Monthly Archives: November 2018

Buck Rogers 1.21 – Space Rockers

This wasn’t guest star Jerry Orbach’s finest hour. In a moment of television about as clued-in as that punk rock installment of Quincy, Orbach plays the manager of the galaxy’s biggest rock band. The group, Andromeda, plays music that sounds precisely like the tunes warbled by the robot MAMMA, Dudley Moore’s Music and Mood Management Apparatus, from that episode of The Muppet Show*.

Do I sound cynical? Well, our son thought this was the best thing ever and danced all the way through it, so never mind me!

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Doctor Who: Mawdryn Undead (part four)

The dude on the right is Mawdryn, played by David Collings, a character actor that everybody loves and who we saw a few months ago in “The Robots of Death”. He and his seven fellow mutants are not wearing the most fashionable in outer space wear. Marie called their clothes “terrible bridesmaid dresses.” Even when you’re missing a chunk of your scalp, it’s hard to look menacing dressed like that.

But Mawdryn isn’t a traditional villain. He and his gang stole some Time Lord tech several centuries ago and have been trapped in perpetual, mutating rejuvenation ever since. All they want now is to die, and by chance, the Doctor has shown up. Apparently he can exchange the potential energy from each of his remaining eight regenerations to kill all eight of the gang, but he’ll never be able to regenerate again himself. As motivations go, I think that’s incredibly original. It’s also a little convenient, what with the numbers working together like they do, but that’s fiction for you.

I’m glad to say our son came around in the end. As I remembered, there’s a good bit of padding in part four, reminding everybody of the plot, emphasizing all the relevant points again and again, but there are enough moral dilemmas and runarounds to keep things moving, and our son was very happy with the adventure. It even ends with an explosion! It may not be a great story, but it made a splendid recovery from that lousy opening installment.

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The Avengers 7.25 – Pandora

For most of the early to mid-seventies, Brian Clemens was busy writing and producing an incredibly curious anthology series for ATV called Thriller. It’s a weird format of 65-minute episodes. Some of them – not very many, but some – are tremendously good, with twists that rival anything else from The Twilight Zone to a cracking Alan Moore Future Shock, but they are all hampered a little bit by the weird running time. The show was made for quick, cheap sales to ABC, who’d give each episode very, very long “movie of the week” credits and, with twenty minutes of ads, run them in a ninety-minute late-night slot.

What happens in a typical episode of Thriller is that the plot starts immediately, before we really spend any time getting to know the characters. And then the main character, frequently a woman, frequently the lone American in the cast, is stuck in a plot that usually has them kept in the dark by some villain for freaking ever until a darn-near-the-last-minute revelation. With good enough actors, I’m willing to sit still to see the bad guy’s plan through its conclusion and, often, its backfiring. The first episode of Thriller actually stars Linda Thorson, alongside Doomwatch‘s Robert Powell and Get Smart‘s Barbara Feldon. I’d probably watch the three of them read the phone book. Once.

But Thriller doesn’t have a lot of repeat pleasure, and neither does “Pandora,” the next-to-last Avengers episode from the original run, which is practically a pilot for Thriller. I found myself thinking that this could have been so much better with a wild fantasy element. There’s a glimmer of a chance that the criminals in this story have time-traveled to the present day from 1915 to kidnap Tara, but no, it’s far more mundane than that. Also, it requires that Tara be drugged into a stupor so that she’s a completely passive player in the bad guys’ story.

Our son absolutely loathed these villains, one of whom is played by Julian Glover in his umpteenth and final Avengers appearance. “I hope she punches them in the face!” he yelled. Bizarrely, she doesn’t get the chance. Steed arrives at the end, but he doesn’t quite get to make the rescue. It’s the villains’ story, and their greed ensures their destruction.

Robert Fuest makes it look terrific and he lines up his usual fun shots with mirrors and hidden characters, but it’s a very difficult story to watch without wanting to skip to the end. Several Thriller stories are like that, too.

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Doctor Who: Mawdryn Undead (parts two and three)

Our son is putting on his usual airs of the story being “too creepy,” but he’s really synced in with the adventure. There’s a bit in part three where Tegan, keeping watch in the corridor, spots the seven mutants gliding her way and she jumps back to warn everyone. Our kid jumped right in time with her, leaving his shoes behind.

