Monthly Archives: January 2018

Doctor Who: Robot (part four)

If you were to ask me, the boring old Mr. Grouchy Adult that I am, I’d say that “Robot” could have been safely wrapped up in three episodes. But that would rob our son of his favorite part of the serial. The Brigadier blasts the robot with the disintegrator gun, and, thanks to a little technobabble magic, the robot grows to giant size.

From the boring light of adulthood, this doesn’t look particularly convincing, and while director Christopher Barry does as good a job as can be expected, something shows up in shot after shot that destroys a grown-up’s suspension of disbelief. At the very least, it genuinely does look better than those dinosaurs from a few stories ago.

But our kid adored it. He shouted “Whoops!” when the robot started growing and it was all as convincing to him as Hollywood’s latest bit of CGI mayhem. After that mid-serial lull, he completely loved this story, and he believed in it, because he’s six and hasn’t become jaded by special effects. The new Doctor’s off to a fine start for him, and, with Lt. Harry Sullivan joining the Doctor and Sarah in the TARDIS, it’s time for Barry Letts to leave the role of producer to the new man in charge, Philip Hinchcliffe. And we’ll see what his take on the series will be this weekend.

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Doctor Who: Robot (part three)

Beginning with the most important thing about tonight’s episode, our son was much, much happier with it. It’s full of action and explosions, and at the end, a tank shows up, which thrilled him to no end, as he knew instinctively that the tank would be disintegrated.

It’s also full of UNIT troops not using their brains very much. The villains and the robot escape from the SRS meeting because not one of the dozen or so soldiers thinks to shoot out their truck’s tires. Honestly, this story could have ended here and been a satisfying three-parter. All the business at the bunker is less entertaining than what’s come before. It’s never more entertaining than when the Doctor agrees with the Brigadier that only Great Britain could be trusted with international secrets, because the rest are all foreigners. That’s one of my favorite lines in the whole program.

Unfortunately, there’s a conclusion that will require some visual effects trickery, something not unlike what we saw in the story “Invasion of the Dinosaurs.” To make the joins a little less visible, if you take my meaning, the production team decided to mount this entire production on videotape. That way we won’t have the tank in part three (and the robot in part four) videotaped in the studio on a blue screen, and then chromakeyed into a 16mm film picture.

Part of me is glad that they learned from their earlier work, but another, bigger, part of me just loathes the look and feel of “outside broadcast” location video. This was only used sporadically until Doctor Who‘s last four seasons in the late eighties, when the whole program was taped. I’m absolutely fine with it in the studio, but sending those sorry camcorders on location just emphasizes the robot’s unreality to me. It’s a shame they couldn’t have taken both a film camera and an OB camera on location, videotaped the necessary bits for the visual effects team and filmed all the action stuff. It would have looked so much better.

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Doctor Who: Robot (part two)

I’m afraid I spoke too soon when I said last time that this is a straightforward and simple adventure for six year-olds. This episode introduces the plot complication that the villains, Miss Winters and Mister Jellico, are members of a fascist fringe group called the Scientific Reform Society, and that just left our son behind completely. The scene where Sarah puts on her journalism hat and trendy seventies clothes and gets some information from them might as well have been delivered in pig Latin, because he didn’t get what was happening at all!

Actually, what he really needs to take from this scene is that the delightful thing about watching old television is that we can time travel back to the days when outfits like that were the in thing. Once they put a stop to Winters and Jellico, Sarah’s going to wear this outfit when she interviews Elton John before his Saturday night gig at the Rainbow.

After starting well, this one’s obviously cratering a bit for him. He loved part one, was thrilled by the sight of the giant robot, and the Doctor’s oddball rudeness, including going to sleep on his lab table, is really fun for him. But then we not only got all talky with people who didn’t make sense to him, but also the Doctor has a cliffhanger confrontation with the robot that really looks like it’s going very badly for him.

It strikes me that seeing the Doctor in physical jeopardy and about to get beaten up isn’t a very common turn of events in the show. Another incident was the end of part three of “The Three Doctors.” He was also very, very aggravated when Jon Pertwee’s Doctor was getting thrown around Omega’s “mind palace” by the villain’s weird pig-faced champion. Revealing a monster or a Dalek or a giant robot is a thrill, but seeing the hero get pummeled is emphatically not.

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Clash of the Titans (1981)

I remember the summer of 1981 pretty well. That was when I was old enough to go to the movies with a friend without a grownup. That was quite a summer for films. I remember going to see For Your Eyes Only, Dragonslayer, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Clash of the Titans several times. Five bucks would get me a matinee, popcorn, Coke, and a complaint from my mother that movies used to cost a dime.

