Worzel Gummidge 5.6 – Ten Heads are Better Than One

I watched the first episode of Sherlock this afternoon. I invited our son to identify the actress who played Mrs. Hudson. He didn’t recognize Una Stubbs. Same as it ever was.

Anyway, this was a nice surprise: it’s the first part of a longer storyline, ending on a cliffhanger! Worzel meets a new friend in this one: the metal conductress of a Victorian-era calliope. She’s called Trudi von Crochet, played by Lee Hatherly, and unfortunately she only seems to appear in this one episode. Naturally, Aunt Sally is infuriated by her interest in Worzel. Just because she doesn’t want Worzel doesn’t mean she wants anybody else to have him either. Same as it ever was.

But remarkably, the episode ends with the Traveling Scarecrow Maker happening to be in the right place at the right time to abduct Aunt Sally. It doesn’t actually seem to be the actor Wi Kuki Kaa, who we met in the previous episode, this time, as the Maker is only seen from behind in his heavy cloak and doesn’t have any lines. But he certainly surprised the life out of me, and we’ll have to wait a few days to see what happens next. Stay tuned!

Doctor Who 7.12 – The Crimson Horror

It’s not like I was chomping at the bit for a Paternoster Gang spinoff series in 2013 – I’m nowhere near as enamored of these characters as their many fans – but it felt absolutely true then that the BBC missed a trick in not making one, and it feels triply true today. First because the Disney+ streaming service is proving pretty conclusively that there is definitely a market in keeping spinoffs rolling along and engaging fans, and second because our son likes the characters even more than I’d have guessed. Why is the corporation lazily trundling forward making fewer hours of Doctor Who every year? I guess they don’t have enough money. They certainly don’t have enough ambition.

Anyway, Mark Gatiss’s “The Crimson Horror” isn’t a favorite, but there’s still a lot to like. Diana Rigg is the villain, which is pretty appropriate, since the story feels a lot like it’s an Avengers plot in places. I particularly enjoyed Jenny learning that the factory is a fake, with old gramophones playing the sounds of machinery in an otherwise empty room. That’s exactly the sort of visual Mrs. Peel would have stumbled onto forty-seven years previously.

While overall he liked this one a lot, our son was confused by Diana Rigg’s character leading a temperance sermon about the moral decay of the age in order to drive recruiting for her mysterious planned community. We paused to explain how this sort of thing was very common, and how he’d actually seen something a little similar in an episode of Legend that we watched a little over a year ago. With typical nine year-old behavior, he could tell you everything about Ezra and Ahsoka and all the tech in any given episode of Star Wars Rebels, but old Westerns that he politely tolerated have mostly evaporated. “I must not have liked that story very much,” he shrugged.

Xena: Warrior Princess 4.9 – Past Imperfect

This morning’s episode was pretty strange from a production standpoint. It introduces Catherine Boniface, who we saw playing a different character in a season three story, as Satrina, a face from Xena’s past who has reinvented herself as a master villain. She is totally set up as a new recurring menace – probably filling the hole in the show left by Callisto – and even makes a traditional teevee bad guy getaway, but she’s never seen again after this. I guess the producers decided that she didn’t work and decided against using her again.

Using a face from the past means they go back to the flashbacks again. I swear I didn’t intend for this to happen, but by skipping around the way we have, it’s almost looked like Xena’s old boyfriend, the warlord Borias, has been about as important a recurring player as Ares or Caesar. Our son said he really enjoyed this episode’s fight scenes, but the flashbacks confused him. I can’t imagine it was really as confusing as he made out; he was probably just not paying close attention.

Worzel Gummidge 5.5 – King of the Scarecrows

“Holy crap!” I said. “Basically scarecrow zombies!” the kid said.

I found myself not having much to say about episode four, though it was nice to see a new upper-class jerk get a taste of Worzel and Sally’s chaos, but episode five is next-level good. Worzel is having a typically goofy adventure with a little slapstick. He ends up completing a new scarecrow’s naming ceremony, and unwittingly gives the fellow the name “Dangnation Take It,” and Dangnation thinks that Worzel is his king. When the Crowman finds out, he’s not happy.

But the Crowman has other issues, which are remarkable. This episode introduces the actor Wi Kuki Kaa as the Traveling Scarecrow Maker, who uses dark magic to bring slave scarecrows to a form of half-life. They cannot talk or dance or sing, and they can only walk between dusk and dawn. They are hideous and if I had seen this program when I was six, I’d never have come near the TV again. The Crowman wants nothing to do with this guy, but he seems to only have the power to tell him to go away, nothing more. The Traveling Scarecrow Maker has designs on the Crowman’s magic, because he needs small talismans to bring his creations to half-life. This guy is fascinating and I love the massive expansion of the show’s world to bring us a very radical new challenge. That’s exactly the kick in the pants I was hoping for, and I can’t wait to see what’s next.

