Monthly Archives: March 2017

Doctor Who: The War Games (parts six and seven)

Resuming this epic Doctor Who adventure with its next two episodes, we saw our son dive behind the sofa twice tonight, with each cliffhanger. Part six ends with the Aliens’ space-time capsule being fiddled with to have its internal dimensions shrink. No longer bigger on the inside, it threatens to crush our heroes. This very nearly brought our son to tears, and he stomped away and threw his beloved security blanket “Bict” at the sofa. Part seven ends with the Doctor abducted by the villains, and he didn’t see that at all, hidden as he was. He bolted as soon as he heard the sound of the SIDRAT’s engines. Man, part eight’s cliffhanger is going to have him livid.

Now there’s a word. I love how these villains are written to use words that they’d know and the audience wouldn’t and the script doesn’t stop to explain things because there aren’t any heroes present to ask what they’re talking about. That will come later. So they call their capsules SIDRATs, which is, of course, TARDIS spelled backward. A decade later, this story’s co-writer Malcolm Hulke novelized the adventure for Target Books, and explained that SIDRAT is an anagram for Space and Inter-time Dimensional Robot All-purpose Transporter.

Another thing that they say, just as casual as anything, is “Time Lord.” Right there at the beginning of part six, the Security Chief tells his scientist buddy that the War Chief is a Time Lord, a phrase that this series has never uttered before. That’s not followed up in these two episodes.

So on the villain front, the Aliens’ battlefield generals Von Weich and Smythe are both killed in these episodes, but Philip Madoc, who last appeared in this series as a character in “The Krotons” just four months previously, arrives as the Aliens’ leader the War Lord. He’s so beatnik that you expect him to tell his squabbling Security Chief and War Chief “Cool it, Daddio.” I love how these villains are constantly at each other’s throats.

One important acting note tonight: making what I believe was his TV speaking debut in the small role of Private Moore in part six was the star’s son, David Troughton. He’s had a fun and busy career with the Royal Shakespeare Company and more than a hundred television roles over nearly fifty years, and would later appear in this show opposite both Jon Pertwee and David Tennant, thirty-six years apart.

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Thunderbirds are Go 2.5 – Colony

I am enjoying the use of recurring supporting players in this series. In tonight’s episode, Patrick Rieger, who wrote “Relic” in the first series, reintroduces that episode’s Captain Taylor, an old friend of Jeff Tracy’s who had been in charge of the moonbase but is now needed to help a runaway passenger freighter to Mars. I wonder whether we’ll see Taylor and the Mars colony again.

This was another huge hit for our son, even if Dr. Science was not entirely certain about how this episode used… well, pretty much everything about physics in a vacuum. It also gave us the opportunity to talk about why a heat shield would be needed to enter a planet’s atmosphere, so he got a lesson in friction and meteorites. You could see his little heart sink when he learned that about three-quarters of the meteorites that do make it through our atmosphere just splash into the ocean. That makes it a lot harder to find them!

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Jason of Star Command 2.7 – Through the Stargate

As we take an evening’s break from this mammoth-length Doctor Who story, we pop back into the world of Jason of Star Command for the first part of another story. It appears that the second season is comprised of four three-parters, which is probably the sort of thing I should have checked on before we got started. “Through the Stargate” introduces Rod Loomis as a villain named Adron, and for some as-yet unrevealed reason he’s flying around space with a big obelisk that can teleport anybody who touches it to a twin obelisk on a remote planet.

The most interesting point so far is that there’s a friendly dragon on the planet brought to life by some phenomenally good stop-motion animation. The creature has an injury on its foot and our heroes use W1K1’s laser to cauterize the wound. I set aside any consideration about how that sounded like a pretty big and possibly very painful risk, and used it as a teaching moment to explain cauterization to our son. He then seemed pretty horrified by the possibility of a wound so grievous that it might need such action, so I focused on this show being a fun fantasy and not really like the real world at all, honestly.

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Doctor Who: The War Games (part five)

Intrigue grows a little this week as we meet another villain, the Security Chief, played by James Bree in a high-pitched, teeth-gritted performance that most of us older Doctor Who fans have been known to imitate a time or two. Interrogating Zoe with a (no, not the) mind probe, he learns that she is from the 21st Century and travels in a TARDIS, but he deliberately withholds that information from the War Chief. Later, he confides with an underling, stating that the War Chief is not of their race, that the War Chief betrayed his own people, and that he fears he may be ready to double-cross this bunch of aliens as well.

Incidentally, this bunch never get a group name, which is really a little odd for Doctor Who. They really are just “that bunch of aliens with the eyewear fetish from The War Games,” although people often call them “the Warlords” or, magically, “the Aliens.”

