Monthly Archives: May 2016

Thunderbirds 3.3 – The Stately Homes Robberies

The team who made these new Thunderbirds episodes were working on them for freaking ever, and even obtained the services of one of the original puppeteers and, with episode three, one of the original series directors, David Elliot. That’s an awful lot of work for ninety minutes of entertainment, but they saved the best for last. “The Stately Homes Robberies” is a visual triumph.

As an original story, it’s a goofball throwaway. I think that “stealing the crown jewels from the Tower of London” must be every bit as much of a hoary chestnut in British children’s entertainment as “stealing the gold from Fort Knox” is in American kidvid, and you really have to put your brain in neutral to accept that the baddies could get away with any part of their plan, much less its climax.

But just look at it! I’m not suggesting that the ice caves in the previous story didn’t take a lot of work to create, but they’re not on the same level as the remarkably detailed rooms full of art treasures in this one. The villains, Mr. Charles and Dawkins, look so absolutely perfect that they surely must have been locked in an airtight vault since 1965, right? I love all the silly tech, it all looks like the original designers made every nut, bolt, and colored light. What a challenge this must have been: in 1965, the designers were imagining the world of a hundred years in the future. Today’s designers had to imagine what designers fifty years ago would have predicted.

As with the previous adventure, this one’s bulked up a little with some extra material involving the Tracy brothers. The original 7-inch record was strictly an adventure for Lady Penelope and Parker, but this adaptation finds a way to include Virgil, Scott, and Gordon for a few minutes. It’s absolutely great, escapist fun, a terrific and silly half hour that we enjoyed very much. Daniel, you may recall, loves Thunderbird 4 most of all the vehicles, and not only does this episode include the submarine briefly, it opens with an absolutely mammoth explosion when one of the stately homes is blown into pieces by the villains. If your own five year-old, real or inner, doesn’t love this, something may be wrong with him.

To Stephen La Rivière, Justin T. Lee, and all the rest of the Pod 4 crew, thanks enormously for all the work you put into this project. Very best of luck to you all in your future film and television work!

There’s more Supermarionation in the future for our blog! Stay tuned for more action later this summer!

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Land of the Lost 3.1 – After-Shock

They made thirteen episodes in the third season of Land of the Lost. Three of them aren’t bad. This is one of those three.

Analyzing what in the name of heaven went wrong with this show would take forever, but it all comes down to the writing. Most people remember that Spencer Milligan did not return as Rick Marshall, possibly because of a salary dispute and possibly because he wanted a cut of merchandising money and possibly because he hoped to star as the lead in a CBS series called The Keegans, and some recall that the Marshalls got a new home because the program was moved from one studio (General Service, now called Hollywood Center Studios) to another (Goldwyn) and new sets had to be built.

So this is the year where Ron Harper’s character, Uncle Jack, Rick’s brother, joins the cast, and they pick up a new home in a temple near the Lost City. But there’s so much more than that, and almost all of it is wrong. Just wrong.

Most obviously: Ta and Sa are gone. There’s a throwaway explanation, to coincide with the fact that Cha-Ka has learned a whole lot more English than he ever spoke before (thanks, I suppose, to the events of “The Musician” in season two), but their absence robs the show of the very fun antagonism between the humans and Ta. Less obviously: all the writers and directors are gone. This is a mammoth, mammoth problem, because Jon Kubichan, who wrote this episode, and his principal colleague Sam Roeca only had a loose understanding of what the show was actually about, and did not know all the careful continuity that David Gerrold and his team laid out, and which Dick Morgan and Tom Swale carefully nurtured and developed. In seasons one and two, the Land of the Lost was a pocket universe accessible only by time doorways, with no space outside its ground and atmosphere. In season three, it might as well be a valley in some uncharted South American rain forest.

The tone is wrong, the geography is wrong, the technology is wrong, the characterization of Enik is wrong, the sudden English vocabularies of Cha-Ka and a Sleestak leader is breathtakingly wrong.

For a while, I petulantly wished that Wesley Eure, Philip Paley, Kathy Coleman, and Walker Edmiston had spoken up and pointed out the big continuity flaws. Eventually, I got a little more sympathy for the realities of actors’ jobs. They had a million lines to learn and new directors in charge and eight months of looking for commercials and guest star parts before coming back to work on the show; the script minutiae of time doorways and how Enik reacted in a situation that they had performed once a year and a half ago wasn’t their responsibility to remember in detail, certainly not in an age before home video. Plus, as the absence of Spencer Milligan, Sharon Baird, and Scutter McKay must have reminded them: actors can be replaced.

