Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased) 2.4 – Painkillers

I have to admit that I didn’t think I was going to enjoy this one very much. Two civil servants hire Jeff and Jeannie to infiltrate a top secret research base run by villain-of-the-week Derek Jacobi, with Dervla Kirwan as a femme fatale in charge of human resources, despite Jeff’s complete unsuitability in pretending he’s a top research chemist. There’s only so much talking-yer-way-outta-trouble that I can stand before the cringing takes over.

However, it ends beautifully. Gareth Roberts’ script is about the villain’s attempt to synthesize a very rare jungle plant that will hold back pain and even death, just so long as you keep dosing yourself with the drug. Otherwise the pain, or the death you’ve been cheating for a quarter century, is going to snap at you like a rubber band. So with that in mind, there’s a completely hilarious final fight where the dosed heroes and villains just clobber each other in an absurdly over-the-top brawl, and like that fellow in The World is Not Enough, nobody’s able to feel any pain…

…yet.

My son and I were howling and were already sore from laughing and then, a night or two later, Jeff and Jeannie try to have a serious conversation about their relationship in a nice restaurant, forgetting that they’re going to feel all those punches when the drug wears off. And it wears off. And we about died. I wasn’t expecting a lot, but wow. I’m still chuckling.

Stargate SG-1 1.2 – The Enemy Within

Once upon a time, my sweetie moved in with me and she brought ten unsightly cardboard boxes full of Stargate episodes that I tried my best to ignore until one dark day when she suggested we rotate them in with the other old shows I was watching with my older kids.

I knew I’d dislike the show because I am actively repelled by our country’s military-industrial complex. I support our troops getting far better medical assistance and resources in civilian life than they receive in reality, and I support the executives of Lockheed and Northrop Grumman and General Dynamics being defenestrated from the highest building, and that’s about it. Even in Stargate‘s better, later seasons, there’s still a sickening “US military might makes right” undercurrent to this program that makes my skin crawl.

Besides, it’s just common sense. No matter how unappealing some of its producers’ decisions may have been, I will always love The X Files, which at its core is a search for the truth in opposition to what our government and military want to conceal. Stargate glamorizes and fetishizes that concealment, telling us to shut up and trust government secrecy. They know what’s good for us.

Making things even worse, the first two seasons of this show are frankly as wretched as American sci-fi gets. Barely saved each week by its likeable lead actors, it’s a continuity-dense dirge without a surprise anywhere and the most boring and least appealing villains in any similar program. The first two seasons managed one hour that I liked. Still, to make sense of the later years, and give our son a fair chance to form his own opinions, we’re going to watch about two-thirds of year one, and about half of year two.

It gets better. Seasons three, four, and five are largely watchable. I feel like the producers were looking for more opportunities to breathe and have fun, resulting in some amusing and clever situations along with a few misfires. Entertaining but uneven, these seasons contain one completely brilliant episode that’s almost my favorite, but also a scrub-eyeballs-with-bleach hour with Sean Patrick Flanery, an actor I otherwise really enjoy, that had me throwing the remote at the TV. I’m not watching that thing again.

By year six, the show’s in a stride and consistently good, honestly better than it has any right to be, especially since the Replicators, the villains that had breathed new life in the show, get overused and evolve in an unappealing way. On the other hand, the new lead villains, Anubis and Ba’al, are twisted and fun in a way that Apophis never was. The Goa’uld storyline comes to an incredibly satisying conclusion, and Vala Mal Doran, the character I enjoyed most, is introduced.

Seasons nine and ten aren’t quite as good and often get a little ponderous, because the latest and final band of bad guys grow to become depressingly overpowered, but while Vala gets stuck with one of sci-fi TV’s most godawful ongoing storylines – I still cringe if I overhear anybody, anywhere, say “Hello, mother” – watching Vala and Daniel bring out the best/worst in each other is splendidly entertaining, and the series ends triumphantly with a wholly perfect final hour.

As for the political edge that bothers me so much about the show’s concept, that never really goes away. It’s a problem that infects the show from its inception, but in the same way that I can squint at the Marvel movies and pretend that I’m okay with our tax dollars funding Helicarriers and Nick Fury’s world of surveillance, the show finds a sense of fun and levity that balances the camouflage. It just takes a while to get there. I’m not going to linger on the show’s many aggravations in the first two years and after this will compose much shorter posts. I’m just going to buckle up, appreciate the good acting where I can, and shake my head and say that a couple more years of seeing Richard Dean Anderson play Ernest Pratt and Nicodemus Legend would have been better than this.

