I sincerely didn’t think that we’d ever watch anything stupider than the Medusa episode of Land of the Lost, but friends, this was it.
There’s a lovely bit toward the beginning of this adventure where a farmer in a lonely corner of northern Wyoming, his horse and dog freaking out over some strange noise or other, is suddenly confronted with a Russian-made space probe that thinks it has landed on the planet Venus. The silent machine, looking like the bastard offspring of a Dalek and the tank-thing from Damnation Alley, sends the farmer scurrying to his pickup truck to get away, and the old codger takes a moment to roll up his truck’s window before starting the engine.
So the Death Probe is the last great recurring nemesis for the bionic heroes. The big machine kind of takes a back seat to the story of all the Soviet sleeper agents that are trying to track it down. The group is led by Major Popov, played by Nehemiah Persoff, and it was designed by a scientist named Irina, played by Jane Merrow. Irina had actually been introduced in a season one episode that we skipped, “Doomsday and Counting.” Merrow did quite a lot of American television in the seventies. Earlier in her career, she had been frequently cast as a guest star in many of the ITC adventure shows, and had been considered for the role of Tara King in The Avengers. And there in a single scene and not credited, you can’t miss John de Lancie as an army medic.
This two-parter was written by Steven E. de Souza. It was one of his earliest credits; he’d later find fame and fortune writing hugely successful films like 48 Hours, Die Hard, and, err… that crappy Judge Dredd movie with Sylvester Stallone and Rob Schneider. Honestly, I was pretty underwhelmed by this one. There isn’t nearly enough mayhem with the Death Probe smashing its way through farms and cars and houses, and far too much of Soviet sleeper agents running rings around hick sheriffs. On the other hand, our son was positively freaked out by the machine and was so excited – slash – worried by Steve looking like he wouldn’t be able to stop it that he missed the cliffhanger entirely from behind the sofa!
Our son impressed me by talking earlier this evening about part five of the story, and the disappointing cliffhanger to part four. He’s really thinking constructively and creatively about the show, which makes me very happy. He was much happier with this installment, except, of course, for the ending, which sees the Master getting away again. It’s difficult to say just how effective an exit that would be in the real world. Surely the British Navy wouldn’t have a great deal of trouble tracking down a stolen hovercraft?
Honestly, parts five and six could have been compacted into one installment. There’s a lot of padding, and a lot of Jo being very loudly worried about the Doctor, and a lot of repetition. The civil servant of the month is just as gluttonous and cowardly, the talk about a lasting peace between humans and Sea Devils isn’t going to go anywhere, and there’s more stomping around the echoey underwater base.
But Pertwee and Delgado continue their beautiful, twinkling chemistry (the Doctor gets to say “reverse the polarity of the neutron flow” for the first time), and there’s a lot of well-directed action and explosions. “The Sea Devils” isn’t anybody’s favorite third Doctor story, but it certainly is entertaining, and I’m glad our son enjoyed it!
As the Pertwee years continued, they got away from one of the things that defined the series in 1970: the civil servant of the month. With the speaking part played by Clive Morton freed, one of the all-time “best” of this misbegotten bunch shows up, a Parliamentary Permanent Secretary played by Martin Boddey in one of his final roles. He’s supremely vulgar and stupid, and I love the way the director emphasizes his obsession with breakfast and coffee by lingering on his mouth.
Our son says that this story is more scary than exciting. We asked whether it wasn’t exciting when the navy launched (stock footage of) depth charges into the sea, and he said it wasn’t. “That was not exciting because they could have killed the Doctor!” He’s taking everything that Jo Grant says very, very seriously.
For me, this story’s only disappointment is the Sea Devils’ base. It’s a black “limbo” set like we saw in the third season of Batman, with lots of black tablecloths over everything to give it some kind of depth and shape. The designer came up with some interesting ideas for the props within their base, things like alarms and cages, but it’s all undermined by the lack of walls.
Another story by Roger Marshall, “Dial a Deadly Number” was almost impenetrable for our son, even after several pauses to broadly sketch what all this talk of shares and investments is all about. It’s definitely television from another world, as the murders are committed using these incredibly novel and modern “bleeps” that gentlemen carry in their breast pocket. You might remember such things as being called “pagers.”
