So now we’re in September 1986. Doctor Who was unfortunately back down to 25 minute episodes, and more unfortunately still shot entirely on videotape. Fans have been Monday-morning-quarterbacking season 23 more than any other point in the program’s history and saying what they would’ve done to prove the show’s worth in the face of its postponement and newfound hostility from the higher-ups at the BBC. My simple take, assuming anything was possible: instead of 14 half-hour episodes, seven one-hour episodes, each self-contained, on film.
Certainly instead of being so foolish as to reflect in the narrative that the show was “on trial,” I’d have forged ahead confident that the battle was won and the show had survived. That’s PR 101, but the producer’s instincts were at a pretty low point in 1986, and his script editor was so dispirited that he was just months from a flounce so spectacular that he hasn’t worked in TV since. So we’ve got a script by the amazing Robert Holmes that’s full of lines like “Be silent!” and “You must think me a fool!” among many other issues.
Joining the proceedings in weeks one and two, we’ve got Michael Jayston as a rival Time Lord who’s got it in for the Doctor, along with Tom Chadbon as a guard in an underground city, and Tony Selby as a new recurring character, the “lovable rogue,” it says here, Sabalom Glitz. The most interesting casting choice is Joan Sims, best known for playing daffy old ladies in comedy films, as the leader of a tribe of peasants.
The story was witty enough for our son to enjoy it, and he liked the two big robots a lot. Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant have a much more relaxed and friendly rapport in this story than we’ve previously seen, and there’s a genuinely great scene in part one where the Doctor tries, and fails, to reassure Peri that she shouldn’t be sad to learn that Earth, two million years in the future, has been wiped out, because all planets and stars find an end eventually. I really enjoy that moment. Like a lot of Doctor Who, it starts well for me and runs out of steam pretty quickly. The problem is that unlike a lot of Doctor Who, this continues running out of steam a lot longer than it usually does.
Marie said, when we finished, that this was a perfect example of Nancy Drew, and I immediately agreed. When I was a kid, I read probably a dozen Nancy Drew books and another dozen Hardy Boys, and I couldn’t tell you a thing about any of them individually, but collectively they are all this episode: Nancy finding secret passages in an old house that lead to old caves that are being used by counterfeiters, while people send mysterious signals to each other for no better reason than to have Nancy spot them.
The most remarkable thing about “The Secret of the Whispering Walls” is the way that this seventies show just casually presents two elderly aunts who share a bed in this enormous old house. They don’t actually suggest any romance between the two, and you’re perfectly at liberty to assume what you like, but they sure do act like an old married couple and as far as I’m concerned, they’re delightful and probably the most queer-positive image that television presented in February 1977.
As I planned and pencilled the schedule for this blog, I certainly didn’t intend to replace a program that our kid is mostly ambivalent about with one of his absolute favorites, but I did. I told him the other night that we were shelving Barbary Coast for a few weeks and resuming Eerie, Indiana and he’s been hopping around like Santa’s on the way. He appeared at the top of the stairs this morning and asked “Is it time for Eerie yet?” And good morning to you, too, son!
When Eerie was first shown in 1991-92, and when 22 episodes was the standard number for a season, networks would often start an order for a new program with 13, and then, if it was successful, order what was called “the back nine” to bring it to 22. This is the only show I’m aware of that had an order for a “back six.” The timeslot was terrible and the ratings were just about at the bottom of the Nielsens, but the show had its champions at the network and among TV critics, and it wasn’t like NBC had very many other programming options other than more news shows, so the show lucked out.
There are a couple of small, but neat cast changes in the last six. Perhaps most obviously, Jason Marsden joins the cast as a weird, gravel-voiced, amnesiac kid who acts as antagonist to Marshall and Simon. The character doesn’t know his own name, but he has a minus sign tattooed on the back of one hand and a plus sign on the other, which will lead to him getting a name of sorts. But I like the other change even better. Our young heroes get to see the character they thought was Mr. Radford getting dragged out of the World o’Stuff by the cops. It turns out Archie Hahn had actually been playing the role of a “compulsive imposter” named Suggs who had the real Radford tied up in the basement. And the real Radford is played by the mighty John Astin, and he’ll take a little larger role in the show for the last few segments.
“The Hole in the Head Gang” was written by the series’ co-creator Karl Schaefer, and it guest stars Claude Akins as the ghost of an incompetent gunslinger who haunts his old gun. It’s got the return of Forever Ware, a nun with a million dollars, a new job for Suggs, and a reference to Shrimpenstein. It’s completely delightful and our son was as happy as a kid can be to back in his favorite weird town.
Well, I think that was pretty good. The serial has a very, very weird structure. Episode five is mostly built around Peter Sallis’s ghost-hunting character getting all the facts about the house and the incident in 1831 where the soldier that’s haunting the house was killed. The episode ends with him beginning an exorcism, and, in the way of these things, the spirits respond with lights and noise and manifestations.
It’s a triumphantly good cliffhanger that scared the absolute daylights out of our son. He hid under pillows on the other sofa and didn’t watch what happened in episode six until the noise had stopped and it was safe to peek out. He says that the only thing he’s ever seen that’s any scarier than this sequence was the Twilight Zone story “Gramma,” which really was horrifying.
