Monthly Archives: December 2018

Eerie, Indiana 1.2 – The Retainer

Last time, I was having so much fun talking about the experience of Eerie, Indiana that I didn’t have room to mention the cast. The show focuses on Marshall Teller and his buddy Simon. Marshall is played by Omri Katz, who audiences had seen growing up as JR Ewing’s grandson in Dallas. Simon is played by Justin Shenkarow, who would later work for several seasons on the cult hit Picket Fences and is still quite active today as a voice artist in cartoons and games. Their characters are part of a silly and proud line of children who know more than the grownups about creepy goings-on, and their investigations in Eerie would do the Goonies and the vampire hunters in The Lost Boys proud.

The thankless roles of Marshall’s clueless family go to Mary-Margaret Humes, Francis Guinan, and Julie Condra as big sister Syndi. They’re joined in this afternoon’s episode by Vincent Schiavelli, that guy with the beard who was always playing mobsters, as an orthodontist, and Patrick LaBrecque, who was only in the business for a few years, as a kid with a retainer that picks up the brainwave patterns of dogs.

“The Retainer” has the feel of an episode that was written before everybody working on the show really nailed down what they wanted to do with it. It’s considerably more grisly than any other episode – while not stated, it’s strongly implied that the city’s dogs actually maul two people to death – and the whimsy doesn’t have the feel of black comedy, just oddly bolted-on Saturday morning humor. Our son enjoyed it nevertheless, in part because our kid likes dogs a whole lot, and perhaps in part because a scene where the kid with the retainer and Marshall – listening in by way of a Walkman – overhear some dogs singing “Dem Bones” was a lot like a similar singing scene in a classic episode of The Goodies.

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Adam Adamant Lives! 1.10 – The Doomsday Plan

Surprisingly, just as soon as I mentioned it, the “conked on the head” flashback doesn’t appear in this morning’s episode, which was written by Richard Harris, but another recurring motif does. Adam Adamant has a complete blind spot to the possibility that any woman would be mixed up in the schemes of his enemies. I really hope the next time he wakes up in a cell with Georgie, who’s been in the cell for hours already, she hisses at him “WHEN will you learn to stop trusting women?!”

But speaking of enemies, today’s episode has a great one. It’s the wonderful actor Peter Vaughan as a doomsayer-type preacher who is organizing a fake nuclear attack to cause a mass panic while his men heist banks and jewelry stores. Our son really hated this guy. He got so irritated with him that he had to break out his trusty finger-pistols to start shooting at the screen. He also got so worried about Georgie investigating the enemy headquarters that he hid under his blanket, peeked out just long enough to see that she was getting away, and then gasped in total shock when the camera revealed Vaughan, showing that she wasn’t so lucky! Isobel Black plays the villain’s daughter, and Talfryn Thomas has a tiny walk-on part.

Thomas is only on screen during one of the filmed segments, and these are, again, completely beautiful. I’m always impressed by the restoration of black and white BBC material, but while the studio stuff looks very good – many of the same team worked on restoring Doctor Who – the film material looks like it was shot yesterday, with incredibly crisp blacks and resolution so fine you can marvel at the stonework on the old buildings in the London streets. There’s also a terrific scene shot at night where a man is surrounded by the doomsayer’s henchmen, each of whom is wearing one of those “The end is nigh!” sandwich-boards. There are probably people who saw this episode in 1966 and are certain it actually happened in an episode of The Avengers!

But two little elements just can’t help but remind you that you’re watching television and not the real world. One problem is that the studio set doesn’t match the exterior of the villain’s Mission Hall. The window that Georgie peeks through is on the opposite side of the front door when they cut from film to the studio. And the other problem is that Georgie’s fab scooter – is it a Vespa? – lies parked outside the hall for something like two days and nobody makes off with it!

(Note: I can play them, but I’m not presently able to get screencaps from Region 4 DVDs, so many of these entries will just have a photo of the set to illustrate it. Click the link to purchase it from Amazon UK.)

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Doctor Who: The Awakening (parts one and two)

A while back, I said that in the mid-eighties, Doctor Who got complacent. Example one: “The Awakening” is the first story since “Black Orchid” two years previously to have no returning villains. As such, it’s really a breath of fresh air. It’s also incredibly fast-paced for the period, proving that quite a lot of Doctor Who could have been done in about half the time, and it makes the two serials on either side feel even slower by comparison.

