Still doing virtual reality episodes in 2005? This one has a pretty good premise, though: our heroes find a long-lost ship used by the Ancients more than 10,000 years ago. Its crew are all in stasis pods and don’t know that they’re in a constant virtual environment loop while their bodies have been slowly aging away and are past the point where they can be revived safely. Sheppard and McKay get some good, healthy jabs at each other after the events of “Trinity”, and our son was amused by Teyla demonstrating that she has overheard enough technobabble to stall on McKay’s behalf. Not an outstanding hour, but it’s simple and entertaining.
For this blog’s last sample look at a show from ITC, I selected, of course, The Persuaders!, which is often agreeably silly and dopey, but is nevertheless one of the most downright fun television series ever made. I gave our son atypically high expectations about this one, and it met them. He laughed all the way through this. The leads’ hilarious rivalry and undercutting kept him giggling, and the fights left him roaring. One brawl sees Danny and Brett destroying a hotel restaurant. The following evening, having settled their differences, they are ordered off their case by four hoods. The restaurant is destroyed again. The kid was in heaven, even if the set dressers in 1970 weren’t.
The Persuaders! teamed Tony Curtis, who our kid fondly remembers from the hilarious Great Race, with Roger Moore, who our kid mostly enjoyed in The Saint, as nitro and glycerine. Forced to work together by a judge, unofficially of course, these hard-drinking, womanizing, good-natured playboys finally use their intuition, cunning, resourcefulness, and fisticuffs to solve all kinds of crimes around the south of France and Italy and the UK.
And it is fun. Super fun. This may be either a close second or tied with Randall and Hopkirk as my favorite of all the ITC series, because while it’s full of good guest actors and it has the requisite scripts by all the best names in British TV from the day, including a pilot by Brian Clemens, Curtis and Moore are simply hilarious together. At one point, Danny Wilde pulls the “heads I win, tails you lose” bit against Lord Sinclair, walks away a winner, and the beat before our son got it was almost as funny as when he exploded laughing. Then Roger Moore does a double-take, because it took Brett a beat longer than the kid. Priceless.
Anyway, “Overture” sets the stage and introduces Laurence Naismith as Judge Fulton, who pulls strings in about half of the episodes to make sure Danny and Brett keep working together. Alex Scott and Imogen Hassall also appear. It’s a terrific hour. Most TV shows don’t have a pilot anywhere near as rewatchable as this series. I picked six for us to sample, but I’m pretty sure that the kid will ask us to rotate the other eighteen in to family TV nights in the new year.
A note on copies: In Region 1, The Persuaders! is available for purchase on Amazon Prime, but I don’t think it’s presently streaming anywhere. I got the R1 DVD set from VEI about five years ago. It’s still available very cheaply, but insanely it’s presently actually available for even less if you get VEI’s set that bundles it with The Protectors. However, I had a little less cash on hand five years ago, and the smart purchase is Network’s Blu-ray set, fully restored and with lots of extras. It’s said to be Region B-locked, but I can’t confirm that. Might upgrade sooner rather than later.
Chris Chibnall’s run of Doctor Who has had some major obstacles about which he could not do anything, like COVID-19 and like the British media suddenly getting outraged about John Barrowman’s decade-old inappropriate behavior on set, but it’s hard to see the year-long gap between “Resolution” and “Spyfall” as anything other than a totally unforced error. Despite the outsize grumblings of the he-man woman hater’s club, there was a palpable enthusiasm about Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor in January 2019, and the BBC did nothing to capitalize on this. They should have already been in production when series eleven was being shown, to get new episodes on the air as soon as possible, but the BBC has never understood how to strike when an iron is hot.
