Monthly Archives: February 2017

Thunderbirds are Go 2.2 – Ghost Ship

After a moment of worry as to whether the big, abandoned, derelict ship is actually haunted or not – of course it isn’t, but that’s the fun of it – our son really got into this one. It’s a great script by Joseph Kuhr (he wrote “Chain of Command” in season one) which had us guessing whether the enemy is malicious or ever-so-slightly incompetent. There’s a delightful little hat tip to the writer of Dark Star and Alien in the name of the astronaut who needs a little help from International Rescue this week. Her name’s Captain Ridley O’Bannon.

I can’t decide whether the animators had either a complete ball or an absolute nightmare putting together all these giant metal shapes slowly tumbling around in zero gravity. It’s certainly a trip to watch.

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Jason of Star Command 2.4 – Beyond the Stars!

A few nights ago, we watched part five of the Doctor Who story “The Invasion,” and saw the Brigadier tell Zoe, Jamie, and most especially guest character Isobel Watkins not to go down in the sewers and take pictures of alien monsters. In that Doctor Who way that lets you know that Terrance Dicks, in his well-meaning but old-fashioned style, was involved with the writing, the Brig completely bungles the command.

It would have been perfectly sensible to say “we’ll organize a company and get some trained, armed, military men with photographic equipment,” but instead he says something about “menfolk will do this, not you girls in miniskirts,” and the guest character gets to draw back and say “you chauvinist pig,” because this was 1968 and shows needed to reflect contemporary issues. But instead of being pragmatic about the situation or at the very least giving the ladies some boots and trousers to wear, it all says “this is too dangerous for girlies.”

Compare to this episode of Jason of Star Command, which is a million times stupider in every possible way than “The Invasion,” and includes a, ahem, “space pirate” who’s about nineteen years old with a white boy disco ‘fro, but which handles the “this is too dangerous for the lead female character” scene a billion times better. They don’t mention gender, or race, at all.

We’ve had this scene in sixty gajillion drama programs. The hero has got to do a rescue, and the chief says it’s dangerous but good luck, and the female lead says let me go, and the chief says no. But here, it’s beautifully progressive and realistic. The commander won’t let Samantha go because he can’t afford to risk two pilots. That’s all. Thank heaven.

I’d like to think that’s fifty percent Filmation being an incredibly inclusive and progressive company to start with. Sure, they had almost no money, incredibly earnest scriptwriting, a tone and storylines that were lockstep firmly in Star Trek‘s shadow and visuals that owed everything to Star Wars. This time, they even added a “space age game” that follows in the footsteps of both that chessboard with hologram pieces in Wars and Tri-Dimensional Chess from Trek! Yet this was a show whose producers’ hearts were in the right place. They had to take baby steps, because, you know, kiddie TV, but casting Tamara Dobson was unbelievably great for the day. Certainly, there’s a “please, hero, explain this to me so the audience can understand” nature about Samantha that is unavoidable with any co-starring part, but Samantha is more physically powerful than Jason, very resourceful, and is not at all a damsel in distress.

It was very uncommon to see any black actress in a regular lead role in an action show before Dobson. Nichelle Nichols may have been the first, but she didn’t beam down to very many planets and blast many Klingons or Gorns. Gail Fisher on Mannix also comes to mind, but she was the secretary. If there are any American television actresses that I’m missing, please leave a comment, but there clearly weren’t very many before 1979. In the UK, Elizabeth Adare had joined the cast of The Tomorrow People in 1974; I’m not sure when Nickelodeon started showing that in this country.

The other fifty percent is Dobson herself. She’s got such screen presence, power, and magnetism that honestly, if the script had called for John Russell to tell her – to tell Cleopatra Jones – something like “This is too dangerous for a woman,” it would have stopped looking like Star Wars and looked more like Police Squad. You don’t cast Tamara Dobson in 1979 and ask her to wait patiently because being a hero is menfolk’s work. While the character did have limitations because of the format and because they couldn’t do much of anything too violent on the series, I’m glad that she was in Jason and I hope that she was a great hero to many young viewers.

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The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973)

Fifteen years after making the first, and, to most people, the definitive Sinbad movie, Ray Harryhausen was back with a movie that many seem to suggest is one of the lesser films in his career. But man alive, I think it’s terrific. It may not be as great as Jason and the Argonauts – what is? – but I enjoyed this even more than the original Sinbad movie, and John Phillip Law, who plays Sinbad in this one, is really fun.

I casually mentioned to our son before we sat down this morning that he should pay attention to two of the actors in particular. Tom Baker, of course, we’ll be seeing much more of in the future. Here, he plays the villainous Prince Koura, an evil magician with designs on the throne of Marabia and far more, and he’s really fun. At no point does Koura do anything heroic or appear as anything other than a black-hearted sorcerer. He’s completely hypnotic, and it beggars belief that he was so short of work in 1973 that he was thinking about calling it quits. Eight years later, work would be a little scarce because of typecasting and something of an industry reputation for being, shall we say, mercurial and temperamental, but every casting director in London should have been phoning him in ’73.

