Monthly Archives: November 2017

The Six Million Dollar Man 5.8 – Dark Side of the Moon (part one)

Afraid it’s been an unhappy Thanksgiving around the Secret Fire-Breathing Headquarters. Our son is down with a stomach bug – on all the days! – and so he was curled up under a quilt for tonight’s episode. He didn’t enjoy it a whole lot, but we have to grade on a curve because he doesn’t feel all that well.

It’s commonly understood that Star Wars killed Six and all the super-agent shows of the seventies, but they went down fighting against the space invaders with some more overt sci-fi storylines. Wonder Woman, for example, had its celebrated and ridiculous “Mind Stealers From Outer Space” story, and then there’s John Meredyth Lucas’s two-part episode “Dark Side of the Moon” from November 1977, which blows kisses of plausibility at Dr. Science and then runs off and elopes with Dr. Whatever, Man, Anything Can Happen in Science Fiction.

The villain is played by Jack Colvin, who, like the other main guest star Simone Griffeth, was a Universal regular at the time. He’s a scientist with apparent access to many millions of dollars and he secretly redirects a mission to mine some Unobtanium from an asteroid to the dark side of the moon, where he’s convinced that it can be found in abundance. His whole plan reeks of being a cover story for something more sinister because, of course, there isn’t any unobtanium to be found and he says to keep blasting, but he never even blinks to say “that’s odd.” Colvin plays the character as though he’s looking for something else, which is very strange.

So Steve has to go to the moon to find out what’s going on, because Colvin’s blasting has knocked the moon slightly out of its orbit and the weather has gone haywire. In the universe of Six, Apollo rockets are ready to go at a moment’s notice, and the landers can fly around from asteroids to the moon and back without adaptation or detection from Earth. Sometimes when a show like this, which pretends to be “the real world” with just a few changes, goes off into fantasyland it can’t help but grate a little. Lee Majors is the best thing about this hour by miles. When he picks up a frisbee left behind on a previous moon mission and tosses it into the horizon, he looks like he’s having a blast.

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Doctor Who: Planet of the Daleks (part six)

The Thals turn out to be pretty good guerrilla fighters against the Daleks once the Doctor shows up. Two Daleks get killed by the liquid ice explosion in their tunnel, two more are killed by the bomb, one falls all the way down the ventilator shaft, two get led into the ice pool on the surface, and two more are locked forever in the sealed germ lab with lethal bacteria. That seems to leave seven in this episode, so maybe sixteen on the planet in total. The Thals said that there were about a dozen Daleks here. They were off by four. Their hit and run tactics are better than their field intelligence, I guess.

In the best scene in this episode, the newly-arrived Dalek Supreme, represented by a refurbished prop from the two Dalek movies produced by Amicus in the 1960s, gets sick of one of the seven remaining Daleks’ failure and exterminates him. Our son, who really, really enjoyed all the last-minute escapes and explosions this time, had eyes like dinner plates. “Daleks killing other Daleks?!” he shouted, amazed. He was petrified by the bit where the Doctor has to drop down onto the floor of the Daleks’ refrigeration chamber and retrieve a bomb while groggy Daleks start emerging from hibernation and hid behind the sofa.

One other little moment of note: the show has told us that Jo has gone into space four times now: “Colony in Space,” “The Curse of Peladon,” “The Mutants,” and the arc of these last three stories. (Since she begins “Frontier” wearing the same outfit she wore in “Carnival,” and has Drashigs fresh on her mind, I suggest they didn’t go back to Earth between the two.) This is the second of her four trips away from our planet where she’s broken the heart of a space boyfriend. Fortunately, she looks pretty well done with space travel by the end of this one.

(Although, twelve years after this serial was made, a later TV adventure called “Timelash” would establish that this Doctor took Jo and an unnamed third traveling companion to the planet Karfel, the setting for that story. Ten years after “Timelash,” the author Paul Leonard wrote a pair of novels for Virgin Books that explained that little continuity blip, and showed that sometime after “Planet of the Daleks” but before the next adventure, the Doctor, Jo, and Captain Yates had some adventures together. I’ll only accept that as canon if Jo broke some other spaceman’s heart along the way.)

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Doctor Who: Planet of the Daleks (part five)

I don’t know why it amuses me so much in this story when the whole of seventies and eighties Doctor Who is plagued by harsh lighting, reflective surfaces, giant cracks in the studio sets where two big pieces of wood fit together, and “make everything look fake” videotape, but I swear all the stagehands who worked on “Planet of the Daleks” shared the greasiest pizza ever baked in Britain before they set up the Daleks and the props in this story. There are handprints and fingerprints on every visible surface in the Dalek base.

