Madame Sin (1972)

One Tuesday in January 1972, ABC showed The Night Stalker, which broke all the ratings records and launched a franchise. Four days later, ABC showed Madame Sin, which was a big flop and didn’t lead to anything. Oh, but if it did…

In the early seventies, instead of just making twenty-six episode series and hoping that American networks would bite, ITC started making some movies of the week – slash – pilots instead. There was Mister Jerico, with Patrick Macnee, and The Firechasers, with Chad Everett, and Baffled!, with Leonard Nimoy and Susan Hampshire. That last one gets a little stick for a silly name and a silly premise, but it’s actually a pretty fun film and might have made a good series had another network not already commissioned and canceled the very similar The Sixth Sense.

And then there’s Madame Sin, which is a pretty good movie. It’s not great but it’s not bad. But you know how pilots are; they’re often rough around the edges and the resulting TV series is a lot better. Had ABC ordered twenty-six episodes of Madame Sin for September 1972, we’d still be talking about them. This could have been the greatest and most fun TV show ever.

In 1996, there was a one-hour special produced by Lee Goldberg called The Greatest Shows You Never Saw, a showcase of failed pilots, both promising and ridiculous. The clips from Madame Sin demanded further investigation. This was back in my VHS tape trading days and I put out the call immediately and had a copy within a couple of months. It starred Bette Davis as Dr. Fu Manchu, basically. Madame Sin is an impossibly wealthy supervillain who employs an army of scientists to develop the newest technology. In the pilot, she’s based on an island in the north of Scotland, and is using ultrasonics to create holograms and brainwash people. She’s been commissioned to steal a Polaris submarine, and she’s got a new accomplice in a disgraced American intelligence agent played by Robert Wagner.

Interestingly, Wagner’s face was blurred out in the clips that were used in the 1996 special, so perhaps he declined permission. When he filmed this in 1971, the actor was probably best known for the hit series It Takes a Thief and is credited as one of the producers. I think that he wouldn’t have continued on had the movie been picked up (see below), and not because he’s too busy marveling at the price of a plane ticket from London to New York in 1971. No, he wouldn’t have continued because Madame Sin would have turned the convention of a hero fighting a new villain each week on its head. Each episode would have had the supervillain match wits with a new secret agent.

I’ve occasionally let my mind wander and think about who might have shown up in this series to battle the evil Madame Sin. Her cohorts include Denholm Elliott, Dudley Sutton, Catherine Schell, Pik-Sen Lim, Charles Lloyd-Pack, and Burt Kwouk, some of whom may or may not have appeared in the series, and guesting in the pilot, you’ve got Gordon Jackson and Roy Kinnear along with two of ITC’s stock Americans, Paul Maxwell and David Healy. Could you have asked for a better supporting cast for a British movie in 1971? But who could have played the various CIA and MI-6 operatives who would attempt to foil her plans each week? Or would all the guest heroes be agents of the same super-agency, an UNCLE or a Nemesis? Could you imagine Robert Vaughn one week, George Lazenby the next, and Stuart Damon the week after? This could have been more fun than Columbo!

Our kid didn’t like it very much. There’s one fight scene, but it’s very talky, with only one small explosion. He didn’t like Robert Wagner’s character having to betray his friend, and he was surprised and disappointed that the hero character actually gets killed in the end, while Madame Sin and Denholm Elliot wonder whether they can kick the royals out of Windsor Castle. I’m with you, Madame Sin. Incidentally, the movie is 86 minutes long, but it ran in a 90-minute slot on American television that Saturday night in January, suggesting it was cut down to about 75 minutes. Maybe Wagner’s death scene wasn’t shown in the US and he might have been back for a rematch in the series?

Incidentally, I’m stupidly proud of myself for a bit of prop spotting. Madame Sin’s sonic rifle, being tested by Charles Lloyd-Pack above, later turned up in a couple of Doctor Who serials, including 1974’s “Invasion of the Dinosaurs,” shown below. I’m not the first to have made this observation – Google tells me that Jon Preddle, who knows everything, spotted it years ago – but it tickled me all the same.

