Thunderbirds are Go 1.14 – Falling Skies

Well, just as the Filmation programs we’re watching have threatened to smother us with their earnestness and slow pace, we’ve got thirteen more wild episodes of Thunderbirds are Go to watch! This should keep us on the edge of our seats for a little while.

The first series of 26 Thunderbirds are Go episodes were shown in the UK in two chunks: 13 shown from April to June 2015, and 13 from October to January of this year. For American viewers, those first 13 – renumbered to 12 since they combined the two-parter into one – are still available for Amazon Prime members. Since there’s no word yet on this second chunk, I went ahead and ordered the set from England. 52 additional episodes are in the works; I haven’t seen a premiere date yet, but I believe the third batch of 13 is supposed to start in a few months.

And when those make their way to DVD, we’ll totally be buying them, because this show is just terrific. This time out, it’s another rescue in orbit. On the side, Brains has been developing self-constructing nanotechnology to build a prototype hotel in space. The only flaw is that once again it’s the Hood who’s the saboteur. I do wish they’d create a few more bad guys with some different motives. Lady Penelope is present to urge calm, Kayo’s on board to chase the villain through twisty corridors as the center of gravity shifts, and, flying Thunderbird 3, Alan has to try some desperate maneuvers to keep the space station from crashing into central Florida, because the nanotech will shield the station from burning up on reentry.

It moves at breakneck speed, pausing just long enough for a few cute quips. Daniel was completely thrilled, and, when Kayo was left in a depressurizing compartment for a moment, just about panicked. We really do love this show.

(Note: I can play them, but I’m not presently able to get screencaps from Region 2 DVDs, so many of these entries will just have a photo of the set to illustrate it. Click the link to purchase it from Amazon UK.)

Shazam! 2.5 – Goodbye, Packy

Two things to note about this very silly episode. First, the parents rescued a wolf cub and, rather than turn it over to a zoo, they let their daughter bond with the animal for months before realizing that wolves are not easily domesticated. Anybody who does such a thing needs a punch in the nose.

Second, the girl and her wolf run away and end up in a typewriter-cussin’ hot air balloon, for pity’s sake. The rescue is realized by cutting between the gondola, held a few feet off the ground by a crane, and stock footage of a balloon that’s thousands of feet higher in the sky.

Daniel was not interested in this episode, but he did want to ask me about every conceivable animal that shouldn’t be raised as pets. I’m not in favor of keeping pets, generally, so this was a pretty tedious half hour.

The Secret Service 1.13 – More Haste Less Speed

The Secret Service may have been uneven, but it ended on a high note with this fun romp written by Tony Barwick. In it, Father Unwin and Matthew match wits with four scheming, barely competent, double-crossing criminals who are trying to get hold of a pair of counterfeiting plates. The shrunken, quarter-sized Model T ends up in a race against a motorcycle, an ambulance, and a beat-up old biplane that the pilot can’t actually fly, and our son absolutely adored it. He laughed all through the story.

So why’d it end so soon? All of the ITC series of the 1960s and 1970s, including Anderson’s puppet adventures, were bankrolled by Sir Lew Grade, and his battle plan was always to produce large batches of episodes, more than the six or thirteen a season that was typical for British television, to sell to as many territories as possible. Even if a US network didn’t bite – and they often didn’t – he could try to sell the program to the many independent stations across the country, along with the networks of many other nations.

Preproduction of The Secret Service began in the spring of 1968, and filming started in August of that year. Grade saw a test screening of episode one in December and pulled the plug, believing that the spy fad had passed and American audiences would not understand Stanley Unwin’s gobbledygook. That nobody understood his gobbledygook, that’s the whole point, seems to have missed him. So production ended in January 1969 with the conclusion of this episode. They really went to town on the location work for this one, going out on a high note, and then the shows just sat in the vault until September.

The Secret Service was finally broadcast nine months after they finished production, in only three of the (then) thirteen commercial television regions of the UK. It was only rarely repeated, very little merchandise was released, and it wasn’t shown in many other countries. More than a year after the last episode aired, the comic Countdown carried a short-lived Secret Service strip, which probably confused a whole lot of kids who thought this might be a forthcoming program instead of one that had been axed before they knew it was around.

It was the final puppet series for Anderson for many years, and, at this point, the last of his programs we plan to watch at this blog. I wouldn’t say no to a gift of Stingray or the movie Journey to the Far Side of the Sun, but Daniel’s far too young for UFO or The Protectors, and I’ve got no interest in any of the other shows. But Anderson’s influence extends far beyond the shows that he personally worked on…

(Note: I can play them, but I’m not presently able to get screencaps from Region 2 DVDs, so many of these entries will just have a photo of the set to illustrate it. Click the link to purchase it from Amazon UK.)

Isis 1.5 – The Outsider

This episode starts out like a standard Shazam! “kids just need to be accepting” morality tale before transforming into a po-faced and completely unbelievable ecological story. A scene where Isis stops a runaway bulldozer entertained Daniel, while I wondered whether Hollingsworth Morse had used the same hillside location where he had shot the H.R. Pufnstuf opening credits six years before.

