Monthly Archives: February 2017

Jason of Star Command 2.3 – Web of the Star Witch

We’re taking a short break from Doctor Who, since the current story is a long one. Tonight, our son got a terrific little fright in the third episode of Jason‘s second season when a hairy ape-alien – one of Tehor’s people we met in the previous installment – emerges from hiding inside the ship that they stole from Jason and Samantha. His blanket was over him like a shot!

We met Medusa, one of Dragos’s allies, a few weeks ago in chapters 11 and 12 of the original serial. She was originally played by Julie Newmar, but Francine York took over the part in this story, in which she doesn’t actually do much of anything. Despite a terrific title for this episode, it’s a bit dry.

We saw Francine York almost two years ago – have we really been doing this so long? – in the Bookworm story of Batman‘s first season. She had appeared in guest parts in just about everything in the thirteen years between Batman and Jason and had many more roles ahead of her, including playing Marilyn Monroe in a bizarre 1992 horror film called, alternately, Marilyn Alive and Behind Bars and/or Scream Your Head Off. She passed away last month at the age of 80.

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Doctor Who: The Invasion (part four)

It’s a shame that all of the lost 97 episodes of Doctor Who were junked and will probably never be seen again, but part four of “The Invasion” is particularly painful. Part four is the last of the missing episodes that have been animated. The animation team did a great job, but Douglas Camfield, one of the best action directors working in British television in the sixties and seventies, staged this rescue scene from the tenth floor of a building using a helicopter and a rope ladder and, knowing Camfield, that must have looked downright amazing.

Five further episodes beyond this point are missing, all from Patrick Troughton’s next-to-last serial, “The Space Pirates.” Season six of Doctor Who was not a big international seller, so we’re very fortunate that 37 of the season’s 44 episodes were retained in the UK. It’s a consensus among fans who study this subject that these last seven are among the least likely to ever be found.

The episode ends with the revelation that Vaughn’s alien allies are in fact the Cybermen. A couple of thoughts here: the BBC actually led the promotion for this serial at the beginning of November 1968 with the news that this was a Cyberman story, and yet one doesn’t appear on-camera until the 23rd, and aren’t actually named. I wonder whether the kids of the time were pestering their parents, asking “Where are the Cybermen, Daddy?” for weeks. I had thought not to spoil their return and surprise our son, but the joke was on me. He didn’t recognize it. Admittedly, the Cybermen’s design has been somewhat modified since he saw them in “The Tomb of the Cybermen” in December, but so much for that handlebar head being iconic.

Bet if it were a Yeti, he’d remember…

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Treasure of Matecumbe (1976)

Over the last several months of writing this blog, I’ve been cross-checking actor and director credits in IMDB while also searching around for new ideas for films to watch together. If I’d ever heard of Disney’s Treasure of Matecumbe before last year, it’s news to me. Definitely one of the company’s lesser-known features, it’s a quite good family adventure film, a search for gold in 1870s America.

As befits a movie that’s flown under the radar, it’s also the victim of some considerable misinformation. It was released on DVD in 2008 under the Wonderful World of Disney label, and a few sites have stated that this was made for that long-running TV anthology. It turns out that it was not. I did one last little double-check and bit of research before writing this, thank heaven, and ran into this article at TCM, written by a friend-of-a-friend, Nathaniel Thompson, which explains that it did get a theatrical release in the US. A little more checking and it seems it debuted on July 9th of 1976, and showed up on the TV series a good eighteen months later, where it must have been edited by about fifteen minutes, because this is a packed movie, very nearly two full hours.

The young stars of the film are Johnny Doran, who had impressed me very much in that “explaining death to kids” episode of Isis, and Billy “Pop” Atmore, who was a regular on The Mickey Mouse Club. Among the grown-ups, a really impressive cast including Robert Foxworth, Joan Hackett, Peter Ustinov, and Vic Morrow. I was very amused by one little cameo. I’ve been noting how certain directors keep coming back to use actors again, and Rex Holman shows up for thirty seconds as an informer in New Orleans. Eight years before, this film’s director, Vincent McEveety, had used him as Morgan Earp in the one Star Trek episode I actually enjoy, “Spectre of the Gun.”

