This afternoon, it occurred to me that Terry Nation was apparently writing episodes of The Champions about a year before he took the job of story editing for the Tara King days of The Avengers. Anyway, this is a story that deals with one of the regular obsessions of adventure TV from the sixties and seventies, cryogenics. It’s such a regular obsession that we’ll be seeing it again very, very soon, aggravatingly enough. Nation’s first Avengers script, as a freelancer before he joined the production team, was “Invasion of the Earthmen.” I’ve described that story before as a mishmash of all of Nation’s tropes and traits, and darned if it wasn’t the second script he wrote in 1967 around cryogenics.
Our son protested that the title, “The Body Snatchers,” wasn’t a very appropriate one, and he’s right. Only one body gets snatched. The villain, played by Bernard Lee, has stolen the body of a recently deceased American general who knows where all the missiles are and taken the corpse to a research establishment in northern Wales. In that fanciful way of teevee that glosses over how any of this could medically work, he plans to store the corpse on ice and to sell it to the highest bidder. But if you ignore Dr. Science’s objections, this is a fine action hour with great brawls and stunts, and Bernard Lee is a terrific, bloodthirsty villain. That’s Philip Locke in the photo above as one of the scientists pressganged into helping Lee and his thugs.
Talking of adventure TV from the sixties and seventies, it was the law that anything set in Wales during those decades, even if it was filmed in Elstree, needed to find a part for Talfryn Thomas, no matter how small, and here he is, in just about the smallest part in the thing. As soon as somebody on TV mentions a place like Porthgerwyn or Llanfairfach, you just wait for him to show up.
Here’s the submarine set again, making its third appearance in The Champions. This time it’s another Donald James script that has an absolutely smashing opening: a submarine, not heard from for days, turns up with the entire crew dead. Paul Maxwell, an ITC regular who had also done a fair amount of voiceover work for Gerry Anderson, plays the captain of the replacement crew. I’d say the story doesn’t quite live up to the pre-credits sequence, but any hour that introduces a previously uncharted island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, discovered by agents of Nosuchlandia and used by their evil scientists for chemical experiments can’t be all bad.
Craig gets to ladle out the violence at the end of the story and throws two guards all over the place, and there’s a great bit where one of the enemy agents, fighting for the one available gas mask, throws the main evil scientist into a room filled with gas and locks him in it. That ruthless dude had the makings of a great recurring villain, if these old shows ever went in for that sort of thing so late in the run.
Two of our heroes are sporting remarkable makeup in this morning’s episode of The Champions. Written by Donald James, “The Mission” has a former Nazi doctor working as part of an underground network to provide criminals new identities through plastic surgery. Patricia Haines and Anthony Bate are the villains, and Craig and Sharron get to pose as a New York gangster and his dame. Harry Towb has a small role as well. He played “the guy who gets killed by the villains first thing” at least two other times I can remember. If you needed somebody to get shot or stabbed or eaten by an inflatable chair before the opening credits in the sixties and seventies, Towb was your man.
It’s called “The Mission” because the criminals run a charitable mission for drunks and down-and-outs in order to keep a supply of spare parts going. While Craig and Sharron get to dress nicely and pretend like they’ve got two million bucks in syndicate money to spend, Richard infiltrates the other end of the chain and befriends an Irish alcoholic. At the end of the episode, the trio gift their boss a bottle of the Irishman’s special 180 proof blend, which Tremayne spits out after one sip, much to our son’s delight. He enjoyed the episode much more than the previous one, with the closing gag providing a good laugh at the end, even if he wasn’t entirely certain why Tremayne spit out his drink.
“It’s because that was basically moonshine,” Marie said.
“Ahhhh,” our son replied.
“Do you know what moonshine is?” I asked.
“Well, all I know is that it’s some kind of beer,” he said.
My dad had a source for “white whiskey” once. I think I probably did a spit take like Tremayne when I had a sip, too.
Well, this was not the best episode to watch when we were running very, very late and didn’t even press play until after our favorite eight year-old critic’s usual weekend bedtime. He didn’t like this at all; it’s the only episode of The Champions that he hasn’t enjoyed.
Dennis Spooner’s “The Interrogation” is a season cheapie. It’s almost entirely Stuart Damon engaged in a sweaty battle of wits with an unnamed interrogator, played by Colin Blakely, who wants details on his latest case. The interrogator has pumped our hero full of drugs, so in the way of old TV, Craig can hallucinate a few minutes’ worth of clips from other episodes.
