Doctor Who: The Time Monster (part four)

Okay, so on the one hand, this can be accused very fairly of being padding padding padding. If you’re wanting your Doctor Who to be lean and mean and tightly plotted, I can see why this story maddens you. There’s literally not one minute of story here that’s essential to the plot of the Master going to Atlantis to get control of Kronos. If that’s the only reason that “The Time Monster” exists, then it could have been a three-parter. I understand that the low-budgeted series, throughout the Pertwee years, mainly adopted its format of two four-parters and three six-parters to make the best out of the resources available, but they honestly could have used three parts from this and one apiece from “The Mutants” and “The Sea Devils” and made an additional five-part adventure this year.

But I’m in the other camp. This is fun. The Doctor is being the stodgy old killjoy and the Master is having a ball. Benton gets turned into a baby, the TARDISes are materialized inside each other, and the Master uses his machine’s telepathic circuits to fiddle with the Doctor’s speech and have the words come out of his mouth backwards. If you’re bothered by the Brigadier turning into the Doctor’s straight man, only there to feed the star lines, he gets to stand in place for about the whole episode, frozen in time, so even he can’t annoy you. How could anybody not like this? It’s so fun.

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The Avengers 4.14 – Silent Dust

Roger Marshall’s “Silent Dust” is certainly the weakest episode of The Avengers that we’ve watched so far, but in its favor, it has a lengthy chase and fight in the climax that kept our son very entertained. The problem seems to be that the writer was given a brief to do a story that ends with a big fox hunt, and there isn’t a lot of plot to get there. The villainous threat-of-the-week is about an experimental fertilizer that has the reverse effect and kills topsoil and livestock, but it might as well be a threat about anything. All that matters is getting the heroes and villains to don red coats and ride around with hounds at the end.

Amusingly, I’d forgotten that the last of the baddies gets his comeuppance when Steed picks up a “Down with Blood Sports” sign that a protester has discarded and uses it as a polo mallet on him. I realized that our son has no experience with fox hunting. So I paused it to give him a quick rundown, more of the iconography than the actual history, and mentioned that in the last several decades, this sort of hunting has become very controversial, and was finally banned in the UK about twelve years ago. Then I said something dopey: “When this was made, it was probably around the last time that hunts were organized without public protests.” Of course, the very next scene had four or six people milling around the toffs with protest signs. Had I looked at it before opening my big mouth, I’d have known that the RSPCA had been trying to put a stop to “cultural amusements” like this since the 1820s.

But other than the hunt, there’s not a lot of interest in this story. The villains are identified way too early, using the unusual approach of “every suspect is in on it,” and even though there are some recognizable faces like Charles Lloyd Pack, Norman Bird, Isobel Black, and William Franklyn, it’s really not one of the most engaging episodes.

Weirdo trivia: Oddly, this episode was among those not purchased by ABC for the American run, and it picked up an alternate name. American fans way back then who were curious about the unseen installments of the show inquired about it among 16mm film traders in the sixties and seventies and a bootleg copy was apparently doing the rounds under a working title: “Strictly For the Worms.” It was so well known by that name that you used to see this listed in guidebooks and tape trader lists as: “Silent Dust (Strictly For the Worms).”

We’ll take a few weeks’ break from The Avengers now, but stay tuned! Steed and Mrs. Peel will be back in December!

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The Twilight Zone 1.16 – The Hitch-Hiker

“The Hitch-Hiker” is, of course, utterly magnificent. Rod Serling’s teleplay about a terrified young woman who keeps seeing the same man on a cross-country trip was based on a radio play written by Lucille Fletcher. It had been staged by various iterations of Orson Welles’ group at least three times in the 1940s and soon entered the world of urban legends, and it’s been told and retold by kids on camping trips ever since.

And our blasted kid didn’t get it!

Oh, this broke my heart. He’s just too young to understand the twist, even when the fate of the driver is hammered home by a specific explanation. I knew he’d be confused by hitchhiking, generally, so we started with an explanation of that, and how you never see anybody hitchhiking in this country anymore*. But it didn’t occur to us that he’s also completely unfamiliar with ghost stories, period. He hasn’t sat around any campfires yet.

Ah, well. This is one to come back to when he’s older. It’s an absolutely perfect episode and still retains its chilling power. It’s just as effective now as it was 57 years ago, and it will still be effective whenever he revisits it.

