Monthly Archives: July 2017

The Shape of Things to Come (1979)

The rush to capitalize on those sweet, sweet Star Wars profits led to this terminally dull Canadian entry, which is more formally called H. G. Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come despite not having much of anything to do with any book that Wells ever wrote. It was filmed in the fall of 1978 for as little money as possible, leading to some charming moments like a bit where Carol Lynley, who plays the deposed governor of the planet Delta Three, tells all her subordinates on the studio set to wait there while she goes through a door on location to a power plant, where they couldn’t afford to take all those extras.

It ticks the requisite boxes. Barry Morse is in the Obi-Wan Kenobi role, with Jack Palance as the Vader Villain. There is a cute robot called Sparks and several similar dangerous ones that are painted black and kill people. In one surprisingly grisly moment, a robot batters a man to death with a great big rock. Big spaceships are filmed from underneath, so there was plenty here to cut into a thirty-second spot for afternoon teevee. Surprisingly, however, I don’t remember this movie at all. Sure, it’s been nearly four decades, but this was, of course, exactly the sort of film I’d see advertised on TV commercials and run screaming to my parents to take me to see.

Our son mostly enjoyed it, but the brief upper hand that the baddies enjoy really bothered him a lot more than in similar stories. I think that’s in part because the circumstances are really grim – Barry Morse’s death scene is, while still PG-rated, a lot more graphic than Obi-Wan vanishing into the folds of his cloaks – but also because the good guys seem hopeless. Nobody has laser guns or light sabers, and the heroic leads, played by Nicholas Campbell and the downright gorgeous Eddie Benton, don’t seem to have any special powers or abilities at all, just luck.

Another factor that might have bothered our son: the grim tone is really set by an honestly effective sequence set on Earth, which is by far the very best part of the movie. So the plot is that the Vader Villain has taken over Delta Three and now controls the radiation drugs needed on the moon colony. Our heroes leave the moon to confront him, but immediately have a fault and have to land on the polluted planet Earth, which had been ravaged by a robot war several years previously.

They land in a remote mining camp where everything is still and quiet among the orange leaves of the trees, except for some strange, small shapes that the camera keeps finding, hunched over among the weeds. Campbell and Benton explore the isolated place looking for the operator, and it’s all shot like a truly excellent horror film from the period, not a bombastic outer space movie. Experience with this sort of story suggests that the shapes will turn out to be mutant raiders or something, but that gets subverted, too.

It’s a real shame the whole movie couldn’t be as effective as this sequence. The director, George McCowan, mainly worked in television in the 1970s and regularly directed cop and detective shows like Cannon and The Streets of San Francisco. His work here suggests he was a bit lost trying to make killer robots and spaceships seem believable or threatening to grown-ups, but give him an old radio transmission tower and a couple of attractive leads somewhere in a quarry in Canada, and he could make something a little magical.

Eventually, of course, everything has to blow up, because that’s what kind of movie this is. That thrilled our son much more than anything in the woods.

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Sid and Marty Krofft Update from Comic-Con 2017

Some very neat news was quietly announced earlier today at San Diego’s Comic-Con, where Sid and Marty Krofft held their annual panel, this time with actor David Arquette and producer Bradley Zweig in tow. They showed a sizzle reel, but they don’t seem to have uploaded it to YouTube yet, so apologies for the poor quality of the photo below.

* 2015’s Electra Woman & Dyna Girl film with Grace Helbig and Hannah Hart got a bit that says “New series and film coming soon,” but they didn’t elaborate on it. The movie actually debuted as a web series, so I’m not sure whether this was an old visual just reminding the audience they’re still active and busy, or if more material with Helbig and Hart is in the works.

* The Sigmund & the Sea Monsters series for Amazon was featured with clips from last summer’s pilot. The series, as reported by Taylor Blackwell last month, will begin streaming in November. I can’t wait!