And, as befits a show that looks for some kind of in-story explanation for why the second Doctor looks so much older and grayer in a story made in 1985 than his final adventure back in ’69, somebody once suggested that there are handprints all over the transparent cube that houses the killer bacteria because the humanoid Spiridons left their greasy mitts all over it. My point is that if somebody had wiped the dumb thing down with a cloth before they started taping, nobody would be distracted by the unreality of the visual in the first place, and besides, there are fingerprints all over one Dalek’s eyepiece in one of the closeups, and I don’t think you’re going to convince me that the Daleks are all that likely to let the Spiridons get that up close and personal with them.

In other news, Prentis Hancock’s annoying character gets killed this time, and our son is pretty much at the point where only the lack of explosions are keeping this off his list of favorite stories. He is having an absolute blast with this one. It’s the perfect Who adventure for six year-olds, but he really likes explosions.

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Catweazle 1.12 – The Wisdom of Solomon

Here’s another odd little coincidence in our old TV-watchin’. Last night, after our son went to bed, us alleged grown-ups watched a 1964 episode of The Saint. Because I recognize so many actors from the period from their appearances in Doctor Who, I recognized Philip Latham (Borusa in “The Five Doctors”) and Ronald Leigh-Hunt (Radnor in “The Seeds of Death”), but I missed Geoffrey Bayldon completely. He plays the villain and I guess I’m so used to him in that wig and whiskers going “tch-tch-tch-tch!” that he was unrecognizable to me as a normal human!

This morning, my son and I watched the twelfth episode of Catweazle, in which one of his magic potions works incredibly well. Carrot has started school and his father has taken on a housekeeper and her monstrously unpleasant son, who are constantly belittling the Bennets behind their back. Catweazle devises a potion that forces them to speak “from their black hearts,” with massively satisfactory consequences. Would that every politician and lawmaker be forced to drink from the same well!

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Doctor Who: Planet of the Daleks (part four)

There are many reasons why I try to avoid being negative about an actor when I don’t like the performance. For one, I try to be a positive person these days. For another, I once said something dismissive on Usenet two decades ago about the actor Elijah Wood after he played a creep in an episode of Homicide: Life on the Street, and I think I closed that email account after three years of hate mail from offended Elijah Wood fans. But mainly it’s because I’m not quite as intemperate and opinionated a blowhard as I once was, and try to recognize the difference between an actor I may perceive as grating and their performance as a grating character. That’s why the less said about Michael Hawkins’ performance as the general in the previous story, the better.

But this time out, we’ve got Prentis Hancock, whom I have never liked in anything. Mind you, I’ve only actually seen him in four or five things, counting a dozen or so Space: 1999 episodes as “one thing,” but you know what I mean. It’s easy to leave a story like “Planet of the Daleks” wanting to punch him in the mouth, but that might be because no actor could rescue this moron of a character, acting impetuous and idiotic and getting all the heroes in trouble. Is it fair to blame Hancock for the one-dimensional dimwit that Terry Nation wrote? It’s not like he had the opportunity for subtlety, is there?

On the other hand, I like Bernard Horsfall a lot, but his character isn’t done any favors by the gender politics of Terry Nation’s script, either. This time, he successfully lays the guilt on his girlfriend for coming to Spiridon on the second mission, asking her how she could expect him to risk her life on this mission, and didn’t she realize that she’s now put them all in danger because he may be too worried about her to act? “No,” said my wife, seething, “she thought you could act like a professional. Jerk.” How does Horsfall come away from a similarly stupid character with my admiration for his performance while Hancock makes me want to throw things at the screen?

For what it’s worth, Jon Pertwee and Katy Manning remain magical in a production that sees Jo briefly dazed by a falling rock so big that it should have split her skull like a grapefruit, and the sinister eyes of jungle animals represented by colored light bulbs. And the Daleks – they’re the reason we’re here! – have our son absolutely enraptured. This time, two get blown “to kablooey” and another falls down a deep ventilator shaft to be smashed to pieces many hundreds of feet below. I kind of prefer these less indestructible Daleks to the modern kind, even if they do look like they’re made from wood with reflective paint.

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The Bionic Woman 3.7 – Motorcycle Boogie

Bigfoot wasn’t the only major seventies icon to appear on the bionic shows. Evel Knievel, the idol of every under-twelve in that decade who ever aspired to pop a wheelie on their bike, got to play himself and brought along some 16mm stunt footage of him jumping thirty-odd junk cars. He gets to dodge bullets and rockets, although the great big super-jump in the end is done with edits and trick photography, sadly. For those of you who like other familiar faces and places from the seventies, Spencer Milligan plays an East German agent and the Rose Bowl pretends to be a stadium in West Berlin.

Our son tried to be all cool and say that this was only kind of exciting and kind of weird, but we know better. He was in seventh heaven, of course, incredibly thrilled and happy with the story. There were motorcycles and explosions and a very straightforward, simple, and easy-to-follow story by James D. Parriott and Kenneth Johnson. It’s a light and silly adventure, along the comedic lines of the previous year’s “Black Magic.”

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Catweazle 1.11 – The Flying Broomsticks

In another weird coincidence here at Fire-Breathing Dimetrodon, we saw John Junkin this morning in Wombling Free and again tonight in the eleventh episode of Catweazle.