Still, he says that he enjoyed it, and of course he isn’t shy in telling us when he doesn’t. It does end with a great fight and it features fun guest appearances by Peter Bowles, Clifford Evans, Anthony Newlands, and Gerald Sim, all of whom would return in later Avengers episodes. I didn’t realize that Bowles is still working. He’s the Duke of Wellington in the current Victoria series. When this was made, he still looked like a baby.
Strangely, my clearest memory of this episode is watching it on A&E, when that channel bought The Avengers in the early nineties and gave the videotape episodes their first American airing. For some insane reason, A&E just ignored the clear fade-to-black ad breaks in the episodes and just dropped commercials in whenever they felt like it. There’s a wonderful moment in a wine tasting contest where Steed identifies a Château Lafitte-Rothschild with hilarious specificity – “from the northern end of the vineyard” – and his opponent’s monocle pops out of his eye. There – there! – is where A&E decided to insert a commercial!
Well, the most important thing is that our son enjoyed the second episode more than he did the first. “I LOVED that episode,” he said, before adding “but part one was…” and he stuck out his tongue. The peanut gallery has spoken.
The second most important thing is that “Doomsday is Tomorrow” really entertained me as well. You could argue there’s a disagreeable cop-out near the end, but there are also a lot of completely unexpected twists and turns. Pretty much the whole thing is Lindsay Wagner stomping through some big industrial complex – I dunno where this was filmed, but if Disney showed up a year later to make the second Witch Mountain movie, I wouldn’t be surprised – arguing with the disembodied voice of ALEX 7000, pledging that the next round of defenses will surely kill her, so she should stop now. And yet Wagner is so good, and the plot keeps throwing surprises at us as ALEX improvises new ways to stop her, that this never feels like a low-budget way to do two episodes with a small cast. It feels like the end of the world.
Kenneth O’Brien has a whole lot less to do in the second part than I had thought, and Lew Ayres is only here briefly, having recorded his messages of doom to humanity before he died in part one. This is as close to a solo turn for a program’s protagonist as it got in the seventies, and it’s a genuine pleasure. I’m very glad that I picked this one.
He’s enjoyed the last few things that we’ve watched despite some worrying monsters and menace, but our son didn’t like part one of this story at all. I thought it was surprisingly good, miles better than that business with the police academy. “Doomsday is Tomorrow” was written, produced, and directed by Kenneth Johnson, and concerns a dying scientist and his seventies evil supercomputer triggering a Dr. Strangelove-style doomsday device, which will destroy all life on earth six hours after anybody, anywhere, ever triggers a nuclear device in the atmosphere.
The trouble is that just as soon as he reveals his threat and proves to a team of international scientists that he’s not bluffing, some middle eastern nogoodniks from Nosuchlandia decide this is a plot by the superpowers to stop their hydrogen bomb program and start a countdown. Jaime, teamed with a Soviet agent and electronics expert, has to race against time to penetrate more than six miles of artillery, lasers, and a minefield – that’s the second minefield we watched today! – to get back to the complex.
The problem with our son is that while, as a six year-old, he certainly loves lasers and explosions, he really, really didn’t like seeing Jaime so close to danger. He was so worried about her as she ran through the artillery barrage that it colored everything else!
Meanwhile, I did want to note that the scientist is played by Lew Ayres, who was a guest star in everything in the sixties and seventies, especially everything that Universal made. I remember him as a Nazi hunter working on a Gulf of Mexico oil rig in an early Route 66. Jaime’s unplanned partner is played by Kenneth O’Brien, another regular guest star actor of the day, and who we saw a year ago in an episode of Ark II. The evil supercomputer, ALEX, is voiced by Guerin Barry. Looks like two years later, he’d play another computer voice in Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. It was the seventies. Computers only spoke with men’s voices then, but things eventually changed didn’t they, Siri?
Thankfully, much better copies of the second half of “The Sea Devils” were available for the wizards at the BBC to restore the visuals. Part four of this story looks great, almost as though fate wanted the monsters to shine. The Sea Devils look organic and wet. The closeups of the latex and rubber show it looking more like skin than the plastic of the monsters in the previous story.
I’ve written before about how we enjoyed the novelizations of the stories in the days before our local PBS station bought them. The book version of this serial wasn’t one of the greats, but it did have a delightful embellishment by writer Malcolm Hulke. Onscreen, we see the doomed Colonel Trenchard get off a couple of shots against the monsters before dying. But in the book, he realizes too late that he left the safety on, a fitting end for the character.
