Monthly Archives: November 2017

Doctor Who: The Green Death (part four)

So Yates and Benton are finally back in action in this episode. Yates is undercover as a man from the ministry, and Benton is leading the UNIT troops shooting at the maggots with their thick, “chitinous” armor-plated shells. You’ll note that now that almost all of the guest actors playing villagers have either been killed or have otherwise left the story, there’s room in the budget for Richard Franklin and John Levene!

The big plot development this time is the surprise that the BOSS is a seventies evil supercomputer. This cliffhanger revelation kind of baffled our son. Prior to this, though, he was really enjoying this one. There are explosions and gunfire and monsters, and the Doctor gets to disguise himself as a milkman with a thick mustache and then as a cleaning lady. He didn’t actually recognize him as the milkman, so effective was his costume in the eyes of a six year-old, but he saw right through that second disguise and had a good laugh over it. So there’s two things from the seventies you never see on television these days: room-filling supercomputers with wall-to-wall reel-to-reel tape decks, and dressing as old ladies to get laughs. Well, there’s Monty Python’s last concert film, I suppose.

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The Six Million Dollar Man 5.15 – Return of Deathprobe (part two)

That was actually much more entertaining than the first story. It was still pretty tedious, but never as stupid as the original one. It’s remarkable just how short and to-the-point this one is. There are virtually no other speaking parts beyond Steve and Oscar. Everybody else who does appear gets maybe two scenes. Steve and Oscar try a tactic to stop the Probe, it doesn’t work, they go back to the command post, get another idea, and go try again.

And do not let our son fool you. He certainly claimed to hate the Probe, but he got incredibly excited this time out. He was enjoying the heck out of this… and then he realized I had noticed him and he tried to downplay things. “Yeah, that was pretty cool…” he said at the end. If you’re between the ages of about six and nine, this is probably going to be some epic, memorable television. Older than that… well, the most challenging thing for Lee Majors in this one was maintaining his composure when the Probe blasts the engine of the bulldozer he’s driving, sending sparks everywhere. Everybody’s playing second fiddle to a big black tank. It’s not really an hour of entertainment for grownups.

This was the final appearance for the Probe, and indeed the last time any of the recurring villains or baddies would appear in either of the bionic series. But the Probe had one last outing in another time and place. The prop was redressed and used in 1980 as the Crimebuster in the Andy Kaufman comedy Heartbeeps. I can appreciate Kaufman, but the Crimebuster is the only good thing about that movie! I wonder whether the prop ever appeared anywhere else, or whether it was sold off to a collector. It was probably scrapped, but maybe it’s still in some garage someplace.

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The Six Million Dollar Man 5.14 – Return of Deathprobe (part one)

The original Death Probe two-parter may have been unbelievably dopey, but it was also unbelievably popular, inspiring a toy in Kenner’s line of Six Million Dollar Man dolls and accessories, and, heck, somebody already paid for that big prop, so they might as well use it again. Happily, this sequel is at least starting out much, much more interesting than the original one.

In the first story, we had all this nonsense with comedy small-town cops and Russian sleeper agents in the way of any mechanical mayhem. This one still leaves the Probe rolling around the desert not doing much of anything for half of the hour, but there’s an interesting mystery about who these villains are, and what they have to do with both the Soviet Union and a middle eastern Nosuchlandia – kind of a Kuwait substitute, I think.

Our son somehow remains the only child in America who does not like the Death Probe. It’s too powerful, too scary, and now it’s got these big mean drills on the front. Weird kid.

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Catweazle 1.13 – The Trickery Lantern

If the last episode of Catweazle‘s first series had been made today, it might have had a slightly different vibe. This time, Carrot’s aunt is visiting, and she’s convinced that the farm has been haunted for many years. She saw a ghost there four decades before, and this ghost, amazingly, seems to have looked and sounded like Catweazle. When she meets him in Carrot’s room, she describes their earlier encounter, and he doesn’t know what she’s talking about.