That said, “Spyfall” is visually one of the most striking Who series openers. It’s a big globetrotting adventure with a pair of huge guest stars in Stephen Fry and Lenny Henry, some interesting new aliens called the Kasaavins who are from another universe entirely, and a plot that seems to have been written after Chibnall watched all the time travel shenanigans of “The Curse of Fatal Death” on an endless loop. We’re now comfortably back – I think! – in our son’s memory hole. He says that he remembers this series very well, as I certainly hope he should; it’s not even been two years. He mainly liked the laser shoes, of course.
But “Spyfall” has some really aggravating misfires among its visual splendor. The second biggest one is that the story takes aim at something serious in the real world: giving up our privacy to search engines and social media. But too much like “Kerblam!” for my taste, this caution doesn’t come with any bite. Lenny Henry’s character is in charge of a search-engine-plus thing called Vor, which operates in the same world as Facebook but we can intuit that Vor is larger and more youth-skewing. The story hints at the dystopian awfulness of this thing, evoking Dave Eggers’ 2013 novel The Circle, but there’s no consequence or follow-up to Henry and the Kasaavins’ plan. The last we see of him is he’s walking out a door asking for an extraction team. We’ve seen Who refuse to follow up on history-changing tech or politics several times since 2005, but this still feels incomplete, and toothless.
That said, I think that the biggest misfire in “Spyfall” is actually Sacha Dhawan’s character. To Dhawan’s considerable credit, I appreciate how frighteningly angry his Master is, marking him as very, very different from the previous versions. As I’ve said previously, I sincerely don’t believe that there should be a Master after Missy. But it’s not just “it’s the Master again” that’s the problem. It’s that O is a million times more interesting than the Master. The character that Dhawan creates in part one of this story is something that Who has never actually done well before: a Master disguise who has a life and a world that is engaging and in which we want to believe.
O could have been an absolutely wonderful new recurring villain, someone who uses all of Earth’s technology and resources, including an alleged shelf full of reports about the Doctor’s past, against our hero. When we see how dreary the Master is at the end of this series, it will really drive home how we could have had the incredibly talented Dhawan do something so much more fascinating and fun. Ah well. It’s not like this program’s not completely full of frustrating missed opportunities.
Like I noted with the last episode of Atlantis that we watched, I’ve enjoyed pointing out where MGM and the network looked for some notable stars from other SF TV shows for guest parts. “Babylon” marks the first of two appearances by William B. Davis as Damaris, one of the Priors of the Ori. Davis, of course, was the Cigarette Smoking Man in The X Files along with sixty-eleven other things. By every account a heck of a nice man in real life, onscreen he’s the perfect choice for a really creepy old dude. He doesn’t really do much in this appearance, though. Just the sight of him is enough to know that things are lousy.
Our son was fascinated by the community in this story and grumbled that they didn’t spend even more time on it, despite much of the episode – what felt like the whole story – being centered around it. Our heroes go in search of a legendary group of Jaffa called the Sodan who freed themselves from slavery five thousand years ago and live in an isolated village protected by Ancient tech. As is common with television tradition-and-honor-before-common sense warriors, there’s a bit of samurai code to them. The Sodan are led by a tough guy played by the great Tony Todd, who we saw in a Xena episode last year, but he’s falling sway to the Prior’s silver tongue and is about ready to throw away all that tradition and honor for the Ori’s hocus pocus. Mitchell’s able to get through to one of the Sodan. We’ll see later in the season it does not go well for the rest of them.
For Doctor Who’s 58th birthday, I’m happy to publish some new fic that I wrote earlier this year. Now just don’t mess with my headcanon before you go, Chibnall.
If you didn’t read my earlier fic, which I never told anybody was fic because I wanted to lull people into a false sense of security before surprising them, you can do that, too.
From grownups, I have seen Chris Chibnall’s “Resolution” really get a kicking online, which is perhaps more evidence that grownups shouldn’t be allowed online. Given a chance, I’d happily give it more of a kicking, because it’s an hour of… let’s be charitable and call them missed opportunities. But among kids, I think this one must be a legend. Hands down, it is one of, if not the all-time favorite episode of our son. He may have forgotten about half of series eleven before this month, but he remembers every minute of this one. He has watched it repeatedly, and thinks its one of the all-time greats. He was eight when it first aired (three days before we watched “Resurrection of the Daleks” for the first time) and he’s probably come back to it more than any other Who story.