Ha. I say “old TV,” but wouldn’t it be funny if they still did that? For future generations, I’m writing this post a couple of nights before the final episode of Game of Thrones. I don’t know what happened on that show last week, but people have been pissed off about it for five days now. Imagine how much angrier they’d be if they’d wheeled out a clip show instead.
Uh-oh. With every passing year, the “magic” of television grows a little more hollow. “For some reason,” our eight year-old critic told me, “that looks like an actor standing in front of a picture.” Well, no, ITC didn’t fly Stuart Damon to Italy for a couple of establishing shots. A few years later, they did send Peter Wyngarde on a holiday to Italy with a cameraman to get some genuine on-the-peninsula footage to drop into three or four different episodes of Jason King, but The Champions wasn’t so glamorous!
Anyway, it was a fun story tonight, with Edward Brayshaw as a Mafioso who’s somehow driving his rivals and his Interpol pests to kill themselves. One of them goes over a cliff in a red car. I honestly thought the gag was that ITC sent a white Jaguar over that cliff into the quarry and they reused the footage in seven different shows. No, there’s actually a red car and a white car. They wrecked two! Surely they could have afforded to send Damon to Italy!
I can’t swear that there’s any real evidence that adventure shows from the period did voodoo episodes with any regularity, but I guess there’s enough of a cultural memory, forged by Live and Let Die and by Marvel Comics, that it’s not at all surprising that there’s a Champions episode set in Haiti dealing with voodoo. There was also an episode of The Saint called “Sibao” made a few years earlier. So the plot this time is about voodoo being used as a cover for hypnotizing the rich and powerful and turning them into secret assassins via subliminals and ultrasonics.
Donald Sutherland fails to fool anybody as an innocent journalist this week. Of course he’s the master villain. There are actually two things about Tony Williamson’s story that annoyed me. First is the stereotyping and second is the way the script is built around making the audience worry that some nefarious voodoo plot has ensnared Sutherland, when the character had absolutely no reason to even get close to Sharron in the first place, let alone give her the big clue that something is wrong by abruptly acting hypnotized and giving her something to investigate.
On the other hand, this is an awesome Sharron episode. She was only in the previous story for one scene, but she leads this investigation, and while the focus pulls to Craig and Richard for a while, the only real question is whether the show’s going to stay true to its promise to treat all three superhumans as equals or if it’s going to act like a dumb sixties show in the end and make the woman helpless. It picks the right answer.
Philip Broadley’s “The Gilded Cage” wasn’t one of our son’s favorite episodes of this show. There is very little action; it’s all psychological. Richard allows himself to get kidnapped to find out what this week’s criminal, played by John Carson, is up to. Unfortunately, he learns that he isn’t the hostage, a young woman played by Jennie Linden is, and if Richard won’t do as instructed, she’ll be killed. But in a very clever twist, she’s not nearly as helpless as either Richard or the criminal-of-the-week believe.
I enjoyed this a lot, but there was just a single superpowered punch thrown. Probably not an installment that our favorite seven year-old critic will want to revisit. That’s assuming he takes enough of a break from rewatching every Marvel movie for the umpteenth time to revisit anything else.
Some editor at Wikipedia said we’d see the submarine set again, and here it is in the next episode, in a story written by Dennis Spooner where a sub with four nuclear missiles gets stolen. Cutting every corner, they reused some of the same stock footage and some of the same miniature work as last time as well. I know that older shows were designed to have minimal continuity because television stations back in the “classic TV” days couldn’t be trusted to transmit these in any order other than random, but you’d think that they’d have spaced these out by more than seven days on the original broadcast! Patricia English, Joseph Furst, and John Woodvine are among the guest stars. At least none of these actors were in the previous episode.
I enjoyed watching this one because Spooner is more interested than the other writers in having our heroes talk about their powers and their limitations. Craig has a clairvoyant hunch that the stolen sub is docked at a German island called Heligoland, where a sea fortress and sub pens had been housed during World War Two. When it looks like he’s wrong, he and Sharron briefly discuss whether the flip side of their powers means that they can be far more wrong than usual. As it turns out, the sub is at Heligoland, but not at the pens.