This time, I noticed that our son didn’t actually grasp the comedy of misunderstanding that this show does so well, so I paused the action to explain it, and we watched a deliciously funny exchange between Charles Tingwell and Neil McCarthy a second time so he could appreciate it better. The new police sergeant, a city snob played by Junkin who’s convinced all these “country people” are into pagan black magic, is investigating the theft of dozens of brooms, some of which have been returned somewhat burned. By chance, the farmhand has just accidentally burned the end of one himself, making him the sergeant’s prime suspect for running a coven. Sam thinks that he’s actually after him for an expired tag on his car. So he sadly confesses to one minor crime to his boss while giving him the idea that he’s actually a modern witch.

Of course, as soon as Carrot hears that somebody seems to be practicing magic, he knows who’s really stolen the brooms. The sergeant was onto more than he realized! Catweazle was trying some other ridiculous spell to jump through a “time fire.” At least he was good enough to try and return the brooms that he ruined in the attempt, I guess.

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Wombling Free (1977)

In my favorite part of Neil Jordan’s 2005 film Breakfast on Pluto, the character played by Cillian Murphy gets a job at a family fun park based on the BBC’s Wombles. It’s set in the mid-seventies, when the Wombles were pop culture juggernauts. The park seems to be an invention of the movie and not a real place, but you could imagine it happening. To put their dominance into perspective, in 1974, the Wombles, with their kid-friendly songs by Mike Batt, managed more weeks on the UK Singles chart than any other pop music act.

So, in that grand tradition of striking while the iron is hot, it took three more years for a Wombles feature film to be released. It is ninety minutes long, and it feels like nine hundred and ninety.

The film stars David Tomlinson and Frances de la Tour as the parents of a young teenager played by Bonnie Langford whose lives become intertwined with the rubbish-collecting residents of Wimbledon Common. The charming stop-motion puppetry and hilarious narration by Bernard Cribbins that made the TV show so engaging and cute were discarded in favor of full-size mascot costumes and voices by David Jason and Jon Pertwee. That’s kind of all you need to know about why this film isn’t going to appeal to anybody over the age of eight, and that’s pushing it. You watch the five-minute Wombles TV episodes for the delightful puppetry and silliness from Cribbins. You watch the ninety-minute Wombles movie because you have watched everything else that’s ever been made already.

I believe that this was Langford’s film debut, and it was made between the two series of Just William, where, as the spoiled rotten Violet Elizabeth Bott, she became one of the television characters that people hated above all others. Since she was unknown to American audiences, I was baffled by the hatred that Doctor Who fans expressed when she joined the show in 1986. I didn’t like her character, Mel, when I was a teenager, but I was wrong. She’s also probably the best thing about this movie, somehow. Tomlinson and de la Tour just phoned in their performances and are completely unbelievable as actual human beings in every last scene, while their young co-star is actually making the effort.

For the under-eights, this might – might – work. I won’t pretend that our experience would be repeated in your own home, but our son, six, did enjoy the musical numbers a lot, and surprised the heck out of me with a huge and happy hug when David Tomlinson finally sees and acknowledges the Wombles. Up to then, he’d been passing by them without a second glance. In the next scene, Tomlinson is doing a choreographed dance routine with the Wombles set to the tune of their popular song “Exercise Is Good For You (Laziness Is Not),” which is not something I ever expected to see.

Chris Spedding played guitar on that song. Imagine that.

I grouse, but this can actually be looked at from another angle, and that’s how downright weird the script is. What might have been major plot points in another movie are introduced and then completely abandoned. Early on, it looks like the movie’s going to be about the Wombles getting the human family to notice them so they can stop a freeway construction across their home of Wimbledon Common. Not ten minutes later, John Junkin calls off the excavators; they intended to build at Wandsworth Common. Then there’s some business with a miracle plant formula called Womgrow. If it mixes with polluted air, it could wreak havoc, and Bungo Womble is taking it to the humans, uncapped, as a gift. Disaster looms, right? But the Womgrow doesn’t even make it to the humans and is forgotten. It’s so odd!

But while the script is built to baffle, where it’s certain to offend is with the “Japanese” neighbors. Holy anna. I thought that I was used to watching dated stereotypes in films and TV from the sixties and seventies, but this surprised even me. Bernard Spear plays “the Jap chap,” and Yasuko Nagazumi is his wife, who does not speak English and dresses in full geisha costume and makeup for a dinner party. Spear can’t pronounce his Ls, talks about kamikazes, and freaking Pink Lady and Jeff was more culturally sensitive.

In short, this is certainly one of the lousiest films we’ve watched for this blog. Fugitive Alien might have been a little worse. But you know what? I kind of liked that big hug I got when Tomlinson goes to shake Great Uncle Bulgaria’s paw. I could suffer through ninety minutes for a hug that nice from a kid so happy.

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