Monthly Archives: December 2016

Doctor Who: The Enemy of the World (parts five and six)

Unfortunately, our son is so unhappy with this story that we went ahead and wrapped it up tonight rather than aggravate him any longer than necessary. Nothing really satisfied him with it, though I’m pretty sure the next one we watch will please him more. I honestly didn’t think he’d be wild about it, but the level of his boredom was still a little surprising to me.

For grownups, this really was a pleasure, happy to say. There’s another good twist at the end, and the climactic fight with Salamander is, while far too brief, nevertheless thrilling. I’m fairly sure that Salamander is the first villain to ever make his way inside the TARDIS, and you really feel that sense of occasion and weight, as Patrick Troughton plays both characters, each injured, with gravity and anger. It’s a terrific moment.

In fact, the only thing not to love about this story is the awful performance of an actor named Adam Verney in the role of Colin, one of Salamander’s stooges. There are worse – way, way worse – to come, but wow, is he ever theatrical.

An oddball little note about coincidences and actors: as we’ve watched this story this week, I’ve also been watching a 1972 ATV spy series called Spyder’s Web, and my wife and I have slowly been making our way through the black and white series of The Saint. I’ve been enjoying Milton Johns in the role of Salamander’s sadistic deputy Benek, and there he was this morning in episode seven of Web. Two nights ago, we watched a Saint called “The Invisible Millionaire” which guest-starred Mark Eden, and there he was this afternoon in episode eight of Web. I love it when that happens.

Anyway, “The Enemy of the World” was the last Doctor Who story produced by Innes Lloyd. He went on to be in charge of several prestigious programs at the BBC, including Thirty Minute Theatre, Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape, Alan Bennett’s acclaimed Talking Heads, and many of the sort of pipe-smoking critically acclaimed human dramas that don’t have things like Cybermen and Ice Warriors in them. He oversaw some great times for Who, even though it clearly was not the sort of program he really wanted to make. He died in 1991.

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Doctor Who: The Enemy of the World (part four)

In the 1990s, some enterprising fans began taking the audio from all the missing episodes of Doctor Who and marrying it to whatever visuals were available. These included a few surviving clips, publicity photos, and “telesnaps” that an entrepreneur named John Cura was taking with a special camera – about three shots a minute – in order to sell to directors and actors who wanted a visual record of their work in the days before home video. These reconstructions are amazing, but they’re not really for me. I’d really rather not experience TV in that way, even if it’s all that’s available. (We are going to watch one next week, though.)

I certainly had friends in the nineties who collected these reconstructions all the same, and one of them was kind of overbearing in his insistence that I spend time watching them with him. I declined, and when I first saw this story a couple of years ago, I was so very glad that I did. See, I’ve only paid the smallest attention to the plot details of the missing stories, and so I had no idea about the spectacular twist at the climax of this episode. In a program as documented and discussed and blogged about and written about and rewritten about, there are not very many surprises left.

In fact, I enjoyed this so much that I’m not going to mention in this blog where exactly Salamander goes for his cigar breaks.

When I was writing about “The Power of the Daleks,” I mentioned that it was common in the sixties for the regular actors to get occasional vacation weeks in the middle of a serial. Part four of “Enemy” is unique in that both Frazer Hines and Deborah Watling are absent; their characters Jamie and Victoria are Salamander’s prisoners. The guest cast began shrinking last week when George Pravda and David Nettheim’s characters were killed. Carmen Munroe’s character also dies in this episode, but Milton Johns and a squad of “guard” bullies take center stage.

Unfortunately, the guards would need to be replaced by Daleks or something to stir our son back into enjoying this story more. “This is not very cool,” he has pronounced. I think he’s wrong, but you can tell that all the Supermarionation shows that he’s enjoyed have had quite an impact when he grumbles “I wish this had some explosions in it.”

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Doctor Who: The Enemy of the World (part three)

We think that our son is enjoying this a little more, especially now that this episode ends with Salamander learning that there’s somebody out there who looks like him. That raises the threat level a little bit more and hopefully he’s able to connect with the greater urgency in the plot. Although this episode is far, far from urgent.

In almost every six-parter, one of the middle episodes can’t help but mark time a tiny bit, with very little movement in the plot. That gives the story a chance to breathe and develop the characters, and this one has a great one in the form of Reg Lye’s moaning, grouchy chef. He’s really funny.

