Monthly Archives: May 2017

Doctor Who: The Ambassadors of Death (part six)

Pictured above, Jon Pertwee steps out into an alien environment created by blue screen / chromakey. This won’t be the last time. The BBC called this blue screen tech – the antecedent of modern green screen – “Color Separation Overlay.” It was used for the first time in the previous serial and there will be quite a lot of CSO in Doctor Who‘s seventies.

It turns out that the aliens are not empty suits as our son predicted, but hideous blue-and-black creatures that we only glimpse very briefly. And it also turns out that General Carrington is behind all the villany. Our son claims that he’s known that the whole time, but I’m not certain I believe that claim.

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Doctor Who: The Ambassadors of Death (part five)

Throughout this serial, we’ve seen a large, full-scale space capsule for the actors to climb in. I was interested to learn that this prop was built in a shared-cost budget with another BBC drama, Doomwatch. This allegedly “sci-fact” show about civil servants saving the world from dangerous new technologies and ecological disasters was created by a pair of former Doctor Who‘s regular writers, Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis. It debuted the week after “Doctor Who and the Silurians” began, and the capsule was used in episode six, “Re-Entry Forbidden,” which was shown five days before the first episode of this serial. I wonder whether anybody watched both shows in March 1970 and noticed.

After watching part four, I showed our son a picture of John Levene’s character of Corporal Benton from “The Invasion” to refresh his memory, because Benton, now a sergeant, resurfaces in this episode. There’s a neat story about how this character got promoted to semi-regular. He was one of many good guy military characters in “The Invasion,” which Douglas Camfield had directed. Camfield was in line to direct the next serial, “Inferno,” and since there was room in the script for a Sergeant Anybody character, he asked whether they could rehire John Levene, as he enjoyed working with the actor. The production team reasoned that there was also a Sergeant Anybody in this story, and so it might make a little sense to start using some familiar faces in UNIT rather than a revolving bunch of guys in beige uniforms. That worked out quite nicely. Everybody likes Sergeant Benton.

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The Six Million Dollar Man 2.11 – The Peeping Blonde

My wife somehow spent the 1970s and 1980s totally oblivious to contemporary culture. As a child, she was a voracious reader of authors who had been dead for decades if not centuries, she taught herself more about science than most physicists learn in a lifetime, and she would watch thirty year-old Bugs Bunny cartoons when they were repeated on Saturday mornings, but otherwise I have yet to find any evidence that she had any idea what the rest of the planet was enjoying until she chanced upon an episode of MacGyver, of all things, in 1985.

With this in mind, tonight we watched another episode of The Six Million Dollar Man with Farrah Fawcett. She plays a different character in this episode, a reporter called Victoria Webster. She catches some film footage of Steve in action, and, pursuing a story, demands that Steve and Oscar spill the beans. Meanwhile, her desperate boss sees Steve as a different sort of meal ticket.

After we watch something with our son, we often talk about the bigger picture behind what we’ve seen. My wife wanted to talk about how important and how brave reporters are, to risk their lives to confront people in power. That’s a big thing, of course, though I found it almost tone-deaf that a TV show would, just four months after President Nixon resigned, have a top government agent coldly demanding that a news reporter sit on a story. We’re definitely on the side of the press and the media.

But I wasn’t going to talk about the thankless job of the press. I wanted to point out that Farrah Fawcett’s hairstyle was arguably the most popular in the 1970s, and that something like a quarter of the nation’s women were known to feather their hair to the sides the way that Farrah did. And my wife had absolutely no idea that Farrah Fawcett was responsible for popularizing that style. No idea at all. She says she always hated that look and now, forty years later, at last knows who to blame for it.

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Sigmund and the Sea Monsters 1.16 – The Wild Weekend

A couple of years ago, we watched the episode of Batman that had Chad and Jeremy in it, and I wrote about that old Hollywood habit of presenting faded hitmakers playing themselves as major celebrities. Jack Wild certainly wasn’t major, and absolutely not in Hollywood.

After the Pufnstuf film, Jack had gone back to England. It looks like he appeared in four films in Europe and an episode of the long-running BBC drama The Onedin Line, none of which were mainstream hits in the US, over the next three years. His bubblegum pop music career had tanked, and there was the really sad and unfortunate problem that Wild’s reputation for partying really, really hard had preceded him and he wasn’t getting any offers from American companies. However, Zelda, and, bizarrely, Sweet Mama are starstruck by Jack Wild, who bumps into Johnny and Scott on the beach taking a break from the “rat race” of making movies and wants to spend a quiet weekend without the studio knowing where he is.

