Doctor Who: The Talons of Weng-Chiang (parts three and four)

This is so good. There’s an amazing moment in part four where the Doctor attends what turns out to be Li H’sen Chang’s final stage performance. We know that Chang intends to kill the Doctor, and the Doctor’s also got a pretty shrewd idea that’s what he’s planning. Chang brandishes a pistol as part of his stage act. Earlier, we saw him load it. Is he planning to kill the Doctor in an “accident?” Just to press home the point, without blinking, the Doctor moves the target closer to his own face. You can hear a pin drop.

The whole story is just terrific. The direction, the design, and all of the performances are as good as you could get in 1977. It’s even better than I remembered it.

Warlords of Atlantis (1978)

I remember watching Warlords of Atlantis about a hundred times when I was a kid, but I don’t quite remember all the endless walking, walking, walking around. It’s the fourth and final collaboration between director Kevin Connor and actor Doug McClure. Every summer from 1975-78, McClure flew to Europe and made another movie with rubber monsters, character actors, and lots of explosions. We’ve watched the other three for our blog already. Warlords of Atlantis is oddly not easily available in Region 1, but I picked up StudioCanal’s British DVD pretty cheap a while back.

Of the four, Warlords of Atlantis is a whole lot better than the previous year’s People That Time Forgot, but it’s not a particularly original piece of cinema. The screenplay by Brian Hayles has some interesting ideas – Martians have been living underwater for centuries and periodically kidnap the most intelligent humans they can find to further their goals of advancing our civilization through technology used in war – but the long core of the film is the heroes being captured, sitting around a cell until they realize a cruel and ignoble fate awaits them, and then escaping and going on a long, long road back home.

In the meantime, there are giant monsters, and some of them are pretty amusing. I do love the way that Connor and his visual effects team nearly perfected the art of a great big rubber claw to menace the actors while the rest of the beast is rear-projected into the background. Other effects, including a bit where stagehands fling some “flying fish” at our heroes, are a little less effective.

Shane Rimmer, who was left to twiddle his thumbs for most of People, has a meatier role in this story as the skipper of the Texas Rose. He’s been hired to bring this scientific expedition to the Bermuda Triangle in 1896 – of course they had to come to the Bermuda Triangle, it was the seventies – but when McClure and Peter Gilmore bring up a huge statue made from solid gold, he’ll have a mutiny on his hands from his greedy crew. John Ratzenberger, who would later find fame as Cliff in Cheers, is one of the evildoers.

Speaking of television, there’s even a wink at Doug McClure’s old series Barbary Coast, which I still think we might check out one of these days.

Our son has picked up an annoying habit of under-his-breath commentary, but he enjoyed the movie quite a lot, as he should. It’s certainly geared to the six-to-eleven bracket. When one of our heroes meets a gruesome end, he grumbled that the monster wasn’t eating fast enough and there was only room in its mouth for one person at a time. There are explosions and gunfights and desperate bids for freedom, and not one but two attacks from a super-intelligent mutant octopus, but the main thing our kid was worried about was whether Shane Rimmer’s cute Siamese cat would make it out okay.

Of all things, that reminded me of another movie from 1978, Jennifer, the horror film about the psychic snake-handling girl. The cat in that movie doesn’t make it out okay. I think we’ll skip that one…

Doctor Who: The Talons of Weng-Chiang (parts one and two)

We’ve come to the completely amazing “Talons of Weng-Chiang,” and it’s not going to be one of our son’s favorite Who stories. We took a short break between episodes to explain the cultural background to the adventure and noticed he was really, really tired. He spent the night with a buddy last night and got maybe six hours of sleep and played hard most of the day. He and I may have to watch these two parts again tomorrow afternoon, and I wouldn’t object if we do.

“Talons” is the farewell outing for director David Maloney, who had helmed many adventures in the seventies and was moving on to other jobs, and for producer Philip Hinchcliffe, who was being moved to other jobs. A teevee watchdog group had been giving the BBC headaches about the violence of the last season or two, hitting new heights of grievance this year, so Hinchcliffe was told that he’d be producing a new cop show called Target after this story, while the fellow who devised and developed Target, Graham Williams, would get Hinchcliffe’s job.

