Them! (1954)

I’ve told this story before, but here it is again: once upon a time, I decided that I’d love to show my older son Them! without telling him anything about it. I figured I’d get around to it one of these days, and waited so long that one day around 2005, he came back from the school library with a book about science fiction’s greatest monsters and yelled “Dad! Do you know this movie Them!? It sounds amazing!” That was a silly lesson in not putting off your plans. Culture has a way of spoiling surprises from the past.

I don’t know why I wanted him to see it without knowing what monsters the atomic bomb had brought up in New Mexico that hot summer of 1954. Surely every single person who has ever seen this movie did so knowing what it’s about. I just wondered whether the movie would be as effective if a viewer didn’t know. And I think now that the answer is yes.

I spotted a used Blu-ray of this movie a couple of days ago, snatched it up, and didn’t let our son see what I’d bought. I didn’t tell him the name of it until supper. And I got to watch him as he curled up with two blankets during the stunningly effective opening twenty or so minutes, as two New Mexico state cops come across two scenes of destruction and death in the desert. The only survivor is a small child in shock and unable to speak. Maybe it’s easy for a jaded moviegoer to dismiss all this character interplay as in the way of the special effects, but it’s so amazingly well-made. I pointed out to my wife that this film was made by Warner Brothers, and not American International or some Z-grade production company. Them! is what every monster movie of its day just wished it could be.

I wouldn’t swear that Warners didn’t spare any expense. It wears its remarkably large budget on its sleeve, but there’s still a dearth of speaking parts – I like James Whitmore and James Arness as much as the next guy, but this script honestly left the need to keep their characters involved after about fifty minutes – and they took as few people on location in the desert as was necessary. Spotted the Warner backlot just once. But otherwise, they went to town on this. There’s a lot of desert footage using two aircraft and a team of excellent actors who really sell the mystery and the horror of what’s happening, far better than everybody who appeared in the parade of B-movie imitators who followed in Them!s tracks.

And did it work? The kid was spooked out of his skull. The presence of all that formic acid in one victim’s body didn’t give it away. And when the camera finally reveals what the heck is going on, he jumped and shouted with a “Whoa!” He enjoyed everything, the frights, the explosions, the jeeps, the flamethrowers, and agreed that this is a great film. If you’ve got kids of your own, definitely show them this classic, but try to keep it under wraps before they go checking out books about monster movies.

Image credit: The Endless Swarm

Night Gallery 1.2 – Room With a View / The Little Black Bag / The Nature of the Enemy

From 1965-1971, the BBC produced an anthology program called Out of the Unknown. Strangely, like Rod Serling’s Zone and Gallery, the series followed a similar path from traditional SF into supernatural horror as it moved from black and white to color. Some writers contend it was at its best in the black and white years. If nothing else, Doctor Who fans can enjoy listening to many of the same sound effects and library music that the William Hartnell serials employed.

Like many British TV productions of its era, much of Unknown was destroyed, but a few years ago, the BFI put out a splendid DVD collection of all the existing episodes, including fragments, clips, and audio recordings of others. In 2018, Marie and I watched them. It’s a pretty uneven show. Most of the episodes were at least interesting. Some were terrible, and at least one, Frederik Pohl’s “Tunnel Under the World,” was amazing.

The most curious one for me was an adaptation of C.M. Kornbluth’s “The Little Black Bag.” Only about two-thirds of this 1969 production, starring Emrys Jones and Geraldine Moffat, survive. (for more details, see here.) I thought it was incredibly interesting, went online to read more about it, and saw that Night Gallery made their own adaptation the following year. I figured I could wait and see how Serling and team did it.

The Night Gallery adaptation is radically different. In Unknown, the disgraced doctor gets as far as reopening a small clinic. The Doctor Fall of this story, played by Burgess Meredith, only has the chance to use the bag a few times in one day before he is murdered by his associate to profit from it. Meredith is superhumanly good in the part, but his associate, played by Chill Willis, just aggravated me. Serling didn’t give the character a point of view other than “argue against all plans of protagonist” and I didn’t like Willis’s tone of voice, his mannerisms, anything.

