Freewheelers 6.4 – Mayday

I’d read that there was a lot of Avengers and Department S in this series’ DNA, but it seems to have a lot of The Famous Five in it as well, what with these kids having their adventures and following criminals rather than calling for police or anything. I was thinking that even before tonight’s installment, in which Mike phones the RAF (!) to rescue Steve from Ryan and Burke, who are shooting at him from another airplane. And sure enough, the air force scrambles four fighter jets to bring down their prop plane.

But the real Famous Five bit comes when Burke starts mumbling about a lighthouse so that Sue can hear it. It’s uncannily close to “blah blah blah secret plans, blah blah blah Third World War…”

Jerome Willis isn’t in this episode, which our son enjoyed a good bit more than the previous one. We did have to pause and explain what Buchan was doing at one point. In his third disguise and silly voice so far, he pretends to be thrown into Burke and Ryan’s cell in order to gain their confidence. But overall he really seemed to enjoy it, and even shouted “Yes!” when the stock footage of the RAF’s jets showed up.

Leave a comment

Filed under freewheelers

Freewheelers 6.3 – Medusa

Our son was quite candid and honest when I asked whether he’s enjoying this series. “Not really,” he said. He explained that there’s not a lot of action in it. That’s despite two people being knocked unconscious by blows to the back of the head, an exploding airplane, and a weird burst of radioactivity that turns the room blue and bathes the villain, Nero, in psychedelic colors.

We learn this time out that up until recently, Nero was Professor Barnet at Cambridge, a respected researcher into oceanographic studies. Like a lot of misguided scientists in the 1970s, he was trying to solve the world’s foot shortages, and his solution was the Medusa project, which stimulated plankton into unnatural growth via radiation. What this has to do with melting gold into frying pans and shipping them to France is still a mystery.

In fact, lots of this is kind of hard to figure out how each plot element fits into each other. It’s almost like they went on location, filmed a lot of material based on what was available and handy – like the big air show in this story – and then crafted a final script around that before they went back into the studio to tie it all together.

Leave a comment

Filed under freewheelers

Freewheelers 6.2 – Operation Seagull

It’s a little surprising just how far ahead of our heroes Professor Nero and his gang are. Episode two of this story starts with Col. Buchan revealing himself to “the kids.” He only knows Mike, but he’s been in the area nebulously investigating in disguise, just in time for Ryan and Burke to gas everybody aboard the ferry and steal the gold. All that’s left for our heroes to do is do some spectral analysis to determine what kind of gas it is.

Back at the country house, Nero has all of the gold melted down and recast – a whole lot quicker than I thought this could be done – as frying pans, and then sent back to the port to get shipped to his agents in France. Nero stumps everybody again, even as they’re closing the net, by using a decoy truck. It’s always refreshing to see villains who can think on their feet and stay ahead of our heroes. But then again, three of the four are just “talented amateurs.”

I didn’t mention it last time as that post was a little long, but there’s a really amusing moment in part one when Ryan and Burke are in the back seat of Nero’s gang’s car, and they’re wondering whether these “geezers” who picked them up are really policemen. It’s incredibly similar to a scene in the Doctor Who serial “Terror of the Autons,” which had been shown earlier in 1971. I was half-expecting Ryan to lean forward and ask to see these men’s warrant cards.

Leave a comment

Filed under freewheelers

Freewheelers 6.1 – Nero

Time for a new experience here at the blog: a program I’ve never seen at all before. We’re looking at the few surviving and available episodes of Freewheelers, a kid-friendly adventure that ran for eight series on the UK’s Southern Television between 1968-1973. Inspired by the success of The Avengers, it’s a show in which a top professional teams up with some talented amateurs to fight ruthless masterminds and save the world from evil. The stories were told in linked serialized adventures, typically two or three stories in each batch of thirteen, and almost half of the show’s 104 episodes are missing, as is often the way with British television from the period.

The top professional, for most of the run, is Colonel Buchan of the British Secret Service. He’s played by Ronald Leigh-Hunt, and we saw him in the role of Commander Radnor in the Doctor Who story “The Seeds of Death” last month. “Seeds” was made and shown after series two of Freewheelers. Col. Buchan specializes in recruiting small groups of teenagers to assist in his war against the forces of villainy. As would later be common in, say, The Tomorrow People, the cast changes a little with each new batch of thirteen, with “the kids” coming and going. None of the original young stars lasted beyond series three.

