The Hardy Boys / Nancy Drew Mysteries 1.8 – A Haunting We Will Go

Tonight’s episode is the perhaps inevitable story about somebody in the old theater dropping lights down onto the stage and almost killing somebody and this was no accident, this rope’s been cut, and so on. They brought in a pile of good actors for it, though. Victor Buono, Bob Crane, and Dina Merrill are among the thesps playing thesps, a group who staged a show called Murder in the Fourth Act twenty-two years previously. They’ve all gone on to successful showbiz careers, but when they’re invited to tread the boards in the small town of River Heights one last time before the old theater is torn down to make room for a youth center, they all rush back, hating each other, because they all buried a secret down in the theater’s cellar.

Michael Sloan’s story is lighthearted and fun, and our son enjoyed it a lot, even if some of the jokes were a little over his head. I guess he figures that if his dad gets a good chuckle from a gag about Marcus Welby or Dr. Kildare, it must be funny somehow, whoever they are.

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Eerie, Indiana 1.16 – No Brain, No Pain

One of the many, many, many things that ring hollow about the Doctor Who segment that we finished watching last night is that the Time Lords completely freak out about a 24th Century scientist succeeding in what every 20th Century adventure program did about once a year: transfer minds between bodies. I didn’t realize that I’d scheduled them back to back, but it’s nice to see this done the way we’d all prefer it, with a playful spirit and a sense of fun, instead of the doom-laden horror of last night’s Who.

Joining the nonsense this time, it’s guest stars Anita Morris, who sadly passed away about two years after this was shown, and Friends and Lovers‘ Paul Sand. He plays the smartest man in the world and she plays his conniving wife, who our heroes coin “Mrs. Terminator” and “Grandma Schwarzenegger.” The smartest man on Earth downloaded his brain onto an eight-track of Get the Knack to stop his evil wife from using his brain-swapping machine. Naturally, by the end of the half-hour, everybody’s mind is in the wrong body.

The whole thing is ridiculous and wonderful, but the very best part is the downright dumb sense of pride that Marshall’s dad has about his son being old enough to shave for the first time. Francis Guinan honestly glows when he tells a houseguest about this exciting development.

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Doctor Who: The Trial of a Time Lord (parts seven and eight)

There is an obvious topic to discuss with this pair of episodes, but I don’t want to be obvious. I’ll talk about it next week.

Instead, I’ll note that, since we haven’t watched Flash Gordon yet – but we will – this was our son’s first opportunity to enjoy the splendor that is BRIAN BLESSED hollering at top volume. Between the tentpoles of Sil sniveling and King Yrcanos bellowing, I don’t like anything about this story, but our son enjoyed BLESSED tremendously. He’s a loud kid. Mostly polite and loving, but he sure does forget to use his indoor voice a lot. Now here’s the loudest person he’s ever seen, and nobody’s telling him to stop shouting. He laughed all the way through this, so the weird and unpleasant ending didn’t have the effect that I think the producers wanted with him. Of course, I have been hinting that what we’re seeing isn’t necessarily the truth.

Naturally, I showed him BRIAN BLESSED doing snooker commentary a few minutes later. I’d watch all sorts of dumb sports on television if BLESSED was doing the play-by-play. Bowling, Texas Hold-em, darts, soccer, you name it.

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Doctor Who: The Trial of a Time Lord (parts five and six)

Well, I said before that Nabil Shaban’s wonderfully disgusting character Sil was the best thing about this story, just like he was in his first story, and I stand by that. But it is worth noting that BRIAN BLESSED is here to yell and bellow and bring the house down as a warrior king, and Christopher Ryan, the second Young Ones star to appear in this show in a two-year period, plays another slimy member of Sil’s species. The story’s a mess, but I like these two. And our son was, momentarily, really impressed by the very ’80s planet that the visual effects team dreamed up, with a dayglo-blue shore and crashing neon pink waves.

Episodes six through eight are the first example of Doctor Who using the format of an unreliable narrator. The Doctor has amnesia after getting his brain blasted in the cliffhanger to part five, allowing the evil Valeyard to screw with the “evidence” of the story and make him look like a coward who’s switched sides to save his own skin. So we never actually get to see what really happened on the planet Thoros Beta… probably. Unfortunately, Eric Saward, the script editor, didn’t make any of this at all clear and was in the process of finding himself a new career. He gave a breathtaking bridge-burner of an “exit interview” to the magazine Starburst, telling his side of a show in turmoil and airing all the dirty laundry he could find, making enemies of everybody at every level of the show’s production. The sad result is that this segment didn’t get the attention it needed before they taped it, so everything is confusing and honestly annoying to follow.

I paused between episodes to explain how we’ve already seen how the Valeyard can edit the material, and that we can’t trust anything that happens onscreen. I did this because I knew our son would absolutely hate seeing the Doctor turn evil and treat Peri so horribly. He did, scowling all the way through part six. Unfortunately, this is going to get worse before it gets better.

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The Hardy Boys / Nancy Drew Mysteries 1.7 – The Flickering Torch Mystery

The biggest mystery about tonight’s episode is why it’s called “The Flickering Torch Mystery.” We’ve got no idea.

Actually, this was a pleasant surprise all around. I was totally expecting Universal to go all cheap like they had done a couple of years earlier, when Johnny Cash guest starred as the murderer in Columbo and they paid the performance rights for a single song to be played umpteen times over the course of the story. Here, Ricky Nelson guest stars as a popular country-tinged light rock star called Tony Eagle and we get to hear snippets of about a dozen songs, including a brief bit of Dylan’s “She Belongs to Me,” which it turns out was a top 40 hit for Nelson in 1969.

