Monthly Archives: June 2018

MacGyver 3.20 – Murderers’ Sky

There’s a great bit in this story that emphasizes how different the business world was in the eighties. MacGyver has a lead on a villain who’d jumped him earlier, thanks to a distinctive wrench used by workers in a shipping yard. Some random security guy in an office that was blown up at the beginning of the episode goes to a computer terminal that really shouldn’t be plugged in at the moment, presses about six buttons, and our hero has the guy’s photo, name, and address in a hilarious screen-filling image. These days, the guy’d have a legitimate complaint with his HR department, wouldn’t he?

Another thing that was different in the eighties: ninjas. Tia Carrere plays a submachine gun-packing ninja with all the requisite crazy ninja weapons and gear and insanely overcomplicated ninja traps, including a birdcage that explodes with poisoned needles, and a cobra just in case that doesn’t work. I’d say the writer’s grandkids really enjoyed playing with GI Joe toys.

The writer, incidentally, was Hollywood veteran Herman Miller, who had earlier created that iconic early seventies show Kung Fu. Keye Luke, who had played in that series, has a small part here, along with some other familiar faces like Soon-Tek Oh and Al Leong. The highlight of the episode is a genuinely great fight scene in a car park about halfway through the proceedings. Our son was a little more thrilled than I was, but, you know kids and ninjas.

That’s all for MacGyver for now, but we’ll select ten episodes from the show’s fourth season and give them a look in August. Stay tuned!

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Agent Carter 1.1 – Now is Not the End

Of course, our son was much too young in January 2015 to start watching Agent Carter when it was on ABC, and so I decided then that it sounded like it could be an interesting TV series and maybe we’d catch up with it down the line. This we now do. Both seasons are available on DVD in Region 2, so we’ll see what Peggy Carter did after the war before we come back to Captain America’s adventure in the Winter Soldier movie later on this year.

It did take a little going back and forth, mind. My wife and I gave one of Marvel’s other TV series, Agents of SHIELD, a couple of tries and weren’t impressed at all. Happily, Agent Carter starts off all kinds of better than that. It’s set in 1946 New York, and Peggy Carter has a top-secret job with the Strategic Scientific Reserve. Her boss is played by Shea Wigham, who seems to specialize in playing unpleasant bosses – we quickly found ourselves loathing his character in the third season of Fargo – and the agency’s top hotshot is played by Chad Michael Murray, who also played a character I completely loathed in the first couple of seasons of Gilmore Girls. Funny. Since all these men at the SSR treat Carter as a secretary, makes sense that they’d hire actors who specialize in making me unhappy.

So the setup is that a bunch of dangerous experimental weapons that Howard Stark had built are showing up on the black market. The feds want answers, but Stark sees these waters as too hot and enlists his old pal Peggy to clear his name before going underground. Now a wanted man, he leaves his butler Jarvis, played by James D’Arcy, as Peggy’s contact, and, with gadgets, intelligence, and a dangerous set of fists, Agent Carter secretly works to track down these weapons ahead of her clueless colleagues.

We enjoyed this a lot. It’s incredibly zippy – modern network television is just a hair over 40 minutes an “hour,” so it moves at the speed of light and trusts the audience to catch up to it. Hayley Atwell was just heartbreakingly good as Carter in the first Captain America movie, and she’s great in this. Her character is naturally likable, but the awfulness of most of her colleagues means that she doesn’t seem have too many friends in New York. There’s a fellow agent named Daniel, played by Enver Gjokaj, who is decent to her, and she can commiserate with a waitress at the neighborhood automat, but she also suffers a pretty horrible loss in the first episode as she runs afoul of a strange criminal gang who have had surgeries on their throats to keep them from talking.

Our son did like it, but unsurprisingly, all he wanted to yammer about was a terrific explosion right at the end. Still, like most modern television drama, this is very much an ongoing story, with lots of plot threads left dangling about the criminal conspiracy, the dangerous chemical explosives now in the hands of one enemy, something called Leviathan, and perhaps worst of all, the possibility that her fellow agents might have a photograph of a disguised Peggy present at a dead mob fence’s nightclub right before the SSR raided it. Uh oh! I’m curious what will happen next!

