The Hardy Boys / Nancy Drew Mysteries 2.16 – Sole Survivor

There’s a pretty good chase in this story that our son really liked. Joe and guest star Jean Marie Hon are hiding from a villain in a huge storeroom full of mannequins and disembodied plastic arms. “That would be pretty creepy,” I said, in my foreshadowingly dopey Dad way. “I know,” our son replied, and then he leaned over and hissed in my ear, “Especially if they were Autons!” None of you rats told him, did you?

So the villains this evening – some East German spies operating in Hong Kong and hoping to snatch a defector, who include James Hong and a not-evil-enough Diana Muldaur – have convinced Joe that he’s been in a coma for almost a year and that Frank and their dad were killed. Joe figures out their scheme pretty quickly, and of course the dopes spoiled it all in the pre-titles clips anyway, but it’s an entertainingly complex and only-on-TV scheme, with the bad guys going to an insane amount of extra work to convince Joe that a year has passed, even faking the handwriting of his friends and family on some “letters from home.”

My favorite part of their plot: a hidden VCR that plays the spies’ news from the far-flung future of 1979. Among the current events being reported in Hong Kong that January: the collapse of the Ugandan government following the death of Idi Amin, and the surprise marriage of Prince Charles to Princess Caroline. Those East Germans were having far too much fun making this stuff up.

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Into the Labyrinth 3.7 – Excalibur

In retrospect, it’s kind of surprising that they waited this long to do a King Arthur story. When you’ve got a witch and wizard who are timejumping around into other people’s bodies, what better hosts are there than Morgaine Le Fay and Merlin? Regular guest star Ewen Solon is back in this one as Arthur, with Barry Jackson as Bedivere.

This is going to sound really, really nebulous and reaching, but something must’ve been in the water in the early eighties. King Arthur stuff has always been popular, but it feels like there was more Avalon than usual in all sorts of media – comics, records, movies – between 1981-83. This episode fits right in somehow, and while Into the Labyrinth‘s low-budget low-tech world has often seemed like an out-of-time throwback to the mid-seventies, this last half-hour just felt sort of perfectly in time with the rest of the early eighties media landscape.

At any rate, my son and I were glad that he got the crash course in Excalibur stuff before we watched the Doctor Who story “Battlefield” a couple of months ago, because this wouldn’t have made very much sense to him otherwise. He particularly enjoyed Merlin getting entombed in a stone and having itching powder dumped in his beard, and of course seeing Belor finally vanquished for good.

They didn’t make any more Into the Labyrinth beyond this. I think it had really run its course and they were doing the same thing every installment anyway. But while it had only limited charm for this grownup, our son enjoyed it a heck of a lot, so I’m very glad that I picked it up.

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Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) 1.25 – Somebody Just Walked Over My Grave

Well, maybe emphasizing the comedy wasn’t necessarily the best idea that the producers of Randall and Hopkirk had, because Donald James’ “Somebody Just Walked Over My Grave” is completely ridiculous. Mike Pratt injured himself really badly after a day’s shooting had concluded, breaking both his legs in a fall. This necessitated using a pretty obvious stand-in for a few scenes, but I wonder whether this also meant that they had to rework the script and give the two comedy bad guys more to do. There’s a lot of material filmed at Knebworth House – where The Champions had shot the year before in “The Night People” – which is just pure farce, as they try and fail to deliver a ransom note. It really does go on for a long, long time.

There’s also the matter of the new Lord Mandrake’s errant son, an agoraphobic dropout who doesn’t dig the establishment and just wants to paint, man. Underneath the most over-the-top hippie ‘fro that the ITC costume department had ever built, that’s Nigel Terry of all people. Other familiar faces this time out: Patricia Haines, Michael Sheard, and Cyril Shaps. It’s a clever story, and we enjoyed trying to guess how all the disparate parts would eventually fit together, but is it ever silly.

Actually, the biggest double-bluff that the show pulls is having the new Lord Mandrake help a freshly-trounced Jeff to his feet, take him back to his estate, make him an extremely curious job offer… and it not be part of the criminal scheme that the show has let us glimpse. It’s all set up to be really suspicious, but Lord Mandrake’s being perfectly honest. He stumbled across a detective and figured that maybe he could help him out with his rotten kid. Crazy, man.

