Doctor Who: Planet of Evil (parts one and two)

As we’ve watched the last three stories, I’ve been writing about my own discovery of Doctor Who in 1984, and figuring this thing out without any help. No books, no Wikipedia, no internet, nobody else who knew what it was. “Planet of Evil” featured one of the most amazing-looking monsters that my twelve year-old eyes had ever seen. Months later, the beast broke my heart.

I mentioned that my pal Blake had been stymied from watching Doctor Who by his mother, because it was on too late on Saturday night and they went to church Sunday morning. When she did allow him to watch one, in late April 1984, she immediately changed her mind and sent him to bed when the title of the story came onscreen: “The Robots of Death.” Discouraged, Blake kept living vicariously through me and all of my reports, until he finally found a magazine all about the show.

The previous November, Britain’s Radio Times magazine had published a 20th anniversary special issue. Starlog, a then-popular magazine about sci-fi movies and media, had picked up the special for American distribution, and Blake found a copy in a convenience store that summer. Happily for him, he could show the magazine to his mother, who was persuaded by the photos of odd and/or ridiculous aliens and bug-eyed monsters that this program wasn’t some late-night introduction to Satanism, and allowed him to finally start watching the show.

But on the other hand, it allowed Blake to completely disarm two claims that I made about the show. I’ll come back to the second one when we get about halfway through season fourteen. The first one, though, was my insistence that the anti-matter monster in “Planet of Evil” was the coolest thing anybody had ever seen. The magazine printed a production photo of the creature, for some insane reason, before it got its video treatment:

Blake was perfectly happy to believe me that all of these monsters and beasts and baddies were really cool, especially the Axons and the Cybermen, but he teased me about that bedsheet monster forever. It was a long summer.

(Perhaps worse, he got the magazine a few days before WGTV showed “The Androids of Tara,” which features a very brief appearance by one of the all-time stupid Who monsters, the Taran Wood Beast. He really enjoyed the “episode” [WGTV showed the series as compilation movies], but he kept ragging me about the Wood Beast for weeks as though it was my fault it looked so fake.)

But the other thing that I’m reminded of when watching this story is that it’s the first one that I had seen in the eighties to show the interior of the TARDIS, and reveal that the blue box is bigger on the inside. I honestly don’t recall being surprised by this, oddly.

Anyway, our son spent most of the last hour with his head buried. “Planet of Evil” has a reputation as one of the all-time great scary Who stories. It’s written by Louis Marks and directed by David Maloney. The guest stars include Prentis Hancock and Frederick Jaeger, and Michael Wisher is back again in a small role. The real star, of course, is the jungle planet of Zeta Minor, one of the most successful alien planets ever created in a studio for the BBC. I like this story, but I’ve never loved it. Unfortunately, as I’ve mentioned before, I just don’t enjoy watching Prentis Hancock at the best of times, and this script has him in the unbelievably thankless role of a military idiot.

We’ll see what he thinks of the ending of this story in a couple of days. Unfortunately, there’s a lot more military idiocy to come, and a lot less weird alien jungles.



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What We’re Not Watching: The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh

We’re not watching Disney’s 1964 mini-series The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh for our blog, because both the original television version and the feature film, called Dr. Syn, Alias the Scarecrow, are out of print. It seems to be one of the most curious omissions from Disney’s extensive library of old live-action material, a project that has only been released in limited editions and returned to the “Disney Vault” to collect dust while bootleggers profit.

Doctor Syn was the hero of a series of juvenile adventure novels written by Russell Thorndyke. Most of the books appeared in the 1930s and were still pretty popular with kids into the seventies. I remember seeing copies in the library with the same sort of design, and appeal, as Jack London’s books, or those lurid 1960s hardbacks-for-kids editions of Kidnapped and Treasure Island. The stories are set in the 1770s, where the Reverend Doctor Christopher Syn appears to be a respectable English vicar in a remote coastal village, but by night, he dresses in a horrifying Scarecrow costume with a glow-in-the-dark mask and leads a band of smugglers, getting in needed material from France to avoid the crippling taxes levied by the king. With the military bent on destroying the ring, and constantly capturing one low-level smuggler or another, it’s full of daring escapes, cunning plans, last-minute rescues, that sort of thing.

