Monthly Archives: December 2017

The Twilight Zone 2.22 – Long Distance Call

Well, here’s a good, old-fashioned ghost story. This one was written by Charles Beaumont and William Idelson. We haven’t looked at any of Beaumont’s Zone stories so far. He wrote or co-wrote 22 episodes of the series and was just a decade into what should have been a long and amazing career before he died at the stupidly young age of 38 in 1967.

This is just an excellent little story. Young Bill Mumy, whom we’ll see in a couple more memorable Zone episodes, might be the main attraction, but I was really impressed by the actors playing his parents. Philip Abbott, who would star in The FBI for a decade, is actually hard to watch as he carries his grief so well. And when it seems like the impossible has happened and his son is talking to the much-missed grandma across the lines of a toy telephone… they do a great job selling the supernatural.

I did have half a mind that this might be too heavy an episode for our son, but he handled it really well. He does clarify that this was not scary, but “very, VERY creepy.” And he’s right. Pleasant dreams!

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RIP Heather Menzies-Urich, 1949-2017

We’re sorry to learn that actress Heather Menzies-Urich passed away this week. She played Jessica in the TV series version of Logan’s Run, but might be remembered best as one of the Von Trapp family in the classic The Sound of Music. She largely retired from acting in the 1980s, and, in the years since her husband passed away, she was the public face of the Robert Urich Foundation, raising funds for cancer research and patient care. Our condolences to her friends and family.

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Doctor Who: Death to the Daleks (part four)

Well, that was about as bad as I remembered. Like all of the many Doctor Who stories that fumble, this one has a couple of neat concepts in it. This one should feature the remarkably interesting idea of a living city, but because this is just Who by the numbers, the city is just a location for a deeply boring and slow chase with Daleks somewhere behind them. The “Pop Goes the Weasel” / “Three Blind Mice” music emphasizes just how slow and stodgy this is.

It’s never interesting, and never even fails in an entertaining way. I’m reminded of how “The Claws of Axos” looked and felt so shoddy and rushed. This doesn’t have any of that story’s weird editing decisions or poor acting, but it also doesn’t have that story’s sense of doing something weird, new, and unique. “The Claws of Axos” tried to be different. This just tries to be the same Dalek adventure that they did the previous season.

Mercifully, the Dalek adventure in the next season would try to be something entirely different!

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Doctor Who: Death to the Daleks (part three)

As we suffer through this Christmas turkey, we’d like to say thanks for reading, we hope you’re having a great holiday, and I hope you all found several classic films and TV shows under your tree! More to come later!

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The Avengers 4.21 – A Touch of Brimstone

Yes, I know, you were expecting a picture of Mrs. Peel in her Queen of Sin getup. Instead, here’s a picture of every man in Christendom upon seeing Mrs. Peel in her Queen of Sin getup. Enjoy!

The story goes that ABC declined to show this episode because of the Queen of Sin’s costume, along with the climactic fight with Peter Wyngarde, in which he starts lashing at her with a whip. I’ve contended all along that this episode wasn’t going to get shown on national American television before we got that far. There’s a scene with Wyngarde and Carol Cleveland pawing each other in bed, for starters, in an era when 99% of married couples on American TV had separate, single beds. (Gomez and Morticia Addams were the only exception I can think of, and while they were television’s most passionate couple, you may recall that they only ever kissed while standing up!)

Then we get to the “do what thou wilt being the whole of the law” ethos of the Hellfire Club and their incredibly bawdy parties, with drinking and “wenching.” They worship evil and women exist only as vessels for (sexual) pleasure. Writer Brian Clemens was pushing an envelope here.

There simply weren’t enough weeks in the calendar for ABC to show all 26 episodes from season four before they went all-color in the first week of September of 1966, so some of them weren’t going to be shown. “A Touch of Brimstone” was allegedly rejected on content grounds, and, that content spoken of in whispers, it immediately made the rounds of bootleg film prints. Some independent stations around the country bought the black and white package for local broadcasts, and some are said to have edited out most of the whipping scene. In short order, this episode became quite notorious. When I was a video trader in the mid-to-late eighties, you would occasionally see this one in lists and catalogs with notations like RARE AND UNCUT!!

At some point in the seventies, comic writer Chris Claremont landed a copy. He loved peppering his scripts with in-jokes from British film and TV, and, in 1980, reintroduced the Hellfire Club as characters in The Uncanny X-Men. One of the members looks like Peter Wyngarde as his later character, Jason King, and the evil women in their order wear variations on the Queen of Sin costume. In their 18th Century formal wear and their lingerie, they’ve been pestering the heroes of the Marvel Universe ever since, and were seen as the baddies in the 2011 film X-Men: First Class. (Though perhaps my favorite Claremont in-joke was using the Hobbs End tube station from the movie version of Quatermass and the Pit as a location for an issue of an X-Men spinoff comic.)

