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King of the Castle 1.3 and 1.4

Marie gave up on this serial after the unbelievable awfulness of episode two, so she’s not going to believe this, but this has become a much, much more interesting production without Fulton Mackay’s overacting. In episode three, young Roland deals with a beautiful witch who schemes to shrink him and add him to a collection of captive children, and in episode four, he is trapped in a steamy scullery with several disheveled children under the thumb of a guard who screams “work makes you free!” at them and forces them to do repetitive, meaningless chores.

It’s not quite as visually bizarre as the second part, which makes it less interesting for me, but the special effects crew pulled off an impressive-for-the-1977-tech trick of shrinking the kid, trapping him under a crystal ball, and then having him walk the globe off a table. After the Frankenstein horrors and the bullying of the first two parts, this has become a more conventional adventure story, and, much like Into the Labyrinth, it’s pitched just right at eight year-olds. Our kid really got into Roland’s escape from the love witch, and hissed “yes!” as he got to a safe spot in the wall.

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King of the Castle 1.1 and 1.2

Back now to 1977, for a seven-part serial made by HTV which our son calls “absolutely scary” and his mother calls “actively painful.” King of the Castle was written by Bob Baker and Dave Martin, who had made the fantastic Sky for HTV two years previously and, like Sky, it really should have made it to Nickelodeon’s Third Eye anthology. It’s a freaky, supernatural and very weird story. I don’t agree with either my wife or my son about it so far. I think it’s very peculiar and odd, and even though it’s lining up to climax with a “gasp! it was all… a dream!” ending, I’m curious to see where it’s going before it gets there.

At least it starts out well enough. King of the Castle stars Philip Da Costa as the son of a saxophone player who’s got a scholarship to a local, exclusive school, although he’d rather read comics – the props department mocked up a Mummy’s Tomb cover and pasted it atop a seventies Marvel UK title but didn’t bother to dress the back of the magazine and its ads for other Marvel comics – and keep a low profile. His family’s moved to the top floor of a ten-story apartment building and the elevator’s out of order and a tough teen called Ripper has his gang of bullies ready to cause trouble on the staircases. Providing support are some generally very reliable character actors, including Milton Johns, Fulton Mackay, and Talfryn Thomas.

Interestingly, episode one is almost entirely filmed on location on 16mm film. It’s only right at the end when our young hero backs into the out-of-order elevator and it plummets to lower levels that the videotape starts. Up to this point, our son had watched with a mix of sympathy and frustration – our kid has always hated bullies on TV and movies – and the instant the world changed into a creepy dungeon with cobwebs, bizarre sound effects, and overlay on top of overlay on top of overlay as the guy running the video mixer loses his mind, he got incredibly scared and hid.

No pictures will convey how weird this looks. I imagine most of our readers are familiar enough with the sort of image-atop-image visuals of seventies videotape, whether you can picture the blue-screen worlds of Sid and Marty Krofft or, most precisely, the alien ship/environment in Doctor Who‘s “Claws of Axos,” which was also written by Baker and Martin. Now take that look and go nuts. In part two, Da Costa and Talfryn Thomas, now playing a different character with a similar set of keys, navigate through cramped environments with lots of curtains or obstacles to block a clear shot, like an amusement park haunted house, but then other elements are chromakeyed on top of those, and other visuals on top of those. By the time we get to the Frankenstein castle where Mackay’s otherworld character lives, they’re keying lava lamp blobs on top of erlenmeyer flasks full of green food coloring and then keying firecracker sparks on top of those.

But I’ll grant my wife one point: it’s one thing to suffer through a bad performance from an otherwise unknown actor – take Mordred in “Battlefield,” please – but seeing a really good actor like Fulton Mackay go so over the top in this wretched performance really is painful. At least he’s doing it on a downright weird set and there’s lots of other things to look at. Like Milton Johns’ Frankenstein monster in a Ronald McDonald wig. Really.

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Doctor Who: The Armageddon Factor (parts five and six)

We finished up the Key to Time storyline/season this morning with what our son really believed is one of the most epic Doctor Who adventures ever. He completely loved this one, despite a few hissing villain roadblocks along the way. I also enjoyed this a lot more than I remembered, despite the interior of Shadow’s planet – slash – space station looking… well, it’s not so much that it’s fake, because lots of Doctor Who environments look fake. It’s that I kept expecting a bunch of kids to run in and start playing laser tag in it. It’s that kind of fake.