Surrounding “Bag,” there are two short stories with quick payoffs: a mean-spirited black comedy of jealousy featuring Joseph Wiseman and Diane Keaton, and a more straightforward adventure tale with a very dopey twist ending starring Joseph Campanella. This one is so goofy that it must have been made for any kids who ran across the episode, because the revelation was the first Gallery moment that our kid found remotely entertaining.

And no, the kid did not recognize Burgess Meredith. Confounded child!

Legend 1.6 – Knee-High Noon

Well, the first five Legend episodes were a lot better than this. “Knee-High Noon” does have some very good gags, particularly the ones involving a Trojan cow used for rustler surveillance, but otherwise the plot is incredibly predictable. Mary-Margaret Humes, from Eerie, Indiana, guest stars as a conniving stage mom who arrives in Sheridan and aims to introduce a Legend Jr. character to Ernest’s line of dime novels, with all the attendant royalties, merchandise, and personal appearance fees. Since she didn’t anticipate that Ernest actually does make enemies while working as Legend, nothing happens that’s in any way surprising. At least we enjoyed the terse, three-word solution to the problem that Ernest’s publisher wires to Sheridan.

Doctor Who 2.6 – The Age of Steel

“That was awesome, but ONLY because the Cybermen were totally destroyed in a totally awesome way.” That’s our son’s verdict, still loving to hate the Cybermen.

“The Age of Steel” is the all-action finale to the story, taking place in one evening with what must have been weeks of night filming in Cardiff. Graeme Harper was brought on to direct this adventure. He’d previously directed the stories “The Caves of Androzani” and “Revelation of the Daleks” in 1984-85, making him the only director from the original run to work on the revival. Harper had a reputation, then, as being one of the most dynamic and exciting directors working at the BBC. But since British television had moved away from videotape and the frequently static recorded-as-live productions, Harper’s work here, while still very thrilling and fun to watch, isn’t quite as thunderously different from the surrounding stories as it was in Colin Baker’s day. The difference between “Timelash” and “Revelation of the Daleks” is obvious even with the sound down. This story looks every bit as good as “The Girl in the Fireplace.”

The story ends with Mickey choosing to remain on the parallel world and help the authorities shut down any of Lumic’s remaining Cyber-factories. I like how the story wrong-foots the audience, because while it telegraphs Mickey’s unhappiness, there’s also a scene where they split up – “above, between, below” like “The Five Doctors” – and it practically screams “Mickey isn’t coming back.”

The only part of this story that raises a question with me is the quickie reference to Torchwood in part one. Why is there a Torchwood in this universe? Did a Doctor show up in 1879 and piss off this world’s Victoria, too?

Doctor Who 2.5 – Rise of the Cybermen

I enjoyed this more than I remembered. The kid jumping up in mock frustration / annoyance when the word “Cybermen” appeared in the title helped. I still think they should have swapped episode titles with the next one. Obviously the BBC’s ongoing policy of spoiling as much as possible meant that everybody in 2006 knew that the Cybermen were coming back in this one. Might’ve been nice to see how he put all the pieces together before the big reveal at the end.

So this is the big parallel universe two-parter, with all the attendant silliness and coincidence that comes from parallel universe stories, and in this universe, the Cybermen evolved on Earth rather than Mondas. Their creator is portrayed by Roger Lloyd-Pack, whose lengthy career I almost entirely missed. I still think of him as that young fellow from Spyder’s Web in 1972 and his dad Charles was the old guy. Now they’re both gone. Shaun Dingwall is back as the Pete Tyler of the other Earth, and he’s once again magical. And there’s one of my favorite Rose scenes from her two seasons, when she decides to try patching up her parents’ marriage, forgetting that the Pete and Jackie of this world are not her parents, and doesn’t so much get put in her place as shoved there, hard.

But best of all is Noel Clarke who gets to play both Mickey and his gun-toting doppelganger, Ricky, and Mickey has the common sense not to try to explain to the much angrier fellow on this world who he actually is. Clarke is so often used as the comedy foil that it’s wonderful to see him get to do some different things, and do them so incredibly well. Again, you have to swallow the same silly coincidences that happen anytime a sci-fi show does a parallel world story – they couldn’t have landed in Sydney or Buenos Aires or someplace where there aren’t any Tylers or Smiths, of course – but it gives Clarke a real chance to shine.