For many years, episode three was all that we had of this story, and it led to some very unfair opinions about the serial. Back in the days when Doctor Who fandom seemed to be built around appreciations (and lists) of recurring monsters, the mostly-lost season five was really treasured. Bookended by the Dalek adventure that ended the previous season and an unprecedented repeat of it at the end, the season went Cybermen, Yeti, Ice Warriors, this one, Yeti, seaweed creature, Cybermen. It was “the monster season” with this oddball political story in the middle, and all that anybody could see of it was this slow bit in the center where the Doctor gets just one scene and the narrative is dominated by a comedy chef.

Now that it’s available in full, everybody can see that this is one of the highlights of the Troughton years, a great adventure with a super cast. I think that if any one of the other parts of the story had survived, “The Enemy of the World” would have never been overlooked by fandom at all, though. Especially if the next episode had been available…

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Doctor Who: The Enemy of the World (part two)

Our son is still pretty confused by the goings-on in this story, which adds Milton Johns and George Pravda to its cast as its scope expands to cover goings-on in Central Europe as well as Australia. Both actors would show up in Who again in more substantial roles in the mid-seventies.

Our boy is quite honest that he doesn’t like this story very much so far, but at least he’s optimistic that things will improve. To be fair, this isn’t – despite an explosion and some volcanoes erupting (via stock footage) in Hungary – a really exciting episode. It’s all political intrigue, with Salamander blackmailing one world leader and having a second arrested. It’s really good and I’m enjoying it a lot, but it’s not one for the five year-olds who want to see Daleks and Ice Warriors.

Since this story is set in 2018, I do hope that the next series of Doctor Who will mention Salamander in a news report or something. They could have the new companion watching that UN speech that we saw in episode one “live” on television while waiting for the Doctor to arrive and take her on a trip to that week’s destination. I know it probably won’t happen, but it’s fun to imagine.

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RIP Carrie Fisher, 1956-2016

Like everybody else today, we’re very sorry to read that the actress and writer Carrie Fisher has died. She was a hugely inspirational figure and genuinely iconic in the role of Princess Leia. We’re looking forward to introducing our son to the Star Wars series next year. Our condolences and best wishes to her family and friends.

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Doctor Who: The Enemy of the World (part one)

About three and a half years ago, SF news sites began reporting a really remarkable rumor. A fellow in England had started a second career after a couple of decades globetrotting and troubleshooting, and founded a company that went around to very small television stations in developing countries, particularly the ones in the Middle East and Africa whose broadcasting facilities and archive vaults had been waylaid by revolutions and civil wars. His company, TIEA, works to bring their backrooms up to date, and transfer aging, rotting, decaying old 16mm film reels to modern formats. And while doing this in the city of Jos in Nigeria, the rumor said, TIEA had stumbled across ninety of the 106 missing episodes of Doctor Who.

Of course it was too good to be true, but it was remarkable. A game of telephone had turned nine into ninety, but good grief, finding nine was amazing. These were all five of the missing episodes of “The Enemy of the World” (only part three had survived the purges) and four of the five missing parts of the next serial, “The Web of Fear.”

And now that it was back, in October 2013, people could at last reevaluate a story that was always overlooked. I’ll write a little more about its reputation in a couple of days, but this is a terrific story. Originally broadcast in December 1967 and January 1968, the story is set in the far-flung future of 2018. It’s written by old hand David Whitaker and directed by Barry Letts, the first of many Who contributions from this actor-turned-director.

It was Innes Lloyd’s final story as Doctor Who‘s producer, and it looks like he wanted to go out with a bang, a thriller that opens with lots of location filming on a beach, a hovercraft, a helicopter, and the always-timely debate over whether you can justify a political killing. A disgraced politician named Giles Kent is convinced that a controversial Mexican scientist and diplomat named Salamander is murdering his enemies and consolidating power. He’s a dictator and tyrant in waiting, Kent claims without proof. What is certain is that Salamander employs a ruthless security force led by a man named Donald Bruce (played by Colin Douglas) and that, in the story’s big hook, Salamander is a dead ringer for the Doctor.

Our son started out thrilled by the exciting chase on the beach and the fight scenes – Jamie knocks a fellow cold with a fist and a cry of “Creag an tuire!” – but started to calm down when one fellow is accidentally shot dead and two others are killed in an explosion. (Perhaps, like the Dalek he saw earlier this month, he does not understand why human beings kill other human beings.) Then the sight of Patrick Troughton – in allegedly archive footage of Salamander addressing the United Nations – in a second role left him a little baffled. Hopefully tomorrow night will go down a little better with him, but I’m hugely pleased. This story is excellent.

