The Avengers 6.12 – Split!

The six episodes that followed “The Forget-Me-Knot” were originally shown in the United States with this fun and silly title sequence with a cartoon crosshairs following our heroes around an orange room. They were later removed and replaced with the second Tara King sequence, the one with the suits of armor in a field. For some reason, they missed out on “Split!”, and it has the correct opening sequence. Sadly, the closing credits are the ones with the hands doing card tricks that should only be on the ends of the 26 suits of armor episodes. One of these days, somebody will get all these right on DVD.

Incidentally, there’s a third title sequence – well, third-ish – that is even more common to American viewers. Somebody cut the fifty second suits of armor sequence down to twenty-five seconds so that the ABC network could cram in one additional commercial. When A&E was running the Tara King episodes in the early nineties, we always sat up when we got the full version. We knew instantly that we were in for a better experience. Most of A&E’s copies of the Tara King stories were grotty, beat-up old 16mm prints, but there were a few that came from a fresh 35mm source and looked comparatively glorious. I remember that “Take-Over” was one of these. They all still had between one and three minutes of edits, but while they weren’t uncut, at least the full version of the credits let us know that it was going to look great.

As for tonight’s content, Brian Clemens’ “Split!” is a very entertaining story about a supposedly dead enemy agent who still seems to be active more than four years after Steed shot him through the heart. The cast includes familiar faces like Bernard Archard, Christopher Benjamin, Nigel Davenport, and Julian Glover, and the villains are so diabolical that our son got incredibly ticked off and outraged about their plans for Tara. He insists that he knows that she wasn’t in real trouble, just that these bad guys are much more cruel than he is used to seeing.

Doctor Who: Pyramids of Mars (parts three and four)

Our son was still about as frightened as a kid could be during the second half of this adventure, so much so that we had to pause during part four to get him to calm down. He was distracting himself from the horror onscreen, which reached new depths when Sutekh took control of the Doctor’s mind, first by firing an imaginary gun at Sutekh with a growl, and then by, I’m sorry to say, belching. And then giggling about it. You try to be understanding. He is just six and needed a distraction from one of his heroes being used as a plaything by the most evil and powerful creature in the cosmos. But man, was it an obnoxious mood killer!

Anyway, I think there’s an unheralded moment in this story. I think this is the first time, at least the first in quite a while, that evil forces take control of the TARDIS. I remember the villains came on board, briefly, in “The Enemy of the World” and in “The Claws of Axos,” but is this the first occasion where something as awful as this happens? It really adds to the feeling of gloom.

I think it’s an absolutely terrific production. Many people call it one of their favorite Doctor Who stories from the era for good reason. There are a few brief moments of sparkling wit among the incredibly high stakes, and Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen are fantastic together, especially in part three when the Doctor shows no emotion at all when Michael Sheard’s character is found to be dead, and Sarah starts to lose her temper with his dispassionate lack of what she starts to call “humanity” before checking herself. It’s scary and exciting, and people love it to pieces for a reason.

Hopefully the next story won’t have our son too terrified, but I’m a little concerned about the one after that…!

Doctor Who: Pyramids of Mars (parts one and two)

The third saddest child I think I’ve ever seen would be our son, tonight, right after the cliffhanger to part two of “Pyramids of Mars.” He didn’t completely break down, but his lower lip trembled more than I’ve seen it in a while. Almost frozen with fear, he huddled beneath his security blanket and said “I need a hug.” Thumbs were definitely down. “Pyramids of Mars” is the scariest thing ever.

The first and second saddest children I think I’ve ever seen would be his older brother and sister, who saw this story in late 2003 or early 2004. They did indeed completely break down. There was screaming and there were tears and then there were two kids in bed with me.

Even worse, I didn’t have this story in serial version at the time, I had a VHS copy of the compilation movie that was shown on public television. So these robot mummies that have indiscriminately killed everybody they’ve come across in the grounds of this old priory in 1911 and are completely unstoppable come charging into the lodge after – unbelievably – crushing a poacher to death between their chests, they smash the Doctor to the ground, kick the furniture over, and are about to strangle Sarah as the music swells. And, since I had no other way to do it, I just pressed stop in the middle of the mayhem. Screams.

So “Pyramids of Mars,” which was written by Robert Holmes and directed by the brilliant Paddy Russell, has a reputation for being just about the perfect example of seminal, classic, scary Doctor Who. It’s the first time that the show consciously decides to be a Hammer horror film in the classic style with a sci-fi sheen. It’s mummies coming to life in a big old house in 1911, but they’re the robotic servants of the phenomenally powerful Sutekh, an alien who has been paralyzed in an Egyptian tomb for thousands of years. The Mars bit comes because the prison has two parts: the force field that keeps Sutekh motionless is on another planet, to keep anybody on Earth from screwing with it. But his jailers didn’t shut off their prisoner’s mind, and as soon as one of those rich Englishmen showed up to rob tombs in the name of archaeology, Sutekh took control of him and set the man and his robots to work freeing him from his prison.