I genuinely didn’t know anything whatever about Nelson before watching this episode. I didn’t even know that he was sadly killed in a plane crash in 1985, which was the planned fate of his character in this story. It takes the very interesting angle of having the Hardy Boys be completely wrong in their assumption about what the mystery villains are up to, and what looks absolutely like the big race-against-time climax like you get in television is a flop that leaves our heroes looking stupid. They get redeemed once they figure it out the following morning, of course, but I was pleasantly surprised to be mistaken myself. Nice to see a forty year-old kid show pulling one over on at least one grownup.

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Eerie, Indiana 1.15 – Mr. Chaney

To absolutely nobody’s surprise – unless you’re seven and don’t know who Lon Chaney Jr. was yet – there’s a character in this story called Mr. Chaney, and he’s a werewolf. Chaney is played by Stephen Root, who’d co-star in the hilarious NewsRadio for NBC a couple of years after this, and he’s part of an old city conspiracy to look the other way every thirteen years when a new Harvest King is crowned, and the new king becomes werewolf food.

We think this was the first time that Eerie, Indiana actually frightened our son. He denied it, of course, and it was the good kind of frightened, but the animatronic werewolf mask was really quite good, and when the beast starts to creep up on Simon, our son turned completely around and hid his head in the sofa. It’s an entertaining episode, but the best part is when our triumphant heroes decamp to the World o’Stuff, and Mr. Radford mixes up an anti-wolfman potion and serves it up in a milkshake glass with whipped cream and an eyeball.

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Doctor Who: The Trial of a Time Lord (parts three and four)

This season is flawed in many ways, but one that irks me is that we keep hearing about plots and subplots that are far more interesting than what we actually see. The story of some people from the Andromeda Galaxy stealing secrets from [REDACTED], the greatest information source in recorded history, and being forced into hundreds of years of cryosleep is much, much more interesting than the Doctor’s latest adventure. Though I really do love how the Doctor talks and talks and talks and completely fails to convince the robot to see his point of view, and Sabalom Glitz stumbles in, sizes up the situation, and instantly cons the robot into falling for his scheme.

Our son mainly liked the robot stuff, but he got a great laugh out of Joan Sims yelling at everybody when they can’t decide which way down a corridor to stampede. Older fans, for whom this show is very often such SRS BSNSS, have always hated a tiny bit where a supporting player gets a face full of slime like a contestant on an ’80s Nickelodeon game show. I always figured that was for the kids, but ours was completely indifferent to it.

I have a very odd little memory about “Trial” that I feel like sharing. In the summer of 1986, the letters page of Doctor Who Magazine printed several notes from readers speculating and passing along rumors of the new season. There was one which stood out, and this isn’t an exact quote as I don’t have the issue anymore, but one part of the letter went something like:

I have heard it is to be totally modernised, whatever that means. (Theme music by Frankie Goes to Hollywood?)

I’m sure the writer didn’t intend to start a rumor that Frankie Goes to Hollywood was doing the theme music to Doctor Who, but he offered that as an example of what “totally modernised” could mean.

So come August, and I was in a fan club in Atlanta called Terminus TARDIS that met at Emory University’s White Hall and showed old episodes and had a monthly newsletter. And just before the season started, whoever wrote the season 23 preview column ran that example as fact: the new theme music is by Frankie Goes to Hollywood. In actuality, it was by Dominic Glynn and I like it a lot more than the previous “starfield” music.

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Doctor Who: The Trial of a Time Lord (parts one and two)

So now we’re in September 1986. Doctor Who was unfortunately back down to 25 minute episodes, and more unfortunately still shot entirely on videotape. Fans have been Monday-morning-quarterbacking season 23 more than any other point in the program’s history and saying what they would’ve done to prove the show’s worth in the face of its postponement and newfound hostility from the higher-ups at the BBC. My simple take, assuming anything was possible: instead of 14 half-hour episodes, seven one-hour episodes, each self-contained, on film.

Certainly instead of being so foolish as to reflect in the narrative that the show was “on trial,” I’d have forged ahead confident that the battle was won and the show had survived. That’s PR 101, but the producer’s instincts were at a pretty low point in 1986, and his script editor was so dispirited that he was just months from a flounce so spectacular that he hasn’t worked in TV since. So we’ve got a script by the amazing Robert Holmes that’s full of lines like “Be silent!” and “You must think me a fool!” among many other issues.

Joining the proceedings in weeks one and two, we’ve got Michael Jayston as a rival Time Lord who’s got it in for the Doctor, along with Tom Chadbon as a guard in an underground city, and Tony Selby as a new recurring character, the “lovable rogue,” it says here, Sabalom Glitz. The most interesting casting choice is Joan Sims, best known for playing daffy old ladies in comedy films, as the leader of a tribe of peasants.

The story was witty enough for our son to enjoy it, and he liked the two big robots a lot. Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant have a much more relaxed and friendly rapport in this story than we’ve previously seen, and there’s a genuinely great scene in part one where the Doctor tries, and fails, to reassure Peri that she shouldn’t be sad to learn that Earth, two million years in the future, has been wiped out, because all planets and stars find an end eventually. I really enjoy that moment. Like a lot of Doctor Who, it starts well for me and runs out of steam pretty quickly. The problem is that unlike a lot of Doctor Who, this continues running out of steam a lot longer than it usually does.

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