For those first three series, the lead villain was an ex-Nazi officer called Karl von Gelb, played by Geoffrey Toone. He was dropped for series four, in which Buchan and “the kids” battled a new villain played by Pamela Ann Davy across a pair of stories. Buchan himself was absent for series five, which was the first to be made in color, as Ronald Leigh-Hunt was working on the film Le Mans in late 1970 and unavailable. In that series, Wendy Padbury, who had played Zoe in Doctor Who‘s sixth season, joined the trio of “talented amateurs” as a new character, Sue Craig.

Most of these episodes are missing. Series one exists in full, but only a single episode from the next four series is known to exist. Simply Media released series six on DVD in 2009 and it was hoped they might release the other three existing batches, but sales were apparently too low to overcome the other complications: series one, since it’s in black and white, is less likely to be a big seller in today’s market, and some of the surviving episodes from series seven and eight are said to be in pretty bad shape and really should be restored before release. The investment would eat up any potential profit.

So, for series six, we’ve got Ronald Leigh-Hunt back as Col. Buchan, Adrian Wright returning for his third go-around as Mike, Wendy Padbury back as Sue, and Leonard Gregory as the latest recruit, Steve. We’ve got two master villains in a pair of stories, and at least the first of these diabolical baddies is using the services of two henchmen who’ve tangled with the Freewheelers before: Ryan and Burke, played by Richard Shaw and Michael Ripper.

Series six ran in the fall of 1971. It seems to comprise a seven-parter written by Paul Erickson, and a six-parter by Richard Montez. We started with episode one, “Nero,” this evening. I thought it was quite entertaining, and our son gave it a “pretty cool” thumbs up, although he didn’t like it when Ryan and Burke engaged in some petty crime on an amusement pier on England’s south coast. Interestingly, there was a 2p toll to go onto the pier.

The story opens with Ryan and Burke on the run, having broken out of prison that morning. Mike and Sue are on a vacation together and they meet Steve, who’s chasing the criminals. The baddies seem to get arrested, but they’re actually kidnapped by agents of Professor Nero, played by Jerome Willis, who enlists them in a scheme to steal £6 million in gold from a ship using a non-lethal gas. Because of the law of conservation, this turns out to be the very ship where our young heroes have got summer jobs as stewards. But Col. Buchan is on board as well, strangely in disguise… we’ll see what happens next tomorrow evening!

Leave a comment

Filed under freewheelers

Thunderbirds are Go 2.13 – Escape Proof

The first half of series two comes to an end, unsurprisingly, with another big fight with the Mechanic, this time involving the Hood as well. It’s kind of low on shocks and wows; most of Rich Fogel’s story is FAB 1 driving down a gigantic tunnel that the Mechanic has dug, and driving back very fast as his big new device reverses direction. Meanwhile, Virgil and Gordon carry out a very meticulous rescue. I was pleased that they made the choice to pay attention to something so laborious and repetitive instead of the usual edge-of-your-seat bit of grabbing somebody at full speed in the nick of time. Nice change.

Our son loved it, full stop, and asked questions about the Mechanic’s weird technology and wires that are plugged into his back. The episode ends with our heroes left more than a little wrong-footed, setting up some more stories with these villains when series two resumes later this year. About which… I haven’t seen a date for when it’s due back. Probably in September, I imagine, and we’ll write about it here as soon as ITV Studios gets a DVD in the shops!

Leave a comment

Filed under thunderbirds are go

Sigmund and the Sea Monsters 1.2 – Puppy Love

Forty-some years before working with dogs on Mutt & Stuff, Sid and Marty Krofft brought along a few four-legged friends to the Paramount stage where they filmed this silly show, and let things get really silly as Sigmund falls in love with one of the neighborhood puppies. Fluffy’s owner, Peggy, is played by Pamelyn Ferdin, who we remember from 1977’s Space Academy. She made two appearances on the show; it’s strongly hinted during Johnny Whitaker’s closing bubblegum rock tune that he has a schoolboy crush on Peggy, but sadly this really wasn’t developed on the show.

