Young Indiana Jones 2.14 – Prague, 1917

As changes of pace go, this one makes the Barcelona episode look deadly serious. It’s a comedy episode where Indy gets an assignment to wait in an apartment for a phone call that’s so important that the law of comedy mandates it will be a bust. Only the apartment’s phone is missing, leading our hero down three days of labyrinthine Czech bureaucracy that’s such a trial that only some assistance from a ministry clerk named Franz Kafka, played by Tim McInnerny, can help.

Before we got started, I gave our son a crash course in what “bureaucracy” is, but the humor in Indy’s weird situation was still way over his head. The middle of the episode was particularly bizarre to him. It’s a tip of the hat to both the original short novel of The Trial and to Orson Welles’ uncomfortable and unpleasant film adaptation from 1962. Fortunately, things devolve into wild physical humor, with filing cabinets crashing down endless staircases and runaway cannons knocking down phone poles. Most of it works, and my son and I both laughed a great deal during the mayhem. Some of it, centered around a dimwit called Colonel Clouseau played by Nickolas Grace, doesn’t come off nearly as well.

This episode was one of those made for ABC but was never shown in the United States. It’s set in August 1917, but as with the Petrograd installment, it was clearly made during a much colder month. There’s even snow on the ground in one establishing shot! There are a pair of shoulda-been-recognizable faces in the cast. Both Colin Jeavons and Bernard Bresslaw are here in parts so tiny they don’t even qualify as “spit and cough parts,” so I didn’t notice either of them at all, unfortunately.

Doctor Who: The Ice Warriors (part six)

In the fall of 1967, just a few weeks before “The Ice Warriors” was shown, there was another, more famous bit of television drama about a computer going bananas when confronted with an insoluble problem. It was “The General,” an episode of Patrick McGoohan’s ITC series The Prisoner, which ends with a supercomputer short-circuiting when asked “Why?” And here, the computer that runs the base, and which Peter Barkworth and Wendy Gifford’s characters practically worship, “goes mad” and shakes side to side because it can’t decide between two risky alternatives, either of which could end in its destruction. So it takes Peter Sallis, who’s been representing humanity’s impulsive and true side, to make the decision.

I’m not sure what was in the air in the UK in 1967, but some TV people sure were leery of computers then.

This is a really good finale. Obviously the emotional core is having Peter Sallis save the day by being practical and human, but there’s plenty of great acting throughout. The standoff between Peter Barkworth and Bernard Bresslaw’s Varga is an extremely watchable and quite long scene, with plenty for both actors to sink their teeth into. Sallis is just awesome, identifying the problem from outside the room and immediately finding a way to wage guerrilla warfare against the Ice Warriors. It’s true that the Doctor’s companions get pretty sidelined in the climax – and really, throughout this adventure overall – because the focus is all on the big-name guest stars, but this really was a fun serial, incredibly entertaining throughout.

Our son was really confused, however, by the destruction of the Warriors’ spaceship, which happens offscreen. Not even a miniature set, much less a big boom of a sound effect for the actors to hear and comment upon. Other than that, he really liked this story and can’t wait for the Doctor’s next adventure, which we will watch after Christmas. I told him that it is called “The Enemy of the World,” and he was a little aggravated with me that I wouldn’t tell him the enemy of the world’s name.

Doctor Who: The Ice Warriors (part five)

I wasn’t sure what to write about this episode at first. I suppose the obvious thing would be to switch gears and talk about how the slow-moving plot of the squabbling humans is such a fascinating character drama, and how the estranged former colleagues played by Peter Sallis and Peter Barkworth finally meeting and confronting their old wounds is actually more of an emotional core to this story than anything with seven foot-tall aliens. But then something adorable happened.

I almost always write these posts right after we finish watching a program together, even if I occasionally compose some rough notes for the more detail-packed stories ahead of time. But this evening, Marie’s aunt Victoria is in town and we only had time to watch the episode before going to meet her and have dinner. When we came home, our son first showed our guests his Mixels and his Legos – because those are the most important things in the world, of course – and then he showed off both the Dalek that lives on one of my shelves, and all of the original series DVDs. (There really are an excessive number of them; a collection of original series Who takes up a stupid amount of space.)

This was quite a sight to see. We’re only on his third story, and he was talking enthusiastically about Daleks and Ice Warriors and the TARDIS and reenacting the cliffhanger to part two of “Power,” croaking “I AM YOUR SER-VANT!” in his little Dalek voice. Not quite Peter Hawkins, but close enough.

It really was the cutest darn thing ever. Children are always Doctor Who’s biggest fans.

Doctor Who: The Ice Warriors (part four)

We asked our favorite five year-old critic what he thought of the Martian villains in this story. He said “The Ice Warriors are the meanest enemies in Doctor Who I ever saw! They’re even meaner than the Daleks and the Cybermen.” Then he spread his arms as wide as he could and said “They’re THIS mean!”

His is probably not a majority opinion, but there is a downright nasty and cruel streak to Varga and Zondal, the two villains with speaking parts, which he hasn’t really seen before, and which the Ice Warriors of later stories wouldn’t display. This was a huge and pleasant surprise to me when I finally saw this story.

The surviving episodes of “The Ice Warriors” were recovered in 1988, by which time I’d seen the other three stories with these aliens from their airings on American PBS stations. I was familiar with how the actors Alan Bennion and Sonny Caldinez moved and spoke as the Martians in those serials. Weirdly, though, these earliest episodes didn’t soon find their way into the VHS tape trading circles that I knew, and we had to wait for somebody to buy the British PAL VHS from Forbidden Planet mail order or something when it was commercially released, and take it to a video production and editing company in Roswell to make second-gen dubs in the North American NTSC format.