I’m happy that “The Awakening” gave our son a couple of good frights. He said this one was very scary, and he hid under his blanket at least three times. It’s about a big stone creature called the Malus that’s been hiding in a church wall for centuries. It feeds on psychic energy and possesses lesser beings into committing violence to feed itself. There’s some guff in the script about spaceships and probes from the planet Halkol to keep this from being a simple, old-fashioned ghost story. All you need to know is that it’s a big animatronic face in a wall that roars and belches smoke and makes people want to kill each other. This may not be art, but it’s a trillion times better than “Warriors of the Deep.”

Joining our heroes this time out, there’s a great guest cast. Back in “Kinda,” the Doctor basically took guest star Nerys Hughes on as his companion of the story. This time, it’s Polly James, who was Hughes’ co-star from the seventies sitcom The Liver Birds. (Oddly, very little of that show – only two of its nine series – has been released on DVD. Still, only £15.09 right now, I might pick that up…) Anyway, as much as I like Janet Fielding, it’s fun watching Peter Davison explaining all the space stuff to good actors with good comic timing like Polly James. Plus, there’s the great Glyn Houston as a villager who finds himself on the heroes’ side, and Dennis Lill as the main baddie.

I also like the way this story ends, with a pile of guest stars agreeing with Tegan and Turlough that it’s high time the Doctor takes a break and everybody’s just going to stay on Earth for a few days. That’s partially because it’s a cute scene, and partially because I’m very naughty and once had an audience laughing hysterically as I made up some very inappropriate fanfic to horrify a very “trad” fan in an explanation what the Doctor got up to in Little Hodcombe. It ended with her screaming “There’s no canonical evidence that happened!”

But I also like the idea that one day in Little Hodcombe, the Doctor was reading the newspaper and saw that there was a charity cricket match in the nearby village of Stockbridge. If you are not familiar with Marvel’s run of Fifth Doctor comics, then I can’t recommend them highly enough. They were written by Steve Parkhouse, and drawn by Dave Gibbons, Mick Austin, and Steve Dillon, and they fit almost perfectly in the space between this story and the next TV one. They’re all collected in the Panini edition The Tides of Time and are huge fun. (I say almost perfectly because they use the version of Rassilon that Parkhouse had invented for the comic in 1981, before he showed up in “The Five Doctors” as a totally different character. Just handwave it or call him Dumbledore or make up some inappropriate fanfic and it’ll all work out.)

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Doctor Strange (2016)

Another week, another Marvel movie, and I am really running out of things to say about them. This one stars Benedict Cumberbatch, and I really do need to see him in a role other than an arrogant, insufferable genius one of these days, with Mads Mikkelsen as the bad guy. The visuals are some of the most creative and imaginative in any of these films, and I liked the realization of the Dark Dimension, which is filled with the same spheres-with-nodes shapes that were found in the original comics, where Steve Ditko first created the strange, otherworldly realm of Dormammu and the Mindless Ones.

In fact, let’s pause a moment and not take the usual route of these silly posts, because I’d rather talk a little about Ditko, who died earlier this year at the age of 90. We lost Dr. Strange’s other co-creator, Stan Lee, as well, but everybody knows about him. Steve Ditko was one of those artists that I didn’t “get” as a kid. To my young eyes, his work seemed too simplistic and cartoony, and so I avoided many of the books he worked on in the late seventies, like Marvel’s Machine Man. Later, I fell in love with DC’s Legion of Super-Heroes and grumbled about the occasional fill-ins that Ditko provided during a long period where the book was looking for a cohesive writer-artist team.

But before these, there was a house ad that ran in DC’s books in the summer of 1978 that featured an outlandish character in a multi-colored suit and tie. I was thrilled by the look of that character and couldn’t wait to meet him. It took decades.

As I got older, I finally began to understand the thrill of Ditko’s artwork and his creativity. He worked best with a writer to give his plots a more solid script. Left on his own – he self-published dozens of titles – his prose could turn into solid walls of text, but with Stan Lee or Michael Fleisher or Denny O’Neil or Steve Skeates to ground him (comparatively, mind you, as comics from the 60s and 70s sure did make kids have to read a lot), he came up with some downright excellent comics, some of the very best that either of the “Big Two” publishers released in those decades.