Doctor Who 7.11 – Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS

Here’s a silly thing I love about “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS.” When I was in high school, one day I was thinking about making a Doctor Who fan film on a VHS camcorder, as people did back then, using what limited resources and locations were available to them. This didn’t get any farther than brainstorming a couple of notions with two pals, but one idea was that the Doctor initially thinks he’s in the corridors of a normal American high school, only it’s actually the Rani’s TARDIS and it’s playing architectural jumble with him to keep him from getting anywhere. So he’d walk down a corridor past the camera, turn right at the intersection, and after a beat, emerge from the left and walk back toward the camera.

This is not, in fairness, anything like an original idea, and it’s been used many times before in many places, but stone me if the Doctor’s own TARDIS plays architectural jumble with him to keep him from getting anywhere in this story and the exact same things happen as I considered in 1988. I just can’t help but enjoy that. Even my notion that the Rani had filled the fake classrooms of her TARDIS with students working on some crazy temporal equation found a similar use in 2006’s “School Reunion”. I hope everybody who thought about making fan movies and drew comics and wrote fic have had the experience of the proper show getting around to their ideas.

As for the actual content of this one, I mainly like the visuals. Our son was satisfied but not blown away, and didn’t have much to say about it. We poked for some commentary, but he woke an hour early this morning, was very tired and getting a bad case of the sillies by the time we sat down, and really just wanted to call it a night so that Mom could read Percy Jackson to him.

Xena: Warrior Princess 4.6 – A Tale of Two Muses

I really thought our son would have enjoyed tonight’s silly episode more than he did. For a while, he seemed to be liking it. Xena, Gabrielle, and Autolycus get together to bring a little Footloose to a town of religious extremists who have banned dancing. The Prince of Thieves is only in this under protest until he learns that the scheme is to “humiliate this horse’s ass” of a town magistrate. I guess you could make the argument that the humiliation is left to our imagination, and so we never really get the chance to enjoy his comeuppance, but the real tragedy for the kid is that there was far too much music and dancing. His loss; there’s a dance scene in the middle of the story set to a terrific tune called “Let the Spirit Move Me” sung by Gillian Iliana Waters that the grownups really enjoyed.

Doctor Who 7.10 – Hide

“Hide” is darn near a masterpiece, easily one of my favorite Matt Smith episodes. A little less of the manic and the goofy and it’d be perfect. I like everything else about it tremendously, especially Clara letting her sassy shields slip and revealing that she is scared out of her mind. Dougray Scott and Jessica Raine are the guests, and they are marvelous. You get so used to contemporary Who focusing on the leads and the villains and forgetting to dig into the lives of the people they touch that every time the pace slows down to give you their stories, it feels special, these two more than most. Madly, this has been Neil Cross’s last Who adventure; it was written before “The Rings of Akhaten” but I wouldn’t hold that story’s fumble against Cross at all. I’d ask him back annually and let him have at it.

It’s not one of our son’s favorites, though. This was indeed a behind the sofa tale for him. He spent most of the first half back there. Everybody involved just did an amazing job telling a ghost story, so that even when it revealed itself to be something else, the frights had been so strong that the damage was done.

The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984)

So there was this girl in college. There always is.

Her name was Samantha, and she thought the Madison Avenue advertising frogs were about the funniest things ever created. We spent several months asking each other to lunch by saying “A little something from the grill, Jill?” and responding appropriately. Once she explained it to me, anyway. I had never seen the movie.

When I hit teenagerhood around 1984 and was at my most insufferable, the Muppets were among many, many things I lost interest in, as teenagers often will. So I passed on The Muppets Take Manhattan. I didn’t see this movie for many years and, to be honest, I found it really disappointing when I finally did. Watching it with our son this morning didn’t change my mind. It’s a very mediocre outing for the gang, easily the least of the first three installments. It is punctuated with some incredibly funny moments, as it should be, and our kid howled with laughter several times, but by the end – possibly in part because of that endless end – he was halfway to tuning out.

Focusing on the bright moments for now, there are the advertising frogs, who really are hilarious. There’s Joan Rivers, painting makeup all over Miss Piggy. There’s the narrowed-eyes variant of Miss Piggy, finally losing her temper after several raging incidents of jealousy, going after a mugger on roller skates. In point of fact, Miss Piggy is really the best thing about this movie, and the mugger scene comes to a brilliant climax with one of the funniest moments in any Muppet outing ever, when Gregory Hines attempts to mediate / escalate their argument. If we woke the neighbors roaring over this sequence this morning, we apologize.

