Captain Scarlet 1.13 – The Heart of New York

First things first: I want to give a shout-out to a fun blog called The Issue at Hand, which also appreciates classic pop culture and adventure. Blogger Joe Torcivia’s main focus is on the IDW comic book adventures of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, but he visits a few other subjects, including classic Batman, and I expect that many of you reading this would also enjoy his site, so please check it out!

But onto the latest Captain Scarlet, and it’s really odd. I don’t believe that Tony Barwick, who was the program’s script editor and wrote this episode, had any idea of the size of New York City. It’s not just that it’s surrounded by gentle, bucolic, woodland, that absolutely nobody lives within five miles of the city limits, or that there seems to be only one road into town. It’s that Spectrum undertakes a complete evacuation of the city almost immediately. Perhaps by the time this show was set, that big metropolis where the Yankees play has been renamed New New York. This is the “New York” about a hundred miles north of Helena, Montana, with a population of 272. That makes more sense than this.

While I was mainly pleased that Captain Magenta and Captain Ochre got some action, Daniel was pleased by a short car chase, as Captain Scarlet and Captain Blue try to catch Captain Black. In another example of the Mysterons’ bizarre powers, he turns a corner and his car fades away into nothingness, vanished “just like a ghost.” The series badly needs more direct confrontation between Black and the Spectrum agents, and I hope that another is coming (there has only been one so far, in episode six), but the story’s oddball charm elevates it above the humdrum plot.

Batman 2.39 – The Penguin Declines

I don’t have very much to add this time. The three-part format worked incredibly well, and it’s probably a shame that the producers only used it twice more. There’s another giant pile of events, none of the scenes lasts very long, and the whole thing moves with incredible speed and zip. We’re used to 1960s television being so much slower-paced than today’s, and so something with so much activity, locations, and events feels practically modern!

Of note: Rob Reiner has a very small part as a delivery man in a scene with Burgess Meredith and Terry Moore. The Joker decided that he needs the Penguin to seduce the errant Venus into a trap, which is an amazingly strange plot development since he tried to feed her to a giant clam earlier. I love the notion that the Penguin is such a suave don juan that no woman can resist his charms for long.

And the trap? Well, it sort of requires suspending disbelief long enough to accept that there’s room in the Batmobile’s trunk for six people to hide, but it’s an invasion of the Batcave, which is absolutely the biggest plot development that this program has ever shown us. It lasts for another terrific fight, but the villains get no mileage from their bravado: it didn’t occur to any of them to try and crack the trunk and see where they were. Not that it would have mattered; Batman knew they were in the car all along and disabled the emergency trunk unlock switch!

Batman 2.38 – The Joker’s Hard Times

Cesar Romero always looked like he was having the time of his life as the Joker. As part two of this story goes on and the Joker’s crimes get ever more ridiculous, it just looks like he’s having so much fun. At one point, he steals a police car and starts giving out fake sightings of the truck that everybody is looking for. This wasn’t part of his plan, just some improvised chaos. I understand that the modern, bloodthirsty depiction of the character has fans, but this guy’s the real Joker.

This episode ends with the very surprise twist that it is not yet finished. For the first time, the formula gets the big changeup of a third episode. I have thought for years that the producers might have intended to sell compilation films of the three-part adventures as movies in Europe and Central and South America, like MGM did with all those Man from UNCLE movies, and as Fox would do with The Green Hornet after Bruce Lee died, but I’ve never actually seen any evidence that these actually happened.

This part concludes with one of the most surprising cliffhangers in the whole series: somehow, the Joker has got his hands on a gigantic man-eating clam, and drops Batman, Robin, and the traitorous Terry Moore into its tank.

The other theory that’s been temporarily sidelined is that giant clam prop might have come from an episode of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. I can’t find any evidence for that, but what I don’t know about Voyage would fill a huge, huge book. In the third season, however, a costume from an episode of Lost in Space did get repainted and recycled for this series.