There was a feature film at the height of the books’ popularity in the thirties, and then Hammer and Disney went at the source material in the early sixties. Hammer might fairly be accused of hearing a big idea coming down the pipe and rushing something into production. That version stars Peter Cushing as the renamed “Captain Clegg.” Disney’s has Patrick McGoohan as Syn, with George Cole as his ally Mipps. The three-part adaptation was shown on the ABC anthology series Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color in 1964. It also features some familiar faces from 1960s British film and television like Jill Curzon, Geoffrey Keen, and Patrick Wymark.

Like some other Disney material that we’ve seen, Scarecrow was released in a variety of formats and lengths. The 150-minute TV version was edited down to a 100-minute feature film which was shown in several countries. In the 1980s, the series started to get a small, strange, underground buzz as something worth looking out for. You’d see it mentioned here and there as a lost classic worth seeing. The delightful guidebook Harry and Wally’s Favorite TV Shows, essential in its day, singled out McGoohan’s wild and manic performance as the Scarecrow and made it sound like something I needed to see.

It was out on VHS for a while. There was a limited release of an edit of the movie (possibly a little different from the first movie release), but in that old Disney way, it became impossible to find. A limited edition DVD came out in late 2008. You can buy a copy for a few hundred dollars on eBay. You can also get a pirated copy from any number of sellers right this minute for a whole lot less, but we don’t do that at our blog.

The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh has remained in the “Disney Vault” for almost a decade. There are higher profile projects for the Mouse to worry about these days, and smuggling on the Cornish coast hasn’t captured the imagination of any kids in a long time. Still, it’s been about ten years, which is, they say, the average time that the locked-away releases remain in the Vault. Maybe we might see Doctor Syn dust off his mask and scream that terrifying laugh of his again one day soon?

Photo credit: Disney Wiki, which points out that in one of Disney’s recent comic books, the Scarecrow returned to team up with Captain Jack Sparrow, which is probably a far more interesting event than anything that happened in the third, fourth, or fifth Pirates of the Caribbean movies.

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The Twilight Zone 3.12 – The Jungle

Tonight’s episode of The Twilight Zone gave us the opportunity to talk with our son about superstitions. That’s after we got him calmed down from this remarkably effective half-hour of horror. He was so frightened that he was shivering!

So this time, Charles Beaumont has written the script from one of his short stories. The great John Dehner – he played the villain in my all-time favorite episode of Maverick – plays an oil company executive who has paid careful attention to the superstitions and magic rites of a tribe in Africa who will be displaced by his company’s hydroelectric dam project. He’s a marked man and his fate is inevitable, but getting there is thirty minutes of quiet, growing terror as something in the silent, three-in-the-morning streets of New York follows him.

There’s a really terrific scene where Dehner’s colleagues scoff at his explanation of the curse that has been threatened, but he points out the hypocrisy in their use of rabbit’s feet and horoscopes and buildings that don’t have a thirteenth floor. “Why doesn’t it have a thirteenth floor,” asked our son. We mumbled we’d tell him later. When the episode was finished, he was too scared to really care.

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Thunderbirds are Go 2.17 – Attack of the Reptiles

I remember when we watched “Attack of the Alligators!” back in 2015 and our son was so scared and so worried that he left the room. I thought those days were long behind us where International Rescue was concerned, but in this remake, he was every bit as frightened for Gordon as he had been for Alan when he was just four. We live in a different house now. There’s a staircase behind the sofa that he can use when things get so bad that just lying on the floor won’t do. That’s where he was tonight during the scene pictured above, convinced absolutely in the reality of these animated characters being menaced by real reptiles.

Patrick Rieger’s story is another Buddy and Ellie Pendergast adventure, so it’s not a straight remake. It doesn’t have the long buildup in the creepy old house, but it is set in a remote and never explored foggy canyon somewhere in central Africa. I have to say I really prefer the original, which is one of my absolute favorites, but this has lots of charm as well.

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The Avengers 5.2 – The Fear Merchants

A quarter of a century ago, when I was young and had stars in my eyes and wanted to be a television writer, I daydreamed of making a very off-key and off-kilter cop show called Department of Murder. I spent a lot of time devising characters and plots, and one thing I definitely wanted to do was bring back these villains: the Business Efficiency Bureau, a trio of psychologists and experts who can be hired to literally eliminate the competition. They do so by identifying phobias and driving business rivals out of their minds.