I really liked Sweet Mama recognizing Jack from Oliver!, the only film named here. She knows him from “those foreign human movies on The Late, Late Show,” and Jack makes a cute joke about the Artful Dodger when he’s escaping. But really, John Fenton Murray’s story is the Kroffts giving a fading star of their acquaintance another chance to grab the spotlight, this time spending half an hour shirtless in a denim vest for the preteen girls to enjoy. Jack Wild needed the Kroffts more than they needed him. You’ll notice Jack wasn’t invited to be a special guest star on Donny & Marie. Not even on Pink Lady.

Our son didn’t recognize Jack; he’s not all that good with faces anyway, and it’s been quite a few months since he’s looked at any H.R. Pufunstuf. We told him who the guest star was and he was very pleasantly surprised. I guess, however, that since the fictional character of Jack did not actually say anything like “You know, three years ago, I played a kid stuck on an island with weird monsters kind of like this,” we can pretend that this fictional character of Jack had, instead, made dozens of hit movies at that Hollywood studio. I’ve often said that Jack Wild’s deterioration and long demise is a horrible shame and a real waste of a great talent. It’s nice to pretend for a few moments that in the fictional universe of Sigmund and the Sea Monsters, there are a whole mess of great and fun Jack Wild movies, because there, he was the star that he should have been here.

Besides, in the fictional universe of Sigmund and the Sea Monsters, H.R. Pufnstuf isn’t a TV show. Stay tuned.

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Doctor Who: The Ambassadors of Death (part four)

This is the second story in a row where the director found a chance to shoot the alien menace of the month in front of the sun, resulting in big lens flares. Timothy Combe, last time, and Michael Ferguson, director of this story, really have enjoyed the BBC’s move to color. But you’ll forgive me not illustrating it; the chroma-dot recovery that restored the color to most of this serial (episodes 2-4 and 6-7) is wonderful but imperfect. The screen grabs from the video interiors, while still flawed, look much better than the orange-and-purple smeared 16mm exteriors.

Ferguson is a great director whether on location or in the studio. I love the way he composed this shot at the cliffhanger. The Doctor has found the body of the Civil Servant of the Month, killed by one of the aliens wearing the astronaut suits, and, as he’s trying to see whether Sir James has been injured or killed, the alien, with its touch of death, comes up behind the Doctor.

Our son thinks that the Doctor will be okay, suspecting that the Doctor’s people have a much higher resistance to radiation. He also still thinks that the aliens are just animating the suits. Perhaps they’re disembodied and they need radio impulses to understand commands because they don’t have ears?

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Star Wars (1977)

Star Wars celebrated its 40th anniversary this week, so we sat down to watch it this afternoon. Our son just hopped and squeaked with excitement. “My first Star Wars movie!!!” he yelled. We told him at the playground that we’d decided to watch the movie this afternoon instead of Sunday morning. He and some seven year-old immediately started swordfighting with imaginary light sabers.

It’s fascinating to watch this through the eyes of a kid and see what they know already, since its impact on culture has been so great that elements of it are simply as ubiquitous as football and pop music. My opinion on marketing might not be worth a whole lot, but I’ll say on my death bed that the absolute stupidest thing that Lucas or Disney or whoever did to this property was make Darth Vader not scary anymore. How is anybody meant to be frightened of Darth Vader when they turned him into a Mr. Potato Head? Boy, that wasn’t the case when we were kids.

But if you remember – and we’ll come back to this next week – none of us really went into Star Wars blind. The movie was released, they say, on May 25 1977, but I certainly didn’t see it until January or February the following year, and I think that’s the case for many people my age. But we had trading cards and toys. I’ve kept few of my treasures from childhood, but I’ve still got a mostly complete set of Topps cards – missing one green border and six yellows – and my classmates, friends, and I breathlessly assembled our knowledge from little pieces of ancillary information. Heaven knows the movie itself keeps its secrets. You wouldn’t know from watching these 120 minutes that Biggs Darklighter and Wedge Antilles have lives outside the cockpits of their X-Wings.