Anyway, this episode ends with Jamie unwittingly leading a raiding party into an Alien ambush. I’ve looked back over our blog and really haven’t praised Frazer Hines as Jamie anywhere near enough. He’s always terrific fun, and I love the way he plays the “because you’re a girl” card with Lady Jennifer without thinking and instantly tries to get himself out of trouble. When Jamie goes down under a barrage of ray gun fire at the cliffhanger, it scared the devil out of our son, who whimpered and tried to hide behind his mommy.

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Doctor Who: The War Games (part four)

I love this scene to pieces. It’s just seconds long and it’s one of my favorite scenes in the black and white era. The Doctor and the War Chief make eye contact… and they recognize each other. Of course, we had to underline what makes this important to our son, without giving anything away. He doesn’t quite grasp the ramifications. Neither did many of the people watching, perhaps.

Four years previously, when William Hartnell was the star, the Doctor had met another of his people. Played by the popular comedian Peter Butterworth, he called himself the Monk, had his own TARDIS, and, perhaps remarkably, was the only individual villain in the show’s first six seasons to get a rematch with the Doctor. He originally appeared in a four-part serial in July 1965, and then came back in January for three weeks as an ally of the Daleks, but the character was not used again after that. That’s in part because Butterworth became very busy making Carry On movies, and in part because the constantly changing production teams of Who during these days probably wanted to do their own things. The Monk was later resurrected in comics, novels, and audio adventures. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Graeme Garden occasionally plays the character opposite Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor in radio/CD stories.

But for the entire tenure of Patrick Troughton’s time as the Doctor, there’s been no hint of any other time travelers at all other than the Daleks, no other TARDIS, and certainly no people from his past who might recognize him*. There’s a great bit early on in this episode where the Doctor gets a bad feeling that he knows where this technology came from, but declines to elaborate to Zoe. Suddenly it becomes very clear that he’s going to have to start elaborating before this adventure ends.

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Doctor Who: The War Games (part three)

I love the slow reveals of this story. This time out, we get confirmation that Gen. Smythe and his opposite number, Von Weich (played by David Garfield in full sneer mode) are aliens. They report to a mustached man played by Edward Brayshaw, whom the credits name as the War Chief, and he, in turn, reports to an as-yet unseen character called the War Lord. Layers upon layers, in the same way that the battlefields of 1917 France, ancient Rome, and 1862 America are laid next to each other.

The clues are there for adult viewers to start putting things together, but children still need a little help, as when Zoe says aloud what the grownups in the audience are thinking: the capsule that appears and disappears containing more soldiers than it should comfortably fit, and which sounds a whole lot like the TARDIS is possibly another TARDIS, which might be why Brayshaw’s War Chief is so interested in reports about time travelers. Our son is still slowly juggling the pieces and enjoying watching this unfold. I like how they don’t underline these possibilities, but let the audience consider them. “Lot for you to chew on before tomorrow night, huh?” I asked, and, eyes wide, he nodded. Definitely.

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Doctor Who: The War Games (parts one and two)

Patrick Troughton’s final Doctor Who adventure was the ten-part serial (ten!) “The War Games,” shown from April through June of 1969. As a whole, it is really overshadowed by the game-changing revelations of the last two parts, and so the story has gained a reputation of being padded out, as though the first eight episodes are in the way of the more important finale.

I last watched this story with my older son more than a decade ago, and we sure didn’t see it that way. Neither will our favorite five year-old critic, because he doesn’t know anything about the Doctor beyond what he’s seen. The legend hasn’t yet got in the way of the narrative. Viewers in 1969 didn’t see it that way either, though there were a lot fewer of them than began season six. The audience figures started dropping from 6-7 million viewers a week to about 5.5 million in March, and this story averaged about 4.9 million. It’s theorized that announcing Patrick Troughton’s departure, without confirming his replacement and the modified format – that would come later – led viewers to tune out, or rather not tune back in if they missed a week, thinking the show had ended.

People who did tune in found a very brutal first part of this story, which is why we watched the first two together. It opens on the western front in 1917, with the Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe swept up in the Great War, rescued from Germans by an ambulance driver, Lady Jennifer Buckingham, and Lt. Carstairs, played by David Savile. But General Smythe, played with icy anger by Noel Coleman (later Col. Marchbanks in Lord Peter Wimsey), has it in for the Doctor at first sight, and sentences him to execution for espionage. We learn in the first episode that Smythe can control his fellow officers’ minds whenever he wears a pair of spectacles, and that he has a futuristic television set in his wall.

I was concerned that our son would find this confusing and the level of hopelessness in military bureaucracy too oppressive, and I was right. Even after a pre-show history lesson about World War One and trenches, he was very, very restless and didn’t understand why nobody wanted to listen to the Doctor. We emphasized the science fiction elements as they were introduced, which seemed to help. Episode two went over much better. This one throws in a Redcoat from 1746, travel cabinets that appear and disappear into thin air, a mist that transports our heroes across time, and a cliffhanger where they’re attacked by a Roman legion. He paid much closer attention and thinks this is very strange.

