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The New Avengers 1.6 – Target!

If you’re as much a fan of familiar actors from the seventies as I am, then Dennis Spooner’s “Target!” is an absolute pleasure. You’ve got Keith Barron and Deep Roy as the villains, and Frederick Jaeger, John Paul, and Bruce Purchase in supporting roles. There’s a hint of the old Avengers spirit at play when Deep Roy disguises himself as a little kid on a tricycle, hiding a lethal hypodermic behind a bunch of balloons.

Our kid doesn’t care about actors, but there was plenty for him to enjoy in this one. The diabolical masterminds this week have rigged a shooting gallery survival course with darts filled with poisonous curare. Since The Avengers is very rarely about gunplay, or kill-or-be-killed shootouts, this is a pretty atypical story, not least in the sound department. It takes our heroes an eternity to figure out the link between all these apparently random agents, but the visuals of the survival course make for a hugely fun story to watch, and our son was on the edge of his seat.

My favorite moments were when Gambit kills two of the bad guys. He murders their inside man entirely by accident, thinking he’s just playing a cruel prank, but Deep Roy later gets one of the all-time great Avengers death scenes, and he totally had it coming.

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Doctor Who: The Pirate Planet (parts three and four)

This is so interesting. I’ve never, ever rated Pennant Roberts’ work as a director. When I was a loudmouthed fan repeating and recycling received wisdom in the eighties and nineties, I always singled him out for stick, and really, nothing of his that we have watched over the last three months – observed through adult, critical eyes – has shown me wrong. But he seems to have given both “The Sun Makers” and “The Pirate Planet” a certain power and energy that totally resonates with seven year-olds. Despite last night’s shock, and another one in tonight’s session I’ll discuss in a moment, our son absolutely loved these two stories. He wasn’t on the edge of his seat this evening, because he was either in the floor or on the other sofa. He was in heaven!

Even before the climax, K9 gets to have a gunfight with the Captain’s robot parrot, which is called the Polyphase Avatron. Douglas Adams had a gift for naming things, didn’t he? Now, I don’t envy Pennant Roberts’ job here. Managing gunfights in the BBC’s old three-camera “taped-as-live” studio format often foiled some of the best directors the BBC ever had. But poor Roberts had to try to make this compelling when one of the characters is a squat, bulky, remote-controlled tin dog, and the other one was a motionless prop blue-screened onto the picture.

Last night, after our son went to bed, we watched “The Last Lonely Man,” a third season episode of the BBC’s Out of the Unknown that was directed by Douglas Camfield, who many people believe was the best and most talented director working in British television during this period. (The episode, which co-stars Peter Halliday and features music by Don Harper, was broadcast one month after his Who serial “The Invasion”, which also featured Halliday and Harper.) I mention this because not even Camfield could have made the fight between K9 and the robot parrot work to adult eyes, but our kid completely loved it. When K9 later emerges with the dead parrot somehow stuck to his mouth, you couldn’t find a happier viewer among millions.

The other thing that alarmed our kid was the Captain’s plan to teleport his pirate planet to Earth and destroy it next. We’ll see the Cybermen make a similar threat a few months from now, and I bet he won’t worry half as much as he did tonight. So, grudging respect to Pennant Roberts tonight, as I am reminded again that the absolute best way to watch something with fresh eyes is to do it with your kid.

Oh, good grief. This can’t mean that he’s going to enjoy “Timelash,” can it?

(We’ll give Douglas Adams a chunk of the credit, though. The little dude has spent literally the last twenty minutes talking excitedly about teleporting planets. He’s going to absolutely love The Hitch-Hikers’s Guide to the Galaxy when his mother reads it to him later on down the line.)

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Doctor Who: The Pirate Planet (parts one and two)

You just can’t ever tell with kids, can you? I was absolutely sure that there wasn’t anything in tonight’s serial that would frighten our favorite seven year-old critic, but I was wrong. The plot did. Give this kid hideous slimy or robotic alien menaces bent on world conquest and he can handle it, but the climax of part two of this story reveals that the villains controlling the planet Zanak are in the big leagues. Their planet is hollow, and they teleport it around the galaxy, crushing slightly smaller planets inside of it and strip-mining them of resources. The planet’s population is kept stupid and ignorant, and left happy with streets full of trinkets like diamonds and rubies. Our son told us this was horrifying. He’s right, of course, but conceptual horror doesn’t usually bother him like a big rubber monster, you know?

This great big concept is the first contribution to Doctor Who from the beloved writer Douglas Adams, who was working on these four scripts at the same time he was writing the first radio series of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. This has led many, many people to consider and analyze the similarities in tone and humor between the two. “The Pirate Planet” is an incredibly witty story with our hero running rings around blustery and stupid villains with incredibly rich vocabularies. The Captain is more than a little similar to Hitch-Hiker‘s Vogon guard, the one who was not impressed by the hero humming Beethoven.

Well, the ones that talk, anyway. Bruce Purchase’s Pirate Captain is a hilarious joy, but he’s surrounded by some of the most incompetent nincompoops in the world of henchmen. These must be the most pathetic guards in all of Doctor Who, which is really saying something, and in part two they get involved in what must be the most pathetically-staged gunfight in all of Doctor Who, which is… also really saying something.

In fact, my only complaint about this story is the direction. After doing a pretty good job with “The Sun Makers” the previous season, Pennant Roberts really let everybody down with this one. It even opens with a laughably poor miniature set that is shot on videotape instead of film and so it succeeds in looking precisely like those phony little places from Far Out Space Nuts. This is kind of funny to me, because a month ago, I had intended to talk about how Roberts shot some scenes on film that really would have been much more effective on videotape, and with this season’s adventure, he got them the other way around.

In an interesting continuity note, Romana refers to herself as a Time Lord for the first time in this adventure. In the previous story, she identified as coming from the Doctor’s home planet, but didn’t use that title. She also mentions a father who bought her an air car for her 70th birthday. Time Lords very rarely ever mention relatives, but at this stage in the program, Romana’s a posh girl with a rich daddy. She’s probably been name-dropping for decades.

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