Last night, I mentioned that it had been quite some time since Daniel got frightened by one of the cliffhangers. He’d been hissing and growling at the Joker all through the episode, while also paying close attention and being very well behaved, but that giant clam just did him in. He grabbed his security blanket and raced behind the sofa, horrified, and only popped his head up for a split second to see that the beast had gobbled Robin. We didn’t mention the clam again this evening.

Actually, now that I type it, he did hide his head under his blanket to avoid looking at an earlier scene where Terry Moore, all soft-focus and goo-goo eyes, got all romantic and mushy with the Caped Crusader. Yuck, that’s even worse than giant clams!

Batman 2.37 – The Zodiac Crimes

I wish that I could say that Daniel’s mind was blown when the Penguin shows up about a quarter of the way into what seemed initially like the Joker’s episode. Unfortunately, my son was very restless, wiggly, and not on his best behavior tonight. He was a little more alarmed by the cliffhanger than he has been in quite a long time, though.

This time, our heroes are trapped in a museum, tied down underneath an eight-ton meteorite. They’ve just lost a fight with the Joker and his men because his moll-of-the-week, Venus, finally decided to stay evil instead of good. Venus is played by Terry Moore, who had been a glamour girl and in-demand actress in the early 1950s, but parts had been drying up. Charitably, accepting that the babe-of-the-week role is a fairly routine one, she’s not the best actress to tackle this role. Moore largely faded from the spotlight not long after this appearance, before reviving her career in the mid-1980s along with the surprising claim that she had spent a quarter of a century as Howard Hughes’ secret bride.

But that was much later. What happens onscreen is what I recall as one of my favorite stories, and it’s held up pretty well, without any of the eye-rolling goofiness that had been punctuating recent episodes. The original story was by Stephen Kandel, who wrote an episode or two of dozens of interesting TV series over a thirty-year career*, and it’s a great example of throwing dozens of ideas and locations at the wall, seeing what will stick. I think that I liked it when I was a kid because I liked the Zodiac for a time, as kids do, but I like it today because while the heroes know that the Joker intends twelve Zodiac-related crimes, they don’t know the order or the exact targets.

Dropping the Penguin into the proceedings just makes things more complicated, and that’s a great thing. The plot moves far too quickly to afford Cesar Romero and Burgess Meredith more than one scene together, but Meredith does his usual, calm, stealth stealing of every scene that he’s in. At one point, he calls the criminals’ lair from a payphone with a message about the evening’s plan, then casually does that old stunt of repeatedly tapping the hookswitch to get his dime back.

But the Penguin is arrested before the final fight – seriously, this episode moves at warp speed – because this is Joker’s show and he’s just one of many elements of it. If the previous Joker story had been disappointing with its half-finished laundry list of extremely odd ideas, this one’s much better, with trick magic wands and distracting, exploding jumping beans, and Romero ratcheting up the egotism and the mania. He’s in peak form and having a ball in this story.

(*These include Banacek, Mission: Impossible, the Nero Wolfe with William Conrad and Lee Horsley, MacGyver, Harry O, Wonder Woman, and all the Harry Mudd episodes of Star Trek – even the cartoon version!)

The Ghost Busters 1.14 – Merlin, the Magician

There’s an incredibly odd little casting choice here. Huntz Hall reprises his role as Gronk from episode eight, but neither he nor the Ghost Busters acknowledge that they’ve met before. You’d think that would be worth a mention, “you again?” or something. I suppose that the director and the stars enjoyed working with him, and since they needed a similar “low intelligence sidekick” for Merlin, they asked him back without altering this episode’s script beyond noting the character’s name.

Daniel giggled all through the opening scene, in which Spencer informs Tracy that the prize of the gorilla’s rock collection is actually a dinosaur egg. They decide it needs to be kept somewhere very, very safe, and if you don’t predict that Kong will end up sitting on the egg, then you must be my son’s age.

