Monthly Archives: May 2018

Doctor Who: Underworld (parts one and two)

In 1978, Time-Life Television offered a package of Tom Baker’s first four Doctor Who seasons – 98 episodes – to American TV stations. Because they thought the show was a little too esoteric or something, they hired an actor named Howard da Silva to provide narrations, voiceovers and recaps, using a very distinctive, deliberate enunciation. Some fans collect these otherwise lost versions, I guess in the same way that some people want to collect the American prints of EastEnders with the Tracy Ullman introductions.

From time to time, when the organization that holds the rights to a show wants to assemble a new package, some rogue prints turn up. Some of the apparent master tapes of Sigmund and the Sea Monsters have introductions from a later syndication package, and, as we’ll discuss in this space soon, A&E had a big ole mess when they started showing the Tara King episodes of The Avengers in the early 1990s. In 1982, Lionheart Television put together a new package of the Tom Baker stories, offering 41 edited TV movies or the half-hour episodes. Somehow, they included the Howard da Silva print of part two of “Underworld” in the compilation movie.

I remember that when WGTV showed this in 1984, I had actually just stepped out of the room for a second and heard this weird voice, right when the Minyans’ spaceship crashes through the planet’s liquid surface. Something like “The Doctor and his friends pah-lunge intoooo the Unnnnderworrrrld…” It took me years to figure out what that dopey narration was doing on the show.

Anyway, once the Doctor and his friends plunge into the Underworld, the same thing happens that we saw in Bob Baker and Dave Martin’s previous Who script, “The Invisible Enemy.” The first episode of this story is tremendously entertaining. I liked it a lot. Good performances, good sets, a good sense of mystery. Then they step out of the spaceship in episode two and everything falls apart.

Infamously, the actors don’t step out into tunnels and caverns built in the studio. They step out into a blue screen environment of photographs of tunnels and caverns. Speaking of Sigmund and the Sea Monsters, this is honestly the closest that Doctor Who ever came to looking like a late period Sid and Marty Krofft program, when they didn’t have any money either. Our son wasn’t impressed, and nobody else is, for that matter. Even with K9, this one’s pretty dull.

Old business: For those of you who remember my post about “The Brain of Morbius” and its suggestion that there were other Doctors before William Hartnell, I had said that nothing is shown onscreen to contradict it until “Mawdryn Undead” in 1983. However, an online acquaintance who goes by the handle “Forever Love” – a fantastic LP, by the way – drew my attention to an exchange in this story, where the Doctor says that he’s only regenerated “two or three times,” and not “ten or eleven.” Sounds like more evidence that my son was right and those other eight dudes we saw were the early incarnations of Morbius!

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The Avengers 6.4 – Dead Man’s Treasure

In any fandom, there are myths and there is received wisdom, and it often turns out to be incorrect. An example that many of you might know comes from Doctor Who. The story, for years, went that the first episode of 1974’s “Invasion of the Dinosaurs” was mistakenly junked by the BBC because that episode was titled just “Invasion” and was confused with the 1968 story “The Invasion.” That isn’t true at all. It’s a fan myth, but everybody heard it from somewhere or other.

The strange finger of coincidence visited this blog last month. See, there’s a similar bit of received wisdom about these eight Mrs. Peel episodes. Four of them aren’t fantasy-oriented in any way. “Dead Man’s Treasure,” like “The £50,000 Breakfast” and the next one, “You Have Just Been Murdered,” could just as easily play as an episode of an ITC action show like The Saint or The Baron. The story went that ABC (the network) in America had asked ABC (the production company) in Britain to bring things back down to Earth and make the series a little more realistic. I remember hearing this in the eighties, either from some know-it-all at a convention or in one of the zines from the era (maybe something that John Peel wrote?), but when I glanced back at the claim years later, I couldn’t find any real evidence of it. Did ABC actually ask for the show to get more realistic, or did fans just assume that they did because that’s a safe explanation for why Steed and Mrs. Peel were suddenly investigating plots that either McGill or Simon Templar could have handled?

It’s not quite definitive, but just last month, blogger Mitchell Hadley posted some evidence that somebody in America actually was complaining about how fanciful and odd The Avengers could be. TV Guide‘s influential columnist Cleveland Amory devoted a story to moaning that the color episodes were not as “genuinely engrossing” as the black and white ones. I wouldn’t connect all the dots with permanent ink yet, but there might be a through-line here: in April 1967, America’s biggest TV critic argues the show needs to be more realistic, when the show resumes production in June and July, Associated British Corporation asks Albert Fennell and Brian Clemens to tone things down, and in September, Fennell and Clemens are taken off the show and an earlier producer, John Bryce, is reinstated.