About the only thing you can say against Philip Levene’s “The Fear Merchants,” which introduced the baddies for what would sadly be their only appearance – The Avengers was rarely a show for return engagements – is that it needs one more bit of oomph to make their villainy work. When they learn one target has agoraphobia, they just dump him in Wembley Stadium and that’s it, he’s incapacitated permanently. The episode needed a fear gas or a some sort of mental programming to really push people over the edge once the villains work their efficiency magic to make the episode both a little more believable and sinister.

Otherwise, it’s just so fun! Our son needed a little help following this one, and he had no idea why I collapsed in laughter over one of the all-time great sight gags, where the camera is following somebody dressed like Steed, until Steed and Mrs. Peel come around a corner and it starts following them instead. He also didn’t understand that the Business Efficiency Bureau changes its business from a monthly retainer into a monthly blackmail payment. In his defense, not only is he still very young, but Levene’s script is delightfully subtle about how the hired firm suddenly becomes the dominant partner. But he absolutely loved the great fight that Steed has with Garfield Morgan, who’d later play DCI Haskins, Regan’s boss in The Sweeney. They brawl in a pit with a bulldozer teetering on the edge above them!

In the cast, Patrick Cargill, who we saw in last season’s “The Murder Market,” is the main villain, and the wonderful Brian Wilde is the businessman who bought a lot more trouble than he bargained for. In smaller parts as Wilde’s rivals, there are the familiar-to-us faces of Edward Burnham, Bernard Horsfall, and Andrew Keir, who would star in Quatermass and the Pit later the same year. Sadly, Annette Carell, who was a frequent guest star in British adventure shows of the period, passed away about nine months after this was shown.

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The Twilight Zone 3.8 – It’s a Good Life

I amused myself last night by telling our son, who, like little Anthony Fremont, is six, that this episode of The Twilight Zone is about a boy who can have everything that he wants, only it’s told from the adult’s perspective. He puzzled over what that might mean while I chuckled.

The really interesting thing about watching Bill Mumy’s star turn in “It’s a Good Life,” written by Rod Serling from a short story by Jerome Bixby, in the company of a six year-old is comparing Anthony’s utter lack of emotional maturity with our boy’s. Our son, of course, has been told “no” many, many times. He watched in real fascination as this horrifying story unfolded, with John Larch and Cloris Leachman absolutely riveting in their portrayals of parents crippled with fear at what their son has become.

“One teeny thing I like about The Twilight Zone is that it teaches you a lesson,” our son offered unexpectedly. We talked a little bit about how important it is to be told you can’t do something, and to understand why, when possible. I’m sure that won’t keep him from wishing we could be teleported into some cornfield the next time that we tell him he’s had enough screen time for the day, but maybe he’ll not judge us too harshly now that he has seen what can become of kids who get absolutely everything that they want.

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Doctor Who: Terror of the Zygons (parts three and four)

It’s funny how my son and I look at Doctor Who from totally different perspectives. For me, the show almost always starts strong and peters out as it goes, the initial mystery and atmosphere giving way to basic plotting and the world being doomed by this month’s threat. Fortunately, Who has enough charm, wit, and fun that it often doesn’t matter all that much.

But our kid keeps looking at it this way: Doctor Who is a scary, scary program where scary things keep happening and the bad guys have control of the situation for a very long time, and it scares the bejesus out of you, until finally the Doctor wraps things up and there’s usually a big explosion or two, at which point it becomes one of television’s great pleasures. Once again, he grimaced and hid through three episodes, only to rise cheering when the Zygon spaceship blows up, and when the Loch Ness Monster arrives in London for a few seconds before going home. It’s one of the all-time awful special effects. Kitten Kong was more convincing. Ah, well. It looked and sounded terrific up to then. We’ll allow director Douglas Camfield a few seconds of fumble in an otherwise glittering career.

Harry decides to stay on Earth after this adventure. We’ll see him again in a few weeks, along with John Levene’s long-serving character Benton, who had been promoted to warrant officer during the events of “Planet of the Spiders” and “Robot,” and promoted again to regimental sergeant major prior to this story. Even though the character is last seen in the series as RSM Benton, everybody always calls him Sergeant Benton.

