Monthly Archives: July 2019

King of the Castle 1.6 and 1.7

“Do we have to watch both parts tonight?” our son asked.

“Best to get it over with,” I replied.

Honestly, for all that’s visually interesting about King of the Castle from a technical standpoint, this really wasn’t very good. Talfryn Thomas was fun to watch, and while my heart sank as the usually reliable Fulton Mackay and Milton Johns’ characters reentered the story, at least Johns’ Frankenstein character “speaks” with a bizarre electronic howl.

But the main problem is that the hero of the story is such an unsympathetic drip. He gets pronounced “snivelling, whimpering” at one point in part seven and I said “yes.” He finally, and not at all surprisingly, exercises some self-confidence and control when he returns to the real world at the end. Then one of the ways they illustrate his newfound grownupness is by having him bin a big stack of Hotspur comics and a Howard the Duck # 5. The heathen.

Our son enjoyed parts three and four, kind of enjoyed part five, and pretty much hated the last two. Roland becomes the King of the Castle at the end of part five, spends part six demanding everybody conform to his rules and makes enemies of them all, and spends most of part seven in some oddball courtroom drama that plays like experimental theater before going home. He tried to avoid admitting that he was just plain bored by calling it “creepy,” but he really had nothing at all to say about it and is glad that it was over.

So no, that certainly wasn’t the best serial that HTV made in the seventies. I wish that The Georgian House existed in full. I bet that one was great!

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The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. 1.4 – No Man’s Land

“No Man’s Land” is one of four Brisco County stories to be written or co-written by Tom Chehak, and the first of two to deal with the vulgar, stupid, but occasionally competent Swill Brothers. That’s the gang of ne’er-do-wells who shot Brisco about thirteen years previously, as recounted in the last episode, which is pretty nice continuity. Everybody’s paths cross in a former ghost town that’s been brought back to life as a planned utopia for women, and Denise Crosby, who guest starred in everything around that time, plays the sheriff. Crosby had most recently co-starred with Fisher Stevens and Jennifer Tilly in a clone/copy of Northern Exposure called Key West which had run on Fox in the first half of 1993.

But the most important thing to our kid was the B-plot, in which Lord Bowler tries to recapture a stolen, experimental mobile battle wagon. “It’s a tank!” our son smiled as Bowler looked over the blueprints – upside down. Naturally, the tank makes its way to the women’s town, and gets to show off its 70mm cannon with a few good explosions that made an already entertaining episode a roaring success with him.

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Doctor Who: Survival (parts two and three)

For the most part, our son enjoyed Doctor Who‘s final adventure in this format, but the cliffhanger at the end of part two left him both angry and creeped out. The alien planet has a pretty nasty effect on anybody trapped there who get too savage and violent. Ace, having whacked one of the Cheetah People in the head with a rock, loses control and starts to change, and she turns to the camera with bright yellow cats’ eyes, and our son was out of the room like a rocket.

In the “really nitpicky” stakes, I think that the props department made a silly error when they were dressing Midge’s apartment. Ace flips through his records and comments that U2, of all bands, were bound for the old folks’ home when she left Earth. But the LP that sparked the comment is War, the group’s third – and the only one I can stand – which came out in 1983, around the time that her thirteen year-old self was burning the house in “Ghost Light” to the ground. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to have her grumbling about a record that came out since she left Earth?

There are probably bigger things in any Who story to nitpick, but I’ve always got a kick out of that one.

Anyway, “Survival” isn’t great, but it’s a good story to end on. It’s made very well, there are lots of great directorial choices and the music’s pretty good. Anthony Ainley got to give one of his most restrained and successful performances as the Master, and McCoy and Aldred are terrific together. I wish they’d have got a few more TV stories, but I’ve got most of the novels from Virgin and really enjoyed the Doctor and Ace’s further adventures. And I enjoyed Benny and Roz and Chris, even if I choose to pretend that the business about Tobias Vaughn’s brain being downloaded into some supercomputer and thriving for centuries never happened.

We’ll look at two of the next things that happened in Doctor Who in August, and two more in September, and run away with Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor in October. Stay tuned!

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Doctor Who: Survival (part one)

We’re very nearly to the end of the original run of the series. I had thought about watching the first two parts tonight, so we could end with the original run’s final cliffhanger, but it’s been one of those days where I think the TV’s been on enough.

“Survival” was written by Rona Munro and directed really, really well by Alan Wareing. He also did the entirely studio-bound “Ghost Light” in the same block as this all-location taping – “Light” was the final story to be made – and it’s like night and day just how much better this looks. Had Who continued for another batch of stories (in 1991, they say), I’d have hoped they employed Wareing for one of the all-location ones. Episode one sees the Doctor bringing Ace home to Perivale a few years after she left, for a dreary greased-tea, silent-but-not-gray Sunday to find that many of her old friends have moved away, but at least three of them have vanished in the last couple of months.

