Doctor Who 7.9 – Cold War

During supper tonight, I gave the kid – and Marie, who knows little of early eighties synth music – a potted history of Ultravox, from their cold and clinical early days with John Foxx as the singer through their huge success with such hits as “Vienna” and “Reap the Wild Wind.” I even sang that bit from “Vienna,” which nobody appreciated. I explained that Ultravox, like all acts who have a solid period with lots of hits, reached the end of their period of massive sales quicker than anybody would like, and split up about 1987. Nothing lasts forever.

“So we’re watching Doctor Who tonight?” our son asked.

“What makes you think Doctor Who has anything to do with Ultravox?” I replied.

“Because it’s more likely that a show about time travel would have something to do with Ultravox than a show set in Zoo Neeland or ancient Greece.” Clever kid.

This focus on fondly-remembered musical acts kept him perfectly distracted, satisfying him as guest star David Warner warbled “Vienna” almost as badly as I did, so the surprise appearance of an Ice Warrior, back in the show after a thirty-nine (!) year absence blindsided him wonderfully. The more excited he gets, the more babbling he can’t stop, and he could not stop babbling for an hour. He was thrilled.

I enjoy most of Mark Gatiss’s scripts for Who. I think this one sags a bit in the middle, the result of too much action at the top and the tail, but it’s still very entertaining and fabulously claustrophobic. It’s one of those Whos that plays out in nearly real time, meaning that Martian spaceship at the end must have a heck of a good radio receiver and quite an engine. The kid was thrilled and said that he knew he was going to like it when he realized it was an Ice Warrior, but he liked it even more than he thought he would. I like the Ice Warriors a lot. I even like them more than I like Ultravox.

Tron (1982)

I always liked the video game of Tron more than the movie, even though I wasn’t very good at it. I could never finish the third level. Do you remember the game? The cabinet was all black light and faux neon, and you had to clear four sub-games on each level: the tanks, the light cycles, the grid spiders, and the breakout. It got exponentially more difficult with each clear of the four and I don’t know I ever completed even one of the sub-games on level three, but it was incredibly fun and I didn’t mind spending all those quarters trying.

I also liked the toys a lot, and have been chuckling over this one little kid freaking out in the action figure aisle of our local Lionel Play World for almost forty years now. The light cycles used zip-cords and would be really perfect for our place now, with our hardwood floors. The package read “the futuristic light cycle,” and some small boy didn’t know that word and thought it said “fantastic.” So the child flipped out and started screaming “Mom! Mom! It’s the fantastic light cycle! The fantastic light cycle!” Mom said “That’s nice, dear,” and wasn’t about to spend seven or eight dollars on a piece of plastic, leaving the kid desolately crying and choking out between sobs “fantastic light cycle, faaaaaaantastic liiiiiiight cycle…” for what I remember as just short of forever.

I remember the game and that kid much better than I remember the movie. I know I saw it in theaters once as well as a few times on HBO, but the details were all gone before this morning.

Don’t try that on the Helicarrier, David Warner. Tony Stark’ll bust you.

Our son wasn’t completely blown away, but it certainly entertained him. He said that he loved the look of the film, which is what most people remember more than the story, which is really by-the-numbers. Jeff Bridges, Bruce Boxleitner, and David Warner are the stars, with smaller roles for Barnard Hughes, Peter Jurasik, and former Shazam! star Jackson Bostwick as one of the henchmen. It was the music, which was written by Wendy Carlos, that stood out most to me this morning. During the solar-sailed ship sequence, I was thinking that having a soundtrack of this would not be a bad idea at all, which I never think, even when I’m watching something Bernard Herrmann scored.

It’s impossible for a kid born in the 21st century to see this movie’s animation with the same perspective we had then. It remains really interesting to watch – the front-seat view from the cycles during the race is quite exciting – but, much like the video for the Dire Straits’ “Money For Nothing,” animation has progressed so far that we just don’t “see” the 3D that we did the first time around. Even though the spectacle has been blunted by time, it’s not a bad flick for what it is: the rebels escape and move from A to B to destroy the enemy complex, a perfectly engaging plot for kids. Wikipedia suggests that some critics from the day thought it was “incoherent,” which means they must have had a very long nap in the middle of the press screening.

Of course, the biggest element that’s been blunted by time is the idea that we need to fear an evil supercomputer like the Master Control Program taking control of the Pentagon and the Kremlin. No, these days we’re more aware that human garbage can disrupt the hell out of our world using much smaller systems. I wish the Master Control Program would zap Zuckerberg into a video game and de-res him in a round of electronic jai-alai.