Surprisingly, when they come back, it will be without the Brigadier. Nicholas Courtney would have another acting commitment when the next, and final UNIT story of the seventies was made, and so this story becomes his swan song as a semi-regular. None of these three characters get a proper goodbye. Courtney would turn up again in three Who stories in the 1980s, and one installment of The Sarah Jane Adventures in 2008.

Between “Zygons” and Courtney’s next appearance in Who in 1983, Courtney mainly worked in the theater. He made occasional small guest star parts on TV, but bizarrely, a starring role in a sitcom was completely shelved for eleven years. In 1982, he starred opposite Frankie Howerd in a six-part series called Then Churchill Said to Me, with wacky hijinks set in that top secret wartime command bunker that Matt Smith’s Doctor once visited. The BBC, being as overcautious and oversensitive as ever, decided that they shouldn’t broadcast a comedy making fun of the military in the middle of the Falklands Islands crisis, but once it concluded, they just left it in the cupboard. It finally aired on a cable channel in 1993, and, if you’re a fan of Howerd’s humor like I am, it’s really an amusing show. I just think it stinks that Courtney was denied a starring part at a time in his career when he really could have used one.

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Doctor Who: Terror of the Zygons (parts one and two)

And now back to September 1975 and season thirteen of Doctor Who. The season started with a very popular and well-remembered serial written by Robert Banks Stewart, directed by Douglas Camfield, and featuring my absolute favorite incidental music in all of Who, by Geoffrey Burgon. These three would also be responsible for making the season finale look and sound so good.

Camfield and Burgon’s work here is so atmospheric and so wonderful that anybody with a heart and soul would be happy to overlook the story, which is a by-the-numbers tale of alien monsters who speak in Alien Monsterese, with phrases like “centuries by your timescale” and “one Earth mile.” The Zygons are shapeshifters without a home planet, and they only appeared this one time in the original run of the show, but they’re so well remembered, in part because, well, never mind their dialogue, just look at that wonderfully gross design and the terrific costume! Anyway, everybody remembered the Zygons and their pet Loch Ness Monster from their childhoods, so they’ve come back in a couple of stories under Steven Moffat’s time as producer and have been referenced a couple of times more.

Our son was petrified by these episodes. He was so scared! He tells us that the most frightening scene was when the Doctor extracted the cast of the monster’s gigantic tooth. He also didn’t like Harry getting shot, the Zygon grabbing Sarah from behind in the corridor, and the Zygon trapping the Doctor and Sarah in the decompression room. He especially didn’t like the Zygon that was impersonating Harry hiding in the barn and getting ready to attack Sarah. Part two ends with the giant monster chasing the Doctor across the moor, and he didn’t like that either. His latest way to fend off scary beasts is to wrap his security blanket, “Bict,” around his head, instead of wadding it up in front of his face. He’s going to be doing that a lot this season!

Oddly, though, the revelation during the cliffhanger climax that the dinosaur-creature is the Loch Ness Monster rebounded without impact. Bizarrely, he did not know what the Loch Ness Monster was. If you were six years old in 1975, you knew about Nessie. If he ever has heard a reference to it, he’s forgotten. True, this kid doesn’t have a very good memory, but clearly this monster needs a new PR firm.

One note from my own youth, and seeing the TV movie of this story in February 1984: I absolutely loved it, of course, although I was still unclear how the heroes travel around. The story opens with the Doctor, Harry, and Sarah already in Scotland. I remember having a very hard time putting all this together. This was my third story. In “Genesis of the Daleks,” their transmat travel is intercepted by the Time Lords, and at the end, they use a Time Ring to go back to Nerva Beacon. They get inside a blue box at the end of “Revenge” – the same blue box that’s in the opening credits – and it vanishes. Is it a magic cabinet, or does the transmat beam send them in that protective “capsule” to their next destination? I guess when a show’s been on television for twelve years, there’s an assumption that some grownup in the audience can explain all this stuff to new viewers! Us poor kids watching the compilation movies late Saturday nights on PBS without any reference needed some help. And help was indeed on the way, as I’ll relate in a week or so.

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