In the cast, both Mitch Vogel, who played the red-haired hillbilly who is teased by the school jocks, and Harry Hickox, who played the developer, were nearing the ends of their acting careers and would leave the business before 1979. Vogel had played the orphan kid taken in by the Cartwrights in the last couple of seasons of Bonanza and Hickox had a deep list of small parts dating back to the early ’50s. We’ll see Vogel again in another Filmation show before long.

Shazam! 2.4 – Double Trouble

In the previous episode of Shazam!, Filmation landed the very familiar face of Dabbs Greer, and in this one they find a small role for Bill Quinn, who also racked up more than two hundred appearances, and was very well-known to anybody who watched ’70s cop and detective shows. He popped in to darn near every one of them. A couple of years later, he’d play Mr. Van Ranseleer in more than eighty episodes of All in the Family and Archie Bunker’s Place. Here, he has a brief scene as a rich landowner who wants the sheriff’s son to quit coming onto his property and riding one of his horses around.

But the sheriff has a bigger problem: a crook, wearing a Captain Marvel costume, has robbed a gas station. Captain Marvel turns himself in, and hangs out in jail for several hours, making this the first episode where Marvel gets more screen time – considerably more – than Billy.

My son appreciated the change of tone in this installment. Sure, there’s the inescapable moral message – respect the law – but it was nice to see some actual criminals with an actual plan that involved the hero, which this show had not done previously.

One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing (1975)

We had a little trouble watching One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing, a badly, badly dated 1975 Disney film. It does not seem to have ever been issued on Region 1 DVD, so I picked up a used Region 2 copy which turned out to be very badly damaged. I guess I should have checked it when it arrived a couple of months ago, huh? After a few minutes fighting with it, I rented it from Amazon and it’s not quite fair to say that all was well.

Now, if you’ve never seen this silly film, all the ingredients are there for what should have been a fun and splendid little show. Helen Hayes and Peter Ustinov headlined a remarkably impressive cast of British comedy actors, at least a dozen of whom I recognized when I read the cast list. It’s a film I’ve always been aware of because, since I was a little kid in the 1970s obsessed with dinosaurs, I even had the View-Master reels for it, even though the dinosaur in question is just a long-dead skeleton. Plus it has the iconic, very odd imagery of a dinosaur skeleton being driven through peasoup-foggy London.

So here’s how the plot goes: Derek Nimmo plays Lord Southmere, and he flees from China in the 1920s with a microfilm containing the top-secret “Lotus X.” With Chinese agents in hot pursuit as he arrives in London, he rushes into the Natural History Museum to escape, hides the film on a skeleton, and, chancing upon his old nanny, Hettie, while semi-conscious, he tells her how vital it is, before the Chinese villain, posing as a doctor, takes him away.

Hayes, Joan Sims, and Natasha Pyne play the principal nannies, and Ustinov, Clive Revill, and Bernard Bresslaw play the main Chinese characters, and so it’s gangs of nannies and Chinamen in a romp through the fog-bound streets of London, and, the following morning, into a cute little village, with a stolen dinosaur on the back of a coal-powered haulage lorry.

However, the film never gels and elements of it are quite awful. Of lesser concern: the fantastic cast is badly misused, just cameos, really. How anybody can, in all good conscience, assemble a group that includes Jon Pertwee, Roy Kinnear, Joan Hickson, Angus Lennie, Max Wall, Hugh Burden, and Joss Ackland and give none of them anything of substance to do (Pertwee would, later in life, call these sorts of glorified cameos “spit and cough parts”) is beyond me. Bresslaw, a great comic talent, is totally wasted, cast here only because the man was a giant and towered over everybody else.

But the main problem is the yellowface acting from Ustinov, Revill, and Bresslaw, and it’s a big, big problem. Even accepting that it was the seventies and quite a lot of this sort of thing happened in movies and TV then, mostly with Peter Sellers, it’s a lot easier to take this kind of material when it’s not played for laughs. Doctor Who fans have, over the last few years, been drawing a polite veil of discretion across the casting of John Bennett as a Chinese villain in the very popular 1977 serial “The Talons of Weng-Chiang,” but I feel this is, while problematic, less of an issue when the role is played straight. It may have been insensitive to cast an actor of a different ethnicity, but it’s much more so when they’re cast to wear funny mustaches and say “Ah, so!” a lot.

The film has a few good moments, among them just about anything that Hayes and Sims do together – although they really could have looked a little harder for Sims’ stunt driver – and a lovely little scene during the climax where Ustinov and Nimmo sit and discuss Revill’s terrible first day in his new job. There are a pair of quite amusing plot twists, but the action is, overall, far too brief, leaving Daniel more thoroughly bored than by any film that we’ve ever shown him. He giggled a couple of times, but I don’t blame him for being restless. This simply isn’t a good movie, and while it probably never would have been a classic, there’s not nearly enough slapstick to engage children, and far too much of it for anybody old enough to try and follow the plot and the humor for older audiences.