Our kid enjoyed the more traditional fisticuffs and humor. Sharron kicks a gun out of one thug’s hand, Richard punches another guy out a window to his death on the street below, and Craig escapes captivity and prowls around the sub eating the ham sandwich that his jailer had brought him. You can tell that the main bad guy means business when he slaps the sandwich out of Craig’s mouth. What a creep!
So that’s Mike Pratt in the photo above with William Gaunt. I told our son that we’ll be seeing a lot more of Mike Pratt starting in a little less than a month, hint hint.
“Twelve Hours,” written by Donald James, takes place on a crippled submarine that’s running out of oxygen. The boat was sabotaged in order to kill off a visiting head of state who’s on board. It’s mostly a skeleton crew of civilian engineers, and tensions are running high because the pumping would rock the submarine, and it needs to stay perfectly still so that Sharron can operate on the grievously wounded president.
This one required a lot of interruptions to explain everything from naval terminology to “the bends” to a scene where the engineers draw for the ace of spades to select a killer to end the operation so they can get to work. Not a lot of action for our favorite seven year-old critic to chew on, but they built a gloriously good set for the submarine, which Wikipedia tells me we’ll see again a couple of times.
You know, we’ve talked about Terry Nation and the very dated, sexist aspects of his scripts once or twice before, but this one still irked me a bit. This time, Terry doesn’t have an opportunity to be condescending to any of the women in his cast, because he simply doesn’t include any.
Other than Sharron, there’s not a woman onscreen at all except for a couple of extras right at the very end. The story’s about a gang carrying out high-profile assassinations, and it’s all men killing other men. This is perhaps a little unfair of me to single out Terry Nation – there weren’t any other women in the previous episode of The Champions that we watched, either – but when you spot a trope, you just keep seeing it.
Anyway, our son really enjoyed this one because it was full of exciting scenes and two great fights. Not content with beating the daylights out of two villains in the drawing room, a little later on, Richard kayos three more in the radio room. He liked the second fight better because more bad guys got clobbered.
One of the fellows on the receiving end of Richard’s fists is Gerald Harper, shown above, and Donald Pickering has a small role as well. I am not certain about the actual filming dates for The Champions, but I think that this was probably made in the spring of 1967 (the trees suggest March or April), meaning this would have been shot a few months before the abandoned Avengers episode “The Great Great Britain Crime,” which also featured both Harper and Pickering. The awesome Julian Glover’s here as well, and Richard gets to knock him senseless in both of the fights.
I gave our son a heads-up that he’ll see Donald Pickering again in one week, in the next Doctor Who story that we’ll watch. Pickering will be twenty years older, and yellow, so I’m not betting on him recognizing the guy.
Tonight, we returned The Champions to the rotation for another several weeks. Our son was very happy about this. It’s among his favorite shows, and while I have a couple of short breaks planned, we’ll be watching this into June. This evening’s installment was written by Tony Williamson, and the guest villain is played by Vladek Sheybal. He’s operating from a small Pacific island and is in league with the Chinese military to launch a strike against the United States’ ballistic early warning system. You can tell that’s that’s the plan, because the underground base has all these posters of Chairman Mao on the walls, along with text that is written in Chinese, but the Big Board in the main room is conveniently written in English so we can tell what they’re up to.
Also in the cast this week, blink and you’ll miss him, but Anthony Ainley has a very tiny and uncredited role as one of two lookouts from a US Navy landing party. After the episode, I started it again to get another look at him and pointed him out to our son, who said “Wow, the Master in The Champions?” I told him “Why not, we’ve already seen the Rani in The Champions.” He said “Huh?” and I reminded him of Kate O’Mara’s character in a previous episode. “Yeah, I remember her,” he replied, “but who is the Rani?” So we prodded and poked and prompted until he said “Oh, her!” Good thing we got that cleared up, since we’ll see the Rani again in a little over a week.
Funny. There’s an anecdote that said that Steven Moffat was once asked whether he’d ever bring back the Rani, and he was against it, because nobody remembered her.
Anyway, before he went off and proved my point that this kid has no memory for faces, he underlined a different point, that he sometimes remembers sets and the like. Early in the episode, Richard is in a plane getting ready to parachute onto the island. We see stock footage of an airplane, and then a shot of two airmen in the cockpit. Our son said “Hey, that looks familiar,” and I pointed out that it might very well have been the same cockpit set that was used in the episode “Reply Box No. 666.” Then he clarified that it wasn’t the set that he remembered, but the stock footage. Well, I have no idea whether he’s ever seen that before.