Monthly Archives: September 2018

Buck Rogers 1.3 and 1.4 – Planet of the Slave Girls

Mercifully, this morning’s double-length episode of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century was nowhere as cringeworthy as that lurid and exploitative title made it sound. The villain, overacted painfully by Jack Palance, is an equal-opportunity slaver and happy to sell men as well as women. Palance had made the dopey Shape of Things to Come around this time. Two outer space masterminds in a single year, and neither of them worth a rewatch.

This episode got a little press at the time because Buster Crabbe, who had originated the role of Buck Rogers in a 1930s serial, came out of retirement to play Brigadier Gordon and fly around zapping bad guys in space along with the new kid. Brigadier Gordon never returned to the show, and bizarrely neither did Major Duke Danton, who is totally set up in this story as a buddy with whom Buck can spend some down time, and also be an occasional rival for Col. Deering’s attention. Duke is played by David Groh, who audiences at the time probably recognized most as Joe in Rhoda. Well, it really wasn’t the way of shows in this period to have a large ensemble of recurring players, but it does seem like the producers missed a couple of opportunities here.

Another familiar face is Roddy McDowall, who’s the first of a few former Batvillains to show up in this series. And as all the attention on actors on this post might indicate, the story was uninspired and left me quite bored. Our son liked it a lot more than I did.

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Young Indiana Jones 2.13 – Barcelona, 1917

“I didn’t understand that at all,” our son grumbled. Who can blame him? This is a story about politics delivered by men talking very fast in outrageous accents. Usually while running very fast and getting stuck in doorways three at a time. It’s wonderful.

I’ve read that Terry Jones is in very poor health, and that did kind of hang over tonight’s story for me. Jones directed this lovable, ridiculous comedy escapade written by Gavin Scott. Indy gets sent to Spain to work with a trio of mostly competent spies, looking for some way to cause a breach in the neutral government’s favor one way or the other. For cover, Indy bumps into his old friend Pablo Picasso, played again by Danny Webb and who we met before in Paris, nine years earlier, who gets him a job at the Ballet Russe as a eunuch.

The spies are played by Jones, Timothy Spall, who you may know best as Wormtail in Harry Potter, and Charles McKeown, a frequent collaborator of the Pythons who appeared in Life of Brian, Fawlty Towers, four episodes of Ripping Yarns, Erik the Viking, and at least three of Terry Gilliam’s movies. They hit on a great scheme to make the Count of Toledo believe that the German cultural attache is making moves on the countess. But then a dancer at the Ballet Russe’s production of Scheherazade, played by Amanda Ooms, lets Indy know that she may be Russian, but she’s working for American intelligence, and putting these two men at odds is going to create an entirely different kind of international incident.

I love this episode. I think it’s completely ridiculous and hilarious. My wife and I chuckled and laughed all the way through the thing while our poor son scratched his head and asked what was so funny. Well, you can’t always please the entire audience!

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The Apple Dumpling Gang (1975)

A couple of months ago, I checked out The Aristocats from the library to show our son. Before the film, there was an ad for other Disney selections and our son hooted. “I want to see that cowboy movie,” he yelled. Well, if we must, I said.

I don’t know how I’ve never seen this movie, but I guess I never did. Between HBO showing all sorts of live-action Disney movies and the public library having summers of films, I thought I must have seen this and forgotten, but I didn’t recognize a frame of it. I guess I must’ve seen the sequel!

For more than an hour, I figured I’d write something brief and possibly dismissive about this silly movie. It’s cute, but it didn’t raise much more than a chuckle. However, that wouldn’t be entirely true. Honesty compels me to report that John McGiver delivers a line about how stupid Theodore and Amos are that, a full minute later, had me gasping for air, I laughed so hard. I mean, you miss a minute of a movie from laughing, you can’t call it a bad movie.

McGiver’s just a small piece of a terrific cast. I’ll always make time for a seventies Disney live-action film because they’re full of great character actors. Everybody seems to think of this as a vehicle for Don Knotts and Tim Conway, but they’re actually providing supporting roles to a story led by Bill Bixby as a hapless gambler suddenly burdened by three orphans. He thinks that a marriage of convenience to a stagecoach driver played by Susan Clark might give the kids a home as well as a chance to nip out and play some poker, but things get complicated when the children, who own a deed to a mine everybody thinks is worthless, unearth a giant gold nugget valued at more than $87,000. Suddenly everybody wants to be part of these kids’ lives. Harry Morgan tries to keep order as the town’s sheriff, judge, and barber, with supporting roles for McGiver, David Wayne, and Slim Pickens.

