Monthly Archives: February 2019

Doctor Who: Vengeance on Varos (part one)

In 1976 and 1978, the BBC presented two runs of what sounds like an incredibly strange drama called Gangsters, which began as a hard-hitting look at crime and racism in a northern city but mutated into a surreal story about writing a television series about crime and racism in a northern city. It might have been the Velvet Underground of TV: not very many people watched it, but everybody who did went on to write for television. It starred Maurice Colbourne, who we saw as Lytton in the previous adventure, and was scripted by Philip Martin, who was invited by script editor Eric Saward to craft this odd, multi-layered, and deliberately unpleasant story. It’s about a former prison planet whose impoverished population get their kicks watching televised executions and torture.

I don’t like this story at all. I think it’s fake, unbelievable, and full of really bad performances, with two exceptions. First, they got the reliable Martin Jarvis in to play the planet’s governor, and second, they introduced Nabil Shaban as a slimy, disgusting, and absolutely wonderful slug-creature called Sil. Sil is obsessed with violence and profit, a big dreamer with a short temper. He’s hilarious and by miles the best thing about the two stories where he appears.

Our son enjoyed this quite a lot more than I was expecting. He really liked the scenes where “the folks at home” comment on the action and cast their votes for whether the governor should hold firm on the price of a mineral that Sil’s corporation desires. “I would have voted no, too,” he said, joining the 900-plus thousand who agreed. The population of Varos is only about a million and a half, it seems. Props to Martin and Saward for introducing an “interactive” element, of sorts, to the story, because that’s exactly the sort of thing to catch the attention of seven year-olds!

(A note on picture quality: This story was one of the first to be released on DVD in North America, through BBC Video’s old deal with Warner Brothers, and it looks incredibly dull and bland. I’m reliably assured that if you click the picture and order the subsequent “special edition,” what you’ll get is far more vivid and colorful than the original version, but I don’t care enough about the story to make the investment, honestly.)

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Sapphire & Steel 5.5 and 5.6

Our son noticed that in the first Sapphire & Steel serial, we met Lead, and in the third, we met Silver, and wondered whether there would be a new agent in this odd-numbered story. There is, kind of. Sapphire and Steel take Felix into their confidence and allow him the power of telepathic communication. He gives himself the code name Brass and thinks this is jolly good fun. Unfortunately for Brass, he remains all too human.

I think that some people consider this the weakest adventure because our heroes’ characterization is slightly off, and their powers aren’t quite “right,” somehow (evidence that writers Don Houghton and Anthony Read weren’t 100% certain of how everything should be), but I love it. It’s like fringe theater, especially when the seventy-some year-old actors return to the original track of the events in 1930 and are playing the roles as they would have as twentysomethings. I asked our son if he had figured out whodunnit, but in this case the mystery is who made some deal with Time to change the events in 1930.

I like how, despite all the weird trappings of this series, and the extremely weird characterizations as some of the players are aware that something is wrong with time and people are dying and some are not, it all comes down to very human and very real motives. Sure, it could have used another minute or so on the climax to give the actors more time to chew on their dilemma, but this was also the first Sapphire & Steel serial that our son admitted to enjoying a little bit, so I think it’s a win.

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Sapphire & Steel 5.3 and 5.4

I really enjoy how this turns into a demented and malevolent game of Clue. Was it Miss Blaney in the hall with a knife? Mr. Parnell in the dining room with a revolver? Mr. McDee in the dining room with poisoned port? How about all three? They’re the victims, of course.

The unusual highlight for our son, however, was Sapphire identifying the knife as having been manufactured in Sheffield in the 1920s. He recognized the name of the city from the most recent run of Doctor Who!

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Sapphire & Steel 5.1 and 5.2

The fifth Sapphire & Steel serial is definitely the odd one out. It’s got by far the largest cast, it’s not even remotely frightening, and nor does it try to be, and it’s the only one not written by the show’s creator PJ Hammond. It was co-written by Don Houghton and Anthony Read, who, unlike Hammond, both had long experience working on Doctor Who, and this is a more traditional-styled adventure, set around a dinner party that is pretending to take place fifty years earlier, in the summer of 1930.

Of course, you can’t have a country house full of guests in dinner dress in 1930 without somebody turning up dead. That just wouldn’t be cricket. But with Wimsey, Campion, Poirot, and the Beresfords unavailable, our amateur investigators are Sapphire and Steel, who have arrived in the form of the Honourable Miles Cavendish and his wife Virginia. But before somebody turns up dead, somebody else turns up alive: George McDee, a brilliant researcher who died fifty years earlier.

Surprisingly – to me, anyway – for a production from this time with this many speaking parts, the only actor that I recognized in it is Peter Laird, who had a recurring role in the excellent spy drama The Sandbaggers around this time. I also recognized the unmistakable voice of Valentine Dyall doing a little radio commentary, keeping listeners up to date with the score in England’s Test Match against Australia. Of course, since the match was played half a century ago, the score should be known to everyone who follows the sport, but as time starts getting distorted, memories and actions become a little… unpredictable.