Here’s what surprised me the most about “The Ice Warriors”: Bernard Bresslaw, who plays Varga, moves like a reptile. It’s a really fun performance. Bresslaw, who stood 6’7″, was very much a casting coup for the story. He was best known for his many comic roles, principally – when this was made – among the ensemble cast of the venerable sitcom The Army Game. In the years before he taped “The Ice Warriors,” he had joined the cast of the Carry On films for the first two of what would be fourteen appearances in those movies. He was hilarious in a Goodies that isn’t on DVD, and unfortunately kind of awful in One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing.

So what’s a tall comedian doing playing a sadistic alien in a crocodile suit? Well, like most actors, he wanted to take some parts that expanded his range, and was interested when his agent said there was a part in Doctor Who for a tall prehistoric warrior frozen in the ice. The script for part one, referring to Varga’s helmet, compares it to a Viking’s. Apparently he had no idea he was going to be playing a reptile when he accepted the part. Still, all credit to him: he jumped right in with both feet. As Varga, he moves his neck and head like a snake, constantly rolling back and forth and occasionally ducking down between the shoulder blades of the big suit’s torso. He’s acting without being able to use his eyes or his mouth, but it’s just so darn fun to watch him and Roger Jones, who plays Zondal, moving like a couple of sinister snakes.

Overall, my impression from the later three serials were the Ice Warriors are a case of a design triumph failing to really thrill onscreen. Ice Warriors look great, but they’re just lumbering and slow, like a lot of Doctor Who monsters. In this first story, though, they’re lumbering and fast, and that is much more fun.

And mean, of course. Mustn’t forget that.

One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing (1975)

We had a little trouble watching One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing, a badly, badly dated 1975 Disney film. It does not seem to have ever been issued on Region 1 DVD, so I picked up a used Region 2 copy which turned out to be very badly damaged. I guess I should have checked it when it arrived a couple of months ago, huh? After a few minutes fighting with it, I rented it from Amazon and it’s not quite fair to say that all was well.

Now, if you’ve never seen this silly film, all the ingredients are there for what should have been a fun and splendid little show. Helen Hayes and Peter Ustinov headlined a remarkably impressive cast of British comedy actors, at least a dozen of whom I recognized when I read the cast list. It’s a film I’ve always been aware of because, since I was a little kid in the 1970s obsessed with dinosaurs, I even had the View-Master reels for it, even though the dinosaur in question is just a long-dead skeleton. Plus it has the iconic, very odd imagery of a dinosaur skeleton being driven through peasoup-foggy London.

So here’s how the plot goes: Derek Nimmo plays Lord Southmere, and he flees from China in the 1920s with a microfilm containing the top-secret “Lotus X.” With Chinese agents in hot pursuit as he arrives in London, he rushes into the Natural History Museum to escape, hides the film on a skeleton, and, chancing upon his old nanny, Hettie, while semi-conscious, he tells her how vital it is, before the Chinese villain, posing as a doctor, takes him away.

Hayes, Joan Sims, and Natasha Pyne play the principal nannies, and Ustinov, Clive Revill, and Bernard Bresslaw play the main Chinese characters, and so it’s gangs of nannies and Chinamen in a romp through the fog-bound streets of London, and, the following morning, into a cute little village, with a stolen dinosaur on the back of a coal-powered haulage lorry.

However, the film never gels and elements of it are quite awful. Of lesser concern: the fantastic cast is badly misused, just cameos, really. How anybody can, in all good conscience, assemble a group that includes Jon Pertwee, Roy Kinnear, Joan Hickson, Angus Lennie, Max Wall, Hugh Burden, and Joss Ackland and give none of them anything of substance to do (Pertwee would, later in life, call these sorts of glorified cameos “spit and cough parts”) is beyond me. Bresslaw, a great comic talent, is totally wasted, cast here only because the man was a giant and towered over everybody else.

But the main problem is the yellowface acting from Ustinov, Revill, and Bresslaw, and it’s a big, big problem. Even accepting that it was the seventies and quite a lot of this sort of thing happened in movies and TV then, mostly with Peter Sellers, it’s a lot easier to take this kind of material when it’s not played for laughs. Doctor Who fans have, over the last few years, been drawing a polite veil of discretion across the casting of John Bennett as a Chinese villain in the very popular 1977 serial “The Talons of Weng-Chiang,” but I feel this is, while problematic, less of an issue when the role is played straight. It may have been insensitive to cast an actor of a different ethnicity, but it’s much more so when they’re cast to wear funny mustaches and say “Ah, so!” a lot.

The film has a few good moments, among them just about anything that Hayes and Sims do together – although they really could have looked a little harder for Sims’ stunt driver – and a lovely little scene during the climax where Ustinov and Nimmo sit and discuss Revill’s terrible first day in his new job. There are a pair of quite amusing plot twists, but the action is, overall, far too brief, leaving Daniel more thoroughly bored than by any film that we’ve ever shown him. He giggled a couple of times, but I don’t blame him for being restless. This simply isn’t a good movie, and while it probably never would have been a classic, there’s not nearly enough slapstick to engage children, and far too much of it for anybody old enough to try and follow the plot and the humor for older audiences.

Most of the cast’s best and biggest work was behind them at this point, although I suppose you might argue that Ustinov’s greatest success, as Hercule Poirot, was to come. But the biggest star-in-the-making was the dinosaur. Dumped in a prop warehouse at Pinewood Studios after this, it was retrieved by the Star Wars team and taken to Tunisia, where far, far more people saw it as a dead carcass on the planet Tattooine than ever saw it in this movie.