But Conway and Knotts do walk away with the proceedings in one perfectly-timed slapstick scene after another. They play criminals so incompetent that the sheriff just lets them wander around freely, because bad guys who can’t afford the bullets to “throw lead” don’t present much of a danger to the public. I can imagine that, in lesser hands, stopping a movie’s narrative for a full five minutes to watch two characters steal a ladder might be an indulgence, but darned if our son didn’t spend every second of them chuckling and giggling. This is perfectly judged comedy for seven year-olds. It ends with a chase and everybody getting dunked in the river, inevitably, but our kid whooped that this was the greatest “chase montage” he’s ever seen, and the “boat fire truck” that Bixby and Pickens find themselves on in the end was his favorite part of the movie.

I’m not entirely sure I need to watch the sequel. Or Million Dollar Duck, if there’s an ad for that hiding on some other DVD at the library. Fingers crossed.

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Doctor Who: Logopolis (parts three and four)

If you scroll way, way back in this Doctor Who story, you’ll see that I once showed all of the original series to my two older kids. It took a while, because we took breaks and had “repeat seasons” and all sorts of delays. The three of us moved to our old house in the spring of 2003 and I guess that summer, my son and I watched the final few Pertwee serials while my daughter shouted at us from the staircase, interrupting as much as she dared with updates about how she’s not watching it. We “shouldn’t watch that show because it’s too scary.” Every time she did come downstairs and give it a try, an Exillon or an Ice Warrior or a giant Spider would show up and she’d run screaming.

So we took a break of a few weeks and I actually showed her a picture of Professor Kettlewell’s robot and she agreed that it wasn’t scary. So she consented to watch, or at least not interrupt us with bellowed reports about how we could watch that scary show if we wanted, but she wasn’t going to. For the most part, there was peace in the valley. As I reported in these pages, the mummies in “Pyramids of Mars” had both kids screaming and crying and sleeping in my bed, but I think that was a one-off. Tom Baker became our Doctor, just like he became everybody’s Doctor for such a long time.

We took breaks, as I say, including the big one to enjoy Christopher Eccleston’s run, and we had the repeats and other shows, and I see that it was September of 2005 that we finally got to “Logopolis.” And it devastated my children. Again, from my old journal:

The end of this serial was absolutely amazing for us to watch together, because I didn’t give the kids any warning or suggestion that this was the end for our Doctor. I think my son realized just before the end, as he took in a deep breath during a flashback scene when the Doctor remembers his last several travelling companions, and his eyes widened. That made me tear up, and when the regeneration began, we were all shocked and weeping. “He DIED?!” my daughter bellowed as the end credits started. That a new Doctor sat up wasn’t important. For a few minutes, nothing was, because our Doctor was gone.

In time, she’d get older enough to start fangirling over Tennant and Smith, and eventually join the rest of the squee brigade in turning her back on grouchy old Capaldi, which is fair, you’re supposed to grow out of Doctor Who for a while and maybe return one day down the line. Part of me thinks that’s a big reason why Capaldi’s ratings in Britain were lower anyway – all the kids whose parents plopped them in front of the TV in the spring of 2005 were nine years older. When you’ve got high school parties or records to collect or people to smooch or college entrance exams, especially the smooching part, you put away the childish things, and it was just a natural time for the audience to turn over and age out.

But Tennant and Smith were in the future. In fact, back in time, we hammered down and watched the next eight seasons and McGann’s movie in a prolonged marathon so that other than “The Christmas Invasion,” we weren’t interrupted by the past or the future in following the narrative. No, that night in September 2005, my daughter bawled her eyes out because our Doctor had died, and she spent the better part of an hour utterly inconsolable. She took it out on Peter Davison. She never warmed to him, the interloper, the usurper. She liked Colin, though. Colin yelled a lot. Nobody ever told Colin Baker to take out the trash.

There was no repeat of those tears tonight. Our son said “Huh, that’s cool,” and wanted to know what that second-to-the-last monster from the flashback was. He wasn’t even a little bit sad. He’s been wondering how many other Doctors there are and when we’re going to get to them. Time marches on.