But the sci-fi stuff is darn near irrelevant. The whys really, really aren’t important, because this is about killer mummies in the woods and evil servants bringing Sutekh’s gift of death to all humanity:

Bringing this to life (ha!), you’ve got Bernard Archard playing the archaeologist as a walking corpse, and Michael Sheard as his unfortunate scientist brother. Peter Copley is another scientist who has a thing or two to say, sir, about all this unpleasantness before he gets killed. The sets are amazing, and the location filming is just terrific. Tom Baker is on fire in this story, as the Doctor knows that he’s up against the greatest threat that he’s ever faced, something that will change the course of history and destroy all life on Earth in 1911 unless he can find a way to stop it.

Incidentally, for those mildly curious about these things, this story is the one that emphatically – and repeatedly – finally puts a firm date on the “present day” of Doctor Who. It’s five years ahead of the broadcast date: 1980. This will later get retconned. Some of us find this terribly amusing and entertaining. About nine people lose sleep over it. They all have book deals.

Sky 1.6 – Life Force / 1.7 – Chariot of Fire

Well, that was just about the most 1970s thing we’ve ever seen. It was terrific, don’t get me wrong, but while the grownups in the audience were certainly anticipating the Juganet to turn out to be Stonehenge, neither of us were expecting one of the kids to be transported into the future for a confrontation with the cult from Beneath the Planet of the Apes.

Okay, fair’s fair, I knew they’d end up at Stonehenge because I’d read a little about this, but so did Marie, who’d never heard of this serial before we started watching it. The program just hits the 1970s paranormal bingo so precisely that not only is Stonehenge inevitable, but if the writers, Bob Baker and Dave Martin, had sold this to an American network for a movie-of-the-week remake, they’d have filmed it in Florida and made the Juganet the Bermuda Triangle.

Didn’t see the trip to the future coming, though. In fairness, episodes one through six were just so darn good that, knowing Baker and Martin’s Doctor Who track record, I’m not at all surprised they couldn’t make the end work. Bernard Archard, an actor we will see again here in just a couple of weeks, briefly appears in the future sequences, but it’s honestly a letdown.

It’s best to focus on just how good the rest of the serial is. Part six has the kids trapped in an invisible house with unbreakable windows, menaced by Goodchild’s henchman, a really creepy man who, in one of the freakiest moments ever, is shown to be a raven or a crow turned into a human. Our son was petrified and behind the sofa for most of part six. If I were his age, when the crow-man started cawwing, I’d have been right back there with him.

Overall, though, this wasn’t a big success for our son. It was too scary for him, and the ending was just too strange. It’s my fault, though. It’s a children’s serial, but six-nearly-seven is really a couple of years too young. We may come back to the HTV serials when he’s a little older. Some of the others they made (Clifton House Mystery, King of the Castle, Raven, etc.) just sound terrific, and if any of them are half as good as this or Children of the Stones, they’ll be worth the investment. I might possibly pick up New Zealand’s Under the Mountain as well. We’ll see what 2020 looks like.

The Avengers 4.6 – The Master Minds

I always get this episode confused with “The Danger Makers” for some reason. This is the one where geniuses are being hypnotized into devising impossible crimes. It’s another extremely well paced mystery, and while grownups are probably going to figure it out without much strain, it’s certain to tax the brains of six year-olds. Fortunately there’s enough going on to keep the story fascinating for him, and he followed along, with a little help, quite well!

Of note, there’s one of the rare scenes in the series where Steed gets incredibly angry with someone. A character played by future Monty Python’s Flying Circus producer Ian McNaughton kills someone while under post-hypnotic suggestion and it looks like Steed’s going to make sure he’s next. Other parts in this story by Robert Banks Stewart are played by Bernard Archard and Patricia Haines, who we’ll see in a very memorable role in the first color series down the line.

Doctor Who: The Power of the Daleks (part six)

I’m really, really glad I never watched the telesnaps or read the novelization of this story so that I could come to it fresh. It climaxes in a fantastic and grim final episode that sees the Daleks gunning down lots and lots of humans, their usefulness at an end. Janley and Lesterson are among the casualties, and Lesterson, by now totally insane, gets a triumphant last line before he gets gunned down.

This was our son’s first exposure to something so violent, and he was wide-eyed, absolutely stunned, when we could see his eyes anyway. He was curled in a ball on Mommy’s lap, ducking under his blanket. He completely loved it and so did I. This serial completely lived up to the hype. There are a few bits from the original production that you can believe would have been improved with a greater budget – like so many Doctor Who stories, we’re asked to believe in a very large colony despite the appearance of just a few sets and a handful of actors – but David Whitaker’s script was razor-sharp, and it was just a joy watching the malevolent, scheming Daleks consolidate their power.