But why must it be ten (ten!) episodes long? It actually replaced two separate stories, a six-parter that Malcolm Hulke was writing, and a four-parter by Derrick Sherwin that was intended to wrap up Patrick Troughton’s time. With deadlines looming and Sherwin moved to the role of producer, Terrance Dicks moved Hulke, with whom he’d written for television several times before, into his office and they hammered out one huge storyline for David Maloney to direct rather than moving resources into two separate productions. I noticed that Maloney would call on a couple of actors that he’d used in his previous two Who serials for the later episodes, indicating perhaps that as this epic moved through its weeks of production, he wanted to minimize audition time by casting artists already familiar with Doctor Who.

I think it’s a little long myself, but while many fans have suggested that some of the middle episodes could have been edited down, it’s actually these first two that I’d rather have seen combined. Packing in more of the anachronisms into the first part, and finishing with that tremendously clever cliffhanger of the Romans charging down the hill at our heroes, would have been a terrific start to a nine-part adventure. No shorter, though.

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Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959)

I might have dropped a hint or two in these pages about movies we plan to watch a little down the line. One of these, a little later this year, is At the Earth’s Core. But I felt I’d be doing our son a disservice by not introducing him to the concept by way of the fellow who popularized traveling down below into worlds of crystal caverns, luminescent algae or rock formations, and big monsters.

We had a quick recap about the author Jules Verne before beginning the lengthy 1959 20th Century Fox adaptation of Journey to the Center of the Earth. It’s 130 long minutes, and the first three-quarters of an hour move at the speed of a glacier. Five is too young to absorb this material without a grownup; ten would still be pushing it. Much of the material happens far offscreen and is only deduced by the bold Sir Oliver Lindenbrook, played by James Mason. He and his young associate Alec McEwan head from Edinburgh in 1860 to an Icelandic volcano, following a clue and trying to get ahead of two competing parties.

Ewan is played by Pat Boone, of all people. Boone was, then, at the height of his pop stardom, sings one song, and seems to be here mainly because he looks good with his shirt off. The movie also features Arlene Dahl, who starred in several movies in the 1950s, the best of which was possibly the film noir No Questions Asked in 1951. To be fair, though, I really don’t know that much about her. One of the rivals in this scientific expedition is the sinister Count Saknussemm, whose ancestor vanished three hundred years earlier trying to prove there’s a lot to discover underground. He’s played by Thayer David, and twenty years later, he got to play Nero Wolfe in an unsold pilot for ABC in the seventies.

For audiences waiting for the trope of the underground civilization of primitive savages, this movie offers a big surprise: there isn’t one. There’s really not a lot that goes on in this movie at all. It’s imaginative and very nicely designed, but there’s not a great deal of conflict. What we do see is resolved really quickly. There’s a little promise during the very long opening sequence that Mason and Dahl will be at loggerheads, but it proves to be about a sixty second delay before the inevitable “you can’t come with us! you’re a woman!” scene.

There’s a brief moment during the expedition where Boone and Dahl make goo-goo eyes at each other before she reminds him that he has a young lady waiting back in Scotland. She’s played by Diane Baker, who went on to have a massively successful career but is totally wasted here. It’s interesting, though, that the script explains that this expedition goes on for many months, at least ten. One of the movie’s many flaws is that the production doesn’t really show this by showing the actors’ hair growing from scene to scene. Ten months and they’re a bit bedraggled, and Boone and the other young fellow lose their shirts, but I don’t buy that they even packed enough provisions for that long, much less felt it.

To be honest, the movie really does mark time waiting for the monsters. Here’s the most likely reason that Land of the Lost‘s third season producer decided that Torchy, their fire-breathing dimetrodon, would be the size of a bus: because there are a half-dozen gigantic dimetrodons hanging out on the beach of an underground ocean.

You’ll forgive the lack of a photo. The dinosaurs are iguanas with sails glued to their backs and they’re either shot without any point of reference to make them appear gigantic, or in a matte shot so distant that they don’t have any detail, so the screencaps all look lousy. Later on in the film, there’s a salamander or something given the same treatment. They don’t do special effects like that anymore, do they? Frankly, I’d have preferred somebody have phoned Ray Harryhausen and commissioned him to do these in stop-motion.

As I implied earlier, this was far from our son’s favorite film. He struggled gamely through the long, long setup, and lost interest for the most part. He played with a favorite Lego “Mixel” while the heroes get separated, and finally started paying attention when a dinosaur spots them in the cave full of giant mushrooms. The monsters were very successful, but they were the only things here that were. Well, we’ve one or two more trips into the center of the Earth to come. Maybe they’ll go over better.

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