The New Avengers 1.4 – The Midas Touch

Our son has entered that phase of a young boy’s life where skeletons are incredibly cool. It took me years to get out of that phase. Hopefully he won’t do anything so silly as buy a Tarot deck because there are skeletons on some of the cards. Anyway, the first few episodes of The New Avengers have a title sequence made from exciting scenes from the first few stories, including the bit shown above where a villain at a costume party, dressed in a skull mask and red robe, puts his infected hands in a bowl of punch. When he first saw that he shouted “Aw, that looks cool!” and while the reality of the situation did disappoint him a little – no, the Avengers did not get to fight a living skeleton this week – he did enjoy every tire-squealing moment of this story.

There are lots of reasons I’ve always liked this story. Earlier, I had said that one strike against The New Avengers for a lot of people is that it’s really tied to one time and place instead of in a nebulous, fantasy Avengerland. With that in mind, director Robert Fuest is back on the show after so many imaginatively-photographed stories in the original show’s last year, and he really nails this down to 1976 by staging an incredibly seventies car chase through many of the same streets and locations that every other British action show of the time used.

Almost inevitably, Purdey and Gambit end up in the iconic abandoned warehouses of the Southall Gas Works, where The Sweeney and Doctor Who had both filmed in the previous three years. I’ve always enjoyed how the script subverts the expectations of the car chase by having Purdey and Gambit discuss whether it was Walter or John Huston who directed The Treasure of the Sierra Madre while bystanders drop crates of fruit on the windshield of their speeding car.

I was a little less keen on them casting Ronald Lacey as an allegedly Chinese character, “number one son” accent and all, especially when the character is called “Hong Kong Harry” and he might as well have been a Brit abroad instead of a silly stereotype. John Carson is also here, as a disgraced former agent who stumbles on a secret plot and, by the law of this sort of show, signs his own death warrant.

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Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) 1.2 – But What a Sweet Little Room

Since our last visit to the fun work of Randall and Hopkirk, my replacement set arrived and we’re able to pop back and enjoy the three episodes from the first DVD, the one that snapped. Interestingly, Network released two different editions of this set, and I was quite lucky to get the original one. That has the eight disks in two fat clamshell holders in a cardboard slipcase, with two stuffed booklets containing photos and very detailed production notes from ace researcher and writer Andrew Pixley. The replacement set has the eight in a single fat clamshell, and no booklets.

After watching episodes five through nine, with their breezy, light, and mildly comical tone, it was interesting to watch this one, where the producers were still figuring out what kind of show they wanted to make. This is a much more grisly hour, with the camera following a woman’s death in the pre-credits sequence like a tawdry horror film, and Jeff receiving a savage beating, with the thugs telling him to shout all he wants, as they’ve parked next to a soccer stadium during a sold-out match and nobody can hear him.

So it’s not a particularly fun episode, and it’s also lacking in familiar-to-me faces in the cast. Joby Blanshard, who would later star in Doomwatch, is here for a single scene as a police inspector, and that’s it. But while it wasn’t very fun, it was still pretty good. The criminal scheme is a little convoluted – using a fake psychic to steer recent widows and widowers to put their finances in the hands of the baddies leaves an awful lot to chance – and the more hard-boiled tone would probably have become a little repetitive after twenty-six weeks, but we enjoyed it.

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The Island at the Top of the World (1974)

Our son was four when we started this blog, and while he remembers many of the programs and movies that we watched in its first couple of years – in part from repetition – many others have faded away. That’s the nature of memory of preschoolers; we all have a few solid memories from age four and five, but it takes more than a single viewing of even an exciting movie that a kid really enjoys to sink in during the years when there’s so much else in the world to absorb and remember. And if it’s a movie that I got from the library, then there’s no opportunity for repetition.

So since some other action-adventure films in the Jules Verne tradition and style – the various takes on Journey to the Center of the Earth and In Search of the Castaways – have largely faded from his memory, Disney’s 1974 adaptation of Ian Cameron’s novel The Lost Ones wasn’t nearly as familiar and old hat to him as it was to his parents. We had never seen this film before, and yet we kind of did.

One thing I really appreciated: this film gets in gear immediately. I was talking with an old pal about the unbearably bloated Godzilla: King of the Monsters this weekend and told him how I just missed ninety minute movies. I checked the running time, saw this movie was only an hour and a half long, and breathed a happy sigh of relief. The characters and situations are introduced on the go, and all the background events necessary to get the expedition started are explained as we’re moving along with them.

Island stars David Hartman as a turn-of-the-century scientist. And yeah, it’s the same guy who’d later host Good Morning America forever, which might’ve sparked the same oddball reaction from me as when people in Britain learn that the longtime Blue Peter presenter Peter Purves had been in Doctor Who for a year in the sixties. Donald Sinden plays the millionaire looking for his missing son, Jacques Marin is the captain of an airship, and Mako, who guest-starred in everything in the 1970s, plays an Eskimo guide.