My wife and I learned today that this continues. After R2-D2 gets zapped by the Jawas, he’s carried off to a vehicle that our son recognized. “A Sandcrawler!” he shouted. He knew exactly what that was. He watches videos on YouTube that teenage Lego fans make about their constructions and Sandcrawlers, of all things, are remarkably popular.

Of course, some of it he didn’t actually understand. In some places that might be because Baby Harrison Ford and Baby Mark Hamill had not quite learned how to act yet, and their line delivery is occasionally kind of rushed and unclear. Thanks to them, our son thought that the “Jumbo Lightspeed” was a remarkably cool special effect. But my favorite of his announcements came when the flight squadrons started getting together on Yavin’s moon and he recognized an X-Wing but didn’t know what it was called. “Hey! A Star Wars ship!”

Indeed, he loved this movie to pieces. He was jumping and cheering during the final battle and would have been riveted for another hour, easy. Me, I thought it was a little odd and, especially in light of the later films and their casts of billions and hundreds of planets, small. I haven’t actually sat down to watch it in such an incredibly long time that I’d forgotten just how much stuff happens on Tattooine before they get to Mos Eisley. It’s a wonderfully busy film, and I think that in lesser circumstances, Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing would have easily dominated everybody and everything.

Imagine this movie made just five or six years before, without the set design and creatures and visual effects that keep your attention so focused on the solid reality of this incredibly unreal place. Think about how strange those mile-deep maintenance shafts are, and how for some insane reason the architects decided to stick the tractor beam controls right in the middle of a fall-to-your-death chasm. Guinness and Cushing would have stolen the movie outright if this had been a 1972 Hammer/Seven Arts film, in much the same way Cushing had walked away with At the Earth’s Core the year before. (We’ll get to that movie in a few months!) But Star Wars so masterfully presents its place that even the isolated case of overacting – really only that “ultimate power in the universe” guy that Vader Force-chokes – doesn’t take audiences out of the picture very much.

I really don’t have anything more to say than that. Star Wars, like The Wizard of Oz which we watched recently, has been written about so much already that the other things I did feel like mentioning have been done to death. Chewbacca didn’t get a medal, you know. Yeah, they’ve addressed that in at least two comic books!

So anyway, happy birthday, Star Wars. Thanks for all the memories, and we won’t make your newest fan wait three years to see what happens next.

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Doctor Who: The Ambassadors of Death (part three)

Michael Wisher, who plays the TV commentator, is not in this episode, but Cyril Shaps, who made a career out of playing frantic and nervous scientists, is. We last saw Shaps playing a different frantic and nervous scientist in “The Tomb of the Cybermen.” Now, he’s being menaced by one of the astronauts… or is he? The Doctor has determined that the Earthmen who went into space cannot survive the amount of radiation these guys have absorbed.

Our son’s theory is that these are actually empty spacesuits. They’ve been animated by the radiation. Maybe we’ll find out whether he’s right in tomorrow’s episode.

I’m enjoying this more than I remembered. It’s got an entertaining Capricorn One meets Quatermass vibe, especially once we see that the well-dressed villain from the previous episodes is actually General Carrington, a former astronaut himself who is now in charge of Britain’s space security program. He appears to be on the side of the angels and working against the Brigadier for national security reasons, and is baffled when the three astronauts are abducted by a third party. But then General Carrington and the Civil Servant of the Month start conspiring again, to prevent the launch of another recovery capsule. After all, if the human astronauts didn’t come down, they must still be up there, right?

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Doctor Who: The Ambassadors of Death (part two)

I’m really impressed with the work of the Restoration Team on this episode. Rebuilding the lost color signal from these black and white prints is more than just neat new technology, it’s a real labor of love.

As for the content of the show, this is much as I remember it. There are lots of actors at Space Control reading numbers out loud from various consoles and a big map instead of special effects like a modern audience would demand. The episode is built around another big action centerpiece, as the troops led by the mysterious well-dressed man played by John Abineri attack the convoy that’s carrying the Recovery 7 capsule. The criminals use these strange “hair dryer” stun guns, technology that’s never again seen in the show.

It’s a fun scene, and I’m sure the stuntman enjoyed the challenge of making his fall from a helicopter look great, and our son certainly enjoyed it, but it’s all a bit pointless since the Doctor retakes the truck and delivers the capsule to Space Control. It’s really an example of that frequent “escape and run around just to get recaptured” padding, but it’s entertaining to watch as it’s unfolding.

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