Most of the cast’s best and biggest work was behind them at this point, although I suppose you might argue that Ustinov’s greatest success, as Hercule Poirot, was to come. But the biggest star-in-the-making was the dinosaur. Dumped in a prop warehouse at Pinewood Studios after this, it was retrieved by the Star Wars team and taken to Tunisia, where far, far more people saw it as a dead carcass on the planet Tattooine than ever saw it in this movie.

The Secret Service 1.12 – May-Day, May-Day!

It breaks my heart, this show is so uneven. This episode is dull, dull, dull. Almost the whole thing is Father Unwin landing a plane. Even Daniel said “I can’t wait until this is over.”

One of the live-action shots promised better. There’s a neat cut from a puppet at the front door of a model police station turning when he hears a car coming, and then we see a car barreling down the road with an assassin hanging out the window firing at him. It looked awesome. Daniel is, of course, a little too young for Gerry Anderson’s later series The Protectors, which began a couple of years after this, but I hope to watch it soon and see some fun seat-of-yer-pants excitement like that.

(Note: I can play them, but I’m not presently able to get screencaps from Region 2 DVDs, so many of these entries will just have a photo of the set to illustrate it. Click the link to purchase it from Amazon UK.)

Isis 1.4 – The Sound of Silence

Two crimes were committed in this episode of Isis: first, Andrea has built a uranium-powered force field generator – man, California high schools were way ahead of mine – and a desperate student, played by Leigh McCloskey, has stolen it. Second, that sport coat that Brian Cutler is wearing in the picture above.

In the fall of 1975, the success of Shazam! in the previous year prompted CBS to add to their live-action lineup in a big way. True, Shazam! had originally been accompanied by two other live-action programs, but these were kid-friendly variety shows: The Harlem Globetrotters Popcorn Machine and The Hudson Brothers Razzle Dazzle Show. In 1975, apart from ordering more Shazam! and giving that program Isis as a companion, they also ordered The Ghost Busters from Filmation (we watched that show last year) and Far Out Space Nuts from Sid & Marty Krofft, so there was clearly a desire for adventure, even if two of them are more comedy than drama.

I wonder what it must have been like at Filmation that year, to suddenly have 37 live-action programs to produce, apart from whatever animation that they needed to get made, with a last-minute, high-profile change of actor to deal with when they dismissed Jackson Bostwick. It must have been very hectic, and their casting director far busier than anytime previously. I had wondered whether they might have made things a little easier for themselves by bringing in any guest stars who worked well on one show to appear on another, and here’s one. Philip Bruns, who plays the crime boss in this installment, would be back onscreen the following week as the second banana in the fifth episode of The Ghost Busters.

Daniel really enjoyed this one, and we enjoyed the chance to explain what uranium is. I like the disparity between the shows; in Shazam!, it is almost always people in trouble who see Captain Marvel and are relieved. In Isis, it’s villains, who instantly know that they are screwed and are not happy at all, because Isis’s power is “any and everything.” This week, she imprisons the two baddies by creating a tight ring of fully-grown trees around them, which I don’t believe I’ve ever seen done before.

Shazam! 2.3 – Fool’s Gold

“I wonder who Captain Marvel will rescue in this story,” Daniel asked as we sat down. I’m really pleased by how much he enjoys watching old shows with me.

This one’s really unusual, and I liked it more than most. It’s Jackson Bostwick’s final episode, and his big scene is tunneling into a collapsed mine to rescue an old hobo – slash – prospector who goes by the name Seldom Seen Slim. He’s played by the veteran actor Dabbs Greer, who had a really long career going back to 1950, many of those early roles (312[!!] listed at IMDB) uncredited. You probably know him best as Old Paul in The Green Mile, but he was also Reverend Alden in Little House on the Prairie.

This is subtle, but the usual structure of a Shazam! episode sees Billy and Mentor meeting some characters at the point of a crisis and effecting a reconciliation in some way. This isn’t quite like that; it’s more like a Fugitive or Route 66 where the situation is going to be resolved regardless of our traveling heroes; Richard Kimble or Tod and Buzz (or Linc) just need to stay out of the way, keep their heads down and not get killed as the character drama comes to its conclusion and hope that it’s not too grim.

Obviously, something that is going out to kids on Saturday mornings isn’t going to end badly – certainly not in 1975 – but this doesn’t have the easy and pat moral reminders that a typical Shazam! has, like “don’t tell lies,” “trust the police,” and “don’t hang out with kids who steal cars for joyrides.” The closest thing here would be, what, “don’t be a little ass to old hobos in the desert?” No, the heroes are very much on the periphery of these characters as their story comes to a conclusion, and don’t impact anybody’s understanding or resolve the matter; the hobo and the kids do that on their own.

I wondered whether the writer had actually contributed to more adult dramas in the 1960s to come up with such a structure. It is credited to Olga Palsson Simms, who does not have a listing at IMDB. Google only pulls up this credit and a notation that a woman by that name died in California in 1997. I wonder who she was.