Our son adored this episode, from all the dopey puns (“Clam up? Some of my best friends are clams!”) to the climax, in which Fluffy brings several other neighborhood dogs to chase off Blurp and Slurp. Incidentally, this is the second episode in a row where the noise of all the sea monster brawling is dismissed as “prowlers.” Zelda, the housekeeper, is oddly unconcerned about all this potential crime.

Regarding the quality of these screen captures, as with the DVDs of Land of the Lost, the copies available are very badly in need of restoration and remastering, and suffer from color bleeding and blurs. The seventeen episodes of season one have been released twice in North America, by Rhino and later by Vivendi, but you can get both seasons, all 29 episodes, in a region-free four-disk set from Beyond in Australia. Amazon’s currently sold out of that version, but click the pic above and you can order a box set that includes the complete Sigmund along with H.R. Pufnstuf, Land, and Electra Woman and Dyna Girl. That’s 105 episodes in one package for about $60. Not bad at all, even with the need for some extensive restoration work.

Leave a comment

Filed under krofft, sigmund and the sea monsters

The Six Million Dollar Man: Wine, Women and War (1973)

There has been a time or two where I’ve picked a screencap, I admit, to show off a pretty girl. I trust this picture of Steve Austin in Jamaica redresses any grievance caused.

Anyway, this morning we watched the second of the three Six Million Dollar Man movies, and it went over much better than the slow origin movie. It was really full of surprises, not least of which was the theme song. This movie opens and closes with a none-more-seventies theme belted by, of all people, Dusty Springfield. It’s kind of interesting the way this whole thing plays out as a kid-friendly James Bond adventure involving an actual real-world foreign country, Russia, rather than the sort of Eastovia and Nosuchlandias that you usually see on seventies adventure teevee, and hiring Springfield for a big booming Bond theme helps cement it. There’s even a big underground base, albeit not in a volcano.

And speaking of James Bond, I looked over the cast lists of the second and third movies, intending to watch just one for the blog, and had the choice of Britt Ekland, who’d be the lead Bond girl in The Man With the Golden Gun, in this one, and Luciana Paluzzi, who played Fiona in Thunderball, in the next one. I shrugged and went with this because David McCallum is in it as well. He plays a Russian, because he did that well enough in The Man from UNCLE.

The great irony is that this shot opens with Michele Carey’s character asking Steve “Is there anything you’re not good at?” Yes. Choosing a tuxedo.

New to the regular cast this time out, it’s Richard Anderson as Oscar Goldman, the new head of the OSI. Darren McGavin’s character from the previous film is not mentioned, and Oscar is largely kept out of sight, just being unpleasant, secretive and bossy from afar. Alan Oppenheimer takes over from Martin Balsam as the second Dr. Rudy Wells, and the bad guy is an arms dealer played by perennial seventies teevee baddie Eric Braeden.

Our son really did enjoy this a lot more than the origin movie, as well he should. It’s a much better and much smoother film, with a solid and entertaining plot by writer Glen A. Larson. He produced this and the next movie for Universal in between seasons of McCloud, though he did not produce the series proper, and I was interested to see that he had used Britt Ekland twice for McCloud as well, and would hire her yet again for a memorable Battlestar Galactica installment.

But our son started the movie a little restless again, perhaps worried that this would be a long character drama with angst and debates instead of opening with bionic night vision eyes, super strength, and depth charges like it does. He enjoyed it, but was still a little confused about something that was keeping him from understanding the story and embracing it. Finally, Mom figured it out: he didn’t understand that Steve Austin’s powers are a secret. That’s completely different from today, when kids are used to their favorite superheroes being celebrities. It works better these days, doesn’t it?

Anyway, the day is saved once Sapphire and Steel show up and — wait.

Anyway, the day is saved once Steve follows his old Russian buddy Alexi and his girl-of-the-week Katrina into the villain’s underground base where he’s got eight nuclear weapons stored. Braeden is reliably evil, McCallum sounds reasonably Russian, and Ekland is easy on the eyes. Steve gets to punch through walls and cold-cock henchmen, and he does that thing he will always do in the series, when the power needs to be shut off and so he closes down some high voltage terminal and cables erupt and sparks go everywhere. There’s a countdown and a big explosion, and the youngest member of this audience was thrilled, much more pleased than he was with the origin movie.

