The Bionic Woman 3.15 – The Martians are Coming, the Martians are Coming

When NBC picked up The Bionic Woman, they asked for one of those pre-credit showreels that you often saw in the seventies, with clips from the episode you’re about to watch. These are always obnoxious, but I liked the way they did this one. All the clips are from about the first seven minutes of the story.

I’m not giving away too much when I reveal this is one of those incredibly common hoax flying saucers that we often saw on TV in that decade, because the show gives it away after about ten minutes. These always let me down as a kid. But to their credit, the bad guys behind this hoax stick to their guns and keep their “holograph” projectors going even once the heroes and the audience are in on the scam. That way the kids in the audience can still have a special effect to look at.

Speaking of effects, while these are about as good as what you could expect to see on TV in 1978, there are a couple of shots where the plate which is used for the image of the flying saucer is pockmarked by two big black blobs right in the center of the picture and what looks like a huge ink smear in the upper left of the frame. Kind of hard to suspend disbelief when Universal’s special effects crew couldn’t even wipe down the plate with some glass cleaner, really. On the other hand, it gave us the opportunity to wind it back and talk with our son how they used to do special effects like this. I used to absorb every article about visual effects in magazines like Dynamite to understand how things like this were made.

In the cast, Jon Locke, who had played the leader of the Sleestak and a couple of other monsters in the last year of Land of the Lost the previous season, has a small part as one of the townspeople excited by the flying saucers. Jack Kelly plays a scientist who has been “abducted” along with Rudy Wells. Kelly is shamefully misused by this story and given next to nothing to do. Since Kelly was all over television doing guest parts during this period, often for Universal, perhaps he was only available for what looks like just two days of filming. That’s idle speculation on my part, but there are three other adult male roles in this story with much more meat on them where I’d prefer to have seen Kelly, who I really enjoy.

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Iron Man (2008)

Mainly we watch older movies here at Fire-Breathing Dimetrodon Time, but we’re going to cycle the Marvel Universe movies into a rotation so that he’ll have the chance to see some of them before next summer. Maybe we’ll see five or six of them before the next Avengers movie? Seven might be a good age to see these on the big screen. He’s pretty mature for his age and very well-behaved in theaters. And if this is any indication, he might just love that Avengers film. He told us at lunch that Iron Man is second only to his beloved Captain Underpants as his all-time favorite movie.

That’s not to say it didn’t baffle him in places. It’s interesting to look back in the series; I’ve seen two of the films twice, and the rest no more than once, in theaters. I’ve been picking these up when I find copies, usually used, at a sensible price. They never seem to be on sale, and Marvel Studios has not released any sensible collected-in-sequence editions to take up less space on fans’ shelves. So I bought some six-disk boxes and wish I had a copy of Photoshop and the talent to make new artwork for them!

It’s amazing how comparatively slow this movie is. It takes a long, long time for Tony Stark to appear in his first suit of armor. The more recent movies, particularly Doctor Strange, work in shorthand compared to this. Iron Man spends a lot of time, and I mean a lot of time, emphasizing how insufferable and arrogant Tony Stark is. It’s all hugely entertaining and I wouldn’t change a minute, I’m just interested in how the later origin films follow the early ones’ template, trusting the audience, once they’ve seen a few of these, to understand the main character from much shorter sketches.

There are lots of reasons I don’t see many modern movies. One of them is that I prefer the comfort of the character actors of the sixties and seventies; I just don’t see enough modern movies and television to really know the actors. Honestly, I’m not kidding, I’ve seen Scarlett Johansson in literally one film that isn’t a Marvel movie. I know her as a singer first, and Black Widow second! I’ve even missed most of Robert Downey Jr.’s career. According to IMDB, I’ve seen him in exactly four roles other than Tony Stark, and I was in high school for two of those. (He was in a movie version of The Singing Detective? There’s a movie version of The Singing Detective?)

Anyway, it’s become standard in blog posts about Marvel movies to praise the casting. These might be the movies’ real genius, because the plots aren’t anything that outrageous. The stories don’t thrill me and CGI special effects don’t make my jaw drop any more, so it’s all about the casting and the humor for me. Iron Man introduces us to Stark, to Gwenyth Paltrow’s long-suffering Pepper Potts, Jon Favreau’s loyal Happy Hogan, and Clark Gregg’s SHIELD agent Coulson. Samuel L. Jackson shows up right at the end as Nick Fury, setting an unhappy precedent of sitting around through a million credits for maybe sixty bonus seconds.

Terrence Howard played James Rhodes in this movie. I’m not sure why, but Don Cheadle took over the part after this one. Blink and you’ll miss Bill Smitrovich (Inspector Cramer in A Nero Wolfe Mystery) as a general. Leslie Bibb plays a reporter and Jeff Bridges – okay, him I’ve seen a fair bit – is the villain. They’re all excellent.

While Bridges is terrific as the villain Obadiah Stane, this story does suffer more than a little from the same malady that infects so many superhero movies: the odd need to have the hero’s and the villain’s stories intertwined. As such, Stane’s betrayal is never even remotely surprising. I was once told that I should have known that immediately, but I wasn’t reading Iron Man comics in the eighties, when it appears that the character was introduced, and never heard of the Iron Monger until they made a piece for him in Heroclix, a collectible combat game I once played.