I did reach out to the Kroffts’ social media team hoping for an interview and to learn more about the changes between seasons but I have not heard back from them. Sid and Marty were, to be fair, unbelievably busy in the summer of 1976: they had set up an amusement park in Atlanta that was losing money hand over fist, and their midseason Donny & Marie variety show had become a mammoth hit and ABC not only wanted another 26 episodes immediately, they wanted a variety show for children on Saturday mornings as well, a show that would incorporate three separate new series (one of them Electra Woman & Dyna Girl, which we’ll be resuming here shortly). The blunt, dumb reality is that the Kroffts had more work than they ever had before, and they took their eyes off the jewel in their portfolio in order to manage much larger projects.

What matters now is this: for thirty episodes over two seasons, the team behind Land of the Lost produced the very best adventure show for kids that was ever made for American television. Then there are thirteen mostly forgettable episodes of some entirely different series with some of the same cast. Three are okay, and three are absolutely brain-hammeringly godawful, and the other seven are just mediocre and forgettable kids’ TV. That’s certainly not the way this show should have concluded.

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Pete’s Dragon (1977)

This morning, we sat down to watch another very long Disney film with our son. Like Bedknobs and Broomsticks, this is a movie that has been recut and edited several times in multiple releases. We watched the current cut, which is pretty long at 129 minutes. There are longer and shorter versions in circulation as well. It really did test Daniel a little bit, but he was very brave. I was afraid, given his history, that the scene where the villagers and fishermen of Passamaquoddy try to capture the dragon, whose name is Elliot, would frighten him, but he did just fine.

Pete’s Dragon is a collaboration between live-action director Don Chaffey, who was behind all sorts of interesting stuff, from Jason and the Argonauts to some late-in-the-run episodes of The Avengers, and Don Bluth, who had just finished work on Disney’s fantastic The Rescuers. That’s actually one of my favorite Disney films of all time, by the way, and we’ll definitely watch it for the blog some time in the future. The main human stars of the film are Helen Reddy, Mickey Rooney, and newcomer Sean Marshall, and they’re opposed by the villains played by Carry On star Jim Dale and Red Buttons. Jim Backus and Shelley Winters also appear in smaller roles.

But the real star of the movie is Elliot, who is just terrific. I’m aware of the remake that will be released later this summer, and as much as I pretend to judge films on their own merits, that movie will sink or swim based on how well they do all the tics and grumblings and oddball little grunts that Charlie Callas gave the original Elliot. All things being equal, it’s actually a pretty strange little vocal performance, but I just adore it.

Daniel was completely charmed by the movie, as hoped. He loved all the slapstick comedy and Elliot’s funny facial gestures, and most of the songs – good gravy, there are a lot of ’em – and while he’s been on better behavior and still wanted to roll around on the sofa a lot, he did mostly very well. His favorite part was when Shelley Winters and her hillbilly gang get dumped in tar. “I love it when people get covered in tar!” he tells us.

I was surprised to learn that this film isn’t better remembered. Its Rotten Tomatoes score is a lowly 48% at present, which is a real stunner. Many writers agree that it runs too long, but here’s the thing: I think it’s at least a song and a half too long, but nobody’s going to concur what should be cut. I’d be tempted to edit away the hillbillies’ first number, but watch with a kid and see how well that plays with the child. The very first shot of the movie is Pete somehow floating into a wooded clearing, instantly establishing the magical premise, and that first musical number starts inside of two minutes. I don’t know whether Don Chaffey was actually given a document entitled “How to Immediately Hook a Five Year-Old,” but it sure feels like it.

I’d also cut “Candle on the Water,” regardless of it being nominated for an Academy Award. Like “Cheer Up Charlie” in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, it stops the movie dead in its tracks. It’s a nice little song, I suppose – it wouldn’t be out of place between Steely Dan and Michael McDonald on the soft rock radio in your doctor’s waiting room – but quite fast-forwardable in a picture this long.

So while it’s certainly flawed, it’s nevertheless a very good film. Jim Dale is a really entertaining villain, and Helen Reddy is a great emotional anchor. Sean Marshall isn’t great, but the list of most aggravating kid stars has many dozens of names before you reach him, and Elliot, all pudge and funny expression and tic-tic-tic burbles, would have been watchable and impossibly charming regardless of who was in it.

And no, those weren’t tears streaming down my face when Elliot tells Pete goodbye. You stop that slander right now, you hear?

