than nine years to figure it out? And once they do, how are they going to convince their dimwit superiors that they really need to look this gift horse in the mouth very, very closely? It’s an episode to watch with a sinking feeling for the whole hour. They never brought back the Aschen for a third go-round. They’d have had a lot to live up to if they tried.

Jason King 1.3 – Buried in the Cold Cold Ground

When we were watching Department S, it got to where my heart would sink a little when I noted the script was by Philip Broadley. It’s not that any of them were necessarily bad, but they were so ordinary, and could have worked for any other ITC adventure series. Sadly, after two really good installments to open this show, tonight’s episode was written by Broadley, and it’s an okay story about a criminal following some very obscure clues to a fortune he’d heisted without his boss’s okay several years before. The boss is played by Frederick Jaeger, but he doesn’t help things much. The story moves about as fast as molasses, with no urgency or danger. Our son was disappointed. It was far too slow, and didn’t even have a proper fight scene.

Dr. Slump: The Great Race Around the World (1983)

More for the sake of completeness and posterity than analysis, this morning, we watched the ridiculous third Dr. Slump feature, a 50-minute story released in 1983 called The Great Race Around the World. Honestly, I didn’t think that it was a patch on the sublime and hysterical Space Adventure, but our son ate it up and laughed like a hyena all the way through it, so what do I know?

I like how it takes just enough elements from media you’ve seen before and gives them all an irreverent and immature Slump spin. In this one, the princess of the nearby Radial Kingdom doesn’t want to be forced to marry the winner of an around-the-world Great Race, so she tries to enter it herself. The king shoots her down, but since she’s the spitting image of Penguin Village’s school teacher, she can do a switcheroo. Meanwhile, the space villain Dr. Mashirito is in town to compete, and since Senbei and Arale’s car has been feeling suicidally depressed lately, they figure winning a big race would give him some needed confidence. There are certainly a few good gags, but the kid loved it more than I did, which is how it should be. He still hasn’t embraced the original Slump comic series, but we’re going out this afternoon; I’ll try dropping a collection in the back seat and see whether the darn child won’t finally take the bait.

Stargate SG-1 5.9 – Between Two Fires

No exaggeration, I really, really like this episode a lot, even if it does have the same name as a Paul Young record for some reason and now I’ve got the title track stuck in my head. We go back to the planet of Tollana, and the campus of Simon Fraser University, for what turns out to be the final time, so this is Garwin Sanford’s last appearance as Carter’s admirer-from-space Narim. The Tollan have always been depicted as fiercely isolationist, but for some reason, they’ve decided to negotiate with Earth. It’s a deal that could bring them some easily-mined minerals, and could bring Earth some powerful new weapons to defend us from any attacks from space… and it doesn’t make any sense whatever. The Tollan are hiding something, and our heroes have to figure out what it is, quickly.

So one reason I like this one is that it toys with the idea of introducing some major game-changing technology to Earth. If the United States gets an ion cannon, it’s not going to be a secret. This is precisely why the Tollan are isolationist in the first place, because centuries ago, they did interfere in the advancement of a more primitive planet, and watched them destroy themselves. And the other big reason I like this one is that the conspiracy of what the Tollan are doing is incredibly well done. It’s about as taut a political thriller as a fanciful program like this can do in an hour, with another culture breaking all the rules for what turns out to be something really unpleasant: they’re ready to sacrifice Earth to save their own skins.

Of course, their pal Narim is on their side and horrified, but there’s not a lot he can do when Tanith, the mid-level villain played by Peter Wingfield and introduced last season, shows up. Turns out he did the old sci-fi baddie trick of using an escape pod when we last saw him, and he’s found a new lord and master, and has done what none of his other rogues’ gallery has ever been able to manage and put the frighteners into the Tollan. Our son enjoyed this one despite it being a lot more political than action-packed, and speculated – bafflingly and wrongly – that Tanith was working for Apophis. No, we reminded him, Apophis is dead (we promise), and whoever he’s working for now, he won’t name.

The other thing that I really like is that the episode ends with the revelation that Tanith and his boss wipe out the Tollan entirely. This is a pretty big and daring game-changer because these guys have been one of Earth’s most powerful allies, and even though the show is quiet about it, this is honestly the biggest defeat that the heroes have suffered in the war against the Goa’uld. I do kind of wish they’d have talked about this a little bit more. You get so used to the good guys making advances and taking major villains off the table that a setback this enormous needs a little more room to breathe.

Jason King 1.2 – A Page Before Dying

Before we got started with tonight’s episode, I cued up an early episode of MacGyver that we’d watched a few years ago to give our kid a little context. They were, then, in the habit of using a heck of a lot of library footage to beef up their stories, and in “Deathlock”, they built a scene around footage culled from the film of Len Deighton’s Funeral in Berlin. This gave me the opportunity to remind our son of what we’d discussed before about spy series often dealing with people trying to get out of the Eastern sector, and also who Len Deighton was.

So this episode, written by Tony Williamson, is an absolute gem. Suddenly, to get somebody out of East Berlin, every spy in Europe wants to know exactly how Jason King did it in his novel A Page Before Dying, and whether it will work in the real world. Soon, all eyes are on him, because he gets smuggled into East Berlin against his will, and doesn’t have any choice but to work the scheme while the other side’s intelligence agents are watching him like a hawk. It’s already a hugely entertaining story with lots of wit and putdowns and surprises, and ends with a delightful twist. Our son enjoyed it a lot, I’m glad to say. It’s among the character’s very best outings.

This is the first of a few appearances by Ronald Lacey as a “Whitehall worm” called Ryland who whines and manipulates our hero, and it also features small roles for familiar faces Olaf Pooley, Michael Sheard, and Philip Madoc. Plus, it’s the first appearance of an unbelievable “action” costume for Jason that I’ll have to show you some other time: skintight motorcycle leathers and an ascot. Have to say I prefer his jackets and neckties.