Julian Holloway guest stars as a neighborhood watch “sergeant” who clearly isn’t doing a particularly good job, and he reminds – slash – chastises Ace that her mum had listed her as missing, and that it only costs 10p to phone home and let someone know you’re alive. The Doctor overhears this, and I choose to believe that’s why, when he started carrying a sonic screwdriver again, he learned how to make cellphones phone home from anywhere in time and space.

Not surprisingly, our son liked this much, much more than the previous two adventures. The Cheetah People on horseback gave him a pleasant surprise, and he loved the scene where Ace uses playground equipment as obstacles to keep the one from getting her. His favorite bits were the mild comedy scenes of the Doctor trying to catch the smelly-looking black stray, only to attract first the wrong cat, and then a small dog.

He also figured the mystery villain was the Master almost immediately. I remember that being a big surprise when I first got hold of a copy!

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King of the Castle 1.5

I’ve teased HTV’s later serial Into the Labyrinth for redressing the same set every week, but at its core, that’s an imaginative and clever use of their very limited resources. King of the Castle is doing the same trick with a two-story set with a large central area and a mezzanine above and around it. It’s done service as the Frankenstein lab, the love witch’s lair, the kitchen, and now the central foyer of a medieval castle. We’ll look at the last two episodes later in the week, and I’m curious what they’ll do next.

Our son was pretty impatient with this one at first, but once it moves into that set for a pretty impressive swordfight, he really started to get into it. He doesn’t like it as much as he likes Labyrinth, but it’s got a few fun surprises.

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Alakazam the Great (1960)

For this morning’s movie, we enjoyed a Toei film directed by Taiji Yabushita. It was called Journey to the West when it was first released in Japan in 1960, one of several dozen adaptations of the old folk tale about the monkey king and his companions. In the US, a quite heavily rescripted adaptation was released by B-movie distributors American International Pictures, and featured voiceovers by Jonathan Winters, Arnold Stang, and fandom legend Peter Fernandez, along with five new songs sung by Frankie Avalon.

Alakazam the Great did the rounds of second features and dollar kiddie film matinees in the 1960s before finding its way to every UHF station that didn’t have a lot of money for movies, and most every kid who saw it found it completely charming, funny, and full of action. But it largely vanished from circulation in the 1980s. There was a VHS release through Orion, but the only way to legally see the movie in North America these days is to stream it through Amazon Prime or possibly Netflix or wait for an old, beat up print to make its way to a revival house.

Our son just had a ball with it. Alakazam starts the movie as a coward who gets scared by crickets and spiders, which makes him endearing to a female monkey who really does put up with a lot of crap from him after that. It’s predicted that he will become king of all the animals, so he summons up the courage for the initiation test, and quickly becomes an insufferable, power-mad creep who needs to be taken down many pegs and learn the values of humility, mercy, and wisdom.

So he gets put in his place by a very powerful magic-using king of a higher realm, and sent on a quest with that realm’s prince. Along the way, they have a pair of squabbles with some unpleasant villains, but rather than killing them, Alakazam shows mercy and asks them to join the quest. There’s slapstick comedy, lots and lots of fighting, weird magic, and erupting volcanoes. It’s pretty much everything an eight year-old kid would want from a movie, except possibly swapping out one of the lame Frankie Avalon songs for another fight scene.

Taiji Yabushita directed several animated films for Toei, including 1958’s Panda and the Magic Serpent amd 1967’s hallucinogenic Jack and the Witch, which I’d like to show our kid sometime, so somebody put that out on Blu-ray, please! I really enjoyed this movie’s visual language and attractive artwork, though I’ll blame a bad night’s sleep for contributing to me nodding off a couple of times this morning. Maybe someday, somebody will give this film a nice restoration and a more accurate script and I’ll give it another try without my eyelids getting heavy. In the meantime, our kid liked it enough for both of us.

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Doctor Who: The Curse of Fenric (special edition)

A few chapters back, I mentioned how, from the fall of 1993 on, I didn’t go out and play in Athens GA as much as I should have. But I’d been living in Athens for four years at that point, and I went out and played as often as possible before (a) I started making calamitously stupid decisions about my living arrangements and my future and (b) American television finally started making shows that I really wanted to watch again. And because I’d largely stopped spending whacking great chunks of my time watching and rewatching and absorbing Doctor Who – I didn’t even have a television for a year there – I didn’t get incredibly familiar with “The Curse of Fenric.” I saw it once and maybe twice, enough to say “Wow, that was really, really good,” but then I had records to buy and bands to see and girls to chase.