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Doctor Who: The Pirate Planet (parts three and four)

This is so interesting. I’ve never, ever rated Pennant Roberts’ work as a director. When I was a loudmouthed fan repeating and recycling received wisdom in the eighties and nineties, I always singled him out for stick, and really, nothing of his that we have watched over the last three months – observed through adult, critical eyes – has shown me wrong. But he seems to have given both “The Sun Makers” and “The Pirate Planet” a certain power and energy that totally resonates with seven year-olds. Despite last night’s shock, and another one in tonight’s session I’ll discuss in a moment, our son absolutely loved these two stories. He wasn’t on the edge of his seat this evening, because he was either in the floor or on the other sofa. He was in heaven!

Even before the climax, K9 gets to have a gunfight with the Captain’s robot parrot, which is called the Polyphase Avatron. Douglas Adams had a gift for naming things, didn’t he? Now, I don’t envy Pennant Roberts’ job here. Managing gunfights in the BBC’s old three-camera “taped-as-live” studio format often foiled some of the best directors the BBC ever had. But poor Roberts had to try to make this compelling when one of the characters is a squat, bulky, remote-controlled tin dog, and the other one was a motionless prop blue-screened onto the picture.

Last night, after our son went to bed, we watched “The Last Lonely Man,” a third season episode of the BBC’s Out of the Unknown that was directed by Douglas Camfield, who many people believe was the best and most talented director working in British television during this period. (The episode, which co-stars Peter Halliday and features music by Don Harper, was broadcast one month after his Who serial “The Invasion”, which also featured Halliday and Harper.) I mention this because not even Camfield could have made the fight between K9 and the robot parrot work to adult eyes, but our kid completely loved it. When K9 later emerges with the dead parrot somehow stuck to his mouth, you couldn’t find a happier viewer among millions.

The other thing that alarmed our kid was the Captain’s plan to teleport his pirate planet to Earth and destroy it next. We’ll see the Cybermen make a similar threat a few months from now, and I bet he won’t worry half as much as he did tonight. So, grudging respect to Pennant Roberts tonight, as I am reminded again that the absolute best way to watch something with fresh eyes is to do it with your kid.

Oh, good grief. This can’t mean that he’s going to enjoy “Timelash,” can it?

(We’ll give Douglas Adams a chunk of the credit, though. The little dude has spent literally the last twenty minutes talking excitedly about teleporting planets. He’s going to absolutely love The Hitch-Hikers’s Guide to the Galaxy when his mother reads it to him later on down the line.)

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Doctor Who: The Pirate Planet (parts one and two)

You just can’t ever tell with kids, can you? I was absolutely sure that there wasn’t anything in tonight’s serial that would frighten our favorite seven year-old critic, but I was wrong. The plot did. Give this kid hideous slimy or robotic alien menaces bent on world conquest and he can handle it, but the climax of part two of this story reveals that the villains controlling the planet Zanak are in the big leagues. Their planet is hollow, and they teleport it around the galaxy, crushing slightly smaller planets inside of it and strip-mining them of resources. The planet’s population is kept stupid and ignorant, and left happy with streets full of trinkets like diamonds and rubies. Our son told us this was horrifying. He’s right, of course, but conceptual horror doesn’t usually bother him like a big rubber monster, you know?

This great big concept is the first contribution to Doctor Who from the beloved writer Douglas Adams, who was working on these four scripts at the same time he was writing the first radio series of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. This has led many, many people to consider and analyze the similarities in tone and humor between the two. “The Pirate Planet” is an incredibly witty story with our hero running rings around blustery and stupid villains with incredibly rich vocabularies. The Captain is more than a little similar to Hitch-Hiker‘s Vogon guard, the one who was not impressed by the hero humming Beethoven.

Well, the ones that talk, anyway. Bruce Purchase’s Pirate Captain is a hilarious joy, but he’s surrounded by some of the most incompetent nincompoops in the world of henchmen. These must be the most pathetic guards in all of Doctor Who, which is really saying something, and in part two they get involved in what must be the most pathetically-staged gunfight in all of Doctor Who, which is… also really saying something.