And so they go out with a bang, overspending massively and visibly on one of Robert Holmes’ very best scripts. “Talons” is a love letter to Victorian fiction and lore. As we explained to our son, this is not quite the real world, it’s the world of Sax Rohmer novels and Arthur Conan Doyle stories, where Jack the Ripper is on everyone’s mind, and that Giant Rat of Sumatra that Dr. Watson never could bring himself to write about is crawling around the London sewers. The Doctor dresses as Holmes and Leela is playing Eliza Doolittle.

We also explained the elephant in the room that troubles everybody who writes about “Talons” in this time: in 1977, there were enough people at the BBC to decide it would be okay for a white actor to get his eyes pulled back and made up to play Li H’Sen Chang. I don’t object to the depiction of all the Chinese characters as just part of a criminal gang; this is a story about archetypes from the idealized world of tawdry literature. Many people may love Doyle, Collins, Reginald Barrett, and all those Rivals that Hugh Greene anthologized, and many others may venerate them, but it’s tawdry literature all the same, and not the real world.

I wish that they had not cast John Bennett as Chang, just as I wish they had not cast Christopher Lee as Fu Manchu in those movies he made. But they did, and the world at the time found it acceptable, and I’m not going to condemn them for it from a position of We Know Better These Days. We told our son that We Do, in fact, Know Better These Days, as we often do, and he gets that this is old TV and that a program made today would find a Chinese actor for a role like this.

Other than this disagreeable casting, the production is excellent. Leela has a lot to do and she’s incredibly amusing dropped into polite Victorian society. Christopher Benjamin is all kinds of fun as the theater owner, Henry Gordon Jago, and there’s a living ventriloquist doll who stalks around the foggy streets of London with a knife. There’s just so much to love in this story.

MacGyver 2.17 – Dalton, Jack of Spies

For Jack Dalton’s second appearance on MacGyver, they put together a showreel of all the many occasions he’d got our hero into some scrape or other. Of course, there was only one previous episode from which to draw this footage, so they reordered the material to make it look and feel like it came from a whole host of other adventures. MacGyver’s narration goes “He was always doing this, and he was always doing that,” and if you’ve actually seen “Jack of Lies”, your eyes are bound to roll. Is this supposed to fool anybody?

The answer, amazingly, is yes. Marie volunteered that this was the first episode she saw with the character, and she convinced herself there was a pile of episodes that she had missed! Since I’ve been a little hard on this show for repurposing footage, I guess I should give them a good mark for doing it well enough to get away with it. Although they really, really missed a trick by not giving the actors some different clothes and faking a couple of new scenes from previous adventures. Sure, this is the old guerrilla filmmaker in me talking, but when they had the cameras set up with at least two police cars and uniformed extras for the on-location scene at the end, they should have just given Richard Dean Anderson and Bruce McGill each new shirts and come up with some quickie dialogue about the mess they were in this time. What would that have taken? Twenty extra minutes?

Speaking of shirts, Lee Purcell is in this story as a CIA agent called Shadow – yes, her partner was named Light – and she has the two least suitable outfits for secret agenting you’ve ever seen. We meet her in a PG-rated okay-for-eight-pm strip club wearing something not entirely unlike what Vanity wore in the “Nasty Girl” video, and for the following morning’s adventure, she’s wearing an awfully 1980s church outfit, a conservative blue dress completely unsuitable for climbing under chain link fences or getting thrust into garbage trucks by thugs with pistols. She’s not dressed like she’s going into the field on assignment, but like she’s having a meeting with the new district assistant manager of direct sales for Amway. No wonder the wardrobe manager couldn’t find extra shirts for Anderson and McGill if he or she couldn’t even find a pair of blue jeans for the female lead!

That’s all from MacGyver for now, but we’ll be back with a look at some selections from season three in June. Stay tuned!

The Avengers 5.16 – Who’s Who???

The bodyswap episode is a pretty common trope in fantasy TV, as well as some sillier sitcoms, but I contend that The Avengers’ version is the best of all of them. In fairness, it’s very, very slow by contemporary standards. The idea was pretty outre for 1967, and this assumes that nobody in the audience has ever seen anything like this before. On the one hand, I adore the two “important announcements” at the commercial breaks, explaining the setup to viewers just tuning in, but on the other hand, getting there takes forever.

This works because the acting is just so darn good. Freddie Jones and Patricia Haines’ characters, Basil and Lola, are just caricatures, enough for Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg to adopt their mannerisms quickly and have fun doing something new. Everybody loves watching the villain with Mrs. Peel’s face chewing gum while dancing to trendy jazz. Lots of TV shows have done that, but what few have been able to enjoy are actors as good as Jones and Haines playing the leads. They do absolutely perfect imitations of Steed and Mrs. Peel, from their body language to their diction, you never doubt that these two are our heroes.

