Doctor Who: The War Games (part three)

I love the slow reveals of this story. This time out, we get confirmation that Gen. Smythe and his opposite number, Von Weich (played by David Garfield in full sneer mode) are aliens. They report to a mustached man played by Edward Brayshaw, whom the credits name as the War Chief, and he, in turn, reports to an as-yet unseen character called the War Lord. Layers upon layers, in the same way that the battlefields of 1917 France, ancient Rome, and 1862 America are laid next to each other.

The clues are there for adult viewers to start putting things together, but children still need a little help, as when Zoe says aloud what the grownups in the audience are thinking: the capsule that appears and disappears containing more soldiers than it should comfortably fit, and which sounds a whole lot like the TARDIS is possibly another TARDIS, which might be why Brayshaw’s War Chief is so interested in reports about time travelers. Our son is still slowly juggling the pieces and enjoying watching this unfold. I like how they don’t underline these possibilities, but let the audience consider them. “Lot for you to chew on before tomorrow night, huh?” I asked, and, eyes wide, he nodded. Definitely.

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Doctor Who: The War Games (parts one and two)

Patrick Troughton’s final Doctor Who adventure was the ten-part serial (ten!) “The War Games,” shown from April through June of 1969. As a whole, it is really overshadowed by the game-changing revelations of the last two parts, and so the story has gained a reputation of being padded out, as though the first eight episodes are in the way of the more important finale.

I last watched this story with my older son more than a decade ago, and we sure didn’t see it that way. Neither will our favorite five year-old critic, because he doesn’t know anything about the Doctor beyond what he’s seen. The legend hasn’t yet got in the way of the narrative. Viewers in 1969 didn’t see it that way either, though there were a lot fewer of them than began season six. The audience figures started dropping from 6-7 million viewers a week to about 5.5 million in March, and this story averaged about 4.9 million. It’s theorized that announcing Patrick Troughton’s departure, without confirming his replacement and the modified format – that would come later – led viewers to tune out, or rather not tune back in if they missed a week, thinking the show had ended.

People who did tune in found a very brutal first part of this story, which is why we watched the first two together. It opens on the western front in 1917, with the Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe swept up in the Great War, rescued from Germans by an ambulance driver, Lady Jennifer Buckingham, and Lt. Carstairs, played by David Savile. But General Smythe, played with icy anger by Noel Coleman (later Col. Marchbanks in Lord Peter Wimsey), has it in for the Doctor at first sight, and sentences him to execution for espionage. We learn in the first episode that Smythe can control his fellow officers’ minds whenever he wears a pair of spectacles, and that he has a futuristic television set in his wall.

I was concerned that our son would find this confusing and the level of hopelessness in military bureaucracy too oppressive, and I was right. Even after a pre-show history lesson about World War One and trenches, he was very, very restless and didn’t understand why nobody wanted to listen to the Doctor. We emphasized the science fiction elements as they were introduced, which seemed to help. Episode two went over much better. This one throws in a Redcoat from 1746, travel cabinets that appear and disappear into thin air, a mist that transports our heroes across time, and a cliffhanger where they’re attacked by a Roman legion. He paid much closer attention and thinks this is very strange.

But why must it be ten (ten!) episodes long? It actually replaced two separate stories, a six-parter that Malcolm Hulke was writing, and a four-parter by Derrick Sherwin that was intended to wrap up Patrick Troughton’s time. With deadlines looming and Sherwin moved to the role of producer, Terrance Dicks moved Hulke, with whom he’d written for television several times before, into his office and they hammered out one huge storyline for David Maloney to direct rather than moving resources into two separate productions. I noticed that Maloney would call on a couple of actors that he’d used in his previous two Who serials for the later episodes, indicating perhaps that as this epic moved through its weeks of production, he wanted to minimize audition time by casting artists already familiar with Doctor Who.

I think it’s a little long myself, but while many fans have suggested that some of the middle episodes could have been edited down, it’s actually these first two that I’d rather have seen combined. Packing in more of the anachronisms into the first part, and finishing with that tremendously clever cliffhanger of the Romans charging down the hill at our heroes, would have been a terrific start to a nine-part adventure. No shorter, though.

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Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959)

I might have dropped a hint or two in these pages about movies we plan to watch a little down the line. One of these, a little later this year, is At the Earth’s Core. But I felt I’d be doing our son a disservice by not introducing him to the concept by way of the fellow who popularized traveling down below into worlds of crystal caverns, luminescent algae or rock formations, and big monsters.