Like many of Disney’s travel movies, this one has an episodic feel to it, and about halfway through, there’s a musical interlude when the party docks at a river landing where the menfolk haven’t seen any women in heaven knows how long. I love watching movies with my son for many reasons, but a big one is that he will often appreciate something that I never could without him. If I were reviewing movies that I watch on my own, I’d grumble that this bluegrass hoedown is completely superfluous to the story and unnecessary. But it turns out that it’s perfectly timed and very welcome. He was up on his feet and dancing along and when, inevitably, people get dunked in the river, he was roaring with laughter.

This isn’t a movie with very much levity and precious little of Disney’s seventies slapstick. In fact, Morrow’s character is far more realistically evil and cruel than your typical Disney antagonist, and guns down a man early in the story. There’s even a quite surprising scene where a character is rescued from being lynched by the Klan, which I certainly didn’t expect to see in a Disney movie. And the ending has a very surprising undercurrent. I don’t think children will really understand just how grim it actually is, but this certainly isn’t Keenan Wynn getting hoist on his own petard by a Volkswagen. So when the opportunities for laughs did come, we appreciated them.

I was really impressed by the production, which took the actors on location in Kentucky, Florida, and California, and subjected them to swamps and lashing rain. There are some obvious stunt doubles and stock footage and animated swarms of insects and painfully poor rear-screen projection, but they really did throw millions of gallons of water on big name actors and stick them on boats in the Everglades. You’ll watch this and think it’s a huge shame that they only captured half the dialogue shots on location and filled in the rest in the studio.

Anyway, Ustinov plays a traveling medicine show “doctor,” and his small river boat gets blown up, which our son strangely insists was the scariest part of the movie despite looking to the grown-ups like nothing at all consequential. Then the climax, in which Morrow and his henchmen square off against an angry Everglades tribe, had him cheering and loving it, while I gulped, knowing the grisly fate that awaited the villains. You can never tell with kids, which is part of what makes this so fun. Five-nearly-six might have been a little young for this movie, but he has seen a lot of films and action-adventure TV and might be a little more mature than many viewers his age, so if you’re thinking about showing it to your own kids, bear that in mind. I’m glad that we watched it and he certainly enjoyed it.

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Doctor Who: The Invasion (part three)

As I’ve already written quite a lot about this serial and part three doesn’t honestly advance the story very much, let’s just pause and note just how very good Douglas Camfield’s direction is, and how entertaining Kevin Stoney and Peter Halliday are as the villains Vaughn and Packer. Tobias Vaughn is just a great, great villain. He’s finding all of this extraordinarily entertaining and amusing, and believes himself completely in control of the situation. This was the second time that Camfield cast Stoney in a Doctor Who serial. Camfield also cast him in a 1973 episode of the Thames TV police drama Van der Valk.

Packer seems to be a pretty good example of “the Peter Principle.” He must have been an efficient soldier or guard, once, but he’s promoted above his level of competency, and can’t quite balance his petulant bullying with the fear that his boss is going to fire him. When Vaughn does lose patience with Packer, it’s actually a little scary, because Kevin Stoney takes the character straight from “amused disdain” to “bellowing with fury.” They’re a great, and very real, double-act.

Of note in the cast this week: this is Edward Burnham’s first appearance in the series, as the imprisoned Watkins. He made a career of playing doctors, professors, Parliamentary under-secretaries, and the like. But we don’t get to see his niece or Zoe this week, as they’re being kept prisoner elsewhere, giving those actresses a week off. John Levene isn’t seen onscreen this episode, but he does radio in, so we do hear him.