We will be skipping the next two DVDs that are available, “The Underwater Menace” and “The Moonbase,” in order to start in on the next serial that exists in its entirety, and will begin that soon. That means that these cartoons will be the last we’ll see of the characters Ben and Polly, who are among my favorite of all the Doctor Who companions. Sadly, Michael Craze died at the stupidly young age of 56. He didn’t have very many acting jobs following this, and largely left the business in the eighties and ran a pub. Craze had a bad heart, and died the day after seriously injuring himself falling down some stairs. Anneke Wills, an icon of Mod London, later co-starred with Anthony Quayle and Kaz Garas in a really good ITC adventure series, Strange Report, although her role was, in my book, nowhere as large as it should have been. Wills left the business in the seventies and moved to a monastery in Asia for something like a decade. Since returning to the UK, she’s appeared at lots of conventions and does occasional fan-instigated projects and documentaries about Who, and is still breathtaking at age 75.

“The Power of the Daleks” is available on Region 2 DVD. It’ll be out in Region 1 in 2017, with a Blu-Ray to follow. It’s definitely worth buying!

Doctor Who: The Power of the Daleks (part five)

Part four was written to give Anneke Wills a week off, and Michael Craze takes a holiday in this episode, while his character is still in the hands of the rebels. It’s really neat how seamlessly they were able to do that.

Two things of note this time. First, another reason it’s a huge shame this serial is missing is that we’re not able to see actor Robert James completely flip out when Lesterson finally snaps, realizing that the Daleks are seriously up to no good. I respect and appreciate all the hard work the animators did, and graciously thank BBC Worldwide and BBC America for commissioning this, but we are badly deprived of seeing that actor go into total bug-eyed freakout mode. That must have been something.

Also, up to now, our son’s only seen two almost incidental deaths of very minor characters. In this episode, the colony’s governor, whom he knows as one of the good guys, gets exterminated. Wow, was his head ever buried under a blanket during this scene. This serial has very minimal incidental music – it’s actually music that Tristram Cary had performed three years previously for the original Dalek serial – and it’s used to amazing effect here, when Bernard Archard’s traitorous character slowly crosses over to the Dalek with its gun in his hands. It’s a really great and incredibly tense scene, and really had my son frightened, as of course it should.

Doctor Who: The Power of the Daleks (part four)

How interesting. Last episode, I didn’t quite catch that Janley and Bragen’s subplot scheme is that these two are the leaders of the rebel movement. This time out, they’re pretty close to taking over the colony. The Doctor, Ben, and Polly are all apprehended – actually, Polly is absent from this episode entirely to give actress Anneke Wills a week off, something that happened in Doctor Who frequently in the black and white era, when it was on the air about 46 weeks a year – and Lesterson has been having second thoughts about trusting the Daleks. He is slowly, but surely, completely cracking. And Janley is a hugely effective villain; it’s a shame that she has been overlooked in the canon of great bad guys.

Lesterson’s realization that the Daleks can’t be trusted leads up to one of the show’s most famous cliffhangers. It’s a long sequence where we see that inside the Daleks’ bigger-on-the-inside capsule, there’s a factory where the Daleks are making more of their kind. It’s fantastic, really creepy and effective. On the one hand, I like the way the animation team preserved the sometimes hurried nature of the production, even having an off-center label on a bank of dials underneath “voltage” and “watts,” but I really like the way they’ve made a big room full of these CGI-animated Daleks, without a photographic blowup among them to beef up their ranks.

Doctor Who: The Power of the Daleks (part three)

I absolutely prefer the Daleks of the sixties to any of their later incarnations. They’re nowhere close to being as powerful as they’d be depicted later, and so they rely on cunning, treachery, and manipulation to get the job done. They prey on the scientist Lesterson’s greed and lust. The colony’s governor can only see as far as the short-term gains of a better production run in the local mines.

There’s a fun subplot involving Lesterson’s assistant and the new deputy governor (played by Bernard Archard, who’d later impress in “Pyramids of Mars”). It turns out that the assistant, Janley (played by an Australian actress, Pamela Ann Davy), isn’t just around to pass Lesterson his test tubes and tell him how brilliant she is. She’s dumped another assistant’s dead body into a mercury swamp and told her boss that the fellow is ill! We can guess that their evil scheme is only going to go so far before the Daleks’ plans will crush it, but I like it when the Doctor has more than one mess to handle.

This episode doesn’t have the brilliant cliffhanger that the previous one did to end on a big high note, but our son was attentive and interested all the way through. It’s really well paced; every time the middle-aged men in pajamas threaten to get too dull and grownup, the story brings the pretending-to-be-subservient Dalek back into the action to keep kids focused. This is good stuff.