We had a quick recap about the author Jules Verne before beginning the lengthy 1959 20th Century Fox adaptation of Journey to the Center of the Earth. It’s 130 long minutes, and the first three-quarters of an hour move at the speed of a glacier. Five is too young to absorb this material without a grownup; ten would still be pushing it. Much of the material happens far offscreen and is only deduced by the bold Sir Oliver Lindenbrook, played by James Mason. He and his young associate Alec McEwan head from Edinburgh in 1860 to an Icelandic volcano, following a clue and trying to get ahead of two competing parties.

Ewan is played by Pat Boone, of all people. Boone was, then, at the height of his pop stardom, sings one song, and seems to be here mainly because he looks good with his shirt off. The movie also features Arlene Dahl, who starred in several movies in the 1950s, the best of which was possibly the film noir No Questions Asked in 1951. To be fair, though, I really don’t know that much about her. One of the rivals in this scientific expedition is the sinister Count Saknussemm, whose ancestor vanished three hundred years earlier trying to prove there’s a lot to discover underground. He’s played by Thayer David, and twenty years later, he got to play Nero Wolfe in an unsold pilot for ABC in the seventies.

For audiences waiting for the trope of the underground civilization of primitive savages, this movie offers a big surprise: there isn’t one. There’s really not a lot that goes on in this movie at all. It’s imaginative and very nicely designed, but there’s not a great deal of conflict. What we do see is resolved really quickly. There’s a little promise during the very long opening sequence that Mason and Dahl will be at loggerheads, but it proves to be about a sixty second delay before the inevitable “you can’t come with us! you’re a woman!” scene.

There’s a brief moment during the expedition where Boone and Dahl make goo-goo eyes at each other before she reminds him that he has a young lady waiting back in Scotland. She’s played by Diane Baker, who went on to have a massively successful career but is totally wasted here. It’s interesting, though, that the script explains that this expedition goes on for many months, at least ten. One of the movie’s many flaws is that the production doesn’t really show this by showing the actors’ hair growing from scene to scene. Ten months and they’re a bit bedraggled, and Boone and the other young fellow lose their shirts, but I don’t buy that they even packed enough provisions for that long, much less felt it.

To be honest, the movie really does mark time waiting for the monsters. Here’s the most likely reason that Land of the Lost‘s third season producer decided that Torchy, their fire-breathing dimetrodon, would be the size of a bus: because there are a half-dozen gigantic dimetrodons hanging out on the beach of an underground ocean.

You’ll forgive the lack of a photo. The dinosaurs are iguanas with sails glued to their backs and they’re either shot without any point of reference to make them appear gigantic, or in a matte shot so distant that they don’t have any detail, so the screencaps all look lousy. Later on in the film, there’s a salamander or something given the same treatment. They don’t do special effects like that anymore, do they? Frankly, I’d have preferred somebody have phoned Ray Harryhausen and commissioned him to do these in stop-motion.

As I implied earlier, this was far from our son’s favorite film. He struggled gamely through the long, long setup, and lost interest for the most part. He played with a favorite Lego “Mixel” while the heroes get separated, and finally started paying attention when a dinosaur spots them in the cave full of giant mushrooms. The monsters were very successful, but they were the only things here that were. Well, we’ve one or two more trips into the center of the Earth to come. Maybe they’ll go over better.

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Thunderbirds are Go 2.4 – City Under the Sea

I don’t have too much to say about this one. It’s a wildly entertaining underwater story by Jim Krieg with a rescue, a safe-cracking job, and the menacing Mechanic back with his second massively powerful machine. Our son loved it, and I laughed out loud a few times.

It’s set in a place called Bay City, where Lady Penelope’s grandfather once had a penthouse office. He was apparently in the architecture business, and specialized in designing prisons. Bay City was lost a couple of decades before this series began, when the oceans rose and sank everything on the coast of whatever unnamed nation this is. Calling it Miami might have been a bit on the nose.

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Jason of Star Command 2.6 – The Power of the Star Disk

Perhaps strangely, I didn’t see any of the original Star Trek, despite its supposed omnipresence in ’70s syndication, until the summer of 1982. I certainly knew about the show. I had some of the Mego dolls, and a coloring book about a circus planet, and my friend Jamie had a Peter Pan Records comic and audio adventure which was most likely “Passage to Moauv.” I really don’t remember watching the cartoon. I read about the show when I checked some books out of the library in fifth grade, including Judy Fireman’s TV Book and at least one of those anthologies of massively condensed adaptations of episodes by James Blish.

