The Avengers has dated less badly than many shows of its period, but the goofball depiction of a computer in such distress that it requires surgery – like “medical series” surgery, with clamps and forceps and masks – pretty much nails this down to the mercifully distant past. George / XR40 is an example of a visible trend in the late sixties making computers less threatening by making them silly.
We saw one of the stupidest examples when we watched Batman and practically every script that Charles Hoffman contributed had some dumb gag about the Batcomputer belching up spaghetti or something. This really isn’t much better. Maybe it could’ve been one throwaway gag in the closing tag scene. But Tony Williamson structures the entire episode around George’s surgery and brain transplant while our heroes take turns looking for a traitor and coming back to the operating room to ask “How is he, doctor?”
For the first time, The Avengers was ponderous. The only spark at all is Tara getting called in on her way to a fancy dress party and declining to change out of her cat costume and mask for the show’s first ten minutes.
Speaking of computers, there’s a reminder that language is always in flux at the very beginning and we see the word spelled as “computor” on a sign. That’s not a typo. Well into the 1960s, either spelling could be used, although I would say that by this time, a “computer” could also be used to refer to the human operator of a “computor” hardware. Some eggheads at Georgia Tech were still using “computor” in their dissertations as recently as 2001, although you really just can’t expect linguistic precision from a bunch of damn Yellow Jackets. (More here.)
On the human side, Frank Windsor, who was very well known at the time for his role of Detective Inspector John Watt in Z Cars and Softly Softly, is here as one of the traitors. It looks like this episode was made just a few weeks after production on Softly Softly‘s third series finished. Judy Parfitt and Arthur Cox also appear.
The story goes that Derrick Sherwin edited the originally-scripted fifth and sixth episode of this story into this one lean, mean twenty-five minute episode. If so, rather than working on the BBC’s Paul Temple in the early seventies, he could have been put to great use editing some of those many long, bloated Pertwee six-parters into four or five episodes instead. This may not be art, but it moves incredibly fast – unrealistically so, to be fair – and it’s paced downright brilliantly for kindergartners.
Our five year-old was a little frightened, but he loved this. As the Dominators got closer and closer to finishing their drilling, he was incredibly excited. When their borehole was finished, he jumped up with an “oh, no!” and hopped up and down, worried that our heroes wouldn’t finish their interception tunnel in time. And when the Dominators’ flying saucer exploded in mid-air, he cheered – slash- taunted “Ha, ha!” like Sqidward from Spongebob Squarepants. He really enjoyed this story, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Quarks were to join his rogues’ gallery of favorite monsters.
“The Dominators” is credited to Norman Ashby, but that’s a pseudonym. Season six of Doctor Who was plagued by behind-the-scenes troubles with the writing, and the production team of Peter Bryant and Derrick Sherwin were unhappy with this script. It started as a six-parter by Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln, who had written the twelve Yeti episodes the previous year. Bryant and Sherwin compacted the final three episodes into two, which upset the writers. They asked for the serial to be transmitted with a pseudonym and ceased work on six additional episodes.
Honestly, I don’t see why this serial has such a negative reputation. Part three was a little dry, but this one is huge fun. Jamie gets some good action material waging a guerrilla war against the Quarks, and the Doctor and Zoe get to be agreeably brainy deducing what the Dominators are after. But my favorite scene comes when Ronald Allen’s Dominator comes storming into the planet’s capital to yell at the complacent boobs debating Robert’s Rules of Order.
Earlier, I’d paused to explain to our son that these sedentary senators are kind of meant to be boring. Honestly, it doesn’t make for very engaging television. Magically, tonight, he just sighed after about the third “but surely” and said “This is kind of boring,” at which point Ronald Allen threw open the doors and came in sneering. He’s really great in this, eyes blazing and lip curled. He may be wearing a silly spaceman costume, but he oozes danger. He’s a sadistic bully with a hair trigger, and I’m enjoying watching him a lot. He’s a great actor and you can see why he was asked to come back in the following season in a very different role.