As for this episode, our kid wasn’t really taken. O’Neill’s pal Kawalsky gets taken over by a Goa’uld and has to be killed. Our son was briefly curious about the nightmares the base janitor was going to have cleaning up the mess. I told him that the producers had to balance the more expensive location episodes with smaller episodes set inside the base, but it is kind of odd that they’d do one of the cheapies just one week after the premiere.

Jack of All Trades 1.1 – Return of the Dragoon

In 1999, flush with the success of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and its far superior spinoff, Xena: Warrior Princess (about which, more later), Renaissance Pictures and Universal teamed up on a deeply odd next step in syndicated programming. It was called the Back 2 Back Action Hour and featured a pair of really short adventure programs, each just about 21 minutes after the ads were taken out. Cleopatra 2525 was the longer-lived of the two and starred Jennifer Sky and Gina Torres.

But we’re here to talk about the ridiculous, brainless and delightfully silly Jack of All Trades, which featured Bruce Campbell and Angela Dotchin. Campbell was working pretty regularly in New Zealand anyway; he played a recurring character, Autolycus, in both Hercules and Xena, and was the perfect choice for his pals and cohorts at Renaissance to cast as Jack Stiles, a larger-than-life secret agent. Practically perfect in every way, somehow, Jack is assigned by President Jefferson to Palau Palau, a tiny island in the East Indies where Napoleon might be making plans for world domination. Britain already has a spy in place. Emilia Rothschild, a master inventor and expert in practically everything, is also a little unlikely. That anybody who plans everything to the tiniest detail like Emilia does should have to put up with a seat-of-his-pants improviser like Jack just isn’t fair.

Anyway, this is a show to watch for the gags, the fights, and the stunts. It’s not a show to watch for intricate plotting or character development. There’s no time for that, because Jack – here donning the identity of a local folk hero called the Dragoon – has to win fights with about a dozen French soldiers. It’s also not a show to watch for anything that even resembles historical accuracy. The world of Jack of All Trades was imagined by people who failed high school history and didn’t care to research anything because it might get in the way of having fun. So with wit and swagger and one of TV’s greatest theme songs, this really entertained our kid, who liked the brawls and the impossible escapes and the dopey gags about getting some marshmallows to toast over Emilia’s hologram fireplace. He did add that the set piece at the beginning, when Jack rescues Jefferson’s niece from Canada, was his favorite part, but hopefully there will be enough swashbuckling in Palau Palau to keep him happy.

Batwoman 1.11 – An Un-Birthday Present

Marie and I decided a couple of weeks ago to take Batwoman out of rotation after episode eleven for the rest of this season, because we are completely sick of Alice and Mouse. And man, I wish we’d have stopped last week, because it was a really good episode and this time, we’re back to more endless, gruesome flashbacks from Beth’s captivity. Making things worse, this time we had the incredibly fascinating development of the Good Beth from one of the other infinite earths (Black Lightning’s, maybe?) merged into this one and learning that everything she knew is upside down and she needs to find a place here in a world that does not know her. THERE’S YOUR STORY. THAT IS INTERESTING. CREEPY KIDNAPPER GUY KILLING KITTENS IS NOT.

Initially, I figured that we’ll look at the season finale and possibly resume the show next season if Alice is retired. We also might stop in if I hear about a good guest star, an interesting crossover, or some Gotham City character like Dick Grayson or Barbara Gordon or Mr. Freeze or Egghead showing up. However, in light of yet more Silence of the Lambs serial killer crap in this flashback, I’m also going to cross my fingers that this grisly tone we see in the “basement of horrors” gets retired permanently before the producers choose to view any of those classic characters through such an ugly prism.

Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased) 2.3 – O Happy Isle

Today’s episode of Randall & Hopkirk is a delightfully silly tribute to The Wicker Man, with George Baker in the Christopher Lee role and a whole lot less sex. Literally, that’s the point of the story. It’s a fun inversion of the original story, where everything happens in service to the island’s ancient laws about fertility, because everything happens in this episode to try to stop all that wretched and ghastly fertility.