The business about Stark Industries’ stock prices plummeting was over our son’s head, and he was probably tuned out for about six of this movie’s 120 minutes. But Jon Favreau, who directed the movie as well as playing Happy Hogan, knew how to keep things busy and moving for even the younger viewers. Some of the humor was over his head, but the slapstick of Tony learning to fly had him riveted and guffawing. I like how you just know one of those cars is going to get crushed; place your bets on which one. The action scenes had his eyes popping out of his head. I was just a little worried that Iron Man’s first appearance in the caves would frighten him, but it didn’t. This morning was all talk about Iron Man, and how he can’t wait for the next Marvel movie. Then we rented him the complete Hanna-Barbera cartoon Wacky Races and he might have forgotten about Tony and his friends. (Car # 6, the Army Surplus Special, is his favorite. I like the Gruesome Twosome most myself.)

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The Avengers 4.15 – Room Without a View

Tonight we returned The Avengers to our lineup with yet another episode that required a pause to explain a bit of culture lost to time: Chinese laundries. We thought we did a good job explaining what these were in general, but we skimmed over the nuts and bolts. At the end of the episode, our son was baffled why a character who was murdered was transported in a wicker box.

Roger Marshall’s “Room Without a View” features an interesting villain played by Paul Whitsun-Jones, who we saw recently in the Doctor Who adventure “The Mutants.” Happily, when I asked whether our son remembered him, he said “Oh, yeah! That’s so neat, it’s the same guy!” He’s learning!

Whitsun-Jones’s character, Max Chessman, has been building a chain of luxury hotels with secret, bonus floors that can be used for nefarious ends. Chessman has a cute affectation: he’s a gourmand who suffers from thin blood and has gained enough weight that his doctors have ordered him onto an insanely strict diet, so he takes pleasure watching other people eat in front of him. Philip Latham plays one of his henchmen, and Peter Jeffrey, in his first of four appearances as different characters in The Avengers, plays one of Steed’s ministry associates. While this character is played for laughs initially, he turns out to be a pretty resourceful agent. Usually when characters like this one show up, they end up dead before the second commercial break.

Plotwise, this isn’t one of the strongest episodes of season four, but the acting is a joy and Steed’s undercover operation at the hotel is a treat. I don’t mind “spoiling” the revelation that a bonus hotel floor with a fake room 621 is at play, because it’s incredibly obvious – for grownup viewers – that physicists are not really being spirited away to a Manchurian prison camp and somehow escaping all the way back to the UK. But for our six year-old son, this was something new and unfamiliar, and kept him guessing. I just realized that he’ll see something very similar in the eleventh season of Doctor Who, which we’ll watch later this month. I must remember to point that out if he doesn’t make the connection!

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RIP Jim Nabors, 1930-2017

We learned yesterday that the favorite son of the great town of Sylacauga, Alabama passed away. Jim Nabors was best known for his role as the nasal-voiced Gomer Pyle, a character he played for seven seasons across two hit CBS series in the 1960s, The Andy Griffith Show and Gomer Pyle, USMC. Later on, of course, Nabors starred as the android Fum in Sid and Marty Krofft’s The Lost Saucer for ABC. Nabors was not particularly enamored by The Lost Saucer, and while it honestly isn’t one of my favorites either, every episode features he and his good friend Ruth Buzzi doing something really funny together. Our condolences to Nabors’ family and friends.

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Doctor Who: The Green Death (part six)

Getting the bad out of the way, this story features one of the all-time lousy special effects sequences, where Jon Pertwee and John Levene react to an allegedly menacing giant mosquito. But I think the big explosive climax at Global Chemicals, which is awesome, more than makes up for it, and besides, our son was completely thrilled by the big bug and didn’t see anything wrong with it.

Back in 1987 or whenever it was that WGTV started showing the Jon Pertwee serials, I surprised myself by getting a little tearful over Jo’s departure. Doctor Who wasn’t really known, then, for having emotional farewells. These days you can’t spend three episodes in the TARDIS without the universe ending over an overblown Murray Gold orchestral fanfare while somebody drops to their knees when it’s time to stop traveling. I guess since the same production team had just blown right pass Liz Shaw’s departure when the actress Caroline John left, they wanted to do right by Katy Manning.

Jo’s departure is really wonderful. She’s been falling head over heels for the scatterbrained Cliff Jones and happily accepts his fumbled marriage proposal and even though the Doctor knew in his hearts of hearts that she would be flying the coop before he went to Llanfairfach, he’s still devastated that she leaves him. The only time prior to this 1973 story where we saw the Doctor actually hurting that a companion has moved on was back in 1964, when he forced the issue and left his granddaughter Susan behind on future Earth to stay with David Campbell. Jo’s happiness is countered with a shot of the Doctor, sitting sadly by himself in his car. Quietly. Even when the end theme music starts, it does so at a very low volume, not wishing to intrude on the visuals. It’s really, really unlike any other departure in the whole of the series.

