Monthly Archives: June 2017

The Six Million Dollar Man 3.6 – The Deadly Test

I must have picked this episode because Tim O’Connor’s in it. He’s the top-billed guest star, but he’s not actually in it much. It’s set at a USAF test pilot school with airmen from all around the country. Erik Estrada plays a major from the nation of Kutan, who doesn’t get along with a pilot from Israel. One of them is being targeted by a criminal scientist with a device that makes planes crash. Our son enjoyed all the footage of jets more than the grown-ups enjoyed anything.

Proving that you can start with something small and dull and turn it into a very impressive career, this appears to be the first screen credit for James D. Parriott, who would go on to write some more Bionic-universe episodes at the start of a very long career. He would later create Forever Knight and join the production staff of Grey’s Anatomy for a while. He’s currently one of the producers of Amazon’s spy comedy Patriot.

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Ace of Wands: Peacock Pie (parts two and three)

We doubled up on episodes tonight and I enjoyed them again thoroughly. I’m glad that our son did as well, pronouncing this “pretty cool!” It’s easily his favorite of these three serials. Mine, too!

This is such a clever story. Brian Wilde is so good as the villain, a weird, creepy, lonely guy with psychic powers that he doesn’t understand and doesn’t really care to. He really doesn’t have the imagination to either improve the world or be a real criminal. He’s just a petulant, immature man without any friends, and there’s a slow reveal toward the end that explains why he’s had so little experience relating to other people.

Everybody making this story is just on fire. One of my questions for watching something old and dated by its production is “Did they do the best they could with the resources available?” Unquestionably. You can see the blue fringes around the chromakey, but you can also absolutely feel the imagination and enthusiasm by the actors and the special effects team in making this curious and odd story work. It’s a really entertaining piece of television.

We’ll leave Ace of Wands there for now and come back in a couple of months for the next ten episodes. Our son has requested to not wait as long for the next Doctor Who adventure, so we’ll start it next week instead.

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Ace of Wands: Peacock Pie (part one)

I absolutely adore this story! It was the first Ace of Wands serial that I got in a VHS tape swap in the mid-nineties, and the show went from “this might be nice to see if I can ever find anybody with episodes” to “Who has this?! I must have more!!” immediately.

In it, an armored car leaves a large cash delivery at an abandoned house in a deserted street, and Mikki desires a holiday to a remote seashore that she would never normally visit. Tarot’s questioning leads him to a wild conclusion: the ordinary-looking man that Mikki met outside her bank is an amazingly powerful hypnotist. Mr. Peacock is played by Brian Wilde, who would go on to huge mainstream success with regular roles in the sitcoms Porridge and Last of the Summer Wine later in the seventies.

I learned of Ace of Wands through Roger Fulton’s seminal Encyclopedia of TV Science Fiction, which suggested the show’s offbeat villains were something like those from Batman. That’s a really poor comparison; Mr. Peacock, Quabal, and Mr. Spoon are far too quirky and strange to be limited like that. But what amazed me when I saw it was how this story by P.J. Hammond takes a very natural turn into becoming almost a pilot for a proto-Sapphire & Steel, and not even remotely like Batman. As Tarot tries to project the seashore image back to Mr. Peacock, it’s accompanied by haunting sound effects and camera tricks, building to the phenomenally creepy reveal of Mr. Peacock watching our heroes through his sitting room mirror, and gently sing-songing “I’m coming to get you,” like a child playing hide and seek. They could have restaged this scene precisely in 1978 with David McCallum and Joanna Lumley in the middle of that story about the railway station, with Wilde playing one of the ghosts.

Bringing this post back to Earth for a moment, one reason among many that Ace of Wands seems sloppy and amateurish even by 1972 standards is that none of the episode endings are actually shot like endings. Events happen until the credits roll. There’s no sense of style, no closeups, no crash of music, nothing visually dramatic at all. The story reaches its cliffhanger moment and suddenly there are closing credits. The episodes, in other words, have their endings edited into place rather than having endings actually filmed or taped. But the cliffhanger to this story’s first episode is so thunderously good that it surpasses the clumsy production. “That was crazy,” our son shouted. “Tarot thought he was on a high building when he was really standing on a rock!” And Chas, standing four feet away from him, was hypnotized into thinking he was trapped in a room with no doors. It’s such a wild and imaginative moment that the thrill completely overwhelms the limits of the production.

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Logan’s Run 1.5 – Man Out of Time

Holy anna! Knock me over with a feather, because this episode of Logan’s Run is no-kidding terrific. We’ve been watching this show with slightly raised eyebrows, trying to enjoy it on its own humble terms, but this one’s fabulous. It’s about a guy from the 22nd Century who travels two hundred years into the future and meets up with our heroes, looking for his own version of Sanctuary.

