Monthly Archives: March 2018

Doctor Who: The Seeds of Doom (parts one and two)

Lots of little things help us suspend disbelief in television, and one of them is that the protagonist and his antagonists need to be participating in the same balancing act. Here’s an illustration: there have been all sorts of westerns at all levels of melodrama. Marshal Dillon from Gunsmoke needs a certain type of villain who plays by the rules of his world’s narrative, and Bret Maverick needs a different type of villain for his, and the Man With No Name needs another one for his. If you break those rules and give one of those heroes a villain who plays the game a different way, the narrative will jar. It’s not only the mix in appropriate acting styles for the production, the whole world will seem off.

That’s what happens when the Doctor meets Scorby, a henchman played by John Challis. You’ll occasionally find critiques of “The Seeds of Doom” that say it feels wrong. That’s because Scorby has wandered in from an entirely different program. The Doctor has met “ruthless” characters before, but they’re Doctor Who ruthless. The Doctor disarms them with witty banter and makes them respond with television tough-guy language like “Have a care, Doctor!” Even while that ruthless henchman is pointing a gun at him, the Doctor is the hero who’s still in charge waiting for the last minute rescue. (Think Mailer back in “The Mind of Evil” for a good example.) This is the Doctor’s show, and these are the rules of this world.

But Scorby doesn’t play by those rules. The Doctor quips and jokes in the face of death and it doesn’t work. Scorby might have come from The Sweeney, where a hero figure like the Doctor wouldn’t be any more successful than DI Regan would have been at foiling any phase of the Kraals’ invasion. And since Scorby has the upper hand, he ignores all the Doctor’s tricks and leaves with Sarah – not as a hostage, just to kill her after she leads him to another point in the plot – and the Doctor, helpless and desperate, is reduced to screaming after him. It’s an amazing moment, but anybody who says the show feels “wrong” is quite correct. I think this is the reason why.

Anyway, our son remembered that an earlier story was called “The Seeds of Death,” and he decided, in his inimical fashion, that the two stories would be very similar, except the first one would have more death and less doom, and this one would have more doom and less death. He’s actually right, because the tone of the two productions couldn’t be more different. Tom Baker is playing the Doctor as genuinely scared for the first time, and the whole thing, even with the horrible plant-man stomping around an Antarctic research base, feels doom-laden, but it won’t have quite the body count of the Patrick Troughton story.

“The Seeds of Doom,” written by Robert Banks Stewart, is another one with a great reputation for scaring younger viewers, but fortunately ours is actually young enough to not really be bothered by the body horror aspect of it. Nor was he concerned by the exceptionally grisly suggestion in part one that a character’s arm might have to be amputated. Actually, the really grisly aspect was convincing a character that he has no choice but to perform that surgery, but that’s more frightening to adults! Both cliffhangers had him hiding, but these are more traditional monster scares.

Once again, and sadly for the final time, the direction and the music are from the dream team of Douglas Camfield and Geoffrey Burgon. In the role of master villain Harrison Chase, whom the Doctor has yet to meet, it’s the great Tony Beckley, who had played Camp Freddie in The Italian Job, which is probably another reason why I should show that fun film to our son when he’s a little older!

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The Avengers 5.6 – The Winged Avenger

A few weeks ago, I mentioned that the Batman show had a huge impact on popular media. It wasn’t just the rush of television series about superheroes, most of which were doomed to fail pretty quickly as the craze faded, but the influence of a bigger-than-life and often deliberate, camp, approach to action and adventure. American shows like Lost in Space, The Man From UNCLE, and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea made the move from black and white to color pretty smoothly, but within a year, they were all getting really ridiculous, with unbelievable villains, deathtraps, monsters, and outrageous acting.

The Avengers navigated the bombastic change with a lot more grace than the show’s American counterparts, but they still took the time during this larger-than-life period to parody Batman with this very silly and very fun story by writer Richard Harris about a comic book character – “superhero” doesn’t seem quite right – who has come to life. The Winged Avenger looks like Hawkman wearing a Captain Harlock costume and, while his creators squabble over whether it’s the writer or the artist who is the real genius, their creation stalks the night murdering ruthless businessmen.