I do think that one of the few things it really does get right is that it serves as the real season finale, not “The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos”, which had aired about three weeks previously. It’s not just because it’s got a Dalek in it – something with more audience-friendly menace than Tim Shaw – but because Chibnall had actually been seeding the confrontation and reconciliation between Ryan and his father in several of the previous stories. That’s the resolution of the title that we were wanting.
That said, the business with Aaron is nobody’s favorite part of the story. A key piece of it, the long scene in the cafe, is a momentum-destroying block right in the middle of the rising action, and I’m troubled that the actual resolution between the two comes down to Ryan doing most of the work, and not his dad. However, resolving this background issue for Ryan just drives home that the BBC should have started the series three weeks later and shown all eleven installments as one run. But then I suppose that their commercial arm couldn’t have sold series eleven and “Resolution” as two separate DVDs, could they? What a bunch of jerks. Somebody tell me we’re getting a Complete Whittaker Blu-ray set this time next year, please?
It’s almost trendy to write little revisionist think pieces about Ghostbusters, wondering how in the world Sigourney Weaver’s character affords that penthouse, or noting that it’s so sadly wrapped up in the viewpoint of Reagan-era anti-government feeling that the EPA dude is depicted as the villain, when honestly, our private-enterprise heroes really should have been storing their specters with a little regulation. Our heroes are probably correct, however, in noting that this man has no dick.
So let me say this instead: I don’t know that our son has ever enjoyed a film more. He told us that it’s one of his top three movies of all time, although he demurred when pressed what the other two might be. Perhaps sadly, I couldn’t slide the experience in under his pop culture radar before the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man was known to him. Longtime readers know that getting the movie in before he learns all its secrets is one of those silly things I love to do, but Mr. Stay-Puft remains culturally omnipresent almost forty years later. In the scene in Dana’s apartment where the eggs start frying on her counter, our son spotted the bag of marshmallows. “Stay-Puft!” he said with glee. “Chekhov’s Gun,” I replied.
I think this might have been the first time our son’s seen Bill Murray in a film. Definitely Harold Ramis as well, although I’ve seen few of his movies myself. He has seen Dan Aykroyd in It Came From Hollywood. Think I’ll give him a Saturday Night Live primer over lunch.
You often hear people get nostalgic for the eighties. I don’t buy it if you’re talking about music in this country, in part because in any given week in that decade, 39 songs of the American Top 40 should have been buried at sea, and in part because I don’t know where it came from, but freaking “Almost Paradise” from Footloose has been stuck in my head for a week and I’m about to start longing for the sweet embrace of death to dislodge the damn thing.
But quite a few of the popular movies of the eighties have absolutely stood the test of time. There’s an obvious reason why the biggest crowd-pleasers of the day still have such incredibly loyal fandoms: Raiders of the Lost Ark, Back to the Future, The Goonies, even many of the ones that found their afterlife in home video and HBO like Big Trouble in Little China remain just remarkably entertaining. You look at the five stinkfests nominated for Best Picture the year that Ghostbusters was released and it’s like a murderer’s row of the most boring movies ever. Maybe they should wait a couple of decades before deciding what a year’s best picture really was. I just scrolled down Wikipedia’s list of films released in 1984. Full of stinkers and things I don’t remember, but also nine or ten real winners. And none of them were better than Ghostbusters.
Because I’m too lazy to fight with my external drive, the image comes from Geek Soup, whose even lazier article contains at least three errors. James? 1960s? “I need a different kind of drug”? Don’t believe anything you read on the internet, kids!