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Doctor Who: The Curse of Fatal Death

I wasn’t actually planning to write a blog post about 1999’s comedy special “The Curse of Fatal Death” – Steven Moffat’s TV Who debut – because last night, we watched, we laughed, and we went to bed and I didn’t think it lended itself to much of a blog post. But then this morning, Marie woke our son, and he protested that he was having some kind of dream about Joanna Lumley’s Doctor and she was about to tell him something important. That still doesn’t lend itself to much of a blog post, but it has amused the heck out of me.

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The Hardy Boys / Nancy Drew Mysteries 2.15 – The House on Possessed Hill

If I’d thought about this a little longer, we probably should have watched a Hardy Boys segment called “The House on Possessed Hill” after sundown for maximum creepiness effect instead of in the early evening before supper. But perhaps this was for the best. Michael Sloan’s story is a delightfully classic haunted house adventure, using the facade of the Bates House from Psycho on the Universal lot, and even with the sun baking our living room and counteracting the attempts of the air conditioner to keep us cool, our kid still stayed very creeped out and hid. “If we had watched that after dark, I’d have stayed behind the sofa all night,” he protested.

I haven’t seen Psycho since I was in college, but of course I recognized the house immediately in the pre-credits scenes from the episode. However, I didn’t recognize Melanie Griffith, who plays the main guest star, until her name popped on screen. Lloyd Bochner is also in this one, playing her character’s doctor. I’ve seen Melanie Griffith in a dozen or more movies, and only seen Psycho and one of its sequels maybe twice. I guess sometimes houses are even more iconic than people!

I have to give all credit to Universal on a couple of points here. First, as anybody who’s followed this category has realized by now, they were insanely good at picking future Hollywood superstars for guest star parts in this series. And second, we all know that house is an empty facade on a backlot that can only be shot from a couple of positions without spoiling the illusion, but their dressers did an amazing job making it look like the creepiest, most lonely and isolated old haunted house for ten miles.

Griffith plays a girl with psychic powers. Frank’s able to find rational explanations for just about everything that happens in the episode, but not quite all of them, and once again, Joe sees something supernatural and bizarre right at the end that his brother misses. I enjoy the reverse symmetry with Universal’s Six Million Dollar Man, where all the ghosts and witches were hoaxes and the aliens and UFOs were genuine, while here it’s the flying saucers that are fake but the vampires and parapsychology are real.

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Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) 1.24 – Murder Ain’t What it Used to Be!

Folks, this just wasn’t fair. There have only been a couple of installments of Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) that I didn’t enjoy very much. Otherwise, this has just been an incredibly entertaining and fun program. But right toward the end of its production run, they managed a hat trick of three absolute treasures right in a row. This was a show that had found the perfect balance of amusing action and comedy and was getting better all the time. If an American network had bought the program, they would have made some more. I hate to use that hoary old defense of fans who want to stick up for a cancelled-too-soon series, but a second season of Randall and Hopkirk could have been the greatest thing ever.

Tony Williamson’s “Murder Ain’t What it Used to Be!” finally brings another ghost into the actual plot of the story, rather than the handful that we’ve seen on the fringes. 35 years previously – say 1934 – a Chicago gangster named Bugsy, played by one of ITC’s stock American actors, David Healy, was double-crossed by his partner in a bootleg whiskey heist. The incident’s actually presented in a terrific black and white flashback as Bugsy pulls Marty back through time to witness it! Bugsy has been trying without success to kill his partner in accidents as his powers and control over the material world has grown far past Marty’s abilities. The partner can occasionally see Bugsy, just as Jeff can see Marty, so he’s always on alert for crashing chandeliers and swerving cars. But while the ghosts can interact, neither living man can see the other’s ghost.

So the partner is now in England to conduct some syndicate business, and Bugsy now has somebody to help him exact revenge. Bugsy tells Marty that Jeff must murder the partner or else Bugsy will arrange an accident for Jean. This leads to one of the series’ all-time greatest lines: “Well, I can’t do anything, can I? If I start telling Jeannie that her late husband is being blackmailed by the ghost of a Prohibition gangster, she’ll go spare!”