Mommy suggested that he’d have enjoyed it as much if we just showed him the last ten minutes, but he really did get into things long before then. About halfway through, Alexi figures out that Steve is on a secret assignment – Steve himself hadn’t figured that out yet – and shoots him in the stomach with what turns out to be a tranquilizer gun. Our son was really worried for the hero then, especially since the story doesn’t come back to Steve for a couple of minutes. Was he dead? Grievously injured? Certainly not, but it was nice to see him worried for the hero. That bodes well for the scrapes he’ll be getting into soon.

Leave a comment

Filed under six million dollar man

Ultraman 1.39 – Farewell, Ultraman

Ultraman’s final adventure was first shown in Japan on April 9, 1967. It starts with a long special effects sequence in which a massive invasion force of UFOs is repelled, but, as is often the way, this just gets in the way of the meat of the episode.

“This is not the show for me!” said our upset son, huddled under cover as the alien Zetton critically damages Ultraman’s warning light and leaves him powerless. Or at least that’s what the English dub claims. Ultraman Wiki transcribed the original dialogue, which is a little different. The English dub has Ultraman and a “chief” called Zoffy talking about the need to go back to the home planet to have the light repaired. Originally, they discussed that by leaving the planet, Ultraman would be condemning Hayata to death. Zoffy is moved by Ultraman’s willingness to sacrifice himself and gives Hayata life on his own.

Ultraman was a big enough hit for a sequel to be greenlit immediately. As fans of the modern Power Rangers (“Super Sentai”) programs know, it’s common in Japan to make a sequel with different casts and costumes rather than continue with the same stars and premise for additional seasons. Ultra Seven debuted in October 1967 and was probably even more successful than this show. Nevertheless, Eiji Tsubaraya seems to have declined the opportunity to immediately continue with the superhero vs. monster formula, and instead devoted resources to a new franchise called Mighty Jack.

After Tsubaraya passed away in 1970, his company resumed production on Ultra series along with quite a few other live-action sci-fi television serials. The Return of Ultraman started in 1971, and three others followed it. There were only a handful of Ultra shows throughout the eighties and early nineties, some of which were made in Australia and America, but the franchise came back in a huge way with 1996’s Ultraman Tiga. This was the first of what I count as nineteen television series, fifteen feature films, and twenty-eight direct-to-video movies. Devotees know these things inside and out. It all seems fascinating, if just a little confusing.

Along with Ambassador Magma, which I wrote about last year, the original Ultraman was perfectly poised to ring in the era of color TV in Japan with kid-friendly sci-fi melodramas. Within a year, both programs would have a positive avalanche of imitators. I’ve seen very little of these, and most of what I saw, years ago, was “raw,” neither dubbed nor subtitled. But there’s such a neat sense of design across all these many and disparate programs. In part that’s because a famous comic artist named Shotaro Ishinomori co-created a pile of them, such as Kamen Rider, Kikaider, and Robot Detective, and you can sense some thematic continuity in some of his designs.

But also there’s just a great sense of place to these programs of the late sixties through the mid-seventies with their bold color and grainy 16mm film. Even at their dopiest – and Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot is too dopey even for me – there’s an incredible energy to what I’ve seen with these old shows. Even when they’re completely mired in topical issues, like Spectreman and its obsession with pollution, there’s still such fun experimentation as the shows’ producers pushed the special effects teams to do anything and come up with crazy creatures and wild situations.

Unfortunately, almost none of this material is presently available, dubbed. We may circle back to Ultra Seven and a couple of the Ultra imitators, which are available in the United States, although subtitled, when our son is a little older and can read them. This blog has a “pay for play” policy, so we won’t be watching some of the other period shows like Robot Detective which can be downloaded with fansubs from known torrent sites.

But I mentioned that Tsubaraya Productions was making some other sorts of science fiction TV series throughout the seventies, not just Ultra-related. These, as edited into feature films and dubbed by Sandy Frank Productions, tend to play best with a lot of riffing from Joel, Crow, and Tom Servo, but there’s one that Tsubaraya made which we’re going to risk looking at in a couple of months. Stay tuned!

Leave a comment

Filed under ultraman