I wrote a lot for the blog earlier, so here I’ll just add that Reeves and Mortimer’s years on stage sharpened their timing so perfectly that they pulled off one of the funniest gags I’ve seen in ages. It’s a bit where Vic gets Bob to say the wrong thing at the wrong moment and it builds and builds as flawlessly as “duck season / rabbit season / duck season.” If I ever had the chance to see them do that live, they probably would have had to call an ambulance for me. Also, Jeff wins a scrap with two – two! – opponents. Admittedly, these poor fellows were hobbled by the local brew messing with their chemical levels, but somewhere in heaven, Mike Pratt must be pleased that his successor managed that. Jeannie takes one out as well. If Jeff wasn’t there, of course, she’d have clobbered all three.

Stargate SG-1 1.1 – Children of the Gods

We have watched several samples of MacGyver and all of Legend, and so I feel comfortable saying that even at either show’s worst, Richard Dean Anderson brought a very watchable sparkle and wit to his performances. Let me illustrate by noting that Roger Moore honestly didn’t have a lot of range, but he was always really entertaining in every role because he knew how to find life in the deadest lines, and precisely when to arch his eyebrow just enough. I think it’s reasonable to say that Anderson has a similar range and style. He’s an actor who knows when to puff his cheeks and furrow his brow and silently bring the right humor to a tough scene.

In the original Stargate film, Kurt Russell had the difficult job of playing Col. Jack O’Neill, a man who was (a) a no-nonsense military bore, who (b) had recently lost his young child in a shooting death, and who (c) had nothing left to live for and was prepared, willing, and perfectly content to kill himself if the mission went wrong. (This begs the question: was O’Neill selected for that mission and reactivated specifically because the Air Force wanted a man with no desire to live? Lord, that’s depressing.) Now, I don’t pretend to understand casting directors, but knowing where Richard Dean Anderson excels, he strikes me as a breathtakingly strange choice to be offered the part of O’Neill in the series version of Stargate, which began in the summer of 1997.

And yet, thank heaven somebody made that wild connection, because while, as I’ll explain in a post later this week, the first two years of this show are disappointing and largely awful, they would be utterly unbearable without Richard Dean Anderson to carry their weight. He can’t completely save it – absent a total rethink, nothing could – but if Anderson hadn’t found O’Neill’s reason to live, a little bit healed a year after his son’s accidental death, and given this character just the right level of intelligence and gentle sarcasm, I wouldn’t have the patience to watch any of this mess.

And he’s helped so much by Michael Shanks as Daniel Jackson, who actually has a human reason to be involved this time around. In the film, Kurt Russell and James Spader have no chemistry whatsoever, because Russell is written to have no chemistry with anybody, and Spader’s character is only looking for chemistry in old languages. Shanks is just terrific as Jackson. He brings the life and the anger and the drive; Anderson brings the backbone and the reason. (Amanda Tapping and Christopher Judge are here as well; in time, they’ll each shine very brightly, but in “Children of the Gods,” they serve the plot without getting in the others’ way much.)

So this story gets some of the gang back together and establishes the principal villain for this phase of the program. The foes are a parasitic race of worm-things called Goa’uld who live inside humans. They set themselves up as intergalactic “System Lords” and, with a couple of devious, amusing, or interesting exceptions we meet years from now, they are incredibly boring “evil for evil’s sake” villains. For a long while, the only one that we meet is the powerful Apophis, played by Peter Williams. So he’s here, along with his new evil queen Sha’re, and the quest to defeat Apophis and save Sha’re, who had been married to Daniel before she was infected, is the first ongoing arc of the program.

The kid enjoyed it restlessly until a very well-staged shootout at the conclusion. He loved that a lot. What he didn’t love – and what we didn’t let him watch – was the infection of Sha’re, which really has no place in an otherwise PG-style program like this. It’s so amazingly out of place and boneheadedly wrong that everybody mentions it, and not just because they get kicks talking about full-frontal nudity. The world of Stargate is otherwise really chaste and sexless, and yet here’s this moment where the actress gets shown off and has a big slimy worm prop run around her naked back. I’ve read the producers didn’t want to do it, but the network – then, Showtime – insisted, and they later issued an edited version of the film to remove the most gratuitous shots. What I’ve never understood is why Showtime wanted the nude scene in the movie but none of the subsequent episodes. It would only make sense if Showtime wanted something like Game of Thrones fifteen years early, with rapey Goa’uld infections on other planets, characters having sex, and shower scenes back at the military base.