Our son was instantly charmed by the arrival of the new ghost character, and with the exception of one pretty poor bit of wire work with some visible-from-space strings that demanded his raspberries, he chuckled all the way through this one. Marty finally pushes back against the more powerful Bugsy in a bizarre fight at the end – a fight that leaves Jeff able to see just one player – that has vases flying across the room and comedy sound effects as the ghosts stomp on each other’s feet. “That was GREAT,” our son said while hopping up and down nursing his own pretend-stomped-upon foot. I didn’t join him in slapstick, but agreed completely.

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Doctor Who (1996)

The most important thing, for the moment, is that our son enjoyed tonight’s movie a whole lot more than I did, or you did, probably. “I liked every micro-second of that,” he announced. His mother and I did not believe him, because this Doctor did what seven previous television Doctors never, ever did, and that’s smooch some icky girl. “Even the kissy bits?” Marie prompted. “I even liked those because I couldn’t see them. I had my blanket,” he said.

The kissy bits drove some people nuts in 1996. The half-human on his mother’s side bits drove other people nuts then, too. The big orchestral music. The car chase. It wasn’t four twenty-five minute episodes taped on video. It was made in Canada. Paul McGann was the wrong actor from Withnail & I. The interior of the TARDIS looked like a Meat Loaf video. It was all blue and orange like lots of other shows filmed in Vancouver. You name it, there was a moan. Fandom loves to hate.

I’ve always been kind of glad this didn’t result in a series, honestly, just because I was watching television at that time, as Fox flailed around looking for a good Friday 8 pm companion to The X Files and fumbled and bumbled and didn’t know what the heck they were doing. Strange Luck was pretty good, but Fox just gave up on it. What other series and movies did they try in those three years? I remember MANTIS, Nick Fury, VR 5, Sliders, Generation X, and White Dwarf, not that I watched more than two installments of any of them. Based on the evidence, I just can’t see how this film would have turned into a series better than anything else Fox was doing.

Like everything else that Fox developed at that time, Doctor Who was a mediocre movie with a good cast, including Paul McGann, Daphne Ashbrook, and Eric Roberts, and a dud of a script by Matthew Jacobs, who I thought would be a great choice because I recognized him from Young Indiana Jones. The story doesn’t make any sense and it’s a completely wretched introduction to the program for anybody who didn’t know it already. You can imagine Russell T. Davies watching this and taking notes, because nine years later, the list of things that “Rose” gets right that this gets wrong is as long as your arm.

The best thing about Doctor Who is that it brought Paul McGann to the franchise, and the second best thing is that his Doctor starred in an often brilliant run of comics for Doctor Who Magazine. They’re collected in four big volumes entitled Endgame, The Glorious Dead, Oblivion and The Flood. This run has more surprises and stunning plot twists than any other run of Who comics, some terrific characters, and one of the all-time greatest Dalek stories ever told. McGann’s Doctor also stars in Lawrence Miles’ masterpiece novel Alien Bodies, which left my jaw on the floor about three times.

A Fox TV series with McGann would have been thirteen hours of blue and orange lighting in Canadian warehouses, probably with flashlights. Alien Bodies and all those comics, though, that’s a run of downright terrific adventures.

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Into the Labyrinth 3.5 – Phantom / 3.6 – Xanadu

“Xanadu” features some of the most novel use of dressings to mask the cave set that the show has come up with. This story is set in the palace of Mighty Kublai Khan – another immortal wizard, like Belor and Rothgo – and it features Peter Copley, his voice unmistakable despite the long hair and beard. “Phantom,” on the other hand, revels in the cave set. It’s a Phantom of the Opera story, with the caves doubling for the sewers underneath the opera house.

I don’t know much of anything about pantomime theater, but I think Chris Harris was very well cast as Lazlo. Each episode lets him get into costume and play to the rafters in silly accents, much in the way I imagine that pantomimes are. In “Phantom,” Lazlo jumps into the body of a French ratcatcher, and in “Xanadu,” he’s Marco Polo. Happily, the British actors in the Chinese adventure don’t speak with fortune cookie accents, but Harris gets to talk in comedy Italian. (Or Venetian, if we desire accuracy.)

I guess it must be a generational thing, because I heard Harris using the same broad and silly stereotype voice that I’d later associate with Nintendo’s “Mario.” I asked my son about it and he raised an eyebrow and replied “No, that didn’t sound like Mario at all.” I guess he doesn’t have the decades of comedy gangsters and that’s-a-spicy-meatball commercials upon which the Mario voice was built. To him, Mario is just Mario and Marco Polo is just Marco Polo.

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