I like how MGM and the Sci-Fi Channel were always looking to cast actors from fantasy and SF TV shows, mainly the Treks and Farscape, to wring a little publicity from them and try to get a few thousand more viewers to stay home on Friday evenings and give Stargate a try. And so one day in August 2005, a few thousand people who enjoyed watching Firefly on DVD, probably more than the ones who watched it when it was first broadcast, tuned in to see actress Jewel Staite looking not a darn thing like Kaylee.
I kid, I kid, and for all I know, the Sci-Fi Channel didn’t say a word about Staite being in this episode, but it amuses me to imagine somebody in their promotion team seeing shots of Staite in her Wraith makeup and realizing that everybody who fell in love with Kaylee in her pink frilly “Shindig” dress would be getting something very different here.
Anyway, this is not as much a two-parter as it is a case of everything that happens in “Instinct” fueling the events of the next episode. Part one is a splendid horror movie where a monster in the woods attacks the people of a small village three or four times a year, and it turns out a young female Wraith who was adopted as an infant refugee is living in an old mine shaft by a fledgling scientists who says that it cannot be the girl; he has developed a chemical that stops her from needing to feed on humans. But it turns out he’s wrong, everything gets worse, and she infects Sheppard, who, in part two, starts mutating himself, so everybody needs to find a cure. This half is mainly studio-bound and doesn’t do anything we haven’t seen before, although there is an interesting callback to the previous season’s “Thirty-Eight Minutes” as well as the two most obvious Redshirts who ever Redshirted. They might as well have named the two characters “Expendable” and “Lucky.”
In order for our son to understand the pun in the title of last night’s episode of SG-1, “Ex Deus Machina”, we talked about what a deus ex machina is, and how it might differ from Chekhov’s Gun in storytelling. Tonight provided us with a great example of one of those guns, although we stressed that it is not necessarily a gun or even a weapon, just something introduced early which will become important later on. Here, it’s some neural blockers, which you stick on your forehead and are necessary because the planet Ranskoor Av Kolos gives off waves of seriously negative vibes, making anybody visiting amnesiac and paranoid. They come in handy toward the end, because two psychic aliens have been working with Tim Shaw, the villain from the season opener, and these let the Doctor turn off their psychic powers without injuring them.
And that’s nice, but… the idea of a planet giving people hallucinations and steal their memory is far more interesting than anything that happens in this episode. Honestly, the only thing that this planet’s power is good for is keeping a supporting character hazy and foggy and unable to remember what a strange artifact in his possession actually is. That way, it’s a big surprise when its true purpose is revealed later on. But it’s a surprise that would have a lot more weight if it was revealed early. This is a story that keeps the audience in the dark unnecessarily, when what we really needed was a reason to get emotionally involved in the events.
Instead, the story tries to pull us in with the most unlikely and phony attempt at emotional heft that Chibnall could deliver. Graham decides that he is going to kill Tim Shaw and get revenge for Grace’s death. No, he isn’t. At no point does anybody believe for a second he will. Bradley Walsh is a great actor, but even he can’t sell that idea, because we’ve spent nine stories seeing Graham as a congenial, practical, sweet, and sensitive man. He has expressed love and sadness, but never a lick of anger. If you wanted me to believe for a minute that Graham might actually kill Tim Shaw, then Chibnall had nine episodes to show me that he might, and he didn’t.
Although, I’ll give Chibnall credit here: this is the first time since 2005 that they didn’t spend the series building up to a big finale. It was overdue. Russell T. Davies seemed trapped in wanting to make the stakes higher and higher for each of his four runs. Steven Moffat sensibly didn’t – he blew up the universe in his first season finale and kept it smaller after that – and I’m glad that Chibnall didn’t retread their ideas. On the other hand, it makes the reappearance of Tim Shaw feel kind of strange because it wasn’t seeded anywhere previously. This one also brings back the Sniperbots from “The Ghost Monument,” but this doesn’t feel like an ongoing narrative thread. It feels, like the Robot Santas in “The Runaway Bride” and the Silurians in “The Pandorica Opens”, that they’re here because their costumes were in the closet.