It turns out that he’s one of a group of scientists who have been predicting the forthcoming nuclear war – remember, if you can, that in 1977, we were all pretty preoccupied with the likelihood that such a war wasn’t going to wait until 2118 to erupt – and have locked away a computer to process everything up until the inevitable bombs shut off the power. So he pops to the 24th Century to get the tapes, running afoul of the people in a well-meaning but illiterate farming community, led by Mel Ferrer, who worship the dormant computers.

It’s mainly only dated by the design. I kind of doubt that people in 2118 will still be using reel-to-reel magnetic tape, and I absolutely don’t believe that the tapes will still be in one piece in 2318. Otherwise, this really does a great job addressing the moral dilemma at the core and questioning whether the scientist could possibly prevent anything. I was loving this, beyond any notion that I might, even before the final twist, which is a downright delicious little humdinger.

I hopped on IMDB to find out what else for television this show’s writer, Noah Ward, had done. Turned out it was a pseudonym for David Gerrold, who’d spent 1974 screwing with kids’ heads by way of the time paradoxes in the first season of Land of the Lost. (In point of fact, I’d been drawing specific comparisons to the episode “The Stranger,” which Walter Koenig had written for Gerrold, already.) Man alive. If I’d seen his actual name in the credits, I’d have sat up straight and expected greatness. As it was, the quality of the story got my attention just fine with a false credit. What a fun hour!

Our son thought it was sad and weird, and then Mommy started confusing him with paradoxes with a twinkle in her eye.

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The Six Million Dollar Man 3.2 – The Return of the Bionic Woman (part two)

The most interesting thing about this story, which, to be honest, I found incredibly boring, is that Steve and Jaime completely fail an assignment. It’s almost like Oscar and Rudy set them up for disaster. Jaime still gets painful flashbacks whenever she looks at Steve, or the town of Ojai, or a tree, or her hand, and they decide that what they really need to do with a woman who lost her legs and an arm and an ear in a skydiving accident is send her on a mission where she needs to jump out of an airplane. Then again, Oscar never considers firing Jaime’s doctor, Michael, despite his constantly acting so amazingly unprofessional that his license to practice medicine should have been revoked.

The second most interesting thing about this story is that it gives Lee Majors’ song “Sweet Jaime” another couple of airings. I’ve grown to appreciate the actor’s skills a little more now that we’re rewatching this. He reminds me of how David Janssen might have played similar scenes as he navigates Steve’s heartbreak, and that’s as genuine a compliment as they come. But Majors wasn’t a singer. I think the only reason that “Sweet Jaime” never showed up on Rhino’s hilarious old Golden Throats collections of actors warbling “rock oddities” tunelessly is that Universal doesn’t seem to have ever released this dopey love song as a single for Rhino to license it. What a shame; the jukeboxes of 1975 America surely demanded it.

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Message From Space (1978)

It’s largely forgotten today, but if you want to sit down with a kid and enjoy a downright insanely entertaining movie, Message From Space will certainly do. After those last two turkeys we watched for this blog, this was both a relief and a pleasure. This is a fun, fun movie, almost tailor-made for slow Sunday mornings for kids to watch on a UHF channel while Mom and Dad are still asleep.

You know how Star Wars is really inspired by Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress? This is a movie that doesn’t pretend. It’s The Hidden Fortress in space, gleefully pilfering its look and set pieces from Wars and running at breakneck speed with explosions and sword fights every five minutes. Anybody who’d get bored watching this film didn’t have an attention span in the first place.

The plot goes like this: evil space villains have conquered a peace-loving planet, and the defeated people’s ageing leader sends eight seed pods into space to recruit help. The baddies follow the trail from their region of space into ours, and while the seeds collect a rag-tag group of misfits to fulfill their destiny, the villains learn about the beautiful planet Earth and decide to conquer it next. Among its international cast, it’s got Sonny Chiba and Vic Morrow, and a young American actress named Peggy Lee Brennan in a role that looks like it was written for Suzy Quatro.

Our son adored this film, of course. I mean, if you like Star Wars, here it is again, only with old-fashioned miniature effects instead of computer-controlled one, and with a climactic sword fight that is roughly a billion times better than the one Dave Prowse and Alec Guinness had. It’s got both a Vader Villain and his creepy old silver-skinned mother in a wheelchair, beat-up and dirty little one-man spaceships, cocky hotshot pilots, a musical score that sounds a whole lot like John Williams, and a Death Star trench climax that’s pilfered straight from the original, only using about a quarter of the screen time and including giant doors in the tunnels that threaten to close right in front of the quasi-X-wings.