By the way, though we will be watching, I’m not going to write about Jodie Whittaker’s run at this time, simply because I just don’t want to be tied down to this silly blog and will enjoy having a break on Sundays! But the night after Jodie’s debut, we’ll look in on some old friends, and then start watching Peter Davison’s run later in October. Stay tuned!

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Doctor Who: Logopolis (parts one and two)

“Logopolis” is a story that probably shouldn’t work as well as it does. I mean, the first two parts are just the Doctor and Adric spouting technobabble and gobbledygook at each other. The introduction of Janet Fielding as the new character Tegan Jovanka gives it a little more life, but it’s the direction that makes it. It’s the first story written for the series by the season’s script editor, Christopher H. Bidmead, and it’s directed by Peter Grimwade. He brings an almost unbearable feeling of doom to the production.

Here’s something I wrote in September 2005: There’s a scene in part one when the Doctor looks across the highway and sees a spectral white figure by a fence staring at him and he almost collapses in shock. It works as well as it does because nobody in either the story or in the audience knows who the figure is, except the Doctor. Watching the story as a repeat from that angle reveals so much about the Doctor’s character and his actions over the next hour or so.

This is especially true in the second episode, where the Doctor confronts the figure, but too far away for Adric, or the audience, to know what they’re saying. But Tom Baker’s body language on that bridge… “I don’t want to go” never broke my heart the way that Baker’s silent, distant, slumped shoulders do.

That white figure really drives what’s going on in this story. (Well, the figure and the music, which is probably from start to finish the most memorable soundtrack ever performed for any Doctor Who adventure.) Nyssa, who we met in the previous story, shows up on an alien planet where the Doctor has gone, and tells Adric that “a friend of the Doctor’s” brought her. Then we see the strange all-white man slip slowly across the screen. Our son thinks that he’s another Time Lord. Good guess. I probably like the answer more than some people do.

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Young Indiana Jones 2.12 – Petrograd, 1917

Well, our son didn’t enjoy this one much at all. Set in an abnormally cold Russian July – it was actually filmed in March 1992 in Prague and St. Petersburg – it is a very talky and very political episode written by Gavin Scott. It’s also one of my favorites. It’s a heartbreaking story that sees Indy squatting with some young revolutionaries while bringing them food from the French embassy. One of them, played by Austrian actress Julia Stemberger in one of only a few English-language roles, has fallen in love with Indy, and her feelings are sadly not reciprocated. Indy’s also balancing his job and friendship, trying to get intelligence on the forthcoming Bolshevik revolution without pressing his friends.

I’ve grown used to watching these hours without the original broadcast bookends with George Hall as Old Indy, and will concede that some of them were pretty silly. But this one had by far my favorite, and I really miss it. The bookend had Indy telling a docent at a museum that one of the pictures at their exhibition on the October Revolution is mislabeled, and this one was taken in July. It began with Indy pointing at a hazy black-and-white photo of a character that we’d meet later and tells the docent that boy had only a minute to live, which gave the hour an almost unbearable air of doom, because we knew that Sergei, a charming deserter who has become Indy’s best friend in Russia, wasn’t going to make it to the end credits.

And then, magically, the original episode ended with a charming bit of whimsy, as Old Indy concluded his story by explaining how so many people had died so pointlessly in the July 1917 riots, and then pointed at another hazy black-and-white blur on the photo. The photographer had captured Indy in his futile run to try and save his friend from the snipers and machine gun nests. “Reckon that must be me,” Indy smiled, before taking his leave.

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Doctor Who: The Keeper of Traken (parts three and four)

Memory’s a tricky thing. Every once in a while, our son will just toss a random Doctor Who fact my way, suggesting that he thinks about some old episodes from time to time. But he doesn’t recall the Master’s last appearance, in “The Deadly Assassin”, at all. We only watched it in April. But it’s also true that he didn’t actually enjoy that story even a little bit.

So part three of “The Keeper of Traken” ends with the not-completely-surprising revelation that the Master is behind the plot, and that his TARDIS – he has two! – has been standing in place as the Melkur statue for something like a decade. Inside, he’s evidently been healing somewhat, because he doesn’t have the hideous skeleton eyes that Peter Pratt wore as the Master in “Assassin.” Geoffrey Beevers plays the Master this time out. Fanon suggests that Pratt and Beevers are each playing the thirteenth and final incarnation of the Master… which is where Anthony Ainley comes in.