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What We’re Not Watching: The Space Giants

We’re not watching The Space Giants for our blog, and that’s a shame. I’m trying to set an example and watch only films and series that have been legitimately released for purchase, and, sadly, this program has never been available in English on home video. In fact – and I would welcome a correction – it really looks like the only two Japanese sci-fi shows from the sixties and seventies to ever have been released in English on DVD in North America are Ultraman and the painfully stupid Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot. Quite a few others have been released legitimately with English subtitles, like Ultra Seven, Iron King, and Red Baron, but my son is still a beginning reader and cannot manage subtitles quite yet.

The Space Giants is the dubbed-in-English version of Ambassador Magma, a 52 episode series based on a fun comic by Osamu Tezuka. Unfortunately, this comic has also never been legitimately released in English! Can’t win for losing if you like these characters, but at least the reprints are not expensive and they’re amusing even if you cannot read the dialogue. In Japan, the TV version of Ambassador Magma beat Ultraman to the air by a couple of weeks, making it – I believe – the very first sci-fi monster series made in color in that country.

It was also made for a very small budget. A company called P Productions made it for the Fuji TV network, and they didn’t quite have Tsubaraya’s special effects know-how. This shows in unusual ways: many of the “laser” or “missile launching” effects were done with animation, and there aren’t as many monster costumes. Unable to afford a new monster suit and a new miniature landscape every week, the screenwriters came up with longer, detailed stories that focused on the human cast. The first 40 episodes of Magma are four-part serials, and the remainder told in two parts: ten four-parters and six two-parters. Typically the monster would first show up in the cliffhanger to part one and have a few small skirmishes with the hero over the course of each story before the final conflict at the climax, occasionally introducing a second monster in part three.

As I’ve said before, the fight between Ultraman and each week’s monster is the most dull part of the story, meaning each adventure stands or falls on how much fun the Science Patrol business is. In Magma, this is also true, but the human stuff is amazingly fun every week, the most addictive and watchable stuff I’ve ever seen from Japanese adventure TV. (Okay, so admittedly I have seen very little. Still.) In the series, an alien dictator named Goa (Rodak in the English dub) tries to conquer the planet using shape-shifting, identity-stealing, black-clad beings called Lugo Men. Our hero is an investigative journalist named Atsushi Murakami (Tom Mura in the English version), who has a son named Mamuro (Miko).

Things get really fun when an ancient wizard who has been warring with Goa gets involved. He has two robot assistants, a husband and wife called Magma and Mol (Goldar and Silvar). Mol/Silvar takes a shine to Mamuro and wishes for a son like him, and so the wizard creates a near-duplicate little boy robot, Gam. Oh, and all three robots can turn into rockets. It’s the most fun little wish-fulfillment show ever, and every kid pretended to be Mamuro/Miko after school, sneaking around imaginary abandoned factories and power plants with his robot best friend, battling the mysterious, hideous Lugo Men, who dissolve into blue applesauce when killed.

A very small company called Lakeside Television got the US rights to Ambassador Magma in the late 1960s, and retitled the show The Space Giants. The English language dub was offered to stations in 1970, but it didn’t show up in Atlanta (or many other markets for that matter) until the fall of 1978, when every UHF station in North America started looking closely in the syndication programming book for any program that had the words “star,” “space,” or “planet” in the title. Ted Turner’s WTCG-17, later TBS, picked it up around the time that WTCG programming started showing up on cable packages around the country.

As a kid, I came on board with episode three, and loved the show absolutely. It came on at maybe 3.30 in the afternoon. Around episode 14, with the planet suffering an amazing heat wave and drought, the robots transform into rockets, seed the clouds, and make rain, but the water that falls out of the sky is boiling hot. I pretended that rain was hot water for at least two years after that. It helped that WTCG kept the program in rotation for most of that time.