In fact, my only complaint about this story is the direction. After doing a pretty good job with “The Sun Makers” the previous season, Pennant Roberts really let everybody down with this one. It even opens with a laughably poor miniature set that is shot on videotape instead of film and so it succeeds in looking precisely like those phony little places from Far Out Space Nuts. This is kind of funny to me, because a month ago, I had intended to talk about how Roberts shot some scenes on film that really would have been much more effective on videotape, and with this season’s adventure, he got them the other way around.

In an interesting continuity note, Romana refers to herself as a Time Lord for the first time in this adventure. In the previous story, she identified as coming from the Doctor’s home planet, but didn’t use that title. She also mentions a father who bought her an air car for her 70th birthday. Time Lords very rarely ever mention relatives, but at this stage in the program, Romana’s a posh girl with a rich daddy. She’s probably been name-dropping for decades.

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MacGyver 3.19 – The Endangered

As you might expect from any adventure show, the hero has a lot more incredibly important old girlfriends than anybody in the real world. In Peter Filardi’s “The Endangered,” MacGyver has such a close call on an assignment, only saved from death by the gunman’s pistol jamming, that he decides he doesn’t want his old college sweetie Karen to be the one that got away any longer. Oblivious to the reality that she moved on long ago, he drops in / imposes on her in extreme upstate Washington, where she works as a ranger in a huge national park that borders Canada. They run afoul of three poachers who shoot Karen and then start tracking them through the wilderness to finish the job.

Typically, the usual TV adventure hero isn’t shown to be as downright wrongheaded about his old romances as MacGyver is here. He says that he wouldn’t have come to the park had Karen told him about her current boyfriend. You can find plenty of examples of a character looking up an old flame to find that she has married or has a strong relationship, but there’s something a little awkward and different about the way MacGyver just pathetically tries to tell himself that this can’t be true. I liked the honesty. The character feels more like a real, dumb human than a superhuman TV character here.

Karen is played by Moira Walley, who racked up a few dozen guest star parts in the eighties and nineties. Credited today as Moira Walley-Beckett, she’s principally a producer and writer, and worked on ABC’s Pan Am, which I enjoyed more than you did, along with Breaking Bad and the CBC’s current “Green Gables” adaptation Anne. Don S. Davis plays one of the poachers. This is Davis’s other acting part in the third season of MacGyver, and it’s a much meatier role than the one we saw previously.

I was more impressed by the production of “The Endangered” than the script, because the story requires the villains to be tactical but not strategic. There is no way in any universe that such intelligent and resourceful men could possibly expect to get away with the absolutely idiotic decisions they make. I just didn’t believe in them, but I enjoyed watching the story unfold in this glorious, rain-soaked location. As for our son, he has lots of questions about hunting and poaching and conservation, and I hope we can assure him that nobody who enjoys the sport of hunting is anywhere near as ruthless and/or stupid as these guys.

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The Avengers 6.15 – Look – (stop me if you’ve heard this one) But There Were These Two Fellers…

The brilliance of The Avengers is that it is said to be a program where absolutely anything can happen. So here, the veteran writer Dennis Spooner, who had contributed to Doctor Who and several of the ITC adventure series, decides to test that hypothesis and pushes the show farther into weirdness and farce than it had ever been before. It still doesn’t break. Now having said that, you can probably see the boundary from here. This is a deeply, deeply silly and hilarious episode, but it honestly doesn’t need to get any sillier than this.

If you’ve never had the great pleasure, “Look – (stop me if you’ve heard this one) But There Were These Two Fellers…” concerns a gang of “resting” vaudevillians who are targeting the board of directors of the Caritol Land and Development Corporation, a big firm that has just landed an extremely important government contract. But among their holdings is a defunct chain of music halls and palladium theaters, and a crooked Punch and Judy man who knows more than he’s letting on seems to have convinced the gang that by wiping them out, they can open the curtains on their old shows again. Jimmy Jewel and Julian Chagrin play the lead killers, and familiar faces Robert James and Talfryn Thomas are among the other “resting” artistes.