Guest stars this week are Carl Ballantine, who had played Lester on McHale’s Navy for several years, as Merlin, and Ina Balin, who had dozens and dozens of one-off roles (including five different ones on Quincy, M.E.) but never a starring part, as Morgan Le Fay. Ballantine plays Merlin as Sid Caesar doing a frustrated stage magician, and Balin is note-perfect as the icy and humorless villain. In a complete reversal of the usual formula, Merlin and Gronk want to be dematerialized and sent back to “the beyond,” but the incompetent Merlin zaps the ghost dematerializer into Morgan’s hands.

The climax is also really funny. Morgan casts a spell that makes any man who makes eye contact with her freeze, not realizing that Tracy is a gorilla. He keeps a whipped cream pie in his magic bag, saving the day. Earlier, we saw that Tracy had bagpipes, tartans, and a tam o’shanter in his bag, so the pie comes as no surprise.

Captain Scarlet 1.12 – Shadow of Fear

Wow, this episode is creepy. It’s set at a remote base in the Himalayas, where three scientists are trying a couple of plans to get some close-up shots of Mars. Since the Mysterons destroy every satellite that comes anywhere near their planet, they launched two at once, successfully faking them out by landing a small one on the moon Phobos. This will transmit pictures to Earth at those distant intervals where it, on Phobos, is in sight of the base on Earth.

So, yes, this does suffer from the Supermarionation problem of puppets sitting around, looking at countdown clocks, and asking each other to check some readout. But it gets increasingly fun since we know so little about the Mysterons and what their powers actually are. It turns out that the baddies know exactly what the Earthmen are up to, and have grisly fates for them. I hate to spoil what happens, because it’s so amazingly strange, but I don’t know that anybody in fiction dies in quite the same way as Dr. Breck.

Helped by its weird electronic music, the episode is the most sinister and strange to date, and I didn’t even mind that most of the other Spectrum characters make just minimal appearances in favor of the scientists. At one point, Captain Gray and Melody go out in a helicopter to hunt down Breck, but that’s pretty much it. Captain Scarlet and Captain Blue are present, but mostly powerless to prevent anything from happening.

Daniel was less engaged in the usual way, since there’s not much action or violence in this one, but the outer space stuff had him interested, which is even better. He asked me questions about retro rockets and the planet Mars, and also the Himalayas. I’m really happy to pause an episode and explain a little bit of science. I hope that I got it all right!

Batman 2.36 – The Mad Hatter Runs Afoul

Part two of this story is indeed better than part one, as I remembered. That’s despite a completely ridiculous subplot about Batman and Robin’s supposed death. They apparently chose to fake their deaths in the nuclear reactor to put the Mad Hatter off guard, but word got out and kind of got away from them. Within hours, President Johnson, Premier Khrushchev, and the Queen of England are all flying to Gotham City, Aunt Harriet is organizing a funeral committee of four thousand women, and the same two bits of stock footage of crowds that were employed in the Batman movie get used again.

But never mind that, this has one of the all-time great Batfights, which looks like it happened because the stunt team convinced the producers that they could stage a really great one on a water tower. There’s absolutely no practical reason in the plot for the Mad Hatter’s hideout, at the defunct Green Derby restaurant, to have a water tower, and the best that the writer can come up with is that the Hatter plans to zap Batman and Robin with his mesmerizer as they climb the ladder. But the wind carries his hat off, so it’s down to fisticuffs, and you know what? It looks terrific. That is a great, great fight scene.

But never mind that either, the crowning moment comes when the news of our heroes’ deaths breaks to the citizenry and the villains plan their next move. The Mad Hatter is overjoyed that he’s done what the Joker, the Puzzler, and the Riddler have all failed to do and killed Batman, elevating him to one of the greats. Interestingly, though, Commissioner Gordon, who’s usually naming every costumed menace in town as the most dangerous and lethal lunatic on the planet and more than a match for any policeman, has no respect for the Mad Hatter whatsoever, labeling him an inconsequential “pipsqueak.”