And then there’s Caroline Munro, and I’m planning to see her at least twice more for this blog this year, and possibly a couple more times if I decide to write about James Bond and Hammer movies down the line, when our son’s a little older. I think she was one of the most gorgeous actresses around in the seventies, and I’d watch her in anything, so it’s kind of helpful that she kept making such fun movies that decade.

One of those Hammer films was Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter, which was among those films that Brian Clemens made during his brief period working in features between his TV series The Avengers and Thriller. Since Munro was under contract with Hammer at the time, Clemens was encouraged to cast her in Kronos, and was so impressed with her that while he was working on the story for The Golden Voyage of Sinbad with Ray Harryhausen and producer Charles Scheer, he lobbied for her to take the lead female role. Honestly, there’s not a great deal to her part here, but she looks terrific.

The most curious casting, though, is Sinbad himself. John Phillip Law had been earmarked for greatness just a few years before this, and in 1968 alone had starred in three different cult films: Barbarella, Danger: Diabolik, and Skidoo. But while these odd films have fans today, at the time, they were all box office bombs. He was a sex symbol, but his career had stalled. This film was a hit, but it didn’t get him any meaty roles. He worked through the seventies, but mainly in cheap Italian action movies. I think it’s a shame that he didn’t come back for the next Sinbad movie four years later.

But you want to know about the special effects and what our son thought. As befits a Harryhausen movie, anything can happen here, and some of it is completely unpredictable. Other things are ever-so-gently telegraphed by what we know from previous Harryhausen films and what we’ve seen Koura do. I was unfamiliar with this movie and didn’t even look at the package art with more than a glance because I dislike spoilers so much. This wasn’t a case like Jason and the Argonauts where I spent the entire film waiting for that mob of skeletons to get reanimated. When Koura and his henchman get kidnapped by a green-painted tribe of cultists who worship Kali, they make the horrible mistake of bringing him into a cave with a ten-foot tall statue of their goddess, made of stone and with six arms. She’s there on the cover of the DVD, but that’s not why I knew she’d come to life. It’s the way the camera let me know it was coming.

Our son’s favorite monsters, meanwhile, were a pair of hideous, winged “spies,” brought to life from paper and Koura’s blood. His favorite scenes were the two bits where these creatures were killed. He especially loved seeing the second one brought down.

Overall, this whole film was one of the best and most entertaining scary experiences that he’s ever had. He says that he really liked this movie, but insists that it was not exciting. It was just plain scary, full stop. Between all of the monsters and the last-second escapes, he was in heaven, but he was also under his blanket. One thing’s for sure: he was never bored, not at all. There’s just enough humor for an occasional gag, but the stakes are pitched just perfectly for kids: abstract “good” versus “evil,” with no ramifications or subtlety. When a new pair of monsters shows up for one of the last battles, and Koura intervenes on behalf of the evil one, it’s the closest thing to a complicated allegory in the film. Otherwise it’s just wild, delicious popcorn made by a very talented team and we enjoyed it a lot.

Incidentally, there’s a very odd little bit of foreshadowing for a movie that hadn’t been made yet. Douglas Wilmer co-stars here as the magical Grand Vizier of Marabia, and wears a golden mask that completely hides his identity throughout the film. I briefly wondered why in the world you’d cast such a familiar name and face as Douglas Wilmer and then hide him under gold for a whole picture, and then I remembered that’s precisely what happened in 1980, when the makers of that Flash Gordon movie cast Peter Wyngarde as Max von Sydow’s right-hand man and hid him under gold as well! If you ever wonder why, I think they got the idea from here.

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Doctor Who: The Invasion (part eight)

This really long story wraps up after a pretty small and very well-staged shootout between the UNIT troops and some badly over-matched Cybermen. Subsequent adventures would see the humans outclassed and often on the losing end of alien firepower, but not here. It also sees John Levene’s character of Corporal Benton taking a larger role, apparently because the fellow who had played Sgt. Walters had got on director Douglas Camfield’s bad side. Benton would reappear a few episodes into the next season, and remain a semi-regular into season thirteen.

Our son really enjoyed this story, and it’s clearly one of his favorite Doctor Who adventures. He let us know, in his inimitable five year-old way, that his favorite moment was when the missile destroys the main Cyberman ship. He demonstrated this by rolling on his side and explaining that his foot was the Cybership, and his hand the missile. He slapped them together and thundered “Ka-BOOM!”

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Doctor Who: The Invasion (part seven)

This is such a strange segment of the story. The Cybermen aren’t in it, for starters. They only appear in the reprise of the previous episode. Frazer Hines and Edward Burnham are only in a single scene, in the set used at length in part six but only here for about one minute. I think this scene was taped along with part six so that the actors could still get a week off.