When I put the calendar for our blog together, I couldn’t have known that this would come up in the rotation right after Disney+ added 118 episodes of The Muppet Show to their rotation. We’ve watched a few over the last several days – the triumphant and utterly amazing Marty Feldman appearance, the uncut Vincent Prince show with its closing number restored – and Manhattan badly sags after the explosive 27 minutes of lunacy in even the worst of the TV episodes. The movie starts introducing the generation of Muppets I never liked: Rizzo the Rat, the bears, the Muppet Babies. (I swear the voice actors in that cartoon were going out of their way to make every single character sound like nails on a chalkboard!) I wish I liked the human actors, but I don’t.

The Muppets Take Manhattan may be a lackluster movie, but there’s still some Muppet spirit in it. For example, during the closing wedding scene, some doves are released. Our son asked “Where did those birds come from?” and I replied “The Creature Shop.” Wokka-wokka-wokka!

Xena: Warrior Princess 4.5 – A Good Day

Up until the final scenes, our son was really enjoying this one, which is nice, because he certainly didn’t enjoy the previous three. It ends with a long, long meditation on the horrors of war – there’s slow motion and “noooooooooooo” and a quite unsurprising death among the guest stars – and then Xena sings at another funeral. To be fair, I was enjoying this one quite a lot until the slo-mo myself, but the kid’s precise criticism after five minutes of the show turning into a tear-jerker nails it best. “I really don’t like it when it turns into a sad relationship broken drama.”

Anyway, it’s a heck of a good plot and a very, very good production. Caesar and Pompey have brought the Roman civil war to Greece, and while Pompey’s forces are larger, Karl Urban’s Caesar inspires far greater loyalty and morale in his men, plus he’s a much better battlefield tactician. Xena schemes to assure a little mutually-assured destruction so what’s left of their forces will return to Rome and leave these hills and villages alone.

Pulling this off required probably the largest collection of costumed, combat-ready extras we’ve seen in this series, augmented by some of those CGI-enhanced crowd scenes that were a lot harder to spot in the 1990s than they are today. But the brawling and the scope is very, very impressive: much higher budgeted weekly TV series rarely pull off anything this spectacular. To be fair, the effect was slightly spoiled tonight, because afterward, Marie and I watched the first half of Akira Kurosawa’s 1980 epic Kagemusha, which has one of the largest collections of costumed, combat-ready extras I’ve seen in anything, period. But Xena nevertheless deserves a lot of praise for what it could accomplish with so much less money, and the fight scenes really are golden.

Worzel Gummidge 5.3 – Full Employment

Aunt Sally seems to get her comeuppance more often in Zoo Neeland than she ever did back home. Maybe the English Crowman should’ve sent her down under years ago.

Our son completely loved this episode, especially a sequence where Worzel drives away on a motorcycle. Of course Jon Pertwee, who loved gadgets and fast cars, didn’t use a stunt double until the last possible moment. But the part that had us howling the most was when Worzel clarifies that Aunt Sally’s dress does not pong like a cow shed, it pongs like a pig sty. And he should know.

Doctor Who 7.9 – Cold War

During supper tonight, I gave the kid – and Marie, who knows little of early eighties synth music – a potted history of Ultravox, from their cold and clinical early days with John Foxx as the singer through their huge success with such hits as “Vienna” and “Reap the Wild Wind.” I even sang that bit from “Vienna,” which nobody appreciated. I explained that Ultravox, like all acts who have a solid period with lots of hits, reached the end of their period of massive sales quicker than anybody would like, and split up about 1987. Nothing lasts forever.

“So we’re watching Doctor Who tonight?” our son asked.

“What makes you think Doctor Who has anything to do with Ultravox?” I replied.

“Because it’s more likely that a show about time travel would have something to do with Ultravox than a show set in Zoo Neeland or ancient Greece.” Clever kid.

This focus on fondly-remembered musical acts kept him perfectly distracted, satisfying him as guest star David Warner warbled “Vienna” almost as badly as I did, so the surprise appearance of an Ice Warrior, back in the show after a thirty-nine (!) year absence blindsided him wonderfully. The more excited he gets, the more babbling he can’t stop, and he could not stop babbling for an hour. He was thrilled.

I enjoy most of Mark Gatiss’s scripts for Who. I think this one sags a bit in the middle, the result of too much action at the top and the tail, but it’s still very entertaining and fabulously claustrophobic. It’s one of those Whos that plays out in nearly real time, meaning that Martian spaceship at the end must have a heck of a good radio receiver and quite an engine. The kid was thrilled and said that he knew he was going to like it when he realized it was an Ice Warrior, but he liked it even more than he thought he would. I like the Ice Warriors a lot. I even like them more than I like Ultravox.