It’s impossible not to like Wendy Padbury’s character of Zoe more than the companion that she replaced, Deborah Watling’s Victoria. Victoria had been a pampered rich girl from Victorian England, and simply lacked the know-how to get out of trouble. She was adrift. Zoe’s best moments are yet to come, but she’s resourceful, a planner. She doesn’t have the most common sense in the world, but she can be relied upon to be active when the plot separates her from the Doctor and Jamie.
That said, the rot is definitely setting in with this episode. The Dominators’ squabbling is already tiresome, and the endless debate and discussion among the placid, bureaucratic Dulcians is enough to make anybody root for the Dominators and the Quarks. By far the best stuff this week is some really amusing physical comedy and face-pulling when the Doctor is rewiring a travel capsule rocket and dumping a bunch of cords and props in Jamie’s lap.
On the home front, our son is enjoying this one, or at least he was until the cliffhanger, when Jamie and Arthur Cox’s character are trapped inside an exploding building while the Quarks are bombarding it. He didn’t like that at all, but he loved seeing Jamie blast a Quark into pieces with a laser gun just a moment before.
As predicted, our son loves the Quarks, the little robotic servants of the Dominators… with a caveat. When the episode was over, he demonstrated their “recharge” dance of opening and closing their arms, and told us about the little spikes on their heads, and said that he liked their box-like bodies, but not the legs, oddly. The legs he didn’t like.
He was really thrilled when a third Quark showed up. We saw two in the Dominators’ spaceship, but at the end of the episode when they go out to destroy the Dulcians’ research base, they take a third along and he about hopped out of his seat. “I thought there were only two of them!”
The Quarks were played by three school-aged boys on their summer holiday. Their voices are a high-pitched electronic chirp voiced by Sheila Grant which is just this side of unintelligible, so we’re watching this story with subtitles!
Ready for some more adventures with Doctor Who, this morning we began the show’s sixth season with “The Dominators.” It’s not a particularly highly-regarded serial, but the first episode is not at all bad. The story takes place on the peaceful planet Dulkis, and the natives are about to be besieged by a pair of sadistic, energy-obsessed villains called Dominators who have landed on a remote island. They’re played by Ronald Allen, who would later be made immortal as Uncle Quentin in The Comic Strip Presents, and by Kenneth Ives, who’d later become a prolific TV director.
I believe that Allen and Ives’ bickering will get a little wearisome as this story progresses, but I really like the almost anti-chemistry the two actors have. They’re not intergalactic conquerors. They’re grouchy and hostile and don’t like each other but they have a boring job that has to be done. Allen just wants to finish his survey as efficiently as possible, and Ives can only find some pleasure in his work by blowing some things up along the way.
The actors playing the Dulcians are hampered by some absurd curtain-like togas, but they all have the complication of playing a very boring and placid culture. They exist, but they don’t live, as Arthur Cox’s character, a teenage rebel in his mid-thirties with a receding hairline, grumbles. Cox appeared as a guest star in everything in a fifty-year career. I loved him as the journalist Salcombe Hardy in the 1987 Lord Peter Wimsey stories. There are, at least, two very pretty girls among the Dulcians, played by Nicolette Pendrell and Felicity Gibson, but Pendrell’s character gets melted by the villains very early in the story.
New to the regular cast: Wendy Padbury as Zoe, a computer expert from Earth’s future. She’d been introduced at the end of the previous season, in a story that is mostly missing. We had a quick recap of the shows that our son had to miss, and we chose to pause midway through to make sure that he understood what was going on with the characters’ talk of radiation. He really enjoyed it, and was mildly scared when one of the Dominators uses a laser gun that he found in a museum to set a wall on fire, and by the reveal of their robot assistants, the Quarks, at the conclusion. Let’s hope that our enthusiasm continues through the next few episodes.