There are many misfires to come, but few of them are as downright weird as this scene. More in a few days, when I explain why we’re watching this dumb program. I’ll try not to spend the days wishing that it would have been better for all concerned if Richard Dean Anderson had the opportunity to keep playing Legend for two or three more seasons.

The Sarah Jane Adventures 1.0 – Invasion of the Bane

On January 1, 2007, one week after the Doctor Who episode “The Runaway Bride,” BBC One showed a special preview episode of the forthcoming Sarah Jane Adventures series. “Invasion of the Bane,” co-written by Russell T. Davies and Gareth Roberts, functions as a pilot episode, setting up the unusual premise. It’s set more than a year since we last saw Sarah Jane in “School Reunion.” She’s had to temporarily part company with K9, who’s on a mission in space, and she’s using an attic room full of alien tech to help stranded or lost extraterrestrials find their way home. Occasionally she has to put her foot down when some visitors from space – like this story’s Bane – have a little more malice in mind.

The obvious question is where did Sarah get all this gear? I figure that as soon as she spotted Daleks in the sky above Canary Wharf, Sarah got down there just in time for the Doctor to clean up the mess, and loaded the back seat of her car with whatever space junk would fit before the government and/or UNIT figured out what was going on. From what we learn later, she picked up “Mister Smith,” the crystal alien that powers her supercomputer, around the same time. The sonic lipstick is a cheeky gift from the Doctor which he left inside the new K9 that he left her. Problem mostly solved!

In the first episode, Sarah meets a new ally in the form of 13 year-old Maria, played by Yasmin Paige, and an adopted son – an artificial human rescued from the bad guys – called Luke, played by Tommy Knight. The villains are a race of blob monsters called the Bane who take on human forms. Samantha Bond plays the nasty Mrs. Wormwood and her “mother” is a big CGI eyeball with a mass of thrashing green tentacles in the factory ceiling. Our son’s only complaint about this story is that we didn’t get to see the Bane Mother in full. “Invasion of the Bane” is centered around the aliens getting England hooked on a new soft drink, which is a pleasantly 2000s update to plastic daffodils. The baddies have even hired a big bus just like the Autons and the Master did thirty-six years previously, and darn if the Bane Mother didn’t look a lot like the original Nestene Consciousness. We never learn how these villains got their drink distributed to shops throughout the UK and afforded the massive advertising campaign, but at least their factory gets blown up real good.

I always felt that The Sarah Jane Adventures was a splendid companion to Who in its day. I love its goofy, kid-friendly tone, although, as much as I liked the character of Maria, the first run was the weakest of the five because they were trying a little too hard to come up with stories that would appeal to young teens instead of just flying by the seat of their pants and doing wild and ridiculous monster stories as they’d do later on. We’ll see whether it holds up in a few months’ time, and pencil it in for April, right after we finish series three of Doctor Who.

Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased) 2.2 – Revenge of the Bog People

I smiled brightly when the guest stars were named in this episode. Matt Lucas, who had been the “big baby” George Daws in Reeves and Mortimer’s hilarious Shooting Stars, is in this one as another ghost called Nesbitt. Plus there’s a great pre-credits scene: Jeff starts the episode dreaming that he’s awakened when he’s still sleeping, and waking again to find that he’s still asleep. This has happened to me a few times so memorably that the way they did it here looked like they were deliberately targeting me. And midway through the episode, thanks to Marty and Nesbitt, Jeff has a hysterically funny nightmare that’s executed flatly unlike any dream I’ve ever seen in any movie or TV show. It’s completely insane and had my son and I roaring with laughter.

And yet none of these have anything to do with why I loved watching this one unfold. Look, we all agree that the original Randall and Hopkirk is in a class by itself, but stone me if “Revenge of the Bog People” isn’t my favorite episode of either production (so far). This is completely amazing and I loved it to pieces and I didn’t see where it was going at least three times.

Anna Wilson-Jones plays an old flame of Jeff’s who asks him to take one more look into her father’s decade-old disappearance. Jeff couldn’t clear his name then, and things at the museum where he worked are no different, except his former boss has resigned in disgrace and poverty, and there’s something going on with a family buried together in a peat bog thousands of years ago and a very small entity running around the exhibits going bump in the night and frightening the poor security guards.

This was so darn good that I couldn’t wait for it to finish so that I could go back and rewatch a scene because I realized there was a clue in it that I completely missed. I frequently miss things like this because I’m not trying to build a case or out-think the writer; I just want to be swept along. I love the feeling of watching a splendid production come together and all the pieces find their right place, even if some people need a few encouraging words from a ghost to get where they need to be.