Unfortunately, while the last episode ended with a fantastic cliffhanger, this one… doesn’t. Jo looks into a diving bell. Either the Doctor is inside, dead, or he’s not inside at all. We’ll check back in a few days for the answer.
Because it was a box office flop, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger seems to be overlooked, but holy anna, did I ever watch the heck out of this movie when I was a child. HBO showed it twenty times and my kid brother and I saw at least nineteen of the screenings. He even had a dream once where the ending was different, and when we saw it the next time and a big Ray Harryhausen monster didn’t survive – it never did – he started crying because he was convinced that “they” had changed the ending.
Anyway, since Ray Harryhausen movies took a heck of a long time to make, he and Charles Schneer began preproduction for the third Sinbad movie while the second one was still in theaters. By the time it was finally released, Star Wars was in the process of changing everything. It’s a fine adventure film, headlined by Patrick Wayne as Sinbad, with Jane Seymour and Patrick Troughton in good supporting roles, and a terrific villain played by Margaret Whiting, who is just awesome and gives a splendid performance. Apart from the memorable monsters, Sinbad movies had great bad guys. But the movie was seen as an old-fashioned throwback, and audiences in 1977 wanted outer space action.
Strangely, Taryn Powers, playing the daughter of Patrick Troughton’s character, is second-billed here despite a much smaller role than many of the other actors. She is the daughter of Tyrone Powers and didn’t have a really long career, but she must have had a good agent.
Our son was a little bit leery of this one, because while his memory isn’t exceptional, he definitely remembers the previous two movies being scary. This time out, the stop-motion monsters aren’t quite as memorable, though. It starts with some demon-things that interact with the live-action photography better than any previous Harryhausen fight scene, even bringing down a tent atop the human actors by striking the pole with a sword. But there’s a bronze clockwork minotaur that just steers a boat, and a big wasp whose actual size we can’t determine until it’s been killed, and a great big walrus, for some reason. But half an hour before the end of the movie, we meet a strange ally in the form of a grunting troglodyte, and “Trog” might be Harryhausen’s finest monster to that point.
But I specified monster for a reason. Sinbad’s big quest this time is to save an old friend, the rightful caliph of the city of Charak, who has been turned into a baboon. There are a couple of scenes with a prop monkey, but otherwise the animal is entirely stop-motion and the effect is just amazing. It’s almost as though Harryhausen decided to challenge himself by animating something with so much hair, and to have it be so expressive atop that is just icing. A crowd of skeletons meant less work.
Anyway, his verdict was that, like the previous Sinbad movies, he liked the film, but it was scary. I like it a lot: Wayne and Seymour are great together, Troughton is just about the most watchable actor around, Bernard Kay has a small part and he’s always worth seeing, and Margaret Whiting is just superb.
Weirdly, another film that I watched a dozen times on HBO, a few years later, was John Boorman’s Excalibur. I haven’t seen either movie in decades, and somehow my dwindling familiarity with the films long ago confused a mid-movie fate for Whiting, where her transformation from a seagull back into a human isn’t 100% effective, with that bit in Excalibur where Helen Mirren ages fifty or sixty years. Memory’s a weird thing, isn’t it?
Part three of this story ends with a delicious cliffhanger, with the Doctor and Jo trapped on a beach with a minefield on one side, four men with rifles on another, and a Sea Devil rising from the ocean. It’s a really effective scene that had our son utterly stumped how they’ll get out of this. Helicopters and International Rescue’s Mole were considered.
Speaking of effective, I love how the titular Sea Devils have completely dominated the narrative despite only appearing onscreen for maybe two minutes totally throughout the first three parts. We wondered whether our son would pick up the subtleties in how the Master has convinced Colonel Trenchard to let him take over the prison, and he didn’t. The Master has given him some song and dance about enemy agents operating in British waters, and how only he can stop them, and Trenchard will soon have the thanks of a grateful nation. I think he treated this as new, additional information, like the enemy saboteurs were real, and yet another obstacle and headache.
I think the problem with six year-old viewers is that they will take everything at face value, and not quite understand when characters are being dishonest yet. I realized this when I had to pause the first couple of Avengers episodes we watched because he didn’t really get that Steed and Mrs. Peel will lie about their undercover activities. Television that’s really designed exclusively for younger viewers will wink at the kids a little more obviously.