* The Kroffts have shot a pilot for a reboot of The Bugaloos. This is for Nickelodeon, as announced here. The clips from the pilot featured new versions of the classic characters Courage, Joy, IQ, Harmony, Benita Bizarre, Funky Rat, Woofer, Tweeter, and Sparky. Courage appears to be a girl in this version. Benita Bizarre is played by actress Lise Simms.

* Mutt & Stuff has wrapped production after 73 episodes.

* Further in the future: they’re working on a revamp of D.C. Follies with the title Fake News at the Trump Motel.

* And, inevitably, there’s supposed to be another attempt at Land of the Lost, this time as a one-hour show written and/or produced by Akiva Goldsman. Memo to Sid and Marty: phone David Gerrold. Now.

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The Bionic Woman 1.5 – Claws

A couple of years ago, the strange film Roar was reissued, and with it came the even stranger tale of how the actress Tippi Hedren and her teen daughter Melanie Griffith, who starred in the movie, spent the seventies sharing a house with a 400-pound lion named Neil. Roar went into production in October 1976, eight months after Hedren and Neil appeared in this episode of The Bionic Woman, along with William Schallert, Jack Kelly, and the omnipresent child star Robbie Rist.

All that guest star power didn’t overwhelm Jaime, who is caught in a local feud without any OSI support. A neighbor is raising a menagerie of hopefully tame animals, while a rancher believes the lion is killing his cattle. He doesn’t believe it could be a massive cougar.

Our son was transfixed by this story. He thought all the animals were completely charming and he was incredibly worried about the lion, the cougar, and Jaime. Full credit to the director: the scene where Jaime tries to calm an injured and frightened Neil, only to get injured herself on her non-bionic arm, really is a tense one.

I must add, though, that I was honestly most amused by a hint that Neil may be behind the attacks after all. There’s no reason for Neil to hunt cattle since he’s fed well, but money is tight and his owner has recently been feeding him half beef and half soy. If somebody was forcing me to eat slugburgers instead of sirloin, I might go hunt cattle myself!

(You can read more about Roar, in which none of the animals were injured but between 70 and 72 members of the cast and crew were, here. See more photos of Neil hanging out at home with Hedren and Griffith here.)

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Doctor Who: The Claws of Axos (part four)

I’m not sorry to see this one end. There’s only one Pertwee serial I enjoy less than this turkey, and that’s months away, thank goodness. I do enjoy the original story, and there are several amusing moments and lines of dialogue in this installment, it just looks and sounds so awful. However, in director Michael Ferguson’s defense, whoever designed that set for the light accelerator room didn’t give any thought to how they were meant to stage an attack by monsters. Ferguson didn’t stand a chance making it look good; the constant cuts to shots of Katy Manning with her eyes wide and hands on her head as the battle commences suggest what the director himself was probably doing.

But it certainly succeeded in doing its job to frighten kids. Our son tells us that the Axon monsters are the scariest in all of Doctor Who, even eclipsing the Ice Warriors, the previous holders of that award. To be fair, one of the costumes – I think there are four – really does look terrific, even from the jaded eyes of adulthood. The other costumes are just blobby red bags with some noodles and string glued to them, but the one principal Axon really is a triumph, and the best thing, other than Roger Delgado, about the whole production. I guess I was twelve or thirteen when I first saw a photo of this beast, and I was impressed then and I remain impressed now.

One of the blobby red bag Axon costumes was painted green and pressed into service as a different monster five years later, but the Axons themselves never returned to the series, although there were several rumors that Peter Capaldi wanted the Twelfth Doctor to have a rematch with them. Fernanda Marlowe’s character, Corporal Bell, never returned, either. I hadn’t really realized that she was only in part one of this story. That was a missed opportunity; particularly with Benton and Yates due for some needed character development in the next two UNIT stories, it might have been nice to see a woman in a recurring role during this very, very male-dominated period of the program. In fact, the show was so overwhelmingly male-focused in 1971 that we missed out on what might have been a very memorable female villain in the very next story…

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Doctor Who: The Claws of Axos (part three)

Since the Doctor spends this entire episode captured and imprisoned by Axos, it’s left to Roger Delgado to steal the show. The Master calmly has his run of both the Nuton Power Complex and the Doctor’s beat-up TARDIS, and Delgado is incredibly fun and watchable. He’d be even more fun had more microphones been handy to pick up all his bad-natured grumbling about the sorry state of the TARDIS console’s disrepair, because a lot of this episode is really quiet, but he gets all the best lines.