But that’s getting ahead of things.

Well, it may not be Steed and Mrs. Peel’s wildest case, but Michael Winder’s “Dead Man’s Treasure” is certainly one of our son’s favorites. He absolutely loved this one, which should come as no surprise. All seven year-olds like fast-moving car racing stories, which is why Wacky Races will be popular with kids until the end of time. And this one even has a pair of cheaters a lot like Dick Dastardly. Familiar-to-us faces Neil McCarthy and Edwin Richfield appear as enemy agents, shown above. Arthur Lowe, Ivor Dean, and Valerie van Ost are also in this episode.

There’s not a lot of meat to this story about an auto rally with clues all around the countryside to bring the drivers to a hidden treasure. Our heroes get involved because a dying agent hid some important documents in the box before the race started. It’s just a madcap, fun, and very breezy little excuse to get some cars out on the roads around Hertfordshire and drive them past the camera really fast.

I thought it was a shame that the budget didn’t extend to a few more speaking parts so we could see more of the competitors instead of promptly paring the field down to three teams, but that’s quibbling. “Dead Man’s Treasure” is just plain fun, even if it might have been made with John Mannering and Cordelia instead of Steed and Mrs. Peel!

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Young Indiana Jones 1.10 – Peking, 1910

In the chronology, the Peking episode is the last of the ten hours to feature Corey Carrier as Younger Indy, but I think that it might have been the third one produced, and it also might have been planned as the third one with this cast to air.

When ABC first gave The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles its six week run in the spring of 1992, they showed the Curse of the Jackal movie (“Egypt, 1908” and “Mexico, 1916”) and five one-hour installments. Merchandising takes a little while to get circulating, and it wasn’t until the summer that we started seeing tie-in material. There were chapter books and coloring books, sticker albums and magazines, and trading cards issued by a company called Pro Set. These were very interesting: the cards told the storyline of the episodes of the first season, except they added the Peking adventure, which was written by Rosemary Anne Sisson, before the show’s closing two-parter.

Did ABC originally plan to show six episodes after the movie? We can only speculate, but ever since I saw those cards, I have believed that they intended to show this story on April 1 1992, with the German East Africa/Congo 1916/17 episodes on April 8 and 15. The network got cold feet after the poor critical reception to the first half of Jackal, and quietly moved this one into limbo. It finally aired in June 1993, after the show had been canceled.

It’s really too bad that the Younger Indy stories weren’t better received, but they’re still not being very well received in our house today. This isn’t a very talky episode, but it’s more of a drama for grownups. Indy gets incredibly sick while the family is miles from a city, and it will take several days for the nearest American-trained doctor to be brought to the house where they’ve found refuge. The only real drama comes from waiting for Indy’s mother to swallow her pride and agree that a local doctor can treat him with acupuncture.

All ends well, of course, but our son seems pretty glad that they’ve ended, period. I’ve assured him that the rest of the series would have a little more action in each hour. Not every one of them, mind you, but we’ve got some spies and criminals and enemy soldiers for an older Indy to tangle with starting about six years after the family left China…

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Doctor Who: The Sun Makers (parts three and four)

The most important thing to note this morning is that our son really, really enjoyed this adventure. It’s easily one of his favorites from this Doctor. He didn’t get frightened or scared, but he got into things hugely. When the workers begin their uprising, he was cheering them on. He also had a blast with the cliffhanger to part three. It’s a very well done moment, with the pressure rising and only seconds to go before Leela is steamed to death in a public execution, and one sadly undermined by the total lack of urgency in part four as the Doctor rescues her, but wow, his eyes were as wide as they get and his feet kicking furiously as the credits rolled.

Our son says he had two favorite moments: he loved that buggy in part three, and he loved the Doctor’s confrontation with Henry Woolf’s vulgar Collector. This great scene ends with the Collector reverting to his true alien form and shrinking down into his survival chair, and he was imitating the villain with shouts of “Liquidate, liquidate!”

I’ve always thought this was a pretty good story, but I enjoyed it even more this time around. Woolf and Richard Leech are a great double-act, and they get all the best dialogue. I loved it when the Collector gets a scent of the Doctor’s moral outrage and sneers about it being the “vicious doctrine of egalitarianism.” I was also intrigued by the Collector researching the Time Lords and the Doctor, finding them a commercially non-viable target, and the Doctor himself a very well-documented thorn in the side of countless oppressors and tyrants over the centuries. If you remember that scene in 2008’s “Forest of the Dead” where the Doctor tells the Vashta Nerada “Look me up,” I think its spiritual ancestor is this little bit.

