Monthly Archives: March 2016

Electra Woman 1.5 and 6 – Empress of Evil

I could go on for hours about this story, because it’s so unbelievably entertaining. Everything completely works in this story, and not just because Claudette Nevins, cast as the mysterious and very powerful Empress of Evil, decided to play the part with the kink dialed up to eleven and the subtlety dialed down to one. Her back is arched in every single scene, she’s licking her lips, and she even gives herself a slow caress at least twice, suggesting that the network censors were not paying a drop of attention. And she is constantly, constantly laughing. She and her associate Lucrecia cackle like old Hollywood witches in every scene.

I remember Nevins worrying the heck out of me as a kid. All these little elements added up to some genuine troubles for five year-old me. I thought the Empress was really weird and really scary, without being able to explain why. Later on, I’d come to really appreciate the over-the-top camp masterpiece that it is. If I haven’t made it completely clear, the Empress and Lucrecia would not have been at all out of place running their hands over Tim Curry’s corset in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, meaning it’s not the sort of thing that a viewer’s going to catch until they’re in their teenage years.

But more about the production stands out as compelling and freaky than just the sex. The no-budget special effects forced the team to realize the script demands in weird, weird ways. At one point, a fire pit is created by dropping a jagged blue screen on the floor and chromakeying in a huge fire around Deidre Hall and Judy Strangis’s feet. At another point, a banshee – yes, a banshee – just wanders in to wail at our heroines and lead them into the Empress’s “Arena of Skulls” chamber. The banshee frightened the daylights out of Daniel, who looked at the screen from behind the sofa horrified, his eyes as big as dinner plates.

Absolutely everything about this story works. It’s incredibly fun, thunderously bizarre, and looks and sounds like nothing else on TV. It also has perhaps the pinnacle of stupid television narration, when Electra Woman says “We accept your challenge!” and the narrator solemnly intones “And so, Electra Woman accepts the Empress of Evil’s challenge.” How could you not just hug television as silly as this?

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RIP Sylvia Anderson, 1927-2016

We’re very sorry to hear that Sylvia Anderson, co-producer of all the Supermarionation shows that we enjoyed and the voice of Lady Penelope, has passed away. We really appreciate all the great television that she made with AP Films and Century 21.

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Land of the Lost 1.14 – Stone Soup

I suppose that I could make the argument that “Stone Soup” is the weakest episode of Land of the Lost‘s first season, but it’s still pretty entertaining. What’s weirdest is that it feels like it didn’t have any second or third drafts before they taped it, and so the continuity of Joyce Perry’s script – Perry was another veteran from the Star Trek cartoon – jars against the previous episodes. Sa is twice referred to as “he,” when the character is generally assumed to be female, but it’s the pylon business that really doesn’t make any sense.

In the first place, Will and Holly are completely unsurprised to find that a pylon’s door is open, and remains so. They take shelter in it when the local apatosaur, Emily, gets angry with them, and comment that it is really dark, but they don’t actually note that the matrix table doesn’t have any crystals in it. Then there’s the bizarre wrap-up, after they refill the table with crystals that the Pakuni have pilfered in what must be random order – the Skylons, introduced in episode eight, bizarrely do not appear, though we will see them again soon – and step outside, and Rick closes the pylon door. Will and Holly react with a ridiculous “WOW!” like they’ve never seen that before.

It’s really kind of unfortunate that everything does jar so badly, because so much of LOTL was very meticulous about telling a structured story across many weeks, but this isn’t structured in line with what we’ve seen before at all. Still, the actual story is quite entertaining, and it’s always nice to see the Marshalls completely pull a fast one on Ta. This time, they trade him a stone for soup-making in return for all the crystals that he’d stolen. I approve.

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Captain Scarlet 1.29 – Treble Cross

This episode is one of the few that actually addresses the odd powers of the Mysterons in a neat way. This time, Captain Black kills an air force major and duplicates him, but the major’s body is found by a pair of doctors with an experimental resuscitator and bring him back to life. Unfortunately, Tony Barwick’s story doesn’t get into what that might mean for the duplicate – he doesn’t short-circuit or melt or anything – and it instead concludes that they can both be alive for a short time, and Spectrum can try to use the real major to get a line on Black.

At least three of the characters in this story are played by puppets that were used in earlier episodes. I swear, some of these puppets got more screen time than the minor members of Spectrum. I had wondered aloud whether Anderson might have actually shelled out for some new “faces” on his later productions, but apparently not. I’ve enjoyed looking over a Captain Scarlet fan site called Spectrum Headquarters for background to this blog, and noticed that some of the lesser-used Spectrum characters, like Captain Ochre and Doctor Fawn, had their puppets reused in Anderson’s next two series, Joe 90 and The Secret Service, as the sort of one-off characters like one of the doctors and his nurse in this one. Even the puppet of Lt. Green, who appeared in every episode of Scarlet, was reused as a background character in those other shows.