Grown-up movie critics thought that Clash of the Titans was old hat, but not to this ten year-old. You may recall that Tom Hanks once said that Jason and the Argonauts is the greatest movie ever made. Objectively, Clash isn’t as good, but it had absolutely everything that ten year-old me could ask for. There are monsters, blood, angry Greek gods, a skeletal ferryman, and seven or eight seconds of nudity. This was the best use of five dollars anybody had ever come up with.

Honestly, this really is a little old hat, and perhaps not Ray Harryhausen’s finest film, but it’s still entertaining, and since he was planning to retire after it, it’s a high point, just not his highest. It’s another of his classic quest stories, this time drawn from the myths and legends of ancient Greece, and the visual effects are as good as ever. Laurence Olivier, Maggie Smith, and Ursula Andress scheme and backstab on Mount Olympus, and on Earth, Harry Hamlin, Burgess Meredith, Siân Phillips, Judy Bowker, and Tim Piggot-Smith get caught up in their machinations.

None of them get caught as badly as Neil McCarthy, whom our son remembers fondly as Sam from the first series of Catweazle. For the crime of slaughtering Zeus’s winged horses, Calibos is turned into a deformed, demonic creature, portrayed by McCarthy in the closeups and by stop-motion animation in longer shots. During their first fight, Perseus slices off one of Calibos’s hands. The villain replaces his lost hand with a small trident, and, proving that he wasn’t paying the strictest attention in the world, when we see Calibos later, our son asked “Why does he have a fork?”!

It did, mercifully, register that Burgess Meredith was playing the role of Perseus’s friend, the poet and playwright Ammon. That might be because I pointed out his name in the credits. “You know who that is, right? He’s been in three Twilight Zones and he was the Penguin in Batman, okay?” I’ll get this kid recognizing character actors, by Zeus.

But overall, he was not quite as wild about this as I was as a kid. Marie suggested that I was a couple of years older during my weeks of seeing this again and again, and it’s probably also true that the ferryman Charon blew my mind because, in 1981, I was a bigger fan of Marvel Comics’ Ghost Rider than any other boy in America. I just liked skeletons a whole lot then. Our son even protested that the Kraken’s four arms were excessive.

But another reason this wasn’t a mammoth success is that this is one of those rare films that actually opens with the scene that he loved the most. The Kraken’s destruction of the city of Argos was the high point, and the rest of the movie, even the amazing battle against Medusa, didn’t compare. He did, however, get all hunched up and worried during that fight. Then he complained afterward that Medusa didn’t use “her eye weapon” as much in the fight as he wanted.

In fairness, though, he has already seen Jason of the Argonauts.

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Doctor Who: Robot (part one)

At the end of 1974, Tom Baker’s first episode of Doctor Who first aired. Writer Terrance Dicks believed that this should be a simple and straightforward adventure story for audiences to get used to the new lead actor, and he seems to have absolutely nailed how to hook any six year-olds in the crowd. Our kid loved this. There are no politics and no complicated “life in the seventies was like this” distractions about communes or meditation centers. There’s just a big stomping robot stealing the ingredients for a top secret disintegrator gun. Along the way, the Doctor checks himself out of the sick bay, frustrates UNIT’s medical officer, and tries on some new clothes. There’s not a six year-old on the planet who wouldn’t enjoy this.

Behind the scenes, this is a time of massive change. “Robot” was videotaped at the end of the same production block as Jon Pertwee’s last stories, making it the final story for Barry Letts as producer. He’ll be back in different capacities down the line, though. It’s the first story for Robert Holmes, who had written several memorable stories previously, as the script editor, but the previous script editor is still around! Terrance Dicks kind of shamelessly told the new boy that there was a BBC tradition that incoming script editors were expected to promptly commission a script from their predecessor. This way, while Dicks was no longer on the BBC payroll, he could still net some quick freelance work before his next assignment. The director is Christopher Barry, the veteran who had helmed several Who serials already, including Patrick Troughton’s first story.

Onscreen, UNIT, represented again by Nicholas Courtney and John Levene, has a new member, a naval medical officer called Harry Sullivan, played by Ian Marter. He had been up for the role of Captain Yates four years previously, and was cast because the original ideas for a new Doctor had been for an older and less active leading man. Famously, Richard Hearne and Fulton Mackay had been offered the part, but both of them turned it down – in Mackay’s case, because a sitcom pilot he’d done, Porridge, had been picked up as a series – and it went to Tom Baker, then forty years old and not getting nearly as much acting work as he should have had. His agent couldn’t find him anything after he’d filmed The Golden Voyage of Sinbad in the summer of ’73 and he was working with a construction crew in London to make ends meet while the movie was in theaters. The glamour of showbiz, folks.