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The Champions 1.6 – Operation Deep-Freeze

Alexandra Bastedo is barely in this episode of The Champions, but a pile of recognizable character actors from the period are. Robert Urquhart is one of the good guys, and Patrick Wymark, Walter Gotell, and George Pastell all represent an enemy nation that’s testing small-yield atomic weapons in Antarctica. There’s also an amazing amount of stock footage. At one point, Gotell and his criminal associate have to shoot four men who are pursuing them, because that’s how many men are in the library footage.

“Operation Deep-Freeze” was one of fourteen episodes of The Champions that I taped off-air way back in 1987 from an Atlanta UHF station, channel 69. Launched as WVEU, and known today as Atlanta’s CW affiliate station WUPA, it began broadcasting in 1982 playing nothing but music videos. This was an odd little programming strategy that several metro areas saw at the time. In those days, a city would have a dozen or two dozen different cable companies, and many of them were really slow to pick up MTV, hence that station’s iconic “I Want My MTV” ad campaign. So investors would set up shop on a UHF channel and play all these wacky videos that Kids These Days wanted to watch.

By late 1985, however, just about everybody in America could see MTV, and these UHF channels were what you’d call surplus to requirements. WVEU scrambled for new, cheap, programming, and, in addition to the pollution-obsessed Japanese superhero show Spectreman, they started running several ITC programs from the late sixties and early seventies, including The Persuaders!, UFO, and, at 6 am Monday through Friday for at least a year, The Champions.

I remember that it was 6, because whatever it was that came next would start at 7 am on the dot. And you’re not going to believe this next part. WVEU didn’t employ the brightest bulbs in the television broadcasting universe. The Champions began their programming day, and I think Mr. Cletus Coaxial didn’t make it in to the station on time about six times a month. The Champions would sometimes start at 6:02 or 6:04, and if it was still running at 7:00, the broadcast would just end in the middle of a scene and at the 7:00 program would begin on time.

I was taping the show on any morning that I could shower and dress and make it into the den at six. I was sixteen years old and recording on SLP speed, using a block of super-fancy high-end Sony VHS tapes that my uncle had gifted me and which probably cost $10 apiece when I was usually buying blank JVCs for $5 each. Pausing to live-edit out the commercials, you could fit seven episodes on each tape. But because Mr. Cletus Coaxial would sometimes start the show late, I’d occasionally end up dragging myself out of bed, rush like mad to get ready for school, get the tape cued up, and have to abandon the recording because 6:03 would roll around and The Champions hadn’t started, and I knew WVEU would end the broadcast and start their 7 am show on time.

Eventually, I had fourteen episodes on two tapes, and over the course of the next five years, I think I copied two of those episodes in one swap. But videotape trading was a fun little hobby and sometimes you just needed to sit on things for a while. Over time, my trade list made its way to many other traders. And what I didn’t know was that The Champions was extraordinarily rare among many of the good traders. I also didn’t know that one of its three lead actors, Stuart Damon, had a large fan base in this country. In the late seventies, Damon found work in the UK drying up and he went back to California and landed the role of Dr. Allan Quartermaine on the daily soap opera General Hospital. He played Quartermaine for almost thirty years and when my trade list ended up in the hands of a VHS trader who collected Stuart Damon’s old shows, my old Sonys started getting quite a workout.

I was very clear to anybody who asked that the quality of the film prints that WVEU had used was pretty poor. These were beat-up, washed-out, color-faded 16mm prints. Worse, I’d recorded them on the dreaded SLP/EP speed because I was a dumb teen, but because I’d used those great high-end blanks my uncle Ronnie had gifted me, the copies were actually far better than they had any right to be. And I copied the hell out of them. I got trade lists in at least once a month inquiring about The Champions. Often, I couldn’t find anything on their lists I wanted, so I’d do a blanks-and-postage swap for TDK E-HGs, which was latterly my VHS tape of choice. I eventually added a limit to those, because one day I got a box on the doorstep with fourteen TDK E-HGs. To be honest, in the 1993-94 TV season, I was taping four shows off-air, so I needed the blanks, but doing seven tapes in a week was a real headache!

I didn’t keep track, but by the time I called it quits on tape trading in the late nineties, I bet I’d copied some of my Champions in at least thirty trades. They netted me all kinds of great treasures, everything from Frankie Howerd comedies to episodes of The New Avengers that didn’t come from The CBS Late Movie and have five minutes hacked out of each hour. I remember, with no great fondness, some of the pests that you’d run into on the VHS tape trading circuit, the bad traders, the snobs, the ones with the crazy rules, the people who didn’t know what they were doing and would send you garbage you didn’t want on BASF T-160s on the wrong speed. None of those memories are attached to anybody I traded The Champions with, because Stuart Damon’s fans are all better than that.

