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Into the Labyrinth 2.3 – Alamo / 2.4 – Cave of Diamonds

Well, that was utterly bugnuts. And here I was all set to grumble about them casting very British character actors like Cyril Shaps to play Indian mystics, but then Ron Moody gets to battle various demons and magical beasts that jump out of paintings. It is one of the most bizarre things I’ve seen in a while. The episode ends with a brief, climactic struggle over a pit engulfing sulfuric smoke. I think everybody inhaled too much of it this week, because “Cave of Diamonds” is just crazy. The kid had a blast with it, even applauding some of the heroes’ wins. And he really liked Rothgo turning his enemies into statues of monkeys and pigs.

Episode three wasn’t quite as successful for him, and it was awfully painful for the grownups. It’s not just that “Alamo,” written by John Lucarotti, finds a place for every possible word of teevee cowboy slang – vittles, chow, yonder – in some of the most tortuous dialogue ever written, but Ron Moody gets to play a “Red Indian” in redface and we get all the hows and heap bigs and the like that I seem to remember dying out in our own entertainment by 1981. Jack Watson’s in this one as Davy Crockett, and he’s not bad. There’s even an actual scorpion and a couple of real snakes in these two episodes, instead of putting a rubber party favor on the screen like they did with that bat last time.

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Doctor Who: The Androids of Tara (parts three and four)

Count Grendel isn’t exactly a subtle villain; he’s more from the Snidely Whiplash school of baddies. This makes him a phenomenally effective enemy for any seven year-olds in the audience. Our son loved to hate this guy, and named him “the most jerk in the history of people who are jerks!”

I think Peter Jeffrey knew exactly how to pitch his performance to this age group. Part three of the adventure is definitely of the “escape and run around just to get recaptured” school of Doctor Who third parts, but the big set piece is the Doctor getting out of a trap that the count has set. Four of Grendel’s guards all go down in a group when K9 zaps them, and Grendel gives this unbelievably cartoon-like reaction, and our son exploded laughing. Then in part four, Grendel ties Romana to the railroad tracks – er, I mean, schemes to force her to marry the injured king, and our son did everything but boo and hiss like the crowd at a pantomime.

So no, not very much nuance in this story, but there is a pretty good swordfight in part four, and K9 gets left adrift in a little boat, and our kid loved that, too. Since the first half of the story left him grumbling, it’s good that everything got turned around in the end.

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Doctor Who: The Androids of Tara (parts one and two)

“The Androids of Tara” is the second serial written by David Fisher – second in a row, which is pretty unusual – and the fourth story in the Key to Time adventure. It features Peter Jeffrey in a remarkably entertaining role as the absurdly nasty Count Grendel, and there’s a small part for the veteran Who guest star Cyril Shaps as a court official.

Our son is utterly lost and confused by the story, which I’d say was a simple enough story of court intrigue, deception, and identical doubles on a medieval planet, but the rules of the planet’s monarchy had him grumbling questions about why everything has to be done in this silly way. Perhaps he wasn’t in the right mood tonight; usually he just goes with the flow. Or possibly he’s impatient for space monsters. He picked out “The Power of the Daleks” to rewatch this afternoon while we were home together. I’d tell him to hang on, they’ll be back really soon, but I don’t want to spoil things.

A big reason I’m against spoilers right now of all times is because “Tara” is the story where, for me, Doctor Who stopped being this strange program that nobody in my circle knew anything about, and became something past tense that I could read about. If you scroll back through this category, you’ll see me mention the 20th Anniversary magazine several times. I know that my friend got that magazine right before WGTV showed “Tara” because on page 22, there’s a photo of Mary Tamm wearing the purple outfit you see in the picture above. Also on that page, there’s a photo of Lalla Ward. And that was the sad problem. I went from knowing nothing to knowing more than I really wanted to know.