But this story’s pretty much over five minutes into part six. Inevitably, there’s one more twist at the end, but wrapping up the loose ends – and finally calling in the police – means there’s about fifteen minutes of padding in the final part. We learn that one of the boys reads the old soccer magazine Shoot!, anyway.
I didn’t dislike it, and I admired what they accomplished with the limitations of the studio, and it scared the pants off the kid, so while I wasn’t thrilled by it, I’m glad I checked this out. You should get a seven year-old and show ’em this in the evening, just as the sun’s going down.
I was sad to read that the actor Shane Rimmer has passed away at the age of 89. A list of his credits is a eyepopping exercise in “I didn’t know he was in that!” He had small roles in two Doctor Who episodes, the first three Superman films, Star Wars, two of the Doug McClure dinosaur movies, one of the good Harry Palmer movies, Batman Beyond, a Dennis Potter serial, and two James Bond films for starters. In 1986, he starred in the original unsold pilot for Gerry Anderson’s Space Precinct; Ted Shackleford took the part when the series was made a decade later.
But Rimmer could have had only one acting job and we’d salute him today, because he was the iconic voice of Scott Tracy in the original Thunderbirds series and films. He did voiceovers in all sorts of things, often uncredited (that’s the case with Billion Dollar Brain), but his awesome voice was so distinctive that you can recognize him instantly. Our condolences to Rimmer’s family and friends.
Sometimes when you’re watching an old show and visual effects technology has marched on, everything jars so much that you know something strange is about to happen. The Hardy Boys had, I imagine, a much, much greater budget than a 1971 episode of Doctor Who, and if they needed to film the actors in a room, Universal was perfectly capable of providing the room, whereas mocking up a kitchen for a single shot was a waste of the BBC’s resources, so the director elected to just blue-screen the actress into a photograph. So when Frank and Joe suddenly start walking around an environment that’s clearly not real, it’s because there are about to be special effects.
So “The Disappearing Floor” is dopey, but it’s charmingly of its time. It’s all about holograms, a science which the producers think is so unfamiliar to the audience of February 1977 that they explain it twice in consecutive scenes, and the last five minutes of the story is a one-line-after-another barrage of talk about the military applications of the missing professor’s new technology. There are even Russian agents. We are shown two of them in a car, ominously, and I said “These are the guys who say ‘blah blah blah secret plans, blah blah blah Third World War‘.”
Our son enjoyed this a lot, especially when Frank and Joe enter a room that’s been hologrammed to look like they’re outside in a forest with wolves. But he claims that his favorite part of the story was when they were in an underground passage and Joe says “Where are we, Transylvania?” At seven, he is the prime demographic for all the dumb jokes that Shaun Cassidy delivers.
The poker aspect of Barbary Coast is a little less prominent in most of the episodes than this one, which is why this had our son utterly lost. “Sauce for the Goose” guest stars Joseph Campanella as a filthy rich mover-n-shaker with hooks in every politician in northern California, and Burr DeBenning as his main henchman. He and Cash lock horns at a poker match when the baddie tries cheating and Cash, too slick for him, cheats him right back. But the governor wants the baddie’s little green book, which details all his hooks, and so they execute a very amusing con game. It involves Jeff disguised as a gypsy, because it turns out the baddie is even more superstitious than Cash. And there are runaway horses, dynamite, and a “bug” trap under a poker table that’s meant to be uncovered.
I thought this was terrific fun, a great story of cheating a cheater with very high stakes. It’s a great sting that was sadly lost on our son, even with three pauses to explain the plot. He liked the fight in Cash’s casino about ten minutes in, and it was all downhill from there for him!
We’ll give our poor kid a break and return Barbary Coast to the shelf for a few weeks to keep things fresh, but we’ll look at the final six episodes in April, so stay tuned!
This is pretty good, but we’d all like it a lot better if the family had brains.
It’s a trope of haunted house stories – of horror generally – that nobody in the family can act sensibly. But this must set a record. They get into the hidden room and find a corpse. And they don’t call the police. The dad spots the skeleton and throws the bedclothes over it and rushes his sons out. He and his wife talk about it and they don’t know what to do. Call the coroner, they suppose. But that can wait until the morning, because the wife just can’t bear having the house swarming with police. After all, her nerves are shot from the important dinner party they’re throwing the next night.
No, they don’t reschedule the party or decamp to a restaurant. The coroner never gets phoned and they have a dinner party with a skeleton in an upstairs bed. You’ve seen haunted house movies. How do you reckon this party goes?
The following day – yes, we’re now almost 48 hours from the discovery of the body – they delay calling anyone again because the mom speaks to the home’s previous owner about the body. She asks them to wait until she speaks to her clergyman as it may be a member of her family. But by this time, everybody’s talking about the house being haunted and possibly having to scrape together the money to move again, so the boys rush off to attend a convenient lecture being held by the local psychical society with a renowned ghost hunter – Peter Sallis! – to tell him their fantastic story.
Hours later, nobody can find the boys because they didn’t tell anybody where they were going. “Perhaps I should phone the police,” says Dad.
“WHILE YOU’RE HERE, OFFICER…”
I’m not sure which TV detectives operated out of Bristol in 1978, but I’m pretty sure they’d frown on the ghost hunter camping out in a possible crime scene and contaminating it with tape and string and candles.