It might have been a bit above the heads of the kid audience in 1970 to have Catweazle briefly materialize in 1930 on his way back to his time, just long enough to provide Carrot’s aunt with the memory of seeing him. That’s the problem with looking back at older television: we’re slightly spoiled by all the fun time travel stuff that came later on in media – the Back to the Future movies, the “Future Echoes” episode of Red Dwarf, all of Steven Moffat’s silliness on Doctor Who – that it’s a little unfair to expect a much more straightforward kids’ show in 1970 to go that same route.

Anyway, there really weren’t very many laughs in this last half hour, although Catweazle’s departure scene is actually quite beautifully shot. Our son said that he didn’t really like this episode all that much, but he loves the show overall, and had a good time watching it.

We’ll have a look at the second series of Catweazle in a couple of months, so stay tuned for that!

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Doctor Who: The Green Death (parts two and three)

Getting to the halfway point of this favorite of mine, I picked these two episodes to watch in one evening because if almost all the six-part Doctor Who stories could be edited to five without much incident, a lot of part two of this one could certainly be culled. It’s one of the flaws of the story: the Doctor tries to break into Global Chemicals to steal some cutting equipment that they won’t give freely and fails, and that’s all about six minutes of story that doesn’t go anywhere.

I also think that the Brigadier goes about the confrontation with Stevens in part three entirely the wrong way, wasting more time. He should have warned Stevens that there is something in those mines that could be threatening Global Chemicals. Instead, he makes an enemy of him far too soon. The whole premise of “we might have to close your refinery until we get to the bottom of this” is absolutely guaranteed not to work. Of course, the Brigadier may have remembered how he once tried to convince Peter Miles that they needed to investigate threats to his power station in Wenley Moor and got nothing but grief for it, but Miles’ character was an unhinged nut, and Jerome Willis’s Stevens seems so very reasonable.

And we learn this time that Stevens has a boss, called BOSS, with the silky and sinister voice of John Dearth. Great little double-act, those two.

Last month, we watched a Six Million Dollar Man adventure that was made a couple of years after “The Green Death” and I noticed a fun little similarity. In “Fires of Hell,” there’s a similar situation where a big corporate pollution machine becomes the economic engine driving a remote town and there’s a small group of ecology-minded hippies opposing them. I think it’s interesting that in both stories, the corporation is the villain and our heroes ally themselves with the hippies. There are certainly differences in the two stories – a crooked cop is helping the corporation in Six while there are apparently no police within a hundred miles of Llanfairfach, and it’s not really the corporation in Six but one greedy dude – but it struck a chord of amusement.

I really enjoy the hippies of Wholeweal. I think the writers did a great job making a believable little community from two speaking parts and some busy extras. I love how the Brigadier mostly relaxes and enjoys a supper of toadstool steaks and local wine while the Doctor entertains the dinner party with anecdotes of Venusian shanghorns and perigosto sticks. And of course I love how Jo falls completely in love with Cliff Jones and makes it look so believable and real. Later Doctor Who romances would be far, far less believable than this. Of course, Katy Manning and Stewart Bevan were actually a couple at the time, which probably helped.

I’ve got this far without mentioning the maggots. Because a Christmastime repeat of this story, edited into a two-hour TV movie, got one of the highest ratings that Doctor Who ever received in the UK, something like one in every five people in the country spent the next few decades asking “Man, you remember that Doctor Who with the giant maggots?” They’re not quite as amazing as the somewhat similar Drashigs, because using yellow-screen chromakey to move the puppets across the floor of the Wholeweal studio set isn’t completely successful, but they’re terrific, gross monsters, and has our son, who has memorized every word in his book Everything You Need to Know About Bugs feverishly wondering what this maggots will develop into before the end of the story.

This is a long post, but one last thing to mention: the sets in this story are downright amazing. Many people have written about how great the coal mine tunnels are, and they’re certainly right, but that room on the surface with the elevators and the huge spinning wheel is really something. I was impressed when Jon Pertwee rams a crowbar into the spinning thing to slow it, releasing a shower of sparks and a cloud of smoke. When you remember the “taped as live” nature of BBC television in that decade, it’s even more remarkable. If Pertwee wasn’t holding on tight, that bar could have been thrown into Talfryn Thomas’s head! I can’t imagine the health and safety representatives allowing the star of a television series to do anything like that in the eighties.