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Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968)

This was by no means Daniel’s favorite film, and boy, is it ever long, but I think it’s a terrific and silly fantasy. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is based on the children’s novel by Ian Fleming, and, since Albert Broccoli and his company were making the Bond films from Fleming’s books, it seemed like a good investment. Also since, in 1967, they had Roald Dahl on their Rolodex – he had written the screenplay for You Only Live Twice – they had somebody to phone who had lots of experience in writing good children’s fiction to turn Fleming’s novel into a good script.

Dick Van Dyke had been in the habit of making films in between seasons of his sitcom The Dick Van Dyke Show in the early sixties. Of these, of course, Mary Poppins is the best-known. He was hugely in demand after the series ended and regularly in front of cameras. I suspect that Chitty Chitty Bang Bang had a very long shoot. It filmed across three countries and required the use of those gigantic stages on Pinewood that the 007 people were typically using for bases inside volcanoes, and was released in time for Christmas 1968.

Cast opposite Van Dyke was Sally Ann Howes, who was principally a stage actress, with dozens of hugely successful roles on Broadway and the West End over her career. Also in the cast, a few names familiar from the 1960s Bond films, including Gert Frobe and Desmond Llewellyn, and, just to show there were no hard feelings for Columbia not returning the rights to Casino Royale and making that very silly spoof film instead, Broccoli hired one of Casino‘s five credited directors, Ken Hughes, to shoot this.

Like Casino, this is a movie that really could use some scissors taken to it. It’s in two sections with an intermission, about 84 and 60 minutes each. Those first 84 could have been trimmed by a good fifteen minutes, if not more. Our son has really started to rebel against songs in movies, and there are some really long numbers in the first section. He got restless and fidgety and, on a couple of occasions, got up to lie down behind the sofa just to put an end to all this nonsense and wait for this car to fly like I told him would happen.

Then he met the Child Catcher and it wasn’t boredom that sent him behind the sofa. See, if you’ve never seen this movie, its central conflict is a long fantasy story that Dick Van Dyke’s eccentric inventor, Caractacus Potts, tells, in which he and his children and his new friend (and, possibly, fiancée) are beset by agents from the country of Vulgaria who want his magical car. They have to fly to Vulgaria after Potts’ father, played by Lionel Jeffries, is accidentally abducted by the baron’s agents.

In Vulgaria, children are forbidden because the baroness, played by Anna Quayle, is afraid of them. She has employed this really freaky dude to capture them. The Child Catcher is played with bizarre energy by the late Robert Helpmann, a celebrated Australian dancer, director of that country’s national ballet theater, with a list of honors and awards as long as your arm, and he’s best known for less than fifteen minutes onscreen luring children into cages with lollipops. He is absolutely horrifying to little ones. There were so many tears welled up in my son’s eyes that I teared up a little just looking at how shaken he was!

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is flawed, but it’s aged extremely well and we were mostly entertained by it, even if our son’s restlessness during the longer sections got pretty exasperating. We probably should have taken more advantage of the movie’s intermission, but four is a little young for this one and we would have done better to wait another year or so. For adults, you’ve got the sumptuous production and giant sets and wonderful chemistry between the leads, and if their romance seems just a little too inevitable, well, you need to have your heart polished up a little bit.

Now, about getting the darn theme tune out of my head…

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Electra Woman 1.3 and 4 – Glitter Rock

The Krofft Supershow was hosted by a kid-friendly rock band called Kaptain Kool and the Kongs, who performed music and comedy to open the show and in between its three segments. I think that most people remember them as a four-piece who wore similar denim costumes, because that’s how they appeared in season two, and on the bulk of the program’s merchandising. But in season one, as you might have seen had you clicked that link in the previous installment, they were a five-piece with somewhat more ridiculous costumes, all flashy, colorful satin and rhinestones. If you remember how Elton John, David Bowie, Roxy Music, and T. Rex all dressed in 1972, that’s about how Kaptain Kool and the Kongs dressed in 1976.

Glitter Rock, played by John Mark Robinson, looks like the sixth member of the Kongs. I suspected, correctly, that Daniel would love this episode, because the baddie uses an electric guitar to hypnotize his victims. Nobody else does; it’s remarkably dopey even by Electra Woman standards. Robinson’s only major role came the following season as one of the ensemble cast in the quickly-canceled ABC comedy The San Pedro Beach Bums.