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Shazam! 1.2 – The Brothers

I can kind of foresee that many of these posts about Shazam! will be very, very, very short. This is the episode where a blind kid gets tired of his older brother being so overprotective and wanders off. The older brother gets bitten by a rattlesnake, and Captain Marvel is needed to save Fawcett City from Mr. Mind’s Monster Society of Evil.

No, that’s a lie. He’s needed to fly back to the RV and get the snakebite kit. This did, at least, give us an opportunity to talk to Daniel about appropriate safety around snakes.

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Thunderbirds 3.2 – The Abominable Snowman

Yes, this episode has a good deal more meat to it than the previous one. It’s a really zippy half hour in which the Hood has another convoluted scheme to blow up a bunch of uranium processing plants while simultaneously abducting slave labor in the Himalayas to work in his own mine, while also leaving some “abominable snowman” footprints to frighten the locals into calling for International Rescue so that he can kidnap whomever they send.

On the one hand, yeah, that’s about as convoluted and ridiculous a scheme as some of his other sixties tomfoolery – “Martian Invasion” certainly comes to mind. On the other hand, this is actually the only time that the Hood actually confronts our heroes in person in this continuity. He gets away and they never learn his name, but he straps Lady Penelope to a beam to menace her with a Goldfinger-style industrial laser, and then trades gunfire with Scott, who comes to the rescue.

Stephen La Rivière directed this episode, and he and his team deserve credit for alarming our son for the first time in quite a while. The scenes of Lady Penelope threatened by the laser really did freak him out a little. I can’t remember the last time that Thunderbirds had him worried. “Attack of the Alligators,” maybe?

I thought the story was certainly slight and dated, but there’s not a lot that could be done about that. It’s probably a little more impressive than the original audio adventure, though. Bulked up with six or seven minutes of additional material, it actually starts with a big explosion-filled rescue at a uranium plant – named for Derek Meddings, which is awesome – using some dropped-in vocal lines for Scott and Virgil from TV episodes, and it looks fantastic. The Himalayas material also looks really good. There’s one medium shot of the puppets fleeing from the soon-to-explode mine – what happened to the prisoners? – where I think they’re moving a little faster than the marionettes ever did in the sixties, but otherwise it’s another very solid recreation of the original style, so seamless that you can easily pretend this was an original half-hour episode that Gerry Anderson and his team elected to shelve rather than bulk up to an hour when Lew Grade decided the show should be hour-long episodes.

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Land of the Lost 2.13 – Blackout

If the previous two episodes were horrifying because of their alien strangeness and lack of answers, then this one is a more conventional creepy, with a pretty epic battle against the Sleestak. They apparently figured that if a malfunction in a pylon earlier in the season would keep the sun from going down, then some deliberate sabotage would keep the sun from coming up. They had asked the Library of Skulls how to obtain “eternal night,” and the Skulls showed them precisely that. The Sleestak want it to be night to be able to hunt their moths – important for their eggs’ fertilization somehow – but the longer it’s dark, the colder it gets, killing all the moths.

This turned out to be Spencer Milligan’s last episode of the show, but he went out on a high note. It’s written by Dick Morgan and Donald F. Glut – and I’m pretty sure that everybody in the United States who was under the age of twelve in 1980 owned a copy of Glut’s Empire Strikes Back novelization, which was a whole lot better than Mel Cebulash’s Love Bug novelization – and directed by Bob Lally, who did an amazing job making those three Sleestak costumes look like dozens this time out. Turning down the studio lights to represent darkness worked pretty darn well, too.

So that was it! That was all the Land of the Lost they made. It was more than just a great show, it was absolutely the best of its genre, but it ended after thirty episodes, and that’s all there is of that, yes.

No. No, that’s not true at all. I’m lying. There’s more to come. I’m sorry. There’s more.

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Shazam! 1.1 – The Joyriders

I thought that I’d reassure Daniel before we began watching Shazam! that there were no supervillains and no deathtraps. There are, however, kids in some kind of easily-rescued danger in most of the episodes, which might end up presenting a problem sometimes…

In 1973, DC Comics / National began publishing new adventures of Captain Marvel, a hero from the 1940s who predates the comic book company called Marvel. During the two decade gap between the end of Fawcett, his original publisher, selling Captain Marvel comics and DC’s purchase of their catalog and rights, Marvel created a completely different character with that name, the first of several, and have maintained a trademark on the name. So DC’s comic, which became a Filmation live-action show for Saturday mornings in September 1974, has always been called “Shazam!,” which is the magic word that Billy Batson uses to become Captain Marvel. This has allegedly led to so much confusion about what the World’s Mightiest Mortal is called that five years ago, they renamed him simply “Shazam.”