So in a scene that is made more glorious by David Wayne’s extremely mannered and fussy body language and fey delivery, the Mad Hatter basks in his infamy and immediately sets about plotting the next details of his plan. Then moll-of-the-week Polly, played by Jean Hale, wonders whether they’re being disrespectful to Batman’s memory and Mad Hatter patiently corrects her. Since Batman and Robin were made into celebrities because of criminals, then the best way to honor their memory is to be crooked. “It’s the LEAST you can do!” What a delightful, funny¬†scene!

Batman 2.35 – The Contaminated Cowl

I am almost certain that I remember that part two of this story has a couple of very entertaining moments. I hope I’m right, because part one is incredibly dumb and boring.

In the previous story, writer Charles Hoffman gave us a Batcomputer that spits out spaghetti. This time, Hoffman again thinks that computers are great opportunities for comedy. We learn that the computer is tired of crimefighting, and so Batman has to activate a compute-harder switch to make it come up with some possible suggestions for Mad Hatter’s next move. That’s about the level of thought put into this story.

Last time, Mad Hatter wanted Batman’s cowl. His big plan this time is to irradiate it and turn it pink, so Batman has to go to a nuclear plant to have it decontaminated and he can intercept it. We also learn that Batman has several other cowls in the wash – bad timing, Alfred – and that new cowls are on order, so, you know, he could have just thrown the pink one away and wait for the dryer cycle to finish.

This is all going to turn out to be Batman planning ahead, of course, but it’s all so unbelievably stupid that it really took us all out of the moment. Daniel, who was horrified to the point of tears by the Mad Hatter last time, was really bored. From the look of things, David Wayne, who played the Mad Hatter, was pretty bored himself. Fingers crossed for tomorrow…

The Ghost Busters 1.13 – The Vikings Have Landed

I found myself liking the show trope of the ghosts talking before they actually materialize and show themselves with this episode, because Erik the Red is played by the unmistakable Jim Backus, who was Thurston Howell III on Gilligan’s Island and the immortal voice of Mister Magoo. So when he started yelling, I said “I know who thaaaat is…” Backus did quite a lot of kid-friendly work in the 1970s in addition to prime-time roles. His time on Gilligan made him high-demand from just about every producer in town. You never asked “What’s Jim Backus doing in a cheap show like this,” because he was in every show, regardless of budget or audience.

Daniel adored this episode, which has series-best hallway gags (all five principals end up colliding in the middle) and filing cabinet gags. The trick to the filing cabinet this time is that it has to be shoved from behind to open, and it’s bolted to an exterior wall. Fortunately, Tracy’s grandfather was known for climbing the Empire State Building. This leads to a completely unexpected gag when Tracy makes a second trip outside the building to walk around. I wondered what he was up to, and had a very good laugh when the gag pays off.

Joining Backus in this trip back from the afterlife is an actress named Lisa Todd as Brunhilda. Of course that’s her name; there aren’t any other Viking names for women on television. She doesn’t seem to have had a very long career, but she was a “Hee Haw Honey” for most of four seasons in the seventies.

Captain Scarlet 1.11 – Avalanche

One of the many great things about Gerry Anderson’s shows is their globetrotting scope. This time, the setting is the “frost line” series of bases in what would appear to be northern Canada, although the outer space defense grid is commanded by another stereotyped American general, common to the Supermarionation programs, quick with the trigger and the temper. It was interesting to see that this military is pretty disrespectful of Spectrum, strongly suggesting that the agency doesn’t quite have the backing of everybody on Earth.

I look at the huge sets of mountains and snow, avalanches and wrecked vehicles and marvel at the production nightmare. Daniel’s mind is also blown, but by the fiction. The new settings and places keep him enthralled and guessing. “Whoa! Look at all that snow,” he started, and didn’t stop chattering for several minutes. He enjoyed this one more than I did, which is just fine by me.