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The Barbary Coast (1975)

I kind of enjoy taking a gamble on programs that I don’t really know for this blog. Barbary Coast had been one of those in-one-eye-and-out-the-other shows for many years. I’d seen it listed here and there over time, but when I found it listed cheap, I figured there were only 13 episodes, so it wouldn’t be the big time commitment that its forebear, The Wild Wild West, would be for the blog. (I also don’t really enjoy The Wild Wild West for some reason, despite it being a show that sounds like it was made specifically to appeal to me…)

We’ll start the series proper next month, and just like ABC originally did in 1975, precede it with a look at the pilot movie. The show, created by Douglas Heyes, is a lighthearted secret agent adventure set in the very, very muddy streets of San Francisco in the late 19th Century. It stars William Shatner as a master of disguise named Jeff Cable, and while his whiskers and wigs may not fool any grown-ups watching, our seven year-old son was completely thrown by him several times.

Agent Cable finds a base of operations in a casino run by Cash Conover. Two years before, Cash had killed the son of Louisiana’s governor in a duel and had fled, later winning the casino and becoming a destination on the lawless Barbary Coast. Cable knows Conover’s secret and press-gangs him into working with him to ferret out crime and corruption. In the pilot film, Cash is played by Dennis Cole. He’d be recast when the series started production.

Joining them in this initial outing are a pile of recognizable faces from seventies TV, including Richard Kiel as the casino’s bouncer, and Leo Gordon as the bent chief of police. Lynda Day George is here to cause trouble, as women do, along with Michael Ansara, John Vernon, and, a year before he took the role of Jonah in Ark II, Terry Lester.

Bizarrely, we watched this movie the same week that some bigoted old newspaper editor in Alabama called for the return of the Klan to do something about all these Demmycrats making his life miserable. In the film, Vernon’s character, using the pretty suspect name of “Robin Templar,” has resurrected the eyeholes-in-pillowcase brigade under the name of “the Crusaders” to execute criminals that the law won’t touch. It’s all a scam, of course, because Templar and his closest associates are really scheming to just lynch a couple of people to get the point across, and then extort protection money from all the other targets on their published Death List.

I think our son enjoyed parts of it more than others, and he was a little confused by the opening twenty minutes. They introduce a lot of characters before the plot becomes apparent, and we don’t meet Agent Cable under his real identity for a surprisingly long time. I think they missed a terrific complication: Lynda Day George’s character stumbles on Cash’s secret and sends word to Louisiana in order to collect the reward. There’s a point in the narrative where the agent from Louisiana really should have arrived and thrown the heroes’ plan to destroy the Crusaders into disarray, but the subplot is forgotten about until the very end. The film doesn’t present much of a challenge for Cable and Conover, really. Hopefully the series will give them meatier stories than this.

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Doctor Who: Attack of the Cybermen (part two)

Once again, our son enjoyed this much, much more than I did. His favorite part came when the Doctor slides a volatile chemical into a corridor, leading a Cyberman to investigate. The chemical ignites shortly after contact with warm air, sending explosions and sparks everywhere. If you’re at the age where seeing Cybermen blow up is the greatest thing ever, then this show was made for you.

I enjoyed a short scene where Lytton introduces one of the alien Cryons to Brian Glover’s tough criminal character. The Cryon doesn’t understand Glover’s character’s slang – “minder” and “you winding me up?” – and it is kind of cute seeing Lytton patiently translate. For reasons he takes to his grave, Lytton decided not to tell the Doctor that he was working for the Cryons, and not the Cybermen. There’s not a lot more that they could have done with this character, but the writer certainly enjoyed him more than he did the Doctor and Peri.

The story assumes everybody in the audience has a well-thumbed copy of Jean-Marc Lofficier’s Doctor Who Programme Guide on the shelf. Since our son doesn’t have that book, he asked me to pause it because he couldn’t make sense of the Cybermen’s plan, which is basically “destroy Earth before the events of a previous television adventure happened.” He might not have the most developed sense of drama, but he’s savvy enough to know that “they intend to change history!” is a very, very bad thing!

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Doctor Who: Attack of the Cybermen (part one)

With season 22, Doctor Who was back in its old home of Saturday evenings, but with longer, forty-five minute episodes. Colin Baker got a run of six serials in this slot and some of them are a little entertaining. “Attack of the Cybermen” is credited as being written by Paula Moore, but it’s apparently a co-write between Eric Saward and two other parties. It brings back Saward’s character of the mercenary Commander Lytton, previously seen in “Resurrection of the Daleks,” and the scenes with him are by far the most interesting in the story.

There’s a really annoying sense of disconnect in this adventure. The stuff in London is shot on 16mm film and deals with Lytton and some other criminals prepping for a job to heist £10 million in diamonds. It’s incredibly watchable. They keep cutting back and forth with the Doctor and Peri arguing in the TARDIS. It’s not even remotely watchable.

But that’s the grown-up in me talking again. The Sixth Doctor is continuing to keep our son completely charmed. There’s a running gag about the ship’s Chameleon Circuit being repaired but still going wrong that he loved, and there’s just a hint of slapstick in the Doctor’s movements along with his bellowing. He got a huge laugh out of the Doctor almost stepping into an open hole in a scrap metal yard. He claims to hate the Cybermen, but for some reason, the Cybermen in this adventure are either the constant victims of lucky shots or they were built from scrap metal parts, because their heads get knocked off or they get shot and green goo goes spraying everywhere. It’s terrific television for under-tens.

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