I love this one because its so fun, but I’m afraid that in my hyperbolic way, I oversold it to our son. I told him that it would knock his socks off, but while he enjoyed this so much that he jumped up and danced in place during the car chase and whooped at the fight scenes, he made sure to show me that his socks did not actually leave his feet. I’ll make sure he knows the next one’s more down to earth.

Doctor Who: The Robots of Death (parts three and four)

The one thing that I don’t like about “The Robots of Death” is that the plot required David Collings’ character, Poul, to completely flip out and become practically catatonic when he learns that these robots have indeed been programmed against their first law and can kill. The character suffers from robophobia, which many people in this future society battle against, because robots don’t have body language and people get uneasy around them. This is a really interesting detail that makes this society feel more alive than a typical Doctor Who society, but sidelining Poul masks the fun that we could have had with him and his robot partner. They are detectives, a tip of the hat to Isaac Asimov’s characters Elijah Bailey and R. Daneel Olivaw.

Even more fun, David Collings had played Olivaw when one of the novels that featured the duo, The Naked Sun, was adapted for a 1969 episode of the BBC’s Out of the Unknown. Sadly, the episode was destroyed, but there’s a partial reconstruction with stills on the BFI’s Unknown DVD set. I think it’s delightful that Collings played the robot character in 1969 and, eight years later, got to play the human half of a very similar team on Doctor Who. Except Lije Bailey never suffered from any foolishness like robophobia!

The robot detective in this story is D84, and he’s wonderful, taking everything literally and deducting with solid logic in his quiet singsong voice. The writer, Chris Boucher, gave him all of the best dialogue. I was reading about the spinoff audio plays that were made in the continuity of this story and Boucher’s novel sequel Corpse Marker. They’re called Kaldor City and also tie in to the TV series Blake’s 7. Collings got to play his character Poul in some of these. I’d like to think that Poul got over his robophobia and he and a rebuilt D84 had a successful career in Kaldor busting heads and solving crimes.

Our son took a little while to come around to this one. He was more bothered by the robots than many other Who enemies, not so much frightened as aggravated on our heroes’ behalf that they were not behaving according to their programming! He was unclear that the villain was actually a human disguised as a robot. He liked the climax, in which the silver robot SV7 turns on him, but the conclusion was so fast-paced that I’m not surprised that some of the details eluded him. Still, it’s a great story, and like I said last time, one of my favorites from the era.

Doctor Who: The Robots of Death (parts one and two)

“The Robots of Death” is a badly named but otherwise fantastic story from 1977. It’s one of my favorites from the Tom Baker years. It’s written by Chris Boucher and was the final Who serial to be directed by Michael E. Briant. The great guest cast includes David Collings, Russell Hunter, and Pamela Salem. I absolutely love it. It perfectly places an Agatha Christie plot in an Isaac Asimov world, with tips of the hat to Frank Herbert and Poul Anderson along the way, and then designs the costumes and rooms of this huge, moving mine with a lush jazz age sheen. Our suspects and victims are all idle rich, with fancy clothes and gaudy makeup, and the robots who do the work are built to be more beautiful than functional.

Our son is being incredibly observant but his deduction skills need a little tuning. He didn’t see what we were meant to infer from the over-the-top headdresses and lush common rooms of the mine, but he did catch that there are three color schemes for the robots: black, silver, and emerald. The second episode explains that the black robots are mute D-class and the lone silver robot is the controlling SV-class, but it also gives us a black robot who talks a great deal to Leela when none of the crew is present to hear his voice. Wonder what’s up with that?

MacGyver 2.15 – Pirates

There’s a scene in this story, which was written by Stephen Kandel, where our hero is trapped in a boat that’s slowly sinking, and the hatch above him has been locked by the villains. I asked our son whether it was a scary scene. “No, it was really interesting,” he replied. MacGyver tries two tricks to get himself free, and our son said he figured that the first one wouldn’t work. He uses a bilge pump to fill a boat bumper that he has jammed against the locked hatch with water, hoping it will expand enough to raise the hatch. “The bumper couldn’t have been big enough, so he’d have to come up with something else.” I’m not sure there wasn’t a bit of “knew it all along”ness there, but I’m glad the show’s keeping him curious about what MacGyver will try next.