“Comic books” like we know them in America didn’t really exist in the UK at the time. Frank Bellamy, who provided the Winged Avenger illustrations, was at the time best known for painting the Thunderbirds strip in TV Century 21, but he’d worked on other large-format anthology “papers” like the Eagle and Look and Learn for more than a decade. There’s a clue in how the script refers to the character as the star of a “picture strip,” which was the typical term in the UK at the time, but the prop comics shown in the episode are American-style, with the Winged Avenger the star of his own 32-page book instead of appearing weekly as a two-page story. Also, the studio setup, with the creators hiring costumed models to pose for the art, is a lot more like what Frank Hampson pioneered for Dan Dare in the Eagle than any shoestring-budget American funnybook company in the sixties.

(For what it’s worth, at this time the actual Batman comic was most commonly seen in the UK by way of hardback annuals that reprinted American issues, while the popular 1960s daily newspaper strip was reformatted and appeared weekly on two pages of Smash! throughout 1967-68.)

And all this silliness ends with a very fun pop art climax that sees Steed walloping the Winged Avenger with great big panel boards that read POW! SPLAT! and BAM! Our son enjoyed this episode, and was repeating the costumed menace’s trademark line “Eee-URP!” whenever possible, but in the same way he somehow didn’t connect Wallace and Gromit’s launch sequence as a parody of Thunderbirds, he took this at face value and didn’t see it as a wink at Batman at all, just a great fight scene on its own accord. It’s so fascinating how he processes these things.

Anyway, here’s Nigel Green with a falcon and a gun. It turns out to not be really relevant to the story, but he looks fantastic with them, doesn’t he? Other familiar faces in the episode include Neil Hallett, Colin Jeavons, and Donald Pickering. Part of the episode was filmed at the absolutely beautiful Stanmore Hall near Birmingham. Some exteriors for “From Venus With Love” were shot here as well. It’s a mammoth, majestic building with incredible stone work, and then the studio interiors are so flimsy that the fake staircase that the actors climb wobbles like it’s made of cardboard!

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Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005)

So we watched The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, and, during the climax, my wife got off the sofa and sat elsewhere. “When you write this one,” she instructed, “make sure that you note that our son loved it so much that he kicked his mother in the head.” This I now do.

Thank heaven we didn’t see this one in a theater. The kid laughed and exploded so much over it that he thrashed and danced and punched the air and, indeed, kicked furiously. We don’t get in his way when he needs to hide from anything scary, and nor do we discourage his animated happiness, but we do chide him when he gets restless and can’t keep still. It’s never occurred to us before that we might want to tell him to calm down the happy dancing and laughing. It’s just so infectious that it’s never been an issue before! Then again, he’s getting bigger every day.

I did, however, see this one in a theater and I know all about happy dancing there. The Curse of the Were-Rabbit was Aardman’s second feature film, following 2000’s Chicken Run. It seemed to be a big success, but studios, with their strange way of accounting, sometimes see these things differently and Aardman’s partner, Dreamworks, said that it wasn’t. But it made tons of money and won an Oscar and had me unable to breathe from laughing with a quiet throwaway gag right in the middle that pays tribute to Watership Down, another movie about rabbits. I don’t remember much of anything after that.

The film was directed by Nick Park and Steve Box, with a script by Park, Box, Bob Baker and Have I Got News For You‘s Mark Burton. Joining Peter Sallis in the studio this time out are Helena Bonham Carter as Lady Tottington, Ralph Fiennes as a big game hunter, and a great ensemble including Geraldine McEwen, Mark Gatiss, and Peter Kay as villagers who thought their rabbit problem had been solved by our heroes before the movie opens… and then a giant were-rabbit stalks the night.

The movie is just packed with fun allusions to old movies while also referencing the previous three shorts, for the benefit of audiences (principally American, I’d imagine) who’d never seen them. Wallace’s morning routine with the trap door floor and clothes-putter-onner gets another outing, there’s a new Thunderbirds-style launch sequence for their pest control van, and the climax is another unlikely madcap chase that pretends like it’s obeying the laws of physics. The story is Frankenstein by way of that sort of only-in-movies folk horror which features a vicar who has seen the beast with his own eyes and has a forbidden book that tells how to destroy it. It’s a great and hilarious movie, and it’s not possible to watch it without smiling and laughing, but hopefully you can restrain yourself from kicking your mother in the head.