So was it any good? It certainly didn’t do anything new, and every plot beat, from the lost civilization to the gods being angry to characters who we thought were dead showing up again to the only female having a heart of gold to help our heroes, was one we’ve seen before. The science was absurd and the movie keeps confusing archaeology with anthropology. But it still unfolded at a pleasantly brisk pace, and kept the kiddo excited and surprised, and it gives us lava, explosions, hidden passages, whirlpools, and dangerous animals. If you’ve never seen it before, or if you’re young enough that you might as well not have, then it’s a splendid picture.

This post has been written amid the remarkable distraction of our son watching The Avengers for the tenth time.

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What We’re Not Watching: Doom Patrol

We’re not watching Doom Patrol for the blog, because this is a family-friendly blog and Doom Patrol is a quite fantastically family unfriendly show. But over the last few weeks, after our eight year-old has gone to bed, we’ve been enjoying the daylights out of it. It may have more four-letter-words, gore, and nudity than anything else we watch – mainly four-letter-words – but it’s pretty honest. If I were in the sort of situations these heroes face, I’d swear about like they do, too.

The original Doom Patrol series was published by DC in the sixties. It was written by Arnold Drake and drawn by Bruno Premiani. DC has revived it several times since, never to any earthshattering sales numbers, but Grant Morrison and Richard Case’s run, from 1989-93, has been a cult classic that has inspired and informed almost every subsequent revamp. It’s one of my all-time favorite runs of any American comic, and I honestly can’t think of any long-form run on any DC property that I enjoy more.

So the television series, which is available to stream on the DC Universe service, cherry-picks characters and situations from the books up through Morrison’s run, and gives them a TV twist. It’s full of kisses to the past and addresses the strange way that certain funnybook characters never seem to age. Timothy Dalton plays a mad scientist who has brought a group of misfits together over the course of several decades. Matt Bomer is a former USAF pilot who had a freak accident in the upper atmosphere, April Bowlby a glamorous fifties film star whose body shifts and blobs and morphs when she isn’t concentrating, and Diane Guerrero is a badly-damaged young woman with multiple personality disorder, only each of these fractious personalities comes with its own power.

And then there’s Cliff Steele, a former race car driver who’s now a brain in a should-be indestructible, clanky robot. Cliff is voiced by Brendan Fraser, who occasionally appears in the flashbacks, some of which are hysterical. The story goes that at the height of his eighties fame, Cliff appeared as himself on a soap opera. The characters dig up that clip online, all washed-out colors and bad tracking, and we can enjoy the all-too brief spectacle of Brendan Fraser playing a character who cannot act. At all.

For a show full of very dark character beats, high stakes, and ugly surprises, Doom Patrol is also amazingly funny. They did a great job balancing the humor, because otherwise this would be a pretty painful show. But it’s so deliciously weird that it’s worth coming back to, because stuff happens in Doom Patrol that doesn’t happen anywhere else. After Dalton is kidnapped by a reality-altering supervillain played by Alan Tudyk – who knows he’s in a TV show and wishes that he was in a better one – an up-and-coming “real” superhero, Cyborg, played by Joivan Wade, arrives to help whip our four oddballs into a fighting force. But Cyborg. who’s used to beating up muggers, didn’t count on the sort of incredibly strange obstacles and situations these four deal with. Phil Morris has a recurring role as Cyborg’s father; always nice to see Phil on TV.

Anyway, the show’s a huge pleasure from start to finish. It really captures the beautiful oddness of Morrison’s run, adapting some incidents – not slavishly – and finding quirky and weird takes on the sort of situations that he might have written in his wonderful series. Diane Guerrero is absolutely captivating in a role that should be barely sympathetic, and Tudyk is having more fun than the law should allow as a villain who is way above these misfits’ weight class.

I haven’t seen a whole lot of chatter about Doom Patrol, and I think only one of my pals watched it (he loved it, happily). But don’t let the show’s low profile prompt you to overlook it! If you’re in the market for fifteen incredibly fun and freaky hours, then DC Universe is definitely worth the subscription for this show. I hope we’ll hear word about a second season in the near future.

We’re going to take a TV break for a few days, but we’ll be back with a classic movie this weekend. See you then!

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RIP Paul Darrow, 1941-2019

The much-loved character actor Paul Darrow, who found television immortality as the anti-hero Avon in Blake’s 7, passed away earlier today. Darrow could chew up the scenery like nobody else, but he could also be relied upon for some nuanced and riveting performances. He was outstanding in the BBC’s 1973 adaptation of Murder Must Advertise, sharing a brilliant climactic scene with Ian Carmichael. Our condolences to Darrow’s family and friends.

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Doctor Who: Remembrance of the Daleks (parts three and four)

Why yes, as a matter of fact, our son really did love the Special Weapons Dalek. It’s a Dalek “tank” that can blow up two or three renegade Daleks at a time.

“Remembrance” may be a case of style over substance, but it’s an incredibly fun story. I kind of wish the music was a bit less eighties and a little more sixties, but it’s a fine production of a good script. I definitely wish the show had been this confident and this much fun every week between 1982 and 1986.