The best thing about it, though, is the introduction of Barry Jackson as a failed Time Lord called Drax. The character is just incredibly entertaining, and he and Tom Baker seem to have a great rapport. The Doctor, who apparently went by the name/designation “Theta Sigma” at the Time Lord academy and does not want to be reminded of it, asks Drax where he got the remarkable Souf Lundun accent and slang that he uses. Apparently, Drax was arrested (“got done”) in London some time back and spent ten years in stir. There’s absolutely no reason to nail this decade down to any given time period – I mean, Drax could be getting arrested right now in 2018 for all we know – but it amuses me to imagine that at the same time that the Doctor was exiled to Earth and fighting the Master, Drax was cooling his heels in HM Prison Brixton. Best moment of the whole story: Drax, on his way back to his TARDIS, telling the Doctor and Romana that he’s “done” a deal with the marshal of Atrios to provide reconstruction services for his planet, half an hour from now.

While Drax was sadly never seen again in the show, we do meet a new villain that will come back down the line: the Black Guardian. Valentine Dyall had a film career as long as your arm but was best known for his role hosting and narrating a radio series called Appointment with Fear. This anthology of horror stories ran for more than a decade on the BBC, and Dyall’s downright evil voice was known to pretty much every parent who sat down to watch this story in 1979, recognizing something terrifying from their own childhood.

So a couple of weeks ago, our son speculated that the third segment of the Key to Time could be a person. Today, we learned that the sixth segment was indeed a human being, which is how the Doctor unmasks the Black Guardian. At the end of the story, the Key is split into six parts again, hopefully leaving the poor Princess Astra to live her life in peace. Marie asked whether they’d ever need to turn a person into a Key segment again, and our son suggested that instead, one of the segments should disguise itself as “the worst tasting hot dog ever.” Well, if it sits around for decades waiting for somebody to come collect it, it probably would taste a little lousy.

So a couple of goodbyes to note this time. I’ve already noted that this was Dave Martin’s final script contribution. He did some more work in television but mainly wrote novels after this. He passed away in 2007. This was also Anthony Read’s final story as script editor. Douglas Adams had already been hired to replace him in the role, and apparently he worked on some of the rewrites of this adventure with Read. In that BBC way, we’ll see Adams commission Read to write a story in the next season.

Sadly, Mary Tamm decided to bow out with this story, and didn’t return to tape a farewell scene, which led to a pretty fun decision about what to do with the character of Romana. I don’t see that Tamm had any really major roles after this one, but she was regularly seen in guest parts on British television for the next thirty years and “gave good anecdote,” as they say, on the convention circuit. My older son met her in 2009 at a show in Atlanta that I didn’t attend, and came back with stars in his eyes. She died from cancer three years later at the horribly young age of 62.

We’ll take a short break from Doctor Who, but we’ll start season seventeen in August. Stay tuned!

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Doctor Who: The Armageddon Factor (parts three and four)

I’m enjoying this one much, much more than I did the last time I watched it. The Doctor’s first confrontation with his mysterious opponent, the Shadow, is full of great dialogue, and there’s a real sense that our heroes have an absurd amount of things to do, with one genuine obstacle after another. None of it feels like padding, and after the writers’ last two stories for the show the previous year (“The Invisible Enemy” and “Underworld”), neither of which I enjoyed, this feels like they’re back on form. This was Bob Baker and Dave Martin’s last Who serial as a team, although Baker would write a solo adventure in the next season, and Dave Martin would write a few of the tie-in books in the 1980s.

In fact, the only scenes in this story that are at all long-winded are the ones where K9 communicates with the Evil Supercomputer that runs the planet Zeos. There are lots of long pauses, sped-up tape computer noises, and sound effects. It kind of gets in the way of the slapstick. Tom Baker and guest star Davyd Harries get to hide from each other in weird corridors and be silly, which delighted our son and probably kept Baker amused at a point where he was losing interest and yelling at everybody. Good thing one of the other guest stars, Lalla Ward, was around to keep him smiling.

Our son really thought these two parts were incredibly exciting, especially when Atrios’s marshal launches his attack on Zeos, which will trigger a doomsday device in retaliation, like Dr. Strangelove. He was completely thrilled by this, but incredibly aggravated by the cliffhanger revelation that the Shadow has abducted K9 and put one of his little black control boxes on him. K9 now calls the Shadow his master! He was incensed, and refused to agree that this is a good adventure at all, just because that ending had him so riled.