I mentioned with part one that this whole story seems incredibly sloppy and amateurish and the sound and vision issues are bad in all the studio sessions. I don’t know that it’s exclusively the actors failing to project, but it’s really hard to hear Pertwee in places in part one, which is really strange since the actor is usually bellowing. There are several shots where it seems the cameras weren’t in the right place to catch the action, like when the UNIT men spot the Master leaving the TARDIS this time, along with quite a few insanely quick reaction shots. It all feels like they just edited this story together from a dress rehearsal, not the final performance. The director definitely should have stopped recording this episode long enough to tell Delgado to speak up.

But while I was loving the Master’s dialogue in spite of the poor sound, our son was hating the Axon tentacled monsters. The director did a pretty good job filming the tentacled monster storming around the complex electrocuting soldiers, which had our boy hiding behind the sofa, but a far less good job actually staging where the Brigadier is in relation to the action. This was Michael Ferguson’s last Doctor Who serial and by far the least of them, but he would direct several much, much better TV episodes after this, including eight episodes of The Sandbaggers.

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RIP Deborah Watling, 1948-2017

We’re very sad to read that Deborah Watling, who played the Doctor’s companion Victoria Waterfield in Doctor Who‘s fourth and fifth seasons, has passed away from lung cancer. She’ll be missed by so many fans. Our condolences to her family and friends.

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Doctor Who: The Claws of Axos (part two)

Last time, I mentioned how seeing “The Claws of Axos” was a big letdown when I saw it, but there’s another part to the story, and that’s how we saw the Pertwee serials in America in the eighties, when I was a grouchy, cynical teenager.

WGTV in Atlanta had shown the Tom Baker and Peter Davison stories at least twice before showing the 24 Pertwee serials. I was very excited to see them, but I was also too lazy to get an after-school job and so I relied on a weekly allowance to afford blank videotapes. Good tapes cost $7 or $8 apiece then, and so for a while there, I usually ended up scrimping and getting whatever garbage brand tapes, like BASF, I could find on sale, and I had no choice but to record on the awful SLP mode. But with so many six and seven-part serials, I still couldn’t afford all the tape needed to record every story on its first broadcast. Because I enjoyed the book Doctor Who and the Claws of Axos so much, I actually scheduled to tape stories to keep around this one. I was really looking forward to it.

Because so many of the color tapes of the early Pertwee episodes were wiped by the BBC, they syndicated a package that had several black and white TV-movie collected editions. So we saw the shot-on-16mm color “Spearhead,” two black and white movies, the somewhat muted and natural color of “Inferno,” two more black and white movies, and then “Axos,” which features an alien environment which isn’t just colorful, it’s hilariously colorful.

I still raise an eyebrow over the interior of Axos, but I did worse than that when I first saw it. Axos looks like a bouncy castle with yellow curtains, chromakeyed lava lamps over the walls, and pulsing psychedelic patterns projected on the actors. You half expect the director to clear the set because Sid and Marty Krofft have booked it to shoot Lidsville. From the cold light of the late 1980s, never mind now, it’s almost comical.

I couldn’t believe it. After the gritty and believable monochrome world of “The Mind of Evil,” which, true, had a silly monster, but only for about ten seconds, it looked like Doctor Who took a quantum leap backward into the cheesiest and cheapest Saturday morning world. This couldn’t convince anybody, could it?

And yet it did: people who saw “Axos” on color sets in 1971 still tell tales about how utterly amazing it looked. They’d never seen anything remotely like that before, and with good reason. The BBC had never made an environment remotely like this before. And our son thought this was incredibly weird, and he sat riveted and fascinated, until another cliffhanger ending with more tentacled monsters sent him diving for cover.