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Doctor Who: Remembrance of the Daleks (parts one and two)

We’re in 1988 now, and the Doctor and Ace are back at Coal Hill School and I.M. Foreman’s junkyard in 1963 with Daleks, because it’s the 25th anniversary of Doctor Who and that’s what you do for anniversaries on television: go and revisit the past. But in the case of Ben Aaronovitch’s debut serial for the show, “Remembrance of the Daleks,” reveling in nostalgia works just fine. This is a splendid story with lots of location filming, some recognizable guest stars including Simon Williams and Pamela Salem as sort of the early sixties version of UNIT, and George Sewell as a fascist who’s allied himself with one of two rival factions of Daleks. They even found small roles for Peter Halliday and Michael Sheard, who’d appeared in something like a combined nine prior Who stories.

This looks and sounds a million times zippier than Who did just three years previously. We’ll hit a couple of places in the show’s last two years where the emphasis on speed will derail the program’s ability to tell a coherent story, but “Remembrance” gets it incredibly right. The action scenes are staged and directed far better than Who could typically manage, leading to the beautiful cliffhanger to part two, in which Sophie Aldred and her stunt double beat the daylights out of a Dalek using a supercharged baseball bat and then jump from table to table and out a glass window. I really love that scene!

Our son was in heaven, of course. There are Daleks and death rays and lots of explosions. In fairness, though, the two of us did see Godzilla: King of the Monsters this morning and he’s been dancing on air ever since. (I didn’t post about it because I didn’t want to sound like too much of a fuddy-duddy, but when we picked up Marie for lunch, she said “The movie was longer than I expected” and I replied “I checked its running time first and it was longer than I expected, too.”) So yes, he liked these two installments quite a lot, but I thought to remind Marie of Quatermass and the Pit between episodes so she’d catch the Easter egg in part three. She said “Yeah, the one with the buried alien monsters, right?” and our son said “That reminds me of Godzilla somehow!”

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The New Avengers 1.3 – The Last of the Cybernauts…??

The New Avengers had finished production more than a year before it finally showed up in the United States. In September 1978, “The Eagle’s Nest” debuted on The CBS Late Movie, which had started as a showcase for old and interesting films but had become the dumping ground for all sorts of heavily-edited repeats. In many markets, the local affiliate delayed it until after midnight, or left it to another channel entirely. In Atlanta, Late Movie often turned up not on what was then the CBS station, WAGA, but on one of the independent channels, WANX… which later became WGCL and is today Atlanta’s CBS station, oddly enough.

In late 1987, I traded with a guy who was probably Earth’s biggest Maverick fan for three episodes of The New Avengers. These came from The CBS Late Movie broadcasts and holy anna, they weren’t kidding when they called these heavily edited. In Mark Dawidziak’s excellent book The Columbo Phile, Richard Levinson is quoted as being really unhappy that each seventy-five minute Columbo episode was pruned by twenty minutes for that show. The New Avengers is, of course, a fifty minute program, but CBS hacked them down to forty. No wonder I had such disinterest in this show for so long. They were barely coherent, sloppily edited, and the CBS version of “The Last of the Cybernauts…??” gave the villains a lot less screen time. The entire scene in the photo above was never shown in America.

So when I got a complete copy years later, I liked this story a whole lot more. I still wouldn’t call it great, but it’s a really entertaining ride, and while the diabolical mastermind of the piece, Robert Lang, may not be in Michael Gough or Peter Cushing’s league, he’s memorable and creepy with his gaudy jacket and plastic masks. Also, the fight on the staircase, when Gambit and Purdey have a desperate brawl with a Cybernaut, is just phenomenally well shot and edited. Our kid enjoyed the almighty heck out of this one, and claims to be happiest with a huge explosion early on, but when Gambit rounds a corner on the stairs and misses having the Cybernaut karate-chop his head off by about two inches, our son was so startled that he just about jumped off the sofa.

This is an appropriate place to pause and talk about the DVDs I’m using. I picked up A&E’s Region 1 releases of this series around 2005, but decided against upgrading because while certain European releases are said to be somewhat better, they are all said to have some notable flaws. But help should be on the way. Network always keeps things a little secret, so everybody was very pleasantly surprised when just about three weeks ago, they announced a brand new restoration of all three Cybernaut episodes – the two from 1965 and 1967 and this one – for Blu-ray. They haven’t formally announced that a full remaster of The New Avengers is coming, but if you click that image above to go to Network’s site and watch that trailer – especially just after you’ve watched this episode in the acceptable/tolerable quality that A&E released – your jaw will probably hit the floor when you see just how vivid, bright and amazing the staircase fight looks.

Money was a little tight when I sprung for my multi-region DVD player and I couldn’t justify the cost of going multi-region for Blu-ray too. I’m sure Network will find it in their hearts to put out their beautiful remasters on DVD as well… right, viewers?

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