Most of these books only lasted for a few years at most. Some of them only had a couple of issues or a very sporadic publication history in the companies’ anthology titles. Nevertheless, if you enjoy superhero fiction, you could do a lot worse than to track down Ditko’s work on both Doctor Strange and Spider-Man for Marvel, along with the Creeper, Hawk and Dove, Shade the Changing Man, and one of the more interesting versions of Starman for DC. Most of it’s available in nice hardback editions. He also worked for Charlton in the late 1960s, writing and drawing adventures of Blue Beetle, Killjoy, the Question, and Captain Atom, though I understand much of this material is currently out of print.

I had one issue of Shade the Changing Man as a kid and didn’t understand a word of it. It seemed to be set in the DC superhero universe, kind of, but it was a stand-alone science fiction serial that it took me until adulthood to figure out and appreciate. It’s about the weird culture of the planet Meta and a wrongly convicted criminal who is running amok on Earth with a stolen hallucination-inducing gadget called an M-Vest. That’s where the outlandish character I mentioned above was meant to appear. The Odd Man was intended to be the star of an every-other-month eight-page backup strip from Shade # 9 forward, but that comic was never published. DC cancelled almost half their line in 1978, and the completed Odd Man strip was dumped into an issue of Detective Comics months later. Took me years to even learn it existed. It was worth the wait.

Ditko never gave interviews, never attended cons, was probably not photographed by anybody in the last fifty years of his life, and was utterly disinterested in the money he could have made from toys and movies based on his characters. He lived to draw and let his work speak for itself. He was an incredible talent, and while time has dated the scripts and caption boxes that surround his art, nobody drew like him. If you enjoy Tom Holland and Benedict Cumberbatch’s performances as his characters, why not treat yourself to the original stories sometime?

(Click the images to visit Marvel and DC’s sites and look around at reprints, but better yet, visit a local comic shop and ask the staff to sell you some Ditko! If the hardcovers cost more than you’d like, Marvel has collected all of Ditko’s Spider-Man and Dr. Strange adventures in their low-priced black-and-white Essentials line. Stop by a funnybook store and tell ’em that yer pals at Fire-Breathing Dimetrodon Time sent you. They’ll be sure to say “Who?!”)

Six movies between us and the release of Captain Marvel. Can we do it in time to see the film in a theater? Stay tuned!

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Eerie, Indiana 1.1 – Forever Ware

One thing was always true in the television world of the eighties and nineties: CBS ruled Sunday evenings, which led the other networks to come up with some unusual and interesting attempts to dislodge Grandma and Grandad’s control of the TV during 60 Minutes and Murder, She Wrote. One of my favorite oddball examples: the fall of 1991, when NBC put a pair of very mismatched half-hour programs together in the 7 pm slot: The Adventures of Mark and Brian, an arguably ahead-of-its-time reality show starring a pair of Los Angeles deejays, and the absurdly cool Eerie, Indiana.

Created by José Rivera and Karl Schaefer, and with lots of creative contributions from Joe Dante (who directed five episodes), Eerie, Indiana is kind of an anti-Wonder Years, or a far less horrifying Twin Peaks. It’s set in a town which is – allegedly – the statistically most normal place in America, but that’s only because our thirteen year-old hero, Marshall Teller, has discovered that it’s actually the center of weirdness for the entire planet. It’s where Elvis has retired and Bigfoot eats out of garbage cans, and where, as we learn in this terrific pilot, five housewives lock themselves in vacuum-sealed plastic every night for decades to keep from aging.

I didn’t think anything of the skippable Mark & Brian at the time, and NBC’s idea to match a pair of half-hour shows may have been sparked by Sunday football games running late. If a 4 pm game went into overtime, they could just shelve the 7 pm show and start the 7:30 show on time. But I rarely ran late getting back to my dorm to catch Eerie, Indiana. That was the stupid year I spent almost every weekend in Atlanta because of some blasted female, but my Sunday departure time, depending on how many other people I’d given lifts needed rides back to Athens, was set to ensure I’d be back in time for this show.

(Not that many people in the dorm were keen to see what I was making a fuss about. People of undergraduate age aren’t exactly known for wanting anything like a less horrifying, kid-friendly version of something like Twin Peaks!)