The Avengers 5.15 – The Joker

“The Joker” is the third of the color Mrs. Peel adventures to be a rewrite of a Cathy Gale story. The original was really among my least favorite from those days, but the rewrite is an amazing change of pace. It’s a dark, grim, and very frightening Hitchcock-style thriller with Mrs. Peel being stalked in a creepy old house by an unpleasant face from her past. But who’s playing the baddie, Ronald Lacey or Peter Jeffrey? I think it’s brilliant, and Diana Rigg is on fire, but I’m glad the show was able to dip in and out of whimsy and not be as intense as this every week!

Our son didn’t enjoy it very much. We asked whether he liked it or if it was too weird. “A hundred thousand and eighty-eight percent too weird,” he said.

I did spot an odd little bit of synchronicity, though. By chance, I watched something else earlier this afternoon that was written by Brian Clemens, an episode of Thriller with John Carson and Joanna Dunham. Both stories have racks of knives hanging in the kitchens of the home where they’re set, and in both stories, dangerous people slowly walk past the knives and run their hands across them.

The Dark Crystal (1982)

I only saw The Dark Crystal once, about thirty-five years ago. It’s safe to assume that everybody enjoys this movie more than I do. Our son certainly does, and that’s just fine with me. He asked me last night what it’s about, and I had no idea. I remembered what most of the creatures looked like – and who doesn’t love the Fizzgig – and I remembered that the Mystics spend pretty much the entire movie just walking across endless fields, but I couldn’t have told you one blessed thing about the plot.

Strangely enough, I didn’t remember the creatures that our son enjoyed the most, the Garthim. These are big insect-lobster things, or, as our son put it, “giant hermit crabs.” Six-going-on-seven is a great age for this movie. It’s full of mild frights and genuinely weird designs. Jim Henson and Frank Oz worked with an amazingly talented team, including Brian Froud as the lead concept artist. There’s so much to look at in this movie, and shot after shot after shot that will leave you asking how in the world they did that. Visually, the film’s a triumph.

Other than the visuals, though, this is just fantasy by the numbers, and Diet Tolkien’s even more bitter when you can’t stand Tolkien in the first place. Nothing happens in this movie that’s in any way surprising, and it’s oddly humorless. Barry Dennan did the voice of one of the villains, and he’s entertainingly pitiful. The scene I enjoyed the most has the evil Skeksis, a gang of vulgar vulture-crocodile beasts, having the worst table manners you’ve ever seen as they belch, burp, throw food around, and chase still-living snacks across their plates. Our son enjoyed pretty much everything, but was happiest when the one-eyed astronomer rescues Fizzgig. He says he’d like to see it again, one day. It’s always nice to pick a winner.

Doctor Who: The Face of Evil (parts three and four)

“The Face of Evil” is one of the most refreshing Who stories to come along in ages. In the seventies, Who did what it needed to pretty well, sometimes better than others, but it rarely told stories that really looked into classic science fiction themes. Usually we got more conventional “stop the alien invasion” tales.

In fact, it’s so unusual, and so different from what came before, that our son was really baffled by it. It’s a story that doesn’t have a malicious villain. Instead, a sentient computer has gone mad and needs to be cured. We saw one of the themes of this story in the one just before this: the scientific fact of the matter has passed into legend and folklore. The tribe of Sevateem are the descendants of the original survey team, and the tribe of Tesh are the great-great-grandchildren of the technicians who remained at the colony ship. The computer is keeping the tribes at war because it’s conducting a eugenics experiment without the ability or the maturity to understand the implications.

Our son absolutely loved the ending, where Leela disregards the Doctor telling her that she cannot come with him and storms past him into the TARDIS. Then, somehow, she manages to hit the correct switch to dematerialize. I remember cheering when I first saw this in 1984. I was so happy that Leela would be traveling with him. But how’d she hit the right switch? I think Marie was right when she told our son “Sometimes the TARDIS decides that it likes certain people and wants them to be the Doctor’s companions.”

“The Face of Evil” was one of three Who serials that Chris Boucher wrote for seasons fourteen and fifteen of the show, including, oddly, the very next one. After that, madly, the production team lost him to Blake’s 7, where he wrote all of that program’s best stories. I don’t love “The Face of Evil,” but I like it a lot, and admire how it feels so confident and certain despite its unusual scope.

But Boucher’s next story, ahhhh… that one I do love. Stay tuned!