For what it’s worth, a chunk of the episode was taped at the defunct Magnolia Theatre in Burbank. Across the street, eagle-eyed restaurant geeks will be pleased to spot a Baskin-Robbins and a Pizza Hall of Fame, and that’s all there is to say about that.

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Land of the Lost 1.13 – Follow That Dinosaur

It’s been so long ago, an incident whose reality has been corrupted by its telling, but the first time that television scared me out of my wits was the first time I saw this episode. It was such a long time back that I don’t remember whether I was familiar with Land of the Lost already, or whether I’d ever seen Sleestak before, but the reality is that the incredibly brief scene in which the Marshalls escape through the Lost City while the dormant Sleestak twitch slowly back into life absolutely horrified me to the point that I did not watch Saturday morning television again for weeks.

My father later told me that I didn’t watch television, period, for at least a month after my screaming fit ended (“You woke the whole house,” he shared, reminding me that my uncle lived with us then and worked a late job Friday nights), and that my parents had to turn off the black and white set in the kitchen whenever I was in the house. They would turn on the TV in the den just to get me to run, yelling, to my room and get ready for bed. Eventually, this turned into enough of a game that I began to have fun with it, and the television lost its immediate power to frighten me, and, eventually, I began to trust that Sleestak wouldn’t show up on every other show on the tube. Mercifully, the producers of CHiPs borrowed a different Krofft character a few years later.

No, it’s not that scary from adult eyes. Childhood TV traumas never are, in the cold light of day, but Dick Morgan’s “Follow That Dinosaur,” which answers the question of who wrote “BEWARE OF SLEESTAK” on the Lost City pillars, retains its amazing power to shock children. Around 2002 or so, it sent big sister Ivy screaming from the room as well, and while Daniel didn’t quite exercise his leatherlungs, his eyes welled with tears and he fled, security blanket bunched tightly in his mouth.

Part of the horror is this: outside the Lost City, Grumpy the tyrannosaur has followed the humans into Big Alice’s territory. There, in the plaza, they fight, and seriously, the special effects team still deserves a round of applause forty-two years later. That is an amazing piece of stop-motion photography, better than anybody else in 1974 had managed, and I include Ray Harryhausen’s remarkable work in that assessment. So outside, you’ve got two killer dinosaurs, and inside you’ve got Sleestak which are not merely dormant but covered in spider webs, which is incredibly creepy, and then the trail of an old diary leads them into a dead-end pit room with the skeletal remains of Peter Koenig, who died there years before, overcome by the heat and fumes of a rising lava pit… which, of course, inevitably, wakes the Sleestak.

It is the bleakest, most terrifying trap ever, the tension ratcheted up by the slow exploration of the tunnels and the resigned sorrow of the actors, realizing that this is not the way out, just before the real revelation hits them: they have to get out of the tunnels before the heat wakes the Sleestak.

Daniel recovered quickly, a whole lot quicker than I did at his age, and has been talking excitedly about lava with Mommy ever since we finished. I did have to assure him that the next episode is nowhere as frightening. It’s the one after the next one…

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Captain Scarlet 1.28 – Flight to Atlantica

Well, Captain Scarlet had better be glad that he was a fictional character in a fun old kids’ show, because if this happened in the real world, at least half of Spectrum would be facing a court-martial. All the agents decide to have a secret champagne celebration to celebrate Spectrum’s first anniversary. Insanely, they try to do it on the sly – and, okay, Colonel White can be a complete killjoy, so you can see why they’d want to be sneaky – and they do it with a case of non-alcoholic champagne that an anonymous well-wisher sent to Cloudbase.

Wrap your brain around that one for a moment. I think the enclosed note said “DEER SPECKTRUMM, PLEASE ENJOY THIS TOTALLY SAFE CHAMPAINE. NOTHING BAD WILL EVER HAPPEN BECUZ YOU DARNK IT. LOVE, THE MYSTERONS. UMMM, I MEAN LOVE HOW YOU ARE FIGHTING THE MYSTERONS, YEAH, THAT’S THE TICKET.”

Whatever the Mysterons used to spike the champagne, it leaves three of the Angels flying around on a joyride, Lt. Green with his feet propped up on his desk, and Captains Blue and Ochre bombing the top-security World Navy Atlantica control tower into floating matchsticks. Colonel White calls it a “partial” victory for the Mysterons before showing everybody the procedure for hosting a proper, authorized champagne party. Partial, my butt. The bad guys made Spectrum look like a gaggle of drunks and cost millions in property damage and all they had to do was spike some grape juice. That’s a win in their column.

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