The problem with “Mawdryn Undead” is that it could have been the best two-part story the show ever made in its original run, and the best by a mile. It might have made an excellent three-parter. Unfortunately, it’s lumbered with that godawful opener, and I’m afraid part four will kind of run in place a bit to fill its running time. But these middle episodes are just cracking with imagination and originality. Once the story finally decides to place the Brigadier in the center of things – two Brigadiers, in 1977 and in 1983! – Nicholas Courtney gets to really shine. And who can’t sympathize with our old friend when he grumbles about “yomping up that wretched hill” three times in one afternoon?

I really think that all of Steven Moffat’s “timey-wimey” stories from his run have their genesis here. When Moffat was a fanboy, he wore out his off-air videotape of this adventure from rewatching it over and over.

Of course, another thing our son’s pretending to be aggravated with is the return of Valentine Dyall as the Black Guardian, after his brief but memorable appearance in part six of “The Armageddon Factor” a little over three years previously. About the only thing I don’t like about these episodes is the casual way the Doctor has decided to just take Turlough’s knowledge of alien science at face value without challenging him on it. Clearly he knows something is up with this kid – and since, despite casting an obvious twentysomething in the role, Turlough can’t be much older than seventeen to still be at this posh private school – even though he doesn’t know that the Black Guardian is the one manipulating him.

Dyall is amazing, a real force of nature. After he gets done yelling at Turlough in the school clinic, I want to go give the poor fellow a hug and order him some milk and cookies to calm his nerves. And I don’t even like Turlough.

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Doctor Who: Mawdryn Undead (part one)

“Mawdryn Undead” is a four-part serial written with passion and enthusiasm by Peter Grimwade, directed with either disinterest or contempt for the material by Peter Moffatt, and featuring music by Paddy Kingsland that sounds like a joke B-side from one of Erasure’s earliest singles.

As I’ve mentioned before, many Doctor Who adventures from the serial days will start strong before petering out. “Mawdryn Undead” is possibly unique in that it becomes a good, interesting story with a great idea at its core, but it begins with what is very nearly the worst first episode in the whole of the program. The first episode of “The Twin Dilemma” is even worse, but that serial never gets any better as it goes along, so the mind-crushing awfulness of the first part of “Mawdryn” is an amazing standout.

And, in fairness, I should concede that Kingsland’s music also gets a little better as the story continues, but the dumb, jaunty “joyride” music that accompanies the young men pretending to be teenagers in their straw boater hats as they steal the car will be stuck in my head on my dying day. I’ll talk more about Turlough, one of the biggest missed opportunities in the whole series, another time. Suffice it to say for now that in 1982-83, Doctor Who was in such a dumb headspace that they honestly thought that making the school bully into a companion was a good idea.

Even the effects defy suspending disbelief. Most of the time, when Doctor Who gives us a show-stopping terrible special effect, it has the decency to wait until the end of the serial, and it almost always looks like the work of very talented people who did their very best with the time and money available and just couldn’t quite bring it off. Four minutes into “Mawdryn” and Turlough is supposed to be having an out-of-body experience on the astral plane, and all that the visual effects team bothered to do was switch on the background animation from a game show hosted by Wink Martindale.

But here’s what really gets my goat. Here’s your big guest star this week: some guy.

Come off it. There’s never been a worse directorial decision than Peter Moffatt’s stultifying choice in reintroducing Nicholas Courtney as Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart*. Turlough and “Hippo” do not name the owner of the car they steal. There could have been a line like “This is that retired brigadier’s car,” for starters. No, an actor with his back to the camera says “How are things on your end, Brigadier?” and we’re supposed to recognize the man who responds to that line as the same man who we know by his military uniform and mustache, and who had not appeared in the program in eight years.

This is the lazy work of a show that is not trying. Everybody involved has figured they can pull it off because they wager that the only people watching will have read about it in magazines and newspapers ahead of time. They’re letting the PR department announce the character so they don’t have to bother. I made a different bet: that Marie and our son wouldn’t have a clue who this guy was, and I was right. Marie noted that he was called “brigadier,” but didn’t realize it was Lethbridge-Stewart, because after twenty-five minutes, the script still hasn’t identified him as anybody we’ve ever met before.

At least it gets better. The next episode is almost terrific.

*Although another candidate for this honor would be Peter Moffatt again, two years after this story, reintroducing the Sontarans by way of an establishing shot from about a hundred yards away.

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Buck Rogers 1.20 – A Dream of Jennifer

I spoke too soon! Last time, I mentioned how there hasn’t been any location filming on this show in several episodes, and tonight’s installment brought a whole gaggle of costumed extras into two separate places. I can’t find a Buck Rogers fan site to confirm my theory, but I think they dressed up one of the gift store and restaurant areas of the pre-Six Flags Magic Mountain park to serve as the “Old Chicago Shopping District.”