And of course there are Cybermen. Our son has a wonderful love/hate relationship with the Cybermen and feigns exasperation with them. It’s the Daleks that he really likes, he insists, and loudly brags that it would only take five Daleks to destroy all these Cybermen. Stick around for another three weeks, won’t you, readers?

Night Gallery 1.1 – The Dead Man / The Housekeeper

After a successful pilot, NBC ordered a six episode first season of Night Gallery. They aired the episodes as part of the umbrella series Four in One starting in December 1970 and led with an hour that comprises two absolute turkeys. You can pretty much sum them up as “dated, sexist trash.” I found a thing or two to like about each installment, but nobody else in the house did.

Both installments were scripted by Douglas Heyes, a great, great writer who was responsible for some tremendously good episodes of Maverick. “The Dead Man” is an adaptation of a short story by Fritz Leiber, and maybe it would read better as a creepy little tale. Unfortunately, when you dramatize a story like this, you have to put the story’s lone female character front and center. Fickle and hungry for a younger lover, she’s ready to ditch her older husband, a doctor running a private clinic, for his hunky blond patient.

When the patient dies in an experiment, she loses her freaking mind, and turns hysterical in the way that fiction demands but real life never actually sees. It builds to a creepy crescendo that would tell magnificently around a campfire deep in the woods, but on television leaves the woman looking inhumanly stupid. At least her screams as she runs through the graveyard were sufficient to creep our kid out. It wasn’t the denouement, but the screams, so credit to the actress. (Interestingly, a screaming female villain at the end of a recently-watched Kolchak similarly had him wide-eyed.)

By any objective measure, “The Housekeeper” is even worse, but I got a kick out of Larry Hagman’s performance as the villain. I felt the need to point out to our son that he was the villain because I was afraid he might think that the protagonist was the hero, just a jerk of one! Hagman’s looking for a kind-hearted “old hag” to undergo a magical personality transplant with his younger, sexier, hateful and rich wife, who’s about to leave him and cut him off. Jeanette Nolan, under some heavy makeup and blacked-out teeth, is sweet enough to see his point of view, but maybe that’s not the only point of view that she sees. Again, unfortunately, actually giving the women in the story dialogue and body language underlines what a feeble, male fantasy concept this is. Hagman didn’t need a nice old lady with a kind heart; he needed Lady Macbeth, Norma Desmond, or Cruella de Vil. Better luck next time, you amateur.

Legend 1.5 – The Life, Death, and Life of Wild Bill Hickok

Regular readers know that this silly blog’s silliest recurring gag is our son’s ongoing inability to recognize actors. You’ll be relieved to know that when John Pyper-Ferguson popped up as this episode’s villain, Jack McCall, our son knew who he was. He shouted “Pete!” because he knows him from Brisco County, Jr. and then he just babbled and babbled over his next four lines of dialogue because he was happy with himself and because Pete was such a wonderfully dumb character. Pyper-Ferguson is also wonderful in this. Like some fanboys who need to let go in the present day, the grouchy McCall keeps reading Legend’s dime novels even though he hates every one of them.

Somewhere else in this silly blog, I once mentioned those Time-Life books about the old west, the ones with “the look and feel of hand-tooled leather.” Well, Peter Allan Fields wrote a corker of an episode here, including telegraphing a show-ending twist that I didn’t see coming, and I enjoyed it tremendously, but he took quite a few liberties with the circumstances of Hickok’s demise, so I don’t know that he ever ordered those books. It seems that the real Jack McCall was a miner that Bill Hickok had the misfortune of meeting just once. The McCall of this story is an outlaw that Hickok has sparred against for several years.

Then again, I clearly didn’t invest in those Time-Life books myself. The episode was nearly over before I realized I’d mistaken Wild Bill for Buffalo Bill Cody. Sorry, Bills.

Doctor Who 2.4 – The Girl in the Fireplace

I’ve always really enjoyed Steven Moffat’s “The Girl in the Fireplace” on two levels. The episode itself is a tremendously entertaining mix of high-concept time travel with the emotional core of our hero’s heartbreaking and incredibly short emotional connection with Madame de Pompadour, a woman from the 17th Century who was the influential primary mistress of Louis XV.