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Doctor Who: The Armageddon Factor (parts one and two)

The Key to Time story makes its way to the finish line with this story written by veterans Bob Baker and Dave Martin. It’s got John Woodvine as the main villain – so far – and guest stars Lalla Ward as the mysterious Princess Astra.

The story’s kind of “Genesis of the Daleks”-lite, and it shares that story’s problem with creating a believably large environment. Lots of Doctor Who stories have this issue, but the heavily radiated K section of Atrios looks to be about one corridor away from the main control room. It’s a story where I have more than a little trouble suspending belief, but I do like the way that the Doctor pretends quite deliberately that he’s really dumb enough to fall into the marshal’s traps. Tom Baker seems to be having more fun in this story than usual. Maybe he really likes a guest star or something.

Our son was initially pretty restless with the situation but calmed down and started worrying as we learn more about the marshal’s strange controller. He’s talking to a skull that’s perched on a pedestal on the other side of a mirror, and he knows that the Doctor is a Time Lord. Our kid says that this one started out a little scary, but that it is really, really creepy overall. Then again, he was also being distracted by the promise of new (old) video games to play tonight!

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Doctor Who: Underworld (parts three and four)

Our son enjoyed this more and more with each episode. After all, it ends with an entire planet blowing up. The grownups did not. We’re just glad that he’s happy.

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Doctor Who: Underworld (parts one and two)

In 1978, Time-Life Television offered a package of Tom Baker’s first four Doctor Who seasons – 98 episodes – to American TV stations. Because they thought the show was a little too esoteric or something, they hired an actor named Howard da Silva to provide narrations, voiceovers and recaps, using a very distinctive, deliberate enunciation. Some fans collect these otherwise lost versions, I guess in the same way that some people want to collect the American prints of EastEnders with the Tracy Ullman introductions.

From time to time, when the organization that holds the rights to a show wants to assemble a new package, some rogue prints turn up. Some of the apparent master tapes of Sigmund and the Sea Monsters have introductions from a later syndication package, and, as we’ll discuss in this space soon, A&E had a big ole mess when they started showing the Tara King episodes of The Avengers in the early 1990s. In 1982, Lionheart Television put together a new package of the Tom Baker stories, offering 41 edited TV movies or the half-hour episodes. Somehow, they included the Howard da Silva print of part two of “Underworld” in the compilation movie.

I remember that when WGTV showed this in 1984, I had actually just stepped out of the room for a second and heard this weird voice, right when the Minyans’ spaceship crashes through the planet’s liquid surface. Something like “The Doctor and his friends pah-lunge intoooo the Unnnnderworrrrld…” It took me years to figure out what that dopey narration was doing on the show.

Anyway, once the Doctor and his friends plunge into the Underworld, the same thing happens that we saw in Bob Baker and Dave Martin’s previous Who script, “The Invisible Enemy.” The first episode of this story is tremendously entertaining. I liked it a lot. Good performances, good sets, a good sense of mystery. Then they step out of the spaceship in episode two and everything falls apart.

Infamously, the actors don’t step out into tunnels and caverns built in the studio. They step out into a blue screen environment of photographs of tunnels and caverns. Speaking of Sigmund and the Sea Monsters, this is honestly the closest that Doctor Who ever came to looking like a late period Sid and Marty Krofft program, when they didn’t have any money either. Our son wasn’t impressed, and nobody else is, for that matter. Even with K9, this one’s pretty dull.

Old business: For those of you who remember my post about “The Brain of Morbius” and its suggestion that there were other Doctors before William Hartnell, I had said that nothing is shown onscreen to contradict it until “Mawdryn Undead” in 1983. However, an online acquaintance who goes by the handle “Forever Love” – a fantastic LP, by the way – drew my attention to an exchange in this story, where the Doctor says that he’s only regenerated “two or three times,” and not “ten or eleven.” Sounds like more evidence that my son was right and those other eight dudes we saw were the early incarnations of Morbius!

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Doctor Who: The Invisible Enemy (parts three and four)

Our son liked the story’s final line – Frederick Jaeger hoping that K9 is “TARDIS trained” – so much that it overshadowed the big explosion. For me, Jaeger and K9 and Louise Jameson are pretty much the only things about this one worth watching. It’s worse than I remembered it, ponderous and boring, with some of the most poorly staged gunfights in the whole series. The next one’s better.

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