Legend 1.12 – Skeletons in the Closet

Well, I wouldn’t say this show went out with a bang. For its final episode, completing its midseason of thirteen hours, the producers of Legend finally remembered that they could do something with the third member of the team. Ramos, played by Mark Adair Rios, has been very much in the background. He’s a Harvard-educated and humorless scientist, all business and never smiling, and usually overlooked. We don’t know anything about him as a person. And this episode proves that this has been a problem: Ramos provides a perfect opportunity to tell stories about the bigotry that all people of Mexican or native descent faced at that time.

This time out, Ramos brings the remains of a corpse found in the hills outside the nearby town of Bell to the sheriff, who’s a condescending racist jerk. Veteran actor John Vernon plays the big landowner who knows a lot more than he’s telling about the theft of cultural treasures. Ramos is in over his head, and unfortunately that’s because he’s written astonishingly out of what character we’ve seen before. He’s always been a careful, rational, quiet scientist, but instead of using him in a clever way to build an interesting case against the villain, he’s swearing vengeance and trying to do it alone. Pratt even warns him that he’s talking like a character from one of his crummy books right before that character gets killed, which you’d think would give a man as smart as Ramos pause. It’s a massive missed opportunity. Clearly more needed to be done with Ramos, but this wasn’t it.

I wasn’t really sure what to expect with this show going in. Despite a couple of misfires, like this one, it more than met my expectations. Legend was whimsical, and occasionally very smart, and I was entertained. Unfortunately, the ratings weren’t strong enough to warrant a full season for the fall of 1995. I think a second season could have been very good. Maybe they could have introduced a couple of regular parts for women, and UPN certainly could have done a better job promoting the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine connections with the writers and producers to get more adventure-teevee fans to tune in. But certainly the opportunity was there for this to build into a sleeper hit if the network had a little patience. But honestly, UPN was in money trouble right out of the gate and they didn’t need sleeper hits, they needed big hits.

But of course, if Legend had turned into a hit, then Richard Dean Anderson wouldn’t have been available for Stargate SG-1 in 1997…

Doctor Who 3.0 – The Runaway Bride

And now to December 2006 and the triumphantly silly “The Runaway Bride.” It’s so silly and fun for about the first two-thirds of its running time that it’s pretty easy to overlook the far less interesting climax once the alien plot is revealed and the alien menace, a big spider-woman called the Empress of the Racnoss, starts yelling. The resolution is incredibly odd. I decided the only way this giant hole “to the center of the earth” makes any sense at all is if it really just goes down ten miles or so to some waiting nursery of spider-babies, because all the water in the Thames would not even come close to flooding a tunnel anywhere near as deep as they claim it is. However, I did appreciate Donna making a shout-out to At the Earth’s Core and figuring that there must be dinosaurs involved with this ridiculous scheme.

So this is Catherine Tate’s first appearance as Donna Noble, with Jacqueline King as her mother Sylvia. Donna suffers a remarkably awful six or seven hours on what’s meant to be one of the happiest days of her life, and she bellows hilariously through them until the bottom falls out of her world. I like everything about Donna, especially her strange friendship with a girl named Nerys when neither of them actually like each other, but it must be said that her best days are ahead of her. Donna was hungover and comatose during the events of “The Christmas Invasion” and obliviously scuba diving in Spain six months ago when the Cybermen and Daleks were shooting at each other. For anybody keeping track, this seems to be the fourth major alien attack on London, two of which spilled over to the rest of the planet, in eighteen months of Earth-time. For the Doctor, it’s very, very soon after the events of “Doomsday,” because he’s an emotional mess who needs a shave.

Of course the kid enjoyed the heck out of this, but naturally his favorite scene was the wild one where the Doctor manages to steer the TARDIS into the traffic of a London highway. If Tennant and Tate’s bickering – “Good luck, Lance” – wasn’t even more entertaining, I’d agree with him. I love it as much now as when we first saw it. All the business with Huon particles and spider-people may not hold my interest, but with the rest of the story this good, why complain?

And with that, we’ll put Doctor Who back on the shelf to keep things at least moderately fresh – we do still have six new Jodie Whittaker episodes in the Sundays to come – but we’ll be back for the third series in March. Stay tuned!