Was it love? I’d like to think so, and that’s why I enjoy it on the other level. This episode kicked off a firestorm among some fans in 2006, because apart from a few huge grins and some hand-holding and a couple of kisses, the Doctor had typically been presented as not interested in smooching anybody. Then this episode aired and several people on the forums started yelling and screaming about it. Then Steven Moffat dropped a hand grenade, saying – and I’m not sure where, but I kept the quote on my old Livejournal – “The perceived asexuality of the Doctor is something read in to the series by its more asexual fans.” Several people were furious. Mind you, as time wore on, it became evident that Moffat is generally clueless about what asexuality actually is. (Actually, as time wore on, it became evident that Moffat is generally clueless about a heck of a lot of things where gender and sexuality are concerned, but that’s another story.)

I’m probably wrong, but from where I was sitting, it felt like “The Girl in the Fireplace” kicked open the door for new debates and discussion and writing about the series, and I’m incredibly glad to have read so many fascinating essays over the last thirteen years about various feminist perspectives on the series, and how writers and fans with different perspectives on sexuality and orientation see the program. Once, I was only aware of a single party line – Patrick Troughton’s Doctor once told Polly to make some coffee for the Moonbase staff, and wasn’t that sexist and isn’t it better that things have changed – and with the new series’ much larger and much more diverse audience, I found myself reading so many other takes on the program. And sure, it’s probable that there were fanzines in the past where discussions about race and sexuality and gender were happening in print, but until anorak rage about the Doctor snogging Madame de Pompadour spilled out onto the forums, I had no idea anybody was talking about these things at all.

But even if I wasn’t interested in how Doctor Who is viewed from outside my straight, white, middle-aged, privileged, knows-the-production-codes bubble, I still would love “The Girl in the Fireplace.” Sophia Myles is terrific as Madame de Pompadour, the plot is a fascinating puzzle, the clockwork robots are a delightful menace, and it’s full of great dialogue. Of course our son loved the Doctor riding a horse through a mirror, and I love wondering what that party’s guests had to say the next day about that insane evening. It’s a great hour of television.

The X Files 10.3 – Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster

Late last night, when not a creature was stirring, not even our kid (yet), I showed Marie one of Darin Morgan’s masterpieces from the third season of The X Files, “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose.” She wasn’t blown away. Around 2013, I showed her one of his other masterpieces from that year, “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space” and she didn’t punch the air amazed by that, either. And the evening after “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster” aired in 2016, I had her watch it and she just smiled politely. Dames.

I really enjoyed most of the first six years of The X Files, but Darin Morgan’s three scripts for the 1995-96 season were far and away my favorites. He also wrote a very good one for season two. I lost interest in the show eventually, and only raised about half an eyebrow when they announced its return. But then I read that Morgan was returning and bought some popcorn for the occasion. I absolutely love his skewed take on the series’ tropes and rules, and his dark humor. He just doesn’t work in television enough.

“Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster” isn’t the most kid-friendly thing that I’ve ever shown our son, and I winced – I didn’t smile, I winced – when we hit a couple of kid-unfriendly moments in the story, but I wanted to show him how Kolchak: The Night Stalker still has a fun and silly influence over television producers and writers. Guest star Rhys Darby, whose voice our kid has heard as the reckless idiot Langstrom Fischler in Thunderbirds are Go, plays a fellow whose path crosses Mulder and Scully’s as they venture to Oregon to investigate reports of a lizard creature. Worryingly, Darby’s character, who calls himself “Guy Mann,” pilfered the suit and hat from some poor dead fellow in the Oregon forest. Best not to think of whose body that might have been.

The episode finds Fox Mulder at a low point, not really wanting to believe in the paranormal and extraterrestrial any longer, since all his old obsessions have been debunked. This puts the heroes in a very amusing place, as Mulder can’t find the energy to care any more and even his smartphone’s new camera app leaves him clueless like a boomer about how to fix it. Scully swats away Mulder’s feeble explanation of what might be happening – our son giggled throughout but lost it spectacularly when Scully clarifies that he really thinks this could be a six-foot horny toad with human teeth – but in a standout, bravura moment, Mulder gets his moxie back after one conversation with a creepy motel manager and delivers a massive, endless, hilarious monologue to Scully, encompassing secrets man was not meant to know, the origins of werewolf lore, forms of life we haven’t discovered yet, and conspiracies about scientists on the run from Big Pharma.