The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. 1.11 – Deep in the Heart of Dixie

In the previous episode of Brisco County Jr., writer David Simkins delivered an in-joke about Brad Kern being really fast with scripts. Tonight, Kern returned the name-check favor, but perhaps his script was written a little too quickly. Andrea Parker makes the first of two appearances as a villain named Rita Avnet, and it is incredibly obvious that she’s the baddie sending secret plans to David Warner, who plays the main criminal. I think that could have been done with a little more subtlety and been more entertaining.

Warner, who probably filmed the Lois & Clark episode “Foundling” just a couple of months after this, is, unsurprisingly, a great villain. It’s a real shame that his character, a fancy, food-loving gourmand assassin named Winston Smiles, gets blown up because I’d have loved to see him back for a rematch.

Overall, I really enjoyed this one, but apart from the great mid-story cliffhanger where Brisco is tied to a stake in the ground at his boots while his wrists are bound to the back of a train that’s being slowly fed some coal, our son wasn’t as thrilled. It wasn’t just that Kelly Rutherford returns as Dixie Cousins, with all the attendant smooching, but she and Brisco had to keep talking about their relationship and why they can’t commit to each other. When you’re an eight year-old boy, the only thing worse than smooching is talking about smooching. The show ends with the starcrossed lovers heading out on a traditional date for the first time. It’s a really sweet ending, and Brisco should think about this a little more seriously. Unlike the ladies in many TV westerns, most of the women in this series can take care of themselves. Dixie may be a little naughty, but she has a heart of gold and she’s tough as nails.

Lois & Clark 1.16 – The Foundling

I thought a lot about whether I wanted to show our son Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman and blog about it. Once upon a time, it was a show that meant a tremendous amount to me, and I loved – loved! – being part of the online fandom. The first season was great fun, and revisiting tonight’s episode left me nostalgic and happy. That first season was just something else. Then it started sliding. About half of season two’s episodes were pretty good. Exactly two stories from the third year didn’t have me screaming bloody murder and throwing pillows at the television. Season four was all right, thanks to a new writer on the show, but they strangled that golden goose to death first. I decided against buying the DVDs, even used. It might hurt too much.

Lois & Clark is currently streaming on DC Universe, and since I’ve ponied up a subscription so we can watch Doom Patrol after our son goes to bed – it’s fantastic, and Diane Guerrero deserves every available award – I decided that a five-part “best of” over the course of the next week would be a cute kiss to the past without dredging up too many painful memories of how this wonderful show fell apart. I hope that the episodes that I selected will be as good as I remember them, and also leave a few readers saying “Huh? That one?”

This was, infamously, not a Superman show in its first season. Dean Cain put on the costume in every episode that year for at least one scene – I think he’s only in the pre-titles opening to “Green, Green Glow of Home” – but this was a show about Lois Lane and Clark Kent. I mention this because our son was actually a little more taken than I expected since he’s been on a steady diet of Marvel movies, with something amazing happening every six minutes. Clark doesn’t put on the super suit until the very end of the episode. In the story, he gets robbed by some new-to-the-cast recurring character, a street kid called Jack, and a globe from Krypton is lost. This happens the day after the globe starts delivering Kal-El’s history, and his name, to him. Until this episode’s first minute, our hero did not know his birth name.

I picked “The Foundling” because I remembered it being a good story that drives a wedge between our heroes and leaves Lois, unfairly, not willing to trust her partner for a time. I think the one thing we missed was any interaction between Luthor and the heroes; Lex and Nigel don’t actually share any screen time with the good guys. I almost picked “Fly Hard” for the jealousy and for Lex really getting under Clark’s skin, but “Fly Hard” was the season cheapie, and I don’t know that it would have been the best introduction to the show.

This episode, which was written by Dan Levine, also has some very good guest stars. Tony Jay and Richard Belzer had recurring parts in the show’s first year, and this one includes the wonderful David Warner in flashbacks as Jor-El. And as for the regulars, as far as I’m concerned, every other Superman cast is miles behind Dean Cain and Teri Hatcher, with Lane Smith and John Shea as my favorite Perry and Lex as well. (Though, as I’ve mentioned before, all credit to Tyler Hoechlin and Elizabeth Tulloch in the Arrowverse; I thought they were great fun!) As for our favorite eight year-old critic, I won’t lie and say that he was thrilled, but he enjoyed watching it, and says he’s looking forward to tomorrow morning’s example from season two.

But not half as much as I am.

Mary Poppins Returns (2018)

How nice, it seemed, in a world of dreary and utterly unnecessary remakes, for Disney to actually make a sequel to an old film. Except this isn’t a sequel. Mary Poppins Returns is actually a remake of the original, every plot beat completely familiar and done with modern gloss. It follows the template and order of the original’s moments so precisely that the only thing that’s different is the casting and subtle changes to professions. Here we meet the oddball relative who was played by Ed Wynn last time and by Meryl Streep this time, and then we’ll visit the bank, and then we’ll have the great showstopping dance routine that was performed by chimney sweeps last time and by lamplighters this time. Even the mother figure is the same. Last time, she was a suffragette and this time, she’s organizing labor.