But speaking of Silurians, yet another place where this story really aggravates me is these two psychic aliens. Back in series five, Chibnall wrote that two-parter that brought back those dudes, making their costumes handy for the big dozens-of-aliens reveal a couple of weeks later. Among its million flaws, there’s this bit where the Doctor decides that the scientist who’s been doing hideous experiments and vivisection of humans needs to have a nice big all-smiles hug because he’s clever and kept a character with a speaking part alive.
These two? They’re responsible for the deaths of billions of people. Misled by a false god or not, they were accomplices in Tim Shaw’s plan, they used their powers to destroy planets, and the quarries outside their shrine are littered with the wreckage of dozens of ships full of people who came to stop them and failed. And it’s all okay! They get to go live on a new planet and the Doctor reminds them that it’s important to have faith and hope. We know that the Doctor doesn’t want to kill – unless the plot really demands it – but this wasn’t the answer. They need to do some kind of penance for their crimes, but everybody forgives them. Nobody even mentions their role in the genocides.
It’s almost like the writer just doesn’t think these things through.
“Ex Deus Machina” begins with a fabulous cold open. We see a Jaffa soldier running through a dark forest, and naturally assume that we’re on some alien planet somewhere. Then he gets hit by a Nissan Pathfinder or something. He’s on Earth!
The bigger surprise is that the Trust is still active. They were last seen midway through the previous season, and now we’re back for more tales of extraterrestrial conspiracy. This feels very strange in relation to what’s happened since. There’s been all the massive wrapping things up that brought season eight to an end, then all the new normal and the Ori and Priors this year, never mind all the huge events happening on Atlantis, and suddenly our heroes are again working with government agents from the back of surveillance trucks, getting gossip in diners, and spying on limousines with binoculars.
And it’s not just great because – hooray! – Cliff Simon is back because Ba’al has decided to come live on Earth and has picked up a pretty blonde girlfriend. Given the choice of having the conspiracy be the new big bads or the Ori, I’m sorry, but the fellows in suits win every time. The kid really enjoyed this one, from all the twists to a big shootout in an office cube farm to Cam hearing a description of the ruffians blowing up cubicles and remarking “It’s either Jaffa or KISS is back on tour.”
And then there was that day in December 2018 when a handful of Doctor Who viewers had hilarious meltdowns when the story gave us an animated frog with whom the Doctor had a conversation about friendship. This was by no means the first time that the big visual effect at the end of a Who adventure was a tad underwhelming, but you’d think the world ended with these fellows. Maybe they were unfamiliar with the original run and missed the end of “Kinda”. Neither that snake nor this frog are especially convincing as “real,” but they are what they are. I get what they were trying to do and I like it.
“It Takes You Away” was written by Ed Hime and the story doesn’t have a villain, just a strange quirk of the universe that ends up briefly looking like a frog. That’s nebulous, but I like it. It’s exactly the kind of outside-the-box thinking that I wish we could have seen in the previous story. “The Witchfinders” needed an alien force or energy or something much more like this frog than what it ended up doing. This is a good story, albeit a sad one, meditating on grief and loss. I’m not sure I buy all of it, particularly the shockingly poor parenting, but it’s an intelligent story with believable, real characters. Foreshadowing: Hime is much more successful in that regard here than in his next story.
One again, this is an installment that our son didn’t remember at all from three years ago, although this time something probably stuck with him. The Doctor claims that in the year 2211, there will be a “Woolly Rebellion” in which sheep and humans renegotiate their arrangements with each other, and he’d now like to see that story, so somebody at the BBC needs to get on that for him. As for me, I also remember something fairly minor more than the rest of the adventure, even the frog. I love how Graham has started packing cheese and pickle sandwiches in his coat because he can’t trust that the Doctor will stop for a meal anywhere and he gets cranky when his blood sugar gets low.