And of course Elisabeth Sladen is back as Sarah Jane. This is one of the few times that we get to see her working as a journalist, and unknowingly – because, again, this is a simple story for the young viewers to easily manage – working the other end of the disintegrator gun angle. UNIT and the Doctor are looking into the thefts and she’s working on a story about the thieves, leading up to a memorable cliffhanger when the great big robot looms over her. We don’t see the robot in full just yet, which our son loved. He said that he now knows what its feet, hands, and head look like, and now he just needs to see the body and legs!

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Catweazle 2.5 – The Black Wheels

Technology stuns our hero again in this story. Catweazle, digging in the local garbage dump, has unearthed an old album of 78 records. He doesn’t know what these black wheels are. Meanwhile, Peter Butterworth’s character is down with laryngitis and has lost his voice. The revelation that lost voices cannot be found as echoes in wells, but can be stored on black wheels, really is hilarious.

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MacGyver 1.6 – Trumbo’s World

My wife picked this episode because she figured our son would enjoy a story about a horde of billions of soldier ants. He did, but liked it best for MacGyver’s makeshift flamethrower, and gave it two thumbs up while jumping up and down. Sounds like a winner to me.

Now, when she picked it, I was immediately reminded of a famous short story called “Leningen Versus the Ants.” Well, I remember the name, and that I read it in high school, but I don’t remember anything else about it. Earlier this week, when I bemoaned the pilfering of footage from The Italian Job for the climax of another MacGyver tale, one of our readers, Donald, gave us the heads-up that this episode uses footage from a Charlton Heston movie called The Naked Jungle, which is in fact an adaptation of “Leningen Versus the Ants.”

I totally understand the necessity for stock footage for establishing shots or a visual effect here and there. I mean, you drive a white Jaguar into a quarry and blow it up, you might as well stick a marked-for-death supporting character into a white Jaguar in the next program you make. Since tonight’s episode was set in Brazil, with ants, I expected some stock shots of tropical birds, trees, and insects. But this looks like writer Stephen Kandel and the set dressers were given copies of The Naked Jungle and were told “Do that, only have MacGyver build a couple of crazy things too.” It was actually a pretty fascinating experience, watching the new material and the old fit together almost seamlessly, and far more naturally than in “Thief of Budapest.” Even without the stock footage to beef up the action, this hour was a remarkable undertaking. This can’t have been easy to make.

Speaking of marked for death, that’s Peter Jurasik above as MacGyver’s old friend Charlie. Right around the time this aired, Jurasik’s occasional character on Hill Street Blues, Sid the Snitch, was becoming a semi-regular. Trumbo, the Leningen character, is played by familiar eighties guest star Peter Ackroyd. MacGyver’s Calgary Flames hat doesn’t seem to make it out of this episode in one piece, but he’ll have others. My wife mentioned that Anderson was a hockey fan back when we were dating and we went to a Gwinnett Gladiators game, but I honestly don’t remember whether Col. Jack O’Neill on Stargate SG-1 was also a Flames fan. Teal’c, I believe, favored Vancouver.

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The Wrong Trousers (1993)

With no disrespect at all to Nick Park’s undeniable talent and skill as a director, I believe that the Wallace & Gromit franchise owes everything to the co-writer who began working with Aardman on this 1993 film. It’s Bob Baker, who had worked on nine Doctor Who serials in the seventies, along with credits on everything from cop shows to children’s serials. With Baker on board, there’s more structure and more happening around our heroes. They’re not in a vacuum like in the first film, and while it’s a perfectly charming vacuum for half an hour, the sense of scale and the larger environment in The Wrong Trousers makes for a far, far better movie.

I first saw this on WGTV one Friday evening in 1994 or 1995 and immediately made a pest out of myself to anybody who would listen. I must have shown the tape I made of this to three dozen people, and every single person burst a lung laughing over the model train climax. That happened again tonight. When Gromit grabbed that box of spare track, I thought my son was going to pop.

This might be my favorite overall Wallace and Gromit adventure. I’m not entirely sure, because I can’t honestly compare it to the next one. As I’ll explain one day next month, I’ve deliberately only watched A Close Shave just once and don’t remember much of anything about it. But Trousers rewards rewatching, particularly with a kid who’s old enough to read what’s on screen, and especially with a kid who absolutely loves building things. Wallace’s inventions and contraptions have him captivated even before the mayhem begins, and once that happens, he’s in heaven.

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