“Yeah, this is how I like my Mulder,” Scully replies.

“So you’re agreeing with me?” Mulder says.

“No! You’re batcrap crazy!”

Yeah, this is how I like my X Files.

Legend 1.4 – Custer’s Next-to-Last Stand

Our very early Christmas present came around 3:15 this morning, when we heard our kid shuffling around in the den. The poor fellow had been awake for half an hour, but was torn between wanting to get things started and not wanting to wake us at an unreasonable hour. So he sat on the sofa and got up and paced and stared longingly at the tree and paced some more. Fortunately – or not – I’m a very light sleeper and his pacing woke me.

About eleven hours later, by which time the more sensible grownups in the house had taken naps, we sat down to watch an episode of Legend, but the long day had done its best to wear our son out. Somewhere in the third act, we noticed he’d conked out. So this was a very rare instance of having to watch a program for our blog in two chunks with a two-hour break, and his exhaustion didn’t endear the story to him. He allowed that he did enjoy seeing a villain hoisted away from a stagecoach by a grappling hook lowered from a hot air balloon, but really, he was too tired to care about this. Perhaps after supper, he’ll be more awake to watch something else and enjoy it.

Anyway, this story was written by Bill Dial and has the unusual and not very envious task of making a controversial figure like George Custer the protagonist. They do this by not making him at all sympathetic – his bigotry and racism is front and center – but giving him a sympathetic cause, because somebody in the War Department is profiting by sending third-rate supplies and munitions to distant forts and pocketing the difference. Our heroes work to find some proof, while Pratt is also dealing with some mystery man from his past showing up with threats and a grudge. Custer is played by Alex Hyde-White, who had the misfortune of starring in that filmed-to-be-shelved Fantastic Four movie for Roger Corman the year before, and his wife by Ashley Laurence, who was in several big-budget horror films in the 1990s.

Doctor Who 2.3 – School Reunion

For Toby Whithouse’s first Doctor Who episode, he got the plum assignment of bringing back Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane Smith, with K9 Mark III looking a little worse for the wear and dumped unceremoniously and inactive in the trunk of her car. They were last seen in “The Five Doctors” twenty-three years, or “half a dozen” regenerations, ago. Of course our son had the biggest ear-to-ear grin you’ve ever seen when K9 was revealed. It took him a few seconds to register Sarah Jane. It took him no seconds at all to register his favorite dog. He was very pleased when I told him that we’d be seeing them again in the near future.

The beautiful center of the story is Sarah Jane’s return, with all the mixed emotions that it brings. I think that they did a brilliant job balancing the unresolved sadness of the Doctor never returning – Sarah Jane was the only companion that the Doctor ever actually dumped – with the hilarious “missus and the ex” comedy. Rose is completely shocked to learn that the Doctor ever had any traveling companions before her. In the eighties, it seemed like everybody who joined the TARDIS got a TED talk in regeneration and prior companions. Peri even recognized a random photo of Jo Grant in “Timelash.” The Ninth Doctor clearly just didn’t tell Rose much of anything, did he?

The brilliant, brilliant scene that begins with Rose and Sarah Jane sniping at each other over who has seen more impressive sights is the episode’s highlight. They break the tension as they realize that the Doctor’s face might change but he’s still the same clueless man. I bet a thousand fanfic writers were punching the air as Rose and Sarah Jane collapse with laughter while the Doctor can’t get a sentence out, saying “Yes, that, exactly like that!”

It’s all so good that the actual plot is fairly irrelevant, honestly. Anthony Stewart Head is the main baddie, and at least he gets a completely terrific showdown scene opposite David Tennant. For the record, these monsters are called Krillitanes and they’re after something called a Skasis Paradigm, but they might as well be Slitheen in Downing Street or Mark Gatiss with a big CGI monster or Sontarans with GPS smoke bombs. As much as I enjoy Russell T. Davies’s four seasons, there are plenty of present-day Earth stories where I just adore the characters and the dialogue so much but have no idea what the actual stakes are. It’s apparently building blocks of the universe, this time. I’ll try to remember that.