Me, I never had any trouble understanding that Captain Marvel is the fellow in the red pajamas and “Shazam!” is his magic word, but I did have a lot of trouble enjoying this show as a kid myself precisely because it doesn’t have any supervillains and deathtraps. It’s a gentle moral adventure about doing the right thing, unthreatening to the point of being boring. I won’t defend it, but I think it’s an interesting little curio and period piece. It would have been a billion times better if he was fighting IBAC, Aunt Minerva, Dr. Sivana, and Black Adam every week, of course.

The show stars Michael Gray as a much-older-than-the-comics Billy Batson, and he’s traveling “the highways and byways” of southern California in an RV with a guy named Mentor, played by Les Tremayne. Every week, they run across some young people making some poor decisions and, with a little help from the barely-animated “Elders” (Solomon, Hercules, Achilles, Zeus, Atlas, and Mercury), Captain Marvel sets the kids on the path of doing the right thing. There are a few merciful deviations from this format, but not enough of them. Captain Marvel is played by Jackson Bostwick in the first season and part of the second.

So tonight we watched the first episode, “The Joyriders,” in which some kids “borrow” cars – leaving keys in the ignition was apparently the thing to do in Los Angeles, 1974 – even when one of them tries to talk the others out of it. Fleeing from Captain Marvel, they drive into a junkyard and hide in a van which gets hooked by the crane and bound for the car crusher.

I had no idea that would frighten Daniel so badly, but he just about passed out with terror. We had to reassure him that, in addition to no costumed bad guys, nobody ever really gets hurt in this show either. The first episode is one of many that was written by the kidvid team of Les Janson and Chuck Menville, who wrote for just about everything in the seventies and eighties, and was directed by Hollingsworth Morse, who had directed all of H.R. Pufnstuf five years previously. We’ll be watching the first season of this show in rotation over the next couple of months, provided we can stay awake. Zzzzzzzzzz.

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Thunderbirds 3.1 – Introducing Thunderbirds

I don’t pay much attention to Kickstarter, nor use the service much, but when word got around last year that a team in England was making three new episodes of Thunderbirds with ITV’s blessing, I jumped up and got the checkbook. It was perfectly timed; not only was it the fiftieth anniversary of the series, but my then four year-old was falling in love with it.

I’ve not seen Stephen La Rivière’s documentary about Gerry Anderson and the puppet shows that he and his team made in the sixties. It’s called simply Filmed in Supermarionation and features newly-shot footage in the original style. It served as a kind of pilot for this production, which is based on some old audio adventures. See, among the merchandise available in those days before home video, there were some 7-inch records, about ten minutes a side, which were full-cast recordings. There were several of these, and most were edited versions of TV episodes. But there were three that were specially made for the format, with the original voice actors. All that they needed were some visuals, and fifty years.

To be fair, the first of these episodes is incredibly slight and unsurprising. The Thunderbirds launch sequences remain, after all these years, and after rewatching them again and again with my son over the last twelve months, dazzling, complicated, and ridiculous. With the film cleaned up and the color brought into vivid life like never before, however, they look brand new. Unfortunately, there’s really not a lot that strings them (heh, I said strings) together, which sort of emphasizes that launching each of the machines just to show Lady Penelope and Parker what they look like sure was an indulgent use of fuel. But it was the sixties. They thought gasoline would always be cheap and plentiful, no matter how many oil refineries got bombed into oblivion by the Hood or the Mysterons or the Aquaphibians or Joe 90’s enemies.

No, this first episode is mostly an opportunity to see just how well La Rivière and his incredibly talented team have recreated the look and the feel of a fifty year-old show. It’s not unlike the eye-popping thrill of watching Vic Mignona and his team recreating the sixties in the Star Trek Continues web series and marveling at the seamless job, but I’m even more impressed by what La Rivière and the Pod 4 team have done. For all their talents, Mignona and company are not William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and the gang, but these are three brand freaking new Thunderbirds episodes. They look like they were made fifty years ago, locked in a time capsule, and remastered yesterday. If the first story’s just a bit of nothing, the look is nevertheless perfect, and I’m assured the next two episodes, which we’ll watch very, very soon, have a tiny bit more meat to them.

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