That said, while I wished desperately for some moments that would veer wildly away from the original’s format, it certainly succeeded with our favorite seven year-old critic, who remembers the original, but not particularly well. And if I hadn’t seen the original eight or nine times previously, I suppose the only real complaint I’d have is that the villain has no reason whatever to be a villain. Seriously, why is Colin Firth being villainous in this movie? Why does he compound his villainy by pretending to be sympathetic? Is there buried treasure under the Banks house or something and the movie just forgot to tell us?

But in its favor, Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda are practically magical, if not quite perfect, and the songs are nice, and the cameos by Nackvid Keyd and Angela Lansbury, so many years since the last time these actors danced with cartoon animals, certainly made me smile. David Warner takes over as a character from the original movie, and he’s always fun to watch as he bellows and shouts.

And in the category of really big wins for this movie, I have to say that the fantastic musical hall scene built around “The Cover is Not the Book” should go down as one of the absolute best musical numbers in any Disney film, ever. Also, if this film doesn’t win an Oscar for best costumes, something is downright wrong with the world, because the strange pastel-on-porcelain garb that the characters wear on their trip into the cartoon world is like nothing I’ve ever seen before.

In other words, all the elements were in place for a truly fine movie. Everything but an original story. Should Mary Poppins one day return to assist the next generation of Banks children, I hope that family is having a completely different problem for Mary to tackle in a completely different way.

Photo credit:

Time Bandits (1981)

Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits was made for an insanely small budget of just $5 million for a movie that looks so much larger than that. David Rappaport plays the unelected leader of a gang of time-hopping criminals who burst through an imaginative kid’s bedroom and bring him along on their adventures, and the cast includes John Cleese, Sean Connery, and Michael Palin, who cowrote the movie with Gilliam, in memorable parts, along with a who’s who of familiar faces in very tiny parts. Blink and you’ll miss Jim Broadbent, David Daker, and Neil McCarthy, among others.

I’ve never loved any of Terry Gilliam’s “solo” films, not even Bandits, which I first saw when I was ten. I admire it and I enjoy it, but it’s so prickly that I can’t embrace it. It’s not a comforting movie. It’s a weird, wonderful, deeply unpredictable, and occasionally funny movie, but it’s certainly not comforting. I remember just about everything in this movie getting under my skin and unsettling me when I first saw it, and then wanting to see it again as soon as possible, hoping for answers. This movie just refuses to provide any.

So I saw it several more times when I was in middle school, because HBO played it regularly for a while, and maybe once when I was in high school, and I don’t think I’ve seen it since. On the other hand, my wife thinks that she may have seen this movie more times than any other film, and our son just had his mind completely blown by it, so I’m definitely in the minority around these parts.

The world that Gilliam built in Time Bandits is incredibly vivid and incredibly ugly. Absolutely everything is dirty and wet. I like how all the costumes (designed by Jim Acheson!) are incredibly complicated but somehow never quite seen very clearly. A being called Evil, played by David Warner, has these hideous hench-guard things with black cloaks and the skulls of animals, but they never stay still long enough for us to focus on what they are, and subsequently dismiss them. So I think this all adds up to an experience that can get around the back corners of your mind and stay there, unsettling you. The scene where the heroes run down an impossible corridor with the booming face of the Supreme Being haunted me, the Supreme Being’s refusal to politely explain everything to Kevin bothered me, and the sad coda back in the present day – slash – real world gave me nightmares.

But our kid just loved it all, so never mind me when I was ten. He’s made of sterner stuff. He was so fired up by the movie that we had to banish him to the floor because he couldn’t keep still on the sofa and was driving me nuts with his kicking. When we got to the climactic battle against Evil, he was on his feet and jumping up and down like he was on a pogo stick. There was a small part of me that worried that seven might have been too young for this movie, and that part was as wrong as can be.

Our boy doesn’t seem to have very many nightmares, and doesn’t have trouble falling asleep after he’s seen something frightening that we’ve watched. Time Bandits caused me troubles, but I don’t think I’ll need to come back and edit this post with an addendum that the grisly fate of Kevin’s parents came back to bother him in the middle of the night.

In case you didn’t know this, Time Bandits was one of the first movies produced by George Harrison’s company Handmade Films, and he contributed the wonderful song “Dream Away,” which plays over the end credits and which I have always enjoyed. A year later, the song was included on Harrison’s 1982 LP Gone Troppo. It’s by far the best song on the record.