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K9 and Company 1.1 – A Girl’s Best Friend

The only spinoff that made it to the screen during Doctor Who‘s first 26 years was this lone unsold pilot starring Elisabeth Sladen that aired as a Christmas special in 1981. It’s also the first occasion that the show ever gave some screen time to a former companion, as we catch up with Sarah Jane Smith, last seen in 1976’s “The Hand of Fear”.

According to this episode, the Doctor dropped K9 Mark Three off at Sarah Jane’s house in Croydon in 1978. He sat boxed up in an attic while Sarah was off being a journalist, and eventually the crate made its way to the large country house owned by Sarah’s Aunt Lavinia, just in time for Sarah to finally be in the same place as her gift and have a small adventure around some superstitious country folk still a-worshippin’ the “Black Arts” while people start disappearing, including her aunt’s science-obsessed ward Brendon.

(Incidentally, there’s no particular reason to think that the fourth Doctor dropped off a new K9 for his old friend somewhere in the space between “The Keeper of Traken” and “Logopolis,” but that doesn’t stop list-making fans from trying to crowbar it in right there. For all we know, the Doctor assembled Mark Two and Mark Three together, before he even met Romana. Or maybe the next Doctor built him.)

Anyway, despite the presence of notable actors like Bill Fraser and Colin Jeavons, the episode, written by Terence Dudley, has never engaged me much, but we had the actual target audience on the sofa between us, and our favorite seven year-old critic thought this was just fine. It may not be particularly thrilling, and it might lack menace or urgency, but the pace is just perfect for kids this age to chew on the mystery and consider who, other than Jeavons’ character and his leather-jacketed son, is in Hecate’s coven. Of course, he was most pleased with K9’s two action scenes.

The episode got some very respectable ratings – better than season 18 of the parent show, in fact – but there was some changeover of the muckity-mucks in charge at the BBC and more episodes weren’t commissioned. Elisabeth Sladen would have to wait another quarter-century to headline a Who spinoff, but she and K9 would be back in just a couple of years.

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Doctor Who: Meglos (parts three and four)

Our son came around and started enjoying this story as it went on. There’s a gunfight in episode three, and then the inevitable bit where Tom Baker gets to play both the Doctor and Meglos and the two have the contractually-obligated confrontation that all adventure television doubles stories need to have. Our son did, however, suffer the huge cheat of the villain’s base not actually exploding. The visual effects team did that rotten cheat that they sometimes do of turning up the lights and the contrast really fast so it simulates an explosion without actually blowing the model to pieces.

I think that “Meglos” would be the last time that Doctor Who would be quite this by-the-numbers for a little while. I think that the only real spark that the story has at all comes when Romana gets captured by the mercenaries and leads them around in circles, supposedly back to her ship as she’s been ordered. She feigns confusion caused by the planet’s anti-clockwise rotation and seems to be enjoying herself as she looks for an opportunity to turn the tables on the villains. Bill Fraser is also pretty amusing as the bad-tempered leader of the mercenaries, and these are high points in a story that doesn’t want to push any envelopes.

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Doctor Who: Meglos (parts one and two)

Our son has really enjoyed so many of the most recent Doctor Who stories that we’ve watched, so it was probably inevitable that we’d hit a turkey eventually. It’s one that lots of people agree is a turkey, so he’s in good company. The problem is that the planet of the story has a gigantic underground city powered by a huge artifact that nobody understands. The religious nutballs of the city believe it’s a gift from God and the eyes of disbelievers cannot be allowed to see it, and the scientists of the city think this is ridiculous and, since its power is fluctuating wildly after decades of steady flow, could we please just take some measurements of the thing before it spirals out of control and kills everyone?

So the nutballs argue with the sensible people, and the nutballs win every argument because they refuse to compromise an inch. The planet is ruled by a Mr. Make Everybody Happy type played by Edward Underdown, instead of by a Mr. Shut the Hell Up and Let Some People in There Who Know What They’re Doing type, which is what this planet badly needs. And so our son rolled his eyes at this shenanigans, because while he may not be able to spot an evil supercomputer until it’s practically on top of him (like last night), he knows that the nutballs are not going to win this argument.