(*Upon reflection, he has seen hitchhiking in an episode of Isis, which I’m sure we talked about. Guess it didn’t take!)

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Doctor Who: The Time Monster (part three)

I think I see one reason fandom doesn’t care for this story. Everybody’s waiting for Ingrid Pitt and she isn’t in the first half of the serial! But seriously, there really aren’t six episodes of plot here. I mean, when the characters are specifying that everything you’re seeing are delaying tactics, that’s a bit of a clue.

On the other hand, I’m loving it. It may be stretching a slow four-parter, at best, into six, but it’s all so entertaining! The scene where the Doctor builds some “modern art” for its sort-of crystalline structure to interfere with the Master’s time experiments is padding, but it’s funny. You also read people complaining that the Brigadier is getting increasingly stupid as the series goes on, but our son guffawed at the Doctor and Jo roaring past his jeep in the super-speed-boosted Bessie. This may not be essential, but it’s fun.

And so the cliffhanger sees Captain Yates, bringing the TARDIS to Cambridge in a military convoy, plagued by more delays as the Master dumps various foes from other times into 1973 via his interstitial time machine. It ends with a massive explosion as a thirty year-old Doodlebug flying bomb comes down in the tree line. That’s a hugely effective cliffhanger; our son was very worried for Captain Yates!

Also, our son was quite frightened by that most ridiculous of Doctor Who monsters: Kronos finally makes its weird appearance, all white costume and colorful visual effects sparkling off the vision mixer, the actor’s arms flapping like an angry canary while swaying in the lab on a kirby wire. No, nothing about Kronos is really successful at all… unless you’re six, in which case this furious caged beast who absorbs Dr. Percival in a puff of nothing really is a surprisingly weird and troubling enemy.

Speaking of Dr. Percival, I’d mentioned that John Wyse would later appear in the BBC’s Dorothy L. Sayers adaptations of the 1970s. He was joined last time by Donald Eccles, playing the Atlantean high priest who the Master zaps into the present. Eccles would also have a big supporting role in one of those Sayers serials. He played the Reverend Venables, the campanology-obsessed vicar in The Nine Tailors, a couple of years after this.

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Doctor Who: The Time Monster (part two)

Very, very little happens in part two of this adventure. It’s all talk and setup, as the Doctor explains that the Master is trying to use the power of Kronos, the most dangerous of a species called Chronovores. These beings exist outside of time and, as their delightful name implies, eat time itself, swallowing life.

It all seems fairly innocuous, and until a scene where Benton comes very close to capturing the Master, slow, but our son takes the Doctor’s warnings very, very seriously. Without even materializing, Kronos swallowed about sixty years from a lab assistant, leaving him an old man. That, and the grim and always-end-of-the-world tone that the Doctor employs, is enough to really convince our boy that this is deadly serious business. He’s very, very worried about Kronos.

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Doctor Who: The Time Monster (part one)

So at last we’re at the much-maligned “The Time Monster,” a story that fandom tends to dismiss, but there’s nothing in the first episode that warrants its low reputation. There very rarely is, of course. Most Doctor Who tends to start strong and peter out. This one starts with the Master up to no good at a research institute, under the guise of a Greek scientist called Professor Thascales, and he’s apparently working on a teleportation device – transmitting matter through “interstitial time” – but, in an admittedly poor cliffhanger, it seems he’s really doing this as a side to his real plan, which is contacting something called Kronos.

The story was written by Barry Letts and Roger Sloman, and directed by Paul Bernard, and is notably the last UNIT vs. the Master adventure, after the four in the previous season. The notable guest star in part one is John Wyse, who didn’t have a long career in TV or film. It looks like this may have been his second-to-last credited part. His final role was as Mr. Murbles, solicitor to the Wimsey family in the first of the BBC’s 1970s adaptations of Dorothy Sayers novels. I really like the guy.

Other than a general unease that the Master’s never up to any good, our son was neither really pleased nor displeased with this one. It’s really all setup, including the delightful and understated business about Professor Thascales’s credentials. Since he escaped from prison in “The Sea Devils” (perhaps three months previously?), he established the Thascales identity and got this position near Cambridge, but neglected to publish anything for peer review, which nearly trips him up.

(Actually, I’ll tell you the big thing they neglected. Since this is set near Cambridge, they really should have asked Caroline John to come back and play Liz Shaw as a member of the institute’s grants committee.)