Bizarrely, my son took exception to one little bit of design. The whole affair is ridiculously sumptuous for what could have been a cheap knock-off. According to a book by Stuart Galbraith IV, Japanese Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films, it was actually the most expensive film ever made in Japan up to that time, and you can see it all onscreen. The costumes, sets, spaceships, and effects are all completely over the top and outlandish and I think they all look splendid, but for some reason he grumbled that the villains’ gigantic flying fortress – their Star Destroyer, basically – was “a hunk of junk,” and kept calling it that whenever he wasn’t whooping, laughing, or shouting “Oh my goodness, they’re killing everybody!”

So when the flying fortress meets its destructive end, he jumped off the couch in ecstasy, and bellowed “I TOLD you it was a hunk of junk!” He was happier about that than the downright amazing end for the chief Vader Villain, weirdly.

Message From Space sports a co-writing credit for Shotaro Ishinomori, a comic book artist who spent the seventies being consulted by lots of TV and movie producers in Japan, and collaborating on all sorts of shows that look incredibly fun and/or silly. This is absolutely a fun movie, one I was happy to revisit. It’s not high art, but neither’s Star Wars, and every six year-old in the galaxy should see it.

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The Six Million Dollar Man 3.1 – The Return of the Bionic Woman (part one)

I’ve picked thirteen episodes to enjoy from the third season of Six and the first season of The Bionic Woman, which originally aired in 1975-76. This year would see Martin E. Brooks become the third actor to play Dr. Rudy Wells and, inevitably, brought back Jaime Sommers, although with an unfortunate difference. This wouldn’t have been a problem had she and Steve not been in love. How do you bring back the lead character’s former fiancee without going forward with the wedding? You give her amnesia.

My wife bristled because, once again, all the menfolk are making Jaime’s decisions for her, but to be fair, she had just wakened from several weeks in a coma without any memory. There’s a notion that bringing back too many of Jaime’s memories will advance the damage to the cells in adjacent parts of her brain, and I don’t know that somebody with only a couple of days’ understanding of the world is really ready to make those kinds of decisions.

Still, while respecting the fact that Lee Majors plays abjectly heartbroken surprisingly well, and that it was Majors and Lindsay Wagner’s undeniable chemistry as bionic lovers that captured the audience’s imagination in ’75, this wouldn’t have even smelled problematic had Jaime been introduced as an independent agent like the Seven Million Dollar Man, Barney, had been. Since Jaime – at this stage – exists only in relation to Steve, Kenneth Johnson really painted himself into a corner. How else do you blamelessly break this couple into two independent, likable leads without amnesia, and keep the audience wondering whether maybe one day they’ll rediscover their love?

This is all, of course, above our son’s head and he would be baffled by the implications. He’s just happy that Jaime is alive, and that she and Steve had a bionic pillow fight in her hospital room.

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Ace of Wands: The Power of Atep (part four)

I love the early 1970s, when color separation / chromakey was the special effects solution to everything.

This is a good story despite some pretty disappointing issues with the script in the end. Fergus, the Egyptologist who discovered Atep’s tomb, was introduced in part three and does a sudden turn to treachery in part four that simply doesn’t make any sense when weighed against the scenes we have watched. The climax is even more baffling. Unless Quabal, Tarot’s former partner, has rigged up a sound system and wind machines to fake Atep’s ancient power, then Tarot can’t dismiss the reality that somehow this long-dead man still has some kind of power beyond the grave. Yes, Tarot’s belief in “today and tomorrow” is greater than power derived from the past, but this kind of power is still pretty darn amazing, and yet it peters out in a rushed nothing of a climax.

But it works for its audience; our son was captivated and worried by this story. It’s a terrific little horror story for kids, all day-glo glam early seventies videotape that’s just as effective as a big-budget feature film. Speaking of videotape, there’s a bizarre bit of location filming in these two episodes. Expecting what we all know about this kind of production, we weren’t surprised to see a mix of stock film footage of Egypt and 16mm film of our heroes riding around on donkeys in a quarry in Derbyshire or Lincolnshire or someplace. But then there’s also color videotape of some of the same action. I honestly can’t think of any other British TV production that I’ve seen where they went on location with two cameras, one film and one VT.

Well, Quabal and whatever-Atep’s-power-was are defeated in the end, somehow, and we talked about the message behind it. Don’t be obsessed with the past like Quabal was, kids. All this continent-spanning action was because Quabal wasn’t able to accept Tarot breaking up their stage act. When somebody dumps you, go do something different without them. Growing jealous over what you think should have been… that way lies misery.

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