I had been saying that the new production team for Doctor Who needed new blood. “Meglos” was the third story produced in season eighteen. The second story produced would be shown fourth, and it’s the only other one for the next four years to be written by a screenwriter from the show’s past. So “Meglos” is the first production with a new-to-the-show director and writers. The director is Terence Dudley, who had worked with the producer on the BBC series All Creatures Great and Small, and the writers, John Flanagan and Andrew McCulloch, were discovered by the new script editor.

Unfortunately, the story they concocted is a very predictable bore. There’s a cactus-alien called Meglos who wants the artifact, and, because the Doctor is acting insanely out of character and sends a passing hello from space to his old friend Edward Underdown and gets invited to come help them with their technology issues, Meglos traps the Doctor, impersonates him, and goes to steal the artifact. It takes forty-some minutes to get to a point in the plot that probably could be done in under ten. Our son summed it up by saying “There’s just not a lot of action in this one, and I don’t like anybody in the city.”

Anyway, for all the new blood behind the scenes, this story’s full of veteran actors. Apart from Edward Underdown, the cast also includes Jacqueline Hill as the leader of the nutballs. She had played one of the show’s original companion characters, Barbara Wright, from 1963-65. And there’s comedy star Bill Fraser as one of Meglos’s mercenaries. Fraser was the best thing about the Avengers episode “Small Game for Big Hunters,” which I don’t enjoy very much. There are some forgettable younger players in the story, but it’s really dominated by these three older actors, and with the Doctor and Romana trapped in space for most of the show’s first half, it all adds up to a story that younger viewers just can’t appreciate. But it’s all so predictable and dull that older viewers can’t really appreciate it either.

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The Avengers 4.16 – Small Game for Big Hunters

I’ve been a little concerned about this episode. Once upon a time, it had a reputation as one of the most clever and imaginative installments. I think it was in those American Files Magazines of the ’80s where the author singled it out as one of his ten favorite Avengers episodes, asking how anyone could resist the charms of a story doing “the natives are restless” in Darkest Hartfordshire.

Thirty more years on, and it’s actually quite easy to resist any story that does “the natives are restless.” It is an old and very dated trope.

It’s also one that our son has absolutely no experience with. I figure by the time I was eight, I’d seen dozens of Tarzan movies and the like on afternoon TV, plus all those mid-period Godzilla movies set on Pacific islands, and knew all about “ooga-booga” natives. The only ones he’s seen, however, are the ones we’ve showed him in old movies like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. He had a lot of trouble following this episode; he missed many of the socio-cultural clues that older audiences might know, things like the skull in the tree, the war drums, the “darkest Africa 23 miles from London” marker, and told me that he didn’t like it.

In point of fact, and this is a horrible thing to admit, but I remember when I was a child being surprised to learn that people from “Africa” didn’t all dress like movie witch doctors. “Africa,” then, was a place that stretched from the end of the desert all the way down and then across Asia. That’s where the nation of Kalaya is in this story. It might be on the African continent, and it might be in the south Pacific. About the only thing this episode gets right is having the discretion to not specifically nail it down.

And it’s because of film and television like “Small Game for Big Hunters” that I got that stereotype. There are actors of color in this story. All but one of them play immigrants from the nation of Kalaya who live in a mock “jungle” in Bill Fraser’s character’s gigantic greenhouse. In other hands, Fraser might have been an interesting Avengers eccentric; he’s another ex-colonial officer holding on to old glories, oblivious that he’s been used by the real villain, played by James Villiers, to engineer a lethal strain of tsetse fly in tropical conditions.

The one actor of color who isn’t an ooga-booga native in war paint sleeping on the ground is a Kalayan secret agent played by Paul Danquah. And he’s undercover as… an ooga-booga native in war paint sleeping on the ground.

This could have been avoided. There’s a scene where Steed visits a clothier to get information on the jungle outfit one nearly-dead man was wearing. It would have been so much better if they instead cast an actor of color to play the Kalayan ambassador who is phoned by Mrs. Peel and gave him a scene. Take off the war paint from the extras and you’d have an hour that isn’t nearly so tone-deaf. But then again, cultural norms and outrages are always evolving. Who’s to say what people thirty years from now will find insensitive and unflattering?