And so, a few years later, sometime after the wrong chase and the calamitously stupid decision, I found myself going out far, far less and had more time to fall back in love with Doctor Who. “The Curse of Fenric” was released on VHS in a special edition extended by six minutes and I watched and rewatched and absorbed it. “Fenric” was what I showed people who had once enjoyed Who when Tom Baker was the Doctor but lamented how silly and/or stupid it got in the eighties. With maybe one exception, everybody who saw it with me agreed that dang, this truly was really, really good.

But then time moved on and formats changed and I still wish I’d have transferred that extended VHS to a DVD-R, because the officially-released DVD doesn’t have that. It has the as-broadcast four-part version, which I hadn’t seen in many years, and an even-more-extended movie with twelve minutes of additional material. So in 2006, when my older kids and I got to this story, I didn’t want to watch it as a movie, I wanted to see it in four parts. And knock me down, but the broadcast version of “Fenric” was borderline incoherent. Hot on the heels of “Ghost Light,” which the children hated, here’s another story which left them baffled and confused and mostly indignant that the show they loved had become such an impenetrable mess. It felt like those six minutes they cut for broadcast were pretty critical to anything and everything making sense.

Lesson learned. Tonight, we showed our son the movie version.

Our kid still doesn’t have anything nice to say about “Ghost Light,” but he liked this one and it gave him another great behind-the-sofa moment when the evacuee girls go swimming and something underwater is about to get them. It’s as technically flawed as everything else from the era – only the veterans among the guest stars, including Dinsdale Landen as a 1940s scientist and Janet Henfrey as a stuck-up old crone, know how to project their voices toward the microphones – and the script desperately needed less of Sylvester McCoy being otherworldly and mysterious and more of him providing the backstory directly instead of yammering on about “EVILevilsincethedawnoftime.” But the music is by leagues the best of its era, the director did one of the best location shoots in the whole of the series, and there’s an awesome performance by Nicholas Parsons, who was apparently a game show host of all things, as a vicar who’s lost his faith in God.

I like how this story is so full of gloom and foreboding. We were later getting back than planned, and the sun went down about a third of the way into the story. It’s a good one to watch in the evening with the lights out. Sure, it may work even better on an October night with the first winter chills blowing through, but even in a miserably hot July, “Fenric” is a very moody and effective story when seen in full.

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The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. 1.3 – The Orb Scholar

Normally I wouldn’t ever agree with a network shuffling the broadcast order of a show from the way the producers intended it, but watching Carlton Cuse’s “The Orb Scholar,” you can easily see why they showed this one after the pilot. It begins with a recap of the science fiction elements of the pilot, and while the meat of the story is Brisco hot on the trail of John Bly and having a run-in with an old friend who had betrayed him a decade previously, the Orb and its weird power, and the Jedi mind tricks that an older man who studies it has learned, are on the periphery of the story. Bly is hunting for the Orb, and while Brisco believes it was washed out to sea, it’s very much active.

Bly is played by Billy Drago, who passed away last month, and I think he’s completely wonderful. Years ago, I said that Bly was one of television’s greatest villains and I stand by that. We didn’t see very much of him in the pilot movie, so this is his first chance to shine. I love his quiet, silky voice and his theatrical gestures, and the way he walks with his head hunched forward and his black hat covering his face. He’s a fabulous example of a villain that you love to hate because he’s so successful in pushing Brisco’s buttons.

Brisco is usually too resourceful and intelligent a hero to fall for a bad guy needling him, but Bly very naturally and very believably slides right under Brisco’s skin and makes our hero do stupid things. A lot of this is down to television convention, of course. After the show, we reminded our son of how Carol Danvers correctly handled her climactic battle with Jude Law’s character in Captain Marvel, and how that was so refreshing and wonderful because (a) the woman had nothing to prove to the man and (b) the hero had nothing to prove to the villain. Bly can count on Brisco not figuring that out yet.

The main thing that our son loved this time was a great subplot about the crooked sheriff and his partner, played by Robert Picardo, who has to deal with the sheriff’s big mean Rottweiler. Picardo was probably best known at the time for his recurring role as the coach on ABC’s The Wonder Years, and while I was enjoying his performance as a snivelling number two with barely enough talent to match his boss’s expectations, our son loved the dog, who’s in charge of the jail keys, being mean to everybody. When Lord Bowler gets himself out of the jail cell by hooking the rug underneath the sleeping dog and sliding the snoozing beast across the floor, the kid was howling.

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