And they got a recognizable-to-me guest star again. Anne Lockhart had played the recurring character of Sheba on Battlestar Galactica in the previous season, and she’d been in two different Hardy Boys Mysteries before that, and would later appear more than once in both Magnum PI and Knight Rider, so Glen A. Larson and his team must have enjoyed working with her! Also, she looks exactly like her mom, June. Seriously. Mary Woronov plays a red-skinned alien, and Gino Conforti, who I’ve seen in a dozen things, plays a down-on-his-luck street magician.

Unfortunately, neither my son nor I thought too much of this one. He thought it was too sappy and smoochy, but I at least enjoyed seeing Gil Gerard stretch a little and have the chance to play Buck as a little sad and lovesick for once.

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The Avengers 7.24 – Take-Over

I have to say that our son has taken to The Avengers far more than I first thought. I did worry that he was a little young at first, but he’s really enjoyed the show a lot. There have been a few exceptions, but none have aggravated and frustrated him anywhere near as much as Terry Nation’s “Take-Over.” I think Nation might have been inspired by the 1967 film Wait Until Dark, but honestly, just about the entire genre of “home invasion” horror films came after this, so I think it’s really ahead of its time, and very atypically unpleasant for The Avengers.

Worse still, Steed gets a more serious injury than I think we’ve ever seen before. He was shot once in season four, but he never spent an entire day unconscious in the forest, feeling the wound like he does in this episode. Even when he occasionally gets clobbered, Steed typically remains superhuman. Here, he suffers. Our kid didn’t start growling, but he really, really didn’t enjoy this one.

Honestly, I’m not much of a fan of this one either, but I have an irrational soft spot for it for a dumb reason. When A&E was running the Tara King stories in the early 1990s, unlike their very nice prints of the Mrs. Peel years, they had a big batch of old, zoomed-in 16mm prints to work from. I remember “Take-Over” being one of maybe three that came from a fresh source and it looked so good. It does feature some marvelous cat-and-mouse dialogue between Steed and the main villain. He’s played by Tom Adams, who had found international B-movie fame as super-agent Charles Vine in a trio of 007 cash-ins, and who we’ll see again in Doctor Who in about a month. Garfield Morgan takes another turn as one of the henchmen.

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Doctor Who: Snakedance (parts three and four)

We had a theory that as the story went on, our son would be less creeped out and frightened by “Snakedance,” and when the Doctor wins, everything would be just fine. Didn’t happen. To my surprise, he remained worried by this story right through the end, spending most of part three on his mom’s lap, and he was still so bothered that he insisted on bringing both his security blanket and his favorite stuffed animal to dinner.

“In fairness,” I said, “we are going out after dark.”

“Yeah,” he replied, “I don’t like dark and I don’t like snakes!”

Never mind him. I think “Snakedance” is terrific. It’s one of my favorite stories of the eighties. I really like Martin Clunes’ bored diplomat, and I love the relationship he has with his smothering mother, who gives him a believably obnoxious passive-aggressive silent treatment when he tells her to back off. All of the dialogue and the character relationships in this story are so natural. It’s a million miles removed from whatever tin ear penned the last story.

One final note: partway through the last season, Marie asked, not unreasonably, whether these people were ever going to change clothes. Even Leela found a second set of leathers, so you had to wonder why Adric, Nyssa, and Tegan never raided the TARDIS closets. (Especially when one imagines Tegan might not have wanted to stain or tear her Air Australia uniform until she was certain they were safely back in 1981.) Adric never did find anything new to wear, but Tegan has changed into an awful white ensemble that actress Janet Fielding didn’t like and once called her “boob tube.” And now finally Nyssa has found some new clothes, which calls into question just who in the world stocked the TARDIS wardrobe in the first place. Funny how nobody ever cosplays in this hideous thing, isn’t it?

Between the two halves of this story, our son asked to watch “The Woman Who Fell to Earth,” Jodie Whittaker’s first episode, again. There’s a bit toward the end where the Doctor mentions that it’s been a long time since she shopped for women’s clothes. I wonder, at some point when she was in her first or second incarnation, did she say “I should probably buy racks and racks and racks of clothes since I’m going to have a never-ending stream of young people from Earth gallivanting around with me.” Somebody should be blamed for Nyssa’s weird space waitress costume. Was it Troughton’s Doctor? I bet it was Troughton.

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