Of course, I saw Star Trek: The Motion Picture at some point in 1979. But even that came after I’d tried piecing together the story of the film from a comic that ran across on the back of a series of McDonalds’ Happy Meal boxes, and I’m pretty sure even that got garbled because the artist drew Spock in scenes before he showed up in the story.

Before I could actually sit down and watch any of that show when channel 46 (then WANX-TV) started showing it (to tie in with the second movie), I had this sort of “race memory” of what Star Trek was about, and it was mainly about noble old extinct alien species with godlike powers who don’t think that humanity is quite ready for them, and who vanish into higher plains of existence which, one day, humans will be able to reach. I knew that, and was not all that excited by it, long before I started wondering why Frank Gorshin had half his face black and the other white, and why Captain Kirk had married a native American girl. If Doctor Who is all about running through corridors, then Star Trek is all about lost knowledge of the ancients. I’ve tried, Lord have I tried, but if it ain’t got Wyatt Earp and a red sky, I ain’t interested. Not even Jeri Ryan in the skintight silver suit can get me to watch Star Trek.

I mention all that at length because tonight’s episode of Jason of Star Command, written – as many were – by Trek vet Samuel A. Peeples, is exactly like that “race memory” of old Star Trek. I mean, at the end, the ancient Tantalutians who temporarily gave the commander the star disk to counter Dragos’s power even reclaims both disks into the great beyond so that our heroes could ponder whether one day humanity would be ready to accept these great gifts.

It’s everything that eleven year-old me found boring and stupid about Star Trek. I tuned out. Our son thought it was awesome and even applauded at the end. God help us, in the future.

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Doctor Who: The Seeds of Death (part six)

Our son is mostly – mostly – very well-behaved when we watch TV together. We think it’s very important to teach him the manners of being quiet and still while watching something with other people. Later today, I’m taking him to see The Lego Batman Movie. He’s been to the theater twice before, but I learned from experience with my older kids that it’s a constant process, to be quiet and respect other people in the audience, and you constantly, constantly have to reinforce it.

But the reality is that he’s five and that some grumbling is simply going to happen. Once in a while, it’s pretty funny. Today, he got very worried as the Ice Warriors seemed to regain the upper hand and take the Doctor prisoner. And he let us know “If the Ice Warriors win, I’m not going to watch Doctor Who again. For a month!” When the Doctor’s plan worked, and he and Jamie tackle the remaining enemies, he was thrilled, and yelled “THAT! WAS! AWESOME!” I guess we won’t have to wait until April to see what happens next.

One major bone of contention, however, came with the Ice Warriors’ heavy breathing. The sound of their asthmatic hissing really aggravated both Mommy and our son. The head villain, Slaar, rasping and gasping, reports to a grand marshal on a video-link in his invasion flagship. The marshal speaks without any breathing problems. In fact, he speaks in the dulcet tones of somebody more accustomed to delivering lines about slings, arrows, and outrageous fortunes than about retro-active rockets and orbits around the sun. Fans have suggested that the marshal, in an atmosphere mix that Ice Warriors can breathe without issue, didn’t need to hack and cough and hiss like Slaar and the grunts. But geez, couldn’t the guy have made a little effort to sound more like an alien menace than a town crier?

Unfortunately, the next serial, “The Space Pirates,” is mostly missing, without any of the telesnaps that almost all of the lost Doctor Who stories have. The man who shot these photos, John Cura, had stopped taking the snaps due to illness, and passed away in April 1969. This slot was given to Robert Holmes to write after two other planned serials fell through. It was script-edited by Derrick Sherwin again, while Terrance Dicks, who had worked on “Seeds” and the previous two stories, worked ahead on the season’s final ten episodes.

Meanwhile, producer Peter Bryant was preparing to leave Who for something a little more prestigious, and in color, as the BBC began phasing out black and white broadcasts. This would be Paul Temple, a detective series that would become very important to Who‘s production as 1969 and 1970 rolled on. Derrick Sherwin planned to move up the BBC chain and become a producer himself. In March 1969, Bryant formally moved over to begin work on Temple, with “The Space Pirates” his final Who production credit. Sherwin became Who‘s producer, and the serial after that, “The War Games,” would be his first in charge. More on that in a week or so.