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The Twilight Zone 3.16 – Nothing in the Dark

I confess I blinked a couple of times when I sat down and looked at IMDB a few years ago and decided which Twilight Zones I wanted to watch. Robert Redford! You catch a lot of rising stars watching television from the early sixties, but it’s always a treat to find somebody of Redford’s caliber doing a very low budget half hour with two other speaking parts and one set.

And then what’s really funny is that Redford’s character is introduced on his back and upside down to us. He plays a policeman in George Clayton Johnson’s “Nothing in the Dark” who has been shot and fallen down to the basement apartment of an old tenement, and we meet him in this unflattering angle from the POV of the woman who lives in the apartment. Since I made my list of episodes years ago and stopped thinking about who we might meet when we got around to watching them, I completely forgot that Redford was in this one. Since he was upside down and so darn young, I actually thought he was Van Johnson for a minute.

But this is just like a man, yammering about the famous guest star when the episode is owned by Gladys Cooper and Redford just sits back and lets her dominate the story. She is amazing in this, an old lady who has become convinced that Death is a real person stalking her, and has consequently spent years in hiding, avoiding anybody who might be Death in disguise. When she pours out her soul to the wounded policeman, our sympathy is naturally with her because she’s given herself a horrible, hardscrabble existence to fuel a delusion… but then again, this is The Twilight Zone and she might be right.

This was the first of three Zone appearances for Cooper, who lived and worked in the US from about 1960 to 1966. Before and after that, she acted regularly in the UK, where her very long career began in short subjects prior to World War One! In fact, we’ll see one of her British television performances in something I’ve selected for next year. Her final role was as the Grand Duchess Ozerov in a wonderful episode of The Persuaders! in 1972.

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Doctor Who: The Brain of Morbius (parts three and four)

Back when we watched “Planet of Evil,” I wrote about the Radio Times 20th Anniversary Special. When my mate Blake got hold of a copy, I asked him “What do you mean there are only five Doctors? I’m telling you there are at least a dozen!” And according to “The Brain of Morbius,” there are. Philip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes decided to do a big, weird, wonderful retcon and introduce eight Doctors prior to the one we’d previously called the first.

The situation is that the Doctor and Morbius are having a mind-bending challenge, and the faces of the three previous actors to play the Doctor pop up in the space between them while Morbius taunts “Back, back to your beginnings! How long have you lived?” So we see Pertwee, Troughton, and Hartnell again, followed by eight members of the production team and some BBC directors, including, cheekily, Hinchcliffe and Holmes themselves. They played the fourth and seventh Doctors.

I think that when I first saw this, I just took it as new information, not that I was actually counting faces, just learning that there was this thing called regeneration. I didn’t question the number.

It didn’t take, but the show didn’t actually formally retcon this retcon for another seven years. So while we all know and love Tom Baker as “The Fourth Doctor”™, as far as 1976 goes, the production team was actually thinking of him as the Twelfth! Nothing onscreen actually contradicts this until “Mawdryn Undead” in 1983, which returns things to normality and flatly states that Peter Davison’s Doctor is the fifth one. And then the same story goes and screws up the UNIT chronology.

But one thing the show’s never actually told us – and why should it bother? – is whose faces are they, if not the Doctor’s? I asked our son “Who were those eight other faces?” and he immediately replied “Morbius’s faces!” as though I had not been paying attention. That’s one of a few fan explanations. I figure that if it’s an explanation a six year-old can provide and get behind, then it’s probably the best answer!

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Doctor Who: The Brain of Morbius (parts one and two)

I absolutely love “The Brain of Morbius.” It has a really epic feel to it, since we’re dealing with mythology in a very big and very new way. The Sisterhood of Karn is introduced here. They’re the first alien species that is ever mentioned as having any kind of alliance or friendship or actually any kind of relationship whatsoever with the Time Lords. And I love how it deals with an ancient Time Lord criminal, a powerful cult leader called Morbius. It’s done so well, and with such conviction, that it feels like everybody involved is shaking the foundations of the program for the first time since “The Three Doctors,” and doing it far more effectively than that serial did.