Not one line of this is played straight. Getting to the hilarious final fight, we get to enjoy some of the all-time great television death scenes. Years ago, I watched this one with my older kids, and my boy just about stopped breathing with laughter when Jimmy Jewel introduces some puffed-up aristocrat to his magic carpet trick. John Cleese plays a civil servant tasked with painting the copyrighted faces of clowns onto eggs, and Bernard Cribbins plays a gag writer who comes up with far, far more duds than winners, and they both meet hysterically gruesome ends. Both actors just had me in stitches before they met their grisly deaths. Cleese, in particular, is a delight in the role of a put-upon government worker who desperately wants to avoid letting any member of the public into his office.

Of course our son loved it. He laughed like a hyena in places. This would be a terrible introduction to The Avengers, but I can’t imagine anybody in the world not liking this. For a hour about one sick-in-the-head murder after another, it’s just so darn joyous, which makes it even more amazing that this could very well have been the program’s final episode! I don’t believe that ABC had renewed the show when this was made in March 1968.

As I mentioned last month, in the US, The Avengers was running opposite Lost in Space, and NBC’s The Virginian, which was crushing both programs. CBS gave the ax to Space, and in the usual sort of Nielsen circumstances, there was really no reason to expect that ABC would ask for more Avengers. By the spring of 1968, the spy craze was ebbing, Diana Rigg had moved on, and the ratings were dropping. But ABC did order a full 26 episode season of the program anyway, because something was going to happen in the fall of 1968 that was totally unlike the usual sort of Nielsen circumstances… but more on that another day.

That’s all from The Avengers for now, but Steed and Tara King will be back in August for more adventures. Stay tuned!

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Doctor Who: The Ribos Operation (parts three and four)

Told you we’d see Timothy Bateson again in a couple of nights! Bateson plays one of the great little one-off Doctor Who characters, a little old man who the locals sneeringly call Binro the Heretic. Binro’s great crime has been measuring the space between the lights in the night sky and concluding that those are suns just like the one in Ribos’s sky. I love how they take time in episode three for a quiet little moment where the kinder of the two con artists lets Binro know that he isn’t wrong.

Other than Bateson, I’m afraid these two episodes have a few actors who really get on my nerves, but Iain Cuthbertson’s delightful repartee with Tom Baker makes up for it. And while our son was thrilled and frightened by more run-ins with the scary Shrivenzale monster in the catacombs beneath the city, he loved seeing K9 again, and really liked the Doctor and Cuthbertson’s character pulling fast ones on each other, and the Doctor getting away with the macguffin that Cuthbertson thought that he had pocketed.

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Doctor Who: The Ribos Operation (parts one and two)

Before we get started with tonight’s story, I always like to point out that the old Marvel UK has been doing a completely terrific Doctor Who comic since the late seventies. It’s had its ups and downs, but the run of Fourth Doctor stories is really incredibly fun. Almost all the episodes were drawn by Dave Gibbons, and the writers include Pat Mills, John Wagner, and Steve Moore. They’re available in two volumes from Panini, and they fit beautifully in the continuity right between “The Invasion of Time” and this story, so check them out.

Back to television, and we’re in the fall of 1978 for Doctor Who‘s sixteenth season. Graham Williams is still the producer and Anthony Read the script editor. New in the TARDIS is Mary Tamm as Romana, a young woman from the Doctor’s home planet of Gallifrey. Well, young-ish. She says she’s 140, and that the Doctor is lying about his age when he claims to be 746. He’s actually 749, she says.

This is the celebrated season where the Doctor and Romana search for a macguffin called the Key to Time across 26 episodes. The first adventure is my favorite of the six stories, an incredibly witty escapade written by Robert Holmes where our heroes stumble across two con artists pulling a scam on a disgraced, and easily offended, warlord. The lead criminal is played by Iain Cuthbertson, who seems like he’s having the time of his life. It’s set on a backwater planet where the superstitious locals haven’t yet discovered the telescope, and their relics are guarded by a savage, green monster that our son called a “multi-demon alien beast!”

I thought that our son might not enjoy this one because it’s too talky for him and doesn’t have any action scenes, but he surprised me by saying he isn’t enjoying it because it’s too scary! The green monster, which is called a Shrivenzale, is one of the program’s less impressive beasts, but its offscreen roaring and the worry it causes everybody has him convinced.

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