The gun later made it to a silly 1975 Tomorrow People serial which guest starred Peter Davison. I wonder where else it might have been used?

Doctor Who: City of Death (parts three and four)

The great big question, of course, is not whether the Doctor, Romana, and Duggan will save all of human history by defeating Scaroth on the shores of primeval Earth four hundred million years ago, but whether our son would come to his senses and enjoy this story. Happily, he did, and even conceded that the first half was also pretty exciting. Of course he enjoyed Duggan. Heroes in Doctor Who who just want to punch and thump their way through the narrative are pretty rare, so Duggan’s fists-first approach resulted in a few giggles. When Duggan observes “That’s a spaceship!” in part four, how could you not just love the guy?

But our son is also very clear that Scaroth is, somehow, one of the creepiest and scariest of all Who monsters. “He’s just got one eye, and no nose, and no mouth,” he told me with some urgency. He also loved/hated the part where Catherine Schell unrolls an old parchment to see that one of the green-skinned, one-eyed splinters of Scaroth was hanging out in ancient Egypt with Thoth and Horus and, presumably, Sutekh, and I could feel our son’s skin crawl across the sofa.

Part four also has the delightful cameo appearance of Eleanor Bron and John Cleese as a pair of art snobs critiquing the TARDIS, as they’ve mistaken it for an installation in a gallery. When it dematerializes, Bron, without a note of passion in her quiet voice, calls the installation “exquisite,” having no real idea what she’s seen. I love this bit. It certainly takes you out of the story to see John Cleese making a cameo, but it’s so funny that it’s impossible to object. The whole production’s like this. If there’s a flaw anywhere, who cares.

Doctor Who: City of Death (parts one and two)

If there’s a person on the planet who doesn’t think that “City of Death” is one of the all-time best Doctor Who stories, then naturally, that little contrarian would be sitting on the sofa with us, complaining that Julian Glover is too evil a villain, and that his alien other-self is too creepy and scary. I’ve shown several people this story over the years. Trust our seven year-old to be the first and certainly the only one to grumble about it being creepy.

Never mind him. “City of Death” is a magically witty, silly, and clever story with hilarious characters and some of the most consistently funny dialogue in the history of the program. The serial has an unusual origin. It started life as “The Gamble With Time,” a four-parter written by David Fisher and set in Monte Carlo, where the Doctor and Romana teamed up with a detective meant to be a pastiche of Bulldog Drummond to investigate a mysterious count using alien technology to manipulate casinos. At the eleventh hour, with most of the serial actually cast and rehearsals set to begin, “Gamble” was finally abandoned, in part probably because nobody in 1979 still cared about Bulldog Drummond, and, over four frantic days, Douglas Adams and Graham Williams rebuilt it into “City of Death.” They rushed off to France to film everybody jogging around Paris, and everything just clicked completely.

The rest is history. Accompanied by a publicity blitz surrounding Doctor Who‘s first overseas filming, “City of Death” hit the hugest ratings in the program’s history. In part that’s because ITV was actually on strike for the first three Saturdays this aired, but part four still had an audience of more than 16 million people. It’s one of the most amazingly quotable Who stories, although our son was baffled why I burst out laughing when the Doctor tells the countess “Well, you’re a beautiful woman, probably.”

Joining Julian Glover for this wonderful romp, there’s David Graham – still the voice of Parker from Thunderbirds – along with Catherine Schell, Tom Chadbon, and Peter Halliday in a small role. You’ve got seven Mona Lisas, timeslips, Louis XV chairs, alien technology, running through Paris, and a detective who’s very anxious to “thump” anybody. Even if this was creepy and scary, which it most certainly is not, I can’t imagine not loving this completely. Ah, well, our son does tend to enjoy the second half of Who adventures more than the first, so we’ll see what tomorrow night brings!