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Doctor Who: The Seeds of Death (parts four and five)

I decided we’d watch two episodes together, in part because part four of this serial is the traditional middle-of-the-story one where not much happens, and in part because part five ends with a terrific cliffhanger. Part four was rewritten to give Patrick Troughton seven days’ vacation. He didn’t trim his sideburns during his time off, and the hairdresser didn’t spot the difference. When the Doctor wakes up, having missed out on an episode from exposure to the Martian seed pods, his bushy sideburns are the first thing you notice.

So, at this point, the Ice Warriors have completely bypassed the Daleks as our son’s most feared alien menace. (And, looking ahead at our viewing schedule, since the Daleks weren’t in the series at this time, it’ll be several months before they have a chance to retake the lead!) This was a real behind the sofa, eat the blanket, crawl on Mommy’s lap experience. When Jamie and Zoe realize too late that they’ve trapped themselves in a building with one, he very nearly broke into tears he was so worried. Troughton saved the day by getting stuck outside yelling “oh no” and “oh dear” and making silly faces while the BBC’s foam machine dumped hundreds of gallons of soap and stuff on him. It’s precisely the clowning comedy that was needed to break the tension.

I like how this is pitched so perfectly at children. There’s plenty for the grownups to appreciate – the script’s pretty good, the direction’s great, the Ice Warriors are sadistic and brutal, Louise Pajo and Ronald Leigh-Hunt are terrific – and also to smile about the inescapable BBC-ness of it all. The actor Hugh Morton shows up for no other reason than the writers decided that what this show really needed was another middle-aged man in space pajamas to talk about full inquiries and closed-door meetings about food shortages.

But for kids, especially the ones with beginners’ chemistry sets, this has bits of foam under the microscope and talk about oxygen and splashing acids on balloons looking for the way to stop the fungus. (It’s water. Really. Water.) The set designer was evidently watching Batman, and gave the thermostat on the moonbase a whacking great steering wheel on the wall to raise the temperature, and the weather control station is a gigantic complex whose critical piece of equipment is a small box with four levers, all of which the Ice Warrior can fix in the “DRY” position to stop it raining. It’s like that because this is a show for all audiences. It’s there for our five year-old to figure out, when he’s not hiding in terror.

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Doctor Who: The Seeds of Death (part three)

The original run of Doctor Who was a case where there was a lot of received wisdom and orthodoxy about the show’s past because, due to the BBC’s policies against repeats, so little of it was able to be seen in the seventies and eighties when fandom started organizing and writing articles and features and getting magazines and books published. This wasn’t a case like Star Trek, to use an obvious example, where the show was in constant rotation everywhere and was released on home video not long after VHS tapes were on every shelf.

This was a time when only five of Patrick Troughton’s 21 serials existed in full. There was no binge-watching then, and no jumping-on point. For many years, only two of those five were in any way available to most British viewers: “The Krotons,” which the BBC repeated in 1981, and “The Seeds of Death,” which was among the first stories to be released on home video in 1985. These two stories explain why the second Doctor got the reputation – reinforced by “The Three Doctors” – as “the clown.”

These are the stories with all the “Great jumping gobstoppers” and “Oh my giddy aunt” lines, and, of course, this episode has the famous showpiece in which Troughton runs and flails and throws his hands up and makes silly faces while some Ice Warriors lumber around the moonbase chasing him. “You’ve got no orders to kill me. Your leader will want to speak to me,” the Doctor says. “Your leader will be angry if you kill me. I’m a genius!”

Eventually, the other three stories became more readily available, and the orphaned episodes from incomplete serials became more widespread, and, best of all, about another eighteen episodes were recovered and returned. Everybody’s now got a much better picture of Troughton being able and willing to take things deadly seriously, but there’s still a sense of that reputation lingering. The chase in this episode is a comedy aside, a chance for the actor to do something silly and fun in a story much more lighthearted and child-friendly than, say, “The Macra Terror” or “The Enemy of the World.” It’s an adorable diversion, but it never should have defined the second Doctor in the way it did.

But let me tell you: this diversion was timed absolutely perfectly. This episode scared the pants off our son and boy, did he ever need the Doctor to clown around and take the edge off. The two principal Ice Warriors in their original serial were so sadistic and mean, and even though these guys are, by comparison, character-free grunts who just look neat, they just freaking shoot down everybody who isn’t obeying orders. He is seriously worried about everybody other than the Doctor. He loses consciousness after having a Martian seed pod blow up in his face, so all the other characters are sitting ducks in his eyes. He enjoyed the comedy runaround, but things fell apart again. “That was so creepy,” he grumbled, clarifying that he does not mean fun creepy, but “scary creepy.”

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