The region 1 release of Eerie, Indiana was only available for a short while, but Fabulous’s Region 2 edition is still in print. The picture quality isn’t what I remember from its run on NBC – surely they didn’t shoot this on 16mm? – but then again, this was a show that I mostly watched live and didn’t keep to rewatch. There’s one exception that I’m really, really looking forward to seeing again.

As for the kid-friendly factor, I’m really pleased that our kid enjoyed the heck out of this. The mild frights and fun cinematography, with camera decisions that evoke the look and feel of black-and-white horror and sci-fi in a cute suburban cul-de-sac, are just perfect for seven year-olds. I just love the way the camera tells you that a happy woman who wears the same clothes that were in vogue when Jackie Kennedy was in the White House is a threat and menace.

Our son was babbling about Forever Ware with real excitement, saying that the inanimate plastic containers were a great and weird villain. He was disappointed when I told him that there’s only one season of this show – no, the lame spinoff on Fox Kids seven years later doesn’t count – because the ratings were terrible and nobody watched it. “That’s too bad,” he said. “Everybody should have watched this show, because it’s a great show!”

Ah, but everybody who did watch it… there weren’t many of us, but we’ll always enjoy returning to Eerie.

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Adam Adamant Lives! 1.9 – Sing a Song of Murder

It’s been about seven weeks since we last saw an episode of Adam Adamant Lives!, but that hasn’t been long enough for our son where one element of this fun program is concerned: the silly flashback scene. It may only be about fifteen seconds long, but whenever our hero gets conked on the head, he “remembers” that last trap from 1902 and the voice of the woman who betrayed him saying “So clever… but oh, so vulnerable…” You’ve never seen such eye-rolling. The kid slumped into a death pose, face to the ceiling, saying “Come on, this again?” Otherwise, he enjoyed this one!

So anyway, we’re back in 1966 for the last nine surviving episodes of this very fun series. This afternoon’s episode, “Sing a Song of Murder,” concerns a pair of villains played by Jerome Willis and Alex Scott who have perfected “hypersound,” which is a hypnotic beat hidden within a pop record. It’s the centerpiece to one of the most naive and ridiculous criminal schemes in any old show we’ve run across. It’s all done with flair and wit, and the squabbling between Willis’s dandy and Scott’s taciturn scientist is entertaining, but this really has got about as much understanding of the music world as an episode of Josie and the Pussycats.

In the real music world, the hypnotic tune, “This is the Moment,” was performed by a group by the News, and was one of two singles that the group released on Decca in 1966 before disbanding. Neither 45 seems to have troubled the charts very much.

(Note: I can play them, but I’m not presently able to get screencaps from Region 4 DVDs, so many of these entries will just have a photo of the set to illustrate it. Click the link to purchase it from Amazon UK.)

Photo credit: https://excusesandhalftruths.com

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Young Indiana Jones 3.14 – Hollywood, 1920 (part two)

And so, Young Indiana Jones rides off into the sunset in this funny final hour. Matthew Jacobs handled the script for this installment, where Indy takes a job as John Ford’s assistant as the flamboyant stylist goes to shoot a western. Then one of the actors dies and Indy gets to saddle up in his place. Then, with all the stuntmen carried back to Universal on stretchers, Indy gets to learn how to climb underneath a runaway carriage after being dragged behind it. That’s exactly the sort of skill that comes in handy when you’re clawing your way around speeding trucks trying to hijack the Ark of the Covenant eighteen years later.

More than anything, this story is yet another love letter from George Lucas to all the movies that inspired him. It kind of makes you long for the days when a director like John Ford could shoot from sunup to sundown in six days and make a feature. Stephen Caffrey is terrific as John Ford, and he frankly steals the story completely from Sean Patrick Flanery. This really is just about the actor’s weakest performance as Indy. He’s too immature, too possessive, too petulant, and too indecisive for a character who’s lived through everything that he has. It’s not a very good final outing for Young Indy, but to be fair, everybody hoped that there would be more than this.

Sadly, after the Family Channel decided against ordering any more stories, there was only enough in the budget to finish up what they could to put the 22-film package together. 44 hours isn’t anything to complain about, and a lot more than many series get, but I still wish they’d have got Indy into his late twenties for a couple of them.

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Doctor Who: Warriors of the Deep (parts three and four)

Say what you will about “Warriors of the Deep,” but it’s the only time I’ve ever seen Ingrid Pitt try to kick a pantomime horse to death.

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