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The Last Dinosaur (1977)

“That was partly scary, partly cool, and partly I didn’t know what was going on,” announced our son after we watched the full theatrical version of The Last Dinosaur. Good thing that the Warner Archive people released that edition and not the US TV one, which has fifteen minutes cut out; he’d probably be even more confused by that.

Rankin/Bass had been working with Japanese production companies since the 1960s. While the company will always be best known for its stop-motion holiday specials that were part of every American seventies kid’s childhood, many of these featured animation done by Japanese studios. Rankin/Bass also had worked with Toei on the sixties cartoon The King Kong Show, and with Toho on an incredibly fun movie adaptation of that program, called King Kong Escapes. They also contracted with Mushi for animation for some of their TV specials, so their people knew some people when it was time for some international co-productions.

By 1975, Tsubaraya Productions was looking for new projects to diversify and become more than just the Ultraman studio. With Rankin/Bass, they found B-movie heaven. Thanks in no small part to the incompetent dub jobs by Sandy Frank’s crew, much of Tsubaraya’s seventies sci-fi output is rich in unintentional comedy, but The Last Dinosaur, along with two subsequent fantasy movies, The Bermuda Depths and The Ivory Ape, are a lot more obscure and have a little better reputation. I can’t speak for the other two, but while The Last Dinosaur may not be art, it’s certainly entertaining.

It stars Richard Boone as the world’s richest man, an industrialist and big game hunter, along with Joan Van Ark as a photojournalist, Steven Keats as a handsome scientist, and former Cavaliers backup center Luther Rackley as a Masai tracker who doesn’t have any dialogue. In a premise shamelessly pilfered from Burroughs with a hint of Verne, oil exploration has found a hidden prehistoric valley in the Arctic circle. It’s a much smaller Land That Time Forgot on the other side of the planet, with far fewer monsters.

Naturally, there’s only one tyrannosaur left, meaning they timed this exploration just right, because these things can’t have that long a lifespan. This thing is incredibly violent and lethal. After killing four of the five members of the previous expedition, the dinosaur has one from this party for lunch before taking on a triceratops in a remarkably bloody fight. By the end, the beast has my respect as well as the big game hunter’s. He’s an incredibly ruthless opponent.

Wikipedia claims that the tyrannosaur suit was reused for Tsubaraya’s idiotic cartoon/live-action hybrid TV show Dinosaur War Aizenbourg, but I’m not sure about that. Maybe the body, but they took away the great-looking head from this movie and gave the TV beast a different one. On the other hand, The Last Dinosaur‘s head is shown to be a bit more hollow than something which should have a skull in it when a catapulted boulder betrays its rubber reality.

I’ve never been a fan of Richard Boone – not even in Have Gun, Will Travel, which everybody likes more than I do – but Joan Van Ark is great in this, and I do appreciate the way the actors get incredibly muddy and disheveled in this film. The script has a couple of surprises – it’s not an overnight jaunt, like some in this genre – and an interesting ending. It does go on a bit in between dinosaur attacks, as these sort of films from the era often did, leading to a fake yawn from our favorite six year-old critic, but he came around in the end. I asked him whether he enjoys monster movies because they’re partly scary. “Yeah, and because they have monsters in them.”

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Doctor Who: The Green Death (part one)

So it’s time for the end of another season of Doctor Who, and another big season finale written by Robert Sloman and Barry Letts. “The Green Death” was directed by Michael E. Briant and I think it’s thunderously entertaining. I really like this story a lot.

Watching the first part in isolation is a really fun experience. This is clearly a case – and a very rare case in the original run of Doctor Who – of a story built entirely around a companion’s departure. Jo Grant lets the Doctor know in the first episode that she does not want to gallivant off into space to have fun anymore when there’s a planet of her own to save. He knows, then, that their traveling days are over, but he thinks that she’ll still be with UNIT and they’ll work together when he comes back to Earth. And as befits a story built around the companion leaving, Katy Manning dominates this story. It’s all about her character and Katy is fantastic. It’s almost a shame that the very next Doctor Who companion would be so many people’s pick for the all-time best, because she overshadows Jo so much; at this point in the series, Jo is actually tied with Barbara as my favorite companion.