Three months works within the best UNIT timeline, but it really is a heck of a rush for all the work that the Master needed to do. I like this idea: the Master escaped from prison, got in his TARDIS, figured out a new plan involving the Greek trident crystal, and started setting everything up years before he first showed up in “Terror of the Autons.” Over the same months that the earlier Master was dueling with UNIT and working with Autons, Axons, Daemons, and Sea Devils in Britain, “Professor Thascales” was in Greece, having obtained the crystal and finding an institute or university where he could get the necessary equipment and funding. Playing the long game’s easy when you’ve got a time machine, as long as you don’t meet yourself, I suppose.

Why not? After all, the most recent series of Doctor Who has shown us that at the precise time that the Doctor and the Master are having this adventure in Cambridge, a much later Doctor has been quietly teaching at St. Luke’s University in Bristol, with a much later Master locked in a vault under the college. I really love the idea that every few months in the 1970s, Nardole would get a morning paper with a story about, say, promotional plastic daffodils being recalled as a health hazard, and pop it on the Doctor’s desk, saying “This is you, isn’t it? Must be. You had something to do with this.”

And the Doctor, never wanting to talk much about the past, would say “That was three thousand years ago, Nardole. I really don’t remember…”

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The Avengers 4.13 – Too Many Christmas Trees

I think we dodged a bullet with this one! We hope our son still has one and possibly two more Christmases believing in Santa Claus. So when Mrs. Peel gives a line about still believing in Father Christmas, we winced. We needn’t have. He doesn’t equate Santa and Father Christmas as the same character! (Incidentally, we decided long ago that Santa Claus brings one or two small gifts; all the rest are clearly from Mom and Dad. Hope to cushion the blow.)

Anyway, this story is about a gang of telepathic criminals waging a psychic assault on Steed during a Dickens-themed Christmas party at a big country house. Mediums, parlor tricks, ESP, hands around a table, all the old standbys. Alex Scott, who was in everything ITC did and quite a few Hammer films, is the chief villain, and Edwin Richfield, who we saw just a little over a week ago in “The Sea Devils,” is here and apparently up to no good. It’s an absolutely terrific episode, a heavy story lightened with witty banter and Mrs. Peel’s genuine concern for Steed as he seems incapacitated. It seems like one of the less expensive episodes, with just a few sets and not much location work, but they certainly got the most out of it.

Our son asked us to pause it because he was confused by a guillotine cigar cutter, which led to a discussion of what guillotines are. This led to me pausing it a few minutes later as Steed suffers another nightmare, in which he’s Sydney Carton from A Tale of Two Cities being led to his execution. We paused again to explain a room set up to resemble Miss Havisham’s ruined and web-covered dining room from Great Expectations. Who says this TV’s an idiot box? He’s getting an introduction to literature here!

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Pippi in the South Seas (1970)

You know how every once in a while, there will be an episode of Spongebob Squarepants that’s part live-action and there’s a comedy pirate called Patchy? If your child thinks that guy is hilarious, then your child is just the right age for Pippi in the South Seas, which is overflowing with pirates in day-glo colors, wearing eyepatches and striped shirts, and who have the swordfighting acumen of children.

Since the Pippi TV series had been a huge success in Sweden, the production team went straight to work on a pair of feature films co-produced with a German movie company. Pippi in the South Seas came first, and it was shot in the Mediterranean, it would appear, with not too many speaking parts, but an army of pirate extras. The plot, such as it is, concerns Pippi, Tommy, and Annika coming to Pippi’s papa’s rescue. He’s been captured by some other pirates and is held in a big sea fort, but thanks to the magic of messages in bottles, he’s able to get word of his plight to Pippi. Can the kids save the day before Papa is forced to reveal the location of his treasure?

For the under-nines in the audience, this is a fun little romp, with some very safe escapades and no genuine sense of danger. There’s some awful music, and pirates getting dumped in the water. The kids run rings around the adults, of course, and it’s a pleasant enough distraction, but it felt pretty long to me. Our kid was very pleased with the nonsense. He never had to hide, but neither did he jump up with excitement and thrills, either. Kind of a middle of the road production, I guess you’d say. Good, but not particularly inspiring. We’ll probably watch the second movie early next year, and I hope it’s not quite as burdened by the second bananas in the cast trying to be funny.

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