In this household, mine isn’t quite the majority view. Marie is aware of the Sisterhood from their brief appearances later in the series, and she’s not impressed with them. I can certainly see her point. Even understanding that this was the seventies, there’s an angle to the Sisterhood that doesn’t really sit well from a feminist, scientist perspective. The show, at this stage, tells us that the Time Lords are all male super-scientific, sterile, cloistered space monks who see all and know all, and the Sisterhood are the all female witches in the woods who worship a sacred flame, and when the Doctor tells them there’s probably a sound geological explanation about their flame dying, they don’t want to listen, they want to sacrifice him.

If your knowledge of this serial doesn’t extend much beyond “Yeah, I watched that one on PBS in the eighties and I don’t remember the gender politics because I thought this was the Frankenstein one,” well, then you’re in our son’s boat. Last night, we talked about Frankenstein and Mary Shelley, to get him ready both for this story and a forthcoming Avengers installment. He’s familiar with the look of Frankenstein’s monster, of course, from Monster Squad and Mad Monster Party? and probably several other modern children’s programs, but not really the mythology of the story itself and the grave-robbing aspect. The awesome Philip Madoc plays the Dr. Frankenstein character, assembling a new body from corpses, and his Igor-like assistant resembles the classic look of the creature, with a shambling walk, corpse-like pallor and heavy brow.

In fact, it’s a lot more like Frankenstein than the writer intended. Terrance Dicks had written a story which inverted the classic tale and had one or more robots building a man, but Robert Holmes rewrote it with a more traditional spin. Dicks, angered, telephoned Holmes and told him to take his name off it. “Just give it some bland pseudonym,” he shouted. He sat down to watch the finished product, saw it credited to “Robin Bland,” laughed, and forgave his old colleague.

But I said mine wasn’t the majority view. This one is, as I suspected, scaring the daylights out of our kid, though nowhere near at “Pyramids” levels. He really got into it, though! When the Sisters teleport the TARDIS to their shrine, he called out “Poop!” He was shooting finger guns at everybody being mean to our heroes, and leapt out of his skin at the cliffhanger to part one. Mercifully, I told him up front that something bad is going to happen to Sarah – she gets blinded – but it will turn out okay.

After the story, he sat down to a couple of cookies and told us “The first story that has another Time Lord is ‘The War Games.’ That’s the last story of the second Doctor.” We were mighty impressed. I didn’t want to push the issue by reminding him that Philip Madoc was also in that story, so we just congratulated him on his good memory. (And yes, he’s not quite correct. I did tell him once about the Monk, from William Hartnell’s time, but the War Chief and those three fellows in part ten of “The War Games” were the first other Time Lords he’s actually seen!)

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The Avengers 5.5 – The Bird Who Knew Too Much

I don’t have much to blog about this evening. “The Bird Who Knew Too Much” was written by Brian Clemens from a story by Alan Patillo, a regular of Gerry Anderson’s team who directed and wrote several of his Supermarionation shows. The story is full of little Hitchcock in-jokes, and features one of the all-time great goofball Avengers eccentrics in the form of Ron Moody, who teaches parrots to recite nursery rhymes on cue. Kenneth Cope also has a small role, and regular sixties TV tough guy Michael Coles plays one of the villains. Everybody enjoyed it. It’s a good, straightforward story with some fine action scenes and witty dialogue, a very fun hour of classic television.

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The Twilight Zone 3.14 – Five Characters in Search of an Exit

“Five Characters in Search of an Exit” is by some measure my favorite episode of this series, but I’ve never enjoyed it so much as I did tonight, as our son tried figuring it out. He was so excited as the stranded characters stand on each other’s shoulders to climb out of their prison that he couldn’t sit down any more. The tension was unbelievable! And he summed it up by saying “That! When I found out where they were, that was, that was just so crazy!” It really is just about the best twist ending in anything, ever.

The characters are played by Clark Allen, Kelton Garwood, Susan Harrison, Murray Matheson, and William Windom. The screenplay was written by Rod Serling from a short story by Marvin Petal. It is a wonderful half hour.

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