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Doctor Who: The Invasion (part two)

The other really big first for this story: it’s the debut appearance of UNIT, the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce, with the Doctor and Jamie’s old friend Lethbridge-Stewart, played by Nicholas Courtney, promoted to the rank of brigadier and in charge of the group. UNIT becomes that secondary cast that Bryant and Sherwin had been considering, and they’re still around in the show today, seen most recently in a 2015 adventure with Lethbridge-Stewart’s daughter Kate in command. The name has changed a little bit, though. In 2005, the United Nations requested the BBC take their name off the fictional organization, so it’s called the Unified Intelligence Taskforce these days. John Levene’s Benton, who only gets a little time here, will graduate to become one of the semi-regulars of this group.

So why’s there a need for a secondary supporting cast, anyway? Well, in 1967-68, Peter Bryant and Derrick Sherwin were looking to the future and noting how much less expensive the show could be if it took place on contemporary – or near-future – Earth. With the BBC on the precipice of switching their entire output over to color videotape, things were going to get really pricey for the perennially cash-conscious corporation, and whatever form season seven took – if indeed there was to be a seventh season at all – taking the TARDIS to far-distant planets and times wasn’t going to be an immediate option.

When it comes to the question of when the UNIT-led Earth stories take place, I’m very firmly in the “date of broadcast” camp for many reasons. Case in point: Here’s Zoe and her new friend Isobel Watkins, dressed in miniskirts and boas, about to confuse a sixties supercomputer to self-destruction via an insoluble equation spoken in what’s alleged to be ALGOL.

I adore this scene. It’s so dated. I just love the concept that Zoe, who lives on a space station in the 2060s or 2070s, is fluent in ALGOL and reads a superhero comic that was published in 2000. Back in ’68, these were intended to be “futuristic.” These days, it makes Zoe fascinated by her grandparents’ tech and culture. And of course, this is another example of sixties teevee so worried about computers while simultaneously seeing them as something so fragile that they can be talked into exploding.

Although, fair’s fair, we giggle about this, or ITC’s The Prisoner, or Gerry Anderson’s programs predicting the future and getting everything so wrong, but darned if that computer receptionist isn’t exactly like every infuriating, job-destroying, press-zero-a-million-times, please-say-“customer-service”-if-you-want-to-talk-to-a-human-being nightmare that we all experience when we have a question about our credit card or utility bill.

Speaking of Zoe and Isobel, our chivalrous son was actually extremely upset by the climax of this episode. He seemed to be enjoying it just fine, and told us that he’s intrigued by the “science machine” in the wall knowing who the Doctor and Jamie are, and how they travel. It knows them from “Planet 14,” mysteriously. But the girls are taken by IE’s guards after destroying the receptionist, and the charming-but-malevolent Tobias Vaughn has them imprisoned. In a warehouse, the Doctor and Jamie hear them scream, and we see the guards placing their unconscious bodies into metal crates. Our son was wide-eyed with shock and downright infuriated, with a wobbling lip. We had to give him lots of assurance that they’ll be okay!

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Doctor Who: The Invasion (part one)

It’s back to animation for tonight’s episode, the first in a longer-than-usual serial called “The Invasion.” The animation for this was done by Cosgrove Hall, the company best known for Danger Mouse, in 2006. This was the first time that one of the missing episodes of Doctor Who was done as a cartoon, and there was a lot of hope, then, that Cosgrove Hall would do everything that was missing. They did a really fine job with this, even if there’s a lot of mid-2000s lens flare. Parts one and four of this story are missing; the others were, thankfully, held by the BBC Film Library.

Anyway, this story has a few interesting firsts, and the most important one is behind the scenes. The screenplay is by the program’s script editor of the time, Derrick Sherwin, from a rough six-part outline by Kit Pedler. Since BBC regulations stated that you couldn’t take staff pay for what should be freelance writing, the script editor for this story is Terrance Dicks, making this the writer’s first of dozens of contributions to this series. And he only has a couple of lines and we don’t know who he is yet, but the passenger in the car watching the Doctor and Jamie visit International Electromatics is a character called Benton, played by John Levene, and we’ll get to see a lot more from this character over the next seven seasons of the show.