Whatever you think of “Traken,” you can’t deny it has a very unique finale. The Doctor and Adric have saved the day, with the assistance of their friends Tremas, played by Ainley, and his daughter Nyssa, and make their customary hasty exit. But the story doesn’t end like we think it should. In a devilishly mean-spirited epilogue, we see that the Master had a second TARDIS parked inside the Melkur-TARDIS, and, using the power he’d somehow absorbed from the Traken Source, he takes over and steals Tremas’s body, clicks his heels and leaves to go cause some chaos dressed in black and with the customary Master mustache and beard. Nyssa’s left to wonder where her father went.

Ainley seems like he was an incredibly interesting fellow. By 1981, he was about ready to retire from acting and just play cricket at leisure, because he’d inherited what many people report was a very, very large amount of money. Who‘s producer, John Nathan-Turner, remembered Ainley from a BBC series he’d worked on in 1974 called The Pallisers and thought he’d be a perfect Master, and then, far too frequently, didn’t commission any decent scripts for him. Ainley had also co-starred in a downright odd ATV spy series called Spyder’s Web which I probably enjoy more than you do, although John at the Cult TV Blog has also celebrated its prickly strangeness, and he was in The Land That Time Forgot and The Blood on Satan’s Claw, a fine character actor finally landing a role everybody would remember.

I’m reasonably certain our son won’t forget Ainley’s version of the Master. Reasonably. We’ll see him again very, very soon. But I was really surprised by how thoroughly he had forgotten the Pratt incarnation. During the closing credits of part three, I asked him whether he was surprised to see the Master again. After all, he did just freeze, give a shocked face, and tumble to the floor when Beevers turns to the camera chuckling. But at the end of the story, he told us he really liked this one, but didn’t understand “just one thing… when that showed us that it was the Master, how’d you know it was the Master?”

And I guess he had a point. Even for viewers with longer memories, it had been four years since the Master’s previous appearance…

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Doctor Who: The Keeper of Traken (parts one and two)

Earlier this month, when I wrote about “The Leisure Hive”, I talked about how in this season, there’s a greater sense of real space in the environments. Every story we’ve watched has great examples, particularly the Starliner in “Full Circle,” but the planet of Traken is the best of them all. It’s not just having more sets and extras than the obvious example, Peladon, it’s having characters with lives that seem to have existed before the plot of the month came crashing down atop them. This is what a later producer, Russell T. Davies, sensibly understood about making the world of the show feel real, and what his successor, Steven Moffat, frequently forgot.

So while I don’t love “The Keeper of Traken,” I absolutely admire it. The writer, director, designer, and composer are all working in fabulous synchronicity. It’s a good story, not a great one, but it’s a truly fine production. It’s the first Doctor Who script by Johnny Byrne, and, sadly, by some measure the best of his three. Byrne came to Who by way of All Creatures Great and Small, where he had worked with Who‘s producer John Nathan-Turner and been the script editor for that show’s first three series. Before that, he had written about a quarter of Space: 1999.

In the cast, we’ve got twenty year-old Sarah Sutton playing Nyssa, a character who, like Adric, appears meant to be a young teenager. John Woodnutt makes his final Who appearance, and Anthony Ainley, about whom, more later, makes his first. Denis Carey and Sheila Ruskin are also very memorable in their parts here.

Our son might have liked this story a little less than he claimed, because he was pretty restless and seemed frustrated by the mystery. The serial is centered around an evil being called a Melkur that, like others before it, turned to stone as soon as it landed on Traken about a decade previously. The planet has a bio-electric power source that freezes and calcifies intruders with evil intent, which is a whimsical, fairy tale-like idea given a sci-fi sheen that doesn’t quite make sense but just feels right. That’s another way that the production triumphs, by taking this odd idea and making it work, against the grumbling of anybody who wants to be critical about it. But the evil being is, of course, just biding its time and literally growing moss waiting for the incredibly powerful Keeper of this planetary system to die.

I think the director does reveal a little too much too soon, but whatever Melkur is, he’s the second villain this season, after Meglos, to know that the Doctor is a Time Lord and is prepared to deal with him. Perhaps this is an early indicator of the Doctor’s reputation preceding him, or perhaps we’re starting to get people behind the scenes who are much, much more interested in the program’s past and its continuity than ever before.

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