I think “The Sun Makers” is sometimes overlooked because it doesn’t have a monster, and because the black limbo sets are unconvincing, and because all the location filming in the basement of some building succeeds in making this look nothing like Pluto in the year six million and exactly like the basement of some building. But the script and the acting are so fantastic! I enjoyed seeing this one again almost as much as our kid enjoyed seeing it for the first time.

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Doctor Who: The Sun Makers (parts one and two)

I was all set to talk and talk about the choices that director Pennant Roberts made in using 16mm film versus videotape in this story, and then our son derailed my thoughts by “collapsing” at the sight of the buggy that the armed guards on Pluto use in their long, weird corridors when it shows up at the cliffhanger to episode two. “It has seven turbo machine gun cannons,” he told us! All I saw was a dressed-up golf cart. There’s more proof we should all be watching television in the company of children. Sometimes they’ll appreciate the things that you overlook, and sometimes they’ll keep their boring old dad from writing an even more boring blog post than usual.

What I was going to say was that Robert Holmes’ story “The Sun Makers” marks the debut of Anthony Read to the show as its script editor, a post he’ll hold for the rest of this season and all of the next. It features some very entertaining guest performances by Richard Leech and Henry Woolf as the money-obsessed villains who drug Pluto’s population and burden them with inhumane tax rates. Michael Keating, who would join the cast of Blake’s 7 right after making this story, also has a small role as one of Pluto’s rebels, but the real fun is watching everybody bowing and scraping to Leech, and watching Leech bowing and scraping to Woolf.

Our son was, of course, mostly taken by K9 and the buggy, but he paid good attention tonight and enjoyed the adventure, even if he’s vocally outraged by how evil the company that runs Pluto is. We had a pre-show chat about some things he knows about that might help a seven year-old understand this story. Earlier this year, we visited The Children’s Museum of Oak Ridge and saw some examples of company scrip, which Appalachian mining corporations would issue to exploit their workers. We also talked about the good that comes from paying taxes, but how it would be wrong for the government and the only job on the planet to be one and the same, and for that job to collect taxes from the wages that they pay you. There’s even a tax on medicine, which is pretty cheeky considering the population is all on the verge of nervous exhaustion from the hours they have to work and the fear drugs pumped into the air conditioning.

In other words, this is the sort of society that we’re going to greatly enjoy the Doctor knocking over when we sit down for the next half!

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The Avengers 6.3 – The £50,000 Breakfast

Earlier, I’d mentioned how back in the eighties, when we were finding Avengers episodes wherever we could, that ideally meant swapping with other tape traders, but it also often meant either buying pirate videos or copying them from rental places. The Avengers Declassified has a page devoted to these pirate tapes, and looking back, the extraordinary thing is that these were all available in places like Blockbuster Video or Camelot Music or Record Bar. I mean, you would never, ever have found a copy of Great White Wonder or Live R Than You’ll Ever Be at Camelot Music, but bootleg Avengers videos were no problem!

Since there were several outfits churning these out, there was some cross-pollination, but each little line always seemed to have one or two episodes that you couldn’t find elsewhere. “Death of a Great Dane,” a second season episode that co-starred Honor Blackman as Cathy Gale, was the only Blackman episode that we ever found back in the day, and subsequent research hasn’t turned up any others. I’ve occasionally wondered how that one 16mm print ended up in the bootleggers’ hands. Just that one and no others from the first three series.

Like three of the earlier color Diana Rigg stories, “The £50,000 Breakfast” is a remake of an Honor Blackman adventure. Roger Marshall had written “Great Dane” and his original story was given what I remember as a very light rewrite. (It has been many, many years since I’ve seen “Great Dane” and no longer have a copy, so I might be mistaken there!) But what’s interesting is that I didn’t see “The £50,000 Breakfast” for simply ages, probably not until the A&E network started screening them. So while the other three remakes I got to know via their second versions, it was the other way around this time, thanks to the video pirates.

One very low note from the rewrite, however, comes when Steed dismisses a steel band from Trinidad as playing “jungle music.” We certainly told our son that was completely inappropriate. Unlike our experience with the movie this morning, our son was much, much more attentive and curious, and didn’t interrupt the show at all. I paused it to give him a little explanation into diamond smuggling, and he was later able to give a quick and decent recap of the story to his mother when she joined us partway through.