Apart from extending the story into an eight-parter, Sherwin and Dicks had to make a last-minute change and remove a couple of characters. In the previous season, Sherwin and producer Peter Bryant had toyed with the idea of creating an occasional earthbound supporting cast for Doctor Who to visit, led by Professor Travers and his daughter Anne. These characters had been created by the writers Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln, who had a falling out with the production team over edits to “The Dominators,” so the Travers family were shipped off to America and a Professor Watkins and his thoroughly mod photographer daughter Isobel moved into their flat. The idea of the supporting cast was not abandoned, and we’ll see what happened with that idea next time.

We’ll also get to see more of the villains and their peculiar “science machine,” as our son termed it. He was pretty restless and bouncy tonight. I’m afraid he was promised a new toy for a week’s good behavior at school and was really distracted. International Electromatics’ managing director is an eerie man played by Kevin Stoney, and his head of security a loose cannon played by Peter Halliday, making his first of six Who serials. Stoney’s character, called Tobias Vaughn, keeps his clearly alien “science machine” behind a large panel in the wall. “That was so cool,” he said.

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Ultraman 1.33 – The Forbidden Words

Okay, first things first: the sound mixing in this show is always horrible – I swear, the Science Patrol’s telephone is louder than the engines of their spaceships – but this episode is completely maddening because the strange alien Mefilas and all his machinations are accompanied by a high-pitched rattle on the soundtrack. This noise is present for a good twenty of the program’s twenty-three minutes. I can still feel the roots of my teeth throbbing against the gums. It’s that bad.

Anyway, viewers willing to suffer through that cacaphony will be rewarded with a pretty good story. Mefilas is another well-remembered monster who got his start in this series and returned to battle many of the other Ultra-heroes. He launches ocean tankers into the air and jets into outer space, and turns Fuji into a giant. At one neat moment, to let the humans know he means business, he threatens them with giant illusions of two monsters we’d met before, a Baltan and that incoherent Zarab dude, along with a baddie called Kemur Man from the previous series, Ultra Q.

Mefilas belongs to that class of alien menace who needs to conquer the Earth because his own planet is running out of natural resources, a pretty common trope in sixties and seventies sci-fi. He sees Ultraman as a peer and equal. It all deteriorates into wrestling, of course, but curiously ends in a draw, with Mefilas deciding that the only way he can defeat our hero is by destroying the planet.

Our son enjoyed it and was genuinely worried when Fuji and Hayata disappear. The soundtrack didn’t annoy him one-tenth as much as it did the grown-ups.

(We’re going to take another break from Ultraman to cycle in a different show for our rotation, but we will be back with the final six episodes in late March. Stay tuned!)

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Jason of Star Command 2.2 – Frozen in Space

Last time, we got to meet Dragos’s mob of growling aliens in hairy costumes. In this episode, John Berwick gets to play one who has a gorilla’s body and a one-eyed spider head by the name of Tehor. Berwick had played Matt Prentiss in an episode each of Space Academy and Jason. The episode is written by Margaret Armen, who had earlier written a pair of Land of the Lost stories.

I’ve never actually seen this season of Jason before. I watched the first episode several years ago, but the rest of this is all new to me, despite my being precisely the target age for the program when it first aired in 1979. CBS aired it at noon on Saturday mornings, which was probably far too late for me to still be watching TV when there was outside playing to be done. Despite some different characters, it’s tonally identical to the first season, which I remember enjoying, so I can’t imagine deliberately tuning out, certainly not to watch either the ABC Weekend Special or repeats of Jonny Quest, which I never enjoyed (it’s okay; everybody else enjoyed it twice as much), so I must have just wanted to go play. After five-odd hours in front of the TV every Saturday, something surely had to give.

Anyway, our son says that this episode was both “scary” and “cool.” He didn’t like it when two of Tehor’s hench-monsters jumped from behind a rock and captured Samantha, but Samantha is strong enough to bend the bars of her cage and escape. Whew!

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