I think it’s like this: if you’re in your forties like me, you might remember the first time you saw Dire Straits’ video for “Money for Nothing” on MTV in 1985, when that computer animation was the wildest thing you’d ever seen. Those characters were 3-D! It looked like they were popping out of the screen! But it doesn’t look like that anymore. It looks as flat as sixties’ Hanna-Barbera TV animation. Anyone younger than we were at the time, young enough to have first seen all the computer animation that came in the wake of “Money for Nothing,” never had the chance to experience what we did. Try explaining what “Money for Nothing” was like to somebody in their twenties. They will not understand what in the world you’re talking about.

So you have to grade “Axos” on a curve. I think that in 1971, most people in the UK were still watching black and white sets. The BBC had only been broadcasting in color for sixteen months. This didn’t look like a fake bouncy house to them, even if it did to grumpy teenagers in 1987.

In other news, Fernanda Marlowe’s Corporal Bell is not in this episode, but another character is. Tim Pigott-Smith, making his television debut, plays Captain Harker of the regular army, not a UNIT officer, in this and the next episode. Pigott-Smith, who died in April, went on to an amazing career, winning accolades and awards and an OBE. He’s pretty easy to overlook in this story. He’d acquit himself with a meatier role when he came back to Doctor Who five years later.

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Doctor Who: The Claws of Axos (part one)

Among fans of my age, there used to be a common point of commiseration: when we got to see the Jon Pertwee serials, they usually didn’t measure up to the book versions we’d already enjoyed. Target had a line of novelizations, many of the best of which were written by Terrance Dicks or Malcolm Hulke, and at least the earliest titles in the line were pretty darn good for 144-page juvenile SF stories. Eventually, Target seemed to adopt a policy of never minding the quality and feeling the width, and the writers did the best they could with a three-week window to hammer out the darn things, but the first ones were usually really readable.

I sought out the book Doctor Who and the Claws of Axos because there was a photo of the huge, hundred-tentacled Axon monster in the pages of the Radio Times 20th Anniversary special magazine. This was published in America by Starlog and was our Rosetta Stone for a while. The monster looked amazing, and Terrance Dicks’s book, based on the 1971 serial by Bob Baker and Dave Martin, turned out to be hugely entertaining. I couldn’t wait to see the original TV version.

The letdown has haunted me to this day. I’d like to think I have a pretty good feeling for what early seventies BBC programming looks and feels like, but even with all the hundreds of hours of videotape drama from the period I’ve absorbed, “The Claws of Axos” is still a stunningly poor production. It’s full of horrible actors and godawful line delivery*, ridiculous props, bad lighting, and a musical score that Dudley Simpson probably played solely with his index finger. The location film work isn’t too bad, apart from the utterly bizarre mumbling of the tramp who finds the aliens’ traveling homeworld, but everything in the studio is incredibly sloppy. This doesn’t look like it was directed by Michael Ferguson, the man who did “The Ambassadors of Death” the year before; it looks like a bunch of schoolkids made it without any rehearsal.

Baker and Martin deserved better. This was the first of eight serials they’d co-write for Who in the 1970s, and Baker contributed one additional story on his own in 1979. It’s a good story, with a very interesting alien menace: the “ship” / “traveling home,” Axos, is the same entity as the golden beings who travel in it. They’re all one organism, and they hope to spread samples of their miracle mineral, Axonite, around the planet. The golden beings pretend to be kind travelers with a promising energy source to share, but, as the cliffhanger strongly hints, they’re really cruel multi-tentacled beasts who have captured the Master and come to our planet to prey on the greed of British politicians.

The cliffhanger was a very effective one in our house, even though I think it looks far too sloppy for a director as accomplished as Ferguson. I cheated and started the episode a minute into it, so our son wouldn’t see that bizarre spoiler of the monsters inside the alien ship that opens the story. (That’s another thing I can’t stand.) So it ends with this head-and-shoulders shot of the tentacled creature and our son jumped up and dove for cover.

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