Incidentally, there’s a fantastic extra on the DVD called Global Conspiracy? in which Mark Gatiss, in the guise of BBC reporter Terry Scanlon, looks back at the strange goings-on in 1970s Llanfairfach. It’s incredibly funny and full of in-jokes. This “documentary” explains that Jo and Cliff divorced in the 1980s. Happily, this was retconned in a 2010 episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures which notes that the couple are still married and had lots of kids.

Katy Manning didn’t become the star that she should have become after Doctor Who, but she did have a few memorable roles, including the comedy film Eskimo Nell and the one episode of the BBC’s Target that anyone remembers. Before she moved to Australia, she did a celebrated pinup session with a prop Dalek that served much the same function for teen fans in the eighties that Karen Gillan’s appearance in the movie Not Another Happy Ending does these days, I think.

Uniquely, Manning also portrays a second ongoing character in the Doctor Who mythology. Iris Wildthyme is a character in spinoff novels and audio plays who might be a Time Lord and might be the Doctor’s old girlfriend, and, in a postmodern way, is used to suggest that many of the Doctor’s so-called adventures are actually just rewritten versions of her own exploits. Her TARDIS is smaller on the inside, which never fails to make me smile. Iris was created by Paul Magrs, who has written many of her adventures. Manning has played Iris off and on since 2002.

That’s all from Doctor Who for now, but stay tuned! We’ll start watching season eleven later this month!

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Doctor Who: The Green Death (part five)

Our son is quite bemused by BOSS, the room-filling supercomputer. Can you blame him? I can remember that techno-phobia of the time all too well; it took my dad more than a decade to trust a top-loading VCR, so a computer wasn’t going to arrive in my family’s house for many, many years. So this seems really strange and silly to a kid who has been playing puzzle games on his tablet since he was really, really small. How can computers be evil? This isn’t one of the “great ones” for him because the maggots are gross and scary and now he’s worried about Cliff Jones, who’s been infected by a maggot, but at least it has explosions.

Captain Yates gets brainwashed by BOSS in this episode, and his mind freed by the Doctor, using the blue sapphire from Metebelis Three. Interestingly, this develops into important plot points in the next season. The Doctor doesn’t get brainwashed himself; he’s put up with far more advanced mind probes and the like than anything that even the top-of-the-line Earthlings can build. I think that the headset that he’s wearing also shows up in the next season along with the blue crystal and actor John Dearth, who is doing such a good job as the voice of BOSS.

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Doctor Who: The Green Death (part four)

So Yates and Benton are finally back in action in this episode. Yates is undercover as a man from the ministry, and Benton is leading the UNIT troops shooting at the maggots with their thick, “chitinous” armor-plated shells. You’ll note that now that almost all of the guest actors playing villagers have either been killed or have otherwise left the story, there’s room in the budget for Richard Franklin and John Levene!

The big plot development this time is the surprise that the BOSS is a seventies evil supercomputer. This cliffhanger revelation kind of baffled our son. Prior to this, though, he was really enjoying this one. There are explosions and gunfire and monsters, and the Doctor gets to disguise himself as a milkman with a thick mustache and then as a cleaning lady. He didn’t actually recognize him as the milkman, so effective was his costume in the eyes of a six year-old, but he saw right through that second disguise and had a good laugh over it. So there’s two things from the seventies you never see on television these days: room-filling supercomputers with wall-to-wall reel-to-reel tape decks, and dressing as old ladies to get laughs. Well, there’s Monty Python’s last concert film, I suppose.

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The Six Million Dollar Man 5.15 – Return of Deathprobe (part two)

That was actually much more entertaining than the first story. It was still pretty tedious, but never as stupid as the original one. It’s remarkable just how short and to-the-point this one is. There are virtually no other speaking parts beyond Steve and Oscar. Everybody else who does appear gets maybe two scenes. Steve and Oscar try a tactic to stop the Probe, it doesn’t work, they go back to the command post, get another idea, and go try again.

And do not let our son fool you. He certainly claimed to hate the Probe, but he got incredibly excited this time out. He was enjoying the heck out of this… and then he realized I had noticed him and he tried to downplay things. “Yeah, that was pretty cool…” he said at the end. If you’re between the ages of about six and nine, this is probably going to be some epic, memorable television. Older than that… well, the most challenging thing for Lee Majors in this one was maintaining his composure when the Probe blasts the engine of the bulldozer he’s driving, sending sparks everywhere. Everybody’s playing second fiddle to a big black tank. It’s not really an hour of entertainment for grownups.

This was the final appearance for the Probe, and indeed the last time any of the recurring villains or baddies would appear in either of the bionic series. But the Probe had one last outing in another time and place. The prop was redressed and used in 1980 as the Crimebuster in the Andy Kaufman comedy Heartbeeps. I can appreciate Kaufman, but the Crimebuster is the only good thing about that movie! I wonder whether the prop ever appeared anywhere else, or whether it was sold off to a collector. It was probably scrapped, but maybe it’s still in some garage someplace.

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