It wasn’t all bad, of course. I was looking forward to the next two Doctors and the imminent return of the Daleks and the eventual return of the Cybermen, and Kamelion certainly looked interesting. Oh, well. Some of the magazine left me incredibly confused, though. Since I didn’t realize that we were seeing edited compilations of the serials, I just understood that Doctor Who was a 90-minute show. So I didn’t quite understand why they were making such a fuss over “The Five Doctors” being a 90-minute special, and I was blown away by the implications of “The Daleks’ Master Plan” being a twelve-episode adventure. Imagine an eighteen hour-long Doctor Who story. I sure did.

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Doctor Who: Planet of the Spiders (part one)

There’s talk that we’re about to finally get season sets of Doctor Who. People have spotted pre-order placeholders for a Blu-ray of season twelve – Tom Baker’s first season – at Best Buy and at Barnes & Noble, only to have the listing scrubbed as “no longer available” right away. That will be so nice. Having an individual release for every single one of 150+ stories has always been a space-filling, expensive pain in the rear.

After a bunch of Region 1 releases went out of print, I bought a DVD player which could be easily hacked to play anything. Unfortunately, it’s already starting to show signs of future failure, but it more than paid for itself by allowing me to buy all these wonderful in-print Region 2 releases from Amazon UK or other sellers, including the great company Network itself during one of its occasional sales. “Planet of the Spiders” is one of the stories I got a Region 2 disk for, since the Region 1 disks were being offered at more than $100. As of today, there are three Region 1 disks available at Amazon, priced at $279, $586.35, and $703.99.

Of course, something is only ever worth what somebody else is willing to pay, and not what some Crazy Grandma Price Guide demands that something is worth. You would have to find a very, very foolish person to spend $703.99 for “Planet of the Spiders.”

As we’ve looked at some other seventies sci-fi shows like Ark II and Space Academy, we’ve noticed where even programs that had nothing necessarily to do with psychic powers and ESP inevitably went all Tomorrow People from time to time. “Planet of the Spiders” is Doctor Who‘s turn.

Things start with Cyril Shaps playing a stage magician who has, to his own horror, slowly been developing psychokinetic powers. Meanwhile, Mike Yates, formerly UNIT’s captain, has joined a monastery – slash – meditation center in the countryside, where some of the other people looking for a quieter, more spiritual life are having group meetings in the cellar around a prayer rug that glows with a blue light as they focus their energy. John Dearth, who had given the seventies supercomputer BOSS its voice in the previous season, plays the leader of this group, who materialize a huge spider between them at the memorable cliffhanger ending.

As is often the case, this starts very well and will start to run out of steam. It’s a very good first episode… just not $703.99 good!

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Doctor Who: The Ambassadors of Death (part five)

Throughout this serial, we’ve seen a large, full-scale space capsule for the actors to climb in. I was interested to learn that this prop was built in a shared-cost budget with another BBC drama, Doomwatch. This allegedly “sci-fact” show about civil servants saving the world from dangerous new technologies and ecological disasters was created by a pair of former Doctor Who‘s regular writers, Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis. It debuted the week after “Doctor Who and the Silurians” began, and the capsule was used in episode six, “Re-Entry Forbidden,” which was shown five days before the first episode of this serial. I wonder whether anybody watched both shows in March 1970 and noticed.

After watching part four, I showed our son a picture of John Levene’s character of Corporal Benton from “The Invasion” to refresh his memory, because Benton, now a sergeant, resurfaces in this episode. There’s a neat story about how this character got promoted to semi-regular. He was one of many good guy military characters in “The Invasion,” which Douglas Camfield had directed. Camfield was in line to direct the next serial, “Inferno,” and since there was room in the script for a Sergeant Anybody character, he asked whether they could rehire John Levene, as he enjoyed working with the actor. The production team reasoned that there was also a Sergeant Anybody in this story, and so it might make a little sense to start using some familiar faces in UNIT rather than a revolving bunch of guys in beige uniforms. That worked out quite nicely. Everybody likes Sergeant Benton.