It’s been too long for me to honestly compare the two, but “The £50,000 Breakfast” does have David Langton and Anneke Wills in small roles. Wills’ part here is just one small scene, and she made it between leaving Doctor Who and co-starring in ITC’s terrific Strange Report. “Great Dane” is no slouch on the guest star front either; it had John Laurie and Frederick Jaeger (him again!) in it. The original, of course, features great danes and the remake has Russian wolfhounds. Whichever you watch, it’s a good story, with a simple mystery around why an incredibly rich financier would need to resort to diamond smuggling. It’s far less fanciful than most of the color episodes, and much more down to earth. More on that subject another time.

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Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)

Our son does mostly well with staying quiet while we watch things together. We’ve been working on this for several years now, in no small part because we want him to be quiet and still and respectful of the audience when we see a movie in a theater. Most of the time he does a great and commendable job, especially when he sees that the program is pitched a little higher than his age level and he needs to pay attention.

Lately, though, he’s been a complete motormouth whenever we’re not watching something together. He’s started humming, constantly, at all hours. We used to walk down the toy aisles in a shop and he’d be largely silent, but now every box prompts him to shout “OMG, look at this! And this! And this!”

And this morning, Phil Hartman, in his final acting performance, had him talking and yammering through the film Kiki’s Delivery Service like he’d never seen a movie before. I think that he had to repeat every single one of Hartman’s lines at least twice, after he finished laughing. It wasn’t just Hartman’s dialogue, though. Whenever Jiji the cat did anything, he jumped out of his seat to imitate him. The cat curls up on the bed, our son curled up on the floor. The cat shakes itself dry, our son shook himself dry, and each time he added “He’s just like –” and then the imitation. At one point, Jiji tries to stay perfectly still, and I wished our kid would have taken the clue.

Well, he wasn’t a truly well-behaved boy this morning, but he certainly had a great time. Kiki’s Delivery Service was written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki and was released in 1989. It’s based on a popular children’s novel by Eiko Kadono that was written a few years previously, though I understand that Miyazaki beefed up the slight story a good deal and gave it the dramatic climax, which is the downright definition of breathtaking.

Last year, we enjoyed My Neighbor Totoro and I mentioned that my copy of that film is the first American dub, done by a company called Streamline. For Kiki, I upgraded my older Streamline dub for one that Disney put together in 1997, using the talents of Hartman, Kirsten Dunst, Tress MacNeille, and Janeane Garofalo. I’m glad that I did, and evidently our son agrees. He really loved this film.

The story is about a thirteen year-old girl in a nebulous fantasy European country in the middle of the 20th Century. She’s a witch and the world doesn’t seem to have ever known war. At some point during a witch’s thirteenth year, she must leave home on a clear midnight full moon for a year. Kiki makes her way to a large port city. She’s very lonely, but she finds a home and starts a delivery business. She eventually allows herself to make friends in time to get some encouragement and inspiration when she loses her powers and isn’t able to fly anymore.

Like several of Miyazaki’s other movies, I really enjoy it even though it’s so slight that it’s not a world I want to come back to every week. On the other hand, I’m pretty sure this won’t collect too much dust on the shelf before our kid wants to see it again. Hopefully he’ll tone it down a little next time!

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Young Indiana Jones 1.9 – Benares, 1910

The India episode of Young Indy was among the last ones shown by ABC in the summer of 1993. The program had already been canceled and they were just burning off some of the hours they’d paid for already. It was written by Jonathan Hensleigh and by far the most interesting part of it was the beginning, where Indy teaches a group of local kids baseball, and they teach him a little about cricket.

The show is a gentle introduction to the major world religions, as the city of Benares was once known for being a place where all faiths worshiped with peace and respect from their neighbors. The exception would probably be the Theosophists, and it’s their young figurehead, 14 year-old Jiddu Krishnamurti, who gives Indy the nickel tour while Miss Seymour unsuccessfully tries to convince the Theosophical Society’s president that one of their number is a fraud and a charlatan. I think the show was kind of doomed to failure here. The main characters in this story are all actual people from history, even if they’re ones that have long passed into obscurity. It’s an interesting choice to make Charles Leadbetter the villain, but since Annie Besant never renounced the man, it isn’t going to happen here. Maybe they could have invented somebody else, and a fictional reason for Besant to do the right thing.

And maybe they could have spent a little more time playing baseball and cricket. That’s the best part of the hour.

After the episode, we had a family discussion about treating people of all faiths respectfully, even if we don’t necessarily agree with any of them. Even the theosophists, with all their talk of universal evolution, occult powers, clairvoyance, and auras, deserve kindness and courtesy, even if we certainly don’t agree with what Miss Seymour calls “flim-flam!”

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