Anyway, this story is set in Llanfairfach, a town in south Wales that is suffering from the closure of its coal mine, and where an outfit called Global Chemicals has set up. Global’s director is a fellow named Stevens, played by the awesome Jerome Willis. He’d later play the disagreeably cautious Peele in The Sandbaggers. And it really, seriously looks like Stevens is under the control of the Cybermen. Honestly, this story looks and feels like a sequel to 1968’s “The Invasion.” It isn’t, but watch the scene where Stevens’ mind starts to wander and he loses track of what he was saying. It’s not quite as obvious an “I’m being controlled” performance as, say, Michael Sheard in part one of “Remembrance of the Daleks,” but something’s up. And then he puts on this futuristic-looking headphone set…!

But as much as I enjoy this story, it does have a couple of problems. One of these, which I may return to, is that the story’s heart is definitely in the right place, but its “pollution BAD alternative energy GOOD” tone is incredibly shrill and would be far less dated if it were a little less right-on. Another is a structural problem that leads me to employ the “unflattering cultural stereotypes” tag on this episode.

Since I’m almost totally unfamiliar with Welsh culture, I didn’t see anything as outlandish as, say, all the Scottish stereotyping in the Avengers episode “Castle De’ath,” but it isn’t really a case of employing cliche, it’s setting a story in Wales but telling a story about Englishmen. Tat Wood penned an essay in About Time entitled “Why Didn’t Plaid Cymru Lynch Barry Letts?,” and I don’t know that I would have noticed the problem until I read that. See, the Welsh characters in this story, even though they’re played by Welsh actors like Talfyrn Thomas, are not in control of their destiny. People from London are. Global Chemicals has moved to Llanfairfach to take advantage of the closed mine, and the hippie commune that opposes Global – about which more next time – is similarly made up of people who’ve dropped out and moved to the area because they share the young Professor Jones’s ideals and dreams.

Between these forces, the Welsh people here have no agency. They’re all unemployed, apart from the milkman and a few part-timers who inspect the mine for safety and, as we’ll see, green slime. And this story isn’t about them, even though they’re the ones who feel the immediate impact of what’s going on, as people start coming out of the mine bright green and dead. It’s about Jo first, and about Global Chemicals versus the Wholeweal Community second. That, along with the script making sure that the milkman says “boyo,” is what makes this a little unflattering.

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The Six Million Dollar Man 5.9 – Dark Side of the Moon (part two)

Overall, the main problem with this story is that it’s one missed opportunity after another. It all climaxes with yet another very boring “time is running out to do something about the bomb” situation, and what they do about the bomb is so amazingly improbable that Dr. Science’s acid reflux started acting up again. Jack Colvin’s flunkies are operating under the delusion that their crimes on the moon will work wonders for their careers. Steve never thinks to tell them that they have already killed hundreds of people and will probably end up killing millions before they’re done. There may not be a United States to come back to, and they’ll certainly never see the money Colvin promised them.

But if we must have this nonsense of a megaton bomb that can’t be moved because of a fluid motion sensor, Marie spotted the obvious solution. They’ve gone on and on about the dark side of the moon being at absolute zero and punched a hole from the surface into the mine shaft to freeze Steve’s bionics via a long steel rod. (That’s ten shades of Dr. Science having a headache, so we won’t go into how they’re keeping their artificial underground environment stable with an open borehole to the surface…) Why didn’t they just freeze the fluid in the sensor when they had a hole to the freezing surface right there?

I’d like to not be too critical, because this is for kids, and there’s some science that children can use and bring back to school Monday morning, but the rest of this is just painfully silly! Ah, well, Colvin does a good job playing the calculating and emotionless villain… even if he is pretty blasted wrong to calculate that he’ll return to Earth a rich scientific hero, he comes pretty close to getting away with it.

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