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Doctor Who: The Ambassadors of Death (part four)

This is the second story in a row where the director found a chance to shoot the alien menace of the month in front of the sun, resulting in big lens flares. Timothy Combe, last time, and Michael Ferguson, director of this story, really have enjoyed the BBC’s move to color. But you’ll forgive me not illustrating it; the chroma-dot recovery that restored the color to most of this serial (episodes 2-4 and 6-7) is wonderful but imperfect. The screen grabs from the video interiors, while still flawed, look much better than the orange-and-purple smeared 16mm exteriors.

Ferguson is a great director whether on location or in the studio. I love the way he composed this shot at the cliffhanger. The Doctor has found the body of the Civil Servant of the Month, killed by one of the aliens wearing the astronaut suits, and, as he’s trying to see whether Sir James has been injured or killed, the alien, with its touch of death, comes up behind the Doctor.

Our son thinks that the Doctor will be okay, suspecting that the Doctor’s people have a much higher resistance to radiation. He also still thinks that the aliens are just animating the suits. Perhaps they’re disembodied and they need radio impulses to understand commands because they don’t have ears?

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Doctor Who: The Ambassadors of Death (part three)

Michael Wisher, who plays the TV commentator, is not in this episode, but Cyril Shaps, who made a career out of playing frantic and nervous scientists, is. We last saw Shaps playing a different frantic and nervous scientist in “The Tomb of the Cybermen.” Now, he’s being menaced by one of the astronauts… or is he? The Doctor has determined that the Earthmen who went into space cannot survive the amount of radiation these guys have absorbed.

Our son’s theory is that these are actually empty spacesuits. They’ve been animated by the radiation. Maybe we’ll find out whether he’s right in tomorrow’s episode.

I’m enjoying this more than I remembered. It’s got an entertaining Capricorn One meets Quatermass vibe, especially once we see that the well-dressed villain from the previous episodes is actually General Carrington, a former astronaut himself who is now in charge of Britain’s space security program. He appears to be on the side of the angels and working against the Brigadier for national security reasons, and is baffled when the three astronauts are abducted by a third party. But then General Carrington and the Civil Servant of the Month start conspiring again, to prevent the launch of another recovery capsule. After all, if the human astronauts didn’t come down, they must still be up there, right?

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Doctor Who: The Tomb of the Cybermen (part two)

It’s one of the all-time great cliffhangers: the Cybermen have been awakened, and the foolish, villainous Eric Klieg is yelling at their leader, ranting about how they will obey him, and the leader grabs him by the arm and shoves him to the ground. Then, in a dispassionate electronic buzz, the leader says “YOU BELONG TO UZZZZ. YOU ZHALL BE LIKE UZZZZ.” It’s a brilliant moment.

And it was ever so slightly derailed tonight when our son curled his lip and announced “I couldn’t even understand what the Cyberman was saying!” I guess we’ll definitely have to have the subtitles on when we meet the Planner in season six…

To be perfectly fair, the moment was slightly spoiled some years ago when I worked in the insurance business. There is – or was – a broker in Columbus GA who handled some life and disability products, and who had a voice box installed. By chance it was tuned to precisely the same pitch and modulation and tone as the one that Peter Hawkins used to voice the Cybermen in this story. The man was constantly on the warpath about nitpicky, easily-corrected nothings that nevertheless drove him to threats of yanking business because, to give one petty example, a large package of policies once arrived at a group in three envelopes rather than two. One of my co-workers asked me what the heck his problem was, and I explained that the broker was, in fact, an emotionless cyborg from the ice tombs on Telos, here to harvest our organs and make us into creatures like him. After I said that, I got stuck with him. “Grant, what’s your extension? That Cyberman’s on line three!”

And yes, that’s right, Columbus GA. A Cyberman was working in the very city where Patrick Troughton died.

I forgot to mention yesterday that “The Tomb of the Cybermen” is the first of four Doctor Who stories to feature Cyril Shaps in a guest role. Shaps appeared in so many shows that I enjoy, like The Sweeney, Spyder’s Web, Department S, and The Saint. I really like how his character is constantly on the edge of total meltdown while his boss, Professor Parry, is so laid back and relaxed about their situation. They make a great double-act, and it’s a shame that Klieg guns him down.

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