Our son didn’t understand this much at all, mercifully. It started with the great promise of bad guys who use exploding cigars, sneezing powder, whoopie cushions, and collapsing chairs, and then deteriorated into a lot of dumb men yelling and spilling their ale while smooching women in old-fashioned clothes. At least we can agree that Patrick Macnee, Jeremy Young, and their stunt doubles had a completely amazing swordfight. I’m not sure that Young even had a double. Colin Jeavons and Robert Cawdron are also in this one. Along with Wyngarde and Cleveland, it’s a great cast for a terrific episode: ABC’s audience in 1966 may or may not have been scandalized, but they definitely missed out.

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Doctor Who: Death to the Daleks (parts one and two)

I’ve always been one of those insufferable list-makers. Five favorite Miles Davis records, all the Bond films best to worst, make one last Beatles LP with tracks from their first couple of solo albums, and, inevitably, the five worst Doctor Who stories. Since the show came back in 2005, three of the five previous residents on that list have been replaced by new turkeys. Two of ’em even dislodged “The Twin Dilemma” as the all-time stinker. If you had told twenty year-old me after they cancelled the show “Don’t worry, it will be back one day and you’ll love it and it’ll become so popular that it will air in the US the same day it’s shown in Britain,” I wouldn’t have believed you. If you had added “And there will be two stories even worse than ‘The Twin Dilemma’,” then I’d have known for sure you were lying.

But two episodes into this rewatch, “Death to the Daleks” remains on the list. It’s dire. It was written by Terry Nation on autopilot, directed without any flair or care at all by Michael E. Briant, and the only interesting acting performance is by John Abineri, who gets killed early in part two. Duncan Lamont, who had a small but memorable role in the film version of Quatermass and the Pit, is the lead guest star, and he looks like he has better things he could be doing.

At least it starts okay. Before the sun comes up on the quarry planet of Exxilon, it’s lit well and looks creepy. But then the sun rises and we meet the boring humans and then the Daleks show up and it gets downright dull, which is Doctor Who‘s worst sin. And it sounds like the end of the world. The music is by Carey Blyton, the same oddball who ruined Doctor Who and the Silurians in 1970 with his kazoos. This time, he’s got the London Saxophone Quartet in tow, and their apparent goal was to deliberately undermine the drama in every single scene with inappropriately whimsical tunes. What could have been a crash-bang wallop cliffhanger to part one is accompanied by something about as threatening as “Pop Goes the Weasel.”

The only interesting thing that happens is the Daleks’ ray guns stop working and so they install some machine guns instead. That’s not the interesting part. What’s cute is that they practice their projectile weapon on a teeny model TARDIS. Why do they have that? Do they load a crate of toy police boxes on every Dalek ship for them to use as stress squeezies? Do the Daleks collect Doctor Who action figures, the same way humans collect trading cards of serial killers and famous criminals? Nothing happens in these two episodes as remotely interesting as wondering why they have that toy!

Our son enjoyed it, happily, with the caveat that the primitive, cave-dwelling Exxilons are much, much creepier than he’d prefer. They are really kind of frightening to him. The Daleks are as exciting as ever, and he’s surprisingly glad that they’ve had to unplug their death rays for machine guns, because the bullets are less scary!

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Return of the Jedi (1983)

There used to be a magazine that I enjoyed called Sci-Fi Universe. In 1997, they published a story called “Fifty Reasons Why We Hate Return of the Jedi.” Most of it was the sort of nitpicking that gives Star Wars such a splendid reputation, but it was all really funny, especially one key problem that I had with it when I was twelve: “It’s just a bunch of Muppets.”

And so, when I was twelve, I didn’t watch this movie. I’ve mentioned how insufferable I was as a twelve year-old before; basically, take my present levels of obnoxiousness and ramp them up to eleven. And twelve year-old me saw publicity photos of Jabba the Hutt and the Ewoks and the green pig guards and that piano-playing elephant and said “Nope, not for me.” I didn’t see this film until the early nineties. I didn’t buy a single trading card, and not one action figure. And it wasn’t like I had suddenly turned against kid-friendly sci-fi. I was addicted to DC Comics’ Legion of Superheroes in 1983, and was about eight months from discovering Doctor Who. I just had absolutely zero interest in Star Wars.

Not one frame of this boring movie has shown that I was wrong.