The central bit of drama is the Doctor trying to convince Vaughn that he’s in way over his head, and it’s Zoe who ends up proving him right. Over at a nearby air base, she immediately recalculates some surface-to-air missile coordinates and UNIT and the RAF shoot down the Cybermen’s incoming transport ships. So that “science machine” in Vaughn’s closet – actually called the “Cyber-Director” – ends the episode ending the alliance with Vaughn and announcing they’re going to destroy all life on earth.

Zoe is certainly amazing, but her timing might not have been perfect this time.

So it doesn’t seem like a lot actually happens in this episode, and some of it was certainly over our five year-old’s head. But there’s an ongoing, oppressive sense of worry and danger. When the Doctor goes down into the sewers to rush to Vaughn’s headquarters, our son realized that he didn’t have any of his security blankets handy – it almost hit eighty degrees today, in February!, so he wasn’t wrapped in any – and so he started chewing on his mother’s thumb because he was so afraid for the Doctor.

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Doctor Who: The Invasion (part six)

I just wanted to note this time that the very memorable cliffhanger of the Cybermen coming down the steps with St. Paul’s Cathedral behind them would have been even better had they held the shot for about another five seconds, and had they somehow, some way, twisted somebody’s arm and got a high-end 35 mm camera to shoot it, instead of this grotty old 16 mm stuff. That’s the case with everything, I know, but this is such a neat and lovely scene, one of the iconic moments of Doctor Who‘s black and white years, and it’s over so quickly and you can’t help but wish it looked as good as it sounds.

On that note, the music for “The Invasion” was by a guy named Don Harper, and it’s really amazing. Harper played with Dave Brubeck when he wasn’t composing film and television scores, was a pioneer in electronic music, and his work has been sampled by the likes of Gorillaz and Danger Mouse. It’s so good that I honestly wish that he scored every Doctor Who story, except for the two that Geoffrey Burgon did.

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Doctor Who: The Invasion (part five)

Now that we’ve got the Cybermen identified as the villains of the piece, it makes Tobias Vaughn an even more interesting character. He certainly seems to have all the angles, and fully plans some backups and contingencies to make certain that the Cybermen will honor their end of the bargain and make him master of earth after extracting the minerals that they claim they need. One of these contingencies is the device that Professor Watkins has built: it introduces emotions into Cybermen. The villains on Earth revive one just to test it out, and give the Cyberman a powerful dose of fear. It goes insane and climbs down into the sewers beneath London; that’s where the growing army is awaiting the signal to invade.

What Vaughn doesn’t know is that audiences of the day had the chance to see the Cybermen in action four times prior to this story. They’re real big about making deals that they have no intention of honoring. But then again, they’ve never dealt with anybody as ruthless as Vaughn before.

It ends with a great cliffhanger that sent our son behind the sofa again. I think this one might have been too talky for him to really understand that these strange circuits that the Doctor is finding inside unrelated pieces of IE tech are integral to the Cybermen’s plan. I’ll have to go over that again tomorrow night. But he certainly came alive when a policeman climbs down in the sewer after Jamie, Zoe, and Isobel, who’ve descended to get some photographic proof of the aliens. The policeman goes the wrong way and is immediately gunned down by Cybermen, and, down another corridor, our heroes have the maddened, yelling, fear-crazed Cyberman charging at them. “That was REAL SCARY!!” he bellowed.

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Thunderbirds are Go 2.1 – Earthbreaker

*jawdrop*

Thunderbirds are Go started its second season in October of last year. Amazon UK told me the DVD of the first thirteen episodes, which I preordered an eternity ago, would be here today. I told my son and you have never seen such excitement. Christmas wasn’t like this. I got home from work and he about exploded. “A BOX CAME! IT SAYS AMAZON ON IT! I THINK IT’S THUNDERBIRDS ARE GO!”

And it didn’t disappoint. This season, we’ve got a brand-new villain with a ridiculously over-complicated arsenal of machinery and tech, and an unlimited line of credit from the Bank of Baddies. He’s called the Mechanic and he’s incredibly fun. It’s really neat seeing International Rescue stymied by gadgets outside Brains’ and EOS’ experience, and improvising. I can’t wait to see what the writers come up with for him next, and how he’s tied in with the Hood.

In her ongoing bid to appear in every television program made in the UK this decade, Jenna Coleman has a small role in this one. The people that our heroes have to rescue are often very amusing – Ned and his fool flower most of all – but I got a big laugh at the lengths Scott has to go through to get the driver out of the car stuck in the ravine this week. Add Kayo being awesome and the genuine sense of danger as we don’t know what the Mechanic can do, and this is twenty-two solid minutes of brilliance. Looks like we’ll be watching this through April, by which time I believe the next thirteen should be airing in the UK.

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