In point of fact, there’s something incredibly insensitive about Brian Clemens’ view of The Avengers as an escapist fantasy. It’s kind of the elephant in the room:

“No woman should be killed, no extras should populate the streets. We admitted to only one class and that was the upper. As a fantasy, we would not show a uniformed policeman or a coloured man. And you would not see anything as common as blood in The Avengers.” (This quote appears without citation in several places; I’m unsure of the original quote, but Clemens made similar expressions in many, many interviews.)

On the one hand, I get it: British television drama in the mid-sixties was often addressing social realism, and The Avengers is set in a world that is defiantly unrealistic. I can get behind that much.

But saying that a world that doesn’t show actors of color is a fantasy leads you to question exactly whose fantasy this is, or why anybody would fantasize about something so wretched.

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Captain Nemo and the Underwater City (1969)

Here’s a movie that I might have read about somewhere or other, but it never really sank in until we started this blog and I did a little reading about the film of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Then I realized there were more screen versions of Captain Nemo than I was aware. This one, however, could have remained adrift. It is a boring, boring movie.

Captain Nemo and the Underwater City has an interesting international cast, bringing Americans Robert Ryan, as Nemo, and Chuck Connors to the UK for a production at MGM’s Borehamwood Studios. Luciana Paluzzi, best known at the time for her role in Thunderball, is also here. Thunderball is my least favorite Bond film, in part because of all the endless underwater scenes. This film has a similar problem.

The movie opens in the mid-1860s with a liner bound for Bristol sinking in a storm. Connors is playing a US senator, and he goes overboard, along with characters played by Nanette Newman, Allan Cuthberson (a claustrophobic engineer), Bill Fraser and Kenneth Connor (criminal brothers), and Christopher Hartstone (the token kid). They get rescued by divers from the Nautilus and brought along to Templemer, an underwater utopia that Nemo and his followers have constructed.

Then he refuses to let them leave. Complications, and boredom, ensue.

The problem is that this movie will end as soon as somebody gets out of there, and there is no reason to hold them, or even bring them below in the first place. The film is set during the American Civil War, when nobody on the surface had access to Nemo’s technology. As with the previous two films about Captain Nemo that we’ve watched, people are amazed by it. Nemo’s concern is that people from the warring world above will interfere with his utopia, but that’s not possible. Nobody can reach him.

A secondary problem is that we don’t even reach the character conflict of the film – the “why” nobody can leave – until its halfway point. Nemo tells them that they will remain in Templemer for the rest of their natural lives, but before there are any protests, debate, or character drama, he shows them his underwater farm for an eyeball-bruising ten minutes of scuba footage. Reefs, schools of fish, bubbles. There’s a reason why we’re never going to watch Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea for this blog, and why Thunderball puts me to sleep. Heck, I don’t even like Stingray very much.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, because the film was written by Pip and Jane Baker, who are notorious for some legendarily awful Doctor Who episodes, but directed by the reliable James Hill, who directed some very good episodes of The Avengers, The Saint, and most of Worzel Gummidge. So the movie settles into a mediocre gray area, with nothing of interest beyond some interesting sets and the acting of Bill Fraser, who was then best known as Sgt. Claude Snudge in three related BBC comedies and is very amusing here. Well, there is a neat scene where Allan Cuthberson’s bid for freedom goes terribly wrong, but not even a hundred foot mutant manta ray monster could keep my interest. Chuck Connors is lantern-jawed, gravel-voiced, and soporific in a part which, four or five years later, Doug McClure would play about once every summer.

Our son was actually more patient with this movie than I was – he got a little restless, but never seemed about to fall asleep like me – and he pronounced it “pretty cool.” The scene where Cuthberson’s escape plan goes wrong did frighten him into going behind the sofa, but he applauded early on and enjoyed the animals in the city, which include a pelican, a seal, and some penguins. The submarine chases and fights with sharks and monsters are pitched just right for kids, and perhaps if you can watch this movie in the company of one, then at least one of you will enjoy it.

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