Regurgitating at length what I think is wrong with this movie would just be counter-productive. Overall, it just feels like a contractually-obligated hangover. I enjoy the scene where they go out to the Sarlacc, and nothing else. But this is supposed to be about evaluating or reevaluating movies with a six year-old and seeing what he sees, and he really enjoyed everything he saw.

All that physical comedy that seems like it was made for kids? It was, and it worked for him. He thought Jabba’s posse was full of frightening and menacing aliens, and the Rancor was scariness incarnate. The speeder bike chase amazed him, the space battle had him on the edge of his seat and furiously kicking his legs. I asked him to tell me more about what he thought.

“I really liked the Death Star exploding and the big fight, yeah, I loved those. And I loved that blue elephant thing, because it’s blue, and I like blue, and I like elephants, he was funny. The scariest part was when the Emperor was shooting out like, electric out of his hands. I did not like that at all, it was too creepy. The old characters were my favorites, but I also liked those furry things that were in the big fight, those little ones? I really liked those because I like furry things! The furry things caught everybody in a net, and R2-D2 cut the net and they went falling out of it!”

I would absolutely rather watch Message From Space or Starcrash than this movie. I’d rather watch any of the other Star Wars installments, even the prequels, which also suffer from Ian McDiarmid stinking up the place with his awful line delivery. But that’s great that the kid loved it. I’m glad he got to see it before he got jaded.

Actually, I will tell you what might annoy me most of all. The end of this film was likely to be the last time that the major characters ever appeared. For six years, they were just about as popular and identifiable as any characters in the popular culture of the time, parodied and imitated in equal measure. Star Wars wasn’t just some thing for children or nerds, it was mass culture and deserved its success. You might could argue that the toxic elements of fandom, along with Jar Jar Binks, eventually turned that around. Most people don’t care who or what General Grievous is, but every adult in the western world could identify Darth Vader in 1983.

The characters deserved a sendoff. We should have been able to say goodbye to them and share their final conversation together, their last words.

But we can’t hear a thing they’re saying because George Lucas figured we needed to hear the Ewoks singing their jub-jub song instead. Damn, I hate this movie.

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Doctor Who: Invasion of the Dinosaurs (part six)

I realize that in a serial packed with downright poor special effects, this is like Woody Allen pointing out the lighting choices in porn, but that Triceratops is too big.

Anyway, our son really enjoyed this story, while still wishing that there was some more dinosaur action than what we got. It’s the sort of story you either have to watch when you’re very small and can’t really tell a poor effect from a good one, or old enough to look past them as best you can and appreciate the location work and the acting. Storywise, the Pertwee era formula of five serials a season – two in four parts and three in six – once again got in the way. Cut two episodes from this, and one each from the other two six-parters, and they’d all improve and they could have spent four episodes on a sixth serial. But we have what we have, and this is in the end a very charming adventure with some really good moments despite its many problems.

This seems to write out Richard Franklin’s character of Captain Yates, who, the Brigadier tells us, will be sent on extended sick leave before getting the chance to quietly resign, but he’ll actually be back in a different capacity before long. The guest stars that I most enjoyed – John Bennett, Martin Jarvis, and Peter Miles – will also return in memorable parts in the future, and director Paddy Russell will also be back for two very good stories with Tom Baker.

Strangely, the farewell with this serial is to writer Malcolm Hulke, who had contributed so many good adventures but apparently was tired of working in television and used an argument with the producers to explain his exit. Part one of this story had a slightly modified title: just “Invasion” part one, not “Invasion of the Dinosaurs.” Hulke, who passed away three years later, was said to have been outraged by this, though what Barry Letts apparently intended was to keep the appearance of the dinosaurs a surprise.

That said, there’s an annoying claim in places like Tat Wood and Lawrence Miles’ About Time series that Letts was being foolish to try and keep the appearance of the dinosaurs at the cliffhanger of part one a surprise, when a pterodactyl and a Tyrannosaurus both show up earlier in part one. They missed the point: when you don’t know what has invaded, as indeed our son didn’t, then the revelation of these monsters at key points in part one is thrilling! It gives huge surprises to the young audience again and again, not only at the cliffhanger.

Some writers who look back at Who from the comfort of middle-aged cynicism sometimes forget that not everybody who absorbs the series does so with the crutches of the Radio Times or blogs or Wikipedia or forums or academic essays. They should watch more of it with a kid. It’s even more fun this way. You can even (mostly) overlook the special effects catastrophes.

Let’s see if my words come back to haunt me when we start the next adventure, because I don’t believe any amount of goodwill from a kid can salvage it.

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