Unfortunately, the show has never been available for home purchase legitimately in America; Lakeside appears to believe that they got the North American rights in perpetuity (even the Japanese rights lapsed in the early 1990s and P-Productions returned them to Tezuka’s company to exploit and manage), and another party who drew half of a Space Giants funnybook that nobody ever saw appeared to believe that he had the exclusive rights to any North American merchandising from either the live-action show or Tezuka’s original comic book. My guess is that neither the small Lakeside nor the other party could realistically afford the mammoth legal bill that untangling the rights to such a limited interest program would involve, and nobody wanted to act first and get sued by the other. (For a very lengthy and eye-popping first-hand account of somebody who got in the crosshairs of this tomfoolery, give yourself half an hour and read this account of selling Magma toy kits on eBay.)

I’m going to put my boring old fuddy-duddy hat on now. I spent more than a decade swapping bootlegs of lots of shows on VHS myself, including this one, always telling myself I was acting ethically. Then I somehow raised two kids who did not see anything wrong with swapping the entire catalogs of favorite musicians on USB drives instead of buying the albums themselves. I tried to clamp down on that crap, but had to acknowledge my own failings on that front. Since legitimate copies are not available, I’m not going to skirt around the problem.

One of the parties in the Space Giants dispute is dead and the other hasn’t actually ever distributed very much television as far as I can tell. Sorry to be cold, but that’s how it looks. You can watch bootlegs of the show on YouTube if you like; DVD-Rs occasionally show up on eBay, but we will not watch this show for this blog because it is not commercially available. Tezuka Productions did release a 10-disc Blu-ray set last fall. It retailed for (good lord!) 50000 yen ($482.88!!), which is the sort of price I laugh about when people try listing out-of print Bugaloos DVDs that they evidently don’t actually want to sell. These Blu-rays do not contain an English language track. I very, very much hope that Tezuka Productions might work with Lakeside and release a domestic edition in English before we get too old to fall in love with it again. It’s a super little show that I’m sure my son would adore.

For a whole lot more about the production of Ambassador Magma and distribution of The Space Giants, please see this fabulous article by August Ragone and Bob Johnson here: http://www.scifijapan.com/articles/2007/08/27/the-space-giants-series-guide/

Photo credit: Kaiju Fan Network

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The Goodies 4.4 – The Goodies and the Beanstalk

Forty-three years ago on December 24, the BBC showed “The Goodies and the Beanstalk” for the first of several times. It is probably the episode that audiences in the UK saw more than any other in the seventies. It was repeated often around Christmastime, to audiences as big as 11.5 million viewers. So to celebrate its 43rd anniversary, we watched it, leaving a very hyper and keyed-up little boy who laughed all the way through it and who’s going to have trouble enough getting to sleep tonight anyway.

In the summer of 1973, the trio got the go-ahead for a fourth series of six episodes as well as a separate 45-minute Christmas special, to be made entirely on film (with a sound recordist this time! They had money! Real money!). The special was broadcast as the middle episode of the series, and it gleefully sends up all the usual Christmas pantomime silliness.

The beanstalk in this version of the story is the centerpiece of the game show It’s a Knockout. The Goodies, destitute and having sold their three-wheeled bicycle for a can of baked beans, represent Britain in the competition and climb the beanstalk to find a retired zookeeper, played by Alfie Bass, pretending to be a giant and feeding chickens a formula that has them laying golden eggs. Zingers in the story this time are aimed at the Marx Brothers, Cole Porter, and Alfred Hitchcock, but the show comes to an end before John Cleese, appearing in cameo right at the end, can take the story into a parody of Aladdin, another annual pantomime tradition in the UK, as well.

Shooting on film the whole time gave the trio the opportunities for lots and lots of sight gags, sped-up film, and slapstick. I honestly didn’t think any of it hit the heights of their other work, but our son embraced the silliness completely and was hopping up and down in places. The climactic battle this time is with an army of geese, represented by models, miniatures, men in costumes, you name it. It must have taken forever to shoot, and amusingly – considering their decisive victory two years later in their 1975 Christmas special over Prime Minister Sooty’s puppet government – the geese are much more successful in antagonizing our heroes. But beans get dumped on people, Tim gets eggs dropped on his head, and Germans fall into a kiddie pool, so our boy was in stitches.

A note on the ever-present racy content in this kids’ program – look, John Cleese called it that, and he’s right about many things – this time out, we don’t just get surprise photos of topless girls, we get Tim raised by the beanstalk over a wall of a French nudist colony to see a few seconds of two naked ladies tossing around a beach ball. Can you imagine the BBC letting Tim, Graeme, and Bill get away with gags like this these days? The seventies, man. It was another planet.

Merry Christmas to all of you good readers! Take care and watch good TV!

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